This is last minute promotion on my part, but I’m reading with the mighty talents Nichole Perkins and Stacia L. Brown tonight at 8 EST via Google Hangout, so tune in if you can. I’ll be reading from Sirens, a short story soon to appear in the anthology All About Skin. Learn more about the Bellow series here.
I was angry with my parents for abandoning me, but I’ve always considered anger a luxury. It begins with how I look. I am chestnut colored with dreadlocks. I am almost six feet tall. I do not smile often or easily, which we know is considered a social problem of the highest order. I look like an Angry Black Woman.
You can read the rest at the link below. I’m looking forward to reading the work of my fellow authors for the Anger series.
Nicole D. Collier, one of my favorite members of my virtual writing tribe, asked me to participate in the blog tour. Since I love to read and write about writing (in lieu, sometimes, of actually writing) and I’ve noted that some other writers I admire and respect, including Tananarive Due, Tayari Jones and Daniel Jose Older have all participated, I thought I’d add my humble thoughts and impressions to the mix.
1) What are you working on?
I am working on a book about how racism and sexism have contributed to the demise of traditional journalism and how people of color (and organizations, websites and companies that recognize their value) are changing the media landscape in important but often unacknowledged ways. I have also written a memoir in progress (excerpts have appeared in Huizache, Gawker and TED, among other publications) and every now and then, the poetry that I love comes back. I have worked for years on a short story that turned into a novella about the daughter of a train conductor and the graffiti artist she loves in the Bronx that I know will be published in some form someday.
2) How does your work differ from others’ work in the same genre?
This is an interesting question and frankly, not one that I think too much about. I am willing to admit that not thinking much about it might work to my detriment. Because there are so few people of color who are published and promoted well for work that is for people of color, in that we are the main audience and about people of color that also includes class diversity and is concentrated on the African-American experience, my creative writing and poetry are different from others’ in the sense that I am tacitly aware of internal and external geographies, their impact on how and when and where we tell our stories and how those stories are positioned or excluded from mainstream and popular cultural narratives about people of color — specifically black women. I hope that my reverence, appreciation and empathy for the intersections of my experience are reflected in the work.
The same is true for nonfiction. The main difference in my nonfiction writing is that I am fully aware of the power of the truth, or a truth, to change a life because it is how I was shaped as a young reader who dreamed of being a writer. I love that saying that the creative adult is the child who survived — that is the internal location or spiritual location I write from.
It helps that I have a wealth of traditional newspaper reporting experience, which gives me the power of knowing how to completely own a deadline and the discipline of structure while also giving me the confidence that comes with having failed and made mistakes and learned that failure, or whatever is subjectively considered failure is not the end of the world. There is always something more to write. I think my nonfiction is different from others’ who write memoir, essays and other nonfiction in that I seek to offer information for others to investigate or parse through instead of as a definitive statement or argument.I try to be authoritative without being obstinate and lyrical without trying too hard. I also try not to be too hard on myself when I fail at either of those.
3) Why do you write what you do?
One of the things that brought me a lot of comfort and joy as a young woman and a budding writer was reading elegant, beautiful and clear work about people of color who are traditionally not given models of ourselves in literature that have these elements. I write about women, women of color, the poor and working class and other people of color so that I can be a part of creating the beauty in the world that is otherwise missing when it comes to these groups. Perhaps because of postracial and postfeminist rhetoric, to some people it seems to be redundant and outdated to state and restate how important it is to be committed to writing about black women, especially those who are the least visible in classical or predominantly white canons, but I know how significant it was for me to read Alice Walker’s In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens, for instance, while I was self-parenting and supporting my mother in ways that were beyond my young years or to read bell hooks and Cornel West in seventh grade before I understood what they were even talking about in Breaking Bread. The same can be said of the multi-volume memoirs of Maya Angelou who showed me that while it took courage, confidence and grace to be a Renaissance woman (she was a tall black woman, too, like me — and Octavia Butler!) it was possible to overcome a lot of internal and external resistance to do so.
4) How does your writing process work?
