Lucille Clifton: A Special Section
This interview was conducted August 2, 1998, by telephone between Charlottesville, Virginia, and Columbia, Maryland.
I would like to begin this interview with your memoir Generations, which was published in 1976. Why did you write Generations? What is its origin? What set you in motion to write it?
Well, I had been thinking about it for a long time. I was thinking about the stories my father used to tell about his family. And I knew that his memory was an interesting story. It was interesting to me. Plus I felt very fortunate in knowing the name of the ancestor—of one of them—who came from Africa, because we don’t usually know that, you know, and because she came so late in the slave trade. 1830 was quite late, in fact. And so I wanted to write the stories down, but I never knew how to do it. I thought about it a long time. The editor of Generations was Toni Morrison. Toni was very helpful in suggesting perhaps that I might want to talk into a tape recorder and orally tell some of these stories. And that was a great help in getting me started on how to do it.
Will you say more about the process of writing it? You said you talked into a tape recorder . . .
I talked a lot of it into a tape recorder, yes. In any memoir the major problem, I think—and especially in tracing families—is not in what to say but how to select, just as memory is selective. So you start hearing about this one and then you hear about a cousin—do you know what I mean?—and you try to select the direct vine that you’re going to tell about. I think that’s when I thought that I might center it on my father’s death. And then, remembering the people, especially the one for whom I was named, because I was going to be named Georgia. My father’s mother was named Georgia, and so was my mother’s mother. So it seemed natural, I guess, to name me Georgia as well; but my daddy, I think when I was born, decided that Georgia wasn’t the right name for me. Lucille is my middle name. But I’ve never been called by my first name. I was named for my mother Thelma. I have never been called Thelma in my life. My mother didn’t care for her name and that’s when my father decided that Lucille would be the name I was known by. Anyway, I talked into a tape recorder and then I had an outline. I wrote some of the stories down because my way of doing it is [End Page 56] very oral. My way of knowing how to string words together depends a lot on hearing the music of the language, the flow of the language, and all of that, in poetry as well as in prose. So Toni [Morrison] was helpful with that.
It is such a joy to read memoir. You wrote yours before this new rage for the memoir. Reading yours now is refreshing. It is not a tell-all-about-my-pathologies like so many of the recent memoirs. Yours is different from those. Yours is a prose poem focusing on ancestry and identity. Yours is lyrical prose. Will you talk about the form of Generations?
I do think that it is clearly prose written by somebody whose major way is poetry. It’s spare, so it’s in my style in that it’s spare—I hope it’s lyrical. I think that I must pay a tribute to Toni Morrison as an editor, because her inclination in writing is so opposite mine. She writes ornately, you know; she puts things in. I take things out all the time. And I think that it is a tribute to her, as an editor, that she edited this book, and was able to edit someone whose inclination is not the same as hers is in...