by Martha Anne Toll
I had the good fortune to review Cassandra Lane’s poetic and stirring memoir We Are Bridges for NPR Books. In her debut, Lane resurrects the untold story of her great-grandfather Burt Bridge’s lynching, using personal history and family lore to fill giant holes in her past. For Lane, this past “is a ghost” which she must conjure up to ground not only herself and her son, but all who read her book, in this under-examined aspect of America’s history.
Martha Anne Toll: You grew up in rural Louisiana. Can you talk about your connection with that place, and what it felt like to move to Los Angeles?
Cassandra Lane: Louisiana is part of my blood, my skin and soul. I lived there until I was 30—first in the town in which I grew up, DeRidder, then in Monroe, a larger town where I went to college and held my first reporter job, and, finally, in the state’s largest city, New Orleans, where I worked at both the daily newspaper and outside the newsroom, and began to embrace creative writing more fully. Those towns are part of my memory and writing: the mud pies we made as kids, the bayous and mosquitoes, the rich and delicious foods, learning how to cook with my grandmama, falling in love, experiencing heartbreak, visiting the cemeteries, and growing up in church. It is a place as rich and deep and complicated as its rivers and swamps, the humidity as oppressive as the racism that occurs even within families.
Moving to Los Angeles was a shock to the senses. It hardly ever rains in LA. LA is dry and surrounded by mountains and the ocean. I love the contrast. Each place makes me see and appreciate the other more fully.
MAT: This book covers a very painful subject—your great-grandfather’s lynching. Can you talk about your process and how you managed the incredible horror of the subject?
CL: As a journalist, I had spent the last 10 years of my life aiming my lens at others, telling their stories. As 30 drew near, though, I began to do a lot of therapy, reflection, and journal writing about my own struggles with racism, discrimination, romance, and marriage. There was something about leaving my culture and people and being so far away that made me want to get inside those stories and histories even more.
I became obsessed with the story of my maternal great-grandparents—my mother’s father’s parents—whose love was cut short by a lynching. I remembered my great-grandmother Mary well because I lived in the same household with her for part of my childhood. I remembered her skin, her ghost sightings, her teacakes, and how she dipped snuff. She was 92 when she died, and although she had not wanted to give the details of her husband Burt’s lynching (it hurt too much, she said), Burt was one of the last things she spoke about in her final days.
I was drawn to the irony of his name—Bridges. I searched for records and any piece of the story I had missed. I wanted the story to include the gaps where I had repeatedly come up empty, to capture what this kind of racial violence followed by erasure can do to generations of a family.
The name “Burt” means bright and was also a nickname for “one who carries out honor.” As a creative and a professional young Black woman, I linked my dreams and my untapped potentials to his. This determination to bring the past “back to life” in honor of Burt—and in honor of Burt and Mary’s love—kept me going.
MAT: How did your family react to your book? Did you seek their guidance?
CL: Over the years, the people I returned to again and again about this book were my mother, my ex-husband, and my Uncle Cricket. Most of the reactions have been positive and even deeply moving.
My mother read the book and listened to it on Audible. “These were stored-up memories,” she says. And also: “Finally, there can be some healing.”
I did hear about a negative response from a relative who is upset about three sentences referencing a pattern of incest in the family. While that pattern also impacted my household, I worked hard to intentionally pare down these sentences and keep them spare, but I suppose it wasn’t enough.
By the time I was writing my book, all of my grandparents were gone. However, I had my memories of them. They also visited my dreams. I tried to listen to them, to let them speak through my pen.
MAT: Specifically, this book was written with your son in mind.
CL: When I started writing those early drafts years ago, I was not a parent. I had hit a wall with the Burt Bridges story. No matter how I tried to resurrect him, the fact is that his life was cut short so early. It was a story about death and murder.
But when I got pregnant in 2006, the book took on a more layered meaning and purpose. Carrying a child made me turn to the women in my family in an effort to understand them more. I tried to get inside Mary’s body. She was likely pregnant with my grandfather when Burt was lynched. I remember being a kid and hearing my grandfather cry about how he never got to meet his “real daddy.”
After the lynching, Grandma Mary eventually remarried and lived for many more decades, raising her child, farming, witnessing her child marry and have eight children. The story became about life and survival and hope. I wanted, suddenly, to truly finish a version of the story and to one day pass it on to my child as evidence of who we were and are—a story that is still unfolding, yes, but here’s a start in ink. On paper.
MAT: Memory is an undercurrent of We Are Bridges. Can you talk about that?
