We are saddened by the death of Maya Angelou, a writer whose life and work has been an inspiration to people the world over, and a woman from whose great capacity for friendship we’ve learned so much this year.
Regular readers of Something Rhymed will know that we profiled Angelou’s relationship with Toni Morrison back in February. Influenced by their championing of each other’s achievements, we set ourselves the task, on a much smaller scale, to follow their example.
We made lists of the things we admired about each other and developed them into pieces of creative work. Although we’d always considered our friendship to be a very open one, we were surprised by how many of the points we noted down we had never spoken of before.
It made us wonder how long we might have gone on silently appreciating, but never expressing, that we valued these qualities if we hadn’t paid attention to Angelou and Morrison.
When we discovered that Morrison would be appearing at Wales’s Hay Festival this year, we quickly bought tickets to hear her talk. We knew that she and Angelou had bonded years ago at Hay, when both women found themselves far away from home at a time when their mothers were ill. And so it felt particularly poignant that it was during yesterday’s festival session that many audience members (ourselves included) first heard that Angelou had died.
Morrison eloquently gave voice to the gasps that rippled through the vast tent when she spoke of her personal loss. ‘I thought she was eternal,’ she said. ‘I thought she always, always would be there.’
As writer friends ourselves, it is difficult to listen to language like this without wondering how one of us would cope in a similar situation, how we would feel if the person we’d come to rely on to such an extent was suddenly gone from our life.
Morrison, who called Angelou ‘a real original’, was understandably reluctant to say too much about her death. ‘It hurts so much that I have no treasurable, powerful, elegant words to say about that,’ she told the crowd. ‘I need time to talk about Maya. She was important in so many ways.’
But what struck us as we listened was the extent to which each of these women had already made significant efforts to commemorate the life of her friend.
Morrison’s speech in praise of Angelou at the USA’s most recent National Book Awards was a case in point, as was the party Angelou threw for her friend in 1993 – a response to what she saw as a lack of official national acknowledgement when Morrison won the Nobel Prize for Literature.
We are thankful for what we have learned from this literary pair: that it is important to celebrate the lives of our close ones, not just in fine tributes once they are gone, but also when they are still here.
When Laura MacDougall of Hodder & Stoughton contacted us about the friendship between one of her authors, Julie Sarkissian, and fellow US novelist, Haley Tanner, we were keen to learn more. So, we interviewed them for this month’s guest post.
Something Rhymed: What were your first impressions of each other and how did you become friends?
Haley: The first time I saw Julie I wanted to become her friend instantly. It was the first week of the MFA program we did together and during these awful get-to-know you exercises where everyone tried as hard as possible to impress everyone else with their apathy and pretension – in the middle of all that she was a shining beacon of honesty and ease and genuine enthusiasm. Then we had our first workshop together and the story she brought to the table was just beautiful and strange and so impressive – I still remember lines from that first story – and I thought she’d never be my friend – she just seemed so brilliant – and way too cool for me. I think she must have done the first inviting-out-to-drinks – I don’t remember – but I’m pretty shy about those things so I bet it was her. The first time we went out together I could not believe that this gorgeous intense-genius person was so down-to-earth, so real and wonderful and so human.
Julie: A few of us students were standing around after some kind of orientation and I remember thinking Haley was very hip, was totally beautiful and very charming and engaging. We later found ourselves in class together but we didn’t talk outside class until the day her writing was workshopped for the first time. I was blown away by her talent. I went up to her after class and said, your writing is amazing, I have this feeling we speak the same language, let’s go get a drink. So we went to a bar that us MFA kids would go to after class and we stayed up talking long into the night. After that, we took all our classes together and, after we graduated, we saw each other almost as much as we had in school.
Something Rhymed: What qualities or interests do you share and in what ways do you differ?
Julie: Haley’s an adventurer and I’m a creature of habit. I’ve worked in the same restaurant for ten years, had the same therapist for seven years, had the same boyfriend/now husband for nine years. In that amount of time Haley has travelled the world many times over. We are both pretty extroverted, we both love a good in-depth, no holds barred heart-to-heart. Needless to say we both love to read and love to talk about books.
Haley: Oh my goodness! There isn’t anything I wouldn’t like to do with Julie by my side. We both procrastinate by baking or cooking or cleaning when we should be writing. Julie was the first writer I met who would admit that there were many times that we’d rather do anything – anything AT ALL, than write. What ways do we differ? Julie is far more social than I am. She’s a real girl’s girl – she has this incredible ability to create an amazing space where women can be supportive of each other and let go and have real fun. I remember Julie throwing an all-girls holiday party, cranking Mariah Carey’s ‘All I Want For Christmas’ and getting everyone to dance around the room. I think Julie should be held up as an example that being an incredible literary genius does not mean that you cannot throw a great dinner party, kick off your heels, and dance around the room.
