A Writer’s Insight: Shara McCallum

Shara McCallum’s essay, “Through a Glass, Darkly,” appears in the autumn 2020 issue of The Southern Review. Here, she discusses the intertwined nature of imagination and memory, the ways identity shifts within different communities, and challenges of writing about race.

Shakirah Peterson: “Through a Glass, Darkly” is a biblical reference, coming from the writings of the Apostle Paul. It’s often used as a metaphor for our relationship to truth. What connection were you hoping readers would make of the title, before seeing how this metaphor unfolds?

Shara McCallum: In my view, images in writing are almost always pressing to become metaphor, to be transformed. I don’t think you need to know an allusion’s source to feel that pressure and especially in an image brought forth so powerfully by the compressed phrase, “through a glass, darkly,” which engages the mind even before we consciously ask what it signifies. Ultimately, though, I hope this image-as-metaphor does what you are suggesting—reinforces the idea that the essay is about our relationship to and pursuit of difficult to apprehend truths. While the essay is personal, centered on my racial identity, migration, and my father’s death, the struggle to see something at the edges of sight is a theme the essay keeps returning to and which the image of peering “through a glass, darkly” contains. Beyond the symbolic nature of the phrase, I hope it also sparks the mind’s ear—the delay of the adverb is unusual syntax and generates music.

SP: You write of how you continue to see the world through your inner child, and “the distance between where she stands and her first home, quickly receding from lived experience into the realm of memory and imagination.” What role(s) does memory and imagination play when attempting to understand the world? In the realm of memory and imagination, do you find that they work hand in hand in rebuilding past experiences? Do they sometimes work against each other?

SM: Memory and imagination play a huge role for me, as I think for many of us, in trying to understand the world. They aren’t neatly divisible, as memory is some part imagination. In the act of reconstructing the past and creating narrative, we are making it up each time. My imagination, my way of looking at the world, as a writer is heavily dependent on memory but not mimetic to it. I’m also in debt to memory’s sisters, elegy and nostos, for instance. I did not know all this when I began, but I can see twenty-five years now in that much of what I’ve written, whether poems and essays, is predicated on looking back. This way of looking harnesses the emotional force of memory: in the act of remembering, we feel we can be returned to all parts of ourselves and made more complete. And I wish that aspect of memory alone could hold or would suffice for me, but I feel the need to record the opposite truth I’ve also experienced. That memory exposes loss all the more clearly and sounds the longing for a return that cannot happen, except in the imagination, in the writing itself.

SP: Throughout the essay, we are introduced to the multitude of ways America seemingly reminded you of your race as a child. You describe each incident as a “radioactive isotope and [you] its unstable nuclei.” You give examples of your grandmother taming your hair with VO5, your sixth-grade teacher attempting to show comradery by comparing skin colors, two white classmates describing your dance moves as Black, and the constant questioning of your accent. How has being forced to view yourself through multiple outside lens affected your sense of self? Do you find that these experiences caused a dissection of self? If so, how d you reconcile them? How do you become whole again after the constant dissection of self?

SM: Being forced to see myself from outside myself regarding race has been dislocating and not always in a good sense. But I hope it’s also given me useful insights and deepened my capacity for empathy. I don’t think it’s unique to me, the experience of ‘dissecting’ the self. To perceive a gap between how we see ourselves and how others view us likely just means we aren’t narcissists. Still, how and why the gaps between self and world emerge in my view, and the degree to which they feel at times to be a chasm—those are my own and I try to get at all that in this essay, around the experience of looking white and being black. As far as reconciling contradictions in the self or trying to piece myself back together after looking at them for so long—I think I do this almost daily by affirming my attachments to the events, people, and places that have shaped me and that I continue to have define me.

SP: In Jamaica, you write that you belonged to the tribe of Dan and that your color was blue. This is the only mention of color in relation to your identity before you came to America and learned that you were Black. Can you describe the importance of the color blue in the Rastafarian community of your childhood?

SM: This speaks to the branch of Rasta, The Twelve Tribes of Israel, to which I belonged as a child. Twelve Tribes is rooted in a belief that Rastas are part of the lost tribes of Israel, needing to be regathered. Each of the tribes are identified with a different color, which comes out of the story of Jacob and his coat of many colors. In the essay, “blue” becomes a metaphor for one of my earliest understanding of the self, even as a child, that my “I” was part of a larger community of being. I’m not sure at forty-eight I yet really understand what to be an ‘individual’ means. I of course recognize that I’m not the same person as you or any other, but I don’t have an understanding of how Shara purposefully exists outside of her relationship to her “tribes,” whether constituted by family, race, nation, etc.

SP: You’ve lived in different parts of the U.S. and you write that where you are in the country plays a role one how your body’s likely to be read. Where in the U.S. have you lived? Can you give more examples of how the Black body is digested in relation to the atmosphere it is residing in?

SM: I’ve lived in several states in the U.S. since I migrated: first Florida (Miami) for over a decade, then brief stints in Maryland (D.C. area), New York (upstate), and Tennessee (Memphis), and now I’ve lived in central Pennsylvania nearing two decades. As you note, in the essay I touch on each of these and how the likelihood of me being read as Black shifts. Your second question makes me think of something very different, though—how Black writers in the literary “atmosphere” are being “digested” right now. At my most pessimistic, I see the workings of some of the basest elements of U.S. culture—obsessions with money, fame, youth and newness, and news that’s shallow in its treatment of complex problems and short on history. When I’m optimistic is when I look to the work of a writer like Randall Kenan, a colleague from my time in Memphis who died this year. Randall’s prose, including his nonfiction opus Walking on Water, actively resists easily “digested” notions of Blackness.

SP: In your poetry collection, Water Between Us, you wrote a poem called “What the Oracle Said.” The poem includes the following lines, “You will leave your home: nothing will hold you […] You will spend a lifetime chipping away at layers of flesh […] nothing will be enough.” In this essay, you say that you’re often told that you talk too much about race but all you’ve ever said about race “has never been nor ever could be enough.” Do you find that the discussion of race, while imperative, can also be exhausting? In what ways does having dialogue surround race fuel you as a writer? Does it ever drain you?

Writing about race is all of what you point to: exhausting, draining, but also fuel and imperative. What feels necessary to train my attention on as a writer is whatever I have unfinished business with and that often includes the subject of race. I allow a lot of things to sit in me, until I have the energy and courage to deal with them and feel provoked to speak. Sometimes this takes years, as was the case with this essay: I lived the writing of it for decades. But I trust all parts of the process—frustration, waiting, fatigue, a renewed sense of urgency and capacity to meet the challenge of the work—are as necessary for writing honestly as they are for trying to live the same. With enough time and seeing where I’ve failed to bring something fully into view, my stubbornness and convictions will return me to the page.

Shara McCallum is from Jamaica and is the author of five books of poetry published in the U.S. and the UK. Her sixth book, No Ruined Stone, is forthcoming in 2021 from Alice James Books. Her personal essays have appeared in Creative Nonfiction and Fourth Genre.

Shakirah Peterson is the editorial assistant for The Southern Review and an MFA candidate in creative writing at Louisiana State University. She writes across all genres: poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. She is originally from Los Angeles, California, where she earned a BA in communication studies at California State University Long Beach.

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