Confronting the Specters of the Past, Writing the Legacy of Pain: An Interview with Phyllis Alesia Perry
Duboin, Corinne, The Mississippi Quarterly
ATLANTA-BORN PHYLLIS ALESIA PERRY GREW UP IN TUSKEGEE, ALABAMA. After graduating from the University of Alabama with a B.A. in communications, she worked as a reporter and editor for Southern newspapers, including The Alabama Journal and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. She is currently communications coordinator for Men Stopping Violence, an organization committed to ending domestic violence.
Perry is the author of two novels. Stigmata (1998) is the intriguing story of Lizzie DuBose. Haunted by the dead spirits of her black female ancestors, she becomes heir to the re-emerging traumas of slavery and the Middle Passage. Lizzie's violent confrontation with African American history, her troublesome visions, and unexplained bleeding keep recurring right after she inherits a trunk that contains an old quilt made by her grandmother Grace, together with a diary that chronicles the life of her enslaved great-great-grandmother Ayo. Locked up in mental institutions for fourteen years and delving down into her family's past, Lizzie learns how to reinvent herself and come to terms with the present.
Perry's second novel, A Sunday in June (2004), is a prequel to Stigmata that records the stormy lives of the three Mobley sisters: Lizzie's grandmother Grace, Eva, and Mary Nell. Grace is tormented by Ayo's spectral voice and endures her ancestor's physical sores and psychic pain. Brought to the brink of madness, she eventually flees North, abandoning her family. Her younger sisters, endowed with the gift of clairvoyance, are the protagonists of an emotionally devastating domestic drama that drives them apart: on a Sunday in June, thirteen-year-old Eva is raped by Mary Nell's husband, Lou Henry. The novel is a story of sisterly love and hate. Blaming her sister who "done got womanish" (142), consumed with grief and jealousy, Mary Nell (who suffers from being barren) steals Eva and Lou Henry's newborn son to raise him as her own away from her family.
Mixing the realist mode with the fantastic, both texts deal with the connection to the past, historicity, and memory. Perry also explores the intricacies of painful family relationships, grievous separations, reconciliation and healing with the restoration of loving bonds.
A Pulitzer-winning newspaper editor in 1988, Phyllis Perry was awarded the 1999 Georgia Author of the Year Award for a first novel.
This interview was conducted in Atlanta on August 25, 2007.
Corinne Duboin: Thank you for being here to talk about your works of fiction. What actually prompted you to become a novelist?
Phyllis Alesia Perry: I'm always a little bit at a loss when I'm asked that question because I don't remember a single moment or an incident, or anything like that. I feel as if I've always been what I am, not necessarily a novelist but someone who is a storyteller or a writer, someone who just naturally wants to work with words. I've felt that way since I began being read to and since I began being a reader, and I was a reader very young, at age three. And that happened so early in my life, it's very hard for me to even think of a moment when I, number one, didn't know how to read, and number two, didn't want to be the person who was telling stories. I feel as if it's something I always wanted to be, even though I didn't do it as a career. But that was always who I felt my true self was.
CD: When did you start writing fiction?
PAP: I started playing with fiction when I was a teenager, but as far as working on serious writing, I was in my late twenties. I had several pieces of long fiction that I worked on that didn't go anywhere, but I was experimenting with different things. And I was in my mid-thirties when Stigmata was accepted for publication.
CD: When reading Stigmata, I thought of several well-known African American female writers: Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Gloria Naylor, Gayl Jones, and Octavia Butler. Were they your literary models? …