Gabrielle Bellot: At the beginning of your course description, you include a great quote from bell hooks. “The oppressed struggle in language to recover ourselves, to reconcile, to reunite, to renew,” hooks writes. “Our words are not without meaning, they are an action, a resistance. Language is also a place of struggle.” Could you unpack this a bit? What, to you, does it mean to envision language as a site of struggle, a place where resistance can take place? What does it mean, in your view, to resist as a Black writer in America today?
GB: How do you see bell hooks’s ideas here more broadly informing what you’re hoping to share with your students in this course, as well as your own writing practices?
GB: What other writers, critics, or artists have influenced your views on what it means to take action and resist as a Black writer in America? Have you found your views on resistance shifting over time thanks to any particular thinker or artist’s work?
NW: This is a really great question! Ntozake Shange and Lucille Clifton are two writers who come to mind when I think of those who’ve inspired and influenced my views on writing as a Black woman in America.
I still remember the first time I read for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf. I was enamored with the way Shange bent genre to create a choreopoem that so masterfully honors the life of Black women and girls. It felt like her work gave me permission to be myself, even if my art can’t neatly fit into “conventional” or “industry standards.” It’s a philosophy I’ve carried into my life overall, and I believe it’s allowed me to live with a sense of fulfillment. Likewise, Lucille Clifton’s poem “won’t you celebrate with me” is a piece I often revisit because it offers that honesty I mentioned earlier. She carved out space for herself, told the truth of her experience, and invited us to bear witness to her resistance.
Still, I feel like my views on resistance change so often that I can’t attribute that to any sole thinker or artist. I try to chew through a book per week, so at any given moment, I’ll encounter a line that stops me in my tracks and invites me to interrogate what I think I know.
GB: Your course will also include a number of exercises that, in your words, “push against traditional writing conventions, which will include audio journaling, story sketching, and breaking form.” Refusing to stick to just one form or genre can be its own kind of resistance, and so I’d love to hear a bit more about why you’ve chosen these nontraditional forms to have your students work with and explore.
NW: I’ve chosen these nontraditional forms for my students because, like the artists I admire and learn from, I want to offer them permission to genuinely explore. I was going to originally focus on poetry and short stories for the course but ultimately transitioned to an open-genre format with the help of the Catapult team.
When I taught this course earlier in the year, I was blown away by how creative my students were with their final projects. One student wrote a short story collection. One student began a memoir-esque project to be accompanied by a music soundtrack. Another created an audiovisual project with their words embedded into the visual artwork. I mean, I could keep going, but they really took the opportunity to ignore what convention says their work should look like and truly blossomed. Witnessing that journey affirmed for me that emphasizing nontraditional and/or multidisciplinary forms was the perfect choice for this course.
GB: In your course takeaways, you note that your students will have the opportunity to complete a first draft that “tackles the participants’ ‘margins,’” a phrasing I find really interesting as a trans woman of color myself who is often thinking about what it means to live in more than one set of margins at the same time. Could you expand on what it means to explore and tackle one’s own margins as a writer, particularly if a writer is marginalized in multiple ways?
NW: You’re asking a really important question that doesn’t have an easy answer because the multiple margins we may exist within all come with different layers of oppression and privilege. The marginalization I experience as a Black person changes drastically when I factor in my womanhood, abled-ness, financial background, educational attainment, productivity, etc. This adds important dynamics to my art and writing because my identity and lived experience are inherently ripe with the conflict and struggle of how those “margins” augment and relate to each other.
To take this a step further, the objective here is not to solely assume the label of “oppressed” or “marginalized” because that’s not an accurate representation of all the margins I both exist within and the margins I reinforce for others. For example, it would be easy for me to solely address the oppression I experience as a Black cis woman in my art, but there is also an opportunity to confront the oppression I am complicit in and perpetuate with my Black trans and nonbinary peers. I can’t remember who told me this, but someone reminded me that in all the ways I experience marginalization, there are folks who have even less privilege and freedom than I do, and I think that’s a critical element to keep at the forefront when confronting your margins as a writer, artist, and human being.
GB: What do you hope students will ultimately take away from your class?
I hope my students take whatever they need from this class to create honestly and unapologetically. Permission, freedom, innovation, storytelling technique, community, assurance, craft skills, hope, power.
I hope they take any and all of it because it’s here for them to have.
Gabrielle Bellot is a staff writer for Literary Hub and the Head Instructor at Catapult. Her work has appeared in the New Yorker, the New York Times, The Atlantic, The Cut, Gay Magazine, Tin House, Guernica, The Paris Review Daily, them, and many other places. Her essays have been anthologized in Indelible in the Hippocampus (2019), Can We All Be Feminists? (2018), and elsewhere. She holds both an MFA and PhD in Creative Writing from Florida State University. She lives in Queens.