VISIBLE: Women Writers of Color: Bethany C. Morrow

Morrow, writing has been a lifelong passion, but her path to publication has been winding. Now Morrow is focused on her literary work, and her debut novel, MEM, is forthcoming from Unnamed Press on May 22. But I say that to say I wrote her story, the story that she would live in the world that I set her in, and the life that she could only experience if she were a result of that world, and that’s really important to me. My experience, according to the books that I had access to, did not exist. So my writing wasn’t [initially] taken seriously by my parents, but my four siblings and I read a lot of plays. Instead of thinking, This is exactly what I intended to write and it doesn’t matter if anybody else does or not, I thought, Okay, that stuff is written for you. It doesn’t mean that you write things you wouldn’t ordinarily write, but it definitely means you have to figure out if your writing meets at that necessary intersection of art and business. Morrow: My degree is in sociology, which I think is infinitely useful. You really want to spend as much time with it as you can. But writing has really never been solitary for me. I’ve also been a private teacher and a substitute teacher, and I’ve written for a special interest paper. I wrote like people who use Wattpad or something for their novels. [Laughs] At some point, I started writing the stories that we would perform. ***
Want   more   VISIBLE: Women Writers of Color? And I don’t think I had reached that intersection—the place where publication was realistic—before 2010. Along the way, she’s picked up a degree in sociology, detoured into studying film, theater, and forensic psychology. It was like nothing I’d ever experienced, especially because I really loved language. I’m sure it was around the time of Waiting to Exhale. Jackson. You don’t break it. There’s nothing more to it. Once it got to the point that grad school was actually infringing upon my ability to keep learning and writing, I felt I couldn’t do this much longer because it was distracting. We performed on voice recorder. I’ve had this on my heart my entire life, but I don’t want to do this the wrong way because I really haven’t asked You how I’m supposed to do this in the first place.”
There is this really romantic idea that writing is so solitary. What do you want them to take away from it? More brutally honest, or attempting to be more brutally honest, because of course sociology is seriously flawed, as anything that’s been created inside the institution of white supremacy will be. I’d never read anybody who wrote as well as Toni Morrison. Deesha’s writing on race, parenting, gender, and culture has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Brevity, dead housekeeping, and Apogee Journal; Essence, Ebony, and Bitch magazines; and various anthologies. I’m the focus of this person’s attention.” It was like floating away into delirium. I also have Monday’s Not Coming by Tiffany D. It was about real-world [limitations] of cloning. And I know there’s all of these scientists are like, “How dare you? Of course, because I’m the one who wrote it. Rumpus: Who were the writers who inspired you? There was nothing to explain. I would love to meet somebody whose first work is entirely unique, if that exists, but that was not my story. It was young adult. We couldn’t replicate memories and thoughts and spirits and souls and stuff if we wanted to. If you don’t feel like engaging with that today you don’t have to engage with it today. But that’s not what I wanted, so I had some work to do, in terms of listening and learning and watching. Deji and I are also going to be in conversation with each other in June, so I really wanted to give myself time to read it really slowly. That was the jumping off point. I think of it as hard candy. Now I understand that writing and seeking publication was really my main goal, and it had to be my main goal. I didn’t study it in school. Bethany C. It’s the water that we are swimming in. She was everything. What if that’s not for me?”
