The PEN Ten Interview with Author Alethea Black
The PEN Ten is PEN America’s weekly interview series. This week Hafizah Geter, PEN Ten guest editor and editor at Little A from Amazon Publishing, speaks to Alethea Black, author of You’ve Been So Lucky Already, published this year by Little A.
1. How does your identity shape your writing? Is there such a thing as “the writer’s identity”?
I think writing seeks to erase the illusion of identity. I am white, but I can write black. I am young, but I can write old. I am American, but I can tell a story in the voice of my great-grandmother, who was not. What is identity but a stamp someone puts on our foreheads when we’re born and we spend our lives pretending it’s real? Writers don’t have to pretend. Actually, none of us have to pretend. That’s the great liberation movement underway today: We are discovering we are free to say who we are.
2. In an era of “alternative facts” and “fake news,” how does your writing navigate truth? And what is the relationship between truth and fiction?
The relationship between truth and fiction is interesting because sometimes fiction can tell the truth better than nonfiction. That said, calling something nonfiction means adhering to the facts rather than inventing them. My second book, a memoir, was submitted to my agent as a short story collection. My agent—who is also a friend—recognized the material as largely autobiographical, and wanted to sell the book as a memoir. I saw her point, but insisted on rewriting it—in order to hew with greater allegiance to the truth—before doing so.
3. Writers are often influenced by the words of others, building up from the foundations others have laid. Where is the line between inspiration and appropriation?
Inspiration is when someone else’s work sparks something new in you. Appropriation is when you take someone else’s spark and claim it as your own.
4. “Resistance” is a long-employed term that has come to mean anything from resisting tyranny, to resisting societal norms, to resisting negative urges and bad habits, and so much more. It there anything you are resisting right now? Is your writing involved in that act of resistance?
Lately I find myself struggling to resist unhealthy anger. Healthy or “righteous” anger is anger that’s expressed in caring ways and leads to constructive action. Unhealthy anger is expressed in careless ways and leads to destructive action. I think, as a culture, we often lack the grace and self-restraint to express our anger in the best ways—perhaps because, by its very nature, anger demands immediate expression, and the best modes of expression are not always the most immediate.
My writing helps me resist unhealthy anger because it forces time into the equation and allows me to carve raw emotion into something no less powerful and much more refined.
5. What do you consider to be the biggest threat to free expression today? Have there been times when your right to free expression has been challenged?
I think the biggest threat to free expression today is the use of social media (or media in general) to bully and intimidate voices of dissent. My free expression has been constrained by an insidious, prejudicial “Who are you?” mentality that pervades our thinking without our realizing it, i.e. “Who are you to have a medical opinion if you are not an M.D.?” We have forgotten—or suppressed—the story of the lion and the mouse.
6. What’s the most daring thing you’ve ever put into words?
When I got sick, and no one could figure out what was wrong, I was forced to pursue a homeschool M.D./Ph.D. That was daring enough, but it became even more so when, after reading scholarly medical articles for nine years, I found what I believed was a possible explanation for the core etiology of cancer. I put it in writing and emailed it to the head of the NIH, a dozen cutting-edge physicists (the idea has roots in quantum physics), and some of the country’s leading oncologists. I’m still waiting to hear back.
7. Have you ever written something you wish you could take back? What was your course of action?
I once told a boyfriend’s teenage daughter that I thought she treated him with blatant unnecessary cruelty. I later wrote to her again and said it hadn’t really been my place to comment.
8. Post, stalk, or shun: What is your relationship to social media as a writer?
I’m on Facebook, where I post every week or two. I’m technically on Twitter, but I never post. I like being connected, but I don’t frame it among life’s more important things.
9. Can you tell us about a piece of writing that has influenced you that readers might not know about?
I’m re-reading a beloved mystic’s diary by Gabrielle Bossis called He and I (Lui et Moi).
10. If you could require the current administration to read any book, what would it be?
The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran.