The Most Interesting Dinner Party You’d Ever Attend: An Interview with Lise Funderburg

Funderburg autho photo CREDIT GIORGIA FANELLIAnna Weir is a publicist at UNP and is her father’s daughter.

Lise Funderburg is a writer and editor as well as a lecturer in creative writing at the University of Pennsylvania. Funderburg’s collection of oral histories, Black, White, Other: Biracial Americans Talk about Race and Identity, has become a core text in the study of American multiracial identity in college courses around the world. Her latest book is Pig Candy: Taking My Father South, Taking My Father Home. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Philadelphia InquirerNational GeographicSalon and the Nation.

Funderburg also edited and introduced Apple, Tree: Writers on Their Parentsa gorgeous collection that highlights the all-too-familiar moment when we realize we are just like our parents. I asked her a few questions about her experience in bringing together these twenty-five very different experiences.

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AW: For this collection, you ask writers to reflect on the traits or habits they’ve inherited from their parents. What made you turn to these writers in particular?

LF: In putting together the roster for Apple, Tree, I aimed for a mix that would be interesting from start to finish, singularly and collectively. I was driven by the desire to learn something new from each writer’s essay, to be surprised, to be exposed to fresh ways of thinking about this universal human experience.

Therefore the contributor list, other than being unified in its excellence and integrity, had to be truly varied. After all, who would want to read the same perspective over and over? To generate a dynamic, prismatic meditation—which is what this book ended up being—I first had to engage deeply with the notion of diversity. That, in and of itself, was a fascinating exercise. I thought long and hard about substantive variation versus tokenism as I went through the commissioning process.

Spreadsheets were made.

In addition to more obvious demographic inclusivity, I looked for writers with distinctive areas of expertise and engagement with the world, which is how I ended up with a nurse, a poet, a TV writer, a radio reporter, a holocaust scholar, a food writer, and a classicist among the 25 contributors. Most did not write directly about their specialized knowledge, but I counted on their work being informed by it. In the craft realm, I also sought variation in tone, subject matter, and form.

I’m delighted to discover, now that the book is out in the world, that not one reader (or contributor, for that matter), is familiar with every writer in the book. Exposing people to new work has been an unexpected thrill.

This image strikes me as a little hokey, but in putting together the book, I often felt like I was assembling a guest list for the most interesting dinner party you’d ever attend, where the conversations on either side of you or across the table would be ones that stuck with you long after the plates were cleared.

AW: What most surprised you about your contributors’ answers?

LF: I was not so much surprised as deeply impressed by the artistic integrity that flowed through this project. This was a big ask, mostly of strangers I’d never met: Please wedge into your already full lives this assignment that will bring little remuneration. But not one person phoned it in. Even when I asked for multiple revisions, writers were remarkably forbearing. It was a great reminder of how committed artists are to their work, to creating time out of no time when they feel it’s merited.

AW: In your introduction, referring to yourself as a younger adult, you write, “Nothing was more important than being my own person.” In a culture that encourages individuality, why is it valuable to reflect on the ways we are similar to our parents?

9781496212092LF: When you’re a child and for some years beyond, your job is to become your own person. It’s natural, it’s necessary, but it also comes with blind spots: Our parents are merely our parents, not dimensional people with their own hopes and disappointments, sorrows and dreams. We may love them, but we’re not curious about them. Later on, when we’re less driven by individuation, a broader perspective opens up, one in which we’re part of a larger constellation rather than the center around which everything orbits. It’s a different way of seeing, and as these essays demonstrate, it’s rich with insight and wisdom and compassion.

Why is it valuable? We live in fractious, fractured times, in which acts of brutality are predicated on and justified through disconnection. In its own way, this collection is a reminder of how we’re all connected, how deeply one human can affect the experience of another.

AW: You also mention in your introduction a note from contributor John Freeman, on writing about family: “Love is in clarity, not sentiment.” Can you expand on this thought?

LF: I’m a card-carrying anti-sentimentalist. When I read nonfiction that presents situations or people in a purely positive light, blemishless and omni-benevolent, I don’t trust it, and as a work of art, it’s not interesting. I don’t mean that writers should exaggerate or invent flaws, or approach characterization as an equation in which each negative must be offset by a positive. But let me see the whole person. The impulse to coat the lens in Vaseline may stem from a desire to protect (both you and the relative), but it’s not really nonfiction if you can’t afford them the dignity of their complexity. To render them dimensionally is an act of love.

AW: What is one thing you hope readers will gain from reading these essays?

LF: I hope readers will find these essays as engaging and resonant and moving and funny and heartbreaking and wise as I do.

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