We’re overjoyed to end our month with an interview from one of our new favorite GRITS, Latria Graham. We first were introduced to Latria through this (wonderful) Guardian piece, and we’ve been in love with her work ever since. Luckily, she agreed to talk with us about her home, art, family, and several other things. Check it out below!!
First things first: where are you from? Haha I like to say I’m from everywhere—my family moved around quite a bit when I was younger. I claim Spartanburg, SC as my hometown, but I was actually born in Huntsville, AL. I spent 10 years in Nashville, TN, before my parents settled in Spartanburg. My mom is from Columbia, SC and my dad’s from Silverstreet, SC, so I’ve been in and out of South Carolina my whole life. That’s part of the reason that I claim it I think. It would be easier to say I’m from Nashville—there’s some glamour around it, and it shaped my early ear for music, but I definitely consider myself a South Carolina woman.
Where else have you lived, and what were those places like? I went to college in New Hampshire. People ask me why and I mention that it was as far as I could get from South Carolina without crossing the Canadian border. Hanover, New Hampshire is a small town that revolves around the student population. My mom was a fashion designer and went to school at FIT in New York, so she tried to prepare me for the fact that there were going to be students smarter and perhaps more talented than me, but I really struggled to find my place in this academic setting that expected regimented ideas. Going to my high school prepared me for that, but it couldn’t prepare me for the cold, or the fact that it got dark at 4pm during the winter. I struggled with depression quite a bit and struggled to find my footing that far north. Still on the nights when I could climb on the roof of my dorm and see Aurora Borealis, it made up for it.
After I graduated I moved to New York City, specifically to Striver’s Row in Harlem. I was beyond dirt poor. I actually moved into my apartment in the midst of the Wall Street financial meltdown, and the decently paying job that I was supposed to start went up in smoke. Still, I was in love with the city because it held so much art, so many fascinating people…there’s nowhere like it in the world. I grew up in predominantly white areas, so I missed out on some of the important cultural connections that my friends had. I lived across the street from Abyssinian Baptist Church, and I could watch the African American Day Parade from my window. My little sector of Harlem was of the few places in New York where if I was homesick I could walk a block or two to the produce man and he carried the muscadine grapes we used to eat at home.
How did leaving the South for college change you, if at all? When I left South Carolina I tried to erase my heritage, plain and simple. I knew that folks thought South Carolinians were “backwards” and we talked funny, so I tried to be like everyone else. That didn’t work too well. While trekking around in the woods on that DOC trip, we subsisted on refried beans and Cabot cheese. When I got back to the dorms, I wanted something…substantial. I was slightly homesick and it was Sunday, so I made Sunday dinner.
I found a way to connect to my dorm mates through food—through lessons I’d acquired working on the farm, and telling them stories about why I cooked the way I cooked. It was the first indicator that being Southern wasn’t all bad. I still struggled with my identity (and to be honest here, my self esteem), but I realized there were facets of myself that I liked. I started exploring those things. I quickly learned that certain aspects of my “Southern-ness" were an advantage.
Is there a particular Southern experience to you? If so, what does this look like? I don’t think there’s a particular Southern experience because there are so many facets and perspectives, even if you’re just observing the people of one town. I do think there’s a warmth and an intention to connect that comes from my particular microcosm. I think if there’s a particular experience that’s shared all over the South, perhaps it lies in our ability to tell stories, or to at least be immersed in them. Normal conversations about simple things like weather patterns can unfold into textured intricate word play. I always make it a point to chat up different people when I’m traveling just to see what their stories are.
You seem to have a very unique (and very enviable) resolve to embrace your Southern heritage. Where do you think that comes from? You know, I had to do a lot of thinking about this question because when I left for college I tried very hard NOT to be Southern, because being southern meant being backwards or being put down. In a lot of settings my background (being Black, being a woman and then ALSO being Southern) felt like three strikes. Instead I tried to deny, deny, deny.
I tried to be a biomedical engineer instead of an artist because I thought that’s what the world expected of me, and maybe it was. It took having a psychotic breakdown in the middle of the woods during a suicide attempt for me to start being honest with myself, about who I was and what I expected from my life. I was betraying my artistic integrity because I was terrified about how I would survive if I wasn’t the person everyone else expected me to be.