Julie is an amazing friend, and she’s an amazing friend to a long list of very lucky people. I’m sort of a homebody – Julie has always drawn me out of my shell, and taught me, by example, how to be a better friend.
Something Rhymed: Can you tell us about the role of writing in your friendship?
Haley: Julie is the only person on the planet with whom I can share some of my darkest writing troubles – she’s so unguarded, I can tell her anything. Julie helped me write my first query letter to an agent – and she forced me to send it. I wouldn’t have a career without her encouragement. I still have all of Julie’s handwritten edits on the early versions of the manuscript for my first novel – those pages are the only edited rough-draft relics I’ve saved – if only for her handwriting and genius.
Recently we’ve been talking about motherhood – it’s an entirely new world we’re both entering. It’s essential to survival to have someone by your side who knows who you were before you were a mom. For me, writing has taken on an entirely new importance – it’s a way to spend time in my mind – to reclaim some of the territory lost to the baby and the breastfeeding and the sleep struggles. I think that having a friend who is also exploring this alien land can keep you from losing your mind.
Julie: Haley is one of the only people whom I am very, very close with that I feel can empathize with the struggles of writing, publishing, the disappointments, the jealousies, the confusion. I rely on her to validate many of my ambivalent, painful feelings about writing and being a writer that are hard to express to other friends. Our friendship is so much more than just about writing, but we first connected over writing and confiding in each other about writing was the basis of a deep intimacy.
Something Rhymed: Have the two of you ever experienced any feelings of literary rivalry and, if so, how did you find a way to manage them?
Julie: When Haley sold her novel and I was still editing mine with my agent I was definitely jealous. I wanted so badly to have what she had. But I think the word rivalry implies one person desiring to be superior and that I have not necessarily experienced. Haley was the first person to read my novel and vice versa, so we were invested in each other’s novels from the very beginning.
Haley: I have never, never, felt any sort of rivalry with Julie – and no envy. I truly love her, and I’ve only felt true happiness at her success. I think there’s a very pervasive and damaging idea floating out in the universe that writing – or any art – is a zero-sum game – that someone else’s success is your loss. That’s ridiculous and harmful – and it sabotages real, supportive, loving relationships. Throughout all of the early struggles I always believed that one day Julie and I would be lucky enough to do interviews like this – to talk about our books and our lives together.
Julie Sarkissian’s novel, Dear Lucy, is published by Hodder & Stoughton
For May’s Something Rhymed activity, Emma Claire commissioned me to write about ‘the provinces’.
For the benefit of our international readers, some of whom may more commonly use this term in a different way, it’s worth mentioning that by ‘the provinces’ she meant those areas of the country away from the capital and other major cities.
I am, you might say, a city girl, which goes some way to explaining one of Emma Claire’s early impressions of me. Being mixed-race – I’m half-English and half-Japanese – I’ve generally felt more at home in the metropolis than the less ethnically-diverse smaller towns where, through accidents of birth and circumstance, I have actually spent the greater part of my life.
There are many things that I could say about this subject, some of which I touched on in a longer memoir, written for the Tangled Roots project last year. But since this is a relatively short blog post, and not an essay, I have taken a leaf out of Emily Dickinson’s book and interpreted Emma Claire’s assignment loosely.
Here, I have set down some thoughts about my first home, on the outskirts of York, in a part of the UK that could be regarded as firmly within the provinces.
It was an ordinary semi-detached house on the Badger Hill estate.
I had never seen a badger anywhere in its vicinity. The name was merely a ghost of the wooded landscape that must have preceded the tarmac, brown brickwork, and fenced-off areas of lawn.
Our neighbours were an elderly couple, the Ks, who my little sister and I really liked. Although, as a rule, they had no time for ‘foreigners’, like most people with these sorts of prejudices, they were apt to make exceptions.
Our mother had managed to win them over early, due in part to what they believed was her miraculous ability to predict the weather. It didn’t matter that she’d told them she was simply a keen watcher of the BBC forecast, they were adamant it was all down to some mystical Asian charm.
The Ks would keep an eye out for those mornings when our mother emerged from our back door with a bagful of washing, and this would usually be followed an hour or so later by Mrs K stepping outside with a fresh load of her own. This meant, effectively, that if there was a full clothes line in our garden, there would almost always be laundry hanging outside our neighbours’ house too.
Externally, our house may have been indistinguishable from that of our neighbours, but inside there were noticeable differences between where we lived and the houses of our school friends.
In later years, after the deaths of both my parents, people who knew us back then would often recall the ‘exotic’ scents of Mum’s cooking drifting out of our kitchen, the Japanese scrolls and prints hanging on the walls, the miniature stringed koto on the windowsill with its melancholic plinking sound.
There were other differences too, like the many books in my parents’ study and the fact there was a study at all – where my parents worked at desks side-by-side – but it was the Japanese elements, so at odds with the Englishness of that building, that seem to make the biggest impression, probably because they were the least expected.
