In Cole Lavalais’ debut novel Summer of the Cicadas, Viola “Vi” Moon hopes to leave her experience at a mental health facility behind when she enrolls in a small black college in the south, but the stability she hoped she’d gain fractures more quickly than she anticipated. Vi thinks the best way to regain her sanity is to begin a relationship with Perry, the only son of a black, Southern elite family. When Vi struggles to find her place in school and with Perry, she launches an obsessive search for the father she can’t fully remember or completely forget.
Summer of the Cicadas is a striking debut that challenges the reader to figure out what is real, what is true, and what is now. Lavalais turns the idea of legacy upside when characters are confronted with inheriting family secrets, mental illness, respectability politics, and deception. Who or what haunts us as we try to find ourselves, stuck with family names and histories we didn’t choose? How much of our histories should we hold on to as we prepare for our futures? In a telephone interview, Lavalais talked with me about the stigma of mental illness, diversity issues in publishing, and how black women writers can support each other.
How did you get the idea for your debut novel and how long did it take you to write Summer of the Cicadas?
That’s a trick question. I initially started this novel in ’99. I know that sounds terrible. I initially started in ’99 and probably finished it in ’01. That was the first draft. I was sending it out, trying to get agents. I wasn’t able to get an agent, and I wasn’t able to sell it, and then I decided to go back to graduate school. And once I got into graduate school, I was glad I didn’t sell it because it was a hot mess. [laughs]
The reason I started out writing it and the reason I ended up writing it has changed, like anything would over a fifteen-year span. Initially I wanted to tell a story because I had a family member who was suffering from mental illness. And I hadn’t seen a lot of stories written from a young black woman’s perspective about what that means, how our communities look at it, how it’s treated. And I wanted to tell that story. And I was trying to get my mind around it, too, because mental illness is a really tough thing for families and friends to deal with. I was trying to get some control and get my mind around by recreating that world and trying to figure it out from her point of view.
Summer of the Cicadas covers legacy — the search for it and the escape from it — and finding home, healing. Why did you choose the setting of an HBCU (historically black college/university) to situate that?
I was looking for a really black space. To me, the HBCU represented that . . . not that there aren’t other black spaces. It was a black space that was also diverse, where all of these issues are piled up on each other and studied as well. It’s the perfect setting to discuss the idea of legacy, gender issues, sexual issues — all of that is in this little boiling pot.
The book reminded me of Toni Morrison’s Beloved — there’s a certain type of haunting happening with ghosts from the past as babies or not-babies. I don’t want to spoil the book for readers, but can you talk about the idea of ghosts from the past who need a certain kind of attention to survive and what happens when you find answers you’ve been looking for?
The American ghost stories go way beyond Beloved, especially black American ghost stories, and it does become a wonderful way to talk about the lost past and talk about the unexamined life and how important is history and what do we do with it once we get it. HBCUs are all about history, knowing your history, and knowing where you’re from, and there’s this question of is that always a good thing? How does being so ensconced in history affect our present? And how does it affect our future? Is there a way to move through the life without being so invested in history? And so the ghost becomes this kind of perfect metaphor for that, that it both brings into question of knowing your history and the importance of forgetting. Do you privilege the remembering or do you privilege the forgetting? And does that look on a real body? How do these -isms work when they are applied to a real girl, and what could really happen to someone with all of this pressure to know and live this history and move through it? I’m really interested in the psychology of it, the things we fear the most, so I think all of that gets expressed through this ghost.
Not only do you talk about Vi’s mental illness, but you give us scenes from her treatment. Why was that important to you — to show the acknowledgment of her mental illness?
I’m adding a different story in terms of the magical realism that we see so often in black women novelists’ work. And I wanted to ground this in a realism. There’s no real magic in it [mental illness], right. And it also counters the feeling that in black communities, at least in my experience, with mental illness, that it’s often seen as this sort of magic or demonic force. It’s something that’s outside of science. The scenes with the doctor grounds us in “okay, this is just a girl who’s sick and this is her doctor” and we can see how that relationship goes back and forth. She’s not possessed. It’s not magic. To have that juxtaposed against the ghost — is this ghost real? As if a ghost could be real? Or is it a figment of her imagination, and that’s the kind of question you should have through the novel.
More than one person is affected by mental health challenges with various forms of coping and self-medication. What kind of conversation about mental health are you hoping to evoke?
