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.