from a Conversation with Susan Straight on Open Books
Straight is the author of six powerful novels, a creative writing
teacher at the University of California at Riverside, her lifelong
hometown, and the mother of three daughters, Gaila, Delphine, and
Rosette. Straight is a remarkably empathic writer, and a dazzling
stream of consciousness conversationalist.
Seaman: Were you a big reader as a kid?
Straight: Yeah. I loved to read. My mother taught me to read when
I was three and that was because my dad had left us and she was
eight months pregnant. She had a full-time job and I had to go to
a baby sitter, who was apparently drunk and dropped me on my head
a couple times. So my mom thought if I learned to read I would sit
in the corner and not cause any trouble. And I wouldn't get injured.
So she taught me in one night. Apparently she's quite persuasive.
Either I was really afraid or I really wanted to read.
loved books but I didn't imagine ever being able to write them because
my house wasn't a house with books. I got my books from the library,
twenty-one books a week. My mom said that was the limit. I did want
to be a writer, but I didn't think I had any good stories to tell,
in my crazy neighborhood where I still live. People refer to my
neighborhood as "Leave it to Beaver" on mescaline.
So when did you start writing?
I actually have a pretty sad story about that. I wanted to be a
cheerleader. I liked their uniforms and I was a good gymnast. So
I told my mom I wanted to be a cheerleader and she was really mad
because she said they were stupid and we didn't have money for the
uniform. Then she ran me over. Accidentally.
With the car?
Yeah. It was a big car, too. It was a station wagon.
And you were injured?
Yes, she accidentally ran over my legs. I was in traction for two
months, and then I had a body cast for two months. So I had to learn
to walk again. So I spent a lot of time writing in the hospital.
Family is central to your work, and so is African American life.
When I read I've been in Sorrow's Kitchen and Licked Out all the
Pots, which is about a very dark-skinned young woman, I knew nothing
about Susan Straight, and assumed that I was reading a book written
by a black woman. But you do not appear to be African American.
No, I'm blond and blue-eyed, and this happens to me all the time.
Which is good, in a sense.
neighborhood that I grew up in, Riverside, California, was a military
town and a steel mill town. So a lot of families in my neighborhood
were African American. The dad came from Georgia or Louisiana or
Mississippi or Oklahoma, and after he was stationed in Riverside,
he never wanted to go back to the South, so he would bring his wife
and kids and then have more kids. So everybody I grew up with in
my neighborhood had parents that were born somewhere else, including
mine. My mother was from Switzerland and my step-dad was from Canada.
Everybody on my block was mixed, too. I had friends who were half
Filipino and half white, and half Japanese and half black, half
German and half black. I met my future husband in eighth grade.
His dad came from Oklahoma and his mom migrated from Mississippi.
We all went to school together from junior high on. I've been in
my now ex-husband's family for thirty years, and I've listened to
their stories the entire time. I think that that's one of the key
things people overlook about being a writer-the ability to want
to listen to people stories.
Your novels, though set in the present, draw on various moments
in American history, primarily African American history. Now with
A Million Nightingales, you take us back to slave times. Moinette
is the only child of an enslaved Senegalese woman, who was raped
by a white man, a guest at the plantation. Moinette, nearly grown,
is abruptly taken away from her mother, and for the rest of her
life, she tries to return to her. This is similar to the predicament
in Highwire Moon, in which a mother, an illegal Mexican immigrant
in California, is forcibly separated from her daughter. These are
You can clearly see where some of my obsessions lie. I probably
spend eighty percent of my waking day thinking and worrying about
my three daughters. My mother calls me everyday when I'm on the
road, and I'm forty-five. She worries about me and the kids. That's
her whole life, too. I see my mother nearly everyday, and everyday
she has to see my kids.
people ask me about A Million Nightingales, they're like, "Oh
now you've turned to slavery". And I say, "There's been
slavery in every one of my books." At our family gatherings,
we talk about our slave ancestors. My youngest daughter, Rosette,
once said to me, "Slaves? You can't own a person. You can't
buy a person." And that's what I was writing about. I was writing
about how you might buy a body and yet not a mind. So, this is all
very close to me, these obsessions with mothers losing children
in slavery times and due to immigration law.
I imagine now that immigrant issues are constantly in the news,
even more people are reading Highwire Moon with even more sensitivity.
You're right, suddenly, a lot people are reading Highwire Moon.
And it's been adopted by all these college classes because we have
to talk about how we cannot allow things to continue this way. We
cannot continue paying people five dollars an hour under the table
to pick all of our crops. People in my county sleep outside in the
vineyards; they sleep in their cars; they sleep in ditches. But
guess where their kids go to school? Their kids go to school with
my kids. Why would I want their kids to be at such a disadvantage?
When people ask me, "Well, what do you want then, do you want
everyone to just be equal?" And I say, "One of my children
is going to fall in love with someone else's child. Why would I
wouldn't I want that child to have all the same advantages? Why
would I want that child to be at risk, and not be vaccinated and
not be educated?"
James Baldwin pointed out to me once-I was lucky enough to study
with him-"You know no one was white until they landed in America".
He said, "Everybody was Greek, or Irish, or Slovakian, French,
or Polish. It was only when they got to America that suddenly they
were white." My husband was sitting there right next to me
and he said, "Dang, I guess he's right. Until people got to
America, no one was African, or black. They were Senegalese. They
were Angolan. Then when they came here suddenly they were black."
You write wonderful essays about your family, and about aspects
of life in the larger world that concern you. How does this differ
from the way you address injustice in your fiction?
I carry all this in my brain, but the only way that I can truly
understand it all is in a novel. I mean, I love poetry, I do, and
I love nonfiction. But the only two forms that allow me to enter
someone else's life completely are fiction and film. When I read
one of my favorite novelists, whether it's Ernest Gaines, or A.
Manette Ansay, or Louise Erdrich, or William Faulkner, I am fully
immersed in their universe, and inside their characters' heads.
That's what allows us to imagine being someone else. If we didn't
have fiction, we couldn't fully imagine being a black woman in 1811
in Louisiana who is thinking, I'm going to wake up in the morning
and my child will be gone. She'll be sold, and for that reason I
won't let myself love this child. In fiction you can think, if this
is your heritage, how would you then pass along love to your children?
And what will happen five generations later? That's why I write
fiction. I like to be totally immersed, even if it's in a scary
You have such a full family life; when you write?
I actually write in long hand. I write in my car whenever I take
the kids to basketball. I write in the high school gym. I write
in the dentist's office. I write in parking lots. Because I'm so
desperate. And then I write at night. I finish at two in the morning,
maybe, and I go down the hallway and I look at my kids. I still
check to make sure they're still breathing, every night; even though
I don't know what I would do if they weren't cause they all outweigh
me. I would pick them up somehow. For me fiction is the only way
to exorcise some of my fears. So I write. That's what I do.