Shara McCallum is the director of the Stadler Center for Poetry and teaches creative writing and literature at Bucknell University. Born in Kingston, Jamaica, she immigrated to the United States as a child, and much of her work addresses the themes of identity, homeland, and family. She received her MFA from the University of Maryland, and her PhD from Binghamton University in New York. She is the author of four books, The Face of Water: New & Selected (2011), This Strange Land (2011), Song of Thieves (2003), The Water Between Us (1999).
In August 2011, I had the wonderful experience of sitting down with Shara in Cherry Alley and talking with her about her latest (at that time) book, This Strange Land, among many other subjects. We began our conversation in the busy café discussing the reason I was wearing an arm brace (my carpal tunnel was acting up after finishing my qualifying exams the weekend before) as well as talking about her morning seeing her youngest head off to her first day of kindergarten. Our conversation lasted over an hour and wound its way through various subjects: the experience of motherhood and work, making time to write, activism and the War, identity and travel, the idea of home, poetry and the beauty of lines, Greek mythology and other themes addressed in her book, and more. This blog post is the first of two posts from the transcripts of our conversation. (As those who have done it know, transcription takes forever—hence the delay from interview to post). I have edited it for clarity, as speech patterns are sometimes awkward when transcribed, as well as for brevity, my original transcription is 18 pages long!
We enter the conversation at the point where we were discussing Shara’s first few years at Bucknell, and the juggling of infants and work, but soon delve into the details of her book, the process of writing, the links between history, memory, and the shape of our lives, and end this part of the interview discussing motherhood, war and activism.
Shara McCallum: When [my children] were very small I would try to come home. And I nursed them by going home to nurse them each for a year. This is the kind of great thing about living two miles from your work. And also, it was crazy. I mean, my schedule was so chopped up the first year, Jessica. I remember the first year I started teaching, I started teaching three classes one semester and running the center and Rachel was a newborn, she was three months old. I literally would teach from nine—I would nurse her—walk out the door and be at my class five minutes later, and then I would go home, nurse her, go back for a meeting five minutes later, it would just be like this for these 24 hour periods…
Jessica Vooris: And [your husband] was home then?
SM: He was home the whole time with both of them but because I was really insistent on nursing I was home so much. And you know, like most parents, I think it’s a generalization but I think most mothers, not all, some women really are fine to have babies and go back to work fulltime, but I had some ambivalence, and a lot of women I know, who want to continue a professional work, identity, also feel conflicted now about what it means to be a mother and not be raising your children. I know not all women do, so I don’t want to generalize, but I know a lot of women who were raised in a kind of feminism, more like a second wave feminism, not your generation, where I think that it didn’t allow me to anticipate what motherhood would do to me. Whether it is biological, partially or cultural partly, the reality is at 31 when I became a mother and all my life, really I have thought, I am rejecting all these ideas of femininity and gender, when I was struck so forcefully by a feeling like I am in the wrong place at the wrong time, constantly. And I didn’t know what to do with it, I didn’t have a kind of preparation and that is not to fault, feminism, it is an evolving theory of womanhood and there are lots of different forms that it takes. And I realized then that I had internalized a different kind of feeling about gender that now my lived experience could not match.
JV: While I was reading your book, and reading the poems of motherhood, I was thinking about the [Stadler] Center and teaching and having a kid and wondering how it is possible to balance it all.
SM: It was very hard. I was very, very, unhappy professionally, and at the same time very driven in those first four years at Bucknell. That is hard, you didn’t know me then. Maybe you did at the very tail end. When was it that you took that [ENGL 204] class at 8 am?
JV: That was the fall, I think, of 2006.
SM: So I had a one year old. She was born in 2005. So I had a 3 year-old and a one year-old. I worked very hard when I came here to make sure that my maternal life did not impact the quality of the work I did. And that was very important to me. I was taking on a new job, I was running the Center. I had never done that kind of work before and I was also very ambitious in wanting to pour a lot of time and energy into it, to make it what it has become. And that is not to discredit what the former directors did, but everyone who takes it on, wants to move it to some other level and do new things, so I was very ambitious about that. Um, and I still wanted to write, and be a writer and I also wanted to be a good teacher.
