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SwatTalk: "Biomythography: Creating a Novel Inspired by Genealogy, Memory, and 'Truth'"

with Kim Coleman Foote ’00

Recorded on Tuesday, March 19, 2024



Debbie Bacharach ’88 Welcome everyone. It's great to have you with us. Thank you so much for joining us for this SWAT talk entitled biography, creating a novel inspired by Genealogy Memory and Truth by Kim Coleman Foote class of 2000. My name is Debbie Bacharach. I'm the class of 1988, and I'll be the moderator tonight. Before we hear from Kim, I just wanted to go over a few preliminary pieces of business. SWAT talks is a speaker series brought to you by the Swarthmore Alumni Council, of which I'm a member. Tonight's session will be recorded, so you'll be able to find it online at the SWAT talks page on the Swarthmore College website within two to three weeks. And if you're interested in watching previous talks, you can also find those on the SWAT talks page. For those of you new to SWAT talks, or for our regulars who just need a reminder tonight, we'll go like this. Kim's gonna hold the floor for the first half hour or so answering some of my questions, and then she'll spend the second half hour answering any questions you might have. Please ask your questions, not in the chat, but using the q and a feature at the bottom of Zoom, and be sure to include your name and class year when you do so. I'll collect those questions and we'll pose as many of them as I can to Kim during the q and a. So I'd like to introduce you to Kim Coleman Foote. Kim will discuss the genesis of her debut novel, Coleman Hill, published recently by Sarah Jessica Parker's, SJP Lit imprint - Zando. Inspired by personal family lore, Coleman Hill trace's. Kim's family's great migration journey from Alabama and Florida to suburban Vox Hall, New Jersey. Circa 1916 to the eighties at Swarthmore, Kim concentrated in black studies, which piqued her curiosity about her family's roots. She would eventually study abroad in Ghana and take a deep dive into genealogy, while accumulating government records and photos and artifacts that both confirmed and contradicted oral history. Kim saw Bo possibilities for drama dramatizing her family's history through fiction and Kim's fiction and essays have appeared in numerous literary magazines and anthologies, including the Best American Short Stories 2022. She's also received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, Fulbright and elsewhere. Coleman Hill was published last year to rave reviews, drawing comparisons to the novels of Zora Neal Hurston, and making Kim a finalist for the 2024 NAACP Image Award for outstanding debut author, as well as earning her a spot on the long list for the Carol Shields prize for fiction. Kim, thank you for joining us.

