Imagine Otherwise: Mecca Jamilah Sullivan on Cultivating Joy through Queer Black Feminist Art

by | May 12, 2021

Mecca Jamilah Sullivan on Cultivating Joy through Queer Black Feminist Art

by Cathy Hannabach and Ideas on Fire | Imagine Otherwise | ep 133

About the episode

Over the past few years, we’ve seen more and more vibrant intersectional and interdisciplinary cultural production get the attention it so richly deserves. This work builds on a long history of refusing to separate the personal from the political in Third World and women of color feminism, radical Black and queer activism, and movements for economic, disability, and environmental justice. All of these traditions have valued the role of art in sparking social change, as the creative and the revolutionary are never far apart.

In episode 133 of Imagine Otherwise, host Cathy Hannabach interviews creative writer, scholar, and professor Mecca Jamilah Sullivan, whose wide-ranging body of work demonstrates the political and ethical stakes of centering queer Black feminist pleasure in both literature and life.

In the conversation, Mecca and Cathy chat about navigating intertwined affects of joy and trauma while moving across genres, the long and rich tradition of Black interdisciplinary writing, and why refusing to separate the body from the page is key to how Mecca imagines otherwise.

Guest: Mecca Jamilah Sullivan

Mecca Jamilah Sullivan, PhD, is the author of the short story collection Blue Talk and Love, winner of the 2018 Judith Markowitz Award for LGBTQ Writers, and an assistant professor of English at Bryn Mawr College.

In her creative and scholarly work, she considers the links between language, imagination, and bodily life in black queer and feminist experience.

Her stories and essays have appeared in Best New Writing, The Kenyon Review, Callaloo, Feminist Studies, American Fiction, Prairie Schooner, Crab Orchard Review, TriQuarterly, GLQ: Lesbian and Gay Studies Quarterly, American Literary History, The Scholar and Feminist, American Quarterly, Public Books, Ebony.com, TheRoot.com, BET.com, and others.

Mecca’s book The Poetics of Difference: Queer Feminist Forms in the African Diaspora (University of Illinois Press, 2021) explores the politics of poetic experimentation in global black feminist art, literature, and hip-hop.

Her novel, More of Everything, is forthcoming from W.W. Norton/Liveright in 2022.

Episode themes

  • Joy and trauma in the creative process
  • Deconstructing the norms of genre and form
  • Creative expression as intellectual work
  • Naming and celebrating pleasure
Mecca Jamilah Sullivan with this quote: In my version of freedom, our worlds are defined by our limitless imaginations—not by whiteness, straightness, ableness, thinness, or their delusions of gender. In my freedom, we have the language we need to name our pleasures precisely, the resources to plan for their creation, and the love, life, heart, and energy to share our pleasures with our people who we know—like breath—will still be here.
Mecca Jamilah Sullivan with this quote: Pleasure and joy are necessary resources for not only surviving trauma and violence but also imagining and then following paths out of trauma and violence to action.

More from Mecca Jamilah Sullivan

Mecca’s website

Mecca’s book The Poetics of Difference: Queer Feminist Forms in the African Diaspora

Mecca’s short story collection Blue Talk and Love

“Creative expression taps into feelings. It makes you feel things like joy, for example, that make you think differently. It can spur intellectual processing, reprocessing, or rethinking that can then stimulate action. It can make you want to do things differently in the world.

— Mecca Jamilah Sullivan, Imagine Otherwise

Transcript

Click to read the transcript

Cathy Hannabach:

Welcome to Imagine Otherwise, the podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice and explore the nitty-gritty work of imagining otherwise. I’m your host, Cathy Hannabach.

[00:00:23]

Over the past few years, we’ve seen more and more vibrant intersectional and interdisciplinary cultural production get the attention it’s a richly deserves. This work builds on a long history of refusing to separate the personal from the political that’s found in Third World and women of color feminism, radical Black and queer activism, as well as movements for economic, disability, and environmental justice.

All of these traditions have valued the role of art in sparking social change, as the creative and the revolutionary are never far apart.

[00:00:55]

My guest on today’s show is creative writer, scholar, and professor Mecca Jamilah Sullivan, whose wide ranging body of work demonstrates the political and ethical stakes of centering queer Black feminist pleasure in both literature and life.

[00:01:11]

In our conversation, Mecca and I chat about navigating intertwined aspects of joy and trauma while moving across genres, the long and rich tradition of Black interdisciplinary writing, and why refusing to separate the body from the page is key to how Mecca imagines others.

[00:01:31]

Thank you so much for being with us today.

Mecca Jamilah Sullivan [00:01:33]:

Thank you. I’m excited to be here.

