Faye McCray is an author and essayist whose popular essays on love, life, and parenting have been featured in My Brown Baby, For Harriet, Madame Noire, Black and Married with Kids, and other popular publications. She is the editor-in-chief and cofounder of Weemagine, a website devoted to celebrating and inspiring all children and the people who love them. Faye is also the author of a collection of positive affirmations for children, I am loved! By day, she is an attorney and married mother of three boys. She is also a master’s in writing candidate at Johns Hopkins University. You can find Faye on the web at www.fayemccray.com.
Q: I notice you’re a Hopkins writing student (which makes me happy because I’m a Hopkins grad). Did “Virgin in Harlem” originate as a class assignment? If so, how did it change through the publishing process?
That’s awesome! I just finished my first year and I’m taking one class at a time! I feel like I have a long way to go. I actually wrote “Virgin in Harlem” a few years ago before I started at Hopkins. Over the years, I have become a hoarder of writing prompts. I find them and stash them away for an uninspired day. The prompt that inspired the poem in LPR was to write about freedom. I immediately went back to a time when I didn’t feel so free. It sort of just collected dust on my computer until one day I was reading old files and I thought, “This isn’t that bad.” I revised it and submitted it.
Q: I’m seeing the child narrator in “Virgin in Harlem”—watching the dancers, holding her mother’s hand, embarrassed of herself, wanting to be free—and thinking there’s some connection inside of you to Weemagine and I am loved! Yes, no, I’m crazy?
Wow. That’s a really great observation. What inspired “Virgin in Harlem” and what motivates Weemagine and I am loved! are definitely connected. I am still very much in tune with that little girl in “Virgin in Harlem”—afraid of everything but wanting to experience so much! I think my passion for working with and inspiring kids really stems from my desire to encourage that enthusiasm. It’s hard to build up the courage to step into your identity as an artist. I enjoy helping kids see the possibilities.
Q: Your email signature (if I’m allowed to share this) includes this line of James Baldwin’s:
All art is a kind of confession, more or less oblique. All artists, if they are to survive, are forced, at last, to tell the whole story; to vomit the anguish up.
Out of curiosity, do you remember when you first read that? And does it mean something different to you now than it did then?
Wow… it’s been there for a while! I probably added that to my email signature before I fully understood what it would mean to me, so what it has meant has absolutely evolved over time. Now, it is a reminder not to shy away from the tough stuff. I’ve learned that readers can pick up on dishonest work. They know when you aren’t telling the whole story… when you’re afraid to tell the whole story. Recently I wrote an open letter to my son that was published in the Huffington Post. Initially, I kind of danced around race because I was afraid to alienate the diverse HuffPo audience. The editor loved the letter but immediately picked up on it. She encouraged me to go there. To talk about the fears unique to me as a black mother of black sons. I did and the reception was amazing. My goal is to be brave in my writing. If it doesn’t make me a little uncomfortable or a little emotional or even a little scared, it probably isn’t worth revealing.
Q: When I was about halfway through the Hopkins program I wrote an essay about Baldwin’s “Notes of a Native Son,” which was both about craft and my relationship with my own father (who actually had met Baldwin in Paris around the age I was writing the essay). In terms of craft, I discussed Baldwin’s use of recollected memory—how often he introduces passages with “I remember,” which keeps readers both in the present scenes (like the funeral) and in the past scenes of childhood.
Do you have any Baldwin-inspired craft insights you could share with readers?
So, that is amazing! I actually kept a picture of James Baldwin standing in Paris on my desk for years when I was practicing law. Who he was as an artist is a constant inspiration for me. I suppose in keeping with my last response, I am most inspired by his bravery as a writer. I mean, he was a black, gay ex-pat born in the height of the Jim Crow South! He stood in those truths when that often meant standing alone. As artists, I believe we are at our best when we stand in our truth. I teach creative writing workshops for kids and teens around Maryland. One of the first things I encourage my students to do is create an artist’s statement. It isn’t always easy for teens because they are at an age when they are just beginning to figure it out. My goal, however, is to encourage them to discover their voice—to identify how they move through, process, and express themselves in the world around them. This world is just full of stories—we just have to be brave enough to tell them!
Q: Thank you as well for coming to our launch in June. Did any of the readings or readers strike you in particular?
I had a great time. Everyone was amazing. I probably sat with my chin in my palms and my eyes wide the whole time. I loved Gary Stein’s work. I love work that is nostalgic and reflective. He was just phenomenal for me. I also really loved Wallace Lane and Natalie Illum’s work. Those pieces have stayed with me. Derrick Weston Brown also read a piece about fatherhood that hit hard. Honestly, everyone was amazing. It was a real treat to be in such awesome company.
Q: And what are you working on now?
Currently, I am working a novel in verse exploring love, femininity, and insecurity. In addition to teaching writing workshops for teens in Maryland, I also co-host a monthly acoustic music and spoken word open mic second Fridays from 7-9 p.m. at Root Studio in Columbia, Maryland! You can find out more on my website (fayemccray.com) or follow me on Twitter or FB @fayewrites.