A Q&A with Patricia Powell
Patricia Powell made a splash, in 1993, as a major voice in Caribbean literature with her debut novel Me Dying Trial. Her protagonist, Gwennie Glaspole, a schoolteacher trapped in an unhappy marriage, fights to resist Jamaican cultural expectations and for her independence. Now in the new century, we saw it was time to introduce her masterful story and signature voice to a new generation of readers. So we’ve reissued her novel in our Celebrating Black Women Writers series! Our assistant editor, Maya Fernandez, caught up with Powell to chat with her about it.
Maya Fernandez: Is it true the you originally wrote Me Dying Trial while you were in undergrad? What inspired you to write it?
Patricia Powell: It is indeed true. I was initially an economics major but when I took my first creative writing class, everything changed. All my bottled-up feelings of loss came undone. I was twenty at the time and had only been in the States for four years. Writing had already stirred up so many feelings about home and the people I had left behind, those I had loved with all my heart and would never see again—my great aunt who raised me, for example, and who died shortly after I left. Writing then became a way to bring her back to life—her laughter, her stories, her larger than life love. As long as I was writing, there she was, close to me, filling my imagination, and this was the case, too, for many of the other characters: the men at the shop talking and drinking and smoking; the people in the village; the village itself. Writing was a way, too, of knitting myself back together with all these memories that I could then carry forever.
MF: One of the reasons I personally love this book is that the characters feel full and actualized. Complicated in that good, human way. Are any of them based on people in your own life?
PP: Yes, some of the characters are based on real people and some on a number of people folded into one. But Me Dying Trial was really a story I made up about my origins since no one in my family would confirm the truth of where I had come from. A new place, a new country often requires a new identity. But even in the old place, I didn’t know who I was. I had always heard stories that my father wasn’t really my father, and that was why I was given away. My mother had one story, my great aunt had another, my grandmother had yet a third. Not to mention my cousins and their many speculations. It was impossible to know what was true, and in those days when you were a child that asked too many difficult questions, the adults were always quick to tell you, Don’t stir that up now, that was a long time ago, leave it, or even worst, Why are you asking about things that don’t concern you! Me Dying Trial was a way to invent an origin story for myself. With each word, I was weaving my own tale. I don’t know if it is the truth of my birth—my mother still won’t say—but it is a truth I created from bits of stories I overheard and a version I have chosen to live with.
MF: Though Gwennie is the central character of the book, Me Dying Trial also focuses on her daughter, Peppy, and her aunt, Cora, and the tumultuous relationships the exists between the three of them. Why did you choose to share these three different women’s stories together?
PP: Peppy, Gwennie, and Cora represent three generations of Jamaican women. I was curious to know what values, what gifts, what insights about life each could impart to the other. Peppy, of course, the youngest, had the most to learn. From her mother, she would learn both bravery and perseverance. Gwennie was brave in so many ways. For one, she went outside of her loveless marriage to seek affection. The consequences, of course, were grave, as women are not often expected to self-realize; but for a moment she allowed herself a little joy and a little intimacy. Then she not only left her marriage, she moved with her children to an entirely new country to start her life over, which is no small accomplishment. And though she had lived a middle-class existence in Jamaica as a teacher, she took the housekeeping jobs that were available to her to provide food and housing for her children. In many ways, Gwennie had gone further than the women in her lineage. None had moved away to seek their fortune in another country. Leaving her marriage had given her this freedom. From Aunt Cora, Peppy learned the true meaning of love and security. These were attributes her mother could not provide, but Cora could. She believed in the fullness and richness of all life. She had already adopted several children, providing them a home and love and abundance. Clearly, she had room to raise one more child. Cora was also a woman of the land. She owned a farm. She was an independent businesswoman and ran a successful store. She served her community in various ways, even building them a place for worship with her own funds. She was generous to everyone. Neither Cora nor Gwennie is without flaws, but together they will have given Peppy invaluable resources to make her own way into the world.
MF: This book touches on important topics such as identity, sexuality, immigration, gender expectations, and abuse. When writing the book, did you imagine that the issues the characters face would remain relevant more than twenty years later?
