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Francesca T. Royster On The Joys of Chosen Family

by Brendan Dowling on February 16, 2023

When Francesca T. Royster, a professor at DePaul University, and her wife, Annie, decided to adopt a baby and extend their family, the adoption process sparked a process of self-reflection that caused Royster to examine the concepts of home, motherhood, and building a queer and multiracial family. In her new memoir, Choosing Family: A Memoir of Queer Motherhood and Black Resistance, Royster dives into these topics, and the result is a joyous tribute to the matriarchs in her family, examining how the lives of different women shaped her thinking around queer family, as well as an illuminating examination of the adoption process from a Black, queer, and feminist perspective. Choosing Family has received enormous praise from critics, with Publishers Weekly stating, “insightful and reflective, this is a moving tribute to the power of chosen family” and Kirkus Reviews hailing it as “a potent love letter to community in all its forms.”

You write a lot about your great grandmother Cillie, and at one point you write, “like the other mothers in my life, Cillie modeled for me how to make a way out of no way.” Can you talk about what you learned from Cillie as a parent?

She was someone who I always felt just a very strong sense of unconditional love. Her home, her style—everything was so graceful. As a kid, I found her house to be this magical place and found her to be just seamlessly kind. It’s only later, as I’ve grown up and gotten older, that I learned about her struggles to hang on to the house, the kinds of ways that even her migration from New Orleans to Chicago has these kind of unspoken tensions that were probably racialized and also about class. What I learned from her was, first of all, the importance of always providing this sense of being loved and also liked by an elder,  the importance of really investing energy and smarts into providing a home. Also, that home can be not just for the people who are immediately around you, but also for the folks who are coming from the South or folks in the family when people were down and out. I didn’t feel or see the labor that it took and that was a real grace, in terms of being a child and not being aware of the work that it took to provide that. So part of that “making a way out of no way” was her creating this sense of abundance and stability that actually was a group effort.

I’ve learned that, as a parent, I haven’t been able to completely follow that role, because part of being a parent is also just being more of a human being with flaws. I think because she was my great-grandmother, we saw her several times a year, but we weren’t in her household all the time. She provided a kind of dream space of possibility for me. As a parent, I’ve really tried to create that lovingness and stability, but also I’m more willing to show the human side. If I’m struggling, I try to talk about that with [my daughter] Cece.

I think what was just so great about Cillie, too, is just her sense of confidence. When I’m reading about Black women’s history, in some histories there’s sort of a sense of only the struggle, but not always of the confidence and the grace. That’s something that sometimes gets left out when historians are trying to map the difficulties of living in this country, especially during the era that she was alive.

When you discuss your grandmother, Gwendolyn, you write about how you envision her when you write and that you write what you imagine she would want to read. Can you talk more about her?

She was someone who she always called me her twin, which was pretty wonderful. I have an old picture of her, which is from before I was born, I think it was my mom’s high school graduation. She has this really winsome, almost sort of spacey look. She was someone who really struggled from day to day. She dealt with poverty, had a household of kids, and was really a hard worker. But in this particular photo, you can really see on her face that she has this kind of creativity and winsomeness that I sometimes feel in myself too.

When I write, I think about the fact that she loved to tell stories. She loved knowing facts, and she was just hungry for information. The fact that she sometimes stole or liberated books from the school that she cleaned was indicative of the person that she was. She was always just trying to find information wherever she was, like watching PBS, clipping things from the newspaper, or vigilantly reading her Reader’s Digest. She was just hungry for information. I think about who she could have been if she had been born at a different time and under different circumstances. She was an intellectual, and maybe what Robin D.G Kelley calls “organic intellectuals.” She was really someone who loved to think about and share ideas. She was very creative and imaginative, but just by being in her house, I was also aware of how sometimes that space to create wasn’t one that she was allowed.

