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"We Are the Pests": An Interview with Cheryl Smart

Cheryl Smart is a final year MFA candidate studying Creative Nonfiction at the University of Memphis, where she is recipient of the 2015 Creative Writing Award in Nonfiction. She is current Managing Editor, past Assistant Managing and past Nonfiction Editor of The Pinch. She has publications in The Collagist, Gulf Coast, Cleaver Magazine, Word Riot, Appalachian Heritage, Little Patuxent Review, The Citron Review, Pine Hills Review, Apeiron Review, and others. Her essay, "Horses in the Wrinkle" has been nominated for The Best American Essays 2016. See cherylsmartwriter.com to read other works.

Her essay, "Dissonance," appeared in Issue Seventy-Five of The Collagist.

Here, Cheryl Smart talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about personal essays in third person, rural life, and the Memphis Zoo.

What can you tell us about the origins of your essay “Dissonance”? What sparked the initial idea and caused you to start writing the first draft?

I was born in Memphis, but I grew up on a family farm well outside Memphis—seventy miles due east of here. Our small town was about as rural as they come. My family was fully isolated out there. From our farmhouse, there were no other homes in sight. My father taught, promoted, and expected peaceful living among the wildlife. I returned to Memphis briefly in the eighties. At that time, there was still a good bit of space in surrounding areas, leaving room for wildlife to exist. In fact, in 1987, my first ‘real’ job was as a receptionist in the only building around for miles on what is now a 6-lane bustling, bumper-to-bumper, make-sure-you-have-enough-gas-to-sit-in-traffic-for-an-hour main thoroughfare of Memphis. The urban sprawl and rapid growth has been nearly unbelievable. I moved back to the city five years ago to study creative writing at the University of Memphis. The effects upon the wildlife population of over-development within and around Memphis are disturbingly clear. Spending time in Memphis again made the careless treatment and disregard of animals in this area become more and more a burden to me. Because I know better. It began to seem that everywhere I went in the city on any given day, I could see some innocent animal paying the cost for our ‘growth’—sometimes to the point of its very life. Such as with the sparrow, which is what prompted me to start writing. I needed to speak out.

Even though your piece is nonfiction, it is written in the third person. I have to assume that the “she” of the essay is, in fact, you. If so, why did you decide to write about yourself in the third person? (If not, who is the “she” of this essay really?)

You are correct in assuming the “she” of the essay is me. The initial draft of “Dissonance” was written in first person. I usually revise a draft several times. Each time I went back to revise this particular essay, reading the first-hand account was too distressing. It stirred up so much shame that it was hard for me to concentrate on revision. It’s not my nature to treat animals like they are insignificant in this world, but just by being here in this city, in these conditions we’ve created for ourselves and the wildlife here, I’m part of it. It’s hard to think about being a part of such casual treatment of animals. That kind of guilt is a positive thing when it spurs action and effort to right a wrong. My starting place was no amazing deed to fight against the poor treatment of animals in and around Memphis. I haven’t chained myself to trees, boycotted local steakhouses, or splashed red paint onto fur coat fans. My starting place was to use what was available to me—my writing ability—to spread awareness of the problem. In order to write this piece really well, I needed to distance myself from the story. I thought the third person POV would just get me through revision and I’d write the final draft in first person. But once I had written the last draft, third person felt right for the piece.

The “dissonance” of the title is, I think, that between nature and the city, as felt by the speaker/subject who has interacted with wildlife in both rural and suburban environments. I sense a longing for communion with the natural world that is inhibited by life in Memphis. Many writers have had a lot to say about these themes and desires. What do you think you bring to the conversation about nature and wildlife vs. modern living?

I’m certainly not talking about anything new in the essay, “Dissonance.” The messy human footprint man leaves has been written about and talked about in our country since the first settlers began to impact the world they saw as theirs by birthright, by being white and Christian and favored by God—Manifest Destiny and all that. Recently, I read “The Pioneers” by James Fenimore Cooper, published in 1823. The narrator talks about the pioneers destroying land by felling too many trees, killing too much large and small game, fishing lakes dry, driving out Native Americans who lived off the land more respectfully. How we push wildlife out of its natural habitats nowadays is probably not that much different from how the settlers pushed Native Americans out of their homelands centuries ago. We see something we want, we take it, we make what or who had it first leave. Having spent my entire life within a seventy mile radius of Memphis, I’ve heard about or watched this very thing happen in and around this great city. One of the worst instances of encroaching the natural habitat of wildlife indigenous to this area concerns Overton Park and one of few remaining old growth forests.

