Huntington WV native Marie Manilla is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her novel, “The Patron Saint of Ugly,” which won the Weatherford Award, is set in a fictionalized version of the Gallaher Village neighborhood where she grew up. “Shrapnel,” also set in Huntington, won The Fred Bonnie Award for Best First Novel. Stories in her collection, “Still Life with Plums,” first appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Prairie Schooner, Mississippi Review, Calyx, and other journals. Her essays have appeared in Word Riot, Cossack Review, Solstice, Under the Sun, and other venues. Marie continues to live in Huntington with her husband, Don Primerano. WestVirginiaVille’s Minister of Paragraphs Connie Kinsey had “5 Questions” for the writer.
WVVLLE: I know from our conversations that you recently scrapped a finished novel. As I understand it, the protagonist and key characters were LGBTQ+. And/or people of color. Tell me more about that.
Marie Manilla: This is a complicated issue, so this won’t be a short answer. Here goes: I set out to write the history of a mythical West Virginia town so that readers could watch the city take root, thrive, and ultimately crumble into addiction and the crimes that support it. You can’t write West Virginia history without digging up our Virginia roots, slavery, and the displacement of Natives.
The novel was also about the exploitation of the have-nots by the haves—something West Virginia also knows all too well. What present-day residents of my fictional city didn’t know was that the town-founding couple included a runaway slave woman passing as white, and a white woman passing as a man.
Naturally, issues of race and gender were front and center. Because I was blurring the lines of sexual identity, one of my primary present-day characters was a transgender woman. I also followed a line of black men whose dreams of getting ahead were consistently dashed by Jim Crow and systemic and institutional racism.
Cultural appropriation is a hot-button issue, and through the years that I worked on the novel, I became increasingly concerned that I didn’t have the right to tell these stories.
When I started the novel back in 2012, I didn’t fully consider the implications of my slipping into the heads of transgender and African American characters. Cultural appropriation is a hot-button issue, and through the years that I worked on the novel, I became increasingly concerned that I didn’t have the right to tell these stories.
People fall on both sides of this debate. Writers like Zadie Smith and Colson Whitehead say go for it, just don’t eff it up. Plenty of other folks say: ‘Don’t go near it!‘ When I finished the novel and a press offered a contract, I expressed my concerns, especially since I wasn’t confident that I hadn’t effed it up. The lovely acquisitions editor offered to send the manuscript to an African American and a transgender sensitivity reader (that’s a thing). The African American reader had few problems with my portrayals of blacks, but she did point out areas that I now see were my presentations of black people filtered through my white gaze. The transgender reader was more direct, and I am eternally grateful. He pointed out areas where I was ham-handed in my language to the point of offensiveness.
I cringe to think of it now. I revised the novel based on their astute guidance, then reached out to another well-known transgender writer who was blessedly blunt about the mood in the trans community when it comes to cis writers, even well-meaning ones, telling their stories. That’s when I pulled the plug. A different writer might come to a different conclusion, but for me it boiled down to fear that my writing skills weren’t up to the task— and more important, respect. I have such deep respect for the African American and transgender communities, and it’s time for them to tell their own stories.
Does this sadden me as a writer? Yes. I’ve always loved slipping on other people’s shoes in my fiction. That’s how I process the world. But as a cis, white writer, I’ll never know what it’s like to live inside a transgender or African American person’s skin, so how could I ever present their experiences authentically? I had to admit that, for me, I could not.
WVVILLE: I read in your biography that you grew up in Huntington, but went to Texas. How and why did you end up back here? Why do you stay?
MM: All my exes live in Texas, as they say (well, I only have one ex). I moved to Houston after getting my BFA in graphic design from WVU. I spent seven years there, married and divorced, and needed a fresh start. I was planning on moving to Vermont, but I stopped to visit with my parents in Huntington. And my dad surprisingly said: “Why don’t you stay here for a couple years until you figure out where you really want to land?”
“Why do I stay? It’s home, as frustrating as that can be at times, especially as a blue progressive in a red-red state.”
I’ll confess: I was a post-divorce mess. I took him up on the offer, and it was a good move. I spent that time getting my MA in English at Marshall (I’d started writing fiction while in Houston). After that, I went for an MFA in Iowa. I figured that upon graduation I’d look for a teaching gig, wherever I could find one. But my father died suddenly while I was in the program. So, after graduation, I moved back to West Virginia to help my mother.
