“A recognition of the possibility of both”: In coversation with Alexis De Veaux
Afraid of the sweetness of the other, afraid it was not there, or worse, it had never been, they tore at just enough clothes.
It was not longing they felt, for they (would have said they) had not longed for each other.
Not consciously, at least.
They had not missed each other (they would have said), grieving, the way lovers separated by a tragic absence—the murder of one, say, or the surprise of a quick, terminal disease—did. Nor (they would have said) had they felt want, for that would imply innocence. And yet they felt all they did not say: longing, grief, want; for they were each a limb of the other. And what they’d felt, separately, for years, was akin to a tingling of phantom nerves after an amputation, the sensation
a limb was still there
though it was gone.
Jules called it lonely.
Zen called it don’t cling.
And that was how they began again. In this time.
Excerpt from Yabo (RedBone Press, 2014)
ALEXIS DE VEAUX: Let me preface my answers by saying this: both what became the book Yabo and the practice of writing it were deeply spiritual projects. By that I mean, I did not have an outline for the work, I did not know all (or many of) the characters in advance. Many of them came/”appeared” with their names (telling me who they are). I would go to my desk every day and wait to receive whatever came, a word, a sentence, a page, several pages. I had never written like that before. I believe the book is propelled by ways in which what is spiritual, what exists in the spirit world, wanted to connect to me and wanted me to connect to “it.”
ANNE RASMUSSEN: I love having this insight into your process—it’s fascinating to learn that this is not the way you were accustomed to writing. The past/present narratives are interwoven in such an intricate way that after I finished the book I wanted to draw a diagram of these relationships, how the stories converged and intersected, and how/when characters from one storyline surfaced in another. Knowing now that you wrote much of Yabo without deliberately planning this out in advance makes that final “map” all the more impressive! Once you were deep into the story, knowing your characters and where they had taken you so far, how did you find ways to keep control over the details as they emerged, to keep the story balanced for the reader?
AD: I don’t think I had much control, at all. If anything, I was following the leads of the characters, especially in terms of the book’s metanarratives-time, history, memory, desire, life and death. For many of us, the spirit world is not a world we can access. For me, in this work particularly, it was. It accessed me and I accessed it.
AR: “History is a black hole,” you write, making a case for histories that are “unheard, unrepeated.” I’m struck by the way you play with ideas of chronology and identity in Yabo. Time flows backward and forward; present-day characters slip into the past to inhabit parallel lives or haunt/confront their colonial counterparts. In contemporary Buffalo, Jamaican-born professor Steeva Braille handcuffs her graduate students together in a darkened room as she lectures about the crossing of a colonial slave ship. The classroom falls away and she is the white, male captain of the doomed Henrietta Marie, terrified by the difficult crossing, frightened of and fascinated by his human cargo. Everyone in Yabo is interconnected across time, sometimes by ancestry but more often by other, unexpected links which cross race and gender boundaries. I’m curious about how these parallel storylines developed in your initial draft. Were you writing the past and present narratives at the same time?
AD: The “initial draft” was nothing like this. I began working on this project when I began working on the Audre Lorde biography, in 1994. The Lorde biography proved to be a greedy project (time and energy wise), so I put this project away during the ten years I worked on Audre Lorde’s biography. After the biography came out in 2004 (WW Norton), I was free to think about other literary projects but 2005 was a fateful year for me (my partner of 22 years passed away, my youngest sister passed away unexpectedly). I wasn’t able to return to this work until 2006; with many of the questions of life, death, desire, memory, for example, haunting me. I’d been thinking about time, too. The idea of how we–humans–negotiate time, and Time. I wanted to test the idea of time as one experience–not the past, the present, the future model we are so committed to here in the west, especially. What I brought forward from the “initial draft” to the manuscript of Yabo were the two characters who became Zen and Jules (I did not initially know that Jules was intersexed; that’s something Jules informed me of after I returned to the text), and Ezrah (Zen’s grandmother). The parallel narratives arose out of a long held belief that we are all living multiple lives (I am a great fan of the late speculative fiction writer of Octavia Butler). I have taught this and related ideas in the context of looking at what we call in literature, black speculative fiction. As well, I was interested in New York State history, in the idea of slavery in the north; the enduring narrative of African enslavement in the so-called “New World.” So I think if there was anything hyper-conscious about what I was doing in Yabo it was an attempt to address the notion that whatever was, is and is happening now.
