VISIBLE: Women Writers of Color: Cole Lavalais

By

Cole Lavalais’s arresting debut novel, Summer of the Cicadas, engages with a mother-daughter relationship, mental health, and first love, set on the campus of small black college in the South. The novel’s main character Viola (Vi) Moon is still emotionally fragile after a recent hospitalization at a mental health facility, but she’s also determined to step into her future. As she begins her freshman year in college, she gets involved with Perry, the only son of an elite black family. Then a family mystery further threatens Vi’s stability and leads her on a search for her father. From the devastating opening chapter to the final, revelatory pages, Summer of the Cicadas is a fresh, unforgettable story about the struggle to heal from wounds of the past.

Lavalais is a fellow of the Kimbilio Center for African American Fiction, VONA/Voices, and the Callaloo Creative Writing Workshops. She has been awarded writing residencies at the Vermont Studio Center and The Noepe Center for the Literary Arts. Her short stories have appeared in publications including Obsidian, Apogee, WarpLand, Tidal Basin Review, and Aquarius Press. She holds an MFA from Chicago State University and a PhD from University of Illinois at Chicago. She has taught writing for over ten years. On the South Side of Chicago, Lavalais teaches a community-based writing workshop and hosts Colored People’s Time, a bi-monthly literary salon featuring fiction writers of color.

I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Cole Lavalais about Summer of the Cicada, why she’s a huge fan of outlining, and the importance of dedicated communities for black writers.

***

The Rumpus: When did you start writing?

Cole Lavalais: I’ve always been a writer. I wrote stories when I was a little girl, [but] I didn’t know that you could actually be a writer, that that was a job that you could do, a career. I was a pretty good journalist; I had a humorous column in my high school newspaper. But I wasn’t really interested in journalism. Even when I went to college, I wasn’t an English major. I was a business major and a psychology major.

But after I had my son, there was something about having a baby looking at you like, “Okay, so what’s up? What are going to do now?” How can I tell him he can do whatever he wants to do, and I’m not doing what I want to do? So I said, “I know writing is what I want to do and I could probably be good at it. I should just go ahead and do it.” That’s really how I started. My son’s little judging six-month-old eyes looking at me and judging me for not following my dreams. He inspired me to start writing again.

Rumpus: Did you begin Summer of the Cicadas in your MFA program?

Lavalais: It kind of led me to my MFA program. I had this story I wanted to tell, and I wrote the book before I started the program. I tried to get an agent, and it wasn’t working. So I said maybe I should get some connections through an MFA program. I didn’t think there was anything wrong with the book. I just needed connections. Nothing wrong with my writing. I just didn’t know the right people. So I went to the MFA program and actually got some connections, and they told me, “Okay, this is kind of a hot mess.” [Laughs] “There’s some work you need to do on it.” I thought, “Really? It was me? It was the book? All this time, I thought I was brilliant.”

And then, like a lot of writers—you pick it up, put it down, pick it up, put it down. I did that for years, and I finally picked it up, the last time, in 2011, and said, “Okay, I need to figure out what I need to do with this before I just put it down and not look at it again.” So, I decided to really rewrite some things.

And what was originally one chapter of the original book ended up being the whole book. When I first started, Vi was fourteen, at the very beginning of her life. And everyone said, “This is a lot. You’re doing a lot here.” So I had to get focused. And I figured out that everything I wanted to do, I could do when she’s in college, in that one chapter—maybe twenty pages in the original novel. So, I just took those twenty pages and that became the whole novel. I just kept it there in her freshman year.

Rumpus: Some writers say that they have to write many, many pages that may not make it into the final manuscript, just to get to essence of what the book is about. Do you feel that you needed to write the full scope of Vi’s life before you could write what the book ultimately became?

Lavalais: No. I don’t. I think it was a huge waste of time. I just wasn’t clear, didn’t know what I was doing. I tell folks all the time what I learned from it: Be clear at the beginning. Yes, you can do it that other way, but who wants to take ten years to write a book, you know?

I remember the first time I was at Callaloo in Mat Johnson’s workshop, and he was asking me these structural questions about the novel, back when it was much broader. I couldn’t answer them. Maybe if I had taken time at the beginning and had a better understanding of why I was doing the things I was doing and wasn’t just writing to be writing, I would’ve gotten here sooner, I think. After his workshop, I was really angry with him. Like, “I can’t believe what you just did to me. You just messed my head all up.” And years later, I told Mat, “I was so angry with you after that.” He said, “You’re not the first one who’s told me that.”

