bill berry, jr.:
Hi Catherine. Thank you for taking the time to chat with me. Let’s get started.
When you read at the aaduna spring 2015 fundraiser in Auburn, NY, the sold-out Theater Mack audience embraced your style and showered you with appreciative rounds of applause and gracious comments during the reception intermission. You have the ability to connect in a kindred way with listeners, and I wonder why do you think you are able to make that type of connection?
Wow, I never really thought about having to put that answer into words. Let me think for a moment. I honestly don’t know how to put it in words because its so part of who I am. It’s like asking me to describe how I see. Like, I know I can see because I have eyes on my face. I know that my eyes work and they bring light and color in but how do I really describe how I see? I naturally like people. I naturally like to connect with people. I’m the complete opposite of a misanthrope – I think that’s the right word. I’m always looking for what I have in common with another person. That’s what interests me the most. Regardless of what someone appears to be, I know that I’ll find an experience in them that I’ve experienced in myself. Perhaps this intention precedes – pervades – every interaction I have with someone new whether I’m aware of it in that moment or not. When I write or meet people, I always want to connect with the humanness in all of us, the parts of us that unite us instead of those things that we’ve fooled ourselves into believing separate us – color, language, nationality, ethnicity, religion, sexuality, etc. And that fundamental thing that unites us is our ability to feel. We’ve all felt loss, sensuality, sadness, awe, curiosity, rejection, confidence, proud, jealousy, acceptance, and/or love, etc. at some point in our lives and I want every word I write and interaction I have with another to convey, “Ya, I get it, I’ve felt that too.”
And in feeling that connectiveness with others you are meeting for the first time or just perceiving that emotion through the artist/audience connection, I have to surmise that this characteristic – of being connected – may not have been natured but nurtured (though I have been wrong before.) So, give me a sense of where you were born and your early childhood experiences, and how your parents raised you for you to evolve into a caring, sensitive, and attentive human being.
LOL Can I respond with LOL or is that nonliterary?
I laugh because my parents did not raise me to evolve into a caring, sensitive, and attentive human being. It was their dysfunctional and abusive upbringing that caused me to turn to therapy for several years that “raised” me into a caring, sensitive, and attentive human being. So I will say that my therapist helped me to connect with and unearth that part of myself that I had to shelter and protect away from my upbringing.
I did embrace my father’s sense of humor and his love of the written word. He favors topics like historical theology, theory, and is a very technically accurate writer while I prefer to write stories about interpersonal dynamics, intimate relationships, and sensuality. I tend to be emotive and in the last 4 years, I’ve succumbed to writing poetry.
I also embraced my mother’s ability to talk to anyone. She made it look so easy, so effortless, like everyone she met was her friend. She walked into a room and she was so engaging, had the perfect smile, sewed her own clothes that people always complimented, She had an air about her that just made people comfortable to be around her. And we’re talking about an African immigrant woman in settings where she was the only one! If she was ever scared, or nervous, or uncomfortable, you would never know. It must be genetic or I picked it up by osmosis, but I always admired my mom for that. I will always remember the day I looked out the living room window onto our front garden and watched in awe as my mother struck up a “conversation” about flowers with a Chinese grandmother who didn’t speak a lick of English. I was like, “This woman could talk to anybody!” Since the old lady had just moved in down the block with her extended family, the following week, my mother took some plantings to her and they “talked” some more. Okay, maybe I did learn how to be caring and attentive from my mom too.
I was born in Montreal, Quebec – French-speaking Canada – and raised in an Irish-Catholic working-class neighborhood. Let’s just say, that as a first-generation born, Black child of College-educated immigrants from Ghana (West Africa), I adapted by default. I just fit into my surroundings even though everything about it was exactly the opposite of what my parents aspired to. But it was their beginning in North America, they had to start somewhere. At home, my parents spoke Ghanaian and my mother only cooked our traditional foods. At school, I learned French and English and how to swear like a sailor. At church I learned the Bible, the Catholic dogma, and was an altar server. My baptismal godmother was Jewish. She bought me my first and favorite denim pant suit ever; I hated wearing dresses. Our closest neighborhood and family friends were a three-generation extended family of Italian immigrants. Italian was the fourth language I got accustomed to because we shared almost every Sunday dinner together – along with weddings and funerals – with Nana, Nono, Uncle Memo, Giuseppina, Maria, Uncle Joe, Uncle Jack, Uncle Jimmy, and 8 grandchildren.
