Carvell Wallace reflects on growing up without a home in 'Another Word for Love': NPR

Award-winning writer Carvell Wallace was twelve when he realized: he couldn't rely on anyone else; the only person who would always be with him in the world was himself.

Wallace, who grew up without a home for a year and sometimes slept in a car with his mother, calls the realization “a wounded reaction … a way of protecting myself from the actual feelings.”

In his new memoir Another word for love, Wallace writes about his early life with and without his mother in western Pennsylvania, Washington, DC, and Los Angeles. He also details his addictions, which involved becoming a parent, a writer, and coming into his own as a queer black man.

Wallace didn't start writing until he was 40 years old, starting with an impassioned Facebook post following the death of black teenager Michael Brown, who was shot by police in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014. Since then, he has written profiles of musicians, athletes and politicians for publications such as The New York Times Magazine, Rolling Stone And The New Yorker. He is also the co-author, along with basketball star Andre Iguodala, by The sixth man which chronicles Iguodala's NBA career.

Wallace says he's careful to avoid what he calls “trauma porn” when writing about his own experiences with poverty, racism and homophobia: “There's a weird kind of creepy fascination with watching people suffer oppression because of art and for people who write about their oppression and live it over and over again.”

For his own memoir, Wallace says his focus is on the root of his pain and his recovery from it, rather than the nature of the pain. “This is about what it means to become whole again. This is about life and hope and fullness and reclaiming yourself. This is about courage,” he says.

Interview highlights

About processing his trauma about his mother through writing

I think it was cathartic and healing, …even though that's cliché, because it helped rid me of any lingering resentment I might still have toward her. Because I believe that, like all grudges we have, even if they are justified, they are more harmful to us than to anyone else. … [When] my mother was still alive, I had a very complicated relationship with her. On the one hand, I loved her, and it was wonderful. On the other hand, I was angry at her for leaving. I was mad at her for not being there. I was angry at her because of the way things happened in my life, as a result of the way she, in my opinion, chose to live.

About forgiving his mother before she died

Towards the end of her life, I had a real moment of clarity, like two days before she died, where it suddenly dawned on me: Oh, wait a minute, there's no point in being mad at this person. …And after that point I was like, oh, you can basically let go of anything at any time, right? That's actually possible. It may not be easy, but it is available to you.

And so it has become very important for my health, but also out of respect for my mother and my heritage, that I let go of any problems I have – or have had – with this person and focus on what their strength, beauty and glory was . . And I actually believe there is a real personal and political benefit to that, because it allows me to become stronger. It allows me to connect to her sources of power. It allows me to show up more fully. … So I have no doubt that she wrote this book with me. I have no doubt that on some level this was what she wanted for me. And to whatever extent she can reach me, wherever she is.

About trying on his aunt's clothes as a child and being ashamed of it

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Carvell Wallace's new memoir is here Another word for love.

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Carvell Wallace's new memoir is here Another word for love.

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Adults have enormous emotional and spiritual power in children's lives, and I'm always amazed at how deep that goes. And thus [my aunt] Saying in 1987, “You're terrible, you're a freak, you disgust me,” is incredibly powerful. And this person saying, “I hope you were able to recover from that,” in 2011, or whatever year that was, is also powerful. I think I left the phone [with my aunt]I thought, yes, I'm going to be magically free. …And what I learned is that it was a good start, but all the scars and damage around it were all there. So it didn't magically snap a finger and loosen everything. It was like I now have permission to start untangling.

About what it means to turn his life into an apology

The ways we harm each other can never be undone. You can't unmake a person. And that is a heavy realization, and yet absolutely necessary for me. Because if you really want to make amends and make things right, you have to fully embrace the fact that I can't unmake someone. …

The real apology is changing the behavior. So if you just say, “I'm sorry” and “That was terrible,” and then just keep doing the same thing, that's not enough. And so for me, living as a make-man means waking up every day with the awareness that I am responsible for my behavior. …And it's necessary for me to deal with my behavior and my problems and my triggers and my shortcomings and whatever, because of the way those things have harmed other people, it's actually necessary that I deal with them . It's not optional. It's not, “Oh, today I'm going to try to be good.” In fact, I've done enough damage to people that I owe it to the world.

About what his mother's life could have been like if she had had an abortion

It felt so good because again, I also live well with my mother. And what that means is that I am trying to love her in her fullness now, in ways that I may not have been able to do when she was alive. And so I experience a sense of joy when I can explore her fully. And so that part felt good. Of course there is also sadness. There's tremendous sadness, and none of it is like, “I shouldn't have been born. I ruined my mother's life.” I haven't the slightest idea about that. That's not even remotely how it works in my opinion. It's more sadness for what she couldn't have. And I think the fact that she passed helps a lot because I think I think she gets more opportunities. Her mind and spirit will have more opportunities to embody themselves in new ways. And so this restart that she had may not have been everything she wanted, but she's been freed from this, from these limitations – and I think that's great for her.

Sam Briger and Thea Chaloner produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Meghan Sullivan adapted it for the web.

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