by Jen Lue
As a River, Sion Dayson’s debut novel, is set in Bannen, a small town in middle Georgia struggling to overcome the legacy of Jim Crow. The narrative begins when Greer Michaels, the town’s prodigal son, returns to care for his ailing mother with whom he has a tense and strained relationship, due to her traumatic past.
The story shifts between 1977, the year of Greer’s return, and the events leading up to his abrupt departure in 1961, at the age of sixteen. Through a series of flashbacks that incorporates the voices of Greer’s mother, his father, and his teenage lover, As a River unravels the source of Greer’s family’s secrets along with the tensions that simmer beneath the surface of his bifurcated hometown. Greer’s journey is echoed by the sentiments of Ceiley, the teenage daughter of his childhood neighbor, and the two form a bond as outsiders and knowledge-seekers, eager to finally comprehend the place they come from.
The river in As a River is the Sicama, better known as Snake Creek, a dividing line between East and West Bannen and a central meeting point between characters. In a conversation with Ceiley, Greer describes Snake Creek as having “its own directional pull, seemingly against the dictates of physics.” It’s the type of force that breaks across racial, class, and generational lines, and describes both the unlikely attraction between characters and the strong impulse we feel to protect ourselves and the ones we love.
Sion Dayson is an American writer and EFL teacher based in Valencia, Spain. Her work has appeared in Electric Literature, Utne Reader, and The Rumpus among others. She is the recipient of grants and residencies from the Kerouac House and the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund. As a River (Jaded Ibis Press, September 2019) is her first novel. Sion spoke to me from her fall book tour about characters, process, and the passions that drive her writing.
Jen Lue: As a River takes place in 1977 in Bannen, Georgia. Did you base Bannen on a real-life place? How much research went into the time and setting of the book?
Sion Dayson: Bannen, Georgia, is a fictional town that I created, for the most part, out of whole cloth. Because it was an invented place, I felt a freedom to imagine it into being.
When I began the book, I was playing around with the present time of the novel being in the ‘80s. But as the multigenerational aspect of the manuscript started coming into focus, mapping out the longer timeline became more crucial, and certain real-world events in the past served as important touchstones that spurred me to shift the narrative a bit further back.
Settling on the right time period relied on a bit of alchemy between investigation and intuition. Once I circled in on the years that made the most sense for the story, I wove appropriate time markers into the text – Brown vs. Board of Education, the Freedom Rides, the most popular songs playing during the era.
As for the setting, I also wove in certain real-world elements – the flora one would find in middle Georgia, the type of soil where crops grow – but for the most part, I built the town from my mind, one sentence at a time.
JL: The novel weaves together the voices of two characters: Greer is a single Black man in his thirties who returns to Bannen to care for an ailing family member, and Ceiley is the teenage daughter of Esse, a single mother who grew up with Greer in his old neighborhood. Why did you think it was important to include both narrators instead of focusing on just one or the other?
SD: It’s interesting. I don’t necessarily call Greer and Ceiley narrators. There’s a third person narrator that is most often close to Greer, but it’s also close to Ceiley. Then it also flies briefly to other characters and the narrative even breaks out into certain first-person sections from secondary characters. As human beings, we live in relation to each other. One person’s story never exists in isolation. That’s probably why I have this flexible narration that accesses different people in the story, even if it focuses mostly on Greer as the protagonist.
But you’re right that I saw Greer and Ceiley as a narrative pair. Their unlikely friendship heightens each other’s stories, which have many parallels. Ceiley’s mother claims that she was miraculously conceived. And Greer’s conception was shrouded in secrecy by his mother, though for different reasons. So both characters in a way are confronting how their origin stories shaped their lives.
Greer is returning after having tried to flee his history. Ceiley is a smart, curious teen frustrated by her mother’s seemingly illogical tale. She itches to get out and her desire to see the world is only magnified by hearing about Greer’s travels. But as the two grow closer, Greer is able to teach Ceiley a lesson that he really needed to teach himself: “You leave this town because you’re angry, leave with unsettled business — believe me, you’ll never really escape it.”
That is, of course, one of the major takeaways of the book.
JL: Silence in families and the effects of desire, especially romantic desire, seem to be key themes in the book. Did these themes come to you organically or do you find yourself drawn to them over and over again?
SD: I think writers have obsessions, and both love and desire are some of mine. I’m also struck by what happens in families, these units that are supposed to be the most primal of connections, yet can lead to such estrangement. What happens in our families is so often the root of our issues and what we have to heal. I’m interested in what people do and do not tell each other. And why.
JL: In the novel, moments of joy or connectivity in relationship are often followed by sobering truths. At a pivotal point in the narrative, Greer chooses to leave Bannen rather than confront the consequences of something he has learned as a teenager. He spends much of his adult life in Paris, London and Ghana. Why was it important for Greer to leave? Do you think, given the narrative of the novel, that it was possible for him to choose differently?
