How Discovering Maya Angelou As A College Student Led Me To Become An Award-Winning Author

By Dana Chamblee Carpenter

Growing up in a small town in rural America can be stifling for anyone with a touch of wanderlust. But when you’re also a girl who likes jeans in a world of dresses, who likes climbing trees and playing football with the boys, and who wants to be smart rather than pretty, the limitations of a small town can become dangerously claustrophobic. An active imagination and a voracious appetite for books are about the only antidotes. Thankfully, I had both.

Surrounded by endless Arkansas rice fields and people living simple lives, I lost (and found) myself in the books I read, the characters’ lives I vicariously lived, and the stories I began to build in my own head. An eclectic reader, I never quite shut the door on any type of genre, but I tended to avoid the very real, kid-centered, “normal” stories that are often hoisted off on middle-schoolers.

I wanted stories that took me somewhere different.

I read science fiction so that I could imagine other worlds and other creatures when I stretched out on the patio in the backyard, my dog by my side and no street lights to obscure the stars tumbling out across the sky. I read historical fiction and biographies so I could slip away from the banality of my days and into the fresh and alien challenges of life decades or centuries ago. I read fantasy because I wanted to know magic when it encroached on the sameness of life in a small town. I was sure that magic would someday show up in my life.

Left to my own wanderings through these worlds (and the freedom to roam the real neighborhoods of my hometown), I developed an irreverence for boundaries. Anyone’s yard was everyone’s yard, and abandoned cotton gins were simply high-risk playgrounds. As soon as I was told what creek, highway, or railroad track I couldn’t cross, I knew where I had to go. As soon as I was told what I shouldn’t read—books that were “too old” for me or “unladylike” or “books for boys”—I set out to get my hands on them. I had to explore what was on the other side. I had to see what I wasn’t supposed to see. I wanted to be what I wasn’t supposed to be.

When I went to college, I realized that despite my imaginative adventuring, my knowledge of the world was still provincial, defined by what others had deemed important. By happenstance (or by some of that magic I knew would one day come into my life), I grabbed Maya Angelou’s ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’ from the shelves of the university library. I knew nothing about it or her. The library copy had no author info. I had no idea it was an autobiography. It just found me. And I fell in love.

And then I got pissed.

Why hadn’t anyone ever told me about this book? As I learned more about Angelou, I grew livid at the failure of my otherwise excellent teachers. Why hadn’t they taught me about her? She was an Arkansan after all! Why didn’t I know more about African American culture? My guess was that such things seemed irrelevant to a room full of rural, middle-class, white kids who were expected to grow up, get a job (maybe after “some” college), get married (if they weren’t already), and settle down in the area.

But they were wrong—the teachers and the assumptions they made. I needed Maya Angelou like a person needs water.

These early lessons shaped me as a writer. My first serious efforts at writing fiction tended to focus on stories closer to home because I followed the conventional wisdom of “write what you know.” But I found that even in familiar times and places, I gravitated toward the unfamiliar. My “home” stories were all about the unknown—the feelings and people and experiences and creatures that defied efforts to tag and tether them into the places “where they belonged.”

As my courage as a writer grew, so did my scope. I translated “write what you know” into “write what you know to be true”—authentic characters wrestling with authentic feelings having authentic experiences and dealing with authentic consequences. This was a lens that widened my understanding as a storyteller rather than boxed me in to the limits of my own past or present.

When my protagonist, Mouse, led me into 13th Century Bohemia, I was eager to go, though I had no idea what to expect. I just understood that someone had drawn an invisible line that separated “East” from “West,” and Czechia (formerly the Czech Republic) was on the “other” side. The side that my Westernized education deemed irrelevant. I knew I had to go.

I was once again rewarded for ignoring a boundary. What a rich culture and time! In the 13th century, the Czechs were leading the world with progressive ideas about education, art, architecture, and laws to protect against ethnic discrimination. Their king, Ottakar II, challenged feudal notions of how to value a human life. I spent nearly a year researching the time and the place and the people. Crossing that boundary into the unknown, I felt like I’d come home.

And I was eager to share what I’d learned with others like me who might want to know what was on the other side, to see what the world looked like in places too often ignored, to imagine being something more or different than what they were told to be.

As much as I love crossing a line—be it creek or highway or forbidden book—my responsibility as a writer is to the story first and always. Fortunately, Mouse hates boundaries as much as I do, and where she leads, I follow. In my latest novel, ‘BOOK OF THE JUST’, she seeks refuge with a tribe of indigenous people in the outback of Australia. We also go to Eritrea in Africa and to far-flung corners of Russia—all places distinctly not Western, not rural America, not small-town Arkansas.

Mouse’s wanderlust comes from never quite belonging anywhere, never living up to what people expect of her; she gets restless and then moves on. I’m still searching for magic. But the funny thing about magic—even when you get a taste, it leaves you hungry for more.

 

 

 

 

Dana Chamblee Carpenter (credit: Shelby M’lynn)

Dana Chamblee Carpenter is the author of “Book of the Just,” the third novel in The Bohemian Trilogy. Carpenter’s award winning short fiction has also appeared in The Arkansas Review, Jersey Devil Press, Maypop, and, most recently in the anthologies, “Dead Ends: Stories from the Gothic South,” and “Killer Nashville Noir: Cold Blooded.” She teaches at a university in Nashville, TN where she lives with her husband and two children. Visit her at http://www.danachambleecarpenter.com/.

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