Q&A: ‘Drapetomania’ Explores Blackness and Social Justice through Poetry

Drapetomaniawho do we charge with arson?
the one who cooks the crack
or the one who smokes it?
who do we blame for all of that blaze?
-from “3rd degree black” in Drapetomania by Sami Arlenis-Frederick

Black poetry is a rich field, with so many luminaries to light the way. Yet, often when I read black literature, I experience a feeling of trying to “catch up,” to read everything that has come before me and understand all the ways that blackness has shaped and been shaped by this country.

With newer waves of poets, it seems there is a beautiful bridge building between older generations and younger ones, between twentieth century experiences of blackness and twenty-first century realities.

In Drapetomania: All of the Ways in Which I am Black by Sami Arlenis-Frederick, I found a new poetic voice sharing her truths of race, gender, and more.

Sami pitched me her poetry book with its opening words:

in 1851, American physician Samuel A. Cartwright
determined the negro slave’s desire to flee captivity
was due to a mental illness in which he titled
Drapetomania.

I was immediately ensnared by the idea of a collection of writings interrogating this idea, and asked her to send me the full review copy.

In Drapetomania, I found poems that are presented simply, yet dive deep and cover so many current issues in blackness, from gentrification and violence to kinship among black women and beauty standards. The progression of the poems is a bit like a slow burn, and in fact fire imagery comes in multiple time throughout the collection. There are also little doodled illustrations that go along with several of the poems, adding to their fullness.

Sami herself speaks so much more eloquently about her work that I ever could, so I wanted to share an interview between us, where she talks about her inspirations for the collection and the importance of poetry in her world, as well as for social justice.

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Q&A with Sami Arlenis-Frederick, author of Drapetomania:

Sami Arlenis-Frederick

Where can people find you and your work online?

Drapetomania: All of the Ways In Which I Am Black is currently listed on Amazon, and I have an Author’s Page on Goodreads.

I have to admit that I read more fiction than poetry, but something about the description of your collection really hooked me. What draws you to use poetry as a medium for exploration and expression?

I’ve always been extremely fond of poetry — traditional and spoken word alike. I started writing short poems when I was about 11 or 12 years old, and then I started writing pieces to enter poetry slams when I became a teenager. My mother and grandmother were storytellers. They were always able to express a sentiment, or articulate a point of view to me using words, by putting life lessons into stories and poetry, and I believe that is what inspired me to attempt to use poetry as my own form of expression.

I love that you start off with information about the word “drapetomania.” Where did you first encounter that word, and how did it come to inspire your book of poetry?

My stepfather mentioned the word Drapetomania to me when I was about 15. Its meaning struck me so hard that I wrote several poems titled Drapetomania all throughout my teenage years. I lost a couple of the poems and some of them I felt were too mediocre for such a powerful title. I held onto the word for years, I incorporated it into so many of my conversations and my writings. I wanted everyone to know the word and know its meaning. I wanted the world to know that once upon a time, a black person’s desire to be free was considered to some a form of mental illness. And when writing this anthology of poems titled Drapetomania, I wanted the world to know that we still currently face the issue of being classified as mentally ill or “crazy” or “odd” as black people who strive to free themselves from stereotypes.

You cover a lot of themes in your work, including family, gender, self-image, violence, drug use, and gentrification. Did you know when you started writing the poems that you wanted to cover those issues, or did it happen naturally?

I definitely feel it happened naturally. I decided to finally let myself speak honestly about all of the things I’ve personally felt in my black skin and I believe as a result of this, each topic naturally found its way into this anthology.

What is your favorite poem from the collection and why?

“3rd Degree Black” is currently my favorite poem within the book. While writing it, I felt I was able to speak about so many personal fires I saw so many of the black people in my life set, and the ones they allowed to burn them down. I wrote this poem and wept.

Which other writers/poets/historical figures do you most admire?

I absolutely adore Maya Angelou. Lucile Clifton, Langston Hughes, Audre Lorde are a few of my forever favorites in terms of poetic inspirations. Living in Harlem, there were also black people to discover to inspire me and I grew up reading quotes and writings from members of the Black Panther Party, Malcolm X, Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Du Bois, and all of these other people who were constantly helping to shape shift many of my ideas and the ways I viewed myself as a black girl. I’m always stumped when asked who I admire the most because I feel so many people, both living and dead are directly responsible in many different ways for the person I currently am. It’s become so hard for me to try to measure my admiration.

Do you see poetry as a medium for social change? Why or why not?

