Arianne Elena Payne, the poet behind “The Contours of Marriage” and Clarie Gor, the author of Mother Hen, chat about their inspirations and creative processes for their works, both featured in the Spring 2023 issue of Shenandoah.
Arianne: What is the title and story of your piece that is featured in Volume 72.2 of Shenandoah? What was your writing process like? How did your piece come to be?
Clarie: My story is titled Mother Hen. When I started, all I knew was I wanted to write about a difficult relationship between a mother and her daughter. I am currently fascinated by that dynamic—it appears quite a bit in my stories. So I was home and my mother was telling me about her chickens and just like that, the opening paragraph came to me. The rest was figuring out what I wanted to say beyond plot. I knew I wanted to say something about how patriarchy “poisons” the relationship between women; to examine how (emotional) violence might look like when it is wielded by women in service—but also in defiance— of patriarchy. So in my story, the mother: desperately wants to protect her child against sexual violence and the daughter is indignant about being her own person, or maybe just refusing her mother’s constraints about who she can and cannot be. It’s a story about complicated love, a love tainted by resentment and power trips and the passive-aggressive ways both mother and daughter try to coerce care out of each other.
The writing process was rather slow. Once I had that opening section, I just let it sit for months and then I went back to it, writing a few paragraphs every few weeks or so. So then I just did that: writing and rewriting sections as they came to me until it was done.
Arianne: I like writing about difficult mother and daughter relationships too! The kind of love you’re speaking about reminds me of the opening chapter of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. Claudia describes her mom caring for her as, “Love, thick and dark as Alaga syrup,” and goes on to say, “When I think of Autumn, I think of somebody with hands who does not want me to die.” Though a thick and dark love, her mom gives her love nonetheless. Where do you feel your fascination with exploring this dynamic began?
Clarie: My mother and I had a difficult relationship for a while. At the time, it felt like the end of the world, like I was the only one cursed with this dynamic. And then I discovered that this is quite a common (universal even) experience between mothers and daughters during the teenage years and into early adulthood. So I think a part of it is me trying to demystify that struggle, that heartbreak. But mostly, it’s because I enjoy writing women who refuse the confines of “good” womanhood— self-sacrificing mothers, docile daughters, subservient wives, etc. A question I keep going back to with my fiction at the moment is “what happens when these kinds of women interact?” Like in Mother Hen, for example, how does a woman who is resentful of motherhood love her daughter?
Now that you mention it, it occurs to me that Toni Morrison writes about atypical motherhood quite a bit. So obviously, I need to get around to reading The Bluest Eye. I find that I can only consume her work in small batches. Like a book a year. So I guess this year’s choice has been made for me.
What about you? Where did your fascination with this dynamic begin? Also, what question(s) do you keep trying to answer with your fiction at the moment?
Arianne: I know that’s right! I would say my fascination also stems from my personal experiences. I was raised by a single mom, what some would call atypical motherhood. I had a difficult relationship with my mom for a while too. Honestly, it took me a long time before I could fully see her as a girl and woman before and while being my mom. Coming from two very different generations, we both had a lot of understanding and listening to do in order to welcome the fullness of one another. It’s something we’re still working on, but I’m grateful for that continued attempt. As I navigated our relationship, I felt this yearning to explore mother-daughter relationships in my work and consider what is missing in these conversations. By virtue, I also began exploring questions in my poetry like, “Who are Black women at our softest, bitchiest, and everything else in between,” “In what ways does fear mute love and living, and how do we resist its erasures,” and “Who the fuck do I think I am?” As I came into my 20s, I found that I was so afraid and anxious in ways that fixed me in place—made it hard to take action toward things. My poem featured in Shenandoah, “The Contours of Marriage,” is a refusal to be fixed in fear or by hatred. I wrote it in response to an article I read about a woman in 1952 Alabama who wasn’t allowed into bridal shops due to racism, so she wore a blue dress for her wedding ceremony. She was 25 at the time. I remember being shocked at learning this. Shocked to learn a new extension of Jim Crow’s wickedness, and also shocked to understand more deeply the ways people loved and lived freely regardless. This woman’s refusal to let racism and the fear of difference stop her love has been powerful in my own coming-of-age journey.
Clarie: The thing about learning to see your mother as a girl, her own woman, her own person is so powerful! Because honestly, I don’t think there is possibility for a healthy relationship before you get there. Because only then are you able to extend them so much grace, so much understanding, etc. Reminds me of a poem by Ijeoma Umebinyuo: “Forgive your mother//For all the miracles she couldn’t perform.”
Your poem sounds beautiful.
To turn your own question at you, “Who the fuck do you think you are?” As a writer, as a Black woman, etc. In what ways are you refusing to be stuck in place? How are you living and loving freely?
Arianne: Wheeeeew! Right now I am viewing myself as abundance, as a generational shifter, as a healer whose got healing to do, as a steward of my peoples’ stories, as a creator; as a graceful, young, wise, audacious, growing, bad bitch. The biggest way I’m refusing to be stuck in place is by going after every dream I am blessed with. I am making a conscious effort to build a life I can be proud of and happy with. Much of that revolves around my writing and creative work. It also revolves around my family and community, thinking of big and small ways that I can improve the conditions of marginalized communities. The loving and living freely is a work in progress, honestly! I am trying to understand and create myself on my terms for the first time in my life, which is a step toward living freely. Beyond difficult relationships with mothers and daughters, what other kinds of topics do you feel called to write about?
Clarie: Currently, my fiction is an exploration of the intersection of structural and interpersonal violence—how women and children caught up in these violence(s) respond. So I suppose I’m writing quite a bit about violence, about the women and children who wield it and who they wield it against. I hope I treat them with kindness and a gentle curiosity.
You said you are also exploring Bitchood in your writing. Tell me more about that.
Arianne: I am excited for your work–it is necessary, especially in the light of so much legislation that will increase the violences women and children experience. As a person who sits at the intersection of Blackness and womaness—I uniquely understand how the world wants me to be small, meek, erased, respectable. It would be easier for many people if I was. I choose fullness instead, and I explore the fullness of other Black people, particularly Black girls and women, in my work. That means I have a responsibility to explore the ways that we have been made bitch by our society and the ways that we have chosen to act subversively, or for some “to act as bitches,” for our protection, atonement, liberation, and most authentic living. This exploration of Bitchood is all around me too, in the Real Housewives of Atlanta, in Carrie Mae Weems’s photography, in Hard Core by Lil’ Kim. So really, I’m just adding to an ongoing conversation.
What excites you about the future of your work?
Clarie: I’m excited about the possibilities for (self) discovery. Because I know that my best work is yet unwritten. So I’m excited about the books I need to read, the classes or workshops I need to take, the conversations I’m yet to have, the life I’m yet to live, etc. I’m excited about becoming the person that can bring my ideas to life. Sometimes, I get overwhelmed by all the work I need to do, the stories I don’t yet know how to write, etc. but I’m excited to discover all the ways I can be brave, all the ways I can walk that bridge between fear and life.
What about you Arianne?
Arianne: “I’m excited about becoming the person that can bring my ideas to life.” FELT THAT! I resonate with so much of what you said. Like you, I am excited to see the person I become, the stories I share, who my work might touch, and what I might discover about the world in the process. In addition, I’m excited about growing in my writing practice by branching out into fiction this year and manifesting artistic collaborations. Building community with other writers has offered invaluable support for me in my journey so far, so I imagine the opportunity to collaborate would be such a gift, expanding and putting my work in conversation with artists I look to. I am wishing us both grace and abundance in our futures as writers.
Clarie: I enjoyed chatting with you, Arianne. To grace and abundance!