Published on June 19th, 2017 | by Desiree Cooper


A Guidebook to Relative Strangers: Camille Dungy Talks to Desiree Cooper About “Mothering While Art-ing”

It’s about time that someone wrote a guidebook to “mothering while arting.” I’ve been calling myself a writer for most of my life, but only managed to eke out my first book at age 56. I’m now the divorced mother of two, grandmother/primary support for two grandchildren and the caregiver for my elderly parents. I’ve spent a lifetime trying to stake out the space between creating art and nurturing those I love.

Along comes Camille Dungy’s Guidebook to Relative Strangers: Journeys into Race, Motherhood and History (W.W. Norton & Company 2017). Dungy is one of those force-of-will moms who ignored the strictures that often keep women from self-actualizing after their wombs have borne fruit. She hiked in the Adirondacks early in her pregnancy, relying on the kindness of strangers when she injured her leg. (They were there, by the way, in spades. That’s something that hero moms unfortunately never get to learn because they’re so afraid to let go.) She accepted speaking engagements across the county, simply adding her toddler and her lactating breasts to her list of things others must accommodate. They did.

While Dungy welcomed her toddler into her professional spaces, I cowered close to home with mine, where no one would judge, no tongues would click, and God forbid, the noisy baby wouldn’t disturb the reverie of adults. But I didn’t have the Guidebook when I was raising my children. Thank goodness, you do.

It’s not that her road was easy. There are tortured passages that describe what it takes to bring a child along for the ride. The chapter “Lap Child” opens with a description of trying to pee in an airplane bathroom with a baby on board. Later in the chapter, Dungy dedicates two pages to what she packed for the baby in order to make a winter trip to Maine. And there are the painful, poignant moments when she runs smack into the brick walls of racism and sexism, which leaves her dazed and shaken, but always undaunted.

I’m glad that Dungy has delivered a Guidebook that keeps it real. She writes not as an authority, but as a fellow traveler, reminding us that motherhood will crack open your heart, clutter your brain, confound your footsteps and explode your consciousness.

Taking hold of it all is the work of an artist. Desiree Cooper

MUTHA: What was your process for writing this book? How did it differ from your process before you became a mother?

CAMILLE DUNGY: It’s quite possible that Guidebook to Relative Strangers wouldn’t have happened if I weren’t a mother. Much of the book is about motherhood (hence the subtitle). More than that, though, I was trained in the tradition that believes that poetry is best written in a state of quiet and lengthy isolation. I don’t necessarily believe that any more. The poet Lucille Clifton is an amazing model of a poet who wrote phenomenal poems while raising many children. She was known to tell people that the reason her poems were so taut and condensed was because she had those children to look after.

Even if I hadn’t yet figured out how to write poetry with the many interruptions of motherhood, I found I could write essays  With that process, I was able to write things down and then walk away, sometimes mid-sentence and often mid-page, then come back hours, days, sometimes weeks later.

“Differentiation” (one of the last essays in Guidebook to Relative Strangers) was composed first in 20-minute segments. Every day I would sit and write for 20 minutes. Often, I would actually tell myself I wasn’t allowed to write MORE than 20 minutes. Think of it as if you are getting into a new exercise regimen and you are supposed to work out for half an hour but you do it for two hours one day. It’s quite possible that on the next day you would let yourself skip your exercise, either because you’re sore or because you feel entitled to slack off because of the extra work you put in the day before. When I was writing 20 minutes a day I wanted to be sure I did it every day, and so I made a discipline of it. I’d begun to feel like I couldn’t write at all because life had gotten to get so overwhelming with my daughter shifting to a new and differently demanding stage of development. But 20 minutes a day actually wasn’t so hard to accomplish. That helped me keep sane, keep writing, and eventually to get some new essays completed. “Differentiation” wouldn’t have happened without that discipline.

MUTHA: In Guidebook, you talk about how life became borderless, both physically and psychologically, when you became a mother. People walked in and out of your personal spaces as if there were no walls. They openly discussed poop, incontinence, hemorrhoids. They offered unsolicited advice. Yet, selfhood requires boundaries or there is no self. How do you regain self when motherhood demands that you lose it?

