Cole Lavalais – Summer of the Cicadas
Twisted black iron announced Albany’s town limits. A warning more than a welcome. A city of ghosts. Just a mile outside of the city limits Vi spotted the child in the middle of Highway 319. She screamed. Perry slammed on the breaks, but there was no one there. A raccoon on its hind legs surprised into action by the approaching headlights. Not her ghost. She re-upped with Ronnie before the trip, determined to leave her ghost on A&M’s campus until—Until a more permanent solution could be found. Though Vi’s ghost stayed gone for the rest of the drive to Albany, her anxiety continued to grow as the arrival at Perry’s birthplace became inevitable. Towns like Albany negotiated a feigning peace, behaving as if centuries of pain left nothing behind. How could a place where the sons and daughters of torturers and the tortured intermingle not have some sort of residual? The residue remained like sludge after dried-up floodwaters, sediment under manicured Kentucky bluegrass, sitting, waiting, seeping. Perry’s face changed when they crossed Albany’s town limits. The half-openness Vi had become accustomed to closed completely. As Perry pulled his car into the driveway, his closed face alarmed her. The feeling of the house unsettled her in a way she hadn’t been since leaving Chicago.
“Wait here.” He disappeared behind the double doors, leaving only a small opening. “Mother. Mother.” Silence encircled Perry’s cry as the echo bounced back through the gap between the doors.
–From Summer of the Cicadas (Willow Books Press)
CORINNE GOULD: The first day Vi arrives at Florida A&M, a map of the area reminds her explaining to her mother, Cecilia, that the world map they had was inaccurate, moving Egypt out of Africa. Amid Vi’s obsessive attempts to prove the truth, Cecilia responds, “Why can’t you let Egypt be? What difference does it make on 84th and Fairview Lane?” Can you speak to this relativism of truth and the limited access of that “truth”?
COLE LAVALAIS: Though history is often taught as a collection of indisputable facts, in actuality historical events are often open to interpretation. But the misrepresentation of Egypt as existing outside of Africa falls completely outside of the realm of a simple misinterpretation, so it works as more than relativism of truth, it’s a blatant lie. A lie meant to shore-up other lies, which serve a specific political agenda. I’m really just questioning blind faith whether it be historically or biologically-based. One can’t study historical facts without also studying the relevant cultural moment, and even then the “truth” of that moment will never be wholly accessible. The idea of resisting blind faith and embracing particularity and context ultimately mirrors Vi’s road to wellness. She’s searching for her truth in external sources, her mother, her father, books, men…etc. In the wake of her documented inability to trust in her own perceptions and beliefs, she’s searching for something to trust and anchor herself to.
CG: You made some really fascinating narrative choices for this novel—alternating chapter narration between Vi and Cecilia, and using bulleted points for dialogue exchanges between Vi and her mental health practitioner. These styles work brilliantly, and I want to know more about how you conceptualized these choices to develop differences in perspective and characterization.
CL: From the beginning I knew I wanted to present both Vi’s and Cecilia’s point of view, but it really was a process deciding how much of the novel to “give” to Cecilia. Ultimately, Summer of the Cicadas is about the push and pull of mothers vs. daughters, the past vs. the present, and blood vs. place, so the structure of the novel could either become a reiteration or contradiction of those themes. So I made the decision to privilege Vi’s point of view, to set her at the center of the narrative and situate Cecilia along the periphery, and Cecilia’s mother at an even greater distance. I really went back and forth over whether to include the epilogue at all. It seemed like cheating to offer the readers information that was forever lost to both Cecilia and Vi, but it also seemed necessary.
The formatting of Vi’s exchange with her doctor serves two purposes; the first as a sign that the narrative was in motion. Movement, especially conscious movement can be difficult to mark within a text. I wanted it to flow naturally, so I resisted making an announcement through a literal transition. The second is to reflect the weight of silence. The formatting both isolates and insulates what happens in the therapist’s office. Stripping away the artifice of setting. Nothing exists but the words and the spaces around them.
CG: Despite their difference, Vi’s roommate Danielle helps her in moments of embarrassment and sickness. Your work offers an unusually nuanced rendering of female relationships. Mother and daughter, roommates, coworkers, these relationships are each authentically complex. In your writing, how do you craft relationships?
