The Conversation is an eight-part series put together by Aziza Barnes and Nabila Lovelace and hosted by The Rumpus. Read more about the project here. These poems and conversations from Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib and Paul Tran are the third installment.
Some I Love Who Are Dead
I have survived, if nothing else.
is it a sin to live in the past
if the present does not wish you living?
born into the hunt, and still here
born under a bridge of bullets, and still here
born during a season’s slow parade for the fallen, and still here
come morning, the house smells of whoever the night took,
howling into its jaws. A shirt, logged with stale sweat from a summer run. Cocoa butter, spread over spring-baked skin.
The hot leather of a Sunday Cadillac.
We will tear branches from the poplar’s neck and dress our hair in the leaves.
We will eat until we are full and then run to a new table.
Some I love dance in celebration of being alive,
some I love dance in celebration of someone who no longer is.
The lake swells with songs I hear my people sang to get free,
so I call the lake mine.
The wind blows cotton from somewhere south of where my father’s father was a boy once,
so I call the wind mine.
I throw change into a jukebox, and this is how we pull skin over the face of a drum now.
my mouth grew clogged with the dead, so I am giving the ghosts back to their bodies.
I am playing this music loud in the graveyard of withered youth.
I am watching the dirt pull up its long cloak, to trip the light fantastic.
Praise now, that which will not take us from each other. Praise the dreams where I am not pulling my friends from the water. Praise the fathers who will watch their sons become fathers. Praise the mothers who are still here, singing a sweet hymn. Praise the glorious shedding of the horizon, and the promise of another to arrive in its place. Praise the untethered sun that turns a sky red. Praise the red that is no blood of ours, no blood of anyone who carried us here. The skin of the undressed apple, baked into sweetness. The lipstick strong enough to stain the blackest cheeks. Praise the red that tells us another living day has passed.
The children where I’m from name each storm after someone they love,
so that it might be gentle with the fields when it passes through.
It might spare their braids, their afros piled high and heaven-bound.
They may turn their mouths to the sky and taste the sweetest tea,
sent down from a corner of heaven where
the people play spades and crack jokes across a table.
They give their teeth over to the slow rot of joy.
They swim in the flood left over and emerge holy, unkillable.
Lightning falls into the forest and shards of light lick the darkest tree.
Thunder claps like a choir on Sundays,
hums low with the gospel.
A flock of birds shook themselves free from a funeral once / the tree they dressed themselves in trembled / look at this promised land / I have built from discarded leaves / look at this room I have made for all of us to sit / around a meal / while I tell you how I imagine love / somewhere it is always spring / your favorite flower crawls slow from the earth / begging to explode from your closed fist / somewhere steam rises off a cup / pressed to your lips / in a diner where everyone knows your face / somewhere they will miss you / on the day you don’t come back / somewhere / they will name a place after the shadow you leave / whisper your name / in a prayer / and everything outside will bloom.
in a land built from slaughter, I will lay with you in the dirt and we will try to forget that there was once a war here. A brother held a knife to the throat of his brother. The light from the blade, then, perhaps kissing the frightened faces of both men. Before it fell to the ground, having committed no sins. How quickly the weapon becomes who brought us into the world, before it considers taking us away from it.
I will lay with you, and we will name the white shapes pulling themselves along the endless blue. Consider the cloud: the white space,
eager to be whittled down to the fondest memory of the most desperate romantics. The girl in a bright dress and the dog charging to her side.
The mother who places an arm around the girl’s
small shoulders. The wings that grow from their backs
just before they are blown away to another sky.
What black people love about the blues is the way a good song can conjure and undress the devil.A man with a gold tooth and a cigarette swinging from your granddaddy’s smile plucks the strings of a guitar. And before you know it, anything that has ever wanted you dead walks into your palms and begs for forgiveness. I like a song that asks me for no more than I can give. I have inherited nothing but a garden, overgrown with grief. I will come and find you, my dearest friends, after the world has laid its weapons at our feet. After we run into the streets and wash ourselves in the moon’s slow honey. We will cover our hands in the dirt and tear at the weeds of this garden until there is nothing left to love but our unburied selves. The halos of an always dying summer that rest on our heads. The way our names sound resting in each other’s mouths.
