White Women’s Work

So, we had those midterms. The results are both good and troubling. There are a lot more women, POC, and LGBTQIA electeds today. People all across the country stepped up and made some excellent choices. They voted a raft of women into office, including Muslim women, Native American women, trans women, and young women. All of those votes for all of those women are heartening. Truly.

You know that isn’t all I’ll say, though, right? I am thrilled by many of the results, but I can’t miss the rest, or pretend that what happened on Election Day is enough. I can’t ignore the significance of the many Republican efforts at suppressing the Black vote and the poor vote — or the clear success of those efforts. I can’t ignore how comfortably many candidates and their supporters slid into straight-up, full-frontal racism in their push to the polls. No need to have a talk about dog whistles and coded language. People just said everything they were thinking about the uppity Black and brown folks who had the audacity to challenge a white person for office.

“Don’t monkey this up.”
“So cotton-pickin’ important.”
“Someone in the mansion who can take care of it.”
“His family participated in 9/11.”
“She’s encouraging people to break the law.”
“I’m a white racialist.”
“Send her back to the reservation.”

None of this is surprising. It’s not surprising because we as a country have always used prejudice and racism to keep people of color out of office. We as a country have always been racist, always been xenophobic, always been ready to fight for White Supremacy and the holding of power in white, male hands. And it’s certainly not surprising given the current administration and the fact that the country is led by a man who speaks in slurs, who built his political brand on racism.

There was one thing from Election Day that did surprise me … well, surprised me a little. Some woman tweeted out a plea, called on Black women to step up and save the country at the polls that day. (Don’t worry, she was quickly and roundly dragged.)

The idea that a white person would call on Black women — Black people, period — to save this country is amazing to me. First, it’s a numerically stupid plea. African Americans make up about 13% of the US population. Even if all of those people were adults of voting age and every single one of them went out to vote and didn’t have their vote thrown out, Black votes really can’t be an overall strategy for electoral success.

The bigger issue here, however, is the fact that how Black folks are going to vote is, for the most part, not a question. We — especially Black women — do an excellent job of voting in our best interests. We step up and vote to protect our children, our parents, our ability to find and keep decent jobs, our ability to exercise sovereignty and autonomy over our own bodies. We do this again and again and again. We do it because our lives depend on it and we know that. We do it because we don’t have a vested interest in supporting white male patriarchy. That has never been a place of safety for us, and we know that all too well.

The numbers from the 2016 election made the truth of Black women’s votes starkly clear for people. Nearly 100 percent of Black women voted for the Democratic candidate. Nearly 100 percent. Those numbers — and the numbers in Roy Moore’s race — make Black women look like a solid voting block for the left. These numbers are what prompted that white woman to call on Black women to save the day.

But what’s also clear from those powerful numbers is that Black women can’t, alone, win elections. Nearly every Black woman who voted in 2016 voted the same way, and yet the election went the other way. If Black women alone controlled election results, we’d be living in a very different world. We’d have a white house, a congress, and state and local officials who actually represented our interests as opposed to electeds put in place specifically to work against our best interests.

No one should be calling on Black women when the polls open. Ever. No. The people who need to be called in — obviously — are white women. Punto.

White women consistently vote in the majority for while male power, for White Supremacy, for a world in which their rights are erased and their voices silenced. They so strongly align with men and believe their proximity to white male power will translate into their own power, that they come out again and again and again for the upholding of White Supremacy. (Well, that and the fact that many of them are straight-up racists.)

That woman’s tweet on Election Day surprised me because of its willful blindness. This woman was looking over at Black women and hoping some Mammy-savior would come to the rescue, ignoring the reality that she needed to look in the mirror and then at her ya-ya sisterhood of white women.

Because of course this comes back to the truth that white people need to get their people. The work that needs to be done needs to be done by white people with white people. White people have to get down in the dirt and make that happen. Black women aren’t the answers to the questions white people have been refusing to ask for far too long. Black women are out here trying to stay alive, trying to get our kids home safe and our sisters and brothers and husbands and mothers. We can’t also be cleaning up white people’s messes.

The hard task of reaching out to the white women who stand behind Trump lies at the feet of white women. Not another soul can get that shit done.

Get. the. fuck. to. work.


In 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I didn’t complete 52 essays by year’s end, but I did write like crazy, more in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined! I’ve decided to keep working on personal essays, keep at this #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join in, it’s never too late! You can find our group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.

Down at the Crossroads

I find myself at a curious moment. Curious in that I didn’t see it coming and would never have imagined myself here. Curious, too, because I don’t know how much is real and how much is La Impostora seeing an opportunity and seizing it.

Last week I attended an adult education conference. Three days immersed in my field. I’ve attended that conference several times. I’ve presented there a few times. I like it there. I feel at home there. I learn a lot there. I feel invigorated when I come home, re-energized for my work and ready to get moving.

But not this time.

