Wednesday, December 17, 2008
Wednesday, February 27, 2008
Cheryl Boyce-Taylor, poet/teacher/mother
Cheryl Boyce-Taylor, born on
My name is Cheryl Allison Boyce-Taylor. I don’t often use Allison. Cheryl Boyce-Taylor is my performing name and my date of birth is December 6, 1950.
Thank you so much for interviewing this morning.
Well, you’re welcome.
I’m going to start off asking you to speak about some of the defining moments in your younger years before age 20 that have had a major impact on who you are today. I do that for a reason and that’s because we don’t often get to refer to that time period in our work.
Well, I guess the biggest thing in my life, and it still remains that, was when I was 13 years old I left Trinidad, my home and everything I knew, including my mother and father, to travel to New York to live with my mother’s sister. In St. Albans, Queens. Prior to that, I had not really been away from my mother very much. Maybe a couple of days for vacation at her sisters in the south of Trinidad but that was about it. And so here I was, at a very defining time in my life, those teenage years when everything starts to change – from the body to the fantasies – I was leaving my mother to come to New York to live with my aunt, her sister, whom I did not really know very well. I knew her from visits to Trinidad. But later my mother tells me that I wanted to come to visit my aunt and my aunt said, “Well, a visit is not a good idea. It’s better that you stay and go to school.” And that I agreed because this is what I wanted. I don’t remember that, but I’m sure that that’s true. So I came to live with my aunt. I came on November 1st. So it was winter, that is how it all began. It took my mom 11 months to join me. I did not realize I would miss her so much. I had never been away from her long. But I missed her. I felt like I would die, almost. And it was during that time that I began writing lots of letters asking her for me to come back home to Trinidad. But, the plan was already in place that my brother and she would join me here.
In New York, in Queens.
Yes, in New York, in Queens. And it took my mother 11 months to get here. But it was during that period that I began writing and I began really appreciating the things that I had taken for granted in my life. Like my family, my friends, the calypso, the dialect, the Carnival. All of those things, I believed, although it was so traumatizing, that’s the thing that connects me to my writing now.
Could you say more about that?
I took for granted so many wonderful things about my island: the sunshine, the calypso, walking out in the yard with no shoes on. Walking out in a yard that belonged to you and your family. In New York there are so many apartments. I was fortunate to move to Queens and to move into a house and still have a yard, but it was just different. And I realized all the things I had taken for granted. Cooking outside in the backyard. My grandmother used to cook on her – what we call a coal pot – it’s not exactly a stove, but it’s almost like a fireplace. And they did make fireplaces in the yard to cook on, so I realized that I had not even really paid attention to those things. And now without them, I held onto them for dear life.
For sure! What were your first impressions of New York when you got there?
Cold. [Laughter] Cold. But I’ll tell you another thing. I came the day after Halloween and I had never seen that much candy in my life. I really thought I had died and gone to candy heaven. [Laughter]. So for a couple of days I think that that soothed and satisfied me. All that candy that they had in the house! I ate candy, and began to get adjusted. But I quickly realized that being a Black girl in America was somehow a very invisible life. Because coming from Trinidad – it was a country under Black rule. I never knew anything else but Black teachers, Black doctors, Black nurses. I never knew anything else, and so that was my earliest impression of - I wouldn’t say racism as much as separation of people. People are so separate. I did move to a Black upper middle class neighborhood – St. Albans, Queens. So, I still had Black people around, but it was outside of that that I began to realize that there was prejudice. And separate neighborhoods that everybody lived in and I began to see that and to wonder about it and think about it. Because that was not something that I had to think about when I was in Trinidad at all.
Would that happen when you left the neighborhood or went to school?
Yes, because my family sent me to school in the Bronx. From Queens to the Bronx, which is quite far. I would say at least an hour and fifty minutes of travel one way. And the reason they did that was because I was on a student visa and when you were on a student visa, in those days, you had to attend a private school and pay for your education. And plus they wanted me to be in a religious school, because we were Seventh Day Adventists.
So you were going to Seventh Day Adventist high school?
I was going to a Seventh Day Adventist high school. I was in the 9th grade, traveling from Queens to the Bronx to go to school.
Can you say a little bit about that journey?
That was a very long journey and what my aunt did was...there was another young lady, a teenager, at my church that went to that school. So she also traveled from Queens. So my aunt arranged for me to travel with her. And I don’t really remember how this happened, but she took the train all the way, and I found out that there was a bus somehow, after awhile. And so I began taking this bus, which was a little bit more comfortable. But it was two buses, and two trains. So, it was rather stressful. To this day I hate the Bronx.
To this day I hate the Bronx.
Because of how far it was?
Because of how far it was. I thought it was very run down. And very different from what I knew. At thirteen you don’t know all that much, but it was very different from what I knew and I really didn’t like it so much. I would be scared some days, you know. There were people all over the streets and rowdy kids. I was a little afraid doing all of that traveling alone. But I did it anyway.
Cause you had to. Are there any other defining moments in your younger years, before age 20 that had an impact?
Oh yes. And I don’t talk about this one very much, but I had an abortion when I was seventeen. I was graduating from high school. That was the year I was graduating, and I had a boyfriend and I became pregnant and my mom was not good with that because she had not gone to college. She hadn’t even finished high school and for her, I was like her dream, the one to be educated. And so my mom decided I would have an abortion. And it was right before...wow, I’m really telling this...it was right before everything was legal. And so a friend of hers who was a nurse took me to someone else who was a nurse midwife who did abortions, so I had this little back room abortion. And that was pretty traumatizing. I think even now I’ve blocked it off somewhere. Because I have not really written about it.
Even abortions today – they’re legal – and they’re still very traumatizing. It’s a big deal. How did you move forward from that point?
My mother was not very sympathetic. I was graduating in June and this happened sometime in March or April and the boy and I broke up. And I would cry and tell my mother that he doesn’t speak to me anymore at school. I don’t know what he was going through. I mean, looking back, maybe he was just scared of whatever. I don’t know. But, he didn’t speak to me at school. And she was like, “Why do you care about that stupid boy?” You know. It was in a very cold way. I don’t think she knew of any other way to handle that because she was then, and she still is now, very scared of emotions and feelings. All of this I picked up after, when I became an adult. But, anyway, I had that abortion and I just went on.
I graduated, which was the most important thing for my mother, and I went to work as a file clerk during the day and went to Hunter College in the evening. But pretty soon I enrolled at City College and went on and continued to get my education. Then the next year, I met the man who was my soul mate and who was to be a very important force in my life. His name is Walt and I married him and he fathered my son. So I met him...well, I knew him in Trinidad. He had moved to my block when I was about 11. And I left Trinidad when I was 13, but we all thought he was the cutest boy to move on that block, and we all said, “Oh my!” But I came to New York and my brother stayed there [in Trinidad] and this boy Walt kept telling my brother over the years that he was going to marry me. We weren’t friends, we didn’t write to each other when I lived in New York, but he kept saying that. The year that I was 18 I went to Trinidad and he still lived on the same street as my family.. And he came over and started chatting with me and everything and he asked me if I wanted to go to a dance, and this was on a Wednesday and that Friday he asked me to marry him.
And that Friday he asked me to marry him, I was like, “Well, I don’t know. I might marry you, but I can’t stay in Trinidad. My mother would kill me. I have to go back to New York `cause that’s where I live now. So he said, “Well, okay, but maybe I can come there and we could catch back up and begin having a relationship.” And I said, “Okay.” And that was in July and he came in October – to New York – and we got engaged in December and got married the next July, which was July 1970 that we got married. So that was another big point in my life. And they continued to get bigger from there. I was 19 at the time and I became pregnant. We did get married and I had my son two weeks before my 20th birthday. So we’re up to 20 now. So here I am with a husband and a baby and my own apartment at 20.
That’s amazing. I don’t know many 20 year olds who could have that together at this time in history. That’s incredible.
Well, yes, things cost so much now, but we were both working and we had a lot of family support. My family. Because his family stayed in Trinidad. We did not live very far from my family – from my mother and aunt – so we had a lot of family support in order to be able to do that. When I had my son, I had twins – I had two boys – and they were premature. One baby didn’t make it. And my son, whose name is Malik Taylor has survived and he is 37 years old, as we speak. But there’s one connection...I wanted to tell you why I mentioned the twins. My mother, when she was pregnant with me had twins. She was pregnant with twins, a boy and a girl. She was in a bus accident and the boy was still born. And so I was born when she was seven months pregnant, so I was two months premature. Twenty years, almost to the day, I would have my two sons and one would not make it and the other one would…we both had twins.
That is so powerful.
I have just begun to write about it. Very little.
That is really so powerful.
So these are all these things leading up to 20.
How did you start writing? I know you mentioned that you started writing letters when you moved to New York. How did that develop over time?
Well, I want to just go back a little bit and say that when I was eight, I had an amazing teacher and I had the same teacher for two years. And when we were going on vacation at the end of the school year, she said, “I want you to travel. And I want you to write before you come back to school in September, about those travels.” Looking back, she did not literally mean get on an airplane and travel. She meant, travel in fantasy. And somehow I knew that. I don’t know how I knew that, but I knew it. And so I wrote about all these places I visited and traveled. And I wrote a bunch of essays and I think that I loved the fantasy of it. And that was when it got in my blood.
What a gift.
I didn’t really take it that seriously. I didn’t really know I had a gift until that year I was without my mother – that year between 13 and 14. So, I got married and had this baby at 20 and I started realizing, “Wait a minute, this whole marriage and motherhood, this is really hard. I don’t want to wash dishes and cook and all of that responsibility.” I would tell my husband and it would hurt his feelings, so I began writing poetry about how I felt. And it was corny poetry, you know: roses and red violets [laughter] but, I was involved with a church family and they supported it, as did my husband and mother. They supported those corny poems, and so they would say to me, “Oh, we’re having something at church. Write a poem!” or “So and so...there’s a funeral. Write something for that.” This was the support from the church. And from my family and my community, and so I began doing it. But, I really started writing because of my dissatisfaction with motherhood and marriage, which is not to say that I did not love my son and my husband. I loved them dearly, but I wanted the fun and not the work. [laughter]
No one can fault you for that!
I began exploring my feelings, and I would write a poem about it. But then I also began writing about the wonderful things that were happening in my life. So it wasn’t just the angst and the anger, like I had at the beginning. I began writing lovely things looking around my community, what was happening in my world as a Black woman, and I listened to Sonia Sanchez and Nikki Giovanni and June Jordan – that was also during the Black Arts Movement – and the Black Panther movement, the women’s movement. All of this came together while I was this young mom raising this brilliant boy, and so I had a lot of things to draw on.
