by Nicole Dennis-Benn
Mecca Jamilah Sullivan’s collection unfolds like a letter bestowed by an elder who has kept certain secrets at bay until the reader is old enough, mature enough to receive it, appreciate it. With language that Rick Moody deems as “Faulknerian,” Blue Talk and Love is written with the voices of the people that echo the reality of New York City, namely Harlem, and its inhabitants. But what makes this book special is its unflinching honesty in depicting issues that we, as women of color, rarely discuss beyond the kitchen table; or for the most part, leave unsaid. I read Sullivan’s collection while attending a residency at Hedgebrook, which is a coincidence given that some of her stories were written there. The story “WolfPack,” which was published in Best New Writing 2010 anthology, resonated with me as a lesbian woman of color living in the very city where these women were assaulted. This story, from a writer whose work I had only been vaguely familiar with, was detailed as it was heart-wrenching, possessing masterful prose that some may deem “literary swagger.” Sullivan boldly explores a variety of topics and styles, which include magical realism, adolescent sexuality, slavery, homophobia, mental health, and body image. The souls of the female characters glittered and sparkled in every word, every sentence. Above all, Blue Talk and Love is a celebration in itself of the voices of women. At the center of its gaze is the lives of the women it portrays. Our heart aches for them as their stories unfold. Esteemed poet Cheryl Clarke puts it best when she writes: “[Sullivan’s] rich and imitable characters, most of them young black women [who] struggle in a world they did not make but one they must confront, tear down, and remake. Black girls matter and Sullivan shows us just how much.”
Prior to writing this profound body of work, Mecca Jamilah Sullivan’s short stories have appeared in American Fiction: Best New Stories by Emerging Writers, Prairie Schooner, and Callaloo, among many others. She is the winner of the Charles Johnson Fiction Award, the James Baldwin Memorial Playwriting Award, a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, and residencies at Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, The Yaddo Colony, Hedgebrook, and the Center for Fiction in New York City, where she received a 2011 Emerging Writers Fellowship. Her critical and scholarly work on sexuality, identity, and poetics in contemporary African Diaspora culture has appeared in publications including Palimpsest: Journal of Women, Gender and the Black International, Jacket2, Public Books, GLQ: Lesbian and Gay Studies Quarterly, From Uncle Tom’s Cabin to The Help: Critical Perspectives on White-Authored Narratives of Black Life, Ebony.com, Zora Magazine, TheRoot.com, Ms. Magazine online, and The Feminist Wire, where she serves as Associate Editor for Arts & Culture. Currently, Mecca is an Assistant Professor of Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies at UMass Amherst. She holds a Ph.D. in English Literature from the University of Pennsylvania, an M.A. in English and Creative Writing from Temple University, and a B.A. in Afro-American Studies from Smith College.
The power of Blue Talk and Love, a book that tastefully merges Mecca’s literary and academic lives, comes not only from its dynamic female protagonists, but from its rich, magnificent depiction of Harlem—the history, the horror, the beauty. It’s the place where Mecca Jamilah Sullivan calls home no matter where in the world she lands. We began this conversation earlier this year at the Kweli Journal Reading Series at the New York Times building where we both read. We continued into the summer, followed by email exchanges.
Nicole Dennis-Benn: While reading your book I felt I was given a personal tour into the people, places and culture of Harlem. Can we talk about that?
Mecca Jamilah Sullivan: Yes, Harlem is very important to me and to my writing. I grew up there, in the section of Harlem being billed as Hamilton Heights, which is up to the north and west, just below Washington Heights. It’s really Sugar Hill. The neighborhood means a lot to me because it’s where I learned what I know about language, and about the joys of listening. Growing up there in the late 80s and 90s was an immersion in a soundscape of languages, voices and musical styles—there were plenty of different forms of black American English, Dominican and Mexican Spanish, Jamaican patois, some Haitian Kreyol, plus hip-hop, soul, merengue, pop, R&B and blues musics, plus children and cars and sirens and block parties—all the sounds of a neighborhood that’s truly alive. Harlem trained my ear and taught me to listen. So I would say that most of the stories began during those years, in one way or another, which is why several of them are set there, and why it’s a place I know I’ll return to in future writing.