Definitely. I feel the many different genres of literature each hold unique responsibilities regarding their role in evoking social change. With poetry, I feel its sole purpose is to bring social change. People do not read poetry just to find out what happens to a character at the end or to learn the reason behind why some birds fly South for the winter. People often read poetry to feel someone else’s ideas — to think about other people’s feelings. You read poetry or you listen to it and it causes you to think about the things people feel and it causes you to feel a certain way about the things people (poets) think. Poetry puts you in a position to understand. I think that is the driving factor behind any social change — executing a sense of understanding amongst people that helps bring about things such as empathy and compassion and respect.

You chose to close your book with mwisho, the Swahili word for “end” — was there a special significance to that decision?

One of the first books I ever owned was a children’s book titled, Furaha Means Happy: A Book of Swahili Words, that was given to me when I was around six or seven. This was my first solid introduction to Africa, the continent. I had always heard of Africa in a way that often made me think of it as a country. So to learn about Kenya and Swahili, and to learn that they were only one of the many countries and languages of Africa, it blew me away. I started writing poetry a couple years later and I titled a lot of my poems Swahili words I learned from different books. Incorporating Swahili at the end of this book acted as a quirky personal remembrance of the Swahili I started so many poems with when I first started writing poetry.

Anything else you’d like to share about your work?

This collection of poetry elicited an incredible amount of courage from me to share with the public. As a black woman, I never want to misrepresent black people, whether it be black women or black men. So when I’d write about being black, I’d constantly ask myself, Am I representing my people in a negative mannerism?I asked myself that for so long that it got to a point where I silenced myself and lost my voice in an attempt to speak only glitter and gold about black people. It took me a long time to realize that the only responsibility assigned to me when writing about the black experience was to tell the truth. When I finally let myself talk about things like colorism and violence and drugs, I felt emancipated. I learned how to critique all that I praise with this collection of poetry.

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‘The Queue,’ Illuminates Barriers to Liberation and Community-Building

I wanted to start with a quick shoutout to PodCastle, which won Best Fiction Podcast of 2017 from the Academy of Podcasters last month! As the only local editor, I somehow ended up onstage accepting the award on behalf of the full team. In many ways, I am just getting started in my role at PodCastle, but I’m incredibly impressed by the commitment of the lead editors to uplift diverse writing voices, both on the editorial and submissions side.

gate

I recently finished The Queue, a book where both physical and internal barriers have dramatic impacts on the communities described.

The Queue is a sci-fi dystopia, written by Egyptian journalist Basma Abdel-Aziz, and translated by Elizabeth Jacquette. It follows a man named Yehya, who was shot during an uprising that the repressive government denies ever happened. Because the government denies the uprising — referred to only as “The Disgraceful Events” — Yehya can’t legally get the bullet removed that lodged into his body when it happened. Instead, he must wait in a miles-long line with all the other citizens who need permission for something from the government. Along the way we learn about the lives and motivations of Yehya’s doctor Tarek, and other people from their city as well.

The queue ends at a giant gate that seems never to open. The government, referred to by the gate that symbolizes it, remains a mystery on the other side. Over time, The Gate gains more and more power over citizen’s lives by forcing them to get permission and pay fees for all sorts of everyday activities, including even window shopping.

The QueueI have to admit that I’m woefully undereducated about the events of the Arab Spring and its aftermath, which the narrative is in some ways based on. But, I deeply appreciate that literature is coming out about the day-to-day realities of political turmoil in Egypt and countries like it. (With a speculative twist, of course.)

What I found most chilling about the book was the portrayal of an unfeeling government represented by the physical, inanimate wall. The characters experience the ultimate sensations of powerlessness at being stuck on the other side of it, wondering what is going to happen next.

It’s actually a theme that comes up in my short stories fairly frequently. I’m obsessed with big institutions like the military or government bureaus, and with how they are experienced by the individual people both within and outside of them.

Another theme that really intrigued me from The Queue was the demonstration of how people accept their circumstances of oppression, even when there are hints that they have an ability impact the current situation by acting as a community.

We see the hints in the daily activity that happens in the queue. People talk to one another constantly to convey information, rumors, and encouragement. There grows a complex, informal system of how to reserve your place in the queue, dependent on how well you interact with those ahead of and behind you.

One woman, while waiting her turn, even starts an impromptu coffee business serving those who spend all day waiting in the line. Marriages are formed from the queue; people live, grow sick, and die, all while in the queue. Yet no one really questions whether this is the way things have to be or stops to take stock of the community assets that are being developed while they wait.

You can’t help but wonder, could the people in queue have liberated themselves and taken back their sovereignty if they all worked together, using their individual strengths, resources, and systems of communication?

