“Interview with Artress Bethany White”
Interviewed by Samantha Hui
From the interviewer:
I had the recent pleasure of reading and reviewing Artress Bethany White’s newest book Survivor’s Guilt: Essays on Race and American Identity. (You can read that review here.) After finishing it, I wanted to keep the conversation going. So, here we are. I hope you enjoy our conversation.
Who is Artress Bethany White?
Artress Bethany White is a poet, essayist, and literary critic. She is the recipient of the Trio Award for her poetry collection, My Afmerica (Trio House Press, 2019). Her debut essay collection, Survivor’s Guilt: Essays on Race and American Identity (New Rivers Press, 2020), is currently listed as a Community of Literary Magazines and Presses ( CLMP ) social justice read. Her prose and poetry have appeared in such journals as Harvard Review, Solstice, Poet Lore, Ecotone, Birmingham Poetry Review, Tupelo Quarterly, and The Hopkins Review. White has received fellowships and residencies at the Hambidge Center for Creative Arts, the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, The Writer’s Hotel, and the Tupelo Press/MASS MoCA studios. She is associate professor of English at East Stroudsburg University and teaches poetry and nonfiction workshops for Rosemont College Summer Writer’s Retreat in Pennsylvania.
Interview with Artress Bethany White
Samantha Hui: Thank you for sitting down with me, Dr. White! As you know from my book review, I loved Survivor’s Guilt and want to do what I can to help more readers find it. So, I thought, how about an interview? I appreciate you taking the time out to chat!
Artress Bethany White: Thank you, Samantha. I am so gratified by your enthusiasm.
Samantha Hui: I have my own ideas, but who do you imagine is the ideal audience for this book? Why?
Artress Bethany White: When I was writing, I was really trying to imagine the broadest audience possible. That said, I know that it would certainly be a handy read for those interested in becoming social justice allies, as well as those who are still wondering what is really going on in America today around racial equity issues. Finally, educators at all levels can benefit from reading this book and avid readers like yourself, whom I imagine are interested in stories about life outside of their own subject position.
Samantha Hui: You write in your introduction, “Survivor’s Guilt answers a resounding yes to the question: Could true understanding be only a shared story away?” What is it about stories that are so effective in convincing people to believe and empathize with each other? How do they stand up in relation to statistics and facts in achieving “true understanding?”
Artress Bethany White: I believe that the heart of storytelling efficacy is that it reminds listeners that we are all on a life journey and that human wisdom depends heavily on who and what crosses your path within a lifetime. Every human on earth sprung from an oral tradition, a tradition of storytelling that included tales of heroic survival against all odds and tales of divine intervention when there seemed to be no way out. So, really, this book is operating in a tradition of cautionary tales for the survival of the human race. To take a narrower view, we automatically identify with common circumstances when our lives intersect with the lives of others.
When people read my work and they experience what I experienced when my child lost a friend to suicide, they then inspect their own lives and realize they may have reacted similarly when their own child faced the same challenge. To go a step further, maybe this reader is not a reader of color and never imagined a Black woman having this particular experience. Suddenly, not only are they identifying with my experience, they are identifying with a person of a different racial makeup. The conversation that may never have happened out in the physical world is now taking place across the pages of a book.
Samantha Hui: “Kissing Dixie Goodbye” was one of my favorite essays in your book. It can feel rather disheartening to read on one page that Dollywood was an antidote for a country’s neglect of impoverished children’s entertainment while on the next page, the nostalgia of Dollywood reminds us that American nostalgia is rooted in white idealism. Do you have any ideas for how we can navigate these two perspectives? How we can feel nostalgic of the past while also being aware of its problems?
Artress Bethany White: That is not an easy question to answer. I could just say let’s add some new exhibits at Dollywood. How about a faux juke joint called Jasper’s Skinny where kids could rock out to Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, and the Drifters. After all, that’s what a lot of white fans were doing during the ‘50s anyway. Or maybe add a Miss Carol’s Soul Food Shack where you could satisfy your craving for mac and cheese, sweet potatoes, and collard greens. This would certainly help that “sanitized of all Black culture” feeling I get when I walk through the doors. However, the fact that thousands of people have walked through those doors for years and never noticed one thing off speaks to the necessity of a much larger educational program.
