Christine Lincoln (left) and Christine Dickler at our Winter launch party.
Christine Lincoln’s story in our Winter issue, “What’s Necessary to Remember When Telling a Story,” comprises no more than fifteen hundred words, but its length belies its breadth. Braiding enchantment with sorrow and hope, it begins inside a dream, with a man carrying a small woman in his mouth—“a grown woman not much bigger than a bullet”—running from a dark-skinned girl thought to be coming after them. From there, it unfurls into an agonizing, tender portrait of the nameless dreamer, once an abusive partner, who spends the rest of the story musing over the love he ruined years ago. Lincoln, born in the sixties, hails from Baltimore; having endured a period of addiction that briefly left her suicidal, she turned to fiction, which was, she told me, what she needed to save herself. She went on to pursue an M.F.A. and currently lives in York, Pennsylvania, where she is poet laureate emeritus.
I spoke with Lincoln over the phone, her voice gentle and heartening, about “What’s Necessary”; about her debut collection of short stories, Sap Rising; and about her thoughts on race and literature in America, both today and as it was for her growing up one of the only black children in her school. Every so often, she’d pause midsentence—near tears, she’d say, because she hadn’t shared this with anyone before.
Where did this story come from?
I have these moments when I feel like I’m praying for something or someone, and I look at each one of my stories as a prayer. I have one biological son, and then I have all these other children, these babies, many of whom are young men who’ve adopted me as their mother. For the past two years, some of these young men have come to me with problems in their relationships, and I’ve watched them as they struggle to love, to be loved, as they struggle with their own issues of abandonment and rejection. Some of these men are jerks to the people they love most, playing a part in their own demise, refusing to accept responsibility. And I watch as their relationships collapse and come into ruin. As a mama, I’m hurting for them. I have all this pain in the center of my chest that I carry around with me, and I’m saying, God, what’s going on? The man in this story, he was an abuser—it was sexual, verbal, physical, it was emotional—but he’s not a monster. This story is my way of saying to him—to my babies—I love you, but you’ve got to change. You’ve got to see what you’ve become. You have to want to become something different. That’s my prayer.
And the dream?
Last year, we had a snowstorm—three feet. Cars couldn’t go out on the roads. I was walking in it alone and it was so beautiful, and the beauty was so intense it felt like a hand was reaching into my chest and squeezing, felt as if I had been split wide. That cracked-open feeling I had walking in that storm is the same feeling I have carrying around this pain for my children. And so at some point, those two things collided, and I had a dream that I was carrying a woman in my mouth. And when I woke up from the dream, I wrote that story. That’s how it all came out—I wrote it all at once, in one day.
The story is without anger, without resentment, it passes no judgment on the man. In fact, as readers, we feel for him, forgive him even—at least I did.
Typically, characters like the guy in “What’s Necessary,” abusive characters, are written about in a way that draws the reader’s contempt and alienates the reader from being able to connect with the character. Abuse, when written about, is often heightened, over the top, written about in a way that feels disingenuous. I wanted to write about this character in such a way that readers would be able to relate to and perhaps even see themselves in this story. The reader can’t make that kind of heart connection with this character if I present him as a monster. I feel nothing but kindness and compassion for this guy, and this is what comes through. I do forgive him. In all of his human frailties, I love him. He, like all of us, really, is doing the best that he can do, and he is capable of changing.
In less than four pages, we’re given seven years of his life, with snippets of childhood memories woven in, and the point of view shifts, too, from first person to third. How did you manage all of this?
Well, I wanted the whole story, and I’m curious about the relationship between time and the stories we tell ourselves. Some of the stories this man was telling himself as a child are the same stories he’s telling himself as an old man, the same stories he’ll tell his children, his grandchildren. The difference is how his story is being told. So how is it different? I wanted to play with the effect time has on what we tell ourselves and to see whether what we tell ourselves changes.
