Ah, Sweet Rememory!

by Virginia Hamilton

virginia-hamilton 2

Rememory is a "reword" out of my past. It is not poetic license but a volunteer, like a self-sown seed come forth unbidden. A given. I was fourteen, and I met a dashing fellow who told me he wasn't much on names, but he had a perfect rememory of my smile (i.e., "Haven't I seen you somewhere before?"). Rememory stayed with me through the years; I don't know what happened to the dude-with-a-line. Fortunately, I was able to use rememory as a device for indicating a change in the time-frame in Arilla Sun Down (Greenwillow).

There were a number of words back then that I got wrong quite on my own — words I'd seen in print but never heard spoken. I used what I considered long, sophisticated words principally on my mother to impress her with my maturity. A favorite one was de-ter-min-ED, hard accent on the last syllable, as in, "Mom, I'm de-ter-min-ED to stay out until twelve, all the other girls are allowed to." Whereupon, Mother informed me that as long as I was de-ter-min-ED, she was determined I would be home by eleven.

Thereafter, I was careful to look up the pronunciations of peculiar-looking words. How I cringed that I might have fractured amiable or amicable, had I not made use of the dictionary. Looking things up, I discovered rememory wasn't a word. Of course, it should be. If one recalls or remembers something remarkable, such as a high compliment from a jiving dude, then one must need use one's rememory in order to do so. Therefore, I take it upon myself to define this reword for the sake of réchauffé: Rememory: An exquisitely-textured recollection, real or imagined, which is otherwise indescribable.

Which brings me around again to Mother. The local PBS radio station and its zealous young reporter discovered my going-on-eighty-nine, feisty mother. The station was preparing programming devoted to Underground Railroad history in Ohio, which — I suppose — it intended to use for a decade of Black History months. Mother was to give a commentary of whatever length she desired on the escape of her father and his mother from slavery.

I was present for the interview. Mother looked like the canary who had had the cat for lunch. The reporter suddenly reminded me of that sincere folk-collector fellow, called the Dude, who visited the Higgins family in M.C. Higgins, The Great (Macmillan); each generation, in or out of fiction, has its faithful compilers. Mother kept her eyes on the tape machine as she began; it was clear to me she didn't trust a small black box with about six keys to take down her every word. And at last, she asked the reporter to play it back so she could hear how she sounded. When he did, sure enough, there she was.

"That's not me," Mother announced.

"Of course, it's you; who else would it be?" I said. But I understood what she was getting at. She meant it didn't sound like her in every which way, the same as I don' t sound quite like me when I stand before an audience. Mother was not used to hearing herself as chronicler, utilizing unlikely tones and rhythms in order to reveal the action. There were cadences and inflections that had to have been similar to her father's speech peculiarities when first he told about the incredible journey that took him north across the Ohio River to freedom. She definitely didn't sound like Mother. And what she had to say wasn't what I'd heard before. We had spent lots of time, over the years, going into family history.

The reporter fellow must have been thanking his lucky stars. It was clear he considered Mother a great find. Anyone could see his excitement — eyes shining, gasps escaping him. Mother always knew she was a find. She gave a glance at me with a look of reproach, I thought. The fact that I hadn't laid bare the spectacular information she was freely giving away to a perfect stranger served me right, the look seemed to say, and there was a lesson in that.

Well, I am for the most part a fiction writer. I use from the source, but I create my characters. Mother is a character. And all these years she'd been waiting to reveal herself. All that rememory! Real and imagined places and times — thank goodness the young man came along and got it all.

Place and time are at the heart of the fiction I write. The place being a minuscule, unlikely piece of southern Ohio, where I was born. The time is the period of my early life that is transformed and heightened to uniqueness through the creative process. Or it is the memory of my life or my mother's memory of her life as told to me, revised by me toward rememory; or it is that of her mother's and her grandmothers' and of old friends'. Time and place are bound together, a solid sensation in the present and past of that which has been accomplished.

Subject matter is for me derived from intimate and shared places of the hometown and the hometown's parade of life and all that is known, remembered, and imagined throughout time therefrom. Home is where I find the emotional landscape for my own spiritual growth and the geographical location for the fictions. Time and place become almost mythical. I suffer through them as I imagine, historically, others have suffered through them. The progress of a people across the hopescape of America gives to my writing a sense of continuity and a narrative source. Which brings me to a kind of source that is narrative and a way of talking. Going down an open field from where I live to Mother's house. At a certain hour in late day, the ancient hedgerow marking the west property line is backlighted by the slanting sun, and great old Osage hedge trees are a mystery of glowing depths and sparkles. I slip quietly inside the house from the back door. I find Mother in the "front room" talking with my Aunt Sarah Perry. They greet me kindly enough, but I am young; I can wait. They must get back to their talking in the quiet, semidark that holds past and present like loops of an invisible bow. I settle back in an easy chair redone in deep plush velvet.

