Los Angeles Convention Center | April 2, 2016

Episode 135: Writing About Other(ed) Spaces

(Catina Bacote, Wendy Call, Jeremy Jones, JustinNobel, Stephen West) Five nonfiction writers discuss the pressures and possibilities of writing about marginalized and overlooked places - empty corners of Appalachia, tornado-torn stretches of the Deep South, housing projects in Connecticut, immigrant communities in New Jersey and LA, and beyond. Writing in forms ranging from memoir to journalism, the panelists grapple with how to honestly and artfully render people and places too often stereotyped or simplified or silenced.

Published Date: September 14, 2016


Speaker 1 (00:00:04):

Welcome to the A W P podcast series. This event was recorded at the 2016 A W P conference in Los Angeles. The recording features Katina Kote, Wendy call, Jeremy Jones, Justin Noble, and Steven West. You will now hear Jeremy Jones provide introductions.

Speaker 2 (00:00:33):

So you are at the writing about Othered Spaces panel. My name is Jeremy Jones. I'll give you a kind of brief overview of what we're going to do and then I'm going to step out of the way for a bit. So part of what we're talking about today is writing about places that are kind of overlooked or marginalized. And our idea here is to move along a sort of spectrum of different forms of nonfiction as we're writing about place. So first is going to be Justin Noble, who is a freelance magazine journalist, and his stories have been republished in best American travel writing, best American Science and nature writing. And currently he's at work on a book about New Orleans and a wrongful conviction and a book of tales about the weather. He's going to start us off and talk a little bit about kind of literary journalism and maybe sort of the eye of the piece on the outside.

Speaker 2 (00:01:19):

And then we're going to sort of slowly move inward, I think next Steven J. West is currently at work on a book length essay about a private investigator embroiled in corruption in West Virginia. He's the writer in residence at St. John Fisher College in Rochester, New York. And after him will be Wendy call the author of No Word for Welcome and the co-editor of Telling True Stories, a nonfiction writer's Guide. Her work appears in Orion, the Kenyan review, the Michigan Quarterly Review among others, and she has served as writer and residence at 21 institutions including five national parks, three universities, two visual arts centers, a historical society and a public hospital. And then after Wendy will be Katina Kot whose nonfiction has appeared in the Gettysburg Review, the Sun, the Common Heart and Soul, and the Southern California Review. And she wrote a viewing guide to the documentary Banished American Ethnic Cleansings.

Speaker 2 (00:02:14):

She's a professor at Warren Wilson College. And then I will go last and I'm mostly going to talk about my book Bare Walla, about personal history of a mountain homeland. One selfish plug that I'm going to make though is I'm also co-editing this new nonfiction book series about place it's called In Place. And I've left some postcards on this table over here. This is an imprint of West Virginia University Press. So this is sort of my target market. I imagine many of you're writing books about place, so if you're looking for places to publish those, we're trying to create one. So if you'll grab one of those postcards, that would be great. So I'm going to get out of the way. Please welcome Justin Noble to the lectern.

Speaker 3 (00:02:58):

Thank you. And thank you for coming. Yeah, my name Justin Noble. I write for different magazines and literary journals about other places. I spent a lot of time in the Canadian Arctic with the Inuit and I also lived in a really remote part of the Pacific, the islands of Yap, which some of them take six months just to get there. It's far out there. But now I'm in a place closer. I'm based in New Orleans and I spend a lot of time in the rural deep south. And I'm going to start with a quote from a photographer. Actually, there's a really powerful great war photographer named James Nway. He shoots for time in National Geographic. He's covered some of the biggest atrocities of the past four decades and captures humans in this really personal and in these personal and painful moments in their lives. And I think he speaks to this exact idea of our panel.

Speaker 3 (00:03:56):

And he says the worst thing is to feel that as a photographer, I'm benefiting from someone else's tragedy. This idea haunts me. It is something I have to reckon with every day because I know that if I ever allow genuine compassion to be overtaken by personal ambition, I'll have sold my soul. The only way I can justify my role is to have respect for the other person's predicament. The extent to which I do that is the extent to which I become accepted by the other. And to that extent I can accept myself. And I like that line a lot. That comes from a movie about him called War Photographer. And he sets up this contract where you give curiosity and compassion if you're the storyteller, you give compassion and you get back the story and the way knock boy sees it, if you are compassionate it, truly compassionate, it is okay to take this story and this other person gives it to you, they trust you and they get their story out and that's a good thing for them.

Speaker 3 (00:05:00):

And I agree with that, but I've been feeling more and more that there is also more to the contract and he's missing something. And there's a part of this documentary where there's a photo exhibit for Nawe at I C P, which is this really fancy photo gallery right in downtown midtown Manhattan. And there's all these people in suits drinking wine and eating cheese right next to these photos of massacre. Really awful situations being displayed next to the setting and something stands out. It doesn't quite work for me. That's where the contract falls apart. And I think there's more. I think that there is something else that someone like Kim or someone like myself must give back and I've been thinking about that. So I'll just give you a little bit now my history. I was born in New York City. I grew up mainly in the suburbs.

