In her prose debut, Guidebook to Relative Strangers: Journeys into Race, Motherhood, and History, Camille Dungy, a poet-lecturer, travels through America with her newborn daughter. She is intensely aware of how they are seen—not just as mother and child, but also as black women.
With a poet’s eye, she celebrates her daughter’s acquisition of language and discoveries of the natural and human world around her. She contrasts her experience with an awareness of how history shadows her journey: from accounts of San Francisco settlers to the slave-trading ports of Ghana; from snow-white Maine to a festive, yet threatening, bonfire in the Virginia pinewoods. She describes the intimate and vulnerable experiences of raising a child, living with illness, conversing with strangers, and counting on others’ goodwill.
Much of the book is about the small and large moments we share with difference, whether it be eating whale with people in Barrow, Alaska, being the only black woman in an artist residency, or finding herself the subject of attention when she’s with her infant daughter—all of which builds on a sense of community, the passage of time and how we survive.
We spoke, by phone, in June.
The Rumpus: Guidebook to Relative Strangers feels part memoir, part historical narrative, part experience of motherhood and the experience of a black woman artist moving through primarily white spaces. Did you set out to write in any particular genre?
Camille T. Dungy: All these different parts are who I am. I didn’t want to write only about motherhood, for that corner of the bookstore. I wanted to attract people interested in history, literature. When I was in college, my honors thesis was on Nikki Giovanni and her roots in the Black Arts Movement. I was drawn to her but I couldn’t understand her work if I didn’t understand Black American history, which wasn’t taught very much in school. I needed to understand the history that was triggering my interest, inquiries not in your typical textbook. I’ve learned that I have to dig deeper to find a fuller story behind the work I’m interested in reading and writing. Guidebook to Relative Strangers came out of a particular view of self, that I am more than just a single identity.
I love language. I’m a writer. I’m the kind of person who spends time with the dictionary. Words with alternate meanings compel me. While I was writing this book, my daughter was learning language—part of the book is about watching someone acquire language—and this attention to language and its consequences amplified the journey I was taking with Callie while writing this book.
Rumpus: Could you discuss some of the differences of motherhood between you and your own mother? I’m thinking especially of career choices after having a child, traveling and also the notion of being an example of a woman who didn’t give up on her aspirations.
Dungy: My Facebook memory for today completely cracked me up. I had written, three weeks after my daughter was born, about the fact that I had successfully pulled off my first dinner party as a mother. I attributed the success to the fact that I’d planned a chilled menu—asparagus, poached salmon, and a cold soup—so I could make everything in advance. I’d been a person who wasn’t a mother for so long that figuring out how to be a mother who still hosted dinner parties was clearly very important to me. As I was figuring out how to be a mother who was still a writer, or a mother who still traveled. I was thinking about how to be myself, but expanded. Writing Guidebook to Relative Strangers helped me more clearly understand what this expansion meant for and to me and how my own expansion might be similar or different from that of women around or before me.
Rumpus: In the essay “Manifest,” you discuss raising a newborn alongside an account of the arrival of a ship full of Mormons in Yerba Buena, California. What drew you to this community?
Dungy: Something I thought about was how my writing mattered to me and mattered to us. “Us” meaning the community we call American. How are we reflective of where we are as a country and how we got here. I understand the world as a constant experience of time travel. I stand on top of a foundation, walk on buried lives. The past informs my present, which is foundation for the future. It all sort of happens at once.
So much about raising a child is understanding that every day you’re in charge of this nearly helpless human. There is a sense of constant peril in raising a child. I started to think about kinship even with people I might normally have no connection with. So much of the history of the US is about persecuted communities, the many kinds of ways we imperil each other. How we have overcome oppression and peril, and in some ways how we haven’t.
Rumpus: In many parts of the book you describe the experience of traveling with Callie. How did this change the texture and frequency of conversations with strangers?
Dungy: When you travel and you’re black, there’s often this invisible wall that happens. If I’m on an airplane and white people get to choose where they want to sit, the seat by me will often be the very last seat available. If two black people have a middle seat vacant between them, that will frequently be the last one filled. I think it’s an unconscious choice white people make. Implicit bias. It happens often enough that I’m more likely to sit by myself when people have a choice whether or not to sit beside me. That did not happen when I was traveling with the baby. It wasn’t about me; it was about this baby. All of a sudden I had a magnet. That was a big part of what interested me as I started traveling with the baby. We have all kinds of potential points of connection in this society. Having Callie enabled this new sense of community.
