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Q&A with Nonfiction Contributor LaTanya McQueen

LaTanya McQueen’s piece stood out above the rest because of its honest approach to how we, as Americans, approach historical narratives. The piece is unflinching in its examination of a certain place and time (notably the South), and it has new things to say on people, race, and the American dream. I liked LaTanya’s piece from the start, and it left a lasting impression on me. The structure is loose — concurrently exploring relationships between people, history, and ideas (on macro and micro levels) — so I do not expect for it to provide a full answer the way some historical examinations might attempt to. As a coincidence of timing, the piece is being published not long after the official opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, and LaTanya’s piece fits in with the history of how we choose to tell our stories. Overall, I am so glad Carve has the opportunity to feature this piece, and I hope others find it similarly thought-provoking.

LaTanya's piece, "As for Me and My House," will appear in the Fall 2016 Premium Edition of CarvePreorder or subscribe by Sunday, October 23, for special savings and discounts.

The story has a defined narrative to it, but it is a little loose at the same time with its injection of past experiences, history, and ruminations. How did you go about planning the structure of this piece?

To be honest, I don’t start thinking about structure. Even when I begin with good intentions, my work ends up becoming, as a friend of mine recently pointed out to me, “circuitous.”

With this essay I knew that I wanted to emphasize the dichotomy between these plantations that exist within a few miles of one another. That was my anchor point in thinking about the structure and was really what I’d originally envisioned the entire narrative being.

While I was visiting these plantations, though, I was thinking about how much the Bible had been used as justification for slavery and also how slave masters taught certain parts of the Bible to foster submission among slaves. For the past year, I’ve been working on a collection and the essats reference Bible quotes in their titles and I was reminded of the Joshua 24:15 scripture: “…but as for me and my house we will serve the Lord.” Sometimes that phrase is copied on wall decors. The Bible verse was what eventually led me to thinking about houses and the American dream. I was also home visiting my father at the time I began composing the essay, and he was in the process of selling a house. One piece just sort of reminded me of another piece, which connected to another one. For me that tends to be how it goes.

You and I had an exchange on cutting or leaving a paragraph in the story that you said was intended to show your fear of traveling alone in the South as a young black woman. I did not pick up on this initially, and the more I thought about it, the more I had questions: How much does race play into it? How much does gender? How much does an urban versus rural upbringing or a familiarity with an area? Where does the South really stand today? How do we view it? And, ultimately, we are talking about having deeper discussions and understandings about race, regions, and history. I believe your story does that. It seems quite the norm to say we need to have these discussions, but then we don't. Without giving away too much of your story, can you speak about your view of this? 

When I first moved to Missouri for my doctoral program, there was a welcome gathering at a professor’s home. I remember driving to the street and looking at the houses trying to figure out which was the correct one. No one had bothered to put up a sign advertising the correct place for the gathering and we were supposed to meet up in the professor’s backyard.

I sat in my car terrified over this. I was new. I didn’t know Missouri or the town. I didn’t really know where I was. The idea of showing up at the wrong house, especially entering the wrong person’s backyard, was a nightmare. I almost just left over it, but soon enough, I saw someone I recognized and asked them where I should go.

Should I have been afraid? People have told me I shouldn’t have, that I made too much of a big deal about it, but a year later, Renisha McBride walked up to the door of a house asking for help and was shot in the face.

In that moment in Louisiana, I was afraid for the same reason I was afraid in Missouri, for the same reason while growing up in Kentucky my mother would warn me about stopping in certain areas. In Boston, I used to work at a bar as a hostess. One night a man who’d spent most of the evening commenting on how “exotic” I looked and asking me to clarify my race, followed me downstairs as I was about to clock out of my shift. He pinned me to the wall and grabbed my wrists. Before anything further could happen, one of the cooks came out and in the disruption he let go and I was able to leave.

The truth really is that to be a black woman in this world is to exist with a hyper awareness of the spaces one inhabits. There is always the possibility of physical danger, of someone attempting to police or take ownership of our bodies, but also, not talked about often enough, are verbal assaults as well. Microaggressions are like pinpricks on the psyche, and a culmination of them can be damaging as well.

Houses and the American dream are central to your story. Outside of land ownership, what are other ways you think we define the American dream?

My father’s life is very emblematic of that concept of the American dream. He grew up pretty poor, dealt with the desegregation of public schools, began college on the heels of the Wilmington Ten. He joined the military to pay for his tuition and then he gradually moved up in the ranks. He scrimped and saved and worked for every scrap of thing he’s gotten. “This is the life,” my father often now says just before sitting down to eat a meal or while bird-watching in the backyard. For my father, yes it is the house and working hard to get what he has but the undertone of it all is really just surviving, I think, because there were moments where it all could have gone a completely different way.

What is a nonfiction book you would recommend to readers and why?

Right now I’m reading Jerald Walker’s memoir The World In Flames: A Black Boyhood in a White Supremacist Doomsday Cult that recently came out through Beacon Press. I feel like the title alone is enough to make a person interested. The book is a recollection of Walker’s experiences growing up with two blind parents who become involved in the Worldwide Church of Christ. I read an essay of Walker’s from when I worked at The Missouri Review that I always remembered, and so I’ve been following his career ever since.