Speaker 3 (00:05:50):

I went back to New York City for graduate school and I was really overwhelmed by the city. So many moments, so much stimulus coming by and then stimulus are racist stimulus and it becomes like a blank slate. I was remembering nothing. So I came up with this project to try to capture the city, observe it, and I would stand still for extended periods of time in these famous New York locations. So all night on the subway or all night in the emergency room waiting room or all day in an elevator and just observe. And that was an early project. And then when I moved to the south, I tried to take that to the deep south and to the small towns in the deep south. And other journalism was happening to keep money coming in, writing for websites. But this was sort of the passion project. So I came up with a project where I sat in one small town and I didn't really know where I would start.

Speaker 3 (00:06:39):

I randomly sort of found this place in western Louisiana and based on the events that happened when I went to that town, I would go to another town and it became like this, choose your own adventure tale of going from town to town. And it was interesting and I was led to interesting places, but the energy kind of flatlined and it led though to this other project. And I'm going to read something from that project and that was I am very interested in weather and I learned that there was this massive tornado outbreak across the whole southeast really in 2011. It was the second biggest tornado outbreak in the country's recorded history. There's more history, but the recorded history and in particular was a massive tornado that went across northern Alabama. It ran for 132 miles, which is really extreme. Most tornadoes run for like a mile five miles, 10 miles, 132 is outrageous.

Speaker 3 (00:07:28):

It started at the Mississippi Alabama border and went clean across the state and ended in Tennessee and it did very strange things. It skirted the grounds of a state prison. It barely missed one of the largest nuclear power plants in the country. And it ripped the top off a WR their jeans factory and it picked the gene up and carry them 60 miles in the air and drop them literally intact in the parking lot of another factory that made steel tubes. And these workers were outside and they saw these jeans falling out of the sky and then they had to run into their own storm shelter because their factory was later destroyed. So it was surreal. But of all the stories I found, there was one that really stood out and that involved this guy named Milton who's a golf cart repairman. Milton's story is important for many reasons, but one is because he represents something I never found in researching tornadoes.

Speaker 3 (00:08:23):

There are a number of people who get sucked up by a tornado and some of them do live, but many will be unconscious for that time. And so they do not remember what happens in the air. And Milton, not only did he get sucked up and he was lucky enough to live, his entire family actually got drawn up by the tornado. He remained conscious and he remembers in an exquisite detail what happened. And I'm just going to read a little clip from that. The block parted and I could see the core and it was brown and it was moving left to right so wide, it looked like it was turning in slow motion. When I saw it, I saw death. If you laid your eyes upon this, there was death all around. It was like watching someone point a gun at you and pull the trigger and watching the bullet come at you real slow.

Speaker 3 (00:09:14):

Chances are it's going to go in your head and you have to accept it. That's when I realized we were doomed. I yelled at Charlene, get rusty in the house, get the kids. It's a tornado. Rusty was my 21 year old son. I had a seven year old girl, Georgia and a 10 year old boy Skylar. There was no basement and there was no storm shelter. There was nowhere for us to go. I got everyone in a little hallway between the kitchen, the living room, and the bathroom because it had the most walls. Charlene lay flat on the ground with her legs spread in a V and the two kids in between and her chihuahua pepper, me and Rusty covered everyone with her bodies trying to make a shell. We didn't even have time to put a mattress over us. As it got closer, I could feel the pressure and I could look through the front door and see debris being sucked up, massive trees with the roots still intact and homes and cars and cows.

Speaker 3 (00:10:05):

Once it got up on us, it got so brown, I couldn't see nothing. As we were all huddled down, my wife looked up at me with a funny look on her face and said, how bad is it? It is going to be catastrophic. I told her, chances are we're all going to perish. Then the metal roof blew off the house itself, literally picked up eight feet in the air and it twisted to the left. And at that point Charlene yelled, oh my god, and that was the last thing my wife said, the house exploded like a bomb and we became one with a tornado. So right, you get this charge, this kind of burning coal as a writer, the story taker. And so what do you do with it? So I wrote a story that was published in the Oxford American, this pretty glossy literary magazine, and it's available at boutique bookstores and Barnes and Noble and you read it maybe at cafes or an event like this, but I'm still feeling like there's something else.

Speaker 3 (00:11:01):

It isn't enough. And Nwas contract again, is a little bit broken. There has to be more to give back or to connect. And I'm thinking of, I was at this really great reading yesterday of Central American poets and they said this thing which is so true and has really stuck with me, we have to tell our own stories or other people are going to tell them for us. And I think that really gets at the root of it. And I think back to the whole, I mean the history of this country, really the story of it has been told by a group of merciless missionary explorer butchers who in doing that erased an entire suite of other stories and we're still living with the trauma of that story heist. So I think there does have to be something else. I think we are in a time where we can build towards that. I'm thinking about what that has to mean for my own work and maybe we can get to some of that later, but I'm going to give it up to the other panelists. Thank you.

