“I won’t make excuses for them, and I won’t make excuses for myself, either”: An Interview with Nickole Brown

Joli Livaudais

Joli Livaudais

Fanny Says, Nickole Brown‘s hilarious and touching poetry collection centering around her grandmother, is garnering all sorts of praise. Fanny Says, Julie Marie Wade writes in The Rumpus, “is in essence one long poem—138 pages—chambered like a heart and pumping language like blood to every stanza throughout this single, vital organ.” In the Oxford American, Parneisha Jones writes that “[w]hat makes this book essential to the growing cannon of writers confronting the American heritage is that these poems resist sympathy.”

The author of the novel-in-poems Sister and co-editor with Judith Taylor of the anthology Air Fare, Brown currently works at White Pine Press as editor for the Marie Alexander Series in Prose Poetry. She graduated from the Vermont College of Fine Arts, studied literature at Oxford University, and served as Hunter S. Thompson’s editorial assistant. I got the chance to ask her some questions about Fanny Says, which she answered from her office on a hot summer day in Little Rock, Arkansas.

You’re busy these days. Where are you writing from? 

Hi, Jenna! I’m answering these questions from Little Rock, Arkansas. We’re right on the cusp of summer, which means the mockingbirds are good and loud, repeating their roll call of songs from all the other birds in the neighborhood and throwing in an imitation of a car alarm or two. With the heat index, we’re already in the triple digits, so for today, I’ve retreated into my office with some iced coffee and probably won’t reemerge until the crickets kick up their legs to tell me it’s cool and dark and safe outside again.

I won’t be here for long though; on Saturday, my wife Jessica and I hit the road again, this time to teach for a few weeks at the Sewanee Young Writers’ Conference. After that, I head over to Murray State in Kentucky to hear those big, green dog-day cicadas and work with the graduate students there. The rest of my summer then will be spent on tour, rambling up to New York and P-town then over to New Mexico and every place in between that will have me. By the time I’m able to return, the leaves will be edging themselves orange, which makes me a little sad. It’s a long time to be away from home.

A long way from home indeed. How did you decide which stories about your grandmother to put in Fanny Says? Were there stories about your grandmother that you thought about putting in your book but didn’t?

Well, there were some standards I knew had to make it into the book. How she bought her first car, for example. She was only twenty-three, but even then she had enough moxie to buy the exact one she wanted, even without her husband’s permission, which was unheard of in those days. She ordered it by calling the lot and literally purchasing it over the phone. They delivered the car straight to her door; she had never even driven before.

Or another story of hers: how as a child she used climb up into a tree and stuff her bloomers with green apples. Or how she carried me from the hospital by snatching me from the nurse and wrapping me up in her mink coat. Or how she used to go to church revivals and let her cousin Elizabeth—who “never was right in the head”—take her up to the altar. These are the Fanny Classics, the stories I heard a hundred times growing up and, quite literally, the ones I was fortunate enough to have written down, word-for-word, as Fanny said them. With these little snippets dictated on the page, I felt as if I could write the poems I needed to about her life but still have her speak for herself as well.

But yes, of course, there were many pieces that didn’t make it into the book. I’ve been filling my notebooks with Fanny’s stories since high school, so a large part of constructing this manuscript had to do with sifting through those materials, deciding what to keep and what to cull. Some were cut because they were too personal; even though I wanted to flesh out Fanny’s life, I didn’t feel comfortable revealing stories about others in the family. Others were left behind that weren’t as solid on the page as I needed them to be; even though dear to me, I had to remember that these were poems and had to stand on their own. Still more were lost because, well, I had to serve the reader. I had to remember how complicated her life was, how layered and contrary she became, and I didn’t want to pile so much on that the narrative became tangled and confusing. It’s about choice though, isn’t it? Yes, writing is almost always about choice.

FannySays_COVERDid including or excluding some of the less, shall we say, socially acceptable elements of these narratives influence your choices? I am thinking of issues of racism, or the baby-raising techniques in “Fanny Says How to Tend Babies”? 

Here’s the thing: my charge was to tell her life, close to the way she would have told it. I had to transmit her advice, just as she gave it to me. I mean, I won’t say she didn’t give me some outdated tips on how to raise a baby, but you have to remember that she came from a time when doctors actually encouraged women to smoke in order to keep the birth weight down, which would insure a safer delivery.

