If you haven’t read Part One of my interview with Angela Liscom Clayton, go here. Part One discusses the genesis and background for her new mission memoir from BCC Press: The Legend of Hermana Plunge.
In Part Two, we dig deeper into Angela’s experiences as a missionary in the Canary Islands. What was mission culture like, and how did the mission change her?
“The president handed me a note that said, ‘Thank you for your comments. Your time is up.’ I read it aloud to gasps and laughter from the audience and kept going.
“This was me in Hermana Plunge mode. It was originally a name I adopted as a bit of mission culture theater, a cheeky reference to baptism, a way to show I was part of the rah-rah meetings. But I had long since abandoned that superficial meaning and taken to using the name in my letters to President…
“Being Hermana Plunge meant I was going to say the truth and do what was right, no matter what anyone else thought of me. I was letting go, immersing myself in the work. I was all in. My life was there, in the moment, not at home.”Angela Liscom Claytom, The Legend of Hermana Plunge
INTERVIEW – PART TWO
Your memoir pulls no punches regarding some Elders craving authority, and the correlation (or lack thereof) between baptizing frequently and being obedient. Speaking as an RM myself, I think you do a great job conveying the spectrum of young men who serve. What would you say to readers who might react defensively to your critiques of mission hierarchy?
Angela: That’s a tough question, and I have already taken some criticism for that. In my opinion, it isn’t worth reading or writing a memoir that’s nothing more than a puff piece or some kind of unasked-for public relations spin for the church. The point of a memoir is to tell true things that will resonate for people, that will create empathy and also help us learn about ourselves through the experiences of others. These are human stories about real people at a specific point in time.
I don’t see the value in pretending that people were something they were not, and obviously, we continued to develop in the ensuing years into who we’ve become. I’ve gotten fantastic feedback from elders with whom I served who’ve read it and who found the experience cathartic, so I feel pretty confident that I hit the right tone. One elder told me: “At times I hated the honesty in your book, but that is also precisely what I loved about it.
I was one of those neurotic elders who didn’t dare flirt with or even talk dating with sister missionaries. It seemed a more open topic for you in the field. What would you say to today’s missionaries about discussing dating in the mission field?
Angela: That’s a great question actually. I think this is one aspect that sets my memoir apart from some of the others out there. Look, we’re human beings, and attractions and flirtations are a part of being human. It’s kind of taboo to talk about them between missionaries, and I don’t know if it’s because I was a sister or because we were in a tropical paradise, but we talked about these things plenty.
I would say that there’s a point at which a flirtation is motivational and makes you feel alive and happy, and there’s a point at which it’s a distraction, making it harder to work. You need to keep your head clear on which is which. The latter type of flirtation isn’t going to be good in the long run anyway, so you might as well shut that down and move on. It usually means it’s one-sided or that the person is too emotionally invested or self-focused. Being friendly and easy-going works. Being moody and obsessed doesn’t.
What was something you learned on your mission which can apply to readers universally? And what was something you learned which applies uniquely to the experience of sister missionaries?
Angela: I think most of the things I learned apply to people in general, not just to missionaries, so here go a few:
1) you can’t control things that involve other people;
2) not everyone is going to like you, so you’d better learn to like yourself;
3) leadership is what happens despite authority or even in its absence, but not because of it;
4) prayer is fine for some things, but it’s not how you get things done in an organization—you have to speak up and become influential;
5) one I’ve used in business plenty—if you want to learn about the unintended consequences of your policies, pay attention to how people game the system and exploit loopholes.
When it comes to lessons that apply to the sisters specifically, I would say that being barred from leadership gives you a few advantages:
1) you can say what you really think because there’s less at stake;
2) you have to develop true leadership because you won’t be given authority;
3) as one elder put it, your real boss is the Lord—everyone else is just there to do paperwork.
Did The Legend of Hermana Plunge turn out differently than you thought it would when you started writing it? Why or why not?
Angela: That’s hard to say. I knew going into it how much my mission had changed me, but I didn’t realize some of the ways in which my mission culture was unique. I also forgot how much being a sister colored everything I did as a missionary and how we were really on the outside of the structure. I was also surprised at how my relationship with the mission president developed through the book, something I hadn’t really thought much about.
Perhaps one of the most telling passages is a selection of recipes you included at the end. To borrow some of your words from the memoir, in what ways did the Canary Islands convert you?
Angela: That’s pretty funny you should mention that. As readers will know, my husband also served in the islands, and when we went back the first time, I was listing off all the foods I was so excited to eat again. Everything I listed, my husband was saying, “What’s that?” or “I don’t think I had that.” We were in a restaurant overlooking the caldera in La Palma, and I ordered the Cabrita (goat) which is very popular there. I said, “I’m sure you’ve had this.” He didn’t think so. “In a member’s house?” No, he said the elders seldom ate with members. We concluded that most of his meals in the mission were something he called “Arroz con Pollo sin Pollo” (rice with chicken without chicken). He would eat that when his money ran out. We had previously discovered that although we were in the same mission, mine cost a few hundred dollars more per month than his did.
Back to the question, we’ve talked many times about retiring in the islands. When we go there and eat in a café, we chat up our waiter, or we go in a store and talk to the cashier, and it just feels natural. We feel at home there. We have the local accent, and people open right up when they realize we aren’t German tourists. We still go visit people we taught or branch members or former companions when we get a chance. People there feel like family. I don’t know how that happens, but it has something to do with them taking care of you as a missionary, while you think you are taking care of them.
This ends my interview with Angela, author of the new memoir The Legend of Hermana Plunge. Read an excerpt of the book on Amazon. From BCC Press, the memoir is available in both paperback and Kindle formats. Thanks to Angela for participating in this interview.
Questions for Discussion:
Have you read this book yet? If so, what is your reaction?
How does Angela’s descriptions of mission life compare or contrast with yours? Or if you have not served a mission, how do her observations compare with your sense of mission life?