Speaker 4 (00:12:21):

Hello everyone. I'm Steven. Nice to meet you. Thanks for coming. So it's funny, I'm also going to talk about photography in a smaller way. Yesterday I took a break from the conference to go up to the Getty Center, which wasn't a small break. As it turns out, it's quite a ways away, but worth the trip if you can afford the time. But one of the things I wanted to see at the Getty Center was an exhibit of Robert Mapplethorpe's photography that they have and it's striking and impressive. If you know anything about Mapplethorpe and his work. It's funny now that I hear Justin talking about these images in a context where the audience might be viewing art or photography or subject matter in a disassociated or removed way from what it was an originally intended. I kind of felt that a little bit with Mapplethorpe, but it's different because Mapplethorpe was consciously creating his photography for galleries like the Getty.

Speaker 4 (00:13:11):

I think he had an artist's audience in mind, but still what struck me about his photography is that if you know anything about it, he was depicting really sensitive subject matter in the form of people and bodies and relationships among people and gender and sexuality. And these images are pretty graphic. And his ex portfolio in particular depicts a series of his friends in New York City in the seventies and their sexual relations and SS n M culture. And I'm thinking, wow, this could be really troubling to depict this for a gallery. But you know what Mapplethorpe does? And it struck me as I looked through all of his work is every once in a while he turns the camera on himself. So you'll see an image of a nude figure and then there's a Mapplethorpe nude. You'll see an image of a very graphic sex act, and then there's one where Mapplethorpe is actually participating in that sex act.

Speaker 4 (00:14:09):

And that kind of thought, I thought that was an interesting way to think about our participation in certain groups, our observation of groups and how we depict them in writing. And I think maybe this is an early bridge toward the self in writing in this panel, but how we can turn the camera on ourselves as a way to address our own participation sometimes in the groups we're writing about, but maybe importantly when we're not a part of the group that we're writing about, because that's where some of these really important ethical questions come up. I have a quote from a field guide for immersion writing by Robin Hamley. He says, the difference between immersion journalism and immersion memoir is that an immersion is primarily interested in reporting on the world outside herself while using the self as the vehicle for that information. And he also says that the opposite is true of immersion memoir.

Speaker 4 (00:15:02):

The immersion memoirist is interested in self revelation or evaluation while using the outside world as his or her vehicle. Now as a writer, I'm thinking, okay, if we have immersion writing, taking these two avenues, how does the self play an important role in each with immersion memoir? I think it's a little bit more complicated. It can be fraught with some of these ethical questions because I'm using the outside world as a writer to evaluate or reveal something about myself that can be exploitative. What's the point of these places, these people that I write about, if it's only just to reveal something about myself that feels problematic? And this relates to a project that Jeremy alluded to that I'm currently working on a book length essay and it's set in West Virginia. I lived in West Virginia for six years before I moved to Rochester to my new position, and I'm originally from New York, so I'm an outsider in that space.

Speaker 4 (00:15:58):

As soon as I moved there and coming out of an M F A program and looking for something to write a book about, I'm at the end of, you are familiar with that? I'm like, okay, well, what would be interesting to do? Okay, so I walked by a storefront and I saw a shingle for a private investigator. And I'm like, okay, I know noir story is set in dreary urban landscapes. What about here in rural Appalachia? What does a private investigator do? So I called this private eye and I said, Hey, can I shadow you sometimes? And he says, well, I'm pretty much retired. And I'm like, oh, okay, well, can I interview? He's like, no, I'm retired. I was like, okay. Well, and I pressed him a little bit and he sent me a phone number for another private eye named Frank Streets. And Frank Streets turned out to be this incredible person in Barbara County, West Virginia, who was gracious enough to let me follow him on some cases.

Speaker 4 (00:16:49):

And I followed and interviewed and had a relationship with Frank Streets for about three years. And in the course of that time, we staked out a suspected adulterer, went on a car, chase lost them, went to Denny's, talked about ghosts. We investigated the murder of a baby, talking to friends of the mother to find out if there was prior abuse that may have led to the murder. We talked about a suicide that Frank Streets believed the cops were behind and we're covering up a murder. We investigated a sheriff in his home county who was alleged to have sexually abused upwards of 30 women. And meanwhile, while I'm kind of being exposed to all of this, Frank Streets knows I'm a writer. So first off, that's good. And I got his permission. He knows I'm writing about him and these places, but I couldn't help but keep thinking about these incredibly vulnerable people that I was being exposed to as a writer from New York, these people with very low education, very low living standards.

Speaker 4 (00:17:51):

And here I am taking notes, thinking about the book. I can write about them, and I think it kind of speaks to the contract or something that Justin was living to. It's a little bit problematic and I couldn't quite wrap my head around it. I knew I had interesting material and it was important, but I didn't know what to do with it because of my own privilege and my own insertion into it. Okay, here's the thing. While I'm with Frank Streets, he ends up getting indicted on felony charges for intimidating witnesses. So as writers, what do you think? Yeah, goldmine, right? But then as a person thinking about the ethical dilemma, I'm like, oh, well this is really kind of a problem. I'm thinking this is the best thing that could ever have happened to this book project, and hopefully he goes to jail, hopefully he's guilty.