I struggled every day of the conference. Struggled mightily. People presented interesting and important things. People shared good data. People brought up issues that are important to me. People shared excellent anecdotes about the work and the kinds of outcomes they’re seeing from their participants. People in the workshops shared their passion and determination. People came with their questions and ideas.

And it left me … cold. Uninspired.

How was that possible? How could I feel so disconnected from everything that was happening those three days? From the very things that have been the focus of my career?

There are some things going on with me right now that may have helped to  create that difficult experience. I’ve been trying to think about what can/should come next for me professionally. There’s a lot of potentially exciting stuff happening at my job right now, opportunities for my work to get different and interesting. I’m feeling energized by those things, but I’m also wondering how much longer I can be working in this particular world. I’ve been here four years, and I’ve learned a lot. I’ve also run headlong into many walls, and I’ve been halted in my tracks by systems I find I can’t work around. No one’s pushing me out the door, but I’m started to feel more acutely how much this isn’t the area I should be working in. Right field, wrong seat at the table, possibly the wrong table.

And then there’s La Impostora. Every time I start to think of what could be a better direction for me, she swoops right in to remind me that there are no good jobs for me because I’m not actually qualified to do anything, that it’s only dumb luck that has enabled me to last in my current job as long as I have.

Gotta love her.

Part of me hears that and knows it’s not true. Only a small part of me. The rest of me looks at job postings and can see nothing that would actually make sense for me. And when I see jobs that sound wonderful, their details — what degrees and experience candidates should have — confirm that my application wouldn’t move far in the selection process.

So yes, Impostor Syndrome is my constant companion, but she’s not the only problem staring me in the face.

And then I found myself feeling restless and frustrated at the conference. Going there seemed to shine a brighter light on my malaise.

I’m slated to attend a larger adult ed conference in a couple of months. Am I going to have this same disconnect, this same feeling of being removed from what’s happening around me? I certainly hope not. I have work to do, some stock-taking of my professional self. I don’t know if I’m talking about planning or a full-scale career change (at my age?!), but something’s got to give. I’m sick of this “off” feeling, and whatever needs to happen to get rid of it will surely be worth it.


In 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I didn’t complete 52 essays by year’s end, but I did write like crazy, more in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined! I’ve decided to keep working on personal essays, keep at this #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join in, it’s never too late! You can find our group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.

Call me by … my job’s name?

I had a meeting today with a friend who works for a partner agency. We needed to review some work we’d done on some grant applications. At one point we were talking about being mistaken for other people — something that had just happened to us both — and she commented on the fact that there are so many folks with my name working in our relatively small circle.

It’s surprisingly true. I have gone through most of my life knowing hardly any other people with my name. Years ago, the Fed Ex man who delivered to my office was named Stacy, and he thought our having the same name was hilarious. But he was really it, no one else sharing my name.

And then I came here, and I was suddenly surrounded. There was one fabulous moment when I was walking into a building with a Stacy and a friend who is a Stacie, and someone behind us called our name — she had spotted Stacy and wanted to say hi. She called our name, and we all turned in a perfectly choreographed move and said, in unison, “Yes?” So there were those two women, but there were also three others in other agencies that I work with and one in a program for helping high-skilled immigrants find work in their fields, and one who worked for one of the Deputy Mayors. So many!

So my friend commented on the abundance of Stacie-ness and said that her big concern was that she would spell one of our names wrong in an email, especially mine, as the others are all “y” or “ey” people (my dear “ie” friend has moved to Texas).

She found a helpful mnemonic for spelling my name correctly, however, and I couldn’t love it more. The initiative I have spent the most time working on since taking this job is integrated education and training, a little something we call “bridge” around here. It’s all about offering adult basic education or English language instruction combined with occupational skills training, helping people move more quickly toward their employment goals. My first 18 months on the job, I presented about bridge all over the place. I was the one-woman bridge roadshow. I even made a slide for a presentation that featured a cartoon me asking a lot of the questions I heard from people who weren’t sure what bridge was:

bridge image

I very much want to be all about integrated education and training, want to eat, drink, and sleep it. That would make me happy, would be a real mark of a job well done for me.

What does any of this have to do with my name? When she needs to write me and wants to be sure she’s got the correct spelling, my friend says to herself: “Stacie — IE for Integrated Education.” It’s so perfect, so ridiculously fabulous, I can’t believe it never occurred to me! I’m done. Done. I love it like crazy.


It’s the annual Slice of Life Story Challenge over at Two Writing Teachers! With hundreds of folks participating, there’s more than a little something for everyone … and plenty of room for you to join in!

Excavation and Eradication

Still thinking about Impostor Syndrome. There was another, bigger deadline that passed the other day. One I had let myself forget about because I had long ago talked myself out of working toward it. And then suddenly friend after friend on my FB feed was talking about it, about getting the work done so they could submit ahead of the deadline. And I remembered how excited I’d been to think of submitting my work … until I took myself out of the running.