About 2-3 Saturdays a month, at some ungodly hour of the night, we’d pile into a taxi and travel halfway across town to a Ghanaian party, either a baby naming ceremony or a funeral celebration. Birth or death was an all night party with right-hand-only greetings, libation pouring, traditional rites, lengthy prayers in Twi or Fanti, ceremonial dancing or wailing or both. People adorned in imported hand-woven Kente cloth, in slick red and black somber mourning attire, or in the latest tailor made West African styles and head wraps. And there was food, always so much food – kenke, foo foo, cכcכ-cכcכ (red-red), akakro, kontumre, achimo, bufrot, and Jallof rice – too many dishes to name and to full to write them down. Then the dancing started. Whether someone had died or a baby had been born, there was always dancing until the wee hours of the morning, when children started to fall asleep on wooden chairs and sweat had adequately seeped through the clothes of weary bodies.
I just adapted to this diverse exposure to languages, cultures, people and experiences organically, because this is what I knew life to be. It never even occurred to me that there was anything wrong, bad, weird, uncomfortable, unusual, or self-conscious about being around others who were different.
While I respect the pathways your therapist opened for you, you do speak highly of your parents and the attributes you exhibit that may have come from them. With that said, I wonder if their parenting style (especially in terms of discipline or protectiveness) was acceptable in their day as “normal” parenting especially easily transitioned to their living in a new world environment versus the ways of the old country. I know how me and my siblings were raised, and certain actions by my parents would not be considered acceptable in this age of “talking and negotiating with your children regardless of age; no interceding by non-parental adults when children are up to no good in public; time-outs instead of spankings; not making your children responsible for their actions and taking the contemporary approach of making allowances and excuses for bad behavior; raising children with no chores or household responsibilities, etc.
Why did your parents elect to go to Canada (versus any other country) and what were the prompters that compelled them to leave Ghana? Have you been back to their native land and was your life growing up different from siblings if you had any? And since you are a Mom, how do you raise your off-spring? I’ll get to the affects of your childhood on your creativity in a moment.
You’re right in the sense that they did bring old world and colonial ways of child raising with them. As my mother puts it, “We were raised by the British.” but they also experienced the enlightenment of independence given that Ghana was the first Black African nation to gain independence from a mere 90 years of British governance. Yes, they were products of their environment. Intellectually, they only provided us with the best education. They always sought out the best options for our learning, no matter the expense to them. I am indebted to them for that. We were heirs to a very rich culture of language, folklore, music, food, dance, woven cloths of proverbs, and ceremonies. Priceless. I will forever be blessed by these gifts that provided the foundation of my identity, my self-worth. That is the most significant and priceless value they imparted to us.
Yet, on the other hand, they were both emotionally bankrupt. They had no awareness or validation of their own feelings, emotions, humanness and as a result they had nothing to give in this area to their children. They used violent corporal punishment to keep us submissive. I’m not talking about spankings here. Blood was drawn, visible bruises were left, and a variety of unyielding implements were used to deliver blows. I cannot sugar coat, excuse, or justify what was physical abuse. This was not misunderstood gestures of discipline or protectiveness. It was shit Child Protective Services should have been called for.
My father was the first to arrive in Canada. He came in the ‘60s. He had completed a college degree from the University of Ghana and wanted to have an experience abroad. Through a longstanding collaboration between the University of Ghana and Loyola College in Montreal (now called Concordia University), my father was awarded a scholarship to study Economics study in Canada. By then, he and mom were married and had 6 children. My father traveled to Canada alone and then after a year or so of missing his wife and children, he made a request to have them sent for. My mother came over with a teaching certificate from Ghana and in Canada she earned a degree in Education.
