VISIBLE: Women Writers of Color: Faith Adiele

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About fifteen years ago, a friend said she wanted to introduce me to author, speaker, and teacher Faith Adiele. Faith, my friend explained, was Thailand’s first Black Buddhist nun, living right here among us in Pittsburgh. At the time, I knew next to nothing about Buddhism, and even less about its nuns, so I expected to meet a plain, whisper-quiet woman, and I would pretend to be serious and pensive around her. But when I met Faith, I was immediately struck by her presence—bold, brilliant, and colorful. Her wit and laughter, unabashed and infectious, made me want to be her friend. And over the years of our friendship, Faith has been steadfast in her encouragement of me as a writer. She has also been a great friend and teacher to writers around the globe.

Named as one of Marie Claire magazine’s “Five Women to Learn From,” Faith’s writings on spirituality, travel, and culture have been published in periodicals like Yes!, Essence and O: The Oprah Magazine, and here at The Rumpus. She has been the keynote or featured speaker at universities, churches and community centers worldwide.

The daughter of a Nordic-American mother and Nigerian father, Faith was raised as the only Black girl in a small farming community in Washington State. After flunking out of Harvard while on scholarship, she shaved her head and moved into the forests of Southeast Asia, where she became Thailand’s first Black Buddhist nun. Her memoir about this experience, Meeting Faith: The Forest Journals of a Black Buddhist Nun (W.W. Norton & Co., 2005), won the PEN Beyond Margins Award for Best Memoir.

Faith eventually returned to Harvard and graduated. Then she traveled to Nigeria to meet her father and siblings for the first time, a trip that inspired the PBS documentary, My Journey Home, as well as Faith’s ebook, The Nigerian-Nordic Girl’s Guide To Lady Problems, a humorous, tri-cultural look at Black women and fibroids.

Faith is co-editor Coming of Age Around the World: A Multicultural Anthology (The New Press). She has been honored by a UNESCO International Artists Bursary (Italy), Best American Essays shortlist, the Banff Centre for the Arts (Canada), the Sacatar Foundation (Brazil), the Yaddo Corporation, the MacDowell Colony, the Millennium Award from Creative Nonfiction, the Zora Neale Hurston/Richard Wright Foundation, and PEN New England.

A graduate of the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the Nonfiction Writing Program, Faith teaches travel writing at VONA: Summer Workshops for Writers of Color and The San Francisco Writers’ Grotto, and is Associate Professor in Creative Nonfiction at California College of the Arts.

In this interview, Faith talks about being a good literary citizen, the Finnish debut of her PBS documentary, and telling the truth about Black lives.

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The Rumpus: So you’re back home in Oakland, fresh off a summer trip to Finland, Iceland, and Greece. Are you just vegging now?

Faith Adiele: Actually, I went to a local event yesterday, a follow-up to For Harriet’s Black Girls Gather: Oakland. My friend [freelance travel journalist] Elaine Lee was there, and she told me that I should host an event as a follow-up to my Nordic trip. Whenever she goes on big trips, she has these quasi-private, quasi-public parties where she shows slides and talks about her trip and invites people who’ve been to that place to share as well. So I want to do that, to continue the momentum of my presenting my film [My Journey Home: Faith’s Story] in Finland to the Afro-Finns. That’s what’s percolating right now. How to present my experience there to my community here.

Rumpus: A kind of debrief.

Adiele: Right. The debrief. At the For Harriet follow-up, I talked about storytelling and the importance of personal narrative and how I see that as part of my contribution to the women of color community. How oftentimes, memoir and personal narrative are demeaned or considered to be navel-gazing. I have a theory that, for people of color or others who have been cut out of the master narrative, just telling your personal survival tale, your story, is civic engagement. It is a kind of political performance and is really crucial in that storytelling is how we connect with people and change. It’s how we collect and add to and complicate the master narrative.

Rumpus: So you showed your film at the Afro European Conference in Tampere, Finland?

Adiele: No, I met people at that conference, and those meetings led to my showing the film in Helsinki at the Museum of Impossible Forms, which is a people of color art space in Eastern Helsinki, an immigrant community. The museum co-sponsored the screening with Ruskeat Tytöt, a digital magazine by women of color in Finland writing about writing. After the screening, they live-streamed a Q&A.

