Maya Angela Smith is an associate professor of Francophone studies at the University of Washington, Seattle with a PhD in Romance Languages and Linguistics from UC Berkeley. Her scholarship broadly focuses on the intersection of race, language, and mobility among marginalized groups in the African diaspora, particularly in the postcolonial francophone world, seen most notably in her academic monograph Senegal Abroad: Linguistic Borders, Racial Formations, and Diasporic Imaginaries (University of Wisconsin Press, 2019). Her recent focus on public scholarship allows her to bring her expertise in racial and cultural identity formation to a more general audience interested in cultural and social aspects of the entertainment industry.
During her sabbatical year from the University of Washington, she has been writing a memoir for lay readers. It is the memoir of the life of Alvenia Bridges, a woman she rented living space from in NY when she’d gone there to research for an academic project. Maya found her landlady’s life and art treasures fascinating, and the women’s instant liking of one another fostered her ideas. She had to finish her academic project first but knew she would get to the memoir book project next.
The following is a Q & A I did with Maya about the project, the history of undertaking it and the concerns she’s had as a writer. I think you will find her tackling of someone else’s life story and her decisions on how to structure the book inspiring.
Sheila: How did your background and training bring you to this new book you are working on?
Maya: This book, Reclaiming Venus: The Many Lives of Alvenia Bridges, basically fell into my lap. Through a series of fortunate events, I ended up renting a room from Alvenia Bridges in the summer of 2014 while conducting qualitative fieldwork in New York City for Senegal Abroad, an academic book on language and identity in the Senegalese diaspora. Once I learned snippets of the fascinating life that Alvenia had led, I knew that it was important to record her stories in addition to the stories I was collecting for my academic project. So, I would come home each night exhausted by the hours spent interviewing members of the Senegalese community but also excited because my day of gathering stories would have only just begun. My evenings became my opportunity to learn about Alvenia’s life. Then, near the end of my time in New York City, she intimated that she had always wanted to write her memoir and inquired if I would be interested. I knew I couldn’t take on a project like this right away because of my academic commitments, but if she was still looking for a writer in a couple years, I would be honored. Now in 2020 publishing her story is my primary focus.
Sheila: How did your previous work in academia help you continue to organize and approach this project?
Maya: I always tell the students in my Qualitative Research Methods course that the skills they learn can serve them in their non-academic endeavors: formulating research questions; conducting semi-formal interviews with detailed interview guides; transcribing interview data; coding (a rigorous form of note-taking), analyzing, and thematically sorting transcripts; writing analytic memos to home in on key issues explored in the data; and writing reports. However, my experience with this creative non-fiction book illustrates just how transferrable these skills are because I used all of them in the process of creating this book. In particular, my extensive background in interviewing made the conversations I had with Alvenia seem so natural while also being thoroughly informative. Although it’s true that she and I have a natural rapport, my ability to listen was greatly enhanced by my years of interviewing experience. It allowed me to capture not only the impressive moments in her life where she interacted with some of the world’s most recognizable cultural icons, but it permitted us to explore some of the underlying sociological and cultural issues at play. Alvenia’s story offers readers a unique perspective on major cultural moments in musical history while also highlighting the role of race and gender in this history.
Sheila: How did this academic work influence your idea for the structure the story?
Maya: My academic background not only contributed to the research and data collection phase of this project, it also heavily influenced how I decided to tell her story. Because of my training as an ethnographer, my primary goal is to study people’s lives and their relationship to their environments by applying a cultural lens. Artifacts, and the ways in which people interact with them, provide illuminating insight into how we make meaning in the world. It was not surprising then that most of the time, a signed photo of a famous musician or a piece of musical memorabilia was the catalyst for each story she told. Her whole house was covered in these precious artifacts. I realized that her apartment and the memories contained in the photos and memorabilia that decorate her walls keep her grounded in the present while allowing her to return to her illustrious past. Because of their centrality to her life, these treasures serve as the lynchpin to her narrative. Therefore, most chapters begin with images of these artifacts along with a description from my first-person perspective about how Alvenia relates to them. Then the POV switches to Alvenia’s first-person voice as she chronicles particular experiences from her past. This structure best models the actual way that Alvenia unveiled her life story to me.