I have multiple processes and I think all creatives do. I write all the time. I write on my phone. I write little notes in a notebook that I usually carry around with me. I prefer to write longhand, which is slower than typing, and to transcribe. I love to write longhand when something is particularly meaningful to me or requires the kind of granular detail that I need to retain. (The most recent example of one piece I did this with is this blog about leaving Austin.)
I don’t necessarily write everyday anymore but I used to, faithfully, for many years. I think you build writing time into your life in a way that is completely natural for you. Do it in a way that doesn’t make it feel like so much work. I actually love work and am addicted to work, so for me, working doesn’t carry a negative connotation in the same way that say, relaxation does (No pun intended, I am working on that. I realize that I ain’t like everybody that way.) But the main problem new and/or young writers seem to face related to process is that they associate writing with work. I say do whatever you need to do to get rid of that mentality and get out of your own way in whatever way you need to to go from being a person who has always wanted to write to being a writer…because writers write. I value my work and the luxury and privilege I have to do it so much that I approach the page as a way to share the gifts that were bestowed upon me and to honor the many different people I’ve known who wished that they had the luxury of sitting down at a page to write.
Writers write but they should also read. I read everything, which is a significant part of my writing process. I believe heartily in taking notes. For nonfiction, I take copious notes. Everywhere — in the book, in a separate notebook, on Post-Its.
I write at all hours, but my best writing gets done when I have the least distractions which is either early in the morning or in the middle of the night. I try mightily to get every last bit of doubt or concern about anything else out of my head while I’m writing a draft and then go back to it when I have some sense and some energy and I can revise. Revision is the heart of my work and the most enjoyable and the most irritating part of being a writer. I revise most things I write a half-dozen times — even blogs — before I am satisfied with word choice and structure and order. Outlines can be really helpful for big projects, but I am not wedded to them.
On June 9th, two of my favorite writers and favorite women are going to post on their blogs about their writing process. Both of these ladies are two of the sweetest people I’ve ever met and their support has helped to keep me writing during some of my lowest points. I hope you’ll read and share their work widely.
Jo Scott-Coe is a fantastic nonfiction author, fellow tall woman and excellent teacher.
Juanita Mantz and I met at VONA in 2012 and her work has been published at xoJane and elsewhere.
Do not wait for validation
the language at war with currency.
Feast instead on self possession
The stories of the ones before us,
The dreams of our descendants.
Narratives that remind our hearts how to soar.
No one is coming to proclaim your talent rough or refined.
You are your only true nemesis,
a house divided against its productivity.
Do not wait to write.
Not for love, nor money;
Not for attention nor glory.
Do it to heal &
because you are compulsive &
because the story claws at your attention &
because those words weigh down the gut,
& wring them from your core
until you can’t do anything but devour experience
or starve for want of stories
to give your language life.
Live deeply in moments that give to you
the broadest horizons
& make for yourself worlds that
delicately remind us
how powerful it is to reach beyond the limits we
dream for ourselves while we are yet
Forget this advice
& anyone else’s.
You are the best author of your destiny,
is noise you’ve read
to keep from writing.
Genuflect only at the altar of creation.
Not a single thing
will ever match the importance of
A couple of years ago, while I was in the Bay Area for VONA (which I highly recommend, as does Junot Diaz) I was deep in a draft of my memoir with the help of kind, excellent teachers. It was probably too soon after my mother’s death at the beginning of 2012. It was only May. Mary Johnson, author of the exquisite An Unquenchable Thirst, mentioned that it was brave to try to write about us so soon and I like trying to be brave. But there was something about the time that opened me up – there is something about grief that is special. It is always hard. It lingers. But it offers contemplation and shoring up if you let it. (I wrote about the deaths of my parents, especially my mom, for Gawker in 2013) I was spring cleaning and found this letter.
In death, it turns out, there is so much meditation on life. When you know the contours of the end, what it smells like, the hollowness of the trivial, the meaning of a real friend, cleaning feces from fingernails and staring down the terror of the unknown, nothing else feels real or deep or confirmed.
I had to stop pretending I cared about facts when you made your quick transition. I used to think information and data were armor. Armed with facts, journalists and writers can get to feeling invincible and God-like. Omniscient. But all knowledge can feel futile in the face of a wounded soul. A broken spirit.
