Portrait (Amazon, 2013)
How long did you work on Portrait?
I worked on Portrait a long time, maybe a whole year. I was teaching, too, and traveling, but I didn’t begin anything new during that time.
When you write, do you feel that you are writing for a cause? What did you feel was your purpose in writing Portrait?
I don’t think I had a purpose, exactly, in writing Portrait. But I discovered that in writing about my years in Nigeria I could make an analogy in some way between the costs of colonialism and the horrors of control Isabel Archer experiences in her marriage. I wanted to show that Henry James was sensitive to these possibilities, although he wouldn’t have made the analogy himself. I think the “imagination of disaster,” as he puts it, makes him a very modern writer.
Racism is always a touchy subject. Were you intimidated at all by taking on such a heavy topic?
I feel that race – the unacknowledged racism in our own country – is the most potent poison in our system. But that doesn’t mean I wasn’t intimidated. I guess I’ve arrived at the point where I think not to write about race would be more difficult even than writing about it. So no, I wasn’t intimidated although I realized that I’d have to find my own way. I was unexpectedly made aware – when I was still quite young – of the notion of white supremacy that made colonialism possible abroad, just as it made slavery possible in the USA. I don’t mean as an idea, but as something experienced, felt. And I learned about this by living in Africa. So I thought to myself, I’ve been given a remarkable window into these things and it would be wrong to be silent. So I chose quite deliberately to write about race but worried about how I was doing it, if I was representing things accurately, truthfully. I tried to track my own impressions, as well as I remembered them. Be honest about them.
Were there any parts of Portrait that you had a difficult time writing, or any parts that you were afraid to get into?
Well, I was afraid of misrepresenting Africans. I had access to many students but it seems to me that when you’re writing about people who are not native to you, it’s important to be careful that you’re not reducing them, making them into the “other.” Speaking “for” them, when you really don’t know. That was the part that worried me in writing Portrait.
Did you work on other projects while working on Portrait?
No, I just worked on Portrait. I find it hard to write more than one thing at a time.
Other than Henry James, have any other writers caused a revelation for you?
Oh yes, many writers have made a great difference in my life. For example, Virginia Woolf, Toni Morrison, Willa Cather, Dostoyevski, Emily Brontë, among many many others.
Finally, what is your biggest hope for your work? Do you have a specific response to your writing that you would want to hear?
I think I’d like my work to provoke readers to think about their own lives, just as the books I love have prompted me to think about mine.
I lived in Nigeria and Niger when I was young and then in other places. It was the great gift of my youth. I think that sometimes when you’re afraid or reluctant to write about something, that’s a signal that it’s yours to write about. It’s your material, what has been given to you in your life. Either when you were a child, or later on, too. Didn’t Flannery O’Connor say that any writer who has survived her childhood will never be lacking in material?