Camille Dungy on Race, Motherhood and the Guidebook to Relative Strangers

CSU professor and author Camille Dungy's book of essays, Guidebook to Relative Strangers, was just released in paperback.
CSU professor and author Camille Dungy's book of essays, Guidebook to Relative Strangers, was just released in paperback. Rachel Eliza Griffiths
Camille Dungy is an award-winning poet and a professor at Colorado State University — but it’s her recent book of essays that’s winning accolades these days. Guidebook to Relative Strangers: Journeys Into Race, Motherhood, and History is a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist that author Edwidge Danticat (The Art of Death, Brother, I’m Dying) calls “a stunningly beautiful love letter from a mother to a daughter to help her embrace the world she lives in, to introduce her to her ancestors, and prepare her for the future.” And it is that, but not just for Dungy’s daughter: This is a letter to every reader, too.

At the start of Black History Month, with Guidebook to Relative Strangers coming out in paperback, we reached out to Dungy to discuss the book and the themes that drive her and her distinctly affecting work.

Westword: Let's start by talking about your recent essay collection/memoir, Guidebook to Relative Strangers. Can you talk a little bit about how the project came about, in both a personal and thematic manner?

Camille Dungy: It's amazing to me how separated we still are in this country. One example of this reveals itself when I travel. If I'm on the sort of plane where people can choose their own seats, the seat next to me is very frequently one of the last to be filled. Assessing the demographic makeup of the rest of the cabin, it's not a reach to assume that this is because I'm black. It's a pretty common phenomenon, and maybe I shouldn't be talking about it here, because it's actually one of the few positive outcomes black people get to experience as a result of such (often unconscious) bias. It means I'm more likely to have an open middle seat beside me. This has been true all my traveling life, except when I traveled with my daughter when she was a baby. Then, exactly the types of people who would choose any seat but the one beside me seemed to beeline to my row. They weren't trying to sit by me. They were trying to sit beside the baby. But once they were there, we started to talk. When I traveled with my lap child, I talked to all sorts of people I wouldn't have talked to before, about all sorts of things they wouldn't have shared. And this grew more and more interesting to me the longer it went on. I was on a book tour at the time, so I was traveling a lot. I started to take notes that described these interactions, and I also began to look more deeply into who we are as a country and how we've come to be who we are. Eventually the notes turned into essays, and those essays became a book.

The book was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and has garnered praise from a plethora of reviewers. The conversation is clearly intensely personal, but also so important to the American conversation today. How do you see that conversation going? How do you hope this book affects that ongoing dialogue in a constructive way?

It's all personal if you're alive and trying to walk out into the world. It's also always political. Guidebook to Relative Strangers weaves the personal with the political and the present with the historical, because those parts of our world can never truly be separated. I think some of us find it easier to tease these aspects of our experience apart. Maybe one of my hopes is that my book is revelatory to those who need help understanding why some of us see history in every moment of the present. Another hope is that the book helps reveal how much possibility and wonder there can be in seeing the world in this fully integrated way.

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W.W. Norton & Co.
You're known for being a poet, but your latest book is essentially your debut in prose. How did you decide to utilize this new form? Was it just a natural result of telling your own stories, from your own experiences, or was it something about the subject itself that made you deliberately choose not to turn these ideas into poems?

This is a tricky question, because I published my fourth book of poetry, Trophic Cascade, within months of releasing Guidebook to Relative Strangers, and many of the investigations in that book are in the same vein. So it's not that I stopped writing poetry because I'd turned to writing prose. The essays were just another way of doing things.

I had a young child, and my writing process had to change to accommodate her presence in the world. I joke sometimes that I was trained in the “person from Porlock” school of writing. In Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "Kubla Khan," he complains that his reveries were interrupted by a person from Porlock, so he was never able to complete his famous poem. Well, when you have a child, you have a person from Porlock knocking on your door every few minutes. If I couldn't find a way to write around the interruptions, I wouldn't be able to write. Turns out I could stop an essay in the middle of a sentence and come back several days later and continue to expand. This form allowed room for the expansiveness I needed to write into while I was thinking about race, motherhood and history. The essays gave me another way to write, one that fit the situation I found myself in during my daughter's first few years of life.

