An Interview with Somerville Novelist, Pagan Kennedy.
by Doug Holder
edited: Tuesday, April 08, 2003
Posted: Saturday, March 16, 2002
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An interview with author Somerville, Mass. author Pagan Kennedy, concerning her life and work. * published in Spare Change News and the Somerville News.
Pagan Kennedy, a critically acclaimed Somerville, Massachusets novelist, once described the city she calls home as " a rock and roll, Vietnamese student neighborhood part of Boston..." Much like Somerville itself, Kennedy has changed a bit since then. This writer, who has written about everything from Rock musicians in the hardscrabble hoods of Boston, to two eccentric spinsters who hit the road,, has taken a new direction in her writing. Kennedy has just completed an accomplished work of nonfiction, entitled: BLACK LIVINGSTONE: A TRUE TALE OF ADVENTURE IN THE NINETEENTH- CENTURY CONGO.This book concerns the experiences of a black American missionary, William Sheppard, who traveled to the Congo in the late 19th century.
Sheppard exposed the cruelties of the Belgian colonists, and worked to dispel the "savage" stereotype of native African tribes, that was rampant in white Europe. I talked to Ms. Kennedy at Starbucks, in the heart of Somerville's Davis Square- a stone's throw from downtown Boston.
DH: Why did you become a writer?
PK: Wow. That all happened so long ago. In college I took some writing courses, and had the experience of stories...just coming to me. I had this coat that I bought at a thrift store, that was very much the picture of faded elegance.I began to see the character who had it before. A White Russian Baroness. I made up this whole story, wrote it down...and this was my first short story. It was the experience of something coming full-blown out of my subconscious, that spurred me on. I had no control over it. I wanted to learn how to consciously bring these experiences on. So-I took writing classes in college.
When I graduated I worked for the VILLAGE VOICE as an arts journalist. I did everything. I was a gopher,and I wrote literary criticism, etc.. In New York City I lived in eight places in two years. I couldn't take it anymore. I had friends who lived in the Boston area. I moved into a group home in Allston,( a section of Boston),for $160/month.
You could live for next to nothing then. Now, you can't do that anymore.
DH: You have lived in New York City, Baltimore, Allston, and you have been in Somerville for awhile now. What is it about the city that draws you here?
PK: I have lived in Somerville for five years. There was a time when I said, " I will never move across the river." My image of growing up, was moving to Somerville. (laughs.) This is not everyone's idea of growing up and becoming an adult.
I had a whole bunch of friends in Allston. We had a vision of the kind of artistic community we wanted to form there. This was a place with cafes and venues. We tried to make that happen. I managed to buy a house with a friend. A tiny, falling-apart house that cost very little. We had a coup with that house. We were living in Lower Allston...but I became disenchanted. We watched Harvard knock down historic buildings, and put in box stores. The world we wanted to create was destroyed. This broke my heart. I felt there was no chance for Allston.
I bought a house in Somerville some 5 years ago. In Somerville I found what I was looking for in Allston. It is the most inspiring arts community I have ever been part of.
DH:Your first novel was SPINSTERS.In this novel you capture the sensibility of two spinster sisters, whose stifling stasis is threatened by a rapidly changing world. What experiences did you draw on to flesh out these two eccentric characters?
PK: SPINSTERS was a combination of two obsessions of mine. One was the rapid change
in the country, during 1968. I wrote my senior thesis about this. The other side for me in that book was my Southern roots. My grandmother's family was full of spinsters. My grandmother collected hundreds of family anecdotes...she carried on the oral tradition. She was obviously married, but she was fascinated by all the spinsters, and celebrated them in stories. The South really loves their eccentrics. This leeched through in my work, without me intending it to.
I was nominated for the ORANGE AWARD (British Award) as a result of this novel. I got to read with all these amazing women, like Amy Tan, Mary Anne Wiggins ( Salman Rushdie's ex-wife) and others.
DH: I also understand that you have put out your own little magazine or "zine", PAGAN'S HEAD, that was actually picked up by St. Martin's Press. I've been involved with the Small Press for years. I think it serves as the "minor leagues" of writing, and sometimes people go on to bigger and better things. Any comment?
PK: Boston was a hub in the 80's for the zine scene. I had graduated from grad. school in fiction writing. I found a real antidote in the zine world for some of the ills of the Lit. world, like its over-seriousness and rigidty.I started to embrace it and put out my own zine. With 50 copies of my own zine, people would stop me on the street, and say: " Hey, Pagan, I read your piece!" It was really fun because it was so community-minded. I like zines that break the form. The person who collects Pez dispensers, and makes up a zine for it. The best zines are about community.
DH:You have just finished a book, BLACK LIVINGSTONE...", that is a departure from your usual fare. Sheppard was a black man who ran in direct opposition to the conventions of the time. He was a missonary in Africa, when this vocation was usually reseved for whites. He discovered the sophisticated Kuba tribe in the Congo, and spread the word about these aristocratic people around Europe. He was a crusader against racism, a truly unique character. Why have you gone from writing about fictional rock musicians in Boston,to
writing about a true -to-life,charismatic Black missionary who travels to the Congo in the 1890's?
PK: I have done a number of nonfiction books.
I've always done a lot of journalism. This was a great story. I found out about this story...that no one told before. I burned with a desire to tell this story. I read about William Sheppard( the Black missonary), in a book. He was a side-character. I then searched for his own writing. This enchanted me all the more. He really wrote in that boy's adventure style...a very 19th century way. There was something very familiar about the way he put together stories and his sense of humor. I really didn't think I was writing a book. I just wanted to understand who this guy had been. I was fascinated by this story because it was a reverse HEART OF DARKNESS. Through my grandmother I learned that her first cousin replaced Sheppard at his job. At this point I was off and running. I thought this was beyond a coincidence. I felt I had to do this.
DH: Do you think this was a book that needed to be written?
PK: First off it was a great story. Willam Sheppard was completely lost to history. The story of black missionaries who went to Africa in the 19th century, has been lost. This was a certain moment in time where all this could happen, before it was seen as threatening by the white world.
DH:Do you think William H. Sheppard shared any traits with your fictional characters?
PK: People who have vivid internal lives, and what happens when they try to realize it. The tragedies and ectasies that come about, as a result. It is so difficult to map your vision to the world. So Sheppard fascinated me. To do a black man was a leap and the fact that he was a missionary was a leap.
DH: How did you manage to portray Sheppard's internal life, and the racist milieu he lived in?
PK: It was hard to get into Sheppard's internal life., There were things he couldn't say. I did an enormous amount of research about his contemporaries. There are well-documented scenes, where I gave a fully fleshed account. I tried to create scenes that would give the reader a sense that they were there. I didn't put words into Sheppard's mouth. I tried to fill in the patches of his life in America, where he couldn't openly complain about racism. I felt a deep moral obligation to say- this is what he faced.
DH: Moving from the Congo to Somerville... where in Somerville do you hang out?
PK: I love the Diesel Cafe. I have so many friends here, so I find I spend time at their houses. It's like a big family.
Doug Holder * This interview appeared in Spare Change News and the Somerville News.