An Interview by Jennifer Maritza-McCauley
I was fortunate to have Donna Weir-Soley as my literature professor at Florida International University. Her graduate class was earth-shattering for me. Through the lens of Audre Lorde and bell hooks, Weir-Soley examined the nuances, criticisms and uses of modern-day feminism and the many ways of interpreting Lorde’s idea that the “personal is political.” Weir Soley explores similar subjects in her multi-genre work. She is particularly interested in “…[negotiating] the erotic, the mythical, and the spiritual by foregrounding African and New World and Afro-Christian forms of spirituality in [her poetry]” and capturing and complicating the experiences of black American and Caribbean women. She is also invested in speaking her truth, regardless of whether or not the subject is considered off-limits by society or contemporary literature. Instead, Weir-Soley thinks it’s “powerful to cross boundaries...to write about [subjects that are considered] taboo or controversial…” A scholar, professor, poet and essayist, Weir-Soley compels readers to see the un-seeable, to engage with history and politics, and to step out of their comfort zones.
Born in St. Catherine, Jamaica, Weir-Soley came to the United States at 17. She is presently an Associate Professor of English, African & African Diaspora Studies and Women's Studies at Florida International University. She is co-editor (with Opal Palmer Adisa) of the anthology Caribbean Erotic (Peepal Tree Press), and single author of two books of poetry: First Rain (Peepal Tree Press) and The Woman Who Knew (Finishing Line Press).
Here we discuss Weir-Soley’s Caribbean background, her journey as a creative writer and Caribbean literary scholarship, amongst other topics.
Our journal is interested in your “origins,” i.e. where you’ve come from as a writer and where you’re going. Would talk a bit about why you became a creative writer? And why you pursued scholarly work?
I was born in Jamaica and immigrated to the United States at age 17. I began keeping a journal at age 11 and, like most writers, I was inspired to write by reading. I read vociferously and indiscriminately. In addition to reading comics, and all the books on Western legends and mythology in the library, my reading followed a very common pattern for post-colonial Caribbean female subjects. Harlequin and Mills and Boon romance novels, the entire Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys teen mystery series, Enid Blyton’s books, and of course, Bronte’s Wuthering Heights and Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations, Oliver Twist, Hard Times and David Copperfield were staples on the shelves of my tiny library in the small town of Old Harbour where I spent most of my childhood years. Having no television at home, reading was a main source of entertainment and replaced storytelling and ring-games which I associated mostly with life in the countryside. As a child born after independence, I also read the works of Jan Carew, Roger Mais, and Claude McKay in school. The only Black female writer I read as a child was the late Louise Bennett, who wrote in Jamaican Creole and read and performed on radio and television for many decades. She was and is a national icon in Jamaica and a few years ago I submitted an entry on her life and work to the Encyclopedia Britannica for Post- Colonial Studies. I was very proud to see it online in a recent search because I would mimic her comedic but highly political poetry at school recitals to much applause. But although I performed her work at recitals, I thought of Bennett as a radio and television personality, and a “performer” not as a writer, because her work was never assigned to me in the classroom nor did I see her books in the library.
Nevertheless, I owe my love for writing in the language of my people and for using writing to critique social issues from Louise Bennett. When I began writing it was very personal. I needed an outlet for the normal pre-teen anxieties and pre-occupations as well as for common, but not-so-normal instances of physical and sexual abuse and abandonment that were part of my personal history. In the late 70’s, during times of social unrest and political instability in Jamaica, I used my writing to express as well as to cope with my anxieties about violence and other societal ills wrought by poverty, food shortages, foreign intervention and divisive party politics.
