VISIBLE: Women Writers of Color: Yona Harvey

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Yona Harvey has the best laugh. It’s impossibly high-pitched, and if you were thinking about not laughing at what she’s laughing at, you can forget about it. We’re both fresh from AWP, and she is—we are—laughing about some “tea” from the literary world. As we catch up in her living room, our three pugs, siblings from different litters, reunite and pace about in search of food and affection. The conversation soon turns from gossip to Yona’s looming deadline for Black Panther & The Crew, a Marvel comics series she’s penning with her friend Ta-Nehisi Coates. The Crew is the second comics series Coates has tapped Yona, an award-winning poet, to write with him. The first, last year’s Black Panther spinoff, World of Wakanda, also featured a collaboration with Roxane Gay.

Talk about a whole new world. Black Panther is Yona’s first foray into writing comics. She is the author of a poetry collection, Hemming the Water, winner of the Kate Tufts Discovery Award from Claremont Graduate University and a finalist for the Hurston-Wright Award. Yona’s work has been anthologized widely including in A Poet’s Craft: A Comprehensive Guide to Making and Sharing Your Poetry and The Force of What’s Possible: Accessibility and the Avant-Garde. She is an assistant professor in the Writing Program at the University of Pittsburgh and has received an Individual Artist grant in nonfiction from The Pittsburgh Foundation. Her workshops and residencies include the inaugural Cave Canem retreat and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts.

Yona was open to trying something completely new last year when Coates reached out about World of Wakanda. The two had become friends at Howard University in the early 90s during Coates’s freshman year, Yona’s sophomore year. In 2015, Marvel brought Coates on to revive the Black Panther, the first black superhero in a major comic book series. The Crew itself is a revival of the original series created by Christopher Priest, Marvel’s first black editor. The series dealt with gentrification, poverty, religion, and crime and has been called “the blackest superhero story that Marvel Comics ever published.” The story takes place in Harlem, and the 2017 reboot will follow Black Panther (T’Challa), Storm, Luke Cage, Misty Knight, and Manifold. Storm is among the characters Yona is writing, making her the first black woman to ever write Storm.

In this interview, Yona talks about her path to becoming a poet, Winnie Mandela as an artistic inspiration, and what it’s like to be a more public writer.

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The Rumpus: What are we listening to? It’s very smooth.

Yona Harvey: KING. It’s a group made up of twin sisters and their friend. We Are KING is the album. It was nominated for a Grammy for Best Urban, but of course Beyoncé won that. She should’ve won Best Album, but that’s another story. More people should know who they are. My dear friend [the poet] Doug Kearney is always hipping me to the good music. This album helps me relax when I’m anxious.

Rumpus: What are you anxious about right now?

Harvey: Black Panther! [Laughs] I’m anxious because it’s so public, and I’m not used to writing that way. But it’s good for me because I tend to be a slow writer, and I tend to be overly private and guarded. So to be thrown into something so public with [media] announcements and all that stuff forces me to work differently and trust my instincts. Before this, writing meant thinking about it, writing, letting it set, then rewriting. With this process, I have to go with my instincts, and I’m finding that my initial instincts are right. With comics, you don’t have the luxury of dragging it out.

But I’m way better at trusting my instincts when there is less at stake. Writing for Marvel, there’s a pressure to not be the failed poet-turned-writer of a comic. Then there’s this whole franchise and a collaboration with a person I’ve known for a long time—though Ta-Nehisi is very, very supportive.

Rumpus: What can you share about the new series?

Harvey: The Crew is a murder mystery. It’s also a love story. And it’s a story about friendship. There are a lot of egos and big personalities working together, but all mentored by the same man, Ezra Keith. I like that dimension of the story—that one mentor, one man, can see gifts and talents in these different superheroes and talk with them about their vulnerabilities.

The first issue is due out this spring.

Rumpus: You’re the first black woman to pen the Storm character. Did you realize this when the opportunity was presented to you?

Harvey: Hell no! It’s great, all the things I didn’t know. To dive in first and think about it later. If I had known, I would’ve freaked out, and overthought it, and not done it.

Rumpus: What are you looking to bring to Storm?

Harvey: I’m always trying to figure out what I can discover about her that’s been overlooked previously. I think about it that way.

Rumpus: How do you connect with these bad-ass women characters you’re writing? Of course, you’re a bad-ass in your own right. But you’re not kicking literal ass, as far as I know.

Harvey: [Laughs] Storm and Zenzi [a revolutionary from World of Wakanda] are very good at reading other people, and I feel like that’s how I connect to them. They’re very sure about their way in the world, and they don’t have to belittle other people or assert their badness. That’s a turn-off in a friend or lover, to me. I don’t find that very interesting.

It’s great to step outside of the way you do things and think about someone else’s motivation. It’s helpful for me, but it’s hard. Fiction is imagining, “What if this happens?,”not necessarily what you yourself would do. At some point, you ask, “If she’s very combative, what’s the most horrific thing she would do?” And then people get hurt. So I wouldn’t do that, but what makes her willing to do it? It makes me face a kind of preciousness that can kill the work, as a poet, if you can’t see yourself as a “bad” person.