And you were in New York at this time?
I was in New York. I never really left New York. I spent time going to hear Nikki Giovanni...she was the person who most influenced my writing at that time. The others came later, like Sonia Sanchez and Audre Lorde was way down the road, but those were my early inspirations. There was Etheridge Knight, Haki Madhabuti, then Don L. Lee. That’s really how I came to writing. Out of my dissatisfaction... and questions.
And into something extremely powerful.
I would love to hear more about your experience of being in New York during the Black Arts Movement and the Black Panther movement and everything going on during that time.
And it was also the Vietnam War. I’m not going to say that I was out there marching and doing the sit-ins and all of that. I wasn’t doing that because I had this little boy. And you know, those were dangerous times. I think sometimes people forget about it, but those were dangerous times in America for Black people. Even though we were protesting, and that generation – the Black Panther movement – was a little bit older than I was. But I would go to rallies at the school and things like that, but I wasn’t out at the front lines and in Washington and all those things, but I was concerned about this child and how to raise him right. And I had to work in some way to make this a better place for him and his peers. And so I decided then that I would do it through the poetry. So, I would say I was not on the front lines of that movement, but I became active in my community. Kwanzaa was something that came up around that time. And so I joined with another poet and his wife and we would have Kwanzaa events. Around that same time, when I was maybe 22, 23, I started a little theatre company. It was really poetry. And so we went around – this was in Queens – we went around reading in different places, you know, like Black power- black pride poems.
What was the name of the theatre company?
It was called Boyce Taylor Theatrical Company. And I started working at a place called The African Poetry Theatre. I started reading my poetry at that place. It was in Jamaica, Queens. It still is in Jamaica, Queens. The African Poetry Theatre. And so I read around, and so did other friends. And at that time we started taking that company into Riker’s Island. And now, I’m 24, 25, I started taking the company into Riker’s Island and we would do a fashion show. We would do poetry and I had a dancer and fire eater working with me – his name is Euston James.
He was the fire eater?
He was a fire eater, a limbo dancer – he is Trinidadian – and so I had this fire eater and limbo dancer with me and we began traveling around. We went to New Jersey performing, and my husband was very supportive of it all.
That sounds like an amazing time.
It was an amazing time. And so I felt that I couldn’t be on the front lines. But I could do something and this is what I began to do in my community. My mom, very early, was involved with the Seventh Day Adventist Church, and she was one of the youth leaders and so she had my brother and I reciting poetry in the Church or at any events that they would have. This was from a very young age, age seven. And so I always had that little theatre in me.
Absolutely. Do you remember any of the poems you would recite in church?
No, I don’t remember. The only one that’s clear in my mind is this particular Mother’s Day and we presented a Mother’s Day program. I would say that I was maybe around eight. And they took the acronyms from Mother, and we said, “M is for the million things she gave me, O means that she’s growing old, T is for the tears she shed to save me...” You see how much I remember that? And we would each go up to the front of the room with our little letter and say the line that corresponded with our letter. We spoke and sang it as well.
Poetry has been a part of your life...
Poetry has been a part of my life for a long time. Well, you know in the Caribbean poetry is a big part of the school curriculum. As a child my mom won trophies and awards for poetry. She would recite poetry. We had to do that as well, but it was the old English poetry. My mom recited poetry, and she would win awards and everything, she’d read poetry to me at bedtime. Poetry was a very big part of her life. She never wrote any, but it meant everything to her.
So she used to perform it, and she would have you perform it and then you would write it.
Yes, and then my son would turn out to not only write, but also make a whole career and a lot of money from his writing. He’s a recording artist, a hip hop artist, so it’s generational. Each one of us did something more with it than the other. It’s very exciting.
It’s very exciting. That’s amazing. Is there anything else you wanted to say about that time period? The Black Arts Movement time period? How would you find out about events? Was it posted in the paper? Or was it...`cause now we have internet, and one of the things I like to hear about is what did the actual landscape look like, how would you figure things out?
How would I get bookings?
How would you get bookings and how would you find out about events going on around town?
During that period I was in school, in college and so a lot of that information came through the student organizations, and I would be a part of the organizing end, and I still had to take care of my son. I worked as a home attendant to put myself through college, and I would work as a home attendant on weekends because I wanted to have the week to go to school full time and to be with my son in the evenings. To help with his school work and to take him back and forth to his little events and so I figured out somehow – well, my mom worked as a home attendant for awhile – I figured out that I could do that and have my weekends and my time available to spend with my son. I was in some of the clubs at school, but I would have to leave at a certain time to go pick up my son and it was a juggling act. And so the performances that I did, I just called up or stopped in and told people what I was doing. In those days, we didn’t do it for money. I was not getting paid. I just had this burning desire to bring this poetry to my community and to the prison communities. My aunt was a bible worker in the prisons, in Riker’s Island, and she would tell me that they didn’t have very much for the young people – the men and women there. People didn’t do a lot of work in there, and so I decided that I would. And that launched my performing career, and then I was in school for Speech and Theatre. And that’s how I really came to the theatre. I have an undergraduate degree in Theatre. So that became, that was the impetus that got me on stage to perform later.
And then you had those experiences in the community.
And in the church.
I’m going to change the focus of our conversation a little bit and ask you about your coming out story – whatever that means to you.
Well, I would say that I don’t think that I ever came out, because I think that I was always involved with males and females. When I was growing up in Trinidad, I was having experiences with little friends, little girl friends. I hear people say that that’s a normal part of growing up. I had little experiences with girl friends, but it didn’t get to a place where that desire stopped. I don’t know if that makes sense.
Yes, it never became something that felt like, “Now I’ve outgrown this.”
Exactly, it never became, “Okay, you’re fourteen. That was practice, now you’re with boys.” So I guess that’s why I never had to come out. Cause this was always a very natural part of my life. Something I sought out even as early as twelve, I had a girlfriend. We weren’t a couple or anything, but we did have romantic times together. And I remember getting off the bus, going to her house, having some romantic time with her and it felt so natural and wonderful, but I didn’t go home and tell anybody about it.
And I was a big talker. Because in my house my mom always said, “Always tell me the truth and you won’t get a beating.” So I always told the truth to her, to my mom. I’m not saying I’ve never lied or anything like that, I’m just saying that was something that left a great impression on me. But I did not go home and run my mouth about those little rendezvous.
But I sought it out. I would visit this girl. Her parents worked, I think, and she would be the only one at home. And there were always people at my house so I could never do anything like that at my house and that really remained a part of my life. There was a period when I didn’t do that at all…the year that I got serious with my husband, all my time was spent caught up in our relationship and in the marriage and everything. And so I didn’t date anyone. But I remember going away on a vacation with a friend of ours – I would say that I was married about a year, maybe even less – anyway, I went away on vacation with this friend and we slept together. And I said to her, “Oh, you know, I have to tell Walt about this when I get home.” And she was like, “No!” cause we were all friends, the three of us. She was like, “I don’t want you to tell him.” And I didn’t know why she was afraid of that. There was a little naïve part of me, too. I will be honest with you. And I was like, “I don’t know why you’re saying that. He’s my best friend and we tell each other everything.” And she was like, “No, if you tell him, I’m not going to come over anymore.” But, I knew I was going to tell him, because at that time I think I was 20 or 21 and I knew “Uh-uh this isn’t anything that’s just passing. I’ve got to tell him this because I can’t keep this secret.” Because I really, really enjoyed being involved with that woman and realized this was something that I wanted in my life.
I did not know that women could live together, and buy homes together and do all of that. Remember that this is 1970, `71. I didn’t know. I thought that there may have been two women that lived together in my community, I heard people saying something about them, but I think the kids told me that they were cousins. So it still didn’t register, and I’m talking 18, 19 and it still didn’t register. That’s why I’m saying that there was something a little naïve about me, but anyway, I told this woman I had to tell my husband. And when I got home, I told him that I had had a relationship while we were on vacation and that I wanted to try it again. And he said, “I don’t think it would be a good idea to go to her house.” And, now, this was maybe...it was sexual more than emotional, or maybe it was emotional and I didn’t realize it then, yet. So when I said I wanted to do this again, I think I was thinking the sex, but in another part of my mind, I wanted to really explore this and have this be part of my life, but I don’t think I had the words for that yet. And so he said, “If you sleep with her, you’d better do it at our house.” This was a Trinidadian guy. That was unheard of for a Trinidadian man, `cause they’re usually macho and he’s not like that. He’s still to this day not all macho and controlling and you know... and so I told him that, and she came over. What we began doing was having threesomes with friends of mine, with women. You know, sometimes it would be one woman for a very long time, and then it would be somebody else. It really began like that. I guess, yeah – maybe there’s a coming out piece in here. Because by the time...this lasted through my 20s with my husband’s consent and approval and even encouragement.
Very strange for the background we come from. You know, Caribbean background, religious background. It was unheard of, but the part of us that wanted to get married and live on our own was so that we could do what we really wanted to do. So this was just part of that. And by the time I got into my 30s, or before my 30s, I began realizing I wanted to have a serious relationship with a woman by myself, because I began to realize that I might be a lesbian and that was the hardest, most painful thing. To leave a husband that was so loving and supportive and present. It was the hardest time in my life, and it took a few years to evolve so I could come full circle with that idea. We had worked together for all of these things and then, he’s an engineer and we’d both gone to college together and raised our son together and here I was going to change the landscape of everything. (Going with my heart, It is still the thing I love the most and fear the most about myself.) So I felt guilty and I felt bad, but I started to realize it was not just something that I wanted to explore. It was something that I couldn’t help. I wanted to see what that life was like. I knew, somehow, my life depended on it. Realizing that I was a lesbian, and that I had to try and live that and see what would happen. So that was the hardest time for both of us, and our family as well.
How did you maneuver that transition? How did you find community? Did you find community?
Well, I didn’t really find community until after our separation. After we separated, then I began to reach out. I had this friend that was part of the lesbian movement in New York. And she went to Hunter College and she knew Audre Lorde and all of that, this was a very sad time for me because my marriage had ended, but this friend invited me to a reading and so I went with her. And I met a bunch of women, we didn’t become friends or anything, but I began to know “Oh – there are other lesbian women! And they’re writers! Ohmigod.It’s so great!” I didn’t know them personally, but it’s good to be in that company.