When I write—and this is also coming from my training as an academic and trying to change my own language to make it more accessible and more direct—I think about people like my grandmother, who was a wonderful and unique person and part of a community of people who were intelligent, excited, and imaginative. I think about how could I write and tell stories where they would see themselves? I really wanted my grandmother to have a story where she could see herself. She isn’t with us now, but she was alive for my first book, which was Becoming Cleopatra. I was still learning how to write, but I wish I had written more directly then for her to read. I did some interviews with her before she passed away. I’m really glad that I got some of those stories, but it would have been great to have them in print for her. I wish that I had, because I know she loved books and really valued writing and publishing things.

Were the interviews part of something for a project or was that just something for you?

That actually got me going for this project. I had the idea of writing about my great grandmother’s house, about the idea of home and the house with the boarders. When I was interviewing my dad, I was expanding that idea to also think about making a home. I wasn’t sure what form it would be. I’d taken a film class and I thought maybe I would make it a film. I interviewed him on video and made a short film, but it was hampered by the fact that Cillie’s house had already been torn down. A lot of the places in the neighborhood were gone, even from my own childhood. I think that working on that project primed me for writing this book. Some of the early drafts of chapters about my grandmother and also about Cillie were part of me thinking through what that could look like. As I started thinking of myself as a mother, I realized that this is where these stories can go and that this is part of the same story. So the film that never was, the oral history, turned into this book. (laughs)

You write so movingly about how you and your wife have formed your queer life and how that isn’t necessarily reflected in how pop culture presents queer life. Can you can you talk about that?

Absolutely. Especially in my early single days, I was a big fan of “The L Word,” and growing up, “Tales Of The City.” [It started me] thinking about the idea of LGBTQ life partly as reinventing yourself or distancing yourself from family, or just seeing yourself as more singular. I think that, despite the fact that “The L Word” revolves around these characters who are connected in some ways, the warmth of everyday life that I was feeling, especially in my present day community, just wasn’t really reflected. I think about the fantasy of going to search for your community and your life somewhere else, like going to Oz or San Francisco. At different points in my life, I’ve attempted that as well. But really, what I ran into was the inescapability of reconciling [with family]. I mean, not everybody is able to reconcile with their blood family or to find models of how they want to be. I totally get the privilege of that, but I also feel like who I am was shaped by that history and I have these loving examples. So my own strategy has been to see myself as a product of these “making a way out of no way” people, including the women, as well as the product of struggle. Those are the things that I value: loyalty, making a home, hospitality, generosity, a kind of fluidity of space, and a kind of tenuous hold on property. We definitely own property, we own our house. (laughs) But just the idea that that’s not the end all and be all, but rather to see it as a way of helping create a place of welcome for other people. Those are things that I learned really from my own family.

I hadn’t seen images where people are really thinking multi-generationally about their queerness and thinking about how it can look different. I think also that the dominant images are mostly white images. There are a few examples, like “Noah’s Ark” and “Pose,” but especially the images of [LGBTQ] women are predominantly white, with some exceptions. Also this idea that you earn your visibility in our culture by being financially successful as defined by these particular terms and being heteronormative, being as close to the nuclear family as you can be.

Annie’s also coming from a family experience that’s not as positive at all times and definitely had some conflict. Her struggle to make peace with her family and to keep relationships with them was a lot of work. That also was really inspiring to me and made it all the more important that the family that we would create with Cece would be one where our blood family could be included. [It would be one where] we would try to bring together chosen family and blood family—even if it’s not completely seamless at all times—and try to integrate everybody. That’s what we’ve tried to do.

I was really fascinated by your writing about your mom, who probably wouldn’t have self-identified as queer, but she nevertheless created and cultivated a queer family of her own. Can you talk about that?

I would love to talk about that because my mom [introduced] the idea of total acceptance of lots of different kinds of people and ways of being in the world. That has always been true of her. She got involved in a church in her neighborhood, what is now known as Boys Town, that had a really strong AIDS ministry. I think she actually chose it and got involved in the ministry because her best friend had passed away from AIDS. She really committed to doing whatever she could to bring consciousness and support people and be a source of love and connection. It was really in the air, and also part of the fabric of her church and neighborhood, to be involved in gay life.

