On Grief and Inheritance: A Conversation with Brionne Janae

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Brionne Janae’s poems are driven by fierce, hypnotic voices as individual and alive as songs themselves. Her work propels readers through time and history, offering rich, nuanced insight into the presence of racial violence and the intergenerational trauma that continues to shape black families, communities and individual lives. Rendered with exquisite detail and beautiful language, Janae’s poetry also explores one’s transcendence through grief and suffering to places of empowerment and joy.

Her debut collection After Jubilee will be released by BOAAT Press, where it was a finalist for the 2016 BOAAT Book Prize. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming from the Southern Humanities Review, Cincinnati Review, Mass Poetry, New South, Redivider, Rhino, and The Comstock Review, where she won the Muriel Craft Bailey Award judged by Kwame Dawes. A Cave Canem Fellow, Janae was also a recipient of the 2016 St. Botoloph Emering Artist award and received a 2017 residency fellowship to Hedgebrook.

I recently had the privilege of speaking to Brionne Janae about After Jubilee.

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The Rumpus: After Jubilee is a phenomenal collection that explores your family’s lineage and the intergenerational trauma left in the wake of racism and violence. I think of the poet Natasha Trethewey, whom you preface in After Jubilee’s opening poem “Postcard” with the epilogue “always the dark body hewn asunder; always.” This poem is a powerful depiction of the violence and injustice that has (and continues) to shape black lives and families. Of her collection Thrall, Trethewey remarked in an interview with the Los Angeles Review of Books:

…the book is also about other kinds of knowledge, like emotional knowledge, what gets inherited and passed down through families. It seemed like the right intersection of a larger public knowledge and the intimate, more personal knowledge that gets manifested in families. Exploring this history of ideas of race across time and space with ideas of race in my own family, about difference, about otherness, is where I started

Where did you start in terms of exploring familial history, particularly that “emotional knowledge” that Trethewey speaks of, along with the racism embedded in our society, while writing these poems? How does a poem speak to trauma and grief for you?

Brionne Janae: I definitely identify with what Trethewey wrote about personal and emotional knowledge being manifested in families. I think a lot about the way that emotional knowledge is passed down. There is actual research that suggests we pass trauma down through our DNA. And I have always been interested in emotional history. I want to know what people were thinking and feeling in historical moments more than I want to know what law was passed or the battlefield statistics or positions. I’ve spent a lot of time just listening to my family, to the things that they tell me and the things that they won’t say. What becomes the thinly veiled secret. I think that the fact that I was privileged enough to grow up with all four of my grandparents is something that has shaped me because I could hear all of their experiences. And though there aren’t many of their specific stories in this book, their emotional influence is all over these poems.

“Yellow Girl” is one of my first and only attempts at talking about skin color in my family. The poem itself is a fiction involving rape and a child born with very fair skin. It speaks to the holes in my grandfather’s side of the family. There are holes in the family tree where you could insert random white men. You would never claim a specific person. I was in Mississippi last summer for the first time and some of my grandfather’s relatives are “like white,” as they say in the South. But at no point would anyone ever say that’s his father, that white man over here. My mother once told me how certain relatives would point out a white woman who lived nearby and say “that’s your aunt’s sister,” but of course it was never something openly acknowledged. A lot of “Yellow Girl” reflects on the legacy of the skin I wear around. It’s very much about the history of non-consent and rape in this country, and how that trauma manifests through families.

The last section of the book is set in a real town called Slocum, Texas. In the summer of 1910, the white residents of the neighboring town of Palestine came over to black Slocum and began shooting and killing anyone they could find. The official number of people murdered was about nine but the Sherriff at the town remarked that “most of the bodies would be found by the buzzards.” According to an article I found on NPR recently, the number of black folks murdered could be as high as two hundred. Many of the poems from the “Slocum” section are invention except for the last three poems, where you see a lot of the violence from the neighboring town. The poem “Rent” is based off of a specific conjecture over what started the violence. The other two poems are me imagining what it must’ve been like when people were coming and hunting and killing people.

Rumpus: Writing is so often an alchemy of fact and reflection rooted in emotional truth. So many of your poems involve narrators transcending grief and trauma. The poems of the third section, “Donor,” are dedicated to Edward “Juju” Sutton, and speak to the tragic loss of a child, whose organs are donated to preserve the lives of others. These poems contain speakers who wrestle with the fallout of loss, but also experience personal transformation through faith and healing.

At the Sewanee Writers’ Conference this past summer, the poet Robert Hass lectured on the idea of poetry as having ancient roots in prayer as a traditional means to call hopes and desires into being, even in an abstract sense. This is a feature I sensed in your other poems, such as the collection’s title poem, or “Cabin Child,” where the speaker remarks how “each day it gets harder / to imagine my father as more than a stud pumping / into a choice mare. Imagine he has not forgotten my name.” Would you mind speaking to the origin of these poems or what compelled you to write them?