Kim Coleman Foote ’00 Thank you, Debbie, for that introduction. Good evening everybody, and thank you for coming. I am Kim, class of 2000. It's such an honor and pleasure to be here with you and talk about my debut novel. So Swarthmore was actually very integral to my development as a writer and a person, human being in general. And so I thought I would talk a little bit about the genesis of the book and how Swarthmore directly influenced that. So I'm a storyteller, so get comfortable, relax, feel free to close your eyes if you want. Get comfortable because I'm gonna take you back to the 1980s. Okay? You know, my age, I graduated in 2000. I'm 45 years old with a book, a brand new book. So we're going back to the eighties when I was a little girl and little girl named Kim in East Orange, New Jersey would sit around every holiday, Christmas, Thanksgiving, the 4th of July, and listen to her mother, her aunts, talk about their childhood growing up in Vaw, New Jersey. And if anyone is from the area, you know, this is in northern New Jersey, not that far from Manhattan, and it's a very kind of rural town. It's actually an unincorporated section of Union, New Jersey, which is the county seat. And you know, my, my mother and aunts, cousins, they would talk about their lives, you know, mostly growing up in the forties in Jersey, which was very different from my life in the eighties, you know, so they talked about things like ice boxes, and you know, I heard about radio shows, I heard about Potbelly stoves, I heard about the Iceman, the Coal Man, the milkman. And that just to me was fascinating as a kid. But then they also used to talk about their grandmother, who was very abusive and terrorized them. So there were so many stories about her that, you know, I could recite them myself even when I was a child. And sometimes they would sit around and, you know, say such, and like, why was, why is such and such like that? And I'd say, what, well, don't you know why such and such is like that? Because you just said how this person got abused and hit and slapped, you know, just because they look like their mother, you know? So I could make these connections that these adults couldn't. And I, that always fascinated me. And also how they could sometimes laugh, you know, at the stories of abuse that they faced. Because I myself wanted to go back in time and beat up my great grandmother who became known as GRE Coleman. So Grandmother Coleman, the kids could not pronounce that. So it became shortened to GRE Coleman. But that was a common name, you know, in all the stories that I heard when I was growing up. So I actually wrote my very first story when I was about seven years old, also in East Orange. I won't tell you this, that's a long back story. So I'll, I'll spare you the details, but just to say that I wrote my very first story when I was about seven, and I just didn't stop from there. I love, I love doing it. I love getting into other people's shoes. My very first story that I wrote was called The Pale Face Boy. It was about a little boy who grew up in a predominantly black town. So if you don't know East Orange, it is predominantly black or was predominantly black now is now. And when I grew up there, and this was a little black boy who was so pale that his black classmates would tease him, and so he would get his mother's brown makeup to put on his face so he felt more accepted. That was my very first story. I was not a boy. I was not exceptionally pale, but you know, I was aware already of colorism amongst black people. And that was, that was fascinating to me. And so I was always, again, I had this curiosity about stepping into other people's experiences and, and trying to relate and understand them. And so, by the time I was 12 years old, I actually sent my first query letter to try to, to publish one of my, one of my books, one of my stories that I had written. And I hope to be the youngest person to publish a book in this country. At some point I thought I may be the oldest, but just to say that, that that interest started very, very early. And let's just like fast forward to college. So I was thinking about actually applying for A-B-F-A-A Bachelor in Fine Arts and Creative Writing. I had discovered that there was one at Eugene Lang College in New York City. And I said, that's what I wanna do, because I've been wanting to be a writer, so for so long. So why not get this BFA in creative writing? And at the time, my mother's cousin, her husband was a chemist. I'm a first generation college student, so my parents did not go to college, didn't know anything about, you know, college applying degrees, anything like that. And so my mother's cousin's husband, who was a chemist, he said, well, you know, BFA creative writing, that's not a practical degree, you know, you can't necessarily get a job with that, so you should consider something a little bit, you know, different. So I said, okay, well, I'm gonna, I'm gonna trust your advice because you not only went to college, you went to graduate school. So, okay, I wanna be a chemist like you, because in my high school, chemistry was so much fun. I loved it. I also hated history from my high school, which, you know, if you know anything about my books, Coleman Hill right there, it starts out in 1916, but it also goes all the way back to, you know, the end of slavery. My next book that I'm working on, my next novel is set in Ghana, partially in the 18th century. So how is it, you might ask that I hated history. Well, in my high school, things were not like Swarthmore. It was very, very basic. You know, as long as you had a good memory, you could memorize things, regurgitate. That's what it took to, to get a's. So I got a's I had a really great memory. I didn't really care for what I was studying half the time, but I said, this is, I can, this is child's play. I would memorize things, regurgitate, and then I'd be writing my novels for fun on the side and reading lots of books for, for fun on the side. So history was exceptionally boring to me because, you know, we just had to memorize all these names and dates and wars and dates and, you know, it was just, just really, really boring. And I think for a lot of people, history tends to be boring because they get an education like that where you just have to memorize, you know, the, these names and dates. But I do have to credit my high school history teacher for actually kind of sparking my interest in history. There were three separate occasions. The first was when, so I used to spend my history classes, or a lot of my classes in high school. We had the brown paper bags that we put, we would put on the book covers, and I would do drawings and make up little stories on my book covers. And I'd do that for most of my classes because I was just bored. I would also do my homework in other classes and never have any homework to take home. But in this, in this history class, I would draw, make the little drawings on the book cover. And one day I actually perked up, my ears perked up when my instructor mentioned that Ben Franklin was a womanizer. And I was like, wait, that same ben, the, the key guy, the, the ben, what was a womanizer? What? And then she talked about Martin Luther King, and you just can't touch Martin Luther King. And around the same time the Gulf War was happening, and we had, for some reason, we were watching live, like, live footage in class of the Gulf War, I guess because it was a history class, I don't know. And then she mentioned that this war was not about democracy, you know, all the things that were being said in the media that it's about oil. And I was like, well, they're not saying that on the news. And so just her saying those kind of things and breaking the mold of what, you know, this wasn't appearing in our textbooks, this wasn't on the official record, just intrigued me and made me realize that something else was going on beyond, you know, what we were given in these books. So basically, by the time I got to Swarthmore, I was a chemistry major. Anyone who knows me today, they look at me as scans. Like what? Yes, I was a chemistry major because I happened to meet a student when I was looking at, at colleges who, who was a chemistry, a black student who was a chemistry major. She also happened to be the editor of Jim Bay, which was the publication out of the, out of SaaS. And I said, oh, this is my future because I can be a chemist, but I can still have my creativity. I can still, you know, write my short stories and fiction, et cetera. And so as an aside, my my cousin's husband who said that the, the BFA was not practical, well, I would eventually earn my MFA, my master's in fine Arts in creative writing. And also one of my first jobs outside of my MFA was at