By Leslie Lindsay
A truly magical, glowing memoir of a life of poverty, told in the most lyrical, haunting prose that will stay with you long after you close the last page.
~MEMOIR MONDAY|ALWAYS WITH A BOOK~
AWP BOOK PRIZE FOR NONFICTION
ADAPTED FOR CLASSROOM USE IN THE U.S.
A truly magical, glowing memoir of a life of poverty, told in the most lyrical, haunting prose that will stay with you long after you close the last page.
I always have such a hard time reviewing books I absolutely loved. When I finished GHOSTBREAD by Sonja Livingston (U of Georgia Press, 2009), my husband asked, “How many stars?” And I said, “Five.” He nodded, slightly unimpressed. And then I followed up with, “Five GLOWING stars.” He was astonished. “REALLY?!” Yes, really. And I am not in the habit of handing out five-stars unless I really mean it.
GHOSTBREAD is about living in the raw corners of Western New York.
It’s about a single mother raising seven kids with five different fathers.Here, we are introduced to Sonja and her mother, her siblings, their neighbors, and other characters in a memoir-in-short-stories, that is, there are 122 small little snapshots, vignettes, if you will, of this challenging life. It’s not exactly an ‘easy’ read because the events that unfold are tough, raw, uncensored. But they are not long. Each story comprises no more than a few pages, sometimes only a long paragraph. Snippets, really. And what is a life but a collection of snippets?
This is a tale of living hand to mouth, of run down vehicles,
living in motels, on reservations, in small farming towns in New York, on dead-end streets.It’s about a mother who was in-over-her-head, who couldn’t make ends meet, but was somehow able to raise seven children. And she very well may have had mental health issues. Here we follow along as Livingston takes the death, decay, worry and spins it into a glimmering strand of beauty with her lyrical prose, deep insights. GHOSTBREAD takes the world-at-large and braids it into her narrative, so we follow along with her trajectory of living in the 1970s and 1980s, her early days as a writer. Here, we swirl and worry right along with her, and then, in the end, we are struck with a tremulous pounding of ‘now what’ and a bit of activism of how we might change the landscape of poverty– the cycle of girls and women, in particular, drowning in the clutches of poverty.
Please join me in conversation with Sonja Livingston:
Sonja, I loved GHOSTBREAD, so much. It made me want to write. It made me talk about things happening in your book, it made me dive into genealogical research. But first, I want to know what inspired you to write GHOSTBREAD? Why then? Why now?
Thank you, Leslie! The fact that it makes you want to write more of your own stories is the best compliment. As for writing this book, I had lots of feelings about the way I grew up, but the pervasive emotion was shame. This is because I was an especially sensitive kid but also because the larger culture has such trouble with poverty and poor people. I heard the scorn in people’s voices when they spoke about neighborhood where I lived and people like those I loved best. I internalized that shame and did my best to hide anything that might reveal our poverty. I never told anyone these stories and, like anything kept under wraps for too long, they flew to the surface once I began to write.
Why now? Well, we’ve come a long way in some regards, but remain incredibly divided in this country along racial, class and geographical lines. Too many kids and families in this country still struggle with crippling poverty. They live in neighborhoods and places that many of us don’t see. They attend failing schools and even if they somehow make it to high school graduation, have very few resources to help them chart their way into a different future. Memoir offers a unique way into this world and I hope, helps readers begin to “see” and understand how these families get and stay caught in cycles that often simply look like a series of bad choices from the outside.
“Exquisite in its details and insights, GHOSTBREAD shows us the invisible undersides of poverty. Sonja Livingston renders this so solidly that we come to understand the roots of despair, and the beauty that can be found in the midst of squalor. In an age when memoir exploits the seamier sides of life, thrusting their authors into the limelight, this book holds back, quietly resisting shock value in favor of understanding.”
-Judith Kitchen author of House on Eccles Road
Let’s talk structure a bit. That, to me, is the trickiest part. There are all if these stories swirling in our minds, but it’s the tying them together that can be a challenge. How did you do this for GHOSTBREAD? Are you a visual writer, an outliner, do you just let the stories flow? Do you use notecards or Post-Its? A special writing/structuring software like Scrivener?
I love this question because it reminds me of all the things I should do!
I want to be the kind of writer who outlines and uses Scrivener but the truth is that I’m an intuitive write-whatever-comes kind of writer, at least when it comes to memoir. I’m working on a novel now and I’ve had to approach longer fiction with a little more of a game plan. But with memoir, I find that memory has its own logic and wisdom. With this book, I simply remembered something, wrote it down then went on to another memory. I call these snapshots. Once I’d assembled enough, I began to put them in rough order and revise, but not as much as another writer might have done. Writing in short segmented “chapters” or flash essays felt natural to me, but, back when I wrote the book, I didn’t know of many models for a memoir written in the same way, so I really just felt my way through it. Now the form is much more common. If I were writing a collection today, I would undoubtedly have other models and would do a little more tying together after letting the stories flow.
