Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
A Conversation with Lori Tharps

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Lori L. Tharps's latest book, Kinky Gazpacho: Life, Love & Spain is a combination racial coming of age tale, travelogue, and love story. In pursuit of a life-long interest in Spain, Tharps spent her college junior-year abroad in Salamanca where she encountered troubling attitudes toward her Blackness that ranged from nasty to fetishizing. Despite this less-than-warm welcome, Tharps stuck it out in Spain, and while searching for her "real" self, she also found her future husband, a Spaniard.

Tharps is a freelance journalist, editor, teacher, and co-author of Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America. Her work has appeared in Ms., Savoy, Bitch, and Essence. Previously, she was a staff reporter for Vibe magazine and a correspondent for Entertainment Weekly. The Milwaukee native and mother of two boys currently lives in Philadelphia and teaches at Temple University. Tharps spoke with former Literary Mama columnist Deesha Philyaw about surrendering as a mother, the scary side of writing memoir, and how having children made her a more productive writer.

DP: What was the hardest part of writing Kinky Gazpacho?

LT: Because it was memoir, it was hard to write about other people in my life, without exposing their private lives. People influence you in different ways, but they did not raise their hands and say, "Please expose me." Trying to make the story compelling and detailed and interesting, but at the same time deliberately keeping characters two-dimensional so that other people's issues aren't laid bare--that was really hard.

Writing it overall was quite easy, though, especially memoir, because I've kept every journal I've ever written, which is many. It's embarrassing, but I have to say that when I was much younger, I used to say, "One day, I'm going to be rich and famous, and someone's going to want to know what was going on in my life."

DP: What is it like for you to write memoir versus fiction?

LT: When you write a memoir, it seems self-indulgent, and you question, "Is anybody going to care?" It's just me blabbering about "poor me", me, me, me, me. Once the book was in galley form, I really doubted. I thought, "What have I just done? I put all of my emotional baggage out there for the world to consume. People are going to laugh at me. People are going to call me a whiner. What are they going to think of me?" But I had to remind myself, "It's too late to do anything about it now!" I hoped and prayed that somebody would find something in it to relate to, that it wasn't too specific to me. It's very gratifying to know that you're not alone. Real people are telling me that this book meant something to them.

DP: What reactions have you received from readers of Kinky Gazpacho?

LT: The most popular reaction -- I get about one email a day from a reader since the book came out -- is people saying that they loved the book. And what they are telling me is that this is their story, too, that they can totally relate. Many, many, many black women saying, "I went to Spain. That was my same experience. I grew up in an upper middle class environment." Or, "I didn't go to Spain, I went to Germany, but thank you so much for telling your story because it's my story. People didn't understand..." I wrote this book because it's the book I wish I could have read ten years ago. A lot of people who aren't black are telling me the same thing. I got a wonderful email from a Jewish man who wrote about exploring his Jewish roots in the same town in Spain that I was in, and in my husband's hometown. I've heard from Asian women, from Mexican women about their experiences being the only person of color in these places.

DP: Kinky Gazpacho ends just as your parenting journey begins. What have you found most surprising about motherhood? What challenges have you faced as a mother?

LT: I have always known that I was going to be a mother. I also always knew I wanted to be a writer. Those were the things I was sure about since I was a child. That doesn't mean that motherhood has been a breeze for me, but nothing sticks out in my mind as particularly surprising. But the biggest challenge for me is when my children are sick and things are completely out of my hands. Suddenly, my fantasy come to life, having children, might be taken from me. Once, both of my sons had croup and had to be hospitalized. We don't know why this happens, there's no cure. With one of my sons, it could happen again, until he grows out of it. It was like sending me home with a time bomb.

At one point, I hadn't slept for 3 days, and I had one of those moments where I thought it would be better to disappear now, walk away, than to watch my son die in front of me. Having children, just because you planned for it, doesn't guarantee you a happy ending. In a much less tragic way, kids make you realize: "Don't make plans. Someone's going to get strep. Someone's going to get pink eye." It's about surrendering to the fact that you do not have control.

DP: On your blog, My American Meltingpot, you write that you are the mother of two "SpaNegro" boys. Not everyone appreciates that humor. What has your experience been parenting across racial and cultural lines?

LT: Someone posted on my blog, "Why do you call your children SpaNegroes? Why can't you just call them 'the children'?" I do it a little bit tongue in cheek. One of the things my husband and I love to do -- and it happens naturally -- is find all of our cultural similarities. Despite our outward differences, our families [of origins], the way they function, what we value -- those are the exact same. There's really nothing we clash about culturally when it comes to parenting, which is quite amazing. We did our homework [on parenting] beforehand, before we married.

DP: How has motherhood influenced you as a writer?

LT: It seems counterintuitive, but becoming a mother has made me a more organized writer and a more prolific writer. Before I had children, I had that silly idea of writing as [something I do] "when the muse hits me." I also had a full-time job as a writer, but I wasn't writing things I was passionate about; I was a journalist for an entertainment magazine. Once I had kids, it became, "Oh my gosh! I can only write during the two hours that he's napping." If you have two hours, then you will make it happen; the writing has to come. Having children forced me to write on a schedule, and it forced me to make the most of every single minute. It made me a more efficient writer, and I'm not that person, naturally, left to my own devices. People, including my mother, always say, "If you didn't have kids, you'd probably have six or seven books out already." But I don't know that to be true.

DP: Who are some of the writers you admire?

LT: I admire any writer who has children. I constantly struggle with that Virginia Woolf quote about how, in order to write, a woman needs a room of her own, and that's just not my reality. Jacqueline Mitchard has seven children. Jody Picault has three children. Ann Brashares who wrote The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants has three children. " Lonnae O'Neal Parker has three children. Those are the women who inspire me right now because they've shown me that what I want to do is not only possible, but possible with great success.

DP: What are you working on now?

LT: Being a mother has brought me a whole different list of other concepts and ideas to write about. I'm working on a novel right now about a woman and her nanny. The idea for the story came from my own dilemma, trying to figure out what to do with my child when I had to go back to work. The concept of hiring a perfect stranger to come into my home and care for my child struck me as such a bizarre situation to be in, that a novel idea came from it.

So motherhood has opened up a host of writing ideas -- novel ideas, nonfiction ideas, blogging ideas. Not to be navel-gazing about every single part of parenting -- that's boring -- but motherhood is a different dimension of myself to explore.

And because I'm the mother of boys [ages 7 and 4]...that's a whole 'nother world I now have access to! I went to a women's college [Smith], and I was never that person who had the good guy friend. So suddenly, I have this access to men and boys. Talk about first-hand research! As a creative writer, you are always looking for story ideas, something new to explore.

For example, they can't help but crack up and laugh whenever someone burps, farts or creates some other noise from a body cavity. Just the words, "burp" and "fart" are hilarious [to them]. Playing with cars is fun, but smashing cars up into little pieces is even more fun. Any movie, TV show, or cartoon is worth watching if there is a car involved, and said car should always go very, very, fast. If there is no car in the movie, it's really not worth watching.

I am simply fascinated. I don't try to change their behavior unless it's offensive to other people or my own sensibilities. But since I really thought I'd be a mother to girls, having two boys is making my mothering experience feel more organic. I have very little expectations and am constantly learning about boy behavior. I don't look at their behavior as stereotypical, I just think it's normal and I'm okay with that.

Deesha Philyaw’s writing on race, parenting, gender, and culture has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, McSweeney’s, The Rumpus, Brevity, TueNight and elsewhere. The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, her collection of short stories about Black women, sex, and the Black church, is forthcoming from West Virginia University Press in fall 2020.

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