NDB: Your book is dedicated to documenting the inner lives of women characters, specifically women of color. Take me through this process of writing about these characters, especially in an era of Black Lives Matter. How had it been for you writing these stories? Black women have been ignored for the most part, yet in your book, you dare us to say their names.
MJS: For me, writing about young black and brown women is both personal and political. It’s impossible to live as a woman of color and not notice how our stories are flattened and erased in contemporary culture. Right now, we’re living in a world and a social moment when there’s actually a public conversation happening about race, and, to some extent, about gender and sexuality, too, and I know many of us are thinking it’s about dang time. And look what it’s taken to get here. To me, the Black Lives Matter movement –which of course was founded by three black queer women, Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi– is evidence of the tremendous brilliance, eloquence, savvy, creativity efficaciousness and power of black youth and black queer women. But of course, Black Lives Matter is also evidence of how violent the world is toward us—proof that it takes an international campaign prompted by a seemingly unending slew of highly visible state-sanctioned murders to affirm the simple point that we deserve to exist. Both of these qualities—the brilliance and the violence—are obvious and in fact blaring for young black women, but both have been obscured in American literature. That’s the nexus that my characters walk through in Blue Talk and Love. What does it mean to be a young black woman—or a young queer person, or a young person of color—creating joy in a world that denies that your right to live?
NDB: Your stories shed light on certain issues mentioned previously, written with such intimacy and compassion. One story that stands out in my mind is “Wolfpack.” The role of language was masterfully explored in the story that documented the true story of The New Jersey Four. You tackled the implications of hate and ignorance, painting a picture of four lives that were affected by it—four human beings—and the looming consequences of daring to love and live. You gave us a heart-wrenching story of the demonization of this group of young, lesbian women. Tell me more about your research process, and merging fact with fiction. In our most recent conversation you had mentioned that a couple of the women reached out to you and commended you on this story. What was that like for you as a writer hearing that?
MJS: I had the chance to meet Patreese Johnson and Terrain Dandridge at my friend Toshi Reagon’s Word*Rock*Sword festival last year, where Patreese read some of her poetry. It was an honor to talk with Patreese and Terrain about their experience, and about writing. I had already written the story, and so I shared it with Patreese and Terrain, and Patreese shared it with Renata Hill. I can’t say how much it meant to me to know they found value in the story. As a writer, any time you take on a voice or an experience that comes from another person’s pain—no matter how loose the connection to what you’ve written—it feels like a little like a transgression, and a risk. You want to recognize your positioning, think about who stands to gain what, and what, if anything, you’re contributing. I had to think for a long time about whether I wanted to publish that story, particularly because all four of the women the story was inspired by—Patreese, Terrain, Renata, and Venice Brown—were still incarcerated when I drafted it. I decided to go ahead with it because I felt there was an important piece of the case that no one was talking about—how the layers of systemic violence were replicated and echoed in the language used to talk about their case. They were constantly dehumanized not only by the judge’s violent sentencing, but also by the media, who referred to them as animals on several occasions, and by the man who they were convicted of assaulting, who called one of the women an “elephant” before threatening to rape another woman. In the judge’s sentencing, he admonished them with the line “sticks and stones may break my bones…” as though the violent language of a rape threat does not constitute “real” violence. To me, this was simply a reinforcement of the same violence—another wound to them and to other black queer women trying to live and be out in public space. No one was talking about that, which was an unacceptable to me.
NDB: One thing I admire about your work is voice. You have that “good ear” that we hear people talk about. You gave people voices in the true sense of the word. The way you intersperse dialect in your narratives brings to mind Junot Diaz, Zora Neale Hurston, Patricia Powell, William Faulkner, and others who have dared to delve into the literary taboo of dialect. Did you ever wonder how those stories would be received?