I also wanted to write about an experience of blackness in America that is not the normalized view. I’m from a relatively affluent and highly educated family, my daughter had been on forty-six flights before she was three years old. That’s not what some people might think about when they picture a black mother. It was clear from my interactions with people that my daughter and I often came as something of a surprise. I like the idea that we might help expand the possibilities of what people understand a black woman to be, and of the ways we might connect.
Rumpus: Do you have thoughts about how people of color and other minority groups can make artist residencies, creative writing programs, and writing conferences more engaging spaces?
Dungy: In my first essay in the book, “The Conscientious Outsider,” I describe the oppression of being in an artist residency and having to have these racialized conversations over and over again. My answer was to write into that frustration. Frequently my answer is to record, to make that recording potent, powerful, and lasting. When I walk into a classroom, I have to be ready to describe American experiences to students. What are the historical references going on in the work we read? That’s a lot of what I do as a writer as well. Some of this attention comes from being a writer and a teacher, from being someone who is interested in history and culture. But it is also important to note that some of my drive to pay this kind of particular attention is a result of being a black woman. Because I’m not safe—even in spaces like the artist residency that are intended as safe spaces—I’m a little bit more aware, and a little bit more analytical all the time.
Rumpus: How do you find a mentor, a person that would be a good reader for your work?
Dungy: I went to a writer’s conference once that was really difficult for me, in terms of its inability to be open to a nonwhite male experience. I was particularly uninvolved in the social experience at that conference. There was nobody there particularly interested in networking with me. I reminded myself of the first black student to attend West Point Academy. He did not have a welcoming experience, so he spent his time studying. He did very well in his career partly because he worked so hard.
During the conference, I spent a lot of time writing and getting my book to a place that was publishable, I was in the library a lot of the time when the rest of the conference participants were at various socials and cocktail hours. I connected with three other women, with whom I have a close relationship as careful and generous readers of each others work, but I focused my attention on these few quality relationships and on my own work.
When I enter a space that is not set up for my safety—spaces that are at times, set up to silence and destroy me—I have to develop ways to protect myself and my work. I can’t let that brand of terrorism silence me. In my early years of writing, I had old friends in nearby cities I could escape to where I could just be loved for who I was. Cave Canem, Kundimam, Lambda Lit, CantoMundo, and VONA are spaces where you can be in a community with others who share similar experiences.
If you use the Internet well it can be efficient in terms of finding people, groups that you might connect with.
I also think that every time each of us persists through these experiences it gets better. There were twelve black women full professors of Creative Writing/Poetry in the entire country in 2014, [the year] I began the essay “Body of Evidence.” Hopefully there will be eighteen by the end of this academic year. That’s a statistically relevant improvement. That means more students will have access to the kind of support and education that these women might be able to provide.
I benefitted so much from having strong support and mentorship in my own family. I just came from a family reunion, one night of which was comprised of a seventy-five minute performance that featured me and my cousin, a baritone for the opera. He sang and I read for family members and community members. I’m completely aware of how special that is. I know how important it was to grow up in a family that values the arts. I firmly believe in mentorship, and I believe it can come from a lot of different places.
Rumpus: What are you reading now, what interests you?
Dungy: Right now I’m re-reading June Jordan, Some of Us Did Not Die. There are some essays in that book that are completely relevant to our current moment. Also Audre Lorde’s books of essays, especially “Poetry is Not a Luxury” and “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action,” where she says, “Your silence will not protect you.” I’m loving Chen Chen’s new book of poetry. I’m excited for Javier Zamora’s and Kaveh Akbar‘s new books.
Lauret Savoy’s book Trace is a wonder. Lauret Savoy writes a kind of land ethic that is attentive to gender and race. It’s worth pointing out, as much as I’m talking in this interview about my daughter, human history, I’m also driven by an environmental ethic. I’m always thinking about what lives have been valued and why. Environmental questions are social justice questions.