Survivor’s Guilt: An Interview with Artress Bethany White by Curtis Smith

Artress Bethany White is a poet, essayist, and literary critic. She is the recipient of the 2018 Trio Award for her poetry collection, My Afmerica (Trio House Press, 2019). Her essay collection, Survivor’s Guilt: Essays on Race and American Identity, is forthcoming from New Rivers Press/Minnesota State University in April 2020 and is currently available for pre-order on Amazon.com. Her prose and poetry have appeared in such journals as Harvard Review, Tupelo Quarterly, The Hopkins Review, Pleiades, Solstice, Birmingham Poetry Review, Poet Lore, Ecotone, and The Account. White has received the Mary Hambidge Distinguished Fellowship from the Hambidge Center for Creative Arts for her nonfiction, The Mona Van Duyn Scholarship in Poetry from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and writing residencies at The Writer’s Hotel and the Tupelo Press/MASS MoCA studios. She teaches poetry and nonfiction workshops for Rosemont College in Pennsylvania. (Author Website: Artressbethanywhite.com)

Curtis Smith: Congratulations on Survivor’s Guilt—Essays on Race and American Identity. It was a fascinating read. I’m always interested in a book’s history. Can you tell us how you ended up working with New Rivers?

Artress Bethany White: Thank you! I started off by sending individual essays out to national literary journals. If I remember correctly, all of the essays I submitted were accepted the first time around, so I said to myself, “I might actually have something good here that people are interested in reading.” My next thought was to submit to one or two of my favorite presses. I received positive feedback, but was told a contract would be more than a year away. I began writing the essays around the time of the 2016 election, and I really wanted to have the book hit the marketplace before the 2020 election season; I felt that the content might help people make a better choice in 2020.  So, I started looking for presses able to make a spring 2020 publication deadline, and New Rivers Press said they liked the book and could make it happen.

 CS: Last summer we taught together in the Rosemont College MFA program, and during the residency, you gave a very powerful poetry reading. Your last book was a poetry collection—and I’d like to ask about your journey as a writer. Did you start as a poet then take up prose? Or were all these things in play from the beginning? If not, what led you to start testing other realms? I know when I’m writing nonfiction, I tend to read more poetry—I feel that it helps me but I’m not sure I can articulate exactly why. Do you find an overlap between the processes of writing poetry and essays or are they entirely different endeavors?

ABW: I have always been a multi-genre writer. I started out as a poet, began writing fiction before pursuing a creative writing degree, and began publishing literary criticism as a regular practice before and after completing my Ph.D. I definitely enter a different head space for each genre. I consider poetry my passion because it is the only genre that I don’t feel guilty about spending oodles of time working on—say a single poem—day after day for weeks on end. Creative nonfiction, however, is a close second because I enjoy writing prose exactly the way I want to—no rules, no box to hinder my creative impulses.

CS: And returning to that reading, many of the poems you shared dealt with race and history (both big-picture history and personal history). Did your research for this essay collection (more about this later) influence those poems? If so, how do you decide what becomes a poem and what finds its way into an essay?

ABW: Curtis, that is a really good question. Your spidey senses are right on target! Yes, the research I did for two of the chapters in the essay collection, “American Noir” and “A Lynching in North Carolina,” definitely influenced what will eventually be my third collection of poetry. In short, I finally followed up on a slave narrative that I inherited from my mother regarding my maternal family line beginning in mid-eighteenth century America. This led me to archival research on the European-American family who once owned many of my ancestors. The nuts and bolts of these relationships played out in colonial America were well-suited to prose, but I instinctively knew that I would need poetry to tell the emotionally charged, more visceral history of American slavery. I feel I’ve made the right choice. An early version of the chapter “A Lynching in North Carolina” was a finalist for the Tupelo Quarterly Prose Award. Additionally, new poems “Plantation Aubade” and “Hemings Family Tour” have found homes in the current issues of Solstice Literary Magazine and Birmingham Poetry Review. For me, the editorial and public response to these literary works are a testament to the efficacy of the genre used to weave them.

CS: So let’s talk about research. Many of these essays bridge the realms of a personal and a researched essay. May I ask about the research process, its particulars and details? Did you enjoy it? Did you find an engagement in it you hadn’t expected? I think what really touched me was that your research was about a very personal kind of history—and while the things you discovered were locked in the past, they were also very alive in the living, breathing, present-tense you (perhaps that’s where the book’s title comes into play).

ABW: Curtis, for me, this whole collection is about research. Some of it is the experiential kind I live out as an educator deconstructing the racialized events in my own life. In the book, I discuss the challenges of working as an African American professor in predominantly white institutions. I write without reservation as a representative of the evolving face of a once completely ivory tower. This is why it was so important for me to get these essays out before the next election. It is 2020 and we are still arguing about whether professors have the First Amendment right to use the n-word in their classrooms—a word that was once used arbitrarily to reference enslaved Africans. Yes, as a nation, we need to do better. And no, it is never all right for a white-identified educator to use the n-word in a small liberal arts college or a research institution just because it is printed in a book. If you are doing a close textual reading in a class, you should see the word and you should automatically recalibrate your brain to instruct your mouth to say “n-word.” If you choose not to, you are a moribund dinosaur and should relinquish your position to a better-qualified candidate. End of story.

As far as my archival research, it was poignant and immensely meaningful to me. I harbor a deep respect for African Americans who, because of circumstance and choice, survived the horror of enslavement. Without their perseverance, I would not be here today. Additionally, I cannot negate those Scottish genes that are a part of my own genetic reality. My survival is evidence, in turn, that we as Americans are so interconnected, there is no possible recourse but to celebrate our humanity as a national family. So yes, in the end, Survivor’s Guilt is about recognizing that we are all accountable for our humanity and how we enact it socially. I felt by deliberately placing an essay that discusses my slave history alongside one about my role as a stepmother in an interracial marriage, with an interracial family composition, I was making the best case for American unity across race lines.