JV: That’s another thing, how do you write?
SM: Well, Jessica, this book took eight years. The others were three-four years each. You know, and part of it is that the book took a different shape than I expected. I started writing it when I was pregnant, and then couldn’t get back to it in the same way. So the first series, “Dear History” was initially the entire conception of the book. And those poems didn’t all start in that series, I mean that book got revised so many times to, in a sense, accommodate all the different realities I was trying to deal with over the course of the writing of that book.
So history, from the inside out and the outside in was kind of how I began to think about it, pretty much toward the end. What do these poems have to do with each other? What does motherhood have to do with war? What does, you know, my own experience as a child, have to do with my children’s experiences now, in two very different political, social, cultural realities? I think it was good that the book took as long as it did; it is the book that I like the best of anything that I’ve written. And I think the poems are stronger but I think also the book as a whole is stronger for the fact of its variousness. My first book is much more cohesive in a way but that was a book that I lived with for the 20 years before I wrote it. Those poems were a very cohesive experience that I was finding language for. Whereas this was a much more fragmented experience in a way, where the individual parts were more fragmented, because I think my experience and identity has always been fragmented, that’s nothing new, but different narratives that I was trying to get at were much farther apart and I initially couldn’t see how they were going to come together.
JV: Well, I think it works very well, the movement through the book, and I think what is interesting is where it starts and then where it ends up. Seeing that change, that movement from childhood and Jamaica, to motherhood and the war, all the different things it is dealing with. I loved the pieces about motherhood, and also the poems about the political climate here in the US, connecting those with the earlier poems. The one line that has really stuck with me is the line about “the lexicon of grief” in the poem about the [Iraq] war and maybe that is particularly [relevant] because of the experiences I’ve been going through this semester, but that poem, that line, really stuck out to me.
SM: Well, thanks. You know it is interesting, many of those poems wrote themselves, before I understood why I was trying to write them. That is often how writing goes, you are writing a little ahead of your own understanding, and then the revision process for me is about trying to figure that out and shape it. But I remember thinking; I do not know why I want to write about this image, why? What does this have to do with anything? You know, and it also struck me on an autobiographical level, that my whole adult life has been marked by living in a country that has been at war and yet that’s so far from my consciousness in a daily way, as opposed to my whole childhood which was spent in a country that was not actually at war, but just seemed constantly chaotic, at the same time that my childhood was the same as most children. You know, you play still, do normal things. So that juxtaposition of domestic normalcy set against larger historical conflicts, and larger world events, was for me, was what I ended up realizing was what I was trying to deal with in both cases. We live our lives, in a daily sense, without constant notions of history, unless you are literally living in a war-torn world. Then I don’t think it is possible to have a sense of normalcy, but even then, I think people try to impose it, people within those countries, I would imagine, people are still trying to send their kids to school, still trying to give them some structured idea of normal life, right, and not just disrupted by the constant pressures of war.
But on the other hand I keep thinking that’s true, and yet, at least my childhood, was directly impacted by larger cultural forces, and political forces and historical realities.
My family literally would never have migrated if it hadn’t been for the turmoil in Jamaica in the 1970’s and that my grandparents decided to immigrate because they were middle-class Jamaicans who were worried about what was happening in terms of their fear of socialism and communism and all stuff that is inscribed in history that is so much larger than my own family’s life and yet, that is why we left. I can’t always see here in the United States that impinging force but I know it must be happening you know, to us, in the same way with the war, even though it is kept so much out of our purview, it’s like the periphery of our lives so much of the time, and I can’t help thinking that ten years from now, twenty years from now, you know, I’ll be able to see in the way I can about my childhood, of course I was shaped by that.
