Author Q&A: Open book with Julia McKenzie Munemo

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For Julia McKenzie Munemo's first published work, she tackled something incredibly personal — her deceased father's legacy, which included penning pulp fiction novels about interracial pornography set during slavery.

But for Munemo, however difficult or scary writing her memoir "The Book Keeper" (Swallow Press/Ohio University Press) was, it was a story she'd been trying to put to paper practically her whole life.

"My father died when I was 5; he committed suicide and that was a mystery to me for my entire life that I tried to solve," said Munemo, a Williamstown resident who teaches winter study at Williams College and currently serves as the college's Interim Director of the Writing Workshop. "I came to writing pretty early, but I came to reading pretty late."

The reading she is referring to is her father's work, books she kept hidden in a closet until one night she pulled them out; it's the first scene of the memoir, with her sleeping family — her husband, Ngoni, a black man from Zimbabwe and their two sons — just above her as she reads the words her father wrote long before her family was formed.

She knew about some of the books, she said, and the different pseudonyms her father — George Wolk — used. Her mother also wrote "some trashy novels under a name not her own."

In the book, Munemo writes: "It was just a part of the fabric of the past, and, like any child who thinks her family is the only kind of family, I assumed it was nothing unique. You mean your folks didn't write novels under pseudonyms in the sixties? Are you sure?"

What made her pull those books, her family's secrets, out then?

"I didn't know what I didn't know," she said of her father's past. "I was so ashamed of some things I did know, namely his career, and I hid from it for a long time. It really wasn't until Tamir Rice was killed [in 2014, 12-year-old African-American Rice was killed by a police officer in Ohio]. He was around my oldest son's age at the time. ... It really was a shock to my system. I was feeling vulnerable for my children, feeling my own complicity in this white supremacist society. I had to look inward — that was when pulled books out of closet."

Today, Munemo said, her father is no longer a stranger to her thanks to the research she put into writing this memoir.

"Most of what I now know about him is because I did the research on him in this book," she said. "I knew very little about him before. I heard myths about who he was, stories, but we didn't talk about him very much."

Munemo points out that the book is also a love story between herself and her husband, who, she said, was her first reader of the book.

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"Getting his blessing once he read the book meant the world to me," she said. "... Getting feedback from him in such a crucial moment in my journey was everything."

Munemo said she can understand how some might think she was brave to write this kind of book, but for her, while scary at times, writing her truth often felt inevitable.

"I've been trying to crack this nut my whole life, in the way in which I got to a point that I'm scared not to have written this book," she said.

Munemo said she hopes her readers will have a similar, inward, look at race in this country.

"I hope that white readers, specifically, will take away the idea of looking in their own closet, taking responsibility for a country we've built — or a country built for us," she said. "That's a heavy burden; I'm asking a lot of my readers, but I hope that my journey can serve as an example, of sorts. It doesn't break you to go on this journey, and it is essential to healing the divides in this country."

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Before embarking on her book tour — which includes stops at The Bennington Bookshop (Feb. 13) and Northshire Bookstore (Feb. 15) in Manchester, Vt. — Munemo answered a few questions about her favorite books.

Q What are some of your favorite memoirs?

A Top of my list is "H is for Hawk," by Helen Macdonald, which taught me that grief takes many — sometimes very odd — shapes, and that it can be beautiful. Also on this list are:

"The Fact of a Body," by Alex Marzano-Lesnevich; "Sounds Like Titanic," by Jessica Chiccehitto Hindman; "Inheritance," by Dani Shapiro

Q When you're thinking of novels about family history or dramas, which are at the top of your list?

A My first choice would have to be "Home," by Marilynne Robinson, which gently reveals the joys, contradictions and quiet pains in familial love. But I also point to these for complex renderings of what it means to be part of, and apart from, one's family: "On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous," by Ocean Vuong; "A Tale for the Time Being," by Ruth Ozeki.

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Q Which books do you think best explain, capture or shed light on what racism can look like in America?

A "Citizen, An American Lyric," by Claudia Rankine is the first place I turn in part for its lyricism, but mainly for its unblinking look at the question. None of the following books blink away either, and their addition to my list is about adding complexity and texture and other voices. There are so many I could add here, I'll limit myself to three more: "Heavy," by Kiese Laymon; "Men We Reaped," by Jesmyn Ward; "Sing, Unburied, Sing," by Jesmyn Ward

Q What was your favorite book as a child?

A "Leo The Late Bloomer," which I came upon in a bookstore when I was a young mother. I bought it — recognizing and feeling an immediate sense of comfort in its cover — eager to share it with my toddler. But as I read it to him at lunch that day, I started to get a little concerned. I called my mother and told her to tell me the truth without trying to protect me. "Did you read me 'Leo the Late Bloomer' when I was little because I was a late bloomer?" I thought she would deny it, or at least hesitate before answering. "YES!" she said right away, and we both laughed. Which is to say: I came to a lot of things late, including reading. So, I'll take the term "childhood" less literally and add that in high school, reading "The Color Purple," by Alice Walker is what made me want to be a writer.

Q What is your favorite fictional love story?

A "Dept. of Speculation," by Jenny Offill, which reminds us that the love story doesn't end on the wedding day or just include the two lovers. This book carefully and frighteningly shows that love is complex and dangerous and filled with unknowns, and that those things can only be conveyed in the most primal language of fragments. Each of these other books do exactly the same thing, in entirely different ways: "Gilead," by Marilynne Robinson; "An American Marriage," by Tayari Jones; "Fire is Your Water," by Jim Minick.

Q What's the last thing you read that you simply couldn't put down?

A "Hourglass," by Dani Shapiro, which I picked up after reading "Inheritance" because I wanted more of her voice, and which — really — does the same thing as the books in my love story list.

Q What books are currently on your nightstand?

A "In The Dream House," by Carmen Maria Machado, which I've been anticipating since I devoured "Her Body and Other Parties," but haven't gotten to yet and can't wait until I do. "Olive, Again," by Elizabeth Strout, because anyone who has read Strout always wants more of her. "Lost Children Archive," by Valeria Luiselli, which was recommended by my college advisor before it appeared on Obama's favorite books of 2019 list. "Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls," by T Kira Madden, which is the most recent example of buying a book based solely on its title. I have no idea what it's actually about, and I will do zero googling or jacket-copy because I sometimes love jumping into something knowing nothing.


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