And so this friend, invited me to [an event where] they were dedicating a library at Hunter College for Audre Lorde. The Audre Lorde Library. And so she invited me and I went and I met Audre Lorde and then I was telling Audre that I was a writer and she said, “Oh that’s nice. Listen I’m having a class in September, and it’s going to be a very small workshop for women of color and I’m inviting you to come.” So I got so nervous, I said, “Oh well, I don’t go to this school.” Because I immediately felt so insecure because I thought my writing was not good enough to be in any class with Audre Lorde, you know. So I said, “Oh I don’t go to this school.” And she said, “Oh that doesn’t matter.” She said, “Come as my guest.” And I was like, “Oh no.” [Laughter] And, uh god, I was so scared. I think this was in April and the class was not until September. But I was terrorized from that time until I went to her class.
And I went to Audre’s class and that’s where I met all these young lesbian women, including her daughter Elizabeth [Lorde-Rollins]. And, slowly I began to have community. But that class with Audre Lorde was the biggest turning point in my writing, because I knew I wanted to be a poet. But something was holding me back. So when I went to her class, I felt like I was not writing up to the level of my experience, of my life experience. I felt like my work was a little bit immature, and I really wanted that to change.
And with that class, you felt a shift in your work.
Oh god yes, because I was ready. And it wasn’t just in the work, it was in my head. Because by the end of that class, I knew I wanted to be a poet more than anything else. More than I wanted to be a mother, more than I wanted to be a daughter. More than I wanted to be a lover. It was like, I wanted to be a poet and I was going to be a poet.
And on the first night of class, she said to the class, “What stops you from writing the kind of work you want to write?” And she says, “If you write that work, what will happen? Who’s holding a gun to your head?” And boy, I began crying because I knew that it was me that was holding that gun to my head.
Look at that.
In so many ways that class opened me up. I began to meet other lesbian writers. From that came a group. We formed a group in New York called the Stations Collective. I want to say that was 1987 – 88. We were called the Stations Collective because we came together to perform some of Audre Lorde’s work. And she has this poem called “Stations” and so we took the name from that poem. I met Dorothy Randall Gray, Sapphire, Pamela Sneed, Stormy Webber, Hadley Mays and a few other writers and we formed this collective, it was an all lesbian women collective and we performed all around the city. And so I was in my element.
We performed for a long time. And you know, then everybody got big. Starting with Sapphire. I don’t mean big in the head, I mean everybody’s careers started mushrooming out and so we all kind of ended up being overloaded with our solo careers and so we stopped the collective.
You all got overloaded by your own success.
Yes, by then everybody was teaching and writing books and it was amazing. It was an amazing, amazing time in New York for me. And we did a lot of things at the Gay and Lesbian Center and then there was this other thing...we began doing an annual show called “Divas and Desire”. And that show was erotic poetry and some of us wore teddies and sexy clothes to perform and this was the 80s. And there was a group of women in New York, white women, who really felt that lesbians don’t dress that way. These were the lesbians with the boots and the army navy surplus clothes and what I must say about the Black lesbians in New York City – they would always dress up. So there was a whole bunch of stuff going on with the two groups, this led me to write a poem called “A Dyke in a Dress” Because I’m from the Caribbean, I love dresses, `cause you know: it’s hot there. One of the refrains from that poem was “A dyke in a dress/allows easy access.” [Laughter]
But I’m telling you, that poem became a mantra. People loved it. And I have to say that it really switched the tide. Lesbians began wearing lipstick and make up more, sexy clothes…I saw this happen. It switched the tide in women. Because you felt criticized if you wore a skirt and a bustier to perform. You would almost feel criticized by these women. And I was like, “Nah-ah. This is what I want to wear; this is what I’m holding onto.” And so, it kinda switched the tide and people started feeling really comfortable. Also, Joan Nestle who was at the Lesbian Herstory Archive, she always wore this black, sexy slip to perform. I don’t know if you know this.
I didn’t know that about her.
So this was what was happening. Well, I don’t think we had as many names as lipstick lesbian, top, bottom... we were just proudly taking back queer, tranny, dyke, butch ect.
That sounds like such a fun, exciting time. I would love to know – and this is a combination of two questions – and you’re speaking to this, which is how your work is influenced by who you are, and within that, how you’ve come to define success for yourself as a writer, as an artist.
Okay, well, I guess I want to say that my poems are filled with childhood memories. So they’re filled with sounds, aromas, colors, textures of the land, basically. They come from that earthy place. I have a lot of trees, mountains, flowers, water in my work and it’s because of my connection to Trinidad. I feel like sometimes I’m conjuring up that place in my work, the place of my childhood where most of my writing originates.
I have “Convincing the Body” here at home.
That was a photograph [on the front] that was taken in Tobago, it’s a Slippery Elm tree. I just feel so connected to that time in my life, I guess, I felt most free, most protected, most innocent and happy in those years. I am happy now, but there was something organic about that happiness and about that time in my life. And so sometimes, I write in dialect, and I write in dialect to stay connected to my ancestors. I like to use the language that connects me to my culture and my people. What I say is that when I write in dialect, I want the world to hear what Trinidadians sound like in their bedrooms, in their fights, in their lovemaking. That is what I want people to know, how we feel and what we sound like, but I also want to capture my grandmother’s tongue. I want to recreate family stories. And a lot of my work has a big migration theme in it, because that was a time when I felt most fractured. Because migration is fracturing, and so I guess up until my last book, I was still working on that fracturing. That’s the best way that I can put it. Does that answer your question?
Absolutely. Within that how have you come to define success for yourself as a writer and as an artist?
[I am the author of three books of poetry] and I make my living as a full time writer. I do residencies at grammar schools, senior facilities, and colleges. I lecture too, mainly lectures on writing and dialect, and why dialect belongs in the world. Another way I define success, I dedicate quite a bit of time to new writers, I help them to find their voice, and their place in the art world. This is one of the missions of my company Calypso Muse, to introduce new voices to the NYC arts community. Another way I define success is that I have had an opportunity to work with Ronald K. Brown/Evidence Dance Company. They’ve commissioned my work, twice. The first piece I did for them was called “Water” and that was in `99 and we toured that for awhile. And the second piece that was commissioned was three years ago, my piece called, “Redemption”. I travel with them and perform the piece on stage while they dance. And that was a fantasy of mine from the very first time I ever saw that company. Ronald [Brown is an amazing man. And working with him defines being an accomplished poet for me. To have the opportunity to work with people like Ron Brown and to perform in places like BAM in Brooklyn or Lincoln Center and I did all of that work with him. I would say that, outside of my work with Audre Lorde, he influences me the most as an artist with his humility and his obedience to the ancestors, and his obedience to his work. I once asked him, how did he choose the music and the dance for his work and he said to me it was all about obedience. And just letting the work stand on its own. You can’t infuse yourself in the poem. You get a gift to start on that poem, but then you have to let it rip and let it stand on its own.
That is so powerful. I wanted also to give you an opportunity to say anything else you might want to say or ask any questions of me before we wrap up.
Why are you doing these interviews? I heard Gwendolyn Brooks say that she thought of herself as a historian, documenting people in her time and I immediately grabbed that and held it very close to my body and so I wanted to ask you why are you doing the documentation. What leads you in this direction, I’m sure you’re probably writing another book of fiction or poetry, but what leads you to document other peoples' stories.
It’s actually this very visceral sense of survival. I’m 31 and as I grew up as a lesbian and as I grew up as an artist, and as I get older I find more and more people who have gone on this road, but I really feel this gap that was created by cancer and by HIV in our communities and I feel its impact because I look back at history and I see so many people in the 80s - before we had so many people gone - and they’re talking about a certain kind of mentorship happening, a certain kind of closeness and community and interaction happening that’s much harder to find these days. Especially if you’re young, so this is my attempt to fill that gap for people who are younger than me, and people who are my age, who might have something to learn from our courage, and your courage in particular, and your road.
Well, I’m also...I continue to write not just for myself, but for other women who don’t have a voice, or are not able to say the things that they want to say. And I have a very loving partner, who is also my muse. And I write for her, too. And I also write for my grandson and my son, who’s experiencing a very difficult time right now. He’s awaiting a kidney transplant. And we’re going to get there, and I continue to write to get through these problems. I have so many questions for the world, and I’m lucky that as a poet I don’t have to have answers.
You can ask questions.
I write to raise questions in the world. To have other people think and talk and share. And I really do appreciate you calling me. Well, when I saw the interview with Sharon [Bridgforth], I was like, “Ohmigod, her life parallels mine.” with the marriage, and even though she moved from one state to the other, she felt this void that migration leaves. And, I was like, that’s my story, because I felt that void and the writing began from that void. I just wanted to tell you one other story, about why I write, and write in dialect. I was reading at a place in New York, this was about five years ago, and this very old man came up to me and he had tears in his eyes and he said to me, “You know what? You remind me of my mother.” He was Caribbean. He was like, “You remind me of my mother and my sisters and my aunties.” And he was a little fresh, you know, he tried to cop a little feel [laughter], but he said, “If I die tonight, I’m going to be so happy because you have brought back all those stories and all those feelings.” He said, “I’m living my childhood experience tonight just hearing you read.”
That gave me chills. That is the other thing I do. I want to tell the Caribbean story because there’re not enough Caribbean writers writing in dialect in New York. There are in London and they’re in Canada, but I want to keep my grandmother tongue alive. So, that’s a really important thing in my life. And I want to dedicate this interview to my long time partner, Ceni, because this last year, with what I’ve been going through with my son, she’s really, really been there at my side.
It’s so special, and people don’t know the gifts they give back to us as poets and as writers when they share things like that.
This last year I’ve become very, very isolated. And my daughter-in-law is this amazing woman who walked into our lives and just embraced everything that I was and that made it so easy to focus on my work and not have to wonder, “oh god, how am I going to get her to like me because I’m a lesbian?” because family means a lot to me and I didn’t want that to interrupt my relationship with my son and so I’ve been very blessed this year, and very lucky, despite all of the challenges. And we writers really need our friends and family and our community to support us. And this is the other reason I decided to be in this interview, because I feel that somewhere someone will see my life in theirs, or will see themselves in my life and will be encouraged.
Absolutely. I realize that I forgot to ask you your place of birth.
Arrima. In Trinidad. That’s my place of birth.
Thank you so much.
I thank you, too.
Wura-Natasha Ogunji, visual/performance artist
Wura-Natasha Ogunji , born on
I’m interviewing Wura-Natasha Alexandra Ogunji on
So Wura if you could state your name and date and place of birth.
Wura-Natasha Alexandra Ogunji. I was born in St Louis Missouri 1970: a very cold place. I was born in the winter.