Did the research for the book — the inventory of your own personal history traveling with your young daughter, etc. — take a long time? Was there anything that you questioned about your own recollections? 

I kept a very detailed series of journals during that time, because I wanted to retain the memories of these travels for my daughter, and also because I wanted to be able to cherish her first few years. I actually have a fairly rotten memory; that's part of why I kept such detailed notes. I did a good deal of research, as I hope is clear in the book, and that research was happening as I was writing the essays. The book ends when she's about three and a half, and I had it in the hands of my publisher about two years later. So the writing of much of the book happened in a relatively short period of time.

Do you consider this book, and those similar to it, forms of protest? What's your opinion on protest itself? Do you take part in direct action, or do you let your writing do that work for you? When we look at Guidebook to Relative Strangers and the associated canon, is it fair to say, "This is what democracy looks like"?

Wow. What a cool question. I mean, yes, this is what democracy looks like. When more voices are published, when more stories are told, when more lives are seen on the page and taught in classes and read on the subway and talked about in book club and are not silenced and are not censored and are not said to be unworthy, we have a better chance at achieving an equitable democratic state. So in that way, I am certainly proud to be part of the cause. I also know that my book brings up subjects that some of us don't have to think about every day and that others of us have to think about daily if we have any chance of surviving in this world: police violence, medical trauma, the legacy of the Civil War and its causes, the condition of working parents in this country, to name just a few. Speaking out loud (or on the page) about what ails us as a nation so we can see it and maybe find a way to work to change, that's a mode of protest. It's also a path toward healing. But writing is not enough. I also have to be voting. I also have to be letting my elected officials know what's important to me. I have to vote with my dollars. I have to participate in direct action. It's not one thing versus another. I think we can do all the things.

Can you talk a little about how you define motherhood? It's so core to this book, clearly, and also such a personal set of experiences and expressions, especially through generations. How does your experience as a mother compare to your own mother's? And to your grandmother's? What do you hope your daughter takes from those experiences, should she choose to be a mother, too?

I don't think we have enough time for me to fully answer this question. I mean, in the book, I do speak to the ways that my mother's experiences and my grandmother's and even great-grandmother's were different from my own. I write directly into these questions in "Inherent Risk, or What I Know About Investment" as well as in "Body of Evidence." In my case, my mother grew up in a legally segregated nation, so of course her own mother had a different experience of motherhood in some fundamental ways. The worlds around them were different in other ways as well. It would be folly to try to be exactly the mother my mother was. The world is forty years older now, and things have changed. It would be folly for my daughter to mother her own children exactly as I mother her. I hope that what carries from generation to generation is a kind of supportive, accepting love. I've felt that from my own mother, even as I often frustrate and confound her. And I know my mother felt it from her own mother. And that is the kind of love that I aim to give my daughter. I mean, I made a choice to bring this little black girl into a difficult world. If I give her anything in return for the gift she's given me by accepting my invitation, it ought to be sustaining love.

Speaking of your own teach now up in Fort Collins, and you were born in Denver. You moved around a lot as a kid, but do you have any memories of Denver or Colorado that were instrumental to your development? What were your favorite things and places when you were young?

I left Denver when I was just about two years old, so I have no memories except those gleaned from photographs. My mother's best friend, who I think of as my aunt, lived in Fort Collins, and I visited the town often growing up. So Fort Collins has a deeper space in my development and memories than Denver. The stone fireplace in Aunt Mary's basement was one of my favorite places. But mostly when you ask that question, I think of the arid hills behind my Southern California home.

How do you think Colorado fares in terms of race and equality? Are we on the right road, as a state, and where could we be doing better?

Another huge question. And too big to answer, really. It's a big state. There are nearly six million experiences to take into account when thinking about such a question. I think the better question each of us should ask is this: How are we personally doing in terms of treating the people around us with equity, care, honesty, grace, support and genuine kindness? If we work to do this to the people we encounter daily, regardless of what they look like, we will be part of the sea change.
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Teague Bohlen is a writer, novelist and professor at the University of Colorado Denver. His first novel, The Pull of the Earth, won the Colorado Book Award for Literary Fiction in 2007; his textbook The Snarktastic Guide to College Success came out in 2014. His new collection of flash fiction, Flatland, is available now.
Contact: Teague Bohlen