by Celesti Colds Fechter
Ifeona Fulani is a Jamaican-born, black British writer and scholar who received her B.A. in English Studies at the University of Nottingham, England. Fulani received an M.F.A. in Creative Writing, an M.A. in Comparative Literature, and a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature at New York University, where she is Faculty in the Liberal Studies Program.
Ifeona Fulani’s writing has been called “elegant, witty, sad and brave.” She has published numerous short stories and scholarly essays, and is the editor of Archipelagos of Sound: Transnational Caribbeanities, Women and Music (University of West Indies Press, 2012). Her novel, Seasons of Dust, was published by Harlem River Press in 1997, and her collection of short stories, Ten Days in Jamaica, was released by Peepal Tree Press first in the United Kingdom in 2012, and then here in the States in February 2013.
Ifeona Fulani: Thank you for doing this. I am really pleased to have this conversation.
Celesti Colds Fechter: Your first book, a novel, was Seasons of Dust, published back in 1997. Your second, a short story collection is Ten Days in Jamaica. That was released in the UK in 2012—is that correct? — and released here in the States in March 2013.
IF: In February.
CCF: Oh, in February. Between the first book and the collection, you found time to edit Archipelagos of Sound: Transnational Caribbeanaties, Women and Music. I’d like to hear a little about that.
IF: The women and music book?
CCF: Yes, and also, is this kind of the Atlantic experience—Africa, the Caribbean, the United States? Also, I want to hear what else you’ve been doing in that time.
IF: Seasons of Dust was published in 1997, shortly after I arrived in New York to join the M.F.A. program at New York University. I’d written the novel before joining the M.F.A. program, and I think maybe that fact helped me get The New York Times Fellowship for the program. I did the two-year M.F.A. course, and one of my professors persuaded me to apply for a Ph.D. program at NYU, and the toss up was between English and Comparative Literature. He recommended Comparative Literature because he thought they had a greater respect for creative writers. So I applied and got a McCracken Fellowship, which was wonderful. It enabled me to study for five years with full funding. Seven years between 1996 and 2004 were taken up with study. I had one year in between—let me see, between ’96-’98 and ’98-2004—yes, that’s pretty much the trajectory. I did very little creative writing during that time. I had put together a creative thesis for my M.F.A. and I think I added four stories to the thesis, and that is what is published as Ten Days in Jamaica. It was published in England in 2012, and here in the States in 2013.
CCF: So those two books, Seasons of Dust and Ten Days in Jamaica, are kind of bookends for you M.F.A. training.
IF: For my graduate training, yes, definitely. I finished my Ph.D. studies and wanted to go straight on to turn my dissertation into a book, but felt it needed more work more research. I had gone more or less straight into a teaching job, so the time to do that research didn’t present itself. I wanted to do something to make it clear to my field that I am a serious scholar in the field. I also wanted to do something towards advancing my career, and usually publishing a book is the thing you do.
I didn’t think about it as rationally as I am explaining it, but I had put together a panel for a conference on women in music. I put the panel together because I wanted to present a paper myself on Grace Jones. Starting from that impulse, I gathered together four other women who were writing about women musicians and popular culture in the Caribbean. We presented this panel at the Caribbean Studies Association Conference in Salvador, Bahia, and the room was packed. There were literally people standing on people’s shoulders in the doorway. I am not exaggerating. It was so packed that I thought, wow, people are interested in this. After the panel, which went very well, two people came to me and said, “you should do a book.” One person said “you should do a book with me,” and the other person just said “you should do a book.” I decided I would just do a book and started to gather together work that I thought would fit in an edited volume. It was a relatively easy process.
I didn’t put out a call for papers because I didn’t want to be flooded with submissions. I put out the word and between people hearing about the book and making submissions and me actually soliciting people I put together a collection of thirteen essays.
CCF: Oh that’s wonderful!
IF: Yes, not too shabby!
CCF: Not shabby at all! But you know, you mentioned something very interesting. You are a writer, but you are not merely a writer—you are a writer who is a serious scholar. That’s a wonderful combination. You see scholars who do scholarly writing but who are not good writers and writers who are not scholars but somehow have a gift for writing. Combining the two is really special. When did you know that this was the way you for to go? Have you always seen yourself as both a writer and a scholar, or has that been divided and come together?
IF: I didn’t see myself in any particular way. I just did what I wanted to do and eventually it emerged that I wanted to do these two things. You know, I came late to graduate study. I’d already had a career in public administration.