When is your birthday?
So this is more like a conversation so you can ask me questions at any time. I wanna start off by asking you to talk about some of the defining moments in your life before the age of 20 that you think have had a major impact on who you are today.
Wow. Before the age of 20. The first thing I thought of – this is so weird, I never thought of it as defining but – when I was in college, so I think I was 19 - I got arrested. I was in a protest and we were fighting to change the curriculum and to have more [professors and] students of color and I think it was defining for me because I saw there were other people who were anti-establishment, anti- the current learning structure and that had a different way of thinking that was indeed valid and that was a perspective that was very powerful. [It was] mostly students of color and I think that affected me a lot be to be part of that. More than I realized at the time.
How did it affect you?
It made me see my reality as valid and my history as valid. And it was important for what I was learning to have a personal relevance to my life. And that made all the difference. And related to being an artist, and for me particularly, I’m figuring out a way of living that’s not really standard and I draw my sources from places that aren’t standard. It validated that way of looking at the world. How many defining moments did you ask for?
As many as you want.
There were some other ones that were – did you just say before the age of 20? - that were defining in a negative sense. One was moving from St Louis [at the age of six], where I was surrounded by a community of African Americans - and I felt really supported and validated - and then leaving that to live in a place where there were mostly white people. That’s when my world completely changed. It became really important to validate my existence myself, in many ways. That first experience made me an outsider and then the other experience in college made me...I was still an outsider but I was connected. One thing disconnected me and the other connected me. And I think those things relate to a way of being in the world that I carry with me now. Which is really about seeing my perspective as valid and following that to its fullest potential…
Could you give more details about that particular moment moving from St Louis. What ways was it so life changing.
Let’s see. Well, I felt really free in
And then I had this world: like climbing trees and I think I was talking to spirits at the time but I didn’t define it as that. I had these messages or stories come to me, I just had these conversations with the air or the trees or the worms or I’d be digging in the earth and making things out of sticks and mud and drawing...making things out of old cardboard boxes and I had a lot of power, too, with my friends. They were all boys of all ages but I had a lot of voice, so it wasn’t that I could tell them what to do, but they listened to me. And the way I approached things was fine. I was accepted. I was free. So leaving all that – we moved to the East Coast, to
Because you moved into a white neighborhood?
Yes. I mean there were a few other black kids. But it was mostly white kids and there was a hierarchy that I had to fit into and I felt my blackness in many ways and I was made very aware of how I physically moved around. The safety I felt-which I don’t think I would have defined as such before--I just didn’t have that same safety at all. One of my strongest memories [after moving] was of me getting into a fight with a friend of mine – a yelling fight – and this whole group of kids gathering around and this little white boy came up and kicked me in the back. And nobody intervened at all.
Wow. Was your friend white?
Yeah, she was white. It was a totally different atmosphere. And I went to a totally great school. It wasn’t very mixed, it was mostly white but I had a lot of creative freedom at school which balanced my actual home [neighborhood] environment. Whereas when I was younger in
Sure. I think the reason I start there is because...well, you’ll see. Is there anything else you wanted to share about defining moments before age 20 that had a major impact on who you are today?
Well, I think I should also say that when we lived in Maryland I went to this really amazing school, which was a school of mostly white kids, but I learned so many things that I use right now in my own work. I learned creative writing and I felt like a really good writer at a young age and really free with my creative stories. And I learned to make anything and to explore anything. I learned how to make pottery and I was gathering clay from creeks and I learned how to do batik and I learned how to sew. Which was really scary for me - sewing on the sewing machine. I learned how to make dioramas. And I made books. And just all these great things that I use in my own work now and really form the way I look at the world. “Oh you can use aluminum foil to make a canoe.” – I mean that was very much from my mom, as well [laughter].
Or alien antennas.
Yeah, or alien antennas as well [laughter]. Or you can mix - I mean we got in trouble for this [at school] - you can mix a whole cup of glue with red paint and let it dry and it’ll be really cool to play with. There were just so many really amazing things that I learned there [at school] that really nourished the way I looked at the world and are just the way I learn naturally. And so now, as an adult, I think I’ve really had to work to consciously name those learning processes and materials and ways of doing things. Because they’re not obvious. But they’re really natural for me and they’re really nourishing. I think that school was really powerful, coupled with the fact that my mom was very supportive creatively. Yeah. I don’t think I can think of another very, very significant experience.
We can go back to that question at a later point if you think that there’s something you else you want to say.
But my next question is looking at something related. I would love to hear your coming out story.
Wow. My coming out story...
Whatever it is. Whatever that means to you.
This is interesting to think of the public answer. I’ll just give an answer. I think I should start with saying that I never thought there was anything wrong with gayness, from when I was very young. Even when adults around me made comments about “So and so’s a lezzie.” I just never believed that there was anything wrong with being gay. And I didn’t see myself as a gay kid at all, but I did fool around with girls and boys from a very young age. But that’s just to say...
Then in terms of a coming out story, I think after I was 10 years old I didn’t really think about girls. I had good friends who were girls, and I supported people who were gay, but I didn’t think of myself as gay. So it was near the end of college, or maybe even after college - well, during college I fooled around with women, but then after college I guess you would say I came out. In a way I don’t even really feel I came out because I wasn’t in the closet. So officially, I was like, okay I like girls and it’s not a big deal. It’s a non-issue and I always felt that way. If I wanna be with a woman I’ll be with a woman. There’s not a closet for me to come out of about that. So, I fooled around with women and I dated my first girlfriend in my 20s…At the end of college, I was like “This could be cool to be with a woman.” I really dig women and I always have. Women have always been really important in my life and I think they’re gorgeous and I’m attracted to women and so, I guess that’s sort of a coming out story. It’s sort of an un-coming out coming out story in a way. I don’t know if people will always have coming out stories.
Yes, I don’t think they necessarily do, but I ask the question that way because it’s a culturally significant reference point for that discussion. In the sense that we live in a culture that has defined what coming out is. Whether or not that relates to us personally is another question, so to me, I am interested in that process for you, and what that looked like over time and where you are today with that.
Well, I should say that although I didn’t think there was anything wrong with being gay in theory, or liking women, I didn’t want to be “Gay”, because it was another point of difference and that was my perspective when I first got to college, and I think that I had this idea in my head of what it meant to be gay.
Which was a butch white dyke and I was like, this is not me. This is not who I’m attracted to. Nothing against butch white dykes, of course [laughter], but then one of the first women I fooled around with in college was this femmie girl who was a good friend of mine. And I was like, oh wow, this is hot, and I realized that gayness could be anything. And I realized that it wasn’t somebody else’s idea. It was my idea. Some people say, it’s supposed to be this way and you’re like, well, actually no. It’s my world and this is what I say. So yeah. That’s that, I guess.
In terms of building a life with a woman, that’s something that I always felt I could do. It just felt right. It just made sense. My connections to women have always been super deep or profound in a way that my connections to men are not, though that changes ‘cause I have a few really amazing gay male friends. There is nothing that says I have to have a home or have intimacy with a man to be a valid soul in a body, or a valid human being or a valid contributor to society or to be beautiful or to be fabulous or to be happy or to be... It’s kind of simple and obvious, but you have to be able to imagine something different from what’s been given to you. And I was like it’s incredibly sexy to be with a woman and I really love that and that’s really the apex, two women, it’s like yeah [laughter].
Now we’re going to move more into some questions around what it means for you to be an artist. I guess we can start there. What does it mean for you to be an artist or a writer or..?
Well, I think first of all it means being. It means deciding to face fears and move through fears whatever those are. To be an artist as a profession and to accept that that’s my calling and that’s my path, it means that I don’t... there aren’t any...how do I say this...it’s like a commitment to myself at a very deep level and looking at and accepting the way I see the world as powerful and magical and important. Not just for me but for other people. That I have this huge responsibility to do this thing that I’m called to do because it’s important for other people. Not just me. And I think that because of that, it’s a revolutionary act for me – Wura-Natasha Ogunji born in 1970 in the U.S. in this hemisphere, this time of the universe - to be an artist is a revolutionary act. It means committing to a kind of truth and beauty and expression and way of looking at the world and connection that doesn’t exist in many other ways of being in the world. It’s a deep, deep commitment and a deep, deep responsibility. And I think it takes also a lot of personal work to accept that, that I think other things don’t necessarily require at all. If you’re doing another kind of job, it’s a job and there’s not a personal decision about “Are you a good person? Is this the right way to do it? Are you stupid because you are not doing x? Did you make a mistake?” It just doesn’t have the weight that I think being an artist does and it’s just the most freeing thing for that reason. What was the question again?
What does it mean for you to be an artist?
Also, for me, personally, it means making beauty, because I believe in beauty and I think that beauty is revolutionary. And the way I define that --it’s a visual aesthetic, it’s a feeling I get from something, it’s an energy, it’s a deepness. How deep is the thing? Did it come from a place? Where? Does it have an experience in the world? So, when I make something, when I first finish it and make it, it doesn’t have the same power that it has six months later, or even a year later. It has a different energy because it’s older. And I think it’s really powerful to birth something in that way, to be a vessel for something, to create something that has that power and beauty and history to it. That has a history of its own. It’s like wow. It’s just really the most amazing thing in the world. To be an artist. I wish that for people. When people tell me they’re artists, younger people, I’m just like uh – it’s amazing.
Yeah. Younger people in particular?
I think that for young people it’s often a difficult decision to be an artist. It’s not an age thing necessarily, but I think it’s really special to be able to see the world in a way that is in a parallel universe to other people and because of that it’s like a gift and a curse. You’re an outsider but you have this incredible vision, this super power vision. And people won’t necessarily see it as that but you have to believe that and know that. And really work to refine and define that vision so that what you create is your vision, solely. Like my drawing teacher said, you don’t want to draw like anybody else. You want to draw like yourself, and it’s like “Good God what does that mean? If I don’t know how to draw, what does drawing like myself mean?” And so it’s accessing that power to manifest and change and move things and bend spoons and etc. It’s incredible.
How did you get to the point where you started to see that was your path?
Well, I think it took awhile. I always knew I was creative because my mom always told us that and I always did some kind of creative work, my entire life. But it took awhile for me to say “I am an artist.”
So it took awhile for you to say, “I am an artist.”
