Interview: Sonja Livingston

In essayist Sonja Livingston’s latest collection Ladies Night at the Dreamland (University of Georgia Press), the Appalachian native of western New York explores the lives of historical women—famous, notorious, and invented—and in many ways her own life and understanding of herself. Through re-imaginings of figures like Virginia Dare (“Dare”), Luna Fugate (“Blue Kentucky Girl”), and Alice Mitchell and Freda Ward, two young women in Memphis who fell in love and attempted to elope (“Mad Love: The Ballad of Fred and Allie”), Livingston confronts and explores the often difficult to navigate invisible spaces between existences—love and cultural acceptance, race, immigration, and the tension of home and away, and geography.

Appalachian Heritage interviewed Sonja Livingston during a two-week email exchange about her body of work, her latest collection and the themes of raising the veil of hidden experiences and geographical identity. Louisville-based writer and editor Beth Newberry conducted the interview with Livingston who was in Cork, Ireland, teaching a month-long nonfiction workshop with the University of New Orleans. The interview has been edited for length.

BETH NEWBERRY: You are in Ireland this summer—what took you there? Do any of the landscapes you’ve seen there remind you of the places you call home?

SONJA LIVINGSTON: I’ve been in Cork and the surrounding towns in western Ireland, seeing lots of green pastures and jagged coastline and sea. The interior landscape reminds me of Kentucky, all the green hills broken by old barns and grazing cattle. But while I feel very much at home in Kentucky, it isn’t my home. In fact, Ireland doesn’t remind me necessarily of any home I’ve ever had, but does it feel familiar. People talk about connecting to certain landscapes and ancestral memory and all that, but I tend to be cynical. But then I descended in Ireland for the first time and found myself surrounded by the patchwork of fields and [I] choked up right there on the plane. Something about the place is special. Not only the fields and cliffs, but the cadence of the language, the music, the history—even the poverty and struggle. I’ve been fortunate to travel many places, but Ireland is where I want to return to again and again.

BN: I’d like to talk a bit about your piece “Blue Kentucky Girl” which is in your new book Ladies Night at the Dreamland, but was also published in Appalachian Heritage [Summer 2014 issue]. It’s a captivating piece that is lyrical, personal and interactive with history. I actually read it for the first time when I was on Troublesome Creek—a place mentioned in the essay—in Hindman, Kentucky, at the Appalachian Writers’ Workshop. Your storytelling about Luna [one the “Blue Fugates”], her life and family was very intuitive, detailed and avoided stereotypes and judgments often associated with this story of the region. Have you spent time in eastern Kentucky or in tight-knit rural or Appalachian communities?

SL: Thank you! In terms of avoiding stereotypes, I think the job of the writer—especially the nonfiction writer—is to get to the place beyond easy categories and judgments. The desire to show people and places that are often hidden or misunderstood drives a great deal of my writing. As someone who grew up in a family and setting that are very easily judged (often harshly and incorrectly) I’m especially sensitive to those things, the wrong they do, and the ways they falsely divide us.

I spent my childhood in rural portions of western New York, in parts of the state which some have called Appalachia. I’ve described it as the place where northern tip of Appalachia meets up with the easternmost notch of the Rust Belt. I’m not sure how or where the region fits exactly, except to say that the culture of rural West Virginia and eastern Kentucky do feel familiar. My mother grew up in the mountains of New Hampshire. We tend to think of New England as posh and clam-shelled, but the way she grew up in the mountains and the stories she tells also remind me [of] Appalachian stories, the hard work and limited resources. I drew on her experiences and my own childhood in rural environments, as well as visits to Appalachian communities.

I don’t mean to suggest that these places are interchangeable. They are each rich in their own traditions and history, and yet, living as a child without indoor plumbing in Batavia, New York, let me understand something about my mother’s experiences in the White Mountains and yes, even something of what it would have been like for Luna in eastern Kentucky.

