Live at the Red Ink Series: On Defiance in Writing
Afia Atakora, Tiana Clark, Amy Jo Burns, and Others in Conversation
Red Ink is a quarterly series curated and hosted by Michele Filgate at Books Are Magic, focusing on women writers, past and present. The next conversation, “Unraveling,” will take place on September 10th at 7pm (via Zoom), and feature Raven Leilani (Luster), Meredith Talusan (Fairest), Vanessa Veselka (The Great Offshore Grounds), Natalie Diaz (Postcolonial Love Poem), and Elisa Gabbert (The Unreality of Memory).
The following is an edited transcript from June’s panel, “Defiance,” which featured Afia Atakora, Tiana Clark, Amy Jo Burns, Laura Bogart, and Rachel Vorona Cote.
Michele Filgate: When I chose this topic back in February, I had no idea how timely the topic of defiance would be. What does defiance mean for you during this particular moment that we are living in, both as a human being and as a writer?
Afia Atakora: Something I’ve been thinking about a lot is the use of defying characters in novels. As a writer you create a character that is defiant, you are drawn to that character that feels like they are the ones that are fighting against something, and they are usually so likable. But then I think, looking at the world today, we see that defiance isn’t so likable, isn’t admired, especially in America which I feel like is very geared toward defiance in a way, we are sort of a defying nation, a nation built on defiance, and yet once we are faced with it, it becomes complicated and we want to define it and we want it to look a certain way. So I feel like in books it’s almost too easy; I feel like I’m learning.
Tiana Clark: I think for me in this present moment, as a woman of color and a black woman, I think you are born to that kind of tradition of defiance from the jump, and this is the same story just a different neck. An epigraph that I actually have in my book from Gwendolyn Brooks, it’s from her poem “The Second Sermon on the Warpland,” and it ends, “It is lonesome, yes. For we are the last of the loud. / Nevertheless, live. / Conduct your blooming in the noise and whip of the whirlwind.” And I’ve been carrying that with me, what does it mean to bloom in the noise and whip in the world that is happening right now? We see so much black death and violence but also see black joy, that blooming part of it. I also think of that Lucille Clifton poem, “won’t you celebrate with me,” that ends ‘everyday / something has tried to kill me / and has failed.” So I think that, to me, is that string of defiance going back all the way to Phillis Wheatley, the first black poet in America, who was able to help manumit herself, but I always think about her first book that she had to have an authorship attestation with over 30 signatures from prestigious white men to claim that it was her brilliance and her imagination that wrote that book. And I always think about her unpublished second manuscript that we don’t have because she died in poverty without anyone knowing what happened to that book, so I always think about that second manuscript and what that means to me as a poet now writing in that kind of strain of black persistence.“I think in this moment defiance is about listening, it is about de-centering myself as a white woman and listening to other people’s stories.”
Amy Jo Burns: I think what comes to mind for me, in this moment, is defying what dominant culture is for me, as a white woman, and I think that is to listen. So, I’ve been trying to listen a lot before I speak and I think for me, that is an act of defiance for now.
Rachel Vorona Cote: I think that in some ways I feel defiant in much more private spaces, in more intimate spaces where I’m having conversations with people that don’t want to have those conversations with me, that don’t want to talk about police brutality, and systemic racism, and so I kind of feel like when I’m writing I can often talk a big game, that I’m able to be much more defiant in my writing than I am able to be or that I have been in my life, in interpersonal relationships. And so, recognizing that that is something I haven’t been comfortable with, and recognizing that I have just sort of allowed myself to get comfortable. I think that is really where I’m feeling it the most right now.
Laura Bogart: I think in this moment defiance is about listening, it is about de-centering myself as a white woman and listening to other people’s stories. And then like Rachel was saying, having really difficult conversations with people who would rather not talk to you about these things. Right now, I’m staying with family in the suburbs in Maryland, and there are a lot of people here who don’t want to have these conversations, and so defiance to me is finding a way to challenge people’s perspectives, because I know that some of this coming from me, coming from someone who looks like I could be their daughter, who is for now at least their neighbor, might have something of an impact. So to me defiance is also living with the discomfort of that and knowing it is very minor compared to the discomfort that other people deal with on a far more severe and widespread level every day.
