Part II of my interview with Sonja Livingston continues our discussion of her new book, The Virgin of Prince Street: Expeditions into Devotion. We talk feminism and the need for human connection in faith. Sonja also offers her take on teaching students of writing–and the rest of us–to “notice what’s not being talked about,” and fills us in on what she’s writing, right now. (Missed Part I of the interview? Find it here.)
Sonja, as if writing about faith and devotion weren’t a hard enough sell in today’s fairly secular literary world, you’ve noted before that as a professor of writing, students often bristle at the use of the “R word,” religion. How do you encourage your students or other writers to get past the initial bristling to explore their relationship with faith—or any other challenging aspect of identity?
I encourage students to write about what’s important to them. It doesn’t matter if it’s important to me, their mothers, their best friends, their social media followers. This is so simple, but it’s tough.
It used to be that writing about issues related to abuse, trauma, and sexuality was especially risky, but those subjects have become standard fare in nonfiction writing workshops these days. In other words, what’s hard to open up about today is not the same as a decade ago. And what we’ll be afraid to speak (or write) in ten years will likely be different still. But I tell my students that this is where the power is. To notice what’s not being talked about, what subjects make us feel shame or small or tender. This might be something as big as religion or spirituality, but it might also be relatively minor, like the TV show character you’re obsessed with or the voice message you keep on your phone and listen to when you are alone. I remind students that whether we write about religion or our crush from 7th grade, HOW we write is at least as important as WHAT we write. Keeping the focus on the process helps writers to see that any topic tackled honestly and with humility and curiosity can be the stuff of powerful writing.
In one of the essays in your book, “Act of Contrition,” you journey to southern Louisiana to meet the priest who has converted an old ambulance into a mobile confessional, what he calls a Spiritual Care Unit. The priest drives around through Cajun country, offering the sacrament to the Catholics in the area. With the pandemic, local churches around the country have gotten creative—streaming Mass and even doing drive-through confessions. Through your own devotional journey, how do you reconcile all that hasn’t changed in our very traditional Church with all that could or should?
This is such a good question. It’s maybe THE question. Of course, I have opinions about what should change in the Church and I tend be friends with people who hold similar opinions, so they become pretty firmly entrenched. But I also understand that our opinions don’t actually change much. I don’t mean to sound pessimistic. I can (and do) write what I love about the liturgy or a good priest or an old prayer—and even, at times, criticize what seems so blatantly wrong—but ultimately, the Church has shown itself unconcerned with popular opinion and is even dying, in many places, rather than change. I suppose, on some level, I believe that people have a profound need for reverence. Wow. This is a very long way of answering the question! Basically, I try to find balance between my opinions and letting things be, while trusting in the human need for meaning and connection and hoping that this very difficult phase for traditional religion will lead to some sort of rebirth.
I love a detour essay, and “A Brief History of Prayer,” is a great example of that. On a trip to visit a monastery in Georgia, you instead end up succumbing to a desire to see the ocean and wind up in North Carolina’s Outer Banks. The essay is a lyrical, historical exploration of the Wright Brothers’ flight punctuated by notes on the history of prayer—and your own imagining of what might have been the first prayer, “the moment Adam first saw Eve.” What follows is my favorite passage in the book:
…and perhaps because one of his bones had been recently stolen, the cage over his heart had loosened and freed up space for the first prayer to launch from his still-tender chest.
Here, Eve is being looked upon, as we look upon our statues of Mary. We talk a lot about gazing and gazes in literary criticism and in feminist works. Do you think of yourself as a feminist? If so, how does your writing and your Mary fit in?
This is such an interesting question, because, of course, both Eve and Mary are gazed upon—gazing upon Mary is a Catholic tradition, in fact. That said, I do consider myself a feminist. In that section (and thank you for your kind words!) Eve is both an object of enthrallment and the source of essential action as I imagined circumstances for the first human prayer. I suppose I was using Eve (and Adam) to look at the various occasions when humans tend to pray—usually times of tremendous fear and love and desperation.