Samantha Hui: What was your writing process for each essay? Were any of the essays more difficult than another?
Artress Bethany White: The essay “Sonny Boy” was written first. It came easily, as in all of the information I needed came quickly through conversations and a little bit of regional research. “American Noir” and “A Lynching in North Carolina” came with their own challenges because they dealt with my family’s personal slave and lynching history.
Still, I think “Be Ready: Tales of Racial Ambushing in the Academy” was really emotionally difficult. I adore teaching, but there is nothing worse than being around a lot of well-read, highly educated individuals and experiencing racism. That dynamic is bone-crushing because you realize it rests on your shoulders to carry the social justice banner for an entire institution, and it is impossible to carry all that weight on your own. Too many BIPOC academics have been entrusted with bearing that unrealistic burden.
Samantha Hui: We see in “A Lynching in North Carolina” that, in addition to showcasing your expert prose in essay form, you’re also a wonderful poet! How did this poem come to be—and why tell this specific story in this different form?
Artress Bethany White: I mention Countee Cullen’s The Black Christ in the essay, and the piece really served as an inspiration for me. Something about the story of lynching in verse struck me as being distinctly different from my encounter with the topic in novels like James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man and William Faulkner’s Light in August. I have always been deeply troubled by the Christological symbolism used in historical lynching ritual. The cross and the wearing of white by Klan members.
Perhaps people have lost sight of the fact that the most virulent of turn-of-the century racial pseudoscience embraced a belief that Blacks were not descended from Adam (because he was white), but were of a separate line of descent. This belief allowed for racism and Christianity to sit comfortably beside each other on a church pew.
For me, Cullen’s poem captures so much of that sentiment, and I wanted to allude to that connection in my poem. Once I found out about the lynching of Estes, I felt I could not ignore that my poem mirrored the narrative of his abduction and murder. I included it to make peace with history in my own mind.
Samantha Hui: Throughout the book, you often tell us about your experiences as a teacher prior to national traumatic events. I would love to hear more about your experience in times like this. How has being a teacher influenced your writing of this book?
Artress Bethany White: So much of this book springs from my teaching experience, and it was really difficult to choose which experiences and books I’ve used in the classroom I would write about. I wanted to write in the memoir essay/personal essay form, so I needed to avoid straight literary criticism. I address poets like Natasha Trethewey, Layli Long Soldier and Ocean Vuong, but I could easily have added Rita Dove, Marilyn Nelson, and Willie Perdomo to these pages and many, many more.
I can’t even tell you how many students have said to me I have never had a course like yours or read books like this. I went through years where I would change the books I used every single semester. I felt compelled because my students knew so little about Black people, Asian people, Latino people, Indigenous people. I felt I had to get them caught up before they entered the world and made their social bubbles so small that they would never truly know about the artistic production coming from these communities.
I was trying to be a good academic and good cultural worker at the same time and I often struggled to keep up while pursuing degrees and raising a family. This story is old now because there is a large community of writer academics who operate like this, but it is the reality of what I have been doing for years. Before I moved around the country so frequently, and before social media, I would meet up with my students from two, three, five years previous who would casually say, “Hey, you know your class changed my life.” So, the experiences I write about in this book, yes, I want them to change lives; otherwise, what would be the point?
Samantha Hui: What are five books, movies, or tv shows you would recommend to people who want to work on their “consciousness-raising?”
Artress Bethany White: Ida B. Wells’s A Red Record, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs, The Age of Phillis by Honorée Fannone Jeffers, Cyrus Cassells forthcoming collection The World that the Shooter Left Us, and, because I still meet people who have not read it, Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me.
Samantha Hui: What projects are you working on now?
Artress Bethany White: I am working on a poetry collection about my family’s history of enslavement in the United States. Some of the poems have been published in Birmingham Poetry Review and Solstice: A Magazine of Diverse Voices and others are forthcoming in Green Mountains Review, Tahoma Review, and Salamander.
Samantha Hui: Looking forward to it! Thanks for chatting with me & IBR, Dr. White!
About the Book
Publisher: New Rivers Press
Category & Genre: Nonfiction, Discrimination & Racism
Paperback: 196 pages
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