How have marginalized people harnessed the genre of memoir to write themselves into history? What might queer crip time teach us about the writing process? What happens when writers allow themselves the time and space to sit with their work?
In episode 61 of the Imagine Otherwise podcast, host Cathy Hannabach interviews writer and cultural worker Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha about her transformative justice memoir Dirty River, how queer brown and disabled people write themselves into history, how you can bring ritual into your writing practice, and the value of letting your writing develop slooooowly—like a sourdough starter.
Guest: Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha
Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha is a queer, disabled, nonbinary femme writer and cultural worker of Burger/ Tamil Sri Lankan and Irish/ Roma descent.
She is the author of Dirty River: A Queer Femme of Color Dreaming Her Way Home (Publishing Triangle and Lambda Award 2016 finalist, American Library Association Stonewall Award 2016), Bodymap (Audre Lorde Poetry Award Finalist, Publishing Triangle), Love Cake (Lambda Award winner 2012) and Consensual Genocide, as well as a co-editor, along with Ching-In Chen and Jai Dulani, of the book The Revolution Starts At Home: Confronting Intimate Violence in Activist Communities (AK Press 2016).
Leah’s work has been widely published and anthologized in Glitterbrain, Room, The Deaf Poets Society, Glitter and Grit, Octavia’s Brood, Dear Sister, Undoing Border Imperialism, Stay Solid, Persistence: Still Butch and Femme, Yes Means Yes, Visible: A Femmethology, Homelands, Colonize This, We Don’t Need Another Wave, Bitchfest, Without a Net, Dangerous Families, Brazen Femme, and A Girl’s Guide to Taking Over The World. A VONA fellow, she holds a MFA from Mills College.
Currently a lead artist with the disability justice performance collective Sins Invalid, Leah teaches, performs, and lectures across North America. Leah co-founded and co-directed Mangos With Chili, North America’s longest running queer and trans people of color performance art tour, and also co-founded Toronto’s Asian Arts Freedom School.
Her new book of essays, Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice, is forthcoming in fall 2018 from Arsenal Pulp Press. Raised in Worcester, MA, she divides her time between T’karonto and South Seattle, rooted in rust belt resilience, diasporic aerial roots, and dirty water.
We chatted about
- Leah’s book Dirty River: A Queer Femme of Color Dreaming Her Way Home (03:09)
- Queer femme Amber Hollibaugh’s influence on Leah’s work (13:30)
- Making autobiography work for your situation (19:15)
- The emotional work of writing memoir (22:00)
- Giving oneself time to work through experiences and the value of a “disabled writing process” (26:19)
Leah’s book Dirty River: A Queer Femme of Color Dreaming Her Way Home
It’s a transformative justice femme of color survivor narrative and an experimental memoir. The cover blurb says “In 1997, Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha runs away from America with two backpacks on a Greyhound to Toronto.” It’s that story—the story of me and my survivorhood as a young, chronically ill, survivor of childhood sexual abuse, working-class femme of color. It’s about me running away from the States and going to a Toronto that in the 90s (and still today) had a queer woman of color literary scene and political scene.
Queer femme mentor Amber Hollibaugh’s influence on Leah and Dirty River
I was Amber’s intern in 1996 and we went to the Barnes and Noble that was close to the Lesbian AIDS Project (which was the queer women’s AIDS project that she started and ran)…and we did this intergenerational femme interview that’s in the book. Dirty River came first—that’s a title that’s about my history growing up in Worchester, Massachusetts, which is a real rustbelt industrial town in Central Massachusetts, and this image that I had about the beautiful and polluted rivers we come from. Water is healing and water is also holding all the memories of the stuff we go through, including environmental racism, industrial pollution, toxins, abuse …Amber is so important to me and Amber’s book [My Dangerous Desires: A Queer Girl Dreaming Her Way Home] is so important to me. She wrote about being a poor, mixed-race, Roma femme, sex worker, activist, and survivor. I love the word unapologetic and Amber is one of those femmes…Both of our books speak to these intensely beautiful, working-class, femme of color survivor powers where we literally reach beyond anything we may not have known and we dream futures we need into being on no money and out of that femme of color brilliance.
