There’s this sense that there’s abject poverty for Native people, that their lives are always a plight, tragic and dark. Then there’s the romanticizing of the environmental Indian, the wise, the “please teach us your ways,” the spiritual Indian. I’m interested in the continuum, all of the spaces in between those two false extremes.
I'd say everything about my origins has affected me. Growing up in the south and being made aware of social injustice has influenced my activity as an artist activist. Growing up in a space where there has never been a long line of black male poets has influenced my productivity. I always feel like I have to write more, that I'm writing for more than one poet. Growing up in the projects, poor, raised by a single mother who was also a Pentecostal minister gave me lots of material, and motivation to create work that showed the beauty and dignity of my origins and shattered the stereotypes as often as possible.
I often feel disconnected with the ways in which native academics talk about Native Americans and native literature. Sometimes I feel like native academics (and often native writers, to be fair) are performing being Indian for a non-native audience. They seem to present natives not only as if we are (only) natural and spiritual, but also in this deeply ambiguous way, a way that’s not particularly realistic or reflective of our lives.
I tell my students that it’s most important to find your specific voice, find your truth and write about that. I used to think I wasn’t Black enough or that my upbringing was too this and not enough that, but when I just wrote my story, I realized that lots of people identified with me, and that my existence was valid, and that the honesty I brought to the page was ringing true for many readers all across the country. Being specific to your own story creates work that can reach people on a universal level, and that’s what’s most important!
We’re all on this Earth together with the same fate, all on a ship being deported to that other place in the sky. So the idea was to say that regardless of where we come from, regardless of our racial makeup or our social status or our religion or whatever our beliefs are, none of us is spared our fate in the end. Same goes for the immigration conversation—we're all in it together.
I was trained to be afraid that my words could be used against me in a court of law. That still holds true, but now I refuse to do the state’s work by self-regulating. I know this puts me in a precarious position, but I’ve lived a closet-free life for this long, and I plan to defend that with all I have.
There are almost 65 million refugees in this world. Many of us appear to be afraid of whoever is the "other" and seek leaders who want to exclude newcomers. That said, I think progressive peoples everywhere need to reclaim painful dialogue in place of our echo chambers. I don’t think it is helpful to judge or categorically dismiss those who are excluding the minority. I think we may need to listen carefully to what is at stake for those who are making these divisive policies.
If you’ve made publishing your creative work a priority in life then you know what it’s like to be a mole in the old whack-a-mole game. With each decision—from editing material to finding a publisher to navigating setbacks—you expose yourself and your beloved ideas to being knocked down, enough so that the whole nerve-twisting experience can make even the most dedicated writer want to quit playing. So with a number of writers here at the University of Houston planning on revising a story or two over the Thanksgiving break instead of being with loved ones, this dedication to writing and publishing is on my mind when I sit down with Mat Johnson in his office. To date, Mat has nine major publications, and though he’s taken a few to the chin while fighting for these works, he continues to develop and send work out often. Earlier in the day, we had a quick conversation about the risks of making publishing a priority in one’s life, so as we finish with small talk and he leans way back in his chair—an act revealing his easy-going attitude, while also belying a mind buzzing with plans and proposals—I ask him for an example of this risk. He lets out a laugh before he answers, something he frequently does.
Being a feminist author means taking women’s subjectivity, accomplishments, desires, interests, and difficulties seriously. Making them primary subjects of narrative, exactly as men’s subjectivity, accomplishments, desires, etc. have always been. A feminist writer explores this subject matter without worrying whether that portrayal dovetails with our culture’s stereotypes about women.
Poetry and the arts are effective tools for social change. They keep alive the opposition to the status quo. Poetry documents events for the collective social consciousness as an alternative to the “official” version, which most of us know is under tight, corporate control. Poetry records how we feel, and in doing so, reminds us of our humanity, of what we still share and have in common. Through poetry, I can proclaim my individual self but do it in such a way that allows the reader/listener to make connections based on personal experience. This allows us to consider how we may be different while also having so much in common. I truly believe that poetry is a powerful force of social change. I’m one of those people who believes all art is political. I’m not saying that poetry alone can create change, but yes, it is a tool.
"We shouldn’t let society degrade or scare our weirdness out of us. I think of queer as an idea. I also think about “queers” as a marginalized population. They’re the emo kids in the classroom. Or the weirdos. Or the artist or the hippies. All of those subpopulations are queer. Instead of saying that’s an artist or an emo, and using those terms as insults, saying those terms are awesome. That’s an artist. That’s cool. For me there are important populations that are suffering creatively and intellectually. Because a lot of people are scared of interesting, creative people who tend to be far out and goofy.
There’s also a difference between weird and queer and being a lunatic. Sometimes they coexist. Like me. I’m queer and I’m a lunatic."
I have made a conscious effort not to confine myself to writing about the India of the past. That would be an exercise in nostalgia and I would soon run out of material. I’m more interested in exploring the “dual-time” that immigrants inhabit, in which I’m here in America with India hovering like a ghost in the back of my mind.
Writers tend to be the quiet observers, the ones who take note of the strangeness of their worlds while most everyone else is happily going along, either complicit or in denial of the absurdities and cruelties. In the last ten years, however, the United States has been forced to face itself—first with 9/11 and the endless wars in the Middle East, then with Occupy and increased awareness of inequality, and now with Black Lives Matter and the increasing awareness of systemic racism and violence toward minorities. Not to mention LGBTQ and women's rights. All of this is hard to ignore if you are a writer today, though I do see a lot of oblivious submissions and can't help wondering, "what time period are you writing in?"
"I started finding out about my father and all of these years I felt part of my family had him, and I didn’t. They were like, 'Listen, [your father] would only listen to the BBC news. BBC at eight, at six. Forget Bob Marley.' And I was like, Thank God I didn’t grow up with him...I also read this book called My Mother Who Fathered Me. The book asks how do you establish yourself as a Caribbean man when there isn’t a father around? Of course you’ll have baggage left over. It asks what is Caribbean masculinity? Which is why I wrote that set of short stories, Who’s Your Daddy, which is looking at that question from 18 different ways. Which is also why I wrote that story How Do You Tell, too. Because if you’re a gay Caribbean man, will our culture consider you a man?"
"Who says we can't cross genres? Who says a painting can’t be spoken and poetry can’t be total silence?
In various indigenous cultures there is rarely a distinction between such forms. Poems are dances are songs are food. These delineations, or dare I say, borders, are first world concoctions. Ultimately, for me, art is a free space. A space of total possibility. And it is the last place I would ever want to be stifled by limitations."
"What I’ve noticed that has helped me as a writer – and a critic – of fiction and genre fiction is surrendering to the idea that I’m not an authority. There’s a quote from a Katherine Hepburn movie that I’m using in the book which is basically states that we all make the rules. The truth of this stuff is in flux, and we all deal with that flux by making a bunch of rules ourselves, and surrendering to that is really helpful."