| Don’t Write Alone
Interviews How Eve L. Ewing Makes Her Stories Fly
“I’m passionate about advocating for young people to engage with literature, with art-making, with storytelling, because those are opportunities I had at a very young age.”
Dr. Eve L. Ewing is an acclaimed sociologist, poet, and comics writer from Chicago. Her genre-defying work that often centers Black girls, futures, and technology has captured the imaginations of many, including myself. As a writer who, in the words of Dr. Ewing, “just be writing different things,” I often immerse myself in her work, exploring the various ways she finds to ask questions, attempt to answer them, and interrogate what is possible. In an interview for Catapult , I chatted with Dr. Ewing about finding community, imagining futures, and, most importantly, Black girls that fly.
(Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.)
Ravynn K. Stringfield: I finished reading Maya and the Robot (Kokila, July 2021), and I noticed that you cited Mariame Kaba in your Acknowledgments: “Everything worthwhile is done with other people.” So I wanted to start by talking with you about how writing is communal. How did you find your writing community, and how have they helped you in your journey?
Eve L. Ewing: You know, I’m always self-conscious about this because I believe there are many pathways to art. The pathway that I take is not the one right way, and so I know that different people get here in different ways. Nothing I’m about to say is meant to be prescriptive or “This is the only right way to do it.” But in terms of my own story: I feel very blessed to have grown up in a community and in a family where the idea of making art—and specifically writing, but just making art generally—was normal and accepted. I think that oftentimes, there’s a narrative that for people of color and/or people who come from working-class or low-income-class backgrounds, parents or families or community members are not supportive or not understanding of the idea of being an artist. That’s just not my experience at all.
I think part of that is because Chicago has very rich art-making traditions that are working people’s traditions, both in terms of the type of art that is made and the subject matter. I grew up surrounded by a lot of art and by a lot of artists and felt like I had a lot of models of what that work looks like. In particular, I feel very grateful that as an educator, it’s not lost on me that I benefited from really robust youth arts programming. It’s something I’m passionate about, advocating for any opportunity for young people to engage with books, with literature, with art-making, with storytelling, because those are opportunities that I had at a very young age.
“I feel very blessed to have grown up in a community and in a family where the idea of making art was normal and accepted.”
I started working when I was fourteen at a program called Gallery 37, which is now called After School Matters . It was a paid summer position where you could do apprentice art-making, and so the first summer I was in a playwriting cohort. I got paid minimum wage, but I got paid to show up and participate in this kind of programming. It was the beginning of me being surrounded by other young people that took themselves very seriously as writers, and that was part of their identity that they owned without self-consciousness. That was really cool; I feel really grateful for that. That is a city program. It’s people’s taxpayer dollars at work, and I’m appreciative of that. I feel grateful for that community, and that embedded in all of those spaces and exemplars was the idea that this was also inherently political work. And telling your story, and the story of where you come from, is inherently a political act.
RKS: You’ve already started to talk about how much Chicago is so integral to how you understand art, but, specifically, how did growing up there inform how you imagine and write about futures?
ELE: Well, one thing, I think there’s just a lot of Afrofuturist practitioners that have come from Chicago. Most famously Sun Ra, but also Krista Franklin, who is a visual artist and poet and a mentor of mine. She was the first person who introduced me to the idea of Afrofuturism. Ytasha Womack, who’s written the definitive book on Afrofuturism, lives here. There’s just a lot of people, specifically a lot of Black women, who have contributed to that tradition.
But also, I think that Chicago is [ chuckles ] . . . it’s a rough place. It’s a rough place to live in a lot of ways. I think that when you come from a rough place, it’s like, well what are the options? And when I say it’s a rough place, I mean that in a lot of vectors, including the harm that other people do with the gaze that they imbue upon the city—the way people talk about the city who aren’t from here. There’s a kind of hopelessness that can come from that. But there’s another possibility, which is to be compelled to think creatively about what else is possible. I think that I feel really grateful for the Black creative practitioners past and present who have invited me toward that form of thinking.
I was laughing because I’m looking out the window and it’s gray and not very nice outside. Earlier this week, it was warm and I said to somebody, “Oh, we’re beginning the period of time when we tell ourselves the great lie about the weather that allows us to live here the rest of the year.” It’s basically like, the weather’s super, super, super nice for like two months and then the rest of the time it’s like really bad. But those two months are the bomb! So, I was laughing because I feel maybe there’s something symbolic about being from a place where you spend ten months out of the year dreaming about this moment that you know is coming that is then going to be very fleeting.
RKS: The Black people, Black girls, that you write about are so deeply entrenched in science, and technology, and future, and I also feel touches of magic in it. What does it mean for you to be able to write about Black girls that metaphorically and literally—like in the case of Riri Williams (a.k.a. Ironheart)—they fly?
ELE: They fly! It’s so cool, right? I definitely want to address the first part of what you said, which is that there’s a lot of Black girl STEM content. I think that’s great, but I think that one risk that I would invite creators to attend to is that people are drawn to the idea of Black girls in STEM, which on the one hand is definitely important representation that I care about and is powerful.