Speaker 4 (00:18:40):

So I had a real crisis about that. I didn't know what to do with that. How do I make sense of that in the story? And then I had a friend read an early draft of this where at the beginning I wasn't really in the narrative at all. I mean, I was there present enough to have it make sense in the narrative that I was following this private eye, but I was keeping kind of in the background, let his story show. And this friend read it and she's like, well, what do you have at stake? And I'm like, well, I want to write a book. And she's like, no, what do you have at stake in the narrative? She's like, you are evaluating and revealing this person, his flaws, questioning the conspiracy theory that he believed surrounded his arrest, which is really convincing and interesting.

Speaker 4 (00:19:27):

I still don't know if it's a conspiracy or not, that the local prosecuting attorney and sheriff were out to take him down. He's a really talented storyteller. So it's believable conspiracy theory. But my friend said, you're evaluating him. You're laying him bare for a reader. You're also moving through these spaces in West Virginia revealing these people that you're interacting with. What are you doing to reveal yourself in this ethical problem? And of course, kind of dimwitted light bulb finally turns on. I'm like, oh yeah, I need to draw that into the narrative. I need to put the spotlight on my own activity as a writer with a desire to write a book. So I initially thought I solved the problem by inserting this kind of meta critical thread, the writer's desire to write a book, then finding the topic for the book and having to contend with the issue that there's ethical problem with that.

Speaker 4 (00:20:23):

And I did it and I thought it was good. And I sent it to an agent and an editor and they both said, oh, it's interesting. There's good writing here, but it's still not working. And I'm like, what do you mean? And then I realized this, that I had used myself as a metaphor and the narrative for the ethical problem, I still hadn't revealed myself in the same way I was revealing and critiquing Frank Streets and this subculture in West Virginia. So I had to do the thing that I'm very reluctant to do often, and that's right about myself in an extremely personal way. So I laid bare in the narrative my own life in West Virginia, my own issues with a middling career, new responsibilities as a husband and father with a house payment and a yard demo mow. And how those things didn't really match up with the vision of the writer's life that I had imagined when I was in my early twenties.

Speaker 4 (00:21:13):

And it's really shameful and embarrassing. I'm kind embarrassed by my own privilege and how I was seeing my own family, these incredible gifts and privilege as an obstacle. I had to confront that however shameful it felt, and then I felt like I was critiquing my own conspiracy theory. Why am I not the writer? I think I am. My conspiracy theory are these obstacles that are actually really important gifts and privileges in my life. If I was going to evaluate Frank's treats conspiracy theory about his own arrest, and I've just finished that revision. So it's really raw. It's actually still hard to kind of make sense of what's happening in it, but it's finally working in a way that I'm okay with if I can now talk about Frank Streets in West Virginia in a way that I wasn't comfortable before because I'm pointing the camera at myself hopefully in the same way that Mapplethorpe does in some of his more controversial works. So that's my piece. Thanks.

Speaker 5 (00:22:17):

Good morning everyone. My name's Wendy Call, and I am here kind of oddly to talk about a book that is mostly not about me by talking mostly about me. So we'll see how it goes. So my book, no Word for Welcome, came out in 2011, so it's been a while, which is good, given me some time to sort of think about whether I made the right decisions that I made during that long, horrible decade long process that many of you're familiar with, of writing a book and rewriting a book and reinventing the book, some of which we've already been hearing about while I was working on No Word For Welcome, which is about a community organizing movement against economic globalization in southern Mexico, you get obsessed by different things. One of the things I got obsessed by was what words I did not want on the back cover of my book.

Speaker 5 (00:23:08):

So I would go and I would read other books that I thought were kind of like my book, and I would look at the back covers and I would think, oh God. So some of the words that were on my, please don't put this on my book list, get inside of hidden corners at the ends of dusty roads, the minds of locals, and perhaps worst of all penetrate, which turns up again and again and again. Now, it was terrible as penetrate is the phrase that I most did not want on the back cover of my book was the Ends of Dusty Rhodes and so many magazine articles, books that take place pretty much anywhere, mostly urban United States, Canada or Western Europe. You read at the beginning of the article or the book about the intrepid writer who travels endlessly down these dusty roads and then at the end of the road they find something amazing.

Speaker 5 (00:23:58):

And these narratives tend to include really long descriptions of the dusty roads. And there's a lot of potholes and there are punctured tires. There are even books with titles like potholes and punctured tires. And none of this has anything to do with anything. And so the thing I came to find very interesting about this narrative trope is that it is essentially replaying the conquest and colonization over and over and over. And it also starts the narrative with this idea that the author is somehow coming from the center and is traveling to some kind of margin. And the twin of this trope is the idea that there are empty places. Of course, there are no empty places, there are only places that either the narrator doesn't understand what's there or a place that the narrator or viewer has some kind of designs upon and therefore wants it to be empty.

Speaker 5 (00:24:49):

They want to put something else there. Speaking of outsiders with designs on places, I of course was about as much of an outsider as one could be vis-a-vis the place that I wanted to write about 20 years ago. I was not interested in writing books or actually in writing at all. I was a grassroots organizer working in Boston. I had only been doing it for about six years at that point, but I was already starting to feel pretty burnt out, which has anyone in this room worked as a grassroots organizer? Nobody. It was Barack Obama's first job. Usually people leave that field because they're burnt out. So I was the only six years in, I was starting to feel burnt out, and mostly that was because I felt like I didn't, was kind of out of useful models. I didn't really know what I was basing my work on in terms of strategy, how the community I was working with was basing our collective work.

