Interview

How Memoirist Julia McKenzie Munemo Reckoned With Her Family’s Racist History

When her memoir, The Book Keeper, launched on January 14, 2020, Julia McKenzie Munemo did not know that exactly two months later, when the lockdown began and the world shuttered against the Covid-19 pandemic, her book tour would come to an abrupt halt. Neither could she have anticipated that the deaths of three Black Americans—Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and George Floyd—would spark public outcry and prompt a long overdue national conversation about systemic racism that would make all the more urgent the threads of privilege and race that weave into the pages of her story.

In the prologue of The Book Keeper, Munemo describes with careful precision a snapshot that hangs on her fridge: a dated polaroid of her family dressed up for a wedding. She begins with their clothing—the matching seersucker suits on her two young boys, her “fabulous” rust-colored dress, her husband’s tie the same shade paired with a dark grey suit—and she details the backdrop and lighting. Only then does she zoom in on the fact that she is white, her husband is black, and her boys are mixed race. It is this fact, she tells us, that will explain why what follows in the rest of the book means so much to her. It’s a gentle introduction to a deeply complex story that begins with Munemo finally reading the stack of pulp fiction novels characterized as “slavery porn” her father wrote under various pseudonyms before his death by suicide when she was five. In interrogating the layers of this unwanted legacy, Munemo confronts a family past that intertwines with the narratives of her marriage and the fear-laced reality of raising black-bodied boys in America.

With clear-eyed, incisive prose, Munemo guides us on her often painful, powerfully transformative pilgrimage to unearth long-buried roots in order to trace the contours of the person she is now. Entwined in that inquiry that centers on race are converging themes of grief and loss, mental illness and shame, and, ultimately, forgiveness and love. The Book Keeper adds another intelligent voice to the broader cultural discussion on the barriers to racial progress in this country. In this interview, Munemo shares the evolution of this timely story and what the path to its completion taught her along the way.

 

MB: So much of the personal story that you’ve revealed in the pages of The Book Keeper resonates in this current cultural moment. Across this nation, we are confronting in new ways the difficult realities of what it means to be white and what it means to be black in the United States. Did you set out to tackle these issues with this book and how did it feel to publish it during this time?

 

JMM: At first, I was just trying to understand my grief. As a child, I didn’t know how to grieve my dad. I was raised in a family that didn’t talk much about it. As an adult—and a writer—I was trying to figure out how to. That process, and some very early form of this book, started in 2002, when my husband, Ngoni, and our first son, Julius, were living in Zimbabwe. I was suddenly in the bosom of this family for whom grief was just part of the fabric. The people who had died were spoken about all the time. We visited their graves. People cried openly, or sang, or prayed. I had never seen anything like it. So the first piece I wrote—and I didn’t think of it as anything but writing an experience I’d had—was about visiting Ngoni’s father’s grave. My motivation was to understand what had happened to me there. I realized I was grieving, but for someone I’d never met. It took some time to see that of course I wasn’t grieving for Ngoni’s father, I was grieving for my own. So my initial motivation for writing anything was always about my dad, though there were some early threads about being part of an interracial marriage and having a mixed race child, about being white in Africa. The aspect about my dad’s books didn’t come in until much later.

Fast-forward to 2014 when I was working on my MFA. In November of that year, Tamir Rice was killed by a police officer in a park gazebo; he was playing with a toy gun. He was a twelve-year-old boy. Julius was about to turn twelve. That was the first moment—and it came really late—that I started to understand that my children are vulnerable in this country. That prompted me to foreground race in my work, and The Book Keeper started to take shape more seriously. I realized then that I had to read the books I’d been hiding in my closet for ten years. Once I realized what a resource my dad’s books were—they could help me understand my legacy and my race, I pulled them out of hiding and started reading.

I am so heartbroken that this book feels more pertinent now than it did when I finished the initial manuscript in 2016. A chapter was excerpted in Public Seminar last June, and I was so honored to be included in that journal, which works at the forefront of so many important current ideas. But what I felt more than pride in being selected was just this sense of total heartbreak. This sense of: we’re never going to get out of this. We’re just cycling through. I feel such sadness at how divided we are as a country, and in my darkest moments I feel hopeless about anything ever changing.

 

MB: There have been many stark, and sometimes divisive, conversations in the literary world about white writers taking on the themes of race and identity in their work. How did those conversations inform your process? Were there particular challenges or considerations that emerged along the way?

 

JMM: I think in this question about who has permission to write about race, there’s an assumption that when we say we’re writing about “race,” what we mean is that we’re writing about “blackness” or “brownness.” But “whiteness” is also race, so we’re all writing about race all the time. The idea that white writers aren’t writing about race every day is ridiculous, and it elides the power race plays in all our lives. So that conversation informed my work in that it reminded me to own my race at every turn. If I’m not aware of the role my race plays, then my lack of awareness gets me in a fair amount of trouble, right? So, I had to ask myself how my critique of my father’s approach—he was a white Jew writing from the perspective of black slaves—applied to me. I wanted to be careful not to do the same thing, but it’s tricky. What gives me the right to write this book? That it’s my story, sure. But it’s not only my story. So, I had to question my own race and privilege at every turn. And I made some missteps! I made some serious missteps, which is pretty common among whites in America. The question is, did I own those missteps?

