“I’m less interested in being a good writer than I am in being an honest writer”: A Conversation with Zeba Blay
“I think that knowing your voice is one thing, but standing by it is such an important part of being a writer.”
Zeba Blay has always been interested in the ways that popular media depicts Blackness. As the first person to coin the viral term #carefreeblackgirls on Twitter back in 2013, the film and culture critic has crafted an impressive body of work that focuses on how Black people exist both on screen and in real life.
Carefree Black Girls: A Celebration of Black Women
Carefree Black Girls
Carefree Black Girls,
Tayo Bero: What made you decide that it was time to write this book?
TB: How would you describe your writing process?
TB: In the book, you hold a lot of grace for Black women when they make choices that some of us might see as problematic. Why was that important to you?
TB: You also wrote about how Black women often aren’t allowed space for anger, and the fullness of that specific emotion. How did it feel in that last section of the book when you were finally able to scream “fuck you” to the trolls?
ZB: It was definitely an interesting exercise. It was nice, because I think that I’m definitely someone who represses a lot of my anger and who doesn’t really know what to do with anger, because I am very conflict averse … But even after I wrote that whole fuck you thing, I’m like, “You know, that was kind of a release.” But it’s also a metaphor for exactly what I’m talking about, which is that one paragraph is not even enough to express the multitude of anger and pain that we all feel. And yet, sometimes, that’s all we can get. So it’s cathartic, but I’m realizing that having that kind of release is something that has to happen constantly, and in so many ways.
TB: Switching gears a little bit to the chapter on girlhood, you talk about this idea of freedom. Where do you, as a Black girl, go to find freedom?
ZB: I’m getting more comfortable with the fact that ideas are constantly changing for me, and freedom is definitely one of them, especially as someone who deals with depression and is constantly feeling very unfree. But I think where I go to find freedom these days is definitely in the people that love me, and in my community. I think that love is, in a lot of ways, a synonym for freedom. But I think there are other ways to find freedom. I think creativity is another huge way to claim one’s freedom because freedom is innate, right? Like you don’t go to find it, it’s already there. And I think [freedom is in] being more creative and finding my way back to the little girl who loved to write. Because when writing becomes a thing you do to make money, which is tied to capitalism, which is the epitome of slavery, that free aspect of it becomes very complicated. So nowadays I’m finding freedom in love, and finding freedom and getting back to that place of joy and passion that I had as a writer, before I started writing professionally.
TB: You have a line in the book that says, “I’m no longer interested in writing in defense of myself,” and I think that’s a sentiment that’s really important. Have you felt, at any point in your career, that you were simultaneously having to do the job of being a writer, but also proving that you were worthy of doing that job?
ZB: Yeah, in my twenties, I definitely went through that experience of constantly feeling like I needed to prove why I was in the room. And I think because I came up as a writer during this peak time on the internet where everything was a think piece [or] reaction to something, I found myself being assigned pieces that were ostensibly about race in America, but were always being written from a point of view of explainers to white people who don’t get it. And so that’s also, in a sense, what I mean by writing in defense of myself. I just don’t want to write with, as James Baldwin said, the little white man on your shoulder. That, to me, makes for dishonest writing. I’m not going to sit here and try to prove to you why ABC is racist. I’m just going to call it racist and keep it moving. And if we talk about freedom, there’s such a freedom in approaching my writing from that place.
TB: The book includes some of your struggles with mental health, and you’ve wondered openly what the point of baring your pain like this even is. How did you reckon with that question?
ZB: I think that’s something that’s been top of mind for me now that the book has come out. I’m less interested in being a good writer than I am in being an honest writer, and I couldn’t write a book about joy and not contend with how I was feeling and how I usually feel, as I was writing it.
I have to be okay with whatever my truth [and] my honesty yields.
It was cathartic. It felt right [and] necessary, and I hoped that there would be Black women and girls who would read these things and feel seen, or even if they didn’t feel seen, just be able to engage with it. I think it’s important that Black women’s joy be held with as much care as our pain. But then the book comes out and you’re like “Shit, people are going to actually be getting a front row seat to my neuroses,” and that can feel very exposing. It’s actually very scary, but I think for me, it goes back to the ego thing. I knew that sharing these parts of myself could not be about me wanting or needing a certain reaction. I have to be okay with whatever my truth [and] my honesty yields. And so, the process has just been easing into being okay with my own sadness. It was really just about accepting that this is the way that I am, and this is how I feel. I think before I started writing the book, I wasn’t really comfortable with how I had such a capacity for sadness. And now I’m in a place where it is what it is.
TB: There are certain images that have become associated with the idea of a #carefreeblackgirl; lighter skin, looser curls, able-bodied, etc. How did it feel for you to watch a term you coined be co-opted in that way?
ZB: It was interesting. I didn’t really feel any way about it, per se, because that’s just what happens in this world. People are anti-Black, and so it made sense—I’ll put it that way. But I think, at the same time, I also knew that that’s not what this means to me … And I knew that I wanted to write a book that unpacks that in a lot of ways and highlight the complexity and the nuance of what #carefreeblackgirl means to me.
TB: In your writing process, are there any writers who you look to, or who have helped shape the way that you express your ideas?
ZB: Toni Morrison! I just reread Sula and I could cry, because when you read her work, it is, I think, the epitome of feeling seen by an artist. She just had such a keen eye, and I think when I write, be it fiction or nonfiction, I’m always trying to gesture towards that kind of clarity of sight and that understanding that every image that we create on the page has layers to it, and nothing is just one thing.
[Music and culture critic] Greg Tate just died, and that was such a blow. After his passing, I went back and read a lot of his work at the Village Voice. And I think something that’s been inspirational for me through reading his work is a sort of defiance, and having a voice and knowing your voice. That man knew his voice, and there was no compromise in the way that he wrote. I think that I have often compromised my own voice for a myriad of different reasons. [Still], I think that knowing your voice is one thing, but standing by it is such an important part of being a writer, and it’s something that I’m constantly trying to reach for. And I think that his work has inspired a lot of that quest to just be myself on the page.