Living with Our Ghosts: A Conversation with Maisy Card

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I’m not sure if I believe in the paranormal—a chill, a shadow, any audiovisual departure from the normal—because I’m too busy being scared of other things: the imminent election, a voicemail. Plus, I have plenty of ghosts I already deal with; not the I-think-I-saw-a-little-girl-in-Victorian-garb-waving-at-me kind, but the kind that debut author Maisy Card details in her luminous novel, These Ghosts Are Family, out now from Simon and Schuster.

Thirty-five years after leaving Jamaica to find fortune in London, Stanford—once known as Abel—is faced with the ultimate reckoning from his past: abandoning his wife, Vera, to assume the identity of his fallen friend, Solomon—letting everyone back home believe he’s dead. Ever since faking his death in the early 1970s, Abel Paisley has left behind a trail of trauma for both of his families—the one back home and the one he made as Stanford Solomon. From colonial Jamaica to present-day Harlem, this book pieces together a family history while concurrently tracing the legacy of slavery and intergenerational trauma and its affects on said family. Solomon/Abel’s female descendants—Irene Paisley, a home health aide who has grown up believing her father is dead and now who comes to Solomon under the impression that he is a new client; Estelle, an artist turned addict and Solomon’s American-born daughter; and Caren, Estelle’s daughter, a young woman distrustful of her mother and essentially raised by Solomon—are all brought under the same roof to learn about their family’s explosive secret. They are left with the same question Card asks her readers: can we reconcile ourselves with a fractured past, and, if so, how can we move forward?

Card captures lightning in a bottle with this book, and she was kind and gracious enough to talk with me over email about how the novel was loosely inspired by her own family’s ghosts, breaking the cycle of trauma, and learning how to make peace with a fragmented family history.

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The Rumpus: You open the book with a letter to the reader about your own family’s ghosts. Did writing this book help you find closure with regard to your own family’s history?

Maisy Card: It was helpful to remind myself that people are complex and that everyone has their own past. They don’t exist for me or to give my life poignancy. It’s sad that not everyone in our families can be our heroes, but the upside is that it relieves us of the pressure of achieving perfection.

Also, I come from a family where there is a lot of silence. People never really talked about what they were feeling or what they’d been through. The idea of therapy was openly mocked when I was younger, so I spent a lot of my childhood trying to analyze myself and my family on my own and figure out what they were thinking and what they really meant when they acted a certain way. Sometimes people hide their own vulnerability to protect themselves—I do it, too, out of habit—and it was somewhat cathartic for me to write these vulnerable people on the page, to remember what that looks like. 

Rumpus: As someone with a fractured family history—my mother’s side of the family hasn’t been the same since an event surrounding my great uncle’s death many years ago, resulting in estrangement among many members—this book affected me on a deeply personal level. But, this book is also accessible to someone who may not consider their family fractured or haunted by transgressions of the past, because betrayal and deception wear many masks and take on many different forms. Does your overall message imply that no family is perfect, that we alter and change depending on what choices our families make or don’t make?

Card: Yes. One thing that struck me when I would hear my family talking about people who died is that they seemed to achieve this saint-like status in death. All their faults were erased. They became very one-dimensional. They were saints and heroes or they were victims. I find it valuable to think of my ancestors as real people who struggled and were resilient as well as broken. I think when you’re struggling in your own life and you believe this myth that you came from a line of flawless heroes it becomes hard to be patient with yourself and to forgive yourself for your mistakes. I think most people are trying to go through life without hurting other people, but sometimes we inherit toxic tendencies that we don’t recognize. I find it really wonderful when I can look at the ways the people before me messed up and try my hardest at the very least not to mess up in the same way.

Rumpus: Debbie, whose family had once owned slaves, is reluctant to learn about her family’s history. The horrors chronicled in her great-great-great-great grandfather Harold Fowler’s diary literally give her nightmares, yet she must dive deeper and learn more about who she is and where she comes from, which causes her to examine her life in the present and going forward. Why is it important to know where we come from, no matter how painful or horrific?