JV: I think that is why when we have moments like when Osama Bin Laden was killed, where you see the reactions that different people had, and the ways in which current college students reacted. Like at University of MD there were bonfires in the streets. All the kids, all the students, came out and there was this kind of reaction that created another reaction of, Woah, wait, what is happening, particularly for people who are trying to figure out what it means that we are celebrating the execution of someone, the larger political stuff, that was going on. But these students were 10 or 11 when September 11th happened. So what does it mean to them? What are their narratives of what is happening? And for me, I was 14 then. It was very interesting talking to other grad students after that week [that Bin Laden was killed], and all of us, even just the five year difference between us and current first year students was enough to have the different “where we were” in those moments.
SM: Well the difference between a ten and fifteen year old in terms their awareness of the world is wide.
SM: So at 14 you would have been a lot more marked by that experience. I actually think, you know, I was living in Memphis, 2001? I’m 39 this October, so how old was I?
JV: It was ten years ago…
SM: 29, I was almost 29, not quite cause my birthday is October. But almost. I remember that moment so viscerally, I remember exactly what happened and what I did. In a way that I have never, I’ve heard people talk about the Kennedy assassination in the United States, you know, something that actually marks an entire group of people in mass numbers all at one time. And that is really unusual, you know?
JV: And even those of us who had different views of it, being 14 or 15, no matter what, when you bring it up, people can say exactly where they were. Doesn’t matter age, if you are ten and older you can say where you were, what happened and kind of, I mean. Or even before. I was in Biology Class, a friend and I had just commented that it was 911, the emergency numbers,
SM: How ironic
JV: Yeah, and then an hour later, I went into another class and found out.
SM: I don’t know, but at least in the context of the United States, there have been very few events like that. There are groups of people who experience those realities, but like for everybody to experience it all at one time, it is going to mark us in a way, you know. In some ways that we are still trying to figure out. I know a lot of writers who are writing about this now and a number of them are mothers. It’s really struck me, I put together a conference panel at this Mom conference that was held in New York this year and I invited poets to read about motherhood, not expecting that we would have anything beyond different discussions about motherhood. Every single one of us read poems about motherhood and 9/11 and/or about Iraq.
SM: Because all of us became mothers at the same time as we were invading, or for the second time or third time, depending on how you count it. And I really found that fascinating, that we had not spoken about this formally, we hadn’t seen that we all had that as a feature as our experience of motherhood.
JV: I write, or I read, this group in DC, called Split This Rock. I don’t know if you know them. I went to the AWP conference and signed up for their weekly poem, and I’m interested by how many of them are about motherhood or family’s impact on different war, poems about war.
SM: And it kind of makes sense, on one hand whereas you are so much aware of it, there is also a desire, at least for me, to retreat from it. This, I don’t know, biological I have to guess, impulse to protect your child, is so strong, that the news becomes that much more horrifying. And I think that’s an experience that almost all parents have. Even my husband has said, since he’s become a father, he can’t watch the same kind of movies he used to watch. I can’t indulge in the type of nihilism that I remember being so much a part of my 20’s and graduate school where everyone is talking about how everything is terrible. What graduate school teaches you to do is to critique and you learn it really, really well. But sometimes you have to shut off that critical mechanism to live, and it really struck me when one of my friends from school, whose a beautiful woman, and a wonderful scholar, but she’s never had children, and she came to my house and she wanted to engage in the exact same conversations that we would about race and about culture and I just, Jessica, I just couldn’t do it. Because I have children now, I have to have some hope.
JV: How old were you when you moved here?
SM: Eight, turning nine. We moved in May, end of May. I always think that is nine, but technically that is still months away from nine, but I was moving closer to nine than eight, and I think my consciousness was very different than my sisters who were much younger than I was, and I have seen a real difference in terms of our relationship with Jamaica, to memory, to race, to the past. Very, very different, and I think that is a product of age.
JV: It’s interesting, recently this year, and as I was reading This Strange Land, I started thinking about my own identity in terms of what it means to be the daughter of an immigrant, in a way that I haven’t before because my mom speaks English, we are white, we assimilate into the culture. It’s not the same as many other immigrant accounts that I have read, and yet there are still the resonances of what does it mean. Particularly since my mother didn’t want to move to the US, that was not the plan. So what does it mean to grow up with someone who feels not at home, or to feel that loss through my mother.
