IWIC Hall of Fame: Phyllis Lawson – author of Quilt of Souls
We recently featured Phyllis Lawson in our Author Spotlight, however, we couldn’t help but to be inspired by her passion in her work to write her book Quilt of Souls, and moreover, to spread a message about the valor, the strength and the incredible sacrifices made by women, like her Grandma Lula, who grew up in a time of brutality and savage racism in the American south. Phyllis Lawson has led a life which demonstrates that the spark of inspiration that her Grandma Lula imbued in her, has continued through three wars which she served in. and now, she carries on telling their stories, the weave of the many souls who lived, loved and died to make it possible for the culture to advance to what has today. For this reason, we feature her in our Hall of Fame. Here is our interview with author, Phyllis Lawson.
It is clear from reading your book, Quilt of Souls, that many details of incidents that happened during your youth, especially your time with Grandma Lula, had to be recollected from memory – was this an easy or difficult journey for you?
Recollecting about times I spent with my Grandmother and recalling the stories she told was relatively easy. This can be attributed to her repeating the same stories over and over again, always unchanging during the almost ten years that I lived with her. Story-telling was a cultural phenomenon that existed among elderly southern folks of that era. It became one of my regular consistent, enjoyable and favorite pastimes. I was raised in a very rural area with very little else to do but listen to the amazing stories that my Grandmother would weave over the years. These stories embedded in my conscious over the course of my lifetime. They never left as I carried them in my heart and mind, eventually putting them on paper.
Quilt of Souls delivers a powerful message about the racism and prejudice of those early years in your life, and moreover, in the early years of the African-American people – what was your intention in this regard?
I wanted to specifically highlight the lives of my Grandmother and other women of her era. Since racism and prejudice was/is a stark reality, I wanted to show how these women rose above, offset and endured the discrimination they faced. For instance, My Grandmother made beautiful quilts for Whites in order to soften the indignation of the most of bitter racist. Some of these women were laundresses who worked grueling long hours to ensure even the dirtiest pieces of clothing were whiter than usual. They were hard-working women who were in their fifties and sixties during the 1920’s and 1930’s. Many of them supported their children’s children who migrated to large northern American cities in order to escape the cold racism of the south. My goal was to show how these women struggled, yet overcame by paving the way for their children and grandchildren. In-turn shedding light on untold stories that existed among this unsung demographic.
In what way do you use your book to accomplish inspiring others in their lives?
After Quilt of Souls was published, I received many letters, emails, messages, i.e. of how I inspired them through the stories I told about my Grandmother. Many of them were raised by their Grandmothers’, as a result, the stories resonated. They admitted that they never fully recognized the impact that their Grandmothers’ had on their lives until after reading Quilt of Souls. My memoir has allowed people to now look at their quilts and other old artifacts and wonder about the story behind it. I have often spoken about these important pieces of history passed down from our elders. I feel each item has a special story attached to it. The story needs to be told or else it will be buried with the person who has knowledge of it. My Grandmother always told me that the greatest untold stories were the ones that lie with the dead.
Clearly your Grandma Lula inspired you in your life? How did her inspiration affect you in your later years, when you reached adulthood?
My inspiration has always been my grandmother and the guiding principles she instilled in me. She was the most loving, spiritual, honorable, and giving person that I’ve ever known. These attributes and behaviors is what she modeled each and every day of her life. As a result, she planted, cultivated and created within me a solid foundation. These were the tools I needed to persevere and survive during the most difficult period of my young adult life.
Do you see your Grandma Lula as symbolic of something within the culture of America, then and even today?
My Grandmother was a pillar of strength that many folks today only wish they could attain. She was a woman who at the age of eighty continued to plow fields, plant and harvest crops, cook, sew, and take care of others. She still had enough energy to make beautiful quilts almost every day of her life until she passed away at the age of one hundred and four. She is the epitome of hard-work and dedication in order to achieve. In my Grandmother’s case, she always put others needs way ahead of her own. She is symbolic of that unheralded and unsung part of our history where great American stories like hers have gone unwritten, untold and unfortunately forgotten.
Have you spoken to groups about the story and if so what kind of effect did it have on them? Could they relate to it?
I have spoken to people from various age groups including high school and college students. My audiences are culturally diverse. I’ve been invited to Book Clubs, Quilt Guilds, Libraries, Genealogical Conferences and a host of other related events. My talks have always been very well received and receptive with unbelievable feedback and engaging questions.
You served in three war zones in your military career, one of few women to have done so, how did this affect your life and did your service in any way influence you to finally want to write your memoir? If so why?
The military taught me a lot about discipline and focus. These were two skills I definitely needed in order to write my memoir. After being deployed after 9/11 in which I lost quite a few friends in the Iraq/Afghanistan conflicts, it affected me dearly and sort of cured me of my tendency to procrastinate about writing my memoir. I looked at life in a way that I hadn’t before.
Since writing Quilt of Souls you have received considerable media attention – what is it in your opinion that has caught the attention of others in regards to your book?
Quilt of Souls is a story that touches on many social problems and real life situations that exist in our society today. Issues such as homelessness, abandonment, suicidal ideation, physical and verbal abuse, drug/alcohol abuse, hopelessness and helplessness. Many readers can relate to these concerns because they may have had friends, or family members who were victims to one or more of these issues.
Finally, is there a dream or inspiration you personally want to inject into the world? Tell us about it.
I’d love to see more exposure given to my Grandmother and other Grandmothers’ of that era. They truly have untold, magnificent stories that were never told. This was a culture of women who did amazing things in order to survive and raise other folk’s children. An entire generation that sacrificed so much yet received so very little in return. My upcoming book which will be released early next year, will be a continuation of the Quilt of Souls stories, however, it will be more detailed and thought-provoking