Today we’ll be speaking with Alabama author Joyce Ann Ashford. She is the author of two books that she self-published through BAM! Publishing, Damaged Goods: A Woman’s Memoir and Montage: A Collection of Stories and Poems. Ms. Ashford was born in Alabama, grew up in Illinois, and lived in France before coming back to Alabama in retirement. Her books, one prose and one poetry, tell a similar story using different ways of expression. Her poetry hints at political issues that are at the forefront of America today. Yet, her purpose is not to stir up a political debate, but allow others to see the world through her eyes.
Tell us about your books, both Damaged Goods and Montage.
Damaged Goods is a non-fiction memoir about a sheltered, Afro-centric Alabama born girl who goes to a prestigious Black women’s college and gets date-raped. She conceals the crime and makes bad choices. Nevertheless, she completes undergrad school and enrolls in graduate school. There she meets a handsome, charming, gifted French exchange student with an undiagnosed anxiety disorder. He is from a working class home that has groomed him for success,
but his anxiety and lack of family role models undermine his self-image. He is about to drop out of college before he meets her. Both are smitten by each other and embark on a quest to make him a successful architect and establish a family. Racists assail the marriage. For more than two decades I wrote and rewrote my memoir and changed its title until a classmate’s remark that he was “damaged goods” gave me the most appropriate title for my book.
Montage is a book of poems and stories on historical or contemporary topics, mostly autobiographical.
When did you start writing? When did you know you wanted to write a book?
I started writing in elementary school, but I had my first creative writing class at Haven Junior High School. My mother tended to be dramatic, and she wanted to be a writer, so when she helped me with my homework, she made me write interesting sentences although she had not yet completed high school. I also began to keep a diary in junior high school because I was a repressed child and needed an outlet for my emotions. My background taught me that girls “were to be seen and not heard.”
I am able to access my emotions more directly through poetry because of its rhythm, conciseness and careful word choice.
In your book Damaged Goods you talk about living in France. How would you say that living overseas changes the way you view living in America?
Living in France allowed me to see that Americans behaved differently abroad and people from other countries had stereotypes of Americans that were both positive and negative. It allowed me to compare the two countries, decide what I liked in each and what I wanted to take home with me. It stimulated my curiosity about the world and my own country. I would like to have the money to travel all over America, learning about it. Listening to news in France also made me aware that my country’s news broadcasts were biased in favor of its allies. My eyes were opened, and I became less naïve.
Both of your books share intimate details of your life and having Southern family ties. Does sharing your story help you process what you have experienced?
I did not actually grow up in the South. I grew up with stories about the South that I later researched to better understand my family’s past. Researching and writing about family history helped me understand myself and my family. I was born in Alabama, but I grew up in Evanston, Illinois, separate from my extended family.
Would you recommend others to write about their life experiences, even if they don’t put it in book form? Why?
Yes, I think everyone should write about their experiences and the things that interest them whether or not they publish them. Writing is a way of exploring topics more deeply. It is also a way to handle pain, rage and shame without hurting yourself or others. It also helps to put pieces of one’s life together. I imagine some people go through life never understanding themselves or the people around them. Publishing one’s writing, however, can give power to the powerless. My life has been shattered by powerful people and organizations. Writing a memoir gives me the possibility of connecting with those who might help me resolve pressing problems and air grievances.
Are you planning to write another book?
If my health issues can be addressed successfully, I would like to write other books and revise my children’s book Mom is a Foreigner.
Some writers have a favorite writing spot, or a time of day they prefer to write in, others need a cup of tea or to listen to their favorite songs. Do you have any rituals to your writing?
I need absolute quiet to write; therefore, I have to write very early in the morning or at night when there are few distractions. I am a nervous person.
What advice would you give to aspiring writers and poets?
If you write for publication, you have to be sensitive to the responses of others, especially if they are paying you or have the power to hurt you. The Charlie Hebdo tragedy is an excellent example of that. However, you have to decide how much you can compromise. If you shave off too much of what you think, your writing will no longer be authentic. You have to choose your audience because everyone will not appreciate your writing. During earlier times in history writers handled the danger of critical writing by clothing their criticisms in fiction. You should also be careful about sharing your writing until you have established legal ownership of it. Everyone has stories in their lives worth writing about, but some writers (even wealthy, powerful ones) will steal an idea or more from unprotected writers.