Q&A: On Triumphing Over a Dysfunction-Filled Childhood in Rural Arkansas


The following article first appeared in The National Book Review:

Rashod Ollison, a music critic and cultural writer, is the author of Soul Serenade: Rhythm, Blues & Coming of Age Through Vinyl, a memoir of a difficult childhood in rural Arkansas, recently published by Beacon Press. Ollison answered questions about the book, his early days, his sexuality, and cooking from Eileen Hershenov.

1. Soul Serenade is about a very difficult, often traumatic, childhood in which you faced obstacle after obstacle - almost unbearable loneliness and abandonment (both emotional and physical), evictions, poverty, and years of well-placed fears about revealing your sexuality. Why did you want to tell this story?

I initially thought that maybe I would appropriate parts of my childhood for a novel. But it ended up being a memoir written like one, the better to give the reader a visceral feel for what life was like for me in central Arkansas in the 1980s and '90s. There was a lot to process about my childhood. I had begun to see how some of that trauma and abandonment was still lingering in my adult life, affecting new relationships and definitely warping the lens through which I viewed those new relationships. I figured to heal myself I needed to go back and revisit that story.

The act of writing - at least for me - has always been therapeutic. So writing this book was a journey to healing.

I didn't think it would ever be published. But I had no problem sharing my story once a publisher expressed interest in it. Others have gone through the same or much worse. Also, I felt I couldn't write any other book until I wrote this one.

2. Reading this book was heartbreaking to me as a mother, because even those adults (mostly women) who physically sustained you as a child or gave you encouragement never seemed to give you love. No one ever seems to have ever put their arms around, and held, this grief-stricken little boy who desperately missed his father and longed for some emotional softness from his mother. Has writing this book and speaking about it helped you come to terms with that abandonment and figure out what being a man means for you?

Those emotionally armored women in my life, especially my mother, were unable to give affection in that way, or they chose not to. The best they could do was to keep me alive. They had been traumatized and abandoned girls, especially my mother and her sister, Phyl, and their mother. So it was this perpetual cycle of pain and dysfunction.

Even as a child, I knew this behavior wasn't "normal" per se. I knew that my feelings of intense isolation weren't because there was something inherently wrong with me.

Maybe it was a narcissism I had; I don't know. But I figured I couldn't have been the problem. As the old Dinah Washington song goes, I was a "stranger on Earth." Fortunately, I had teachers and, later, a church family who saw some value in me. They offered hugs and smiles and words of encouragement that I never received from my family - and still don't.

As for how all of that shaped me into the man I am today, I had to learn, and still have to remember, to try not to give back the pain and grief I knew - or the pain and grief I can imagine.

3. What was your mother's reaction to your portrayal of her as emotionally harsh or absent?

I don't believe Mama saw herself as harsh or absent. She saw herself as a provider, and that was the best she could do. Whatever sting she may feel from her portrayal in the book (and I worked hard to lovingly show her as fully human, warts and all) she hasn't shared that with me. She is, however, very proud to see her gorgeous 19-year-old self on the cover. She also told me that she hopes the book "promotes some healing in the family."

4. What were your major literary influences in writing Soul Serenade? Were you influenced by any other memoirs and in particular by any memoirs from African-American writers?

I wasn't influenced by any memoirs. The more popular ones I'd come across by black men generally followed the same kind of narrative arc - traumatic childhood, dark young manhood full of inane and sometimes incriminating decisions, and then a redemptive end. They also often addressed and confronted the white gaze, which I wasn't at all interested in doing.

I wanted to tell my story from the inside out, as it were, to place myself and the reader into the world I knew - to bring all that funk, music and ugly beauty to life without the need to offer explanations and certainly no apologies. The directive was what my creative writing professors used to tell us in college: "show, don't tell."

I wanted to render inelegant circumstances and people in elegant language. So I looked to Toni Morrison, my literary hero, whose classic, The Bluest Eye, was a strong influence. I also studied the early poems of Gwendolyn Brooks and "Thomas and Beulah," the 1987 Pulitzer-winning poetry collection by Rita Dove.

Women writers usually write from the inside out, peppering their narratives with cultural specificities that draw the reader closer to the humanity of the story. I wanted to do that with "Soul Serenade."

5. The absence of black fathers and a "culture of poverty" in many African American communities has been a theme many have spoken about, from President Obama to Bill Cosby. (In your interview with Cosby some years ago, pre-scandal, you and he talked a bit about these issues and he told you that the strict routine of school, studying and working you had by the time you were 14 was in fact the "nurturing" you received from the women around you, which in turn helped keep you from getting in trouble, or worse.) With such high unemployment and incarceration of (younger) black men, among other things, the lack of black fathers continues to be a gaping hole in so many children's lives. How did your own experience shape your thinking about this? How do you look back on these women -- your attitude toward them at the time, and your attitude now?

The way I processed my situation - escaping into music and the humanities in order to form an identity - won't necessarily work for every abandoned black boy and girl out there. The culture of poverty and the absence of fathers in black communities have been talked about ad nauseam, but you rarely hear any discussions about ways to heal.

Even if your father is in the home, depending on the type of man he is, it may be best for the child that the father not be in his life at all. The same can be said for a woefully trifling mother.

