| On Writing
Debut Writing Myself Back Into My Body and Into the World
We have the right to imagine what is possible beyond the systems that try to destroy us. Black and queer writers have long imagined worlds beyond this one.
1. the faculty or power of seeing; vision
I began writing in order to imagine. As a child, I was drawn to stories that existed somewhere between the real world and another realm. Narratives that were speculative—in how they navigated time, space, memory, and even bodies—but that had some kind of stake in the real world, our world. They gave us insight about ourselves and about each other and, through this, some kind of way forward. These were stories that recognized us as people and, in that recognition, imagined what else we could be. This was not just an alternate universe that they were creating. It was, if we believed it to be, a possible future.
As I wrote my own poetry and short stories, I found comfort in the idea of possible futures, changed outcomes, and other modes of being. I created images that were a bridge between this world and the next. Home, in many ways, was unpredictable, and it was in building this bridge that I found safety. In an instant I could imagine myself elsewhere. So, like a wardrobe or magical door, this kind of writing, for me, was a portal. If I put something down on the page, suddenly, it existed. Suddenly, I existed. And this was a kind of door too. I saw this as a way of grappling with reality, a way to create my own conditions for memory. This was not an alternate universe. This was an act of rememory, a different kind of power.
Imagining is a Black tradition. It is a queer tradition. It is a tool we use to see ourselves, to see each other. Speculating or imagining what could be is part of this tradition. We have the right to imagine what is possible beyond the systems that try so hard to destroy us. It takes envisioning new conditions, for ourselves and for one another, to move toward abolishing these systems. Out of necessity, Black and queer writers have, for many years, imagined worlds beyond this one that still, importantly, acknowledge the possibilities of this world. I have looked to writers like Toni Morrison, Octavia Butler, and Lucille Clifton’s own bridge, our bridge , “between starshine and clay.” Writers who make poetry out of living and living out of imagining, who closely listen to the world and, in that listening, help us make a new sound.
Writing, for me, was a portal. If I put something down on the page, suddenly, it existed. Suddenly, I existed.
Imagining is a pathway to the senses. What we are able to imagine is truly what we are able to see and hear. My creative practice has been influenced by artists who use sounds and images to tell us more about who we are and what we can be. I’ve looked to Afrofuturism, which allows us simultaneously to consider the potential of this world and actively create new conditions for ourselves. I’ve had dreams of defying corporeality and have been inspired by visionaries who have carved out these futures. From Missy Elliott in her space-jeep, transporting us between this world and the next, to Sun Ra, who drew up another world and simply walked into it, leaving an opening for whoever already knows the directions. Imagining—speculating on what is possible in whichever way we are able to—is its own kind of poetry. Acknowledging the present is a way of seeing. Yet imagining the future is a way of hearing, a way of listening .
2. conjecture; without evidence
My book began out of this need to imagine. In 2015, I applied to graduate school for creative writing. I was admitted into various MFA programs and chose the one where the type of interdisciplinary work I was doing would be encouraged. I moved to Providence, Rhode Island—a city that is, depending on where you come from, either perfectly serene or unsettling in its quiet. Coming from Jersey City, where I was comforted by a warm kind of disquiet—the sound of neighbors, music blasting from cars, and loud passersby—this lack of noise was lonely. Unimaginative. Yet in that absence there was an opportunity to hear.
During the second year of the program, I began writing my thesis, the first ideas that some years later became my book. It was 2017, just a few years after the murders of Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, and the many people that we knew before them, gone at the hands of a system built to kill them, to kill us. Death takes a toll on the imagination. It is a sometimes silent, sometimes loud sound that reshapes what we see, what we hear, and what we are capable of envisioning. This is perhaps especially true in the case of collective grief. These deaths were a reality in which I saw my body: through the witness of others. Though the news would like you to think that there is room for speculation—from headlines naming what they could have done differently to the images that the media choose to circulate—there is never anything to speculate on. They were people, from places like where I am from, with families like mine, who looked like me, like us . And they were people who imagined like me too. They are a part of the reality in which I write in, and abolishing the systems that killed them, and continue to kill us, is the reality I write toward.