What was a revelation to me as I was thinking about making family is the way that I thought of my mom more as like a friend of gay men, but not as part of a family where she is an equal participant in this culture. Part of the language of chosen family really allows for all these different roles. It’s a little different than the image of the “’F-word’ hag.” I don’t want say the word, but you know what I mean? That was the image that might have been operating in the 80s into the 90s when she was doing that work, but I think the image of chosen family is much more allowing for a different formation of connection and ways where she was really central. That was consistent with my mother throughout our lives, that she had lots of different kinds of friends. She was often a mother figure or sister figure to her friends. She was very familial with folks that she worked with or other friends that she met through her activism, and really liked bringing them in, bringing them home. That model of making your friends and your co-workers your family is something that I can remember from the beginning..

She had this group of friends who were also her co-workers. They called themselves “The Raiders” and they would go to reggae clubs in Wrigleyville. They had a Christmas jammie party where they would like stay over and it was really very fun. It’s also just freeing to know that my mom had fun, even as a mother. Sometimes her role was to give advice and to help solve problems, but she also listened to music with her friends and hung out.

One thing that I was really struck by was how you were conscious of giving space for your daughter to tell her own story. Can you talk about like your mindset was as you embarked on this project?

Sure, absolutely. Thinking about the film and my great grandmother’s household, I had been wanting to write about family for a while. Then the experience of becoming a mother was so intense. Sometimes I didn’t know what to do with just the anticipation and also processing the fact that this is a child that another family has lost. We’re gaining this wonderful kid, but I know also that there’s a family that doesn’t have her in a direct way in their lives anymore. That’s a really difficult thing. Just figuring out mothering, what to take and what to leave behind in terms of my own family, working as a team [with Annie], all of those things, I needed a way to document it. The process of writing it down helped me deal with the intensity of the feelings of it, so I started writing. First, just journaling, but also writing things down so I could figure it out. My writing group, which is still my writing group and had been my writing group before we embarked on parenthood, is made up of people who are mostly my age and a little older. Most of them have raised children. As I was writing—and I might not have been doing it consciously—I would share drafts of things and get advice. It just felt less alone to think about things.

Some of the things that I write about are also really joyous. In the same way that I’m a compulsive picture taker—especially when Cece was young—I had to actually slow down, because I was missing things because I was so busy trying to take pictures. I just wanted to document that joy and try to slow it down a little bit. So the space of the page has been helpful for me to reflect, think about my feelings, and also come to terms with some of the difficulties and the struggles of being a mother and adoption as well. So yeah, I think I moved from writing, telling stories—sort of to figure them out—to connecting them to things I was writing, and realizing that I could make a connected story about the different generations and home and struggle.

And finally, what role has the library played in your life?

A huge role, for sure. I am a library nerd.  I was kind of raised in the library because my mom’s first job was as a librarian at a community center. When we were in Nashville, there was a community center that also had books, but they were books that people could take and not necessarily give back. It was called Read and Rap. My sister and I would hang out there after school. I got the idea from there that books were there for the taking—I still haven’t quite gotten used to that. (laughs) So libraries have been really important. I think the Read and Rap experience not only gave me a sense of the plenitude of books that are there for me, but also that there’s a social justice part of creating a space for everyone to be welcome and to be part of the library. That was definitely the idea behind Read and Rap, that there were different kinds of learning—including books—that took place there: games, conversations. I’ve never quite shaken the idea that a library is an important part of a community and that often books are a way in to talking about what kinds of things that people care about the most.

A lot of this book was written in the library. Because our lives are so busy, the library on campus was a place that Annie and I would often meet before our days would get started, after we dropped off Cece. We would write together sometimes with another friend of ours, Julie. We called it “The Library Club.”  We would just go and sit with our computers and write. My experience post-motherhood has been a sense of urgency about writing, but also that I had to be more strategic about finding the quiet time to do it. Sometimes that means leaving the house and making an appointment, so the library has helped me out a lot with that as well.

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