In addition to the centrality of the artifacts, I wanted to privilege settings in the organizational structure. Alvenia’s ability to move throughout the world, from Kansas City, to Los Angeles, to New York, to Paris, and beyond after having grown up in a town that would not even let her move within the white-only sections highlights the importance of mobility in her narrative. Leaving her segregated childhood did not mean the end to structural inequities, however. Whether in the fashion or music industry, she navigated spaces that were not meant for her, either as a woman or a black person or both. Her ability to live her life fully, authentically, and on her terms when she was never supposed to, represents for me the true value in her life story.
Therefore, for the first part of the book, I structure each chapter around a specific city and then give detailed accounts of important settings within each city, such as the Whisky-a-Go-Go in Los Angeles, the Speakeasy in London, Il Covo di Nord-Est in Portofino, or Studio 54 in New York, where much of Alvenia’s story takes place. Ethnography is about understanding people in their cultural setting so this is in line with how I approach setting in my academic work. Then, in the second part of the book, the chapters center around Alvenia’s experience with particular people, such as Roberta Flack, Rolling Stones, Bill Graham, and others to emphasize the relational aspect of her experiences. And finally, the third section of the book more closely reflects the ethnographic writing I am used to. I reprise my first-person POV that I use in the prologue and in the explanation of artifacts at the beginning of each chapter to explore present-day issues in Alvenia’s life such as the precarity of her living situation and her health. All in all, I have found that the best structure to unravel Alvenia’s story is by highlighting her relationships to people, places, and things.
Current Table of Contents (section and chapter titles are working titles)
Part I: Dreaming of the World
Chapter 1: The Long Escape from Kansas
Chapter 2: California Living
Chapter 3: Encountering Europe
Chapter 4: Jimi Hendrix in London
Chapter 5: New York City in the Seventies
Part II: People Make the World Go ‘Round
Chapter 6: Roberta Flack and the Business of Showbusiness
Chapter 7: On the Road with the Stones
Chapter 8: Bill Graham Presents
Chapter 9: The Spirit Moves through Words and Music
Chapter 10: Getting Personal
Chapter 11: Rock Bottom
Part III: Living in the Present in the Wake of the Past
Chapter 12: The Sugar Bar
Chapter 13: There’s No Place Like Home
Chapter 14: Remembering the Rock and Roll Revolution
Sheila: What is the most exciting part to you of working on a book that is outside academia?
Maya: The most exciting part is the prospect that people will actually get to read my work. Academics tend to write for other academics. And even though I try to write in a style that is accessible to everyone, the venues in which I publish seldom attract a diverse audience. With this book and its wide appeal, I have the possibility to bring Alvenia’s story to a lot of people.
Sheila: What is it like to write a memoir of someone else’s life? How do you work together?
Maya: I find deep dives into other people’s lives rewarding. I became a professor in the humanities partly because I enjoy analyzing literature, film, music and other types of cultural production to gain insight into the human condition. However, I realized early on that I couldn’t be a ghost-writer. I needed to write this book in a way in which I was also a character. This desire stems partly from my ethnography background. Much academic writing tries to minimize the researcher/author’s role under the guise of objectivity, but I come from a tradition where acknowledging one’s personal perspective as a researcher is an important part of the research process. By writing a book that toggles between Alvenia’s voice and my voice, I’m able to approach Alvenia’s story through more than one lens. I can, therefore, be true to Alvenia’s understanding of her life while also offering other ways of comprehending the social and cultural undercurrents at play.
I’ve been interviewing Alvenia since 2014. Each time I’m in New York, I meet up with her and record our conversations whenever she goes into storytelling mode. I then transcribe everything into a master document, code the transcript, and sort the material into different categories. Once I had over 30 hours of recording, I started to write down her story, jotting down any questions or clarifications to ask her the next time we talk on the phone. I finished the rough draft in late 2019, printed off a copy, and mailed it to Alvenia. She has been reading over and marking up any parts that she feels doesn’t quite represent her. I had planned to meet with her in early March to go over the document but had to cancel my flight to New York because of Covid-19 concerns. This canceled trip definitely threw a wrench in our timeline, so we had to be flexible and creative. We planned to go page by page over the phone during the next couple weeks. This method was less than ideal, partly because Alvenia and I work much better in person and partly because the stress that Alvenia has been under from being in the epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak has made it hard for her to focus. One of the things that I’ve learned in my years of fieldwork is that things never go as planned. I decided to stop using my phone calls to try to elicit information from her and instead I now just focus on being a supportive friend. Instead of methodically going through the manuscript, we are taking a more organic approach. If she remembers something about the manuscript, she tells me and I write down her thoughts. This method has been somewhat fruitful but will take a while. I will incorporate her feedback into the second draft but have already started looking for an agent. I deciding the querying agents and updating the manuscript will be done simultaneously.