CAMILLE DUNGY: Since I waited so long to have my daughter, I had my 20s and most of my 30s to be my own woman. You’re not your own person when you’re a child, and not when you are a teenager. (That’s what all the fighting is about in your teens—this desire to push away from everything that’s telling you who to be and how to be.)

Then I met this man and had to figure out how to do this partnership dance. Then two years later, we had this person, and all bets were off in terms of “me-ness.”  So, I had to re-establish what selfhood means. I had to learn to become self in community.

I don’t think we do community particularly well in America. We are a country of individualists. As a black woman, I might have a lead on understanding what that means, because in so many ways, a black woman’s body on American soil has never been hers entirely. For black women, there is a cultural legacy of finding your way when your it’s prescribed by so many other people’s expectations and demands on your body. That has given me a tradition to go into when I try to make my own space.


MUTHA: Did your entry into the sorority of motherhood blunt or intensify the sting of race?

CAMILLE DUNGY: It definitely intensified the sting of race because I was living racism both as a woman and a mother. Recently, my daughter Callie went to a dress rehearsal for ballet. She glowed in this amazing way. But there was this girl looking at her with what I’d call envy. The girl called Callie “dirty” and made her cry. I had to talk to my daughter again about moving away from someone who is doing this. Some people are cruel and racist and it’s not you. You have done nothing wrong to cause their behavior. You do not have to accept their anger and cruelty. Their goal is to break you down. You have to learn not to hold it. That might sound passive, but it is an active way to diminish the attacker’s power.

It’s a hard lesson, but I was good at that. I wouldn’t hold ugliness that wasn’t mine. I was like a duck; it rolled off me. I would let it go, but I can’t let it go for Callie. I see it more, and I hold it more than if it happened to me. I have all the comprehension of the history and mechanisms of white supremacy and misogyny to help me cope with people like that. I’ve got the intellectual groundwork, but she’s a little girl. It’s sad that I have to teach her this. It makes me sangry. Sad anger – that’s a ferocious emotion.

It’s worth noting that the ballet studio owners were alarmed and gracious and responded right away with real, actionable protocols to make sure that this didn’t continue. I’ve had incidents like this before where I’ve been questioned or where the response has been lukewarm or none at all. But this dance studio was on it, and that is the sort of thing that makes life more bearable for me as a mother. I feel like even if bad things happen in the world, which they do, there is a community of people who want to be aware and want to be better and want to make sure the spaces they sponsor are open and affirming and welcoming. Knowing that such conscious places exist helps me get out the door and take my little girl out into a world that is sometimes scary and too often mean.

MUTHA: In your book, you mentioned how it’s a menace to move through the world in black bodies “that are so frequently assumed to be corrupt.” At the same time, walking through the world as a mother is often the opposite experience—people shower you with blessings, give you preference, offer to help. How were your interactions with strangers different as a black woman after you had your daughter?

CAMILLE DUNGY: People are nice because babies are cute! A lot of people want to be around babies. I remember that trip to northern Maine that I wrote about, and all those people who wanted to hold her in the airport, the kinds of conversations I’d have, the way it would extend the time of communion and fellowship I got to have with people. It’s a reminder that most people want to be good and live in positive community with the people around them.

But at the same time, people are complicated and layered. Like they would be really excited about this beautiful baby, but then the questions they would ask would be racially charged. It’s so important to understand that people are complicated vessels of a lot of different realities. That’s the reason why when someone goes off and kills people, you can have a neighbor saying, “He was so nice.” Well, both could actually be true. That’s the beauty and horror what it means to be human.

MUTHA: It seemed like every place you visited—from Alaska, to San Francisco, Virginia and Ghana—the history was an essential element of your experience. Why do you seek out the history of the places you visit?

CAMILLE DUNGY: My sister is an actual 19th Century historian and professor. My mother recently asked, “Why are both of my daughters historians?” I think it was partly that we lived in a house where we were always interrogating the story of a place, and how did we get to be here.

Here’s an example of how history impacts a place. I went to Chincoteague, Virginia once with my godmother. Chincoteague was a lovely little town, but it felt very New England, not like a Virginia or North Carolina beach area. I thought it was because my godmother was from outside of Boston and she was bringing that energy with her. But in fact, Chincoteague sided with the Union Army during the Civil War. So, it actually didn’t have the heavy weight, pride, frustration, anger and resentment that exists in areas that sided with the Confederacy. That little piece of history has permeated the atmosphere of the town. That’s interesting to me, the way history fills the very air that you breathe—whether you are aware of it or not.

