|(photo: Beowulf Sheehan)|
Monica Brashears is an Affrilachian writer from Tennessee and a graduate of Syracuse University's MFA program. Her work has appeared in Nashville Review, Split Lip magazine, Appalachian Review, the Masters Review and more. Her debut novel is House of Cotton (Flatiron Books, April 4, 2023), a novel about ghosts, mothers and the struggle to survive, set in Tennessee with its lingering challenges of race and class. Brashears lives in Syracuse, N.Y., where she is at work on her second novel.
What makes Magnolia a compelling protagonist?
The reason I love her so much, and why she's my baby, is because of her willingness to create other worlds as a response to trauma. There's such a tenderness there. It's an act of hope, that the world can be velvet. It doesn't have to be so harsh all the time. Even in moments when it's the harshest, she has an ability to make it velvet, and I think that's special.
To what do you attribute that ability in her?
That ability is both a method of survival and another sort of haunting. Magnolia's imagined fairytales stem from coping strategies she turned to as a child and because she's carried them into adulthood, her trauma still lives in that humor. Additionally, Mama Brown's laughter and steady shelter taught Magnolia her definition of safety and, because of that, Mama Brown's life is reflected in the way Magnolia jokes.
Was Magnolia the beginning of this novel coming to you?
House of Cotton began as a short story in undergrad, and it was plot driven. The characters were not-quite-formed-laughing-things. I had no intentions of returning to the story, but three years later, Magnolia returned. I only knew that she had an emotional cavity, and inside that cavity, she claimed there were geodes. Usually, for me, the plot comes first as a way to announce all the ways I'm fed up. But I don't have anything to work with until the characters show me how and why their yearning stretches beyond their exhaustion.
Does writing a ghost like Mama Brown differ from writing a living character?
I tend to write a lot of ghosts because I was raised hearing these Appalachian folktales. I think I feel the life more in the ghosts in the first draft, because there's an urgency there. They're back--why are they back? What do they need? I kind of prefer writing ghosts, strangely.
Is this an allegory about slavery?
Not entirely. I think it's very much rooted in the present. Although I do understand that reading, because the effects of slavery are in the present. It's in the fabric of everything that's happening now. And, of course, the title is House of Cotton, which kind of primes the reader.
How important is setting to this story? Could it happen anywhere else?
The basic plot could happen anywhere. But the setting, the love and the lust and the tenderness, is very much tied to the land--all the plants, the kudzu.
House Mountain is mentioned in the novel, and I move it around. It's generally always in my writing, but I move it around Tennessee. Knoxville is also, I would say, an Appalachian city, but it doesn't get viewed that way. The mountains are there. So I like to say hey, remember? Don't forget! We're in Appalachia.
What does it mean to be an Affrilachian writer?
I believe Frank X. Walker coined the term. I remember writing, and it was always about the mountains, in undergraduate workshops at the University of Tennessee. And then one day in a poetry workshop my senior year, just before I was getting ready to move to Syracuse for my MFA, I was called Affrilachian. And I was like, what do you mean? Can I claim that? I wasn't literally living on a mountain, but I was at the feet of them, so I was always on them growing up. So it really felt like coming home in my writing. When people think Appalachia, I don't think they often think about Black people inhabiting the mountains, so within the genre there's kind of a pushback against that erasure. This is our land, too.
Is there a special challenge to writing something this strongly based in place while you are elsewhere?
I did write the novel in Syracuse. I carry home within me, always, and nurture that sense through familiar music or food. If anything, Syracuse winters helped me focus on the specifics of all I missed; the book's infatuation with Tennessean summertime is yet another layer of yearning.
Has your MFA program changed how you work as a writer?
It definitely has. I love the community. When I first came here everyone was name-dropping all of these authors and I felt very out of place. But I took a class that was focused on Ulysses. We spent the entire semester reading Ulysses, and it was full of suffering, and it was bizarre, but I came out of that really uncomfortable semester having definitely improved in seeing all of these fun craft maneuvers available. Permission was gained. I've been exposed to so many texts and writers and traditions that otherwise I wouldn't have, and it's improved my craft and widened my love for literature.
What's an example of a good craft maneuver you learned?
Approaching revision with an acknowledgement that a writer's subconscious has the story figured out before the writer helped unlock the process for me. There's a pleasure in finding hints within a story or novel and toying with them until I find their meaning. My hints usually present themselves as repetition. There's an urgency that's accidental and charming and indicative of strong emotion. But what am I really trying to say?
What can you tell us about your next novel?
It is a trailer park noir filled with jewels, and the fear of God, of course, and murder.
What's your favorite thing about this novel?
I think Magnolia. I often think of her as my child. I was raised an older sibling, so I was kind of assigned motherhood occasionally, and she feels like a younger sibling or a child. Someone I hold close and within me and tend to love every day. --Julia Kastner