MJS: You know, I couldn’t imagine not using dialect in my work. The writers you mention are all major influences for me, especially in terms of how they render their characters’ voices. I’d also add Toni Morrison, James Joyce, Dionne Brand, Stevie Wonder and the Notorious B.I.G. Because I grew up in Harlem, my understanding of language is that it’s complex and variegated and constantly shifting. That’s a huge part of why I write—because I think language is magic. Now, having spent years studying and writing about black and postcolonial literary theory, I can’t separate critiques of dialect from questions of class, colonization, elitism and representation—the notion that there is a “correct” English (or French, or Dutch, or whatever colonial language), and that that language is important because it validates voices of color and provides them power and access in the world. I think of Derek Walcott’s essay, “Fragments of Epic Memory,” in which he talks about the violence of linguistic erasure in the Antilles, and the beauty and creativity of dialect and linguistic innovation. The African diaspora is a polyglot place, and we speak multiple languages, acknowledged or not. That beauty and power of black language stretch from Trinidad to Durban to Paris to Harlem. A world without dialect would ring false to me. And even if it were true, I think it would be less interesting to me than the world I grew up in.
NDB: I was first introduced to your writing at a reading on the college campus where I taught. You read “Snow Fight”—a story narrated by a young urban teen—to a room of professors and students. You captivated the entire room with the first sentence: “This white nigga starts talking and everybody on the train shuts up real tight for a second.” And this was only the beginning! Was this intentional?—to air this voice that we don’t usually hear within the pristine walls of our ivory towers? As you read this story aloud, I thought of James Baldwin’s essay, “If Black English isn’t a Language, then Tell Me What Is” where he states, “Language is meant to define the other—and in this case, the other is refusing to be defined by a language that has never been able to recognize him.” In that room, you revealed the essence of Baldwin’s poignant thesis. Would you consider your story as a form of activism?
MJS: Absolutely, especially in the sense that the most effective activism works on both structural and individual levels, wrestling with injustice as it shapes both the worlds around us and the worlds within us.
NDB: Which is your favorite story in the entire collection? Why? Were there any that were closest to your truth?
MJS: It’s hard to say which story is my favorite, but I will say that “Snow Fight” might have been the most fun to write. The story is about a group of junior high school students who have a huge snowball fight inside a subway car on the 1 and 9 train line (the only line in that part of the city that has an outdoor, above-ground stop). The story explores race and gender and what happens when black and brown teenagers take up in public. But for me, it was also a really fun experience with voice. It was a thrill to write, because it came from listening to Harlem and hearing what Harlem’s young people had to say.
NDB: What is your writing process like now? You mentioned that you’re working on a second book. How do you balance teaching with writing?
MJS: I find that teaching can actually complement writing when I have the opportunity to teach classes that connect with my work and my interests. I enjoy conversations with engaged students, and when I introduce them to books or ideas that I’m really dealing with in my own work, I can often learn a lot from the conversations. I’m thinking of Audre Lorde’s essay “The Role of the Poet as Teacher,” in which she talks about the exchange that happens between teachers and students as they work together through reading and writing poetry, and how productive it is on both sides. I think the same is true for fiction, and for literature in general.
NDB: Do other art forms inspire you as a writer? Which ones?
MJS: I enjoy drawing, especially with color pastels. I also keep colored pencils around, and sometimes I paint. I think I’m drawn to visual art because it offers a space outside of language that can be equally expressive, but because I don’t think of myself as a visual artist, I’m freer to pursue my vision in different ways in those forms, and maybe freer to make mistakes.
NDB: Rick Moody has compared you to William Faulkner. Who are the authors that you’re most inspired by?
