Something From Nothing: D.L. Mayfield

Photo Courtesy of D.L. Mayfield

The fact that I have the ability to create something from nothing with my words will never cease to amaze me. One of my writing goals for 2013 is to land at least one interview per month with a person (or people) whose creative work I enjoy or appreciate or am otherwise inspired by. March's interview is with D.L. Mayfield, whose work I first came across on McSweeney's. Her columns brought me to tears more than a few times, and her courage in writing things like this inspire me in the most meaningful ways. Hopefully you’ll be inspired too.

Q: When did you start writing things on the Internet?

A: I started a travel blog back in 2008, and then just kept typing away as a means of processing my thoughts. I am embarrassed to admit it now, but I eventually titled my blog “Little Somalia” and wrote about my adventures/exploits in our low-income apartment complex where I hung out with a bunch of refugees. I was a little naive in the ways of the world and I thought only my mom could find and read my blog. Eventually, due to privacy issues (not to mention moral ones), I shut down my personal blog. This past year I started a more “authorial” one, over at D.L. Mayfield. Before my blog, I had never thought of myself as a writer before. I just knew I had to get some of my memories down before they flitted off to the great hereafter. In retrospect, I wish I would have remembered that some things are best kept in a journal. And that a lot of people besides my mom could find my writing on the internet if they wanted to.

Q: When did you start writing about your work as a missionary?

A: I never really started exploring this aspect until several years ago. Before then, I think I was ashamed by some of the connotations associated with the word “missionary”--coercion, social outcast, being a culture smasher and all that. But being a missionary is such a core part of my personality--ever since I was 6 I knew that was what I wanted to do with my life. But the more I was in two worlds--getting my degree in missions at a Bible college, and living and hanging out with actual Muslims--the more I wanted to explore some of the stickier aspects of it all. I wanted to talk about how I was finding out that I was the one being changed, in so many ways. How maybe my relationships weren’t all supposed to be as one-sided and safe as I thought they were. 

Q: Do you keep a journal? If so, when did you start?

A: Funny you should ask that. I just started journaling, hardcore, in January. It has been a pretty intense year for me and my family, and we have found ourselves in some brand-new contexts that require a certain level of thoughtfulness to them. I am taking a break from writing on my blog (although I am hosting an excellent conversation on representation) and I just pour out all of my troubles into my battered up Moleskin. It is invigorating. I used to hate journaling, because I thought I had to be very pious in it. Since I always assumed I would be a famous missionary, I was seized with the fear that one day my journals would be found and turned into a book. You should have seen the stuff I was writing when I was 12 or 13. It was all so terrible, and deeply religious, and very very boring. Now that I have gotten over my delusions of weird missionary grandeur, I am having the most wonderful time writing out all my thoughts. And I am much more crazy and yet strangely spiritual than I ever imagined.

Q: Writing for McSweeney’s must have been exciting - how did you react when you found out your column was chosen? 

A: Heavens, it was one of the most exciting moments of my life. I have been a huge McSweeneys fan for a long time (in fact, I once submitted something rather terrible in 2002, and got a very nice rejection letter). I especially loved reading the columns, and decided that my life was just as interesting as some others. I dithered around with a couple of ideas for a column but I swear I heard the voice of God telling me that I should write not about the difference between me and my refugee friends but the similarities. How we were all just a bunch of fundamentalists, lost in the American dream. Since God had told me what to write, I was not that surprised that I was picked to be a columnist. But I still shrieked a lot. Sadly, hardly anyone in my real life had ever heard of McSweeneys so I just had to do a little celebratory dance and move on.

Q: Was writing for McSweeney’s what you expected it to be? If not, how was it different?

A: It was really great. There wasn’t a ton of feedback on the site itself, which I rather appreciated (comments can be so trite, or nasty). The editorial process was as good as you needed it to be--but the editors were clear that this was your name on the line, and you best put forth your good work. I did get quite a bit of pushback from the first column or two, mainly from an individual who was Somali and felt like I had misrepresented her culture (that is putting it mildly). I learned a lot from the critiques. I learned to engage in conflict rather than to run away from it. I learned how I can better portray people instead of adding to stereotypes. And I learned how the best writing is sweated through, prayed about in the wee hours of the night, hoping against hope not to turn people away but to draw them into what is going on beneath the surface of our world.

Q: Your columns seem to arc from optimistic and energetic to somewhat forlorn - do you feel that’s an accurate description? Do you feel that would describe your overall experience in working with refugees over the course of that year?

