VISIBLE: Women Writers of Color: Bethany C. Morrow

By

For Bethany C. Morrow, writing has been a lifelong passion, but her path to publication has been winding. A self-described recovering expat, Morrow has journeyed from her native California to grad school in Great Britain to Montreal, Quebec, and most recently, to North Country, New York. Along the way, she’s picked up a degree in sociology, detoured into studying film, theater, and forensic psychology. Now Morrow is focused on her literary work, and her debut novel, MEM, is forthcoming from Unnamed Press on May 22. (Morrow also recently sold a YA novel, The Sound & the Stone—contemporary fantasy to be published in 2020.)

In MEM, set in 1920s Montreal, a scientist has discovered a method to extract people’s memories. The Mems are zombie-like reflections of their sources who must experience the extracted memory over and over, until they expire.

In this interview, Morrow and I talked about her first novel, how it felt to read Toni Morrison for the first time, and her hope for Black girl readers.

***

The Rumpus: What was your path to getting MEM published?

Bethany C. Morrow: This is my debut, but I almost debuted in 2015. I signed with a very small press for another book. It was young adult. Eventually I had to break ties with them.

I threw away [other] manuscripts written before 2010 because, at that time, I did not understand and didn’t really have access to the industry the way that we now do because of the Internet. I took for granted that publishing was going to happen. I didn’t study it in school. I was doing other things and thinking, Oh, this will just eventually happen, I guess.

In 2010, however, I realized, “Oh, that’s not realistic. I actually have to focus on this and make it happen.” MEM was the third book that I wrote after that turning point. I wrote it in 2011. And a friend loved it so much that I took it a lot more seriously.

Then, in 2016, when I decided I couldn’t move forward with that small press publisher for the young adult book anymore. I wanted to be with an independent literary publisher, so I started submitting on my own, and looking for representation. I received an offer from Unnamed Press; it was like speaking the same language, like talking to somebody who talked to me about the book the way that I talk about the book. There was nothing to explain. There was nothing to translate.

Rumpus: Why was 2010 such a turning point in your writing life?

Morrow: It has a lot to do with my faith. I said, “Okay, Lord. I’ve had this on my heart my entire life, but I don’t want to do this the wrong way because I really haven’t asked You how I’m supposed to do this in the first place.”

There is this really romantic idea that writing is so solitary. But writing has really never been solitary for me. I wrote like people who use Wattpad or something for their novels. I was writing to a very specific audience—for my two older sisters and their friends—and every time I would write a new chapter, we would all read it together and then we would talk about it.

That’s been a totally normal style and process of writing for me every since I was in junior high school. But that’s not really the image that you get in modern-day romanticization of fiction writing. So said, “I guess I’m supposed to do this on my own and then suddenly go out and find a literary agent.” And I had no idea what they’re like. I’m just looking at Writer’s Marketplace in the library, just writing down people’s names and don’t know anything about them.

I recognized that, yes, this is an art form, but writing for publication is not like writing for yourself. It doesn’t mean that you write things you wouldn’t ordinarily write, but it definitely means you have to figure out if your writing meets at that necessary intersection of art and business. And I don’t think I had reached that intersection—the place where publication was realistic—before 2010. Instead of thinking, This is exactly what I intended to write and it doesn’t matter if anybody else does or not, I thought, Okay, that stuff is written for you. If you can’t find a place where you are very pleased and very satisfied with what you’ve written, and also have it be something that will be meaningful or useful to other people, the alternative is self-publication, which, if that’s what you want that’s perfectly fine. But that’s not what I wanted, so I had some work to do, in terms of listening and learning and watching.

Rumpus: What is your educational background?

Morrow: My degree is in sociology, which I think is infinitely useful. I was looking for something that’s sort of the way my brain already works, a way to discuss the world and what’s happening in our experiences in a way that’s very intentional—and at times more brutal—than common conversation would like it to be. More brutally honest, or attempting to be more brutally honest, because of course sociology is seriously flawed, as anything that’s been created inside the institution of white supremacy will be.

Sociology just felt very natural to me. It felt very useful and immediate. I did do a lot of film and theater in university, but sociology was what I focused on. I didn’t ever try to do creative writing. It wasn’t of interest to me. The way I saw it in the academic setting did not call out to me.

From there, I was interested in forensic psychology. When I started grad school, which I left in 2010 to focus on publishing, it was for clinical psychological research en route to forensic psych. So I had an exceptionally tiny stint as a social worker. I’ve also been a private teacher and a substitute teacher, and I’ve written for a special interest paper.