Card: I named her chapter, “Atonement,” because that’s something that is often talked about periodically on a national and international scale—this question of reparations. It’s something that is very hard not to think about if you live in the Caribbean, Latin America, the United States, Africa, or in another place whose history and culture were shaped by the Atlantic slave trade or colonialism. Or at least I think about it often. I feel that usually it’s black people, the descendants of slaves themselves, reflecting on this question, asking politicians on television about their stance on whether they agree that there needs to be some kind of national atonement. People who are descendants of slave holders can get very sensitive or angry about this subject. But atonement can only be reached through truth-telling. We don’t have to apologize for our ancestors; we weren’t born and had nothing to do with it, but we honor the dead by acknowledging their suffering, acknowledging the people who played a role in their suffering. Debbie means well. She wants to face her past, but she’s not prepared for how ugly it is. Her family kind of does her this disservice by protecting her from that truth.

Rumpus: You write from the perspective of multiple characters, ghosts included. In this case, the ghost is Vera, Abel’s wife who was left behind after Abel took the opportunity to assume the identity of his fallen friend. How does giving a ghost a voice influence your narrative? 

Card: I grew up around people who believed in ghosts and told ghost stories and on top of that I was also Pentecostal for part of my childhood. It felt very natural to have actual spirits exerting their will on the living in the book. I remember every time I went to church someone in the congregation would always become “possessed” with the holy spirit. They would speak in tongues and collapse into the arms of the other parishioners. The preacher would lay hands on people asking to be healed, either physically or spiritually, and they would be so overcome by the spirit that sometimes they’d cry, sometimes they’d dance, and usually they’d end up fainting or collapsing into somebody’s arms. That was really the only thing I enjoyed about church, seeing that spectacle, believing that the impossible was possible.

In the beginning of the book, Abel is asking for forgiveness; he becomes aware that he’s due some kind of reckoning and the ultimate reckoning is him having to confront his dead wife who he abandoned and lied to. Obviously most of our ancestors will never get to have that reckoning, but it was fun to write. As fiction writers we have the power to let the dead have their say, so why not.

Rumpus: Each setting—from geographic location to time—is so expertly woven together: we go from Harlem in 2020 to Spanish Town in 1832 and back again. Was piecing this together like a puzzle or did it unfold naturally as you wrote?

Card: I wrote the first drafts of the book without really worrying about whether the dates lined up. I think initially I was focused on experimenting. I wanted to write in different voices, different times, locations, genres to see what my own limitations were as a writer. But when I was working with my editor, we really had to do a lot of math to make sure it all made sense. That was really rough, going back and making a family tree and timeline, checking my research. Many things didn’t add up and revisions definitely had to be made. Then additional tweaks were made during copyediting. I’ll definitely try to do the math at the beginning next time or work with some kind of outline for a project this complicated. 

Rumpus: Slavery has played and continues to play a pivotal role in the Paisley/Solomon family history and present. How did tracing its legacy, not just from their perspective but from the descendants of slave owners as well, help define the parameters of a family’s ongoing struggle to reconcile their marred past?

Card: It shouldn’t always be up to the descendants of slaves to confront slavery’s legacy. Whether the the characters in the novel are seeking to atone or to forgive, they can’t do either if they don’t speak or accept the truth. Also, in societies like Jamaica, where they didn’t follow the one-drop rule, but instead the British elite used this kind of buffer class of white creoles and mixed-raced free blacks to keep the slaves in line, the lineage of the victims and the perpetrators sometimes became very entangled. I think what the Paisley family is struggling with in the present day is a kind of erasure of the truth of their history that just keeps repeating itself across time.

Rumpus: Slavery and its effects have also irrevocably altered Jamaican society: Vera’s mother covets light-skinned suitors for her daughter; she is dismayed when she finds out Abel’s mother is dark-skinned. She doesn’t even “want to hear that more of her ancestors [come] from Africa than from England.” She rejects her blackness. Why was it important to include this perspective from Vera’s mother, and how does it relate to the ongoing effects of slavery on the whole? 

Card: When we immigrated to America, I was cut off from my father’s family. I grew up around a lot of colorism. I spent most of my childhood around my mother’s family where I was often the only dark-skinned child in the room. I felt like I was always getting this message that it was unfortunate that I didn’t “inherit” the light skin that was common to that side of my family. Instead I would get compliments on the size and shape of my nose and it wasn’t until I was older that I realized how insidious it was. I felt like my worth, my beauty was being defined by this random white ancestor who no one knew but that some people in my family were constantly celebrating. That’s definitely one of the after-effects of slavery that never seems to die, this reverence for whiteness that slavery and colonial society instilled in people.

On the one hand I have people in my family who have the opposite mindset, who celebrate those aspects of Jamaican culture which are clear reflections of our African past, but I always found that there was this constant push and pull. This embrace of certain aspects of our history, followed by the rejection of other aspects. I just wanted to paint a realistic picture of the culture, and in my experience colorism is a part of the culture I grew up in.

