Camille T. Dungy is the author of “Soil: The Story of a Black Mother’s Garden.” Dungy has published four books of poetry and edited three anthologies, including “Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry.” Her honors include the 2021 Academy of American Poets Fellowship, a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Colorado Book Award, and an American Book Award. She is a University Distinguished Professor at Colorado State University.
SunLit: Tell us this book’s backstory. What inspired you to write it? Where did the story/theme originate?
Camille Dungy: I’d been interested in writing a book about what grew up from the soil around me. A nature book. I won a Guggenheim fellowship that offered me the opportunity to pursue this goal in 2020. Perhaps you remember some of the things that happened in 2020. That was a pretty complicated year.
While I lived through that year, juggling childcare with attention to my parents, focus on wildfires with awareness of social justice protests, I started wondering more acutely about why it is that I so infrequently see those kinds of very human and domestic realities woven into books about nature.
Why does nature have to be separated from us? What are the stories and possibilities for change that I would miss out on if I bought into the idea that great writing comes out of solitude and isolation? I dug into that question in “Soil: The Story of a Black Mother’s Garden.”
SunLit: Place this excerpt in context. How does it fit into the book as a whole? Why did you select it?
Dungy: This excerpt comes from about one-third of the way through the book, as I am explaining some of what grows in my garden, and some of the people who walk through it.
Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit.
SunLit: Tell us about creating this book. What influences and/or experiences informed the project before you sat down to write? And once you did begin to write, did the work take you in any unexpected directions?
Dungy: Lots of unexpected directions. Life is messy. The world is messy. Admitting that messiness into my line of vision meant my writing often felt messy as well. But working with the messiness and learning how to use that messiness to build a compelling narrative felt like part of the joy.
SunLit: Are there lessons you take away from each experience of writing a book? And if so, what did the process of writing this book add to your knowledge and understanding of your craft and/or the subject matter?
Dungy: Writing an extended book-length narrative was an entirely new thing for this writer who trained as a poet. I’ve written a book of connected essays, and I’ve written four books of poems and edited several anthologies. But this project had many new requirements and options I needed to explore.
Learning to manage plot and time and voice and tension in a cohesive way took care, and a community of wise and loving readers offered invaluable insights as I worked. I came out of the process of writing “Soil” with a much clearer understanding of how to tell a story that holds inside it many stories.
SunLit: What were the biggest challenges you faced in writing this book?
Dungy: I could point to many of the things I mentioned above. But I want to focus here on the work of being honest. I’ve always valued radical and compassionate honesty.
But in this book, I had to write honestly about the harms my own communities have delivered to me and to others, even as these same communities have held me and supported me. Sometimes I wanted to not mention these painful experiences, but few wounds will heal without the benefit of attention and care. I had to expose the wounds.
SunLit: If you could pick just one thing – a theme, lesson, emotion or realization — that readers would take from this book, what would that be?
Dungy: “Efforts to reduce natural diversity nearly always result in some form of depletion.”
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SunLit present new excerpts from some of the best Colorado authors that not only spin engaging narratives but also illuminate who we are as a community. Read more.
SunLit: In a highly politicized atmosphere where books, and people’s access to them, has become increasingly contentious, what would you add to the conversation about books, libraries and generally the availability of literature in the public sphere?
Dungy: It is infuriating to me that any of us should have to defend the importance of books in a nation that prides itself on defending freedom of expression and “liberty and justice for all.”
SunLit: Walk us through your writing process: Where and how do you write?
Dungy: Honestly, given all the balls I am usually juggling, some days all I can manage are 20 minutes of focused attention to what I notice happening around me. Enough of those 20-minute sessions, and eventually I’ll notice a set of trends from which I can develop a narrative.
SunLit: Though your book has a cohesive flow, it also moves in many different directions. Why did you choose to include so many threads?
Dungy: I approached this book in much the same way I’ve approached my garden. In my garden, flowers or other elements recur, connecting the dooryard to the sunflower patch to the rock garden and so on, but within each plot there are fascinating details I like to spend time exploring. So it is also with “Soil.”
SunLit: Tell us about your next project.
Dungy: I like to remain in the present when I release a new book into the world
Quick hits: 10 more quirky questions
SunLit: Do you look forward to the actual work of writing or is it a chore that you dread but must do to achieve good things?
Dungy: Depends on what I had for breakfast.
SunLit: What’s the first piece of writing – at any age – that you remember being proud of?
Dungy: A particularly perfect handmade greeting card I created for my big sister. I was probably 7.
SunLit: When you look back at your early professional writing, how do you feel about it? Impressed? Embarrassed? Satisfied? Wish you could have a do-over?
Dungy: Mostly satisfied. When I first began publishing I always decided first if I would be OK seeing the work in print in five years. If I didn’t think so, then I kept the work back until I felt more confident. As a result, even as I’ve grown as a writer and thinker I don’t find myself embarrassed by my early publishing ventures.
SunLit: What three writers, from any era, can you imagine having over for a great discussion about literature and writing? And why?
Dungy: Joan Didion, James Baldwin, Zora Neale Hurston. I imagine the conversation would be fire.
SunLit: Do you have a favorite quote about writing?
Dungy: I have a file that’s 89 pages long filled with favorite quotes about writing. Follow me on Instagram (@camilledungy). I post these favorite quotes fairly regularly.
SunLit: What does the current collection of books on your home shelves tell visitors about you?
Dungy: Anyone who walks into my house would recognize immediately that I read a lot of books.
SunLit; Soundtrack or silence? What’s the audio background that helps you write?
Dungy: Silence or the chatter of my family.
SunLit: What event, and at what age, convinced you that you wanted to be a writer?
Dungy: My college O-Chem notes have a lot of poems in the margins. One quarter in college, while taking organic chemistry, molecular biology, and reading and writing poetry, I decided that I should shift my major to the one that most fully occupied my mind.
SunLit: As an author, what do you most fear?
Dungy: I try not to be led by fear, so I don’t think I want to think or speak fear into being by answering this question.
SunLit: Also as an author, what brings you the greatest satisfaction?
Dungy: I love it when someone I would never have imagined tells me they’ve read and enjoyed my book.