I AM MAKING UP something. I make up things for a living, you know. So where do these things come from? Is this autobiographical, Ms. Shange? Did you throw your babies out of the window? How do you know what cornbread and molasses taste like? Did your Grandma make that for you? Weren't you raised a doctor's daughter? How can you know about hominy grits and potted meat on Friday? Are you a real colored person? Can you feel what I feel is what all these intrusive inquiries boil down to: a molten, pre-paleolithic mess of an unconscious I've grown to learn to live with, to depend upon.
Which memories are mine, as a writer, and which become part of the public domain through the gestures or thoughts of a character I come across, need to explore, want to share, is not exactly an easy space for me. Where I begin and the characters become whole is not an arena I purposely open to others. That is, perhaps, why I find literary interviews so painful. If someone needs to discover where I got a joy that touched them through fiction, they threaten not only to demystify my created world, but to concretize a part of me that I gave away. Gave away and maybe do not want back. Like children found in trashbins or on the doorsteps of churches, their umbilical cords placenta-damp, bloody.
I always say I'm from Charleston because that's what I heard my grandmother say. I sat in kitchens in Queens and Harlem with relatives whose voices lilt as a Geechee's would wherever we were. So, yes I remember Carolina --
"Coming down Chad Street or running thru the Yards, the Jr. G.C.'s served notice that the colored children were manifestations of the twentieth century. No mythology in the Old Slave Mart approached their realities. Nothing in the Calhoun House reminded them of themselves. Catfish Row was so old-fashioned, dusted pastel frame houses where hominy-grits, oysters & okra steamed each evening. Crap games went on as usual in the tiny alleyways, edged by worn porches where grandmas made believe they didn't have any idea all that was goin' on. Yet they'd smile if somebody had a high streak of luck, sending yelps & bass guffaws over the roofs." (Sassafrass, Cypress and Indigo, 1982)
-- though I was never there till I turned 28. I had explored the Little Geechee River and the Old Slave Mart long before I really could see the Citadel in three dimensions. So yes, what I write is autobiographical.
"Sister Mary Louise put Indigo & her violin behind the shed where she kept her gardening tools -- shovels, vitamins for roses & violets, peat moss, watering cans, heavy gloves, rakes, & strings. Too much of the Holy Ghost came out of Indigo & that fiddle. Sister Mary Louise swore even she couldn't stand that much spirit every day." (Sassafrass, Cypress and Indigo)
In fact, I did study the violin as a child, but I never practiced in a shed, nor was I privy to the fact that slave fiddlers in the Colonies were able to hire themselves out, to travel, to improvise. I did not know as a child that it was the fiddle -- not the saxophone or drum -- that seduced early African American musicians to articulate what they were forbidden even to think. I may have felt the power of the instrument through "blood memory" or in the driving rhythms of charangas my parents danced to with abandon. Can I prove it? No.
Nor do I need to. I only feel a need to verify my emotional terrains, when a stranger asks: the feelings that end up as Liliane's installation, Cypress's dance class, Betsey Brown's trolley rides. Otherwise, I am content with the character's ease there, with what I could pull together.
For me, a sweep of Texas plains can become Moroccan hills . . . "The sunlight hit Jean-Rene. The sepia half-moon of a mole by his right cheekbone glistened, steaming coal in a fast car gliding through the hills of Morocco. We stopped to have a very French picnic: kisses. Shadows of lips and teeth against luxurious auburn soil. The sun always slipping in and out of the bends of limbs, wine from Lisbon dancing mouth to mouth, tongues tracing patterns of clouds, scents of goats, sheep, and the last of my Opium, somewhere near Meknes. I wanted to stay in Paris I'd thought, but no. He said he'd have to have me somewhere I'd never been. I'd laughed. I woke in Casablanca to morning prayers and croissants." (Liliane, 1994)
On a drive to San Antonio on a desperately hot afternoon, Texas simply disappeared for me. I was for all I knew in Rabat or Casablanca. This is when I became the character, Liliane, for the instant that she needed something I had access to. Liliane took my day trip and turned it into a month-long escapade with a Guadalupan "velvet spur of a man." There are men like that in Texas, but they are closer to Port Arthur, which is not on the way to San Antonio.
