Shannon Gibney Interview
I AM (Artist in Motion) is an interview series meant to spotlight indigenous artists and artists of color in the Twin Cities. I had the privilege of working at the Loft as the fall 2019 marketing and communications intern, and when they gave me the chance to work on a project of my choosing, I AM is the first thing I thought of.
The artists in this series were people I found truly inspiring. They incorporate art into their lives in many different ways and expressions, finding time whenever or wherever they can. They show how art can be a form of healing, understanding, and moving forward. I hope you take in their words and feel that for yourself.
Shannon Gibney is a writer, educator, activist, and the author of See No Color (Carolrhoda Lab, 2015), a young adult novel that won the 2016 Minnesota Book Award in Young Peoples' Literature. Gibney is faculty in English at Minneapolis College, where she teaches writing. A Bush Artist and McKnight Writing Fellow, her critically acclaimed new novel, Dream Country, is about more than five generations of an African descended family crisscrossing the Atlantic both voluntarily and involuntarily (Dutton, 2018). In October 2019, University of Minnesota Press released What God is Honored Here?: Writings by Indigenous Women and Women of Color on Miscarriage and Infant Loss, which she co-edited with writer Kao Kalia Yang.
Who are you and what modes or mode of storytelling do you use?
My name is Shannon Gibney, and I write prose. The more dominant form that I am writing in right now is novel. I’ve also branched into some picture book. It’s interesting being on that list to going to a picture book writing. A lot of learning. I’m also a memoirist, and I write creative nonfiction. I was putting together an anthology with my dear friend and coconspirator Kao Kalia Yang, a wonderful Hmong writer in Saint Paul. It’s called What God is Honored Here? Writings on Miscarriage and Infant Loss by and for Native Women and Women of Color. For me, I think that genre is a tool to tell whatever story I want to tell. I’ve always been, since I was a child, drawn to longer form stories, reading them I mean. I was a voracious reader of novels growing up and for my whole adult life. I think you tend to write what you sort of want to insert yourself into. A lot of what I write are novels and long-form memoir because of that. I do write shorter pieces though too.
How are these modes of storytelling unique?
I admire my friends and colleagues who do more ethereal art forms, like dance and theater, because they put hours and hours and days and weeks and years into these projects, and then they might have a two-night run, a two-week run if they’re lucky, but then it’s done. One thing I appreciate about writing, at least until the apocalypse comes, is that it’s there. It can last hopefully for years and years. If it’s really really good, longer than that. That is important to me.
I appreciate both the solitary nature of writing as well as when it gets to the phase of collaboration. For me, it’s taken years, but now I have some really great editors that I get amazing feedback on. I like both those sides of it. Whereas I think people who really love to create collaboratively, they might turn to some of these other art forms like puppetry or dance. I guess music is interesting because some people like to play solo, and some people like to play chamber, or big groups, or everything in between.
So you write nonfiction and fiction. Can you tell me what it’s like to transition between these two?
Interesting that you ask that. My new novel that I’m working on now is called Botched. I’m calling it a novel, I’m not sure that it is. I also call it speculative memoir; I think that’s the more apt description. My sort of elevator speech about it is that there’s multiple narratives. The first narrative is about this girl Erin Powers. I found out about twenty plus years ago, I made contact with my birth mother—I’m adopted—and my name at birth was Erin Powers. So this girl, Erin Powers, I say the girl I was, the girl I could’ve been, the girl I never was. She’s living with my birth mom in 1985 in Utica, New York. That’s one narrative line. Then, another narrative line is what really happened, which is me, Shannon Gibney, in 1985, growing up with my white adoptive parents and white adoptive brothers in Michigan. Then another narrative line, which I haven’t started yet because I’m scared, is I have a son and a daughter, so my son who’s now nine. In this narrative line, he’s my father, and I’m his daughter. Then in another narrative line, my adopted parents are my kids. I’m their mom. Then my birth father, who I never actually met, he died when I was six, I found out when I did my search, he’s kind of weaving through. I identify as a nerd, so there’s some speculative sci-fi elements. A lot of kids, when they’re growing up, whatever form the woods takes where it is. For us, it was the woods behind the house. It was like this magical place. So in the real Shannon Gibney story narrative line, my brothers and I find this wormhole that connects the different timelines and dimensions together. It’s a mess right now but that’s part of the phase.
I think, for me, this gets to the nature of the question you’re asking. Yes, memoir and fiction are distinctive forms, but there’s so much crossover. I think especially if you’re somebody whose identity has been bifurcated, there is a distinct before and after, or you’re intersectional in all these ways, right? You feel like there’s multiple narratives running at once. Adoptees, we feel this. This question of, okay yes I was adopted, these are my parents, but also I have this other story of biological family and parenthood, sort of what could’ve been. I was talking to a dear friend of mine, she and her family immigrated from India when she was eleven, and she was saying it wasn’t until just two or three years ago that she stopped imagining there’s another child back in India living her life, doing all the things that she does in her daily life, at the same time. Anyone who writes memoir knows you’re constructing a narrative. And anyone who writes fiction knows that so much of this stuff is about point of view. The truth just depends on where you’re standing. For me, it can be very fluid. At its core, all writing is about getting at this deeper emotional truth, regardless of the so-called facts. That’s where I say I think genre is very fluid for me.
What is your process in creating and portraying your art?
There’s sort of a best-case scenario, worst-case scenario, and then there’s most of the time. Life in between. Gender plays a huge role in how artists get work done. I remember when I was an undergrad, then in grad school, I’ve had some wonderful teachers. I’ve had a lot of privileged opportunities to learn from some great people.
