The PEN Ten with Olivia Cole
I first met Olivia A. Cole at Columbia College Chicago, where I was completing my MFA in poetry. Olivia was an undergraduate student, and we had both been lucky enough to secure a much coveted spot in a class taught by John Murillo, who was, at that time, the inaugural Elma P. Stuckey Visiting Emerging Poet-in-Residence at Columbia College. John was teaching a course on duende, that goblin of soul that allows art to either break or save us, depending on what our desire calls for. In John’s class, we discussed John Keats’s negative capability, read Lorca and Aracelis Girmay, listened to flamenco and Ella Fitzgerald’s classic “Summertime” on repeat. Unabashedly, we spoke of the soul and tried to find ours in the poems he had us write.
I remember sitting across the semicircle from Olivia during most of those classes and thinking, whatever John was trying to impart on us about the soul—its light, it’s darkness, its metallic blood—that Olivia had it. Though I remember her poems as being quite good, what I remember most is how, infused in every word she spoke, was belief. Olivia had the courage to believe. She believed in the lines she wrote and she believed in the existence of her body, not only in that room, but in the world. From John’s class, I learned that duende is an artist who can look their soul in the eye, see its fragility, its strength, its cruelty and its need, and love that soul anyway. It is the unspeakable, spoken. This idea of duende, Olivia pours not only into her writing, but into her person as well. Not only do I trust her humanity, I trust that mine is safe with her as well. Since that class years ago, Olivia has gone on to become a best selling novelist who has dared to make the hero of her dystopian two-book series a black girl. I strongly recommend that you follow Olivia on twitter at @RantingOwl, where she remains perpetually and dangerously woke. -Hafizah Geter
When did being a writer begin to inform your sense of identity?
I wrote my first book when I was eight. It was one hundred and eleven pages of winged horses battling for the throne of a kingdom called the Goldlands. Looking back, it was mostly a plagiarized combination of Brian Jacques and Fantasia, but, being the self-important artiste that I was, it was when I began calling myself an author. But I also called myself other things, like a cartoonist and a pirate. I don’t think the identity of “writer” really settled into my skin until I was 13, when writing became my only means of survival. Writing was a thing I had always done, so I think its influence on my identity was something that happened before I was fully aware of it. I was aware, however, of the reverse. Thirteen is a difficult age for any child, but I was a mess as I became aware of my femaleness, my whiteness, and my queerness, and began to explore how these things functioned in the world and in my writing.
Where is your favorite place to write?
Wherever there’s light. Wherever there’s movement. I wrote 70 percent of my first novel on the El in Chicago. A specific kind of noise is helpful to my process–a single person talking on their cell phone, for example, makes it impossible for me to write. A bright room full of a dozen conversations, however… I once wrote 62 notebook pages in a waiting room of the Illinois Department of Human Services.
Obsessions are influences—what are yours?
Lucille Clifton. Obsessed. My senior year of high school, our creative writing teacher gave us each an identical notebook and said it should be full by the end of the year, with our own poems or with others’ work copied down. I think I transcribed the entirety of Blessing the Boats. Her poems are like prayers. I’ve never felt closer to god than when reading Lucille Clifton’s work. Also, greenhouses. If it weren’t for my husband, the single plant we have in our house would be a dead husk. But for some reason I’m convinced that once I’m a “real adult” I will be a fantastic gardener. Greenhouses and gardening keep finding their way into my writing. I’ve been researching solar-powered and energy efficient greenhouses for months, preparing myself for this next life of mine. One day I’ll be reading Lucille Clifton in my greenhouse and life will be complete.
What’s the most daring thing you’ve ever put into words?
Last year I published an essay about the sexual abuse I experienced as an adolescent and my promiscuity as a result of that abuse. I emailed the editor the night before publication and asked her to pull it, on the verge of an anxiety attack. Even ten years after the abuse, after the court date, after it all… the idea of pulling back the bandage and showing the world my wound was terrifying. It still is. My editor talked me off the ledge, but I still sometimes consider emailing her asking if it’s too late to take it down. I tell stories for a living. But telling my own has been hard.
What is the responsibility of the writer?