Eugene Lang College in New York City. So, you know, and Eugene Lang obviously is a Swarthmore alum. So yeah, apropos, so here I am at Swarthmore chemistry major. You know, I, I actually ran for the position of the June Bay editor, got that my first semester flying high, flying high, except chemistry wasn't because at Swarthmore, chemistry was math, and math was always one of my weakest subjects. I really don't like math, really, really don't like math, didn't like it in high school, didn't like it in Swarthmore. And I said, this is not working. This is not working because IBM my chemistry classes looking outside saying like, I just love to sit on the grass. It's so sunny. Why am I stuck in the lab? Probably not the best idea for, for someone who, who's on the road to chemistry. So I dropped that and I quickly switched over to psychology that didn't work out so well, because our psychology class we're talking about neurons and synapses and chemical reactions. I thought I gave up chemistry only to have chemistry again. And then I eventually drifted over to sociology, anthropology, because I'd always been interested in social psychology, social social interactions. And of course, because I'm a writer, I'm interested in, in human behavior, human how human beings think and act. So sociology, anthropology, and especially anthropology, because again, it's all about cultures and how, how people, you know, build, build cultures, which is fascinating for me. So basically, I, I found, I found my way and I also concentrated in black studies from the very beginning. And I have to thank the, the Swarthmore students of the 1960s who actually, you know, had the sit-ins and, and pressured the college to change their ways and start a black studies program because that was also really integral to my, my studies, my intellectual developments, my creative writing, you know. So from the very beginning, I took a course in African American language, you know, that was taught by a visiting professor. He wrote one of the landmark books on African American dialect. I took an African American history course with Professor Allison Dorsey. She was new to Swarthmore when I was there, and everyone kept raving about her African American history one class. So I was like, I have to take this class, changed my life, taking, taking her class. Sarah Willie was teaching an intro black studies class, which was also pretty significant. So, so, you know, taking all of these courses, I took some courses on Africa as well. All of these courses started to get me thinking about my own ancestry, history, genealogy, and also spurt me to actually go to Africa. So just coming into college, I was gonna study abroad in France, because I studied French and high school. My French textbooks never showed any people other than French people. So I had no clue that French was spoken in Africa. Someone had to tell me that. I laughed at them, said that You're lying to me, you know? And so basically I went from wanting to study abroad in France my freshman year to junior year, looking at studying in Mali and, you know, still speaking French in Mali and West Africa, but also learning in African language Baba. But I eventually switched over to, to Ghana after seeing the film Kofa, which was shown on campus at Swarthmore, actually. And that was kind of the tipping point, because I had never heard also of these slave castles in West Africa. So that film introduced me, and when I found out that there was a program where you would actually go to these slave castles where African captives were kept before being sent through the middle passage, I was like, oh my God, I have to go. So basically I went to Ghana for a semester and got an idea for another novel, but I'll just back up because I entered Swarthmore. Once I was taking like African American history, especially, I got an idea for what I would call my first serious novel. So before Swarthmore, I was writing books in the vein of teen thrillers, because that was my favorite genre was Mysteries, psychological thrillers, teen Romance. I was reading a lot of those books. And so my first serious novel, which, you know, I didn't know the term at that point, but I would say a literary novel. I was looking, it was set in 1932 in New Jersey, and I was inspired by a lot of the tales that I'd heard as a little girl about my family growing up. And so it was going to be about class differences amongst the black community and a fictional black community in New Jersey. One of the main characters was working class, and she befriends a woman who, a young woman who is middle, upper class black. And so I really wanted to explore the, the class dynamics amongst this, this black community. So that novel was ongoing. Then I go to Ghana and learn about the slave trade, learn about these slave castles, and I decide to write a novel about that. And then also I was interested in my genealogy, my family's history originally wanted to, to trace back to Africa and try to find, find those roots. So here I am, I finished Swarthmore, I'm conducting genealogical research on my family, but not really thinking that I'm gonna find anything in the records, because my family, for the most part, they weren't prominent, they weren't quote educated, you know, lots of people barely finished high school. No one really went to college until my generation. So, you know, I was thinking like my family, they weren't, they didn't do anything significant in their lives. So why would they be in these official records? Not, not realizing a census record is just a, a population record recording, right? Not really knowing what that record is that people, you know, work for the government went around to households, basically, you know, tallying, tally the population, but they happen to collect their names, their gender, their relationship information, their birth information, employment, all different kinds of things. And so, but still, when I found my family and the first record I literally screamed, I was in the National Archives because back then, in 2000, you had to actually go somewhere physically, you couldn't just sit at your computer and do a Google search. Google, I didn't, didn't think existed at that point, but I had to go to the repository and actually use microfilm and hand crank microfilm machines to find census and other records. And I literally screamed when I found my family, because I was not expecting them to be in there. And I'm looking at all the cabinets and the archives and thinking, oh my God, there's all these cabinets of microfilm. Where else is my family? And I found so many records record after record after record, so many, and it struck me that first, those first couple of records that I found because, you know, I was seeing like my great grandparents as little kids, you know, I was seeing them as young parents, you know, I was seeing them my age with, with children. And I was like, oh, I've never even thought of them in this context, being young people, right? So that was fascinating. And also to see that my two maternal great-grandmothers lost their husband soon after they got to Jersey. So they came from Alabama and Florida, and they came up to Jersey around World War I, and both had about five kids, and their husbands died not that long after coming to Jersey. And again, to see these young mothers know the stories that they never remarried, both of them ended up owning their own homes on a domestic salary. How did they do this? How did they survive? How did they do this? So that, that was something that was always in my mind, fascinating me. So fast forward, I now am taking or earning my MFA, my master's in fine Arts in creative Writing. I decided at some point I was looking at a PhD in history. Okay. So yes. How did history come in the come in the mix? So at Swarthmore, you know, taking, taking just any studies at Swarthmore, I really credit Swarthmore for, for just expanding. And it kind of exploding in my mind because I feel like Swarthmore taught me the meaning of scholarship. It taught me how to be a good researcher. It taught me how not to really, not how to believe anything that I was given. I always had to really investigate and challenge and question and really come to co conclusions myself. And, you know, having worked and, and gone to school different places, not everyone gets an education like that. It's a huge privilege, you know, to get an education like that, you know. But for me, history just became fascinating, you know, because I wasn't taking kind of the standard record at face value and realizing that, you know, well, why is there, why is there a course called African American History? Why is there a course called Asian American history? Well, because in that course called