Camille Roy is a San Francisco-based writer, playwright, and poet who grew up in Hyde Park. Writing in the style of the New Narrative Form, Camille’s works combine autobiography, fiction, literary theory, and personal narrative. A recent addition to her most recent collection of works is Honey Mine, published by Nightboat Books. Consisting of sixteen experimental prose and poetry pieces, they center around an ever-shifting character named Camille who lives in many places, including Chicago. We spoke with Camille about her experiences growing up in Hyde Park and as an experimental writer.
How did growing up in Chicago shape you as a person?
I always felt like Chicago was such a formative place, such a strong place. A place that was so packed with information about what America is. It was very challenging in that respect, not sentimental and kind of no holds barred. So, I feel like growing up in Chicago just pushed me into a lifetime of wondering, “How can things be like this?” and “What are they really like?” and “What makes it like this?” and “What is the complicated story?”
And the other thing was Hyde Park. There was this strong oppositional framework that was social, that was emotional, that was part of the community that people made. There were a lot of people when I was growing up in Hyde Park who had a history in the Communist Party. My father used to play poker every week with a bunch of his ex-communist buddies. My mother had an extremely dear friend, who was also a big health care organizer, who had also gone to Communist conferences with my father, like in the thirties. So I think that in terms of mainstream American culture, we were kind of off the grid.
And at the same time, there was so much going on in Chicago that actually didn’t filter up into even the local newspapers, whether it was racism or white flight or the toll of deindustrialization, or the powerful realities that shaped the whole area. And that just made me question every social reality I moved into after I left Chicago.
And how did that question-asking influence your writing?
I found that I was always looking at mainstream America as if it’s some kind of strange artifact. It gave all of my writing a quality of, like, almost like a detective story. I often find myself writing into the question: “What’s the reality that’s being concealed here?” And I think I’ve worked that out in many, many areas of my life, whether it’s feminism or race or class analysis or sexuality or queer politics. It’s given me a framework of looking deeply into things.
And from that, I had spent a lot of time thinking and writing about how I can never actually make peace with the truth, because there’s so much inequality in society. So I think that’s one way that affected me—and that realization was unleashed when I came to San Francisco and discovered the narrative movement. In the new narrative movement, we developed a practice of exploring our own experiences—in every dimension, the erotic, the social—you could bring all those things. You could work from your experience.
And so, the new narrative movement really pushed me to develop a writing practice that included all of my personal experiences. Which is why, in my view, my book is very political. I wanted it to have struggle, the pleasure of community, and joy. The main character is constantly exploring the America she finds and reporting back honestly—all the difficult things that are out there. And for me, it was very empowering to move from confusion and to understanding and to insight through my writing.
How have you maintained your writing practice?
My writing was something that I tucked into the corners of my life. During my work life, my family life, while I was raising a kid. So, it was always a scramble to keep focus and try to get somewhere with whatever piece I was immersed in. And some of the times it was just too hard to focus given all of the balls I had to juggle. But, I was really writing to explore my own questions. I wasn’t writing to produce an acceptable commercial product. And in the process, I just put any sense of judgment over to the side and kept going. I didn’t believe it or disbelieve it, I just continued.
And then later on, I was able to come back and see what was useful and what wasn’t. So now, for example, if I go back to some part of my life where I was really interested in exploring something, then I will have the poetry material, I will have the journal material, the prose material. I can use all that to shift registers in my writing and create some surprise for the reader. And it allows me to create experiences and write more accurately. I have to continue to write often, even when I think that it’s just not working at all.
What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
If you really have questions to explore, if you’re faithful to them, then the impulse won’t peter out. I would say even when I was really struggling to understand my world and my context, I never stopped asking questions about it. Because it was never acceptable to me the way things were. And so, that’s kept me writing. The other thing is to have more than one writing process. I probably have at least three. I have a writing process which is kind of associative, freely associative and very poetic. My second writing process is much more prose, and that takes some kind of consistent work. And my last one is really processing the daily material of my life. So often I interweave those. And then, as much as possible, never judge yourself—especially in the moment. I’m never a good critic when I’m in the midst of writing. I just continue to write anyway.
How do you think writing can change the world?
You know, that’s a really interesting question, because I used to think that language was political—and so my work was political as a result. I thought that when we expand the boundaries of the language, we can change consciousness and can create new politics. I’ve actually become somewhat skeptical of that just by itself though—I think it’s more than that. I just want the language to carry the experience in an intuitive way, a way that we can experience. I want it to become a natural extension of how people view their world. And giving it that experiential piece, I think my writing can help our politics to have a material element, a physical element, too. And it also has to have the element of community to really affect change. My intention is to open those doors so that my writing can be read by a wide variety of people. And really, I’m very grateful I’m able to do this work.
Lauren Beard is a PhD Student in the Department of Sociology at the University of Chicago