I realized I couldn’t just point my finger and say, “Well, my dad is the one who fucked it all up.” I had to interrogate myself and my own motivations. It’s not easy to turn the microscope around and investigate your own role and complicity in racism, but the only way I could write this book was to dig as deeply into that as I could. It’s not as though there’s some “And then, therefore, I am enlightened!” or “I’ve overcome whiteness!” There’s no end goal, but I had to be on the journey to understanding my race so that by the end of the book I could at least understand it better. And my hope is that in doing it on the page, readers can relate to it.

Sometimes we forget that the more specific a story is, the more universal it feels to the reader. So while none of my readers probably had dads who wrote slavery porn, maybe they can still see themselves in the journey I went on. That’s the hope, anyway. And that can’t happen if critiques about who is allowed to write about race mean that no one writes anything. 

 

MB: By starting the story with the day you first open one of your father’s novels, you allow the reader to take the journey with you of unpacking your family’s past—not only the racism in your father’s books, but the mental illness that eventually led to his suicide. The discoveries are often painful and their implications collide with many of the realities of your life now. How did you cope with the difficult emotions that traveling into this territory stirred up and how did it feel to get to the other side of that trek?

 

JMM: It’s tough to quantify what it was like. Writing is how I understand what’s happening to me, and so on one hand it was hard, but on the other hand, I didn’t have a choice. I couldn’t not do it. I had to continue to explore both my own thinking and my own emotions, and the only way I could do that was by writing. I turned it into a kind of quest, which made it feel like I had some control over it. It made it feel almost like a job, which gave me permission to do the things I was really scared to do. If I hadn’t given myself assignments, I never would have read my dad’s books or asked for his medical records or the police report of the day he died. The project gave me permission to go do the hard things, because if I’m writing a book about it, I have to do all of that, right? It helped me stop identifying as the grieving daughter, and gave me some professional cover to do the work.

What surprised me the most was that I survived it. I have this book, and I can point to it and say, “I did that.” When I started writing it in earnest, when I knew what I was really doing, I didn’t think I had the strength to look at my father—especially at his mental illness and his death. I didn’t think I had the authority or the chops to write about whiteness and race. I didn’t think I had anything to add to the conversation. I didn’t have any faith in my own capacity or ability to do those things. But doing them was the task I had set for myself. I had given myself this job and this deadline and I was getting this MFA, so I had to. But I never really believed I could do the work, or survive the emotional journey and come out stronger. Which is, of course, what everyone tells you is going to happen, but I didn’t believe it would. So there’s a way in which I’ve found peace. I said what I had to say, I feel like I said it pretty well and I’m proud of what it does as a book. I’ve wanted to tell my father’s story since I was a little kid, and I’ve missed him my whole life—even if he was a racist hack. So throughout the writing process, I got to feel like I was living with my dad. Like he was here. My relationship with him was changing for the first time in my life. “Resolution” feels like too strong a word—but I feel like I have found a sort of peace with who my father was, and I’m not angry at him the way I used to be. I can garner that sort of academic anger, like, “How could you do this thing for a living?” but it doesn’t feel like the betrayal I felt when I first found those books.

 

MB: Although you had to cut short the in-person events for your book’s release because of the pandemic, you’ve had the opportunity to hold Zoom readings and events, visit virtual classes, and interact with audiences via our new socially-distant modes of connecting. How have readers responded to your story and what has been particularly important about those responses?

 

JMM: As most writers do, I think, I worried about the haters. I was afraid there were going to be people who were angry at me as a white person talking about the complicity of whiteness in this society. I was ready for the haters, but they didn’t come out. I didn’t get the negative reactions I expected. Overall, there has been very positive feedback.

People I did not expect to hear from appeared in my life. A couple friends of my dad’s came across the book and reached out to give me new details about him, which added more layers to my understanding of his life. The wife of an estranged family member I hadn’t seen since childhood saw the book somewhere and recognized my middle name and said, “I wonder if this is someone my husband knows.” He read the book and wrote a very sweet Goodreads review, and now we’re back in touch after thirty years.

My husband always knew what I was writing, but he didn’t actually read it until very close to the end. I think he worried about how I would represent his family, so despite always being incredibly supportive of my process, he resisted knowing what the end result was. When he read it and felt accurately portrayed, when he thanked me for portraying his family accurately and with respect, I felt like I had climbed Mount Everest.

What I have found most meaningful is when readers of color, and black people specifically, support the book or feel that they found an ally in the work—that is a crossing of the divide. There’s a fictional town in one of my dad’s books, Divide, Wyoming. It’s a book about a black cowboy making his home in a white town after the Civil War—and the book is problematic in all kinds of ways. But the metaphor of that town was a beacon as I was writing, and the working title of the book was, for a while, Divide. And that’s my biggest hope for this book. That is helps us cross the divide.

 

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