Yeah, and I think there were my own limitations...it was many things. I was really committed to teaching and I thought that was socially important to do. Like I had a responsibility to give back to community and so I saw myself as an artist and as a teacher--split in that way. And I also saw my sister and brother as the real artists and I kind of did art, but I wasn’t an artist as my primary role. And then eventually I decided “I’m an artist. I want to study art.” I went to graduate school. Pretty recently I was like, “I’m an artist primarily and that’s my primary path and I can teach from there and I can do these other things, but as much as I gave teaching, I give as an artist.” To sew something or to write something and to put that out can move people in the same way that teaching in the classroom does. And it doesn’t have to be a separate thing at all. It took awhile. I don’t know why it took so long. Maybe because I didn’t have the kinds of models that I needed to be able to see the possibilities. I think that at a deep level that was it. There weren’t people like me doing what I was doing.
And I think I spent a lot of time, even through graduate school [I studied photography], really fighting with the curriculum, just to defend my right to be there….to say yes, there are women, mixed people, people of color photographers and photographs in the world. I spent a lot of time creating an environment where I could learn so there was a lot of wasted energy, a lot of defensiveness. And it wasn’t until the end of graduate school that I had a mentor who was a woman of color who really could ask me critical questions - and who just got it all...the spiritual, the skill, the everything...she could ask all those questions, and I could really excel as an artist. And really work on my vision instead of defending my right to have a vision or defending my right to speak. And that is a hard lesson and important lesson to learn.
What are we creating? What do we create on our own and of our own unique vision? What do we create that’s not just in opposition to the structure or in opposition to the so-called white man? Or in opposition to this or that, but how do you just focus energy on yourself and on the positivity and on people who really give to your work or expand your work rather than constantly defending yourself. And it’s sad, but it’s such a drain just defending your right to exist. Because you don’t get to make all the expansive work that you need to. So I think I spent a lot of time doing that. Just defending my right to exist and have basic things in a program and then after I did that, I was able to say, “Fuck it. Fuck those people. I have a vision and they are still going to be doing what they’re doing for the next however many years, centuries, generations and I still have to put my vision out there and do the work that I’m here to do. I’m not here to fight their insanity. I’m here to birth my own beauty.” And that was incredibly significant. And that’s how I try to walk through the world.
So how would you say your work is influenced by who you are?
I have a really slow process, which I’m trying to make faster at times. But I think the work I make, I tend to need time for certain things and I think my work is reflective of that. I believe in the spirit world; I believe in my ancestors; I believe in gods and goddesses and the natural world, so when I’m creating... I don’t want to say I believe in the goddesses...I believe in the gods, you know, sort of gender queer – the gods. But when I create I bring all that to my work and I think that I’m a vessel and I’m a physical body and unique in that way and so I influence, I shape the work, but it’s also coming from other places. Sometimes it’s coming from a spirit in the room. Sometimes it’s coming from the river. Sometimes it’s coming from the person I was in another lifetime. And the fact that I believe it allows it to come out the way that it does and it allows things to come out that I can never plan. That’s why it’s important not to plan things and execute them because it’s just not me. I feel like once I go through an idea and I have it all worked out then it doesn’t necessarily need to happen in the world. Maybe that’s Aquarius, too, but I just get into my thoughts and I’m like “Okay, that’s resolved.” So the process is really important for me and the touching, the textures, the natural materials - all that is really reflective of my work and also how I see the world. I have a deep visual experience of the world.
Whereas someone might pick up a book and start reading, I’m like, “Okay, where are the pictures?” I can spend hours looking at the same seven pictures in a book and for years never read a word of the book because there’s so much information in the pictures. And it’s taken me awhile to articulate that and define that but I really am a visual person and I like words for specific things. [Laughter] But I understand things visually and I understand the texture and I understand the smell of clay or what it means to paint the clay on paper. I mean I just really love that. It’s so much a part of my language and my eyes and my understanding of the world. I keep forgetting the questions.
How is your work influenced by who you are?
Because I’m mixed… when people say that there are boundaries and rules and borders, for me, those are always changing and moving and there’s nothing that’s ever black and white. We’re always pulling from many sources and we’re a combination of sources and we speak many languages and we change languages all the time even if we think we only speak English and I think that that’s totally evident in my work and my combination of materials…
It’s also about being Nigerian – that’s a huge influence on my work. We get messages in dreams and through our bodies. We’re connected to our ancestors, we are them, we get messages from them even if we’re not in our so-called homeland, the knowledge of that comes through us. That’s totally in my work. I see the work as sacred in that way, as profound and there are rituals to how I do the work. Now, I give offerings to the paper. I spit rum on the paper or offer tobacco or draw a symbol that represents one of the Orisa, one of the gods, so that the paper becomes a sacred space, a sacred grove or an altar. It’s because I’m Nigerian. That comes through in the work. I grew up in the West, I grew up in the U.S. so I have a particular way of doing things that’s from here, but what else...I think there’s something about gayness...I don’t hesitate to say it. I think that gay people are brilliant, and that we’re special. That’s another thing. When a young person is like, “I’m gay.” it’s like “Ohmigod you’re so lucky.” We’re special. We’re really brilliant and other people may be mediocre compared to us, in general. I don’t know if I can say that publicly but...
Sure you can.
...we look at the world in a different way. And not because we’ve had more struggles, but it’s because we don’t...gender to us is different. It’s fluid, it can change, it can move, it can be one thing when you think it’s another. And it’s like, just when you think you had to deal with lesbians and gay people, now you have youth who are like, “I’m genderqueer. I’m not a man, or a woman, or male or female. I’m something completely different.” Blows my mind. It’s brilliant. And you have the whole trans movement. I think that there’s a queer way of looking at the world. There’s a queer way of writing, there’s a queer way of making art and I really think it has to do with drawing from multiple sources that are seemingly not connected, but are very connected and that make a person whole. That definitely influences the work that I’m making.
We’re onto our final question and it seems like time is flying so fast!
I know it’s so wild.
But this question is, what defines success for you as a writer, artist, artist-writer? What defines success for you?
That’s a good question. I think that ultimately in my heart there’s something about showing people a different way of looking at the world that expands them at a deep level, at a soulful level--that changes the person they were before they had an experience with the work. And that to me, being able to do that, is part of success for me. There are some pieces or stories that when I see them, when I make them I’m like, “Ohmigod, that’s something.” And it’s like - I made it, but I can’t even remember making it because it came through me and I was a vessel and I can’t remember all the single stitches and how did I get that shape? And I know it came through me, but the piece becomes something on its own. And that’s a matter of success.
At the same time I think when you talk about success there’s a kind of public face that that has, and voice. And I think that being successful is about using my voice to affect many people. Which is something I have resisted up until...well, I’m working on that right now [laughter]. So when I think about success in those terms, I’m thinking about connecting with people internationally, showing work as well as having workshops and listening to other artists and seeing other artists’ work and understanding what they’re doing and making those connections at an international level. I think that that’s really important and this is another thing I didn’t realize until really recently.
Documenting everything I do – the materials I use, my process, how I looked in 1995 when I made this particular piece – all that is really important to creating a history of my work and being able to transmit that history to people through books and lectures and writings and films or whatever. All of that is really important, that archive and the sharing of that archive. That happens through small publications to high end publications to publications that are
I should also say that it’s about creating something that speaks to the contemporary. It’s timing. So in that way, it’s like you’re creating a theory, you’re creating a philosophy that deepens over time and at the same time has a relevance in the moment and I think that that is success for me. That is what makes you a master in a way, in terms of being a master artist. Your work really has that kind of depth and breadth and also is something that people are like, “What? What is this language that they’re speaking?” But they want to speak it or they want to hear it, or they want to be around it or they want a translation or... it’s that. It’s like, who is that? In terms of seeing the work. I’d like to be rich and famous too. [Laughter] But for the reasons of using my voice and seeing the work, and knowing that the work has a life beyond me and wanting that to happen. I think that that’s success.
Cool. That’s it for my questions. Is there anything else you wanted to say?
For some reason I’m thinking of the connection between the work I make and performance and choosing a particular genre to work in, because I started as a photographer. I was talking to a friend of mine about how I don’t want to talk about that. You have to put the gap together [for others]. “You’re a sculptor, and you’re a photographer, etc, etc, etc.” And then the whole thing of performance.
But then recently, being here in Austin, I started thinking, well, you know it’s really important and my narrative makes sense. When I was making photographs, I was taking photos of spirits using my body and making costumes for those spirits and telling these stories that came to me that were from another world. And sewing things and sewing on paper. And creating sculptural environments and installations and telling stories. And performance was part of that. I mean a lot of them were private at the time, but then I documented them on film. Or some of them became public and some of them haven’t. And now I’m very interested in that combination of making a private process be performance. Involving people in that and having people be witness to that because other people are the story tellers of that piece. Which is really important, they’re the witnesses, they’re the participants in the masquerade who are just as important as the person in the mask – as the spirit coming down. So, really thinking about the work as a performance in that way, that a festival is a performance and that everyone participates and has to participate otherwise it doesn’t happen.
So I just wanted to add that because it’s a way of thinking about the world and thinking about community and connections with people and of the energy of the work itself. It brings all that together. And it is a manifestation of the spirit world, the physical world, the Wura world, the place I’m in right now: Austin, Texas. But I only got here because I went to New York and then the Dominican Republic and then back and back and back and I was born in St Louis but before that, I was somewhere else. Which I don’t think was in a cold place.
That’s all I guess.
Thank you so much.
Thank you for your questions.
Tuesday, February 26, 2008
Matt Richardson, writer/scholar
Matt Richardson, born on
Ana: Thank you Matt for meeting today. If you could start off by saying your name, your date of birth and your place of birth
Matt: My name is Matt Richardson, my date of birth is November 10, 1969 and my place of birth is Brooklyn, NY.
I tried not to do that! It’s so hard – I was like “Don’t do the Brooklyn!” but
I had to!
Thank you for doing this interview today and I’m going to start off by asking the overarching question that I use to frame this. Where I like to start is by asking artists to think about some defining moments in their younger years before the age of 20 that have had a major impact on who you are today.
Okay. My defining moments. First of all I just also want to say for the tape that I publish under Mattie Richardson, sometimes Mattie U. or sometimes Mattie Udora. I’m named after both of my grandmothers and even though I go by Matt Richardson I give honor to them by making sure that everything that I publish uses my full name or at least my middle initial so that they both are acknowledged as a source. I think that goes to the answer to your question. My younger years are really full of not so much happiness. I didn’t really have the best childhood in the world but what I did have was books and I did have the knowledge that I was named after both of these women in my family and with that I was able to survive somehow. So, a lot of what shapes my current way of thinking, my whole political framework is a history of living in a home full of violence and abuse and I think that that is incredibly important in shaping the politics about anti-violence that can form the basis of who I am. Also those violences are not just physical abuse or sexual abuse, but also the violence of poverty is another part of the consciousness of how I understand myself and also how I understand what is the impetus of my work.
