The PEN Ten: An Interview with aracelis girmay
Finding a collection as urgent and needed as So We Can Know, edited by aracelis girmay, is nearly impossible. Gathered on the page are writers of color discussing and retelling their truths, stories, and histories about birth, loss, and thoughts on pregnancy. At a time when abortion rights have been abolished in 14 states, this anthology is brave and a tool to stay connected.
In conversation with TC. Mann, Assistant to Literary Programs and Emerging Voices, girmay talked about how she chose the essays to include in So We Can Know (Haymarket Books, 2023) and why the world needed this anthology. (Bookshop, Amazon)
1. So many essays could serve as a starting point for this collection. Why did you begin with Umniya Najaer’s “Dear Alice, ‘For The Murder of [Your] Bastard Child, Of The Starry-Eyed Tribe Born to Children” and how did it help shape this body of work?
I was really interested in the openings made possible by placing all the motions and breaths of Kenyatta A.C. Hinkle’s image “Evanesced: Rivers” just before Umniya’s “Dear Alice…” which is a deeply researched, attuned text and really an exquisite monograph unto itself. What I think of as the polyvocality in both pieces really felt like a critical place to start. Umniya describes her essay as performing “a historical, and at times speculative, recounting” of the trial of Alice Clifton, a teenager enslaved by a white man in Philadelphia named John Bartholemew. She was accused of killing her infant daughter and thus brought to trial in 1787. In the essay, Umniya writes toward Alice Clifton: you, she says. “What are you to do? You who belong to yourself and each other.” The way that Umniya writes history and relation is very important to me, and is deeply connected, I think, to Kenyatta’s The Evanesced work for the ways they both work to honor the others we are made of and with whom we are in journey and circle. Both of these works are very clearly made up of many voices, many efforts and attempts and strategies to reach one another, and to honor the existence of one another and our lives, beloveds, and relationships. Both Umniya and Kenyatta are thinking about being in deep relationship with other Black women across the thresholds of time, and even death. Kenyatta describes her drawings and paintings as “un-portraits” made toward missing black womxn in the U.S. and the African diaspora, across time. She makes her drawing and painting tools out of sticks, pine needles, stones, and the movements she makes when she is listening to music and dancing. To me both works are trying to open themselves into explicit collaborations the dead. It was very important for these historical registers to mark the book’s opening in a way that bows its heads to our ancestors and their paths to the terms of their own lives within the specific conditions and times they were born into. As Jennifer L. Morgan and her daughter, Emma Morgan-Bennett write: “Our histories demand that we grapple with the way that the past lives on in our present.”
2. What is the relationship between truth and fiction in this anthology?
It’s all nonfiction across strategies, genres, forms, and the book is comprised of mostly previously unpublished work. In the invitation, I describe it as an anthology of writers of color on their personal experiences of, and/or thinking about, pregnancy, including loss of pregnancy, abortion, and birth. Writers contributed personal essays, histories, collaborations, testimonies, questions that they wished they had been asked, poems, interviews, and a mix of many of these. Along with the poems, Laurie Ann Guerrero contributed an exquisite embroidery from her embroidery series of cochineal red thread on fabric the color of unbleached cotton. I spoke already about Kenyatta A.C. Hinkle’s drawings and paintings, three of which are included in the book and attend to the spirit and ceremony of this gathering.
“As someone who grew up far and a bit severed from so much of my extended family, I’ve always longed for the knowledges, practices, and histories that I might have known. I felt that the more I knew, the better I might understand or learn to read the systems and behaviors of my people… but also get closer, in diaspora, to the places from where my people came, and that all this knowing might help me to live somehow.“
3. How do these testimonies teach young girls to trust themselves?
I am not sure that it teaches or means to teach – I wonder what each contributor would say to this question – but I think it insists that the truth is important and that our lives are truths, are facts, and that reading or listening or being together are all ongoing engagements with possibility. The epigraph of this book is from the poet Desiree C. Bailey’s wondrous book What Noise Against the Cane. She writes: “I a fact answer of my own making” an utterance that continues to do its work in me in such ongoing ways. For me the book insists on how vital it is that we continue finding our ways to each other’s thinking and feeling, and to our own – everchanging, ever-bedrock, ever-ever all the things such thinking and feeling are made of. And your question helps me to be clear about how important this is for young girls and young people – and all of us – to hear: “I want to know how you’re feeling and what you think.” It is a book of being in difference and scrutiny and wonder with each other. Such community and being-with is powerful and insists that we put effort into attending to our lives and inner worlds and histories. As Black people, people of color, immigrants, and people whose families have been here for hundreds of years and/or hundreds of years before that, so much has been taken from us. We have lost so much and so many. But we have also carried and been held by so much. To different degrees and each in different ways. Sharing word is one of the ways.