And then in the evanescent mist of a Nicaraguan volcano is the moist touch . . . "Idrina knew some things Cypress didn't know: where to eat in the City; which piers to visit in the wee hours of the night and watch the waves and sunrise. How to love a woman like Cypress -- something Cypress hadn't known; that she could be loved, because she'd never let anyone close enough. Yet Idrina seemed to move right in and slay the dragons Cypress had spouting "don't touch me," simply by looking at her. Holding her. Finding little things for her, going to hear music with her. Walking with her. Kissing her scalp, rubbing her legs, making her breakfast, taking her picture. Being there when Cypress came into the room. Idrina knew some things Cypress didn't know: loving is not always the same as having. And Idrina loved Cypress, but not to have . . . and Cypress didn't know that." (Sassafrass, Cypress and Indigo)
These two blithe creatures were not Sandinistas. They weren't among the collections of lovers Somoza had thrown into a volcano outside Managua where small, delicate blue-green birds fly helter-skelter in the rushes of stream, seeking heat. Seeking heat as lovers do. Lovers who are torn apart abruptly, cruelly. This was Cypress's version of her parting from Idrina. But I remembered stories of lovers falling, one after the other, into molten lava.
MY GRANDMA's kitchen at dawn, as I remember it, transforms into the blues spirits at Sassafrass's beck and call. It still is true. I am not literal or linear. Many stories of mine seep out of the chords of Cecil Taylor's solos. I met Cecil years ago at an upscale soul food restaurant in Greenwich Village with a college chum of mine, Thulani Davis. Over chicken and gravy, white wine and black coffee, the cadence of his voice approximated the thundering chords, unexpected harmonies and rhythms I'd found in his music. The piano as battering ram, rebel shout, the fresh cicatrix of fast life in a black space. When I need to feel whole, competent, daring, intricately evolving, I play Cecil Taylor. As Liliane reminds us: "The music of my body is deliberate. There's nothing I can do about how I sound."
Another memory: Running into Gary Bartz on a cold Paris night, while looking for a pack of Kools. It is/was a perfect re-conjured ambiance for an invented rendezvous that offered much more than a Negro's escape into menthol paradise:
"the air in Paris warped my visions/gave
distance & psychosis clearance
sometimes there is too much poison
to attend to beauty
i had five nose rings
a gold circle
a silver circle
& a half moon
they have fallen away"
(Nappy Edges, 1978)
I was trying to find some American cigarettes in late night Montmartre and came across a long time horn-playing friend from the States, Gary Bartz, with his red-brown goatee and sparking eyes. He had found his brand of smokes and that was that.
I stand by my multiple realities with all my breath and heart. I have no choice. I always say I'm from St. Louis. When I remember my life that way, that is also how I write. Like a St. Louis girl.
"The street grew still, cept for the slurring oaks and jays in the winds. Everybody who had somewhere to go had gone. Brick houses, ranging from sun-yellow to night maroon, etched the walks and the maids swept the stairs as if dirt were a sin. Soon the housewives would saunter back and forth cross fences, sharing gossip and recipes or the plain old doldrums of living in the roses as they did. Haitians, East Indians, Ricans, and prize-fighters' wives went on bout their business: being beautiful and fertile. Weren't many places the likes of them could live in St. Louis and know the nooks and covies of fifteen- and twenty-room houses. Weren't many places the likes of them could be themselves and raise their children to own the world, which was the plan never spoken." (Betsey Brown, 1985)
My childhood friends are from St. Louis, but sometimes I will say I spent all my winter Saturdays at Ben's Chili Bowl downing half-smokes. Sometimes I actually did. If the richness of my memories bleeds into others, then my job as a writer is to use those memories well. If I hear Albert Ayler saying "My name is Albert Ayler" every time I think about my graduate school days in Los Angeles, hey, then that's what L.A. circa 1970 is to me. Albert Ayler, alto-saxophonist, defying known pre-conditions for what music is, where a solo goes, what a solo is. Ayler giving himself the right to speak was L.A. to me. His chiaroscuro silhouette my Hollywood.
This is where I come from, I want to say. This is how I manage to write what I write. As I say this, I feel Jean Toomer's words, something from Cane: "Oh, can't you see it? Oh, can't you see it?" That is why I pummel my memories, reveries and haunts relentlessly. I think, I'm asking too, "Oh, can't you see it? Oh, can't you see it?"
(This was written in rhythmic tandem to "Remembrance" by Cecil Taylor and Louis Moholo, FMP, 1989. -- NS)