Queer Parenthood and Activism: A Conversation with Dr. Francesca Royster
Choosing Family: A Memoir of Queer Motherhood and Black Resistance
by Francesca T. Royster
Abrams Press (2023); 288 pp.; $24.18 (Hardcover)Buy Book
Dr. Francesca Royster grew up on Chicago’s South Side and is now a professor of English literature at DePaul University. Though she was once primarily an academic writer, Royster’s marriage to partner Annie and adoption of daughter Cecelia in 2012 inspired a creative turn. She’s since written Choosing Family: A Memoir of Queer Motherhood and Black Resistance (Abrams Press February 2023). Choosing Family is a deeply personal, lyrical memoir of the family that formed Royster, and the family she formed. Race is always front and center in Royster’s exploration. Royster and Cecelia—or Cece—are Black; her wife Annie is white. Royster also focuses on her mother, who raised her and her sister largely as a single mom. Victoria Clayton spoke to Dr. Royster about living room furniture, the forces that made her a memoirist, activism as a parent, and much more. This conversation has been edited for clarity.
Victoria Clayton: We have to start with your red velvet couch because, as I told you, I also have one. You mention your couch a few times in the book. What does it signify?
Francesa Royster: The couch was actually Annie’s before we merged our lives. It was a sign: “This is my someone who matches my passion for things.” But I was also thinking about the fact that my mom always had really wild couches. Even in times when we were struggling financially, when it was time to replace the couch, she would always get the most outrageous one she could find. And I really liked that, because it showed a spirit of rebellion. Sadly, we recently got rid of the red couch. We kept it as long as possible, though.
VC: Don’t tell me you went beige with the new one?
FR: Oh, no. The one we have now is a Joybird blue, and it’s long and probably more tasteful in a traditional way. But we have lots of wild pillows.
VC: And should we talk about the owls now too? Owls definitely come up often in your book.
FR: I’ve always loved owls, but on the last big trip that I took with my mom, when I was still single, we went to New Mexico where I saw owls. They are a very important icon there. They have mixed symbolism. For some people, they’re the sign of spirits or death. I think of them as spiritual, but in my own idiosyncratic way—not in a haunted way. When my mom died, my sister and I went on a trip together and we both have these stories of being trailed by an owl! I don’t know if I really believe it’s my mother incarnate in the spirit of an owl, but it’s like a reminder of her. One of my tattoos is actually a set of owls that are based on the pattern that Cece had on her pajamas when she was a baby.
VC: You have this small section in the book where you explain eloquently what your tattoos mean to you. Why include this in your memoir about motherhood?
FR: The first time I got a tattoo, it was twenty-plus years ago when getting a tattoo wasn’t as common as it is now. For me, it was a way of embracing this risk-taking self. I got my first tattoo when I really wanted to change my life. I had decided to move back to Chicago. Getting the tattoo felt very queer and very much like, “Okay, this is a commitment.” So I was thinking about tattoos as a way of holding a commitment for foreverness while also acknowledging that things are always changing. Because even the tattoos are changing. My body has changed, and the tattoos look different than when I got them. So not even they are completely permanent.
Tattoos have also been my way of marking time, almost like a timeline. I now have my favorite line from Toni Morrison’s Sula as a tattoo.
VC: And what’s the line from Sula?
FR: “We was girls together. Oh Lord, Sula. Girl girl girlgirlgirl.”
VC: What a tribute to Morrison! I love that.
I want to talk about your mom. She worked for a Chicago arts organization and volunteered with AIDS patients. I was fascinated that you said that your mother had a queer household always, even though she was married to your father, then divorced and dated men. Can you explain?
FR: Absolutely! I think of queerness as a way of thinking about connection and community and vulnerability with others. A queer household is one where you’re always trying to think of ways to connect beyond the nuclear family unit. It’s permeable, where other people can also be part of the circle. So I think that’s been the ethos of the family that my mom had. I’m just thinking about the people that she loved in her life and the people who came to Thanksgiving, whom she trusted with her most vulnerable stories or her struggles. They were not always lovers. Often, they were gay men and her women friends. I think kind of beyond the idea of a girlfriend you call up to complain to or you drink wine with. It’s more like, “Can you come and live with us for the summer and take care of my child while I have this major operation?” In a different time you might have called on a blood relative. My mom definitely had a close relationship with her blood family too, but she was always thinking about how to have this reciprocal nurturing relationship with people who were not always blood family.
VC: Your mother died unexpectedly in 1999 while on a business trip to Brazil?
FR: Yes. Incidentally, right now I’m planning to return to Brazil with my family, and we will try to go where my mother was on her last day. Hopefully that will start my new book.
VC: Let’s talk about your writing process.
FR: I’m an academic and I’ve mainly been an essayist. But then when Cece was born, I found that writing became a way to figure things out and record what was happening. So I leaned more and more toward writing about our lives together. I think that it was really that move to the most personal writing that made me think about moving from essays to a memoir. In this book, I tried to stay in the most vulnerable space as I was writing.
VC: You write, too, about the process of embracing your desire to be a mother.
FR: It was a process of discovery and trust. Some part of me didn’t think that all of the parts of what I imagined being a mother would require could work out for me. I also had been happily someone who lived single and in her head. So I wondered what it would take to be ready to build a home, be a consistent person, and be present for one or two people all the time.