AR: Yabo explores two significant historic events and archeological discoveries related to colonial-era slavery and the slave trade: the doomed voyage of the Henrietta Marie, an English-owned, 17th century slave ship, the wreck of which was discovered in 1972, and the legacy of slavery in colonial New York City and re-discovery and excavation of the African Burial Ground site in Manhattan in the early nineties. You deftly tie together the present-day academic research of Steeva and Zen with parallel flashbacks to colonial scenes in New York, North Carolina, and the West Indies. What made you decide to unpack these stories in particular, and how did you approach incorporating research into the novel?
I’d seen a replica of the Henrietta Marie many years ago, when it docked in Buffalo, NY. I boarded it, as did hundreds of other curious people. I have always been curious about the slave ships. I was even more curious about the idea that nature could (and probably did) take out some of those ships–in this case; in Yabo, the ship is taken down by a storm. I wanted to suggest that nature responded to that atrocity, that what we call “the natural world” has its own laws, rules, logic; beyond human capacities. So I was trying to imagine a different narrative, one that is or has been unspoken, for the most part. Too, the discovery of the African Burial Ground in the 1990s in New York City’s financial district completely arrested my thinking about African life in what was then the “new York,” colonial New York City. I was deeply intrigued by the explosion, if you will, of the “past” into the “present” that that discovery caused. I was thinking how all this “history” has existed underneath the feet of New York City’s population, all the time. All the time. These events are tied together. They are part of the same story. They are one story. Although I’ve written in multiple genres, I’ve always loved writing fiction. So it made sense for me to exercise the freedoms inherent to imagination to tell these stories as one story; even as I depended on quite a bit of formal research in arriving at some of the details. Whether it’s research or fiction, the idea is that one is telling a story.
AR: Zen remarks that historians often write as though they are “performing taxidermy on the past.” The history books many of us grew up with largely ignored the fact of slavery in the north, an omission that is not without consequences for those whose stories were erased. Like Zen, you grew up in Harlem–only 10 or so miles from the site where the African Burial Ground was later (re)discovered. How did it feel to be able to bring these particular characters back to life?
AD: In some ways it was overwhelming, but in critically important ways it was right. It was the right connection to bear witness to. I really do believe that “the past” is never gone, that it exists alongside of what we call “the present” and “the future.” So it was really important to speak to the connection of the African Burial Ground, what we are taught has happened, with a contemporary vision of Harlem, what we understand is happening.
AR: I admire how fully constructed the social worlds are in every scene. Although you clearly have primary characters (Zen, Jules, Steeva, Ezrah) whose perspective the reader is closest to, each one is part of a larger tapestry of secondary characters, many of whom are fleshed out in great detail. Whereas some writers are content to focus on one or two characters at the expense of other viewpoints, you’ve created multiple, fully-dimensional supporting casts. We meet Dorsie, who teaches the pre-teen Jules about self-protection, sexual agency, and how to count cards; we get to know Zen’s fellow graduate students Joan, Swing, and Sack, to name a few. I have the sense that any one of these secondary characters could easily hold her or his own storyline. But the narrative never feels cluttered or bogged-down by these relationships. At what point do you decide to pull back, with so many vantage points to choose from?
AD: That’s a good question. I don’t know if I know the answer(s). In life, we all have a cast of “supporting characters.” To some extent, we do control how much we see them, hang out with them, interact, think about them. To some extent. It’s possible the work is trying to mirror those human activities. It’s possible.
AR: One of your present-day protagonists, Jules, is born with both male and female sexual characteristics, and Jules’s parents allow their young child to explore and identify with both genders, adopting the pronoun “bothneither,” shortened to “bn” (or “be in”) to refer to the child. Young Jules identifies a clear sexual preference for girls and we watch as Jules navigates adolescence and sexuality, and prepares to enter an adult world that seeks to define, and categorize. Like Zen and Steeva, Jules also has a parallel past-self, a slave woman known as “Mary 3” who is part of a small band of blacks who exact violent revenge on their owners. In the same way the narrative easily moves between poetry and prose, past and present, so the adult Jules seems to have the ability to straddle multiple social and sexual spaces. Jules also happens to be the only character who appears (briefly) in the first-person voice, in the middle of the book. There’s so much to work with here—can you talk about how you originally conceived of this character?