Finding my authenticity and my voice wasn’t easy but now that I’ve found it, it’s hard to ignore, and it hasn’t steered me wrong yet. Sometimes editors and publishers try to “neaten” my voice in an effort to streamline things for their audience, and sometimes I push back. My voice isn’t “neat” and the stories I tell aren’t antiseptic, and so the vehicle that carries these stories to the eyes and ears of audiences isn’t either. But telling those stories is what excites me and what drives me to get out of the bed every day.
Can you speak more about your work with collecting the history of your family, and other black Southerners? Sure! I worked as a library assistant at the New York Society Library on the Upper East Side, and they have a lot of historical documents. This was in the early-ish days of Wikipedia and Google. Things like The Moth and Story Corps were in their infancy and a lot of the technology (and the interconnectedness) wasn’t there. I was able to see what people were capable of collecting when they had the time and resources, and I felt that a lot of that was lacking when it came to Southern and African American stories.
I wasn’t sure how to change that, so I started small—very small. I started with my parents, and then talked to my grandparents. Living in Harlem, I heard all of these stories from or about people who used to live “down South” and I realized that I had access to something very special that other people missed, or longed for. I had access to parts of my heritage and to the land—my father’s family owns a large swath of acreage and a farm in Newberry County. I started trying to piece together their worlds and their histories, and the circle kept getting bigger and bigger.
Being acknowledged for this work led to receiving a couple of grants during graduate school that allowed me to ask bigger questions. One of my literary heroes is Zora Neale Hurston, and I wanted to recreate her travels through the South—she spent a lot of time collecting folk tales and studying people. The project didn’t go quite as intended (my father was diagnosed with terminal cancer) but I learned a lot and I hope to try again. When I go into these communities I try to spend some time there—observing and participating instead of simply coming in, drawing stories out of people and taking off.
What are you reading, listening to, watching, or otherwise consuming? I read like it’s going out of style. Right now I’m spending a lot of time with the works of Phillis Wheatley and Octavia Butler. Artists on my playlist: Rhiannon Giddens, Melissa Polinar, David Ryan Harris and JP Cooper. I’m all over the place—I adore Wagnerian operas just as much as I do the discography of the Soweto Gospel Choir. I’m a self-proclaimed nerd, and I have a thing for soundtracks from video games and movies. When I need something quieter I put on Gentle Love’s Prescription for Sleep Game Music Lullabies Vol. II
What current project of yours are you most passionate about? Short work: I’m working on an essay called Show Me Your Teeth. I struggled with bulimia for over a decade, but I’m happy to say I’m in recovery. The issue: even though I stopped purging almost ten years ago, I’ve lost 4 teeth since. I’m slated to lose two more. It’s a personal essay about how American society views teeth (there’s a lot to be said about teeth and social class) and about what it means to truly recover from a mental illness.
Long work: I’m obsessed with the Zora Neale Hurston project I described earlier. I’ve gotta do it. I just have to. I’d love to launch it in the next year. I’m also working on 2 book proposals. One is about the folk tales my family told me while growing up, and the other is about four underprivileged women of color that attend a school much like Dartmouth. What sorts of choices do they have to make to survive?
What advice do you have for younger black GRITS? ever let anyone tell you that your voice and your feelings and your heritage aren’t valid. They are. A professor that I’d never worked with told me that I needed a grammar book, and that I didn’t know how to write. I knew she was wrong—not just because I was hard headed or had a sense of entitlement, but because there were others that saw value in the work I was putting into the world—even if it needed some polishing up.
Also, don’t let “no” discourage you. I have a hard time with rejection, but writing takes persistence. On average, I get four rejections for every yes. Sometimes I just get silence from editors. It happens. That’s ok. I’m young, bold, and ambitious and I encourage young GRITS to be the same—whether it’s in artistic endeavors or otherwise. It isn’t easy (not by a long shot), but I think it’s worth it, especially when you’re able to look back on the legacy and body of work you’re creating.
Another thing—people say this and I thought they were full of crap, but it’s true: keep a journal. There are so many day-to-day things I could write about if only I could remember them. History is happening all around us, and someone will be interested in your part in it.