VC: It can be overwhelming and frightening when you think about it like that.
FR: Yes. But sustaining the loss of my mom got me really thinking about my images of motherhood. You don’t have to be perfect; it could be something that changes and shifts and isn’t 100 percent all the time, and you can rely on other people—like the concept of queer family.
Also finding Annie, someone I really trusted and knew was a person who would have a similar vision for what a child’s life should be, was helpful. And then some of it was grappling with my own mortality and what I wanted to do before I died.
VC: The process—giving birth to a child or adopting a child as Annie and you did—just isn’t for the faint of heart.
FR: It’s true. And sometimes adoption can still be a really hard, ongoing condition. It’s still in our lives even now that Cece is ten. The book stops when she’s six and adoption is already a part of her identity.
VC: And you write about Cece being diagnosed with Marfan syndrome, a genetic condition that affects connective tissue. You’ve also referenced Annie’s hearing loss and your type 2 diabetes. Can you talk a little bit about your view on health issues?
FR: I guess it goes back to my mom again. She had type 1 diabetes and it was a part of our everyday lives. So I saw that you can have a chronic illness and still live on.
I have a view that major illnesses are hard to avoid at some point. It’s tough to have an illness when you’re young, though. Being informed about them and moving forward is the way to go. And that’s kind of the way I feel about racism as well.
VC: Can you tell us more about this view of racism?
FR: Really recognizing the limits of the world that we’re in, the structural inequalities that are part of our lives, I think that’s unavoidable. But the best resistance that I can think of is to live the life of your dreams, to have a free imagination, and to love and connect with the people you want.
I also think about going beyond myself. I want to show or teach how to do this as well. But there are just times in our history when it’s absolutely necessary to hang on and look closely at the hardest things and to be present for them. And still, it’s always important to also embrace living your life, creating things of beauty, telling stories that you know are particular to you, and teaching people how to find their own stories too.
VC: You mention in the book that you put a Black Lives Matter sign in your window, and you later heard it upset a neighbor’s boy. Can you talk a little bit about this?
FR: Cece was entering maybe preschool or kindergarten. She would come home and be upset about someone who told her that she couldn’t be a princess because she was Black. So those things were happening, and then Black Lives Matter was also happening. Part of our strategy for helping Cece cope with these things that felt very personal was to connect them to larger struggles. Among other reasons, that was why it was important to put the sign in the window and to make sure that we had images of strong activists and artists of color around.
There have been times as a mother, though, when I’ve felt limited in terms of participating in protests. I didn’t want to go out and protest and be in the midst of things. I was feeling vulnerable for myself and Cece.
VC: You’d lived a life of taking part in protests and activism. Was it difficult to hold back?
FR: Parenthood made me think about the dangers of becoming too insular. It also made me think about how best to engage in protest and hard conversations, as a parent. You want to do things together with friends and as a family, but only in ways that aren’t unsafe or traumatic to your child. This was new information for me at the time, though! And now I have this ongoing question of what my role is as someone who’s an activist and writer, but also doing this job of being a mother.
VC: I think many parents face this issue. Did you come to any conclusions?
FR: I’m lucky that, as a teacher, I have another venue to create change. I have a classroom where I can get students to read great works of literature. Right now I’m teaching George Johnson’s memoir, All Boys Aren’t Blue. So I feel like part of my advice as a parent who’s also a teacher is that sometimes the place where you can put your protest energy might not be in your home space. You have to respect your child and what they need and create a feeling of safety too.
Meanwhile, look for opportunities. One of Cece’s teachers was having trouble talking about Black identity and Blackness beyond Black History Month. Stories about people of color in everyday things were not coming up. So we bought some age-appropriate books and kept one copy at home and gave the classroom the other copy.
I’ve also found that writing is a way to connect with people and tell stories that are complicated and hopefully open up the issues. I hope to never make issues of justice seem simple, though.
VC: You say that becoming a mother actually spurred you into a very productive writing life?
FR: Becoming a mother made me less of a perfectionist. I’d always struggled with procrastination. I’d have ideas but I wouldn’t work on them to create publishable things. Being a mother made me want to model that you can do things and they don’t have to be perfect. So some of it is just thinking about the audience of Cece watching me do things. It’s also true that I feel more urgency. Because frankly I don’t have as much free time as I used to.
Now I block out an hour every day for my creative writing. In addition to that hour, I also block out an entire writing day each week. I set writing and editing goals, and I just work on those that day.
VC: What do you hope readers take away from your memoir?
FR: I hope that some of my readers see themselves in my stories, especially those of us whose families have had to invent new ways of loving and surviving, including African American and queer families. I also want to share my own story of discovery and risk in becoming a mother and being part of a queer partnership and community, and to acknowledge that becoming a parent is hard and worthwhile labor. Maybe I can quote my friend Alexis Pauline Gumbs on that. She says, “It is an act of love to participate in the resistance work of child-raising.” I love that quote because it speaks to the love behind the struggle, and it also suggests that a whole community can potentially participate in the work of raising a child, and that can be a form of resistant activism, creating the kind of future where we can all thrive.