American History, certain narratives are left out and why are they left out? Because they aren't considered important, right? These people, even obviously, there are black people who made major achievements and other people who weren't, who weren't white, who made major achievements. But even that wasn't considered, you know, worthwhile in terms of the historical records. So, you know, I'm, these courses had to exist to honor, honor those legacies. So for me, history, history became totally fascinating. And I was always interested, especially in my, my fiction, to explore some of these marginalized histories that you don't often hear about. So during my MFA program, I had an assignment to write a story based on a family photograph. And I chose one from my family. And also by this point I had also interviewed family members and accumulated lots of photographs that would've just been thrown away because people said, well, yeah, all my people are dead. My friends are dead. Family said, I don't want these pictures anymore, including this picture. So this is a picture of my grandfather's three sisters as little girls, and totally would've just been thrown away this picture. And I chose this picture and the voice of the little girl in the middle who's holding this dog, dog. And she has, if you can see this expression on her face, her voice literally spoke to me. And I'll just read a little bit of the beginning, Verna and Alma scared of that camera, his, but I ain't, he got us waiting here in front of the house with me in the middle, like usual, 'cause Verna tall than me and Alma, the shortest that man snickering us and saying, come on, little ladies, smile for me, rose, let me see that smile. Verna and Alma can do what they want, but I ain't smiling for nothing, especially since he made me hold this dog of his is. So that voice just came to me and it kept going. And I grabbed the pen and, and notebook and wrote, and the whole thing came out in about 10 minutes. And it was an amazing experience because this is a family member who was always vilified, you know, every story, no one had a good word to say, to say about her. And for me to hear her as a little girl after I finished writing that I no longer saw her as this evil person. So there's something that happened to her that, you know, there's some reason why even at that young age, she's probably about 10 in this photograph, why she had that expression on her face, right? And so I basically try to replicate that exercise, you know, with other family photographs. So there's other photographs and artifacts that actually appear in the book. And originally I thought I was just writing these individual stories about my family until I read Elizabeth Stroud's Olive Kittridge, and I realized that my great-grandmother, RAC Holman, who I mentioned earlier, was kind of serving that same role as Olive. So if you've read Olive Kittridge, you'll know that Olive only, so it's, it's narrated from the perspective of various different townspeople and Olive's family. And Olive, I think maybe gets like one or two chapters from her perspective. And I realized like, oh, she probably did that because Olive is so curmudgeony and so ugh, that you couldn't read a whole book from her perspective. You just get tired of her. And I realized for me and my family, that was Greg Coleman who was serving that function. And so once I saw that, I was like, oh, I have a book. This is a whole book. So I basically was using some of the family stories with intention to build that around her. So the, the, the book actually centers on it starts with my two great-grandmothers, one of which is Greg Coleman. And something happens between two of their children that basically causes a rift between the two families and sets off trauma, you know, through the next couple of generations. And so I call this process of biography, if you're familiar with the work of Audra Lorde, her memoir Zombie, she actually uses that term for the memoir. I was thinking, I was trying to think of what to actually call this book because I was like, I don't know who's doing anything like this. Then I was like, oh yeah, Alex Haley, obviously Alex Haley did this with Roots. And I had read Margaret Walker's Jubilee, who also did the same thing. So Fictionalizing their family, family narrative, but Alex Haley called his process faction, and I just didn't like that word. And so I remembered back to biography, I'd read Zombie during my MFA program, and Audra Lorde describes the biography as a work of art that combines many sources to create a modern myth, a new history. And I was like, that's exactly what I'm doing. I'm relying on my family's oral tail tales, photographs, government records, census records, birth records, et cetera, et cetera. My own fiction, right? I had to fictionalize a lot because sometimes I only knew, you know, just one little snippet about some of my ancestors. So one of my great-grandfathers, for example, the only thing that I heard about him was that he died of lock jaw while he was working. He was a construction worker, whether he like got cut on a, a pipe, rusty pipe, nail, whatever. That's all I knew about him. So I had to build a narrative. I don't know what he looked like. I don't know what he sounded like. He died sometime. I don't even know when he died exactly, but sometime between 19, 20 and 30, you know? So I had to build a character. So I used my fiction, fiction skills to fill in the gaps. And it was also very important for me to, to show incidents in the family from different angles. So that's where this kind of truth with the quotations comes in, because you know, the, this book is really an investigation about what is the truth. I think the truth is very muddy, very murky, because the truth, you know, as with history, it's a, it's a narrative and, and it comes from someone's perspective, right? And so you can have people grow up in the same family, siblings, you know, who witness the same events and they might describe it differently. They have different emotional reactions to it, you know? So I was very interested in how that works within the family. And so you see lots of incidents that occur from different perspectives and, you know, it is intentional there. This, this book was written with a lot of intention, but you know, my editor for example, pointed out one, she's like, well, there's a discrepancy over here. You mentioned it was this, but over here I'm like, yeah, that's, that's intentional because such and such remembered it this way and such and such just lied. So, so that is, that is the book. And I think, 'cause we're getting close to time here for my part, I'm just gonna read another short excerpt from the near the end of the book. And especially since it's Women's history month, I thought I should read. The section is entitled Herstory Circa 1989. She's always hoped to be part of something big. The thought haunts Verna as it tends to do while she lies in bed midday, staring at the parlor ceiling and tracing the branches of fine cracks in the plaster sweat prickling her skin. She's always wanted to make a mark on history, like the great men she learned about in school, Socrates, Caesar, Napoleon, Washington, Jefferson Franklin. But her life after eight decades on Earth feels like it amounts a little more than stress fractures on the ceiling when reading history books during what her siblings dubbed her summer mood. Verna is able to think otherwise. She can see pieces of herself leaping from practically every paragraph. Yes. Her family was impacted by that boll weevil crisis that destroyed the cotton crops in the South. Yes. She served her country as one of those women ordinance workers. Yes, she was a war bride, married to a Harlem hell fighter. Yes. She joined that luncheon with Queen Elizabeth at the Waldorf Astoria on her last visit to America. Yes. She shook hands with Malcolm at the Audubon Ballroom moments before he was murdered during her. So-called Winter Mood, though none of that feels very important. Verna might find events from her life on the timelines of history. Yes. But she didn't make that history. Not like the new heroes she gained during the black and Proud sixties. Martin, Malcolm Medgar women as well, like Dorothy Height, Holly, Mary, Shirley Chisholm, and Vox All's own a Mileah. Kiersey. Sure. Many of those folks grew up wealthier than the white families Verna used to work for with black servants of their own and home libraries and cotillions and parents who could afford the best schools. But others came from modest backgrounds like Verna Mary McLeod Bethune, Ida B, Wells, Josephine Baker, and now entering her ninth decade. What more can Verna hope to do? A thought nags at her? There's still time and I will end there.

