A Conversation With Christina Meldrum about her first novel for adults, Amaryllis in Blueberry
This interview contains significant plot spoilers
Amaryllis in Blueberry takes place in Michigan and West Africa. What personal significance do these landscapes have for you? What appealed to you about using two such dramatically different locations in the novel?
I grew up in Michigan and continue to spend time there every summer. Although I no longer live in Michigan year-round, it will always be home to me at some level. Michigan represents family to me. It represents summers on the lake. It represents holidays. While the characters in Amaryllis in Blueberry are purely fictional, the Danish Landing is very real. My family has owned property on the Danish Landing for over a hundred years. Nearly all of my most poignant childhood memories take place on the Danish Landing. I remember my grandmother standing at the stove flipping blueberry pancakes. I remember exploring the Old Trail. The Danish Landing gave me my first campfire, my first sunburn, my first leech! To the degree any place on earth makes me feel grounded, the Danish Landing does. I imagine Yllis would find part of my soul on the Danish Landing.
And I imagine she'd find another part of my soul in West Africa. I worked for a short time in West Africa during my twenties, and I continue to have ties to West Africa through my nonprofit work. To the degree the Danish Landing is my place of peace, West Africa is my place of prodding. West Africa nudges me, with its energy and rituals, its colors and smells. As a twenty-something living in West Africa, I did not feel peaceful, but I sure felt alive. I did not feel grounded; I felt flung from Addae's slingshot. And when I landed, I had a different perspective, one that was far more nuanced. I was drawn to writing about these two places because on the surface they are so very different, but beneath the surface of each, there's another world. And these beneath-the-surface worlds are surprisingand surprisingly similar in many ways.
Why did you decide to begin the narrative with The End, rather than have the story unfold along a more linear time line?
I find perspective fascinating. What if we could begin at The End? Or what if we could take the knowledge of The End and revisit our lives? Would we see ourselves differently? Would we see our lives differently? Would we become different people altogetherare we merely the sum of our choices? Or are we who we are at our core, indelible at some level no matter our choices? Would Seena or Yllis, Tessa or Mary Catherine, Grace or Dick or Clara or Heimdall be the same person to the reader if I had started at the beginning and moved straight to the end? Or did each become a different person to the reader because the reader had foreknowledge of certain outcomes? Did the reader's altered perspective change each character in some fundamental way? I don't know the answer to any of these questions, but I think the questions are worth asking, worth exploring.
Seena is fascinated by mythology, and even the novel's title draws on a Greek myth. Is this a topic in which you had an interest prior to writing Amaryllis in Blueberry?
I've wonderedand continue to wonderwhether each of our lives is a story at some level: a myth we create. How is our sense of reality and identity influenced by our memory, by our perspective, by our reflection on past events? Seena was a person who struggled with her own life story, because it was a painful life story in many respects. Was she drawn to mythology because others' stories were safer for her, more palatable to her? Perhaps, but how accurate was her perception of her own life? Was the love she shared with Dick a mere myth, as she came to believe? Was the love she shared with Heimdall a myth as well? Or was it her spinning of these experiences the myths-in-making? And what of Yllis? Her entire life's story was built on myth: the myth of the blueberry field; the myth of Amaryllis. Yet Yllis was a person who saw beyond myth, whether she wanted to or not. No matter the myths people created for themselvesand of themselvesYllis sensed feeling; she could see beyond people's words. Still, truth ultimately evaded even Yllis. Was Yllis right, then, that truth is necessarily elusive, "that it can't be contained in a jar"? Are myths essential to our understanding of ourselves and our world? Personally, I think they may be.
"I am an emotional synesthete. For synesthetes like me, the world is a layer cake of emotion, and we are its consumers" (page 90), says Yllis. What prompted the idea to have a character in the story be a synesthete?