Making autobiography work for you
People have told me for years, “Oh my god, how the hell can you write that? I would literally die!” There are a couple things that helped me. One is that I have this complicated advantage where I’m estranged from my parents. I left the country, I moved away from the States in 1996 and I didn’t come home for 10 years. I changed my name. So there was a real safety…those were concrete things that gave me space to write honestly about abuse.
Demystifying the memoir writing process
A lot of the time, people see writers or cultural workers they admire and they see the finished product and think “oh my god, that person just spat that out!” I really want to demystify that. I’m a crazy writer in a real way, not always in a cute way. You can be incredibly anxious, panicky, and you can be really nuts—and you can still be a creative person from that space…When Dirty River was about to come out…I wanted to set all the copies on fire, I was so terrified…And I talked with a friend of mine who had also written a memoir and she shsaid “oh yeah, when that happened to me, I also wanted to hide in the closet!” It’s real; it’s not safe all the time.
Letting your writing develop slooooowly
You don’t have to share what you’re writing until you’re ready. You don’t have to write a think-piece in 48 hours. You can sit with it, you can put it in a drawer, you can let it develop like a sourdough starter.
Embracing a disabled writing process
One of the many gifts of disabled culture is the gift of slowness. That’s something that able-bodied people have a really hard time understanding. They’re like “what do you mean disability as a skill?” But there’s stuff you come up with when you move at the pace of slow that you don’t come up with when you’re like “we gotta get this out in 48 hours”.…As a chronically ill, disabled person who moves really slow, who moves on sick time, [I move from] a sick place of slowness. I didn’t just pop out a book in two years—it was on crip time….I would say to prospective writers: you can move at your own pace of survivorhood and slowness. You don’t have to answer the call of the market or capitalism to produce this product in 5 minutes. There’s such richness that can come from that.
More from Leah
- Leah’s website
- Leah’s memoir Dirty River: A Queer Femme of Color Dreaming Her Way Home
- Leah’s edited collection (with Ching-In Chen and Jai Dulani) The Revolution Starts at Home
- Mangos With Chili
Projects and people discussed
- Transformative justice
- Janet Mock
- June Jordan, Things That I Do in the Dark
- The Courage to Heal
- INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence
- Healing justice
- Mia Mingus, Leaving Evidence
- Amber Hollibaugh
- Amber Hollibaugh, My Dangerous Desires: A Queer Girl Dreaming Her Way Home
- Jewelle Gomez
- Sister Vision Press
- Makeda Silvera
- Kitchen Table Press
- Ching-In Chen
- Jai Dulani
- Suheir Hammad
- Voices of Our Nation
- Sekou Sundiata
- Crip time
- Les Feinberg, Stone Butch Blues (full book available for free as a pdf)
- Audre Lorde, Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, A Biomythography
About Imagine Otherwise
Imagine Otherwise is a 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 and creating more just worlds. Check out full podcast episodes and show notes at ideasonfire.net/imagine-otherwise-podcast. Imagine Otherwise is produced by Ideas on Fire, an academic editing and consulting agency helping progressive, interdisciplinary scholars write and publish awesome texts, enliven public conversations, and create more just worlds.
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Full episode transcript
Cathy Hannabach (Host): [upbeat music in background] 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. [music fades out]
Cathy: Hi folks, this is episode 61, and is the first of a two-part episode featuring Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha. My interview with Leah was so amazingly fantastic that it ran for several hours. So, rather than try to cram all of that material into a single episode, which might be a little much, we decided to split this episode in two. So, this is Episode 61, and it features the first part of the interview, and you can look out for the second part of the interview, which will be in Episode 62, coming out in about two weeks.
So, Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha is a queer, disabled nonbinary femme writer and cultural worker of Burgher/Tamil Sri Lankan, and Irish Roma descent. She’s the author of the books Dirty River: A Queer Femme of Color Dreaming Her Way Home, Bodymap, Love Cake, and the poetry collection Consensual Genocide. Leah is also the co-editor of the book The Revolution Starts at Home: Confronting Intimate Violence in Activist Communities. Leah’s work has been widely published and anthologized in collections such as Glitterbrain, Room, The Deaf Poets Society, Octavia’s Brood, Undoing Border Imperialism, Yes Means Yes, Visible: A Femmethology, Colonize This!, We Don’t Need Another Wave, Bitchfest, Brazen Femme, and A Girl’s Guide to Taking Over the World.