Debbie Bacharach ’88 Thank you. I've read the book, but hearing it in your voice, both those sections just, it gave me chills. It was really exciting to hear. I have questions and people have started to put, put questions in the q and a, but I wanna encourage everyone to keep doing that. I wanna jump in though with some of mine. So I know you interviewed a lot of family members. Yes. And I wanna know, like, what were those interviews like? You know, do people, like, lemme tell you at all, or there's some, there's some actual lines in the book about let's not revisit the past, let's, you know, so what were, what were those interviews like?

Kim Coleman Foote ’00 So when I interviewed most of my family members, this was not thinking this was for a book. This was just, this was my genealogy, this is my, that's my hobby, you know? And so for me, I was just interested in finding out whatever they knew, you know, because you never know when, when you're doing genealogy what will be important and what, you know, what what you can use later that can help you fill in gaps. And so, and you know, again, being at Swarthmore, being an anthropology student, I was trained in how to interview people. Right. You know, so I, I did a lot of interviewing also when I lived in Ghana for my study abroad. And also I was a Fulbright in Ghana as well, where I interviewed lots of people about the history there, about very like, sensitive topics, talking about like indigenous servitude and slavery. And so I knew how to like, you know, interview people and get people to open up and confess like some very, you know, like traumatic and like, you know, secretive stuff. So yeah, it was more, it was more just trying to like get, get people to divulge information. So one of my, one interview that really sticks out is one of my, one of my great aunts. I got to talk to her just a couple of months before she passed away. And I'm so glad I did that. And you know, the first thing I said, I wanted to know more about her life, and she said, me, I ain't nobody, I know I ain't nobody special, I ain't never done nothing. Why you wanna talk about me? Talk to me. And I was like, because you had a life, you had a life that was different from mine. You know? And I mean, I already knew she was a badass. She didn't tell me that, but I was like, I already know some stuff, you know, so I wanna hear some stuff. And you know, basically with my interviewing, I asked some questions, I think maybe like, tell me about your childhood, you know, what, what games it used to play, what did you listen to on the radio, blah, blah, blah. And so we were on the phone for two hours. Hmm. And she told me so much information, including some stories that my mother hadn't heard. And one of them was that my grandfather was abusing my grandmother, which I had never known and never would've even suspected of my grandfather. And she actually defended my grandmother, you know, from the abuse when she was a little girl. And I was like, what? And then this is the, the same person who says like, I never done nothing special. Right. You know, because this was someone who didn't finish high school, you know, this was someone who worked in factories, you know, her life, you know, so that's nothing special. Right. You know, so, so a lot that she told me ended up in the book. Right. And of course, because she's, she was my only source, you know, for a lot of this stuff, you know, so I wanted to put other perspectives in there, even to challenge her, you know, because I can't, I can't ultimately know if what she told me was like the truth. Right. But I'll also say along that same lines of at some point the book became an exercise not necessarily getting the truth of my family, which I did want, but it was more getting at a truth.