I’m also thinking that gazing at Mary is more than merely gazing at a pleasing female figure. It is, in some ways, a meditative act. Catholics don’t tend to use this language because it sounds too Eastern or New Agey—but, like candles and incense, a holy image can help center and focus our attention as we pray/meditate.
I have to also admit that while I now see Mary as a figure of peace and love, I rejected poor Mary for years because she seemed such an anti-feminist symbol. As a young woman I was embarrassed by what I saw as tacky Marian displays and a submissive girlish figure. My mother had a bathtub Virgin once and I was not a fan. Now I wish I could go back in time. I’d bring a buckets of pink flowers and plant them at her feet.
In your memoir and in this book, you explore the physical space of your church—a second home to you as a child. We Catholics have been away from our physical places of worship for a couple months now. How is that for you?
It’s been really tough. I’m answering some of these questions on a Sunday after trying and failing to Zoom into Mass. My church has limited resources and the technology isn’t consistently up to snuff. But even when I do manage to connect on Zoom, it’s nice, of course to see people and hear the prayers, but the physicality that is so important is simply not there. Not only the church, but the statues, the ability to receive Communion. I’ve found myself starting to light candles and sit still at home or listen to music and talk softly with my husband every night before bed. It’s not prayer exactly, but the time is sacred and has made the isolation not only bearable but even beautiful at times.
In your memoir, Ghostbread, you worked against the stereotype that says a girl who looks like you can’t be impoverished, can’t live in a slum. I feel like in this book you’re working against the stereotype that says an educated, reasonable person can’t also be a person of faith—that we can’t hold worldly intelligence and mystery at the same time. You write: “Devotion alone may not translate to transformation…But it’s equally true that many of us have been too quick to dismiss it as an essential entry point in our attempt to build meaningful lives.” Thank you for letting this reader in on your journey! What are you working on now? What are you reading?
That’s such a smart way of framing things! I hadn’t quite thought of it that way. But yes, a lot of my writing is about letting people know what can’t be seen or known on the surface of things. I often use a writing prompt with my students that asks them to make a list of things that others can’t tell about them simply by looking at them. The lists are always rich. And you are right on about this book. It was about exploring/challenging that apparent dichotomy (between education and faith) for myself and others.
As for what I’m reading: I just found Max Porter’s Grief is the Thing With Feathers and Fever Dream by Samantha Schweblin. Both are very short experimental novels which interest me because I’m working on a very short experimental novel set in Niagara Falls, New York. In fact, I started on the novel before writing these essays. It deals with similar questions—about tradition, religion, family— in a much more embodied way. My main character is a pregnant teen who shows up to her old aunt’s house. The question is what she’ll do about the pregnancy but the action centers around their planning of a communal feast celebrated in certain regions of the U.S., including western New York. So basically, I’m still writing about gritty cities and tradition and what it means to break bread together—how we might find and love each other even as things fall apart.
For more about Sonja Livingston and her latest book, The Virgin of Prince Street: Expeditions into Devotion, follow the links. Sonja’s first book, Ghostbread, won an AWP Book Prize for Nonfiction and has been adopted for classroom use around the nation. Sonja’s two other essay collections, Ladies Night at the Dreamland and Queen of the Fall, combine history, memory and imagination to illuminate the lives of girls and women. Her writing has been honored with many awards and her essays appear in outlets such as Salon, LitHub, The Kenyon Review, America, Sojourners and are anthologized in many textbooks on creative writing. Sonja is a popular speaker and is currently an associate professor of English at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond and teaches in the Postgraduate Program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She is married to the artist Jim Mott and splits her time between New York State and Virginia. Find her here: https://www.sonjalivingston.com/
For Part I of my interview with Sonja, click here.
Quotes and bio pulled from the author’s book and website.