Excerpts from a Conversation with Susan Straight on Open Books

Susan 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.

Donna Seaman: Were you a big reader as a kid?

Susan 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.

I 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.

DS: So when did you start writing?

Straight: 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.

DS: With the car?

Straight: Yeah. It was a big car, too. It was a station wagon.

DS: And you were injured?

Straight: 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.

DS: 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.

Straight: No, I'm blond and blue-eyed, and this happens to me all the time. Which is good, in a sense.

This 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.

DS: 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 wrenching stories.

Straight: 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.

When 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.

DS: I imagine now that immigrant issues are constantly in the news, even more people are reading Highwire Moon with even more sensitivity.

Straight: 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?"

As 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."

DS: 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?

Straight: 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 world.

DS: You have such a full family life; when you write?

Straight: 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.

©2007 Open Books Radio