Once it got to the point that grad school was actually infringing upon my ability to keep learning and writing, I felt I couldn’t do this much longer because it was distracting. Now I understand that writing and seeking publication was really my main goal, and it had to be my main goal. But other things are so much easier to do, right? There’s a track. So I had to keep course-correcting.

Rumpus: Who were the writers who inspired you?

Morrow: Well, I was always writing. I remember the actual day that my mom took me to a gift shop and I bought my first journal. I was in second grade. It took a little while for my parents to realize, This is not going to stop. She’s going to keep doing this.

So my writing wasn’t [initially] taken seriously by my parents, but my four siblings and I read a lot of plays. We performed on voice recorder. We performed A Raisin in the Sun a lot of times. [Laughs] Mostly select scenes, but especially when Walter Lee says, “Damn my eggs,” because we were kids and you’re not allowed to say “damn.” But we had to because that’s what’s written. We’re slaves to the art, so we had to say it. [Laughs] At some point, I started writing the stories that we would perform. We were very much into role-playing and stuff. And a neighbor girl and I were always twin sisters/superheroes of course, even though she was a very, very small Italian girl who was a gymnast, and I was already a quite tall Black girl. I would just write those stories.

My first memory of being obsessed with an author would be fifth grade. I was really obsessed with Christopher Pike. With my classmates, it was definitely a rivalry situation, They were like, “R.L. Stein is the king,” and I was like, “So remedial of you guys. Clearly Christopher Pike is the superior author.”

So it was Christopher Pike and Lois Duncan in the very early 90s. At the time, unfortunately, the lack of Black girls didn’t particularly surprise me. I loved Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. I don’t know any Black girls who didn’t love it. But it was almost like my culture didn’t exist, because I was a Black girl in California with parents who were transplants from another part of the country. My extended family for the most part was not nearby, and also we were very obviously a mixed race Black family.

My experience, according to the books that I had access to, did not exist. Or the experience was past tense, set in the South and there were stronger family connections that I really envied, of course. I wasn’t close to my grandparents on either side, honestly, but I was always close with the cousins who eventually came up to northern California. So [the books I read portrayed] an experience that I wasn’t really familiar with, and I felt like something must be wrong with my experience.

I don’t know when it happened, but my dad went on this Terry McMillan kick and bought pretty much all of her books. I’m sure it was around the time of Waiting to Exhale. So I thought, Oh, wait a minute. This is present day, and the entire cast of characters are Black women. Once I got to junior high, I read every single one of his Terry McMillan books. That was also my first realization that you could reread a book, even if you’d just read it. Once I read Terry McMillan, I felt like, “Well, I guess I just have to write my version of everything then.”

I wrote my first “novella” in elementary school. Of course, it was 100% plagiarism. It was just a Black version of Anne of Green Gables. I would love to meet somebody whose first work is entirely unique, if that exists, but that was not my story.

Then, in high school, I was in the International Baccalaureate program, so our reading, thankfully, was not a whole bunch of dead white guys. We did a lot of translated text, of course. It was a lot more diverse, and we did read Beloved, which I think is so ambitious to give to high schoolers. But reading it was absolutely amazing. I felt that whole, “Oh, my gosh. I’m completely centered in this person’s imagination. I’m the focus of this person’s passion. I’m the focus of this person’s attention.” It was like floating away into delirium. That’s what reading Toni Morrison was like for me. It was like nothing I’d ever experienced, especially because I really loved language. I liked melody and pentameter and stuff, so of course reading Toni Morrison was, I want this person to talk to me. I want this person to actually know me. I feel like this person knows me.

I’d never read anybody who wrote as well as Toni Morrison. It wasn’t even just, “Here’s a Black woman who’s currently writing, who’s currently a Pulitzer Prize winner.” It was also, “She’s literally the best there is, and she’s writing about me unapologetically,” because I did then go and find every single one of her appearances on Charlie Rose. Just listening to her talk. I just like the way her voice comes through her lips. This is going to sound so weird. She was everything.

Rumpus: Let’s talk about the seeds for MEM and how they blossomed.

Morrow: The seed for it was solely a science fiction concept that came to mind while I was lying in bed. It was about real-world [limitations] of cloning. It’s just replicating genetic material. There’s nothing more to it. We couldn’t replicate memories and thoughts and spirits and souls and stuff if we wanted to. So I was thinking, Isn’t it sad that cloning is so uneventful?