Cathy Hannabach [00:01:35]:

This month at Ideas on Fire, we’re focusing on the power and the politics of joy, specifically the role that it plays in our lives and in how we approach our scholarship and the other work that we do in the world. What role does joy play in your research and your other writing projects?

Mecca Jamilah Sullivan [00:01:54]:

I love this question. I think about joy a lot in my research and in my creative writing. I think joy is something that often we think of it as antithetical to violence, trauma, and generational histories of pain. A lot of my writing centers on those kinds of experiences, especially among Black queer and feminist communities.

[00:02:18]

Yet, as a creative writer and as a literary scholar, in the literature, we have to grapple with the interdependence of joy and violence. Joy is constantly present and is what brings us through trauma to survive and to hope and to futurity, to ways of imagining otherwise.

[00:02:39]

I think joy is what motivates my own work and it motivates my interest in the scholars and writers that I am in conversation with.

Cathy Hannabach [00:02:47]:

One of the things I’ve been talking a lot during the pandemic with folks about is actively cultivating joy or remembering to cultivate joy, particularly given the stress that we’re all living with.

[00:03:00]

What ways do you, what practices use do you use I should say, to cultivate joy or to remember to enjoy things when you’re in stressful situations or when you’re in the middle of a big writing project, like a book or anything else like that?

Mecca Jamilah Sullivan [00:03:14]:

It’s a great question. Movement, anything engaging the body for me, is always a source of joy. Any intentional, deliberate engagement with the pleasures of the body is a go-to for me for accessing joy.

For me, that is anything from really good food. I’m not the greatest cook, but I enjoy cooking as a creative exercise. And of course I enjoy eating food that I’ve made for myself that I find to be delicious and pleasurable in whatever way.

[00:03:56]

Definitely dance also, especially since the pandemic started. I had been taking dance classes off and on, but since the pandemic started, one of the things that’s been interesting is being able to take dance classes in a range of genres across the world, from the privacy of my own home. There’s a greater freedom and anonymity involved. I can try a belly dancing class and I don’t have to worry about what my body looks like to anybody else in the space that I’m moving in. So there’s an ease and a freedom that I have found really joyful and pleasurable as well.

And then my go-to, I enjoy running. Just anything that takes me out of my mind into the body in a pleasurable way.

Cathy Hannabach: [00:04:34]:

Speaking of pleasure and joy, I would love to talk about your really amazing new book because I think it’s a really interesting take or perspective on how joy plays out in some really complex ways.

It’s called The Poetics of Difference: Queer Feminist Forms in the African Diaspora, and to kick off our conversation about it, can you give our listeners a little bit of an overview of what is that book all about? And then I’d love to dive into the writing process a bit.

Mecca Jamilah Sullivan [00:05:00]:

Sure, definitely. So the book looks at the works of late twentieth- and twenty-first-century African diaspora writers, scholars, artists, and folks working in a range of genres and thinking about how these artists destabilize or trouble conventions of form in order to destabilize the way we think about power and identity.

Some of the more familiar examples are Ntozake Shange’s choreopoem. She invented the genre called the choreopoem. It’s called for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf. It’s a very famous choreopoem from the mid-1970s.

[00:05:41]

The idea is that she had to create this new genre, the choreopoem, in order to tell the stories of Black women’s embodiment, desire, collectivity, survival, and interiority.

Other similarly well-known examples are Audre Lorde’s biomythography Zami, which is often classified as an autobiography. But she goes far enough to say that autobiography is not enough. I am calling this a biomythography.

[00:06:08]

It brings together elements of autobiography but also myth and fiction. There are song lyrics, there are lists. This idea that, that there’s a need to use multiple forms and destabilize the convention of a given form in order to articulate fully what we would now call an intersectional experience.

[00:06:28]

I draw connections between those folks, folks who name new genres and other examples of experimentalism in a wide range of fields and forms, including the photography of Zanele Muholi, a South African lesbian photographer, the hip-hop of Las Krudas Cubensi, a queer and nonbinary hip-hop group, Suzan-Lori Parks, who queers language in some of her plays, especially in thinking about, reproductive autonomy.

[00:06:56]

The idea is essentially that in order to make claims about and destabilize normative ways of thinking about power, difference, and identity, these artists are really shifting and deconstructing the norms of form of genre.

Cathy Hannabach [00:07:12]:

I really loved working with you on this book as your indexer, first of all. One of my favorite things about it is your insistence on positioning what we might call positive affects, like personal joy, erotic desire, and familial and communal love, alongside more challenging affects of physical pain, historical trauma, and collective grief.

[00:07:35]

You show how these are inseparable embodied experiences, both for the artists that you analyze but also for your own interdisciplinary methodology. What do you find particularly rich about that juxtaposition specifically for the queer Black feminist histories that you trace across the book?