I have no gifts but being a witness to what life feels like, and that is subjective. It is reading the breeze. It is believing the voices in my head are you, ancestors and God. Maybe it means in my grief, I have become mad. My dreams are canvasses of picturesque beauty and upheaval.
When you were on the planet, living flesh, the story that propelled me was that we have parallel lives. That you had closed the door to a specific kind of joy but to be less like you — less mad, less unstable, less Maggie — I would open that door, stand at the threshold, investigate what it was you were rejecting. The intensity of joy and gratitude and not knowing and being still is an unwelcome bittersweet state. It is like living on another planet, or in another world, where time is not mapped in minutes but in how successful one is at navigating life events.
You taught me how to ignore the world and its milestones. How to follow my destiny. How to treat myself regally, no matter the attire or its cost or its worth. I thought you mad for so long for this disregard, considered you inept at life.
In your absence, I know better. Facts are not truth unless they can be felt. What we feel and what we create with what we feel lasts a lifetime. Everything else shifts, no matter our assessment of the shifts. We can be in our moments, owning them, or we can let life’s moments own us. I miss your lucid moments, maybe once a year, when I could drag your essence out of you for a little advice. I hear you, I feel you — it’s different, worse and better.
I feel you watching.
I will try to grow better and more vulnerable and so much stronger.
Your baby girl
Roxane Gay is one of the most prolific writers of our time. Even an abbreviated list of her publication credits is enough to make most writers sleepy: She edits for The Rumpus and PANK. She has edited a series of essays on Salon about feminists of color and written recently for The Nation about writers of color. She teaches writing at Eastern Illinois University. She has published her essays everywhere from The New York Times Book Review to Necessary Fiction. Ayiti, a collection of her fiction, poetry and nonfiction, was published in 2011. This year, two of her new books will be published: An Untamed State in May and Bad Feminist later this year.
On top of all of this, she also keeps a lively and active Twitter timeline along with a very entertaining blog. One of the most frequent questions she gets from mere humans is: How is all of this output possible? “I wish I had an explanation for it. I live in the middle of nowhere and I’m an insomniac, I guess,” Gay says. Also: “I just make the time and I read and write really fast, so that makes a lot possible for me. I’m grateful for it.”
An Untamed State, her harrowing and beautiful debut novel, received a starred review for good reason. It centers on Mireille Duval Jameson, who is undone by graphic, unspeakable torture at the hands of a greedy man who is only referred to as The Commander. Her father has the power to pay her ransom, but he waits instead, sending Mireille’s husband, Michael, into a seething despair that is matched in intensity only by The Commander’s cruelty.
For better or worse we live in an era that favors trigger warnings. Gay has written about them as unhelpful barriers to healing in an essay included in Bad Feminist, “The Illusion of Safety/The Safety of Illusion.” She writes: “There are things that rip my skin open and reveal what lies beneath, but I don’t believe in trigger warnings. I don’t believe people can be protected from their histories. I don’t believe it is at all possible to anticipate the histories of others.” This explains why there isn’t one at the outset of An Untamed State, though early reviews have suggested that that might be helpful for survivors of sexual assault like Gay.
You can read the rest here.
While fiction writers often investigate and proclaim truths in imaginary realms, African-American women writers are noticeably rare when it comes to nonfiction confessional writing in the vein of Joan Didion or Nora Ephron. In Cleage’s peer group, the only other black woman writer with plans to publish her journals is Alice Walker, whose selection of diary entries and new essays, Gathering Blossoms Under Fire, is scheduled for publication in 2017.
Cleage says virulent attacks like the ones Walker and Ntozake Shange endured primarily from black men in the 1970s and ’80s for producing The Color Purple and For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When The Rainbow Was Enuf served to silence other black women writers. “We can’t air dirty laundry or talk bad about black men because that’s dangerous,” Cleage says. “It seems more important for me to ask, ‘Why is it we can’t talk about this?’ If it makes people angry, they have to deal with that.”
From our interview about her new book, Things I Should Have Told My Daughter. Read more here: https://www.kirkusreviews.com/features/pearl-cleage/
Back when paper, radio or network broadcast were the narrow prisms through which we viewed the world or understood it, there was such a thing as unity. I am not a fan of the good old days, really, because I think I was born too late to understand what was so great about them and I also don’t like to dwell on the past. One of my favorite sayings is that forgiveness is giving up all hope for a better past.