I pursued scholarly work because I was part of a pilot program, the Mellon Minority Undergraduate Program (now called the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship) funded and ran by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The purpose of that program was to identify and mentor high achieving undergraduate students of color and offer them incentives to pursue doctoral degrees in fields where people of color were significantly underrepresented including STEM, Social Sciences and liberal arts. Part of the objective was to have greater representation of faculty of Color in higher education. I was in the first cohort, a guinea pig of sorts. I graduated summa cum laude from Hunter College of the City University of New York and spent a summer studying at Oxford University under top notch faculty and with brilliant international student peers (some from as far away as South Africa and involved in the anti-apartheid movement) under the aegis of the Mellon Foundation. Many opportunities that opened up to me because of this program would not have been possible otherwise. My mother was a CNA in New York who made barely above minimum wage and my father was a farmer who lived in Jamaica. Having helped to run the Audre Lorde Women’s Poetry Center and interned at the Feminist Press while at Hunter College, where I had the opportunity to meet an amazingly diverse cross section of women who were poets, editors and novelists, my dream was to apply to the Iowa Writers Workshop. However, the Mellon Foundation would not fund that dream. After consorting with several of my mentors, including Audre Lorde, Melinda Goodman, Frank Kirkland, Myrna Bain and other Hunter College faculty, I conceded that perhaps an academic life had its own rewards and, arguably, more economic stability than the life of a creative writer (a stability I had never had and desperately needed) and would not preclude me making contributions as a poet and fiction writer. I was accepted into the graduate program in the English department at the University of California, Berkeley. I also received a Mellon Gradate Fellowship to cover my tuition and living stipend for four years. I took a year off to teach English at Manhattan Comprehensive Night High School (just to make sure I enjoyed teaching). However, during that gap year, I got pregnant with my eldest son. So when I relocated to California and begun graduate work at UC Berkeley in 1991, the entire trajectory of my graduate school experience was quite different than I or anyone else had anticipated.
You have a great mastery of multi-genre writing and have written critical essays and creative work. Do you have a form you are drawn to most?
That’s very kind of you. I question the term mastery not only for its masculinist associations with slavery, but because I have not yet fulfilled the dreams I have for myself as a writer. I am still, so many years after beginning, an avid student of writing and I am always excited about the process of learning and growing as a writer. Time to write is such a gift. It is the one thing I have not really had and the thing I most need to achieve the mastery of which you so kindly accuse me.
I am drawn to poetry most of all because Louise Bennett taught me to love the form at an early age. Not only is poetry a form I was able to do with some consistency while taking graduate courses, teaching as an adjunct lecturer, raising children and running a business in Oakland with my husband, writing scholarly work for tenure and promotion, going through a troubled marriage and a difficult divorce, and teaching all year round without a break in order to support my family, but poetry sustained me through all of these life events. I go to poetry for inspiration, for advice, for community, for healing and for strength.
In your poetry collection, The Woman Who Knew you meditate on different kinds of homes. Home is a “kind of paradise,” “a husband,” an escape and a place of resolve and reborn selfhood. Would you talk about your use of “home” as a motif in this book and/or how the idea of finding a home functions in your work?
Home is a much-contested idea for me. As a literary critic as well as a poet, I hope that in The Woman Who Knew I problematized the concept of home as well as the myth of paradise. Even in Paradise before “The fall” there is a mandate against the woman, we can call her Eve, eating from the tree of the knowledge (of Good and Evil). Now why is that? Before we even interrogate why she should not know “good” and “evil,” such important concepts, let’s just pause at why she should not “know” period. That the mandate is from the Father, her creator, signals the discursive violence of heteropatriarchy in this powerfully abiding myth of origins. I also meant for my chapbook to participate in the conversation about the potential and actual violence of heteropatriarchy, especially within the intimate sphere of heterosexual marriage.
The poem “A Kind of Paradise” is as much about cultural identity and a sense of belonging as it is about marriage and family. 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 ways of 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.
In terms of physical space, though, home for me is a sanctuary or as close to one as I can create in this crazy world. After all the battles I have fought and won, at this stage in my life, I deserve and demand peace and harmony around me. Like many Libran friends I know, I do not like conflict. In fact, I will wage war to get back to my precious peace. It may sound like a contradiction, and is often a source of misunderstanding about me, but it makes perfect sense to me. Once you know yourself, you should act on that knowledge to protect your heart and keep your life free of the kind of drama that does not serve any positive end. I tend to surround myself with family (blood and adopted; students, former students and colleagues) who are loving, creative, and purpose-driven and avoid the ones who only bring negative energy to every interaction. I love to cook and feed the people that I love, and I must trust them enough to invite them to sit at my kitchen table and enjoy my curry channa, ackee and salt-fish, assorted yams and boiled green bananas, corn-meal dumplings and fried plantains. Home is where the love flows as freely as the home-made sorrel wine at Christmas time. I’ve worked hard for that. I will allow no one to take it away.
In your essay “Myth, Spirituality, and the Power of the Erotic in It Begins with Tears,” you say “the erotic, mythic and spiritual aren’t “related schisms...but pieces of a whole…” In your writing, how do you try to negotiate the erotic, mythical and spiritual? Do you?