PP: I had no idea these topics would be relevant today. But the truth is they’ve been relevant for a long time. When I think of some of my favorite writers who have now passed—Virginia Woolf, James Baldwin, Michelle Cliff, Paule Marshall, among others—these were also some of the topics they explored. I think each generation adds not only a new perspective to the conversation but also contributes to the evolution of the topic. I don’t think Jimmy Baldwin could ever have imagined gay marriage in the US when he was writing Giovanni’s Room, but just by writing the story of their love, he was already infusing the world consciousness with that possibility. I doubt he could have imagined a Black president, but I also believe that his fiery essays were already making room for a Barack Obama to happen. I believe that when we write the truth of our experiences we are already weaving the possibility for a new and different outcome.
MF: How do you feel about the reissue of Me Dying Trial?
PP: I’m excited that a whole new generation of readers will get to read it and experience the characters and develop their own relationships with them. And I hope, too, that they’ll be inspired to write their own stories, adding new insights to the conversations about identity and abuse and immigration and sexuality. I’m also excited about up-and-coming literary scholars who will read the novel with new eyes and offer even newer interpretations of the material.
MF: What would you like to say about the Celebrating Black Women Writers series? How do you feel about having your book included in it?
PP: OMG! What an honor! To be celebrated amongst writers such as Gayl Jones, Sonia Sanchez, Ntozake Shange, Octavia Butler, Sindiwe Magona, Alina Troyano … I have no words. These writers are my literary ancestors and mentors. They taught me how to read, how to think, how to listen, how to write, how to dream. They taught me how to love. Their books are like old friends. I return to them again and again for inspiration, for comfort, for guidance, for renewal.
MF: Why do you think it’s important to read Black women’s work, stories, books, words, etc.?
PP: For Black people who might not often see ourselves reflected in literature, Black women’s work can be a mirror, an evaluation, and a celebration of our experiences. And their work can offer us alternate ways of seeing and interpreting those experiences as well as new possibilities for living and loving. Black women’s stories are important for all readers, as they can illuminate all those places where our shared humanness overlaps, no matter race, gender, religion, economic class, or sexual orientation, and also where our shared humanness diverges based on those very same categories. Because we don’t often occupy seats of power, at least in North America, Black women’s writings can reflect back to those at the center what life is often like on the outskirts, and whether or not social policies are effective in improving living and social conditions. Black women’s voices and perspectives are also vital to our ongoing national conversations about wealth redistribution, environmental health, racial and gender equality, food and housing and employment justice, safety and freedom of movement through the streets, and so much more. They are also vital to the way we think about our bodies and our relationships to each other and to the Earth. In Balm Yard, the new book I am writing about healing practices in rural Jamaica rooted in older West African religions, I explore the spiritual worldviews of Black women that are grounded in nature and in the realms of spirit. I am learning that Black women’s spiritualities have much to teach us about how to respond to our present moment. Because we are living through such chaotic times, where everything we have taken for granted is being upended and reevaluated, the very earth is shifting underneath us, my hope is that our work can continue to offer new ways of thinking, alternate ways of being in this changing world, medicine to soothe our aching hearts and minds, and new dreams that can birth new possibilities and realities.
MF: What would you like readers, especially those just being introduced to Me Dying Trial, to take away from your book?
PP: I would like new readers to enjoy the book, to appreciate the details, the humor, the intricate ways the characters are portrayed. My hope, too, is that new readers might be able to see themselves or their families’ stories reflected here, and that this resonance brings new insights and deepens curiosity. I would like readers new to Caribbean or women’s literature to allow themselves to be enriched by these new perspectives so that their own lives might be transformed by the reading experience.
About Patricia Powell
Novelist Patricia Powell was born in Jamaica and moved with her family to the United States in 1982. Powell has taught creative writing at Harvard University, Wellesley College, MIT, and Standford University, and is currently Professor of English at Mills College in California. She is the author of A Small Gathering of Bones, The Pagoda, and The Fullness of Everything.