Part of the brilliance of the book, however, is that you understand why the characters don’t do this. Abdel-Aziz makes you understand the settling-in of the paralysis preventing a stronger uprising from happening. When you are in pain or in fear for your life and the lives of those you love, it’s pretty tough, if not sometimes impossible to see beyond that to a bigger whole.

To do so would also require a deep faith in humanity — a belief that if you take that first step, throw that first rock, build that first block of a new vision, that others will move with you. Because if they don’t, then you are dead in the water.

I want to say how much I appreciated reading a translated work. Far too often, I ignore literature from other countries, because it’s not in English. But there are amazing works of speculative fiction out there in all sorts of places, from China to Romania to Russia and more.

If anyone has recommendations for more translated speculative fiction I should check out (I’ve got my eye on Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem), let me know here or on Twitter: @stefanicox.

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Navigating the Body Through Roxane Gay’s Hunger

crow pose

Trigger warning: This post discusses harassment, sexual violence, body image, and disordered eating.

I already knew this situation.

I heard his heavy footsteps behind me, his gruff voice calling at me, demanding my attention. He shouted for me to turn around, and he grew angrier and angrier that I wouldn’t, that I wasn’t stopping for him, wasn’t acknowledging his interest. My body was a lighting wire of tense energy.

It wasn’t the middle of the night, but it wasn’t the middle of the day either. There were people out, yet no one was taking up the sidewalk on the last stretch to my apartment building.

He followed me around the final corner, and I sped up, hoping to put distance between the two of us. My keys were already out of my bag and clutched between my fingers, ready. For what? I reached the glass door of the building and hastily swiped my key fob. I entered and walked toward the foyer stairs that would take me up to my apartment. I heard the front door close. Then, I heard the buzzing sound of the gate mechanism stop. I let out a breath. The door was locked.

I heard a loud thud.

I whipped around to see that the man, still outside, had thrown himself bodily against the door in an effort to get my attention. His angry eyes burned through the glass. All I could see was pure rage at being ignored. He banged his fists again with demanding force.

My heart jackhammered in my chest, as I went upstairs and bolted my door. I did not sleep well that night, though I had no real belief that the man would stick around, or be able to find me even if he got in. It was his eyes that wouldn’t let me fall away from consciousness, the frenzied possessiveness I saw there from someone I had never even met.

Hunger

I understand how lucky I am that this is the way that story ends. Too many people, especially women, have stories that end differently. Roxane Gay is one of those women.

Her book Hunger is a lot of things to me. On one level, it is a book about sexual trauma, and the many difficult methods that hurt people use to cope with trauma (overeating being a main one in Gay’s life).

It is also a book about ownership, namely what it means to try and own your body in a world where so many people will judge it, make comments about it, and compare it to other bodies—again, particularly if you inhabit a female shape, or a fat shape.

I was blown away by Gay’s honesty in exploring these topics. She lays out her story simply, without embellishing or minimizing the shame she often feels. I think it takes a lot to share in that way as a writer and a human being.

Hunger mattered to me, because the pursuit of owning my own body is intrinsic to who I am as a woman of color, as a feminist, as a writer, and so much more. It’s part of why I look to meditation and body-oriented practices like yoga to center me in life. Every time I tune in to my physical sensations I learn something new about who I am, what I’m feeling, and what I want.

Trying to be with our own bodies is a lifelong journey, but thanks to Gay, at least we have some snarky tweets to keep us company along the way:

Roxane Gay tweet_small

Header image: Dave Rosenblum via Flickr.

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The Micro-Governments of Infomocracy

Real politics these days is exhausting. And sometimes the utility of trying to keep up with the news — especially in terms of my mental health and energy — is a bit dubious. So, maybe it’s not a surprise that I’ve been thinking about a book that looks at the merits and issues of a completely different vision of governance.

Malka Older’s Infomocracy takes place in a world several years past where we are now. There are few country borders left, and instead former political structures have been replaced by “micro-democracies” of 100,000 people each, who vote as a block called a centenal. Each centenal decides who they want their government to be out of the thousands of political parties that now exist.

For example, centenals where environmental issues are important — referred to as “eco-centenals” — can decide to ban cars from their small geographic area and set up technology that causes car wheels to pop if vehicles enter the area. Another centenal may choose to focus on having really strong transit and infrastructure. Others are headed by corporations, like the PhilipMorris party, in whose centenals of course smoking is always legal.