CL: I am fascinated by memory—personal and historical. When I was studying journalism, I remember reading that despite how objective we’re supposed to be as journalists, when we cover an event, we experience that event as well, and thus record it somewhat differently from another journalist. If this is possible for a trained journalist, it is certainly the case for everyone else.
Memory is fluid and complex and difficult to judge. I love the idea of a tapestry of memories about the same event. Somewhere, in the middle of this woven quilt of memories, is the truth. Or many, many truths.
MAT: How did you arrive at the structure for your book?
CL: Through many, many, many trials and errors. Structure is my biggest challenge. I had tried structuring it by character, by chronology, by geography… so many different approaches. Finally, working with my editors at Feminist Press, I was able to settle on a structure that let me move back and forth through time more easily. The contemporary stories’ chapter titles vary, but the chapter titles for the ancestral stories are similar, giving the reader an immediate signal of the time travel.
MAT: That structure worked so well! We’d love to hear more about the book’s publication process.
CL: I love the revision process, but every now and then, to push myself, I would send part of the draft off to an agent or book contest. In early 2019, it was a runner-up for a first book contest, and this was encouraging. I also got back amazingly generous notes from the judge, which helped me return to revising with new insight. While in the middle of that process, I heard about the Louise Meriwether First Book Prize from the Feminist Press and TAYO Literary Magazine. I sent the draft off again and put it out of my mind. In December, the publisher called to tell me that I was the winner. I was—and remain—ecstatic! The award came with a monetary prize, book contract, and a phenomenal editorial and marketing team.
MAT: There is so much history that we don’t learn in school. Can you talk about the “holes” in your education?
CL: Sadly, I grew up off a street named after a Confederate General—Beauregard—but didn’t learn who he was until I was an adult. This street was in a Black neighborhood.
I also didn’t read books by Black writers until I took an African American literature class during my sophomore year of college. When I read Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, and other greats, my eyes became open to so much. I wish we had been privy to these deeper, fuller historical truths as children. Imagine how affirming it would be!
MAT: So true! In the book, you discuss how you came to writing. Could you elaborate?
CL: At around 10 or 11, I told my mother: “I will be a writer. I just want to be behind the scenes.” I was painfully timid, but I loved reading and writing. I realized the power of storytelling, and as someone who had a hard time expressing herself aloud, I clung to the written word. While I wanted to write books, I chose to major in journalism as a “safe career option.”
I have worked as a newspaper reporter, high school literature and journalism teacher, college applications/essay advisor, senior communications writer, community relations manager, and now, magazine editor. Storytelling is the through line in all of these roles. And all along, I was working on my own book project.
MAT: How has your work at L.A. Parent magazine informed your other writing?
CL: As editor-in-chief of L.A. Parent, I get to help shape the voice and vision of the magazine to best serve parents and families living in Los Angeles County. I love working with local writers, many of them parents themselves, to tell their stories through traditional articles and features, personal essays, and more. Editing other writers helps me better understand structure, and what’s working or not in a piece and why, which improves my editorial decisions in my own work.
Some stories we’ve covered have affirmed themes I explore in my own creative work, including the impact of stress and trauma on children and the importance of family stories.
MAT: Bloom supports and features writers who published their first work when they were over 40. What has it felt like for you?
CL: I just feel so completely grateful. I look back and see how my writing has grown over the years that I’ve been working on this book—and how my insights and understandings have transformed as well.
MAT: What advice do you have for debut writers?
CL: For prose writers, read—and listen to—poetry! The way poets use language and space and breath can really help those of us who write essays and stories. Poets remind us to bring music, texture, and brevity to our work.
MAT: What writing projects are you working on now?
CL: I am in the early stages of playing around with a story that looks at Black natural medicine women and how we got separated from so much land wisdom.
MAT: It’s hard to avoid asking about the pandemic. What has it been like for you and your writing?
CL: Oddly, I was more productive than ever during the pandemic, but that is largely because I was under a new book contract with hard and fast deadlines to meet. At work, we had to downsize and pivot on a dime. So, we were ramping up with less resources. It has been a whirlwind of a time. I look back at all the magazine and digital content, plus the book that I completed, and wonder: How do we as humans keep going in the midst of so much? Rest is definitely a major goal.
Martha Anne Toll’s debut novel, Three Muses, is forthcoming in 2022 from Regal House Publishing. Her books reviews, essays, and short fiction can be found at NPR Books, Washington Post, The Millions, and elsewhere.