Friday, April 21, 2023

Q&A with Sharon Sochil Washington




Sharon Sochil Washington is the author of the new novel The Blue Is Where God Lives. She is a cultural anthropologist, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The American Scholar


Q: What inspired you to write The Blue Is Where God Lives?


A: I went to a silent retreat center in the desert, where Texas and Mexico meet, and although I’d never been there before, I had the strange feeling that I had, and in fact that I’d lived there in the 1800s.


At the same time, because of my research as a cultural anthropologist, I was really curious about how poverty works. While sitting on the large veranda, a dear and her doe walked by and they seemed to be moving in the slow motion of Texas heat, the kind of heat that makes everything feel like it’s slowing down. And a story began spinning, sort of like spinning a ball of wool into a garment. 


I wanted to explore poverty in a complex way. I didn’t want to explore it in the two extremes that is typically considered – at one end of the spectrum poor people are victims of a system, whether economic or social, that they cannot escape no matter what they do, and at the other end poor people are incapable of taking advantage of available opportunities.


I wanted to consider poverty from the perspective of a character who should not be in it, yet when we meet her, she is. 


Because of the experience of feeling like I’d been to a place that I’d never been to before, I wondered what it might look like to use that experience to explore a layered look at poverty.


In particular, I wanted to use magic. Magic is frequently used in creation, survival, and resistance stories. But I wanted to explore both sides of that coin–on one side a person thinks they can use magical thinking to think themselves out of problems without taking concrete actions toward solutions, which often leads to intense poverty, and on the other side, there is a sense of power and possibility, a storytelling device and a means of supporting oneself through actual hardship.


Throughout the narrative I ask whether we can we use magic to shield ourselves from hardships.


Q: The Kirkus Review of the book says, in part, “The central theme of the book is the devastating impact wrought upon a people who have been stripped of their cultural history...This message could not come at a more pertinent time in the U.S., where the forced erasure of Black history and identity is once again seen as an acceptable strategy in governance.” What do you think of that assessment?


A: I completely agree that this book is exceptionally timely. And to be honest, I can’t think of a time in American history when it wouldn’t have been timely. This consistent timeliness is American History.


And because of that consistency, I wanted to tell a slightly different story—one that refuses to deny agency to that people group that was stripped of its cultural history.


This story not only complicates the concept of American poverty, but also the concept of race in America. For example, two of the largest slave-holding families are Black.


Also, the hero in this story is a powerful woman, who can not only move back and forth across racial lines, but also across timelines. Nevertheless, and possibly because of her ability to move in this way, we see her struggle with these big historical ideologies in the same way that her granddaughter struggles to break free of them. 


Q: Did you know how the novel would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?


A: I wrote the 2008 timeline in 2013, in about two months. When I finished, I printed it, put it in a binder, and put it onto a literal shelf in my hall closet until 2019.


I knew that I had something, but I didn’t know what it was. Also, I knew that something was wrong, but I didn’t know what. In 2019, I started working with an editor, and realized that the narrative was missing a plot.


In 2008, Blue bumps into a time veil, from the other side of which she hears voices. I decided to explore the other side of that veil, to discover who those voices might be.


To my very, very pleasant surprise those voices happened to belong to her grandparents, in particular her grandmother, Amanda, and this other important character, Ismay.


I quickly understood that Amanda had discovered why Blue hadn’t been able to escape poverty. So she became the lead character in 1848, as she worked to reverse that fate for her granddaughter.


Therefore, 1848 became the plot that moved the story toward an ending, while 2008 allowed Blue to be introspective and the reader to understand the real challenges of a single individual caught up in big historical trajectories.  


Q: How was the book’s title chosen, and what does it signify for you?


A: I’m always fascinated whenever I hear people say, “blah blah blah…and out of the blue, x happened.” The ‘x’ in that formula is always an unbelievable, and most times an unimaginable, occurrence, whether good or bad.


Therefore, I thought that this place, “the blue,” must be a place where gods live. It must be a place of the unthinkable, the extraordinary, and also of unlimited possibility, of magic, of wonder. So, at some point, whenever I heard, or used, that statement, I would follow it with, “the blue is where God lives.”


The story that takes Blue, the character, on this journey across time begins with a horrific event that happens, for her, when she receives a phone call from her son out of the blue. As the writer, I couldn’t help but hear myself whisper to her, partly in consolation perhaps, that, “the blue is where God lives.” 


Q: What are you working on now?


A: At the end of Blue, I had a question about what Blue’s life would look like next. So often stories end with the hero achieving their goal. But we don’t know what it looks like for them to live in the everyday of that achievement.


So, the next novel picks up 14 years later, when Blue has changed her name, to Luci Lei Blue, and began the new life that was made possible for her by her grandmother, Amanda.


Blue the novel is about the power of memory and language and how they can be used to remake a single life or an entire culture or even history itself. It’s an exploration of how words created the trap into which Blue was born, and how words are the tool she can use to free herself.


In the next novel, Luci Lei Blue goes on a journey to rewrite her own story. It’s another time-bending journey. But, whereas in Blue we move back and forth from present to past, this time, Luci goes back and forth from the present to the future, where she mysteriously finds herself younger in her future. 


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I think I would like to reiterate that Blue the novel is not your typical story of the legacy and devastation of American slavery. It’s a story of an enslaved and formerly enslaved family that takes responsibility for its own triumph, while also critiquing a big historical moment in American history.


And as you rightly stated earlier, it is particularly pertinent in this moment when our nation is once again grappling with its history, and grappling with the question of: What do we call American history and what do we call by some other name, whether that be African American or Latino American or Asian American or integration or critical race theory or implicit bias or social justice or whatever name we may give it on the next round?


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

No comments:

Post a Comment