There are so many dark things in our collective and individual histories, I can’t imagine what there is to dig around back there for. Yes, those of us who don’t know our history are doomed to repeat it, but we often do so anyway – individually and collectively.
I am a newly converted Game of Thrones fan. I have no spoilers here to offer, except that as a fantasy narrative set far in the past, watching the show regularly makes me turn around in my brain what it means to be loyal, who best understands allegiance and what either position does for you. I am also curious about the nostalgia of those of a certain age stems from having had common ground until the Internet and technological advances disrupted it.
We all watch what we want to watch when we want to watch it. We scan headlines. We peruse. We settle for snippets. We deny the importance of depth. For our brains. For our health. I don’t know if this is awful or interesting or both.
When I attended public schools from the Bronx to Queens, we opened our assemblies speaking our loyalty to our country with the reverence usually confined to prayer.My first pledge of allegiance was to this country that viewed my ancestors as property to be bought and sold. The unspoken pledges I would make felt as complicated as that, though they were nowhere close. My mother was my second nation under God. In spite of her and maybe because of her, I sought liberty and justice all my days, from poverty, from her. This is how I came to understand belonging, loyalty and pledges.
I am a person who belongs first to myself. I consider this my first practice, the one that lays the foundation for the others, the running, meditation and prayer. Self-possession is often confused for other things in black women: conceit, selfishness and narcissism, for starters. People have suggested, inferred and insinuated, if not flat out said, that they do not consider us particularly suited to womanhood if we do not pledge our allegiance to others unfailingly and without complaint. Should we refuse the tenuous status of martyr, there is always hell to pay.
I thought of this while watching Anita: Speaking Truth to Power in a relatively empty theater that was of course, filled mostly with women. Anita Hill is someone who doesn’t need an introduction but unfortunately, despite her credentials – all the more astounding for the youngest of 13 children from Oklahoma — her name will forever be linked to Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. Anita Hill told the truth about what Clarence Thomas did to her and there was only one black man, Charles Ogletree, who stood with her in the trenches as a panel of powerful white men assaulted her and tried to verbally humiliate and re-traumatize her. The only people to whom she belonged were the white feminists who knew her struggle, the black women in her family and extended family who were there to say, “We believe Anita” and the white men who also revered integrity over privilege and politics.
Of course, she did not abandon herself. She had pledged allegiance to herself, on a platform and stage that would make it hard for the strongest among us to understand.
I was so moved and outraged by reliving Anita Hill’s experience as an adult woman (I was in junior high school during the 1991 hearings) because her testimony and the media it attracted was the first time I realized that black women’s lives could be changed forever by telling the truth. There have been so many examples, before the good old days and thereafter, that include everyone from Sojourner Truth to Ida B. Wells to Fannie Lou Hamer and Barbara Jordan and Oprah Winfrey and Zora Neale Hurston and Ntozake Shange and Alice Walker and bell hooks. Many of those women I did not become aware of until I was older, though. Anita Hill’s testimony was the seed.
I did not know before that moment in popular culture that by belonging to ourselves and befriending ourselves and by honoring that publicly, we could become the objects of international scrutiny that would forever transform our lives. To whom did our stories and our trajectories belong, if not to us? Who would pledge their allegiance to us, as we had pledged it to so many others before our own selves?
In retrospect, I learned simply that to tell the truth about your life regardless of what forces arose around you was a radical act of survival. Testimony before the world or from the lonely edge of an old bed was all equally powerful. For black women, this is particularly important because there is always a question about to whom we belong. We are constantly assaulted with the message, probably like most women, that belonging to ourselves means nothing. We are supposed to be incomplete without another’s loyalty to us, another’s public proclamation of our worthiness.
But there has been a slow decay of allegiance in all areas of our culture. We all read what we want to read when we feel like it and even then, that’s not very much. Most people cannot name their favorite journalist or remember the last book they read. We skim the surface of all aspects of our lives, belonging not to ourselves and not to any brand but to that ambiguous place in between, whatever job title or product we can place or anything other than our belonging to our humanity. If I am ever nostalgic, it is for simpler times, when it was common to daily or weekly place my palm over my heart, look up and fix my eyes on a kind of glory. Even if I did not know what I meant by my promise, the act of speaking allegiance gave me a start.
