Novelist Susan Straight to present lecture on her first memoir at Santa Barbara Museum of Art
With “In the Country of Women,” novelist Susan Straight has her first memoir under her belt, as well as the basis for her upcoming lecture at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, “Parallel Stories.” On October 20, the writer will preside over an interactive presentation discussing the stories of women in her family and their journeys to the United States, as well as the importance of preserving one’s family stories. In an interview with the News-Press, Ms. Straight stated her memoir is addressed to her three mixed-race daughters, and in “Homeric” fashion chronicles the lives of their antecedents of different racial backgrounds, which eventually converge on the “promised land” of California.
“It’s about raising three daughters who are of mixed race and the six generations of women who came before them,” Ms. Straight said.
According to the author, the idea of writing a memoir that included accounts of her family members’ lives first came to her when those family members started passing away. In particular, her mother-in-law Alberta Sims died when Ms. Straight was pregnant with her youngest daughter, so Ms. Straight thought then was the time to start recording those histories.
“She never knew her grandmother, so I wanted her to know her grandmother’s story,” Ms. Straight said.
Ms. Straight’s mother Gabrielle Watson was born in Switzerland and is just one of several examples of women in the memoir who lost their mothers at a very young age. When Ms. Watson was nine, her mother Frieda Leu died and her father later remarried a woman who hated Ms. Watson. With them, Ms. Straight’s mother made a long journey from Switzerland, to Canada, and eventually arrived in the United States. The ancestors of Ms. Straight’s husband Dwayne Sims came from Africa and were brought to America as slaves. Through many generations, that side of the family mixed with both Irish slaveholders and Native Americans. When examining both lines, it was apparent to Ms. Straight that women on both sides of the family displayed great resilience in traveling so far, landing in America, and becoming part of the country’s makeup.
“All of these women had to be really strong whether they were white, black, or native,” she said.
When it came to researching the personal journeys of women in her family, Ms. Straight found out that she was being told stories that the women’s husbands didn’t even know. For instance, when Ms. Straight’s mother-in-law passed away, Alberta Sims’ husband General Sims revealed to her that his wife told Ms. Straight stories that not even he knew about. These particular stories were ones Ms. Sims told of her mother, who died when Ms. Sims was just five years old. If she had to guess why Ms. Sims opened up to her in this way, the author believes it had something to do with the fact that she was holding her and Dwayne Sims’ first child at the time. As Ms. Straight recalled, Ms. Sims’ stories of her mother were wrapped around the sentiment of how happy her mother would have been to see Ms. Straight holding her great-grandchild. Whatever the reason, the fact that women in her family told her things they didn’t tell their husbands was surprising to her.
“These were stories they didn’t tell men, even men who they loved,” Ms. Straight said.
Rather than simply recounting the contents of her latest book, at her “Parallel Stories” lecture Ms. Straight will show photographs of her family ranging from the 1800s, to the 1960s and 1970s, to the present day, to demonstrate what one can learn about history from images. From her talk, she hopes attendees walk away with a further understanding of the crucial role women played when journeying thousands of miles to join this country.
“There were a lot of women who went unmentioned, so let’s mention them now,” she said.
Furthermore, she hopes it will encourage those who attend to find out more about their own family’s stories.
“You really do want to ask your grandmother about her family story,” she said.
Ms. Straight’s “Parallel Stories” lecture will begin at 2:30 p.m. on October 20 in the Santa Barbara Museum of Art’s Mary Craig Auditorium. Tickets cost $5 for museum members, $10 for non-members, $6 for senior non-members, and can be purchased online at www.sbma.net. The Santa Barbara Museum of Art is located at 1130 State St.