What might you say to a writer who wants to write about some of the more difficult times/things that happened in their life, but others are also a part of that narrative? They might worry about hurting the other person, or exposing them. What then?
This is such an important question! But it’s also a tough one. Most of us don’t live our lives in isolation which means that other people are necessarily be part of our narratives. The more troubled the narratives, the tougher this issue may be to unravel. Anne Lamott famously wrote,
“You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”
Poet, Czeslaw Milosz, wrote:
“When a writer is born into a family, the family is finished.”
While both quotes speak a certain truth about writing, and, depending on your subject, your memoir may need to piss someone off or finish the family, but, in most cases, it really doesn’t have to.
Finding a balance between the freedom to tell your story while protecting (or at least not harming) others is tough but not wholly impossible. In GHOSTBREAD, I tried to protect others with small choices, such as changing names, but also with much larger choices, such as by describing people honestly but without judgement. Even if someone had hurt me, I did my best to describe them fairly. When I write about the past, I like to think of myself as a photographer rendering images. Of course the “snapshots” I craft and share are a matter of perception but I do my best to stay true to the memories and let them guide me versus using them to construct a story I’ve already decided upon.
After writing four books of nonfiction, I’ve learned that some people are proud to be included in your memoir while others are not nearly as delighted. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t include them! It just means that, even when we do our best be impartial or generous, we’re still rendering people and places through the filter of perception and can’t possibly capture the complexity of real life human beings. I agree with Anne Lamott that writers should write their stories without regard to offending others—in fact, many people really need this assurance to begin—but when it comes to publishing those stories, it’s essential to consider those you’ve written about, the impact of your writing on those relationships and the price you’re willing to pay.
Turning to your mother a bit—there are a few things I felt were alluded to, but not exactly explicit. Or resolved. For one, do we know what happened to Mr. Livingston? Other than the second cousins mentioned in GHOSTBREAD, did your mother have any other family? And…the elephant in the room: mental illness?
No one talked about mental illness when I was a kid. I think this has changed a great deal but in the poor communities of my childhood, especially in the city neighborhood which was cramped and frankly depressing, there were lots of depressed and/or addicted people. It was almost the norm. Looking back I think my mother certainly suffered from bouts of depression and maybe even bipolar disorder. This seems evident in the days of hibernating punctuated by bursts of energy, the frequent mood changes, and so on.
Though I bear his last name, I never knew my mother’s husband, Mr. Livingston. He was out of the picture and back to his hometown of Albany, NY long before I arrived on the scene. The question you ask about extended family is so interesting. This books has been adopted in college and high school classrooms, which means I’ve talked about lots about the writing and my family and, in all that time, no one has ever asked the question! But it’s important. My mother did have two brothers who had children, so we had first cousins, but they lived in other states and we never really knew them and it’s clear that my mother and her siblings were not close.
When I write about poverty, it’s easy to focus on the lack of food in the cupboard or the outhouse we had in Orleans County, but one of the most precious resources my family lacked was an extended family and the sense of identity and security that stems from that. My sister Steph and I even called our grandmother, the Grandmother, which seems so strange to me now! But this very real disconnect—physically, emotionally—pervaded my mother’s family and carried down to us. Though most of us are no longer as poor as we grew up, we still struggle with the inherited “distance” of our family.
As a writer, whom—or what inspires you—how do you keep the saw sharp?
Travel keeps me sharp like nothing else. Nothing hones my observational skills like stepping into a new place. The place doesn’t need to be in France (though that is nice!) or even outside of my city. Just walking into a coffee shop I don’t normally go too is a great way to stay sharp. Music also inspires me. All kinds. From chanting nuns to quirky country singers like Lyle Lovett to 1980s New Wave. Language inspires me. Poets. Irish writers. Southern writers. Strong voices. People who take risks with words. Honesty inspires me. All kinds. One person speaking their truth is so powerful. When that happens—whether it’s in a song or a faculty meeting—I am blown away and reminded of the profound need we have for each other’s stories and truth.
GHOSTBREAD concludes with a very touching epilogue that is sort of a plea to keep girls off the streets, to nurture and educate these young women so that the cycle of poverty ends. Can you talk a little about the work you’ve done in this realm and what you might offer for others who are interested in helping?
This book has connected me to so many great organizations and individuals that help girls and women, as well as others on the margins. These range from educators to social workers to philanthropists and clergy and food distribution programs. All of this work is incredibly hopeful and massively important but one of the most powerful things is getting to work with people whose stories have not usually been heard. To help people who have been largely “invisible” to begin to write or tell their stories is incredibly healing. What can we do? It may sound simple but sharing and listening to each other’s stories can connect us to each other is astounding ways.