Rumpus: Who are you reading right now? In this interview, Morrow and I talked about her first novel, how it felt to read Toni Morrison for the first time, and her hope for Black girl readers. Rumpus: Why was 2010 such a turning point in your writing life? Deesha is a two-time recipient of an Advancing the Black Arts in Pittsburgh grant from The Pittsburgh Foundation and the Heinz Endowments. More from this author → What if this doesn’t work out? Morrow: The book that I am primarily reading is Deji Bryce Olukotun’s After the Flare. Then, in 2016, when I decided I couldn’t move forward with that small press publisher for the young adult book anymore. So said, “I guess I’m supposed to do this on my own and then suddenly go out and find a literary agent.” And I had no idea what they’re like. I am very contrarian for some reason about these things, just like wanting to read Speaker for the Dead before Ender’s Game. There was nothing to translate. I remember the actual day that my mom took me to a gift shop and I bought my first journal. Morrow: This is my debut, but I almost debuted in 2015. Now, are you going to be able to see other things it? It’s about her world. And a neighbor girl and I were always twin sisters/superheroes of course, even though she was a very, very small Italian girl who was a gymnast, and I was already a quite tall Black girl. I received an offer from Unnamed Press; it was like speaking the same language, like talking to somebody who talked to me about the book the way that I talk about the book. If you can’t find a place where you are very pleased and very satisfied with what you’ve written, and also have it be something that will be meaningful or useful to other people, the alternative is self-publication, which, if that’s what you want that’s perfectly fine. This is going to sound so weird. I don’t have any plans to intentionally break away from reading Black people right now. I don’t know any Black girls who didn’t love it. From there, I was interested in forensic psychology. My first memory of being obsessed with an author would be fifth grade. I actually have to focus on this and make it happen.”   MEM was the third book that I wrote after that turning point. It wasn’t even just, “Here’s a Black woman who’s currently writing, who’s currently a Pulitzer Prize winner.” It was also, “She’s literally the best there is, and she’s writing about me unapologetically,” because I did then go and find every single one of her appearances on Charlie Rose. Morrow: The seed for it was solely a science fiction concept that came to mind while I was lying in bed. I don’t know if you can describe a book as succulent but the ambiance, the richness of the world, the colors, the food, just the world itself was really so vivid and vibrant. It’s not about my world. It’s something that doesn’t dishonor or disrespect the reality you have. Sociology just felt very natural to me. And I’m super duper excited about Jamel Brinkley’s stories, A Lucky Man. This is present day, and the entire cast of characters are Black women. She’s a Fellow at the Kimbilio Center for African American Fiction and a Pushcart Prize nominee for essay writing in Full Grown People. That’s what reading Toni Morrison was like for me. Morrow: I think that delirium is too high an aspiration or expectation. I don’t think I thought of race once while I was writing MEM, and I don’t think that means anything, honestly, because we don’t really have to think about it. It was a lot more diverse, and we did read Beloved, which I think is so ambitious to give to high schoolers. I was writing to a very specific audience—for my two older sisters and their friends—and every time I would write a new chapter, we would all read it together and then we would talk about it. Stein is the king,” and I was like, “So remedial of you guys. So I was thinking, Isn’t it sad that cloning is so uneventful? At the time, unfortunately, the lack of Black girls didn’t particularly surprise me. It took a little while for my parents to realize, This is not going to stop. I would just like Black girls to have a choice. I’m just looking at Writer’s Marketplace in the library, just writing down people’s names and don’t know anything about them. I feel like this person knows me. But the point is it’s her story. But also go to school. Rumpus: What is your educational background? I signed with a very small press for another book. You’re going too deep and I don’t want to deal with that.” The world just kept getting more and more complex, and it was completely useless to the story I was trying to tell, so I said, “I guess you’re fired. We’re slaves to the art, so we had to say it. I wanted to be with an independent literary publisher, so I started submitting on my own, and looking for representation. It felt very useful and immediate. If the whole point of cloning was to replicate or even extract a memory. That, to me, is really important. I recognized that, yes, this is an art form, but writing for publication is not like writing for yourself. I want readers to have a choice. This is literally a science fiction conceit where she is an extracted memory, and she is extraordinary and why is that and how does that look and how does that impact her life? But reading it was absolutely amazing. Of course, it was 100% plagiarism. I was looking for something that’s sort of the way my brain already works, a way to discuss the world and what’s happening in our experiences in a way that’s very intentional—and at times more brutal—than common conversation would like it to be. Morrow

By Deesha Philyaw
May 16th, 2018

For Bethany C. But I have to purely intentional about it, and not allow myself to take six months to read a book, just because I don’t want it to end. So imagine someone else who’s in high school, reading MEM. It was just a Black version of Anne of Green Gables. A self-described recovering expat, Morrow has journeyed from her native California to grad school in Great Britain to Montreal, Quebec, and most recently, to North Country, New York. She’s going to keep doing this. Wouldn’t it be interesting if cloning was solely for memory? It wasn’t of interest to me. There’s no burden that says “Hey. But it was almost like my culture didn’t exist, because I was a Black girl in California with parents who were transplants from another part of the country. Deesha Philyaw is the co-author of Co-Parenting 101: Helping Your Kids Thrive in Two Households After Divorce, written in collaboration with her ex-husband. Morrow: Not with this book. I don’t know when it happened, but my dad went on this Terry McMillan kick and bought pretty much all of her books. You know what? We did a lot of translated text, of course. Eventually I had to break ties with them. Just listening to her talk. I wasn’t close to my grandparents on either side, honestly, but I was always close with the cousins who eventually came up to northern California. I liked melody and pentameter and stuff, so of course reading Toni Morrison was,   I want this person to talk to me. Morrow: Well, I was always writing. But also succeed in all these different areas. When I started grad school, which I left in 2010 to focus on publishing, it was for clinical psychological research en route to forensic psych. I threw away [other] manuscripts written before 2010 because, at that time, I did not understand and didn’t really have access to the industry the way that we now do because of the Internet. [In one instance] I was wanting to write a novella set in this world, and the world kept being like “But listen to how interesting this economic system is,” and I’m like, “I don’t want to do that. I’m just lying in bed thinking it over from a science fiction perspective. I didn’t ever try to do creative writing. If there’s any indication that I don’t have to read these things in order, that’s what I’m going to do. The way I saw it in the academic setting did not call out to me. Rumpus: Where there any times where you had doubts about MEM having legs? Morrow: It has a lot to do with my faith. The fact that I wrote her is going to inform her story and how she expresses herself, and sometimes more so what expectations other people have of her. But keep this burden on your back all the time.” That’s not fair, and that’s not liberation. That was also my first realization that you could reread a book, even if you’d just read it. (Morrow also recently sold a YA novel, The Sound & the Stone—contemporary fantasy to be published in 2020.)
