June 2010

Micah McCrary


An Interview with Debra Monroe

Debra Monroe, born in North Dakota, raised in Wisconsin, now takes us through a rural Texas town in On the Outskirts of Normal: Forging a Family Against the Grain, a memoir about being a white mother adopting a black daughter in small-town Texas. Monroe's work has been called “extraordinarily poignant” and “transcendent,” and lives up to its advance praise by striking the reader in an area of thought not yet visited, not yet concentrated on for an apt, appropriate amount of time. Monroe's work not only asks, but implores that the reader meditate a little -- just enough for them to change their mind about something, somewhat, somewhere or somewhen.

This book is a memoir, clearly defined by style of prose and the way instances are collected. Did you ever consider writing about your life as a book of essays?

I wrote some essays, but by the time I was on the third one, I realized I was writing a book. After that, the new material connected the first pieces, surrounded, completed. It could never have been a book of essays, because they were so interrelated readers would have slipped into reading them as a memoir and found the essay format artificial. There’s a genre called novel-told-in-stories, but there’s not yet a genre called memoir-told-in-essays, and I’ve stretched form in so many ways, I thought I’d better stick with a known genre. As for formal experiments, I never wanted to entirely lose the topical arrangement. Well, in fact, I tried the book as straight chronology once -- I rewrote half of it that way -- and it lost its urgency and focus. Because the story is not what happened, but how I found meaning in what happened.

I was multi-tasking like crazy in that era in my life: learning to be a mother; grieving my own mother while grieving a missing chunk of life with my mother; coming to terms with chronic illness; mastering the art of handing unsolicited conversations about race. So I wanted the form to reflect that fact that I couldn’t have recalled simultaneous experiences in a purely sequential way, as in: what awkward question about the baby’s father got asked during which medical diagnosis while we were visiting which African-American hair salon...? Yet I remember certain days or hours with utter clarity. I wanted to write a story that moved forward in time but, at the same time, depicted the search for meaning. The search for meaning is, literally, research, searching again. So the structure is prismatic: one story, a few refractions.

It's seemed that chronology has been tricky to nail in Outskirts. How is it that you've recounted everything you feel is necessary to the story? For example, remembering a scene with an ex-boyfriend or a conversation with a contractor?

Time is forward motion. But remembered time is not purely forward motion. Because the book is not just a story, but a search for a story, it taps into fears and desires (the future) and memories (the past). The trick is to keep the reader grounded, which means creating a general sense of forward motion, with memories and projections feeding into it as tributaries.

Linear chronology is good for what happened. But if you’re writing about how we build our lives in the aftermath of what has happened, then you are writing about how we are haunted by the past and long for an improved future. So strictly linear chronology ceases to be useful. Of course, there has to be progress and chronological touchstones. For instance the stories of the secondary “characters” act almost as timelines, as does my daughter’s age. She’s a baby, then a toddler, then an articulate child.

The story moves almost purely linearly until it hits the stretch of fused emergencies. In reality, we can’t remember concurrent crises as a sequence: there are certain luminous, deeply imprinted moments; and there are blanks too. But it’s human nature -- for most of us -- to revisit these harrowing times in search of an inkling about how to feel better and move on. In life, and as I wrote, I felt that if I stayed honest, humble, and discerning, I’d know more for having endured and examined this bad stretch. Telling a story once, straight-through, doesn’t provide that kind of insight. Telling it, pausing to consider it, and then, after events have escalated once more, pausing to reconsider it again, does. 

What led to being your biggest challenge in writing Outskirts? You've mentioned that you were told not to make it solely about race, but did you ever sincerely wish to?

No, the opposite was true. I was told to make it overtly about race, and I balked. I was working with an extremely well-connected agent who was talking about huge advances, and both she and an editor had two suggestions, to make the structure more purely chronological, and to emphasize race more. You know what I think about linear structure. As for emphasizing race more, I argued that it was an almost universal story about the leap of faith we all take in loving our children so much, made especially poignant for me because I’d come from such a fractured family. The phrases “the age of Obama” and “post-racial motherhood” and “try to think of yourself as the Everywoman’s Angelina Jolie” kept coming up, again, again. The editor said: “Every time I mention this book to people, what interests them is white woman/black child/Texas town.” I understand that, combined, our races are an attention-grabber. However, race is not the only fact of life. Does anyone think about their race all day every day? I don’t, and my daughter doesn’t give many indications she does. Conversations about race are part of this story, but they are not the story. I didn’t initiate most of the conversations about race. Yet the curiosity of strangers was natural, given the time and place, and it was usually kind. I had to answer the questions tactfully, because my daughter was always listening, and I didn’t want her to associate questions about race with sarcasm or frustration.

