A Conversation With Carolyn Holbrook: WSR Contributing CNF Editor
Water~Stone Review has always been a collaborative project of students, faculty, and staff at Hamline University Creative Writing. In addition to working with our faculty, and to fulfill a larger initiative of providing a place for new/emerging and underrepresented voices at Water~Stone Review, we now have rotating contributing editor
In this post we introduce Vol. 24 Contributing CNF Editor, Carolyn Holbrook through her conversation with Assistant Managing Editor, Robyn Earhart.
Hi Carolyn, thanks for making the time to talk to me! We’re excited to welcome you back to Water~Stone Review (Carolyn’s essay “Natalie’s Birthday” was published in Volume 4). I really like how you’re so centered in writing and community building and activism. In your essay collection Tell Me Your Names and I Will Testify, you wrote that you started organizing writing classes because you wanted to take them yourself. What made you interested in creative nonfiction or memoir? Why did you pursue writing in that genre?
I think I’ve always been interested in hearing people’s stories. I’m nosy! I’ve always just been curious about people’s real, lived stories. I heard an MPR interview years ago with Isabel Allende. She wrote a memoir about losing a daughter named Paula who died from a horrific illness. I don’t remember the exact question, but it had something to do with ‘how do you meld your true story with politics?’ and her response just blew me away. She said ‘I don’t think about the politics, I just tell my story.’ And for me, it was like, oh that’s how you do it. You just tell your damn story! Whatever is in your heart and your being and your life comes through if you’re willing to let it.
You know a lot of writers in the community. I’m always surprised when I see the connections you have. Who are some writers you admire? Who are some writers that you return to their work over and over again?
Are you familiar with John Edgar Wideman? He’s primarily someone who blends fiction and nonfiction. He has this memoir called Brothers and Keepers. He’s a professor and he has a brother who is in prison, and in the book he was trying to explore how these two people who grew up in the same house, one went this way and one went that way. I read that book over and over while my son and I were writing together the essay “The Bank Robbery” while he was in prison. In some ways, Wideman’s book gave me permission to do that.
Also Maya Angelou’s autobiography series which began with I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, or The Color Purple. Reading these stories gave me some of what I needed to be ok with telling the stories I wanted to tell. And even more recently Kiese Laymon’s book Heavy. He’s telling his story. And these stories give me healing, as difficult as it is to tell hard stories while you’re also trying to live your life. But these stories have to be told. You cannot pretend that bad things don’t happen. I think it’s good for us to stretch because our lives, our books, are not just about us. Our stories are not just about us.
I love that you said there are stories that need to be told, and I was curious while reading the essay “The Bank Robbery” in your book, how writers collaborate on a single project. Can you explain this writing process between you and your son?
It started with him asking me a question after he had been sentenced to a ten-year term in a federal penitentiary. He wrote me a letter that simply said ‘Mom, why did my life turn out like this?’ That’s all the letter said and I thought ‘Oh my gosh, I have some choices here. I can write him back and say because you messed up, or I can engage with him here.’ So I chose the latter. And I suggested that we just start writing letters back and forth to each other based on themes or based on whatever we were feeling in the moment. We wrote letters and then we would talk about them and the more these letters came, the more I was seeing how he saw his life, as opposed to how I saw his life, or even how he saw my life as opposed to how I saw my life. It just occurred to me one day that this could be an interesting, powerful, and useful piece of writing, so I asked his permission to put it together. A friend of mine published it and it’s been published three times now (my book is the third time). I was actually invited to do a workshop with the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop out at the Stillwater prison. They had given the students a copy of this essay. I’ll never forget this one student. He just could not look at me. I wasn’t sure if it was shyness or something else, but he wasn’t able to look at me, but he kept asking questions like ‘How were you able to do that?’ or “I wish my mom would do that with me.’ It turns out his mom was a member of the drug business and got him into it and he said ‘I wish I could just talk to her and ask her questions.’ I encouraged him to ask her, and I’ll never know if he did it or not, but I just saw from his reaction and from some of the other students that this writing work really was useful for them. And it was for my son who has told me many times that that was one of the things that helped heal him.