Speaker 5 (00:25:39):

So I set out to look for models and through a long and convoluted process, about two years later, I came across what seemed to me to be the most amazing model that I had encountered in my then eight years as an organizer. It happened to be in southern Mexico in a place called the Isus of te, which probably no one here has ever heard of, but it's that little thin part of Mexico that connects the main part of the country. It gets really skinny. And then there's Yucatan Peninsula. So at that point, my Spanish was pretty weak, so I continued to work full-time as an organizer, enroll in intensive Spanish classes and save up my vacation time each year so I could travel to the isthmus and start following what was going on in this organizing campaign. And then in 2000, I had finally gotten good enough at Spanish and saved up enough money.

Speaker 5 (00:26:27):

I quit my job and I moved to this part of Mexico about three weeks after I finished my first ever creative writing class. Years went by, I lived there for several years. I got a draft of a book together, then I went into that long and terrible process of trying to find somebody who wants to your book. And I started keeping lists of things that people said to me about my book. And so here are just a few of the quotes. Writing a book about economic globalization is such a great idea, but you chose the wrong part of the world. Why did you go outside the us?

Speaker 5 (00:27:02):

The dialogue in your book is really implausible. You're writing about people that don't have a lot of formal education. Do you really expect me to believe that they understand this much about economic globalization? I just want you to write a book full of really odd people that are in some far away corner of the world and all the weird things they do. And then the last one, this was really kind of the kicker for me. I really want to represent this book because I want to read this book to help me understand what goes through my house cleaner's mind that lunch ended really fast. So the places that we write about, they become going back to the title of this session, othered Spaces for various reasons. One reason is the distance between our readers or our imagined a readers home terrain and the home terrain of the people who appear in the stories.

Speaker 5 (00:27:53):

And so my role as author was to try to figure out how could I bridge this distance? Then how could I triangulate between where my readers were, where I was and where the people about whom I was writing were. And so I did have an earlier draft of the book that included quite a bit of information about me because I wanted it to be very clear how much of an outsider I was so that that would all be out on the table. But what I found when I was workshopping and sending out portions of that version of the book was that because my readers were kind of closer to my experience than they were to the experience of these grassroots organizers in southern Mexico, they would immediately identify entirely with me. And they didn't even really care about the story that I was trying to tell.

Speaker 5 (00:28:39):

So I slowly, as I took myself out more and more, I started with No me. I went to a lot of me and then I came back to just a little bit of me by the end. So that was a long process, but for me, the actual hardest triangulation of all was then to be publishing it in an environment in the US where we expect to have a single protagonist. We love heroes, we love leaders and the culture or cultures I should say that I was writing about in which the idea of a single protagonist is really pretty offensive. There's actually a term called smo, which means when you are sort of putting yourself forward as the main guy or the main gal, when obviously you have no right to do that. And so I had to figure out how to write a narrative that had enough of main character that my readers could follow the story, but also represent that this was a leaderless movement with a lot of different people involved.

Speaker 5 (00:29:36):

And it was interesting to me when the book was finally done and out, the feedback I got from some US readers was there are just too many people in this book. And my main characters were actually three. I had three different threads that threaded together through the book, and then there was only one person who was actually from this region who could read English well enough to read the book. What I did is when I had the manuscript done, I took it all in a binder and I went back for a month to the places that I was writing about, and I translated it sentence by sentence, like sitting with people so that they could basically fact check it for me and tell me whether I had screwed up their stories or not. So that process took about a month, but then there was one person who actually read English enough that when the book came out, she could read it. And what she said to me was, my God, you oversimplified our story so much. Everything you have here is correct, but there's just so much more. And I think that was really the takeaway for me is that there always is so much more. So thank you.

Speaker 6 (00:30:38):

My seat. So yes, hi, I'm Katina Ko and I'm just really just moved by the things that you're writing about and the things that you've written about. And I think about Wendy, what you were saying when you're reading those quotes from people that said things about the people you were writing about. And it made me feel sick because I know people say those things about me and the people I'm writing about. So I am writing a memoir that has my family and my community at the center of it. And I grew up in New Haven, Connecticut and a housing project called Eastern Circle, and it was a all black community, community eventually of very poor people and our family has a long history there. My family lived in Eastern Circle for 40 years. Four generations of my family lived there. My grandparents moved in 1960, which was the first year of the development.

Speaker 6 (00:31:34):

Then their siblings moved there because it was a good place to live. And then when their children grew up, their children actually got apartments in Eastern Circle, including my mother. So I'd lived there from the time that I was born until, I want to say left for college, but you go back. So most of my young life, I lived in Eastern Eastern Circle. So I want to tell you some of the things I try to do in my writing, some of the things I struggle with in my writing and read you a few excerpts from it. So one of the things I try to do is disrupt familiar narratives about housing projects, about the people that live there, about what our lives are like. And I was always a pretty confident young girl. So I remember people bringing me home, like friends, parents or other people, and I'd be like, let me just tell you, I live in the projects so no one would be alarmed when we pulled up.