So I fought tooth and nail not to make the book solely about race. I walked away from that agent, that advice. Then the economy crashed anyway, and I went to a small press because I knew the editor well, and I knew she was smart enough to respect my intentions and help me find some middle ground between a reader’s curiosity about race, and my own tendency to deemphasize it.

It's always interesting to see in a work of nonfiction how the author infuses personal history with an impersonal, perhaps communal or even national history. How do you believe you've come to terms with history in writing this book?

Yes, I’ve had to wrestle with national history -- the history of race in America. People object to transracial adoption for noble and also not-noble reasons. People object to it as condescension, self-congratulations passed off as philanthropy, appropriation. John Seabrook just wrote about the same moral questions with regard to international adoption. Domestic transracial adoption is more complex. The National Association of Black Social Workers objected to it as “cultural genocide” in 1972 -- on the heels of the civil rights movement. Laws against miscegenation had just been declared unconstitutional. Angry white suburbanites were protesting desegregation. Black distrust of white institutions (including social workers and adoption agencies) was high. It wasn’t paranoia. It was fear based on five hundred years: four centuries of slavery, followed by another century of violence for anyone who tried to make good on freedoms promised by the Emancipation Proclamation but rescinded by Jim Crow laws. As I say in the book, about black distrust of transracial adoption, and empathy for this distrust: “No one talks about it, but it’s the specter of history, humans bought and sold.” For hundreds of years, whites owned blacks. White people “interfered” with black families and reproduction: slave owners “raped” or “bred” slaves. (Which word choice you prefer is semantically irrelevant because the slaves had no choice).

So there’s catastrophic history behind the controversy about transracial adoption.

I ask myself in the book if she would have been better off with a black mother. Probably. But if we’re drumming up fantasies of best possible mother, the best possible mother would have been married, stay-at-home, ever-patient, very structured about TV-watching and junk food. And being black would have perhaps helped in practical ways: I would have known how to do her hair. I would have grown up learning how to deal with racism, having made that particular flak jacket for myself. On the other hand, maybe I had a few fresh angles on the subject of how to handle bullies who bring up skin color. Who knows? I did the best I could. My best is of course imperfect. But what else does any of us offer our children?

You wrote, "Sometimes I tell myself my profession justifies curiosity, that all writers study human tribulations and indiscretion." Do you think that this memoir comes partly from an inherent need to make things difficult, possibly just to write about them?

No. I say that half-ironically -- and early in the book -- about eavesdropping on people in public who I presume are strangers. I say it to justify nosiness. But eavesdropping on strangers is different from eavesdropping on the self. I ask a similar but sincere question near the end of the book. A friend tells me he only falls in love with women who have tragic childhoods because they have “stories.” I ask myself if that’s what I’ve done with my life -- looked for men with sad pasts because they have “stories.” After an honest assessment, I conclude no. I know instead that, having grown up in an unstable home, I didn’t have a stability-detector in place. As I say early in the book: I tried to avoid trouble, but my weirdometer never went off in time. My weirdometer had never been installed.

Psychologists know that family paradigms perpetuate. Mothers who abandon children go on to abandon their own. Abused children grow up to marry abusers. Children of alcoholics grow up to drink. What we grow up with -- the familial -- is the familiar. We seek it as a comfort zone, no matter how uncomfortable in fact it is. I wanted to be in a stable marriage. Until I finally learned how, I was furious with myself for being so consistently unable to see the red flags until I was in too deep.

I didn’t live a life full of mistakes and trouble to make stories. The reverse is true. I wrote stories to try to make sense out of my mistakes and troubles. I wrote to see if there was a pattern: causes, effects, a “moral” or a reason for the hardship, a new insight so I wouldn’t repeat mistakes.

And you've also labeled the contents of the story ordinary, however when taking a more microscopic look extraordinary may be more apt, given everything you did in the face of where you did it, how you did it and when you did it. This book displays competence. Did you ever second-guess yourself during the time any of this happened?

