Lucy interviews author Martha Southgate

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Lucy interviews author Martha Southgate

Post by Lucy! » September 30th, 2005, 9:49 pm

Printed in this week's school newspaper:

The Girl Stays in the Picture
Why Third Girl From The Left Should Be First On Your List
By Lucy Torres

What to say about a story that articulates what seems almost indefinable with words? Martha Southgate seems to capture the rawness of human sentiment, that quality which gives us spiritual matter but has no actual physical weight. In Third Girl from the Left, we meet the real and imperfect characters that in, one way or another, define us all, as we get to know the multi-layered generational tale of one woman's story.

The cast of characters: Angela, an actress from Tulsa, Oklahoma, who never made it big during the glamorous days of Hollywood in the 70s; her film student daughter, Tamara; and Angela's proper mother, Mildred. The layers and dimensions given to each character are rich and imperfect, and it shows the reader that our histories can haunt us making it impossible to sever our future from our past.

Especially interesting is the different angles in which we view Angela, whom the story is centered on, and how she refuses to label herself. Third Girl from the Left is a very socially and culturally aware book that blurs the edges of our American obsession with labeling and sexuality. Angela, who would probably be considered bisexual, seems to struggle with all kinds of labels throughout the book.

"I was working from the character and went with it. I hope I was true to the character," Southgate said over the phone from her home. "It was funny, I was struggling with it. She doesn't involve herself with a lot of women. It was all a surprise to me. I didn't think Angie was going to be like that. It just developed. She's not honest with herself with who she is. I didn't want to penalize her for that. It felt right."

Oddly enough, the book itself may be labeled and categorized under a specific genre and be targeted at specific race. What is exquisite about this book is not only its empowerment of women and African Americans, but its power to capture the human experience. The work doesn't particularly seem to be a "black" story as it is a human story.

"The black experience is the human experience. Types of gangsta books look at one kind of thing." Southgate said. "White people can see it [Third Girl from the Left] and relate. I don't like labels; the way books are marketed and segregated. For the most part, are written by white people. ZZ Packer is read by people. Zane is more commercial, I venture to say, and read by more people. I admire books written by all races. I like forging a middle ground; there's no reason a white person cannot understand."

Third Girl from the Left also gives us insight on how we view people as a whole- we often tend to judge people on what we know from them, yet we never get the whole story. Our formation as humans is so intricate and dynamic, it's impossible that anyone can know another person completely.

Halfway through the book when Mildred's tale is introduced, we meet a different side of Angela, not the smooth, confident woman Tamara knows, but a restless and insightful child. Mildred's character does not seem to be part of the tale to merely give the reader insight on Angela, but to provide a clearer background on how events can shape a person's actions. Mildred herself has a few secrets that give her an incredible amount of depth.

"I was interested in the Tulsa riots and it was an automatic chain of mental events that led me to her [Mildred]. Now that I'm a mother and a daughter, I know there are certain aspects of motherhood are wonderful and not so wonderful...I work from people and find things emerging. It heightens as the book is evolving," Southgate said.

The process of styling someone's hair also forms a focal point in the novel, presenting a togetherness and identity not explored in mainstream popular books.

"It's generational, cutting hair. Someone your age doesn't know how big afros were People didn't do it. It was controversial," Southgate said wisely. "In the early-to-mid-60s some people stopped straightening their hair; even short afros were radical as a style statement. It carried a political statement. [Styling hair] was authentic to the character's experience. I didn't want to think about how to translate this."

The book is also unapologetic about its characters' mistakes. It is evident how some decisions have serious consequences, which can affect the future in unforeseen ways, causing a distance that can occur between families when something shatters the pattern of life. Angela's crucial part in parenting and being a daughter come into play when one finds out Tamara knows very little about Angela's parents and past.

"Tamara is cut off from her roots...She was really isolated from a sense of family and history. She possesses a practicality that Angela lacks."

Third Girl from the Left is a story woven from the material of life and Southgate gives it to us in its most organic fashion. An accomplished book, well-delivered and well-written, Southgate is a natural at storytelling and most certainly is the next-big-thing, mainly because of her ability at presenting unfulfilled dreams, ambition and pride in the clearest light.

And Southgate's strongest ambition? Wealth and fame like Angela hoped for?

"I don't do it for that. If I were afforded the ability to do it as a job I would. I don't write to be a bestseller or for movies. I'd love it to sell well...Writing is the right thing to be doing. I'm meant to do it, at the risk of sounding cosmic. My ambition is to get as good as I can, I try to be honest, not commercial."

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Post by stilltrucking » October 3rd, 2006, 1:20 am

Mucking around in oldy moldy archives and found your interview.

I enjoyed it a lot.

"My life is made of patterns
That can scarcely be controlled."

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