Reviews/Interviews Editor Ann Beman interviews Sion Dayson about her debut novel, As a River, which explores the consequences of family secrets and the fault lines of Southern history.
I realized I’ve only read and written your name. What is the phonetic spelling of your first name?
Or /’siːɑn/ if you want to get fancy.
I was named after a town in Switzerland; my parents kept the spelling but changed the pronunciation so it flowed better with my last name.
What incited you to write As a River?
I never sat down with an intention of writing a novel. All of my work is sparked by something small – a stray line of dialogue, an image, a scent.
The book’s origin is located in an overheard conversation while I was walking through Harlem one day. Some teenage girls up ahead were talking and one of them said: “she’s pregnant and never even had sex.” Well, you can imagine that certainly got my attention!
I went home and immediately wrote a scene inspired by that line. What came out featured a young girl named Esse in a small town in Georgia in an era before I was born. But then I got interested in her daughter, Ceiley. What would it be like to grow up with a mother who claims you were miraculously conceived?
Then a stranger came to town, a handsome man in his thirties with something troubling him from his past. I felt a lot of energy when Greer entered the picture and I knew I wanted to know more about him. That meant getting to know his mother Elizabeth and why she was so sad. And Caroline, his first love. And…you can see the cast of characters kept expanding.
Writing is a craft, but is also somewhat of a mystery to me, too. I stay open to what’s unfolding on the page and follow where it leads. Eventually it becomes clearer what I’m exploring, but even then it can be difficult to articulate. The novel deals with the dangers of silence, the question of shame, our struggles to understand each other, and our notions of identity and belonging. It’s also about the stories we tell ourselves and how that affects the way we move through the world.
Bannen, Georgia. What influenced your construct of Bannen? Why Georgia and not North Carolina?
The first scene I ever wrote was set by the river and it created my foundational understanding of the town’s landscape – both physical and psychic. I knew it was a segregated Southern town and the river served as an actual geographical separation.
As to why Georgia and not North Carolina – well, that’s a great question and one I asked myself many times. I was self-conscious about writing not from the place where I grew up, but one I was only imagining. But fiction for me has always had an intuitive power. There’s a lot in the process that doesn’t necessarily have a logical basis, but feels right. From the very first line of the story, I knew it was set in Georgia. I had to go casting about for many other elements of the story, but that one was always clear to me from the beginning.
I also felt at liberty to flesh out the town in its own image. It’s fictional, not based on any real place – though I hope it feels real in the reading.
Which character surprised you most?
Caroline, Greer’s first love, was the hardest to get a handle on. She actually appeared in one of my dreams once, outraged that I was getting her wrong on the page. She was the only character who snuck into my subconscious to threaten me, so you could say she definitely surprised me!
I also found it interesting who demanded their own first person sections. Most of the book is in close third person to Greer, but there are a few chapters where other characters speak for themselves. Gloria, Greer’s Ghanaian lover, offered a wonderful glimpse of what Greer was up to in those years he was away from Bannen traveling the world.
And Major is most present in the novel through his absence, but he embodies a lot of important emotional information in the story.
I see the Sicama River as a character. Where did that name come from? What does Sicama mean? “Better known as Snake Creek.” What about that name?
It’s most definitely a character!
A lot of my naming simply arises from what sounds good to my ear. I come from a love of poetry and I reread my writing aloud, over and over. I’m listening to make sure the language has music.
And so with the names, too. Sicama doesn’t mean anything, as far as I know. I just babble to myself sometimes until I hear something I like!
As for the nickname of Snake Creek, that came from that first scene in drafting. (So much groundwork laid in that scene that’s no longer a part of the book!) A character said, “men have snakes, too” and went on to draw parallels. The nickname stuck.
While we’re on names, why Greer? Why did Elizabeth name him Greer?
Again, it comes down to a combination of sound and intuition. I try out different names until one clicks. Greer was most definitely Greer from early on. The even bigger decision for Elizabeth, his mother, was, whose last name to give him.
At one point, Elizabeth admits to taking on “a certain kind of language with the Reverend.” Language and communication (and the spaces between and engulfing both) are key to this novel. What do you see as language’s role in this book and in your own life?
Wow, that’s a huge question!
There’s an underlying tension in the book about all that goes unsaid. Greer is smart and curious and feels the weight of silence when he’s growing up. It’s one of the big reasons he turns to books and poetry for solace. He’s not finding words with his familiars so he seeks them out elsewhere.
As for me, language has always been an obsession. I was a quiet child, but there were so many thoughts and emotions that churned inside. Working with language has always been a way for me to work out what it means to live.
How many languages do you speak? How does teaching EFL inform your writing in general? How does it inform your writing about the American South?
I would say I speak three languages with varying degrees of success. English is my native tongue and the only one I speak fluently. But I have a high level of French (though the French might not say so!) after living in Paris for a decade. And I now live in Spain and am working towards improving my Spanish, as well. I actually learned Spanish to an advanced level when I was younger and studied in Mexico, but I lost it after not using it for 20 years.