I remember being a little girl and wondering whether other people's experience of color matched my own. How do I know, I wondered whether my blue is someone else's red, someone else's magenta? Perhaps my neighbor sees evergreens as ever-purple, meaning my sense of normal would be utterly abnormal to my purple-tree-seeing neighbor. How would we ever know? As I grew and learned more about the power of our brains to filter information perceived by our senses, I became increasingly interested in the impact of perspective on our understanding of truth, which led to my fascination with synesthesia. That said, Yllis was a character with a mind of her own from the get-go. I personally did not know about emotional synesthesia until meeting Yllis, truly. Emotional synesthesia is a form of synesthesia that does exist. But Yllis led me to it as I came to know her as a characternot the other way around.
The scenes where Mary Grace participates in the ritual of Dipo are intriguing, particularly the reactions of the American characters to something so unfamiliar. What more can you tell us about Dipo?
Dipo is a Krobo ceremony, although some form of Dipo exists in many ethnic groups in West Africa. It is a ceremonial rite of passage, ostensibly to prepare girls for the responsibilities of sexual maturity and eventual marriage. As a student of religion in college, I learned that similar ritualsrituals that celebrate young people's passage into adulthoodexist in many cultures. Why? What is gained from such ceremonies? Is there an underbelly to such practices, a dark side? I included Dipoand Grace's participation in the ceremonyin Amaryllis in Blueberry, in part to consider these questions, but also in hopes Grace's experience of Dipo might spur some thinking about our own culture as well. Grace's family was troubled by Grace being "parade[d]
like merchandise." But how do we as a culture express value for girls as they develop into women? How do we guide girls? What traditions and ceremonies celebrate and prepare young womenand young menin our culture for sexual maturity and adulthood? What are the upsides of our own traditionsor lack thereof? What is our dark side?
I've wondered about these questions, in part because girlsand to a lesser extent boysin our culture often seem to lose themselves at some level when they reach puberty. I certainly did. Is this because I was unprepared for this stage in my life? Is it because I suddenly felt less like a whole person, more like an object, as a result of the cultural messages I received? When Dick saw Grace in the Dipo ceremony, he noted she had a body that reminded him "of the girls in the girly magazines" and he was enraged his daughter was being displayed like "merchandise." Yet he regarded his looking at the "girly magazines" as a "victimless act." A ceremony like Dipo may seem troubling at first blushand there are aspects of the ceremony that I continue to find troublingbut I think people tend to be particularly sensitive to and critical of such practices in part because they are foreign. Our own cultural practices may be equally troubling, but because they are familiar, we're more accepting of them. I do believe there may be something for us to learn from rituals such as Dipo. Although certain subsets of our society do provide rites of passage to celebrate, honor and prepare youth for adulthood, on the whole the cultural messages teens in our society receive seem at best confusing.
The slave castles visited by the Slepy family on their journey in West Africa are a haunting aspect of the novel. Why did you choose to include them as a setting in the story?
There is a line in Amaryllis in Blueberry in which Yllis refers to "the painful, beautiful truths that hover about like gnats . . . so often we just swat them away." To me, slavery is one of those painful truths we often swat away. It is part of West Africa's past. It is part of our past. But slavery is not the past. Like Yllis would say: the slave souls live on; slavery lives on. Be they trokosi or victims of the sex trade or the drug trade or the disfigured girl on the cover of Time magazine who tried to escape her Taliban "owner," girls and boys and women all over the world are enslaved every day. The slave castles are a reminder of that. They're the gnats. They're the decapitated rattler. Like Yllis would say: "[T]here is a painful sort of beauty in seeing things for what they really are." In that regard, the slave castles are symbolic of a related issue: how was each character in Amaryllis in Blueberry enslaved at some level: by others' perceptions, expectations and memories of him/her; by the character's memories and self-perception; by others' choices; or by the confines of his/her culture? How and to what degree is each of us similarly enslaved?
What was the most challenging aspect of writing Amaryllis in Blueberry? How was the experience different from that of your young adult novel, Madapple?
