Alone, their resumes are impressive; collectively they display outstanding accomplishments made by this mother-daughter literati. Alice Randall and her daughter, Caroline Randall Williams, co-wrote The Diary of B. B. Bright, Possible Princess and more recently, Soul Food Love: Healthy Recipes Inspired by One Hundred Years of Cooking in a Black Family. Alice began as a songwriter and has continued on to write The Wind Done Gone, Pushkin and the Queen of Spades, Rebel Yell, Ada’s Rules and a handful of screenplays and music videos. Caroline, a third-generation writer, also wrote Lucy Negro Redux and writes poetry. Today, these women, both Harvard graduates, continue to educate the next generation of academics as teachers — Alice at Vanderbilt University, and Caroline at West Virginia University. Read on to understand their love of writing and what drives their passion for the South.
Together and separately, you have been labeled as poets, satirists, Southern writers, African-American writers, songwriters, screenplay writers and feminist writers. How would you categorize yourselves?
Alice: There are limits and values to categories. I am proud to be thought of as a black American writer; I am proud to be thought of as an American writer; I do perceive myself as a feminist writer; I do see myself as a multigenre writer. Ultimately, I am a black, woman, American writer. And, I am the mother of a black, woman, American writer.
Caroline: Oh gosh, well I will say that my two writer icons are my mother and Maya Angelou, who both are wonderfully and admirably published in a number of genres. I tell people I am a writer because that is as specific as I am comfortable getting. I certainly will always claim that I am a black writer and that I am a woman writer. It is important to claim these identities as I use my voice; I like to speak for the people who don’t always get spoken for.
How do your works challenge literary narratives that fail to give a voice to minorities and challenge the historical perception of race?
A: In The Wind Done Gone, I am retelling Gone with the Wind from a black perspective. I am challenging the perception that, for example, there are no mulattos in Tara. I am challenging the perception that all black women are neither beautiful nor intelligent. In my book, Cynara is the most beautiful and the most intelligent character. I challenge it very directly. My novel, Rebel Yell, tells the story around a black spy family. No one writes about — or imagines — black families in the intelligence community, in the State Department and in the CIA. I challenge this by shining a light on corners that have not been illuminated — such as black spy families or, in the case of Soul Food Love, healthy soul food.
C: The idea in Lucy Negro Redux is that she owns her own body. It shows freedom as a psychological — not a physical — state and gives a voice to women who have been othered in the past. It allows you to think about the ways in which a woman, no matter her circumstances, can take pleasure in her body; can challenge the structures that are subjugating her; the ways in which she can want to be and feel claimed; what it means to want to be a wife — the idea of being a wife is a radical want. It is a feminist, radical gesture to want a traditional family and a husband in this day and age. So I look at the different ways we see what it means to be a woman, and to be wanted, and to enjoy and claim your body. And show you are allowed to explore this in any direction you like; it is so much more dimensional than it is often discussed as being.
You have covered a wide scope of topics, including lifestyle, children’s, historical and social-political. Do you select a dominant theme for each piece of work? Is there a thread that connects each piece?
A: Absolutely. My dominant theme is mother love. For example, Soul Food Love is kitchen histories. It is stories of mothers loving their children — in and out of the kitchen — and how the kitchen interferes with, or supports, that love. At the center of The Wind Done Gone, is the story of Cynara, a child conceived in a plantation rape and whether or not she believes her mother loves her — and what it would mean if she did or didn’t. But, in a bigger sense, it is a story that many women whose mothers work as domestic servants deal with. What does it mean when your mother professionally loves someone else and has to take care of someone else’s children?
C: All my works are invested in finding ways to celebrate your soul and yourself in the world. And to remind women, particularly black women, of the beautiful legacy of their identity.
Soul Food Love: Healthy Recipes Inspired by One Hundred Years of Cooking in a Black Family gives insight to your family history and highlights African-American women’s relationship with food. What inspired you to combine your literary and culinary skills?
A: My interest in food and Southern food goes back to at least 1977-78 when I studied with Julia Child for credit at Harvard … and I could always see how important food was in my family, but during the time, it wasn’t something that was talked about and intellectually parsed. Over and over, I write portraits of the good black mother, and I examine the difficulty of being a good mother in America. I look at the difficulties and possibilities for transcending that. Sometimes, it is as simple as giving 80 recipes that are cheap and easy.
C: That question is an easy one: they have always gone together. I inherited from my grandmother a 2,000 book cookbook collection that she had been working on since before she was married — a collection well over half a century old. I grew up around writers who loved to cook. A cookbook is such a natural extension of the world I grew up in — which was full of food and a love of words. The idea of words and food together was so obvious for me that it is hard to understand what it would be for other people.
What do you see as your biggest accomplishment to date?
A: My biggest accomplishment, I hope, is that I have been a very good mother. Artistically, my biggest accomplishment is I have written books, and songs, that people actually read in large numbers. I have a Video of the Year, I wrote a video for Reba — “Is Their Life Out There.” In the video, Reba is reading Maya Angelou to her daughter … You can’t know my work and not know that. More than anything, I hope to create literature that allows people to endure a hard, impossible day. I write to do for others what Wuthering Heights did for me — to help live through the impossible.
C: At this point in my life, I have taught over 500 students … I have helped further the education of 500 kids.
What do you think distinguishes the South from other regions in the United States?
A: I love the South. I think that America is Southern. One thing that distinguishes the South is the African influence. I love how the melting pot bubbles happily. Also, we are much more honest about the complexity of identity. In my opinion, the South is unapologetically about mothers … about Mama. I am not Southern by the grace of God, but I am Southern by adoption.
C: We have this wonderful phrase that I learned when I was in Mississippi: if you are invited to stay in someone’s home, you are in the bosom of the family. There is a way in which you are invited into people’s lives in the South that you just don’t have anywhere else. The warmth, the genuine interest, the nurturing creativity of the South is unmatched anywhere — even with all of its complexities.
Barry Hannah has this wonderful quote. He said, “The Deep South may be wretched, but it can howl.” Even the parts in the South that are really hard are quite beautiful and really compelling. There is charm in the best sense of the word. Charm in a region is something that is very hard to find. You can find warmth and you can find goodness in a lot of places, but true charm, true twinkle in the eye that makes you want to stay a moment longer? That doesn’t exist anywhere else.
What are three things (excluding God, family and friends) you cannot live without?
A: Coffee, books, laptop
C: Books, Internet, a well-stocked kitchen
Want to learn more about Soul Food Love? Check out this article from Edible Nashville. Thank you, Alice and Caroline, for sharing insight to your work and yourselves with our readers today. And thank you to Ashley Hylbert for today’s gorgeous photos. Visit ashleyhylbert.com to see more of her great work.