TWO AMERICAS PASSING STRANGE - AN INTERVIEW WITH SALLY MACLEOD
"England woke me up in lots of ways. It's very easy, too easy, to be an American and be unaware of the rest of the world. I was living in quite a sophisticated environment in Manhattan and I came to England at a mature age and was still startled that there was a world outside of America. Terrible. But it's true for a lot of Americans. I think it should be compulsory for anyone outside of a developing country to live outside their country."
Richard Marshall interviews Sally MacLeod
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3AM: You were connected with the film Union City. Tell us about your involvement.
SM: My role came about because my husband wrote, cast and directed it. Marcus Reichert. I was supposed to have a much bigger part. We had a wonderful scene dancing together. I was a floozy at the bar and he was the bartender but I'm afraid it got cut. I'd love to do more with him. We do work together in that we confer all the time. Whatever we are working on we collaborate at that level.
3AM: Are you a dissenting character? Do you like to challenge things?
SM: I do now. I was very slow to wake up to the state of the world. I think it wasn't until I came to England that I started paying attention, even remotely. I came when I was thirty and have been here pretty much ever since, except for our self-exile on Main Street, in North Carolina, which was what prompted Passing Strange. England woke me up in lots of ways. It's very easy, too easy, to be an American and be unaware of the rest of the world. I was living in quite a sophisticated environment in Manhattan and I came to England at a mature age and was still startled that there was a world outside of America. Terrible. But it's true for a lot of Americans. I think it should be compulsory for anyone outside of a developing country to live outside their country. Certainly Americans anyway!
3AM: Has this changed since September 11th?
SM:It's more urgently required! I think there was a shining moment when it seemed possible that America would wake up to the fact that it was part of a world community, and while some Americans have, the Bush administration is doing its best to bend the world to its will. It's terrifying.
3AM: What was it about England?
SM: Well, I could put it like this. Marcus and I had been in England about ten years when we bought the house in North Carolina. And for a while we went back and forth between there and Northumberland. This was ideal to me because in North Carolina it would be sunny and cheap and cheerful, and innocent with this sort of willed innocence that America specialises in somewhat, and then you'd come back to Northumberland and it'd be cold and dreary and expensive and ironic. A great combination.
3AM: Tell me about the novel Passing Strange.
SM: It's about a woman who transforms herself through cosmetic surgery.
3AM: And there's a race issue too.
SM: One of the reviews said Passing Strange was a novel about "looks and its poisonous sub-species race," which I thought was very well put. I wanted to write about the ways, the many ways, we judge each other. I originally set out to write a book about Beauty and the Beast with the genders reversed. And then as I said we went to live in the South, having found a beautiful old derelict house when we went to visit my mother who had retired there. We ended up spending five years there and I was confounded by what I saw, and intrigued. And I wanted to load that into the book. So race found its way into the story.
3AM: Is there a difference between the British and the American take on race? Do you think it will translate?
SM: I hope it will, although it's a very American story. Racism is endemic but race in America is a much more fraught subject, much more precarious. When I came back to England after five years in America, I would watch TV and my jaw would drop, because I'd see a drama involving a mixed-race couple and that wouldn't be the point of the drama! You'd see commercials with mixed-race couples advertising British Gas and to me this was striking. Things had moved on in the mid-90's while I was away, in that regard. I was very impressed. But in America, where they don't really like to dwell on how much the race problem exists, it's very different. Of course, there's been progress in the States too, even in the South. All I know about the South is what I discovered in this town, population of 10,000. So I don't want to be unfair to more cosmopolitan areas like Atlanta, but I was dismayed enough by what I found in this town that I wanted to put it into the book.
The book is really trying to talk about how crucial our looks are. We are our appearance, to a huge extent. It's exhilarating, it's depressing but we're stuck with this fact. And our appearance also affects the way we perceive ourselves. Every morning the mirror tells us who we are. My heroine Claudia, who may actually be more of an anti-heroine, was born painfully plain. She had a very difficult time, a very heavy load. She has major cosmetic surgery at the behest of her husband and at the age of thirty-three she becomes a new woman. Just after her surgery she and her husband move from Vermont, where I grew up and where you see very few black people, to the South, where she discovers a whole new world of black people. And the innate racism she's encountering excites her memories of the humiliation she felt as a girl. The book refers to something that is a bit part taboo and part cliché in America, which is that white people are fascinated by black people. It's been a long time since Lou Reed sang "I Wanna Be Black" but it goes on. And it's not politically correct to say so, but there you are. I think black people know more than enough about white people but things in the other direction are not so equitable. I was amazed when OJ Simpson was acquitted. I wasn't amazed by the fact that he was acquitted, but by the white reaction. It was very disheartening that white America couldn't grasp that those doubts about the police tampering with the evidence would be enough to convince black people that yes, this ties in with what we know about the situation in America, and we're going to acquit on that basis. Walter Mosley I was reading the other day mentioned, and so did Bonnie Greer, the fact that after 9/11 black people were horrified and upset, but they were less surprised than white America. There are really two Americas when it comes down to it. Sad to say.
