Author Camille Dungy shares Black heritage

Dungy uses gardening as a metaphor for her own “roots” in American soil

Anneliese Schneider, Staff Writer

Camille Dungy gave a public reading of poetry and nonfiction in Washington and Lee’s Northen Auditorium on Feb. 28.
Dungy is this year’s Glasgow Distinguished Visiting Writer and was invited by the university’s English Department to teach a nonfiction creative writing masterclass and share her work in the public reading.
She read some of her published work and excerpts from her book “Soil: The Story of a Black Mother’s Garden,” which will be published this May. The book features Dungy’s exploration of intersections between literature, environmental action, Black history and culture. She does this by depicting the process of gardening, growing both plants and her own roots in American soil.
“I refuse to be confined, and so even though I’m writing about my garden, I’m also writing about a lot of other stuff,” Dungy said.
Through the depiction of her experience of gardening in a Home-Owners-Association controlled and predominantly white neighborhood, she explores the difficult and often complicated histories of race and of displacement and dispossession in America.
“The very act of how I’m gardening is in communication with American history and also with Black history and native histories of how indigenous horticultural and plant development worked,” Dungy said. “I have a completely wild and crazy garden that is very antithetical to the idea of the English garden, and things kind of grow where they want to grow and do what they want to do.”
Dungy remains aware of her own identity and relationship with planting in the space of her garden.
“When I enter my garden, I’m often thinking that I’m entering my garden by my own will,” she said. “I’m doing that work because I want to. Nobody else is telling me that I have to do that, and I honor that on a regular basis. And I honor the history of people who haven’t made that decision.”
Dungy encourages other writers to remain aware of their own and their audience’s identities, and of places to come together.
“I think that what we find, very frequently, is that once we start to talk to each other, we’ll find lots of kinds of commonalities, and lots of spaces for bridge building, and lots of spaces for community,” she said.
In addition to this reading, part of Dungy’s work in the visiting writer program was teaching a one-credit creative writing workshop to students.
English Department Head Lesley Wheeler worked to create the visiting writing program.
“We noticed how many peer schools have a distinguished writer in residence program—often for a full term—and Camille Dungy was one of several people I contacted about how to construct a program that would appeal to authors,” said Wheeler.
Wheeler and others were successful in bringing the first Glasgow Distinguished Visiting Writer, Luisa A. Gloria, to campus in the spring term of 2018.
The shift from spring to winter term was made in hopes of making the program available to more students.
In the years since, this program has hosted writers like Aimee Nezhukumatathil and Heid E. Erdrich.
In the future, Wheeler looks forward to the residency returning to the English department, and toward the potential for further expansion.
“[The English Department’s] next turn will likely be in 2025, perhaps in fiction,” she said. “We’d still love to have a writer here for a whole fall or winter term. Maybe one day.”