CCF: Oh really?
IF: Yes. I’d taken some time off to write the novel, and I was living in Jamaica. While I was there, someone said, “Oh, there’s a creative writing workshop for Caribbean people in Miami. Why don’t you apply for that?” So I applied, I was accepted, and I met this group of Caribbean writers. But the workshop also involved scholars.
CCF: I see.
IF: This was the Michener workshop. James Michener provided funding for an annual six-week workshop at the University of Miami. It doesn’t run anymore—the funding expired —but for six years or so (I think it was about six years) it convened this astonishing group of writers, scholars, and people who are now leaders in both areas. It was there that I had the idea of following a creative writing program. I realized that I could teach writing and so I got to NYU and was taking classes with wonderful people like Edwidge Danticat, Paule Marshall, Edna O’Brien, but I was also talking courses in literature and literary theory and liking that too. That led to taking the Ph.D. program in Comparative Literature and so it just emerged that I was both a creative writer and a scholar. It didn’t come out of any sense of being called to either.
photo credit: Greg Salvatori
CCF: It was something that was in you that just came out? How fortunate for us. Now I want to ask you a little bit about migration. You deal with migration in your stories in Ten Days and of course in Seasons. This is really a strong thread throughout your writing. Is this life imitating art, art imitating life, or is this another case of “it” (the writing) taking you where “it” wants to go?
IF: Well, one of the old chestnuts of creative writing is that you should write what you know, and I know about this. My parents migrated from Jamaica to London when I was an infant and I went to join them subsequently when I was four years old. I lived without my parents, without my father, for three years and without my mother for two years. When I was reunited with them I didn’t know that these people were my parents.
CCF: I see.
IF: So that was the first recognition of loss, though I didn’t process it as that when I was four year old. My father never got over coming to meet me at the airport. I had traveled over with an aunt and he came to pick me up. I wouldn’t go to him because I didn’t know him. In a way that episode became symbolic for me of the damage that migration does. It ruptures families. It destroys bonds. The quest for a better life may produce a better material life, but it does damage to the family that is hard to repair. That has been a recurrent theme in my work because that has been a recurrent theme in my experience.
Seasons of Dust came out of my observations of families within my community, within the Jamaican community, that have similar patterns to the pattern of my family. Families with similar rifts and ruptures—and then the stories pick up on some tangential aspect of migration. Children are left behind in the Caribbean with grannies and aunties, who never feel like whole people because they feel abandoned; I think this is not every Caribbean person’s experience, but it is such a frequent experience. There is no family, I think, in the Caribbean that has not been touched by this phenomenon and people have been writing about it for as long as Caribbean people have been writing, and I think they’ll be writing about it for some time to come.
CCF: You can’t talk about migration without talking about family and that’s the other leg of your writing—relationships within families.
IF: But you know, Flannery O’Connor says everyone has something to write about, everyone comes from a family.
CCF: Absolutely. OK, speaking again of migration, probably because of your experience, you create a sense of place, whether New York or London or Calcutta, that is really vivid and immediate—that is really present. It is so present—are you there, wherever there is, as you are writing? How do you do that? Is it something that you bring into presence, or does it just flow—you’re there as you’re writing?
IF: I don’t have a ready answer. I can only suggest that I am a well-trained writer and I know that place and setting are important. But I am also a traveler, and I love just the sensory stimulation of being in a place that is unfamiliar. I notice details, I notice smells, I notice sounds, things around me, and I guess I reproduce them in my writing, or try to reproduce them in my writing.
CCF: You reproduce them well. Not every writer can actually ‘take you there’ in the same way. You do that very effectively and you mention that you’re a well-trained writer.
IF: That’s giving props to NYU’s Creative Writing Program.
CCF: Well, props to NYU are due, but props to you also because, again, not every writer takes you there. You can read and have the experience of looking on, or you can read and have the experience, and this is a kind of having the experience. This has an immediacy which I suspect is more than just some sort of technical trick. So, props to you!
Now I want to ask you about something else that seems to me very common. Over the years of moderating Women Writers of the Diaspora, I’ve been struck by how many black women, whether Afro-Caribbean, African-American, Afro-Latina, have this memory, this shared memory, of sitting between their mammas’ or grand mammas’ legs getting their hair done. Recently, black women’s hair was the subject of a discussion on MSNBC on Melissa Harris-Perry’s show, and there were recent programs on black women’s hair at the University of Pennsylvania and at Iona College (in New Rochelle). Your first story in Ten Days is ‘Precious and Her Hair’ and I immediately connected with this because this topic of hair, what we do with it is so ever-present. What was your reason for writing this particular story?