As far as point of view is concerned, you know, it was very intuitive. For me, it’s difficult to tell a story from just one angle—it doesn’t seem true. I’m always thinking of how to tell different parts of a story without having multiple narrators, that way the reader has a better chance to see the Truth, with a capital T. The shift in voice is so we can think about these other perspectives, ones I knew this character would never be able to access, because he doesn’t have that level of awareness.
When did you start writing?
As a little girl. I was nine and in the fourth grade. I had a teacher who was giving a lesson on Poe. She changed my life—Mrs. Kearney. We were reading “The Tell-Tale Heart,” and we had to write an imitation of the story. Somehow or another I made the decision to write one with a personified house, but she hadn’t taught personification yet. When I gave the story to her, she said, Christine, you’re a writer! I had such a physical, visceral reaction to hearing those words—I can’t explain it. I just knew that what she was telling me was the truth. I went home and told my parents I was going to be a writer, and my father wasn’t having any of it. He wanted me to become a doctor, to go into science or medicine. This was in the seventies, so there weren’t many black female writers, and he wanted me to eat and to be able to support myself. Both of my parents were in the Black Power movement and were very vocal about what we needed to do as black people, but they couldn’t conceive that this was possible.
Your mother too?
My mother too, at first. But you know, when I was a teenager, I was curious about everything. I was always finding out the secrets of the family, always aware of something under the surface. I went into my mother’s closet once and found a manuscript, written by hand—a book. Her closet had stairs that led to the attic, and I would climb into her closet and read this manuscript until I had read the whole thing—it was a story of two sisters, half-sisters, one born to the white mistress of a Southern plantation, the other the daughter of a black slave woman. My mother had written it, and it was a secret, as if it were a shameful thing. She didn’t know I had found it until maybe ten years later, when I was in my twenties and she was making the decision to pursue writing herself, and I told her that I had found her book and read it. It was amazing to me—this secret she didn’t know we shared.
Did you ever question your conviction to be a writer?
Later that same year, I had my first suicide attempt. I believe writing would have kept me from it, if I had been encouraged to pursue writing. For me, writing felt like the universe’s way of giving me what I needed to save myself. I remember reading poetry as a young girl, but I knew it was fiction for me. It wasn’t until I was twenty-nine that I came back to it.
What brought you back?
Having my son. I had him when I was twenty-seven. It was a difficult pregnancy—they told me to have an abortion and I didn’t, and he was born with a lot of problems. It didn’t look like he was going to make it, but I was determined to have this child. I made a vow with God—I said, Listen here, you. You let this baby live and I will do whatever I’m supposed to do on this earth. And when he survived, I had to fulfill my side of the bargain. I sat down to figure out whatever it was I was supposed to do—by this time I had gone through so much drug addiction, I spent most of my life up to that point addicted to drugs—it was like I was asking, What is all of this for? And that’s when the memory of my fourth-grade teacher came back to me.
In your story from the fourth grade, you personified a house. This seems characteristic of your writing—much of your fiction teeters between realism and fantasy. Is this a conscious decision?
It’s not conscious, it’s part of my life view. As a child, I had a grandmother who could barely see—she had had seventeen surgeries on her eyes. She was the storyteller of the family, weaving stories like needle and thread. She would weave garments around me that would meld into my being. I would spend the summers with her on a small farm, and she would tell me these stories in the dark where a chair was no longer a chair—a chair was a person hunkered down, squatting, waiting to grab your ankles—where objects could, at any moment, become something other than what they were. I remember growing up in the church, too, with this idea that there were unknown powers out there, ones that are enchanted. So my imagination was alive from the time I was this little thing. Everything in my tradition—the black tradition—is imbued with this supernaturalism—this power, this magic, this enchantment. I’m not surprised it’s found its way into my work.
A favorite story of mine, from Sap Rising, is “A Hook Will Always Keep You,” where a girl believes herself to be invisible. Did you feel this way as a child?