Sheila: What is the most exciting part to you of working on this particular book?
Maya: I’m having a lot of fun getting to learn about the inner workings of the music industry against the backdrop of cultural history from the 1950’s through the 1980’s. It’s also exciting to work on a topic that so easily draws your average person in. Almost everyone I talk to has heard of Roberta Flack or the Stones or the numerous other people with whom Alvenia has crossed paths. When I mention parts of her story, they want to know more. While I find my academic work tremendously exciting, it’s usually harder to convince others of why the topic matters. I don’t have to do any convincing with Alvenia’s story. It draws everyone in.
Sheila: What is the hardest part?
Maya: Dates. Alvenia has no concepts of dates. She will tell a story with astounding details. She can tell me what she’s wearing, who’s she with, what they are like, where she is, etc, but she can’t give me a ballpark date, not even the decade in which something occurred. Alvenia just doesn’t engage with time in that way. Dates are important to me in writing her story because I need a sense of the timeline. Besides, since the cultural history factor of Alvenia’s story is so important, it’s imperative that the reader know when things are happening. The lack of dates also has made corroborating her stories difficult. As someone with a research background, I approach the material with due diligence. I want to verify everything that’s verifiable. However, I’ve found novel ways to crosscheck many of the things Alvenia has said. For instance, I had access to Alvenia’s expired passport from the late 70s to the late 80s. I made a chart of every passport stamp with entrance and exit dates and locations. I was then able to match this chart up with a timeline I had created of Alvenia’s life. While she was on the road with Roberta Flack and the Stones, I was able to track down exact dates from her passport and verify them against concert data archives. The whole process has been quite the scavenger hunt—a lot of fun.
Sheila: What are your hopes for the eventual readers of this book? Their takeaways and transformations?
Maya: For Alvenia, this project fulfills her dream of sharing her story with the world. She has spent her life behind the scenes, mesmerized by the power that these various artists have in changing people’s lives. She now wants to mobilize her story and transform others through art. For me, this project reclaims a space for Alvenia Bridges’s narrative not only in widening the history of Rock N’ Roll and fashion but in telling of everyday heroism amidst systematic erasure of black women’s voices. In other words, I want it to rectify the silencing of black women’s voices and the erasing of their labor, which has skewed the public’s understanding of the many contributions that black women make in various cultural spheres. And because I’m an academic at heart, I am excited that this book can help readers think critically about how we humans engage with various environments and each other and about the complex interplay of power and privilege embedded in these relationships.
Sheila: What do you think you will work on next?
Maya: I have two book projects in the queue. After publishing Alvenia’s memoir, I plan to return to more traditionally academic work. Just because I have tenure doesn’t mean I can completely stop my research agenda in French and Francophone Studies. I, therefore, want to conduct a sociolinguistic, ethnographic project similar to what I did in Senegal Abroad, this time in the French Caribbean. I will interview people in Martinique and Guadeloupe, both French overseas departments, as well as Haiti, a former French colony and current francophone country, to understand the language attitudes that they harbor for French, Creole, and other languages as well as the ways in which they identify racially, nationally, and regionally.
The next project will then be a family history. I want to explore how my own family has used education as a tool for social mobility and how this fits into larger societal issues in US history and present day. What was it like for my paternal grandfather to become the first black superintendent of Virginia schools only a few years after schools were integrated in that state? What was it like for my maternal grandmother to be a high school English teacher and Shakespeare specialist at a segregated school and how did her belief that her black students were just as smart as the white students at the well-funded school down the road instill her students with the confidence to thrive in a country that devalued them? How did my grandparents who were the grandchildren of enslaved African Americans accomplish what they did against the backdrop of Jim Crow? What did their sacrifices allow my generation to do? This book would be another creative non-fiction project, because while there will be an academic element, I want the themes of this story to be accessible to a larger readership.
Sheila: There are many Writing It Real members who want to tell someone else’s story. What advice to you have for them about structure, interviews, note-taking, research, sensing what is important and putting themselves in the story as you did—the whole gamut of what you have managed in learning and telling Alvenia’s story.
