Julia Ridley Smith is the author of a memoir, The Sum of Trifles (University of Georgia Press, 2021). Essays from the book have appeared in Ecotone, the New England Review, and Southern Cultures, and been recognized as notable in The Best American Essays. Her fiction has been published in Alaska Quarterly Review, Electric Literature, The Southern Review, and elsewhere. She is currently the 2021–22 Kenan Visiting Writer at UNC Chapel Hill. Find her at juliaridleysmith.com and follow her @JuliaTrifles.
Molly Sentell Haile: Can you start by talking about the genesis of The Sum of Trifles? At what point did you know that this would be a book-length narrative about grieving for your parents and also about your relationship with objects and how we form our “aesthetic principles and habits of keeping,” which is how you described the project in an interview with The Southern Review in 2019?
Julia Ridley Smith: I kept notes as my brother and I were cleaning out our parents’ house. They were antique dealers who died within six months of each other, and it was hard to let go of their things. I needed a way to explore what all these objects meant to me and why I was so attached to them.
First I wrote the “Legs” essay about my dad, and then I wrote “A Miniature for My Mother.” After those two essays, I started thinking more broadly about what other objects in the house captured something about this bigger question I had about our aesthetic formation, the shaping of our identity in relation to how we live with objects.
That’s when I started thinking in a more strategic, thematic way about which objects I was going to write about. A large screen depicting a scene from The Tale of Genji provided a hub for a lot of associations having to do with my mom and her parents, who were also antique dealers. I wondered about the longer inheritance of a kind of bourgeois taste, but I was also thinking about intellectual curiosity and using objects as a way of exploring the world or having the world come to you. Take the 19th-century armchair traveler, who would look at prints of faraway places where they knew they’d never actually go because it was too expensive or too remote. I think my mom and her parents had a similar idea—that they could explore the world through books and objects. That point of view was a big part of my formation as a person. And then I added writing to that, another means of exploration, of following one’s curiosity.
MSH: How was the process of sorting your notes and choosing objects for the book different from the physical sorting you had to do after your parents died?
JRS: When we were going through the house, it was the whole keep, donate, sell, or trash? question. The financial consideration was there, and then there was sentiment. I thought about what my mother would want me to have—what she placed some kind of value on—and what I actually felt sentimentally attached to, and those were not always the same. So choosing which objects to keep had to do with some sort of value I could assign to them.
When I was picking what to write about in the book, though, I was concerned more about theme. That was really when my parents’ stuff became what Sherry Turkle calls “objects to think with.” That was such a useful phrase for me. I’m not somebody who’s real theory driven, but I liked having a way to theorize what I was doing with the objects. Because my attachment wasn’t just about being sentimental. I was realizing that there were all these beliefs about objects that were totally integral to how my identity had been formed—as a woman, as a thinker, as a white person from the south, as a mother, a wife, a teacher, a writer—all of the things. There were ideas I’d been encouraged to believe or live by that I now wanted to discard. So I became more strategic and conscious about what beliefs and practices I actually wanted to preserve going forward.
MSH: In what ways do you think writing memoir is inherently therapeutic? What is the relationship between writing that’s expressive or therapeutic, and writing that’s artful?
JRS: Making the notes was the part of the writing process that was, as you say, expressive—I was just getting something out. Noticing what was going on and crying about it. So in the beginning the writing was therapeutic in that sense. If you want to keep using therapy language, I’d say the later stages were what they call “doing the work”—trying to process what you’re thinking and feeling.
But all of that—the expressing and the doing the work—it’s for you, right? In order to transform what you’re writing into something anybody else might want to read, there has to be a process of art. When writers disdain the idea of writing as therapeutic, I think they’re talking about writing that stops at the point of expression—writing that’s really just about the writer getting their thing out and that doesn’t cross the bridge into, okay, now, how do I make this into something that’s for a reader? Writing for a reader requires some craft and some shaping.
MSH: Was there a section or a scene that was especially difficult for you to write?
JRS: The “Horror Vacuo,” was probably the hardest for me. That essay is all about how I went through this period of germaphobia—well before the pandemic—which I’d never experienced before. It was a form of OCD based in my deep fear that somebody else in my family would get sick. Somehow it was going to be my fault because I had not been vigilant enough to keep them well. Or I would get sick and not be there to care for my child or the other people in my life. It felt very alarming because the fear was so intense.
Deciding to put it in the book was hard because—it just, you know, it’s embarrassing. It seemed at odds with the identity I tried to project, which was much more confident and surefooted, like, I got this, I can handle whatever comes my way. For years I had been handling whatever was coming my way—kid, sick parents, hospitals, surgeries, emergency rooms, work, all of it. At any one point I could have freaked out, but that never happened. I handled everything. And it seemed very unfair—on the back end, after so much time—to suddenly be experiencing this panic.
MSH: And this was pre-Covid. I have a feeling a lot of people can probably relate in some way now to a fear of those things we can’t see that might hurt us or the people we love.