 CS: I loved the line “Linking memory and American history through the black body is often denied in American dominant culture.” I thought of this idea a lot as I read not just the essay that contained this line but through many of the others. Can you elaborate on this notion and what about it moved you? (Feel free to skip this one if you’d like—I thought it was a great line and great concept)

ABW: The quote you mention is really a thematic through-line in this collection. The first-person narrative of memoir essay allows me to speak from a subject position that is often marginalized and viewed as unrepresentative of the power center, therefore irrelevant. In the book, I refer to it as a transregional “Dixie ethos” that impacts popular culture, entertainment, and educational spaces.  My essays offer a counterview of American reality.

CS: You explore the need many people feel to navigate society through the lens of race. You delve into different heritages and different shades of skin color—what that color might say and what it might hide and what this means to both the individual and to the greater society. I’m guessing such a deep investigation on your part left you with a different (or perhaps more defined) understanding of these ideas. Was this the case? If so, what how did your thinking/appreciation change?

ABW: Typically, American race relations are discussed along a black versus white binary. This phenomenon is based on African Americans being raced and everyone else being termed “ethnic” others who inherit various degrees of assimilation under the broad umbrella of whiteness. This paradigm turns race into a game of economics, with blacks on the lowest rung as the inheritors of systemic and multigenerational institutionalized racism. I don’t play that game in Survivor’s Guilt; everyone is raced. In this way, I amplify the work which needs to be done around collective American race relations. So, in essays where I discuss the Pulse shooting, the election of the first Native American congresswomen to the U.S. Congress, and the difference between biraciality stemming from slavery versus contemporary interracial marriage, shades of racial distinction become moments of educational clarity.

CS: We encounter many different levels of racism in these essays. Some overt and violent, some naive—folks who really don’t understand (or who haven’t taken the time to think things through enough to understand) that what they’re doing or saying is hurtful. Where do you think this latter group is coming from? Do they have a binary understanding of racism, one that ignores the wide spectrum of the issue? Are they simply lacking a proper historical frame? What do you think are the elements one needs to create a more informed, nuanced view of race in our country?

ABW: Racism is a tradition-bound set of ideologies and behaviors based on an historical social construction. It is also transgenerational. When I write about the verbal assaults I experienced as a child in Massachusetts, I have no doubt that the children of my tormentors also inherited the behaviors of their mothers and fathers. As I note in the chapter “A Lynching in North Carolina,” there is a reason why participants in lynch mobs would bring their children to the hanging deaths of black Americans; they wanted them to learn how to exact the same violence on a new generation of African Americans. The same can be said for transgenerational perpetrators of anti-Semitism and misogyny. In my collection, I tout social justice literacy, from elementary to post-secondary education, as the only way to educate and eradicate tradition-bound racist behavior. The elementary school playground is where children work out their political views, so we can no longer fool ourselves that they don’t need to be educated about race. It is black, brown, and other students of color who are paying the psychological price of their ignorance on that same playground.

CS: All of the individual essays are lovely, but what really touched me was the impact that I felt after reading the whole book. There was a real and pleasing weight to feeling all of these perspectives addressing, what seemed to me at least, the idea of the individual as a witness, not just to the present, but also to the past. Was this part of your intent? If not, did you have your own vision for the book as a whole?

ABW: The feeling you speak of—analogous perhaps to that complete feeling experienced after a multicourse meal— is what I was striving for. I begin the book with an introduction that catalogs a list of violent events—from acts of domestic terrorism to police violence enacted on the black body—that have led to moments of collective mourning across the nation, and then I offer the book as a primer for collective healing. The role I see Survivor’s Guilt: Essays on Race and American Identity playing in this process is to reveal the level of engagement necessary to preempt violence as a default reaction to difference. This is the violence of shutting down diverse voices out of a fear of what is viewed as multiracial encroachment across the American landscape. Significant conversations about race need to happen. As a stepmother to two white stepsons, I have been placed in a unique position to have some of these conversations with my stepsons, and I share them here. In the essay “Hard-Headed Ike: A Paen to Black Boyhood” I have a conversation with one of my stepsons about a moment when he had to face what I define earlier as a “Dixie ethos” after the scheduling of a “Redneck Day” for one of his school’s athletic teams. He actually initiated the discussion of how he knew the event did not sit well with his African American teammates. Let’s be real, black and brown people are not the primary perpetrators of dehumanizing racist views against each other; white parents have to take a stand to educate themselves and their children.  When my black daughters experienced bias attacks on the playground from peers, I always saw it as the fallout from parents who were not doing their job. I use the conversation with my stepson as an object lesson for all parents to understand how they need to help their children reach the heights of their empathetic humanity and act according to those elevated heights.

CS: What’s next?

ABW: In the immediate future, expect that third collection of poetry based on my family’s slave history. I have published, or have under contract, four poems from the collection and more are in the pipeline.

 Curtis Smith has published more than 100 stories and essays, and his work has appeared in or been cited by The Best American Short StoriesThe Best American Mystery StoriesThe Best American Spiritual WritingThe Best Short Fictions, and Norton Anthology New Microfictions. He’s worked with independent publishers to put out two chapbooks of flash fiction, three story collections, two essay collections, four novels, and a work of creative nonfiction. His latest books are Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, Bookmarked (Ig Publishing) and the novel Lovepain (Braddock Avenue Books).

 

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