I have visited Ghana only twice in my life time. With my mom for 1-month when I was 16 years old. Then for 4-months by myself in my mid-twenties. The second trip was much more rewarding and adventurous. My life was very different from my siblings because they arrived in Canada as children and as immigrants. They had to learn a new language, a new culture, deal with bitter cold winters, and it was the first time in their lives they had been around that many white people. They had always been a majority. Another twist to my siblings’ experience that is very different than mine is that they arrived in Canada in two stages. First, only two siblings traveled with my mother when my father sent for her. Then four years later, my four other siblings arrived with the 20-something-year old house girl (nanny) who had been caring for them back home. You can’t even imagine the level of emotional issues that needed to be resolved in this scenario in addition to adapting to a new country. My mother’s biggest culture shock – which I believe unhinged her – was facing the loss of her extended family that she counted on to help her raise her children. That “it takes a village” proverb may be overused, but it’s no joke. I believe my mom felt helpless and I know my siblings felt it too. Till this day, my siblings still talk of memories they had as children back in Ghana which I will never experience first hand.
So how do I raise my children? I laughed at your list of modern day, child-rearing “transgressions” because I was like, “Yup. Ya. Yes…I do all of that or at least 4 out of the 6 items you listed. I’m definitely more attentive to how they feel and validate how they feel. I don’t use any form of corporal punishment to discipline them. I take away privileges and yes, I give time outs.
And I smile at your modernism in terms of raising your children and bring no etched in stone value judgments to that process. I still do appreciate some “old school” methods of child-rearing (having chores; responsibility for one’s actions; respect for non-parental adults who may have to chastise one’s behavior; rewards for actual achievements and not just for participation, etc.) I do acknowledge physical discipline does not ensure or retain any long term adjustments in a child’s ongoing behavior but can easily build resentment, resistance, and inappropriate actions later in a child’s life.
So, one of your stories eloquently describes an aspect of your childhood via your extended family, and I wonder do the majority of your writings draw upon childhood experiences? How do your parents factor into your writing as characters or influencers of plot and direction? And your “stumbling” into poetry…does it have its own rewards and have you created a body of work? Pushing the envelope, if you were writing an adult novel, what would the principal themes be in your work i.e. the book cover jacket synopsis?
No, the majority of my writings don’t draw on my childhood experiences. Of all the stories I’ve written in my life – whether they appear on either of my two fiction blogs or are still sitting in a “cloud” somewhere or scribbled in a notebook – only 4 stories draw upon or are about my childhood experiences. And those stories were motivated by my daring myself “to go there”. There’s a degree of vulnerability I have to surrender to whenever I think about drawing from my childhood experiences. A lot of it was sad yet some aspects of it have shaped me into who I am now. I’m also too hard on myself when I think about writing from my childhood experiences, especially the difficult parts. I’m afraid I’m not going to get it “right”; I’m going to short change it in a way. What I mean by that is I worry that I’m not going to adequately convey the convoluted, tortured and mixed feelings I had during that time. How do I convey the mask I wore everyday to get by so no one would notice how sad I was? How do I convey that I didn’t even know I was wearing a mask until 2 decades later? I worry that I’m going to have to feel “that” way again in order to recreate it on paper. A few years back, I wrote a story called “80%” that drew on a childhood experience – the fear-based relationship between my mother and I. That was a dare to myself because I knew that I’d have to read it aloud to my peers in a writing class. It was cathartic at the time. But when I read it now, it feels so blah, stilted. I want to re-write it.
In my story “80%”, the mother character – my mother – is the central antagonist and shapes the plot around which the protagonist – a school-aged girl – monitors her every move. Although the mom character only appears a third of the way into the story and only has 3 scenes, the protagonist is always aware of the mom in someway. It leaves the reader with a nice sucker punch at the end of the story. For 95% of my stories, my parents don’t factor in as characters or plot influencers. If there’s a character who values education, a new immigrant doing their best to succeed in their new country despite obstacles then I’ll draw on my parents’ influence. The same goes for any characters who may be religious zealots or have repressed religious views about sexuality, and then I’ll draw from my experience of my parents too.
My surrendering to poetry has had many rewards and, yes! I do believe I have a body of poetry work. I had to think about that because I’ve never really thought of the poetry I write as a collection. They just occur spontaneously and unwillingly. But I think I’ve written enough spontaneous and unwilling moments of poetry to constitute a body of work. I say unwillingly because for all the years I’ve been writing and for all the books I love reading, I’ve stayed away from poetry because I just. didn’t. get it. I really didn’t.