Rumpus: How was it, showing your film? Do you feel that the audience has changed, or the conversation has changed?

Adiele: I took the trip to Thailand in 2002, and the film came out in 2004. And these days, about every year, there’s some request to show it in the Bay Area. So, I continue to show it. And the same conversation is happening over and over again. Each generation is rediscovering the same stuff. So, it’s interesting, even though biracial people are super visible right now. Super, super visible. And the literature is out there, and the film is out there—I still feel as though some of the conversations are kind of the same arc.

It was pure coincidence that my trip to Finland coincided with the biennial Afroeuropeans: Black Cultures and Identities in Europe conference, which was being held for the first time in Finland—first time in northern Europe, in fact! My first weekend in the country, and I’m getting this rare, interdisciplinary introduction to what’s happening in the Nordic countries (and across Europe) for folks who are biracial, of African descent, or recently immigrated. It felt like I found my tribe! I hope they find a university to host in 2019, but I noted several weaknesses—the marginalization of artists, some panels that didn’t have a single person of color on them, and the quality of the conversation on biracial identity. The latter was really at the beginning stages, compared to what happens here in the US. So when I showed my film in Helsinki, I worried that the context wouldn’t necessarily be relevant. I was showing it to a roomful of people who are the first of their kind, essentially—biracial and first-generation Finns. My Nordic identity is Nordic American, the result of immigration. And they’re younger than I am, they’re Millennials. So, I was a little anxious.

But it seemed to really resonate. I mean, it’s hard because they watched it in silence because they’re Finnish. [Laughs] There was some laughing. And then they’re like, “And now we break for snacks.” And I thought, “Oh, my God, what’s happening?”

Then I noticed Faith—a fully African, Zimbabwean woman who I’d spent the day with who now lives in Finland—I noticed she was crying. So I asked her to ask the first question, and then it went from there. And I noticed that there was an Afro-Finn who was crying, and we had a really great conversation.

And so, I think what resonated [from my film] was finding the African father or the African identity. Because my impression is that almost every single person there had a Finnish mom and an African dad. And the African dads were not transmitting cultural information, even if they were in the kids’ lives. And so, the kids were just feeling completely abandoned and adrift. And there’s just not as much conversation about it. So, a number of people said, “This is the first time I’ve heard it phrased this way. Or, “You’re the first person who’s said X, Y, and Z.”

The film felt incredibly relevant, and they kept asking me things. I thought it was going to be more of them saying, “Well, yeah, that may be true for you, but for us…” But they actually wanted me to give them answers around things. They wanted to know how do you claim your identity if your African father rejects you? Or what was it like when you came here to Finland since that part’s not in the film? And how do you talk about your identity? And when people do project stuff onto you, how do you have enough strength? And so they were really ready for all the lessons.

Rumpus: Let’s talk about genre. Travel memoir. Is that how you would define your work? Has the way you define it changed over the years?

Adiele: I write short pieces that I see more as specific travel essays or travel memoir. And I would say the books are more straight memoir, though not straight in terms of form. But I made a decision a while back to define all of my stuff as travel. And that’s also connected to doing this travel writing workshop for VONA, too, when we consciously said that travel writing is one of the genres that’s most in need of decolonization and a POC [people of color] takeover.

Part of it was what is defined as travel writing in the US, Australia, and Britain, where travel writing is most popular, is an extension of the colonial project and the imperialist project. The language that we use to talk about difference and authenticity and adventure and all of that stuff comes out of that influence of colonization.

One of my students, Bani Amor, just had a piece out on how [common travel writing] terms are very sexual. And so, places in the Southern Hemisphere are often synonymous with brown women’s bodies and accessibility to them and conquering. The language is just so problematic.

And there is the problem of who gets the gigs to do travel writing. When we talk about travel writing, it’s very, very white. And then the other problem was that POC folks weren’t seeing their work as travel writing. They end up saying, memoir, but that’s travel. When you’re talking about recovery, talking about changing class, you’re talking about immigrating, you’re talking about going back to finding your roots. That’s travel, that’s travel, that’s all travel.