These seeming contradictions were, of course, entirely normal to me. I had grown up with them. But I’m sure I was influenced by these reactions, which included open-mouthed surprise at times.
In fact, it could have been the first spark of a fascination in me with objects or people that appear in unexpected places and the ways others react to them – a major theme, I’ve realised recently, in a lot of the writing I’ve done in the years since then.
We all get lumbered with mythologies about our character long after we’ve outgrown them. In my family, for instance, I’m thought to be fiercely competitive, keen only to do those things at which I excel.
This version of me came about with good reason: at about ten years old, I asked my mum whether I stood a chance of getting into Oxford or Cambridge; in my teens, I could hardly enjoy exam success if a classmate got 98% when I got only 96; I was so appalled at my ineptitude at driving that once, during a lesson with my dad, I stormed out of the car at traffic lights, leaving him to take the wheel. My parents were amused and bemused by the precocity and ferocity of my ambitions, wondering how I’d acquired such traits.
Friends I first met in my twenties, such as Emily, rarely recognise my family’s characterisation of me. In my own narrative, my competitive streak disappeared during my university years. At Cambridge, I tell myself, I learnt to study simply for the joy of it; I became privileged enough to consider reading and writing and thinking as ends in themselves.
But when Emily commissioned me to write about gymnastics, the memories I mulled over complicated my own version of this change in me.
After years of pestering my parents, they let me join a gym club when I turned seven. Even at that young age, I was acutely aware of the need to catch up with those who’d been training since they were three: I’d get really worked up about competitions, not allowing my parents to watch, and eventually feeling devastated when an excruciating 3.0 on the asymmetric bars led to my demotion from the squad.
But I carried on training throughout my teens, attending as many as five sessions per week, long after I’d accepted that I’d never get back into the first team, let alone really make it as a gymnast.
The experience of practising something that didn’t come naturally gave me a tiny glimpse into my sister’s life. Lou’s cerebral palsy and autism make everyday tasks at least ten times harder for her than they are for me. After years of hearing me talk nineteen to the dozen, she kept on sounding out words in front of the mirror until she eventually said them clearly enough for us to comprehend; after years of watching me cartwheel around the garden, she managed her first steps at six.
More remarkable still, Lou undertakes her daily graft with such aplomb that it rarely comes across as onerous. She’ll introduce herself to strangers, trying out her favourite phrases, and she’s invariably the first one on the dance floor and the last one off. Lou’s zest for life is never based on achievement or competition, her sense of self-worth never reliant on beating someone else.
When I made the choice to continue with gymnastics, I came to value the journey without getting fixated on the destination – a lesson that’s served me well when it comes to writing. It strikes me now that I was unwittingly following Lou’s example by doing something simply for the love of it: a quality that comes naturally to her but that was at least ten times harder for me.
The abiding image of Emily Dickinson is that of a reclusive poet, dressed only in white, and known among her neighbours as The Myth. So we were surprised and delighted to discover that she had been friends with one of the most famous writers of her generation, someone whom Ralph Waldo Emerson described as the best of America’s poets.
Dickinson’s celebrated friend was Helen Hunt Jackson – a name that, to our shame, we found unfamiliar. Although her reputation as a poet has failed to stand the test of time, she is still well remembered in the USA as a campaigner for the rights of Native Americans, and her novel Ramona has never been out of print.
Like Mansfield and Woolf, theirs was an unlikely friendship. Jackson was a social animal, whose successful career stood in stark opposition to that of Dickinson – an intensely private poet.
Indeed, during Dickinson’s lifetime, she saw only a handful of her poems go to press. Jackson actually shepherded one of them to publication, cajoling her into this by saying that: ‘It is a cruel wrong to your “day and generation” that you will not give them light’.
Dickinson also held Jackson’s work in high esteem, once claiming that – with the exception of George Eliot – she considered Jackson’s poems stronger than those of any woman since Elizabeth Barrett Browning.
Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who acted as a literary mentor to both writers, introduced Dickinson and Jackson to each other’s work. However, the two women had actually known each other since childhood. They both came from the small town of Amherst, Massachusetts but, whereas Jackson had roamed far and wide, Dickinson had stayed firmly put. Once they’d reconnected, Jackson visited Dickinson on her return trips to Amherst. So – unlike many of Dickinson’s friendships – the two writers conversed in person as well as through letters.
Their friendship even influenced some of their work. Jackson acted on occasion as muse, commissioner, and recipient of poems by Dickinson. And, for her part, Dickinson is widely thought to have inspired the central character in Jackson’s first novel: a woman who wears only white, and who writes strange and dazzling poems.
Helen Hunt Jackson once commissioned Emily Dickinson to write her a poem about an oriole – an orange-breasted blackbird common in the north east of America. Dickinson responded with ‘The Hummingbird’.
This month, we will be commissioning each other to write about a particular topic – although, like Dickinson, we reserve the right to go on a bit of a tangent!
As always, we’d be grateful for suggestions of other female writer friends you’d like us to research.