In terms of her unusual color, well, I knew about being different and again. I drew on my experiences as a white child who lived for a time on Seneca reservation and later in a largely non-white inner-city neighborhood to think about skin color and difference. In the end, I used a combination of research, experience and imagination as a way to try to know more about the people and places I write about, including Luna and Troublesome Creek.

BN: I’m also curious as to how this piece evolved. There are some very strong connections drawn between the narrator’s experience and Luna’s—a conversation between the two characters almost. Did you write the sections about your own life in conjunction or response to research about the Fugates? Or did the threads of the story develop separately at first?

SL: I wrote about Luna first. Her story really captivated me. I wanted to know more about her and how she’d lived, but I also wanted to explore why and how she’d captured my attention so thoroughly. What I’ve come to discover in writing about various women’s lives is that the while objective is to know the other person better, in doing so, we inevitably come to know something more of ourselves. In other words, I wasn’t interested in writing straight biography. I wanted to combine what was already known with what I most wanted to know in a sort of conversation with each woman, and in this case, Luna.

Over time, the essay developed but didn’t seem done. I’d written about Luna but still couldn’t place why she mattered so much to me and especially why now. So much of writing is letting things percolate in your head, so eventually, I let go of trying so hard and the connection naturally arose. Skin color matters in our culture. No matter how much we talk or don’t talk about it, it remains a part of who we are as Americans, and in my own life, labels and divisions according to race and class have been central.

BN: I [want] to follow up your comment about the geography of your childhood and this understanding you’ve cultivated about “places that are often hidden or misunderstood,” which I see as a direct correlation to how you describe western New York: “as the place where northern tip of Appalachia meets up with the easternmost notch of the Rust Belt. I’m not sure how or where the region fits exactly.”

I think that in terms of geography (and also other things that stratify people like class and culture) the expectation is that people are one thing or another—you are urban or rural, you are industrial or agriculture, you are a hick or you are sophisticated. And when a place such as western New York, or a person with multiple and varied geographies, can’t be just one thing or the other, certain identities can get lost or hidden when interacting with the dominant culture or individuals. Do you now feel, or have you previously felt, caught between places or cultures and how have you navigated that as a writer?

SL: What a great question. In some ways, the idea of being caught between categories (of class, regional identity, race) seems like an obvious consequence of our diverse culture. That said, I don’t think we make allowances for how many of us are caught in those in-between spaces. But to answer your question, I do feel caught between categories, most especially in terms of class. When Ghostbread [Livingston’s first book, which won the Association of Writers and Writing Program Prize for Nonfiction] was published and people began to invite me to read at their colleges and organizations, the question I could always count on was: “How did you get out of poverty?” I struggled (and still struggle) to answer because there’s no solid line to step over and be done with something like poverty. Many people in my family are still poor. Most of the people I grew up with are still struggling. I still battle an almost automatic sense of shame and not belonging.

I just watched an interview with the writer Frank McCourt who said that giving people money and food doesn’t touch the real poverty, which is deeply ingrained—the sort of hunger that takes more than a full cupboard to heal. Class is not black or white, yet the ways we’ve learned to speak of it is exactly as if its various categories can be inhabited neatly and fully. I’ve lived and taught in Memphis for the past six years and will begin teaching [at] Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond this fall. As a writer, I was drawn to a graduate writing program with a southern school because the South and its writers have a pull on me. But I’m from the North. What does this mean? To be from the North? It means plenty, of course, but it also doesn’t mean as much as one might think. I’m interested in this terrain. The territory that refuses to fit neatly into categories can be tough to live with, especially when we’re children who want so desperately to fit in, but it’s gold for writers.

What can’t people tell by looking at you? I often ask this question to students as a writing prompt—because, of course, what think we see in others is not always what lies beneath the surface. The space between what others perceive about us and what is true is most fertile ground. It provides an opportunity to know ourselves and each other in ways that shake up those superficial categories and actually mean something.

