Lorene Cary/Q&A

Lorene Cary, author and creative writing lecturer Photo credit: Candace diCarlo

Lorene Cary has been in love with writing since before she knew how to write. As a child, she used to self publish her own make-believe books and would pretend she was a storyteller. She says a lot of her early writing was “oral storytelling written down,” such as the 19th century Rococo poems told by her Barbadian great-grandfather.

A lecturer in creative writing at Penn, Cary was the 1998 recipient of the Provost’s Award for Distinguished Teaching. She says storytelling, incorporating language, time and memory is what attracted her to the craft.

She was also fascinated with the “timelessness” of writing. As an asthmatic child, Cary says writing was a way for her to “step out of time” for a while. “It wasn’t always clear to me that I would live a long time, so I think writing had to do with that,” she says. “Write it down now, quick, while you’re still here.”As a student at Penn, Cary says she wrote “like people jog.” She was a pre-med major before switching to English, and would write stories in the corners of her chemistry notes. She wrote for the Daily Pennsylvanian, covering the Annenberg beat.

The small, asthmatic child with a love for reading has grown into an accomplished author and activist. Cary has published three novels, a collection of true stories from the Underground Railroad, and has also written for Time, Essence and Ebony.

In 1998, Cary founded Art Sanctuary, currently housed at the Church of the Advocate, in North Philadelphia, to bring creators of the best of African-American arts and letters to speak, lecture and perform in a venue within the black community. She also has contributed scripts to the “President’s House: Freedom and Slavery in Making a New Nation” site in Independence National Historic Park.

The Current recently visited the Art Sanctuary offices to talk with Cary about the art of writing, her years at Penn, the Art Sanctuary, and what she hopes her students will take away from her class.

Q. Your first book, ‘Black Ice,’ dealt with your experiences as one of the first black students at St. Paul’s School in New Hampshire. What compelled you to compile those life events in book form?
I definitely wanted to ‘out’ the experience of a scholarship girl in those early integration and coeducation days in New England schools. I also very much wanted to figure out how to explain to people who lived on either side of American extreme privilege what it looked like from the other side. I think that’s a lot of what ‘Black Ice’ was trying to do, and to do it through the prism of a young person growing up. It is a girl-growing-up story, not a sociological tract.

Q. ‘Black Ice’ addresses your struggle to hold onto your African-American culture while navigating through a predominately white education system. Do you think it’s difficult to do both?
No, I’m not going to admit it’s hard, because that is yet another myth we tell that helps young black children think they can’t succeed. Someone once said to me, ‘You know, we’ve been sending these inner-city black children on this small scholarship to independent schools and it’s so hard and it’s mainly not doing well. We’re almost deciding that it’s not worth it, that we shouldn’t do it because it’s too bad for them.’ My response to that is right here where you and I are sitting, half of the children don’t graduate. That’s harder, to go through America with no high school diploma. That’s what’s hard in America, to have no education.

Q. Were there any books you read in your youth that influenced you?
I read probably way too young ‘The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.’ I read it when I was about 12. I couldn’t believe that everybody had let this happen. I knew about the Middle Passage and I figured that was then and somehow or another people didn’t know about it or good people couldn’t find out about it. I told myself all kinds of things. But [the Third Reich] was in the lifetime of my parents. How could it happen? I couldn’t believe it. I also read James Baldwin a little bit later, who taught me grammar. His muscular grammar, his crazed use of the semicolon, his dependent clauses would just wrap themselves around you quite strongly. Also, I read several times ‘Gone With the Wind,’ and that worked me over because it was as compulsively readable as McDonald’s French fries are edible. And yet I knew that it was as bad for me, but it was so readable.

Q. You obtained your bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Penn. Why did you decide to come here?
Penn is an excellent school. I only applied to two schools, Penn and Princeton. I had a friend who had graduated from St. Paul’s School and gone to Princeton call me the night I was going to make the decision. I didn’t know him all that well. He was part of some student group looking at students who were admitted and he had seen my name, looked up my parents’ address in the white pages, and called me and said, ‘Don’t come to Princeton, you should go to Penn. You need a city school, you need a school that’s more diverse.’ And I said, ‘Good. I’ve been given my sign.’ I actually came to Penn, frankly, because it had a larger Jewish population, and I had very much missed that at St. Paul’s School. Because faith life is so important to me, I don’t like [being around] only one faith because I learn from everybody.

