“I live in the post apocalyptic shape shifting city known as Detroit,” says sci-fi writer adrienne maree brown, whose work examines how speculative fiction can critique society and spark social justice. Although Norma Smith doesn’t write strange or surreal fiction, her commitment to social justice led us, the AfroSurreal Writers (a collective focusing on how speculative fiction can transform the world), to invite her to read with us. Born in Detroit but raised in California, Norma Smith has been living in another visionary, activist city—Oakland—since the late 1960s. Norma says her “writing … has been the central activity of my life for more than sixty years, but/and being human in the world is more important. That is why it has taken me so long to publish a first collection of poems.” That first collection, Home Remedy (Nomadic Press, 2017), was released September 30.
ROCHELLE: I was born in Detroit and still have family there. Your essay “Generations” describes how your grandfather lost his job for punching someone after they played an anti-Semitic joke on him. Could you speak about Detroit, the tensions within its working-class communities, how that affected your outlook on life or your activism?
NORMA: My family (mother, father, older brother) and I moved from Detroit to Central California in 1948, when I was about 18 months old, so I have no memory of living in Detroit. What I know about the social dynamics of Detroit I learned from listening to family stories.
ROCHELLE: What did you learn from those stories?
NORMA: I’m sure it was both my grandmother’s love of books and the family stories about my grandfather and their circle of socialist and anarchist friends in Detroit that influenced who I became. My only direct memory of my grandfather—who died before I was six years old—was my experience of our building a picket fence together. I walked with him and handed him nails as he placed the boards. That memory is one of complete love and companionship.
As a young person, I listened and learned from my mother and from her stories of her family, including her father’s early activism in Russia. Her social circles were from her childhood membership in the Young Communist League in Detroit. I don’t believe she was ever a communist, a true believer in a workers’ revolution, but she did embrace an ideology that all people deserve respect and that it was her obligation to work toward the development of a society that would manifest that respect.
There’s a wonderful monograph by the sociologist Paul Mishler, called Raising Reds: The Young Pioneers, Radical Summer Camps, and Communist Political Culture in the United States (Columbia University Press, 1999). In the final chapter he makes the point that even those children who, as adults, moved away from explicitly leftist lives maintained vestiges of the ideals they were brought up with. I think this insight reflected my mother’s life and how she raised her children.
ROCHELLE: Did you grow up with money?
NORMA: I come from a mixed-class family. My dad described his mother as a peasant (not in the pejorative, but as his assessment of her background). She was never fluent in English. She spoke Yiddish and probably Polish, possibly some Russian. His father was a skilled manual laborer. After his stint on the assembly line, my grandfather had a plumbing shop with his brother in a Jewish neighborhood. When he moved to California in the 1950s to be near my family, he worked as a maintenance man in the California State building until he retired.
ROCHELLE: Your family liked to discuss politics?
NORMA: My mother’s family was from a class that, in Russia, called itself the intelligentsia. The thinking class; the theorizing class. My mother grew up in a household where people got together in evenings to talk politics and culture. This was a circle of communists, socialists, anarchists. More talk than direct action, I think, although my mother walked picket lines in defense of the anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti, who were framed and executed in the 1920s for murder; the Scottsboro Boys, Black youth who were falsely accused of rape in the 1930s; and, in the 1940s, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, accused of espionage.
During her youth, important artists and cultural figures stayed in her parents’ home when they were visiting Detroit. These included African American actor and operatic singer Paul Robeson and the great Indian writer Rabindranath Tagore, among others. From my knowledge of the politics and times, I imagine that this was because 1) those important figures were invited by—and accepted invitations from—left political groupings, and 2) during those years of racial and social segregation, they were not welcome in hotels that were open to the white public.
*Interviewers Note: Personal Hero alert—I LOVE me some Paul Robeson!
ROCHELLE: You write about being a child who was “not encouraged to ask questions,” but your essay “Generations” demonstrates a lot of intellectual curiosity.
NORMA: The fact that I was discouraged from asking questions probably caused me to not ask questions out loud. But maybe it encouraged me to keep those questions alive inside and build on them, to try to understand what I was observing, even if I didn’t feel safe asking for help from my family. I always had words. Sadly, it took leaving my family—getting enough distance—to develop my curiosity to a point where I could express it in conversation with others. I was pretty intentional in that: I knew that I wanted to learn to talk, and I’ve gotten better and better at it, I think. I was always a writer, but I’ve gradually become a pretty good talker as well. I value conversation.