Teaching English as a Foreign Language actually didn’t have an effect on the writing of this novel as I only started teaching EFL when I moved to Spain less than 2 years ago. Before that I was writing and editing. I wanted to try something new that had me engaging more directly with people and using language in an interactive way.
Teaching also offers me amazing input. I learn so much from my students about a variety of domains. Having three languages to draw upon also highlights how much language can be linked to culture. There are certain expressions or concepts that simply work better in one language over another. I feel like a different person, depending on which language I’m speaking. It’s endlessly fascinating.
To get to the language of the American South, or more specifically, the language of my characters in Bannen, Georgia, I did what I always do: enter the trance of fiction. Dive into the world and listen for the cadences necessary for this particular story.
What is your definition of Americana? Does your novel fit into that definition? How?
It’s funny because the dictionary definition of Americana is “books, papers, objects, facts, etc. having to do with the U.S., its people, and its history.” So shouldn’t anything that is of America be considered Americana? I would think so.
And yet, one reaction I have to the term wonders if it’s a harkening back to items and icons associated with “the good old days.” But good old days for whom? Certainly not good for African Americans and people of color. We’re talking about times filled with terror (and there is a terror still with us today). I think of something like “Mammy dolls,” for example, figures that hit me so viscerally that I feel ill.
But Americana is also bucolic images like hand-stitched quilts or a red barn at sunset or a wooden rocking chair on the porch. Banjo music and the blues. The beauty should belong to all of us.
I don’t actually know the answer to this question, but it’s an interesting one. I would, in fact, be most interested in hearing your response as The Museum of Americana!
All I know is that my novel is very much American; its conflicts and concerns cannot be separated from its setting in a small town in the American South.
What was your process for writing this novel?
This novel was written in fits and starts. I needed large chunks of time to plunge into the novel’s world. I initially thought it was a short story and I chipped away at it for awhile on my own. It kept growing, though, and I realized I might be dealing with a larger project. Part of my impetus for doing an MFA at a low-residency program was to help me prioritize writing and help me produce more pages. (At a low-residency program, you work one-on-one with a mentor each semester and turn in between 20-30 pages per month for feedback. For someone who isn’t normally prolific, this was a hugely productive time for me).
I don’t write in a linear fashion so a lot of the process was writing fragments and scenes and then figuring out how they fit into the larger whole. Kind of like fitting jigsaw puzzle pieces together. I finally found a coherent structure organically, but it took a lot of experimentation.
I’d never heard the term “pleading the blood” before. It works so, so beautifully in the context of Greer’s struggle, and in that of every character in the novel. Was this term — this concept — something you have wanted to explore for a long time?
I confess that “pleading the blood” is not something that comes from any first-hand knowledge. I credit James Baldwin, one of my literary heroes, for teaching me the term. Baldwin grew up with a strict stepfather who was a Baptist minister and he himself was a youth minister for three years. Though he lost the taste for ministry and questioned the church’s role, a Biblical cadence remained in much of his work. I think it’s one of the reasons Baldwin’s language still sounds so transcendent and prophetic to me. “Pleading the blood” is one of those religious references he uses.
You’re exactly right – the concept was so aligned with the struggles in my book, I couldn’t help but incorporate it. And the idea of “blood” is important in general to the novel, not only in the religious sense. Blood in the manner of family, of speaking of kin.
There are so many evocative details in this book — pleading the blood, green bean casserole, that ghosts favor shotgun houses, lines of poetry. I was struck by the Wilson character. He felt like a Greek chorus of one. Tell me about Wilson.
That’s exactly how I think of Wilson, too! I really appreciate you picking up on that.
The present time of the novel is 1977 but we see scenes from the past starting in 1944. Wilson was there through all of it. He owns the general store that everyone in East Bannen frequents, so he’s particularly privy to all of the goings on. It’s why it seemed appropriate to have him serve as almost the voice of the town. He’s also an older man when we meet him in 1977, so he has a lifetime of experience under his belt.
Which authors influence your writing?
James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, William Faulkner, Carson McCullers, Barbara Kingsolver, Zadie Smith, Nayyirah Waheed, Maggie Smith, Mary Oliver, and many, many more.
Do you have projects in the works? What’s next?
Right now, I’m deep into promotion for the novel. I wrote the first line of this book in 2005 so finally arriving to publication means a great deal. I’m doing a lot of work to help usher it into the world.
But then we’ll see where to turn my attention to next. I have about a quarter of a narrative nonfiction book written about my decade in Paris. I’m not sure if I’ll return to that or start something new. But it’s exciting to think of possibilities again.
Sion Dayson grew up in North Carolina and earned an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her work has appeared in Electric Literature, Utne Reader, and many other venues, and her writings often focus on travel, living abroad, and her literary hero, James Baldwin. Her popular blog paris (im)perfect explored the City of Light’s less glamorous side. After a decade in Paris, she now resides in Valencia, Spain.