A VONA fellow, she holds an MFA from Mills College. Currently a lead artist with the disability justice performance collective Sins Invalid, Leah teaches, performs, and lectures across North America. Leah co-founded and co-directed Mangos with Chili, North America’s longest-running queer and trans people of color performance art tour, and also co-founded Toronto’s Asian Arts Freedom School. Her new collection of essays, Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice, is forthcoming in Fall 2018 from Arsenal Pulp Press.
In this first part of our interview, Leah and I delve into her transformative justice memoir Dirty River, how queer brown and disabled people write themselves into history, how you can bring ritual into your writing practice, and the value of letting your writing develop slowly, like a sourdough starter. In the second part of the interview, which will come out in two weeks as the next episode of the podcast, we chat in more depth about the disability justice movement, how to create truly accessible performance and art spaces, and why helping survivors remake the world is how Leah imagines otherwise.
[to Leah] Well, thank you so much for being with us today!
Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha: Yeah, no, thank you for having me.
Cathy: I would love to start by talking about your most recent book, Dirty River: A Queer Femme of Color Dreaming Her Way Home. Can you maybe tell our listeners a little bit about what that book covers, and what got you excited to write it?
Leah: Dirty River took ten years to write and get published, and that was for lots of reasons. Partially due to the racism and ableism of the publishing industry, which is just so much fun. And somewhere—like, I think around like round eight of trying to get a publisher to be interested—they were like, what is it? And I was like, it’s a transformative justice femme of color survivor narrative. And they were like, “what’s transformative justice? No one will know what that means,” blah blah blah, and I was like, huh, little do you know.
And that’s the way I think about it. It’s a memoir, it’s an experimental memoir. The cover blurb is like, “in 1997, Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha runs away from America with two backpacks on the Greyhound to Toronto,” and, it’s that story. It’s the story of me and my survivorhood, as a young, chronically ill survivor of childhood sexual abuse, and about me running away from the States, and going to a Toronto that was, in the 90s, full—and still, but in the 90s had this incredibly rich queer women of color literary scene and political scene. So, it’s about that story. It’s about coming into survivorhood, and in writing it, there were so many things that inspired me.
I wanted to write a survivor narrative that was a femme of color survivor narrative. Because I think stories are really powerful. One of the main ways that I’ve survived my entire life has been through reading books. And specifically through reading books and seeing what Janet Mock calls possibility models. Like being like, oh, I remember when I was twelve years old and I read June Jordan for the first time, and she has this book called Things That I Do in the Dark, and I was like, wow, you literally can write poetry and stories. June literally wrote poetry and stories as a Black queer woman and survivor of violence. You can write all these stories of survivorhood and Black feminism out loud and nobody’ll kill you. You know, that’s amazing. I wanna do that.
And I think, specifically for people who are survivors of childhood sexual abuse and sexual assault, there’s a way that, you know, we run away to the library sometimes, like, we find real solace in books that give us everything from survival tools to ideas of, if you survive your childhood and run away, this is the future you can create. And, as a young survivor, I was helped by novels and science fiction, and all kinds of different writing.
And I was also really helped by writing that came out of the second wave feminist survivor movement that was by survivors of childhood sexual abuse who were writing their lives, and telling stories that we literally are told we’ll be killed if we tell. And those stories really helped me, and what I found was that I was really helped by a lot of writing by survivors of color. Like Sapphire. Reading her book American Dreams when I was 19, and reading the poetry that she wrote really unapologetically and fucking honestly about her experiences as a Black, queer survivor of childhood sexual abuse. That saved my fucking life. Reading Chrystos’s writing. You know, she’s a First Nations, Two-Spirit femme survivor. Incredible. Really important.
And then what I found was that, like, those were people who were writing—you know, when it was Black and brown women survivors, they were writing poetry and stories, but when you looked for survivor memoirs, it was mostly white women, and white lesbians. And the ones that were out there were a little bit dated, even when I was reading them in the 90s, and as I got older, I was like, shit. People were like, oh, “you do survivor work, what are some books I can read?” I mean, this happened recently, like, someone I know was like, oh, “I’m looking for writing about what it’s like to be a long-term survivor dealing with grief.” And people were like, “uh, The Courage to Heal? You wanna read that?”
