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  • An Interview with Patricia Powell
  • Faith Smith (bio)

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Patricia Powell photo by Amanda Lowe.

The following dialogue took place on paper in March, 1996: Faith Smith gave a list of questions to Patricia Powell, and she wrote her responses and sent them to the editor of Callaloo. Although not a “live” conversation, these questions and answers grew out of months of discussing some of the issues that emerge in what follows.

FAITH SMITH:

There is a great attention to detail in your fiction: I’m thinking of a dog licking its snot in one of your short stories, for instance. In A Small Gathering of Bones, as well as in your work-in-progress from which I recently heard you read, the narrative suddenly breaks off at the point of momentous sexual awakening on the part of the protagonists to meditate on a hen and her chickens, or on the appearance of someone’s shoes. Can you comment on this? Is this some sort of reluctance on the characters’ part (or yours, for that matter) to exteriorize their feelings? Are you perhaps rejecting the idea of the all-knowing SELF who can fully account for every experience, every sensation?

PATRICIA POWELL:

I’ve been struggling for a while trying to figure out how to write gay/lesbian sexuality so as to best illustrate the charged interactions that my characters face. And by charged I mean the constant fear, or internalized hate, the terror that’s gnawing in the back of the subconscious. I didn’t want to write it in the conventional way, as a shared, wondrous, idyllic experience, because it was more complicated than that for them. In A Small Gathering of Bones, Dale’s anonymous sexual encounter in the park is really a crucial moment for him, and it was important to find a style that best reflected the turmoil of the moment. A devout Christian and minister, he was leaving the church for he could no longer bear the hypocrisy and lies; his best friend was dying in the hospital; he had just left a long term relationship and was trying to begin another; it was his first anonymous encounter and his friend Ian had already been beaten up here; etc. At the same time, then, that the scene arouses the reader—and I overload the page with sensory details—the arousal is interrupted by the character’s constant reminder of the hostile world around him, and his own fragile, vulnerable position. So there are the street sounds of people passing and of laughter, but there is also the fear of beating or incarceration if found, the fear of death—though the anonymity and the illicitness of the situation bring their own charge. There is always the reminder that this intimate encounter is not a shared idyllic experience, but rather an individual and pleasurable one. [End Page 324]

There are similar intimate though frustrating confrontations in my new novel, The Pagoda, about a Chinese woman passing as a male shopkeeper in 19th-century Jamaica. One of the protagonist’s customers who had been trying to seduce him/her for a while finally seizes the moment and kisses Lowe. And I think Lowe is aroused. For in his/her own way, s/he had been going along with the seduction. But can you imagine Lowe’s terror? The fear of whether people will see, the woman’s husband, the villagers—hence Lowe’s furtive glances at the world passing by outside, the incredible attention to detail that occurs on the page at that very important moment. As if time has slowed somehow. Or events have grown more profound. There is the fear that the kiss could go further and his/her “true” identity be realized. Implicit too in that kiss are the complications in terms of race and class and sexuality. Fear is at the heart of all these intimate encounters, not just the character’s fear of the body’s response to the situation, but the fear of other people knowing; and I think a kind of separation occurs, where there is an emotional and physical split, where the physical...

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