by Sonya Chung
Cole Lavalais’ debut novel Summer of the Cicadas had me from page 1; more accurately, page 2. “She sharpened Cecilia’s preferred poultry knife until the mildest touch to its edge yielded a perfectly formed line of blood across her fingertip. The bathtub sat half filled with water.” What follows is a scene both graphic and spare, alarming and lucid. There is something awfully familiar about this opening scene, and yet somehow I knew I was about to read something I’d never read before, enter a world and encounter a character I needed to understand better. “Vi wasn’t a Carver, couldn’t care less about the interworkings of her high school or the leagues of Ivy that would follow. The only thing Vi cared about was Cecilia . . . “
Cecilia is Vi’s mother. Vi and Cecilia are very close—in some ways troublingly close—and yet deep secrets and misunderstandings separate them. Now, miles will also separate them as Vi—who survives the first pages both scarred and reborn—leaves her home in Chicago for college at Florida’s A&M, an historically black university.
Writes Danielle Evans: “Cole Lavalais brings Viola’s journey to us with her gift for language that is at once sharp and soothing, asking from the very first page that we not look away from what hurts, and that we not stop asking what might heal it.” It’s one thing to “ask” the reader to not look away, it’s another to captivate us—intellectually, emotionally, even physically—with said gifts. Lavalais’ rich, concise, confident writing mesmerizes; and Vi’s inner world of truthful confusion and yearning, as she seeks to understand her mother’s trauma and her own emotional and historical untetheredness, seizes us wholly with its intelligence and honesty. As a non-black reader, I was aware of being dropped into the rarified world of A&M—“multitudes of blackness” (Diamond Sharp, Rookie)—with my immersion in Vi’s perspective as, ironically, my lifeline. That Vi’s mental instability becomes the reader’s radical truth and sanity is yet another stunning achievement of the novel.
Sonya Chung: I was so immersed in your prose style—the voice of the novel—which I would describe as “propulsive”— compressed and staccato, while also densely imagistic and at times lyrical. For example, right from the beginning:
The air in Tallahassee didn’t move. In Chicago she’d fought to stay on her feet. Lake Michigan’s winds blew hardest through the South Side, pushing one way and then the other, rendering movement agentless. But in this new place, nothing pushed. . . In this new place she would either be self-propelled or static. Her limbs chopped through the thickness like a toddler on new legs.
Can you talk about literary influences that may have shaped or inspired this narrative voice? Who have you been reading throughout your formal literary education, and before that?
Cole Lavalais: The first piece of literature I can remember reading is James Weldon Johnson‘s The Creation. The memorization and recitation of the poem was an integral part of my mother’s southern education, so it became a part of mine. I’m not sure how old I was, but I had to memorize and recite it for my mother.
The poem was in an anthology called Black Voices, which was chock full of poetry, short stories, and essays by all sorts of black writers, so it really was my first lesson in the depth of black literature, and I instantly fell in love with Langston Hughes and Gwendolyn Brooks’ love letters to the black community. One of my favorite fiction writers is Gloria Naylor. Her novel Mama Day changed the way I read. The way she rendered multiple points of view, magical realism, and setting as character was genius to me. I would return to it time and time again, and always, always, the narrative would extend a new and glorious gift to me as both reader and writer. So very early on in my writing journey, I did my best to emulate her, even though I didn’t completely understand how and why she made the choices she did.
At some point while I was working on my M.F.A. at Chicago State University, my mentor and teacher, Sandra Jackson-Opoku, encouraged me to work to separate my own voice from my influence. I was finally able to do that, years later, while working on Summer of the Cicadas. My voice really was honed out of frustration in my PHD writing workshops. I didn’t feel heard, so I stopped needing to be heard, and thus was able to discover my own voice.
SC: Can you say a little more about the nature of that frustration with those writing workshops?
CL: You may have heard of night blindness. It’s an inability to see in darkness or at night. Those workshops were night blind. Anything featuring black people, they reacted as if they needed a seeing eye-dog or special guide to walk them through it. It was really frustrating and tiring. The things I needed them to focus on—plot, point of view, setting—you know, the elements of fiction—came second to their need to know about the “type” of people I was writing about, or the “type” of place. They refused to let themselves enter the particular “fictive dream” I was creating because they were unfamiliar with the surroundings.
SC: You founded the Chicago Writers Studio: what do they do differently/better than the workshops you’d participated in previously?
CL: The Chicago Writers Studio is dedicated to helping a writer fulfill his or her intention, not the instructor’s. My job as a writing teacher is to help writers tell the stories they want to tell, not to censor those stories. No experience is treated as foreign or anthropologized. That doesn’t mean we don’t challenge writers to move past stereotypes and cliché. Those types of shortcuts don’t get you closer to your intention; they move you further away. What it means is that we don’t question use of another language because it’s not English, and we don’t demand explanation for cultural references. I tell my workshops if you don’t need mashed potatoes and gravy explained, then don’t ask for an explanation of eloté. Google is your friend. Use it and keep reading the story.
SC: A central thematic and existential idea in Summer of the Cicadas is legacy. Your protagonist—an African American college student named Vi who was raised by a single mother—is propelled by the question, Where do I come from? Who are my people? This question has been explored in stories about African Americans before, but often in a white-America context, i.e. the legacy of fractured lineage via forced migration and slavery. Tell us about the decision to explore the people/no-people divide within an African American context, via the varied backgrounds of students at an historically black university.