I have decided to drown whatever years I have left in celebration of this, if you will have me. If you will let me speak, again, of the heaven that is not a reward for death. And I will, in your hands, place every small grave I have been holding onto. I will trust you to wash them away in whatever the rain leaves. I will return, then, to the boy I was. The promise endless warmth. A song echoing off of a hot porch.
I went to the crossroad,
fell down on my knees
the sun goin’ down, boy,
dark gon’ catch me here
the sun goin’
–Hanif Willis Abdurraqib
Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib: I’m so excited to talk about the South with you. I think that one reason I was so drawn to partnering with you is that our histories are so different. We view the world and move in the world differently, and so I imagine the South means vastly different things to us. Have you been? Tell me where you’ve been?
Paul Tran: I have been on two distinct occasions. My first time was in Huntsville, Alabama. I was a sixth grader at the Marshall Space Camp and Flight Center. I dreamt of being an astronaut at the time, but then I said “no way.” It was one of the first times I left California. I spent a week in Huntsville, with all of the other kids who dreamed of going to outer space. I’m sad that I didn’t get to see more of Huntsville.
The second time I went, I went to Mississippi. I went with my college professor. I was a college sophomore at the time. My professor took a group of us to Clarksdale, Mississippi, where she had spent time as an exchange student from London when she was seventeen. She’s a black Londoner, and she grew very close with a woman named Vera Pigee, who ran a beauty salon in Clarksdale. A little known fact is that Vera was the NAACP secretary, and had been so for a very long time. During the great days of what we learn as the civil rights movement, which is of course ongoing, Vera ran voting registrations and organizing campaigns out of her beauty salons, because black people couldn’t congregate in public. No one was supervising black women’s work spaces, because they didn’t believe in black women as the source for southern activism. So she was able to do that, behind the guise of training young people on how to do hair, she did real activism. Vera Pigee has passed away now, but we went down there to learn about the black freedom struggle. We went around the South to all of the historical sights: the Tallahatchie, the Till museum, the Lorraine Hotel. We went along the Delta to trace the Freedom Rides, all of this important stuff that we only learn about in the classroom. We never live it, which is an important aspect of the learning. It’s not that we can tap right into history, or step right into the shoes of people who suffered, endured, sacrificed, and succeeded. But I think the important part is to dispel this post-racial myth, this myth that everything is good now. For a lot of people, the challenges then are similar to the challenges now. The public tries to mask that. We went down there right at the time of Trayvon Martin’s killing, and it was amazing to see the activism that was still so rich in Mississippi.
What are your connections to the South?
Willis-Abdurraqib: My family has… I mean, so many black families in America have roots in the South, right? So, me saying this about my own family is almost unspectacular, in a way. What is easy to forget is that for a lot of black people in America right now, slavery is something that was two or three ancestors away, it is very touchable. My grandmother has roots in the South, but my family, as I most know it now, all came out of the East Coast. New York and New Jersey. My father and mother come from there, but I was raised in the Midwest. My grandmother lived the final years of her life in Alabama, so it came full circle. We would take trips to the South when I was a child. I went to Louisiana and Mississippi after Katrina. I was struck by the marginalization of people of color in the South, specifically the poor. Post-Katrina, I was in the poorest parts of Mississippi, I was in the poorest parts of New Orleans. Yet, nationally, the main narrative was about Mardi Gras, and how this image of a city, driven by capitalism, could flourish once again. And I think that’s in line with black people in America, in the South. It fits the narrative of what labor can be performed. What performance can be given to earn your keep.
Tran: And how invisible you can be while performing that labor. How much labor can you do, while unpaid?