And I can’t remember what logic I used to convince myself to set that work aside. I remember being so thoroughly convinced of the need to set it aside, however. My reasoning was rock solid, clearly on point … and yet clearly also forgettable today. My forgetting it doesn’t matter, of course, because I know exactly what it amounted to: me telling myself I wasn’t good enough, I wasn’t ready, I wasn’t the person they’d be looking for.

Feh.

I’m still picking back through my past trying to find the starting place. Yes, I can look outside myself. Dominant culture has always been happy to tell me all the ways I’m not good enough, the ways I don’t fit in, the ways I need to completely contort and distort myself to conform. And yes, I’ve definitely taken some of that in, taken it to heart. But I’ve also been able to fight back against it, been able to recognize it and change the narrative.

There’s something else going on, though. This Impostor thing is something different. It’s coming from me, from inside me. Yes, compounded by such handy, helpful external pressures as prejudice and misogyny, but starting with a diseased, parasitic little seed I planted myself.

So I’ll keep chipping away, picking back through memories until I find that seed and carefully dig it out, roots and all.



It’s the 10th annual Slice of Life Story Challenge!

Head over to Two Writing Teachers to see all of today’s slices!

Clearing my throat.

And so I’ve suddenly found my way back to this space. My posts haven’t been particularly interesting or special, but it’s felt good to be here. I’ve been wondering what’s pushing me to post — because it has felt as if I’ve been compelled to be here, compelled to hit that “publish” button. So what’s that about?

It’s not really that complicated, is it? I mean, look what’s happened in the last several weeks. If you know me, you can easily imagine that I have many thoughts and feelings about the results of the election, about what the next four years are going to bring, about the long-term devastating effects of whatever is coming in these four years. I did some writing on FB right after November 8th, my initial howls of rage. And then I went a bit silent, re-posting plenty but not saying much of my own.

Now Vanessa‘s essay-writing challenge has called my name. As a result, I’ll be spending a LOT of time here. I don’t know if any of us — you, me, WordPress — is ready for all that!

When V took on this essay-a-week challenge last year, she called the project “The Relentless Files.” I love that name, and love the idea of naming this work. I spent some time yesterday trying to think of a name to use for my take on this challenge. I realize that for me #52essays2017 is about committing to the work, to showing up on the page every day, getting the words down, pushing myself further. I have so much to say and am regularly frustrated by how little time I spend writing. The only way to change that is to change it. And that’s what this challenge represents for me. Thinking about Formation and Bey singing, “I dream it, I work hard, I grind ’til I own it,” and my love of alliteration created the name for this challenge: GriotGrind. Because this challenge is about nothing if it isn’t about getting on my grind and doing the work. And yes, I made myself a little banner/logo/name-thing to post with each essay:

griotgrind_logo

(It’s everything: a picture from Jamaica, a fountain pen, a notebook, a griot name, a red herring … )

Yeah. You’re not wrong. I’m spending a lot of these last days before 2017 just playing around with this challenge idea. I’m trying to make it seem less scary, so that when the clock strikes midnight Sunday, I pick up my pen instead of putting my head in the sand for a year. So the more I create silly logos and brainstorm ways to get through the next 52 weeks, the more likely I am to keep trying to make it through.

 

Girding my loins …

Only a few days until the Writing Our Lives #52essays2017 challenge begins! Time to prepare! First a little background. The “Writing Our Lives” part? That’s the name of the personal essay/memoir/creative nonfiction workshop created and taught by the incomparable, relentless Vanessa Mártir. I’ve never actually taken V’s class, but I’ve watched it longingly from afar, following its growth and the growth of its writers. I’ve been writing essays for a long time at this point, but I still flirt with the idea of signing up for WOL. I know V would push me to get out of my way … more quickly and more than I push myself. She would see the scrims I put up between my words and the deepest truth and call me on that nonsense. If you’re in NYC, I would definitely recommend checking out WOL.

I’ve never taken on a year-long writing challenge. I’ve done numerous month-long challenges, and I’ve successfully completed several NaNoWriMo novels. And I always learn the same thing from each challenge: when I push myself to write more and to write regularly, my writing improves. In each case, I feel as if my brain became more attuned to writing. Ideas flowed more easily because my brain settled into its “writer” space — and I didn’t give it time to slip out.

This shouldn’t be a surprise. After all, it’s what I told my students every year that I was a writing teacher. I believed it then. I knew it then. It’s interesting to find how easily — and repeatedly — I have let myself forget it when it comes to my own work.

I imagine this essay challenge having a similar effect. While the essays themselves may not be spectacular, what they will do to my writing muscles will be. So, as my title proclaims, I’m getting ready, prepping for battle. I’ve started brainstorming a list of possible essays topics. The list is all over the place … which will certainly keep things varied. Some of the items on that brainstorm list are already scaring the crap out of me … I think that means one of them needs to be the first essay I take on. Something about diving into fear seems like the right way to get started.

Certainly it’s possible that I’ll manage to get one essay posted in Week One … and then fall by the wayside for the rest of the year. But that seems unlikely — if only because I have called myself out loudly and proudly with my announcement graphic!