Janae: The “Donor” sequence speaks most specifically to my life. My cousin’s son fell from his bedroom window and when he passed, his parents decided to donate his organs. He was three years old. I struggled to understand his death. I started writing those poems to understand my anger. These poems read like prayers because they are essentially me wrestling with my own faith and how I understand the world when a three-year-old can stop existing for no real reason. How do I survive in a world where that happens?

At the end of “Corneas,” I used language lifted from the actual letter sent to my cousin’s family stating “Edward’s corneas his gift may restore sight. / the gift of restored vision is miraculous.” The word “miraculous” itself made me feel so bitter and I didn’t want to stay inside that space of bitterness. That poem itself is a way out of that bitterness for me. I used to be a person who prayed a lot and then I started writing, and my writing itself altered the old habit of prayer. A lot of times when I start these poems it’s because I felt that something needed to be said. In the “Left Kidney” poem of the “Donor” sequence, there is the line “living with no God imposed on the disorder,” which is just me naming the ways I have tried to navigate this tragedy. Tried to impose a sense of order on something that is so outside of logic. That whole poem exists for those last three lines because they needed to be said for my own sanity.

With “Cabin Child,” in some cases enslaved children were kept separate from their parents and housed in a big group. Some wouldn’t necessarily know their parents, let alone their fathers. There was also the practice of forced “breeding” of slaves, too. If you’re literally being treated like animals, I imagine it must be very hard not to consider yourself one. I was thinking about how hard it must have been for these children to see themselves as human or to see their parents as humans, and what it would feel like to struggle for your humanity, to see yourself as you are, and resist the negative stereotypes of the outside world. I think that’s a major thing people underestimate when they talk about oppression. It changes the way you see yourself if you’re not careful. The speaker of “Cabin Child” is essentially trying to will his and his parents’ sense of humanity into existence. It should feel like a prayer in the context of the world that they lived in because they were not considered human. I was reading Invisible Man with the African American literature class I taught last year, and considering how the protagonist becomes the invisible person, the shadow, because that’s what is expected of him. At the beginning of the novel, he almost kills a man because the world expects him to be a monster. It’s hard to keep your identity separate from what society tells you are or should be.

Rumpus: The use of voice and syntax throughout these poems also challenges those negative assumptions that limit the humanity and expression of black voices. These speakers offer a deeper understanding of both personal and public histories, such as the brutal rape and lynching of Laura Nelson as conveyed in “Postcard: Billy Harrison Speaks,” or the voice of a black lesbian circa the early 1890s in “Gutbucket Blues” or your grandmother portrayed in “West,” who accompanies your great-grandfather’s fictionalized journey from Louisiana to California after she “lost two children to hunger / and we left to give this last one a chance.” The poem’s speaker later considers the father’s oppression, as he lies to the white men who accuse him of stealing a car: “I wanted to ask / if he was tired of bending / of being the dirt those men trod more firmly / into the ground. I stayed silent. It was not a thing to be spoken of / and besides I knew my father.” How did you reach these voices, especially in detailing the rich and illuminating depth of complexity they offer, into such heartbreaking situations of racism and violence?

Janae: I like listening to people tell their stories. I was born to be a fly on the wall of a room, absorbing people’s stories. However, specifically with Laura Nelson’s poem, I had remembered reading a dissertation in undergrad about the roles of lynch photography, and had found myself on a website looking through those haunting images and reading the story behind them. Then I found this image of Laura Nelson and I remember thinking I need to write about her. There was only a little bit told of her and what happened, and the reality that surrounded her death. She had also probably been raped and beaten, and yet she is fully clothed in that picture. I remember thinking that after all was said and done to her, someone must have taken the time to re-clothe her for the picture. I kept imagining who that person was and, for me, wanting there to be some sort of tenderness. Billy Harrison is a speaker I invented because I wanted to write from the perspective of someone who clothed her after everything had happened. That damned space of you’re there, you’re participating in her murder, but perhaps not the other violence. I know that humanity might be a stretch, but there is an intimacy in taking the time to dress someone. In reality they probably only took the time to redress her because it’s 1910 or 1911, and during that time they wouldn’t take a photograph of a naked woman. Yet the action of her being reclothed felt out of place with what had just happened so I wrote from that voice and tried to imagine what that person’s experience would be.

