Interview with Shara McCallum

Writer Shara McCallum dicusses her essay, "Snapshots in Black and White"


Q…Could you talk you about the tension in your essay between discursivity (“proceeding to a conclusion through reason”) and lyricism? More simply, do you find your essay to be the result of a clash between the concerns of a poet and the concerns of an intellectual trying to make sense of their experience with race and racism.

McCallum…The modes of writing associated with argument and poetry are often described as being in opposition (as a “clash” as you say here as well). I don’t tend to think of them that way. I think poetry is rhetorical. It just provides a different way to advance an argument or think through an intellectual problem than does what we regard as traditional rhetoric. That alternate method is what I think we mean when we say a piece of writing is “lyrical”—that it employs a form of argument which is more circuitious and indirect in its apparent logic and is more concerned with emotional and sensory appeals than with direct statement of an idea. In the end, as an essayist, I find both the lyric and discursive modes of writing invaluable.

Having said all of this, I didn’t think through this distinction between “discursivity” and “lyricism” before writing that essay. “Snapshots” is an essay I wrote six years ago and is the first essay I composed since coming back to the form as a writer (I’m drawing a distinction here between my writing of this essay and my writing of the kinds of compositions we all had assigned to us in school). I wrote the essay in the only way that I could see to try to articulate the complexities of my personal experience with race and with the philosophy of race, and in the way I tend to think, which is both in images, in “snaphots,” and through utterance, or discursivity.

Q…Early on the in the essay you write: “Schizophrenia is not a metaphor. Race is not a metaphor.” I wonder if you could talk about this decision to restrict and even forbid the reader from reading schizophrenia and race as “examples” allowed to resonate broadly and create larger connections, as one might say a poem invites the reader to do.

McCallum…In the moment where I do that in the essay, I’m talking about my father specifically and the fact that his schizophrenia and conflict over his racial identity were real and tangible, not just an abstraction or a literary device. There’s a tendency in theoretical circles (particularly literary ones) to want to view race (and mental illness also works this way) as a metaphor for anyone’s existential angst or as evidence of our “post-modern” malaise. While that may be a way to “universalise” the experience, it also dismisses and skips over the actual historical and physical contexts for particular individuals.

I obviously believe very much in metaphor, as I employ it in both my poems and essays to create multiple layers of meaning. When I make the statement, “Schizophrenia is not a metaphor. Race is not a metaphor,” I’m even acknowledging that, in the first few sentences of the essay, I have played on the fact that race and mental illness can and often do function as symbol. But, I think it’s crucial to remember that metaphor functions not only on the level of the symbolic but also on the level of the real. In my statement, “Schizophrenia…,” I’m reminding myself, as much as the reader, of that fact.