I’m afraid of this challenge, but I’m excited for it, too!

Opening the Door — SOLSC 30

I am notorious for letting excellent opportunities pass me by. I hold myself back. Shyness, fear, shame, lack of confidence … so many reasons for not saying yes to so many things.

But when I was asked to interview Natalie Baszile, refusal never crossed my mind. And thank goodness for that. It introduced me to Baszile’s beautiful debut novel, Queen Sugar. And it gave me the chance to have a great conversation with a thoughtful, generous, intelligent person.

I’ve done a couple of interviews before this one. First, I jumped into the Great Interview Experiment and interviewed Jade. Next, I interviewed my then co-worker (and today’s birthday girl!), Heidi Sabertooth, who was in the middle of very Slice of Life-like project: writing, recording, and posting online a new song every day for 100 days. Yes, Slice of Life on steroids!

So I’d done a couple of interviews. And I’d struggled mightily with both, but I still didn’t pause to think before agreeing to interview Natalie. And again, thank goodness for that! Because I learned something. I like doing interviews. I still struggled mightily, agonized over whether my questions were “good enough,” over how to start and end the interview, over how much of her time I was taking up, over whether I had to ask her permission to record our conversation so I could transcribe it later … over just about any and every thing I could think to agonize over. But despite all my stressing out, I so enjoyed myself!

I’ve been waiting for the interview to go live on the VONA newsletter page, and this morning it did, so now I can share it here. It’s quite long — Natalie was stunningly generous with her time. And if you haven’t read Queen Sugar yet, I definitely recommend it!

____________________

Why Is Everyone Black? – Finding Home with Natalie Baszile

Queen Sugar, Natalie Baszile’s debut novel, unfolds over the course of the sugar cane life cycle — planting to harvest — charting those months in the life of Charley Bordelon and her adolescent daughter, Micah. As we speak, Ava DuVernay is turning Queen Sugar into a series for Oprah Winfrey/OWN.

I fell headlong and heart-full into Queen Sugar. From the first beat, I wanted to know Charley and Micah, wanted to go where they were going, see what happened to them. The novel isn’t all southern charm and endearing characters, — though it has plenty of both — and I struggled with the way it caught at my heart and wrenched me. I saw myself and my family in every character, and struggled with my emotions as I read. But for all that, I didn’t want the book to end. I could have read Charley’s story for years.

Baszile, a 2012 memoir alum, sat down with me over Skype, and we talked about character development, process, politics, and the power of VONA.

STACIE: First, I have to say how much I loved Queen Sugar.

NATALIE: Thank you.

STACIE: It’s an amazing book. It was also, actually, a very hard book for me to read. Right away, from the very first moment we meet Ralph Angel, I had a pain in my chest –

NATALIE: Ah.

STACIE: And I had it for the rest of the book … which is not a bad thing, it just made reading difficult at times. One of my co-workers asked if it’s easier to read stories like the story in Queen Sugar if it’s fiction rather than news. And I want to say yes, but that’s a lie. Because the pain I’m feeling is just as real because what’s happening in the story feels entirely real.

NATALIE: I’m glad about that. (half laugh) I mean, I’m sorry

STACIE: No, no, don’t be sorry! I hadn’t actually thought about it until he asked that question. I know it’s easy to think of reading fiction as being kind of escapist, but no. Some fiction, of course. But not this.

NATALIE: Right. That’s such an interesting thought. I can see how fiction hits you differently than nonfiction or journalism. When we watch these things on the news, we read about them and we know that they’re real, there’s no filter. If that same reality is surrounded in some kind of poetry, I think it does hit you differently. It comes in through a side door, you know?

STACIE: Sticking with Ralph Angel, I was surprised that a lot of the reviews I’ve read describe Ralph Angel as a bad person. One reviewer actually described him as a “ne’er do well.” I was surprised because that’s not how I saw him at all. And I was wondering how you respond when you hear those descriptions of him.

NATALIE: Ultimately, I always go back to what my desire was for him, and what my intention was in creating his character. I’ve lived with the book long enough at this point that I’ve come expect a range of reactions. Some readers say, “Oh I hate him,” or “Oh, I don’t like that character.” I’ve gotten that from some readers. But I’ll say this: soon after the book came out, I also had people coming up to me and say, “Oh my God, I’m so glad he’s in the book.” They seemed to get the heartbreak, and they really connect with that deep sorrow, which is what I always thought about. There’s also a kind of sweetness about him, you know? He’s not a ne’er do well at all. I am most gratified when readers have come to me and said, “I know somebody like this.”

STACIE: Yes, yes. Because that is, of course, why the pain is in my chest. Because Ralph Angel is my older brother.

NATALIE: And that’s what I was going for, something more nuanced. Not the villain, not the antagonist. Nothing that’s that straight-up cardboard and one-dimensional. A real human. With real humanity. That’s what I always go back to. I take comfort in those moments when readers tell me how deeply touched they were, even in the pain of reading about him, that they really tuned into his humanity. That’s what I always wanted.

