Debra Monroe on the families we're born with and the families we build
I've known Debra Monroe since the early 1990s, when I was a student in her Master of Fine Arts graduate fiction workshop at Texas State University. One of the first things that struck me about Debra was her passionate belief that literature has a purpose in the everyday world. She's won the prestigious Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction, a John Gardner Fellowship, the Violet Crown Award, and the Quarterly West Novella Contest. She's the author of two award-winning collections of stories, The Source of Trouble and A Wild, Cold State, and two novels, Newfangled, a Borders' Original Voices pick and an Elle magazine Top 10 Book, and Shambles, which the Texas Observer praised as a novel of "graceful ease and substance." Monroe's new book, On the Outskirts of Normal: Forging a Family Against the Grain (Southern Methodist University Press), is a memoir about being the white mother of a black daughter in a small, rural Texas town. A book launch party will be held at BookPeople on June 17, with a portion of the profits benefiting Extend-a-Care for Kids.
Scott Blackwood: Parenthood seems different for everybody –constant revelations but never the revelations you expect. Being an adoptive parent has even more singular kinds of revelations. As you're telling this story, it seems your daughter, Marie, reawakens a sense of wonder in you as a writer and mother, that you're like the baby, "recently arrived, thrilled with the ordinary." At the same time, like all parents, you have that fear that it could all be taken away in an instant.
Debra Monroe: I am Marie's mother now, and I also have a 15-year-old stepson and a great husband. I am struck all the time by how lucky I am, and, as I say in the book, that fear of loss is the price of love. If we love other people, we now are always one unlucky moment away from heartbreaking loss, a turn of events that could ruin our happiness. But I try not to be paranoid, so I won't miss the here and now. Love mixed with fear and protectiveness is the subject of everything I have written since becoming a mother. Love mixed with overweening paranoid fear was the subject of everything I wrote before I became a mother. Becoming a mother forced me to face the fear head-on and make a deal with it. I don't want my children to grow up wary and afraid.
SB: I've known you a long time and see so much of you in Marie – her way of speaking with her hands, her intonation, her curiosity about everything, her sense of humor. How has being Marie's mother changed the way you think about identity? What do race or genetics have to do with it? What does it mean to belong?
DM: How do I think about identity and race? I don't think about race until it comes up. We don't bring it up, Marie and I, not often. But other people bring it up. There are two schools of thought about transracial adoption: 1) It's no big deal. 2) It's a big deal. I'm somewhere in between.
It's always been about motherhood for me, about love. If we lived in a world without other people, I would be color-blind. But we don't want to live in a world without other people, and race is part of identity in America. So sometimes you have to face situations squarely, tactfully, and stand up for your child. It requires a kind of low-grade courage and also a nimble readiness to extemporize – a willingness to notice when people are making a too big (and unnecessary) deal out of race, either her race or mine. If they're too rude, too retrogressive, with old-style bigotry, I quickly insulate her from it and explain the historical reasons why a few people feel that way, and we don't bother with them. If it's just friendly curiosity, and there was plenty of that, especially in the country, I have had to be polite, even "educational," a race ambassador. That's part of the gig. I can't blow people off, because Marie is always watching, listening.
As for genes and personality, Marie and I totally have the same sense of humor. We crack each other up. But she has qualities I don't have, some of which I envy, qualities that were hers since birth – her love of adventure, her extreme sociability. ... Adoption teaches you firsthand what scientists and cognitive psychologists have known for years: It's both nurture and nature.
SB: On the Outskirts of Normal is a book about families – the ways we abandon families and the ways they abandon us and the ways we sometimes rejoin them, like your re-established relationship with your mom. But the book's main focus is how to build a family on a different model from the dysfunctional one you were raised in.
DM: There are so many families now that aren't blood-related but are families all the same. We find people we love like family. Any friendship that survives a decade or two – highs as well as lows – is a deep, abiding tie. I love my family of origin, and our strife has divided us and bound us together too. And yet because we are always talking around the elephant in the living room, we'll never be really close – so much evasion in every conversation. I know at least half the people reading this article will feel a sense of recognition when I say that the families we make for ourselves, the families we find – people who have our backs, and we have theirs – are the families that sustain us. You aren't necessarily related to them. I am now – related to a husband and two children. But even we are a blended family. Our extended family is blended. We spent several holidays every year with my husband's ex-wife and her extended family, because these are my stepson's aunts, cousins, grandmother, and they have embraced me and my daughter. This might sound odd or newfangled, but it's wonderful. My daughter was growing up with a very attenuated and tentative sense of extended family, as if we were alone, just the two of us hunkered down in the big, wide world. Now she feels the constant support of a father, a (step) brother, and a whole set of (ex-step) aunts and cousins, and an (ex-step) grandma too, who make her feel essential, protected. So for me, finding family is finding good people with the same values. You're very lucky if that happened for you at birth, and if it didn't, you get other opportunities.
SB: One of the things that struck me right away about the memoir is that it's, at its heart, about the need to tell and retell stories to make sense of things, to create a meaningful plot out of unruly life; it's partially about its own form, the ways we retrace our steps to find meaning. How do you think you came to this form of telling?
DM: When you write a novel, you select details that will convey meaning. But when you write a memoir, you sift through myriad details trying to see which ones will yield meaning and which ones are red herrings. Life is a mass of unruly details. Some have significance. Some don't; they're just random. So writing a memoir meant not only sifting through details, hoping some would yield meaning. It also meant depicting that process. For instance, during the most tense, difficult moments I cover in the book, I'm recording details, but I'm also recording myself wondering about details: wondering what this means, what message I should take away, and what if I take the wrong message? Life doesn't necessarily have a moral, but if you are discerning and analytical, you do learn from your mistakes and move forward in a better direction. Fiction is, on the one hand, more coy about serving up its theme. On the other hand, you have more freedom while writing fiction to deliver whatever theme you want. In a memoir, you are obliged to find that theme in real experience.
The reason we read stories and write stories, and the reason stories are at the foundation of every world religion, is because finding stories in real life (which means imposing order on real life) is what gets us through the night. Think, for example, of all those divorced women who identified with the memoir Eat, Pray, Love, who found form for their lives by reading someone else's story. For me, writing a memoir, I was searching for meaning out of sad, difficult events that I would have otherwise chosen to avoid. But if sad, difficult events can't teach us something about ourselves, they're just sad and difficult. I wanted to have endured those times for a reason. We all want our troubles and joys to mean something.
Scott Blackwood is the author of We Agreed to Meet Just Here (New Issues), which won the Association of Writers & Writing Programs Award for the Novel and the Texas Institute of Letters Jesse H. Jones Award for Best Work of Fiction, and In the Shadow of Our House: Stories (SMU Press). A graduate of Texas State's Master of Fine Arts program and a former Dobie Paisano Fellow, he now teaches in and directs the Master of Fine Arts program at Roosevelt University in Chicago.