Debbie Bacharach ’88 So, Brianna has a question that I think kind of follows up on that. Can you speak more on how you build up fictionalized versions of these people? Do you feel the need to be, to be respectful in the fictionalized depiction? Or do you embellish, do you let yourself

Kim Coleman Foote ’00 Yeah, I felt the need if I knew something to include it. I also believe in ancestors and ghosts and like, I didn't want someone to come and like strangle me in my sleep. So, so yeah, if I, if I found something I felt obligated to include it, you know, which, which stymied me. Like I had a writing group, you know, they would read a lot of my excerpts, you know, along the way and they kept saying like, this is not adding up, you know, this character is inconsistent, they're doing this over, you're doing that. And I was like, well, because I really don't know. And they're like, but it's fiction, Kim, you're writing fiction. I was like, yeah, it is fiction. But you know, so for me, so there was some, some places where I did have to let go and really just kind of go into the fiction. Like I'm creating a character. I have to have this person make sense and feel real. So yeah. But again, I was, I felt like I did have to do that. Be respectful, because this is my family.

Debbie Bacharach ’88 So is, this is from Kathy Moer says, hi, Kim. I'm Kathy Boer, class of 2000, and I remember admiring you so much during college,

Kim Coleman Foote ’00 Right?

Debbie Bacharach ’88 My question is this, did you feel that you also were in the process of constructing yourself or discovering your own identity as you created this story? Or whether you felt it was important to stay on the outside in a way?

Kim Coleman Foote ’00 Oh, there's a lot of me in this book. I mean, literally, figuratively, there's a lot of me in this book. And the characters, I mean, yes, because they're my family, but a lot of my own experiences informs, you know, how I thought about my characters. So yeah.

Debbie Bacharach ’88 Wait, I'm gonna get one more from us, from them, and then I'm gonna come back to me. So Gene Hall, class of 79. Were there any particular books, fiction, nonfiction, that influenced your writing? And you've already spoken about biography, but others?

Kim Coleman Foote ’00 Yeah, so I would say for this book, it's, it was really an experiment. So just to say that the book is written probably just in about every, I threw, I threw out my whole writing toolkit for, for this book. It's written in dialect, standard English, first person point of view, second person point of view, first person collective, third person, A, a missions, present, tense, narration, past, everything, everything, everything. And I think part of that was, I had been trying to get published for so long when I mentioned that I felt like I'd be the oldest person to publish a book, my first book at 45, because I had so many manuscripts and books and, you know, that I had written over the years and just wasn't able to get an agent or a publisher. And I think a lot of that was, was political because I was winning, you know, major awards and prizes and publications and literary magazines, et cetera. And so this was kind of like, this is my har my arsenal, I'm just giving it all. But I would say that there were certain books, like N Rudin, Farrah Rah, which I also read in Swarthmore Try, I tried to read, I couldn't finish it, but it was written in second person. And when I found that book, I was like, oh, I didn't realize you could write from that perspective. That's interesting. So just, you know, and my, my mental toolkit didn't touch it again for like 20 years. And then I wrote this, right. But Julia TCA's, Buddha in the Attic, which is first person seeing plural, what else, what else? Tiffany Anique, how to Kill, I mean, how to kill, how to Escape From a Leper Colony. She's a fabulous fiction writer. Writer. Like I said, Margaret Walker's Jubilee, her family actually might have actually known my family because they lived in the same, same town in Alabama. She talks about their journey out of slavery in Alabama. Rose Jordans for those, a son has loved, she was riding around the same time as Roots, but doesn't get the props as Alex Haley, but a similar thing, tracing her family from slavery forward. Yeah. So those are, those are some of the major ones that influenced it.

Debbie Bacharach ’88 Okay. Well I've, I have two directions I wanna go. One is, I love that you brought up craft and all these different craft tools that you used. And I've taken book, taken workshops on how to write about trauma. I I write poetry and how to write about trauma. And I'm seeing you use a lot of the craft moves that were covered in there, like incremental reveal or multiple timeframes or multiple perspectives. And how did you, did you take classes on this? How did you learn to write about generational trauma and also what, what would you recommend for someone else trying to do it?

Kim Coleman Foote ’00 Yeah, I mean, you mentioned that and I was fascinated. I was like, oh wow, there's actually a technique. I just figured it out on my own. And I think for me, like I'm very clear that I, this is, this book is not meant to trigger, you know, there's a lot of trauma and there's a lot of dysfunction in this family. But, you know, I didn't write this book to trigger, I was not writing trauma porn, which is a thing. And I make the distinction because, you know, the works that I would consider trauma porn, whether it's, you know, books, movies, whatever, you know, it's basically like people don't resist, you know, people, you just see people suffering and misery and they just, you just, horrible things happen. Horrible things happen. And there's no resistance, there's no moments of hope, there's no moments of love, joy, just the, the full range of human expression, you know? So for me it was very, very important to represent the, the spectrum, right? And so you see the resistance, I mean, there's little kids based on a inspired by true events little kids who plot to kill their grandmother in this book, right? Which is true, it's disturbing. But they plot to kill their grandmother because she was, that, that mean to them, right? And like I said, there, there's a little girl who defends her big sister, her grown married sister from her husband who's a big, even bigger person, right? And the same sister says that, you know, she's going to teach her, her nephews and nieces to know love. You know, that, that you shouldn't have to hit someone, that hitting someone is not love. You know, I'm gonna drill that into you. So, so yeah, I, I I thought it was important to, to show balance in this book. And going back to the question, I would say like that, that section about when the children plot to kill their grandmother, it took me four years to write that because I started it actually at a residency that was like kind of my next foray after the very first story that came out from my, my great aunt's perspective as a girl. You know, I started writing, I was thinking, okay, this is gonna be easy to, to write because it has a natural structure. I'm talking about this method and this method and this, this method. And I started writing and you know, this little child is beaten for no reason, and I just burst into tears and could not continue. And I kept trying to come back to that over four years, and I kept getting to that line and crying and could not, could not do it. And so I think, you know, for me, even for me in writing it, it was very emotional. So I probably just figured out those methods naturally so that I didn't overwhelm myself in writing it. And I would say the same for my, my Ghana novel. I mean, there's, I mean, it's about slavery, you know, so a lot of horrible things happen to characters. And it was an interesting experience where like, you know, I wrote it, I wrote these horrific things, but it wasn't until actually reading it like in public, like I'll never forget, I had this reading of an excerpt, which actually won me the National Endowment for the Arts Literature fellowship. And this is a totally fictional character, not based on even anyone that I know and this, this character is murdered. And I like burst into tears at my reading and I was like, what was that? Because I wrote this thing and revise it and revise it and revise it and never had this experience. So I think like also I had to kind of like go into like a desensitized mode to actually write it and get it down some of it and then, you know, had the emotion come through in the other form of reading it.