Q. Why did you decide to switch from pre-med to English?
It was a blood sample of a 12-year-old boy who had leukemia. It was from HUP. We had to prepare the sample, look at it, and go home and do the prognosis. I looked in there and I saw that the boy was going to be dead in six months and I just cried and cried. I cried all night. And my boyfriend at the time said, ‘Don’t you think you need a new profession?’

Q. Your second book, ‘The Price of a Child,’ addresses slavery in America in the 1850s. Is it hard to write books like this without becoming emotionally involved?
You can’t write it without becoming involved. Emotion is the currency of fiction. Nonfiction can manipulate emotion but the currency of fiction is emotion. That’s why you write it. And if you don’t feel anything, then the reader’s not going to feel anything. That’s what those early fiction experiences taught me. When I read Baldwin’s ‘Giovanni’s Room’ about a homosexual love affair, I felt it. For somebody who grew up in a very homophobic community, that did more than anything to say to me, ‘Wait a minute, this is a human experience. You don’t know anything about this.’ But you felt it and you felt that these two people loved each other.

Q. You founded Art Sanctuary in 1998, saying black artists create great work that spurs global industries, ‘but the best of these artists are too rarely seen in the inner city.’ Why do you think this is?
Money. There’s not enough money here to pull people. Partly it was my own experience. I am not a particularly famous African-American author. When I went on book tour, I was not in black communities; I was in Barnes & Noble. Whether it was Chicago, Dallas or Seattle, I was always in these places other than communities like the one in which I grew up. People fought and died so that I could be downtown. I know that, and I’m so grateful for that, and I want to live up to it and I want to write the best books I can. But it’s also true that I want the ability to come and do what I do in the inner city … but we don’t have structures available. We make it hard for people to come into the inner city and do what they do. There are good people doing really good work who are not terribly expensive to bring in, but you have to send them a ticket to get here. You have to put them someplace. You have to feed them. You have to build an audience. So how do you draw enough people here so that you can do what, for instance, Al Filreis and Jessica Lowenthal do at Writer’s House for writers? People don’t come to Writer’s House because they’re going to get rich ... they come because they love what they do.

Q. You lecture on fiction writing in Penn’s Creative Writing Program. Is there something you hope your students take away from your class?
I want them to have a strong workshop experience. We work very hard at creating a temporary writing community, which means that it has to have a large heart and a sharp mind. Often writing workshops are not safe places. Sometimes they’re places where the people who come in with the best communications skills, or the most aggressive classroom manner, can dominate, and that’s not OK because it means you don’t get as much from each member as you can. Sometimes we’ll just study the movement of our own emotion as we read a piece, and then give that piece back to the writer so that he or she can see what happened to us when we read the work. Or if you’ve written something and in the story the mother dies, and that is the big dramatic climax, and nine of 12 people felt nothing, the writer can ask, ‘Well, what happened? … If you’re going to create art, you have to touch gut and feeling.

Q. How do you grade writing?
I don’t judge who’s the best writer in there. What I care about is whether your writing is better than it was. Are you figuring out what your own strengths are? Are you pushing toward your personal best? Are you being honest with yourself? I do require that they read each other’s work. I do grade them on the rigorousness of their critiques of each other. I ask that they go to contemporary readings each term, something fresh, usually one of the Writer’s House readings and then something else out in the city. They all have to read something about the process of writing. I give them 12 or 15 suggestions; they can go out and find other stuff. They have to go to a reading, they have to talk about it, they have to perform in a reading, and they have to submit something for publication, either online or to print.

Q. Is Art Sanctuary in the process of moving?
We are moving our offices to 16th and Bainbridge streets. For the first time, Art Sanctuary will have its own home venue. The [Church of the Advocate] is a church, so we have performances in there, we have afterschool classes in there, but we can’t have offices there. They have a soup kitchen, they have an afterschool program, there’s way too much going on. We’ll also have a gallery, which we’ve never had. We’ll be able to do intimate performances like the North Stars Spoken Word Café.

Originally published on October 15, 2009