by Amy O Yeboah
In between two countries, Shauna Morgan and I shared intimate secrets of her debut poetry collection Fear of Dogs & Other Animals and, takes us on a diasporic journey of identity.
Asserting a connection to Black folk globally, Shauna Morgan, born and raised in Clarendon, Jamaica, feels at home as an African in the diaspora, and she has made her diasporan experiences a central theme in her poetry and scholarship. Morgan has said, “Jamaica is my homeland, but the U.S. is also my home as much as the continent is my home” and there is clearly a seeking and finding home which is at once a thing of beauty and, at times, a sight of ugliness. Her poems carry Africa whether in a drumming rhythm or on words wrapped in a waxy fabric of cultural notes, and she does not baulk at celebrating this blackness outside and independent of the indictments that also appear in her work.
Amy Yeboah: Can you describe what inspires you when you’re writing?
Shauna Morgan: Inspiration comes from many places, really, but I think what anchors the work is as important as what inspires it. Having come up in a very rural community, I find that I have a special relationship with the environment, the land, and the space around me. Having no TVs. for example, or even coming up in a district with no electricity, there are ways I experienced my environment that shapes my writing. One of the things that happened very regularly with my family is that we would sit outside on our veranda on a moonlit night and tell stories. Some of these stories were ones I’d heard again and again. Sometimes it was Anancy or some equally hilarious family tale. Other times, it would be a myth-like narrative tied to some eccentric person in the district. I guess that sense of the communal shapes my work. I always call up time spent with my mother at our kitchen which was outside. I was about five years old when we got an indoor kitchen, but seeing every step of her preparing a woodfire is what returns to me. My environment—the world around me, what I see, what I hear and what I smell—inspires my work. I was also raised in a very politically active household. My parents were both community organizers for the socialist government in Jamaica, and I went everywhere with them. That sense of community, people, peace and justice, also shapes my work in a lot of ways. While I navigate the world of poetry in a sensory way through sights and sounds and smells, my work is anchored to a concern for humanity—especially diasporan experiences.
AY: What would you say is the main priority in your writing?
SM: I would say it’s important to convey a sense of truth—something very honest. I am very concerned with aesthetics also. I do spend a lot of time in a space where I’m thinking about words, looking at the words, seeing and hearing how they sound, and finding ways I can use sensory elements. The work must be artful in the way that I use language, but ultimately, for me, some truth has to be conveyed through that work—it can’t just be beautiful. I engage nature and there are ways I try to render nature on the page in beautiful ways, but that’s not enough; there is some truth that must be told. For example, in the chapbook Fear of Dogs & Other Animals there’s a poem called “Growing and Weeding,” and at first glance it’s about growth—human, flora, fauna. I think it’s a beautiful poem, but it’s also about resistance—about overcoming an oppressive situation and enduring. I’m offering some kind of truth and attempting to make it artful as well.
AY: How do you create this balance and offer truths across the diaspora?
SM: That’s really the core of my work in terms of what drives my passion and desire, because I see myself as a global citizen in terms of the diaspora—meaning I feel connected to Black people everywhere. For me, on this side of the world, the thing that comes out in my writing should reflect, show, and reveal the ways that Africa is still present in our everyday lives.
When I’m writing about or drawing from the memory of my experiences in Jamaica the lines that emerge can be very much connected to that heritage, but I can also see how that connects to my African American lived experience, and to matters that arise when I am traveling or working in sub-Saharan Africa. A few years ago, I left the U.S. and went back to Jamaica for a funeral and days later I was in Ghana with my students. Being in those three locales and seeing somethings that look familiar—in this case a funeral in Gravel Hill which carried the marks of a funeral in Mampong which sounded like one in the Ninth Ward—grounded me in my effort to demonstrate how our everyday experiences as folk in the diaspora are still linked with our ancestral lineage.
There’s a Lucille Clifton poem which reads, “africa / home / oh/ home / the soul of your / variety / all of my bones / remember” and it captures what I try to do with my work—that is I try to craft lines that say even our bodies—even our songs—our lived experiences remember our heritage. I’m always sort of making this journey from the Caribbean to the United States to the continent and back.
AY: You said you travel and create connections between homes, can you describe that process and how it manifests in your writing?
