Journey to Self-Awareness
by Ariana Benson
"Education is, at heart, about forgiveness; when we learn we are liberated from ignorance."
Emily Bernard’s latest literary offering, Black is the Body, is radical in its nuance.
Bernard, a black woman who identifies as a Southerner—born in Nashville, Tennessee—explores themes of race, identity, trauma and belonging with a deftness that captures the true complexity of the stories she tells. Black is the Body is presented through a series of essays, in which she shares personal details about her life and commandeers her narrative by addressing a range of topics including interracial relationships, black hair and transnational adoption—all of which are native and familiar to her.
Bernard navigates emotionally-charged material with a grace characteristic of a writer who appreciates the gravity of her subject matter, but is careful to avoid allowing this weight to overwhelm her memories. She narrates with a frankness that is both endearing and eye-opening. Black is the Body captures the essence of Bernard’s experiences so honestly that every reader, no matter their personal background, can hear their voice echoed through her words.
Below, we were able to talk to Emily Bernard about her stories, and what it means for her to tell them.
Black Is the Body: Stories from My Grandmother's Time, My Mother's Time, and Mine (Knopf). Released on January 29, 2019.
One of the major questions you ask throughout the collection is how we define the idea of “home” for ourselves. How does your body, and your existence in it as a black woman from the South, as a survivor of violence, fit into your conceptualization of “home?”
What a great question. I do think that ultimately home is a feeling, something that resides within us. In other words, it’s not just a geographical location but it’s how that location makes us feel. No matter its faults, including its modest, shall we say, population of people of color, New England is home to me. When I was a child, I was compelled, like many of us, to read the fiction of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edith Wharton. I’m sure I grumbled about it like everyone else in my grade, but somehow the stories, with their dense, haunting settings, got inside. So, my attachment to New England is emotional—romantic rather than intellectual. But as far as physical safety, my body truly relaxes only when I am in racially diverse environments. It’s just hard to feel at ease when you are carrying the burden of representation on your back. In the end, I suppose I have many homes. I feel lucky for that but often wonder what it would feel like to be someone who could experience her whole self in a single place.
"I have been delighted every time a reader uses the word “invitation” to describe Black is the Body. It is my deepest hope that the book will inspire honest introspection as well as deep conversation among individuals."
In what ways does storytelling in the form of essays help you localize your identity—give it a geography?
I’ve never thought of it this way before, but storytelling may be the most fundamental and consistent place where my identity is located. Writing enables the paradox of both “fixing” you in place but also enabling you to roam. I like the form of the essay because there is a real structure there, a real mandate: you must take the reader on a journey of discovery, and something ought to be learned by the end of that journey. I begin an essay with a question. Often, I am surprised by what the answer turns out to be. It’s always a little scary to journey deeply into the unknown, even—or maybe especially—when the unknown is the personal interior. But the demands for restraint and economy of language that go along with the essay form provide me with the orientation I need to embark upon those sometimes dark adventures.
Is there anything—a book, a quote, a person—you turn to for guidance when you’re struggling to bring a story from your mind to the page?
There are so many! I think a lot about utility when I write. The adage goes that you’re supposed to write “for yourself,” but I always imagine an interlocutor, someone who can use the story I am telling in order to put words to their own experiences. There’s a poem by Sean Thomas Dougherty called “Why Bother?” It reads: “Because right now, there is/someone/out there with/a wound/in the exact shape/of your words.” I came across the poem quite randomly but I immediately transcribed it into my notebook. It speaks so exactly to what I try to accomplish with my own work. For me, the writing has to be useful. The story has to have application beyond the single experience of the individual. From the particular to the universal—that’s what I believe.
Your role as a teacher/professor seems to be an essential one to your identity. Is there someone, whether in or out of the classroom, you would consider to be your most influential teacher?
My mother was my first and best teacher. She literally held me on her hip in the kitchen while she simultaneously stirred pots on the stove and taught me the meanings of words. She bumped up my allowance money if I learned to use the words on her word-a-day calendar in written sentences. Outside of my home, my favorite teacher of all time was Miss Tune, my 6th grade English teacher. She developed a special “treat” for her ambitious literary students, something called “Happiness Words.” We would get extra credit for learning words that were a little more complicated than typical 6th grade vocabulary words. The teacher I reference in my book, in the essay “People Like Me”—the teacher who believed that people over-use the word “love”— was my favorite high school teacher. She wasn’t at our school for very long, but she was a tremendously bright spirit, confident and full of life, who not only filled my own spirit but modeled for me what a life in literature for a woman and a teacher could be like.
Have there been any ways you’ve had to unlearn some of the ideas or notions about identity? If so, how did you did you do it?
I grew up plagued by the worry—and shame—that I simply was not black enough. There were very few African American kids in my classes; often I was the only one, even though our school was truly integrated. I always felt out of place among both the black and white cliques. It took me years to understand that my experience, which felt unique and lonely at the time, was actually fairly common, so common that the out-of-place and between-two-worlds phenomenon is ironically fundamental to a certain kind of black experience itself. It took a long time, but I finally came to a place where I found something interesting and productive about living in the in between; I stopped fighting and starting courting the experience. Now I would say that the outsider experience is what fuels my creativity and drives my writing voice and ambitions.
You’ve spoken about how difficult it was to write about your attack as you did in “Scar Tissue.” What did it take to reach the level of vulnerability required to recount such painful memories?
