by Hannah Eason
Summer can play havoc with the senses. In North Carolina, early May, on the sunned campus of UNC-Chapel Hill, this matter is brought to the fore. This is where I’ve come to meet Minrose Gwin, Kenan Eminent Professor of English, Co-Editor of The Southern Literary Journal and author of the new novel from Harper Perennial, The Queen of Palmyra. By the time I reach her office, my breath has taken on an unaccustomed weight from the massive lawn’s uprising of pollen, and I find myself making starlet-in-panic hand motions, fanning myself rapidly.
Another explanation for the shortness of breath, the story possibly truer to heart here, is that I am about to meet the author who has been astounding me at the level of chapter, paragraph and word since I read that first sentence: “I need you to understand how ordinary it all was.” That line is our introduction to the voice of Florence Forrest, the ten-year-old girl who will share with us a story of race in ‘60’s-era Mississippi and the effect of events therein on the memory of an entire generation, of a whole place. Not only does Minrose Gwin manage to cover an angle on the race struggles which remains relevant even today, but she does so in a beautiful narrative built on phrases sharp as stings. This is a book to remind us that language is still a viable denomination of worship.
I need you to understand that talking to her is rather extraordinary.
Gwin is a true Southern Lady: she excuses the mess (of which there’s very little) and offers me cookies. We speak for a moment about the affront to easy-breathing that has been this summer and our potential cures. Her eyes have a bouncing gleam that defies so many allergens.
In our interview, she talks about one summer with an even greater impact on the senses of those who witnessed it. She talks about the summer prior to Florence Forrest’s fifth grade year, one that will press heavily upon the characters’ most powerful yet fragile sense: that of memory.
Hannah Eason: The Queen of Palmyra is such an interesting title. What can you tell us about it?
Minrose Gwin: Zenobia, Queen of Palmyra, lived in the third century and she was queen of a large kingdom in Syria, and she was just the smartest, bravest, most – in some ways – arrogant woman you would ever hear about in history. She claimed to descend from both the Queen of Sheba and Cleopatra. She was a warrior queen, and she took on Rome. And she would ride in the front of her forces as they fought and bare one breast to show her forces – her men – who she was.
The story you get in the novel is a very different version of that Queen of Palmyra, which goes to show how our stories can mutate.
There’s a character in the book, Zenie – Zenobia – who is the older black woman who lets Florence hang out with her, for pay, but doesn’t necessarily enjoy Florence (laughs). She’s named after the queen. But there are other characters – Eva Green, for example – who might also qualify as the queen. So, one big issue is: who is the Queen of Palmyra in the book?
H.E.: I think that as you read, you find yourself asking that. Well, who will finally have that title? I had the final impression that Eva was the queen. They all had some aspects. And, now that you’ve mentioned it, one other thing that was very interesting was Zenie’s reaction when Florence shares a dream she’s had in which she was Queen of Palmyra.
M.G.: Zenie gets very upset with Florence at that point, and I think that’s the most tension-filled moment between the two of them. And the reason that Zenie feels that way is that it’s something of hers, something her mother gave to her, her story. And you can’t take someone’s story. This is her heritage, part of her African American heritage. And here is this white girl coming, trying to snatch her inherited story from her, including her name. Her name is so important to her. Very, very angry reaction.
H.E.: It seems that a recurring lesson to Florence is the importance of stories. What would you say are the implications and the danger to people when they disconnect from their stories?
M.G.: The book is a lot about stories and competing stories, and Florence has to choose which story she’ll invest in. Zenie has her story about Zenobia, the Queen of Palmyra, which comes from the book’s title and is where Zenie gets her name. The father, Win, has stories about Bomba, the white boy who gets stuck in the quote-unquote savage jungle with quote-unquote savages. Florence is just so taken with stories her grandfather tells her about Uncle Wiggily, about his adventure and how brave he was.
You have all these stories circulating. Florence’s survival depends on her trying to make her own story. She gets so swept up in other people’s stories that you hope she becomes more and more connected to what her story is. I don’t want to give anything away, but this doesn’t happen until very last moments of the book.
Stories can also be deceiving, they can lead you astray; and I think in many ways that, until that very ending, Florence is still in something a false story of her own making, a story she can live with after everything that’s happened to her, a story she can survive in. But that story just gets exploded in the end.