Rumpus: I am so excited to talk to you about how you weave Jamaican folklore into this story. What made you want to include the story of Ol’ Hige and how does it fit within your narrative frame?

Card: I’ve been experiencing sleep paralysis since I was in high school. Sleep paralysis is a condition where you find yourself between consciousness and sleep. You feel awake but you can’t move or speak, and while you’re in that state it’s possible to have very vivid hallucinations. When it first happened to me it was terrifying. When you hear people talking about ghosts and demons as if they’re real and then you wake up in the middle of the night and find a demon standing over your bed, it’s hard not to initially believe that something supernatural is actually happening. But I figured out pretty early that it was just some kind of sleep disorder. I realized that my mother experienced it and also that my grandmother had described something similar before she died. She described someone pressing down on her chest in the middle of the night.

When I was in grad school, I worked at Rutgers University Press. They had just published this book on sleep paralysis called Sleep Paralysis: Night-mares, Nocebos, and the Mind-Body Connection by Shelley R. Adler. It’s been a while since I read it but I remember one of the points she makes is that the hallucinations that stem from sleep paralysis vary by culture, depending on our folklore and what types of ghosts or monster stories we are raised on. My grandmother’s experience sounded more like the Ol’ Hige stories, the idea of a witch coming in while you sleep and sometimes sitting on your chest and stealing your breath in the night. It’s not exactly the same but I can see how the folklore might have sprung from sleep paralysis. Of course, it’s also similar to West African folklore and it overlaps with some European witch stories as well. I had read in an article that sometimes sleep paralysis results from excessive stress or PTSD. The Ol’ Hige story was also used to explain why babies died from lockjaw. It made me think about how folklore is one way for communities and families to process their collective trauma. The family in the book, especially the women have experienced so much trauma and violence the folklore also serves as a kind of allegory for their shared experience.

Rumpus: One of your characters, Abe, who is Irene’s son and Solomon/Abel’s grandson, is studying to become a librarian. You are, in real life, a public librarian. Is this a nod to the reader that you identify with Abe the most? 

Card: Yes, in some ways. I wanted the family tree to acknowledge the way that slavery and colonialism have made it virtually impossible to make a complete family tree. I wanted it to have question marks, I wanted it to be complicated, but it only made sense to draw it that way if there was a character in the book who was actually constructing it and acknowledging those unanswered questions, the absence of a complete historical record.

Rumpus: Furthermore, Caren, Estelle’s daughter and Solomon/Abel’s granddaughter, is written in the first person. What is the significance of the change to this point of view? Do you also see yourself in her?

Card: No, not really. That story was written in second person originally. I usually try to rewrite each story from several point-of-views to see which one resonates. The origin of that character is very different from most of the others. I was more inspired by place at first, rather than character. When I was young and my parents separated, my father moved to Harlem and lived with a new wife and her kids. The block they lived on was still very much in the grip of the crack epidemic in the early 90s. I went back to their apartment after college, after not visiting there for years and I was struck by how much it had changed. There were luxury condos across from their building and most of the brownstones on their block had been bought by white people. That same day, I saw my step-brother who’d been in prison since I was young home from jail for the first time. My father hadn’t warned me and I realized I’d seen him earlier in the day walking around Harlem and had noticed him staring at me but hadn’t recognized him. While he was in jail no one really talked about him. When I’d ask my stepmother how her kids were, she wouldn’t mention him. When I saw him again it felt like seeing a ghost. I guess those feelings are what drove the story. That shock of seeing a place you once knew changed, and a person who you’d thought left your life for good suddenly returned. But I think ultimately Caren’s feelings are different, deeper, because the ghost who returns is her mother. It’s more about a child who gets used to trying to be her mother’s parent and who is very tired. I don’t share that experience.

Rumpus: For readers who also deal with family history that affects them—either directly or indirectly—what do you want them to take away from this book? 

Card: Even though writing this book made me think about a difficult past, I feel like there is always power in memory and reflection. A lot of times we think that we fully determine the path of our lives but sometimes our ancestors play a bigger role than we realize. Recognizing this can give deep insight into how our lives have unfolded.

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Photograph of Maisy Card by Marian Calle.


Greg Mania is the author of Born to Be Public, forthcoming from CLASH Books on August 25, 2020. Follow him on Twitter: @gregmania. More from this author →