In the case of “Scar Tissue,” it took a mandate: a very good friend of mine, who was then dean of the Honors College, asked me to deliver a plenary address on the topic of the acquisition of knowledge, or simply how we know things. I decided to write about the stabbing because I knew that there were multiple lenses through which to view that story. I was actually shocked to find that newspaper reports on the crime, as well as hospital and police records, told a remarkably different story about the incident than the one I experienced. I began that essay the way I begin every essay, which is with more questions than answers. Which source would reveal the truth? I honestly wasn’t sure. It turns out the truth lies nowhere and everywhere! Memory lies but the body doesn’t. And in order to tell this story, I had to unleash the story in my interior, which wasn’t easy. Writing “Scar Tissue” honestly required me to re-open the wound, but I believe it was worth it.
One of the most remarkable aspects of the collection is the way you speak about race so frankly and candidly. Was there ever a time you approached the subject with more trepidation, especially in predominantly-white spaces? If so, how did you learn to ease this apprehension?
Fear of censoring or disapproving responses from readers all along the racial spectrum kept me silent for a long time. At a certain point, I realized that trepidation was preventing me from living in an essential way, and that my silence would not protect me. I had written or edited other books that revealed the truth of me, but that truth was hidden behind the lives of others. Getting older and more trips to the hospital occasions by adhesions made me see that my time on earth was not unlimited. But finally, it was just no fun being safe, and it just wasn’t me. Instead of protecting myself I was living a lie, and I certainly wasn’t helping anybody else. I can’t say I’ve moved beyond the apprehension—I think most writers want to be loved, both for their writing as well as for who they are—but I am motivated by the belief that there are people out there who are also living in silence when it comes to grappling with race. I want to join them there, in their ambivalence, and hopefully give them some relief.
In an era when national conversation seems to increasingly focus on dissonance between racial groups, how does your collection work to address these tensions?
I begin my book with an essay about the stabbing in order to make clear to my reader from the opening pages what my intentions are, which are to be truthful and revealing. I thought that by revealing my deepest wound, literally, I would be letting the reader know that my stories would be a safe place for them to expose and explore their own vulnerabilities. So many people have questions about race, what it means to us personally, how it affects us publicly, and how it has evolved as an experience and a concept. In my book I address these questions not with lectures but with stories. There are too many wagging fingers out there when it comes to race, and too much fear about simply asking questions and making mistakes. Education is, at heart, about forgiveness; when we learn we are liberated from ignorance. My teachers in and out of school—some of them are my students—have forgiven me for large and small mistakes. So how can I proceed by doing anything else in this world than forgiving others? Not every soul can be saved, but most people most of the time, I firmly believe, are just trying to do the right thing.
Food, one of the major themes in the essay “Interstates,” is a key aspect of Southern culture. In many ways, storytelling is like cooking, formulaic and spontaneous and instinctual all at once. Many Southern black elders’ recipes are dependent upon a special, unconventional ingredient that brings the dish together and makes it unique. Is there a literary “secret ingredient” that you add to your essays?
I love your cooking analogy—yes. You have explained to me through your example why it is that I always compare my writing ambitions to the composition of a good and satisfying meal! Yes, indeed, I have my secrets. Maybe they should remain secrets but your insights are so clever, I can’t help but reveal them to you. I always look for an opportunity to circle back to a rather obvious idea, phrase, or image and expand upon it so that the reader has an “aha” moment. A friend of mine calls it “the return.” I actually did not have a name for it until she pointed it out. Usually, it just comes out naturally in the flow of the composition, maybe the way cooks just know in their gut what a dish needs to bring it to life, and then that spice or flavor becomes a signature. As an example, I think of the moment in “Motherland” when I return to the Hughes quotation about Africa.
In what ways do you hope readers use this collection of essays and apply your words to their own experiences?
I have been delighted every time a reader uses the word “invitation” to describe Black is the Body. It is my deepest hope that the book will inspire honest introspection as well as deep conversation among individuals. I love hearing from readers who have made the book their own somehow, either by using it in a book group, sharing it with someone with whom they have wanted to have delicate conversations but didn’t know how or when, or simply breathing a sigh of relief to see that they are not alone in the world. Not all of the conversations that the book has sparked have been focused on race, but the book seems to contain questions to which other people have also been searching for answers.
As noted in the subtitle, Black is the Body is a collection that weaves together stories from three generations of women in your family. What stories do you hope your daughters Giulia and Isabella will write about you when they get older? Which ones do you think they’ll tell?
Another fine and intriguing question. Let me see…I always imagine the experience of my stabbing will work their way into my daughters’ narratives about themselves and their childhood. Twice now their young lives have been disrupted by emergency trips I have made to the hospital, and then there’s the reality that this shocking fact about their mother’s life has been recorded in a book! I am also sure they will write about the fact that their mother couldn’t cook to save her (or their) lives, while their father switched a mean fanny in the kitchen, as we say in the South. Those are answers to your second question, but maybe they are also answers to your first questions. I would much rather the girls write about my foibles humorously and tame the stabbing story and subsequent hospitalizations into something they can use and something that doesn’t haunt or inhibit them. A story that idealized me would simply be untrue. I guess I hope they will say ultimately that my writing about them did not hurt them in any way, that they accepted it as something that was a mundane part of their lives. Above all, I hope that they will write that they were proud of me for telling the truth and taking risks, even if they didn’t always agree. But I’m not sure that writing will be part of my daughters’ future lives. Isabella once told me she wanted to be a teacher. When I expressed delight, she said very clearly, “Not a teacher who writes books.”
Ariana Benson is a writer from Chesapeake, Virginia. She is currently an undergraduate student at Spelman College, studying Psychology and Creative Writing. She is the recipient of the 2019 Edith A Hambie Poetry Prize and will pursue a MA in Poetic Practice at Royal Holloway, University of London, starting Fall 2019.