Sonja, I so loved this. Thank you, thank you for taking the time. Is there anything I should have asked, but may have forgotten? Or, maybe a question you’d like to ask me?
My question to you: How do you do it?!? You’re a talented writer, amazing photographer and engaged literary citizen. What keeps you charged and recharged? Advice please for those of us caught up in the exhaustion of these COVID days.
My heart is bursting with this compliment. I love books–everything about them–the way they feel in my hands, how the words look on a page, the cover design; but also the words, how they fill my mind and heart with stories and possibilities. That’s not to say I don’t get run down. And I read at a relentless pace. I don’t watch television. I rarely ‘scroll’ social media mindlessly (although I do post). I multitask. For example. I eat and read. I read on the exercise bike or as a passenger in a vehicle. Art and writing nourish me, but so too, does physical activity. This might be how I am restored. Yoga and running and step aerobics, these are the times I can let my mind wander, return to center. I also like sleep. And ice cream. Like you, travel opens my mind and imagination and fuels me for days.
As for COVID-fatigue, I try to find joy in small things. I relish in going to the mailbox each day. I seek beauty in nature. It might be the changing leaves, a rainstorm, or the smell of freshly baked bread. These are the things that get me through.
Artistic image of book cover designed and photographed by me, Leslie Lindsay. Follow on Instagram @leslielindsay1 #bookstagram #alwayswithabook
FOR MORE INFORMATION, TO CONNECT WITH SONJA LIVINGSTON VIA SOCIAL MEDIA, OR TO PURCHASE A COPY OF GHOSTBREAD, PLEASE VISIT:
I was reminded, in part, of THE GLASS CASTLE by Jeanette Walls meets EDUCATED, but also perhaps the work of Bobi Conn (IN THE SHADOW OF THE VALLEY) as well as Meredith Hall’s WITHOUT A MAP meets Meredith May’s THE HONEY BUS, with a touch of WIVING (Caitlin Myer), and also, maybe Sheryl Recinos’ HINDSIGHT.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Sonja Livingston’s latest book, The Virgin of Prince Street: Expeditions into Devotion, uses an unexpected return to her childhood church as an occasion to travel through space and time to explore the changes in the larger Church and in her own life. The result is a generous but unflinching look at the shifting Catholic Church and changing concepts of devotion.
Sonja’s first book, Ghostbread, won an AWP Book Prize for Nonfiction and has been adopted for classroom use around the nation. Sonja’s two other essay collections, Ladies Night at the Dreamland and Queen of the Fall, combine history, memory and imagination to illuminate the lives of girls and women. Her writing has been honored with a NYFA Fellowship, an Iowa Review Award, a VanderMey Nonfiction Prize, an Arts & Letters Essay Prize, and grants from Vermont Studio Center and The Deming Fund for Women.
Sonja’s essays appear in outlets such as Salon, LitHub, The Kenyon Review, America, Sojourners and are anthologized in many textbooks on creative writing, including: The Best of Brevity, Contemporary Nonfiction, Short Takes, The Truth of the Matter, The Curious Writer, Poverty/Privilege: A Reader, Brief Encounters, and Waveform: Twenty-First-Century Essays by Women.
ABOUT YOUR HOST:
Leslie Lindsay is the award-winning author of SPEAKING OF APRAXIA (Woodbine House, 2012) and former Mayo Clinic child/adolescent psychiatric R.N. She is at work on a memoir. Her writing has been published in Pithead Chapel, Common Ground Review, Cleaver Magazine (craft and CNF), The Awakenings Review, The Nervous Breakdown, Ruminate’s The Waking, Brave Voices Literary Magazine, Manifest-Station, and forthcoming in The Family Narrative Project (FNP) and Semicolon. Her photography was featured on the cover of Up the Staircase Quarterly in May 2020, other photography in Another Chicago Magazine (ACM) and Brushfire Literature & Arts Journal; poetry in the Coffin Bell Journal. The 2nd edition of SPEAKING OF APRAXIA will be available this fall. Leslie has been awarded one of the top 1% reviewers on GoodReads and recognized by Jane Friedman as one of the most influential book reviewers. Since 2013, Leslie has interviewed over 700 bestselling and debut authors on her author interview series. Follow her bookstagram posts @leslielindsay1.
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~UPDATED, 2nd EDITION OF SPEAKING OF APRAXIA coming soon from WOODBINE HOUSE!~
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[Cover and author image courtesy of author and used with permission. Artistic image of book cover designed and photographed by me, Leslie Lindsay. Follow on Instagram @leslielindsay1 #bookstagram #alwayswithabook]