Q&A with Thomas Jefferson descendant Tess Taylor
Tess Taylor, a descendant of Thomas Jefferson, unearths stories of her family’s past through poetry in her new book, “The Forage House.”
Taylor spoke with staff writer Zhai Yun Tan about the experience of writing the book.
Daily Tar Heel: Why did you decide to write this book?
Tess Taylor: The book is a little bit about how each of us makes ourselves out of the places that we come from, out of the stories our family tells us and out of the combination of what we’re trying to remember and what we forget. I started writing poems for this book seven or eight years ago. I don’t exactly know the moment when I knew I had to write it — it was just a series of feelings that I’ve had for a while. Part of it was that my Appalachian grandmother was starting to be ill, and I was losing her and all the memories that she had. Part of it was also that I didn’t really understand everything about my family, and I felt like I wanted to do more work in figuring them out.
DTH: How did you uncover your family’s history?
TT: I happen to have a very well-documented family from my father’s side, so I did actual physical research on things I didn’t know about my family. I spent a summer in Monticello, which was Thomas Jefferson’s home in Charlottesville, where I looked into old documents and letters. At the same time, I just spent time with my grandmother and asked her to tell me things. Part of it was like world history and stories that your grandmother tells you on the porch with two gin and tonics. It’s like a mix of things that you would find and I like to think of it as a jumble pile. It’s the things that you find in the family attic, things that your grandmother tells you, things that you find out later and explanations for old photographs — it’s like a patchwork quilt.
DTH: What was it like working alongside archaeologists when writing this book?
TT: The archaeologists were digging up the ground around Monticello, trying to figure out how people who have been enslaved there lived. I got to look at them in their process of digging that ground up and what it looked like to them. It was very beautiful and very painful. It made me think so much about how and what we understand about our world.
Our past is made out of shards and if you think about poems, a poem is sometimes a little bit like a shard — it’s just a tiny little thing that’s trying to stand in for something much larger. So I thought about how when I would see a button or a fragment of a pipe, it felt like it was trying to stand in for an enormous absence that was erased, and I thought a little bit about how if I wrote a poem about that shard, it might feel resonant because the poem would be a small, dense thing just the way the pipe was a small, dense thing.
DTH: Why was looking at the process painful?
TT: There’s actually an enormous lot that we know about Thomas Jefferson — he’s a very well-documented figure. He is incredibly well-preserved by history yet at the same time you want to know how the life of the people working for him are like and you could only find this tiny shard of a button or a pipe. That unevenness in historical record is really upsetting. It’s upsetting to not really know very much. He wrote down a lot of things very carefully yet he did not write down the names of the people who were enslaved by him. It’s really haunting and sad to not know as much as we want to about the past.
DTH: What does it feel like to be a descendant of Thomas Jefferson?
TT: It’s only one part of who I am. I also grew up in Berkeley, I also have this Appalachian grandmother, I’m also a poet, I’m also a mom — it’s not the only thing about me. I really hope that when people read it they’re not just thinking about me. I hope that this book is a series of stories that points everyone in a new direction of thinking about themselves, thinking about what are their family stories, where they come from, what are the stories that feel most powerful to them, what are the stories in their family that nobody tells and what are the stories they wish they knew.