With Zenzi, I’m pushing the limits and spaces that black women can be in. Because Black Panther is so well written and World of Wakanda is so cool visually and geographically, there are all these other interesting characters around her, so she doesn’t have to carry some weird burden of black femininity.

I visited Imani Owens’s Words and Images class at Pitt [The University of Pittsburgh]. She’s using the whole lens of Black Panther to teach it. Race and representation is the theme, and she’s asking her students questions about language, visuality, and representation. A woman in the class asked me, “How did you feel about Zenzi being cast so hardcore, so viciously by the other characters?” The other characters are harsh in the way they talk about her. I noticed that and wanted to paint her as more than that.

Rumpus: So you wanted to paint her in a more nuanced light, but not through some respectability lens.

Harvey: Yeah. So I thought, “Who is complicated like that?” And I thought about Winnie Mandela.

Rumpus: I was so shocked to learn that she had scandals.

Harvey: Me too! I was heartbroken. I was thinking a lot about trauma. Who do you become, what do you have to do to survive that kind of trauma? [The Black Panther’s nemesis] Killmonger comes and wreaks havoc on Zenzi’s country. And there’s a long time the people are hoping the Black Panther is going to come and help them. All the things she had to go through, losing her friends, and her parents were murdered—that’s a lot. That’s what shaped her.

And that’s how I got to Winnie Mandela. I went back and read a lot about her and watched a documentary about how she was separated from her daughters and her husband. While imprisoned, she was forced to eat where she went to the bathroom. Even with the years’ distance when she’s recalling all of this, she says, “I knew that as I sat in that cell, if my own father or my brother walked in dangling a gun, and he was on the other side, and I had a gun, too, in my hand, in defense of the ideals for which I was tortured, then I would fire.” That is something I wanted to access for Zenzi.

And Winnie Mandela was also grassroots, like Zenzi, while Black Panther was too far removed from the people. When they exiled Winnie Mandela from Soweto, she was like, “Whatever. I’ll start my movement here.”

Rumpus: How did writing for Storm compare to writing for Zenzi?

Harvey: Ta-Nehisi created Zenzi, but with Storm there’s this whole legacy. So that was more challenging. Her voice is very difficult to capture. It’s not your everyday lingo. It’s not quite biblical, but it’s got this weird formality to it.

Rumpus: How do you respect that legacy, but also bring something unique?

Harvey: Trust comes in again. I have to trust myself. Whatever little quirks or ideas I might want to expand on, I have to trust my instincts on that. She’s returning to Harlem, where her dad is from, but she doesn’t really know the place. There are conflicts around region, around being from somewhere else, being different (her mutant-ness), her responsibilities in the universe and then in Harlem, while she sneaks away from her work with the X-men. I feel like there’s where I connect as a black woman, around these conflicts about place and difference and identity.

Ta-Nehisi asked me a question: “We’re not born conscious, so what shapes that?” Interactions with security and store clerks? Or your own family?

When I was really little, one of my relatives was going at me for talking “proper.” So there’s a conflict around identity, how you should sound as a black person. Those details would be lost on a nonblack writer. Storm has a certain way of talking when they’re out in Harlem. Code switching. Storm and Misty’s styles are different. Misty is a Harlem native, but she’s also a detective, previously on the police force. Everyone in The Crew has a double-consciousness issue.

Rumpus: You and Ta-Nehisi are friends from way back. What’s your connection?

Harvey: I’ve known him since—wow—1994. Something like that. We were in undergrad together. I went to Howard as a nursing major! Kemp Powers was my first friend freshman year, and he would tell me about poetry readings. So my interest was sparked there.

Dr. Sam Hamod, a professor and a poet, was responsible for getting a lot of young poets together to write and workshop. So me and Ta-Nehisi and Imani Tolliver, Zachary Robbins, a little core group of us would workshop with him. Ta-Nehisi is a great poet. He might not agree that it’s present tense. But to me, he’s a poet, present tense.

At that time, there were only three creative writing classes at Howard, and one was poetry. There was also a very big open mic scene in DC. Ta-Nehisi was my only friend going off-campus to write, read, and listen to poetry. So he and Joel Dias-Porter, who was our poetry mentor, would be reading at It’s Your Mug in Georgetown. And they were so good. And I wanted to be that good. I wanted to write better. We would exchange poems, and I felt Ta-Nehisi was very connected to my work.

By sophomore year, I was hooked on poetry. I had changed my major to English. I had no plans, though. MFAs weren’t a goal of any of my poetry friends. In fact, it was kind of frowned upon. We were already reading people we loved—Baraka, Lucille Clifton, Robert Hayden, Sonia Sanchez, amazing poets. When I thought about graduate school, I thought about museum studies. My mentor, Dr. Clark Lewis, was in the history department. I was interested in public history, in museums. During college, I worked at the Air and Space Museum and the Phillips Museum. Then my senior year at Howard, I got into Cave Canem [fellowship for African American poets].