No disrespect to The Courage to Heal, and for people who are not familiar with it, it’s this like, essentially this bible of childhood sexual abuse survivor literature. It came out in the 80s. And there’s useful stuff in it. And it was written by two white, cisgender women who were pretty middle class, one’s queer—actually, I think they both are queer. And it has—it’s good, but I didn’t want it to be the only game in town, and specifically, what I really want to write about, was, I wanted to write about the ways that I healed—which is such a loaded and complicated word—but like, how I did find healing as a queer of color survivor of violence, which really broke away from the kind of traditional model that’s out there in mainstream media and mainstream ideas of survivorhood.
Where it’s like, oh, you’re an abuse survivor, and that kind of happens in a vacuum. It has nothing to do with race or class or gender. You grow up, and you go see a therapist a couple times, and then you’re better, and you have this really nice normal life. And for me, that wasn’t—and for most people that’s not the reality at all. And I wanted to write about how the ways that I was facing being a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and abuse in my family, was not something I could separate from being an anti police brutality activist.
And it was something where I found healing from finding other young queer survivors of color, and throwing Diwalis together that were super slutty and inauthentic, and cooking food for each other, and scraping together a living, and being really fucking poor, and figuring out how to make herbal medicine from weeds in the park, and praying, and doing stuff that looked quote-unquote “crazy.” And yes, finding a therapist, but not really being able to afford it, so calling the crisis lines instead, and having to navigate an immigration system that’s very ableist and won’t let you in—cause I was in Canada—if you look crazy, or you’re disabled. And navigating a counseling system that was unaffordable.
And having to really do this kind of DIY queer brown survivorhood that was also very linked to me becoming disabled. You know, I became chronically ill right around the same time I was remembering my abuse memories. And also, growing up mixed-race in a family that had a lot of silence and a lot of secrets, and where my father kind of attempted to pass as white part of the time, it never really worked. But where there was a lot of big, brown family secrets, a lot of like, “don’t talk about that,” “don’t ask about that,” and my running away to find and help make this radical queer South Asian and Sri Lankan community.
I wanted to write all those stories, and specifically, you know, I think I already said some of why I wanted to write them. I wanted to write them as one road map that maybe would be useful to other queer Black and brown survivors, and this got me in trouble when I was trying to pitch it, because every publisher was like, “ahh that’s too complicated!” And I was like, yeah, it’s really funny how queer disabled femme of color lives that are survivors are just too complicated for mainstream society people.
But I simultaneously wanted to capture this point in time in late ’90s Toronto that was so important and so special and so formative. It was before INCITE: Women of Color Against Violence. It was before what we now a little bit almost take for granted in some ways, in terms of there being this intersectional queer woman and femme of color led movement. Toronto in the ’90s, there were just all these like, queer Black and brown punks. Of color. You know, who were doing incredible activism, and doing stuff that 15 years later, we’d call healing justice, but back then we were just like, yeah, we’re talking about Black and brown queer working class people’s experiences trying to navigate the mental health system. And by the way, we have this event, and it’s wheelchair accessible, and there’s childcare and free tokens.
You know, I wanted to write that moment. I wanted to write being in really early abolitionist, prison abolitionist movement, and navigating being in a relationship with my partner at the time, who was also a queer nonbinary person of color and a survivor, who was, you know, a militant, anti prison-industrial complex activist. Where we were like, in the streets and fighting, and where also he became abusive, and I had to navigate that, and our movement had to navigate that, and it was 1997 and nobody knew what the fuck to do.
I wanted to write all those stories down. A phrase that I’ve heard a lot in QTPOC community, and that I’ve used, is this idea of writing ourselves into history. Mia Mingus, the queer Korean disabled disability justice writer, her blog is called Leaving Evidence. And she has a whole thing in there about how important it is to leave evidence that we existed as queer disabled people of color, and that’s really the spirit that I went into this book with, that I wanted to leave evidence of myself as a queer, disabled, working class, mixed class femme of color survivor.
And also of all of this history that was going on, that was being made that, at the time you think, of course everyone’s gonna remember this. And then 15 years goes by, and everything’s digital, and you’re like, shit, this is a really important chunk of Black, indigenous, and brown queer history that’s really at risk of being forgotten. So, I wanted to tell one small part of it, and narrate this memoir where—this is gonna sound corny, but—where the personal and political really weren’t separate. Where it’s like, yeah, I was navigating my survivorhood right at the same time as we were like, actually, we need to abolish prisons.
