ARUN RATH, HOST:
Salena Godden is a writer, poet, musician and a stage performer. In her new memoir, she tells the story of finding her personal identity, which begins with the word she made up to describe her race.
SALENA GODDEN: Jamish (ph) (unintelligible). It's kind of a mix of being Jamaican, Irish, English. It's the name I gave myself - or Iriaican (ph). But, yeah, kind of a bit - yeah, it's kind of a combination of those. That's what I call myself.
RATH: And I'd like to have you do a reading to give a sense of the kind of thing - this is a memoir about growing up - the kind of thing you had to put up with as a kid growing up, although I want to make clear that the book is not all about racism. But could you read this section from a chapter called "Painted Black"?
GODDEN: I'd love to. OK. I'm very small. I'm only about three or four. Blackie, spat the mouth of a plump seven-year-old child with a red face and crooked plats. The child, with her chubby fingers, stood close enough for me to smell the cheese and onion crisps on her breath. Blackie, she said again. She frothed the word up over and over in a sing-song of spit - blackie, blackie, blackie. I looked over her shoulder across the hall for my brother, but I couldn't see him. My heart pounded and my eyes misted over so I couldn't see to pick the colors. I knew this was a bad word. I took my brush and slathered the end of it in gloops of black paint.
RATH: And I want you to also give people a sense of context because, you know, you were growing up in England in the early 1970s. What was the town like? Were you the only child of color in that class?
GODDEN: I was the only brown girl in the playground, definitely - in the village, actually. And, of course, being mixed race was really unusual. People didn't really know what to call me - half-caste, I suppose. But that felt like half of something, and I'm definitely a whole Salena.
GODDEN: There is nothing half - not half of anything.
RATH: Your father was absent when you were growing up, but you write about how you created a version of your father in your mind as a child.
GODDEN: Yeah. I was rewarded in a way. If I played up, if I wrote poetry, if I started dancing around, my mother would say, oh, you're being just like your father. And in that way, I started to sort of piece together who this mysterious man was. He has great talent. He played with Miles Davis. He played with on the Sargent Pepper album. He played with Salena Jones, the jazz singer. That's why I'm called Salena. And he did all these remarkable things, but he was also very mysterious and absent. And so I wanted to know who he was, and I would've loved to have known him. I think we would've had a great laugh and drank a lot of whiskey.
RATH: And one of the things that's remarkable in the book - you have some documents. You have these letters from your father. When you read them, how did your idea of him change?
GODDEN: Yeah, it was - it was very much like putting together a jigsaw. You have, like, a story that someone tells you, and then you have a photograph and then piece together slowly who you are. I don't think it ruins it too much if I tell you I found I have a sister, and we have the same father, but different mothers. And it was fascinating to meet her and to get - hear her side and her mother's stories of my father and to sort of - some of the mannerisms, some of the ways she behaves - her dirty laugh is very, very similar, so we - there's certain things that she does that are definitely nature.
RATH: And your mother, even though you are with her closely as you're growing up - you, at some point, I guess, come across and writings of her where you also see an interior side of her that you didn't really know.
GODDEN: My mom gave me all of her diaries. It was quite stunning and shocking to read. And I sat - I don't drink when I write. I like a really clear head. And I actually sat with a bunch of beers and, like, 40 Marlboros and just typed it out, word for word. The whole thing took me about a week. For some reason, when I was born - I'd say when I was about six months old or so - my mom sat down and wrote her entire life out up to when I was born in 1972. And so it was this whole thing. And I think, yeah, in the end, I just - I just - I think that the book of its own. Maybe that'll be my next book. But she definitely deserves a book of her own. She's an amazing woman.
RATH: When did you start writing poetry?
GODDEN: I've always written. It's always been the thing I do. I've always been booky and writing - up a tree, writing. When I was a teenager, I used to earn cigarettes by writing love poems for girls to give to their boyfriends. I'd do a roaring trade at Valentines - terrible poems, like, Steve, don't ever leave. And then they'd give me, you know, two cigarettes for that. So, yeah, I've always - it's what I've always done. But, yeah, so the trick was to try to figure out how to get paid, how to make it my job, so that the thing I loved doing was what I did all day, which was what I was doing all day anyway, if you see what I mean. Yeah.
GODDEN: And what I've have jobs, I was still writing. When I've worked in pubs and stuff, I was still behind the bar, writing it all down.
RATH: Has the stuff that you've written about in "Springfield Road" - you know, the insights you've gained from your mother's and your father's personal documents - has that changed the kind of poetry that you write?
GODDEN: No. I don't think - no, it hasn't, although I must admit writing "Springfield Road" has changed the kind of prose I write. I think I learned a lot. If anything, I kind of cut - is this the right phrase? - cut my teeth - kind of like I learned how to write with "Springfield Road," I feel.
When I look at - the original first draft was written all in present tense, first-person, and it was 100 - something like 130,000 words. And I went, yeah, finished - handed it in. And it was like, no, that's just - so some of, those - some of that writing did work, and it stayed in the very final draft. But I definitely learned to edit and to cut back and to - yeah, so I think my prose writing has changed a lot since "Springfield Road." I'm very critical now. I can also tell when I'm ripping myself off.
RATH: Salena Godden - her memoir "Springfield Road" came out earlier this year. It's been really fun speaking with you. Thank you.
GODDEN: Thank you so much.
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