AD: Once I’d “met” Jules, I came to understand that Jules “appeared” in response to two phenomena: (1) I’d been teaching graduate courses, primarily, on writing “women’s bodies.” In a 5 year period, I had three students who presented as female who were transitioning to male. They wanted me to know they found my courses stimulating but lacking; meaning they felt excluded from the discourse around bodies of difference because there was no conversation around the presentations of their bodies as changing bodies (more real, to them). I have always listened to my students. And I have always believed the best teaching comes from listening. (2) I began to do more thinking and research around gender identities and gender presentation; particularly as that thinking brought to bear on my own “identity” as neither “butch” or “femme,” but a recognition of the possibility of both in me over the course of my life. When I have been asked “do you identify as butch or femme?” I always say “neither.”
AR: I love that this vibrant, confident character emerged from those conversations you were having in the classroom and elsewhere. Have you had the opportunity to share the book and Jules with any of those former students? What kind of response have you gotten from the trans community?
AD: While I haven’t yet spoken with those students directly, I look forward to that communication. I have spoken with other former students who have either already read the work or are in the process of acquiring copies to read. Their responses have been deeply affirming. At a recent book event, a transperson identified to me after the Q&A. I was so moved. I realized then that there were probably going to be more introductions of that nature. I also met a psychotherapist who said she believed Yabo would be a healing tool for her patients and other members of the transcommunity. I am deeply humbled by that prospect.
AR: In what other ways has the experience of teaching informed your work as a writer?
AD: I think one of the key ways teaching has informed my experiences as a writer has had to do with what I’ve taught: women’s and gender studies courses I created that really interrogated social ideas around race, gender(s), sexualities, culture, and class; specifically as those are articulated by black feminist and queer diasporic women’s literatures.
AR: You’ve described your own experience of being drawn to books and words at an early age, partly as a way of reframing your mother’s view that you had “three strikes” against you (being poor, black, and female). In Yabo, Ezrah reminds the bookish teenage Zen that the act of reading is heroic, transgressive, that “once upon a time it was a crime for us to read and write.” Ezrah appreciates and nurtures her granddaughter’s budding intellectualism. Can you recall which authors and books first influenced you as a child or adolescent in terms of helping you identify yourself as a writer?
AD: I was 11 years old when Lorraine Hansberry’s play, A Raisin in the Sun, was produced on Broadway (1959). Hearing about her and her play was my first indication that black women could construct vivid lives as writers. Of course, later, I learned of Gwendolyn Brooks, Ann Petry, and the black women writers of the Harlem Renaissance (Zora Neale Hurston, Nella Larsen, Georgia Douglas Johnson, et al). But I didn’t know about them before I learned of Lorraine Hansberry. So she was my first. And she was a decisive influence; especially as she was the image of black woman writer as activist I came to grow into my teen years with (She died in 1965 at the age of 34 and when I was just 17).
AR: With a project like Yabo that was so complex and deeply personal, completed over many years, when did you first share it (or parts of it) with another reader? Who do you trust to read your work-in-progress, and at what point are you ready to receive feedback?
AD: I began to share parts of it first with my girlfriend at the time. It felt right to connect all those erotics. After we broke up, early on in the work, I shared it with two other artists-friends whom I have tremendous respect for and with whom I’ve shared many years and many activist projects-the poet Kathy Engel and Valerie Maynard, a visual artist. We were all in residency at the Blue Mountain Center, upstate New York. I remember reading a couple of sections to them, there. I was a little shy about doing so but I also just wanted to hear the words aloud, what the work sounded like, its language. Traditionally, I haven’t been a writer who shares the work while in the throes of it. I have found that just too vulnerable; especially if the ideas driving the work are new or unfamiliar ideas to me. Once the work announced itself as finished, I gave them both copies of the manuscript and asked for their feedback as readers. I trust their sense of my work, the development of my ideas, over time. I also gave copies to my ex-girlfriend, my accountant, a few writer friends, a couple of colleagues, a literary agent I’ve had a long association with. By then, I was sure of what the work was trying to achieve. I was also confident that feedback would help to clarify any obstacles a reader might have.
AR: What are you working on now?
AD: I’ve actually returned to a collection of short stories I started many years ago! I’m so fortunate to be able to look back at a project and bring it forward, return to it. That’s a blessing. I look forward to what it will teach me.
Alexis De Veaux’s work is defined by two critical concerns: making the racial and sexual experiences of black female characters central, and disrupting boundaries between forms. She is the author of two award-winning biographies: Don’t Explain: A Song of Billie Holiday and Warrior Poet: A Biography of Audre Lorde. A celebrated writer of poetry, children’s literature, plays, essays and journalism, De Veaux is also an activist recognized for her lifelong contributions to a number of women’s and literary organizations. With her new work, Yabo, Alexis has returned to her first love: writing fiction.
Get a copy of Yabo at IndieBound or RedBone Press