There’s a thing about mental health. It almost seems as if it’s the last frontier of where we don’t feel bad about teasing and making fun of folks that are going through mental illness. We still get memes of people or videos — “oh, look at this person! She’s crazy!” When we see someone unraveling, as a society, it seems like it’s still okay for us to poke fun, in ways we would never do if the person had cancer or some other disease. What I really hoped to do is to start that conversation so you can truly understand that this is truly a mental illness. Just because it can’t be cut away and you can’t get a shot and it’s fixed, it’s not that easy, it doesn’t make it any less. We should stop putting folks up for ridicule and I think a lot of that stops our community from going to get help. They don’t want to be labeled crazy. It makes everything worse if you can’t get the help that you need because you’re afraid of this social stigma that doesn’t seem to be lessening. It seems to be getting worse with social media.
In the novel, fathers are marked and named, and names are carried through the father, whereas mothers are left scattered and nameless, even as they provide comfort and solace. The children are left behind to gather themselves and fall into that named-unnamed cycle. Is that a legacy worth fighting for? How does one change that?
I think that’s really an important conversation to have because, after going to HBCU, I was surprised at how focused in patriarchy HBCUs still are. Even though women have been and always will be the workhorses at HBCUs and almost every other university, men are held up. We’re still caught up in patriarchal structure. That’s stayed with me. It’s not just HBCUs. You see it in a lot of movements — the Black Arts Movement, the Harlem Renaissance — they’re stuck in these patriarchal, hegemonic systems, and so I wanted to show that, to spotlight that. It’s an important conversation because we still, as black woman, are told “you need to support your man.” It places crazy constraints on young women, even on campuses. Part of Vi’s relationship with Perry is steeped in that . . . You have this thing where “he’s one of the chosen ones; what am I doing to my people if I counter that?”
As people continue to call out diversity issues in publishing, what advice or recommendations do you have to address any challenges you may have experienced or witnessed?
First make sure you’re writing to yourself. Don’t try to write to the market. Write what you want to write. Write it the way you want to write it. And once you’re ready to publish, be just as fearless as you were when you were putting it on the page, in terms of submitting it. A lot of black women writers don’t submit. Rejections are part of writing. Don’t worry about getting 100 rejections, 200 rejections. Get 300 rejections, just keep writing and keep submitting. If you don’t submit, it’ll never happen.
In terms of more practical advice, get out there. Do writers’ workshops. Do conferences. I’ve been to the Callaloo writing workshop, the VONA writing workshop, the Kimbilio writing workshop. I go to AWP. And the folks that I met years ago at Callaloo are the same people at VONA and the same people I see at Kimbilio because the black writing community is small. It’s important to make contact with other black writers and writers of color and to foster those relationships because almost every professional relationship I have are through my workshops or graduate school workshops. So it’s really important to write and get out. I know it’s difficult because writers tend to be introverts and they don’t want to leave their offices but it’s important to get out and make contact with other writers. When you have someone who understands what you’re going through and you can reach out to, it’s wonderful. I’ve been so surprised at how open and welcoming established black writers are if you have questions or if you want to talk and share your experiences to get feedback.
What advice do you give writers in your classes and workshops about pushing past obstacles like self-doubt?
To be fearless. Write as if no one is ever going to read it. The most important thing is to get it on the page first and we can fix everything in post. Don’t worry about how the words look next to each other, especially in early drafts. A lot of new writers, especially in workshop when they know someone else is going to read it, they become self-editors or they’re so focused on the end game of trying to get published that they’re self-editing. Be fearless with your own story. Be truthful to what you’re writing. Don’t worry about what someone else is going to think about it. I have a lot of writers who are not doing creative nonfiction, but like most writers, they put things from their lives in their work so they’re worried about “oh, my sister’s going to see this” or “my mother’s going to see this,” and I’m like “nobody is going to see this if you don’t write it so don’t worry about that.” You have to write it. It’s your story. Claim it as your story. Make it your story and get it down on the page. And don’t worry about the aftermath. To cause any trouble, you have to write it, so write it.
Nichole Perkins is a freelance writer, based in her hometown of Nashville, TN. She began writing about pop culture, race, gender, and sex at the website Postbourgie.com and has written for BuzzFeed, Think Progress, Talking Points Memo, and rogerebert.com. Nichole also writes poetry, fiction, screenplays, and is currently working on a collection of personal essays.