So, growing up I lived in a household where my mother was actively trying to get a bachelor’s degree and there were many impediments to that. One was she was the mother of two children, which is demanding enough in trying to be a student and a parent at the same time, but she also had an incredibly abusive husband who did not want to see her do well and was very jealous of the fact that she was trying to get an education and get a college degree when he barely finished high school. And so he would put every kind of blockage possible between her and that goal. But she managed to do it one class at a time over the span of many years – she just finished her bachelor’s degree in 2000 or 1999 after 40 years of struggle. So that was a tremendous triumph. But when I was a child what she would do is…she was a part of…in Brooklyn in the 1970s there was this large literary movement of all of these various writers that were …people like Sonia Sanchez would give readings. There was a whole movement in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn to revamp the public school system and we lived in East Flatbush which is adjacent to Brownsville and so some of that trickled into East Flatbush. But there were lots of fights in Brownsville around education for Black history in particular and getting Black teachers in the [public ] schools and for community control of the school system [board] and my mother was tangentially a part of that. The struggle [around the Brownsville curriculum] attracted a whole crew of writers and artists that were also in places like Brooklyn college, and the Borough of Manhattan Community College where my mother attended classes.
Those community colleges were actually places where lots of cultural activity happened and people who became incredibly famous writers – people like Toni Cade Bambara – were a part of that. And since my mother was taking classes, she went to poetry readings and gave readings in prison as part of her course assignments. She was a part of a variety of literary events that she had to do for class. Of course, this is also the beginning of Black Studies [around the country]. Black Studies was just becoming a recognized discipline, partly because of the movements of these activists, writers and artists from the Black Arts Movement and students who were fighting for a Black curriculum on their college campuses, including not only these four year schools and universities like Berkeley, but at all of these other smaller institutions, especially in New York. So my mother was involved in all of those pieces, on the very edges of them.
She wasn’t a major player in any of this, nobody would necessarily remember that she was at the meeting, but it’s important to think about who’s…even the person who’s sitting in the back – and this was important for me as a young activist on campus – the people who are just on the edges of things actually are incredibly important to the central working of any movement and for me, because my mother brought all this stuff home, because she brought all these books home in particular from a variety of classes, she brought home stuff like Manchild in the Promise Land it was a tale about New York in the 1950s and [she had an opportunity to meet the author, Claude Brown, because he came to her Black literature class]. I read the novel, I just absorbed it. Or she brought home, Go Tell It on the Mountain which was very different from my life, but it was a Black author and I just read everything. And I read everything that came into the house. So there were books of poetry around – I just read them. Because that was my escape. There was so much ugliness happening all around me that one of the places that I could feel safe was between the pages of somebody else’s story. But it also made it very clear to me that I wanted to write my own stories. So these influences, these larger political influences that I didn’t really understand and didn’t really know about in 1975 [laughter].
When you’re six years old…
Right exactly. When the neighborhood meeting is in the basement of my parents’ house, then I become a part of it. When the books come and she was going to be at a reading…I learned what that was. It was something called a reading and my mother was going to it and I really…
Would you go with her?
No. Well, these readings were so much…she didn’t think they were age appropriate so I didn’t go to them. But I very much knew that they existed, at least. Some of the organizing meetings she dragged me to. Of course, I was little and things seemed incredibly boring and I spent a lot of time taking notes cause I wanted to be grown up and also to keep me occupied cause I was so bored.
You were like okay…another paper…
Exactly [laughter] more paper and all these adults just talking, talking and they laughed at things that I didn’t understand why they thought it was funny, but that was the basis of a lot of things. The basis of my political education, the basis of my cultural education, the basis of my creative education. All of that took place because she was involved in the struggle to have something else in her life [besides being a wife and mother]. And so I owe a tremendous amount to that struggle, to the fact that she did it even though she might come home and get beaten up for it. Even though my sister and I could be pains in the butt always pulling at her and demanding things, “I’m hungry! I’m hungry!” Despite all of that madness she went as long as she could and did it intermittently. Not only that but later on when she was too tired – my mother was a Teacher’s Aide in New York for 25 years, which mean that she didn’t get paid very much at all as opposed to the Teacher … she never made more than maybe $15,000.00 a year, maybe. So, when she came home exhausted from that and she had a paper due and I was around 13 years old or 12 years old, she’d say, “Why don’t you write my paper?” And I was like, “Ooh – college work.” I was so excited to do college work. That was the epitome of things for me was college. And so I would do her paper. She would get like a C on them or something but I would write her papers for her sometimes, or what was left of them or whatever. And my first job was tutoring this woman who was taking an English class at Brooklyn College when I was 12 years old. That was my first job was tutoring.
You were always going to be a teacher and a writer.
Always. Always. Actually my dream at the time was to be a physician. Cause I thought, “My mother’s a teacher, I’m not going to be a teacher.” [Laughter] And I was going to be a doctor and that’s just not what the universe had in store. When I was a kid I wrote my own stories. I wrote stories about what was happening in my life. I wrote stories about what was going on. I have an older sister, so what was happened with her. I’ve always been enamored with condensed fiction, so I would try to write these short stories that were very, very short. My sister had a book of 75 short stories – you know, O’Henry short stories and stuff like that, [John] Cheever – cause my sister’s seven years older than me and so she had books that she would bring home from school as well and I read all of those, too. I still have this book of 75 short stories. I love it. And that’s where I absolutely fell in love with the short story form. I love the form. I love the ability to create an entire world in only a few places. I love how it leaves you wanting to happen to these characters, what’s going on with them. I just enjoy it. I enjoy reading them and I really enjoy creating them. Those are the major, major influences before 20.
That’s really incredibly how books, in a way, saved your life.
Absolutely. They absolutely did. What’s her name? She wrote Bastard out of Carolina?
Dorothy Allison [in her] introduction to Trash, her collection of short stories, she talks about how books saved her life and I love the way Dorothy Allison is able to succinctly put certain ideas….she very beautifully writes that kind of stuff and I think that introduction spoke to me tremendously. Absolutely they did save my life.
Cool. Well, I’m going to move onto the next question which could be related or not, depends, but I would love to know your coming story – however you define that.
I came out as a lesbian in college and I had a tremendous crush on this woman who lived downstairs from me in the dorm. Her name was Caroline and I was enamored with her in every way, but it took me a long time to figure out what it was cause in my world the only option was to get married and so my mother spent a lot of time desperately, desperately trying to make me a good wife and was very frustrated at my inability to do this right and so she set up – I think I told you this before, but I’ll say it on tape as well – she set up these days for me, these afternoon sessions on Saturdays to help me with my training and that training was in terms of how to walk in heels. I don’t know where she got this idea, maybe from television, she did the whole book on the head, posture straight and kind of heel toe walk in heels and I would just walk up and down the house, over and over again and we’d do this every week. And she’s like “Heel –toe. Heel – toe.” and I would walk and trip and [laughter] she’d have me do it again.
And also the hands were very important. She didn’t like how my hands were always in my pockets or whatever, so we had a very intense training on how to do things…whatever – very lady training: how to sip tea, how to sit with one’s legs crossed. I spent a lot of time with my legs really wide [laughter] and it just drove her nuts. Also how to set a table. She spent a tremendous amount of energy on husband training. She used to say, “How are you going to get a husband if you walk like a guy?” and that sort of that thing or “If you don’t know how to clean a house or make sure your house is well kept?” and all of these “These are what you need to know as a wife.” and how to cook and how to just generally take care of your domestic world, even if you’re working. She’s like, “Yeah – you have your own career, that’s important, but you need to be able to know this, too so that you can keep a husband.” And she didn’t put on a lot of makeup herself, but she got to be very concerned when I got to be 14 or 15 years old and didn’t even want any make up. I didn’t ask for makeup. I wasn’t interested in makeup. I hadn’t even thought about it. I just hadn’t thought about it, but she was panicked. She was like, “How come you’re not thinking about this stuff?” and I was like “I dunno.” And so she had this campaign to make sure that I was wearing makeup. What else? There was a lot of focus on attention on “you go to college and this is where you meet a nice man. “
A nice husband, right?
A nice husband that you’re going to marry and somebody’s who’s professional and you can build a life together. And so her goal was to make sure that I was on my way to middle-classness – a middle classness that she couldn’t quite get to or get at because of a lot of things that were happening in our house and so she wanted that for me. And my sister was pregnant early in her life. She was 19 – not as early as many people. She had already graduated from high school, but it was pretty early and she had this husband who was not a middle class professional guy. He was pretty much a jerk and not somebody was a provider. He was just incredibly abusive and just wasn’t…it was very much a repeat of the pattern of her own marriage. Although my father certainly worked harder than this guy. I mean, my father was an incredibly abusive person and also worked two jobs. And then this guy was just kind of not very interested in doing anything besides hanging out with his friends and getting high and all of this. And so my mother saw what was going on with my sister and was like, “We get you settled in something that’s better than that.” I think. I’m putting words into her mouth. She never really articulated it that way. To me it was always about “I need you to be…how are you going to get a husband…” it wasn’t this….
It was this unspoken pressure to achieve middle-classness?
Right. The pressure was, “You can do this, you’re going to go to an Ivy-league school, you can have this future and you want to be able to get an appropriate partner for that future.” But this actual articulation – “You’re sister’s doing something [I don’t approve of]; I want something better for you”— we didn’t talk about. So all through high school and everything, whatever kinds of desires I had I didn’t understand. It took me a very long time, as a matter of fact, to even understand what arousal meant because it was so muddied by this tremendous pressure to have a husband and to be with men. So I was confused. I had my first boyfriend in college. I didn’t have any boyfriends in high school., which was another panic of my mother’s [laughter]. “How come you don’t have a boyfriend? How come you don’t seem to care about them or want one?” And then when I went to college and was having sex for the first time with a man, I was just like, “Is this it? Is this what…? Wasn’t this supposed to be exciting?” [laughter]
I didn’t understand. What my mother’s understanding of sexual education was the dual thing: “Keep your legs closed and your dress tail down” and at the same time “Why aren’t you dating?” We had this huge fight once when she thought I was kissing some guy on a fence one day and I was the epitome of a good girl, right? I went to school, I had clubs afterschool and then I had a job and then I came home and I did my homework. And that was it, right? And so I came home after my job and I didn’t know what she was talking about “What guy?” I said and so we had this huge fight. “I saw you kissing this guy. I know it was you. I saw you kissing him.” [After a long time of arguing back and forth] she asked, “Why not? How come you weren’t kissing him?” It was really confusing. On the one hand it was, don’t be a slut, don’t you dare kiss this guy and on the other hand it was well, why aren’t you trying at least to kiss guys.