I knew once I saw that photo that I wanted to write about it but I struggled to access Laura Nelson’s voice. In retrospect, I probably struggled so much because it was just too close. I didn’t want to imagine myself as her because I could have been her and that was horrifying. That poem is the only one in the collection that is not from the perspective of an African American person. It’s also one of the few male voices that I used. In general, in terms of the voices behind these poems, a lot of it comes from me listening to different people, to all the different ways that people love each other and how that love gets broken. I noticed, too, that by the time this book was finished, I had seen three different women in my life bury children. And witnessing that kind of grief changes you. I remember being sixteen or seventeen when my dad’s cousin passed after a lifelong illness. I was in a prayer circle with my great aunt and I remember holding her hand, essentially trying to support this woman without knowing what she could possibly need, and to an extent absorbing some of her emotion. A lot of that absorbed emotion provides the center for where some of the more difficult poems come from.

Rumpus: The musicality of your language is also stunning. In an interview with Tyree Daye of New Women Scribbling, you revealed that “my first experiences of poetry were probably the bible and song lyrics. I do come from a family of musicians though and story tellers, dancers and debaters… Some of my best memories are of sitting on the floor of either of my grandparents homes and listening to my family sing or debate.” In terms of language and style, how do you approach the craftsmanship of your poetry

Janae: When I’m writing, I have to speak my poetry aloud over and over again. I have to hear the poem for it to be a real thing. I do remember in grad school as I was writing After Jubilee, trying to figure out the balance of the voice too, because it’s not necessarily full stereotypical country black English all the time. It’s a little bit pidgin tongued, like myself. As a kid, I went to school in Compton, in a majority African American school, and then I changed districts and went to school in Orange County, CA, where the majority of people were white or Asian. When I changed school districts, people didn’t outright make fun of me for speaking differently but it was definitely a thing. I used to be so self-conscious of the way I spoke and then so afraid my voice would change and I would begin to sound “white.” Eventually, I made peace with my spoken language and accepted that your ear and tongue will naturally adapt to whose around you.

While writing After Jubilee, it was interesting to figure out how far I wanted to go into country English. What felt authentic to my voice and ear? There were a lot of people who, upon reading my poems, suggested that I drop the ‘G’s because it might fit the voice better or that I should change the spelling of certain words to give a phonetic spelling. I was always resistant to that because I felt that if I changed the syntax and vocabulary of the poems to mimic the voices of my grandparents, then that would put the reader into that country setting without the dropping of the ‘g’ or changing the spelling of any words. I wanted the syntax to convey time and location. I also heard people question the intelligence level of some of the poems’ speakers and say, “How does the speaker of that poem know this or that word?” It was important to me that there be variety in the voices, especially in those poems from the Slocum section, which are loosely based off of a real majority black town, meaning that the community would have its own black doctors and people with some level of education. I wanted their speech to be mixed, to be pidgin tongued like myself. People often think that if speakers are using a black dialect or a Southern dialect then the language has to be restricted or they can’t know certain words. And that’s just not true. People were getting educated, or going to church where the pastors were educated and probably sprinkling some of his education on down. So it really didn’t seem necessary to limit or stereotype the voices.

Rumpus: Many of your poems also speak to the role of women, of mothers, in black families. The relationship between black mothers and sons offers much insight into the grief of mothers who are desperate, but so often unable to protect their children from violence and death. I think of “Momma Blues,” where the speaker reveals how “they say aint a woman living could hold a son for too long… I kept after my boy with a quick swishing switch.” I also think of “Queen of Night,” where a new mother wishes the sunlight never reached her newborn daughter, “where darkness like hers condenses hate easy as droplets on a glass of sweet tea.” There is also a consistent acknowledgement of the power and influence of black mothers as revealed in “Cotton Root,” where the speaker says “like granddad’s momma, how she scraped / the dogwood tree, brewed the bark / pulled her son back to life again and again / even folks said he wasn’t made to survive. / daddy says all of us owes our lives to momma.”

Conversely, there is also an awareness of the violence against women specifically, and the lack of power and control that many have (and continue to) face in navigating through the world while being “woman enough to strip the roam from a man,” as the speaker from “At the Crossroads” reveals. Could you speak to the presence of women in these poems, from a historical and more intimate, familial perspective? What haunted or compelled you the most in recreating these women, their voices and stories and sense of power (or lack thereof) through language?

Janae: Around the time I was writing “Queen of Night,” I was working at an elementary school and all of the women around me were either pregnant or post-baby. There were a lot of babies being born all the time, so I found myself thinking what it must be like for someone to bring a child into this world knowing that the space for that child is so incredibly small. What do you hope for when you know that the world will inevitably be subtly and unspeakably cruel to the life you’re carrying? How do you make it okay? I spent time trying to imagine that space, trying to imagine being a woman in that time, but also wanting some sense of escapism. At the end of “Queen of Night,” the midwife remarks how she will bury this blood, essentially casting this spell to protect the new daughter. Essentially this poem is a reflection on how very little black mothers could or even can do in the present to protect their children, other than pray or cast spells.