The Memphis Zoo needed to expand to include a new exhibit called Teton Trek which would house new animals, among them Timber Wolves, Grizzly Bears, and Elk. In order to do this, the Memphis Zoo clear cut several acres of old growth forest, destroying the natural habitat of the animals living there to create a new artificial habitat for the incoming non-indigenous animals to be displayed. It seems shameful, right? Pretty cut and dried. But there is a lot of ambivalence about it here. The Memphis Zoo is ranked as one of the top five zoos in the country. The Memphis Zoo is revenue, revenue our city needs. So, it’s a bitter paradox.

What I bring to the conversation about nature and wildlife vs. modern living is a dual perspective on the situation. I understand that we—people, we—need to be here. I also understand that they—wildlife, they—need to be here as well. Having been raised in an intensely rural environment, and in the manner in which I was raised there, taught me how to live more harmoniously with animals than what I am seeing here in areas with a greater human population. I believe it’s possible to live in these spaces in a way that respects wildlife if we’d just change our mindset. It seems to me that people in the city see wildlife differently than people in rural areas do. In most cases, country people don’t see wildlife as a threat, whereas city people oftentimes do. This is the mindset that needs to be changed. We need to be open to sharing our spaces with other creatures besides ourselves. If armadillos are rooting in our yards for beetles, let’s not bash them in their heads with rocks and call pest control. Learn to share. Our yards will recover. Dirt goes back just the way it was before with a little tamping down. In fact, this jostling of the ground is good for impacted soil in that it produces much needed aeration.

When little creatures—birds, squirrels, chipmunks—dart across our paths while we’re racing from this place to that one, slow down and give the little guys time to get where they’re going. When raccoons raid our trash bins because they are hungry, please…please don’t name them pests, trap them in cages, and drown them in backyard pools. We are the pests. Put a bungee cord on the fucking trash bin and sleep more soundly at night in the knowledge that some small effort was made to fight against the terrorizing and killing of non-human beings in the pursuit of making human life easier.

I have a friend living here in the city in a neighborhood even more compact than mine. She puts out food in her backyard for a visiting fox, opossum, raccoons, birds, and squirrels. She calls them her ‘wild babies’ or ‘outdoor kids’ and feeds them every day and night. They don’t ‘pester’ her. They have a mutual understanding. They share space.

Can you describe your revision process for this essay? How did it change from the first draft to the final? Did you have to make any tough decisions along the way?

My revision process is usually pretty instinctual. I just keep going back to a piece until it feels complete. One tough decision I made with “Dissonance” was to keep the essay in third person. I had intended for the polished draft to go back to first person. As a creative nonfiction writer, these are my stories. I want to give them to the world as my unique experiences. I felt that readers could more easily see themselves in this story though if it remained in third person. A first person narrative leaves no room to speculate on whose story is being presented. A third person narrative does leave room for speculation—whose story is this I’m reading? Could be anyone’s story…could be mine. That’s what I wanted. For people to see themselves in this story, so in order to do that, I needed to have less of myself in it. The way to do that was through third person POV.

What writing projects are you working on now?

I’ve been fine-tuning a collection of essays about my upbringing that illustrates the delights as well as the complexities of southern rural living in a bygone era. I also have a few essays I wrote last semester in a creative nonfiction workshop that I’m revising. I love writing essays. Lots of hometown people keep asking when I plan to write a book. I’m writing one now. A book of essays though because I’m really more of an essayist than I am a writer of books.

What have you read recently that you’d like to recommend?

Recently, I read “Bettyville” by George Hodgman. I met George at the Southern Festival of Books in Nashville last fall. He was reading on a panel with Harrison Scott Key (yes, yes of the lineage of Francis Scott Key) and so I went to hear them read. Afterward, George signed my book and we spoke a few moments. Before I even knew much about his book, I recognized small town charm right away. Once I began reading “Bettyville,” Hodgman adeptly sunk me into rural places not unlike that of my own hometown. He really draws rural America well. The book is flooded with description and details so vivid that if you know nothing of rural living, when you’re done reading, you will. And it’s warm, funny, sad. I laughed and cried and am a better person (and writer) for having read this book.

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