On a trip back to Jersey City, an event changed the trajectory of the poems I was writing. It was just past midnight and I had gone to sleep. I was awoken by the sound of a single gunshot, a sound that my body heard before me. My mother ran to the door instinctively, as she always does, because it could be my brother, could be someone else we know and love. This was not a new sound or new image to us; it was nothing we had to try hard to imagine. It was just a familiar disquiet in our lexicon of sound and images, one that is a part of our world, our reality. Thankfully, it was not him. Yet this time, for the first time, I cried out of a strange grief, out of the feeling that it could have been me. And this water was something like blood. It was for the first time that, after now having lived in all of that quiet, I truly heard the sound.
When I returned to Providence, everything that once was disarmingly quiet and unimaginative suddenly became so loud. I continued to write poems, but now I was thinking about this lexicon: the sounds and images that, out of recognition, live in our bodies. I thought about the differences in how each of us listens, how we see, and ultimately what each of us is capable of imagining. I thought about those intentional silences: what one person refuses to see to avoid seeing themself. This event wasn’t news to us ; it wasn’t news to people like me. Yet I realized that for some people, including those in my MFA program who had grown up privileged and without the same lexicon, there was a safety in not hearing, not seeing, and not imagining.
Imagining is a Black tradition. It is a queer tradition. It is a tool we use to see ourselves, to see each other.
So, when I brought in a section of this writing to workshop and a white professor did not recognize the world I was writing into and toward, I was not surprised by his lack of imagination but by the silence it made in my body. I brought in poems that played with sound and typography, poems that considered these realities but that also imagined Blackness speculatively in radiation, in light. The sound, in particular Boris Gardiner’s “Every Nigga Is a Star,” was important to the understanding of the text. The professor, who dismissed the sound, could barely say anything about the work: nothing about content, form, or any notes a writer would expect in such a program.
While I was surprised by this incapability, that was not the worst part. Despite his refusal to see, he was able to note one thing: that a part in one poem, the death, was, to him, the most beautiful . I was stunned by this admission; I sat there in silence and could not move my body. It was deeply troubling that this professor’s imagination, the white American imagination, had focused in on that familiar image—a familiar sound in his lexicon. In a room that had gone completely silent, the professor turned to the other Black student to ask if he could hear anything. And to the other Black student to see if she could hear anything. And could any of us hear anything at all, suddenly enveloped by a silence so loud? Could we even hear each other?
3. a spectacle
Later, when I discovered that a powerful administrator and faculty member in our program had a history of racism, I was not surprised by a lack of imagination, but by the image it made in my body. The administrator, in conversation with a white student, had suggested that it would not be a good idea for me to introduce a visiting writer, simply because we were both Black. The logic was strange and offensive, but more importantly I then learned that this was only the newest in a list of grievances in recent years: racist remarks to faculty, disparaging conversations, and, most troubling, calling the police on a “strange-looking” older Black man from the community who for years had regularly attended the program’s open-to-the public readings. How many times has the white imagination been responsible for the death of a Black person—from the Karens who reach for their phones to call the police whenever they imagine a threat to the actual police who, in the case of Breonna Taylor, draw up a search warrant to break into your home and kill you while you’re sleeping?
I was advised by some faculty members to speak with a dean. And because of knowing how these systems work together, I did. Because this was a kind of institutional violence that mimicked the state. Because this administrator decided who did and did not get access. They decided whose imagination was important and whose was not. They decided whether anyone like me would ever get into such a program again. I did this despite my fear, despite understanding how the world of poetry works and that my own book might never see the light of day. I did this because in my lexicon, this was not a sound I could let go, no matter who else heard it or not.
What happened after produced a kind of image in me, a kind of sound that has taken years to quiet. The same faculty members who had encouraged me to reach out went silent. Other students put their own grievances aside in order to retain the access and privilege they had been accustomed to. A dean mishandled the situation, which created a kind of chaos that put me and everything I had worked for in danger.