MF: Afia, in Conjure Women Rue’s mother, May Belle, is locked up for three days by the white plantation owner after getting some medicine for another woman. You write: “If Marse Charles’s punishment had been meant to make the slave woman obedient, then it had failed. Instead she was all the more outcast, all the more feral. And Rue always became what her mama was.” As I read your novel I was struck by how strong-willed and determined Rue is; particularly related to a big lie she tells Varina, the plantation owner’s daughter. Can you talk about defiance as something that is shared between mother and daughter?
AA: The book is definitely about mothers and daughters and what is passed down through generations, and also just the role of the mother as one who is cautioning you, I think we have set up society to be if we teach mothers to see the dangers then they will tell their children about those dangers and also be cautious and also maybe not be defiant. So I think that is a big part of the book, Rue experiencing her mother being silenced, and what she observes from that. I think in general too, I think defiance, and in that scene that you read, defiance is something that as a word is antagonistic, or it requires something larger, it requires something that is in charge whether you are a defiant teenager against your parents, it suggests authority and an acting out. So I think that is something written about a lot too, that in order to be defiant you are already in a system of doing what you are not supposed to do, which again goes back to the mother daughter dynamic, which is when do you do what you are not supposed to do, and when is that the right thing, when is that something you have internalized as dangerous.
MF: Laura, in Don’t You Know I Love You the main character, Angelina, decides to stand up to her abusive father and take control of her own life. After she makes this decision, you write: “But he was always there: ghost fists and the hand on her back, an occasional “attagirl” and the metallic taste flooding her mouth whenever someone drove too fast or too slow. This, though, could be different. This would be scorched earth. When she closed her eyes, she imagined putting her lips to the ground, and trying to hum new life into all that had burned.” In a lot of ways, the paintings she creates are also an act of defiance, of making art out of pain after she fractures her wrist in a car accident. How does art allow her to transcend her own circumstances?
LB: My main character is a working-class, queer girl from Baltimore, who grows up in this sort of hothouse of a violent home, and everything is about silencing her or making her feel little or stupid and unworthy. And the act of expression, the act of taking what she feels and giving it visual form and giving it worth, is saying, my thoughts, my feelings, and the way that I see them, the way I transmute them has meaning, has worth, is an act of defiance. Her art is very figurative so she is going into the body, into her own form, she is literalizing her trauma and also saying, this happened to me, and I’m not going to say it’s okay, I’m not just going to belittle or dismiss it as I’m taught to do, largely by her mother, which is why the conversation about the role of mothers and sort of smothering defiance even as a protective measure is very relative to what goes on in my story as well. So for her to do that is going against so much conditioning that she’s gotten in her life.
MF: Tiana, in a piece you wrote for Adroit Journal on how you wrote the poem BBHMM, you say: “…for me, poetry has always been a means of persistence, black persistence, by making, breaking, and re-imagining the possibility of received forms, especially my adoration and obsession for ekphrasis.” I love to think about breaking boundaries and forms as an act of defiance. What is it about the ekphrastic poem that you’re drawn to?“I was like, fuck legacy. I want to write right now, I want to respond to right now.”
TC: I wrote this after watching Rihanna’s music video. Ekphrastic poetry is typically art that is responding to a visual art, and usually it was to an ekphrastic image, so Keats “Ode to a Grecian Urn.” And already in its formation it is already transgressive, it’s art crossing the boundary of another art form, and letting it kind of speak. So for me I really wanted to take a modern approach and address a music video, a moving image, and to have someone like Rihanna. I was really inspired by Hanif Abdurraqib who wrote this poem off a Carly Rae Jepsen album which explored the death of Philando Castile, so in this container of his prose poem, he has this viral nature of black death with this sugary pop culture reference, where he says, “I, too, am a romantic, and I mean I never expected to/survive this long.” Seeing Hanif’s poem gave me this permission like, wait a second, I can pull from pop culture. I know that sounds rudimentary but the traditional Western canon had been shoved down my throat, that is the only way, that is the tradition. That you are not supposed to pull in pop culture; you can’t have time stamps on your poem, you are supposed to write toward mastery and legacy. I was like, fuck legacy. I want to write right now, I want to respond to right now.
There is a famous Nina Simone quote: “An artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times.” When I watched that Rihanna music video I felt charged; I had never seen an image of an act of retribution with a woman taking the lead. And yeah, the video is violent, and you can talk about some feminist aspects of it, but if Quentin Tarentino had directed that, no one would have said anything about it. I wanted to use Rihanna as an avatar for the speaker, and have this defiant kind of swagger when I approached my poem. Because I don’t feel powerful when I approach literature, I often don’t see myself in literature. So I wanted to have a poem where I could see myself and feel powerful.
