Black Lawrence Press
June 22, 2017

Welcome, LaTanya McQueen!

During the month of June, we are celebrating the authors that came to us during our last open reading period. Today we bring you LaTanya McQueen, author of the creative nonfiction volume And It Begins Like This, which is due out in October of 2018.

BL Final PhotoThe Author

LaTanya McQueen’s writing has been published in The Los Angeles Review, Harpur Palate, Indiana Review, Passages North, Carve Magazine, Fugue, Ninth Letter, Bennington Review, North American Review, New Orleans Review, Fourteen Hills, and other journals. She received her MFA from Emerson College and her PhD from the University of Missouri.

 

 

 

On writing And It Begins Like This

I started as a fiction writer and once in an undergraduate workshop we had to read Amy Hempel’s “In The Cemetery Where Al Jolson Was Buried.” In talking about the story our instructor relayed an anecdote about how Hempel came to write it. She was in a workshop taught by Gordon Lish and he’d given the prompt for everyone to write about their worse secret, what would “dismantle your sense of self.”

Over the years I’ve thought a lot about what my own answer to that question would be, and the truth is I have spent most of my life harboring a sense of shame over who I was, over my identity as a Black woman. When I moved to Missouri, I was forced to confront these feelings in ways I hadn’t before, in ways I’d always been avoiding. Part of the beginning of this book was not only a coming to terms but an examining of why I felt the way I did and where it all came from. In trying to write about it, I began thinking about my mother and her family, and eventually it led to thinking about a particular story I’d been told throughout my childhood that concerned one of my ancestors—a woman, once a slave to the family of a state senator, who had a relationship with a white man from a neighboring farm, the result of which produced three children. During Reconstruction she took this man to court to try and make sure that the children would be given his surname, and at least one of them was given it, a name that has carried down through the generations all the way to my mother. It is one of the few links I have that give evidence to the truth of what happened.

I managed to come back to this story again and again, partly because I could never find much about her beyond the folklore and I wanted to know the context of this relationship. I wanted to know how she was able to do this thing she did. I wanted to know what happened to her. I wanted to know her.

I have felt unseen my entire life. It is perhaps why I became obsessed with finding out some sort of truth about her and this story. There exists next to nothing about her, and a large part of why I continued writing was to try and give some sort of testimony. That was the beginning, and the longer I kept going the more I began to see parallels between her history and now, and her story became a prism for me to look at all these other issues relating not just to race but how I had come to understand myself.

 

Excerpt

My father believes I am doing research for a book but he does not know on what and he does not ask. I should tell him, but to do so is to tell him not just about Leanna but to tell him about her children, and I know that the end of that story will lead me back to my mother and what may have happened to her, and why she was the way she was, and I know that eventually it will lead back to us and the reason for this distance we’ve created.

Instead, I keep my answers vague. “For today,” I tell him. “I’m tired though.”

“Have you been able to find what you were looking for?”

“Not yet.”

My father nods and then focuses his attention elsewhere. I go upstairs and empty my bag on the floor, sit down and look through the copied images of the records I’ve found.

I should let go of this, I think. I should just forget it and move on, but somewhere in this story is the root of something I need to understand to explain all of what came after.

There is not much about Leanna I’ve been able to learn, but from what I know of her life it is one that in every way feels fraught with instability and pain.

He could have loved her, I think. He could have loved her but left her still. He was young at the time, far younger than I am now, and the world had taught him to believe she was nothing more than a possession to be used and disregarded.

In every conjured potentiality of this past there is an action needing forgiveness, but the question I have often wondered is if she gave it.

Could you do it? Could I? What if, in the end, it was the only choice you had? Would you still hold on to that hate to pass down to your children? “She went and had ‘em up,” the story goes. “She had ‘em up,” is the story passed on. To me that is an action of vindication, of revenge. A punishment for the hurt she endured.

But what if he claimed them in some way, however small? There is no indication to lead to this conclusion beyond folklore, beyond the name carried down, and yet—suppose it happened. Suppose for me a different outcome. Suppose instead, it was enough for her to forgive him for what he’d done. Suppose this one acquiescence was enough. For what he continued to do every day he was alive—for marrying another, for letting the standards of the era dictate his own morality, for his denial of these children.

Suppose for all of this, she forgave anyway, believing it to be her only course to saving herself. Suppose forgiveness could do that. Suppose it was possible. Suppose it was necessary. Suppose that forgiveness, if for a moment, could be what finally set her free.

 

Tagged: , ,