In Conversation with Camille Acker
In her debut short story collection, Training School for Negro Girls, Camille Acker launches onto the scene with an impactful subversion of the monolithic generalizations society often places on black womanhood. While her characters span a refreshing multitude of ages, careers and world views, they all must ultimately confront the reality that respectability does not equal freedom.
Our blog editor, Arriel Vinson, and assistant blog editor, Nicole Flippo, had the opportunity to ask Acker some questions about Training School for Negro Girls and her journey as a fiction writer.
Arriel Vinson: Tell me about how you chose the title Training School for Negro Girls.
Camille Acker: When I was in grad school I was taking a class on Chicana and black feminism and I came across a speech by Nannie Helen Burroughs, an educator who was raised in Washington, DC. I knew the name Nannie Helen Burroughs from growing up in DC, where there's an avenue named for her, but I didn't know much about her. She started a training school in Northeast DC (where I was primarily raised) in the early 1900s and I started reading more about training schools and thinking a lot about this idea of being "trained."
Training schools were opened all over the country and were meant to help black folks learn skills to get them jobs but the schools were also often training black people and at Burroughs's school, young black women, to remain in roles that would make white people comfortable. And I thought about how black girls and women are still forced to do that to survive in the world. We see that clearly in the treatment of Serena Williams at and after the US Open. We also see that at play intra-racially with respectability politics and the shaming and policing of women and their bodies. I also specifically chose the words "girl" and "negro" because we generally see those words tied to a particular time period, the early years of a woman and earlier historical periods of black people in this country. But those words are more malleable than that. When does girlhood actually end? And when will we reach a time when the racial terrorism most prevalent when black people were called negroes has actually ended?
AV: You asked when racial terrorism will end. How do you think Training School for Negro Girls coincides with the terrorism now? Do you think this collection is a commentary of these times?
CA: It feels right for the collection to come out in this moment of a greater reckoning with how we think about gender and race. I'm thrilled to be a part of a wave of great work from writers of color. I also think writing that lasts does do because it has themes that are beyond one moment. How we love our families and how we love ourselves is about now and it's also about yesterday and it'll be about tomorrow too.
AV: What was your inspiration for this collection? Was it one story that sparked more stories, or something else?
CA: The first story I wrote that ended up being part of the collection was "All the Things You'll Never Do." The narrator's voice was so strong that the first draft felt like it wrote itself. It's still the fastest first draft I've ever written. It was also one of the first stories I wrote that was set in DC. Other stories set in my hometown started to come to me, inspired by books like Edward P. Jones's Lost in the City, Stuart Dybek's The Coast of Chicago, and Toni Cade Bambara's Gorilla, My Love, but also by Alexander McQueen's work showcased in the exhibit Savage Beauty at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and by the music of Marvin Gaye.
AV: What was it like shopping a short story collection and how did you choose Feminist Press?
CA: I didn't get published in the more traditional way where I or an agent "shopped" the collection. I actually sent my manuscript into Feminist Press for the Louise Meriwether First Book Prize. I was chosen as a finalist and although I didn't win was lucky enough to be signed for a book deal anyway. And that contest opened up possibilities for other women writers of color like Ivelisse Rodriguez. I feel like it's evidence for the publishing industry of how many writers of color are out here and just need an opportunity.
AV: Would you advise writers to submit to first book prizes? What do you think the benefits are?
CA: Every writer has to navigate their own path and feel what's best for their work. I wouldn't have submitted my manuscript if I didn't believe in the work that Feminist Press was doing and know that I would be proud for it to be published by them. I think it's important to know why you want a book published--just for the physical piece, to share your ideas with a particular community, to have a career as a writer--and then to make decisions out of that framework. Keep your options open as you do make those decisions, you never know where a road may lead.
AV: How many short stories did you write and how many made the collection? What is your advice to writers who want to write a collection of short stories?
CA: The original version of the manuscript had thirteen stories but only eleven made the cut. Ultimately, in one way or another those stories just didn't feel like they fit with the rest of the stories. The book spans decades but I think all these characters occupy the same universe.
My advice to those who want to write a short story collection is to just write the stories. Some people might find it helpful to have the larger arc of the collection first but if I had been thinking that way, I might not have written some of the stories that I did. I think it's more important to start with the characters or the phrase or the plot that feels vital and interesting to you and write that. Then, you can find how it all works together. And those stories that don't work may be the start of another collection. Those two that didn't make it in might one day launch another book.
AV: Publisher’s Weekly says your collection grapples with gentrification and social-climbing. After reading Training School for Negro Girls, I also thought this collection was a critique of elite black societies. Tell me more about your decision to put class at the forefront of this collection.
