Victor Lavalle on the Truth of Family Secrets (Hint: They’re Not That Secret)
In Conversation with Maris Kreizman on The Maris Review Podcast
This week on The Maris Review, Victor Lavalle joins Maris Kreizman to discuss his latest novel, Lone Women, out now from One World.
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On the difficulty of homesteading:
MK: One of the things that you do so well in the book is explain how lonely homesteading was, and how you’d like to think—probably in this age in America, too—it was a real rugged individualism moment. And pulling yourself up by your bootstraps all alone is incredibly difficult.
VL: Very difficult. The main character’s a Black woman coming to Montana alone. And she’s getting a ride from a wagon man named Mr. Olsen out to her claim, and she admits to him her concerns. Number one, I’m a woman alone. Then even more specifically, I’m a Black woman out here in Montana alone, where there don’t seem to be many, if any, others. And Mr. Olsen says, while there are lots of prejudices floating all around, everyone here knows that this land is trying to kill them. And so everyone will help you because when they need help, they know they’re gonna need you.
And in this weird sort of way, it creates a… it’s not that everyone likes each other. It’s not that everyone accepts each other. It’s that everyone knows I’m gonna die without some help.
MK: Absolutely. And I love that later on in the book, Adelaide says, actually, the land doesn’t care about us. It’s not trying to kill us. We came to this land. What were we expecting?
VL: Yeah, thanks for catching that. I felt like on some level, the book is also about watching just Adelaide, who’s lived 31 years on the farm with her family in her previous life, under the thumb of her mother and father and the burdens of family. And so her coming out there is really, in a way, like a late coming of age story as well. And I wanted that to be one of her revelations. It’s like, we are not the center of any of this.
On remembering that the past is as complicated as the present:
VL: Adelaide was part of the Black farming community in Southern California specifically. She’s in a place called Lucerne Valley. There are some towns out there: Victorville, Albertville. Apparently now either Albertville or Victorville is a state park, but it was once a thriving Black farm community. And she’s a part of that, this community that was drawn out to Southern California with the promise of [making air quotes] colonizing Southern California.
And as is the case with Montana, the government was so desperate to have this land settled now that they’d removed the indigenous population or killed off the indigenous population that they relaxed the rules in ways that was part of the surprise for me doing the research.
I’d just always assumed white guys are who’s getting this land entirely. And of course they did great. But then it said no, women could come. And I said, okay, does that just mean white women? And they said, well, it does mean white women, but it also means Black women and Black men. Not Chinese people because there was an anti-Chinese exclusion act that existed at that time.
But the complexity of what was allowed was so surprising to me. I think I had that problem of the present thinking—the past is very simple and the present is complicated. And in fact, the past is pretty complicated. The depictions of Westerns that we’ve seen in most of cinema are pretty simple too.
MK: One of the things that Adelaide’s mother says to her that really stuck with me is “a woman is a mule.” And one of the things you do in this book is show us how heavy the load is that Adelaide has to carry. Tell me about the physicality of Adelaide’s move from California to Montana.
VL: The woman is a mule thing is an allusion to Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God. There’s a line in there that is sort of a play on that. I wanted that to echo or ring a little bit. But it was also me channeling my grandmother, who’s a Ugandan immigrant, who was born in the early 1900s, lived a life of a lot of work, a lot of toil, even when she came to the US and all the rest.
And so I really felt this deep conviction that a woman’s life is just rough. You’ve just gotta find a way to make it through. And occasionally there’s moments of joy, but it’s just hard. So there was that tension back and forth that I wanted to tap into.
But the way I felt like I would tap into it was literally through the body, Adelaide’s body moving through space as a way to suggest both her strength but also the struggle and the burden that she is literally carrying with this steamer trunk she’s bringing with her. And the burden of that legacy that her mother is passing onto her, thinking in her own way, I’m helping you because I’m teaching you the real world. And not understanding that the real world may want to do this to me and demand this of me, but why should you want to do this to me? That mother/daughter question feels like a rich one.
On family secrets:
MK: Adelaide starts in California and ends in Montana, but has the same problem that people won’t understand what is in the box. I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit about shame and when it’s smart to worry about what other people think because other people can be terribly dangerous, and when it’s overwhelming in a bad way.
VL: Well, the central question I was ruminating over in the book was about having a family secret or family secrets. To pull it back a bit, my family, we have a great deal of what would we call mental illness in the family, in various generations, various ways.
And there was a great deal of shame around the sort of erratic behavior and strange ways of members of our family, who we loved and were a part of us and all the rest. And so the narrative we had was you never tell anyone, you never talk about it. You never admit to that kind of thing. Nobody knows what goes on inside the house.
So I was raised with that, but then as I got older, a good bit older, one of the things I started to understand was everybody knew something was off. But in a way, because we refused to talk about it, we walled ourselves off from help, from safety, from perhaps somebody else saying, this isn’t normal. You shouldn’t go through this.
Maybe that family member needs help, not to just be shut away or to be shut down. There were all these healthy ways of living that were right outside our walled city, but I didn’t understand it until I had left the city, so to speak. And so the book is very much about that idea of not only there being a family secret, but the deeper revelation that it’s pretty rare that families are actually keeping their secrets from anyone but themselves.
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Victor LaValle is the author of seven works of fiction: four novels, two novellas, and a collection of short stories. His novels have been included in best-of-the-year lists by The New York Times Book Review, Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, The Nation, and Publishers Weekly, among others. He lives in the Bronx with his wife and kids and teaches at Columbia University. His latest novel is called Lone Women.