BN: Your work both in Ghostbread and Ladies Night at the Dreamland has a lot of intersections of what is seen and what is hidden, whether its the supernatural or forbidden love or even the parallel lives that exist when people are separated by distance or death, like when you write in “Twyla”: “But what is ever really gone forever?”). I was wondering if you could talk about the interplay of the seen and unseen in one of [the] pieces in your latest collection?

SL: Several of the essays bring up that idea: What is ever really gone forever? Perhaps these essays were a way for me to show that where there’s attention, nothing is gone forever. But that’s only half-true. Some things are tougher to reclaim—there’s no way of knowing the inner lives of others, for instance, especially those who lived so quietly and are long-gone. The best we can do is to use what’s known to make a guess. In terms of the interplay between what is seen and unseen, as I said earlier, it’s a rich ground for writing. In writing about the lives of women, especially, what is seen and known versus what’s hidden is not only rich, but very telling.

For instance, “The Opposite of Fear” weaves together the story of the young woman who crossed Niagara Falls on a tightrope in 1876, with rumination on my own tendency to be timid. The segments that focus on Maria Spelterini show her up on that rope, flaming in her vibrant costume and straddling the space between land and sky. And while it was Maria’s daredevil act that captured my attention, I really wanted to know who she was off that tightrope. That’s the part that was hidden, even for someone who stood so fully in the spotlight. She crossed the tightrope a few times, then promptly disappeared, so that even those few women who lived outside the expectations of time and place and left a record of their acts, are very little known. Was Maria really brave, or so desperate she had no choice but to get up on that tightrope and walk over the Niagara River Gorge at a time when women couldn’t even legally cast a vote?

The essays in Ladies Night at the Dreamland vary widely in terms of subject, scope, and form, but what binds them together is this divide between being seen and being known, and what that might say about these women’s lives (and by extension, perhaps, our own).

BN: I first read “A Thousand Mary Doyles” in your book, but a friend in my writer’s group read it first in [the online literary journal] Brevity and talks still about how much life and story you fit into 527 words—yes, she cites a word count from memory. It is quite an evocative and expansive piece for its length. It reminded me (as did Ghostbread) of one of my first loves of literature as a young writer, Sandra Cisneros’s novel The House on Mango Street. Both paint colorful pictures with a small amount of text that reveals character, place and desire. Do you see “A Thousand Mary Doyles” as a piece of flash nonfiction? From a craft perspective, how are you able to traverse so much story and geography it such few words?

SL: Well, thank you and thank you to your friend! “A Thousand Mary Doyles” is flash non-fiction. I tend to write short pieces, and always have, even before I understood what to call them. Once I began taking writing classes and reading more literary nonfiction, I recognized that these pieces were brief essays. Short pieces provide a natural fit for my process and my content. Memory tends to arrive in powerful images or fragments versus complete narratives. Part of what I love about writing from memory is trying to understand certain images and experiences stay with us. When I was writing Ghostbread, for instance, I’d remember something—such as the hand-me-down Kung Fu lunch box that I hated—and wrote specifically about that memory as fully as I could before moving onto the next.

Whether they stand on their own or are strung together in a book or a longer essays, flash essays often function like snapshots that allow writers to zoom in on one image or moment and mine it for all its worth. These ‘snapshots’ can stand on their own but they can also serve as a stand in for many moments. When I describe a hand-me-down Kung-Fu lunch box, in Ghostbread, for instance, I don’t need to describe the hand-me-down sweater or the hand-me-down running shoes. The reader understands that the lunch box implies many other things.

It’s probably no coincidence that I enjoy photography. We human beings have an excess of information coming at us—we see and hear and touch so much in a day. A short essay provides a way to manage and frame and convey what we notice. I try to use every tool available to me (language, sentence length, verb tense, sensory details, etc.) in the same way a photographer makes use of angle, shadow, and light.

Beth Newberry is a writer and editor living in Louisville, Kentucky. Her work has been published in Sojourners, Still: The Journal, and The Louisville Review. Her essay “The Center of the Compass” was named a notable essay of 2010 by Robert Atwan in the 2011 Best American Essays. She writes at thehillville.com.

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