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Drunk on Ink Q & A with Rachel May and ‘An American Quilt: Unfolding a Story of Family and Slavery’

Drunk on Ink is a blast interview series by Soniah Kamal author of  the novel Unmarriageable a parallel retelling of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and set in contemporary Pakistan 

Read Jaggery Issue 11 Spring 2018

Rachel May is the author of two books of fiction, The Experiments and The Benedictines, and two books of nonfiction, Quilting with a Modern Slant and An American Quilt: Unfolding a Story of Family and Slavery, just out from Pegasus Books. She’s an Assistant Professor at Northern Michigan University and has been awarded residencies at the Vermont Studio, VCCA, and Millay Colony.

About An American Quilt  published by Pegasus Books   

Following the trail left by an unfinished quilt, this illuminating saga examines slavery from the cotton fields of the South to the textile mills of New England?and the humanity behind it. When we think of slavery, most of us think of the American South. We think of back-breaking fieldwork on plantations. We don’t think of slavery in the North, nor do we think of the grueling labor of urban and domestic slaves. Rachel May’s rich new book explores the far reach of slavery, from New England to the Caribbean, the role it played in the growth of mercantile America, and the bonds between the agrarian south and the industrial north in the antebellum era?all through the discovery of a remarkable quilt. While studying objects in a textile collection, May opened a veritable treasure-trove: a carefully folded, unfinished quilt made of 1830s-era fabrics, its backing containing fragile, aged papers with the dates. The quilt top sent her on a journey to piece together the story of Minerva, Eliza, Jane, and Juba?the enslaved women behind the quilt?and their owner, Susan Crouch. B&W illustrations throughout

Soniah Kamal: First author/book you read/fell in love with?


Rachel May:  Bread and Jam for Frances, a classic 😉 and then A Wrinkle in Time and then The Bluest Eye

To unwind: chai, coffee, water, wine?

Coffee, coffee, and more coffee…that doesn’t really lead to unwinding but gets me writing. J My students tease me for my coffee habit.

A novel, short story, poem, essay, anything you believe should be mandatory reading?

Zong! by M. NourbeSe Philip; Missing Persons, a new story collection by Stephanie Carpenter; everything by Anne Carson

Any classic you wished you’d pushed through in your teens?

War and Peace? I wish I’d been a better student freshman and sophomore years of college, when I was in all those survey classes.

A favorite quote from your book ?

“I look to the past and seek the people whose stories enliven a world I didn’t know but can still feel in present. I reach for the tactile—the clothes, a quilt, the thin paper on which loops of cursive huddle to fill the page…I learn about the food people made in the past, their daily habits, the authors they might have read, speakers they’d have heard—and this past seems to exist around me in the present, informing my days, changing the places I thought I knew.”

Your favorite book to film?

Alice Munro’s short story “Chance,” from Runaway, which was turned into the Spanish-language film Julieta. Also, Stuart Little (it’s impossible not to love that cartoon mouse).

read Chance

Favorite Indie Book Stores?

Porter Square Books in Cambridge, MA; Snowbound Books in Marquette, MI

The one think you wish you’d known about the writing life?

How lonely and uncertain it is—we do all this work for years on end, with no promise of it coming to anything—and, on the flip side, how many deep friendships I’d find through writing, how much I’d come to love interviewing people, how rewarding it can be to focus on stories in the world around me.

Does writing/publishing/marketing get any easier with each story/novel published?

Everything requires patience, which I have to work very, very, very hard to cultivate. Maybe that’s my life’s work—gaining patience! The more I’ve invested in a book, the more daunting it feels. I’m lucky I’ve gotten to publish, and I’m grateful for it. But it still feels like standing naked on a stage and offering up a baby to the world, with all this hope and fear that they’ll make it. I’ve learned to seek help from wiser people, which makes the process easier.

Dog, Cat, Or?

I love and own both. Also horses and goats. Here is Penny, my cat, and Piper, my dog.

A favorite book cover?

The new Little Women cover embroidered by Rachell Sumpter

A favorite song?

Right now: José Gonzalez “Heartbeats” and Etta James “Sunday Kind of Love

Recommend a Small Press and Literary Journal?

Siglio Press makes gorgeous image+text projects, Braddock Avenue Books is publishing great fiction (full disclosure: they published my novella in shorts!), and I love Michigan Quarterly and VQR

Last impulse book buy and why?

The Phantom Atlas, by Edward Brooke-Hitching. It’s a book about all the mistakes maps and atlases held—places that didn’t exist, impossible monsters—and it’s beautifully made with heavy pages and glorious illustrations.

Soniah Kamal is an award winning novelist, essayist and public speaker.  Soniah’s novel Unmarriageable is a Financial Times Readers’ Best Book of 2019, a People’s Magazine Pick, a Library Reads Pick, an NPR Code Switch Summer Read Pick, a 2019 Book All Georgians Should Read, a 2020 Georgia Author of the Year for Literary Fiction nominee and more. Her novel An Isolated Incident was shortlisted for the Townsend Prize for Fiction and the KLF French Fiction Prize. Soniah’s TEDx talk is about second chances and she has delivered numerous keynotes addreses. ‘We are the Ink’, her address at a U.S. Citizenship Oath Ceremony, talks about immigrants and the real American Dreams, her keynote at the Jane Austen Festival is about universality across time and cultures and she’s given keynotes at Writers Conferences. Soniah’s work has appeared in critically acclaimed anthologies and publications including The New York Times, The Guardian, The Georgia Review, The Bitter Southerner, Catapult, The Normal School, Apartment Therapy and more.
She’s on twitter and instagram @soniahkamal

More Drunk on Ink Interviews:

Mike Chen: Here and Now and Then, a novel

Ruth Franklin: Shirley Jackson A Rather Haunted Life, biography

Colleen Oakley: Before I Go, a novel

Emily Midorikawa: A Secret Sisterhood: The literary friendships of Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, George Eliot, and Virginia Woolf, biography

Shabnam Samuel: A Fractured Life, memoir

Elise Hooper: The Other Alcott, a novel

Anne Boyd Rioux: Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy: The Story of Little Women and Why It Still Matters, non fiction

Devoney Looser: The Making of Jane Austen, non fiction

Kristen Miller ZohnThe Currency of Taste- Gibbons Georgian Silver, coffee table book

Vanessa HuaA River of Stars, novel

Chaitli SenThe Pathless Sky, novel

Sonya HuberPain Woman Take Your Keys, memoir

Kathy Wilson FlorenceThree of Cups, a novel

Sara Luce LookCharis Books and More, independent book store

S J SinduMarriage of a Thousand Lies, a novel

Rosalie Morales KearnsKingdom of Men, a novel

Saadia FaruqiMeet Yasmin, children’s literature

Rene DenfeldThe Child Finder, a novel

Jamie BrennerThe Husband Hour, a novel

Sara MarchantThe Driveway has Two Sides, memoir

Kirsten Imani KasaiThe House of Erzulie, a novel

Thrity UmrigarThe Secrets Between Us, novel

John Kessel, Pride and Prometheus, novel

Lisa Romeo, Starting with Goodbye: A Daughter’s Memoir of Love After Loss

Rachel May, An American Quilt: Unfolding a Story of Family and Slavery

Rebecca Entel, Fingerprints of Previous Owners, novel

Jamie Sumner, Unbound: Finding from Unrealistic Expectations of Motherhood

Falguni Kothari, My Last Love Story, novel

Tanaz BathenaA Girl Like That, YA novel



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