I first saw Alora Young perform at Nashville’s celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. in 2020. A talented performer, Young spit crisp lines about racism in present-day America that were interspersed with bars of song. In Walking Gentry Home: A Memoir of My Foremothers in Verse, Young makes her fantastic debut in print. The collection of poetry is a tribute to Halls, Tennessee, the town where Young grew up and where her family is deeply rooted. It’s also a history of this family — five generations of Black women who toiled and triumphed.
Why write such a book? Young tells us in the collection’s third poem, “A Lot See But a Few Know. Halls, TN. Always”: “My ancestry was lost / in chains and boats across the sea.” Later: “My recipe remains a mystery / and as I grow and die / I crave any bit of history that takes the question out of I.” As Young tells the stories of her foremothers — and she is a wonderful storyteller — she slowly reveals the realities of her own life. Her mother tells her that “remembering lineage and breaking generational curses is the most important thing you can do in your lifetime.” This book is a testament to how Young takes seriously the warnings and experiences of her family members. But she’s also willing to take risks. “I’ll live some more and make some bad choices,” she writes, “and I’ll suck the marrow from chicken bones.”
Walking Gentry Home is a triumph. Young, who attends Swarthmore College, is the Youth Poet Laureate of the Southern United States. She answered questions from Chapter 16 by email.
Chapter 16: Tell us about your research for the book. Did you know much of this history already? Or did you interview family members? Have your relationships been altered at all through the process?
Alora Young: I knew a few of the stories, such as the titular story of my great-grandmother Gentry being told to walk home by her mother after walking all the way back to her childhood house, but most of the stories were new to me. I interviewed every living female member of my family, as well as my uncle and grandfather. I feel so much closer to my family through having completed this book.
Chapter 16: A theme of the tragic loss of girlhood runs throughout the book and across centuries. It turns the “coming of age” narrative on its head. In “When I Stop Calling Mom, Mommy,” you connect it to your relationship with your mother. It’s such an interesting paradox: Sometimes our common experiences actually distance us from one another. History is full of paradoxes, and I wonder if you found others while exploring your own.
Young: While writing this book, I discovered that home as a concept itself is a paradox. Girls are forced to leave the homes they grow up in to create the homes they make for their children, but the homes they make for their children belong to the children and not the girls themselves, thus leaving girls perpetually without a home for generations.
Chapter 16: “Ortho B, 1921” is about your great-great uncle’s suffering after World War II. It ends: “And that is motherhood. // Letting some parts of yourself burn to save others.” I gasped at the poignancy of these lines. How much has your understanding of motherhood and family in general changed while writing your book?
Young: I came to understand my mother so much more deeply through this work than I even remotely did before. Learning these stories helped me see the work through a mother’s eyes. I used to think motherhood was just something you did, but I now realize that for people like my mom it’s something you are with every fiber of your being. The worry for your children is all-encompassing. And because I understand that now, I do my best to scare my mom as little as possible because she’s got enough to worry about!
Chapter 16: Which of your mothers was the easiest to write? Who was the most difficult? Why?
Young: Gentry was the easiest to write because she has been gone for long enough that the old wounds had healed, but not long enough that the stories had been forgotten. That made it easy to tell the story without hurting anyone. My mom, Monette’s story, was the hardest to write because she is still alive and I didn’t want to hurt her by telling all of her business!
Chapter 16: When you wrote these poems, did you imagine someone reading them? If so, who?
Young: I always imagined a young black girl reading this book, someone who is like me, with big dreams and big ambition and a lot of generations of dreams riding on them.
Erica Ciccarone is a fiction writer, critic, journalist, and professional cat lady in Nashville.