Debbie Bacharach ’88 That was that. Thank you. That was really interesting. Yeah, I, in the book you talk about getting spiritual permission from your ancestors to write this book and Kristen Wilson, so her question dovetails with that. I am curious about your perception of your ancestors. Do you experience their presence at certain times and places, and what is your interaction with them?

Kim Coleman Foote ’00 Yes, I do. I feel them now. They're on my wall here. I dream about them. Yeah. I get dreams, I weird things happen in my life, things that can't be explained, you know, all of that. There is, there is a, an anecdote in the book about a little girl who sees a, a man sitting on the edge of the bed that's in my fam That's true. She saw, I guess, a ghost sitting on the edge of the bed, right? So, yeah, I, so for me, I mean, I'm still kind of processing my whole trip to Africa, my trips to Africa, because so many things happened when I was there. I basically had dreams and I followed up on them when I was there. And there are things even to this day that I can't explain. And I had other people to witness them. So it wasn't just me, you know, being in my, my head had other people witnessing in them and being like, I'm freaked out right now. I don't know what this means. So, yes.

Debbie Bacharach ’88 Wow.

Kim Coleman Foote ’00 Yes.

Debbie Bacharach ’88 So Courtney Belser writes, thank you for this conversation as it is relevant to my dissertation project. Oh, wow. Maternal grandmother's archive of her death. My question is, how has this process impacted your daily or embodied sense of caretaking and or breaking generational traumas related to care? It's

Kim Coleman Foote ’00 Really intergenerational trauma. You know, I wrote this book to explore the intergenerational trauma specifically to African Americans, you know, and, and also making that connection of it coming out of the slavery experience. Yeah. I, I just really wanted to emphasize that whole thing. And so for me, like one big important part of that is just the awareness, you know, of where awareness of the trauma, just, just to start there, you know, because I think, you know, you know, my family, this is not the only family that this is happening in. And it's, you know, still ongoing even today for families. And there are things that people do without thinking because it's cultural, or that's just the way that my family does things or I do things and they're not aware that they're dysfunctional, you know, et cetera. And so I think like the awareness and sometimes like seeing it from a different family that's not like so close and personal to you can kind of make you step out for a second and say, oh, actually that's not healthy. That's not saying that's not, you know, adaptive or whatever, you know. So the awareness is one thing. And also, like I said, I wrote the book to kind of show how these patterns repeat through the generation. So I specifically have a lot of characters who witness things as children. You get to see all the major characters as children, you know, to see what happened in their childhood. But as children, they say, oh, I'm never gonna do that when I'm an adult because I didn't like that. And then you slowly see them becoming that adult that they hated, right? So how does that happen? Like even when you have this kind of awareness. So yes, that was something really essential for me.

Debbie Bacharach ’88 You, you, I think you just answered this question for me because I, I feel of this book an incredible exercise and empathy Yes. That you, you gave the humanity and heart to every single person in there, no matter whatever violent, horrible thing they were doing. And it was just incredible. And, and so the impression I'm getting is seeing them as children within a system helped you get there. Am I getting it correctly?

Kim Coleman Foote ’00 Yeah, that's part of it. But I also have to thank a screenwriting group that I met in Chicago, right on my, on my tail end of living in Chicago. I, I wrote a screenplay version of my Ghana novel, and they, they graciously read, did a whole reading, it was a feature length screenplay. They did a whole reading of it. And they said, you know, this character, you know this character, you've created this Dutch man, he is just like a comic book villain. He's like a cardboard. He's just evil, evil, evil, evil. And they said, real people are not like that. And I took that to heart and I never forgot that. And that character, he's no longer in the book, but there's another character who's like him, who became so complex, he became human, you know? And I hated going there because I'm like, this is a slave trader. He is evil. He is evil, but okay, he was a human being and who was he as a human being? And so when I got into that, he became human and complex. And even though this person, you know, is responsible for, for some horrible stuff, people actually felt for him and said like, you know, the common expression was like, I wanted to hate him, but I couldn't because he had the soft side and, you know, all this kind of stuff. And you know, I think in general, like with my family, you know, there are some people who do unforgivable things, even outside my family, just people in general. There are people who do unforgivable things, horrible things, you know. But I think it's very one dimensional to say you're a bad person, right? And again, I'm not, not excusing things that you do, not excusing slavery, not excusing all these horrific things, right? But at the same time, I think because they're human beings, right? Because we're human beings, we recognize that, oh, that could have been me if I, that had been, if I had lived under those circumstances, you know, with that brain chemistry, with that environment, you know, indoctrination, et cetera, that could have been me. So to see how easily people, you know, can become this quote monster, because that's an all of us, right? But then also realizing the capacity for otherwise, for goodness and and so forth.

