Kristen Gentry discusses her new collection, inspiration, influences, and more

We are pleased to publish Kristen Gentry’s debut short story collection Mama Said this week. The linked stories in Mama Said are set in Louisville, Kentucky, a city with a rich history steeped in tobacco, bourbon, and gambling, indulgences that can quickly become gripping and destructive vices. Set amid the tail end of the crack epidemic and the rise of the opioid crisis, Mama Said evokes Black family life in all its complexity. Maggie Henriksen from Carmichael’s Bookstore said about the book, “The characters contain a depth not often seen in a collection of stories, and readers are sure to be thinking about their lives and relationships long after finishing the last (tear-jerking!) page.” In this Q&A below, Gentry talks with Holly Mitchell of Vesto PR.

 What drew you to short fiction?

I gained an appreciation for short fiction in undergrad creative writing classes where I was introduced to stories by ZZ Packer, Junot Diaz, Jamaica Kincaid. That appreciation grew during my graduate study at Indiana University. I love the way characters in a short story can be sharply drawn and feel known, but the form and its economy (of language, plot, setting) create just enough mystery to leave readers wondering about the characters, the motivation for and effect of their choices, and the world they inhabit long after the story ends.

When did you start working on this book?

I began writing Mama Said after grad school in 2006. Although the stories that would become “Grown Folks’ Business” and “A Satisfying Meal” appear in my M.F.A. thesis, it wasn’t until I realized the connection between the protagonists–both were daughters hungry for the attention of their mothers who were struggling with addiction–that I began to write a collection with this conflict as the focus.

The collection has such a rich cast of recurring and interlinked characters. How did you approach developing them on the page?

 I wanted to make sure that I didn’t villainize the mothers. Yes, some of the choices they make as a result of their addictions have damaging consequences for their daughters, but the daughters love their mothers and recognize their redeeming traits in the midst of their flaws. That recognition and love is what makes it even more frustrating to live with (and without) a mother consumed by drugs. I also wanted to temper the daughters’ angst with humor. Addiction and depression are heavy topics for sure but making characters play the same dark note doesn’t capture the complex reality of those conflicts. Comedy provides a different approach that shows the union of joy and pain and can even sometimes highlight the darkness in more surprising ways.

I want readers who are children of addicts to know that they’re not alone. I see you. I don’t know the specifics of your situation, but I know it’s not easy and I empathize. I wrote these stories for you.

How did you arrange the stories in this collection?

The stories are arranged to create a narrative arc that follows the daughters from girlhood to maturation (from teens to early twenties for JayLynn and Zaria, from elementary school age to late teens for Angel), though the stories don’t necessarily fall in chronological order. For example, in the title story, JayLynn is seventeen and in college. In the story that follows, she is fifteen.

I begin the collection with the title story, “Mama Said” to introduce JayLynn, the book’s main character, and her recurring conflict with her mother, Claudia. “A New World” follows to highlight JayLynn as the book’s central character with other characters satelliting her and her conflict, but because the story is told in third-person limited point of view from the perspective of JayLynn’s father, Parker, it clarifies that not all stories will be told from JayLynn’s perspective and brings nuance to the conflict introduced in the title story. “A Satisfying Meal” is next to further establish the significance of Zaria’s character (who is featured in both of the previous stories) and introduce Angel and the larger cast of characters from JayLynn’s extended family that populate the following stories.

Though I do provide some insight into the mothers to develop their characters, the book’s focus is on the daughters, which is why there are only two stories that offer the mothers’ thoughts and perspectives (“Grown Folks’ Business” and “In Her Image”), and they are purposefully placed a bit later in the collection with “In Her Image,” told from the perspective of JayLynn’s mother, Claudia, serving as the book’s penultimate story so that the daughters’ perspectives open and close the book.

Were there stories or ideas for stories that you ultimately didn’t include?

 In “Stealing Snickers,” JayLynn notes the poor condition of Claudia’s home (piles of dirty dishes, pet stains on the carpet) and asks about her worsening depression and questionable sobriety, but Claudia uses her dog, Snickers, to evade JayLynn’s questions. JayLynn eventually takes Snickers in an effort to get Claudia to tell the truth and rescue the dog from days spent in the house. I cut “Stealing Snickers” from the collection because revision of several stories made the story’s conflict redundant. Several passages from this story found new homes in other stories.

I also started a story from the perspective of Mr. Donahue, the landlord in “Grown Folks’ Business,” but I couldn’t figure out what Donahue’s story contributed to the collection’s discussion of the daughters and their conflicts so I dropped it, though I’m still interested in exploring his character.

Since you are back in Louisville, KY–the setting for Mama Said as well as your hometown–how do you find that place comes into your writing?

 I’ve been away from home for sixteen years so much has changed. Our whole world has been transformed by the pandemic, but Louisville has also been changed by the riots in the wake of Breonna Taylor’s murder by Louisville Metro Police officers. Since I’ve been home, I’ve thought a lot about these changes and what they mean for Black youth growing up in this city plagued by increasing violence, policed by a department rampant with civil rights violations. What does that do to their psyche? Their sense of hope for the future? I can remember better times when I look at certain parts of the city, but what do they see? I’m driven to explore these questions in my writing.

What do you most hope that readers will take away from Mama Said?

 I want every reader to understand that decisions to sell drugs or take drugs are personal, but they don’t end with the person making the decision. They ripple into families and communities. They can–and often do–create devastation that affects the generations that follow. Too often, we dismiss the impact of our bad decisions as well as our ability to influence another person to make a good decision. The person making the bad decision may say, “It’s my business,” while the person watching another make a bad decision may say, “That’s not my business.” And that may be true today, but that doesn’t mean that what’s your business will remain simply your business or that what’s not your business won’t become your business and problem at some point in the future.

I want readers who are children of addicts to know that they’re not alone. I see you. I don’t know the specifics of your situation, but I know it’s not easy and I empathize. I wrote these stories for you.

Which writers were your influences or inspiration as you wrote this book?

 Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street will forever be one of my favorite books and a source of inspiration. It influenced me to make JayLynn’s narrative a bildungsroman. Even though the daughters in Mama Said aren’t consumed with desire for new physical homes, I see similarities to Esperanza’s yearning in their mother hunger since a mother is a person’s original “home.” I was also greatly inspired by Crystal Wilkinson’s Water Street, Amina Gautier’s At-Risk, and Gloria Naylor’s The Women of Brewster Place.

What are you reading now?

Joy Priest’s poems, Horsepower, and Magogodi oaMphela Makhene’s linked collection, Innards.

Can you say what your next project may be?

 It’s a novel about a teenage girl, who is spiraling in grief after the sudden murder of her “boyfriend” (their relationship is “complicated”), being forced by her mother to take a road trip from Louisville to Los Angeles to see a concert performed by the girl’s once-favorite boy band.

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