H.E.: Speaking of this way she chooses a story she can live with, one that’s affected by her memory, you’ve brought out an interesting aspect of southern literature, in your work, in your thoughts on memory. And southern literature has seemed to become broader and maybe less defined than it was at one point. What can you tell us about the cultural ramifications of memory, as it relates to people who grew up in troublesome times, and the lack of memory?
M.G.: Especially the latter. I think in terms of Florence herself, there’s a line in the book – and I probably can’t quote it directly – but something about “Stories happen and then you tell them, but what you see depends on what you know.” With Florence, we’re not sure of what she sees; we’re still not sure by the end of the book what she has seen. What she originally saw did not correspond in her head to what she knew could be the possible truth. So her memory rejects that knowing, or that seeing.
The original title of the book was “What I Didn’t See,” which certainly bit the dust a while ago. The book is so much about seeing and not seeing, knowing and not knowing; and memory functions that way. Psychologists tell us that. If something happens and it’s so unbelievable we can’t imagine it could be true, we reject it. Post-traumatic Stress Disorder can involve a form of this rejection.
H.E.: And we see that play out frequently throughout the book. At several points, as Florence learns more of her father’s activities, we realize how innocent her perspective is, and how he and his friends encourage that innocence. It seems like we get to experience the development of her vision in this way.
M.G.: Competing stories, again, that counter her father’s story, become stronger in her mind. What I was really trying to convey is just like it says in the very first line of the book: “… how ordinary it all was.” It was ordinary. Racism was ordinary. Racial epithets were ordinary. The cruel ordinary of all of it is so chiling when we look back from a historical perspective.
H.E.: The characters in this novel are so strongly developed, never falling into cliché, never even falling into the expected. It would be so easy for Win, the father in the story, to fall completely into the category of villain with no human qualities. But we have the benefit in being able to see him, especially in the beginning, from Florence’s perspective. He’s just Dad. He too is ordinary. We don’t see him as completely inhuman.
M.G.: And he has a physical handicap. He has a history that has made the man he became, a very brutal history. I think the character I really worked on the hardest in terms of depth was Ray, Zenie’s husband, although I guess he is the most minor character of all the major characters. I felt that I really wanted to get to know him better and what made him tick. I really tried to give him more depth than I would ordinarily give a minor character, because he interested me so much.
H.E.: One thing Win Forrest, the father in the story, is very concerned about is outside agitators. He names, graphically at one point, all those he considers to fall in that category. Having grown up female in the South during a time when so many aspects of society were changing, what was your experience in regard to your community and the reaction to those perceived as outside agitators?
M.G.: That’s a really good, interesting question. I grew up in Tupelo, Mississippi, which is a small town in the northern part of the state not far from Memphis. Our town was much more what I call an Appalachian town than a Deep South town built on agricultural economy. Our town was more built on an industrial kind of economy. For that reason, I think there was a lot more interchange between African Americans and whites in our town. I don’t want to paint too rosy of a picture, because it’s not. It was certainly segregated and deeply divided according to race.
We had a very progressive newspaper editor in our town whose newspaper was in the moderate-to-progressive range, which was very unusual. There were only two or three newspapers that were like that in the state. So, I don’t think I got the full brunt of what theoutside agitator meant.
But, simultaneous to this project, I’ve been starting research on another project which is about NAACP field secretary Medgar Evers, who was assassinated in the summer 1963 and whose death figures into the novel. A lot of work for the novel came from my research – like the newspaper articles. I didn’t make those up, those are actual stories. What I found out in my research, to make a long story short, is that the term outside agitator was a real buzz word in that time, and anyone who came in from the outside was called an outside agitator. When Medgar Edgars was assassinated, they said outside agitators did it. They were to blame for everything.
H.E.: You’ve mentioned that your interest in race and gender, among other things, has focused a good deal of your attention on literature from the U.S. South. While the primary focus of The Queen of Palmyra was on race issues, I thought you also addressed gender in the sense of what it meant to be a wife or a daughter in that period of time. What can you share with us about how gender impacted the story?