SD: Greer is a sensitive and caring person. A good man afraid that he’s not. The information that he learns as a teenager rocks his entire foundation. And because he wants to be a good man – but what is right is not always so clear-cut – he’s too overwhelmed to stay through the pain of confronting the consequences of the revelation head-on.
Of course, whether you stay or not, what happens in life travels with you. And so, Greer doesn’t really escape. He’s haunted by the information, even as he leaves Bannen far behind. I don’t think the book would exist without his choice to flee. The crux of the book to me is Greer having to come to terms with what’s happened.
There’s that adage that there are only two plot lines: a stranger comes to town or a man goes on a journey. In a way, I feel like Greer encompasses both. The first scenes I wrote centered on Ceiley and Esse. But then Greer came back to town, and I felt a lot of energy as soon as he entered the picture. He, of course, was not a stranger, as Bannen was his hometown. But he was a stranger to Ceiley. His journey is that upon learning devastating information he leaves, only to return years later to face what he had tried to flee.
Just as I’m not someone who really regrets things – we do what we do at the time and then learn from that – the question of whether Greer might have chosen differently doesn’t particularly resonate. His story and the choices he made is what pushes the narrative.
JL: Ceiley and Greer are united by their love of books and literature. Emily Dickinson, Edgar Allen Poe, and Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass serve as connective points between characters. What are some of the works that inspired you in the writing of As a River?
SD: I think whenever a writer sits down to write, she’s approaching the page with the accumulation of all she’s read coming to bear. I also believe that’s how we move through life in general. Art affects us; each piece adds to our understanding and we absorb it into ourselves.
As a River was written over a pretty long period of time so I can’t single out particular works that inspired the book directly. It may sound sacrilegious to say, but reading doesn’t usually inspire me to write. They are two different occupations to me.
For instance, two of the writers I admire most are James Baldwin and Toni Morrison. But they’re such geniuses that what I often feel after reading their work is the desire to stop writing. What is even the point when there is already such brilliance I cannot hope to aspire to? Ha!
But I needed those works to inform my own work, of course. And I needed the complex sentences and interiority of William Faulkner. I needed the deep empathy for outsiders I read in Carson McCullers. I needed Flannery O’Connor and Randall Kenan and many others, too.
JL: What books, films or authors are you interested in right now?
SD: I am eagerly awaiting The Butterfly Girl by Rene Denfeld. The Child Finder left me breathless, and The Butterfly Girl is a follow-up. Rene is a person whom I admire not only for her gorgeous writing, but also her generous way of participating in the world. She’s a fierce social justice advocate and foster care mother, and she’s turned some of the tough experiences of her life into such beautiful, transcendent outputs. She’s a role model to me.
I’m also awaiting Jackie Shannon Hollis’ This Particular Happiness: A Childless Love Story. I’m 40 and it’s kind of that last intense period of pondering my life as a woman without children or if I would want to take the leap. Again, it must be me searching for models of how others have tackled the big questions of their lives.
As for films, I watch mostly series, if I watch anything at all. The last perfect series I watched was Fleabag. Nothing has been able to match it for me since. Guess it’s my obsession with love and desire again. What a rich, complicated exploration Phoebe Waller-Bridge made of that terrain!
JL: What do you hope for Greer and for Ceiley, after the narrative arc of the novel is over?
SD: Oh, well that I will never say! I very much want readers to have their own experience and opinion on that. But I do love both of these characters very much so I am obviously rooting for each of them.
JL: In a recent episode of Writer’s Bone with Daniel Ford, you mentioned that the publication of As a River took longer than you expected. What advice do you have for emerging writers, especially those who might consider themselves “late bloomers”?
SD: To keep firmly in mind that writing and publishing are two completely different animals. Do your work the best you can. Ignore other people’s timelines; the only one that matters is yours. Know that finding a home for your book might be long and circuitous – and a lot of it is down to luck, too. Keep building and nurturing your network, not because of what opportunities it might lead to, but because connection is what gives meaning to everything we do. Your champions are out there. You just might not know who they are yet. Be the champions for others, too.
It took me as long to find a publisher as it took me to write the book. While it was a difficult road while I was walking it, I am actually delighted that it’s coming out now as opposed to years ago. I feel like I have more tools today to handle the process. I’m also putting much less pressure on the book than I might have before. Because it became clear that I couldn’t depend on the book coming out, I’ve had to find purpose in other things and redefine success for myself. The fact that the novel is available for people to read now already feels like I’ve hit the lottery. Anything else is just a cherry on top.
As to being a late bloomer, you can blossom anew at any age. To bloom is beautiful, no matter at what stage it happens.
Jen Lue is a nonfiction writer based in Brooklyn, NY. She is the recipient of grants and fellowships from Asian American Writers’ Workshop, Kundiman, VONA/Voices and Jerome Foundation among others. A graduate of the MFA program in memoir at Hunter College, she works at The Moth and serves on the board of the literary journal Epiphany.
Photo credit: Frédèric Monpierre