Aunt Sarah Perry is in her late sixties and troubled by arthritis. Mother likes to pretend she's ninety and is troubled by nothing. They are discussing Mother's sister, Aunt Leah, who is seventy-two. These ages are not relevant, for they see one another as they were in their prime. Aunt Leah, being the "Auntie Mame" of Mother's Perry clan, carries on as if she were as free as a bird. This ruffles Mother's feathers; probably because at her advanced age, she considers any sudden movement a personal affront. Aunt Leah continually flies off to distant places, buying one-way tickets only.

"Why only one-way?" I asked, captured in the overwrought chair.

"Leah never knows how long she will stay somewhere," said Aunt Sarah Perry.

"Because she never knows when to come home, you mean," said Mother. "Sarah, you are too polite. Leah won't leave until she's told."

"Where is she going?" I thought to ask.

"To Kansas City to spend the summer," answered Aunt Sarah.

"You know, Early Lee is out there." Early Lee is my second cousin.

"And if Early asks her to leave early," said Mother, aware of the play with words, "she will go on to Germany."

I was startled by the lack of transition and dared ask, "Who's in Germany?"

"Some people she once knew," said Aunt Sarah, smiling her sweet, shy smile.

"Who won't know she's coming," said Mother, "until she arrives."

"She'll stay in Germany or Kansas City until summer's over," explained Aunt Sarah.

"Leah never could take the summers in this town." Mother sniffed. "Sarah, you remember the first time she got married, it was summer?" Aunt Leah is somewhat overextended when it comes to marriage.

"It does get hot here," I thought to say, "but surely it won't be as hot as it gets in Kansas City."

"Virginia, it's not the heat," said Aunt Sarah Perry. "It's the spiders. Leah says they come in the house where it's cool and wait until nightfall to get on her pillow and in her slippers. She can't stand the thought of them crawling in her ears and her hair."

I shuddered in sympathy.

"And in her slippers," Mother added, sounding disgusted.

I had to smile, knowing Aunt Leah well enough to have figured out how carefully she must have combed her vivid imagination to come up with an explanation that had style — as a reason for escaping a stifling village in its steamiest season.

Suddenly, I wondered what sort of children they had been — Aunt Sarah Perry, Mother, and Aunt Leah. Yet I felt moved to leave this question unanswered as shadows deepened around my mother and my aunt. Both were comfortable on the Autumn Gold couch. Their heads were thrown back as they created light and time, past and people, with just their talking.

I am a teller of tales, in part, because of the informal way I learned from Mother and her relatives of passing the time, which they also utilize for transmitting information, for entertainment, and for putting their own flesh and blood in the proper perspective. The Perrys are interesting talkers. They began as farmers who had been fugitives from injustice. Acquiring land and homes, place and time, was to them the final payment in the cause of freedom. After long days, a long history in the fields, they talked their way into new states of mind. They could appreciate a good story in the companionship of one another, not only as entertainment but as a way to mark their progress. Stories, talking, grew and changed into a kind 0f folk history of timely incidents. And these developed in lines of force that had beginnings, middles, and endings — a certain style. True memory might lapse, and creativity come into play. It was the same creativity and versatility that had helped the first African survive on the American continent. An uncle of mine told the most astonishing lies. An aunt whispered in perfect rememory the incident of Blind Martha and how she found her way down the dusty road to the spot where the log cabin had stood in which she had been born. The day Uncle Saunders was killed, all of the ivy fell from the Pasony house. Pasonys were neighbors, quiet and shrewd. But they could not save the ivy.

There's the story I remember always knowing about my Grandpaw Levi Perry and how his hand burned shut from a fire in the gunpowder mill where he worked. And from the time that his life and mine coincided, his hand was a fist with burn scars hidden in the tightly shut palm. I would lace my fingers over his closed fist when I was a child, and he would lift me up and up, swing me around and around — to my enormous delight. Ever after, the raised black fist became for me both myth and history, and they were mine. Grandpaw Perry was John Henry and High John de Conquer. He was power — the fugitive, the self-made, the closed fist in which I knew there was kept magic. Oh, but the rememory!

What is transformed from myth, history, and family narrative in my own fictions is not a play-pretty to be held in the hands of children. My fictions for young people derive from the progress of Black adults and their children across the American hopescape. Occasionally, they are light-hearted; often they are speculative, symbolic and dark, and brooding. The people are always uneasy because the ideological difference they feel from the majority is directly derived from heritage. In the background of much of my writing is the dream of freedom tantalizingly out of reach. Echoes of long past times serve to feed my imagination. They may sound of African dreams, family truths, and even speculations on the future. All of it grows from my own experience in some way. The writer will uncover ways of expressing the source and essence of living which belong to her, alone.

In my daily professional life I see myself as a woman working at a complicated job. The way I approach the job changes, consistent with the changes going on inside me, as a woman moving through time. I keep that vision of the writer which I started with, that of the humble crusader locked in the garret room. The writer up there suffers for life, creating all-purpose prose with bruised, delicate hands. The works of crusading sociologists, such as Lincoln Steffens, Jacob Riis, Shirley Graham, and W.E.B. Du Bois, made an indelible impression on me. No wonder, then, that there is something of the social reformer in the back of my mind while I work.