On the other hand, if that becomes the only mode through which we see Black girls, that’s also a problem. Specifically, the trope of the Black girl STEM superhero. I love Ironheart, I love Riri, but Shuri and Riri and Moon Girl are all science geniuses, you know? How does that reinforce certain limited notions about what Black intelligence or Black genius has to look like? How does that play into capitalist-driven conversation about Black girls in coding or Black girls’ participation in science fields? “Telling your story, and the story of where you come from, is inherently a political act.”
With Maya, there was an early conversation where somebody on the marketing team wrote early copy for the book and they said, “A science genius!” and I was like, “She’s not a science genius. She’s a very regular kid; she just likes science.” She’s not a magical negro, she’s not an unattainable mythological character, she’s a very regular kid who like really likes science class. I think that’s important. I used to be a science teacher, I like science, I liked science as a kid. I wanted to move away from the expectation-of-Black-women-to-be-superhuman thing that we can pass on to the way we talk about kids and girl characters.
Oh, and flying! Yeah, flying is great! I think that it’s the governing metaphor of Black poetics in all different genres and forms going back to the days of enslavement. Specifically, I would say flight—this is really unoriginal—but flight and water are two governing metaphors that are important to me and important to a lot of Black people. I like to run—well, I’m a runner, which means, much like writing, sometimes I actually like to do it but often I don’t. But there’s this Kelis song called “ Runnin’ ” and she says, “I became a runner so they couldn’t say she’ll never fly, she don’t have wings,” and that’s a song that I love. I love Flying Lotus and Kendrick Lamar’s song “Never Catch Me” too—you know, just running; flight.
It was a great opportunity in writing Ironheart to go back to this question about what we as Black creators have to bring—or what creators of any particular identity have to bring—to a character beyond just representation; again, what is the governing aesthetic or politic behind the thing? So for me, to have a character that flies, as a Black person, I was like, “Oh, that means more than you think it means, folks. There’s a specific resonance to that that I would like to lean into.” So that was really fun.
RKS: To return to this question of legacy, what has it meant to be able to bring everything that you’re talking about to Marvel?
ELE: There are pros and cons; it’s challenging. There are pros and cons to working within a corporate structure where you don’t own any of the content, and that’s challenging. But I think it’s amazing to step into something that has been going on for eight decades and a conversation that is so ubiquitous in popular culture and means so much to so many people literally all over the world.
What I always say about being a writer is that if you wanna be a writer, you understand—if you’re pragmatic, I’m a pragmatic person—you go into it understanding that your odds are . . . it’s like being a kid who wants to go to the NBA. It’s like, you can do it. You should strive for that. Do you, boo. Work on your dream. But the odds of that happening are very slim.
The way I think about it, most people who want to be writers never sit down and work on anything. Most people who sit down and work on it don’t finish it. Most people who finish something don’t get a chance to actually share it with the world and get it published. And then most people who get something published—nobody reads it! [ chuckles ] Therefore if you find yourself in this outrageous situation, where people actually are reading what you’re doing and it means something to them, it’s like winning the lottery! It’s just wild!
And so to be a Marvel writer is really special because it means that you’re stepping into this world where you get to step into this legacy that’s really special and really unusual. Most people never get that opportunity, so I’m very blessed and very grateful for that. It just means a lot to me.
RKS: What has—or hasn’t—been working for you with your writing practice during the pandemic? Has your usual practice shifted any?
ELE: For the most part, the pandemic has helped me slow down a lot. I was already going in thinking, “Okay, I need to slow this down because it’s not sustainable,” and so during the pandemic the biggest thing for me was just the massive amounts of travel that I didn’t do.
Most of what’s happened to me is I think my routines have become much more physical. I used to be very digital only, because I never knew where I was gonna be. So I’m very into my whiteboard right now. I bought myself a really nice planner, and I haven’t used a paper planner since 2012. I’ve written a ton. And at the same time, I’m very mindful of the ways in which we can be physically, and mentally, and emotionally exhausted even when you’re not flying all over the place. It was a call to pay attention to things that disabled people have been saying for a long time, things that parents have been saying for a long time, about the ways we push ourselves and the expectations we set for how we expect our minds and our bodies to show up and perform for us on demand under duress.
“It was a great opportunity to go back to this question about what we as Black creators have to bring—or what creators of any identity have to bring—to a character beyond just representation.”
RKS: Before we end, I have some lightning-round questions! Answer in a few words. Favorite writing snack and beverage combo?
ELE: Oh gosh, I love snacks so much! My favorite would probably be chocolate-covered almonds and sparkling water.
RKS: Favorite place to write that’s not at home? Assuming we were in a pre-pandemic world.
ELE: My favorite place in the world to write that doesn’t really exist anymore is the upstairs café at Trident Bookstore in Boston, Massachusetts. RIP.
RKS: Dream superhero to write?
ELE: Oh, Storm. Of course. Obviously.
RKS: Obviously. Outline by pen and paper or digital?
ELE: Definitely pen and paper. I use mini-sized yellow legal pads and a Ticonderoga No. 2, like you use in school.
RKS: What is your favorite pen?
ELE: Muji! Muji pens! The Muji is my workhorse pen. That’s like the pen that’s in all my bags and in my pocket all the time.
RKS: That is the lightning round!
ELE: Great! I did so good!
RKS: You did so good!
ELE: [ laughs ] Yay! I got ’em all right! I got all the answers right!