Rumpus: [Laughs] Mat is not here to coddle you or your feelings. I took his workshop at Hurston Wright’s Summer Writers Workshop years ago. On the last day, he summed up the week by saying to us, “All of you have something awesome. You’ve got this positive, you’ve got that strength. But you don’t know enough. None of you have read nearly enough.”

Lavalais: Right. But also I needed that. I needed someone who was looking at the complete picture. Because that was even after my MFA program, and I’d done other workshops, and no one had looked at the novel as a whole. I’d always gotten feedback on chapters, which felt a lot like a short story workshop. I was responding to that piecemeal critique, and I needed someone to say [as Mat did], “You need to look at this as a whole thing. What are you trying to do? Stop going back to chapter one and two and re-writing that.” You know? “What happens in chapter twenty? What happens in chapter twenty-two?” It was painful.

So whenever I talk to folks in my workshop and we’re working on novels, I ask, “Okay, so what’s going to happen in chapter twenty?” They look at me like, “I don’t know. I’m just feeling it out. I’m a writer, I’m just—” No, no, no, no. Trust me. You’re going to thank me later. Think about it now.

Rumpus: You’re a fellow of Callaloo, a workshop for poets and fiction writers in the African Diaspora; Kimbilio; and VONA/Voices, a multi-genre workshop for writers of color. And your MFA program at Chicago State University focuses on centering black literature. How have you and your writing benefited from being a part of these communities?

Lavalais: A lot of folks talk about their MFA program and the issues they had. I didn’t have any of that. It was like coming home. Everyone understood the stories, so we could focus on what we needed to focus on, technical issues. When I started workshopping in my PhD program, which was at a predominantly white institution, there were issues like people asking me questions about content, cultural questions. “Oh, what’s an AKA, and what’s an HBCU?” Um, that’s not what I came here for.

Callaloo came at a time when I thought, “I’m never doing another workshop.” But I went and did a week with Mat Johnson, and then a week with Tayari Jones. It really did change my outlook as a writer. I got to have contact with published, contemporary writers. That was just extraordinary. They were just so open and understanding of the stories I was writing. We were in workshops with folks from all over the world. Black folks from the Caribbean, from Africa. We got that range of stories within the workshop, and it felt as if we were all accepting of that range. It wasn’t this cultural nitpicking that was happening in my PhD program.

The experience really encouraged me to keep writing. I don’t know if I would have kept writing otherwise. I’m not sure. The same thing with VONA. I worked with Tananarive Due there. VONA is just a wonderful, crazy experience. You have to be ready. Most writers are introverts, but you go to VONA, and think, “Okay, maybe most writers aren’t introverts.” Because everyone there is the opposite.

I really did get more out of Callaloo, VONA, and Kimbilio than I did out of my PhD program, in terms of creative writing. Because I always felt othered in the PhD program, you know? Especially Kimbilio. [Co-founders] David Haynes and Sanderia Faye foster such a high level of discussing the work in a workshop. David has taught me so much about being a critic, and how to critique honestly, but with love. Because when you come out of a program where everyone is just trying to sound smarter than the next person, then sometimes that doesn’t come off with love. You don’t want to tear someone down. You want to build them up in their work. I think David really shows you how to do that in his workshops.

Rumpus: So let’s talk about Summer of the Cicadas. August Wilson wrote extensively about African Americans as descendants of enslaved people and about how our cultural memory—memories of our ancestors’ experiences including the trauma—can influence our present lives. Wilson called it “blood’s memory.” I don’t know if you call it that, but as I read Summer of the Cicadas, I immediately thought about blood’s memory and about legacy.

Lavalais: I was interested in looking at blood’s memory in the book. Historically black schools are a perfect symbol of it. A lot of our history hasn’t been written down, so oral history and this idea of blood’s memory are important for African American people. What I wanted to look at is, is that a great idea, to hold onto things? What does that do to us when we have to hold onto it? How do we move past it? If it’s in our blood, how do we move past it? That’s what I was really looking at in terms of legacy and how Vi is in the middle of this. Is this blood’s memory, or is it something else? That’s the question that drives the novel.

I don’t think you can be a part of a black experience, like a historically black college, and not leave with that, understanding how much history is privileged there. It’s all around you. It’s in the names of the buildings. Everything is named for something that came before. It’s this surrounding of the past, and [asking], “How do you then move out of the past if you’re always surrounded by it?”