With both Madapple and Amaryllis in Blueberry, ideas spurred my writing at the outset, more than plot or character did. When I began Amaryllis in Blueberry, I was interested in exploring the way myth and perspective help shape humans' sense of reality and identity. I wanted to embed my own story in a myththe myth of Pandoraand allow that myth to help shape the reality and identities I created. At the same time, I wanted to tell my own story from many perspectives: past and present, first person and third person, eight characters, starting with the end, ending with a voice that until that point had had no voice. I was trying to do a lot with ideas and structure, and at first my characters seemed lost in those ideas and structure. It took my having a terrific editor and agent and some wonderful reader friends who directed me back to my characters. With their help, I really came to know my characters, but it was tough, because there were a lot of them. Unlike with Madapple, which I told mainly in first person from the perspective of one character, in Amaryllis in Blueberry I had to know all eight characters intimately. In order to do this, I realized I needed to write them all in first person, then shift their voices (all but Yllis) back to third person. This was time-consuming and challenging, but it helped tremendously.
Amaryllis in Blueberry and Madapple both have a character that is put on trial. Did your background as an attorney come into play in deciding to include these scenes? How is Seena's trial most different from one that would take place in the U.S.?
I am interested in justice: What is it? How do we decide? Is justice independent of culture? Or is there some fundamental form of justice that exists irrespective of culture? The trials in both of my books were means by which I hoped to explore these questions. Seena's trial in Africa was dramatically different from the trial in Madapple, where Aslaug was said to be "innocent until proven guilty." And yet, was it really that different? Of course, in some fundamental respects the trials were night and day. As Seena said, Okomfo and Queen Mother were her "accusers, judge and jury." But as the trial in Madapple suggests, our system of litigation, with its lawyers, judges and juries, does not necessarily arrive at truth in the endany more than did Okomfo and Queen Mother. Cultural assumptions and prejudices played a role in both trials. Hence, the question: particularly with regard to the rights of any subset of society, be it women or the disabled or a particular ethnic group, should cultural norms be relevant to determinations of what is just and unjust? The more time I spent thinking about these issues, the less obvious the answers became to me. Hence, I stopped practicing law. And started writing.
Did you intend from the start to have religion be a key theme in the novel, or is it an aspect of the story line that developed during the writing process?
I see religion less as a theme in Amaryllis in Blueberry, more as a vehicle by which I explored other themes, particularly truth and the corresponding power of perspective. Similar to the role of Greek mythology and African mythologyand mythmaking in generalreligion was a means by which certain characters in the novel made sense of their world and of themselves. Because of this, religion provided an avenue to explore other themes in the novel, including justice, contrition, and obsession. In these respects, I did intend from the outset to have religion play a key role.
Against Seena's wishes, Dick insists on calling her by her given name, Christina. Is it a coincidence that you share a name with one of the characters in the story? Do you have a nickname?
I've often wondered about the power of names and naming: Can we be confined by the names we are given? Or do names have the power to empower? Names are extremely important in West Africa. Every child is named according to the day of his or her birth. And people often have additional names with meaning, as did both Mawuli and Addae. How powerful are these names in shaping each person? Comparatively, how powerful was Yllis's name, and the Marys' names and Seena's name in shaping each of them? Yllis is not a Mary. How did that affect the way she viewed herself ? How did being a Mary affect Grace, Catie, and Tessa? Seena talks about her name as a gift given to her by her mother, yet the loss of her mother was a yoke around Seena's neck her entire lifelike the pearls. Did Seena's name empower or disempower her? When Dick insists on calling Seena "Christina," what might be his intention, subconsciously or consciously? To control Seena? To own her? To give her "Christ within," make her into a religious person? To the degree names are important in the story, it is for these reasons, not because I share a name with one of the characters. That said, I did grow up with a nickname (not Seena!), as did most everyone in my family. And perhaps that nicknaming spurred my interest in the power of names.