Kalisha Buckhanon gets inside the mind of a young black girl to tackle myths about race and class in her new novel Solemn.
Kalisha Buckhanon describes her latest book as: “a story about a girl who’s growing up in a trailer park in Mississippi, and when she is 8 years old witnesses the murder of a baby that she realizes she is related to. From that point, this idyllic community these people had created for themselves begins to fall apart.” The book is titled Solemn after this precocious girl, but it’s much more than a coming of age story. A native of Kankakee County, Illinois, Buckhanon says she wanted to write about black families living in a trailer park to show a different side of black culture and community, one that represents intact families doing their best to survive in the world.
After publishing her short story “Pearletta” — named for the mother of the murdered baby — we couldn’t wait to experience Buckhanon’s book and get the full story. While Solemn is at the center of the novel, which progresses as she becomes a teenager and is forced to leave her community, all of this book’s characters are as flawed as they are admirable. Solemn’s mother, Bev, longs for an education or just some appreciation from her family, while her father, Earl, struggles to be a good man despite temptations all around.
Solemn, which has been praised by Essence and recommended by Terry McMillan, represents a sort of next step in Buckhanon’s writing career, as she takes on more characters and more issues in her storytelling. Chapters, scenes and characters that didn’t make it into the final version remain on her computer, but at the end of the day, she wanted Solemn published more than anything. If the book’s riveting cover of a wild-haired girl with layers of pine trees and shining light from a silvery trailer don’t draw you in, then Solemn’s plight to experience the world beyond her Mississippi community will.
In a nod to Buckhanon’s poetic style of writing, we hope you enjoy this freeform interview. We’re also chatting with her via Twitter on Friday, June 17, from 1-2 CST (2-3 EST, 11 a.m.-noon PST) using the hashtag #southernlit. Join in to find out more about Solemn and win a copy of the book!
What’s in a Name?
KB: The novel contracted was based on a story I had written 10 years ago. It was my first published story. I was going out to a camper in my hometown all the time to get away and kind of clear my head and figure out what I was going to do with my life, and I just thought it was the coolest place for a story. It just reminded me of visits I’d take to the South. I started writing her at a trailer park. I didn’t know where it was or what was going on. It was a story about a girl who witnessed something scary, because at night it’s scary. It had a very Gothic environment where nature just was a force of its own and a character. A grandmother had passed away who was from Mississippi, Indianola, my father’s mother, and that’s who I had gone to visit. I was struck and upset, like wow I’d never written anything for all of these amazing grandparents I had. That’s how it switched to the South, and her name [Solemn] was something different, but I had been going to church and reading the Bible and came across a Bible verse called “Solemn assemblies.” There were lots of gatherings of people in the story for somber, solemn reasons.
Solemn was a Frank breech birth—a newborn kicking out her behind first. It was almost as big as if Solemn were premature, without others’ understanding that importance. Instead, the trait was only Bev’s recollection and story to tell until the day she died. It was hers to use for and against Solemn, when the girl was either troublesome or unique. It underwrote the girl’s tendency to be distant, then and now.”
Telling Solemn’s Story
KB: Dorothy Allison [who called her novel Upstate “heartbreaking and true”], I’m a fan of hers and her Bastard Out of Carolina is one of my favorites, and Bone lived in the trailer park. I knew there were many communities of blacks in trailer parks. I had seen them in the South. There’s one not far from where I grew up. I had never seen that kind of community. It’s normally considered a white community, a trailer park. Toni Morrison ends her novel (God Help the Child) with one of the major characters having fled California for a black trailer park in Arizona. Black people do live in trailer parks pretty widely, but the media typically place black people in the urban ghettos. In the same way, white people do live in the projects. I was mixing up place and what typically is the portrait or the caricature that’s normally associated with certain places.
A disadvantage of Singer’s was its intimacy guaranteed all would know why your bed was loud or your kitchen table was silent. Folks had to travel to do a lot of fussing or a little dirt.”
KB: I didn’t think I had a style. All of my books were so different. That’s one thing I love about stories, it just lets you do these short nuggets of worlds and characters without going through that tunnel of a novel … I’ve always been pretty much a social butterfly. I’ve collided with so many different worlds and have this big family that kind of was all in one place, so I got used to the range of personalities and lifestyles. I had this wide, far reaching life, so I think that gives me access to a lot of range and stretching in terms of what I write. Where I come from and this is kind of that Southern background, they’re hilarious. They’re talking poetry. Everything was a metaphor or a truism and this very vague statement. You knew what it meant, but it almost didn’t relate to what was being talked about. Black men do this too with language, they’re just wisecracking. That type of talk is I think where I get it from. I just loved what people were really talking about and how they were talking about it and the stories being told.
Prior to all this, when I could get the frequency clear, I was practicin the radio. With more time and practice, maybe some prize money in a contest, I figured I’d be closer on my way out of Bledsoe in general and Singer’s trailer in particular. The North, hah, like the slaves had to run to. Harriet Tubman. You turn back you die.”
The Myth of Black Families
KB: This novel was written during the time where I experienced a fertility of ideas and work. I think I had been pent up for so long trying to write that one novel that didn’t work, everything flooded out. It was the first time I had written about a two-parent home and the mistakes that go on inside the home. It was important to me that people see these black families as intact in their own way. Typically, there is abuse and drugs in black literature. There were families — the Weathers, the Redvines, the Longwoods — they were wide and mutifaceted in who they were, but they were all working in their own way. That’s why Pearletta is so distressing to her family because it’s kind of a myth that black families have all these problems.
Her maiden name was Weathers and that’s how she signed everything now. She was the daughter of a Jackson banker and homemaker who did not see her for several months before the last time. They made reports. Several. Pearletta Weathers once bounced around adjoining counties with other college dropouts.”
Feeding the Hungry
KB: The women in my dad’s family and my great-grandmother, they’re from deep Mississippi. They can cook. It’s not anything restaurant, not anything easily replicated, just something you have to know how to do. My mom is not like them, she grew up in the North, but her sweet potato pie she’s known for. She would send those to me when I was in school in New York. I could eat a whole one in one sitting … Food was important in the book. I was told that I was a good baby and that when anyone cooked anything I woke up. When plates started moving, I woke up. I love food. To be able to feed people is a huge virtue and asset. Anyone who could feed others was very revered in the community.
There were impromptu salads, leftover potpourris, half-full barbecue sauce jugs, extra pop, pans of hopping john, potatoes mashed in a hurry. The beer and cakes went without saying. There was reminder to the smaller children, with chocolate-stained mouths and frosted fingers, to not reach for the bride.”