MJS: There are so many. Those that I mentioned earlier, plus Ntozake Shange, Jamaica Kincaid, Cheryl Clarke, Samuel Delany, Assia Djebar, Suzan-Lori Parks, Ama Ata Aidoo, Lorrie Moore, James Baldwin. I’m influenced by many, many songwriters as well. Biggie, Stevie, Michael Jackson, Fiona Apple, Nina Simone. And there are so many writer friends whose work inspires me: Tiphanie Yanique, Jacqueline Woodson, Natalie Diaz. I’m an admirer of your work as well, as you know. I think we’re lucky to be writing at a time when it’s relatively easy to be in touch with so many great writers doing challenging, moving work.
NDB: You mentioned that your novel is a follow-up to the story “Saturday,” one of my personal favorites, given its unflinching narrative about a young girl who is forced to consider her weight at a young age and her painful introduction to what it means to be a woman living in a body image obsessed realm. What prompted you to expand on that particular story?
MJS: Thanks for this. That story is important to me for the reasons you mention. It thinks about how obsessions with weight and body image, especially among women, affect many aspects of our lives, even from a very young age. The main character of “Saturday” is eight years old, and defines her world almost entirely through food. There’s a lot of joy in that for her—she loves food and has a very robust view of the pleasure it brings her. But there’s also a lot of pain, since she’s already learning to monitor herself, to make sure she doesn’t take up too much space, that she doesn’t indulge too much. Thinking about how cultural obsessions with weight, body and food impact girls and women at different ages, I realized that I needed to see this character through various stages of her life. The fight to own our bodies changes as we grow, but it’s almost always there. For a lot of women, that struggle shapes the context of who we are, but also gives us new opportunities to define ourselves and make space for our bodies.
NDB: Now that you’re working on a novel, which do you find to be the most challenging, a short story collection or novel?
MJS: I would guess that writing is a challenge in every genre, but I think there’s a great payoff of joy when you find the genres you like most. For me, the novel and the short story are very different, but both offer real rewards. I feel proud when I finish a story I’m happy with. Since I love indulging in language, the economy of the short story—the need to pull back, pan out, and eventually leave the voices and characters behind—can be tough. If I like the characters, I don’t want to let them go! So when I feel like I’ve pulled that off, there’s definitely a sense of accomplishment. You need those skills with the novel, too. But the novel also offers the chance to stay with the characters a little longer, which can mean following them through a longer or more complicated run of ups and downs, and seeing how the world continues to change them. Sometimes it seems to me that writing a story requires you to sort of drop your characters—and your reader—off at a point in the journey that’s important and meaningful, but isn’t necessarily the end. I think the same is true for the novel, in a way, but in the novel you’ve gotten more time with them, and so you can untangle hands slowly, look back over where you’ve been, and ease away. For better and for worse, it’s a different kind of goodbye.
NDB: Thus far, you’ve heard everything I love about your writing, so let me leave you with this: What do you love about your writing? And what do you hope readers will get from it?
MJS: Oh, this is a good one. I can say what I love most about writing is that it allows me to consort with a limitless number of voices. I love the sense of possibility that comes from getting to know a character and her world. That’s a process that challenges me to learn new things and re-think what I thought I knew, and gives me a lot of joy in the process. I hope it does the same for my readers.
Nicole Dennis-Benn’s debut novel, HERE COMES THE SUN, will be published by W.W. Norton/Liveright in JULY 2016. Her writing has won a 2014 Richard and Julie Logsdon Fiction Prize; and two of her stories have been nominated for the prestigious 2016 Pushcart Prize in Fiction. She’s a 2015 MacDowell Colony Fellow, a 2015 Sewanee Writers’ Conference Tennessee Williams Scholar, a 2014 Lambda Foundation Emerging Writing Fellow and a recipient of distinguished fellowships from the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund for Women Writers, Hedgebrook Residency, and Kimbilio. Her work has been awarded Honorable Mention from the Hurston/Wright Foundation, and has appeared in Red Rock Review, Kweli Literary Journal, Mosaic, Ebony.com, and the Feminist Wire. A 2012 graduate of Sarah Lawrence College MFA in Fiction program, Nicole was born and raised in Kingston, Jamaica. She currently lives in Brooklyn, NY.