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Exploring Women's Roles

An Interview with Patricia Foster

by Pam Kingsbury


Patricia Foster's works are about women's lives -- what it means to be identified by gender, race, place, and socio-economic class. Using the everyday to define her life -- her roles as daughter, sister, wife, college professor, writer -- she writes about the changes she's seen during her lifetime.

An associate professor in the MFA Program in Nonfiction at the University of Iowa, she is the author of All the Lost Girls, editor of Minding the Body: Women Writers on Body and Soul and Sister to Sister, and the coeditor of The Healing Circle.

Introduce yourself.

I grew up in a little town in southern Alabama where my father was a doctor and my mother a science teacher.  After graduating from public schools, I went to Vanderbilt University and then to UCLA where I got an MFA in art.  I fell in love with photography and video at UCLA, but it was on a camping trip after I finished my MFA that I realized I liked ‘writing’ the scenes for the video more than actually filming them.  It was a kind of ‘wake-up’ call, a vital moment that surprised me.  I moved to Seattle, began taking writing classes, and then raced across the country to get my MFA in creative writing at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.  It felt like a race, an urgent sense that I had to catch up with myself and let the stories out.  I say this because when I left the South I felt lost to myself and by telling stories, I began to feel ‘found.’

Most of your work is nonfiction -- arguably an unusual choice for a Southern writer -- do you see a need for good essayists in Southern literature?

 .........Not long ago I was browsing in an independent bookstore in a southern city.  There was a huge section labeled ‘Southern Fiction’ and a history section labeled ‘Southern Nonfiction.’   I saw such prominent books as Carry Me Home and The Liar’s Club, but I saw no books of essays, no collected works of nonfiction.  Why, I asked myself, is there no Joan Didion, no James Baldwin, no Vivian Gornick among southern writers? 

My answer is a complicated one, and yet my first instinct is perhaps the most reliable.  I believe you have to teach a culture how to read a genre just as you teach a culture how to read itself.  It’s an act of self-assessment, an act of assertion.  It’s a process of awakening.  It requires that the literary essay and the memoir be placed in a context, given a narrative reference point in much the same way that contemporary poetry has begun to do.  A story drops you into a dramatic moment and builds on that drama, making you wonder: What will happen next?  How will this resolve itself?  The essay often uses dramatic narrative as well, but it also depends on the reflective lens, the willingness of the writer to meditate on a moment or an event or an issue and bring you to a sense of closure through analysis rather than drama. 

In the 1990s, autobiographical writing was catapulted into a post-modern context, giving birth to the Personal History column in The New Yorker, to regular essay features in such magazines as Harper’s, The Atlantic Monthly, The Oxford American and Salon.  What I think the memoir and the personal essay offered was a return to intimacy, a sense of reflection and meditation about cultural and personal identity.  As Joan Didion once said, “We live entirely by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images.”  In America during the last decade that narrative line has fashioned itself in autobiography and the personal essay with the writer’s need to locate the self in a transient world ­ not just the political world of the 20th century but the world of personal identity in conflict with constant change. 

Just Beneath My Skin is subtitled Autobiography and Self-Discovery, what was your most surprising discovery during the writing of these essays?

What comes to mind are two things:  First, that I can love something deeply, feel that it¹s inside me, ‘in my bones’ and simultaneously not like it very much.   For example, I love Fairhope, Alabama, the town where I was born, the place that was my intellectual mentor, my creative guide.  I love its beauty and its grace and its original political intent to neutralize the caste system that has so often marred southern culture.  I loved its narrow lanes, the back pastures where I rode horses, its emphasis on a liberal spirit of education.  Each time I went to my music lesson at Mama Dot’s, I imagined that here was a place where ideas got a fair shake, where dissent was spoken, where creative life was not only approved but desired.  But when I came back after years in other parts of the country, it had changed, been hijacked by the moneyed class, become commercialized and conservative.  I still love Fairhope ­ and there are many writers there I enjoy reading -- but I don’t like it very much right now.  And I had to write about that in ‘The New Royalists’ because it was something I needed to sort out in myself.

Second, I discovered that I could step outside of myself, out of my comfort zone.  I went to Tuskegee, Alabama, not knowing what I’d find, even what I was looking for.  I went, just as James Agee went to live with sharecroppers during the Depression, to understand something about humanity that I couldn’t know by staying in my middle class life in Iowa City, Iowa.  I think we all want immunity from problems, but when that immunity makes you myopic to the real concerns that exist every day for other people, self-protection becomes blindness. 