STACIE: That’s why I’m so surprised when I read these descriptions because I think, “Well, did you actually read the book?”

NATALIE: Exactly.

STACIE: I know it took you 12 years to write Queen Sugar. First of all it would have taking me that long just to do the research on cane farming because – oh my God so much to know! – so I assume part of it was research time, but was it also finding your way to the story?

NATALIE: For me it was two things. It was finding the story and honestly, just figuring out how to write a novel. I was certainly that person who sat down and thought, “Oh, I’m going to write a novel,” without any idea of what that entailed. I think that was a blessing, because if I’d known up front what I was up against, I don’t think I would have continued. I don’t know; maybe I would have. It also took me 12 years because I had to find the story. For the first five years, the book wasn’t even called Queen Sugar, wasn’t even set in sugar cane country. The story had nothing to do with sugar cane. For those first five years it was really just the story of this young woman and her daughter who were going back to this little town in south Louisiana.  It was more about the family dynamic.

But there was something so deeply flawed in those early drafts. I found that people didn’t understand why Charley was going back. I remember someone even asking me, “Is she running from the police? Is that why she’s leaving?” “Is she on drugs?” She was by far the most difficult character to write. It took me five years to figure out why was she going? And it wasn’t until I really got that piece that the novel really fell into place. Before that, the book was really episodic. It just didn’t have the feeling I felt in my heart.

Plus, I had part time jobs, and two little kids. I remember hating summers because the kids were out of school, and it was like, “Oh my God, now I’ve got to take this little kid to summer camp and by the time I drop them off, and they cry, and I sit with them for a little while and finally get home to my desk, I’ll have to turn around.” So, there were years when I wouldn’t even bother to write during the summer. I would think about the book; I would do little revisions, but I couldn’t really sink in until school started again. On top of all that, I went back to school. So, even though I was pretty much at the desk all the time, there was lots of life happening.

STACIE: Thinking about Charley and why she would leave LA. I didn’t question why she would leave, I was interested in how completely able she seems to be to leave California behind. She calls her mother once, but she doesn’t contact friends. I get why she’s not calling Lorna [her mother]. But she doesn’t stay in touch with anyone, and that was a surprise to me, made me wonder if she’d been that alone while she was in California? Because in that case, it makes even more sense that she would go to Louisiana.

NATALIE: Honestly, I think I was struggling to hold the whole universe of this book in my head for so long and was trying to develop the characters and make the story rich that, I could only focus on Charley. And it’s funny because I’ve actually never thought, “Wouldn’t she have friends in LA? Wouldn’t she have connections?” On a creative level, it took all of my energy to hold those four characters together. I think to add another relationship, say a best friend who she’d call back in California, would probably have driven me over the edge.

STACIE: I wondered – I mean, I know this is not the story of your life, obviously – but do some of your family members see themselves in characters in Queen Sugar and did worrying about the possibility of that give you pause in any way while you were writing?

NATALIE: Miss Honey, the grandmother, is absolutely inspired by my grandmother. No question. Some of the characters are more composites of people in my family or people I met along the way. There are seeds of real people in all of the characters. Did I worry about it? Not so much. What I did worry about were the bigger questions. When I would allow myself to sit back and fantasize about the reader’s reaction, that’s when I got worried. Especially with Ralph Angel, I worried about how are Black people, specifically Black men, were going receive him. With Charley, too, I was very worried about dodging all of these cultural stereotypes about Black women. I’d think, “So I’ve got this single mother. Oh God. And then I’ve got this single Black father who has some addiction issues. Oh my God. How are Black people going to receive this? Am I going to be criticized for this?”

I was more worried about Black men’s reception than Black women’s because I knew there were a variety of Black women characters in the book. I got to the point where I was so worried about how I was portraying Ralph Angel, that I was paralyzed. It’s impossible to write a character when you’re worried about everyone’s expectations. I finally confessed this to one of mentors from Warren Wilson, David Haynes, who really watched over me during those early years. I remember calling him and saying, “How am I going to write this?” And he finally said to me, “Natalie, just write the book. Stop worrying.” And I realized he’s right. I had to allow the characters to be who they are and not craft them in a way that I was anticipating somebody’s reaction because then they wouldn’t be fully realized. So, no, I wasn’t so much worried about family members as much as what my imaginary readers would think. That was on my mind.

STACIE: Taking a detour away from the book for a second. Do you by any chance listen to the podcast Another Round?

NATALIE: Yes. Not often. But yes.

STACIE: There was something – I don’t remember if it was Heben or Tracy who said it – early in the show. They were talking about things they were interested in reading, and one of them named it their FUBU Book Club reading list – the For Us By Us reading list. So what’s on your FUBU reading list?