M.G.: I think that there were issues around gender in the story. One of the things with abusive people, I think, is that their abuse spreads very wide. Here, you see kind of a network of the father’s abuse – it’s racist and it goes into violence in terms of race, but it’s also is violent in terms of the females in his family, his wife and his daughter. One thing I was interested in was how Martha, the mother in this story, deals with her situation. Here she is, she has a husband, she has a daughter; she’s trapped. Their economic situation is rather dire. The problem with Martha is that the way she handles herself in terms of the situation is not ideal by any means.
I was very interested in the relationships between African American women and white women in the story, as well. I really tried to bring that out in terms of the grandmother, Mimi, and her relationship with Zenie, her domestic servant, her quote-unquote maid, and how their relationship was so vexed and so full of tension. Zenie had so much resentment, and rightly so, against the white grandmother.
There’s a scene in the book which I think is very telling between a white woman and an African American woman in which Martha, the mother, tries to go and give something – a fan – to an African American woman, and the woman rejects that gift. Martha just can’t understand why this woman, whose house is burning up hot, who has just gotten out of the hospital, would reject that out of pride.
H.E.: And I thought it was interesting that in that scene, Florence was the one who had to explain to her mother how the woman feels about this and why she feels the needs to reject the fan. And that just shows you that Florence grew up fast and she grew up very intelligent. Very observant of the racial issues going on around her.
M.G.: Yes, this ten-year-old, going on eleven-year-old, girl knows more about race relations than her mother or her grandmother do.
H.E.: And I found that from the midpoint of the novel on, it was so hard to remember that this is a young girl, you feel like she must have grown up by years at this point, she must be sixteen or seventeen now.
M.G.: My agent, when reading the manuscript early on, asked, “How long can this summer be?” There is a lot that happens in that period of three months, two-and-a-half months really.
H.E.: Going back to some of the relationships between female characters in the novel, Florence has a diverse array of female role models. It would seem, from the surface anyway, that her mother has the least to offer her. In what we see manifest as Florence grows up, and in the very brief time we have with Florence as an adult, what would you say are some of the gifts that come specifically from her mother?
M.G.: One of the things that can be said about the mother – and I tried to built characters with good and bad, complicated, nuanced – is that she does try to rebel. She’s so rebellious and in a subversive sort of way. In the first chapter, she tries to shove the father’s box off the table. She rips up the Citizen’s Coucil cartoon that he puts on the refrigerator. She runs to the bootlegger to warn them of the [Klan] activities that will happen that night, which was a pretty brave thing to do. She’s very rebellious, and I think when the rebelliousness finds its way in Florence, it comes very powerfully. I think that rebelliousness comes from her mother.
And of course, it’s not that simple. You have Eva [pronounced Ev-ah],the young African American woman at the center of the story, who has a lot of grittiness and rebelliousness and, unlike the mother, stands up for what she believes in. She doesn’t cop out. She’s had an impact on Florence also. There’s Zenie, who is very subversive and rebellious in her own way, fearful at the same time and more cautious than Eva, her neice. She also has a big impact. Hard to say exactly how much comes from the mother.
H.E.: And rebellion turns out to be very important for Florence, to get her out of her situation, onto something better.
Through several of your characters, but especially through Florence, you show a very strong southern voice. In your opinion, who are some of our prominent writers of the southern tone?
M.G.: As far as some of the earlier writers who influenced me: William Faulkner, Eudora Welty. Welty had very strong female protagonists with a strong sense of voice. If you’ve read the short story “Why I Live at the P.O.” you see that. Sister is telling her story and she’s so angry at her relatives, going to go live at the post office, she’s so angry. More contemporary writers have had an impact on me also. Lee Smith, for instance. Jill McCorkle is a very strong voice. Alice Walker – her stories are so powerful. Randall Kenan is also very important to me. In terms of younger writers, Tayari Jones. Her book, Leaving Atlanta, is very powerful in terms of historical events of the 1980s. In Atlanta at that time, about 20 children were murdered, and she writes stories from their perspective. There are so many, really.
H.E.: I’ve recently found out of I was misinformed on a statistic, I thought North Carolina was still second only to New York in terms of having the most living writers. From recent research, I believe we have been bumped down, but we do have a high number of living, working writers from this state. Do you think there’s something in particular about the land, or our sense of place, in North Carolina – and in the South, more generally – that drives people to chronicle?