A: That is a nice way of putting it. I wrote those columns during a year of great change and turmoil--losing many of my treasured relationships with my Somali friends of 8+ years due to people moving away, getting married, or drifting off to other worlds that took them far from me. I started out trying to be so interesting and quirky, but then I started to process some of the losses, and it surprised me how deep they ran. I’m glad, in a way, because it shows how deeply connected I was. Now I really treasure the verse in 2 Corinthians 6:10  where Paul describes himself as “sorrowful, yet ever rejoicing.” I want to be like that, always.

Q: How did becoming a mother change your priorities with regard to your time? I imagine working as a missionary with refugees could potentially demand every minute of every day, though you obviously made time to write before having a child. Do you feel there’s been a major shift since your daughter was born?

A: Oh man. Getting married was hardly an adjustment--life just carried on as before, except I drug my husband around to various houses to eat spicy food and drink tea and sit around and smile. But having a baby changes everything. Now, we had a somewhat unique situation in which I was very ill and nearly died during her birth, and she was born 2 months premature. So we were housebound for several months, and we had to be pretty careful about where we went that first year due to my daughter’s weakened immune system. That first year was so hard, for so many reasons (I had many an existential crisis as I jiggled my colicky child for the 4th hour that day) not the least of which I felt like I couldn’t be a missionary anymore. But I did find ways to make it work, such as strapping my child to me in a baby carrier and teaching ESL classes while she slept, that sort of thing. I felt very hardcore. But relationally, it was difficult. 

Just now, in our new context, I am finding that having a toddler both closes certain doors and opens others. Just yesterday I was hanging out with some newly arrived refugees and they demanded to know why I had left my daughter at home with my husband. So I brought her with me today, and we all had the best time. It’s exciting for me, to start to live out a life where this is just our normal life. All of our friends are so different, and so great. 

And when I’m 60 I can run around like a crazy person again. For now, having a daughter who is quite fond of routines is very good for me personally to invest in regular times of prayer and contemplation as well.

Q: I really appreciate the ways you engage with American culture without compromising your deep belief in biblical truth - is this something you feel comes easily to you or is it something you struggle to balance? 

A: That is so nice! I guess it does come sort of naturally to me--but I do have a fear of being someone who finds too much of their identity in culture of any kind. I currently am not writing about my everyday life  on the internets anymore (and who knows if I will ever start again) but as a way of keeping up my skills I started writing a column for a website called Christ and Pop Culture. I really like those guys because they come from a very conservative place theologically but they aren’t afraid to engage in culture and also issues within evangelicalism. It gives me a lot of hope as far as dialoguing goes, and it gives me an excuse to write about my current favorite TV shows, and talk about marginalized peoples.

Q: Your War Photographers series really struck a chord with me, as someone who loves writing but is as yet uncomfortable with knowing what is mine to write and what is not. What's your favorite thing that has come from the series so far?

A: You can’t ask me to pick a favorite! I started the War Photographer series as a way to explore how we can ask better questions about writing hard stories that aren’t necessarily ours. In doing research, I think I was most struck by a quote from Katherine Boo (author of Behind the Beautiful Forevers), who talks about the “earned fact”. That is, living life and knowing your subjects so intimately that you don’t have to worry about if you are representing them well or not. You have earned your right to talk. It made me realize how so often I don’t want to do all the work involved with earning my facts--so until I can commit to that, it is best to take a step back.

I really liked Peter Anderson’s approach, which is to acknowledge that stereotypes do exist, and we must seek to transcend them. In order to do this, we have to focus on the good in communities as well as the bad. I loved the end of his post, especially this part: “Where the world sees poverty, we want it to see a different sort of richness. Where the world sees violence, we want it to see people longing for peace.”

So beautiful. Since many of these questions can be rather paralyzing, it was nice to get a big shot of hope.

Q: You’re writing a book! How’s it going? What can you tell me about it? When will it be released?

A: Well . . . it is in process. I signed a contract with a lovely little publisher called Burnside Books and I have slowly been puttering away. They gave me absolute freedom, which is luxurious and terrifying at the same time. I can’t say for sure when it will be out, but I will say this has been the craziest year of my life (we moved across the country and joined a Christian Order that lives and works amongst the urban poor) so it will be interesting to see what all comes of this. I would like it to have the same feel as my Mcsweeneys piece, with just a bit more cautious knowledge about how I am representing marginalized peoples. No matter what I write, I end up writing about the kingdom of God, so I am sure there will be a lot of that in there.