Linda Michel-Cassidy

Bonnie Lee Black Interview


Bonnie Lee Black - On Journaling.

Bonnie Lee Black - On Writing about Events from the Past.


Bonnie Lee Black’s first memoir, Somewhere Child (Viking Press, 1981), was instrumental in the creation of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Her second memoir, How to Cook a Crocodile (Peace Corps Writers, 2010), about her Peace Corps service in Gabon, won a “Best in the World” award from Gourmand International in Paris, France, in March 2012. Linda Michel-Cassidy visited with Bonnie Lee Black in her home in Taos, New Mexico where, surrounded by Bonnie’s collection of African textiles and a cat who just wants to be in the movies, they discussed Bonnie’s lives in New York City, Africa, and Taos, as well as her writing life and the virtues of fearlessness.


In your essay, “Pompano,” you weave together events that prefaced your decision to apply to the Peace Corps at the age of 50. You had published an acclaimed memoir, Somewhere Child , had a career in writing and editing, and also a career in the culinary arts. I consider you to be an authority on transitions, and I also can empathize with what it means to move to the next logical step, even if that change might seem from an outsider’s vantage point to be rash or illogical. Talk if you will, about what it means to make such a leap.


I guess my philosophy is to change careers every ten years. So this is normal for me. But if I dig deeper, I think it comes from the fact that when I was a child, my father, who was an alcoholic, used to tell us all that we were stupid and good for nothing, when he was drunk. That stuck with me, and I’ve spent most of my life trying to prove him wrong. So I keep trying new things and trying to be as good at them as I can. So, yes, I like transitions. I like trying new things. I like testing myself. I like trying to do some good with the talents I’ve been given.


In “Pompano,” two potentially devastating events, horrorific treatment by a client, a serious medical scare and the subsequent surgery were catalysts for a move that I’m sure changed you forever. Do you remember the day before you left for your Peace Corps work?


I don’t remember the exact day, but I remember that period. I had had, as you said, a difficult client, and it was the last straw. Really. The straw that broke the camel’s back, to use a cliché, and I said, that’s it, that’s it, I’m ready for a big change. I saw an ad in the paper for the Peace Corps as I was drinking my morning coffee and looking at the New York Times. It said, “The Toughest Job You’ll Ever Love,” and it was just the right thing to say to me at the right time. I said, okay, that sounds good to me. That’s why I applied for the Peace Corps. I was 50 at the time I applied, and by the time I got shipped out, I was 51.


Once in Gabon, did you feel that your presence there was somehow inevitable?


Yes, I had lived in Southern Africa in my 20’s. I loved Africa then, and I always wanted to go back. That’s another reason the Peace Corps appealed to me. It was a way of getting back to Africa. So, yes, by the time I got to the place where they posted me, which was in Gabon, I said, yes, in my heart, this is where I should be. This is right for me. It felt right. And later, after the Peace Corps, when I moved to Mali, West Africa, my African women friends told me that they thought I was African in a former life. So that might explain the fact that I’ve always felt very much at home in Africa.


Tell us a bit about your writing practice while you were in Gabon and Mali. Was there time while you were in Africa to gather your thoughts and record them, or did you write later from pure recollection?


For both of my African memoirs, I relied heavily on my journal. I have kept a journal every day of my life. I live alone with my cat, and I write every day. About everything or anything. I did that in Africa as well. The fact is that there, there is so much more to say about new, exciting things. Everything is new. The air, the trees, the dust, the bugs, the heat. So I wrote it all down. If I didn’t have those notes, if I didn’t have those journals and photographs that I took and letters that I wrote to friends (this is before email, and I asked my friends to save my letters), if I didn’t have those, I would not have been able to write these books.


The Peace Corps and catering to wealthy clients shared a feature in that you were in a position of service. Still, the two could not be more in opposition. Did you find any commonalities between the two?


The commonality was me and my approach, I suppose. When I was a caterer in New York, people would say to me, “Why aren’t you fat? You’re in the food business. Why aren’t you overweight?” And my response would be that I’m a producer rather than a consumer. So I like to give, and I did that as a caterer, as a food professional in New York, and as a Peace Corps volunteer, too. So the two were very much alike, and I found it very gratifying in both cases for different reasons.