My writing is multi-genre, so “my writing” also includes my critical and scholarly work. I negotiate the erotic, the mythical, and the spiritual by foregrounding African and New World and Afro-Christian forms of spirituality in my poetry and in my critical work. For example, New World goddesses, loas, and deities are as ubiquitous in my first poetry collection as in my first scholarly text. Papa Legba, for example, has his own poem inFirst Rain and so does Ogun and Mami Wata.
My critical book, Eroticism, Spirituality and Resistance in Black Women’s Writings is about to go into its second iteration as a paperback book. It was published in 2009 and uses Audre Lorde’s essay “The Uses of the Erotic” as a kind of ur-text to interrogate how sexuality and spirituality function in four books written by Black women: Their Eyes Were Watching God (Hurston), Beloved (Morrison), Farming of Bones (Danticat), and It Begins With Tears (Opal Palmer Adisa). Lorde’s idea of the erotic clearly ties it to spirituality, women’s intuition and to deep and passionate feelings, inclusive of romantic love and sex, but also of “work.” Read closely Lorde’s definition of “work” is not tied exclusively to what we do to earn a living, but to what we do in service to our life’s purpose and meaning, to our contribution to making this world better than we found it and, significantly, to making ourselves whole after the damage done to our subjectivities by white supremacy and heteropatriarchy. Many critics of Lorde’s essay ignore the fact that she foregrounds spirituality as a form of knowledge and a source of female empowerment that is intuitive, tied to creation, creativity and to a source of power greater than ourselves but accessible to us through our own ability to feel deeply and passionately. My first scholarly text eschews Western Christianity and its heteropatriarchal mandates as a model for this radical definition of the erotic and advances the theory that the above mentioned Black women writers use alternative sources of spirituality, mainly based on West-African spiritual traditions and creolized/syncretized versions of African and New World spiritual traditions (such as Yoruba, Vodoun, Santeria, Pocomania, and even Africanized Christianity) to advance the importance of sexuality and spirituality for repairing the damage that slavery and colonialism wrought upon Black subjectivities in the New World.
Caribbean Erotic was coedited by myself and Opal Palmer Adisa and was published in 2010. This anthology includes the work of 62 writers from the Anglophone, Francophone and Hispanophone Caribbean and includes poetry, fiction, critical essays and personal essays. This anthology is a first of its kind in that it foregrounds three distinct language areas based on European colonial occupation in the Caribbean, contains work written in several Creole languages as well as Spanish, English and French, and includes same-sex as well as heterosexual romantic themes. Significantly, most of the work is written by women and fulfills one of the main objectives Opal and I had—to foreground Caribbean women writing about their sexualities in their own words. Calypso, reggae, dancehall reggaetón, Kaiso, Mento, demonstrate that music afforded a limited space for women from the working classes to sing and write about sex, but the printed word and authorship (seen as male, middle class and respectable) did not afford women opportunities to write about sexuality. Hence, Caribbean women’s sexuality was mostly written about by men, and particularly by white European men whose representations were invariably sexist, racist, and stereotypical. We wanted to change that. I think we did.
In addition to doing an intro for the book, I also included my own poetry and a short story which advanced themes that engaged the spiritual and the sexual. We also encouraged that marriage in our call for submission as a way to avoid getting work that was pornographic, focusing only on sex and not engaging the full spectrum of a subject’s humanity. We were gratified by how variously it was interpreted and how ably Lorde’s theory was rendered into poetry, fiction and essays. However, we found it interesting that even well-established writers were reticent to submit work that dealt with sexuality and still saw that the subject as a taboo in Caribbean writing.
I love this. In the same essay, you reference the Audre Lorde essay, “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power?” For you, personally, how you have used the “erotic” as power in your own work?
I find it powerful to cross boundaries in my work and especially to write about a subject that is considered taboo or controversial, even if it makes me unpopular. Some readers may be surprised to find out that even in marriage, many Caribbean women feel compelled to be sexually conservative for fear of being seen as loose women. At our panel on “Caribbean Women Writing About Sex” at the 2016 Miami International Book Fair, panelists from Haiti spoke about the taboo towards women expressing themselves sexually in writing or in life. One panelist expressed the view that even in marriage women cannot appear too sexually knowledgeable for fear that their husbands will begin to view them as sexually promiscuous. The threat of female sexual empowerment is still real in 2017, and in some communities is as true for the English-speaking Caribbean woman as it is for the women of Haiti, Martinique, etc.
