Today I’m very excited to share a review and interview that is both provocative and reassuring. OK, I know that’s weird–that something could be both of those things, but stay with me. I’m going to get there. Catana Tully’s Split at the Root is the first memoir I’ve ever read all the way through. And I couldn’t have chosen a better book to be my first.
In this dramatic and beautifully written memoir, the author explores questions of race, adoption and identity, not as the professor of cultural studies that she became, but as the Black child of German settlers in Guatemala who called her their “little Moor.” Her journey into investigating the mystery of how these White foreigners became her parents begins when she reluctantly considered joining an African-American organization at the U.S. College where she taught. She realized it was not just her foreign accent that alienated her from Blacks. Under layers of privilege (private schools, international travel, the life of a fashion model and actress in Europe) she discovered that her most important story is one of disinheritance.
The author’s determination to find out who her mother and father really were, and why she was taken from them, tests the love of her White husband and their son, leads her to embrace and then reject the charismatic man she believes to be her biological father, and takes her to the jungles of Guatemala to find a family that has kept her memory alive as legend. In the book’s shocking ending, she learns truths about her mother, and the callous disrespect committed long ago againstmother and child in the name of love.
Split at the Root is a beautiful book. From its title (which becomes so poignant and meaningful and fitting as you read) to its language, to its artful and necessary inclusion of history. I’m not sure if you can tell, but there is a lot to love about this book.
The details in this book were nothing short of transcendent. Tully doesn’t just tell you about her childhood; she brings you along with her throughout it. It isn’t just a matter of seeing the scene, of sympathizing with her growing pains. It’s more like you feel what she feels when she does. That is to say, you understand where she’s coming from because in a sense, you feel like you were there. It’s that good.
And just as she begins to consider the people she loves differently, just as the circumstances of her life begin to require further explanation–you, too, begin to question. That’s a fantastic feeling. Her tale, and how she tells it, is thought provoking.
But the fact that she seeks to explain the happenings of her life is not only riveting, but reassuring as we are now finding that we as a culture are in a place where we can discuss how race shapes our identity, how ethnicity affects our lives and psyche. And Split is a spectacular exploration of these elements. I recommend it as a read for everyone who wants to be moved, to think, and to join both Tully, myself and all her readers in a discussion of identity and inclusion.
How did you piece together such vibrant memories? There are certain details–like what Vati cooked you one morning–that are so colorful, I wondered whether or not there were many more pictures than what are shared in the memoir.
There are many more pictures than the ones in the book. I had to be selective, so that’s what came out. I include different pictures on my blog.
Regarding the memories: they are vibrant because I took time to describe them. Because Vati was never in the kitchen, really, when he made pancakes was super special (it might have only happened two or three times.) And the fired kippers? Well, he was in trouble for a long time after that. to me it’s as if it happened yesterday! When writing memories, it’s important to pay attention to details. That way the reader feels part of the experience.
I love that at more than one point your son Patrick was the voice of reason for you concerning how you looked at black people, yourself and him I felt as if maybe he was he only one who could have made this appeal to you. How do you think your son affected your discovery/reconciliation of yourself?
As I say in the book, Patrick is an old soul. Early on, his emotional development and his wisdom were beyond what one normally sees in a child. We have a very close connection and he has observed me all his life and understands my dilemma. At cross-roads he always helps me to understand what the situation is. He identifies as a mixed-race person and is comfortable in all societies. Race is not something he looks at when meeting a person; he looks at the person, that’s all.
I don’t know how reconciled I am, but I am at peace.
Notice that I use caps for Black and White when I mean race and culture. I make the difference, because no one is fully black or fully white, like the color.
You had a lot of mixed feelings about Mutti. I think every child feels that way about their mother, but your dynamic was certainly more compounded. Did you ever actively try to prevent this ambivalence with your son? This memoir had a great focus on your relationship with all of your parents, society and your own growth, but there didn’t seem to be much focus on the fact that your son is just as part of the legacy. How do you ensure he doesn’t experience what you did?
My son knows who his parents are. His White father (and that side of his family) was supportive in the most loving way. His Black mother was loving and fiercely protective of him. As an adult he is great friends with my Black nephews and nieces as well as with my German family. The next generation interacts organically with one another, and my Black and White families in Guatemala have connected with in quite a lovely way. My son is not “split at the root.” He knows where he comes from and embraces his racial and cultural mix.
I know there were a lot of times when you felt excluded from society, from certain racial groups. It seemed you often felt you belonged nowhere. Have you found a peace with that? Have you found a place of belonging, or do those questions still trouble you? It seemed at the end of the memoir that you had found a comfortable place from which you could still ask questions and search.
Thank you for understanding that in the end, all is well with me. It took years of therapy and searching, and I am now in a very comfortable place, wherever I may be. That is because of my relationship with Farai… I love that Black man, for his Black wisdom, for his truly Black outlook and for teaching me the beauty of Black music, literature, cooking… the works, really. As I said, Fred was my soulmate and my pillar, my rock of Gibraltar, but Farai allows me to explore and continue to discover and appreciate my Blackness.
I think there was definitely a sense of fulfillment, or maybe the word is gratification, at the end of the memoir. And there’s closure to a certain degree as well. As a reader, it felt like a happy ending, which after a lifetime of conflicting emotions, had to be a relief. It was a relief to me.
Catana also shared that this past spring semester Split at the Root was required reading in a Master’s in Social Work course at University of Southern California. I can’t even fathom how exciting it must be to know your book, your life, is helping others discuss and understand identity. Fantastic!
What do you think?