Perhaps the worst part was that what was truthfully a debilitating silence positioned itself as support. I was bombarded by texts, calls, and other private confidences. It was an anxiety that mirrored the inundation of images we see in the media, images that I had been trying to outrun. This was a spectacle. Even peers who thought of themselves as being on the “same side” showed that they ultimately did not understand what this meant for my body ; they only theorized about “Black pain.” No one, not even the other Black students, understood the reality of being where I was from. When someone I confided in asked why I didn’t just leave, I felt betrayed by the suggestion that I could or should simply disappear. Understanding was a kind of seeing that everyone refused and was incapable of. In all of this, I was deeply alone.
My writing suffered. My mental health and my body suffered. I sought medical help for a number of ailments that all seemed to appear and overwhelm my system at once. I was exhausted. There were nights when I felt, mentally, like I could not continue. I had written about the effects of state/institutional violence on other Black people, I had imagined that it could be me, and now I was the one in danger. This was much more than about writing or about staying in a program: It was about my life. I saw a therapist, a Black woman, who I am eternally grateful for. It was her capacity not to have to imagine, but to understand, to know what was happening, that allowed me to see a way through, a way forward.
4. observation of the heavens, stars
After graduating and coming back into myself, my work on this book really began. What were just ideas, before, transformed into text. I thought deeply about hypervisibility: what it means for Black and queer people to see ourselves every day: on the news, on the television, and in the street as victims of violence—from state to institutional—in rightful fear that we could be next. I studied Saidiya Hartman and Fred Moten’s work on the “spectacle,” which considers how, historically, our seeing has allowed us to understand our reality in America and also considers what the constant repetition of these images in media—where our deaths seem to be on replay—does to the Black psyche. The poems transformed as I considered what this all means for our imaginations and what it might mean as a writer, out of an act of speculation, to turn away from the image—to point the reader’s attention to that silence, to that absence.
In the year following, I lost a loved one, and in that time, it was incredibly difficult to continue writing, let alone imagine anything outside of my current circumstances. I had no choice but to let time and space stop. To come back into this world. To let myself grieve. And this was a care that I hadn’t extended to myself ever before that—to allow myself to feel pain unobserved, unwatched, unheard: privately.
Being a witness to this pain, and in that being a witness to my own body, opened up a silence in me. It allowed me to heal and acknowledge my own pain. Black people don’t often get to feel privately; it is a luxury we are not afforded. Previously there was no way for me to heal for fear of being watched, criticized, and at the mercy of speculation. Yet now I was safe to do so, even in this grief. As I wrote the rest of the book, I thought about these nuances of personal and public grief, from our forced silences to our rightful refusals and how they relate to the legibility of Black pain.
I went back to those first images of inspiration, of speculative futures. I wrote about the stars, the universe, and speculated about all the bodies we could be.
It would be a mistake to say that that event, that grief, that pain, is what inspired or even allowed me to write my book. On one hand, it almost rendered me unable to continue. Further, it would play into the idea, historically, that Black women are “magical” and somehow unable to feel pain. Many times, I have wondered, if I had made a scene, if I had become the spectacle—a Black person at the epicenter of pain, the image even “beautiful” in suffering—would it have seemed as if I was in more danger? Would my pain be recognizable and, therefore, save me?
The truth is that we owe no one our pain. The truth is that what saved me was returning to my vision.
The time I spent alone allowed me more time with the world, more time to see, and more of an ability to imagine. I went back to those first images of inspiration, of speculative futures. I wrote about the stars, the universe, and speculated about all the bodies we could be. I read Edwidge Danticat and Ada Limón and carried their words with me in an effort to gift images back to myself. I played with typography, I coded, I played with music: I wrote into the world I had imagined. I practiced the physicality of writing: using sound and performance as a way to feel present in my body. I imagined into the absence and away from the image—speculating on what exists in those silences. Working between text and performance—extending one line, one movement to the next—became a willful act of writing, of being, of living.
To write in a poem “I am” or “I lived” or “I awake the next day” or to say it in performance means to create permission and even the will to live it in the body. It means to continue. Through finishing this book, I imagined a future in which I existed too. With each line, I wrote myself back into my body, back into this world. In writing into these images, into a future that was truly speculative, I was able to imagine myself here . It was then, in all that living, that I began to heal and that my book came to life. This act of writing, of continuing—amidst collective and personal grief—became a revolutionary act of imagining, of writing myself into existence.