Why do I stay? It’s home, as frustrating as that can be at times, especially as a blue progressive in a red-red state. But I met my current husband here and we’ve put down solid roots. And Huntington is seeing a wonderful renaissance. My husband and I sometimes talk about moving after retirement, maybe to his hometown of Pittsburgh. More often than not we end the conversation with his favorite dictum about the Mountain State: “Mama, we’re in the promised land.”
WVVILLE: You attended the prestigious Iowa Writers Workshop (I am sooooooooo jealous). Tell me about that experience.
MM: Back then (1990s) it was as competitive as you’ve heard, and not in a good way. More destructive than constructive, in my opinion. I don’t think my confidence every fully recovered.
“The goal is to teach you to drive by your own headlights.” ~ Marilyn Robinson
I will say that I’m a better writer for having gone through it, and isn’t that what MFAs are all about? I’m a better critical reader of my own work, or as Marilyn Robinson said: “The goal is to teach you to drive by your own headlights.” I also met some wonderful writers and human beings there. I think the program is kinder under new leadership. At least I hope it is.
WVVILLE: You write literary fiction. Do you get pigeonholed as an Appalachian writer? Is that a good thing or a bad thing?
MM: I do get pigeonholed, and it’s mostly a good thing.
My work explores the human condition, in all our frailties and glories. So, I hope it’s universal and transcends geography. The majority of my work is set in West Virginia, but it’s not the West Virginia some readers might expect to encounter. I’m from Huntington, which was the largest city in the state when I grew up with a population of about 75,000. Thus, my experiences were more urban than rural, and that’s reflected in my work.
The only time it’s bad to be labeled any of these names is when literary elite (the ‘snotty literati,’ as I call them) use them as pejoratives to disregard or belittle our work.
My roots aren’t very deep here either. My paternal grandparents were from Italy, and my father and his siblings were the first to be born in West Virginia. I can’t claim to have seven generations of Appalachian kin like so many families from around here.
I’ve also been called a regional writer and a southern writer (though West Virginia sided with the Union). The only time it’s bad to be labeled any of these names is when literary elite (the ‘snotty literati,’ as I call them) use them as pejoratives to disregard or belittle our work.
Labels can be a way of classifying folks below the Mason-Dixon line in a negative way, like not having one’s work taken seriously. Or having it relegated to the skinny “Regional” shelf at the back of the store, as if we’re poor relations. What I know about Appalachian writers, however, is that we are fierce and fabulous and stick together. ‘Grit lit‘ is a mainstay, and it is ferocious. Appalachian writers and readers have certainly championed my work, and for that I am grateful.
WVVILLE: Writing groups are heavy on my mind these days. Do you have one? What do you get from it?
MM: Within a year or two after moving back from Iowa, I knew I needed a writing community to keep me honest. I was a founding member of the Black Dog Writers, then moved on to The Rogues. I’m currently in a group with three other women, and it’s the first time I’ve been in a group with mixed genres.
It’s nice to be with other writers who fully understand the highs and lows of this wacky calling.
Mary Moore is a poet; Rachael Peckham writes nonfiction and poetry; and Diane Wellman writes fiction and nonfiction. I’m writing nonfiction these days. So, it’s been especially helpful to be able to test the waters with these pros. We aren’t a critique group per se, but when we get together, we share bits of what we’ve been working on. Ask questions if we want to. Mostly we’re just supportive and encouraging.
Mary Moore and I also email accountability reports every Monday. When you know you have to offer an accounting, it keeps your butt in the chair. But even when we’re not writing (and we all need downtime) we still report: I painted my living room; I planted tomatoes; I binge-watched “Ozark.” We also celebrate each other’s successes (stellar writing days, publication acceptances) and bummers (couldn’t write a lick, form rejections).
It’s nice to be with other writers who fully understand the highs and lows of this wacky calling.
For more on Marie Manilla and her work, visit www.mariemanilla.com
MARIE MANILLA | Part 2: “Madness”: “Bev screamed: “It’s Joey!” The sweet boy so many girls loved. Did he even drive a white car? I think we all knew it wasn’t Joey asphyxiated inside that vehicle, but it could have been him. It could have, and it felt good to whip ourselves into a frenzy—yet another asylum-able offense.”