Patrice Gopo is a 2017-2018 North Carolina Arts Council Literature Fellow and former participant in two Collegeville writing workshops: Exploring Identity and (Dis)Belonging through the Personal Essay with Enuma Okoro in 2018 and Apart and Yet Apart with Michael N. McGregor in 2017. She is the daughter of Jamaican immigrants and was born and raised in Alaska. Currently, she lives in North Carolina with her husband and children.
Gopo’s writing brings a fresh perspective to conversations about race, identity, immigration, and belonging in the global landscape. Her first book, an essay collection titled All the Colors We Will See: Reflections on Barriers, Brokenness, and Finding Our Way, will be released in August, 2018. Bearings Online contributor and fellow Collegeville alumna Josina Guess interviewed Gopo about her book, which sparked conversation about racism, living with multiple identities, and the work of being a writer.
Patrice, I related to your book in so many ways. Thanks for writing it. In your essay Washing Dishes in the Family of God you describe washing dishes at a friend’s house when her husband says you “could be his slave” in an offhand way. The moment emphasizes a tension for black Christian women: we are called to love and serve each other, but that service is also tied to the ugly history of slavery.
I’m curious if that experience made you want to be more direct when people offend you. You write: “Could speaking truth knock the balance of power off its fulcrum? Maybe the truth would set him free.” Is the onus on the offended person to speak up or the offender to wake up?
In the essay, I write about my hope that I will always speak up during moments like that one. The reality, however, is that it depends. Since that point I have been in plenty of situations where my voice might have brought a greater truth to the situation and I’ve chosen to remain silent for a variety of reasons.
However, what is true is that I now believe I have a choice. I can choose to speak up or I can choose to move on, but it’s still my choice. No one is forcing me to do one or the other. To feel like the onus of responsibility for correcting the offender is always on you can become a burden. I don’t think it would be right for someone to assume that the offended person must always carry that burden. However, I do pause to consider when fear or apprehension about another’s response is what motivates me to remain silent rather than speak.
Another essay I found really moving was An Abundance of Impossible Things, which described the intense fear that so many people of color felt in the wake of the Charleston Massacre and how Confederate flags are often associated with that fear. You describe a hope for “an abundance of impossible things.” What might some of those impossible things be? How do you imagine a transformed Southern landscape?
The mention of the “abundance of impossible things” is at once an allusion to the Resurrection but also a nod back to the idea of possibility and hope that we had when we moved to Charlotte, that this might be a place where we could thrive.
When I think now about the phrase, I think about longing for a place where my family is fully thriving, not just me but also the community, the region, perhaps even the world. As I write this, it feels like a pipe dream and maybe that’s what makes it an impossible thing. But this is what I long for in not just a transformed Southern landscape, but also a transformed world.
Your book includes experiences of brokenness — your parents’ divorce, racism — but it also has a lot of joy. How do you maintain hope and joy in the midst of brokenness?
As human beings we often want to classify people’s identities into distinct—often singular—categories. Our society generally struggles to allow for the existence of certain multiple identities in one person (say race and ethnicity). Of course, joy and brokenness are not the same as someone’s identity. However, living with multiple identities can provide insight into how joy and brokenness exist side by side in my life. I write about joy and brokenness because they are both there, and I would struggle to not recognize this fact.
In terms of how I maintain hope and joy in the midst of brokenness, I think of this as less about maintaining and instead acknowledging that both of these elements form aspects of the story I live. To write about these realities is to be authentic to my particular journey.
You and I met through the network of Collegeville alumni, even though we didn’t attend the same workshops. How have the workshops you have attended and Collegeville shaped you as a writer?
Last summer I attended Apart and Yet A Part with Michael N. McGregor. During my time there, I wrote the final two essays I needed to complete All the Colors We Will See. The calm and stark beauty of my environment created space for me to follow the words. This summer I attended Exploring Identity and (Dis)belonging Through the Personal Essay with Enuma Okoro. I write so much about identity formation in my book, so it was a huge affirmation to be part of a workshop actively engaging with those themes. The Collegeville Institute has given me space to dream and imagine, to value and respect the words, the writing life, the holiness of letting those words flow.
Toward the end of the book you wrote that you “emerged a writer” from “the crucible” of long, lonely days as a new mom living far from home in Cape Town, South Africa. You wrote your first articles between naps and laundry. What are the rhythms of your writing life like now that your kids are older?
In truth, since I finished writing All the Colors We Will See, I’ve found myself waiting for what might be next in my writing life. I first learned to write in the gaps of life and now I’m learning what it is to write when one has greater access to extended time. Sometimes I wonder if this waiting season in my writing life is enabling me to develop the teaching and speaking arm of what I do.
In a month, your book will release into the world. What message do you hope your readers walk away with?
Earlier this summer, I read excerpts from the book at a writing retreat. Afterwards, several different people approached me. A black woman shared a bit of her own story. We spoke about moments of overlap as black women finding our places of belonging, our moments of fit. My hope for readers like this woman or other people of color is that my book will be a salve of affirmation that says, “Your experience matters.”
Later, a white woman sat next to me and said, “Your words give us entry points into discussions we need to have.” As I listened to her share, I thought about the power of stories and their ability to allow people to think about the world in a changed way. My hope is that readers who may not have a background similar to mine will finish this book with a new perspective and, as a result, want to have new conversations.