Every story is essentially a travel story, and the stakes are so much higher when it’s a POC story. So let’s look at The Odyssey, let’s look at The Iliad, let’s look at any kind of spiritual quest, personal quest. There’s a travel element in it. So, I’m trying to seize the term, “travel writing,” and complicate it.

So when I say my work is travel, that’s what I’m doing. And also, of course, part of being biracial and multicultural is I’m always playing with genre and genre expectations. So even if I say I’m doing straight memoir, you’ll see that I’m doing weird stuff with the structure. I’ve got images, I’ve got lyrics, and I’ve got journalism. I really try to not get stuck in genre expectations.

Rumpus: List for me, please, the Faith Adiele Reader.

Adiele: Yeah! The Reader! Obviously Meeting Faith. You’d want to have the ebook, or the audio book. And the Nigerian-Nordic Girl’s Guide to Lady Problems.

Rumpus: Best title.

Adiele: Right, I know, best title ever. It’s giving you a taste of a new project I’m finishing up that comes from that work. And my anthology I co-edited, Coming of Age Around the World. The film, My Journey Home, which people can order from my website.

One that’s really key is the essay I have in Joy Castro’s anthology, Family Trouble. It’s something that comes up a lot on the hazards and rewards of revealing family in memoir. Anyone who is writing personal stuff is always asking, “What can’t you do? What can you do?” In my essay in there, I’m talking about both my biological family and the Black family in general. So, what are the responsibilities of a Black writer, in particular an African writer? The essay is called, “Writing the Black Family Home.”

I have a story in Yes! magazine is my pedagogy on personal narrative and how writing memoir is in fact a political act of civic engagement.

I’m also in the first-ever anthology from the nonfiction writing program out of Iowa. The story I wrote in there was the first story I wrote at Iowa. It’s been anthologized a lot. It’s called “Black Men.” It’s all about all the Finnish men in my family and kind of intergenerational trauma and mental illness, and recovery and family histories and all that sort of thing. It’s also kind of an exercise. There’s an essay afterwards that explains the issues I had with it being workshopped on people who said, “You can’t do that. You can’t name it that, and you can’t write something that has a whole bunch of foreign names in it, and it covers so many generations of family,” and all this stuff.

So there was a really big problem of how am I going to write this piece. And I wrote about all the stages of how I did it, and I ended up with a lyric essay format.

So, that’s what I’m moving into now. I’m doing a lot of things that are half-craft, half-memoir, and so they unfold and tell you how they’re working. There’s one at Cosmonauts Avenue, “How to Write a Metaphor on Black and White.” It uses images and takes a moment out of my parents’ interracial love affair in the 60s and then talks about—given the difficulty of how we read interracial romance—how can I actually tell their true story? So it’s playing with all sorts of things—civil rights, iconography, retelling the story through various versions.

I’m also in a new anthology called Creating Nonfiction, and I have a whole essay that plays with those emails that you get from Nigeria trying to separate you from your money. I take all of those emails, as well as the Wikipedia page on Nigeria, and I cross it out so I’m also critiquing the kind of information we get online, critiquing Wikipedia, critiquing narratives about Africa. I’m crossing out, adding things, and playing with stuff. It came from me telling my students not to use Wikipedia. And then I was like, “Okay, just fuck it. Let me just go all out into Wikipedia and show them how crazy it is and critique these narratives.” So, that’s where I’m going right now with these essays that show my heritage.

Rumpus: What more can you say about Twins, the new project?

Adiele: It’s four generations of family on three continents. It’s an epic memoir. I’m trying to reclaim that title from the best-selling Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgård and his My Struggle series. It continues the story that started in my film and that a lot of these current essays are revolving around. I look at three historic moments that shape the world and how each generation of my family was involved. So, I’ve got the story from Europe, in which my Nordic grandparents, Finnish and Swedish, became white and moved from being peasants in Europe to being middle class white folks in America. The story critiques that immigration, which was very much encouraged.

Then we’ve got the Civil Rights Movement, which brought my parents together as the first interracial couple on their college campus. [My father belonged to] that generation of Africans who were coming to the West to be educated in preparation for independence [back home].