Rumpus: I’m thinking now about the character Dr. Locke and his efforts to preserve certain books at the university. Was this also about preserving legacy?

Lavalais: Yes. Dr. Locke represents a different branch on that tree of legacy. He’s not interested in, “We used to be Negro, and now we’re colored, and now we’re black, and now we’re African.” Everything is important to him. He’s invested in fighting for all of it. But how is it possible to hold onto all of this? How does it weigh on, not just the body, but the mind. This true conviction to the past, without any filters, is who Dr. Locke represents for me.

Rumpus: Beyond the issue of legacy, you also address mental health, not just for Vi, the main character, but multiple characters in the story. And you add class and sexuality to the mix. Lots of layers. You said the early feedback on the book was that you were doing too much. Is this also what those readers were alluding to?

Lavalais: It was more that I was trying to get Vi from place to place over the course of the book, but I wasn’t spending enough time really looking at where she was when she was there. So by limiting the scope to just this area and this time in her life, her first year of college, I was able to take a closer look at all of the other characters and what they were embodying and what they were bringing, and at their motivations for their interactions with Vi. Limiting to that one nine-month period or year within her life actually helped me to add more layers on, all those interactions.

It also helped, in a way, to take race out of it, sort of. Now you’re not talking about black versus white. You don’t have that type of othering, so you can see the complexity of black lives. It’s not about black and white folk. We live our lives like everyone else. We come up against homophobia, sexism, misogyny, all these other things. What does that look like for a young black woman in an all-black setting?

Rumpus: Too often when we’re dealing with books with black characters—let’s say, children’s books—it’s so frustrating that a black kid who likes horses can’t easily find a book about horses featuring somebody who looks like them, in the pages.

Lavalais: That frustrated me so much when my son was younger that I actually started a bookstore. I started selling books. I was searching for books for children of color with characters that were children of color, and it wasn’t about them being black or brown. It just showed them living their lives. It was difficult. I found some, but everything is about “the struggle. “Okay, we understand Harriet Tubman went through some stuff. The kids don’t have to keep reading about Harriet Tubman. Can they just live? Can you let them live? Culturally, it used to be the whole thing about, “People who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.” Okay, we did that. Now, let people write about horses. Thank God that they know who Harriet Tubman is.

Vi’s mental health issues don’t have anything to do with white people. It’s just us living. Our lives are just intersectional by nature.

Rumpus: When you were writing Summer, did you have an ideal reader in mind? And if so, did that person change over time as the book evolved?

Lavalais: I don’t think I had an ideal reader. For me to write this, I had to erase the idea of a reader from my mind. That’s when I finally was able to say, “I’m just going to write [Vi] the way I want to write her.” When I start thinking about audience, it can be a distraction. I just wanted to write her as I saw her. I figured if I got her, then people like me are going to get her. I guess in some sense, I’m my ideal audience. But I also think that folks not like me will get it too. They might have to do a little work to get it, but that’s okay. There are plenty of things that I’ve read that I had to do a little work to get into.

Rumpus: Somewhat of a related question: As you wrote, were you concerned at all about the marketability of your book?

Lavalais: No, no. I think that’s impossible to do. If you try to write to the market, by the time you finish that book and it’s published, whatever was hot when you were writing, it’s not hot anymore. It’s like three years later. Books take forever. Nobody cares about vampires anymore, right?

I just wrote what I wanted to write. You have enough time to figure out your market after it’s done. Okay, who would want to read this now that I have it? Who’s going to be my first set of readers? Who would be open to reading about this person?

Rumpus: You are also a short story writer. Did you start with short stories and then begin your novel?

Lavalais: Actually, I’ve just recently started writing short stories. I wish I had done it the other way around, because I think, structurally, short stories teach you something that is useful for novel writing, for the longer form. If it had spent more time on understanding how a short story works, it wouldn’t have taken me so long to get Summer of the Cicadas where it needed to be. I think it’s a useful exercise, even though I know some short story writers that would never write novels. That’s just not their thing. I came to the short story really after I finished Summer, thinking, “I don’t know where I’ll be in 10 years. I have to write something shorter that won’t take me so long to finish. Get my life together. If I take it to workshop, and they like it or don’t like it, it won’t kill me.” Versus when you’re working on this novel, you take 300 pages and you’re like, no, I am not starting my entire life over again. The short story came second, but I’m enjoying working on those now and teaching myself and learning structure in that way.

Rumpus: You’ve described some challenges over the course of the thirteen years between when you began Summer and when it was published. What was the overarching lesson you learned from those challenges?