One of the things writers congratulate ourselves most heartily for is our ability to observe and interpret the world in which we live. Too often, though, we imagine ourselves as apart from it, an individual who watches but does not participate. Many of us are frequently Rorschach of The Watchmen, astride a mile-high horse scribbling about the frantic weaknesses of the people on the ground. The truth, of course, is that we are doing our scribbling from right there on the ground as well, sometimes while seated in the gutter. If we have a responsibility as writers—and I’m not sure we do—ours is to see ourselves as clearly as we think we see the world, to, in the pursuit of our craft, pursue a truth that includes ourselves in its scope. Writers tell the truth. Writers tell lies to tell the truth. Writers invent new worlds to tell the truth about this one. All of this must include the act of looking in mirrors. What it comes down to, I think, is that if writers have one real responsibility, it is to write good shit. And I don’t think you can without looking at yourself once in awhile.
While the notion of the public intellectual has fallen out of fashion, do you believe writers have a collective purpose?
Has it fallen out of fashion? I don’t know about that. Ta-Nehisi Coates. bell hooks. Edward Said called the public intellectual a person whose mission is to advance freedom and knowledge. Twitter might just be full of them. As for the existence of a collective purpose for writers, the writer I would like to be and the writers that I know exist in multitudes on Earth, would say our purpose is to illuminate. To both reflect and inform life on this planet. It’s a beautiful idea. But even as I write this, there is a white writer who is faced with the growing movement to decolonize the publishing world and clinging to her pen and her pearls with horror and indignation. I’ve encountered writers who talk lovingly about illuminating the world with words, but want to be the only one holding the torch. We all have our blind spots—often we are our own—but the moment our blindness harms others, any collective purpose we might claim to share is shattered.
Recognizing years of cultural theft and appropriation, to whom would you like to give back the crown?
Big Mama Thornton. “Hound Dog” will always be hers.
How has the very public mainstreaming of bigotry and more visible and documented police violence resonated in your personal life and writing?
I remember hearing the name Desmond Rudolph in Louisville, but it wasn’t until a few years later that I really knew his story; how LMPD fired 22 bullets, killing him, and called it self-defense. Then there was James Taylor. I was 15 or so when a LMPD police officer killed him. James Taylor was handcuffed with his hands behind his back when he was shot 12 times. The officer claimed self-defense there too. I remember sitting on the bus in the bus compound on my way to school and overhearing the driver talking through the window to his neighbor about the case. They were sort of arguing, one angry and the other, it was clear, would rather not have been talking about it at all. I don’t remember which one of them said it—my driver or the other guy—but one of them said, “What do you mean you’re not choosing sides? It’s one or the other.” After that I would read the papers and find stories like James Taylor’s and Desmond Rudolph’s. Michael Newby was murdered a few years later, if I remember correctly. I had a shoebox full of obituaries under my bed. I didn’t know why I kept them. Looking back, I think I had chosen my side and didn’t know what to do with my anger and my sadness. Police have been killing and brutalizing for decades. The origins of policing in this country are buried in blood. If anything about it resonates even more strongly with me now—with the mainstreaming of bigotry—it’s an increasing sense of rage on behalf of those who have been terrorized by state violence generation after generation, who have been asking for the unaffected to see year after year, and are only now being heard and believed—and barely. Folks have been calling Donald Trump a bloodthirsty bigot since he demanded the execution of the Central Park Five. Decades later the media catches up, and only after he runs for president. How has it resonated in my writing? I just wrote an entire young adult novel that approaches aspects of Daniel Holtzclaw’s crimes. This shit turns my writing red.
What book would you send to a government leader, domestic or foreign, who censors (or inhibits) marginalized and/or dissenting voices?
Claudia Rankine’s Citizen and a collection of Lucille Clifton’s poetry. Although I’m not sure anyone who censors the voices of the marginalized deserves either.
Where is the line between observation and surveillance?
It’s a funny thing, asking a writer about observation vs. surveillance, given the amount of watching we do. But I would say the line is drawn along the jagged concepts of power and intent.
Olivia A. Cole is an author and blogger. Her work has been published in The Oregon Literary Review, The Comstock Review, The Huffington Post, The Daily Dot, xoJane, and others. She published her first novel, Panther in the Hive, in April 2014 and its sequel, The Rooster’s Garden, in February 2016. Her next book is due out January 2018 with Katherine Tegen Books, a HarperCollins imprint.
Hafizah Geter is Nigerian immigrant. A Cave Canem Fellow, her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Narrative Magazine, Gulf Coast, Boston Review, Los Angeles Review of Books, and The New Yorker, among others. She is on the board of VIDA: Women in the Literary Arts, on the Poetry Committee & Bookends Committee for the Brooklyn Book Festival, and is a poetry editor at Phantom Books where she also co-curates its reading series EMPIRE with Ricardo Maldonado. She is currently the Content Editor & Publicity Coordinator for Poets House. Hafizah will be interviewing feminists and champions of intersectional equity.