But I do have to say that most of my male teachers—most of whom were white males, many of them very good teachers—were more likely to have these rules of writings that they would pass down. You need to write everyday, you need to find a quiet place, you need to really invest in your life as a writer. And that’s all true. That’s the best-case scenario. But most women I know, that can’t happen everyday. We have all these other obligations. We have all these other things we need to get done, especially if you have small children, which I do. A lot of the women writers I know have kids and have other things going on. So if we just waited until all conditions were good, no work would get done.
I have this essay in A Good Time for the Truth: Race in Minnesota, this anthology that my friend Sun Yung Shin put together. It’s called "Fear of a Black Mother," and it’s about my experiences trying to raise my son, a young black boy, in a culture that fears black male bodies. One that’s willing to perpetrate violence on them to control the quote-on-quote threat of them. I always laugh when they ask me because when I wrote that essay my daughter was about six months old, my son was about three and a half. I was on deadline. I remember I was sitting in my living room nursing my daughter while my son is literally running circles, like young kids do, around the table, and I’m pounding out the essay with my finger. Luckily, that essay is one of the only things I’ve written that pretty much came out done. I think that because it’d been marinating in me for so long, it was just a matter of translating it from my brain onto the page. But that would be a worst-case scenario of writing and that process.
The short answer to that question is the work gets done anyway it can. This September, I was lucky enough to get a residency at the Anderson Center in Red Wing for two weeks, and that was just like the heavens opened. I had all this time and support. I got so much work done. I teach full time. It’s a lot to try and balance with the shorter pieces that I write, like book reviews and shorter narrative pieces. That’s easier to get done in these fits and spurts that I could have while teaching during a normal academic year. For the longer form stuff, such as novels, that’s much harder to do in that way.
How do your stories connect to your identity? How do they help connect to your community?
I think I started to answer the question of identity with Botched, the new book that I’m in the middle of. My identity is central to everything I write about. I identify as a mixed black transracially adopted woman. That’s a mouthful, but that just goes to show how many layers there are to my identity. I just feel like the more layers there are, the more mainstream representational violence we find in dominant discourses, the more you feel this pull to get all these other stories out there.
Now I’m 44, I feel like a mid-career writer at this point. I do feel kind of in the middle, where I have this emerging body of work, and all these other things I’m working on, and then things that haven’t come into my consciousness yet but I’m sure will come at a certain point. When I look at all the stuff that I’ve done so far and the things that I’m working on right now, the real through-line is these stories that haven’t been told at all or at least to the level I would like to see them told. See No Color, my first novel, is highly autobiographical about a mixed black girl adopted into a white family. I always say I wrote that novel for that twelve-year-old girl I was who really couldn’t find herself in any of these stories in books, on TV, or anything like that. There’s just not a lot about transracial adoptees, and then what there is, is dominated by white adoptive parents who don’t identify as such. Those representations felt flat or even sometimes violent to me. Part of it is what the late great Toni Morrison would say is writing yourself into the canon as a black woman writer, but I think part of it is on the mystical side.
With my second novel, Dream Come True, which is about five generations of a Liberian and Liberian-American family, that story just took hold of me over a period of 20 years and wouldn’t let me go. I didn’t want to write it because I knew how hard it would be. I knew it would kick my ass. I knew how it felt to be from a historically marginalized community that really hasn’t had the opportunity to represent itself in mainstream discourse like Liberian immigrant communities. Most of the literature about Liberia is written by non-Liberians. I had so much trepidation about writing that book for all those reasons, but at the end of the day, I realized that the thing I was most afraid of with the book was really what the book was about. This Gordian Knot of chasms and connections between continental Africans and Africans in the diaspora. It’s just messy, and that’s not carte blanche to not do your work—that means you have to do your work even harder. There’s no way that I am going to get out of my own experience and bias. I also think for my work, I don’t want to do anything that I already know that I can do. I like to be challenged. I get bored easily, which also means I’m gonna probably fail a lot. But everything I do, I try to do with as much integrity I can. That has to do with having the most honesty and humility too. I’m a human being, so there’s going to be some things I’m not going to do. As I tell my son, it’s about learning. It’s not about perfection.
My stories brought me closer to my communities, and they brought in my community too. Just having young transracially adopted teenagers and 20-something year olds all the way up to older folks, but especially the youth, come up to me and just being like oh my god, I never even knew I was a transracial adoptee. I never even knew that that’s the language to describe my identity. I’ve never read a book like this that’s for me and about me. It’s so validating.
This new anthology that Kalia and I put together, no one wants to talk about miscarriage. Close to 30 percent of women will have miscarriages, so it’s probably something we should be talking about as a culture. Black women, Native women, and women of color disproportionately suffer those losses of miscarriage and infant loss as well. So the process of bringing all those writers together to tell our stories has also been really healing, and a process of community building, to have a space where it’s okay to really get into the nitty gritty of grief and emotional loss, whatever that looks like. We’ve been continuing to have events around the metro for the book. There are plenty of people who want to share in building that community in public, and then there’s a lot of people who just want to grieve privately, and that’s okay too.
Why do you do what you do?
The most honest way I can answer the question is I don’t really actually know why I write or why I need to write. I just do. I can sort of hypothesize. I have some ideas of why. I do think storytelling is this primal human need that doesn’t have to be through writing. Human beings have done it pre-writing. That’s just the form that’s come to me. I do feel like I’m participating in this larger human project of connection, and what it means to be a human being right here, right now.
A lot of times I don’t know what I think about something until I start writing about it. It just helps me sift through my experiences. It helps me think better and more deeply about things. There’s more research coming out about at least quote-on-quote good fiction, fiction that’s layered, fiction that doesn’t necessarily have stock characters, it can build empathy and compassion. It can open up whole new worlds. It’s totally shaped my entire life since I’ve been able to read. It’s enriched my life and set me on a certain path that’s very grounding for me and, at the same time, very expansive.