It's Ellease Southerland's turn to snatch a little of the spotlight, and she is primed for the occasion. Until now Southerland was a writer known only to a miniscule literary audience, but with her first novel she is this season's touted debutante. And she wants you to know she has something to say.
The demanding penetration of her eyes supports her anxiety that time is short, that a season of popularity is as precious as an Indian summer. There's a preview of her viewpoint in her individual, African-inspired look in this age of neutralizing appearance. A slight, plain woman, Southerland wears a sun dress of an African print purchased in Brooklyn, and has partially braided, partially knotted her coal-black hair and pinned a white carnation in the design.
Those are hints of a new and intense voice, one impatient with formulas and boundaries. Yet the proof of her hunger for expression, and the evidence of her validity as a literary occasion, rests in her beautifully crated novel, "Let the Lion Eat Straw," which has received dizzying critical praise and has been adopted as a communal, tender anthem by black women.
In a stirring, bare-bones style, Southerland tells the odyssey of Abeba Williams, a black woman born out of wedlock and left by her mother with a loving midwife in rural North Carolina. Her serene existence is upset when her mother summons her to New York City, where the rest of Abeba's life is marked by her mother's jealousy, sexual abuse by an uncle, and the emotional dependence of her husband and their 15 children.
"It took five writing years but actually considerably longer," says Southerland, quietly. She is just beginning to warm up to the publicity obligations; a one-day trip to Washington is only her second promotional stop outside New York. The 36-year-old author and college professor forced herself through a painful catharsis to tell the story, patterned after the emotionally explosive lives of her parents. "I worked hard to remove myself from the reality of the story. Then a friend said to me, "Why are you writing poetry about the news, something detached? Write about yourself."" And so she did.
"Lion," the poetic result of this creative turmoil and personal peace treaty, is this year's first novel that has caught the jaded eye of the literary establishment. The New Yorker called the 181-page book "an unusual story, composed in lilting dialect," and the New York Times observed, "In these few pages, an entire history of desire and talent and frustration and triumph...is whittled to an arrow in the heart."
Southerland, one of the few black writers to be published this year, joins the growing trend among black writers to more personal themes. Reaction to the world and its injustices remains inside, unlike the most vivid moments of rage from the heroes of James Baldwin, Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison. Southerland is more akin to Toni Morrison and James McPherson, who do not shun violence or social stands but see a different strength in spirituality.
In addition, "Lion" has prompted some personal responses from black women. Gwendolyn Brooks, the doyenne of black letters, sent Southerland a note saying, "This is like nothing else I've seen before. I like holding it."
Maya Angelou, the prolific autobiographer and screenwriter, called Southerland "a seer of the interior human landscape."
Southerland shifts with excitement at lunch as she considers this reaction. "My main idea was to be purely honest. I definitely wanted women who had been raped to feel they were not soiled. And I thought of women who have large families; they are called idiots and unintelligent. That was a stigma my mother went through, as though she didn't have enough love for her kids. The teachers at school would just assume she was some collard-green-eating..." and Southerland stops, leaving unsaid the epithet. Her anger kindles a weary sadness on her face.
The framework of Southerland's life and the world of her heroine, Abeba Williams, are mirrors, only slightly out of focus. Southerland, the third of 15 children, grew up in the cold-water-flat environment of the Sheepshead Bay section of Brooklyn. Both her parents were products of the South, and her father held a variety of jobs - porter, cook, preacher. Her mother, like the book's Abeba, was a gifted musician who put her family before any farfetched career goals. When Southerland was five, the family opened a bakery, and its success and their desire for upward mobility caused the family to move to Queens.
"I wasn't thrilled about leaving Brooklyn despite the limitations, sharing a back yard with six families, those kind of things. Even then I recognized the folk oral tradition alive in the neighborhood. And even though the Queens neighborhood was black, it was very self-oriented - my home, my yard, may gate," says Southerland, grimacing. Her novel's family makes the same move, experiences the same misgivings. And though the picture she paints isn't joyous, Southerland promised she would tell the truth.
"In the last years of my mother's life I told her I would write this book. I told her the title and she drew a sketch," explains Southerland, who credits her mother's strength with holding together the family. The first time she wrote parts of the story, the tone was bleak. "When I looked at the page I didn't see any joy, so I started her life as a child, not as an adult burdened."
Her mother provided not only the story-line inspiration for the book but the knowledge of Biblical and African proverbs and myths that anchor the compact narrative.
Words, says Southerland, were treated with respect and care in the televisionless household of her childhood. But writing poetry and essays, which she started at age 10, was never regarded as a sane livelihood. In 1964 at Queens College, where she was a science major, Southerland won a literary prize for a novella about a black woman who moved to Long Island and discovered there the same social patterns as those of the old South.
Southerland pauses, pushing away her fried sole, to tell about a woman who approached her on the New York subway recently and asked whether she made her clothes. The woman asked her whether she sewed. "In that tone," says Southerland, flinching.
After college, Southerland worked for six years as a case worker, climbing to railroad flats on the Lower East Side and keeping notes on human stories. In the early '70s she returned to college, Columbia University, and earned a degree in creative writing. Her poetry and literacy articles were published in small magazines, principally black journals. When a story in the Massachusetts Review caught the interest of an editor at Charles Scribner's Sons, "Lion" took shape.
By design, Southerland lives a Spartan, quiet life. In her apartment in Queens, she lives alone, goes to sleep early and rises with the sun. "I go to sleep early because I remember my dreams. And I like it very quiet," says Southerland, who has been mixing more with other writers since her book's publication.
Along with her precise, economical use of language, Southerland brings an intimate knowledge of African myths and mores and their survival in this culture. The writers she admires and teaches are Ousmane Sembene and Chinua Achebe, two noted African writers, and Paule Marshall and Ishmael Reed, two black Americans. "When I was writing "Lion," I took a lot of notes, even keeping my notebook by the phone to listen to conversations. And I read ancient African history and the dictionary and the Bible," she says. "I have finally come to peace with the story of Jacob and Esau and understand that Jacob had creativity; he had a whole mind. I admire people who are total."
A continuing thorn for Southerland, both as a writer and as teacher of African and Afro-American literature, is the declining number of books by black authors in print. Fewer than a dozen titles of the thousands of books published by major houses in the last year were written by black authors. "One reason is the emphasis on money-making at the expense of culture," says Southerland. "Then, too, many people think the African is illiterate and by extension that black people here don't read. Then there's still the quarrel of if it's white, it's universal, if it's black, it's racial."
Economic reality, she says, has also stymied the less determined black writer. "Yet every time a black writer publishes, it brings a burst of energy. That's why I am glad I look the way I do," says Southerland, trumpeting her ordinary features. She giggles.
"When people look at me, they can say, "That girl wrote that book. She had something to say, Give me a typewriter."" CAPTION: Picture, Ellease Southerland, By Gerald Martineau - The Washington Post