M.G.: Eudora Welty said, “Place is the crossroads of circumstance” and also “the heart’s field.” I think in a lot of southern writing, experience is marked by place. And I think attachment to place historically comes from the fact that a lot of people grow up in small towns and communities where they’ve lived and their families and their families before them for a very long time, very grounded and rooted. You mentioned that southern literature is changing, and it’s true – people are much less place-bound. There’s a McDonalds in every small town.
H.E.: It has changed. What was very refreshing about reading The Queen of Palmyra is that it seems very self-enclosed in the sense that everything about it is southern. Your metaphors, your connotation, your words – all your word choice – these things don’t lead your reader’s mind away, they all seem to reflect right back into Florence’s place, her home. It makes for a very solid project, one that so definitely is what it is. That made it very enjoyable.
M.G.: Thank you. Faulkner taught us is that for a book to be universal in the larger sense, it needs to be grounded in the local, there has to be a locality about it. There’s a lot in southern studies about the global, the impact on the U.S. South and all these other southern places around the world. I think that one of the things that is a connector is a strong sense of place. If you read a book like Shani Mootoo’s Cereus Blooms at Night – very powerful – it’s set on an imaginary island in the Caribbean, but it has many of the same themes: racism, violence, abuse, all these stories very firmly grounded in place. People are starting to think about southern in a very global sense.
H.E.: You have written about the global implications of southern literature and events here in the South, suggesting that it is further reaching than we might at first think. What, would you say, are some of the main lessons the South has for our global, modern circumstances?
M.G.: That is a big, big question. For myself, I can say, in terms of writing, I’ve always been very interested in the idea of blindness, how people can look the other way when something terrible happens right under their very noses. All along, I had in the back of my mind Nazi Germany and the kinds of events that occurred in the 1930s. How ordinary Germans, who weren’t bad people, just turned away from circumstances that were in front of their very faces – and how is it possible for people to do that? We always have villains in the world, but the real problem is people who turn away from villainy. And so that was the implication for me. I think southern literature is race history, and the painful history of the south is speaks volumes to many different situations in the world. Ethnic wars in Africa, for example. The Holocaust. All these sorts of things, they’re connected.
H.E.: Any particular books you feel awakened your love of literature, or encouraged it, at least?
M.G.: (smiles) I must confess, To Kill a Mockingbird was a very important book to me (laughs). Beautiful book.
When I was a girl – you’re asking about when I was a girl – I loved the Uncle Wiggily stories. I loved Nancy Drew mystery stories. When I was young, I loved mystery. And then I started reading books like Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre and all of that. I’ve always been a sucker for secrets, young protagonists, mystery.
H.E.: Those are very exciting, and great to have in young literature. It shows children that reading isn’t boring, it isn’t stodgy. They get to see themselves like Florence did in the place of Nancy Drew, which allows her to see herself in this way she perceived her characters, larger than life. And I think she addressed this directly at one point. It goes back to what we’ve talked about with the importance of stories. They allow you to see yourself in ways that go beyond your own boundaries.
M.G.: And it’s interesting what happens to identity when that happens. Because there’s some shifting around in identity when you read, even if you don’t have the experiences in the stories you read except vicariously. Something in your identity gets shaped by that story; it’s very mysterious and it’s very subtle, but it happens over and over again. When I was girl, my grandmother would take me to the library every Saturday, the county library, the Lee County – named after Robert E. Lee – county library. You could check out seven books a week, and I would check out seven books every week. I was never happier than when I was coming out library with arms outstretched, stacked up with books because I just felt like I had a treasure. I would usually read maybe four or five of the seven, and some I just couldn’t read. But I read a lot.
Drawing our interview to a close, I thank Gwin for her time. When I mention that I received the e-book for review but that I will definitely purchase a copy as well, she gives me a copy from her bookshelf and jots in it the kind of personalized inscription that warrants – to book-nerds and memorabilia hounds everywhere – the placing of favorite items in airtight cases, yelling at anyone within the radius, “Don’t you touch that!”
Like so many of her characters, Minrose Gwin is a combination of gentility and fierce intelligence.