Mecca Jamilah Sullivan [00:07:54]:

I think it’s a really interesting question. In some ways, for me, it’s less of a juxtaposition than a plumbing of the depth and the nuance of lived experience. The experiences of joy, especially for Black queer and feminist communities, is constantly in conversation with the experiences of trauma, as you mentioned, personal and immediate, trauma that that shapes the context of the joy, and generational, historical, and transnational trauma.

[00:08:23]

If we’re thinking about experiences of trauma, colonization, and enslavement over space and time, those are the contexts of our joy.

I always think about the works of Audre Lorde. She’s my go-to person for theory, for craft, and in many ways a model for the thinking that I’m trying to do in this book. In her essay “The Uses of the Erotic,” she makes a really powerful argument that pleasure is a source of power that can be useful. It has a use in combating all manner of systemic and social violence.

She makes a similar argument in “Poetry is Not a Luxury” about poetry and about creative expression. Creative expression taps into feelings. It makes you feel things like joy, for example, that make you think differently that can spur intellectual processing, reprocessing or rethinking that can then stimulate action.

[00:09:32]

So for me, following Lorde, I think of pleasure and joy as necessary resources for not only surviving trauma and violence, but also imagining ways out of and then following paths out of trauma and violence to action.

[00:09:54]

It’s also important, I think, to mention that for Lorde, both in terms of the pleasures of the erotic and the feelings of creative expression, what matters is that these are our collaborative or can be collaborative experiences. So it’s not simply that my own pleasure is radical, though I think for Lorde it is, and for me as well. But there’s something about the ability to share those feelings of pleasure, either through language or through shared bodily experience, that can then create collaborative movement toward freedom or justice and the worlds that we want to live in.

Cathy Hannabach[00:10:33]:

I find it really interesting how you’re drawing on Lorde in terms of her insistence that these genres need to be challenged and the genres need to be creatively transformed to get at the embodied experiences that she’s writing about.

[00:10:49]

And your writing itself does this as well, in fascinating ways. I mean, this book is a scholarly book, but it also embodies a poetic voice, a creative non-fiction voice, I would say. And of course you also write in a bunch of other genres: articles, scholarly monographs, novels.

[00:11:10]

I’d love to talk about how you approach genre in your own work. Do you find yourself navigating between those different forms in your writing practice? Do they influence each other for you? Do you maybe use one to explore a certain set of questions and then another one to explore different questions? How do those different formats work for you in how you approach your writing?

Mecca Jamilah Sullivan [00:11:34]:

You know, it’s a great question. First of all, I really appreciate your observation that there’s a creative or narrative voice present in this scholarly book, because that’s important to me and it’s wonderfully affirming to hear you say that.

[00:11:46]

I think there are two answers to this question. There’s the narrative version that’s how I have worked to create a space for myself to write scholarly work and also to be a creative writer.

[00:12:04]

Then there’s the theoretical linkage that I see in terms of these two different kinds of work that I do. At the end of the day, when it all comes together, I’m concerned with the same themes. I’m interested in the interior lives, the bodily lives, of Black women and queer people in the diaspora.

[00:12:25]

I’m interested in how to think through those bodily and interior experiences through voice and what what we would call poetics, which I see as similar to what creative writers might call narrative voice or poetic voice.

[00:12:43]

As a creative writer, that’s absolutely what I’m interested in. In my short fiction in particular, I’m definitely working to explore, push the boundaries a little bit of what a short story can be and what a narrative voice can do. How can I explode the bounds of the narrator in order to really plumb the depths and nuances of that narrator’s interiority?

[00:13:12]

I do a lot of experimenting in my short fiction, particularly with narrative voice. In my longer fiction, for example in my novel, that’s less the case. But again, those themes of embodiment, desire, and especially interiority for Black queer people and Black women—that’s all front and center for me.

[00:13:36]

It took me awhile to figure out how to reconcile these two different interests that I have. I realized that part of that is disciplinary. Part of that is about the imposition of a disciplinary structure on modes of expression that are in fact undisciplined and maybe undisciplinable.

[00:13:58]

The foundational texts of Africana studies or Black studies are hybrid texts. Du Bois’s Souls of Black Folk is a hybrid text that contains fiction and contains essay, and he melds them together somewhat seamlessly.

[00:14:21]

Frederick Douglass, as a foreparent of Black studies, was also a poet. Francis Harper, same thing. Audre Lorde, who we’ve been talking about.

It’s important to reflect back and remember that the distinctions between poetry, prose, scholarship, and creative expression are external distinctions that don’t always serve the communities that I’m most interested in writing about.