And then we had the Nigerian Civil War, which was the first challenge to colonial boundaries. When the breakaway Republic of the Biafra seceded from Nigeria, that signaled the end of our family unit.

So, those are the three key moments. And I’m recovering all of these secrets and histories and finding out parallels between the three cultural strains we’ve got going on in our family.

And I just testified about Biafra this summer, before I went to Finland, actually. I was at documenta, the big arts festival in Germany, with a group of Nigerian artists and the kids of well-known people during the War. The guy who won documenta this year had proposed to have a gathering of Biafran children, he called it. They funded it and flew all of us in from all over the world—some from Nigeria, some from Europe, some from the United States—for this presentation.

We all testified in this place where the Greek military junta used to torture prisoners. After the downfall of the military junta, they made it into this art park. We testified at night because of this big heat wave, over two or three days, giving artistic responses to this war that no one’s ever really talked about. It’s missing from Nigerian history books.

And I thought it was going to be way too specific, but they were making real connections to the refugee crisis they’ve got going on right now. I mean, they have Syrians camped in parks, all of this craziness happening around the world of totalitarian regimes, including our own. So they made a lot of connections. Even though most people had never heard of the Biafran War.

Rumpus: I love that you know about these interesting events and opportunities and places to get published. You mentioned earlier that a lot of these gigs and opportunities aren’t made available to people of color, or for whatever reason we may not have access to them. How does a woman of color travel writer who is just getting started, get access?

Adiele: There’s a lot of exciting stuff that’s happening right now particularly online. Many of these books and magazines that have been around forever are just so entrenched. Look at Best American Travel Writing. That anthology, every year, there’s only one woman a year. And it’s always Susan Orlean. Of the twenty-six stories that are chosen each year, I dare say twenty-four of them are white men, and there might be one Indian man, and one white woman, Susan Orlean, let me be frank about it.

But more and more people are traveling. There is this new Black travel movement that’s gotten a lot of attention lately. Some of us have been traveling forever, but now Millennials just see it as one of the things that they do. So folks started to create outlets for themselves online. I’m particularly excited about this new digital platform called On She Goes because it’s just women of color, and it’s got a combination of practical stuff, like where do you get your hair done in this region of China? Or, this is what you pack, or this is how you do this. But then there’s also this literary stuff, too. People talking about their own experiences, or a critique of travel culture, or about travel writing. So, it’s really hitting things that you could use practically to travel, but also to figure out how to write about your narrative afterwards. So I’m super excited about that.

In terms of literary travel, I’d say Away: Experiments in Travel & Telling journal, which is a project out of Oberlin. Universities are sending their students all around the world, and there isn’t a lot of preparation or reflection about power dynamics or gender and racial dynamics. I have a former VONA student—a professor at the University of Washington—who is writing a handbook about these dynamics, and Away magazine published her first chapter.

Away magazine itself grew out of [asking], “What are more thoughtful ways of reflecting on [student] travel?” And they’ve got a real strong visual component [with] photo essays as well. So, I really like them. They’re open to discovering new talents and emerging people.

I’ve got an ongoing archive that I keep for my students. So I think there are ways to find the community, follow people [on social media] who are writing well, and get some advice from them. Put your stuff out there. Those would be my suggestions for someone who is starting out.

Rumpus: When you were starting out there wasn’t a Faith Adiele doing this. So, what guided you? Or has it been like a patchwork quilt of resources?

Adiele: What did I do? I took workshops here and there and extension school classes. I read a lot. I looked through Poets and Writers magazine at the back and would send my stuff out to people. And I was really grateful if I got a nice rejection. I sent to small literary magazines that weren’t about the money. They were doing it because they really loved it. So chances are, those editors had more time to respond, talk to me, remember me, and that sort of thing. I spent a lot of time really thinking about craft, reading, and workshopping my work, and looking at other kinds of art forms, too. Really working on my abilities. I spent time writing to people whose work I admired and going to readings and telling them how much their work meant to me, and trying to become a good literary citizen.