IF: This story was inspired by the young women in my apartment building. I would see all the hair changes they went through. These were young girls, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, sixteen. One day they’d have extensions, the next day they’d be wrapping their hair in that sort of flat style with pins to make it lay straight …
CCF: Right! What was a mechanism for making the hair straight actually became a hairstyle in itself.
IF: Yes, yes, they were so cute in their experiments and I guess I pinned that to a deeper and more troubling aspect of black women’s subjectivity—a lack in many of us in confidence of our beauty. And that, I think, is an inheritance from colonial conditioning—we were always the lesser women compared to our white sister, our white mistress.
CCF: Who might actually be our white sister!
IF: Yes. The reality of young girls trying to make themselves beautiful and the understanding of our inheritance came together in that story where Precious wants the guy and she is doing everything she can to get him.
CCF: And getting the guy somehow is tied up with the ideal of whiteness, or what accompanies whiteness.
IF: Well, she doesn’t process it that way. She thinks that if she has long flowing hair she will be more attractive to him because she sees girls with long flowing hair attracting guys like him. I think that’s how it works in real life. You know, girls are very serious about their crushes and they take their models from what’s around them.
CCF: Yes, what’s in popular culture. I agree with you that this is a legacy of colonialism and I think, by extension, of slavery. We learn what is valued, or what is more valued, and it is interesting that the hair aspect is so symbolic of all kinds of things, not necessarily directly related to skin color, but definitely tangentially related.
IF: It is tangentially related.
CCF: Yes, and it is a thing that we have more control over [than skin color].
IF: Yes, yes we do.
CCF: Being a writer is part of your identity, and being a scholar is part of your identity. When did they become part of your identity? You were not a writer and a scholar when you were ten—or were you?
IF: Very recently they became part of my identity. Once you’ve written a novel, you know you are a writer. I may not have walked through the world pretending I’m a writer, but I know I’m a writer, and once you get a Ph.D. you know you are a scholar. It’s a very affirming thing. When students come to me and say “Is it worth it? Will I get a job? What good will it do me?” I tell them “A great deal depends on what kind of job you want to do. If you want to study literature at that level, it fits you to teach, but not an awful lot else. It is valuable in and of itself. If you feel you want to develop your analytical scholarly ability to that degree it is worth doing, as long as you don’t want to be an engineer.” Probably I had the greatest feeling of accomplishment after receiving my diploma, my Ph.D.
CCF: I’m sure.
IF: Almost more so than finishing the novel. Finishing the novel was a big high. I was high on that for weeks, but the Ph.D. just did something for me. I still didn’t go through the world pretending I’m a scholar, but the publication of Ten Days in Jamaica and Archipelagos of Sound at one time, more or less, helped to consolidate my confidence in both fields.
CCF: Going back to Archipelagos, in that you were dealing specifically with women.
CCF: Music made by Caribbean women. Why women as opposed to broader Caribbean music makers?
IF: Because there was a lot of scholarly work on Caribbean music and it was nearly all focused on men.
CCF: So it was time.
IF: Yes. This was a collection waiting to be pulled together. What I discovered when I was soliciting work was that there’s not a lot of work actually done on women and yet there are so many really popular musicians, not only contemporary, but historically. There are two essays about Celia Cruz in the volume because she is so important and people don’t recognize that she was a global superstar. We Anglophones are so language-centered we don’t recognize the span of the Spanish-speaking world and this woman had a presence across the Spanish-speaking world. I discovered people I’d never heard of like a Mexican singer called Toña La Negra who was very popular in the early 20th century, and again, transnationally. Born in Cuba, settled in Mexico, she became a symbol of Mexican identity which is interesting for many reasons. She was Afro-Cuban and Mexico has historically had a problem in claiming its African heritage. But her popularity was such that they wanted to claim ownership of her so, paradoxically, she became a symbol of Mexicanity. There’s a really wonderful essay about her in the volume. At the other extreme, there is an essay about Sinead O’Connor and her reggae album. I was always fascinated by Sinead O’Connor. I loved her music and I was fascinated by her politics and her recognition of Rastafari as a revolutionary movement, a revolutionary anti-colonial movement, and the fact that she identified Ireland’s colonial struggles with anti-colonial Caribbean and African struggles. There’s a really terrific essay in the volume.
