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Writer Carvell Wallace on past pain and forgiveness: Letting go is 'always available'

Macmillian

Award-winning writer Carvell Wallace was 12 when he had a realization: He couldn't rely on anyone else; the only person that would always be with him in the world was himself.

Wallace, who grew up unhoused for a year, sometimes sleeping in a car with his mother, calls the realization "a wounded response ... a way of ensuring myself against the actual feelings."

In his new memoir, Another Word for Love, Wallace writes about his early life with, and without, his mother in western Pennsylvania, Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles. He also chronicles his addictions, becoming a parent and a writer, and coming into his own as a queer Black man.

Wallace didn't start writing until he was 40 years old, beginning with an impassioned Facebook post in response to the death of Black teenager Michael Brown, who was shot and killed by police in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014. He's since written profiles of musicians, athletes and politicians for publications like The New York Times Magazine, Rolling Stone and The New Yorker. He's also the co-author, along with basketball star Andre Iguodala, of The Sixth Man, which chronicles Iguodala's NBA career.

Wallace says he's careful to avoid what he calls "trauma porn" when writing about his own experiences with poverty, racism and homophobia: "There's a weird kind of ghoulish fascination with watching people suffer under oppression for art and for people writing about their oppression and reliving it over and over again."

For his own memoir, Wallace says his focus is on the root of his pain and his recovery from it, rather than the nature of the pain. "This is about what it means to become whole again. This is about living and hope and fullness and the regaining of self. This is about courage," he says.


Interview highlights

On processing his trauma about his mom through writing

I think it was cathartic and healing, ... even though that's cliché, because it helped relieve me of some lingering resentment that I may have still been carrying towards her. Because I believe that, like any resentment that we have, I mean, even if they're justified, they're more harmful to us than they are to anyone else. ... [When] my mother was alive, I had a very complicated relationship with her. On the one hand, I loved her, and it was great. On the other hand, I was mad at her for leaving. I was mad at her for not being there. I was mad at her for the way that the things that happened in my life, as a result of the way that she, in my opinion, chose to live.

On forgiving his mom before she died

Towards the end of her life, I had a real moment of clarity, like two days before she died, where suddenly it dawned on me, oh, wait a second, there's no benefit to me being mad at this person. ... And after that point, I was like, oh, you can actually let go of anything at any time, can't you? That's actually possible. It might not be easy, but it's available to you.

And so it has become really important for my health, but also out of respect for my mother and my ancestry, that I let go of whatever troubles I have with this person — or had — and focus on what their power and beauty and glory was. And I actually believe that there's a real personal and political benefit to that, because it allows me to be empowered. It allows me to connect to her sources of power. It allows me to show up more fully. ... So I have no doubt that she joined me in the writing of this book. I have no doubt that this was what she wanted for me on some level. And to whatever extent she's able to reach me from wherever she is.

On trying on his aunt's clothes as a kid and getting shamed for it

Carvell Wallace's new memoir is <em>Another Word for Love.</em>
/ FSG Books
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FSG Books
Carvell Wallace's new memoir is Another Word for Love.

Adults have tremendous emotional and spiritual power in the lives of children, and I'm always surprised by how deep that goes. And so [my aunt] saying, in 1987, "You're terrible, you're a freak, you disgust me," is incredibly powerful. And this person saying in 2011, or whatever year that was, "I hope you've been able to recover from that," is also powerful. I think I got off the phone [with my aunt], I was like, yeah, I'm going to magically be free. ... And what I learned is that it was a good beginning, but all of the scarring and damage around it was all there. So it didn't magically snap a finger and disentangle everything. It was like, now I have permission to start disentangling.

On what it means to make his life an apology

The ways in which we harm one another can never be undone. You cannot un-harm a person. And that is a heavy realization to have, and yet, to me, absolutely necessary. Because if you truly want to make amends and make right, you have to fully embrace the fact that I can't un-harm a person. ...

The real apology is changing the behavior. So if you just say, "I'm sorry," and, "That was terrible," and then you just keep doing the same thing, that's not enough. And so for me to live as an amends is to wake up every day with the consciousness that I am responsible for my behavior. ... And it's necessary for me to deal with my behavior and my problems and my triggers and my shortcomings and whatever, because of the way those things have harmed other people, that it's actually necessary for me to deal with them. It's not optional. It's not, "Oh, today I'm going to try and be good." It's actually I've already done enough harm to people that I owe this to the world.

On writing about what his mom's life could have been if she had an abortion

It felt so good because again, I am also living in amends to my mom. And what that means is I am trying to love her in her fullness now, in ways that maybe I wasn't able to do when she was alive. And so there is a feeling of joy that I get from being able to examine her full self. And so that part felt good. Obviously, there's also grief. There's tremendous grief, and none of it is like, "I shouldn't have been born. I ruined my mother's life." I have no inkling of that. That's not even remotely how it works in my mind. It's more like grief for what she couldn't have. And I think the fact that she has passed helps a lot because in my belief, I think she gets more opportunities. Her spirit and soul will get more opportunities to embody themselves in new ways. And so this go-round that she had may not have been everything she wanted it to be, but she's been freed from this, from these constraints — and I love that for her.

Sam Briger and Thea Chaloner produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Meghan Sullivan adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2024 Fresh Air

Tonya Mosley is the LA-based co-host of Here & Now, a midday radio show co-produced by NPR and WBUR. She's also the host of the podcast Truth Be Told.

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