Children need stability and resources and loving, consistent engagement. They need a trustworthy adult whose face lights up when he or she enters the room. Children need to be respected. They need to know without a doubt that someone gives a shit about their well-being, including their physical and psychological health; that they're not a distraction or an object. Children are very intuitive; they always know when they're being played.

The broken people responsible for raising me gave me life-affirming gifts despite their dysfunction and abandonment. The few times he was around, my father always told me in his own way that being black is not a burden, despite what the rest of the world will try to make me believe. And I believed him, so I didn't grow up with the racial self-loathing thing I see in so many black folks learned and otherwise. My mother and other women in my life taught me a strong work ethic: Nobody will help you until you help yourself first.

My attitude toward those women now is that I love them for keeping me alive and doing the best they knew to do. I also have learned from their flaws and many missteps.

6. Why did you decide to end the book as you were getting ready to go to college? For example, you write about your sexuality, but in the book you don't reach the point in your life where you come out, to friends or family. On the one hand, the book felt complete in terms of your early life. On the other, it left me hanging, wondering how your family reacted, especially in light of the fact that they seemed fearful that you might be gay. Are you comfortable discussing that?

I was 18 at the end of the book, unsure of a lot but also very sure of a lot. I knew by then that I was gay and had accepted it for myself. My family certainly knew what was going on with my sexuality. Hell, if they didn't know for sure they certainly had a mighty strong hunch.

I had spent so much of my early life navigating chaos and constantly shielding myself from one belittling comment after another. By the end of the book, I had accepted that my family was incapable of or had chosen not to respect or engage my sensitive nature and budding intellect. (But it took me years and several very expensive therapy sessions to let go of the anger over that.)

Also at that point, with my father dead, I was eager to go out into the world and assert myself on my own terms. I had a full ride to a great college. All the things I needed to know about how to take care myself - how to cook, pay bills on time, etc. - I knew how to do.

My sexuality was/is my business, something I don't need my family to "bless," as it were. They know this and respect that. Besides, I never gave them much choice in the matter, because I absolutely will not tolerate any disrespect or bullshit from them about the life I've made for myself.

7. Your name means "gifted one" or "good guidance" in Arabic. Do you know why your parents named you Rashod? No one else in your family seems to have an Arabic name.

Someone told me the meaning of my name when I was teenager. Mama didn't have a clue what my name meant. She wanted an "R" name to match her initials: R.D.O. She chose "Rashod" from Ahmad Rashad, who was a footballer player at the time. (Mama changed the spelling; she figured it would be easier for folks to pronounce with an "o" instead of a second "a.") My middle name, Dustin, was suggested by a neighbor who was a Dustin Hoffman fan. No one else in my immediate family has an Arabic name.

8. You have said that music was your solace, confirmation, and validation as a child and that you started to find yourself in the music your father first introduced you to, before he left. It also provided you with a feeling of community that you have elsewhere bemoaned as missing in life now, since now everyone plugs into their own device, with headphones. What did you listen to as you wrote the book? How does music promote community in your life now?

I listened to a lot of vintage soul and jazz as I was writing the book. I started recollecting vinyl, too, haunting record shops the way I did back in the day with Daddy. Much of what I listened to in the four years I worked on the book was released before 1982.

The way the music now promotes a sense of community for me: I invite friends over for listening parties, something other vinyl-loving friends did when I lived in Baltimore. There's a different type of engagement when you're playing music in a tactile form. You have friends around to share the experience, to debate different songs and reminisce over them. I've been able to expose several friends to music that has meant a lot to me. And now they love it. Sharing the love - that's what it's all about.

9. In addition to music, you had cooking as a child growing up. You cooked for your family. Can you say something about the role that food and cooking has in your life now?

I love to cook. It's so relaxing and affirming. It's also the most intimate thing you can do for folks. The food you prepare will nourish them from the inside out, and we all have to eat.

Growing up, cooking initially was all about survival. I grew tired of Banquet frozen pot pies and Hamburger Helper.

I took cues from my paternal grandmother, who was such an elegant cook.

As I became better at it, I felt that cooking for my mother and sister was a way to show them I loved them.

As for now, I live alone and try to cook for myself as often as possible. It's a way I show that I love myself, I guess. But I also cook for friends whenever I can. When I travel to see them, I pack my seasonings and take over the kitchen soon after my arrival.

10. Reading Soul Serenade makes one think of the overused word "resilience." You went through experiences that many don't survive, or at least survive well enough so that they become a well-respected entertainment and music critic and the author of a well-received memoir. To what do you attribute your resilience and success?

I'm not at all a religious person, but I have to believe that some cosmic force somewhere had to be watching over me at various times. I do believe in the power of prayer, which is just a concentration of energy that recharges and refocuses you. As a spiritual person, I certainly welcome that.

Also as I was writing the book, I realized that I've never given myself an option to fail. Whatever I wanted to do - be a better cook, lose weight, make a living as a writer - I was going to do it, period. I studied creative writing and journalism in college. I didn't have a Plan B or C.

I knew early on, around the 10th grade, that I wanted to write about culture and art for a living. So it wasn't a matter of "if" but "when."

I attribute my resilience and success to remembering my beginnings, remembering being hungry, bored, lonely, dismissed and disengaged as a child. When I remember that, I make things happen for myself to assure that I won't have to go through that shit again. My past fuels my drive. So, in a way, it's something of a blessing - and maybe a curse.