CCF: That is really fascinating. I think of someone like Sinead O’Connor being Irish and I am reminded that St. Patrick is Patron Saint of both Ireland and Nigeria (and also Montserrat), and I wonder when there will be enough Nigerians in New York to join in and march in the parade. Interesting to think about
IF: It is very interesting to think about.
CCF:Speaking of the [anti-colonial] struggle, I suppose being of Jamaican heritage, raised in London, and coming to the United States, much of your writing has an underlay of the colonial experience.
IF: Also, the trans-Atlantic triangle.
CCF: Yes. I’m just wondering what’s different about that in the U.K. and the U.S. In the U.K. living in the land of the colonizer, in the U.S. living in the land of colonizer once removed, so to speak. How does that work?
IF: Well, it’s hard to ignore the fact that the United States is an imperial power. I lived and grew up in a country that once was an imperial power but is no longer, and I now live in a country that is currently an imperial power seeking to spread its power. They’re very radically different experiences. It is hard to speak about growing up in England and not filter that experience through what I now understand about history. But even given that, I think we had better history classes in England than American students have here, so I was raised with an understanding of Britain’s empire and the fact that Britain had these colonies. In school we had atlases that showed the world and British territories in pink. Jamaica Kincaid has written about this. She thought part of the world was pink, and the rest wasn’t, and that we were special, and the rest wasn’t.
So the terms colony, colonizer, colonized weren’t foreign terms to me but I think they would be to many Americans because they haven’t had an education that encourages them to think in those terms. So, when a student recently asked me what it was like growing up in England, and I said I grew up in London and I really like London and he said England is somewhere I wouldn’t want to go because they have a class structure and they used to have all those colonies. I said, isn’t there a class structure here? Isn’t the United States a power in the world? He kind of looked at me and said “not like that” and I said “not like that, but still, you really need to think about the fact that you’re living in an imperialistic country.”
CCF: Precisely. We in the United States are living in denial. We don’t want to admit that we have a class structure because certainly immigrants who came here were not at the top of their class where they came from, so on the one hand we are invested in this completely false notion that we’re this egalitarian country, while on the other hand no one worships the British monarchy like Americans.
IF: Ironic. It’s hilarious.
CCF: It’s incredible. Absolutely incredible.
IF: That’s a longing for history, I think. A longing for antiquity. When you feel that you began with Christopher Columbus, when you compare yourself to European countries, that makes you feel like you’re an adolescent. You’re not really, culturally speaking, in the big leagues.
CCF: Yes, we look to Europe for culture and we don’t validate anything of our own as culture until it is validated by Europe. Take jazz in Germany, for example.
IF: And the United States of America is shaped by European culture and African culture and African culture is ancient, predating European culture it would seem. It would be really enriching to the consciousness of the nation to be educated to understand and appreciate the African inheritance.
CCF: Yes, it’s a very sad thing. I forget who it was—some European—who observed that American speech is basically African speech.
IF: Well there are a lot of African words that are in everyday speech.
CCF: And this is a country that is indelibly marked by Africans and we take pains not to recognize that. Very unfortunate. But, that leads me to another thought. This is a country where people of African descent from all over the world have come, and on the one hand we rub up against each other, sometimes very abrasively, but on the other hand, we connect.
IF: Well, I’m aware, and reminded periodically, that West Indians enjoy sort of a privileged status as the industrious immigrant or industrious black people. But I’m also aware that this status, this privilege erodes over generations as West Indians become assimilated into American-ness, and African-American history in New York is evidence of that assimilation—from Malcolm X, Kwame Ture, even going back to Marcus Garvey. So, there have been frictions and there have also been collaborations and eventual merging.
CCF: And I think actually from the time before this [America] was even an English colony, in the time of the Dutch colonization, with some of the early Dutch slaves. They were constantly going back and forth among New Netherlands, and Barbados, and Brazil, etc. When you look at New Netherlands, slaves were being sent to Jamaica or Barbados, or imported from Curacao or Barbados. This mixture all the time, that became northern blacks. It seems to work a little bit in reverse for American Blacks emigrating abroad. I’m thinking of Janet McDonald’s book, Project Girl, in which she takes pains not to lose her American accent so as not to lose the privileged status of being a black American immigrant to France, and not be mistaken for, and treated like, one of France’s own black [colonial] immigrants.
IF: I have a little bit of frustration personally with the fact that African Americans often question my accent.