Cathy Hannabach [00:14:52]:

Do you tend to start with or with the idea when you’re figuring out, do I want this to be a short story? Do I want this to be a scholarly article? Do I want this to maybe be a novel? Do you start with the genre or do you let the genre be shaped by the questions or explorations that you’re tracing?

Mecca Jamilah Sullivan [00:15:14]:

That’s such a good question. You know, I don’t know if I’ve ever been asked that question.

Often people ask in a creative writing context, “Okay, what part of a story do you get first or what comes to you first?” But I’ve never really asked myself that question in terms of whether a piece needs to be thought through in a academic writing context or in a creative context.

[00:15:34]

I think that what comes to me first is usually a voice. Well, for creative writing at least it’s a voice that comes to me first. So if I’m hearing a voice or if I have a sense of a character, that’s a clear sign for me that this is going to be a piece of fiction. The question of whether it’s going to be a short story or something novel-length, that’s tricky. I’m still working that one through.

[00:15:59]

For a lot of my characters, I fall in love with their voices. I feel that I could sit with those characters forever and continue to follow them through their lives and see what conflicts and struggles come up for them and learn how they address them.

[00:16:19]

There’s a curiosity, I think, that drives my fiction, that starts with a voice.

Whereas with academic writing, I think it is more, that there’ll be an idea or not even an idea but something that bugs me. There’s something troublesome that I keep coming back to, that I really want to grapple with and work out.

In the case of The Poetics of Difference, that’s absolutely what it was. I was doing all of this reading and thinking about intersectionality. I was thinking a lot about standpoint theory and even getting into theories of poetics.

[00:16:59]

I was thinking about how as a creative writer, there’s a completely separate language for talking about some of these same ideas. And yet, I saw them very closely related. In the works of the writers and artists that I was most interested in, I saw them really grappling with these things at the same time—talking about multiple experiences of difference without naming intersectionality and yet theorizing intersectionality.

[00:17:20]

So for me as a scholar, I thought, “I can’t. Someone has to say it.” You know what I mean? I can’t let it rest. For me with academic writing, there’s usually a bee in my bonnet, as it were.

I’m like, “I have to learn about this and figure this out and say something about this.” Whereas I think with creative writing, it’s more of hearing a voice or conceptualizing a character and wanting to follow them and learn from them.

Cathy Hannabach [00:17:52]:

This podcasts is called Imagine Otherwise and I think your work across all of these different genres and formats is such a phenomenal example of what it looks like to do exactly that, to imagine different worlds.

So I’ll ask you this question that I love to close out every interview with, which gets at that big why behind all of the different projects that you do in the world. What world do you want? What world are you trying to bring into

Mecca Jamilah Sullivan [00:18:20]:

I love this question. In thinking about this, I had the chance to participate in Black Artists for Freedom, which was a collective of Black artists who created this initiative Juneteenth, June 19th, last year to basically ask that same question: imagine.

[00:18:41]

In that context, it was freedom. Imagine what freedom meant to us. The collective included hundreds, we ended up with hundreds of signatures. It was about asking for publishing and other literary industries, to reimagine their own place in imagining otherwise and pushing for change in those areas.

[00:19:01]

One of the things that we did as part of that collective was to come up with a paragraph to imagine what futures we might want to live in. What I came up with at that time is absolutely what I’m interested in imagining today. So I’ll just read that. What I ended up coming up with was:

[00:19:18]

In my freedom, our worlds are defined by our limitless imaginations—not by whiteness, straightness, ableness, thinness, or their delusions of gender.

Wealth is not a violence to horde but a space to fill with visions of pleasure, our own idiosyncratic dreams of taste, sound, smell, feel, fullness.

[00:19:44]

In my freedom, we have the language we need to name our pleasure precisely, the resources to plan for their creation, and the love, life, heart, and energy to share our pleasures with our people who we know like breath will still be here.

It’s as true today as it was nearly a year ago, for me.

Cathy Hannabach [00:20:03]:

I think that’s a pretty amazing world to bring into being.

Mecca Jamilah Sullivan [00:20:06]:

Right? Let’s do it.

Cathy Hannabach [00:20:09]:

Well, thank you so much for being with us today and sharing how joy is operative in all of your projects and giving us some really wonderful inspiration for bringing about that better world.

Mecca Jamilah Sullivan [00:20:21]:

Thank you for this. It’s been wonderful. I’ve really enjoyed talking with you.

Cathy Hannabach [00:20:30]:

Thanks for listening to another episode of Imagine Otherwise. Imagine Otherwise is produced by Ideas on Fire, and this episode was created by Christopher Persaud and myself, Cathy Hannabach. Audio editing was provided by the awesome folks at Pro Podcast Solutions.

You can check out the show notes and transcript for this episode on our website ideasonfire.net, where you can also read about our fabulous guest and find links to the people in projects we discussed on the show.

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