Which of your works has been the most difficult to write and discuss?  

What was the most difficult to write was “Outside the Hive,” the essay about why I’ve remained childless.  In writing it, I was obsessed with the psychological and sociological reasons for why I had never had children, why ‘giving birth to voice’ was more important to me than ‘giving birth to a child’ in my youth (and childbearing years).  If I’m honest, I wish I’d had the chance for both.  I wish I could have successfully overcome my insecurities and been both a mother and a writer.  It just took me a long time to ‘grow myself up.’  If I were 35 right now, I’m sure I’d have children.

I came of age in the turbulent 60s and though I was no fire-breathing radical, I was deeply affected by the issues the country confronted: civil rights and women’s rights particularly.  I think many of us gain a political education through crisis and the 60s provided that, a deep division between the institutionalized power of the status quo and the marginalized power of those who questioned the morality of segregation, the subordination of women and the concerns of the Vietnam War.  Because courageous people put their lives on the line, the status quo changed.  Equality took a step forward.  At least in terms of a human beings’ rights before the law.  Economic and social equality are another thing entirely and what frightens me now is that we’re becoming  more deeply divided by the economic realities of the 21st century, the sense of an entitled class ­ wealthy and dominant and secure ­ and an underclass ­ under-educated, under-employed and dependent.   I see many people who believe the American Dream can still be accomplished by hard work and loyalty, but, on the whole, I think that's naïve.  We have a wide disparity in our educational systems, a wide disparity in our income levels, a wide disparity in our health care.  The truth is that lack of preparation often cannot be overcome by hard work alone.  What I hope is that we begin to revise public education so that a child’s mental landscape is not governed by the economic base of his/her geography.

Does living in the Midwest -- i.e. "away from home" -- give you the emotional space to write?

I live in the Midwest, in a college town that is at the heart of the literary world in America.  Everyone I know is writing a book, a story, an essay, a poem, an article.  It’s rather amazing and frightening: all that talent in snow-bound Iowa.  I always say it’s a good place to work because whatever can you do with five months of winter except stay indoors and think?  Having said that, most of my work is 'set’ in Alabama, in the small towns and rural areas that I now visit.  I miss the kind of dailiness of actually living in the place I write about.  You don’t quite get the same thing in a two week visit in the summer.  As a result, I’m setting a new novel in Iowa AND Alabama, because I want to use both environments  (and the temperament of their people) to best advantage.

I’m currently making myself crazy by working on several books.  I got an award from the University of Iowa to do research on a book titled Smart Girls.  In this book I’m examining the lives of intellectually gifted girls (between the ages of 17-29) who have wrestled with the psychological claims of ambition, creativity and intellectual risk.  In my own life, the right to ‘claim’ ambition was a difficult step and I want to understand the benefits and risks of ambition for young girls today.

I’m also working on a book of short stories, much to my surprise!  I spent much of the summer writing essays, then suddenly felt the tug of stories.  I love stories and when they come, I just go with them.  Many characters: an old grandfather, a young anorexic girl, a cheerleader, an older woman who's husband is dying, a young doctor in WWII.   

Much to my horror, I’m also re-writing a novel.  I say horror because I so wanted to be finished with it last year.  It had to wait ­ and necessarily so ­ while I finished a few other pieces. 

Do you have a list of writers who are under-rated?

I don’t know if I would call these writers under-rated, but there are several books     I’ve read this past year I’d love to pass on.  Two memoirs I read recently are Before the Knife, Carolyn Slaughter and An American Requiem, James Carroll (both in paperback).  I just heard the poet Bruce Beasley read from Signs and Abominations, and he was sensational.  I’d also recommend two books of fiction: You Are Not a Stranger Here, Adam Haslett and Still She Haunts Me, Katie Roiphe (a novel about Lewis Carroll and Alice Liddell). All lovely books! 

Just Beneath My Skin:
Autobiography and Self-Discovery
By Patricia Foster
University of Georgia Press, 2004
190 pages
ISBN: 0-8203-2688-7; trade paper original, $12.95
ISBN: 0-8203-2682-8; library edition, $39.95

     Southern Scribe Review



All the Lost Girls: Confessions of a Southern Daughter
by Patricia Foster
University of Alabama Press, 2000
ISBN:  0-8173-1047-9

      Southern Scribe Review



© 2004, Pam Kingsbury, All Rights Reserved