In MEM, set in 1920s Montreal, a scientist has discovered a method to extract people’s memories. You don’t chew it. Clearly Christopher Pike is the superior author.”
So it was Christopher Pike and Lois Duncan in the very early 90s. Rumpus: I’m thinking about how you felt delirium upon reading Toni Morrison. We were very much into role-playing and stuff. With other things, there have been maybe two times that I’ve gotten far enough that I thought something was going to happen, and then it fizzled out. I’m completely centered in this person’s imagination. Visit the archives   here. ***
The Rumpus: What was your path to getting MEM published? So [the books I read portrayed] an experience that I wasn’t really familiar with, and I felt like something must be wrong with my experience. To prove that you’re proud of being Black, you need to be constantly dealing with the predicament of being Black in America. I was really obsessed with Christopher Pike. I was doing other things and thinking,   Oh, this will just eventually happen, I guess. That’s been a totally normal style and process of writing for me every since I was in junior high school. It’s just fact. Whether or not it’s intentionally ahead of time, like shot out and premeditated, it doesn’t really matter. We performed A Raisin in the Sun a lot of times. There’s a track. But other things are so much easier to do, right? [Laughs] Mostly select scenes, but especially when Walter Lee says, “Damn my eggs,” because we were kids and you’re not allowed to say “damn.” But we had to because that’s what’s written. I just like the way her voice comes through her lips. But that’s not really the image that you get in modern-day romanticization of fiction writing. So I thought, Oh, wait a minute. I was in second grade. This has taken decades of study and research.” I’m sorry. Then, in high school, I was in the International Baccalaureate program, so our reading, thankfully, was not a whole bunch of dead white guys. [But] I haven’t read Nigerians in Space. My extended family for the most part was not nearby, and also we were very obviously a mixed race Black family. ***
Author photograph ©   Elena Roussakis. With my classmates, it was definitely a rivalry situation, They were like, “R.L. In 2010, however, I realized, “Oh, that’s not realistic. I’m the focus of this person’s passion. And a friend loved it so much that I took it a lot more seriously. I want this person to actually know me. Rumpus: Let’s talk about the seeds for MEM and how they blossomed. Once I got to junior high, I read every single one of his Terry McMillan books. I recently finished The Belles by Dhonielle Clayton. I wrote it in 2011. So I had an exceptionally tiny stint as a social worker. Once I read Terry McMillan, I felt like, “Well, I guess I just have to write my version of everything then.”
I wrote my first “novella” in elementary school. Or the experience was past tense, set in the South and there were stronger family connections that I really envied, of course. I would just write those stories. I took for granted that publishing was going to happen. So if you want to go to space today, if you want to be an extracted memory today, and still know that the person who wrote it understands where you are actually living in your real life, you can. It’s a sequel. The Mems are zombie-like reflections of their sources who must experience the extracted memory over and over, until they expire. We’ll just move on.”
But no, with MEM and with pretty much everything else that I’m pursuing publication for, there’s no such things as “But what if you don’t do this? &laquo Previous post like this

VISIBLE: Women Writers of Color: Bethany C. It’s just replicating genetic material. I said, “Okay, Lord. I would love for Black women, Black young women, to simply see themselves in spaces that for some reason we don’t seem to be “realistic” in, which is a story that really isn’t about giving you a look or a gaze into our trauma or pain or anything like that. So I had to keep course-correcting. I loved Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. That’s the difference between me writing a Black girl who’s really just a science fiction concept, and somebody else just painting a white character Black to be in a science fiction novel. I felt that whole, “Oh, my gosh. I did do a lot of film and theater in university, but sociology was what I focused on.