Martha Southgate’s third novel has just been published by Algonquin Books. It is the story of Josie, a marine biologist who has spent her whole life trying to escape her family back in Cleveland. While the old saying is “you can never go home again,” the truth is that you can never leave home. When her beloved brother Tick is released from rehab, Josie has no choice but to return to the place she worked so hard to leave behind. ESSENCE magazine says, ““With her new book, one of our favorite authors delves into a taboo topic: alcoholism in the Black community … Southgate is one of our most reliable tour guides inside the minds of fictitious Black rebels and outsiders … In a virtuoso balancing act, [she] tells [a] poignant story.” Indeed she does. –TJ
Martha, congratulations on The Taste of Salt. I see the book everywhere and the reviews have been amazing. Why do you think this novel is connecting with so many people?
It’s always hard for a writer to say why his or her work is connecting with readers. Perhaps because we all have families—some of us have families we embrace, some don’t but there’s no getting away from them or around them eventually. Who you are born with helps shape who you are. And I think a story that focuses on that is something that everybody can relate to on some level, even if they don’t share some of the problems that arise for these characters.
I have heard The Taste of Salt described as a novel about “recovery”, but I am not quite sure that this is true. Do you feel that your characters recover? Or is this a novel about addiction? Or is it something else entirely?
Certainly recovery and addiction of various forms are crucial components of it. And my elevator pitch for it refers to a woman wrestling with two generations of alcoholism. But even with that, I don’t quite see it as being “about” addiction or recovery, not only those things anyway. I think of it more as a story about a family that comes apart and then begins to heal to some degree, slowly, imperfectly and tentatively. Recovery is never permanent, over and done with. It’s a series of steps that you keep taking.
On reality shows about addiction, whatever the addiction is, it has to be very visible, disruptive and gross. While addictions to hard drugs and/or prescriptions usually are like that, alcoholism can present differently. John Cheever was an alcoholic and also a ridiculously productive writer, if a bad dad and husband. The best addiction memoir that I read in my research was the late Caroline Knapp’s Drinking: A Love Story. She was an alcoholic for 20 years–she also never missed one day of work. The Taste of Salt presents one of each: Ray with his mostly quiet but constant drinking, is disruptive in a more subtle way than Tick, who keeps noisily relapsing.
What is it about Ohio? So many amazing African American writers hail from the Buckeye state. The most famous is Toni Morrison, but also Rita Dove and A. Van Jordan. Is there something in the water? How did growing up in Ohio shape you as a writer?
I have never been asked that—that’s a good question. I will say that in all my previous novels, I fled from my Cleveland roots as though my ass was on fire. When I moved away, 30 years ago, I shed it like a skin. Josie, my protagonist, and I have that in common. As a city, it’s always been the butt of jokes and often still is. It is also a somewhat parochial city. Unlike other cities greatly impacted by the Great Migration such as Chicago or Detroit, Cleveland somehow missed out on the cool vibe. A lot of growing up there, for a lot of us, is about getting out. That’s also very much one of the projects of this novel. Embracing it, even though I’m not going back there to live. Josie and I do have that in common.
So where is “home” for you?
I always feel a little weird/guilty that I don’t have an instant answer for that question. Part of where my writing comes from is out of a long-time sense of being out of place wherever I am. I kind of had it as a bookish nerd when I was young and it was exacerbated by my decision to go to a primarily white prep school for high school. That’s where my life took a profound turn that continues to work itself out through my fiction. That sense of “only oneness” that you find in my work (even when it’s not cross-racial. Tamara, in Third Girl from the Left, is isolated by her mother’s eccentricities and her own) grows directly out of that experience—which I don’t regret. I am aware, however, that it created both gains and losses. It also added to kind of a long-term sense of slight displacement that has driven my work thus far.
Though I grew up in Cleveland, New York City feels like home to me now. Not just because I’ve lived here longer than I lived in Cleveland now but because I so very much wanted to come here before I lived here—I wanted to go see dance, to be in a city where the movies played the first day they opened, to be part of the rip and rush of it. I have loved that and I still often do. When some weird thing that would only happen here happens to me or I have an art experience I could have nowhere else, I really love it. I also love that for all its social segregation, people of all kinds are pushed up against each other in a way that is easy to avoid in other, more balkanized, car-based cities. At the same time, as happens when you live anywhere long enough, I see the dark side and the imperfections more clearly. I sometimes fantasize about having a pied-a-terre here and living somewhere more bucolic a lot of the time. Of course then I’d have to drive everywhere and there would be zero diversity and probably very few to no black people. That would bug me too. So the displacement continues.
Your work often centers on the issue of being the “only one”– the only black person in a particular context. In this book, Josie is the “only one” in her adult life, but when she is back in Cleveland, she is back in an African American community. Where is home for Josie?
Josie’s struggle, while housed in many things, is very much about her frantic and ultimately unsuccessful effort to get away from the community in which she was raised. At the same time, part of why she falls so hard for Ben is the cultural similarities they share, something she doesn’t share with anyone else in Woods Hole. It turns out that that is not enough to sustain a relationship but that is part of what motivates her. I think for her, the water, where so many of these issues can appear to be washed away, will always be her home in some essential way. But she also has to begin to accept both parts of her life—the African-American community she pushed away and the one in which she lives now. Home is a work in progress for her—except when she’s scuba diving.
You chose to give Josie a career in marine science, a field that is lightly populated by African-Americans. What led to that?
The first germ of it came when I was working at Essence magazine, many years ago. I worked with a terrific editor named Rosemarie Robotham whose husband, Radford Arrindell, is an ichthyologist at the Natural History Museum here in New York. I thought that was an incredibly cool and quirky job. Studying fish? He went to these things called fish rodeos. I love to swim and love the water, though I am no scientist. Of course my “only one” antenna went up as well and the notion just stuck in my mind. Later, when I began writing. Josie’s voice started coming and she wanted to get into the water. So I followed her.
*Check out an excerpt of Tayari Jones’s novel Silver Sparrow.
**Tayari Jones and Martha Southgate will be doing a joint reading at Busboys and Poets on Tuesday, September 20th. For other events featuring Martha Southgate, check out her Appearances page on her web site.