And I know there’s all of these scientists are like, “How dare you? This has taken decades of study and research.” I’m sorry. I’m just lying in bed thinking it over from a science fiction perspective. Wouldn’t it be interesting if cloning was solely for memory? If the whole point of cloning was to replicate or even extract a memory. That was the jumping off point.

Rumpus: Where there any times where you had doubts about MEM having legs?

Morrow: Not with this book. With other things, there have been maybe two times that I’ve gotten far enough that I thought something was going to happen, and then it fizzled out.

[In one instance] I was wanting to write a novella set in this world, and the world kept being like “But listen to how interesting this economic system is,” and I’m like, “I don’t want to do that. You’re going too deep and I don’t want to deal with that.” The world just kept getting more and more complex, and it was completely useless to the story I was trying to tell, so I said, “I guess you’re fired. We’ll just move on.”

But no, with MEM and with pretty much everything else that I’m pursuing publication for, there’s no such things as “But what if you don’t do this? What if this doesn’t work out? What if that’s not for me?”

Rumpus: Who are you reading right now?

Morrow: The book that I am primarily reading is Deji Bryce Olukotun’s After the Flare. It’s a sequel. [But] I haven’t read Nigerians in Space. I am very contrarian for some reason about these things, just like wanting to read Speaker for the Dead before Ender’s Game. If there’s any indication that I don’t have to read these things in order, that’s what I’m going to do.

Deji and I are also going to be in conversation with each other in June, so I really wanted to give myself time to read it really slowly. I think of it as hard candy. You don’t break it. You don’t chew it. You really want to spend as much time with it as you can. But I have to purely intentional about it, and not allow myself to take six months to read a book, just because I don’t want it to end.

I recently finished The Belles by Dhonielle Clayton. I don’t know if you can describe a book as succulent but the ambiance, the richness of the world, the colors, the food, just the world itself was really so vivid and vibrant. I also have Monday’s Not Coming by Tiffany D. Jackson. And I’m super duper excited about Jamel Brinkley’s stories, A Lucky Man. I don’t have any plans to intentionally break away from reading Black people right now.

Rumpus: I’m thinking about how you felt delirium upon reading Toni Morrison. So imagine someone else who’s in high school, reading MEM. What do you want them to take away from it?

Morrow: I think that delirium is too high an aspiration or expectation. I don’t think I thought of race once while I was writing MEM, and I don’t think that means anything, honestly, because we don’t really have to think about it. It’s just fact. It’s the water that we are swimming in. But I say that to say I wrote her story, the story that she would live in the world that I set her in, and the life that she could only experience if she were a result of that world, and that’s really important to me.

I would love for Black women, Black young women, to simply see themselves in spaces that for some reason we don’t seem to be “realistic” in, which is a story that really isn’t about giving you a look or a gaze into our trauma or pain or anything like that. This is literally a science fiction conceit where she is an extracted memory, and she is extraordinary and why is that and how does that look and how does that impact her life?

Now, are you going to be able to see other things it? Of course, because I’m the one who wrote it. Whether or not it’s intentionally ahead of time, like shot out and premeditated, it doesn’t really matter. The fact that I wrote her is going to inform her story and how she expresses herself, and sometimes more so what expectations other people have of her. But the point is it’s her story. It’s not about my world. It’s about her world.

I want readers to have a choice. If you don’t feel like engaging with that today you don’t have to engage with it today. There’s no burden that says “Hey. You know what? To prove that you’re proud of being Black, you need to be constantly dealing with the predicament of being Black in America. But also go to school. But also succeed in all these different areas. But keep this burden on your back all the time.” That’s not fair, and that’s not liberation. So if you want to go to space today, if you want to be an extracted memory today, and still know that the person who wrote it understands where you are actually living in your real life, you can. That, to me, is really important. It’s something that doesn’t dishonor or disrespect the reality you have. That’s the difference between me writing a Black girl who’s really just a science fiction concept, and somebody else just painting a white character Black to be in a science fiction novel.

I would just like Black girls to have a choice.

***

Author photograph © Elena Roussakis.

***

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


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, Brevity, dead housekeeping, and Apogee Journal; Essence, Ebony, and Bitch magazines; and various anthologies. She's a Fellow at the Kimbilio Center for African American Fiction and a 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 →