The job — laboring through a fiction from the beginning to the end — takes from eight to fifteen months. I never lack for beginnings of fictions. But what I find I need is the process for uncovering the art form that will transform ideas into coherent fictions. The challenge is to deal with the revelation that there is no way of knowing beforehand how a fiction is to be written. I discover how it's done only by writing it; and when it's finished, I am able to say, "Ah, so that's the way!"

The fictionist occupation is the only one I know in which acquired knowledge cannot be applied. What is learned concerning the writing of a single novel is hopelessly inadequate in writing the next — or any others, for that matter. Each book is like a new system that must be uncovered. It is not precisely created, as we sometimes like to believe. All of it is inside but hidden. In order to begin one must find the system of it each time. I find the system and the way through. If a concept occurs to me, so must its creative development follow. Therein lie instinct and intuition. Solving must be the natural tendency of writers. And yet, to paraphrase T.S. Eliot, between the idea and the reality falls the shadow. In the shadow, then, the woman working lives. In the shadow, life is very long and worth the time it takes. In the shadow I recall, reconstruct. I create. I am the shadow.

I begin with a fairly clear concept of story, only to have the characters who must live it take it over. They become individuals who change and shape plot according to their needs. Created characters express their power of intent on the page. I may not alter the intentions to suit myself. In the early books I tended to exaggerate the physical traits and quirks of the characters in order to control what they might do. Zeely Tayber was six-and-a-half feet tall and thin as a beanpole. Mr. Pluto from Dies Drear (Macmillan) was lame and looked like the devil with green eyes. Junior Brown from Planet (Macmillan) was in danger of drowning in his own fat. Grotesqueries were my props, my crutches, which I didn't need. The characters did whatever they wanted, anyway. The fact that Pluto looked like the devil did not stop him from sitting in the first pew at church, and Junior Brown climbed over the rocks of the Hudson River, despite his weight.

In later books emotions and the way characters act upon them tend to reveal who they are from the beginning. Jack Sun Run from Arilla, bare-chested and golden, riding his horse, is a still shot - an old sepia print — and a revelation of his commitment to being Amerind. I concentrate on the emotions all of us share, and I use the most comfortable milieu or vantage from which to reveal them. These fictions may involve folk wisdom and superstition, since I am interested in archetypes and archaic heritage.
Black-being may be significant to a story, and it may not be. I enjoy having the freedom to make that decision.

In the fantasy books of the Justice cycle (Greenwillow), race has nothing whatever to do with plot and the outcome for the characters. The powers of extrasensory perception, telepathy, and telekinesis the children have are not meant to be peculiarities. They represent a majestic change in the human race. We find that Justice and her identical twin brothers, in Justice and Her Brothers, Dustland, and The Gathering, have unleashed new gene information, which provides them with psychic powers allowing them to extend themselves into an extraordinary future where things are not as they seem. With their friend Dorian Jefferson they travei through time as a unit, and only as a unit are they able to return to the present. The fictions depend for effect on the weirdness of location or setting and on the increasing strangeness of the characters. A golden animal, Miacis, roams, talks, and telepaths; a band of wild children communicate through song; winged Slaker beings search for an end to Dustland and their despair; a cyborg, Celester, and a stupendous computer, Colossus, go about saving civilization.

There is not a formal way such speculative fiction should be written. But it does assume the individual will pit himself or herself against a world or worlds that have grown cold and impersonal. I write all fantasy, from Jahdu to Justice, to bring the power of magic into a world that seems increasingly lacking in the marvelous. There enters into my work a sense of melancholy, however, which has its origin in Black history and life in America. It is often an inherent quality of the writing and inseparable from the lives of the characters. It pervades the fictional hopescape with the reality that Black life is at once better and worse than it has ever been. Better for some, worse for most. This is not bitterness; it is truth.

The challenge for the fictionist is to deal with the truth through youth literature with an evolvement of a fiction or compassion, hope, and humor. There is no question that the young should appreciate and share the truth. For it is not merely subject matter that occasionally turns grim. It is the history of a people and their life at present. What can be shared of it is its depiction as serious entertainment through the art of writing.

Within the heritage and history are boundless possibilities for creative writing. There begins a literature that indicates a people's range and unique capacity for living. But it is not accomplished as simply as other kinds of writing with less historical grounding. On the surface the stories are straightforward. And young people are capable of varied reading levels and of several degrees of difficulty when given the opportunity. My own books don't have to be understood in a hard and fast sense. Certainly, they don't need to be taught in elementary and junior high school. The best way to read fiction is to open the mind and enjoy.

From the December 1981 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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Helen Frost

What a beautiful and important piece of writing. Thank you for bringing it back. So grateful for her writing.

Posted : Feb 18, 2016 02:02



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