I was absolutely invisible as a child. I could sit in a room, with all of the adults, and no one would know I was there. I heard every conversation, all the secrets, and they would speak as though they didn’t see me. And on some level, I was voiceless as a child. I was quiet, I read constantly. That’s all I did—I was this quiet, reading, invisible girl. And I was always in a gifted-and-talented classroom as a child, which meant I was one of the only black children in the room.
What was that like?
It was difficult to maneuver those two worlds, very shaming. I had to try to fit in to make friends. I felt like I had to deny a part of myself—the way I spoke, the way I dressed, the books I read, everything. To say, I’m not like those other black children, I’m more like you. I would try to be as white as I possibly could, and it felt like a betrayal. It was dehumanizing.
Was writing a way of coping with these two worlds?
Yes it was. Mrs. Kearney—she was one of my few black teachers. I only remember having two. And I’ll never forget Mrs. Brown. She taught us black history and black culture. They didn’t teach that in the curriculum, so I knew nothing about it. And Mrs. Brown came in—I can see her to this day. She had an afro and she wore all this silver. She was so black! Not in color, but in who she was. I expected to see someone like her in my other world, but to find her in this all-white, assimilation-inducing setting was incredible. Because I was in a gifted-and-talented class, we got to go to a special class she was teaching. There was just a handful of us black girls. She taught us about Toni Morrison and Alice Walker—I couldn’t believe it. My parents were exposing me to political blackness and black music, but she was exposing me to literary blackness. Again, the writing—I’m tearing up, because I’ve never talked about this with anyone—black literature made me visible. The writing is what restored me.
The man in “What’s Necessary”—I couldn’t determine the color of his skin. I’m not sure it’s ever mentioned.
No, there’s no mention of this man’s skin color in the story. But not because he is colorless in the way my first characters were without color. When I finally decided to embrace writing about color, that decision was momentous. What I was really saying was that I was ready to dismantle the ways in which racism had impacted, defined, and constrained me both as a black woman and as a writer. To write about characters who were black—and therefore inherently inferior in the eyes of the dominant culture—was my way of finally facing my own invisibility and self-hatred. I said that there are no colorless characters. Well, there are no colorless readers, either. I didn’t describe the guy from “What’s Necessary” because I’ve factored in the white reader’s tendency to see the world through that white perspective. For many readers, this character will automatically read as white male. But I’ve also laid out a line of breadcrumbs that could lead the reader to this same understanding—when he talks about the girl’s dark skin, growing up in Vermont, the girlfriend and her freckles, calling his wife Nonna. But also, in not mentioning his skin color—or even giving him a name—I allow space for nonwhite readers to see themselves in this guy, for him to become universal.
What are your thoughts on literature in America at this political juncture?
We’re going to need each other in a way we’ve never needed each other before. We all are going to have to save ourselves. And one of the ways we can do that is through fiction. Take “What’s Necessary to Remember”—that’s coming from a black woman, but it’s about a character who’s white. For me, that man—the abuser—he’s not black. I wanted this white character to come from a black woman. We’ve got to begin to understand that everything that constructed this difference in this country is in this white male supremacy—it’s an illusion. It’s not real. It’s something that has been designed to keep us from one another. So my hope is that you can read this story and think, Oh my God, a black woman wrote this story! I am writing everyone’s story. We are a collective story. I’m hoping to see us cross boundaries, push limits, so that stories—experiences—become collective as opposed to being yours or mine. Fiction can do that. Fiction has done that. I’ll never forget a sixty-year-old white man coming up to me after having read Sap Rising and saying, This is my story. What else can do that?
I want to take my readers back to a moment when they were vulnerable, back to when they believed anything was possible, because I believe that then the language can enter their hearts and their souls and their minds in a way they may not have understood before. Maybe that sixty-year-old white man who came up to me, the next time he encounters a black man, maybe he’ll see him a little bit more as an equal, because now he has had a shared experience with him, through my eyes.
Caitlin Youngquist is an associate editor at The Paris Review.
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