And you also have to remember that she had seven children, all of which, miraculously, survived to adulthood. Every single one of her kids (and some of her grandkids, including myself) were raised without breast milk or car seats or any of the contraptions we use now to protect and coddle infants. I don’t think I ever once rode a bike with a helmet until a few years ago, and yes, when I get an upper respiratory infection, I still do as Fanny taught me and choke down a mix of whiskey, honey, and lemon before I fuss with a doctor.

Like all of Fanny’s advice, there might be a whole lot that’s ridiculous, things that you would never dream of doing nowadays, but look closer—there’s a lot of solid advice there too. When it came to raising her children, you can see a fierce independence in everything she said. She was wary of doctors, and rightly so, especially when one considers the medical practices of her time. And she kept things simple.

Many mothers today are tangled up in a web of information, thinking they don’t have everything they need, but she knew better. She’d tell them, “No sense in going out and getting baby magazines and all that expensive shit swinging and rocking and propping your baby up. You won’t use it two seconds, and besides, it won’t be good to you in six months. . .  Use common sense—now, if you’re hot, they’re hot. If you’re cold, they’re cold.”

Now, what was I thinking when I wrote about Fanny’s racism? Well, that is a more complicated question, a conundrum that takes up the entire third section of my book, really, with the long sequence “A Genealogy of the Word.” (I’ve been asked about this before, so I hope you don’t mind if I use a bit of what I’ve written for other interviews as it’s quite difficult to articulate.)

Anyhow, I’ve never worked on a single poem so hard in all my life as I did that one, and it still makes me queasy. You see, it shamed me—it still shames me—the way that Fanny talked sometimes. To make it more difficult, things never were as clear as I needed them to be to get a grip on right and wrong, good or bad, because as hard as it is to believe, one of Fanny’s best friends in this world was a black woman hired to come to her house every morning. They would put on a pot of coffee and cut-up nearly all day, and once I got older, a part of their fun was to rile me with racist banter and jokes. I suppose it was their way to have a laugh at the uptight girl who read too many books, who saw fault in the way things were, and in the not-so-subtle way of politically-correct teenagers, who was casting judgment on a way of life they were trying to live as best they could. I won’t make excuses for them, and I won’t make excuses for myself, either.

You see, the legacy of the South, the entire damn culture of the South, well, it shamed me then, and it shames me now. But it’s one thing to turn away from your culture, to even reject it outright; it’s another to abandon your people. I suppose this poem is my way of dealing with some of the ugly truths about my grandmother so that I can understand her better. Li-Young Lee talks about this in his memoir, The Winged Seed, as he struggles with his Chinese heritage in America. He talks about how we all, at a certain age, spurn our own kind and feel as if we should pretend not to know them. “Then we find our kind again and love them,” he writes. “If we’re lucky.”

And now you’ve gone full circle. On your website that you’ve encouraged readers to send you stories about their own grandmothers. Have you learned anything interesting, or been surprised by anything you’ve gotten?

Absolutely. I’m still encouraging readers to send in profiles of their grandmothers, especially if they have their own kick-ass matriarchs that fussed and fought their way to some kind of solid ground in this life. The page, which I lovingly call “The Bingo Hall,” is a memory wall, really, a place where these fierce women can be recognized in some small way.

So far, I’ve gotten grandmothers from Paris and Cuba, Alabama and Appalachia. I’ve gotten Cajun grandmothers and Jewish grandmothers, grandmothers who rose up from coal-mining towns and world wars and abusive husbands. These are women who, like Cynthia Arrieu-King’s grandmother, “smoked, drank, and ate whatever she wanted and lived to be 88.” I love these women. I love them for their chutzpah and tenacity. Things were considerably harder for all women just a few generations back, but that didn’t stop them from driving cars and wearing pants, and well, doing exactly what they pleased.

What do you hope that your readers take away from your book?

I wrote this book because I wanted to understand Fanny, because I couldn’t stand the thought of losing her for good. You see, I could feel the memories of her blurring every year since she passed in 2004, and that was unacceptable to me. I wanted my sisters’ kids to know that good fire of hers in their veins, and writing this book helped me remember too. In terms of the reader, well, I’m hoping they’ll keep her alive in their own way too.

At the very least, I hope they’ll get a kick out of her cock-eyed stories, maybe sit for a spell in her particular kind of world. Most importantly—and I’ve said this before—I want readers who have never met anything like my grandmother in their whole life to somehow gather up some of what Fanny had, and if need be, pick herself up from a difficult situation and walk straight past, as Fanny taught me to do, with her head held high.

—interview by Jenna VanWely


This entry was posted in Interviews on June 29, 2015