“Rain Man,” one of my poems in Caribbean Erotic, was written about my husband, and to some extent the short story “Purple Blindness” in that collection was also inspired my him, although he is a far cry from the character, Garrett Lyons, and the female character is not even loosely based on me. That story was written when I was a student at Berkeley, and when I first met my husband. Although the book was published years later, when the marriage was in trouble, I included those two pieces because whatever inspirited them was as true then as whatever bedeviled the union later. It was quite empowering to write about such a strong sexual attraction and a romance that was born of that and then to see it in print. I like to think it had a similar effect on him or perhaps it gave him some clue as to how I saw us as a couple early on, and how I was using that to create fiction and poetry. Caribbean Erotic was published when we were on the brink of divorce, but I caught him reading the book several times, marked specifically on the pages that had my work—work he had read years before and probably never expected to see in print.
On that note, the spirit of Audre Lorde inhabits your scholarly essays, poetry and the classes you teach at Florida International University. Would you talk a bit about why Lorde has influenced your work?
Lorde was a role model and a mentor since I was an undergraduate student at Hunter College in the 1980s. I worked with other poets (specifically Melinda Goodman, Asha Bandele, Dorothea Smartt) to run the poetry center named after her, The Audre Lorde Women’s Poetry Center. The ALWPC was located in Roosevelt House a few blocks from Hunter College. Lorde was on leave due to her illness and would return occasionally for a book party or other event in her honor. I was introduced to her by Melinda Goodman who took over her poetry class during Lorde’s illness. Asha was President of the ALWPC, and I was her VP. When Asha was elected Student Government President, I became President of the ALWPC. We hired Dorothea Smartt, who was a graduate student from London, as secretary, which was the only paid position. The ALWPC was officially a student club in terms of how it got its main funding, but due to Lorde’s name and fame we had ties to the women’s movement, the LGBT community, the radical feminist community, and to some segments of the progressive Black community.
When there was a Cele-conference in Boston to honor Lorde, I think that was in 1988, many of us from the ALWPC took a road trip to the conference. It was at that conference that I got to observe Lorde’s global influence on an international community of women’s rights, LGBT rights and human rights activists. I remember Ellen Kuzwayo from South Africa was there, but there were other women’s rights activists and activists from many marginalized communities across the USA and internationally represented. That was a water-shed moment for me and cemented my recognition of Lorde’s leadership in a global movement for disenfranchised communities and groups.
Lorde, for me, epitomized and fought for intersectional politics before anyone else without using that catch-phrase. Lorde has not just influenced my work (although her influence there is ubiquitous without being mimetic), she has influenced my ethos of humanism and my feminism as praxis instead of empty theory. Perhaps I owe my distaste for reformist feminism to Lorde more than to anyone else. Lorde’s words and legacy still continue to teach me to value cooperation and sisterhood among women and to eschew the masculinist model of power feminism (which mimics and valorizes the myth of individual accomplishment at whatever human cost) in favor of a more egalitarian model of women’s and, more broadly, people’s empowerment, across race, sexuality, gender, class and cultural lines and built on the values of communalism, cooperation, justice and fairness.
I remember tentatively presenting Audre with a hand-made poetry manuscript I had typed up on a manual typewriter for Melinda Goodman’s poetry class. I wanted to know if she could give me some feedback on my work, but it was my way of asking if there was any hope for me as a poet. The collection was titled Hell a Top, Hell a Bottom, Hallelujah in the Middle after a poem about my grandmother in the set. I laugh now when I think about what a poor effort that was. She could have killed my dreams on the spot, but she didn’t laugh at me and she didn’t ignore the work. She read through the pieces and mailed me back the collection with comments and suggestions for revising. She told me over the phone from St. Croix that even if I had to self-publish, I should put my work out because I had something important to say about being a woman from working-class Caribbean roots. Many of those poems were revised and made it into my first poetry collection.