3AM: You're also writing about the woman's point of view as well. This idea that you are what you are seen as, maybe it's not just race but particular to women. That idea of identity being intimately connected with being seen.
SM: Women of every race feel much more self aware in that sense, I'm sure. I think most women are always aware of their faces. Women feel much more exposed, and therefore more analytical about other people's appearances. In the case of Claudia, her husband sinks into the South, the hospitality, the joviality, and it even triggers a little bit of his own racism. So while he's enjoying that side of things Claudia is retreating, partly because she's deeply annoyed that for the first time in her life she's being welcomed with open arms, now that she's attractive. She resents people's attraction to her. And of course she never quite believes in her new face, never believes that this miracle has happened. She will never be as happy in her skin as her lover Calvin is in his. It's a tricky one.
3AM: This is not a typical easy read.
SM: I hope not! I was very angry in the South. I kept writing letters to the newspaper! This was the little newspaper that I make a bit of fun of in the book. It was pretty fascinating. There's a police scanner column that's full of more gun violence than you want to know about. It's all heavily laced with Christianity. Quotes from the Bible under the masthead, etc. Most of the writers are espousing hugely conservative values. I soon discovered that any letter I wrote would get printed, which gives you a very over-inflated sense of your own importance! So I would write letters and letters would be printed from people who were disgusted with me. But occasionally I'd be approached by a stranger who would say "Did you write that letter to the youth minister who thinks we should bring back Christian prayer in school?" and I would I say "Yes," warily. And they'd say "Well done!" Of course, I was cravenly signing these letters in my maiden name, but now that my book is out in my maiden name my cover's blown. The book is selling like hot cakes there. I did a reading in the town and people said some very nice things. Some people really did connect with my intentions. Others, I will never know. My mother was building a bomb shelter in her back yard she was so worried about the reaction it would get. Eventually it dawned on me that the interracial love story might rile more people than what I said about the racism.
3AM: And did it?
SM: I don't know. They're too nice to say. It's a shame about the South. It's the most seductive place on earth - it's so sensual. Physically you're very there when you're there. I used to think, if I believed in God and the death penalty this would be heaven on earth. The status quo rules with a pretty heavy hand. You were always a Yankee. The South is still very involved in the Civil War, and I think Southerners are slightly unaware of how much this interest is a Southern thing. For instance, I was with my sister-in-law in the post office once and I said "Look, where else would you see a book for sale about the Civil War?" and a man said, "Oh, this is just federal -- I'm sure this is in all the post offices in America." He was genuinely surprised when we assured him it wasn't. The South is almost a country unto itself and it encourages this isolationism, this specialness. And the rest of America tends to try to excuse the South for its views, such as they still are. On the grounds of its singular history, Southern racism is sort of rationalised and swept under the rug. Somehow it's distinct from the rest of America, is the view. But it is part of America and it's a pretty big part. I should add though that none of the characters in my book is untainted by racism, and that includes the Yankees.
3AM: You were a model.
SM: Very briefly. Modeling was interesting. It's not mind-expanding but what you learn above all else is about the importance of appearance and how completely hung-up people can be on the icon aspect of modeling.
3AM: There's quite a thing at the moment about Jamie Lee Curtis having had photos done of herself looking dreadful or something?
SM: I think she may have done it with the best intentions in the world, but to me it looks a little calculated. Maybe not. There might be a movement afoot where a whole lot of women of a certain age don't want to opt for cosmetic surgery and they're going to bang the drum in the opposite direction. And I think that would be terrific. I don't want to have cosmetic surgery and I'd be very happy if no one else did. Let's keep a level playing field! We'll see. It might be all to the good.