After that, Ta-Nehisi and I were in touch on and off over the years, with long periods of time when we weren’t touch. We reconnected when he came to one of my poetry readings in NYC in 2014. Then the next year, he asked me to read for him at the National Book Awards. These small encounters led to our current work together.

Rumpus: And Ta-Nehisi reached out—

Harvey: That was 2016.

Rumpus: 2016? The same year the series came out?

Harvey: Yep. Fast. Poets don’t live those kinds of lives. He’s a journalist, and they are used to deadlines like that. But for poets? What? [Laughs]

When we connected, I was at Ragdale [an artist residency] working on a book about my sister. One of the other women there, her boyfriend was an illustrator. I wondered if he would do a graphic novel with me. I’ve always wanted to do a graphic novel. It just seems so fun. And I’ve always loved comics, but Ta-Nehisi and I never talked about comics before Black Panther.

I was reading Black Panther at Ragdale, and I was emailing Phantom [of the Attic comic book store] to make sure that I was getting my copies back in Pittsburgh. And I reached out to Ta-Nehisi to say I was enjoying it. And he said, “You want to write a comic?”

At first, I didn’t realize he meant, “Do you want to write a comic—for Marvel—right now?”

I had read [comics writers] Lynda Barry and Jessica Abel a lot when I was pregnant and when my kids were small. On the back pages of their comics, there was stuff about process, how to draw comics. So I’d get legal pads and draw demons like Lynda Barry. And then I started doing my journal like that too, with little pictures and comics. I was an Image comics girl.

So when Ta-Nehisi asked me about Black Panther, I thought, I’m going to get this free education. I’m going to get to know how it all works. And even bigger than that, I get to work with Ta-Nehisi.

It was a very compressed period of time to write that comic. But I thought, okay, this is a very safe experiment. Because it’s someone I trust. I can’t imagine anyone other than Ta-Nehisi asking me to do this and my saying, “yes.” I already saw what he was doing. I’m just a paranoid person. [Laughs] He’s known me a long time and had heard me read recently. He knew what I could do. So he remembered something there that might be fun to collaborate around. I trusted that.

Rumpus: Has it been tough being more collaborative when previously you’ve worked in a more solitary fashion? Can you go back to that now?

Harvey: I don’t know. I’m so nervous! I’m learning and growing. I didn’t anticipate how open I’d have to be with comics. I also didn’t realize that I was so private and guarded. So now I’m wondering, “Can I just let ‘er rip in my poems?” I don’t know.

At one point, Ta-Nehisi was saying, “Well, how do you write your poems?” This was when I was having trouble figure out Storm. So with poems, I play with voices and tense. I change the verb tense, or I would change who the poem was speaking to. All these little experiments. But it still wasn’t helping me. Then I realized: it’s journaling first. I always free-write a poem to start. Realizing this made me very excited—and very uncomfortable. So I changed my journal to Storm’s journal and that’s when everything started to click into place.

And that’s what worries me about my new poems. There’s so much editing and revising and protecting that I do to take a poem from my journal to print publication. But comics are closer to the journal. I’ve succumbed in the past to a kind of control when it comes to the poems. I’d rather surrender to more feeling now.

Rumpus: So what are you working on now?

Harvey: A new poetry manuscript, a memoir about the loss of my sister who suffered from depression. And, of course, The Crew.

Rumpus: What made you say “yes” to writing comics, the second time?

Harvey: The second time, it was less about Ta-Nehisi reaching out. I was bothering him. [Laughs] I still didn’t feel legitimate. I liked the process. I liked Zenzi. So I just wanted another go at it. What else can I do? So Ta-Nehisi said, “Do you want to work on The Crew?” He sent me the pitch for The Crew, and I said, “Yep, sign me up.” It’s addictive. You can get lost in that world. It becomes obsessive.

Rumpus: It doesn’t happen like that for poetry and nonfiction?

Harvey: Not in the same way, and I’m still trying to figure out why. [Writing comics] is the hardest thing I’ve done, but it also brings me a lot of pleasure. I’m having a greater audience, especially with black women, than I do with poetry. I’m part of a much larger conversation. People are on Twitter are saying, “I wish T’Challa and Storm would get it together.” Little black girls getting signed comics and flipping out? That’s real. I love being a part of that.

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Deesha Philyaw is the co-author of Co-Parenting 101: Helping Your Kids Thrive in Two Households After Divorce, written in collaboration with her ex-husband. Deesha's writing on race, parenting, gender, and culture has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Brevity, dead housekeeping, and Apogee Journal; Essence, Ebony, and Bitch magazines; and various anthologies. She's a Fellow at the Kimbilio Center for African American Fiction and a Pushcart Prize nominee for essay writing in Full Grown People. Deesha is a two-time recipient of an Advancing the Black Arts in Pittsburgh grant from The Pittsburgh Foundation and the Heinz Endowments. More from this author →