I was a child on the south side of Chicago during the late 60s/early 70s – a time much like this one – when politics and social change is in the air we breathe and the water we drink. My father was a civil rights activist and I marched with him against the Vietnam War when I was five. My sister and I sold bumper stickers for George McGovern’s presidential campaign when I was nine.
Critically, too, my neighborhood, my schools, my choir, my church were what we used to call “integrated”: I was a middle-class white girl who grew up surrounded by Black people, who had Black friends from nursery school on, who was frequently the only white person in the room, in the house, at the party, on the bus, who had no idea this was unusual for a white person in America.
I love the magical and fantastic element in writing. I get a thrill at the duality of the mundane next to wildness. I think the contrast heightens both aspects and leaves me an enormous landscape to create and illustrate how characters interact and respond to that landscape. I never tire of creating doors with fantastic elements and having the story go through that door to more discovery of something deeper or hidden.
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."
Artists have more power and influence than they realize. Art is also important in terms of forming community and maintaining sanity. Solidarity is a beautiful thing, and is lifesaving. As much as this regime wants to deny our existence, and stifle our words, we cannot let them do this. We must be heard.
I call these works “migratory texts”; texts that are about migration & situated during a migratory passage or passages but also texts that actually move, that gyrate, that are elliptical & necessarily fractured & fragmentary. In tracking these poetics, the notebooks I am using as a self-archival allow me to also perform the theoretical frameworks I’m interested in, in a very personal way.
I'm convinced that geography shapes a person. And I'm working on a theory that I like to call the Western Gothic ethos. Growing up in the West, the open spaces, they inculcate a deep and sustained level of isolation in a person. You may live in a city, you may be surrounded by people, but you don't have to go far before you find yourself in a place with no one around.
Narrative 4 fosters radical empathy in individuals from myriad backgrounds and different walks of life to change the way they interact with their communities and the world. The story exchange is the core methodology of Narrative 4. In this process individuals trade and retell each other’s stories in the first person. This builds empathy by giving participants the singular experience of walking in another person’s shoes and seeing the world through their eyes. The story exchange can be put into action almost anywhere, from schools seeking to decrease bullying to groups of adults engaged around certain issues The story exchange creates safety, openness and a level playing field for all participants, giving them the opportunity to experience personal narratives with understanding, and without judgement.
At Origins, one of our goals is to publish the work of writers and artists who might not otherwise have access to publishing. This has given rise to Project Amplify, a new initiative and collaboration with nonprofit arts programs around the globe. Here's the inaugural Project Amplify issue featuring poetry and art from Xhosa students in Port Elizabeth, South Africa.
An interview series devoted to the complications, wonders and triumphs of the Caribbean and Caribbean American experience. In this series, writers discuss the influence of their cultural heritage on their work, craft techniques, and the state of the Caribbean literature in America today, among other topics.
I have finally accepted that I am as American as I am Jamaican. I was born in Jamaica and partially raised there, but I have spent the better part of my life in this country, to which I owe so much of my personal and political development and achievements. To be more specific, I am as African-American as I am working-class Afro-Jamaican, meaning that my life experiences have been formed by that dual identity and all of the political, social and cultural nuances that are part and parcel of being part of two marginalized cultures and multiple marginalized identities. In many ways, I share more in common with working-class African-Americans than I do with middle-class Jamaicans. In other specific ways, I am so Jamaican, that I even surprise myself sometimes when I discover rigid cultural habits or waysof thinking/being in the world that I know I learned as a child. Home for me is a constant negotiation of identities, jumping emotional mine-shafts of childhood memories (nurturing as well as abusive), reaching across divides to create and sustain community for myself and my children, walking alongside kindred spirits I recognize as part of my tribe, as well as going only part of the way with others with whom I share a common humanity and culture, but no common values.
I think it would be crazy for me to think of my work as singly representational, like I represent all of Haiti or every Haitian, but I have always been proud to be connected to Haiti, to have Haiti in my blood and to rep Haiti, as the kids say, whether I was a chef, and taxi driver, like my dad, a seamstress like my mom or anything else. One person can’t speak for ten million people. I can only write from my perspective. And I hope it hits home for some people. And I know that perspective might be outright rejected by other people. So I’m not forcefully trying to be representational. I think it would be arrogant to say I’m representing anyone but myself. I think artists need that freedom to tell their stories. Or you’ll be shackled by everyone.
I am very proud of the work that is coming out of Haiti and the Caribbean right now, but that’s because I know of it and I wonder if the rest of the world is as aware. I love the representation we have now, but it is never enough. There are so many more emerging from the Caribbean, including those just now putting pen to paper, hoping to be published one day. What’s great, however, is that we all write literature in different styles. My hope for myself is to contribute something different to Haitian literature, the kind that mixes the political, the thrilling, the intrigue, the passion, the poetry, all of that together like a big pot of stew.
I believe my writing hails back to the tradition of immigrant narrative beginning with the English who arrived at Jamestown in the 1600s. Every immigrant group is different but very similar in the challenges it faces. Issues of identity and displacement are not only immigrant problems; these are shared by the population at large as well. There are really very few minority writers, Cuban or otherwise, in the American literary world.
What do we do about the lack of diversity in publishing? Or what can you do? There’s plenty you can do. If you’re a reader, you can start by reading widely and diversely, by looking for books written by writers of color, for example, by putting diverse books in the hands of young readers. If you’re a reviewer, you can read and review books by people of color. If you’re an editor, you can publish more people of color. And if you don’t have any/enough submissions from people of color, start soliciting! Reach out to writers of color and queer writers at conferences, at readings, at residencies. Put out a call on your website, on social media. But that’s not enough. Not even close.
At 16, when I began my writing career in Haiti and the other French Antilles, I embraced horror as my genre. I didn’t want to write about reality. Why would I? I was just a kid and, as I explain in A Sky the Color of Chaos, I barely understood people and politics. I also didn’t want to dwell on my fears and insecurities. In retrospect, however, I see that my fantastical tales foreshadowed my interest in nonfiction as I usually established a link between my stories and the political/social atmosphere in Haiti.
When people are constantly asked what they want to "be" and how they want to live and speak, and whether they "feel" more or less American, all for political gain, as if those things were up for discussion every day, you create a dearth of identity, a hunger for a sense of self. But being the resourceful people that we are, we've dealt with it by becoming creators of art, and through that art, I believe, succeeded in preserving our national soul, separate from whatever the politicians do.
A writer could spend a lifetime filling pages about the concept of home and its many definitions. Our mother is our first home, both physically and emotionally. Many of the complications of life spring directly from the memory of losing a primal home, whether that home was an actual place, or a parent, or both. Every break-up, estrangement, or emotional severance can contain a dim echo of its original impact.