Regarding those other poems that you mention, a lot came from watching my mother, aunts and grandmothers, and their anxieties surrounding myself, my siblings and cousins. There was a time when my brother was starting to date people and we went to a high school where everyone was either white or Asian, and he started dating a white girl. My mother had this anxiety that if something bad were to ever happen, it would be her word against his, and no one would ever believe him. Or that even if her father just didn’t like him something bad could happen. Just imagining all the ways that it could go wrong and wind up with my brother in trouble or hurt or not okay. I wrote from that anxiety and space of trying to figure out how people deal with having so very little control over anything, and yet still somehow don’t give up. There is this sense of love that calls people to action and to do things, even when they know they have so very little power. It’s crazy to me that these women managed to survive this and not give in to despair. That they chose to keep living. Right now, I’m writing a lot about the mental health of black women, which I was beginning to get into with these poems. I think a lot of Toni Morrison’s Beloved, when Sethe tries to kill her children to save them. How did these women avoid that kind of despair? Where did that endurance come from? It goes beyond just having strength. These women also had joy, joy that they found somewhere and enough of to share with their families.

Rumpus: The last poem of this collection is powerful in how it speaks to that sense of endurance, while also reflecting upon the mental health and collective grief of black mothers who have lost children to police brutality. This poem speaks to the complexity of this grief. It also struck me as a departure from the rest of the book. This poem felt that it was very purposely written in this contemporary period, serving as a bridge from the past, while deeply reflecting upon the sense of tragedy and grief that parallels history.

Janae: I wrote that poem after the non-indictment of the cop who killed Eric Gardner, along with the cop who murdered Michael Brown. I didn’t know what to do with myself. So much of this book is filled with grief but I was deliberate throughout a lot of it about not making it all about white violence. Not because I wanted to downplay white violence, but because I’m not interested in white people artistically. I mean they’re in the book, the violence is there. But I wanted to emphasize the fact that black Americans had/have their own lives going on independent of white folk. The whole point of the Slocum, TX section is the fact that black people had their own space, their own private lives going on until the neighboring white town came and slaughtered everyone. Of course it was an impossible task to write a book that deals so heavily with the past, that was solely focused on the insular lives of black people, because our insulation is constantly being eroded. I had resisted writing about all these murders of black women and men because I felt that if I started writing these poems then that’s all I’d ever write and I’d just stay there in that grief forever. It felt like a powerless place. I read an essay by Jericho Brown, in which he essentially stated that regardless of what happens in the news and regardless of what white supremacy has going on, I’m still going to have something to write about. Which is essentially Jericho reminding the world that white folk are not the sun and black folk do not revolve around them. And so I avoided writing about these murders for so long and then they were happening one after the other after the other, and I needed to address it for my own sanity. But I wanted also to write poems of resistance and not just grief, which is why “In Defense of Violent Protest” ends with “and won’t we be ready then? / —yes—wont we be ready.” It was very important for me that that last poem be firmly rooted in the present and in resistance. For me, writing about the past is meant to very deliberately connect to, and further complicate, the present.

Rumpus: What are you working on now?

Janae: I’m working on poems that deal with more family and present-day issues. I am also focusing on poems that speak to the mental health of black women. I have a sequence of poems about black women who have been killed by police. I think of the recent death of Korryn Gaines, which some people called a police-assisted suicide. Which even if that was so, it just shocks me that no one thought to ask what is happening in this woman’s world where she doesn’t want to live? That she would feel that she and her child were better off on the other end of police barrels? So I’m writing more directly about that. About how blackness and womanhood affects the mental health of people like me.

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Author photograph © Lyn Phillips.


Olivia Kate Cerrone’s historical novella The Hunger Saint (Bordighera Press 2017) concerns the carusi, the child-aged sulfur miners of rural Sicily. Her Pushcart Prize-nominated fiction won the Crab Orchard Review's 2016 Jack Dyer Fiction Prize, the Mason's Road Literary Award, and first place in Italian Americana's 2012 literary contest. The Hunger Saint won a 2014 “Conference Choice Award” from the SDSU Writers’ Conference. Cerrone's short stories have appeared in various literary journals, including New South, the Berkeley Fiction Review, The MacGuffin, War, Literature and the Arts, JMWW, Word Riot, and Paterson Literary Review. She serves as an associate editor for CONSEQUENCE Magazine, and is a member of PEN American Center. Cerrone earned an MFA in fiction from New York University and a BFA from the Writing, Literature and Publishing program at Emerson College. She is currently at work on a novel set in Boston, MA called DISPLACED. Contact her at [email protected] More from this author →