Lavalais: The lesson is to enjoy the process. It’s all about the process. It’s not about the publication. So, enjoying the process more. Understanding structure. Using outlines—I’m a big outliner now, which I wasn’t before. Those probably are the three big [lessons].

Rumpus: For emerging writers, what advice do you have for dealing with discouragement about the process or how long it’s taking? How do you enjoy the process?

Lavalais: Take a break. Work on more than one project. I write screenplays too. For my screenplays, I just have joy because they’re usually really silly comedies. I say, “Okay, I’m going to sit this down for a second and just work on this screenplay.” Or whatever gives you joy. Whatever is fun for you. Whatever is easier. If that’s writing bad poetry or good poetry or essays or whatever that is, take that break. Take that moment away from the work. Read some of your favorite writers. Go back and read things that inspired you to be a writer from the beginning.

And know that it’s okay. It’s supposed to take time. We’re a microwave society. I don’t know how anybody ever won an argument back in the day. We used to have long discussions, and we never knew who was wrong or right at the end. The loudest person was right. But now we can Google everything. Now, we want to rush everything. Everything doesn’t need to be rushed. Some things take time. If you feel a little discouraged, go out, do some retail therapy, relax, read a good book, and then go back to it. Writing is a job. A lot of us think because we’re talented at something that it shouldn’t be a job, but it is. It’s work. You’re going to have to work at it. Some days it’s going to feel more like work, and some days it’s going to feel less like work, but it’s still work.

Rumpus: Who are your favorite writers and writing role models?

Lavalais: It depends on what I’m looking for when I go to my bookshelf ,in terms of what I need to do. Sometimes, I just need to relax. Sometimes you don’t want to be challenged. Toni Cade Bambara is one that I go back to consistently. And Gloria Naylor. I’ve read Mama Day so many times. I was going to be Gloria Naylor. In my MFA program, I was told, “You still need to find your own voice. You’re not Gloria Naylor. Pull it back a little.” That’s what can happen when you love someone and you’re reading them. Some of us need people to say, “Okay, we see what you’re doing. That’s good, but do more you and less her.” She’s one of those writers that, if that’s who you’re going to copy, you’re doing all right. In Mama Day, I loved the writing, but there were a lot of things she did that I didn’t quite understand. I was trying to do them, but I had no understanding of why I was trying to do them. She did it, and she did it wonderfully. I just love the way she does place. Setting is just incredible. The way she manages voice. She’s a master at that. She’s one that I go back to.

I love the black women writers that I grew up with: Tina McElroy Ansa, Toni Cade Bambara, Terry McMillan. They just remind me of what I’m doing. I’m doing a reading with Tina McElroy Ansa this month. It’s just so wonderful that she’s willing to reach out and do an event with me. I told her, “Yours was the first ghost that I fell in love with. [Herman, the 100-year old ghost in Ansa’s The Hand I Fan With]. Diane McKinney-Whetstone too. I’m excited for her new book, Lazaretto. I love, love, love her. Tumbling was one of my favorite books. These writers remind me of who I am and where I’m from, and that I can do this. I love all of those women. Their books encourage me to go back to the page.

Rumpus: So you got back to the page and finished Summer. And have you jumped into something new now that it’s published?

Lavalais: No. Because I worked on Summer intermittently throughout other stuff, I’m always in the middle of multiple projects. I’ve been working on a collection of short stories. I finished my final revisions on Summer at a retreat in 2014, and then I just worked on my short story collection. I am a little more than halfway through with that collection. I’m really excited. It’s a short story collection that’s based in a Chicago neighborhood, a bunch of neighbors on one South Side Chicago block in the ’80s. It’s stories from different perspectives, and I’m having a fun ride every time.

***

Want more VISIBLE: Women Writers of Color? Visit the archives here.

***

Author photograph © Maya Moody.


Deesha Philyaw is the co-author of Co-Parenting 101: Helping Your Kids Thrive in Two Households After Divorce, written in collaboration with her ex-husband. Deesha's writing on race, parenting, gender, and culture has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and Brevity; Stepmom, Essence, and Bitch magazines; and various anthologies. She's a Fellow at the Kimbilio Center for African American Fiction and a recent Pushcart Prize nominee for essay writing in Full Grown People. Deesha is a two-time recipient of an Advancing the Black Arts in Pittsburgh grant from The Pittsburgh Foundation and the Heinz Endowments. More from this author →