Speaker 6 (00:32:24):

I've written about this, but I don't have this today. This woman was driving me home. I had an internship when I was in high school and she was driving me home and soon as she realized where I lived, she stopped the car. She would not even drive into the projects, and she made this excuse about why she had to drop me off, happened to be raining out, great for the writer right when I write that scene. And so I said, okay, Kathy, a black woman, Kathy, who I worked with, I'll get out. And I got out and I walked the rest of the way home. Okay, so now I'll read you a little bit about my childhood in Eastern Circle, the projects lay on the eastern most edge of the city and seemed as far away from the mall, McDonald's Burger King and the Colosseum as any neighborhood could get while still being in New Haven.

Speaker 6 (00:33:06):

It felt like we were more in the country than in the city. And it wasn't just the brook at the bottom of the hill or the rust colored cliffs that broke the skyline. It was the way we just about lived outside in the summer and how we could recognize someone from far away by the cut of his face or the curve of his back as an Allen or a diamond or Rick's. It seemed like only a dozen or so families lived in the projects because so many of us had relatives. There whole clans with longstanding ties to Eastern Circle stretched from the top of the hill all the way to its bottom. We carried ourselves like villagers, charming, quiet, territorial, and even though our wellbeing didn't hinge on the rotation of crops or a robust rainy season, our rhythms were still in tune with the seasons.

Speaker 6 (00:33:55):

Regardless of what the calendar announced, we marked summer from the first warm day of spring to the last balmy day of fall. Winter was no more than a holding pattern, a time to cool down and rest because as soon as the days got longer, Eastern Circle opened up picture the first hint of clear skies and rising temperatures. Shorts yanked from the bottom of drawers, feet slipped into dusty sandals, apartment doors thrown wide and hundreds, and I mean hundreds of kids waking up from a hypnotic haze of sweet slumber and fanning out across the projects. We didn't just settle for jump rope or mother may I, we put our hands in everything. Eastern Circle offered stacking mud pies along the side of buildings, catching caterpillars and mason jars and spreading eagle on the ground. One eye opened in the other, closed aiming our marble for the shallow hole.

Speaker 6 (00:34:52):

Nighttime always came slow and easy, making its way over each day until we found ourselves in a pitch black world teaming with crickets and mosquitoes. I have grainy black and white photographs showing Eastern Circle being built, the earliest ones, there's nothing but heaps of stone in a couple of sheds and then come mounds of dirt and cement foundations. I like watching it all happen. A worker mixing plastic inside walls with no roof, A group of men in hard hats spreading out along a scaffolding stacking bricks, a front door being fitted into its frame. My favorite photo shows the finished work, a bird's eye view of the projects, 21 apartment buildings all held together by the circle, a ring street in the center of the projects, in the site plan and topographical map. The circle is called a circular driveway. I never think of it that way.

Speaker 6 (00:35:47):

It makes the circle seem merely utilitarian and it always felt like something more essential. That's why we didn't call the projects by its official name, but call did the name attached to the driveway Eastern Circle? I can't say for sure this is true, but it seemed like every family had a view of the circle. The way I remember it, we could all roll up our shades and see a bit of it. So sometimes it seems for me that my Eastern circle only exists almost at two extremes. There's the idyllic one you just heard about from my childhood and the very troubled one of my teenage years, but I know that it was more complicated than that, and our lives there were more complicated than that. And so I'm always trying to get underneath that because for me, Eastern Circle really.

Speaker 6 (00:36:38):

So what happened is in the 1980s, Eastern Circle became a neighborhood really transformed by the illegal drug trade and by violence. And it was very small, 120 families, and within five years we had five murders there and dozens of shootings. So it was traumatizing. When I try to write about Eastern Circle, I try to capture that dual nature because at one point it's a place nestled away from the rest of the city, which afforded us a real sense of safety and a close community. And at the same sense, I believe it was our isolation spatially and socially that really led to our ruin. So I have another short excerpt I'm going to read you where I'm trying to get both of those eastern circles in there.

Speaker 6 (00:37:23):

The first murder I ever knew about in New Haven happened in Eastern Circle, the housing project where I lived sitting on my porch, I heard what happened. Calvin had killed pop and he was on the run from the police. Both were 16 years old and good friends. Pop had Sandy brown here and in the summer it ignited like wildfire, flaming and licking his ears. His face seemed old, used it up in some way, and it matched his habits, smoking cigarettes and drinking beer. Calvin's then frame and Hazel eyes made him popular with the girls. He always knew how to make a smile. From where I sat on my porch, I could see the yellow police tape tied to a fence. It's tail end floating. I still thought Eastern Circle is one of the best places to live. There were so many kids that there was always a game of marbles, kickball, softball, or tag going on somewhere.

