Carolyn Holbrook Q&A

August 3, 2020
Carolyn Holbrook is a pioneering Minnesota author.

“I learned to involve my children in my work and my writing life. I taught them how to type and proofread, and they were able to help me in our home-based secretarial service. And I took them with me to meetings and classes at the community center. There, they could write side by side with me.”

When did you decide this collection of pieces could be a book?

Initially, I had planned to write a memoir. But as I kept writing the essays that appear in my book, I couldn’t figure out how to fit them together into a logical sequence. A couple years ago, while I was putting together a pitch for the Loft’s Pitch conference, my friend Diane Wilson (author of Spirit Car: Journey To a Dakota Past) described my manuscript as a memoir in connected essays. Suddenly, I realized indeed, that was the form I was writing in.

You write about your time as a pregnant and incarcerated 16-year-old. Was it difficult to access those memories?

Those memories live with me, they are a part of my being. I have always believed there is a healing power in telling one’s story. Back in 1981 when I created the Whittier Writers’ Workshop in a south Minneapolis community center, I was able to begin taking writing classes. I also read books and articles that confirmed that the relief I often experienced when I explored a painful memory through writing, was real. I highly recommend Louise DeSalvo’s Writing As a Way of Healing, as well as books and articles on the topic by Dr. James Pennebaker.

You built a career while raising five children as a single mother. How were you able to develop your writing voice while tending to all the demands of parenthood?

It certainly wasn’t easy. One way was to write about the funny things my children said and did. I was encouraged when those short essays became an award-winning column in our neighborhood newspaper. Another way was to involve the children in my work and my writing life. I taught them how to type and proofread, and they were able to help me in our home-based secretarial service. And I also took them with me to meetings and classes at the community center. There, they could write side by side with me.

When your book opens you are visited by Liza, an ancestor, who implores you “to tell our story.” How often would you receive guidance from Liza?

Liza only visited me once, the time I write about in the prologue. Tell Me Your Names and I Will Testify is my response to her command.

You wrote about the teachers in your life, from your eighth grade English teacher Miss Johnson to Natalie Goldberg. Does it feel good to know you have had a similar impact on students?

It feels wonderful. Through their examples, Ms. Johnson and my juvenile probation officer, Ms. Grace Cederstrand, taught me to look beyond the package a student may present when they come into your presence. They taught me to see that there is often much more to that student than a surly attitude. I will always remember how they impacted me and I try to pass that love and trust down to my students whether at Hamline, or a community college or the Loft.

You do a wonderful job explaining Minnesota Nice. Do you feel like the community is finally ready to have some real talk on race?

I truly hope so! Several white acquaintances, including a couple of medical professionals, experienced an awakening through the George Floyd incident and what followed. It warms my heart is that they are taking the initiative to educate themselves rather than putting the onus on me to teach them about the pervasive racism that exists here in Minnesota and across our nation.

How has your writing changed through the years?

I suppose that like anyone else who practices something for a long time, I have learned to look more deeply into the issues I write about, and to write more skillfully.

You are a master at writing scenes. Do you feel like setting scenes is the cornerstone for most narrative writing?

For me, it is important to allow the reader to feel like they are having a conversation with the author, or that they are a part of the story they are reading. Writing a good scene can accomplish that.

You were the first person of color to hold a leadership position at the Loft and you wrote about how your opinions were often dismissed. How did you absorb this?

It was a toxic environment back then and I didn’t know how to handle it. What helped was that during my tenure at the Loft, I developed life-long friendships with many writers in our community. But the environment eventually wore me down and I became physically ill. The Loft is far more open now. I enjoy my current relationship with them.

What is next in your writing life?

Not sure. I may go back to a novel I started a long time ago. I’ve also been playing around with poetry.

You started SASE: The Write Place in 1993 to make the literary arts accessible to a diverse community. How does the community look to you in 2020?

I believe our community is much more open now. There are several other organizations founded or managed by writers in the communities of color; TruArt Speaks, Tru Ruts, Black Table Arts, and the Saint Paul Almanac, to name a few. There is also my current organization, More Than a Single Story, which I founded six years ago as a series of panel discussions and public conversations where indigenous and people of color writers and arts activists discuss issues of importance to us in our own words and in own voices. One of our major goals is to provide a forum for cross-cultural understanding. The Loft is also more accessible now through the Equilibrium program and its classes for writers of color. They also employ more diverse teachers for their regular slate of classes. I regularly teach at the Loft now.