SM: My homeland is where my umbilical cord is buried—my birthplace in Jamaica. The familiarity of that place and sense of belonging, is incomparable. In the U.S. (and other non-Caribbean spaces) my identity is African American—that is my claimed and lived experience. As a Black person and as an African American woman in the U.S., my experience is an oppositional one at every step. This became the overarching idea in the title poem “Fear of Dogs & Other Animals.” How do we deal with navigating this fearful and terrorizing space that is the United States of America? Jamaica is my homeland, the continent is my ancestral homeland, and the United States is my adopted home and the one that’s wrought with the most conflict.
AY: Can you tell us more about what the dogs represent in relation to the opposition you feel in the U.S.?
SM: The dogs become one of the ways that the poem travels across and through the diaspora and makes connections. In Jamaica—in my rural community—people had dogs to guard their livestock and property. As a child, I had to walk with stones in my pockets to deal with dogs, because they were often very aggressive. And I have fought off a dog or two in my time. When I came to the U.S., I was struck to see dogs living inside houses; it was strange. And people couldn’t understand why I was afraid of their pets. When I began to read about how dogs were used in the U.S. to support acts of violence against Black people during times of bondage and up to the Civil Rights era and even now, I realized that there were different and racialized experiences. There was this contrast where I saw mainly white people treating their dogs like children and then a frightening public thing with dogs tearing at black folks. In the Caribbean and on the continent, dogs have a very different status; you’d be hard pressed to find a dog on the front seat of someone’s car. The dogs and other animals are very much pointing to white supremacy and how people dole out their power and violence against us. And so although in Jamaica they are frightening, they are not nearly as terrifying as the dogs and other animals that aim their violence towards black people in this country.
AY: What do you mean by other animals?
SM: I think that it was important for me to use “animals” in that poem as a way to weaponize the language. On one hand it aims to invert some of the stereotypes and racial caricatures that are projected onto us. In the U.S. when you think of violence against Black folk, the images of police officers with German Shepherds comes to mind, and I’m well aware of the pejorative pig used to refer to cops. So, yes, the poem is speaking of animals in this way, and the poem alludes to our use of the term pig. But it doesn’t say “pigs” because, as we are well aware, it’s not just white police officers enacting violence. It’s the white man down the street or the white woman in the coffee shop or in the classroom—other animals, as it were. This poem was imbued with physical violence, but the goal is that it retains a kind of childlike perspective. So you know that it’s not just the physical violence too—it’s the fear that the speaker remembers carrying—which is also a kind of violence enacted on us. Acts of violence can manifest in many ways.
AY: What scares you about your writing?
SM: It just it depends really on what I am working on at that moment. Generally speaking, what scares me about my writing is that it is very personal. It’s very intimate. And, in an effort to speak truth and bear witness in my writing I have to, as Audre Lorde said, “speak the truth as I see it” whether it is pretty or not, painful or not. I’ve been told that I can write dagger poems—words that can be hurtful. So sometimes I am a bit apprehensive about the truth being revealed and how it’s coming through. But at every moment I write it’s also about overcoming the fear to write those things that speak the truth. My work and the act of writing is a liberating thing, and even if there are things that make me afraid, the fact that it is liberating will allow me to press forward.
AY: What is yet to be revealed through your writing?
SM: Writing poetry can be a kind of reclamation. It’s a way to reclaim truth, to tell stories that have been hidden or remain untold. It’s a way of naming something. And it is not just being oppositional and being resistant, but it’s also a space where there’s a lot of possibility beyond the reactionary. When I think about my experience—when I think about the experience of my people and think about what is yet to be told in our existence as Africans in the diaspora, there are possibilities that haven’t been explored or revealed yet, and I’m always searching for that in my poetry. And as much as this chapbook deals with some of our experiences navigating things that oppress us, it also is attempting to forge a path that is not just a reaction to oppression. That’s what I’m still seeking—what still has yet to be revealed in the work. Some poems think about the African Self outside and beyond the realm of the space that’s governed by whiteness. I think that this is one of the things that continues to drive my passion about writing. That revolutionary need to create Black art, to create something that is beautiful, to write a story or craft an image of our black experience of African-self so beyond and outside of this everyday society—every day thing that we live is something that I want to do. It is something that’s revolutionary.
Amy Yeboah is an Assistant Professor of Africana Studies at Howard University.