NATALIE: Recently, it’s been, of course, Ta Nehisi Coates’s book. Between the World and Me.  And Claudia Rankine’s Citizen.  I loved that book. Painful, intense, but so powerful and inspiring. Robin Coste Lewis’ Voyage of the Sable Venus. Loved, loved, loved that book. I love Roxane Gay, of course. Those are the most recent ones. . I have not read Marlon James, [A Brief] History of Seven Killings, but I heard him speak and was just totally like, “Oh my God.” So, those are the people who are on my radar screen at the moment. I have another book on my bookshelf, The Fisherman by [Chigozie Obioma], which I actually bought months ago, that I feel myself circling around now. It’s rising to the top of the stack.

STACIE: Going back to how the book came to you, I just got through reading the first three installments of Marjorie Liu’s new comic, Monstress, and after the first comic, she talks about where Maika, the central character came from, and she said that the character just appeared to her – this angry young woman standing on the edge of a battlefield – and she had no idea who she was, what the story was, and couldn’t figure it out. She said Maika just stayed with her until she was finally able to see, oh, here is the story this young woman is supposed to be telling. And I’m wondering if characters come to you first, does the story come to you, how does that work for you?

NATALIE: Characters first. And always a single image. So, with Charley, what I  first imagined was that opening scene with when she and Micah are making their way over the border from Texas to Louisiana into sugar cane country. It’s an image I saw from above.

But I have to say, even before that, the image that came to me was of a father and a son sleeping in a car in LA. That even pre-dates Charley and Micah, and of course those two characters turned out to be Ralph Angel and Blue. I was living in LA at the time, and I was taking a writing class at this little community center on La Brea. Just as I walked under this overpass, I got this image of a father and a son in a car. That’s what started it. So, character always comes first. An image, some flash of a picture. I’ve never written a story in first person so there’s always a little bit of distance between me and the character. I always see them from the outside. I don’t hear their voice at first, ever. It’s always visual.

STACIE: I like that for both Charley and Ralph Angel that the car was connected, that sense of movement away from LA or through LA. That’s interesting.

NATALIE: That is interesting. I never thought of that before.

STACIE: I read Warmth of Other Suns a couple of years ago – an amazing, amazing book – and I had this really weird head-smack moment about midway through, where I was like, “Oh wait. I’m a child of the Great Migration! How have I never actually made that connection before?” I had been to Louisiana a few times and was surprised by how connected I felt there, even though I wasn’t vising family. Why would I feel at home? Not only am I completely a northerner, I am also a bit of a northern snob. How am I feeling at home in this place. And it wasn’t until I had that moment with [Wilkerson’s book] that I was like, “Oh, maybe this is what that connection is.” Because this is where my mother’s family comes from. And I’m wondering if that’s part of what makes you feel that connection to Louisiana, the fact that it’s in you, even when you’d never lived there.

NATALIE: Definitely. No question about it. As a matter of fact, just like you feel very much like a northerner, I feel very much like a westerner. My dad was from Louisiana, but my sister and I did not know Louisiana growing up as kids. It may as well have been a foreign country.  I think it was because my upbringing was so suburban and so … white, in the sense that we lived in a neighborhood that was predominantly white, that when I started interacting with my southern family, I just loved how warm and welcoming they were, how forgiving they were. That’s the thing the really surprised me. No matter what you did, you were still family, and you always had a place. I really love that. My dad’s people are real salt-of-the-earth folks, not people of means at all, but their devotion to each other and their willingness to welcome me and my kids was really striking. It was such a welcome contrast to the fairly antiseptic suburban experience – loving within my household, but otherwise antiseptic – that made me feel connected. I was tremendously grateful for it, actually.

STACIE: There’s a line that Micah says early in the book when she’s voicing some of her frustration with being in St. Josephine, and she says, “Why is everyone black?”

NATALIE: (laughs)

STACIE: Which is the best question. That’s so great that she says that, because there’s so much in that question. And I haven’t heard anybody talk about it in any of the things that I’ve read about the book.  I found that so powerful. In that moment, there’s clearly no space for Charley to unpack that with her because that’s not where they are – but I was hoping that somehow it would come back, and that we would get to see how Charley navigates that with Micah. I mean, we get to see other ways that that comes back, just not that direct conversation. But I have to say that I really loved that that question was there, and I hope that it plants something for other folks who are reading the book, too.

NATALIE: Thank you very much. It’s funny. You remind me of a story: My husband and I have two girls. One year when they were in middle school we took the to New York for spring break. In San Francisco – where there are hardly any Black people anymore – we had been telling them, “Okay, look. When you see another Black person on the street, you don’t just walk past that person. You acknowledge them. Say hello, give them the nod, something.” So we took them to New York, and we rented an apartment in Harlem, and naturally, you walk outside and … everybody’s Black, right? So our kids were walking on the street literally saying, “Hi, hi, hi, hi, hi …” to every Black person they saw, and we had to tell them to pull back.  It was hilarious.

STACIE: In moderation.