3AM: I was talking to two women the other day about all this.
SM: What did they think?
3AM: Well they were terribly conflicted. On the one hand they were thinking cosmetic surgery bad because of the tyranny of the body etc, etc. but good because it liberated you and placed your appearance into your own hands.
SM: Hmm. Well, there's a big difference between cosmetic surgery that alters a huge nose that's making you miserable at 17 and making you unable to leave the house, and cosmetic surgery that chases youth. Because chasing youth is a mug's game! I'd love to think that women my age are going to say that they aren't going to have cosmetic surgery but it'll be interesting to see what happens.
3AM: So who are your heroes? You've mentioned Bonnie Greer.
SM: I think my heroes tend to be more fiction writers. Not particularly political writers at all. The Canadian writer Alison Munro comes to mind. She's very interested in women's stories but I don't know whether she'd describe herself as a feminist.
3AM: So you've done this. You've written the book, it's causing a bit of a stir. Where do you go next?
SM: I'd like to write another book that's upsetting. That sounds a bit pompous. I'm just very pleased that some readers seem to like going where this book goes. I was holding my breath about what certain of my Southern friends would say and they thought I was pretty sympathetic to the South. Fair. I just think that race is one of the last things in America that should be untalked about, especially since there's a conspiracy to pretend that there's not much of a problem any more. Another thing that comes into Passing Strange is the death penalty. I discovered that you could go down to the local courthouse in my town and sit in on capital cases, including the jury selection. I'd never lived in a capital punishment state, other than New York, where they never enact it any more. So this was interesting. First thing they do when they've got a capital case and are choosing a jury is weed out all the people who say they don't believe in capital punishment. Some prospective jurors say they don't, so they can get out of jury duty, but some are genuinely repulsed by it, and give moving reasons why they could never hand down a death sentence. So when the DAs gotten rid of them, what's left? A death prone jury! This was news to me. Just before we left, the local DA had been a very busy boy and sent three black men to death row for the murder of one white man. Now even in a society that believes in an eye for an eye, which the South very much does, I thought this was a bit much. Don't you?
3AM: Me? Oh my, it just confirms everything I think about America.
SM: But the polls run 2 to 1 in favour of the death penalty. Especially among young people. What's that about? Anyway, that's why I don't see the point in writing a light novel. I'm all for the dark.
3AM: Do you think being a woman has helped you?
SM: I think the hypersensitivity to appearance and the judgmental aspect that goes along with that can be a curse. Not just that you're aware of the reaction you're getting to your own appearance but that as a woman you almost seem programmed to be judgmental. I might be worse than some; I can be pretty bad. But I think men might be shocked if they realised how much women suffer under the tyranny of other people's awareness of them. I mean, look at all these five-year-olds dieting. Not little boys, little girls. Beauty contests for little girls. What does that do to little girls?
3AM: It seems to link to the hysteria about the two little girls who were murdered recently.
SM: Well, this is sticky ground, but I think the fact that they were both extremely pretty girls certainly played into the hands of the media. It seems in England that these abductions happen fairly regularly and I often wonder if they're happening in America at a similar rate. Maybe because America is such a big place, only the most dramatic cases become news. One thing I especially appreciate about England is that the news in general is covered in much greater depth, especially world news. I don't know how much that's to do with the question of scale. America's way too big, it's sort of dazed and overwhelmed by itself.
3AM: Culturally, are we in a good place at the moment?
SM: There's a huge gulf between the films and novels that are trying to say something and those that aren't. I do think that people who are telling stories should be telling stories about morality and the real hard stuff.
3AM: Kind of a punk thing to say. Old fashioned in a way. Certainly not post-modern cool.
SM: Oh my God. I guess not. But as I get older that's what I think about. I was over-stimulated into thinking about these things by my anger. Anger might be a good place to start. It might not be the best place, but I think I'm grateful to my anger.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWEE
Sally MacLeod was raised in Vermont and, after studying at the Rhode Island School of Design, worked in New York, Milan, and London. A subsequent 5-year interlude in a small town in North Carolina inspired her debut novel Passing Strange. Described by the Boston Globe as "an astounding first novel," and by the LA Times as "daring...ambitious...full of brave truths about everything from love, desire and family...to the death penalty," the novel examines issues of interracial sex in the New South, social class, and our obsession with appearance and self-transformation. It also appears in the LA Times Best Books of 2002 List.