MF: Rachel, I want to bring up a point that you make in the introduction to Too Much: How Victorian Constraints Still Bind Women Today. You write: “Our culture, for all its staggering toward progress, possesses a meager threshold for discomfort when faced with examples of nonnormative difference. We should not be surprised that those most often stigmatized as disagreeably or even dangerously excessive are those who contest white masculine heteronormative and capitalist ideologies.” Can you talk about what you mean by women who are deemed “too much”, and can you share a few of the many examples given in your book?
RVC: It’s something I thought about a lot as I thought about this idea of too much, or the noun form that I made up, too muchness, which suggests a sort of fundamental excessiveness, generally tied to emotion, emotional expression, sexuality. I didn’t want to fall into the trap of suggesting that being too much or being excessive was fundamentally good or fundamentally bad. Excess is excess. What strikes me as the problem is the way that it is pathologized and the way that this idea of being too much or this notion that somebody could be at base excessive the way that it gets attached to… I think women identify persons broadly but absolutely far more so to women of color, to queer persons, and I really love what Tiana was saying about wanting to write about pop culture when you’ve been very much trained in the academy because that is very much where I was coming from myself.
I was trained in 19th century literature and I love 19th-century literature, I love Victorian literature—I also began to feel very strongly that the best way to talk about Victorian literature is to put it in conversation with other cultural touchstones because as an archive, it is extremely limited and it is misogynist and racist, and so you have to sit with that in any case but I think we can do the most with it when we are looking at different types of texts, different kinds of texts, other literature absolutely, but also music and film and television.
So, in terms of some of the texts that I looked at in the book, I go to Tess of the d’Urbervilles a lot, George Eliot, I talk about Charlotte Brontë, but I also talk about Moonlight, I talk about Lana Del Rey and her performance of white female fragility and sadness, and then I had no idea that she was just going to go and be whew, just… so, so foolish a couple months after my pub date. I wrote about Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures, which is a movie based on a true story of two young girls who murder one of their mothers because they are convinced that they are going to be separated. So there is a lot of gay panic there. How much are women supposed to love each other, how much are girls supposed to love each other, how much is too much, when does it become dangerous? That’s something that was borne out in that film in a lot of really fascinating ways. I knew that I was coming from an academic training that gave me wonderful tools but I was very pointedly writing a different kind of book, not the sort of book that I would have written if I had stayed in academia. I wouldn’t have been able to write this kind of book and to play with genre. Maybe the book in and of itself, structurally, is too much, I don’t know.
MF: Amy Jo, in Shiner, Wren lives in rural West Virginia with a preacher father who swears by his ability to perform miracles, and a mother who sees through his words. One day Wren’s mom tells her “It takes no bravery to work a miracle…What takes bravery is when there’s no miracle at all.” Can you talk about this quote and how it connects with the central theme of the book?
AJB: I think the women in the novel are all reaching a different kind of breaking point where they are wondering how these systems they have served all their lives are actually turning on them—sometimes it’s religion or it’s patriarchy, and for Ruby, who is the preacher’s wife, when she was young she rode on her husband’s coattails. He had promised to give her this magnificent life and then what ended up happening is that he ended up living his magnificent life with his principles while she paid the price for them. When I think about the topic of defiance and what that looks like in a situation like that or somewhere rural that is in the mountains where these characters live, where much of life is just trying to defy the landscape, trying to wipe you out kind of thing—that is a big part of living there.
For the women in the novel, I think the capstone for them is the friendships that they have with each other. Ruby’s best friend Ivy, they are pretty much the only people on the mountain who see through this preacher. Wren, who is 15, she looks to the women instead of her father for her own sense of stability and also what it means to be a woman. She sees her mother play within the lines very nicely and then she sees her best friend, Ivy, playing outside the lines. And what Wren sees is that whether you are inside the lines or outside the lines, you lose, and it’s the lines themselves that are the problem. What I wanted to play with in the novel is the idea of where real danger lies because there is this idea that danger is in the outside world or danger is in this serpent that I’m taking up, but these women know that that is not true and the real danger lies with who has power. Their friendship throughout the novel becomes this really quiet but important act of resistance that ultimately gives the next generation of women strength.