Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Q&A with Alysia Burton Steele

Alysia Burton Steele is the author of the new book Delta Jewels: In Search of My Grandmother's Wisdom. She is a photojournalist and an assistant professor at the University of Mississippi. She has worked for The Dallas Morning News and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and while at the Morning News was part of the team that won the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News. She lives in Oxford, Mississippi.

Q: Your book was inspired by your grandmother, who raised you. How did you come up with the idea of interviewing other grandmothers and writing a book about them?

A: I talked about this in the beginning of the book in the Inspiration section. It was important for me to talk about why I did this right off the bat. I saw the Delta and it reminded me of my paternal grandmother, the one who raised me. She was from South Carolina.

Seeing the older homes, the greenery, reminded me of summers in Spartanburg with her people. It took me back and I wanted to pick up the phone to call her and talk about it, but I couldn't. She passed away 20 years ago.

I knew she was gone, I miss her terribly, but it hit me - for whatever reason - that I would never hear her voice again. I became full of regret all over again. So much time wasted by not talking to my grandmother about her life when she was alive.

Young people don't think ahead oftentimes, and I wish I had. I thought I had much more time with her. I didn't.  So, I decided I could pay it forward and interview other people's grandmothers. It was that simple for me. So, I just did it. No funding, no backing. Just me and the Delta.

Q: How did you find the women you interviewed, and what do you see as some of the common themes in their lives?

A: I reached out to Clarksdale (MS) Mayor Bill Luckett. He is also co-owner of Ground Zero Blues Club with actor Morgan Freeman. Bill, being the mayor, knows a lot of pastors. I didn't really know anyone in the Delta, but I knew Bill.

He gave me five pastors' cell phone numbers and told me about them. I reached out to one, Rev. Juan Self, who agreed to meet with me and who wanted to find out more about the project.

Rev. Self liked what I wanted to do and gave me a referral to a mother. He also referred me to another pastor, Rev. Andrew Hawkins of Mound Bayou, MS.

Both pastors reached out to mothers in their communities and helped me meet other pastors. In the end I had 19 pastors helping me. It was a domino effect. I couldn't have started this book without these three men. 

Common themes? Education is the key to a better life. Over and over I heard it. These mothers wanted more For their children, and education was key.

Q: The book includes your own story, interspersed among the stories of the grandmothers. How did you decide on the structure of the book?

A: Everything was organic. I just went with the flow of order. So many of the women reminded me of my grandmother and I would scribble down notes after I left meeting them.

Whether it was what their house looked like, what songs I listened to when something touched me…I started to write down how almost every woman reminded me of my beloved Gram. I met with a mentor, Larry Wells, who told me I needed to include those thoughts in the book. I resisted.

Then when the manuscript was bought by Hachette Book Group, my editor, Adrienne Ingrum, said I needed to add more details and take the readers on a journey with me.

I was initially worried my stories would push the mothers aside, but it was a very smart, gratifying move. I'm so glad we did it. Everyone asks me how I met the women and how did I get them to talk, so it was important to start with why I did it, how I did it and what was said and done. It just flowed naturally. Order was easy.

Q: Your photographs of the grandmothers are a big part of the book. As a photographer and writer, how do the two complement each other for you?

A: I am a photojournalist by trade. I see visuals first - always have, since childhood. But this time, I needed to sit down - listen, talk and share. And in that order.

I needed to make eye contact and get to know the women. I couldn't do that if I went in photographing first. Photography is another language. It's very personal and can be intimidating.

Everyone wants to know what you want them "to do," for the photograph, but I didn't want them to do anything. I just wanted them to look at me.

I wanted them to sit in their favorite places or stand wherever they wanted to stand. I wanted to interview them first, watch them - look at their facial expressions, see their mannerisms and I wanted to look inside the home.

Once we had a connection, guards came down and things flowed. I was more stressed out about photographs than their stories. I was able to take photos when the women were relaxed. Photographs came after interviews.

For once in my career photography was secondary and such a great learning experience. When I was a newspaper photographer and editor, I advised staff that photographs were complements to words, not mirrors. I still feel that way.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I was on a very hectic national book tour. Now, I'm home gathering all the women to meet on July 11 in Mound Bayou, MS - the Jewel of the Delta (and the inspiration for the book title).

How appropriate to meet in such a town and during their 128th anniversary for Founders' Day. Mound Bayou is the first all-black town in Mississippi formed by former slaves. I wanted the women to meet.

I'm partnering with Mississippi Delta National Heritage, which sponsored a traveling exhibit of my photographs from the book.  I don't know if the women will ever meet again, but I thought they needed to meet each other.

I am also doing several book festivals this year - Jackson (MS) Book Festival in August, Decatur (GA) Book Festival in September and Nashville's Book Festival in October. This is a very exciting time for me.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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