Editor’s Note: This interview first appeared in Path Finders, an email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each week, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. 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.
Sara Johnson Allen is a North Carolina native and author of the new novel “Down Here We Come Up,” which released August 1, 2023 from Black Lawrence Press.
Enjoy our conversation about the opacity of elite institutions, the usefulness of cultural camouflage, and the inseparability of immigration and agriculture in the southern U.S., below.
Olivia Weeks, The Daily Yonder: You’ve written that place is always a major concern within your work, a fact that comes through really clearly in your book. This time that focus plays out in the form of a pretty clear North-South comparison that (I believe) reflects your own biography to some extent. Two questions on that: How did it feel to get all your accumulated observations about those cultures out on paper? And how else has playing with place manifested in your fiction?
Sara Johnson Allen: I frequently start with a place even before the characters in my writing. In “Down Here We Come Up,” there are roots of specific places that became fictionalized. My grandmother’s two-bedroom house. Old tobacco packhouses I played in when I was little. A grand, stone home with an enviable porch across from a condo I lived in. Larger landscapes like the island of Nantucket I only visited once but stayed with me.
You are right that the North-South comparison is big in the book and in my life. I’ve moved vertically up and down and back along the Eastern seaboard. I lost most trace of a Southern accent during a 6th grade move to upstate New York that was pretty awful for a lot of reasons.
Because I don’t have a Southern accent, people will say dismissive things about the South without realizing I am from there. Regional prejudices come up far more in my life than I could have ever imagined. A couple times a week someone says something knowingly or not knowingly to disparage where I am from and my family still lives. A neighbor in a CVS made some joke about me having an outhouse growing up. I didn’t even get it at first, until I was like wait, is that joke supposed to be that everyone in the South is poor and doesn’t have running water?
Recently at a party in Maine, a member of my extended family said to me, “At least we didn’t have slaves like you did.” I’ve heard that one a lot. And yes. It is true. The South fought a war to preserve a system that brutally enslaved human beings and tore families and bodies apart in horrific and unforgivable ways. And racism and white supremacy run deep, deep, deep in the South. They also run deep, deep, deep in the North. And the West. And everywhere.
So I suppose in some ways writing this book was me exploring that central confusion of my life since that first move in 6th grade before I moved back in the 11th. Where do I belong? Not here. Not there. How are these two places that once fought each other in a Civil War still going at it? How are they different in their flaws? How are they exactly the same?
DY: The novel documents (pretty unflatteringly) one character’s attempts to ingratiate himself with Nantucket types as he adjusts to life in the Northeast and sheds his North Carolinian roots. As a fellow small-town kid turned Harvard student, I really related to that character. It made me wonder if you have any personal reflections on that camouflaging survival mechanism.
SJA: First, let me admit I probably have an unhealthy obsession with institutions of elite education. When I moved to the Boston area in 2000, I was roommates with this rotating cast of characters in an apartment in Cambridge who were mostly Harvard or MIT grad students, post-docs, etc. I was working as a telemarketer and did not even know what MIT was.
The longer I was in Boston, the more I understood what it means to go somewhere like that.
For example, in 2005, a friend offered to help me quit my day job by connecting me to his clients to tutor kids on the upper-west side of New York City. The job paid about $400 an hour. I would not even have to move, just take the train down a couple days a week. I wanted to do it, but I knew, and he must have known, those families would not hire me because I lacked an Ivy League alma mater like he had.
Going further back, I watched my father camouflage himself in a way, mute his accent in Raleigh, then when we went back to where he was from, it was thick and “country.” People do this all the time. It’s extremely human, but it can get complicated. For me, sometimes when I am navigating this, it feels disingenuous, especially if I feel “caught,” when someone from one world sees me in another. The farther you get from your origin, the more you move from region to region or country to country, the more you have to navigate a set of expectations and codes and figure out who to be at any given moment.
Luke knows his life would not be the same if he went to N.C. State instead of Harvard. He knows he has a winning lottery ticket, and I can’t blame him for leveraging what was earned in his case. I can also see why his sister Kate would feel betrayed by it. Siblings are often the first to call you out on your inconsistencies.