And actually, as we do that, my being in an abusive relationship can’t be a side note. It has to be something where, as we’re talking about prison abolition, we’re also dealing with the fact that there’s violence in our movements. Within all these really wonderful comrades, who at the same time are traumatized and are hurting each other. We’ve gotta figure out what to do about that. Yeah, that’s the answer to your question. That’s a really long answer.
Cathy: That’s an ambitious book, it deserves that kind of an answer. [laughs]
Leah: Thank you. Thank you. I left a lot of stuff out. Like, I just—it was such a process of getting it out. When it finally came out and I was reading it, I was like, oh my God, there’s all these things that were in my head that I forgot to put in. So, that’s gonna be the second or the third book.
Cathy: We’ll talk about those in a minute.
Cathy: But, the subtitle of it, A Queer Femme of Color Dreaming Her Way Home—is that a direct reference to Amber Hollibaugh’s collection of essays, Dangerous Desires, or was that just a coincidence?
Leah: I was Amber’s intern in 1996, and we went to the Barnes & Noble that was close to the Lebsian AIDS Project, which was the queer women’s AIDS project that she started and ran, where I was interning, and she was like, OK ask me questions. And we did this intergenerational femme interview that’s in the book.
Yeah, it was—you know, Dirty River came first. That’s a title that’s partly about my history growing up in Worcester, Massachusetts, which is a real Rust Belt industrial town in central Massachusetts. And this image that I had a lot about just like, the beautiful and polluted rivers we come from. And, water is healing. Water is also holding all the memories and stuff we go through, including environmental racism, industrial pollution, toxins, abuse, all of that stuff. I know that stuff’s all there, and the transformation’s also in there.
And yeah, Amber’s so important to me and Amber’s book is so important to me. That’s a book she wrote about being this like, raised poor, mixed-race Roma femme sex worker, activist, and survivor. I love the word unapologetic, and Amber is one of those femmes I started hearing about in the context of second-wave feminism, and like, second-wave femme writers in North America who were writing about our lives, and writing about fighting back against the feminist sex wars in the ’80s and ’90s.
That book is important to me for so many reasons, but the ways that Amber wrote her survivorhood, her class stuff, her sex work stuff, her activist stuff, and her femme stuff simultaneously. And wrote about, being, like, in her case, a light skinned Roma person navigating all this stuff. That was incredibly important to me. And when I was reading her book, I was—God, I was in my early twenties, and it was at a time where people like her, and Chrystos, and Jewelle Gomez were doing so much heavy lifting to really bring femme lives and femme cultures and femme ways of thinking and femme artists and skills into the light, when there’d been so much hatred of queer femmes, and silencing, and burial. She did so much to really be like, I’m all these identities at the same time. Here’s my femme genius. Here’s my femme organizing skills. Here’s my femme magic. Here’s how my survivorhood plays into my sexuality as a queer femme.
And the subtitle of her book, A Queer Girl Dreaming Her Way Home, that meant so much to me in my book, and there’s echoes of it, because I feel like the cultural work that both of our memoirs were doing—I don’t want to speak for Amber—but, for me, when I read it, I was like, yeah, this is a queer femme who’s literally dreaming the home she needs into existence. And for her, in her book, it was a lot about being a poor, Roma survivor who had to like, run the hell away. And about what it meant to reconnect to being somebody who is a poor, working class femme with pride, and also navigating all the ways that she had to run away from home, and all the ways in which sex work was a way that got her out of there. And also the ways that whorephobia and sex work phobia really impacted her life as she was an adult making her way.
And for me with my book, I was just like, yeah. I ran away too. And I’m not a sex worker, but I ran away. I’m a disaporic Sri Lankan who comes from families who have hopped borders, like the way many of our people are, and the same way that my father went from Sri Lanka to Malaysia to London to the States—there’s a line in the book where I’m like, yeah, crossing borders was kind of a family tradition. There’s ways that that flight in my hips took me to Toronto, and took me to the city where I was able to dream the home I needed, that was safe from my family abuse, that was in a city that has the world’s largest concentration of diasporic Sri Lankans, where in the ’90s there were all of these radical queer South Asian women. Who were talking about violence, and creating diasporic radical South Asian communities.