If all that weren’t plenty, you’re a creative writing teacher. You were, in fact, my teacher for two terms at a time when I was clunkily starting to investigate memoir and personal essay. I always recall the things you taught us, or I should say, guided us to figure out for ourselves about memory and truth. Say a few words, if you will, about the challenges and rewards about writing about events of the past, maybe even the distant past, particularly in situations where fact-checking is not possible and a writer has to rely on their own memory.


That’s an excellent question. I guess I would refer to my first memoir, Somewhere Child. I got an advance from Viking to do this book after I graduated from the writing program at Columbia University in New York. I was alone in my little studio for a year, trying to recall things that I did not have in journals. It was a little bit like… Well, first I would go out for a run. Then I would come home and take a shower and cry. Then I would make lunch. Then I would sit at my typewriter and cry. And I would say, I can’t do this, I can’t do this, I don’t know how to write a book. How did I get myself into this situation? Then, after I went through this process, I kind of made a breakthrough, in my own mind, because I knew that I had this book to produce within a certain period of time. It was a little bit like going down stairs into a basement in my mind. In that basement were trunks, and in those trunks were files. In those files were memories, and I could access that by this process. This concentrated process of knowing there was nowhere else to turn. I had to produce this book, and it was based on these memories. I found, miraculously, that in a pinch like that, you remember. You remember things that maybe you had tried to forget, painful things even. It was painful going through them the first time, and it’s painful going through them again in order to write about them, but that was a unique experience for me, to have that advance from the publisher so that I didn’t have to worry about work. This was my work, and I was able to take all of my mental, spiritual, emotional energy and get down those stairs to that basement in my mind where those memories were. I don’t think I’ve ever been able to do that again.


When you were at work on your later memoirs, How to Cook a Crocodile and How to Make an African Quilt, you already had a writing practice. Whereas Somewhere Child centered on events that happened in your childhood and early marriage, at a time when you weren’t yet a writer. I imagine you were coming at that earlier work from a different position, whereas with the latter two books, you had an ongoing practice established.


That’s right. That’s right. And the latter two books were happier stories. My first book is about my child being abducted. So it was painful. The next two books were about food and about quilting and about living in Africa happily. So the second two were my way of saying, you can go on, you can make a life after your heart has been shattered. They’re very different kinds of books, yes.


What was the most surprising food in Gabon?


In Gabon, the people eat something called manioc, which is cassava. Gabon is a rainforest. All of the good soil gets just pushed down into the rivers. Very poor soil. They don’t grow much there. I think 1% of the land is used for growing. So they grow manioc. It’s a tuber, and I think it would grow in cement. They pound it out, and they roll it up in banana leaves and then boil it, and they have these long batons. They call it a baton of manioc, and they love it. It’s their staple. I think it tastes like rubber, but… It’s an acquired taste.


What are you reading right now?


I am reading a beautiful biography of Ralph Ellison. I had read Invisible Man recently, for the first time I have to confess, and it’s a masterpiece. I’m not the first person to say that. As I was reading it, I kept thinking, how did he perform this miracle? This book is magnificent. How did he do it? He came from humble beginnings, and I said, I have to find out his story, and I googled and found this biography, and I’m loving it. The author is Arnold Rampersad. He writes brilliantly, and he has given me everything I wanted: how Ralph Ellison worked so hard to learn, to grow, to stretch, to strive, to become the writer that he wanted to be and he yearned to be. I’m in awe of him—of Ralph Ellison and of Arnold Rampersad for bringing him to life this way.


Linda Michel-Cassidy is an MFA candidate at the Bennington Writing Seminars. She has work in Motif V4: Seeking Its Own Level, Eleven Eleven, New Mexico Voices, The Review Review, and elsewhere. She received a scholarship to the New York State Summer Writers’ Institute, as well as to the Taos Summer Writers’ Conference, where she was the Resident Writer. She took her first creative nonfiction class from Bonnie Lee Black at UNM Taos.