4. Tell me about the moment you knew the world needed this project?
In “Death to Breath: A Mother/Daughter Doula Story,” Jennifer L. Morgan and Emma Morgan-Bennett write: “In the history of medicine, there are countless acts of exploitation and violence meted out upon the bodies of Black women, especially in relation to reproduction. When enslaved, Black women faced rape and exploitation as the logics of hereditary racial slavery were most brutally carried out in their own bodies, transforming their children into commodities on the balance sheets of slaveowners.” In another of the anthology’s essays, Ruth Irupé Sanabria makes a movingly fierce, long cry for trauma-informed healthcare. Sandra Guzmán writes a love song to the life force of her tits Himilce, Minerva, and Aida. And woven into this song is an indictment of U.S. government-sanctioned gynecological violence and the forced sterilization of women in Puerto Rico. I think of the absolutely critical work of Ana María García and her documentary La Operación which documents the massive sterilization campaign perpetrated by the U.S. on women in Puerto Rico during the 1950s/60s. These are the conditions out of which we all emerge, touched and shaped differently by these histories. Also sounding in my ear are these words from Jennifer L. Morgan and Emma Morgan-Bennett: “And yet. Black women have always acted to frame their own lives, especially in relation to their capacity to bring life to others.” As Palestinian writers and sister-poets, Lena Khalaf Tuffaha and Deema K. Shehabi, write through the “relentless bombardments in [their] long-suffering homeland,” “Some morning, I am capable of singing” and even in catastrophe, it is possible to “renew [one’s] promise to the tether.” These writers have written what they must and when someone does this, I understand that it is a work that is needed.
Staying with the question a little longer: I am profoundly interested in the ways that people think about the truths of their lives. I think so often about Audre Lorde’s essay “Poetry Is Not a Luxury” in which she tells us: “The quality of light by which we scrutinize our lives has direct bearing upon the product by which we live, and upon the changes which we hope to bring about through those lives.” I am interested in our models for such thinking, and in the practices and conditions that make such study and scrutiny possible. As someone who grew up far and a bit severed from so much of my extended family, I’ve always longed for the knowledges, practices, and histories that I might have known. I felt that the more I knew, the better I might understand or learn to read the systems and behaviors of my people… but also get closer, in diaspora, to the places from where my people came, and that all this knowing might help me to live somehow. I realize now that I was also wanting to know how to carry my dead, and somehow know and be with them and hear what they may have wanted to pass down. The book has been out for about six months now, and I’ve received a few emails from people, some of whom I do not know very well, sharing birth experiences or the details of their choices about pregnancy. Most of them many years older than me. A birth worker sent word to me through our mutual friend to say that this book gives her more language to think about and advocate for the birthing people she’s working with. I’ve received other notes asking if there will be another edition that they can contribute to or inquiring about translation or other collaborations. We have always needed each other, and this dynamic record is one of the many ways we are and can be together.
When my spouse and I were first wondering toward pregnancy, I wanted to hear the voices of Black people and people of color thinking through pregnancy experiences and choices in this country but within the private intimacy of a book.
5. You mentioned you “needed the medicine of stories by people making choices about their pregnancies, which is to say their lives.” Through this anthology what has this medicine cured for you?
To live in this country is to reckon with, and/or to be indoctrinated into, the great force of this country’s insistence on white supremacy, genocide, and capitalism. It is to fight with what it means to try to survive (and to what degree) these structures, and with whom you are committed to surviving, and at whose cost. I do not mean to suggest that the anthology resolves or cures anything, but what these stories help to make possible is that they contribute to the many ways we have been bringing ourselves to each other. It is an opportunity to see each other and ourselves in new and old relation. The anthology is mangrovic. I hope it is the opposite of a border wall. It is open, unfinished, full of multiplicities and divergences. As I say in the introduction to the anthology, I understand this work to be part of an ongoing practice of the sharing and listening that happens on telephones, in laundry rooms, before the altars, and in the kitchens. I hope that it is in constellation with other feminist gatherings of people who listen and write toward the truth of their lived experiences to articulate and dream toward the flourishing of each other. I think of This Bridge Called My Back, Revolutionary Mothering, and What God Is Honored Here?
“I understand this work to be part of an ongoing practice of the sharing and listening that happens on telephones, in laundry rooms, before the altars, and in the kitchens. I hope that it is in constellation with other feminist gatherings of people who listen and write toward the truth of their lived experiences to articulate and dream toward the flourishing of each other.”
6. How can writers affect resistance movements?
I think often about Martín Espada’s introduction to Poetry Like Bread (whose title comes from Roque Dalton’s gorgeous, tiny poem “Como Tú”). In the introduction to Poetry Like Bread, Martín writes, “Any progressive social change must be imagined first…” And of course this imagining happens in so many ways — slowly, strategically, wildly, quietly, fiercely, and in real time. Improvisatory, collaborative. Like any other practice. Teaching, cooking, building – writing can be a material within which/out of which to imagine and dream and collaborate toward an elsewhere… or not. I know for myself that there is language I have metabolized into questions by which I deepen toward the courage it sometimes takes to look clearly at my own life, which can then become a new encounter with my choices, actions, inactions. I am thinking of a wonderful student I had the chance to work with this year, Katie Vogel, and their readings of Audre Lorde’s “Uses of the Erotic” and the way that certain practices, including writing, can become the making of the measures by which we understand ourselves to be more or less in touch with our lives.