For years, I couldn’t grasp the imagery. The metaphors got lost on me. I found it frustrating. I felt like, only the poet gets this. I felt like the poet was leaving me out of the code they were writing. I enjoyed Shakespeare in high school. I understood his metaphors and humor. But Frost and Wilde, I had no idea why they were renown. Then in my mid-twenties I discovered a poet named, Marilyn Hacker. I think someone gave me her book of poetry as a gift or I discovered it on a bookshelf at the Women’s Center where I worked through grad school. Whatever the case, her words moved me. I finally got it. I would read a passage. Stop to absorb it, let it sink in, and then read it again, slower the second time, as the images took shape in my mind. She wrote sensual, erotic love poems where a woman was her muse and, given my own recent awareness of my inclination towards women, I was enthralled that someone actually understood AND could articulate what I was feeling.
I took a couple of stabs at writing poetry in my late twenties and thirties but I didn’t really like what I was producing so I let it go and continued with my short stories. The rewards I experienced by writing poetry in my 40s were unexpected in 2 ways. One, it helped break through a writing block that I had for almost 3 years. I started writing really short – 2-5 sentence long – observations during my daily commute. That became satisfying because there was a beginning and an end to each observation – a moment on the subway during rush hour, a walk through Union Square, a spontaneous interaction with a stranger. Every moment was complete and worth writing about. I learned that by reading post-colonial, South Asian author, Anita Desai. I no longer felt like I had to start a 1,000+ word story that I wasn’t sure I could complete. Second, most of the poetry I’ve written since 2014 has been – and continues to be – inspired by and about a female muse. She’s a photographer and the first time I saw her work, I was struck – emotionally struck, spiritually compelled, grasped in my soul – to write a story about it. I didn’t see that coming at all. I’ve never been so moved by another person’s creative essence the way her work moved me. In fact, I’ve written a total of 4 short stories and 1 ballad inspired by her photography, 1 screenplay featuring her as a character, 1 children’s picture book, and over 15 poems about her. And I actually like the poems. About half of these pieces are posted on my blog.
The book cover jacket of my adult novel would read…I’m struggling with this one. I know what my themes are I’m just having a hard time articulating them this late at night. I’ll answer it tomorrow.
Okay, you owe me the adult novel jacket narrative. So, you have given me so much to comment on…let’s see where I want us to go. Your vulnerability; what I would call your self-protectiveness. Are you becoming more open; better able to deal with being vulnerable…being and feeling safe in inter-personal situations? And yes, you should re-write “80%;” but more importantly, share a poem with us so we can glimpse that aspect of your creativity. As far as your “recent awareness of [your] inclination towards women” what prompted that to come to the forefront of your consciousness or did you repress this aspect of who you are because of cultural or parental attitudes and now feel “independent” enough to pursue all aspects of who you are as a person? And as you articulate your humaneness, has it been difficult for your family to understand, embrace, and accept you? Lastly, do you identify (ever) who this female muse is? “Inquiring minds want to know.” Oh, you need to share the address for your blog so readers can easily access your world of words.
I realize why I couldn’t give you a jacket narrative for a novel. I’ve never thought of or envisioned my body of work being culminated in a novel format. I see it in 3 different formats. As a collection of poems, a collection of observations, and as a collection of short stories. So there would actually be 3 jacket narratives:
My collection of poems jacket narrative would read –
“Inspired by a light that, despite its brilliance I never knew existed, and opened a channel to a connection that set me free. A collection of poems gathered from streams of consciousness that lulled me to sleep at night, roused me awake in the morning or piqued my senses during a fleeting encounter. Inspired by an unwitting muse, a rogue shimmer of her radiant light pierced through my cloistered prism and shattered into a rainbow. The words contained in this collection were released by For Giving. Forgiveness created an opening to recognize the light. Forgiving is the way back to one’s source.”
My collection of observations jacket narrative would read –
“A boy recounts the loose coins in his pocket, a woman glances suggestively after another, co-works strain at small talk during lunch, a winged insect disturbs passengers on a train…insignificant interactions in our daily lives captured in words in the most colorful, descriptive and intricate detail.”