Willis-Abdurraqib: Exactly. What broke my heart then, and still now, is that the effects of Katrina are generational. There are people who look at Katrina, and people who look at what’s happening in Flint right now, and they think these are moments. These are moments that, too, will pass. But these things impact children, and their children. It’s all generational. It impacts these people for entire lifetimes. It’s nationwide, but I am aware of how I feel these generational impacts in the South. I feel my roots there in a way that I don’t feel in other places. I have a love for the great folklore, and some of the aesthetic blackness that comes out of the South. The storytelling that remains rich there in a way that it doesn’t everywhere. These people trying to keep their names alive, keep their names present.
Tran: Can you tell me about your family’s migration from the South to the East Coast cities, to where you grew up? Can you tell me about that intergenerational impact and trauma, and the way it manifests to you every day? And what is an example of a complicated feeling that surges in you when you return to a place you’ve experienced only in the memory of those who have come before you? When you go to places like Florida or Louisiana?
Willis-Abdurraqib: So, the migration isn’t too impressive. My grandmother also had roots in the East Coast cities. In that era, as I understand it, it was safer to have and raise a child. There was insulation, on some levels. It was imperfect safety, but safety nonetheless. We’re still in an era where churches are being set on fire. But I want to be clear about fear and violence in this way: I think about the fear I feel in America right now, being a black person, confronted with the death of black people on a regular basis. I don’t want to take away from that. But I think of the era my parents and grandparents grew up in, and that is a different fear. Seeing a cross burning on your front yard while pregnant with a child is a really palpable fear.
My family was on the East Coast until the 80s. I think they wanted to put a stake in the ground on the East Coast, raise a family there. But in the 80s, New York became a different kind of unsafe. For vastly different reasons than the South was in the 60s. Drugs, and the violence that came with drugs, and the very intentional dismantling of these communities. They moved to Ohio. I grew up really poor in the Midwest, but there was a slightly lower level of violence. In a way, my family has been escaping violence for years before I was present. Before I could understand violence as a concept. Running away from violence and into more, different violence.
I look at your work and your relationship with history, and I feel like this is where our work, our histories intersect. As much as I want to celebrate the rich history and heritage of places that I know I have roots in, there is imagery present, not just in the South, but perhaps more often in the south, that is a jarring reminder of so much. Look, I live in New Haven, Connecticut right now. And I don’t think it’s the most enlightened place on the planet, but the reality is that I could go MONTHS without seeing a Confederate flag. I drove into Richmond, Virginia last year, and the first thing I saw was a giant Confederate flag, flying at the statehouse. It’s hard to ignore the consistency of visuals, and how those things can also inflict small, or large traumas on people. It can be a mental and emotional roadblock, in a way. Those things stand out in the memory, but I still revel in the intricacies and beauty of the South, as I have known it.
Tran: There are incredible threads going there, in between what you describe, and what I’ve experienced with my family.
Willis-Abdurraqib: I could feel that, yeah. You’re so much of a historian. Your work blooms with history in a way that is really beautiful. Do you ever find yourself reaching for or connecting to history of the South? Do you see any parallels to the history that you’re writing about and the history of the South?
Tran: Definitely. In ways that I think I will continue to try and understand for a really long time. The reason why I have such a historical focus in my poems is because I never had formal training in poetry. I studied US Civil Rights History in undergrad, because I found incredible mentors for whom that time of American Empire was so critical to understanding the way our world came to be. They really taught me to look at the past as a means of understanding not only the present, but also as a way to compel human empathy. I think the more that we can understand how certain people’s lives crystalize, not because of, quote, their own “laziness” or “lack of opportunity” or some pathological problem from some misinformed report. It’s not just that. It’s, like you said, millennia and millennia of human decisions that culminate, and then deny people the opportunity to be fully human. Denies people the requisite rights of their humanity. We can break that down to rights that are associated with citizenship, with even being in this country.