And then you start to see names over and over again. So you’re asking these people where did they go, and who are they reading. I really got my start in anthologies for women of color. Those were the places I really wanted to appear in, and so I started making relationships with editors and with other people who appeared in those books. And I would travel to where the book launch was going to be, because I was just so hungry to find the community of women of color writers, or writers who are mixed race. I sought out mentors a lot. I did a couple of low-residency programs before I went to Iowa, just so I could choose mentors to work with me. Because I was really hungry to be in a literary community with people who could push me.

I always had something in the mail because someone had told me that as long as there’s something in the mail, you hope. So, I had a big chart of deadlines and things that I wanted to submit to, and something would come back and I would just send it back out again, figuring that it was a numbers game as well as what could I learn about tweaking it and making it better. I just tried to figure it out for myself. With a lot of help from kind people.

Rumpus: So now that you’re in a position to teach and to help others—not just at VONA but in your university teaching as well—is there a tug of war between wanting to help versus a bootstraps/back in my day kind of thing? Do you ever feel that tension? There’s something to be said for being resourceful and having the kind of moxie you had. But at the same time, people helped you along the way. How do you strike that balance?

Adiele: Well, I do find that people are incredibly naive about what it is to be a writer. Like you would pay an incredible amount of money for an MFA program and [still] not have the slightest idea of how one goes about becoming a writer. So, I’m always flabbergasted when people say, “Oh, I was invited to do a reading, but I’m not going to read because I don’t have a book.”

Rumpus: Oh! Ouch. That hurt just hearing it!

Adiele: I know! [Laughs] Or people who don’t read, or who don’t go to events, or they don’t want to talk about their work. “I don’t want to sell myself.” Particularly in nonfiction, which is so different, you have to have a book proposal. You have to have a pitch. So, I feel as part of being a good teacher [means] I have to break stuff down. Some people really don’t want to hear it because they feel that like, “No, I’m so special that someone will just recognize me and give me a big proposal.” So I want to demystify it. We do students a disservice about this career [if] we have not made it clear how it works.

So, if anyone is polite, I will help. Because there are so many people who say, “Oh you’re a writer? Here’s my manuscript. I need to edit it.” Or, “I met you once, and I selected you.” Like it’s doing me a great honor.

Rumpus: It’s your lucky day! [Laughs] Lord, people, don’t be that person.

Adiele: Right, exactly. I’m willing to offer it to you. And no, no, no. A writer is not someone who transcribes stuff, or is not an editor! I have my own stuff to write, you know.

A young woman in Ethiopia sent me a really lovely letter saying, “I would just love to have half an hour of your time on Skype to get your advice around applying to graduate schools. I’ve already researched you, and this is what I know about you. I don’t have that much access now that I’m here in Addis [Ababa].” She didn’t ask me to get her into my program. And I thought, “Oh, my God, this is a completely good use of my time.” I do a lot of those types of things, where people are realistic about what they ask for, and they do seem to have shown a little moxie. She checked me out. She knew the time difference. She had a plan. She wasn’t just like, “Make me famous.” So she needed help, but she’d also done what she needed to do. Those are the kind of people I want to help.

Also, I see a lot of people who have amazing stories but have been told that their work, their lives, and their stories and not the stuff of literature. Or they’re first-generation college student, first-generation American, and their family just doesn’t understand the art world. They have a lot of guilt. “We came all the way from [wherever] so you could do this?” Those people may not be showing the moxie, but that’s because they don’t even know what’s possible. So I want to jump in and say, “Actually, your story is amazing, and I believe in you.”

I see people who are also teetering on the verge, and I’ll say, “You need to be able to tell your truth for your own sanity, because your body has endured so much.” And then I will suggest a possibility. That’s more important to me than someone who has moxie because they are simply ambitious. Their stakes aren’t as high.

Rumpus: Who are you reading right now?

Adiele: I’m reading a lot of Nordic stuff. When I was in Iceland last month, I met Lola Akinmade Åkerström, who is Nigerian and lives in Sweden and makes her living as a travel writer and photographer. She and I had been online friends for a long time, but we met for the first time there. And that was amazing. She’s got two books that are coming out this year, and she brought me a copy of her travel book, called Due North. It’s like a big photo essay of her favorite places, including Nigeria. So I am enjoying that.

