“A memoir is horrible for families,” Charles M. Blow, author of “Fire Shut Up in My Bones,” told Kameel Stanley before a captive audience at Brick River Cider two weeks ago. “I would wager that the best memoirs you’ve ever read are written by people whose parents are dead or by people who hate their families.”
Blow’s memoir compelled six-time Grammy Award-winner and Academy Award-nominated composer Terence Blanchard to create his second opera – named after the book, with a libretto by acclaimed filmmaker Kasi Lemmons – which debuts next month as the latest world premiere of Opera Theatre of Saint Louis’ critically acclaimed New Works, Bold Voices series.
In an effort to build awareness around the opera, which stars Julia Bullock, Karen Slack, Devone Tines and Chaz’men Williams-Ali and debuts June 15 at the Loretto-Hilton, OTSL hosted “Inside the Author’s Studio: An Interview with Charles M. Blow.” It was one of the last in a series of community outreach events to promote the upcoming work that have taken place over the past several months.
During the talk, the New York Times Columnist spoke with Kameel Stanley of St. Louis Public Radio about a host of topics – including his process and origins of writing the book.
“How did you reach back and capture those memories – especially those related to trauma,” Stanley asked. “Trauma stays with you, so those were easy,” Blow responded. “You keep examining the trauma, with the current mind. You start to say ‘If I had done this or that, then maybe this wouldn’t have happened. But that’s a 48-year-old person with that capacity. A seven-year-old doesn’t have that capacity.”
It was the task of remembering and illustrating and painting a vivid picture around the nonconsequential events around the trauma that were the challenge for “Fire,” which chronicles his life from the time he was a toddler through his early twenties.
“Children misremember things,” Blow said. “I opened the book with a false memory because I wanted to establish that that is possible. You think about what you do remember and then you test that.”
The language is stunning. The subject matter and level of transparency are haunting. He has a way of describing locations and people to the point where “Fire” reads like a motion picture playing inside one’s head.
“I do focus on painting through words,” Blow said. “So that you see that person physically but also spiritually – so that you see the essence of that person.”
Sitting in his family home in Gibsland, Louisiana and meditating on family photos aided him in the process of writing the book, which grew out of a tiny essay he wrote about learning to manage his daughter as a single father.
“I thought I should just write more scenes from my life,” Blow said. He stayed committed to the process, but never got around to pitching or selling them. “I kept writing and there were 25,000-30,000 words of random essays and I thought ‘Maybe there’s something bigger here,’” Blow said. “I started to search the essays for some sort of narrative.”
He found it – particularly in his ability to navigate their way to triumph beyond the most unforeseen and seemingly insurmountable life experiences, a trait the book reveals that he shares with his mother. “Fire” is therapeutic for anyone looking for a frame of reference on an overcomer. That transparency has come with consequences – including his family’s reaction to the book’s content.
“You don’t live your life thinking that you will write about it – let alone someone else,” Blow said. “And you build a legend or image of yourself in your own mind that is going to be different than how another person sees you. It’s shocking, whether it’s flattering or not, to see yourself described by someone else.”
Then there are the range of emotions that come with the revelation of abuse – more specifically, the knowing that had you been aware of what was going on, you would have helped in some way.
“It is particularly painful for my mom as a parent to know what was happening in her house and she didn’t know and wasn’t there,” Blow said. “My mother has mentioned the book twice in five years. And both times she has not mentioned the title of the book. She says, ‘You know that book you wrote.’”
“Fire” gave him new insight and perspective as he unpacked his past.
“There is a level of you never really know yourself until you write about yourself,” Blow said. “You also don’t fully know the people around you until you have to examine them. I had always been angry about my father’s alcoholism. I felt sympathy after writing the book, because I had to explore it in a way that I hadn’t thought about it before.”
The book also reinforced the power of controlling one’s own narrative.
“When talking about his homosexuality, James Baldwin said, ‘If I disclose it, you can’t blackmail me’,” Blow said. “One thing I’ve learned as a journalist is that if you tell your own story, then it belongs to you. If somebody finds something out about you and they tell it, it belongs to them.”
Opera Theatre of Saint Louis’ world-premiere of ‘Fire Shut Up In My Bones’ will take place from June 15 – June 29 at The Loretto-Hilton, 130 Edgar Rd. in Webster Groves, MO. For more information, visit https://www.opera-stl.org or call (314) 961-0644.