On Conjuring & Bigness: Writing Women’s History as Personal Essay

March 9, 2016 § 6 Comments

Sonja Livingston

Sonja Livingston

By Sonja Livingston

It nearly knocked me out of my seat the first time I heard it. Thanksgiving Day, and I was a thousand miles from family and pumpkin pie. I drove south from Memphis, winding through cotton fields and counting barges on the river. It was tremendous, the voice. A sultry thwomp backed by horn and blues guitar. A steamroller of velvet and rock. I hit repeat, and listened again. And again. I kept on. Until the stalks of old cotton began to show light and the low-slung sky went from gray to blue and back to silver again.

I’d already started collecting women the way some people collect shoes. Women I didn’t know, figures from the near and distant past. As an essayist, I’d always relied on memory and direct observation to fuel my work, but suddenly, I was inspired by strangers from newspapers, cemeteries and old books. I lined them up like prayer cards, a collection of American icons. I began to look to the Victorian tightrope walker, Maria Spelterini, for pluck, to the Fox Sisters for audacity, to a tide of Irish immigrants for fortitude. I’d stumbled upon a trove of unusual women and wasn’t interested in writing them into traditional biographies. I wanted something more intimate and visceral. These lives were real and I wanted to honor—but not be limited to—the scant historic record. I wanted to imagine (or re-imagine) living breathing human beings and to do it within the context of the essay form.

At first, I worried about wandering into the realm of fiction, and hoped my genre confusion would pass. Eventually, though, I launched fully into these explorations, summoning old lives through language, imagination, and research. I visited the places they’d lived—noting the landscapes, studying the eras—discovering as I did that journeying toward an unknown other could be as personal and revelatory as writing about the self. The essays became double acts of illumination then—as I considered each figure, resurrecting and presenting her anew, the writing shined light on muddled aspects of myself.  My newest book, Ladies Night at the Dreamland, is the result of all that convergence and conjuring.

51TB-5f-l2LAll of which is to say that I was ripe, on that late November day, for a visitation. Big Maybelle, I later learned. Queen Mother of Soul. A large woman. A larger voice. I played the song until it seemed she’d climbed into the car and, just like that, Thanksgiving Day was torn open as Miss Mabel Louise Smith from Jackson, Tennessee accompanied me back to Memphis, showing me what it means to be big.

Big. So simple a word. Look at it there on the screen, tiny and unassuming. A child’s word, fun-loving cousin to jig and fig. How then, did it become such a ticking bomb? The opposite of what some of us are told to be from the time we emerge from our mothers’ bodies, the world whispering its desire for us to stay small?

Certain conditions incline children toward invisibility. To be seen is to become a target, so that, many of us, girls and boys, learned early to crouch along baseboards and keep our profiles low. Even still, it’s the women I notice plastered against plane windows to allow their seatmates more room, and the men whose arms and legs dangle beyond their squares of prescribed space. Good for them, I think, even as I curse under my breath and push myself into the seat cushion, because, the truth, of course, is that I too want to unfold. I’m speaking of the body, yes, though the body is only one way to contain our largeness. There’s also longing to contend with. Wild ideas. Success. The general making of noise.

As a teenager, I worked in a mailroom after school, one in a line of people stuffing advertising brochures into envelopes, the hush of paper the only sound until someone coughed or stood for a bathroom break. Which I did, once, the sound of my shoes on hardwood becoming the only thing.

“Damn, girl, you walk heavy,” someone said, and I tried to laugh it off, though all these years later, I still find myself tiptoeing down hallways and it’s the damn, girl that’s stayed with me, convincing me that due to some personal affliction I clomp more than anyone else. And just last month when I called a local convent, asking about gift shop hours, the woman who answered said something I couldn’t quite make out—something corrective, I sensed.

“Am I too quiet?” I asked, imagining an older nun struggling at the other end. “Are you having trouble hearing me?”

“No,” she yelled. “You’re talking too loudly!”

She was probably right. I’d never mastered the settings on my phone. Or maybe her hearing aids were set on high that day. Either way, it wasn’t the woman or any device, but the lifelong habit of trying to avoid notice that had me begging apologies into the phone, no doubt further ringing the good Sister’s ears.

Understand then, the way Mabel’s voice grabbed me. Not only big, but unrepentantly so. Born in 1924, she grew up surrounded by cotton fields and the slow chug of the Forked Deer River. She sang at church, but even with her obvious gift, she wasn’t always welcome. Wrong color. Too big. Too loud. 1924. She would have been hindered and hurt a hundred ways as she toured the Delta and beyond. Which is why I needed an essay to channel her and discover why I kept listening and what she’d come to mean. The voice, yes. The boundless unrelenting voice. But more than that, the way she climbed onto the stage. The way she stood in the spotlight. Despite a world that tried to contain her in tight spaces—she chose to sing, night after night, letting the bigness of who she was come tearing out of her mouth.

Sonja Livingston’s latest essay collection, Ladies Night at the Dreamland, explores the lives of extraordinary and often overlooked historical women. She’s the author of the Queen of the Fall, and Ghostbread, which won the AWP Prize for Nonfiction. Sonja teaches in the MFA Program at the University of Memphis.



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