CL: Writing a character like Vi made crafting relationships easy. I know that sounds funny because she’s such a complicated character, but she’s also hyper-aware. She’s an empath really. She has this ability to zoom to the center of those she comes into contact with, immediately confronting the worst and best in both friend and foe, so when she engages with Danielle, Ronnie, or even Tunisia, she engages without pretense even though she believes she’s in hiding. That lack of pretense forces the other characters to reflect on the things they are hiding as well. Now for Danielle that reflection shows itself in avoidance and for Tunisia it does show up as a sort of girl on girl violence or meanness. But I didn’t really focus on how those relationships looked as a reflection of their femaleness, at least not consciously.
CG: You teach writing workshops for both short stories and novels in south Chicago. What is the piece of advice that you give your students that you find the most challenging to implement in your own work?
CL: Make a mess. I advise writers to write imperfect characters. Have them do things that make you cringe. In early drafts of SOTC, Vi was this poor victim that terrible things kept happening to, resulting in this static flat pitiful girl on the page. I had to push her toward making some choices, and not always admirable choices, but my goodness, those choices brought her to life. I’m currently working on a short story where the protagonist is a victim of domestic violence, but she’s also a hypocrite, gossip, and classist. It took a few drafts to get there. I think writers tend to have the closest relationships with their protagonists, so they resist making them assholes, but assholes are so much more interesting than angels.
CG: I love that. This is amazing guidance. You have offered advice to authors of color: “First make sure you’re writing to yourself. Don’t try to write to the market. Write what you want to write.” What do you currently want to write?
CL: I’m working on two projects. I’m very close to completing a collection of short stories, Love American Style, which focuses on the lives of various neighbors living on a single city block on the south side of Chicago, in the early 80s. The stories range from a widower dealing with the discovery of his wife’s posthumous confession of infidelity, to a mentally-challenged man caught in an abusive love triangle. I’m also working on my next novel, The Last Moon, which focuses on another branch of Vi’s paternal family. While we won’t see Vi in it, it follows her thirteen-year-old half-brother, Ellington “Ton” Moon, after he sneaks off into the Alabama woods to find his suddenly disappeared, last living male relation, “Uncle.” I’m experimenting with telling the story in books, interspersing the voices of the surviving Moon women with Ton’s search. I’m probably going to have to literally resurrect a character from SOTC, but that it’s so wonderful about being a writer, making my own rules.
CG: You read with Desiree Cooper (Know the Mother) and Angela Flournoy (The Turner House) in Detroit at Pages Bookshop amid praise and media coverage that discusses, “Why America is Ready” for texts like these. Why now? What do you think is speaking to the American readership in your work and the work of writers like Cooper and Flournoy?
CL: Desiree’s collection of flash fiction is really these wonderful moments that virtually take you into the personal spaces of women around the world. It’s really purposefully global and female. And Angela’s novel focuses on the costs of the southern black migration, to a once bustling urban center in the Midwest, on a family struggling to hold onto and recover familial history. So while we are all three black women writing and publishing our work at the same time, the work itself is as diverse as we are. And America is ready for all of our stories plus some at the same time. Historically, black and brown writers have had to wait their turn, in the sense that publishers limit the number of books they acquire, publish and publicize. Can you imagine if publishers did that for white male writers? Can you imagine a writer being rejected because “we just published a book by a white dude last year and it didn’t do so well.” America has been ready, the problem has always been the gatekeepers, not the audience. To quote one of my favorite American poets, Langston Hughes, “I to am America,” and I been ready.
Cole Lavalais’ short stories can be found in Obsidian, Apogee, Warpland, Tidal Basin Review, Aquarius Press, and others. She is a fellow of the Kimbilio Center for Black Fiction, VONA and the Callaloo Writing Workshops. She’s been awarded writing residencies at the Vermont Studio Center and The Noepe Center for the Literary Arts. She holds an M.F.A. from Chicago State University, and a Ph.D. in Creative Writing from University of Illinois at Chicago. Cole has taught writing for over ten years and currently teaches community-based writing workshops on the south side of Chicago. Summer of the Cicadas is her debut novel.
Corinne Gould is a proud alumna of the book publishing program at Portland State University and Gonzaga University’s Hogan Entrepreneurial Leadership Honors Program. An enthusiastic reader and reluctant writer, Corinne is grateful for the great hiking, discount movie theaters, and unbeatable literary communities that abound in the Pacific Northwest.