Where there were all of these radical queer women of color writers, who were creating spaces like Sister Vision women of color press, which was founded by Makeda Silvera, who’s a queer Jamaican feminist writer, and other women of color writers who were queer in the ’90s. They were kind of the Canadian equivalent of Kitchen Table women of color press. They created so much space for really large-scale queer women of color writing to happen. Those were the big macro things, then also, something I wanted to do with my book was, I was like, yeah, I dreamed my way home. And my home was my fucked up apartment with the broken front door where I still could lock it, and I could still be alone, and I could still feel myself being safe for the first time in my life. And I could dream the healing that I needed.
And I think that both of our books really speak to these intensely beautiful working class femme of color survivor powers, where we, literally we reach beyond anything we may not have ever known, and we dream the futures we need into being, on no money, and out of that femme of color brilliance, and that’s the gift that I wanted to have in that book.
Cathy: You are incredibly forthcoming about some really hard shit in that book, and across all of your work—
Cathy: —I’d say. I mean, memoir seems to be something that you’ve been drawn to over and over again in different ways, and you are very creative with it in different ways. And I’m curious, for those of us who maybe aren’t so expert at writing about ourselves, or perhaps for folks who want to be, but they don’t really know where to start, or they’re maybe a little scared—do you have any advice for getting into more autobiographical writing, or where to find the bravery to be that honest about some hard shit?
Leah: Yeah, totally. It’s complicated. So, a couple things. The one I’ll say—I feel like with the bravery thing there’s two sides of it. I mean, people have told me for years, like, “oh my God, like, how the hell can you write that, like, I would literally die.” There’s a couple things that helped me. One was, you know, I have this complicated advantage of, I’m estranged from my parents. I left the country. So, for ten years—I moved away from the States in 1996, 1997, and I didn’t come home for ten years. And I changed my name. So, there was a real safety—and I really look back on young me, and I’m like, you were so smart! Those were concrete things that really gave me space to write, and to write honestly about abuse stuff. Cause I was like, well, I’m far away, and I have a different name than I grew up under. So, yeah. That gives me some room.
I also think—and I don’t, like, get too much into “oh God it’s hard today with all this digital everything” but I do think one of the challenges of being a writer or cultural worker in these times that we’re in now, is that there’s more of a sense that things have to be immediate. And I know that for me, one thing that was actually on my side was that like, I was just poor and struggling and broke and sick and weird, and I also could afford—I mean, this is back in the day when I could rent this shitty apartment for 450 bucks and just kinda be in there with my crappy computer alone, writing and reading.
And, you know, I didn’t have the Internet for years. You know, I couldn’t afford it, it didn’t really exist. So, there was a lot of room for me to really craft things, and not feel like there was this pressure to release them to the public for immediate consumption. Like, I could sit with it and be like, oh, am I ready? I’m not ready. Okay. No, actually, wait, now I figured out something else I want to say. Or, ooh, if I say that, I might get in trouble, or it might be dangerous, let me edit this part. And I think that allowed me a way of building up a lot of bones. That was really helpful.
It’s really flattering that you’re like, oh, you’ve got this expertise, and, I mean, thank you. But I want to be really clear that the whole time I’ve been a writer, I’ve been scared shitless for a lot of it. I’m somebody who has chronic anxiety and panic attacks, and that’s really real. And, I talk fast cause I’m from central Massachusetts, and I always am, like, oh, the joke is, if you’re working class or poor, or Black or brown, or all of it in central Mass, the idea is that you gotta talk real fast because no one’s listening, and you got three minutes to get all your words out there, so let’s get it out.
But, I got feedback for years from people who were like, “you speak so fast, I can barely understand you.” And it’s because I’d be so panicked when I was performing. So, I guess I shared that to kind of break down—I think that a lot of times, people see writers or cultural workers they admire, and they see the finished product, and they’re like, oh my God, that person just spat that out, they never had any hard times with it. And I really want to demystify that and really be out about, like—I’m a crazy writer in a real way. And not always in a cute way. And I want to really say that you can be incredibly anxious, you can be panicky, you can be really nuts, and you can still be a creative person from that space.
