Books, Film, Music

Mothers, Fathers, And Writers

Acclaimed author Lise Funderburg ’82 spent years trying to make sense of her dad. In her new anthology she asks other writers to do the same.

By Miles Bryan ’13 | November 22, 2019

Lise Funderburg can’t drink coffee in public. Soda either. When she forgets and steps out onto the sidewalk with a drink, she quickly finds herself tossing it into the nearest trash can. She can’t help it; the act is automatic.

This instinct comes from her father, an impossibly colorful and domineering black man who propelled himself out of the Jim Crow South to a successful real estate career in Philadelphia through sheer force of will. He died over a  decade ago, but his commandments still echo in her ears: stand up straight; answer questions promptly; never drink outside.

In her 20s and 30s, she headed straight to her therapist’s office when she heard that echo, determined not to be defined by the trauma of her childhood. But in recent years, she has started to see those inheritances as something else: clues.

In her new collection, Apple, Tree, she enlists a group of other writers to join her in a bit of autobiographical detective work, asking them to “consider that space between the apple and the tree, to make meaning of it.” The resulting essays range from funny to sweet to sad, but the writers, under her guidance, are united in seeking to understand their parents—and see themselves anew in the process.

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Lise traces the arc of her career back to her time at Reed, but she almost never made it there. She spent her freshman and sophomore years at Tufts University in Boston. Tufts was fun, but she knew she was missing something in her intellectual life. She spent a semester in London and then came to Reed as a temporary transfer. Arriving on campus was an epiphany. She never went back.

At Reed she took classes with Prof. Sam Danon [French 1962–2000] and studied literature with the legendary Prof. Bill Lankford [English 1977–81] (the two became so close that she visited him a year after her graduation when he was terminally ill). The Hum 210 conferences led by Prof. John Tomsich [history 1962–99] fostered a sense of intellectual curiosity that still guides her. Those discussions taught her to approach her subjects with context and a cool head. Useful advice for dealing with a fiery Voltaire speech, or an elusive father.

Reed also gave her something else: affirmation as an outsider. She missed the seminal bonding experience of Hum 110 and never lived in the dorms (though she did live in a Reedie commune up the hill named “Roots, Rock, Reggae”), so “to be in a place where being an outsider was valued was pretty great.” She was also an outsider in a way that was not always apparent to her classmates: as a black woman who can pass for white. Lise was one of just two black students on campus during her years at Reed, and occasionally other students, perhaps mistaking her for white, would make racist comments in front of her. After growing up in a mixed-race neighborhood of Philadelphia, Reed was an “instructive shock to the system,” she says.

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Questions about racial identity led Lise to her first book, Black, White, Other: Biracial Americans Talk About Race and Identity, published in 1994. The book was widely praised—the New York Times review called it “an example of how we can talk about race with feeling, humor, and dignity”—and has since been widely adopted in college courses around the world. In the years since, she’s written for the New York Times, National Geographic, and Oprah Magazine, among other outlets, and won first prize for a narrative nonfiction story from the American Society of Journalists and Authors. She’s also a lecturer in creative writing at the University of Pennsylvania and teaches at the Paris Writers’ Workshop.

In 2003 Lise’s father, George, got sick, and she began balancing caretaking duties alongside freelance writing assignments. Soon, though, those lines began to blur, and she started to write about her dad as well. Lise’s 2008 memoir, Pig Candy, chronicles her father’s decline and death from prostate cancer. George could be loving and cruel in equal measure: he was easy with gifts, but not standing up straight or beginning an answer with “um” resulted in swift and often brutal disapproval. Another writer might have dwelled on the small-t trauma, but Lise is more interested in understanding why her father was the way he was. Much of his obsession with discipline, she came to realize, stemmed from the impossible standards he was held to as a black man operating in a white-dominated world. “No drinking soda on the street” may have sounded crazy to a
Philadelphia teenager in the 1970s, but in rural Georgia in the 1930s a black person drinking outside—even just a soda—could wind up on a chain gang. His severity was, at least in part, meant to protect his children. “The more I came to understand my father, the more forgiving I felt,” she says.

In Apple, Tree, she asks twenty-five writers to take on their parents.  The writers—including Ann Patchett and Daniel Mendelsohn—tackle subjects like family resemblance, dealing with dementia, and eating rituals. The essays are page-turners. Kyoko Mori writes about her father, a manufacturing executive who prioritized womanizing and playing rugby over spending time with his family. Mori defines herself by how different she is, but also comes to realize she’s adopted some of her father’s narcissism as a tool to protect her against self-doubt. Laura van den Berg writes about a fascination with psychics she shares with her mother. “My mother and I want a key to the future,” she writes. “If we know, we think we can prepare.”

In a review, National Public Radio calls Apple, Tree a “sweet, smart collection, and—it has to be said—a perfect gift for a parent you love.”

In her introduction, Lise cites an email she received from one of the essay authors, John Freeman, during the writing process. When writing about family, he said, “love is in clarity, not sentiment.” That clarity is on display in the essays that make up the book. Armed with an intellectual curiosity nurtured in Hum 210 discussions, Lise is not afraid to dwell in the thorniest places between parent and child, and that courage pays off.

The book is a reminder that trying to escape the influence of our parents is an impossible task. The only thing we get to decide is what we make of it.

Miles Bryan is a reporter and podcast producer based in Philadelphia.

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