JRS: (laughing) Yeah, it looks a lot more reasonable now than when I was experiencing it back then.
MSH: I’d guessed that you would say that either that section or the section about taking your dad’s body to the crematorium was the hardest to write. That part was hard for me to read. People talk about how death averse Americans are. We don’t prepare the bodies of our loved ones when they die. We’re fine with reading the news about deaths—
JRS: And watching grisly murders on television.
MSH: But to actually see a body of a person who has just died roll through the hospital, most of us would be extremely unnerved by that, so I was blown away that you were able to accompany your dad’s body at the cremation. Also your humor. I think Weekend at Bernie’s made an appearance in that essay.
JRS: Yeah, part of that humor was because we’d witnessed so many absurd, macabre scenes in the hospital already. Going to the crematorium felt surreal. I had to write about it because it was such an important moment. That door rising and watching someone slide your parent’s body into the oven—it’s a harrowing moment. The finality of that. He’s gone, and I can’t go with him. I’m going to come back here in five hours, and he’s going to be a pile of ashes. If you didn’t believe what was happening before, you believe it now. You know? And I felt like it was important for the reader to kind of feel that.
MSH: Yes, this reader did. Very much.
JRS: So yeah, that was a hard thing to write, but I also felt like it was just crucial.
MSH: I’d like to ask you about the choices you had to make about what you would reveal about yourself and your family and characterizing your mother and father. You expose your mother’s contradictions, for example, how she’s socially and politically liberal, but, as the descendant of a privileged class that participated in enslaving people, she clings to aspects of her race and class consciousness. And although you seek to understand and reconcile yourself to who your dad was, you definitely don’t give his tendency towards self-absorption a pass. How did you draw the lines about what you would and wouldn’t reveal about the people in your life?
JRS: I didn’t want to make my parents unfailingly charming or only depict them on their worst days. I wanted a balanced picture. To do that I had to get past the grief a bit in order to write with a clearer eye. And I wanted to afford anybody still living their privacy. My husband and my brother both read the final version before it went to press. They were fine with it.
When I started writing these essays, I hadn’t done much nonfiction, so I turned to reading more essays and memoirs. One of the ideas that became important to me is that you basically have to turn yourself and the other people in your family into characters. As a fiction writer, I could understand that. Even a very rich character has a limited set of characteristics. When you’re writing about your family, there’s just so much material. You could be writing forever. You have to set some limits and rules about what kind of character you need them to be for this particular book.
MSH: It’s very hard to characterize the people closest to us.
JRS: That was another thing about writing this book several years after they died. When your parents have been sick a long time and then they die, what’s most on your mind at first is what they were like at the end of their lives. And then as time goes on, you start to regain more of those earlier bits, what they were like when you were a kid.
MSH: It did strike me when I was reading that essay about the quilt, that there is a quilt or collage quality to the whole book. One of the things it does is create all these great juxtapositions. I love those tiny, stand-alone quotes with the white space around them. Sometimes they read more like epigraphs that you’ve placed within an essay.
JRS: Collage as a form appealed to me initially because I was trying to think about the book more as a kind of intellectual exploration. (Hopefully it still ends up being some of that.) The memoir structure came to it a bit later. Initially, I was resisting memoir because I didn’t want to talk about feelings.
And I like those juxtapositions that you mentioned, leaving those spaces for the readers to make associations themselves. I like texts that do that.
MSH: I thought of Maggie Nelson.
JRS: Yeah, there’s a lot of great women writing nonfiction now who use similar forms. I like when the juxtapositions allow you as the reader to make the associations yourself. I felt like if I started explaining all the links, it’s didactic. It’s boring. It takes too long, and it’s also prescriptive if I’m telling you how I want you to connect the pieces when maybe you’re going to connect them in a different way. I hope that doesn’t sound like my students in workshop who say, “I left everything vague because then you can just make it whatever you want.”
And in the white space, there’s that idea of what’s not being said. Sometimes those silences or rests are a place for rumination, and sometimes they’re a place for something to be obscured or hidden—which maybe is not great when I’m talking about family history. But I tried not to use the white space as a way to avoid talking about hard things.
Also, with collage, each block of text becomes an object. I love thinking about form and structure, which of course fits with my upbringing. I was taught to look at forms and structures.
MSH: You have that little section where you write about how you teach your students that, in fiction, what a character desires causes the conflict that drives the story. What desires do you see driving this narrative?
JRS: I had to decide what to keep in terms of objects but also in terms of how I was going to approach the world after this massive loss. You’re not the same person after you lose your parents, and you don’t see the world the same way. I didn’t want my grief or the objects to keep me stuck.
MSH: So your desire was to move forward, to move on.
JRS: I wanted to move on. And then it became the desire to work out the problem of the book. Okay, I’ve got all these pieces: what am I going to make with them? It became the desire to create. Each creative project is like a problem I’m going to work out. That’s when the project becomes fun.