NATALIE: Exactly. So that moment with Micah really reminds me of the experience of learning those unspoken – I don’t want to say “rules” – cultural mores, and begs the question, how do you give that to a child if they’ve never had that opportunity. Micah’s just such a little devil that I thought it was funny. In that scene I was seeing the world the way she would see it. And it seemed like yeah, she would wonder what’s going on here? What have you brought me to?

STACIE: I loved that. I was like oh, okay, Micah. I feel you. I know you’ve done a few different residencies. How has that been helpful to you?

NATALIE: I have found residencies to be invaluable. They are an opportunity to just climb inside of my work and live in that world I’ve been carrying in my head.  I love it.  I haven’t gone to a residency in a few years because after the book came out, I was busy doing book stuff, and it hasn’t been until recently that I even had new work to apply with. But I always found that even if I just went away for two weeks, I was three times more productive that I could be at home. I actually sat down and calculated it.  At a residency, I typically work 14 hours a day. Multiply that by seven days a week, times two weeks or three weeks. That’s the equivalent of two or three months of work at home.

I have a writing office at the Grotto here in San Francisco, but by the time I pack my stuff, commute down there, walk to the office, set up my stuff, work … the day is interrupted and segmented in this way that it’s not at a residency. Even at The Grotto, I rarely have the experience of being totally lost in the work. If you can do it. If you can afford the time, I think a residency is the best gift a writer, or any type of creative person can give to herself.

You’re there with so many other interesting people. They may be visual artists or musicians or some other kind of creative type, but just being in that atmosphere is so inspiring. I remember going to Ragdale and meeting a composer. I knew nothing about music, but I remember being in his studio where he shared his composition with me. He showed me a place in his score where he’d erased so many times that the paper had worn thin. I was like, “Oh, I totally know what that is.” I knew exactly what that experience was like. It was so mind blowing that, there he was in a totally different medium, and yet we could connect over that experience of revision. It was great. I love residencies.

STACIE: Which of course leads me to a VONA question. What was the value for you of going to VONA, what did you get out of going to VONA?

NATALIE: I’d heard of VONA, and I’d thought about applying in other years, but something always came up, or the timing wasn’t right. By the time I actually applied, I’d already sold the Queen Sugar manuscript, so I ended up taking Faith Adiele’s Memoir class, which was so different for me. It blew my mind. I had never written any nonfiction before that but I was interested in personal essays. The rules were completely different, and that was refreshing and inspiring.

And then there was the community. I really loved  being with my people, with other people of color, and comparing what was on their minds as artists versus what was on the minds of residents of other programs and residencies. I loved that there was clearly a political question or a political thread – something personally political – running through so many of the conversations and so much of what people were writing and exploring in their work. I knew I had my own personal conversation with these larger questions, but it was so inspiring, and comforting to be with other writers of color who were grappling with these same questions … or questions I hadn’t even thought of. It just felt different.  I’d always found these residencies to be inspiring, but there was a different kind of richness at VONA that I had not experienced before. I feel like I missed out on a lot of that richness because I went to VONA when they were still at UC Berkeley. My kids were home, so I didn’t stay on campus. I commuted for Faith’s workshop, maybe hung out a little bit, but I had to get back home. So I feel like I missed out on some of the really good stuff. What I was able to get was totally different and nurturing in this whole other way that I was really grateful for.

STACIE: What would you say to POC writers who are thinking of applying to VONA?

NATALIE: A place like VONA is important because once you get onto that writing circuit, and you start going to a bunch of other residences and conferences … how do I say this? The value of VONA becomes even more apparent. Other places have certainly have things to offer. There are residencies that are all about the community of women, not necessarily women of color but women, and I think that’s important, too. But in my experience, I found that VONA was a different kind of a conversation. The people there, the atmosphere, the work, was saying something slightly different that I had not seen. I had not seen people come together at other residences and operate on an unspoken frequency about why we were there.  Sometimes, you go to a lot of those places and it’s all about jockeying and positioning, and the ego, right? And some of those places can be terribly hierarchical in a way that I think is really destructive, especially for writers who are just starting out. VONA is one of the few places where people come, and that sense of wanting to support each other and celebrate each other takes priority. That’s what you’re there for. You’re there for connection. It’s not about posturing to see who has the most books published, or who has the hottest agent.  I think that that allows people to relax and connect in a way that can be challenging at other places where you have writers gathered. I’m not discouraging people from applying to other residencies and conferences. I think they all offer something, but knowing that you have VONA in your back pocket is a good thing. It gives you perspective that you won’t have if you’re out there on that circuit. You can carry that feeling of home with you. You need to be able to do that. So that’s what I would say to someone who’s thinking of applying to VONA. You meet people and you carry those people with you. So that, no matter where else you go, you know you have a home. VONA grounds you. You know you have people backing you up.