You’re asking two questions. To begin with the ordinary/extraordinary spectrum, I was a single mother, and there are many. And almost everyone at some point in life will be diagnosed with a chronic illness. And everyone’s parent or parents will die. All the troubles I depict are garden-variety human troubles -- which is not to say that, in the course of an individual life, they don’t make for an extraordinarily changed sense of self. We all lead ordinary lives with extraordinary turning points in them. But I spent the last 35 years learning to write -- and so I wrote about mine, as opposed to pondered them. The only out-of-the-ordinary fact about the subjects covered by the book is the fact that my daughter is black and I’m not. But anyone who’s read the book knows that race is not the subject: it’s more like a soundtrack that won’t go away. Only two chapters are overtly about race, and one of those is entirely about hair care. The rest of the time it’s about a mother and daughter in one of life’s rough patches and, just when I’m focusing on the rough patch, some stranger says something awkward -- sometimes well-meaning and awkward, sometimes boorishly appalling and awkward -- about the fact that we’re an interracial family. So race is another worry, another distraction. But it’s not the story per se.

You say the book displays competence -- I take it you mean that I seem like a competent mother and didn’t totally flip out. I have to say: just barely. In the climax I’m saying to myself -- not entirely facetiously -- that the Republican National Committee was right that the two-parent family is the bedrock of civilization. (Being a single mother was much harder than being in an interracial family.) I realized that, because I didn’t trust anyone besides myself, I’d let very few people in close. In the middle of an crisis, I wondered: how have I planned my life so badly that I have no one to call on now? There is a phrase in the book uttered several times by strangers, by a cop once, by a nurse another time: “Too bad you don’t have some family to help you now.”

I felt at the time I was alone because I wasn’t deserving. But I’d planned my life as an act of self-sufficiency. When you don’t let most people in, only oddballs who don’t take normal social hints will leap over the walls you’ve put up, and so you’re alone except for the oddballs. Did I ever second-guess myself? The book is about second-guessing myself, learning to ask myself new questions and move forward in a better direction.

I did mean that you seem like a competent mother, but also that you've shown a great sense of self-awareness throughout. Is that something you feel comes across in all of your stories, or particularly this one because it's a memoir?

The narrator’s acute self-awareness is something reviewers have consistently noted about all five of my books. I always write from deep inside. This is partly the result of craft -- exploiting limited point of view for all it’s worth. But this urgent consciousness of self seems real to me too, not merely a matter of craft. I’ve thought hard about what it means to be an individual but to also exist socially, how we try to be true to ourselves and yet also live with others, which requires subterfuge, white lies, conformity. Individualism taken too far means lonely. Community taken too far means self-effacement. Finding the middle ground is the most all-consuming “work” we do in our lives. So, while I do describe events, I describe them with the goal of understanding what they tell me about better and worse ways to live, with ourselves and with others.

One of my novels, Newfangled, has a narrator who is a sociologist, and her self-awareness is so compulsively overweening, it makes for comedy.

In the memoir, self-awareness is the means to scenes both both comic and wistful. There is a great gap between what we hope life will deliver and what life does deliver, and this gap -- a yawning chasm, at times -- is the source of our pain, yes, but the great incongruity it displays, between what we want and what we get, is the source of comedy too.

And, just as well, you wrote: "What's the point of bad times if I don't learn?" This seems to corroborate your method of writing “stories to try and make sense out of my [your] mistakes and troubles.” What's been the biggest lesson learned throughout the writing of this book?

I guess that everyone suffers at one time or another, and we have to find our own way forward. The ways we suffer literally inform us: form from the inside out. Who we have turned out to be is how we have grown around old experiences. I have that metaphor at the end of the book about knots in trees. A tree takes an injury. The tree incorporates the injury even as the tree grows stronger. By extension, this means that to love other people is to accomplish a kind of contortion: to feel intimacy and to accept, at the same time, that there are deeply embedded facts about us that the people we love will never fully comprehend, and vice versa. Just as people who love us never completely understand how we have formed ourselves around the past, we will never completely understand the ways they have done this too. 

And finally, what advice are you able to offer anyone who aspires to be in your position? 

Finding balance between passions and loves and carving them into a tale worth telling. Don’t write “what you know” but what you hope to discover. And don’t worry that life interrupts writing -- it does, but temporarily. In the end, these emergencies and fleeting moments of celebration that take us away from our sentences and paragraphs are what give our sentences and paragraphs meaning.