The Internet is now an essential part of academic life, but anyone who has ever spent hours arguing with anonymous commenters or days managing positive or negative responses to his or her work knows cultivating a presence in cyberspace isn’t without serious drawbacks. Just like in real life, there’s always more than enough online drama to go around.
For women, though, things can quickly shift into dangerous territory offline. “The Next Civil Rights Issue: Why Women Aren’t Welcome on the Internet,” journalist Amanda Hess describes rape threats directed at her for simply being a woman with an Internet connection. She notes that 72.5 percent of people who reported being stalked or harassed online between 2000 and 2012 in one study were women. For women of color, the online complexities are even worse.
Two of the most extreme cases involved high profile women of color providing commentary on controversial topics. In February, Rutgers University professor Brittney Cooper received death threats and an onslaught of racist, sexist vitriol in response to a piece she wrote at Salon about a Florida jury’s failure to convict Michael Dunn, a white man who was charged with shooting Jordan Davis, a black teenager. Last summer, Salamishah Tillet was attacked even more viciously after she appeared as a guest on the Melissa Harris-Perry show and talked about the intersection of racism and the anti-abortion movement.
Tillet, an English professor at the University of Pennsylvania and co-founder of the nonprofit A Long Walk Home, was mentioned in a segment on Fox News’ “The O’Reilly Factor” — and then the first wave of attacks started. “I was flooded by letters, emails and phone calls all the way up to the Provost of my University,” Tillet says. “My faculty colleagues and president were all contacted, and then we heard from alumni and television viewers. (Bill O’Reilly’s) viewership, at least the people who contact you, is a machine. It’s really a lot.”
The strangest manifestation of the attacks on Tillet, though, might have been the 80 magazine subscriptions that she had to individually write and cancel, she said. “Because my credit was involved, that was more effective than the harassment. But online, people were calling me a wench, and I had to contact the police and on campus security. At least when people go after you on Twitter, you experience that as a norm,” Tillet says. “But I was unprepared for both. It was really frightening.”
Sometimes the scale at which women of color are attacked is not as visible. In October, biologist and postdoctoral research associate at Oklahoma State University Danielle N. Lee declined an editor’s request to blog at his site for free and was subsequently called an “urban whore.” Lee contributes to Scientific American where her Urban Scientist blog amplifies diverse aspects of the sciences and offers the rare perspective of a black woman conducting research while also drawing on hip hop culture. In the wake of her interaction with the editor, identified only as Ofek, Scientific American deleted her blog post about the interaction, then restored it to the site with a lengthy explanation of why it was removed. Lee also made a YouTube video in response to the incident and posted a response blog on her personal site.
“The whole thing got conflated,” Lee says. As for what academics might learn from her experience, she says, “Sometimes I feel like I’m still figuring that out. What I’ve learned so far is that the crap doesn’t end because you reach some level of success. The crap continues.”
University of Denver law professor Nancy Leong has also noticed that the more visible her work has become, the more of a target she has become for all kinds of online drama. When Leong writes about online harassment leveled at women, as she did in a four-part series of blogs at Feminist Law Professors, she points out that “Internet harassers focus on identity rather than on ideas as a specific strategy for excluding women and people of color from online discourse.” (Leong has also created a Cyberharrassment Bibliography as a resource for others and further discussion.)
Leong teaches constitutional rights, criminal procedure and judicial behavior, among other things. But the fact that she’s photogenic combined with her Native Hawaiian heritage has set off self-identified men on the Internet. This was amplified after she wrote an article published in the Harvard Law Review entitled “Racial Capitalism” but it got even worse when she started to blog about the other things that were happening, including someone creating a fake Twitter account using her name, her cell phone number and address being posted publicly and the address of her parents being posted online.
Instead of garnering her colleagues’ support, Leong said that she experienced a lot of victim blaming, particularly from white men. Her experience was so far beyond anything they experienced, she said, that they weren’t able to empathize. “A lot of my colleagues said stuff to me like, ‘You made this worse by speaking out about it,’” Leong said. “In other words, ‘If you had just gone about your business, then a lot of things that happened on the Internet wouldn’t have happened.’ As academics who work in the world of ideas and presumably care about what we research beyond what academics think about it, I thought it was important to raise awareness about the harassment.”