And so when I had this desire for this woman I didn’t know what to do with it. All of that to say, that’s why I just had nowhere to put it. And I was having sex with this guy and I thought, “I think that I’m supposed to have this orgasm, but…” [laughter]
Nothing’s happening, quite. It’s only happening during things that would be more like lesbian sex [laughter] and he would say things to me that were quite puzzling to me, that I didn’t understand I’d be having sex with him and he’d say something like, “I don’t have breasts.” and I said, “I know you don’t have breasts.” and said, “well, you’re touching my body as if I do.”, “Oh,” [laughter]
I was so clueless. Just really out of my body, I think, very out of my body and doing stuff…cause I loved him and I really thought he was a great person and I really enjoyed being with him, but I wasn’t really being present. And one day, not Caroline but her sister [Eileen], was getting changed. We were all hanging out in the room and she was changing and suddenly my body responded. [laughter]
Right. Electricity went through me and I was like, “That’s what it means to be turned on.” And I realized, “That’s not what’s happening with my boyfriend…fiancé.” and I slowly started going to the gay and lesbian organization meetings on campus and slowly, slowly, slowly told my boyfriend [that I was a lesbian] and he just said, “Yeah.” [laughter]
I was clueless as I could be and everything was going really slowly. I was trying to figure out what does my body need? What does it mean to be this kind of person who has these desires? What would I do with this person? What would my future look like – right? Because heterosexual sex and heterosexual sexuality is tied into a vision of a future and so, all of those pieces… I was taught to stride with the heels and everything, so then how do I walk? What does that mean? And I hadn’t realized this, but the farther I got from my mother’s house, the more my wardrobe changed, the more I got rid of these certain kinds of clothes, the more women’s clothes dropped out of my wardrobe altogether. And I wasn’t clued in. My boyfriend one time, he bought me this teddy – I think that’s what it’s called.
The little thing?
Yeah, you know the little lacy thing. And this is years before I came out, I looked at this thing and I was like, “What do you want me to do with this?” [laughter] I was unhappy about it. And it didn’t even occur to me that anything was different [with me than other women]. I was like, sigh, “Okay, I’ll put this on.” And so I put it on. I think I put the thing on twice and everything inside of me was screaming. I was so unhappy and so upset about it …I finally got it off me, it was burning my skin or something and then I put on his T-shirt and boxers and I sighed, “Now we can have sex.” [laughter] “Now I’m ready.” I never put the two together.
The kind of interaction we wound up having was very much like gay men, but I just wasn’t thinking about it in those terms [then], because we live in a world where your body parts equals what you are. Because we were doomed to be only men and women, that’s the definition of heterosexuality and that’s all there was to it. And so it didn’t occur to me that the kinds of interactions I was having with him or even the ways I would prepare for our erotic encounters was about a butch on butch dynamic. It was about topping him, about controlling our sexual encounter, was about making sure that even though I lived as a woman, and didn’t necessarily have a butch identity yet –that my interactions with him were in men’s clothes and that that’s where I would find my erotics around him. Because that’s not the language of heterosexuality, heterosexuality doesn’t have any place to put those [actions or feelings]. It’s like, there’s a man and a woman and that’s the entire story.
And Caroline’s sister changed all that.
And so these other subtleties, these other conceptions of gender…it was 1987, people weren’t even talking about it academically yet.
Butch wasn’t even being talked about academically.
No. Not so much [transgender either], no.
And so then I came out. And got acculturated, because lesbian is a culture, not necessarily who you sleep with, and I became much more acculturated to lesbian community, which meant that I could ask, “I don’t have to wear these skirts?” I remember the first time somebody called me a butch, my entire body lit up. I just lit up with a sense of self, with an understanding of self and a belonging and a rightness that was so exciting. I remember there was this one woman from Kenya who was stunning, absolutely stunning, and was another student. I was talking in a class about a something and I had this tie, this Black tie that I bought I don’t remember where the hell I bought it, probably at a Pride, cause it had a little pink triangle on it that was really cheesy, but I loved it, and I had this shirt and I wore it – I started cross dressing on campus a lot – I wore it to this presentation I was giving in a class and I saw her and she grabbed me by the tie and she said, “You know you look really, really handsome in that tie.” And I thought I would fall out [laughter] my knees almost gave way, I swooned, swayed with the heat of her pulling on my tie and saying that to me.
It was so hot. I just lost my balance. And I was trying to pull something together, “Thank you very much.”
I tried. And that’s part of the coming out story right there. Being on a college campus.
A journey out of heterosexuality in many ways.
I have a really short history as a straight woman. Really short. I actually, don’t know anything about dating men. I only had one boyfriend and we were together for three years, but I don’t know anything about dating men.
It’s really intense, though, undoing your whole future and re-inscribing it, re-defining it.
Re-imagining it, absolutely. I had to re-imagine it. What kind of future does this dyke have? This new formed dyke? What kind of world does that mean?
And that actually leads into the next question because I think there’s a connection there but I’m curious to see what you think, what your experience is. The question I have is what does it mean for you to be an artist, a writer, an activist? What does it mean for you to walk in the world the way you do, creatively?
Well, it meant at that moment that I had to come up with another career plan and another vision for my future. Because I’d gotten into medical school early decision and I found that it just wasn’t what I needed to be doing. I also grew up very Christian, right? – and so I didn’t have a language for a spiritual pull or a voice from spirit. I just knew, just like my body was screaming, “Take off the teddy” it was “Do not go to medical school. You cannot do this. Bad idea.” Then I was this errant lesbian in my family and I have decided not to do the one profession I came to college to do and what do I do now? But what I always had was a love of literature, a love of books, a love of reading, a love of writing and there was this lesbian publishing house that was close to campus – New Victoria Publishers which is in Vermont – I went to school at Dartmouth – notice how I didn’t say the name – I hate that place. [laughter]
[laughter] We will not give them credit for shit. But yeah. So New Victoria Publishers?
New Victoria Publishers. They publish LaShonda Barnett’s book Callaloo and other lesbian authors. I had an internship there as an editorial intern. And it’s really funny. I was looking for a job. I was graduating and I didn’t know what I was going to do, and I had organized for this lesbian band to come to campus, called Virginia and the Wolves [laughter]
[laughter] Does not get much more lesbian than that!
Kinda white lesbian from the 70s. Virginia and the Wolves? So Virginia and the Wolves were rocking it out on campus and there were a whole bunch of white women from the mountains of Vermont and New Hampshire, which is chock full of white dykes – let me tell you – they came to it and two of the people that came were the owners of New Victoria. I was really bold and said, “I need a job” and they were like, “Well, we may be able to do something for you.” And that’s how I got that first job as an intern there. And from there I applied to Kitchen Table Press. What happened? I was arrogant enough to just send them a letter. That’s what happens when you’re 20. Shit I would never do now, right?
[Laughter] Thank god you did it then.
So there I am 20, 21 years old and I was like “I need a job.” And so I just wrote letters to different publishing houses. Benetton magazine, I got that job and when you’re 21, 20 years old, I had no idea how much an amazing thing it was that I could send out just a few cover letters and a resume and get two job offers. At the time, I sent out maybe four, and I just wasn’t worried about it [laughter]. And then I got an interview at Benetton magazine and then an interview at Kitchen Table Press and I got the job at Benetton and the time Benetton clothing stores were everywhere and they had this magazine United Colors of Benetton. They had this fancy office in Manhattan. Later on the magazine moved to Milan. They had a lot more money. They were going to fly me back and forth from New Hampshire for…it was just a whole other world.
And at Kitchen Table Press, part of my interview I was packing boxes in the back with Barbara Smith and I made a decision to go with a Black feminist history. I didn’t quite understand, but I knew somewhere in the back of my mind that the publishing house was part of something much larger than myself, and that the Benetton magazine would be forgotten and anything I did there would be forgotten but being a part of Kitchen Table Press meant that I would be making history in some way and I decided to go with Kitchen Table and I took that job. And I was Associate Publisher there from 1992 to 1995. And that was a part of what it meant to be a writer and something that was enmeshed in this world of literature and creative work. And I met some of the most amazing writers and artists of the 20th century through that Press.
None that I can say here, really. It was an incredibly eye opening experience as to how these things get done and what peoples’ personalities are actually like. There’s the part, when you see somebody publicly and they are kind and they smile at you and they sign your book or whatever and there’s how they act on the regular.
Behind the scenes.
Which is a whole other thing. But it was in those years, it was me, Barbara Smith, and this woman Lillian Waller, who’s also a poet. And we ran Kitchen Table Press. And there was also part time colleagues Jaya and Catherine and there were several interns and volunteers [of all kinds of sexual orientations and races].
I didn’t realize it was staffed by so many people.
There were three full time staff people and then I worked really hard to have an internship program where we recruited people who would get college credit from different parts of the country to work at the press and also to recruit local volunteers. And that was working in a non-profit so I was working 15, 18 hours a day. But I loved it. I loved doing the work. And because Barbara is who she is, we also did all kinds of political work around the country and we would go to places like the Creating Change conference. I think we went to Cincinnati because Creating Change was there, but then we also went to Cleveland after that because there was going to be an anti-gay initiative there. It was also the time of all the anti-gay initiatives. This is such a[n example] of history repeating itself. Because of a Gulf War, a war in the Middle East, and anti-gay initiatives that came together and so they get clumped.
They sure do. We’re a good distraction.
[Laughter] For the incredible war that is taking place and the aftermath – even after the war has been declared over, even in the aftermath. And so we went around doing all of this political work. And all of that, all of that is part of what it means for me to be a writer and an artist and a performer and a scholar. I can’t separate any of that out to just the lonely moments in the room. We were in Albany, New York, and I did a lot of readings and I started publishing my first pieces of fiction at that time and started publishing essays.
But I was surrounded by such inspiration every day. And Barbara, God bless her, is an incredible essayist and is one of the founding mothers of Black feminist criticism. I mean, the woman wrote “Towards a Black Feminist Criticism.” I couldn’t do what I do now without her. So, all of that was so…much…foundational to my very being. I was also part of a vibrant Black lesbian world, right? For the first time I could have Black queer community – I couldn’t have that before – and I made that in Albany but also networks that took me around the country. It was really great work. I’m glad that I did it.