7. What is one book or piece of writing you love that readers might not know about?
Dionne Brand’s novel At the Full and Change of the Moon. This book already has a readership and was originally published to acclaim in 1999, but I came to this book late and only read it for the first time last year. In fact, Sarah Ahmad, a former graduate student I was so lucky to work with in 2018, was the one who put Dionne Brand’s The Blue Clerk into my hands in a really serious way, and then it took me a couple of years to read At the Full and Change of the Moon. From its first pages I thought, “How am I just reading this book now? Why aren’t there copies on every train and PSA’s on the radio?” It is an astonishment. To me, it is one of the great texts of our time. I hold it in mind with Toni Morrison’s Beloved and Song of Solomon, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. The book traces the lives of six generations of descendants of Marie Ursule, an enslaved woman who, in revolt, plots a mass suicide in Trinidad in the 1800s. The first generation of Marie Ursule is her young daughter, Bola. I am completely quieted by the intimacy and frequency through which Brand writes. To me she is channeling several worlds, writing out of each character’s psychological force and material, releasing them somehow from the tyranny of judgement (in the Biblical sense) but rather writing them into very close view, summoning the secret interiors of each character, interiors that seem to precede and evade language, and yet this is the material Brand is working in. She writes with such clarity and scrutiny and regard – the sum of which feels like an ethics, a way of really living with others in the world. The first sentences are these: “Marie Ursule woke up this morning knowing what morning it was and that it might be her last. She had gathered the poisons the way anyone else might gather flowers, the way one gathers scents or small wishes and fondnesses. Gathering a bit here, wondering at a fiercely beautiful flower there.” My heart has been marked by this book.
8. What is your favorite bookstore, or library?
When my oldest was very little we spent a lot of time at the Macon Library in Brooklyn, on Macon and Lewis. I was so grateful to the wonderful educators who curated stories, songs, and playtime there. Other favorites are Brooklyn’s main branch and the Inwood Library where my friend Buddy worked as a librarian. He started Bronx Community Collage and the Yonkers Museum. Greenlight will always have a special place in my history and heart for a couple of reasons, one of which is Angel Nafis’s years-long curation of gorgeous poetry events. I missed going to Luis Negrón’s Librería La Esquina in Río Piedras – Puerto Rico – but I hear it is beautiful and I will visit next time I am there. We are just about to move from Brooklyn to the Bay, and in our neighborhood in Brooklyn the poet Andrew E. Colarusso just opened up a small, beautiful bookstore called Taylor & Co. and he’s so kind and attentive and the shop is already so well-loved. I went in a few weeks ago and a neighbor had just ended the regular writing workshop they host for folks in the neighborhood. Someone was selling empanadas outside and a customer in the shop offered me a Mochi. A pair of elementary-school aged siblings were asking Andrew for a loan to buy… something. Empanadas I think. It sounds like I’m making it up, but it’s like that. It is really so wonderful that such a space is here.
“I wondered if I dared ask another to share something so personal, something that they had yet to write. I worried it would be an imposition, too intimate a question, too presumptuous. But I also believed so deeply in what we could begin to make together, and this belief is what made me press “send” on each invitation.”
9. What is the most daring thing you’ve ever put into words? Have you ever written something you wish you could take back?
I will answer your question about daring. I felt the vulnerability (my own and the perhaps-vulnerability of those I wrote to) when I wrote to invited writers to contribute to the anthology. I wondered if I dared ask another to share something so personal, something that they had yet to write. I worried it would be an imposition, too intimate a question, too presumptuous. But I also believed so deeply in what we could begin to make together, and this belief is what made me press “send” on each invitation. As for wishing I could take something back, yes. I am sure. But I try not to spend too much time in the wishing I could take it back and instead focus on trying to write through that feeling, or with whatever learning or new insight I have now. Some things I revise even though they’ve been published already. I make those changes in pencil in the book or on new sheets of paper. But I also think the record of who we are is important, and I want to have some tenderness and compassion and patience toward my effort then, just as I would have toward someone dear to me.
10. What advice do you have for young writers?
I don’t have general advice but maybe the advice I’d offer myself might be helpful to others. I would say to my younger self: write what you must. Study, read widely. Make with, and hold dear, all the voices and practices and sounds close to you now. Write down the things you want to remember. Follow the expressivities that move you – in dance, painting, learning. Make things alone, make things with others. Feed yourself. Attend to your body – go to the doctor, go to the dentist. My younger self might say to my present, older self: Pay attention to the practices and studies that resuscitate or enliven your spirit. Please don’t forget to let your language rest, to make things without words.
aracelis girmay is the author of three books of poems, most recently the black maria (BOA Editions, 2016), for which she was a finalist for the Neustadt Prize. She is on the editorial board of the African Poetry Book Fund and is the editor of So We Can Know: Writers of Color on Pregnancy, Loss, Abortion, and Birth(Haymarket, 2023).