How do you see your position as contributing creative nonfiction editor leaving an imprint on Vol. 24? What will you look for in submissions?
I can’t imagine Vol. 24 not having a lot to do with 2020. I want people to face 2020 head on. Obviously they need to be literary, but it’s important to me that submissions be very personal too, be it memoir or essays. I want to know what happened to you on May 26th. Where were you, what were you doing when you first heard about or saw that video about George Floyd? I’m hoping there are a fair number of people who are willing to really go there.
What are some trends in creative nonfiction that you find exciting to read? What turns you away from reading?
What turns me away is when I sense the author is skirting the truth. It really bugs me in a published piece when I feel a writer has gotten away with not telling the real subject.
You’re a very busy woman right now! You’ve just published your essay collection, you’re teaching creative writing classes, you have your work with More Than a Single Story. What projects are you working on now?
More Than A Single Story is putting together an anthology of writings. Initially it was supposed to be on themes of writings that we did for the first five years of MTSS, but then George Floyd was murdered and Covid-19 happened, so we decided to open it up further and it’s an interesting mix of pieces that we’re working with. David Mura is my co-editor on that. In the third year we decided to include men but I wasn’t sure how to do that. I wasn’t sure what men were willing to talk about publicly, and the way I prefer to do things is to bring people together and figure it out, so I asked David if he would be willing to be “the guy” and help me figure it out. He and I are sort of the godparents in the POC literary community here in the Twin Cities! We’ve known each other forever and there’s nobody else I’d want to work with on this project. We brought together a group of men from all over in the communities of color, and we asked them ‘what do you want to talk about publicly?’ and David was all too happy to work with me on developing this anthology. That will come out from the University of Minnesota Press in September 2021.
My friend Diane Wilson—she’s been a writing buddy of mine for forever— has a book coming out from Milkweed Editions, and we’re having a public conversation about our books through Wisdom Ways Center for Spirituality on December 8th. I’ll be doing some writing for Wisdom Ways too that’s based on healing.
Going back to More Than a Single Story, I’m really excited about our spring season that begins on January 27th and will feature healers from different modalities talking about what things their clients and patients have needed since George Floyd and Covid-19 happened. We’ll have a therapist, a Hmong shaman, an Ojibwe healer, Sun Yung Shin (who is both a writer/editor and a body worker), a young woman who does several different healing modalities and was one of the cofounders of Minnesota Healing Justice Network, and I have a medical doctor who happens to have an MFA from Hamline University. We also have two writing workshops a few weeks around the panel, and Sun Yung will be teaching one of the workshops.
And in February for MTSS, David Mura, Bao Phi, Alex Pate, and Douglas Kearney are going to talk. In March we’re having a panel on being mixed race, and I think the timing is perfect with Kamala Harris being Vice President-elect! And in April we’re going to do a panel on financial trauma in the communities of color. We’ve done that a couple of times and people keep asking for that. And in May we have another panel that we’re calling “In the Eye of the Beholder” that will be on women of color dealing with white beauty standards.
I still want to get back to my novel writing too! I’ve got a lot going on so I’ve only written a few pages but I plan to get back to that.
Carolyn Holbrook is a writer, educator, and longtime advocate for the healing power of the arts. She is the author of an essay collection, Tell Me Your Names and I will Testify, a chapbook, Earth Angels, and Ordinary People, Extraordinary Journeys, and is co-author with Arleta Little of MN civil rights icon, Dr. Josie R. Johnson’s memoir, Hope In the Struggle. Her personal essays have been published widely, most recently in A Good Time for the Truth: Race in Minnesota and Blues Vision: African American Writing from Minnesota. She is the recipient of three Minnesota State Arts Board grants, a 50 over 50 award, and she was the first person of color to win the Minnesota Book Awards Kay Sexton Award. In addition to writing, Holbrook is founder and director of More Than a Single Story, an organization that produces panel discussions/public conversations where writers of color discuss issues of importance to them in their own voices and in their own words. She teaches creative writing at the Loft Literary Center and other community venues, and at Hamline University, where she won the Exemplary Teacher award in 2014. Learn more about Holbrook and her work at her website.