I’ve always preferred great public transportation systems like in Montreal and New York City. I’ve never been attached to or concerned with the convenience of a car being able to get me from one place to another. I’m more interested in the multitude of human interactions I can observe and be a part of in a subway or metro station, on a bus, and on a street getting from the transportation source to my destination. That’s most fascination and intriguing to me. When I travel door to door in a metallic can on wheels (i.e. a car), I lose out on being with the people.
My adult “picture book” of short stories coupled with images (photos, paintings, etc) jacket narrative would read –
“Take a visually stimulating journey into your imagination wrought with sensual images, encounters, and relationships with the living – or dead. Explore loss and identity in both their literal and abstract representations. Loss precedes transformation. Engage with characters who experience a loss of life, innocence, control, youth, passion, or proximity to a loved one. As a result of this loss, their identity is forever changed; how the characters perceive themselves is different. They are either compelled to accept the shift or they make a choice to no longer exist.”
I have a soft spot for visual artists and their ability to convey stories through images. I don’t know how to draw, never been inclined to draw. But I believe I have an artistic synergy with visual artists that’s why I pair all of my pieces on my blog with images that I feel speak to the piece I associate it with. I remember looking for an image that would speak to a poem I wrote called “Spooning” but all the pictures I saw were romantic and the essence of my piece was the exact opposite. I finally came across a painting with a couple spooning in bed that caught me immediately. This image felt like what my poem was conveying. I posted it to my site with my poem. Then I went back to read more about the artist, I learned that her body of work – a series of paintings of couples in a variety of sexual positions – emphasized the remoteness a person can feel in what’s supposed to be an intimate interaction. I was amazed that I had intuitively picked up on the artist’s message. I see a collaboration between myself and a visual artist (or many?!) in the near future.
(Deep breath) I’m learning how to be more vulnerable and feel safe in inter-personal relationships. More and more I realize how guarded I am, dispensing my worries and fears and difficult times to friends and loved one in selective doses. Holding onto the rest of my fears, worries, and difficult times like a shameful burden, like they’ll see me less than and pity me. I realize it’s a coping mechanism, a defense mechanism. I keep too many secrets. For some reason, I’ve internalized that if I’m a trustworthy holder of other people’s secrets – for which I’m always rewarded – then I should receive reward for holding onto my own secrets. I also realize that it’s not serving me, how it keeps intimacy – the loving, tender, emotive, connective kind – at bay. It’s a push-pull with me, always measuring out what I can share, what I should share instead of just letting go knowing that I won’t be rejected, judged, be perceived as weak, or what I share will be used against me. And if I am and it is, then accepting that I was vulnerable from a place of love and integrity which comes with consequences, because we’re human with our perfections, flaws and limits, and I shouldn’t internalize everyone’s reaction to my being me. I realize the more I have compassion for myself, the more I have compassion for others. Lately, I’ve had enough people say to me, “You’re so easy to talk to.” “I’ve never shared this much about myself with anyone I just met.” “There’s something so trusting about you“. Then years later, after I reveal a trial I’ve gone through and overcome, they’re shocked and say, “I realize I don’t know anything about you.” I need to heed the message of opening up if I want to live a fulfilling life.
Here’s a poem that I haven’t posted on my blog yet or shared in a reading because it makes me feel vulnerable.
From the Back
base of neck
small of back
toes fanned out
wrapped arms contain
the mouth teaches
parted lips yearn more
and eyes plead thankful
all in the same breath
Oops, I need to make a correction here. “..my own recent awareness of my inclination towards women…” was a miscommunication. I was explaining that I had recently come out to myself in my early twenties – many, many years ago – when I discovered Marilyn Hacker’s poetry in my mid-twenties, about three years later. This awakening didn’t happen last year!
Yes, due to African cultural taboos about homosexuality coupled with a strict Catholic upbringing and false messages about sex and sexuality, I had repressed that aspect of myself when, at age 15-16, I developed my first crush on a girl in my class, then another crush on a senior girl. In hindsight, as early as 7 -8, I had crushes on a few of my older brother’s girlfriends too but I was not aware of what all of those feelings meant. My household was not affectionate or tender for me to even understand that that type of closeness was even be possible regardless of who my affections were toward.