Maya: For me, the telling of someone else’s story is a very organic process. You can be armed with notions of best practices but really it’s all about trusting your gut and feeding off the energy of the other person to know what’s best for the story. I originally hadn’t planned to put myself in Alvenia’s story, but because I wanted to offer my own perspective without putting words into Alvenia’s mouth, I realized the best way to do so was to include myself. This way I can highlight different generational perspectives of black womanhood, a theme that is central to Alvenia’s narrative.
Sheila: What does it mean to the writing to put yourself in someone else’s story?
Maya: Putting yourself in someone else’s story accentuates human interconnectedness. Alvenia doesn’t exist in a vacuum. She influences and is influenced by the people in her life including me. The important thing is to not make your own character eclipse the person whose story you are telling. But when done right, your inclusion can enhance that person’s story.
Sheila: Then how did you translate the overwhelming part of the task into the structure you are using? Tell us what you struggled with to make the task doable.
Maya: Decisions about structure are probably the most difficult to make because there are so many different ways you can tell a story and they each have pros and cons. I decided to use the chapters from my first-person perspective as a framing narrative as well as my discussion of artifacts at the beginning of each chapter from Alvenia’s perspective because this structure mimics how I came across Alvenia’s rich material. It allows the reader to be introduced to Alvenia and uncover her story much of the same way as someone who might meet Alvenia in person. The biggest struggle was making sure that nothing in the structure overwhelmed or detracted from the power of the narrative.
Sheila: What is important to learn about interviewing a live subject, whether or not you have an easy rapport?
Maya: The most important thing you can do is listen. It’s great to make the discussion seem like a conversation, but you shouldn’t say any more than what’s needed. I see the interview as a gently guided, one-sided conversation that allows the interviewee to show expertise in a certain subject. But it’s equally important that you come prepared. You should write up an interview guide listing topics to be covered and open-ended non-leading questions to ask for each topic. Questions such as “then what happened?” or “do you have a specific example?” are great when there are gaps in the conversation. And if you want more info about something, try “it sounds like you had a pretty strong reaction to that. Can you tell me more?” I have found Kathy Charmaz’s Constructing Grounded Theory to be a great source for qualitative research practices.
Sheila: Did you have a system of notetaking and keeping research?
Maya: As for nuts and bolts advice about research and data collection, I treat everything as if it matters. This is why I either record all our conversations or take simultaneous notes (particularly in our phone conversations). I systematically transcribe any recordings and thematically sort all written data. You never know when something will prove important or worthy of inclusion.
Sheila: Finally, what is your primary advice to those who want to write someone else’s story?
Maya: Do it! Just make sure you know why you are doing it, what you can bring to the story that others might not, and what the person whose story you are telling benefits from your narration of their life.
Sheila: I must ask: What has Alvenia thought of your written account?
Maya: Alvenia has been blown away about how much her story on paper sounds like she dictated it herself. She sees herself in the writing. That is the biggest compliment I can receive, because it means I’m staying true to her words. I make it a point to stay close to the transcripts so that I’m telling her life through her eyes. However, because I am also incorporating the historical background that surrounds her lived experiences, I am bringing in research that goes beyond her recollections. In addition, I am overlaying my own social reading of the events in her life and making links to larger cultural phenomena because that is what I do as a scholar. So it’s important to get her feedback when I follow these different threads to ensure that she doesn’t feel that the narrative is running away from her. It’s a balancing act of conveying her truths while also ruminating on larger societal truths.
In her feedback, she usually just has small, specific changes for me to make. For instance, in an earlier draft from the Kansas chapter, she informed me that she never wore cornrows because her hair was too thin. She kept her hair in four large braids. This was information that hadn’t come out in the interviews and that I had imagined as I was building the scenes and the characters. I simply went through and changed any references to cornrows. Alvenia’s stories are very plot-driven so I often have to imagine what people look like, how they dress, what they wear etc. and then get direction from Alvenia later if details don’t mesh with her memories. As I mentioned earlier, these are details she remembers vividly, but they aren’t always at the forefront of her mind. The action sequences in her memories take precedent mainly because what she has experienced is so mind-blowing.
Sheila: Thank you, Maya, for letting us know so much about your project. Learning the story of how this book was born will stay with me. When do you expect the book to be published and where can we find out more about you and your work?
Maya: I’m hoping the book will be published by the end of next year. I am currently querying agents and hope to have representation that will lead me to a book deal. You can find out more about my work on my university profile page at https://frenchitalian.washington.edu/people/maya-angela-eipe-smith.