I was a young heterosexual woman in an organization that placed me in the company of brilliant and established women, the majority of whom identified as queer. To my untutored eyes these were all bad-ass women who seemed to have their lives together, and knew what they were doing in poetry and in life. I was making all the mistakes that young women and young poets are liable to make, especially when it came to men and matters of the heart. However, I didn’t sense any rejection from Lorde although there were times when I felt naive and square in her presence. When I went to visit her in Lennox Hill hospital, I was pregnant with my first child and teaching high school in Manhattan. I was on my way to graduate school at Berkeley in a few months. Some of my friends, and one or two of my mentors, were disappointed in me and said as much. They felt strongly that I should not have made the choice to begin graduate school as a single mother and that I was putting my future in jeopardy. Lorde offered neither judgment nor condemnation. Instead she talked to me about choice, agency, challenges and sacrifice. Earlier, when I was contemplating graduate school she had recommended Berkeley to me and mentioned June Jordan and Barbara Christian as possible mentors. Now, when she discovered I was pregnant she stressed that it was even more important to have Black women as mentors who actually wanted me to finish and would try to push me through. She placed her hand on my stomach and said a prayer and pronounced a blessing over me and my unborn child. She was the one fighting cancer, but I left her presence feeling blessed. I wrote about that in First Rain and I always tell that story to my son, Jedhi, who remains one of my best decisions in this life.
Do you have any other writers that have influenced your work directly or indirectly?
Zora Neale Hurston has been an abiding influence for the ways in which she always turns to the folk for inspiration, for voice, for metaphor, for an alternative world view that recognizes and privileges African roots and cosmologies while highlighting syncretism and cultural hybridity.
Toni Morrison is my Shero among living writers. I never want to be anyone but myself, because that is neither possible nor useful. I want to be the best version of myself and that is challenge enough without trying to live someone else’s life as a writer or as a human being. However, in an alternate universe where I could be anyone I wanted to be, I would be Toni Morrison, bad-ass writer and super-shero. What she does for the African-American community—rendering them full subjects in historical fiction while eviscerating race, class, sexuality and color as tropes via which to interrogate master narratives of power, myth and ideology—is extraordinary.
For me as a reader, Morrison’s writing is not just transformative but transcendental, and her magic is in her genius, which I constantly remind myself is a product of hard work. I have found it both challenging and instructive to read and reread what Morrison has to say about writing as a process of revision. Part of me wanted to believe that she was just born that good, maybe as a way of giving myself an out if I wasn’t. I have had to learn how not be so precious about the first draft of any manuscript, poem or essay. I am learning how to be patient with revisions. I’d like to give myself the gift of time to work as hard as Morrison does at developing craft, and then see where that leads. When I feel like I have given this gift the very best of myself, I’ll be satisfied whatever the outcome. As much as it may seem laughably presumptuous (and even self-defeating) to set Morrison as my goal-post, I do it with all humility, recognizing that even if I get to be a quarter as good as she is, I can live with that.
Do you have any new projects you’re working on?
Yes, I am working on the theme of mental illness in my own family and in the Black community at large, both in Jamaica and in the USA. I am specifically looking at the intersections of mental illness with class, race, gender, color, culture, immigration, and nationality. My brother was recently murdered in Jamaica. He was mentally ill. He was also dark skinned, poor, a deportee from America and without known family connections. My brother lived in America from the age of 4 until the age of 36 when he was deported against our objections. He was in Jamaica barely two years when he was murdered. I can’t say how the writing will take form and shape, but I know this is a subject I must write about or die.
Dr. Donna Aza Weir-Soley was born in St. Catherine, Jamaica and migrated to the United States at the age of 17. She attended high school in both Jamaica and New York, but received her diploma from Andrew Jackson High School in Queens, New York. She graduated summa cum laude from the City University of New York, Hunter College. Weir-Soley was a Mellon Minority Undergraduate Fellow at the Oxford Center for African Studies at Jesus College, Oxford University in the summer of 1989. She received the Andrew Mellon Graduate Fellowship in the Humanities in 1990 to attend the University of California, Berkeley. Dr. Weir-Soley graduated from Berkeley with an MA in English with a special emphasis in Creative Writing in 1993, and a Ph.D. in English Literary Studies in 2000. She is currently an Associate Professor of English, African & African Diaspora Studies and Women's Studies at Florida International University. Professor Weir-Soley won a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship in 2004-2005 to complete her scholarly work, Eroticism Spirituality and Resistance in Black Women’s Writings. It was published by the University Press of Florida in 2009. However, her first love is poetry and her poetry collection, First Rain was published in 2006 by Peepal Tree Press in the United Kingdom. She later undertook the monumental task (with fellow writer Opal Palmer Adisa) of putting together an anthology of Caribbean writings that includes poetry, fiction and essays from 62 writers from the Anglophone, Hispanophone and Francophone Caribbean islands, and from various Caribbean diasporas including Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States of America. Her latest publication, The Woman Who Knew, is a book of poetry, published by Finishing Line Press (2016).