Four defining moments prompted me to explore my attraction to women: 1) I met a boy in my early 20s. We really liked and respected each other and I wanted him to be my first, 2) I stopped practicing Catholicism thereby “divorcing” myself from any responsibility to be celibate until marriage, 3) I developed an obsessive crush on some random woman who was marching in a Gay Pride Parade – the first Parade I’d ever seen in my life and, 4) my then, boyfriend was sexually open and experimental and basically said, “Go for it. Maybe you’re bisexual.”
I’ve felt motivated and intrigued – not so much independent – to explore all aspects of myself since I was 21. My boyfriend opened the flood gates and I felt like a raging, insatiable torrent of curiosity, discovery, and experimentation. Note to parents – repression backfires….big time. Despite the social repercussions and familial reactions to being a member of the LGBTQ+ community, the biggest internal challenge I’ve had is calling myself a writer, sharing my pieces with others, and being a prolific writer of sensual, erotic fiction – which I maintain on a separate website. Twenty-one pieces strong. I’ve gradually started to merge erotic pieces onto my blog, but that’s a work in progress.
Yes, as I articulate my humanness, it has been difficult for my family to understand, embrace, and accept me fully. Regarding my sexuality, the journey with my family has been a challenging one for the past 20-something years. From not discussing or ignoring that part of who I am, to being angry with it, to wanting me to change, to acceptance, I’ve faced a whole gamut of reactions. It was and still is disheartening. Over the years, it has brought me back to my Higher Power and looking within for self-validation. So I’m blessed for the experience because it also helps me believe in myself as a writer. I also realize that some of my family members have their own fears, judgments, and expectations that they need to displace onto others in order to feel good about themselves. Projection is a bitch. It’s been a tough road to learn how to recognize what’s my stuff and to reject what isn’t.
No, I won’t identify who this female muse is. Although I don’t think she’d care, she is rather eccentric, unassuming, and prefers to be on the viewer side of the camera and not being viewed. She was a former actress who quit the business because she discovered she was camera shy. Besides, I like perpetuating her elusiveness (*wink*). I like her being my secret.
My blog address is choicecreations.wordpress.com !
You have left me speechless, and feeling that any more remarks on my part would be trite and insignificant. You have taken me (and I am sure others) through a whirlwind of emotions and sharing that has resulted in a good exhaustion. So, as we close, I want to embrace and thank you for the sharing; for opening doors, and facing down trepidations and fears. Besides all the advice you have spread throughout our talk, is there anything else you wish to share with others? This closing is now your encore.
Thank you for being you.
I’m going to say the most cliché thing ever, “Be yourself.” I swear, at this age I’m just beginning to understand now that “Being Yourself” is not easy! It’s hard and it’s been the theme of my life’s journey. I had been walking around with this delusional belief that if I was nice and fair, then people would “like” me and I would be “accepted”. Now I realize that being myself takes courage, is brave, takes vulnerability, is wrought with judgment, brings loving people to me, is standing alone sometimes, makes me feel confident, is feeling scared and uncertain, grounds me, accepts that some people won’t like me, welcomes the whole bunches of people who connect to me, tolerates the discomfort of walking in my power, embraces the respect that comes with walking in my power, dissents from the status quo, and stands for humanness in all its perfection, flaws, and its ability to create from any circumstance. When I feel doubtful (Should I be “myself” THAT much?), I meditate and turn inward to my Higher Power for guidance. I’m also blessed with a handful of loving people in my life who remind me of my purpose here and the accountability to my Higher Power – Love. That’s the only force I’m accountable too. The only One.
Bill, thank you so much for inviting me to walk with you through this “Conversation”.
♦ ♦ ♦
When aaduna started, I did an interview process titled “E-Viewpoints” with contributors. The purpose was to construct a wider audience for aaduna writers and artists while providing our readership with a better understanding and glimpse of the individuals who penned the poetry, fiction, and non-fiction and created the diverse array of visual arts. For a variety of unplanned reasons, I took a hiatus from that initiative. But now, I am back with “Conversations.” The plan is to chat with current and previous contributors and delve into aspects of their background that you may find intriguing and uplifting. I hope you become a regular follower of this series of “Conversations” and continue to enjoy the work of the individual that I have a chat with. The intent is not to be “in your face” but enable you to savor the nuances, expectations, and challenges that aaduna contributors face as people, just like you and me. I think you will find “Conversations” interesting, maybe provocative, and enlightening. I hope so.