Another big desire with this book became, at a certain point, just to finish it! And I hoped somebody would want to publish it.
Ultimately, changing my attitude about how I lived with objects also had to do directly with my writing career. I read all these articles that are like, “if you want to write more, stop cleaning your house.” So that was one of the big desires too, to figure out how to be a working artist.
MSH: I wonder if you feel that your book at its core is about inheritance. What the past—whether historical or personal—has handed down to us, what we choose to keep, what we don’t want to keep, and what we need to understand before we’re able to move on?
JRS: It absolutely is about inheritance, not only the inheritance of the objects, but also the inheritance of an ethos around those objects. Because my parents and grandparents did so much intellectual work around material culture, I understood how the antiques in our houses were related to colonialism. I understood the basic history. But it wasn’t until I started writing this book and doing these explorations that I thought a lot more about how certain ideas about objects had formed my family’s attitudes towards other people, their attitudes around class and about what your house should look like and what that signaled about you to other people. I just hadn’t fully put it all together before. Or how all of that was tied to expectations of what it meant to be a lady.
MSH: To be “nice”—
JRS: To be nice. So much of that is tied to wealth and class. To whiteness. So I was thinking about all of this, and the world kept moving and so many things were happening, so many reckonings. What was out in the bigger culture was in conversation with what I was thinking about.
MSH: In your essay on the antebellum quilt that you and your brother ended up donating to a museum, you quote Toni Morrison from Playing in the Dark: Whiteness in the Literary Imagination where she asks, “[What is] the impact of racism on those who perpetuate it?” and then towards the end of that essay you write, “There’s much work yet to do, and guilt and shame are not actions. They are indulgences we can’t afford, a dead end.”
JRS: Guilt and shame are paralyzing. They don’t get you anywhere. And I’m also leery of white savior narratives, or of performative actions that aren’t really doing a damn thing except stroking your ego as a white person who wants to represent yourself as not racist.
There was an article that went around years ago, and I wish I could remember the writer of it, where she said something to the effect of: if attempts to level the playing field look unfair to you, that means you’ve been benefiting from the playing field. What I try to do now is just to understand how I’m positioned and ask what I can do from that position to help level the field.
MSH: Is one of your hopes that this book is possibly a model to other white writers and thinkers about taking a closer look into our personal, familial histories of racism and how we have benefited from that? Looking into our personal histories is a different step from what’s happening nationally.
JRS: It is a different step. But if you’re a white person trying to figure out your position in all this, you can’t skip over the step of really looking at your own family, looking at your past, because all that has shaped you.
We recognize that things in the past—like the slave system—were clearly morally reprehensible. Evil. We think we never would have participated in a system like that. But then, you know, what’s that biblical saying—you’ve got to take the plank out of your own eye before you can remove the speck from your brother’s eye? We can’t just sit around feeling morally superior to people in the past. Think about all the evils many of us are ignoring right now—maybe because we believe nothing can be done about them, that they’re just too big to tackle. More likely we avoid taking on the big problems because we know that changing how we do things might mean giving up our comforts and conveniences, and the way we see ourselves.
We know that our past generations were not blameless and that whatever advantages they accrued over their lifetimes come down to us. But because we’re scared that somebody is going to say we’re racist, or our family was racist—or because we don’t want to give up something—we often want to avoid this entire pool of introspection and retrospection.
Part of what looking at your own inheritance requires is the ability to hold two ideas at the same time—to be able to say, my family members have been loving, smart, liberal, and charitable (or whatever they are) and they’ve done good things, but they also have done or not done these other things.
MSH: It occurs to me also that this book is its own kind of inheritance, in that it not only documents these ideas about inheritance we’ve been talking about but also because you preserve many objects in this book that you no longer have in your physical possession.
JRS: That was part of the desire too, to preserve.
MSH: Your mom’s personality and your dad’s struggles, those are going to live on. The stories will endure. At the end of her life, your mom said the stories are more important than the objects.
JRS: In the end it was people that meant the most to her. That was a really important thing when she said that to me. This was somebody who had all her life said things like, “So-and-so got rid of this really nice piece of furniture because her husband didn’t like it. I’d have gotten rid of the husband.”
MSH: So good. She should have been on stage.
JRS: She was Shit My Dad Says avant la lettre. One of my desires definitely was just to preserve her. I missed her and having her to talk to—that’s part of what you miss when your people go, these people who spoke your same language. That’s hard.
MSH: What are you currently reading? And what are you currently chasing, to use the term from your “Paper Chase” essay?
JRS: I just finished reading Art for the Ladylike by Whitney Otto. It’s a collection of essays about eight different women photographers in the twentieth century. It’s about how they navigated the work of making art and motherhood. I’m chasing books that are doing similar things to what I do in The Sum of Trifles, interweaving personal experience with looking at art, thinking about artists’ lives and how we use art as a companion for our lives to help us understand what we’re going through or just the experience of looking and paying attention.