JOCELYN CULLITY: You were born in Tucson and raised in Phoenix but
never felt quite at home.
JANET BURROWAY: Mine was a very ’40s/’50s childhood, with much emphasis on being a pretty girl and a good Christian. Really, I was neither,
and these failures were a grief to my mother and consequently a grief
to me. On the looks side, I had stubbornly straight hair, poor posture,
and I was what was then called “stocky.” By the time I grew up and
slimmed down, and the still later time straight hair came into fashion,
the damage had been done. I was socially awkward, fretful, and fearful
of failure. I was no better at goodness than prettiness. What I mainly
remember about church were the pink wintergreens my grandmother
slipped me to keep me from fidgeting during the sermon and how untouchably hot the car was when we got in it to go home—it having sat in
the hundred-degree Arizona sun for a few hours. I was both pious and
rebellious, a very difficult combination for my parents.
At the same time—and from the same impulses, really—my mother
groomed me in public recitation. So I learned an early pattern in which
I was ambitious to do well, then terrified, then, when the moment to
speak arrived, accepted the inevitable and opened my mouth and was
afterward rewarded with extravagant praise. “Saying pieces” at Friday-night Methodist socials or for the Women’s Society for Christian Service became a template for teaching and giving readings. The terror later
somewhat subsided in a way that let me better see my students and my
CULLITY: In the 1950s you were in your late teens and early twenties,
studying literature at Barnard, Cambridge, Yale. You’ve written that
at that time writers felt they could change the world and that there was
real power in the written word. You met many writers who would go on
to fame, including the poet Sylvia Plath, who described you as a “lively
American girl,” someone who often crossed your path in America and
England. Could you tell us a bit about that heady time?
BURROWAY: It was a time of self-discovery—for me, for the Beats, for a
counterculture that still called itself Bohemian, for black intellectuals.
It was a whole decade before the ’60s erupted in louder and more organized ways, so we were struggling, flailing even, and in many ways I
was among the backward, having grown up in a self-satisfied Christian,