My mother (from whom, as I write in that essay, I inherited a lack of confidence—because of her mother’s insensitivity and domination) had a brilliant sociological mind, and she did talk to me, almost constantly, about what she observed. That is how I learned to analyze and understand the social dynamics I was witnessing. I became a writer because I had things to say, had the words, in the right and beautiful order, but could not speak them out loud. My mother encouraged me to write. When she saw that I wasn’t going to speak, she gave me a journal to write in. That was when I was about 11. I had been writing poems since shortly after I learned to read, when I was six or seven.
ROCHELLE: There’s family history in your work. Do you hesitate to write these personal family histories or wonder how they will be received?
NORMA: I should probably hesitate more than I do. I write what comes to my page, then think later about how it may affect the people I write about.
I think it’s important to write “the unspeakable.” I believe that art is our source for unearthing and better understanding taboos. That is, issues that we are taught not to address. I think that this is necessary cultural work. I believe that we cannot solve problems until we name what is problematic. I’m sorry to wound individuals, but … it’s the role of good art to speak truth. Truth is sometimes painful. That’s the growing edge.
I try to be careful. I have recently added a line to a poem because I thought the piece might hurt someone who appears in the poem, and the poem became stronger for it, more compassionate.
I believe a role of writers, musicians, visual artists, performers, and all of what we could call “cultural workers” is to articulate what we see in society in a way that moves the audience, that makes them feel. Feel what it means to be alive, feel what it means to be someone they are not and will never be, feel what it means to be under threat.
ROCHELLE: Your poem “A Book That Looked Like a Gun” on the one hand explores police killings, but what’s the role of the writer—of books—when we have heartbreak and violence?
NORMA: I believe that the/a role of writers, musicians, visual artists, performers, and all of what we could call “cultural workers” is to articulate what we see in society in a way that moves the audience, that makes them feel. Feel what it means to be alive, feel what it means to be someone they are not and will never be, feel what it means to be under threat.
Another poem or story might help a reader remember what it feels like to be in love or to be furious at a lover or to be humiliated and recover from it. I want to move people—without being repulsively rhetorical—to act to save humanity. I want readers of “A Book That Looked Like a Gun” to feel unbearably sad and outraged and to take action. Show up at a demonstration, call your elected representative, support the people and organizations that are working to make this world livable. Feel deep grief and, if there is something to do about it, take actions.
Reading James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain changed my life. He made me understand things that I couldn’t know about, given where I came from. But there was a place in me that could receive his teaching.
ROCHELLE: “Waking” describes how you live a life that lacks the artifice of your mother’s. Then, in “Crow,” you write about parenthood and imagining your children growing “brilliant, beautiful/and kind.” Does each generation becoming freer than their parents?
NORMA: “Waking” reflects a feminist rhetoric of refusing to take care of others (“family they call themselves”) when that care-giving stifles one’s own selfhood.
I certainly believed what I wrote in “Waking,” and felt and feel it is important to express. But it does not express the only way I feel about cooking. I love to cook, to feed others. I learned cooking as a form of love and community from my mother, and I appreciate that, even though it was also a form of oppression in her life.
Was it during those very drives that I promised I would never harness myself to that kind of buckboard? I would never lead a family to the trough I had prepared for them, where they would ignore my presence unless I stopped shaking the grain bucket. If I stepped away from the stove for a moment, they would get restless, mill about. They would miss me if I missed a meal. That is, if I missed serving them a meal.
This is how “Waking” ends: I serve myself. My daughters watch me. I welcome them to the table. The day begins.
ROCHELLE: So are we freer now?
NORMA: I don’t think each generation necessarily becomes freer than their parents. I think the poem “Crow” suggests that loving our children may free us.
after Lisa D. Gray’s New Haven story of a child soldier
The collateral damage
is the damage.
Limbs flung from stunted arbors
that had every intention
of growing into an orchard
where they stood
Before street corners were street corners
they were paved over, before that, they were
cross roads, country lanes. Before that
There were cities
on another continent,
built and owned
by who peopled them.
Commerce was invented
and grew there
with each small brown boy
at the end of a day’s work.
our best selves.
We imagine them—face it—
And when we see them
as if we’ve found
something shiny, dark,
and like us
in our nest.
Norma Smith was born in Detroit, grew up in Fresno, California, and has lived in Oakland since the late 1960s. She worked for many years in hospitals and has also worked as a journalist, a translator, an educator, and as an editor and writing coach. Her work has been published in academic, political, and literary journals. She has served recently as a writer-in-residence and event organizer at Liminal: a Feminist / Womanist Writing Space. Home Remedy, Smith’s first book of poems, was published in 2017 by Nomadic Press.