And some things I’ll share that also helped me was that, with The Revolution Starts At Home, which is the book that myself, Ching-In Chen and Jai Dulani co-edited, about community accountability and transformative justice processes in the lives of activist folks who are dealing with abuse. I was terrified that my abusive ex would find out about it. And then someone who I talked to, we did some safety planning, and they were like, you know, at this point he stands to lose more by kind of sticking his neck out and being like “oh my God, that’s me who she writes about,” than if he just keeps quiet.
And, when Dirty River was about to come out, I remember I got my advance copy, and I took an Instagram picture, and, you know, it was 200 comments—“Oh my God, congratulations, you must be so proud,” and I didn’t know how to say that like, actually, I want to set all the copies on fire. I was so terrified. And, you know, I had four books out, but, you know, they were poetry, they were smaller scale. Many fewer people read poetry than they read memoir. And I was like, this is a book that’s on a larger press, it’s gonna get more attention, and I talked with a friend of mine who’d written memoir, and she shared her own experiences of like, “yeah, when that happened to me, I also wanted to just hide in the closet.” It’s really real. It’s not safe all the time. There’s ways of making it safer.
And, something I share a lot. I had the great good fortune of being able to learn from Suheir Hammad, the incredible Palestinian diasporic poet, when she taught at Voices of Our Nations, which is a writers of color retreat, in 2005, that basically mortgaged my life to be able to go to. And it was 450 bucks, but that was more money than I’d spent on anything back then, and I just raised it 20 bucks at a time, and you know—in any case, what I wanted to say, like, I remember speaking with Suheir, and this was before I had any books out, and we were having this one-on-one conversation, and I was just like, I want to write about abuse but I’m so frozen, I’m so scared. I sit down and I try to get the work out and it just doesn’t come.
And she was the one, she was like, “Have you brought ritual into it?” She was like, “You know, when I sit down and I write, I put a bowl of salt water by my computer, and I ask it to hold all the hard stuff, all the trauma, and I breathe into it, and when I’m done, I pour it out on the earth.” And nobody—you know, I had studied writing in college, and nobody, including the Black teachers who I was really, I’m forever grateful to have learned from—Kurt Lamkin and Sekou Sundiata—they were amazing teachers, and we were in an academic setting where it probably was not okay to talk about ritual. And it was in this feminist-of-color, outside of academia space, that I was able to sit with Suheir, and hear her say, like, you can pray. You can ask your ancestors for support. You can cleanse yourself before and after in whatever tradition works for you. And those are things that have really helped me be able to access that space of truth.
And, I think also, some of my writing process is a real disabled writing process. Dirty River took ten years to come out because publisher after publisher said to me, “queer women of color don’t read books.” “Your writing is too marginal.” “Who’s gonna read this?” This includes, you know, small publishers of color, to be honest. And, it was so frustrating to me, because I would see these like, white punk girl memoirs come out that sometimes were well-written, sometimes I was like, oh my God I could do better. And I was just like, you know, I actually have a fan base. Like, I know people will read this book. And all these publishers were like, nope. And that’s part of why it took so long to come out.
But, honestly, another part of why it took so long to come out that I’m actually grateful for, is that I needed those ten years to actually be able to access some of the stories that are in the book, that were really hard to write. Dirty River came out in 2015. It got accepted by Arsenal Pulp Press in 2014. In 2012 and 2013, I was able to go on a self-directed writers’ retreat to Fancyland, which is a queer land project in like, way northern California, in Humboldt County. I’d been working on the book for seven years at that point, and it was only when I went there, seven years in, that I was like, oh, there are these pieces of the story, like when my mother cuts all my hair off, different specific mom things. That I’m like, I wasn’t ready to write it until this point, and it’s part of the story I’m trying to tell.
And that’s the thing, honestly when I started writing Dirty River, there was a wave of kind of like, white riot grrl memoirs that were coming out. Some of which I liked, and I read them, but I was like, wait, where were the women of color? I was there. I was in Black and brown punk community back then. Or, you know, POC punk community. I don’t want to be written out. So when I first started writing the book, it really—I wanted it to be a bunch of wacky adventures and stories, and like, crazy shit that happened. It was a few years in that I was like, oh, this is a survivor memoir. It’s not just about my abusive relationship, it’s also about my childhood. Because that’s why I ran away from the States, I didn’t just decide to go on a road trip.