It was so important to me, at that time, to understand history. Because I never had the chance to learn about my family, or people’s history growing up. My mom didn’t really talk about those things, you know? I understand how hard it was for her to talk about those things, and when she did, her stories changed all the time. And so, going into history made me not just curious, but it also gave me room to explore all of these questions I had about where I come from. The people I’ve loved. It taught me a way of seeing things. Of looking for silences, looking beyond the capital “T” Truth. There can be multiple truths to a story, based on people’s experiences, perceptions, and position. All of those truths matter, not because they might be true, but because of the investment people have in making those truths palpable and sustained across time. How we know something about what happened is considered a knowing. It is considered fact.
In the question you ask, the one example I can bring up… there is one poem that I can feel in my blood right now. And I am so excited to reach that point in the manuscript project where I just get in the ring with it and go. I took a class with the same professor that I went to Clarksdale with, Social Change in the 1960s. It was my sophomore fall. For one whole lecture, she talked about June 11th, 1963. Taking this one day, and talking about what happened around the world. On that day, in the white imagination, John F. Kennedy gives his civil rights address to the nation. It is the first time a US President has made that move. And it’s allegedly dangerous, he’s isolating members of his party by drawing attention to an issue that people felt was far from them. In his speech, he called civil rights a “moral issue,” and rallied the white imagination around this as a thing of morality. Therefore, urging white folks to push their bodies against the machine that built them. That same day, you have schools in the South being forced to face the fact that they had to desegregate. You had black students trying to get into law schools, and the National Guard showing up to the registrar’s office, preventing them from signing up. You had Medgar Evers, killed in his own driveway. That same day, you have Thích Quảng Đức, who was a Buddhist monk, setting himself on fire in the square, on Phan Đình Phùng Boulevard, to protest the Kennedy puppet government in Vietnam. Their treatment of Buddhist practitioners. To protest the American presence in Vietnam, this “civil conflict.” So all of this is happening at once. It was a huge moment for some people in that class, I imagine, where they realized that many lives take place all at once. That their American lives are not the center of the narrative. So often, when you look into American literature, it is already a narrowing of our point of view. It is already a prioritization of a certain experience.
You have folks now from transnational backgrounds, or folks with transnational sensibilities, even if they aren’t from a transnational context. These people are concerned about how one issue can bleed across man-made borders, these arbitrary lines. And they begin to show how this issue, in this case, a making civil rights a moral issue, is tied into the ongoing deaths of civil rights leaders. It is tied into the expansion of opportunities for young people of color, and it is tied into the decolonial enterprises of nations outside of this country. Nations being played by this country, to join in on the capitalist democracy game. It’s all happening at once, together. It’s all influencing everything else around it. Medgar Evers’s death in Mississippi is making its way into news across the world. And it’s taking all of these other countries, Vietnam included, away from capitalism. Because if the US can’t treat its own people of color right, how is any other country of color going to trust them to drive them into capitalism, or a supposed democracy? The literature doesn’t always show it that way. I’m trying to be very thoughtful about doing that kind of work, because I am not trying to seize histories that are not mine, or trying to amplify my lesser known story by putting it beside something more familiar. But I am interested in showing the threads between history and people that some may think are more discreet and separate from each other. Because that same assumption finds its way into the ways we see and treat each other every day, even now. I wonder what kind of world it might be if we saw ourselves just a little more bound to each other. The saying “I am bound to your liberation” isn’t just a cliché, you know?
Tran: I grew up in San Diego, and Selena was a huge thing for me and my friends growing up. I just completed what I hope was a good poem about my dad delivering newspapers in the morning and hearing Selena on the radio. That is also accurate history. She would have been singing “Como La Flor” on the radio when I was growing up. I can’t not acknowledge that as an experience growing up in Southern California. And I can’t not acknowledge the fact that there was huge national mourning and grieveing when she passed. In the same way that we grieved Aaliyah. I was aware of those things. And to ignore them would be ignoring the fact that I grew up with folks cross-racially, cross-gender, cross-class. Those people all experienced the world with me.
Willis-Abdurraqib: I think another thing is how the lives of our ancestors can intersect with ours, in the present moment. How mourning, grief, and celebration can come back around to us and manifest itself in similar ways. I love history most in that way. I think about the killing of Trayvon Martin, and how our generation responded to it by really committing to the idea of pushing this new wave of activism and civil rights movements to the forefront. It is similar to stories I’ve heard of the urgency that was felt after Medgar Evers was murdered in Mississippi.