I love the cover of my book for that reason. It shows a little girl reading by a lamp. The shade is covered with images of African American history. The girl is the future, but the light she is reading by is filtered by history.

MUTHA: Speaking of history and place, you took Callie with you on a visit to Cape Coast Castle in Ghana, one of the main castles of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. I remember visiting a plantation when I was seven months pregnant with my first child. I had the distinct and terrifying experience of finding the presence of the enslaved families still occupying the tiny quarters and filling the air. I fled, fearing that I was “marking” my baby.[1]  Do you feel that your daughter had a lasting imprint from your visit to Ghana?

CAMILLE DUNGY: While we were at Almina and Cape Coast Castle, I was worried about Callie falling into the well or getting her feet soiled with hundreds of years of caked feces and blood. I wasn’t thinking about that other-worldliness filth. But after (she seemed to absorb the deeper meaning of the place), I did worry about the lasting impact of that trip. My husband keeps wanting to go back, but I am worried that there may be some hook still in Callie that I’m not able to perceive.

Once when I was about 32 weeks pregnant, I was at a reading in New York. The poet Evie Shockley was reading poems about some especially horrific lynchings. The baby was not having it. From two rows back in the audience, her godmother could see the baby pressing her hand against my stomach, like “Stop!”. As soon as Evie stopped reading those poems, the baby relaxed again.

I started taking a lot of notes when I traveled with Callie. I realized that I need to pay a different kind of attention to what’s happening to me and around me in the world. My attunement to things is different now that I have a child. I am a more careful observer and reporter. I feel like I have to pay attention or I’ll steer her wrong.

MUTHA: In Guidebook, you say that, “When writing about race, there can perhaps be precious little wholly fresh revelation. As with writing about motherhood. It has been the same story for as long as anyone can remember.” So why do we keep trying to tell it?

CAMILLE DUNGY: It’s the same story, but it’s new every time. Every time you have a new child, you have to teach that one how to eat with a spoon. It’s about learning again and again.

I think in some ways nothing is new about Guidebook. But there’s always some new bit of topography when mapping a landscape. Something that hasn’t been seen yet, or seen from that perspective. Writers are always trying to rearticulate things that haven’t been said quite as we understand it, or need to hear it. Or how someone we care about need to hear it. We keep telling it for that soul.

MUTHA: You’ve lived in—and visited—a lot of places. Which of them made your soul the happiest?

CAMILLE DUNGY: This is probably an impossible question to answer. I feel most at home in California, because that’s where I’ve lived the most years of my life. But, California has its issues and so it’s not like I can go there and not be aware of those.  I love being near the ocean, but that doesn’t mean I don’t think about acidification, jellyfish, rising sea levels, and the decimation of global shark populations while I’m enjoying the view. It’s probably hard to fully satisfy a woman with an inquisitive and exploratory mind.

MUTHA: What is the best word that your daughter has invented?

CAMILLE DUNGY: My husband’s favorite Callie-ism is “uninsideout.” As in, “Baba, will you please uninsideout this sweater so I can put it on?” That’s a pretty good one.

I’ve got an essay in Guidebook to Relative Strangers where I talk about observing her speech development. (Another essay that was made possible because I tried to be diligent about writing something every day.) In that essay, I write about how Callie developed the word “epinant” to identify an elephant in one of her favorite books. I’m rather fond of the word epinant, but she doesn’t use it any more.

[1] Marking is when a pregnant woman does something that manifests later in the child. It is often used to explain birthmarks, but also behaviors, talents and preferences of the child who is marked.


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About the Author

Desiree Cooper is a former attorney and Pulitzer Prize-nominated journalist. Her debut collection of flash fiction, Know the Mother, is a 2017 Michigan Notable Book and a 2017 Next Generation Indie Book Award winner. Cooper’s fiction and poetry have appeared in Callaloo, Detroit Noir, and Best African American Fiction 2010, among other online and print publications. A 2015 Kresge Artist Fellow, Cooper was a founding board member of Cave Canem, a national residency for emerging black poets. She is currently a Kimbilio Fellow, a national residency for African American fiction writers.

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