Editor’s Note: This interview first appeared in Path Finders, a new email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each week, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thought leader or culture bearer. Like what you see here? You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article and receive more conversations like this in your inbox each week.
Ashleigh Bryant Phillips is a writer from Woodland, North Carolina whose first short story collection, Sleepovers, was released last summer. I recently reviewed the collection, which I loved, for the Yonder.
When I read her book last year, I was fresh off my longest stint at home in West Frankfort, Illinois since leaving for college in 2018. I was struck by the stagnation of her setting, the feeling of layers built upon broken layers. Walking on Frankfort’s cracked sidewalks, I was thinking a lot about homes, identities, and families, built on craggy foundations.
In the first story of the collection, “Shania,” a new baby comes before the new mother’s daddy ever gets around to fixing their balcony. “More and more of it falls in the yard. By the time I got to college the yard’s all soggy, shit white.”
Here’s a video of Phillips reading that story. It’s a semi-autobiographical one, about that big ramshackle house on Main Street, and little white girls who wish they were Cherokee, among other things.
Phillips’s writing pushes me to stop seeking crisp, clean floor plans. There are no prerequisites for living.
Enjoy this conversation about home, and trying to talk about it. Stick around for Phillips’s stories about church karaoke and demented bobwhite calls.
Olivia Weeks, The Daily Yonder: I want to first discuss the reception that Sleepovers got. Your collection won the 2019 C. Michael Curtis Short Story Book Prize, judged by Lauren Groff. Ironically enough, I found the stories in a New Yorker blurb. That is to say, you got a lot of nationwide attention. Do you worry at all about what your characters might represent to people who aren’t from rural places? About them being seen as signifiers rather than as specific and unique characters?
Ashleigh Bryant Phillips: I was not thinking about readers when I wrote these stories. But I don’t worry about what my characters might represent to people who aren’t from rural places. My characters are real people who are all tied to their ancestral place. They’re blessed and cursed. And I believe it’s my job as a fiction writer to show how human they are. Being human is not easy and it’s often not enjoyable. Some readers are ready to explore that, they’re ready to look at things that make them uncomfortable. And some readers aren’t and maybe they never will be. I’m just lucky my stories got any national attention. It’s nice to know my place and people are getting heard.
DY: In another interview, you’ve quoted Randall Kenan as saying that “When you go away, paradoxically, home gets sharper.” I find that language so apt and I’m hoping you can reflect on it further. When did you begin to narrativize your upbringing? Can you describe your first move away?
ABP: Yes. Randall said something or ‘nother about how he couldn’t write the soybeans of home with the right exactness until he’d seen the ruins of Rome. It’s kinda like that song, “You Don’t Miss Your Water (Till Your Well Runs Dry),” which was actually written out of homesickness. When I moved to Raleigh, North Carolina for college, I met people for the first time in my life who didn’t grow up eating Sunday lunch with their aunts and uncles and cousins etc. etc. Just about everything I encountered and experienced I compared back to home. My first week on campus some of the girls on my hall went across the street for ice cream and we pressed the button at the crosswalk and before I knew it there was a very high pitched shrill calling sound. It almost reminded me of a bobwhite call but something more demented. As I walked across the street with the rest of the girls, I realized the sound was a signal for the non-hearing, so they’d know to cross the street. I laughed at myself. And I made a joke of it, asked the girls, “What in the world kinda bird made a noise like that?” They all laughed too. I guess I had to narrativize my upbringing to explain myself to people who’d never heard of the town I was from, and that was everyone. Having to tell stories over and over again also helps when everybody who raised you told stories all day long anyways.
DY: In that same answer, you say “I missed home. But I also realized the more I was away, the more I learned of the outside world, the less I was able to return home and be content.” That so precisely speaks to my experience of leaving home and trying to return. Do you have plans or desires to move home? Is it enough to love a place from afar? Obviously, brain drain (the out-migration of young, college-educated folks from rural areas) can’t be solved at the individual level. But do you feel any moral pull to return home? How do you stay connected to Woodland?
ABP: I lived in my hometown after grad school for about two years. It was the most inspiring and intense time of my life. It’s so so powerful, almost intoxicating to be in the same landscape (the same kitchen, the same pew, the same side yard) your family members before you have walked and sang and cried on, but it can also be difficult to emerge from that experience as an individual. Now that I’m in Baltimore, I feel like I can start to exist as myself. And this is sad and liberating at the same time. There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t miss the smell of the deep earth during peanut season, or the sounds of all the folks back home, their laughs, their stories. There’s no problem “staying connected” to Woodland, it guides me and haunts me everyday.
DY: What are you working on now? It’s been about nine months since the collection was released. Where do you go from there?
ABP: I’m hoping to record an audiobook version of Sleepovers soon. It’ll be fun to be in the recording studio, pretending I’m Patsy Cline. Other than that I’m trying to keep up a yoga practice, take my vitamins, make sure my cats are happy, and go deep into any new obsession I might land on, for a while it was the Cathars. I also need to get a new (used) car soon so I guess that’s something to look forward to?
DY: What are you reading and listening to lately? Any recommendations?
ABP: Right now I’m reading Thank You For Not Reading: Essays On Literary Trivia by Dubravka Ugresic. These essays are so sharp. Ugresic basically tears America’s modern consumer-led literary culture to shreds. So I recommend that if you’d like a laugh. It’s pretty brilliant. For a fast paced page turning novel, I highly recommend Octavia Butler’s Kindred and I don’t even consider myself a fan of sci-fi. Free Day by Ines Cagnati is also a magnificent novel. Belonging, a visual memoir by Nora Krug, blew my mind. Bernadette Mayer’s poems of small everyday observations are nice to read before bed. I’m listening to a lot of Washington Phillips in the mornings. And the soundtrack for “Io La Conoscevo Bene” is fun to piddle around and cook dinner to. Lots of Italian covers of 60’s American pop hits. I’ve got this playlist I like to listen to as we get closer to Easter. A lot of old hymns I grew up singing about crucifixion and rolling back the stone and, of course, Dolly Parton’s amazing “He’s Alive,” which I tried to sing one Easter Sunday as a preteen with a karaoke machine at the front of the church but there was no way I could do it justice. The old ladies loved it no matter what though and said I did “good” anyways.
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This interview first appeared in Path Finders, a new email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each week, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Join the mailing list today, to have these illuminating conversations delivered straight to your inbox.