CA: Part of what I loved about growing up in DC was the sheer breadth and diversity of blackness. I knew folks who were poor and I also knew folks who were very well-to-do. My family was somewhere in the middle, doing alright as long as nothing went wrong, no major repairs on the car or a serious illness. In a city that was as black as DC was then, race wasn't always in the foreground but class felt like it was. And I wanted to explore those layers of identity, what it is to be black and female and upper middle class or black and female and struggling to make ends meet. I don't think we talk enough about class in the black community and I wanted to pull at some of those threads, raise some of those discussions with these stories.
AV: In Training School for Negro Girls, you explore black women of different ages and backgrounds. How did this affect the collection as a whole?
CA: People often say black folks aren't a monolith and we're not but you wouldn't always know that from the way we're represented in the mainstream media. It was really important to me to reflect the multiplicity of the black female experience and not as some "diversity" experiment but because that's how I see us. I come from a family of women who are hairdressers and teachers and psychologists and artists who are married and single and have kids or don't are just out of college and who just turned 90. And they are all dynamic and interesting. There's no reason that shouldn't be reflected in my work.
NF: In Training School for Negro Girls, many of the stories focus on characters coming to terms with the idea that respectability does not necessarily equal freedom. In what ways has this concept manifested in your life?
CA: I think most women of color struggle to be themselves despite messaging about what a woman's body should look like, how a woman's body should move through the world, what a woman should do with her body. I've certainly had to navigate that in my own life over and over again and still do, to let my understanding of who I am supplant the ideas I've been fed about who I am supposed to be.
AV: Your younger characters faced racism, classism, and familial issues that they weren’t always able to name. Can you tell me more about this decision?
CA: So much of what shapes us are incidents that happen when we're young and can't name until much later in our lives. Sometimes we spend our entire lives trying to name the hurt or the shame that was planted in us as children. I wanted to make space for that for these characters. To normalize that it happens but not deny the pain it can cause. This also ends up being reflected in the older characters as well, where a childhood hurt shapes their adult decisions. Those childhood hurts are often at the heart of what path we follow in the world, for good and for bad.
AV: During your MFA program at New Mexico State University, what were you writing and how did your program shape your work?
CA: I wrote this collection for my thesis! So in that way, the program helped me find my voice, to finally begin writing the stories I wanted to tell rather than the stories I thought I should tell. I started out with stories where I was trying to figure out how to write. How do I reveal character? What needs to be in scene? What should only be described? What's the point of the story and how does the plot show that? The MFA helped begin to understand the mechanics of a story and then I was able to further my understanding through outside workshops and writing groups.
NF: As a black female author, what kinds of stories have you felt pressured to write in the past? Do you feel you’ve since subverted those pressures through Training School for Negro Girls and your other works?
CA: No one was explicitly telling me to write a particular story but I looked at the long list of white male writers and what they were writing about and how they were writing and tried initially to shoehorn myself into those spaces. And then I woke up to the fact that I'm not white and I'm not male! With that, I also wasn't raised in the deep South or the Midwest or during the Civil Rights Era, so I also had to divorce myself from the idea that my work was going to be like some of the black women writers I loved. I had to write the stories that interested me from the intersection of my identities. Training School is the result of that and I continue in my work to get more invested in my perspective.
AV: You also freelance. How did you balance writing your collection and freelancing for multiple publications?
CA: It was challenging to do both at the same time and I wasn't even writing the collection then, but revising is difficult all on its own. I tried to compartmentalize my time and do the freelance work and switch back to revising but it was tough. I would also try to turn out freelance work one month so that I could steal some time the next month to not have to do as many assignments. Having said that though, I also try to see the work as integrated, to see how the research and structure of doing my nonfiction work can help inform my fiction.
AV: Has your work with social justice nonprofits influenced your writing? How so?
CA: It has. It's made me more radical, more invested in dismantling inequitable systems, and more interested in asking why something is the way it is rather than accepting it. Those ideas are in this book, I think, but will be even more central to my next book.
AV: What’s next for you?
CA: Currently, I'm a Visiting Assistant Professor in the creative writing program at my alma mater, New Mexico State University. So I hope to help some of the emerging writers here come out with their own books in the next few years! I'm also working on two new book length projects of my own.
Camille Acker was raised in Washington, DC. She holds a B.A. in English from Howard University and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from New Mexico State University and has more than fifteen years experience as a writer and editor. Her work has been supported by workshops and residencies at the Djerassi Resident Artists Program, Millay Colony for the Arts, Voices of Our Nations Arts (VONA), the Norman Mailer Writers Colony, and Callaloo Writers Workshop. She co-edited Dismantle: An Anthology from the VONA/Voices Workshop and co-founded the website for and about single women, The Spinsters Union. Her work has appeared in Fandor, NewCity, Fusion, DAME, and is forthcoming in Hazlitt, among others. She is currently a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Creative Writing program at New Mexico State University. Her short story collection, Training School for Negro Girls, will be published by The Feminist Press in October 2018.
To read more of Camille’s work, visit her website or follow her on Twitter @cam_acker.