Debbie Bacharach ’88 Mm. So Lucille Clifton has a line of poetry, come celebrate with me that every day something has tried to kill me and has failed. So in what ways is this book a celebration?

Kim Coleman Foote ’00 Oh my God, it's a celebration to my family. So there's survival, you know, to the love that did exist, you know, even if it was a flawed love and perfect love, but you know, the ways that people did try to just survive and, and get by and yes, just survive.

Debbie Bacharach ’88 So what, what reactions to the book have surprised you?

Kim Coleman Foote ’00 Hmm. I don't think anything's really been surprising. I'm hearing a lot of consistent reactions. The empathy is a big one that I'm hearing from people. Yeah. I, I think that that's a big thing. And, and the same thing, you know, as people mentioned with my, my slave trader, that I wanted to hate crack Coleman. I wanted to hate Debbie, but I couldn't. I couldn't because you, you, you know, it's not, they're not black and white. There is no black and white, you know, and just seeing how, how stuck they were in some of the circumstances, yeah. It's almost like they had no choice to end up the way that they did, you know, and to do the things that they did. So, yeah, that, that's one thing that I've been hearing.

Debbie Bacharach ’88 Do you wanna read a tiny bit more, or should I end with a final question? What would you prefer?

Kim Coleman Foote ’00 I'll take, yeah, I'll take another question.

Debbie Bacharach ’88 Okay. So the scenes like, like just Debbie, I think, isn't Debbie the hoarder?

Kim Coleman Foote ’00 Yeah. Well, there, there's multiple hoarders. Well, okay, Debbie and all his and his sisters

Debbie Bacharach ’88 The garbage. So, so what I'm saying is there, there are two chapters in the book where we get the perspective of the person hoarding, and then we get the perspective sort of a flip of that. Yeah, yeah. And did you, did you kind of let them speak to you and find what you wanted to say? Or did you purposely try to show that same scene from different perspectives?

Kim Coleman Foote ’00 I'm not sure what scene you're talking about, but I,

Debbie Bacharach ’88 I think Verna, is it the oldest sister's name? She wants him to clear all that stuff out of the house. Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. And from his perspective, it's, it's treasure and from her perspective, oh yeah, it's junk. And, and I loved being in moments like that.

Kim Coleman Foote ’00 Yeah. I mean, she's a, she was a hoarder herself. I mean, the house was like packed, like floor to ceiling with boxes. But yeah, I mean, that, that's just an example of what I was talking about and, and how different characters interpret things differently. But since you mentioned that, I will read a very quick passage about my grandfather's stuff, see if I can find it quickly. So yeah, I was also fascinated by the hoarding that happened in my family and wanted to kind of figure out like why, why my family members hoarded and, you know, so we growing up, you know, they, they were called pack reps, you know, and it wasn't until that, that TV series, I think it's hoarders, you know, and it very painful for me to watch. I can't watch that show because I'm like, this was my family. And so I was also exploring kind of the roots, roots of that behavior. I never saw my grandfather's junkyard, but I did see his, his house that he lived in, which had stuff all over the place. And for me as a kid, it was just fascinating, you know, to see all that stuff, you know, but it was eyesore, you know, so I, I only imagined, I imagined what, what the yard would've looked like. And I'll just read, it's a long paragraph about the yard. There's everything, including the kitchen sink too. In fact, one of them porcelain with faded roses on its rim, the Coleman kid's daddy keeps saying he's gonna install it in the basement, just like he plans to use the four oil tires. They're too small for his old pickup truck, but he never seems ready to replace the thing with its jerky startups and farts. Then there's a set of a full of bolstered chairs with missing rungs and legs each more decrepit than the neck, like a mouthful of bad teeth and the dented pots and charred skill. He's always planning to scrub up and sell and the bottles not colorful and whole. And balancing on the tips of tree branches like next door to the Coleman kids, aunt Pearl on their mother's side, who calls that sort of thing, tacky and country, their daddy's bottles are chipped and cracked, scattered on the ground and crates and overflowing bags, milk bottles with the scum still stuck on them. Crack Coleman's four rows is whiskey bottles, canning bottles, and mason jars, because of course there were something, if he can get a good enough collection going, which he never can, because his son Spencer sneaks a few, few away every so often to practice with a slingshot and bands woods.

Debbie Bacharach ’88 Thank you. Thank you. So we're gonna stop there and, but the exciting thing is Kim's coming to Swarthmore for alumni weekend and she'll be signing her book at the bookstore. So everybody please come and see her there. And thank you all for coming.

Kim Coleman Foote ’00 Thank you.