IF: Whereas white Americans will say “You’re from England” or ask “Are you from England?” African Americans will say “What’s that accent?” Somebody said to me the other day, “Isn’t there a dialect underneath that accent?” And I said, “Well yes, London dialect” and she looked sort of nonplused. So, there is this strange negotiation that goes on between black people and it is about positioning. And it is about wanting to measure yourself socially and economically against a group that looks like you. And maybe anxiety that you may be looked down on, either way, both ways.
IF: It’s not always easy.
CCF: Another observation about not seeing you as being English. In a way, this is sort of a corollary of the image of Americans as being white. So that people don’t see Black Americans as being “American” in the same way they don’t see black Brits as being “Brits.” So that I think there is that same kind of thing. I think it is so unfortunate that people to whom that is done here do that to you.
IF: I was at a party a couple of weeks ago and somebody asked me the dialect question. I said “that’s really a horrible question” and she was quite thrown that I put that back at her. She said “it’s a normal question” and I said “no, do I really need to give you my ancestry to introduce myself to you?”
CCF: So, you’ve been teaching for over a decade now.
IF: Well, I taught all the way through graduate school. In those days it was still possible, and I taught literature classes, and writing classes, including literature classes at The New School, which was really a great experience for me.
CCF: That was going to be my next question—the experience of teaching. How is that for you?
IF: I love to teach. I like young people. I like their curiosity and openness, and willingness to learn—when it’s operating. Teaching at NYU has been a privilege in a way because we have excellent students and teaching at The New School, similarly excellent students. So, I’ve had good fortune in terms of my students. The end of the academic year is approaching and I’m thinking of students who will leave me and there’s a sense this year, as with every year, that I’ve worked with some remarkable young minds. It is really rewarding.
CCF: So you see your future in the academy?
IF: As far as I know, at present.
CCF: Is it hard to teach?
IF: It gets easier. Was it hard to teach? Yes. It took me about five years before I felt absolutely confident going into a classroom that I would know how to manage whatever might arise. Every session is a new experience and each academic year is a new cycle of experience, each semester is a new set of encounters. There are not many jobs that are like that, where you have to renew yourself, renew your ability, and renew your confidence so frequently. But that daily opportunity is also a good thing. So you have a bad class—there’ll be another class that could go better. That happens. Students don’t do their work, somebody asks ridiculous questions, or good questions that make others feel uncomfortable—it happens. But I have learned to manage it better over time.
CCF: Two part question: Who are your favorite authors, or what were your favorite pieces of writing when you were a child? And then the same question about favorite authors now.
IF: When I was a child I was a voracious reader. I read far ahead of my years. I had a public library at the end of my street and it was the only place my parents would let me go alone. I was there a lot. My very first recollection of loving a book and reading it over and over again was Babar the Elephant. It was a picture book, but I still love the memory of that book, even though when I looked at it recently—I went to buy it for a young niece—it is so infused with colonial ideology that I couldn’t buy it, but I loved it and I still love elephants. So, that’s the first love.
The very first book I read by a black female author—and it will never leave me—is Paule Marshall’s Brown Girl, Brown Stone. That book spoke to me like nothing I’d read before because there was an immigrant family, there was a young girl trying to develop against the traditions of her family in a new context. Here was a book written by a black woman. It was miraculous to me, and the fact that she lived in America didn’t lessen the sense of relevance to my situation, my circumstances. I was older than she—the protagonist Selena—was, I was in my early twenties when I read it. But it was really inspiring.
Now—well if you’d asked me this question ten years ago I would have said without hesitation Toni Morrison, and she’s definitely there in my top five. But I love the work of Michael Ondaatje. He is more experimental with form and character and I find that helpful in my own experiments, and he is of a wider world than Morrison. Morrison is still very firmly rooted in the African-American experience. So, I can love it, but it is not my muse, while Ondaatje has more of a post-colonial, more of a worldly view in general.
CCF: Final question. What are you working on now?
IF: I am working on a piece for a magazine about returning home and what I do when I get back home. Home in this instance is Jamaica because it is for a Trinidadian magazine. They are asking Caribbean writers to produce these little documents of return. I am enjoying writing that, but it’s a short journalistic piece. I have a novel cooking, but I’m waiting for the summer to start writing. I’m excited to start writing. Publishing and getting feedback—positive feedback—on new work is very motivating. It encourages me to get on with the next novel.
CCF: Terrific! Thank you so much. I really enjoy talking to you—always. H