What else should academics facing online drama do?
Decide how you will manage the situation.
Tillet, who is a sexual assault survivor, said it’s important to understand that for women, the barrage of attacks can be a trigger for re-experiencing other violence – particularly for women of color. “The victim blaming that happens…you start going through that cycle again. On a personal level, it was important for me to shut down communication for two days. I was communicating with people who were helping, but I didn’t take any phone calls.”
Online attacks, excessive trolling or worse can take up huge chunks of time and energy that should be devoted to your work. Christopher Gandin Le, chief executive officer of Emotion Technology, which works with policymakers and web companies to promote mental health online, says it’s important to know how you’re going to handle yourself during and after online drama. “I haven’t found anyone who has created something for after something blows up on the Internet. It just goes away. There’s no learning experience for anyone.” In the absence of online mediators, targets of online harassment or attacks can seek short-term therapy on or off- campus in order to process the event. “Even when you create something really amazing people love, what do you do next, managing expectations and understanding that this stuff happens — basically, living your life is really all we can do.”
Delegate monitoring your professional presence online.
Though every individual case will differ, Leong says it is helpful to have a friend, ally or colleague who is not going through the same thing to help remove some of the emotional and practical burdens that come with being targeted online. That person can set up a Google Alert for your name to give you a heads up when something derogatory or defamatory shows up under your name. “You don’t have to be the person who sees that and putting forth the emotional energy to deal with that every single day,” she adds. Tillet said that she was helped greatly by supportive colleagues and friends. It helped that she gave over email access to the head of campus security to sort through to determine if any physical threats had been sent to her. She also kept a file of emails that were harassing and threatening.
Take screen shots of everything.
Both Lee and Leong documented their experiences extensively because misconduct online and other potentially controversial exchanges can easily be unpublished or deleted. Lee was wise to have screen shots of her exchange with the Biology Online editor; Leong has documented some of the online harassment on her blog. “Sometimes convincing a law enforcement officer requires handing them a stack of papers and saying, ‘It’s in here.’ I file everything in a folder in my computer, buried so that I don’t see it every time I log on to do research,” Leong says.
Remember that sometimes silence is better than a response.
Lee says that the weekend the incident with the Biology Online editor became public she went into radio silence. A number of people emailed her to tell her that by doing so, she taught them how to deal with a situation well, but she says she didn’t do it intentionally. “I was at home unable to eat. I was a mess privately. I don’t know what else I could have done. I was in no position to make a public statement,” Lee says. Instead, because she didn’t publicly react to the fall out from her exchange, she found that she was able to keep herself from saying something rash. “At the end of the day, you still have to live with yourself and live with the aftermath of what happens next. I didn’t want anything out there that I couldn’t manage later. It’s easier to put something out that you can’t come back from.” Tillet also says of the two days when she didn’t engage with the public that “It was important for me to shut out the noise and come up with a strategy for a plan of attack.”
If you’re not experiencing the harassment but know someone who is, try being supportive.
Leong says: “When people say to a woman who has been harassed and decides to speak up about it that she’s making things worse, it’s not a supportive thing to say. A better thing to say is, “It’s unfortunate that the harassment intensified, but it’s an important social issue and it was brave of you to do that.” Tillet said that her colleague Anthea Butler supported her by offering more strategies to decrease her visibility — or “create a more complicated path to me” — like changing her email address. Because online drama can be relentless, Tillet says go into your advocacy or writing on controversial topics “knowing who you’re standing with and with an infrastructure put in place to protect you and keep you safe.”
“Black women are often praised and maligned for being strong beacons of faith compared to black men, who lag behind us in educational attainment and professional achievement. Black women are always asked, all but required, to support black masculinity in ways that are rarely publicly reciprocated. This largely one-sided relationship has its origins in the church, despite the fact that black women are the lifeblood of black churches.”
You can read the rest here: http://www.faithstreet.com/onfaith/2014/03/24/the-church-needs-black-women-do-black-women-need-the-church/31407