DY: While U.S.-Mexico immigration issues are a clear thematic fit for this novel – which is largely about leaving home, coming back, and separating families in the process – I’m curious about what inspired you to write so directly about border and migration politics.
SJA: I did not set out to write about U.S.-Mexico immigration issues. I did set out to write about rural Downeast, North Carolina, an agriculturally-driven area between Raleigh and Wilmington, which is largely overlooked. I don’t think you can write about that place today without talking about the immigrant populations that inhabit it.
I have personally known people who came from Mexico and then played major roles in transforming and “saving” the kind of rural, agricultural places I never lived because my father was the first in his family to go to college and never went back.
Almost three hundred years ago, it was my family immigrating from Switzerland to spend the next three centuries as farmers, in what my father still wistfully refers to as the best soil he has ever worked. Many of those 18th century Swiss were either paupers or Baptists (in the case of my family, likely both) that the Swiss government wanted gone. The land my people inhabited was stolen from others first by the British. Although they were poor, my ancestors still were able to safely occupy the land as free people who were not captured by the government, but rather encouraged to cross in wooden ships.
The people I know today who are working that land are not in line to inherit it, even though they are like sons and daughters to the last generation of farmers who might hand it down to them.
I think I wanted to get at that idea of legacy and inheritance. Legacies of land and what it means to own it, the way Jackie does her little plot and Mrs. Ruby Newkirk does hundreds of acres of it. And what it means to never be able to own it because of histories of violence and oppression. In dealing with that area, I had to consider who is able to win the inheritance game and who the system is dead set on not even giving a chance to play.
DY: As a little teaser for people who haven’t yet read the book, can you tell me what its title means to you?
SJA: This book had a lot of titles over the many, many years it took to write it. I liked most of them. I think at the point I started using this one, I thought this book might be dead and never see the light of day. So I wasn’t thinking anymore about how it might be received or if an agent or editor would let me keep it. I just knew I liked the idea of “down here” because that’s how we talk, or at least I do. “Down here they do this.” “Up there we say that.” “When we go down there, we are going to eat so many hush puppies.” “When you come up here, can you please bring some biscuit flour.”
So inherent in the title is the vertical of North to South and back again. There is also some of the idea of social climbing here too, “coming up in the world.” In that line in the book, Jackie is really talking about the idea of coming up when you are called to your obligations as a daughter, family member, or community member. You do what you are asked to when someone needs you.
As the daughter of a former Baptist minister, who grew up in the church, “coming up,” also invokes for me the idea of coming up to the altar or coming up when you’re called to some greater spiritual purpose. I’m not particularly religious, but I can relate to getting fanatical about things. So that fervor, of “coming up” when you’re called to take a major leap of faith, that is essentially what Kate is facing in this story. Maribel as well. The more I think about it, all the characters are asked by other characters or by the conditions of their existence to “come up” and face seemingly impossible challenges.
DY: Lastly, what were your major sources of inspiration throughout the process of writing this novel? What were you reading or listening to?
SJA: For literary inspiration, language study, and narrative idolization, it’s Jesmyn Ward, especially “Sing, Unburied, Sing,” Jane Smiley, especially “The Age of Grief,” Ron Rash, especially “Something Rich and Strange,” and Jill McCorkle, especially “Hieroglyphics.” Non-fiction books like “The Devil’s Highway” by Luis Alberto Urrea were also important during this process.
I actively use music in my writing process to establish the aesthetic and mood I want for a work. I have character playlists, but perhaps what is most important is probably the songs I have listened to hundreds of times on repeat in order to stay in the mental space I need to be in for writing what I am writing. A few of those are “He Doesn’t Know Why” by Fleet Foxes, “Maybe Sparrow” and “Star Witness” by Neko Case, and “Blonde on Blonde” by Nada Surf.
In addition to those, everything Rainbow Kitten Surprise (now going by RKS, I think) ever did. When I first started listening to them heavily, I didn’t even realize they were a North Carolina band. If I had not been overwhelmed by the legal process, I would have sought permission for some of the lyrics from their song “Cold Love” to be at the beginning of the book.
This interview first appeared in Path Finders, a weekly email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each Monday, 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.