Speaker 6 (00:38:16):

When flavored ice cream wasn't enough to cool us down, a grownup would turn on the fire hydrant like the other kids. I would leap into the rushing stream, partying the ward with my thin arms and strong legs. One of the kids would back up until his behind was flushed to the mouth of the hydrant and the water would spray straight up before it rained down on us. What I didn't like about Eastern Circle were summertime fights. The school year was over and our time and our bodies and our energy were all our own. We had escaped winter's hold and we wholeheartedly gave into the heat, letting it burn up all our inhibitions. The outdoors was where we could test our limits and wield our power. One day I faced a formidable opponent, Jill, with whom I had been playing marbles only hours before. She stepped in front of me with her Barbie doll t-shirt and khaki knickers and hollered.

Speaker 6 (00:39:02):

Somebody said, you were talking about me. We squared off a kid placed a twig on each of our shoulders. The bear small branches represented our respective mothers. Now we had something sacred to defend. Jill Glared at me. I dare you. I wanted to knock the stick off of her shoulder first, but I was outmatched. She was brash and sure of herself. I didn't even like to fight, so I played it safe and I hissed. I dear you, slowly, we circled each other, careful to keep our twigs in place. The kids around us grew restless and an older kid shoved us into each other. Our sticks flew to the ground and our arms started swinging. The next day, Jill and I teamed up for Double Dutch. When it was our turn, we jumped into the ropes from different sides. She sprang straight up, fanning her legs wide. I jumped two, kicking my legs in between her. We moved in sync until we gave into our giggling.

Speaker 6 (00:39:57):

Maybe I'm too sentimental about my childhood in Eastern Circle and how easy it was to fight and make up, but I'm not alone. People I grew up with talk about the projects like they were our own Black Eden. I've heard the claim, it was the best place I ever lived over and over. And other people say we were like one big family. When Pop got murdered, I was 12 years old and certain that the summer months would return to their usual tempo with block parties, break dancing battles, basketball tournaments and family cookouts. But Pop's death signaled a shift. It was the mid 1980s. Glocks and Smith and Wessons were easy to get and people needed them to protect the drugs they stashed and sold or stole and smoked or shut up and sniffed. There was big money to be made. So soon every housing project had its own gang.

Speaker 6 (00:40:49):

The Jungle Brothers, Kensington Street International, the Vil, the Island Brothers, the ghetto, the Wild, wild West Radome in our very own East View Posse on the Knights. When gunshots rang outside, I would only pause for a moment before getting back to my homework. I stayed up late pouring over my books, and sometimes my mother would poke her head into my room and say, please go to bed. She was proud of me, but thought I was working too hard at times. It was difficult to stay up late studying, but I learned that there was currency and being tough, it was better than being afraid or angry or maybe for me it was the same thing.

Speaker 6 (00:41:33):

It is hard for me to write about those troubled years. And I worry a lot about reinforcing stereotypes and reinforcing this ideal of a dysfunctional black culture. And the way that I have come to be able to do it is that I think a lot about the larger context that Eastern Circle existed in politically, economically, historically. And I do lots of reading and I do lots of research into that and it makes its way into my writing, right? Housing projects were intentionally built places. They were a result of policy. And you can think about everything from industrialization in the north to the federal government, supportive suburbs that were predominantly white as helping very much aiding this process of creating racially and economically segregated housing projects, right? Because Eastern Circle started out as a racially integrated project with white families and black families, mostly new immigrants to New Haven.

Speaker 6 (00:42:29):

It started out where every family they were working, every family had a job to eventually move into a place that was all black to a neighborhood where the city, they classify different groups of people, predominantly the extremely poor and Eastern Circle became so neglected that the federal government had to take it over twice because of the number of life-threatening hazards that it had once in the seventies and once in the nineties. The truth is that my family and my neighbors lived in Eastern Circle because we were black and because we were poor, it was allowed to deteriorate for the same reasons. And in the 1890s and 1990s, there was a nationwide drug epidemic and communities like Eastern Circle that did not have allies across racial lines that lacked resources and political power were decimated.

Speaker 6 (00:43:28):

One of the things I also tried to do is I try not to just talk about Easton Circle in the past because it actually is a place that still exists. My family doesn't live there anymore. The last family member I had moved out in the year 2000. My nephew was born there then, but it's still a place that is very much a part of us. I was actually in New Haven over spring break a couple of weeks ago, and my mother said, oh, there's construction going on at Eastern Circle now. And I said, okay, well, let's go by and see. And we drove by and she goes, oh, I wish I could live out here. And I was kind of shocked. I have this love hate relationship with Eastern Circle and hers is just love. And she's like, oh, I wish I could move back out here.

Speaker 6 (00:44:02):

And I'm like, oh no, don't do that, mom. Yeah, I'm not ready for that. So it's a place I go to actually to try to visit every time I'm back in New Haven. But it took me a very long time to do that. It used to be a place where I would avoid, don't drive that way, don't drive that way. I didn't want to see it. A lot of bad memories there. So I'm just going to end by just reading you a little bit of one of my visits when I went back about a year or so ago. And then I will sit down, I go back to Eastern Circle and whole apartment buildings are no longer there. Brush completely covers the brook. There are no basketball courts, clothes line or cellar doors. The wooden logs that mark the bus stop have been taken up to even the sign green with white letters.