Tran: Right. The terrifying reality of black people’s lives being in danger every day in this country is long standing. To begin figuring out the ways certain deaths punctuate widespread consciousness… what are the factors around that? The things that bring some names to the forefront and obscure others? It’s all connected to a sort of grass roots view of death, you know? Certain communities refusing to let their loved ones be forgotten. It’s incredibly important work.
Willis-Abdurraqib: Would you move to Mississippi, Louisiana, or Alabama?
Tran: I would. I’ve been so surprised, finding Vietnamese people everywhere I go, under the most obscure and exciting circumstances. I know there are Vietnamese folks in Versailles, Louisiana. I know there are probably Vietnamese people in the South who think they’re the only ones there, because of the way that immigration and ethnic enclaving worked at the time they settled there. Or maybe their parents worked certain jobs that landed them in that area. I would love to go and connect, and find them. Even with that shared ethnicity, there’s such a difference in our experience in the world. For me, growing up in California, and for them, growing up in the South.
I also think about answering this in a way that makes sense when I hear it in my head, and I’m not sure if it’ll make sense when I say it out loud. But the United States’s participation in Vietnam brought my mom here, against her will. And so, what does that do but compel this want to access this entire country, right? To see all of it. To know all of it. Even if the knowing is painful, even if it means traveling through places where I might not see myself, or where I will miss the few Vietnamese folks in those areas because of how invisible we remain. And even if I meet them, we might not actually connect. I don’t know what side of the war they stood on. They might not want to talk to me. They might view me as just another person, moving through this place that they’re forced to call home. Opening the lens beyond that, I’m so interested, as a historian, someone who experienced America from the underbelly, as what constitutes “American-ness.” To only investigate that in California, or New York… that’s so parochial. There are ways that I think histories of the American South have been co-opted, and made frozen in time, to keep a certain imagination of the South viable. And to obscure the incredible richness there, based on the people who continue to provide the labor for the South. People of color, immigrant communities, farm workers. I know in my heart already, what they have to say is important. In my family, I am the only one who can read and write in English. I am the only one who graduated high school and went to college. What would it be like, to use these small skills I have, to pay witness to the incredible lives there? The lives we don’t think about when we say the words “the South.” There are distinct groups of people who we know we don’t think about. And then there are other othered people who don’t get considered at all. We know they’re there. What about the trans folks of color in the South? What about the queer folks of color in the South? What kind of families are gathering around to support the lives of these young people? I would love to do the important and responsible work of being someone foreign to a community and participating responsibly with them.
Would you? Are you ready to go? Are we leaving tomorrow?
Willis-Abdurraqib: (Laughs) I’ll pack tonight.
You know, so much of black history is frustrating, in a way. There’s always the underlying reality of the fact that black people are in America because someone, along their line, was taken from somewhere else. So there is discomfort in that knowing, at least for me. In knowing that our ancestors did not choose here, but were carried here. Taken away from somewhere else against their will. In some ways, that makes me feel so much more kindred, I feel such a familial bond with black people everywhere. Even ones I may not fuck with. Even ones who I have to check, or ones who have to check me. Even ones I actively push back against, because they are harming people, or spaces in a number of ways. I still look at them and know that someone who shared their blood once had to survive something terrible in order for them to be here. I feel called to that understanding. I know that there was once a world in which we were not here, and we are now here. And we are doing this work of survival.