Central to this new world is the role of the agency Information, a giant bureaucracy which provides up-to-date facts about everything possible  from the current doings and pollings of political parties, to background facts on someone you just sat next to in a cafe. Here’s an example of a tool created using facts from Information:

“Citizens can even see a personalized grid with specific outcomes of each government for them: how much they would pay in taxes, for example, or changes in the funding projected to go to their kids’ schools, or the probability that their local bar will be shut down. [..] It’s a popular tool, and surveys last decade showed that a plurality of citizens used it to decide their vote.”

Obviously, votes can change fast based on the Information updates, and political parties do their best to take advantage of them. There are a lot of relevant references to our current state of media oversaturation, as ads for various political parties frequently pop up on the characters’ vision while they navigate different centenals.

I couldn’t help but see parallels to the way modern-day conservatives use rhetoric and advertising to get the votes of middle America:

“In the first election, Information leadership was naive and idealistic […] They thought that providing data about each candidate government would be enough for people to make informed, more-or-less sensible choices. […] That did not work out so well. The new Heritage coalition of wealthy, experienced global corporates ignored the accessibility of Information, produced their standard glossy misinformation, and not only took the Supermajority but won centenals where, analysts agreed, it was demonstrably not in the interest of the people living there to vote for them.”

On the other side, you have a clear example of the elite liberal archetype through Information, whose wealth, power, and Ivory Tower detachment from the public makes political parties and average citizens dislike those who work there.

You also have the massive party Heritage, which to me symbolizes American Democrats and Republicans alike, who have the incumbency advantage that lets them dominate the political environment. All other players look tiny in comparison.

It was fascinating to see the ways that Information tries to address the potential corruption and scandal of the political system, particularly at election time. Debates, for instance, are audio-only, so that hypothetically voters can’t be overly influenced by the looks, appearance, or mannerisms of any particular party. Some parties, like Policy1st don’t even believe in having candidates. Instead they rotate out various spokespersons so that the policies, and not the leaders, can remain the focus.

I was pretty impressed with the creativity of this world. And it’s been a long time since I’ve read something that does tackle the entire world as its subject matter. Characters fly from Japan to Saudi Arabia to Qatar and beyond as the story unfolds, and you do feel the possibility of what the world would be like without borders in the same way that we have them today.

Then there’s the drama of the characters. We have Ken, who works for the supposedly idealistic Policy1st party, as a sort of spy of the goings-on of other parties. He falls for Mishima, a downright cool high-level expert at Information, with a talent for ferreting out unusual — and often politically illegal — data anomalies, such as those in the big election that is coming up. (It’s just the 3rd election of this new world order.)

We also have Domaine, who provides a strong counterpoint, since he hates the current system and is doing his best to disrupt it.

Overall, there’s a lot of political wonkyness and intrigue, but also suspense, mystery, and a bit of romance.

While it definitely took some time to work myself into the world that Older created here, it was completely worth the effort. I loved seeing Older’s background as an international humanitarian professional clearly influencing the expertise and scope of the plot in Infomocracy.

P.S. Malka is the sister of Daniel José Older; talk about a talented family…

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Post-VONA Reflection

I’ve always been someone who struggles not to silence herself.

I fought a little internal skirmish in trying to decide whether it was “worth it” to post anything about my VONA experience, when I felt sure my words would fall flat. I fear trite words, over-generalizations, and cliches in describing such a profound space. But I am a learning writer, and you can’t grow without falling flat a few times.

Besides, that’s what VONA is all about, isn’t it? Risking. Learning. Growing. I knew I had to say something to mark it’s completion.

VONA/Voices is this crazy, beautiful experience where writers of color from all over the country, and the globe, come together to create, talk, share, and live in their identities as worldbuilders and conveyors of spirit. My tribe this time was speculative fiction.

Workshop notes
Just a few notes from workshop.

It hit me like a truck, absolutely leveled me, to understand for a few precious days how much we as writers of color have to say. You forget, when you read and see only the bestselling POC authors that there are actually way more than one or two narratives on any particular trauma, issue, identity, you-name-it story. There are infinite narratives, in fact, because every single one of ours is different.

I feel humbled. I feel graced. I feel like I’m in a whirlwind right now trying to figure out how I want to move forward with this beautiful gift of being a part of, being seen, being heard.

I’m especially thankful that VONA piqued my curiosity again about my own work, at a time when I’ve been struggling with the weight of the daily grind, and with losing sight of my “why.” I’m reminded that I do this because I want to get to know myself as a writer. I want to hear and fall in love with my own voice, and I want to be part the conversation and community of others looking to do the same. We build something bigger and stronger together.

To be honest, I’m still spinning. It’s going to take some time for me to settle back into my fiction practice, my self-care practices, and my routines. But I think that’s what I need to do ultimately — pour this energy back into my writing.

After all, it’s the way we move.

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