JV: It is really interesting to work through that. I have always felt, growing up, as though I was a part of two cultures and definitely, particularly early on when I had lived in England for periods of time, felt that I was a part of neither culture. My Mom’s cousin, who is British-French, has talked about similar experiences. When she is in England they consider her French, when she is in France they consider her English or at least the daughter of the Englishman.
SM: I think those boundaries are shifting. I think it is harder and harder for people to stay in one place. So it will be interesting to see how much more that occurs. That then becomes more normative and less remarkable and less alienating of an experience. In some ways, when I moved to Miami, I was not that non-normative. I was a mixed-race, Caribbean immigrant, well that defines most of Miami. And so, even if the majority population there was from Cuba and other Spanish speaking countries, there was a lot of Jamaicans, a lot of Haitians, a lot of Caribbean people, and the history of the Caribbean is, despite what phenotype might be expressed as, is a mixture of people. And so, I think when it became more pronounced for me was when I realized it in an American context, which was probably late in my teens, and early twenties, was where I began to feel that fragmentation a lot more keenly.
When I first moved here I was just trying to lose my accent and sound like everyone else, and unconsciously just be like other people, I was trying to acculturate. And I think at some point I began to realize, I wasn’t able to, fully, and maybe I didn’t want to, either. There was something I feared in losing if I completed acculturation and so I think that consciousness about identity for me at least, it didn’t happened right away, with immigration. It happened too as a product of adolescence and a growing awareness of self, in which when you are from a mixture of places or have that as part of your ancestry, maybe that becomes part of your sorting out process and who you are.
I don’t know that that is unique though. I think some of the experiences that I sometimes thought had to do with being a black woman in a white skinned body are why I feel exiled at times. When I think that actually could also have to do with class, that I have in a way educated myself out of my own family structure. It could also be about the fact that I am a poet and I seem to have a sensibility that wants to, whether I think it does or not, put me outside of things, so that I can look at them. So there are all of these things, that I am not so sure as I used to be that it is all because of this or a particular identity. What I do think, though is that it is a struggle for a lot of us to reconcile it for various reasons, the ones you have described, the ones that are particular to me, but that experience of who we are and how we know ourselves to be who we are in this world, I think is more common than uncommon. You know, it’s just that, those of us who are different, or a minority, or ostensibly standing outside of culture, maybe there are more moments in our lives when we are looking at it, you know.
JV: Yeah, with my experiences coming out, for a while, when I look back at adolescence, that becomes and can be an explanation for the alienation that I felt. And it definitely is a part of it, and of particular experiences but it’s also possible that it is because I am different because I am coming from an academic background in a small town full of farm people.
SM: The way that you feel you are different, sexuality is one, but is not the only. So, that is what I am saying too. For me, with race, for a long time, that’s why I can’t fit in anywhere and then I am like, no, there is not only that. There are a lot of reasons. What I think is that the world is more, and maybe this is the more hopeful part of all this, the world is becoming more like you and I. Just by virtue of movement and demographics shifting, so that the reason that people want to know who people are is because it makes it more comfortable for them. Especially as a gay woman I am sure you experience a lot of dissonance in relationships where there is that moment when someone has assumed you are straight and now you have to disabuse them of that notion.
SM: Overtime, my hope is, anyway, that people will stop making those types of assumptions. That they will meet enough people who are not defining themselves or can be defined by labels or normative categories and they will stop assuming. That’s the hopeful part of me, you know. So I don’t know if it will happen or not, in my lifetime, but that is the direction that I hope we are moving towards on the planet because the amount of global mobility that we are seeing, which is unparalled in the history of human beings, that could be a positive one. I don’t know. We’ll see.
SM: Maybe in my children’s lifetime.
Stay tuned for Part Two, which will be up tomorrow! Part Two has now been posted, and can be found here!