But, this is a conversation that people have been having for years, right? Junot Diaz’s essay, and the whole question of the dominant voice, the dominant perspective at MFA programs, that’s a huge issue. If you’re a young writer and you’re in an MFA program and the tone of that program, the writing in that program, the direction of that program, which experience is more valued, which voices are more privileged . . . it can be challenging.  So VONA is a counter balance to that. I think you need that. Because this writing life is tough. It’s tough, and it can be isolating, and so to not have some kind of anchor, can really be challenging. That’s why I would say people should apply – as they should apply to Cave Canem or Kimbilio, you know you have a place that’s going to offer you a warm embrace, so you can get out there and duke it out.

STACIE: You were talking about people who were dealing with different political questions. I’m just wondering how what’s happening in the news is impacting what you’re writing. And even if it’s not the painful stuff because … yeah, that … but even like … Beyonce’s “Formation” video and the crazy, America’s-mind-is-blown reaction to the “Formation” video. How is that filtering in?

NATALIE: I’m so glad you asked that because it is top of mind for me. And it actually has caused me to switch – I had an idea for another Louisiana novel and I’d started it, but recently I switched to something else.  The rage that I have felt in the last year has totally changed and informed my work.   There was a point at which I was feeling so much rage that I actually couldn’t write because my whole body felt like it was on fire. I had to remind myself to breathe.

Last fall I was reading Between the World and Me, and I was reading, Citizen, I was looking at Kara Walker’s work, and I felt my whole chest collapsing under the weight and the intensity of those works. I felt this searing pain that was difficult but essential, and it totally changed what I’m thinking and writing about. What I’ve had to do is allow – I can’t even say allow enough time to pass because we’re still in the midst of this – I’d say it’s say only been in the last few months, since like … January 1st, that I’ve been in a place now where I can actually start to think critically and somehow translate that into fiction. I’m not a nonfiction person, I mean, I’ve written a couple of personal essays, but for me it’s all about fiction first, and it’s taken me all this time to figure out how I can possibly begin to explore these questions in fiction and not be shouting all the time.

STACIE: It’s so amazing that you just said that. I am first a fiction writer, but I do also write a lot of nonfiction. And in the last … year and a half … I have felt myself moving further and further away from my fiction. Whereas my nonfiction voice has been this really angry voice. But in the last month or so, I’ve been feeling frustrated because … where are my stories, where’s the fiction that I feel so close to but now I can’t seem to write. And I feel like what you just said … I haven’t given myself that time because I’ve just been so angry and in so much pain.

NATALIE: I’ve never felt anger that has just penetrated my entire, my soul, my spirit, my physical body before. It’s a searing rage. I love books, I love the physicality of books, I love book stores, books are my refuge, my sanctuary, my comfort – but last fall, for the first time ever, I remember looking at my bookshelf last fall and thinking, “some of these books don’t have any meaning for me whatsoever.”  I tossed out a lot of books that I’d been holding onto.

It’s something, I tell you. I have no choice but to sit with it; to try to figure out how to live in that place of rage and deep hurt, and I don’t know what else, and try to be creative in that space. That’s been the real challenge for me. I think I’m there now, finally.

STACIE: The anger in my writing has been too challenging for some people, and they’ve pulled away, and I’m like, “I’m sorry, but this is me. All of those things before were me, but this is me, too.”

NATALIE: Absolutely. I think that is critical. It’s what inspires me about the books that I’ve named, you know? They’re just saying it like it is. Unapologetic. Unflinching. Bam, that’s it. And that is so inspiring to me.

STACIE: I’m curious to know what were the books that came off your shelves?

NATALIE: Mostly novels that I had been hanging onto thinking that I would read one day and finally decided, you know what? I’m not going to read them. Novels that I’d outgrown or that spoke to me at a different time in my writing life.  A lot of times what happens is a book gets a lot of attention, and I run out and I buy it because I think, “I need to read this.” But even as I’m buying it, I know that that author has a different set of concerns. A lot of times this happens with the young, hot, writer of the day. But I’ll still buy that book, knowing that it does not speak to me. And sure enough, that book just sits on my shelf, even though they didn’t have the weight of the staying power. Those were the books I finally decided I didn’t need.

STACIE: And finally, what brings you joy? How do you move your brain away from all the pain?

NATALIE: Oh, so many things. My children are a great source of joy for me. I have two girls, and they are just fabulous in their own right – which has nothing to do with me as their mother. I love watching them move through the world. That gives me a tremendous amount of joy. Of course, books give me a tremendous amount of joy. There’s nothing better for me than losing myself in the world that somebody else has created, you know? That, and being in the work. Spending time with friends, traveling whenever I can, getting out of here and having my eyes opened to a different kind of life, a different kind of experience. This is a challenging time. No question, but I think … day to day, for me, it’s the connections that I have with people that make all the difference. That really does it for me. That’s it.

STACIE: Thank you so much!

NATALIE: Thank you, Stacie. It’s been really fun. I enjoyed it.


The Slice of Life Story Challenge of 2016 is almost finished! Head over to Two Writing Teachers to see what the rest of the slicers are up to … and to post the link to your own slice!

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