What were some of the first pieces you published?
The first piece I published was in Sisterfire. The first time I published anything in an anthology, I think it was in Sisterfire, Black Feminist Fiction and Poetry [edited] by Charlotte Watson Sherman and that short story was called “Dues” and it’s dedicated to my sister. And then the next thing that I published was in a journal called Sinister Wisdom and that was a short story called “Spice.” That story was originally a poem in the lesbian, gay newspaper on campus that I made into a short story for an issue on allies, which was then re-published in Does Your Mama Know.
Published by Lisa C. Moore?
Yes, Lisa C. Moore in Does Your Mama Know? and it’s published – cause it’s Black lesbian coming out stories – as a coming out story, but it’s a piece of fiction. It’s not actually my coming out story. And then I published other essays and a couple of other short stories after that. I’ve been publishing pretty steadily in anthologies and journals since 1992.
How would you say your work is influenced by who you are?
In every way because I could have married my ex-boyfriend, who was a very nice guy. He is a very nice guy. His name is Nick. I could have married him and I don’t know, been a therapist somewhere or maybe been a professor of English, but I just…my life would have been different, I don’t think I would have the same way of being able to speak to so many different concepts, ways of being. Different ways of even having a body. My imagination would have been so limited by that heterosexual circumstance.
If I had followed the path that my mother really wanted for me – and that was a path of safety, which was a husband, some kids, a house, a steady job with a steady paycheck – it would have been a nice life, but one that definitely had a ceiling on it in terms of what you can even imagine as like…what the world would look like, what I’d look like, what I could do with my time. I don’t think I could have imagined the same kinds of fictional realms with that future. And so, because I chose one that was about queerness, that’s about going against particular status-quo’s, that’s about re-envisioning the Black body, fundamentally in terms of what is male and female, for example, what is desire…I think that it means that I can take…I feel that I can go a lot further with what I imagine and who I imagine even fictionally. So, for example, a lot of my fiction is about extended versions of my family, many different ways of thinking about the same few people over and over and over again. But the perspective from which I come at that is one from an eye of desire, an eye of thinking about the body that can do something else. That just does something else.
I’m thinking of an example…I have a story that I published called “Sarah” that…oh no no no – it was going to be called “Sarah” but I changed the title. The story is about domestic violence but between a lesbian couple. So one of the things I was able to imagine, of course, is the abuse – through my own background of domestic violence, living in a household of domestic violence – I wanted to know what was going on in the head of the abuser and so that’s the perspective from which I told this story, but it’s from this woman who is the abusive partner and so that’s another limit to how we understand domestic violence that otherwise I wouldn’t be able to connect to if I was in the heterosexual relationship. In that story I try to do a lot of things, like how do Black women treat each other. There’s a lot of stuff about alcoholism. There’s a lot that I was looking at in that short story that I otherwise wouldn’t be able to do.
I just did an academic essay on compulsory heterosexuality and African-American history. I would never have been able to read history texts for their absences, for where they make critical misjudgments, where they miss the opportunities to even imagine transgendered subjects or a lesbian or a woman who has relationships with women. All these moments that history, Black history, just cannot accommodate other kinds of desires [or genders]. I want to be able to make that kind of contribution. Or a variety. That’s what I do. It infuses all the short stories that I write, all the academic work that I write. The novel that I’m writing, everything is about, comes from that perspective and therefore shapes what I imagine. And also the kinds of characters I create on the stage.
I did this…for Kitchen Table Press we did a fundraiser where Tony Kushner was very gracious and came to Albany. But I performed on the stage at Capital Rep and I did some acting in college and I wrote some performance pieces in college and also put together a performance play that I did with another friend and then when I was in graduate school, decided that I wanted to do some performing and the opportunity to be a drag king came up and I was like, “So, okay. Let’s do it.” and so I did that and I did that in an all white troupe, which was really hard for a lot of reasons, and then I was able to co-found an all Black troupe in Oakland. And I can do a lot of different characters with that. I can do male and female characters, but I can consciously think about Black genders in a really focused way and how they interact with each other and how they interact with whiteness and what kinds of music needs to run through that body or how to comment on contemporary Black culture or history and all kinds of stuff. It’s just a very useful medium for creativity on the stage.
I haven’t had the chance to see one of your performances with your troupe. What’s the name of the troupe?
Y’all are fly. Well, my last question for you is more around what defines success for you as a writer, artist, performer. And the reason I ask that question is because I think we have limited vocabulary to discuss what that means for us. And so I’m just curious to hear as many people talk about it as possible.
First, success for me is knowing that people are reading what I write. That I think is the most important thing. One of the reasons why I chose to get a PhD, cause I already have an MFA, was so that I would have a steady income. Cause starving artist is not cute, so that I also wouldn’t be tied to how well the book did or did I get out the book, so that I could create in a variety of different ways and even if I was having blockages or not ready, or not ready to get everything that I’m writing together in a publishable manuscript, that I wouldn’t starve trying to do it. But what I’m really just amazed at is when somebody is reading it. I write this stuff in my room, or in the library, kinda alone and I may do a reading or I may give it to some friends to give me some feedback and then it goes into a book somewhere or a journal somewhere and it just kinda goes into the ether and I don’t know what’s going on with it. And then when somebody comes to me and says, “I taught your essay in my class.” Somebody even got permission to reprint “Dues” and teach it in a class at Ohio State and I was like, “Somebody’s teaching my fiction?”
That was so amazing to me. Or knowing that I did an essay in This is What Lesbian Looks Like: Dykes Take Over the 21st Century or Dyke Activists Talk About the 21st Century and I met somebody years after that was published who was just coming out of college when I published that and picked up a copy at Creating Change and used that essay to do activism in Colorado. And I was just like, “Yes!” It was so exciting. Or I was at a conference, I think it was the FTM conference in Seattle and somebody was talking about organizing on college campuses and used one of the essays that I had just published and they were talking about stuff that we wrote about in the article about organizing, and they were talking the different methods that college campuses were doing and so I got a sense that that one little article had this national impact for a variety of different places.
Or somebody, in their graduate seminar or in their undergraduate class, like twice here students had said they had read an article of mine in their classes. That’s success. That whatever ideas I manage to cull together and put on a piece of paper actually reaches some people – especially for somebody that does academic stuff, right, or the stuff about Blackness and gay marriage – the very fact that what I’m writing may have an actual impact on how people do activism is a tremendously satisfying. That means it’s not just for 10 people who might pick up this academic journal, but –
Beyond the scope of your peers.
Yes, my academic peer group. But there’s another group of peers who are activists and people who care about the world, that what I write actually helps or sparks some sort of ideas or something. Something! Or they fight with it or they disagree with it or something! I think that that’s really…that’s success for me and I’m just absolutely blessed every time I get to find out that somebody read something I wrote.
That’s really cool. Well, that’s it for my questions. Is there anything else you want to say or talk about that I didn’t touch upon that you think is relevant? That young people should know? That other people embarking on this path should know?
Get a variety of mentors.
Did you have mentors?
Kind of. But I think that the mentors that you have really shapes who you become. There’s an acculturation, your generational culture that people come from, and usually that acculturation happens from the time you’re a kid, right – the kind of food you eat, the kind of music you listen to, the ways people talk, the ways that they tell stories, how they understand the political climate of the world, how they make sense of it, how they’re impacted by it, how they make family, all of that stuff is an acculturation. And you have your parents and peers and friends and everybody else who are the mentors in that process and teachers and sometimes they’re not always great, but they’re there and they help shape us and I think that for people who are trying to be artists, and especially queer artists, you need to have people to tell you what to expect.
What are the road blocks, what are the places of celebration, how are you being seen? how are you being read by other people in the world? how your work is read, how your body is read. What does it mean to strive for excellence as an artist? Somebody…people who can be honest with you and say this is just not working. You need people to tell you. You don’t want to have just a world full of support where everybody’s support looks like “Yes, yes yes yes that’s great.” You need somebody to be like, this is not working. Somebody to tell you the truth and be like, “Do this over.” and that’s absolutely necessary. For people to push, to push your political consciousness, to push your creative work, to push how you treat other people, just to push you. That’s what I would say.
How do you find those people? How did you find those people?
I haven’t had as many as I would have liked, right. It’s been more happenstance, but be watching. Choose your mentors wisely. Don’t let them choose you all the time. Cause you don’t always want –everyone’s opinion [laughter], I think.
I have seen people be mentored by some very interesting folk out there. I spent some time, just a little bit of time, volunteering at a youth organization that catered mostly to Black [queer] youth and what I heard from the mentors that were there made my blood run cold. I thought, “My god. You can’t tell this to children! Are you insane?” Stuff that becomes common knowledge and common sense in this very negative way. I witnessed adults say things to young people like, “I’m just trying to keep it real. If I tell somebody that they ugly and that they are worthless, I’m just keeping it real.” How do you tell that to children? Not so much, No. This was a staff person! These are paid staff members saying this to children.
So, having the appropriate mentors that can give somebody a moral sense, a compass , a way of understanding oneself that is accountable to others and responsible to the world and responsible politically and ethically and morally and spiritually, I think is essential. Not everybody that’s out there that’s in a position to help young people have centered themselves [spiritually or politically]. I hadn’t done youth work in some time and so when I was actually kind of involved, talking to these people and seeing some of the ways in which some people have damaged children, and young people by being incredibly abusive mentors – which includes sexually, using kids for their own sexual gratification – paid staff people, now – in queer youth facilities – or giving them a kind of instruction that is wrong headed, incredibly classist, racist, misogynist, I mean everything you can…I was just overwhelmed. So I would say, people need mentors who have integrity and watch. Watch people. Do you have integrity? Do you have kindness? Do you have a spiritual center? Do you have a basis of coming at people with love? And then try to be that mentor for somebody else later on, cause…apparently, it’s kind of rare.
It sure is. Is there anybody you would name who’s had that role with you?
You know my mentors have had their flaws.
Sure, we’re all human.
But the two people who come to my mind most directly as direct mentors have been both Barbara Smith and Barbara Christian and Barbara Christian was not a lesbian at all, or queer in any way, but she was my advisor at Berkeley. And again, these two women were not perfect by any stretch, but they did advise me in ways that I needed to be guided. And they did tell me the truth sometimes when it wasn’t what I wanted to hear. And they did try to act with as much integrity that they had. And those were important things.
Well, thank you so much.
Thank you so much for including me in this project. I appreciate it.
It’s cool. It’s nice to hear the stories.