I’m also reading a lot of stuff on this fantasy we have right now with Nordic people and Nordic countries, in America. One is called The Almost Perfect People: Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia, and the other is called The Nordic Theory of Everything: In Search of a Better Life. I’m wrestling with these fantasies as I go back to my book and figure out the role of my Nordic identity in telling this story.

Rumpus: When I interviewed Lisa Factora-Borchers, we talked about your advice to her when she was worried about white people wanting to buy her work. How have you dealt with that with your own work in terms of thinking about who you’re writing for, and who you are visible to and why.

Adiele: Whenever I write anything critical about Africa, that’s my hugest fear. I had a piece about my first trip to Nigeria, and it was really complex and hard. I wasn’t happy with the feedback I was getting in workshop. I was the only person of color in my workshop. I already felt guilty just putting it out there, and I didn’t know if I could trust people’s feedback. And when it came time to send it out, I had a lot of concerns about that, wondering if I was just contributing to all the heart of darkness shit that’s already out there about Africa.

And it did shape how I wrote it. Not in that I would not tell the truth about negative stuff, but I would put context in there. The piece was about violence happening in the family. Where does that come from? And then I would look at the violence happening in the society. Where did that come from? Then I looked at the colonial encounter. And then I also put myself in there, and I got implicated. I thought the piece wasn’t complete until I showed how I actually became violent within that context, too, which then just shows this environment can change anybody relatively quickly. So, then I thought, okay, that has the level of complexity that I’m comfortable with, but still I felt nervous about sending it out. I ended up sending it to an African journal. I think the piece is so much better because I had that anxiety, and I went through all of those levels of realities and connections.

Rumpus: You write about your parents, which for most people is just fraught. How do you kind of negotiate writing about parents and maintaining relationships with family, when you’re sharing things that some in the family don’t want you to write about?

Adiele: That is a major concern for all of us. More so if you’re writing memoir, but it even comes up in fiction. People just assume that you’re writing thinly veiled autobiography.

And particularly, I think, for people of color, our work is always seen as kind of anthropological artifact regardless. So, there’s always going to be that assumption, but even more so in a memoir because often the names aren’t even changed. It is easier to verify.

So, I did do a lot of thinking about it, and I did have a certain amount of responsibility to my biological family, and I’m lucky in that my mother understands the way writing works. She had also been harmed by family secrets, and by the family’s desire to become middle-class American. She saw that a lot of truth was being cut out when they decided to become middle-class American. She was like, “Wait a minute. We used to be cool with talking about the fact that we had crazy people, and that we had single moms, and we had gay people [in our family], and now, all of a sudden, we’re making this shit up. Like that didn’t happen because now we’re middle class.” And she got hit with that because all of a sudden, she’s the one who was pregnant out of wedlock with a half-Black kid. They said, “Whoa, we don’t do that.” And she said “Since when?”

She saw how problematic this middle-class fantasy was. She’s always been about telling the truth, and if she got revealed in an uncomfortable way in the process, that was fine with her. So, I was really, really lucky.

My late father was not down with that project. I did tread a little more lightly when he was alive out of respect to him and the fact that he had a famous name that had meant a lot to him. And he was also inspiring to his community. So I did pull back. I actually forgot a lot of things, I think, to protect myself. So now when I go back and look at my notes—whoa, I blocked a lot of stuff out having to do with him, which I didn’t realize I was doing. That was subconscious, I think, just so I could participate in the family.

I do worry a little bit now that I am going to tell those truths [in the forthcoming book], about how my siblings will respond to having this information about him. Because they have a different experience of him. So if I am going to tread on some toes in my biological family, I’m really clear that it’s not revenge literature, that I really thought it through, and that I have a larger responsibility to a larger family than just my mother and father. That responsibility is to change the way Black stories are being told, without shame holding us back. Yes, I’m kind of choosing to take the role of God and decide I’m going to be the one to tell the truth. But again, I always implicate myself, too. I figured out through writing “Writing the Black Family Home” that it’s a larger mission of telling the truth about Black lives that my ultimate allegiance goes to.

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Photographs provided courtesy of the author.

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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, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and Brevity; Stepmom, Essence, and Bitch magazines; and various anthologies. She's a Fellow at the Kimbilio Center for African American Fiction and a recent 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 →