So I guess this is all to say, if someone was like, how do I write my story? I’d be like, think about what you need to be safe. Do some safety planning. Know that you don’t have to share what you’re writing until you’re ready. Like, you don’t have to write a think piece in 48 hours. You can sit with it. You can put it in a drawer. You can let it develop like a sourdough starter, you know? I started to say it was a disabled writing process, and one of the many gifts of disabled cultures is the gift of slowness. And, you know, that’s something that so many able-bodied, abled people have a really hard time understanding, they’re like, “what do you mean, disability is skill?” And like, that’s one thing I always go to is I’m like, there’s stuff that you come up with when you move at the pace that’s slow, that you don’t come up with when you move at the pace of, we gotta get this out in 48 hours, we gotta be really fast, we’ve gotta be sprinting.
And as a chronically ill, disabled person who moves really slowly, and moves on sick time, there’s ways that that sick place of slowness, and I didn’t just pop out a book in two years. It really took—it was on crip time. That allowed me to slowly be able to tell those stories. So, I guess I would say to prospective writers, know that you can move at your own pace of survivorhood, and slow. You don’t have to answer that call of the market or capitalism to produce this product in five minutes. And there’s such richness that can come from that.
I will also just say that so many writers are like, do I have to go get an MFA? Do I have to go to academia? I always say, yeah I have an MFA, and I got through it, in my head I was like, this is something I’m doing in my spare time. There’s ways it pushed me to up my game and take my stuff more seriously, and it bought me some time that I don’t think I would have had if I kept running or co-running two arts education programs in Toronto and freelancing and doing a million things, which is what I was doing before.
But what really helped me was finding the artistic communities I needed. Finding and making queer people of color writing community. Going to Voices of Our Nations. Co-founding Mangos with Chili, and being in that space. Going to shows that were created by other queer people of color writers in Oakland, you know, in the 2000s. Founding Sins Invalid and disability justice arts community, and then being invited to be a part of it. Like, those are the things that helped me.
With some exceptions, you know, being in my MFA program actually really froze me. I couldn’t work on Dirty River for a year after I graduated, because the whiteness and the racism was so intense. There was individual teachers who were really helpful. Aya De Leon. Elmaz Abinader. Those were Black and brown women writers, teachers who were incredible. But there were a lot of white ladies who were just like, “oh yeah, you’ve gotta have a really simple narrative arc, and it’s gotta start on August 1, 1996 and end two years later, and you’ve gotta have these characters, and everything’s gotta be real simple.” And I was just like, as someone who’s trying to write from a decolonial place, I’m like, that’s not the way we experience our lives, that’s not the story I want to write.
There’s more I could say, but I think—protect yourself. Protect your magic. Take yourself seriously. Find your writing community. Take it slow. Cherish your sadness and your scaredness and make room for it. Like, figure out the ritual you need to create that sacred space for writing. And really like know that you’re going into writing traumas. So, you know, take a bath in salt water before and after. Light a candle. And also really think about what’s the lineage you’re writing in. Who are the writers who wrote the books that saved your life, and how are you writing as part of that tradition? And put those books on your altar and be like, hey, help me out! I know Leslie Feinberg had a fucking hard time writing Stone Butch Blues. You know? [laughs] I know that Audre Lorde, in creating a new genre of biomythography when she wrote Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, I know that they struggled. And I literally called on those and many other writers, and I was like, thank you for your help. Please help me. Please show me the way.
If spirituality and ancestry speaks to you, that is a tool that you can call on. And it’s not something that most MFA programs are gonna tell you you have in your toolkit. They’re gonna tell you to write like a white dead guy. [laughs] And, you know, that may be helpful for some people, and I really mean that. But, if it’s not, just know that there’s a whole other tradition that you can call on.
Cathy: [upbeat music in background] 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, Rebecca Reynolds, Michelle Velasquez-Potts, and myself, Cathy Hannabach.
You can check out the show notes for this episode on our website at ideasonfire.net where you can also read about our fabulous guest as well as find links to the people and projects we discuss on the show. [music fadeout]accessibilitycareerscommunitycritical race and ethnic studiesdisability studiesfeminist studiesgender studiesgrad schoolmemoirperformancepodcastpoetrypublic engagementpublishingqueer studiesself-carewriting