CL: It really grew out of my tendency to explore the mother/daughter trope. It took me a while to realize how much of my work circled this relationship and the idea of a daughter’s obligation to her mother. And I guess I just took that idea and worked the metaphor for all it was worth. At the center of it, that is what privileging history is, this belief that we owe the past something. Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it, but in reality, the jury is still out that knowing actually stops anything. And as a fan of Freud, I’m also really interested in repressed memories, why we repress memories, and our society’s insistence on uncovering everything. And the HBCU just becomes the perfect lab to experiment in. History is like a God in African American Studies and the HBCU. What the African American people were before our “erasure” by the Middle Passage and everything that came after sits at the center of educated blackness.
SC: What did you, personally, discover in the process of exploring head-on this question of whether knowing your history changes anything/prevents repeated mistakes?
CL: I discovered that it is all very complicated, and there are strong arguments to be made on both sides, and it depends on the particular situation and particular person. I do believe that there is a reason that memories fade and stories are lost. It’s difficult to move forward if we carry every pain and microaggression forward with us, and for black people in America that pain is massive. Sometimes forgetting is the greatest act of self-care, but forgetting can also be the greatest act of self-destruction. So it’s all very complicated.
SC: Without giving too much away (and hopefully to create some intrigue and suspense for readers) . . . Vi’s search for a resolved, more whole sense of self via her history does not yield what she thought or hoped. And at the end, the reader learns something that Vi never does—a sort of “key” to her search’s misguidedness. Tell us about your decision to reveal historical reality to the reader, but not to the character.
CL: I struggled with adding the historical information. Part of me felt as if the audience should be left in the same position as Vi and feel the same sense of fragmented knowledge, but I also know the novel is a very specific art form, and it seemed “coy” to deny the audience that small bit of information, especially in my debut novel.
SC: A related question—you do not at all “explain” the culture of an HBCU school, and the non-black reader has the sense of being a sort of voyeur and an outsider. An example is the slave auction event: this seems to be a tradition at the college, with a deep and complex history, to which the non-black reader is not privy; and so it feels both intriguing and unsettling to witness it. How much, if at all, did you think about audience as you wrote?
CL: It’s funny that you chose that scene, because I believe auctioning off eligible bachelors is something I’ve seen dozens of times on white television shows, but when the bachelors are black, it changes everything. Everything. And I had fun exploring the intersectionality of what most would see as a harmless and fun charity auction if the bachelor were white. In terms of audience, there is no universal black audience, so I just tried to leave enough room for anyone to climb into the experience and get next to Vi, if they are willing; but I refused to Other Vi or any of the other characters. I wanted to make sure the audience would have to do the work to get to know her, not the other way around.
SC: Can you say a little more, then, about audience-consciousness while writing? In recognizing there is no “universal black audience,” pre-empting what you call “Othering” a character, and being aware of the work the reader must be willing to do, there does seem to be some idea(s) of potential audience at work for you. What does it mean to write for “everyone”? And have you received any interesting/surprising feedback from readers?
CL: In terms of audience consciousness, I guess I can go back to my graduate workshop experience. It made me resolute and steadfast in my vision. I was conscious of audience in the sense that I ignored them. I wrote from the position of an insider to an insider, but I think that’s what most white writers do, and it’s never questioned. Does Hawthorne explain? Does Twain explain? Does Poe explain? Nope, but that’s the invisibility of whiteness. For me blackness is invisible. I don’t see stereotypes. I see people. I present a world, an experience. It’s up to the audience, be they black, white, or brown to allow themselves to enter or not.
SC: In the acknowledgments, you refer to “Vi’s story in many of its incarnations.” Can you share with us what some of those incarnations were? What were your greatest challenges in telling Vi’s story? And related to that, how long did Summer of the Cicadas take you to write?
CL: Because I was working, had a family, and was in graduate school, there were long periods of time when I didn’t get a chance to work on Summer. I finished the first draft in about a year, then I went to graduate school, and realized it needed some work, so I finished another draft or two while working on my Masters. Then I finished another draft while working on my doctorate, so from first to final draft it was probably ten years. Because I was forced by life to take so many long breaks between drafts, each time I returned to the novel, I had grown as a writer, and it was almost like beginning again each time.
SC: Are you working on another novel? Is the process similar, or are you able to work more consistently this time around? If the latter, is that a better way of working in terms of character development and revision?
CL: I prefer consistency because I’m always growing and changing as a writer, and for a novel I believe a consistency of vision is important. I am currently working on a novel and two short story collections. It’s much better for me to completely immerse myself in the world I’m revealing. Right now, I’m prewriting. I’m thinking about structure and plot and backstory. I’ll be taking a couple months of this winter to start writing the first draft of the novel.
SC: I would guess you work with a lot of young writers. Do you have any thoughts about what it meant for you to debut after the age of 40, versus what it might have looked like to launch a book-length work into the world, say, 10 years earlier?
CL: I actually have more over-40 writing students than under-40. Actually most of my students are over 50, and it doesn’t surprise me at all. I never really thought of my age as a defining factor in my writing, and I hope others don’t either. I wrote a book when I was ready and published it when it was ready. My age was not a factor. I have an aunt who just self-published her first book, and she is a woman of a certain age. I’m not sure who decided 30-40 was the prime time to write or publish your first book, but it’s all bull shit.
SC: There are so many battles to fight right now since Trump took office. Or, perhaps there aren’t any more than there were previously, it’s just that now they’re more visible and polarized? Do you feel any more, or less, devoted to novel-writing given the time, focus, and energy they require to write?
CL: I’m a big believer in the old adage “If you stay ready, you don’t have to get ready.” Constant access to news and social media makes us reactive to each new battle and distracts from the war. There is nothing happening that hasn’t been happening for centuries. Find your lane and figure out how to integrate your talents and access every day. Don’t be distracted. I’m focused on writing and teaching. It’s what I have to give. It’s what I’m best at. With every word I write and every would-be writer that I’m able to encourage or strengthen, I’m changing the world.
Homepage image via colelavalais.com