Ellease Southerland

(b. 1943)

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(b. 1943), poet, essayist, short story writer, and novelist.

Ellease Southerland's works draw mainly from the folk tradition. Frank and deeply personal, she writes about childhood remembrances, the joys of family togetherness, and the sorrows of separation. Folklore, biblical tradition, Egyptology, African history, and lore combine to inform her creative voice.

Southerland was born in Brooklyn, New York, to Ellease Dozier, a housewife, and Monroe Penrose Southerland, lay preacher, both migrants from the South. The third of fifteen children, Southerland received her BA from Queens College (1965) the same year her mother died from cancer. To help support twelve younger siblings, she worked in New York City as a social caseworker from 1966 to 1972. She received her MFA from Columbia University in 1974. She has traveled to Africa six times, has received the John Golden Award for Fiction (1964) for her novella White Shadows; and has won the Gwendolyn Brooks Poetry Award (1972) for her poem “Warlock.”

The Magic Sun Spins (1975), Southerland's first collection of poetry, is an autobiographical celebration. “Black Is,” the title poem, announces the beauty of her being. Another poem, “That Love Survives,” affirms the love for her mother four years after her death, and “Ellease” lauds herself as a reservoir of knowledge and experience. The outpouring of her inner nature and the inspiration gathered from family love make Southerland's poems deeply spiritual.

Her short stories, “Soldiers” (Black World, June 1973) and “Beck-Junior and the Good Shepherd” (Massachusetts Review, Autumn 1975), contain personal ruminations. With a close friend in the Vietnam War and with nine brothers herself, Southerland wrote “Soldiers” to portray the hardships endured by family members and those physically and mentally maimed participants in the war. “Beck-Junior and the Good Shepherd” relates the story of Beck Torch, Southerland's sister, and her experiences at a Catholic school. Originally intended to be a part of a novel, the latter short story was noticed by an editor at Scribner's who published Southerland's novel, Let the Lion Eat Straw (1979).

A thinly disguised autobiographical novel, Let the Lion Eat Straw was named one of the best books of 1979 by the American Library Association. Based on her parents' relationship, it details the experiences of Abeba, the protagonist born out of wedlock in the South; her journey to Brooklyn, where she rejoins her mother and graduates from high school; her marriage to the mentally unstable Jackson, for whom she gives up a promising career as a concert pianist; and her struggles with their fifteen children. Infused with lilting dialect, haunting spirituals, and southern lore, the novel gained immediate popularity, appearing in four editions within two years.

Southerland's autobiographical pieces extend beyond the geographical limits of America. Her essay “Seventeen Days in Nigeria” (Black World, Jan. 1972) recounts her first visit to Africa in search of her heritage. The country's ambience—its friendly roadside vendors, its different foods, unusual manners, and native innocence—add to Southerland's excitement about a place that she had longed to visit. “Ibo Man” and “Seconds,” two poems appearing in Présence Africaine, 1974 and 1975, respectively, continue her impressions of Nigeria. So do “Blue Clay” and “Nigerian Rain,” the latter of which expresses her fulfillment in and oneness with Nigeria, which she calls home.


Subjects: Literature.

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