Speaker 6 (00:44:50):

Eastern Circle has been done away with the projects had felt like one neighborhood. Now walkways and signs divide apartment buildings into distinct sections. Every porch flanked by two white columns sits separate from everything around it. The kids have fewer places to gather to. Most of the grass fields have been taken over by concrete. At the top of the hill. The Circular Street has been closed off. And this change seems most telling because at one time our lives in the projects and the circle had felt like one in the same. When I first stepped into Eastern Circle, I saw that the street name had been changed. Later I find out that it was named after Levi Jackson, who grew up in New Haven, and in 1946 went to Yale University and joined its football team as its first black player. Eastern Circle is now Jackson Lane renaming the street Marks a new beginning for New Haven for the housing authority and for the projects.

Speaker 6 (00:45:47):

And I understand the impulse to sever the past, to uproot it completely. But even with the changes, Eastern Circle still remains. And not just the layout. There's still so much sky and the smell of bluegrass and dandelions is even the same. And of course, in the distance I can see East Rock, an ancient ridge of sandstone that shoots up 300 feet in the air. Its brown. Ridges can be seen from anywhere in the projects. I've never been to the top, but I know that people go up there to take a view of the city, the New Haven Harbor feeding into the Long Island sound. The downtown office towers, the grand arches of Yale, the railroad tracks and lines of trains. From where I'm standing, I can see the monument that rests at the highest summit of East Rock, a tribute to soldiers who gave their lives in war. The city like the nation marks the pass with one battle or another. Statues are built to remember the fallen, to honor sacrifices, to recognize all the terrible losses. And I think there should be a marker for those who were killed in Eastern Circle. Monuments just like it could be spread throughout the city in every housing project and in other poor black neighborhoods, they could be built throughout the country because what happened to my family and to Eastern Circle happened in other places too. Thank you.

Speaker 2 (00:47:19):

All right, I am back. So my name is Jeremy Jones. I'm going to talk for a little bit and then we'll open up the conversation and take some questions like Katina. My Bare Wallow is a memoir. I think we ended up avoiding the word and the subtitle for some reasons that I don't completely understand and for a few reasons that I do. And the reasons that I do understand have to do with what the book was sort of up to. So it's a book about southern Appalachia, which is where my family has been for about 220 years, which meant mostly that I wanted to leave it as soon as I could. And I did mostly. And then I came back. I was living in Central America, I'd been living in Honduras most immediately. And then I moved back home and started teaching at the same elementary school that I attended where all of my teachers were still working.

Speaker 2 (00:48:09):

My kindergarten teacher was still there, my fifth grade teacher was still there. So the book covers that year of return, but it's not, I'm sort of also looking at the history of the region, the sort of musical history, the geological history. So we ended up going with this notion of personal history, which I kind of liked in the end because it's from my vantage point. But I'm looking at all these various histories of Southern Appalachia. As I was thinking about this panel though, one strange thing that I realized, maybe it's not that strange, but I was thinking about what I was up to in graduate school and the kinds of lessons that I learned there. And I was writing mostly about Latin America. I was writing probably travel essays, I think. And I was realizing how much of the conversation about those pieces and workshop and with other people, with professors ended up preparing me to write this book about the place that I come from, which should be the least foreign place of all.

Speaker 2 (00:49:08):

And one of those conversations that really stuck out when I was thinking about it is just thinking about the narrator, the sort of conceit of the narrator. The narrator as a construction. And I remember being in a workshop in my first year in my M F A program and hearing it was this piece that I'd written about noise in the small town of Honduras. And hearing the professor talk about sort of questioning the reliability of the narrator, which I took as a personal affront. I'm like, I'm a trustworthy person. You can trust me. I'm a nice guy. But it was kind of mind blowing to realize that I was constructing myself. That was a version of myself on the page, which is probably obvious to many of you. To me. That was sort of an epiphany. And it changed my life in some way, my writing life in some ways, because I realized that I could create a very limited version of myself.

Speaker 2 (00:49:56):

I could create a version of myself who was placed in a time in a particular setting and who had limited knowledge. And that was really important for those pieces because I remember a later workshop where a lot of the workshop members were kind of attacking my narrator, who a bad guy, but he wasn't thinking about other kinds of things that he should be thinking about, like cultural appropriation and these other ideas. And they were saying, he should be thinking about this. And I wanted to say, and ultimately decided, yes, he should have been, but that's not me. That's a previous version of me. So I started figuring out how to use the space between the writer and the narrator essentially. So to let the reader in on the limitations of the narrator, but to not give him rose colored glasses or not to give him all of the knowledge that you have now.

Speaker 2 (00:50:45):

And that was really important when I came back to writing this book about Southern Appalachia and where I come from. I was a very naive kind of idealistic person at that time, and I wanted to maintain that in the book. The other lesson that I think I learned, which is also probably an obvious lesson, is just using and kind of investigating the insider outsider dynamic, which has kind of shown up all across our panel now. And that was very much on the surface of my memoir. This is a place where my family has been for a long time. They came over as Scott's Irish Presbyterian. So it may even be that I was predestined to be there, but I came back after living in a place where I was speaking another language. I have washed away my accent. Mostly I'd gone to college when most of the people around me.

Speaker 2 (00:51:29):

And so I did not feel like I belonged either. So the insider outsider tension is very much on the surface of t

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