The one thing I love about the South is that there are people of color everywhere. I’m sure there is something historical and unromantic about that. I’m sure that there is the idea of staying in a place you know, despite what that place has done to you. I feel a lot of love, still, as someone who grew up in the Midwest and now lives in New Haven. New Haven isn’t like, Maine or North Dakota. But I could go days without seeing more than one or two black people around. I love seeing black people crossing the entire spectrum of blackness or otherness. The way I view blackness is the door that is open for every black person. I want to see trans black people, queer black people, black people who are not able bodied. That door has to be open wide for every representation of blackness, for me. Because so many of them are descended from people who did not ask to be here. If people of color in America are to keep existing, fighting, and pushing back against the things that are not there for them, I think the space has to be open wide, and considering a space for healing and regenerative work. The South is a place that I return to because I know for a fact that I have roots there. And that, in and of itself, is a blessing. There are people who can’t trace their roots. In my heart, I know I had family there. I had family that touched the land. In ways that, again, were associated with oppressive structures. But there is a truth in that, it moves me and helps me feel connected to that space. I can be a part of it in a way that is positive. Being from somewhere, or knowing that you’re from somewhere, or being able to say you descended from someone who had a home is a very powerful thing.
Tran: Why is it powerful to know? I say this feeling the exact same way, but I want to know what the power is for you, to know that there’s a place to belong? A place where people you once loved belonged? What is it to know something only in your heart, and how do we defend the things that we know only in our hearts, especially when the evidence may have been erased by time or migration or the continuing of diaspora? Or even purposefully erased by people who don’t want any part of that past to haunt them, because even the knowing of it may put their lives at risk?
Willis-Abdurraqib: I’m gonna answer backwards. I think when I say I know something in my heart, I feel less of an obligation to have to defend it. Which doesn’t mean that I can just say anything I want and clip that on the end of it, but if I’m speaking real and true emotions, it’s something very internal for me that I know cannot be universally processed. I believe it is a feeling that, somewhere, was given to me. Was placed inside of me to help me carry through. I know that it is something that is not felt by everyone, and so I weigh that and consider that when I talk about knowing how honored I am to have roots in a place. I say that knowing that not everyone approaches that in the same way. Saying I know it in my heart is me saying “This is something that is healing for me in a country that is in the business of erasing these people, and these histories.” I need to hold some facts close to me. I need to keep close the things I know, or I will be sure of nothing. I need to remind myself of those things and fall in love with them over and over again. I need to fall in love with the idea of black existence in America. The people I came from and how they survived.
But I also know that is a very personal narrative, for me. I can’t walk into a room full of black people and say “Love the South because you maybe have roots there!” you know? Like I said, this violence, this trauma, for a lot of black people, is still really touchable. In an effort to, again, erase the pain of it, we hear slavery talked about like it was in the stone ages. But ancestrally, it’s still very touchable. Black people who are 70, 80, 90 years old, they’re not many ancestors removed from this. So for me, I understand that it’s a privilege, and this goes into your first question, it is a privilege to have a home and be aware of that home. Beyond that, it’s a privilege to have affection for that home. I am from Columbus, Ohio, and I love that part of my identity so much. I am so proud to be from there. I love parts of the South where I see and feel the faces and history of people I know I have loved, people who loved me before they even knew I existed. People who loved me because they loved the people who carried me here. I know not everyone can say that. I have friends who do not know a home in that way. Friends who were born and then moved, moved again, and moved again. Or, friends who are from places outside of America, who had to escape those places, due to very real war. Very real violence. So the idea of home isn’t at all comforting to them. Or it is something completely different than what we believe it to be in America, or what I believe it to be in my own body. I can’t dismiss or minimize that. I say I’m proud to be from somewhere, and I know it’s a privilege. I’m going home next week, and I’m glad that I get to do that. I get to see things that were there when I was a child. I get to touch buildings that haven’t changed. So much of my work is about the gentrification and transformation of Columbus, but I still get to see parts of my childhood in the place where I was a child. These things aren’t leveled, or burned to the ground. That is a privilege. And so, it is important and beautiful for me to feel connected to a place and be able to touch it and sit in the air that was present when people generations ago lived in it and loved it. I am lucky, in that way.
Let’s close on this question, because I love it. I don’t know if I have a good answer for this, but I am so excited to hear your answer to it. Where do you go to see representations of yourself? What is your mirror?
Tran: It is absurd for me, every day, to be a poet and a writer. Especially a writer who works primarily in the English language. No one in my family can read and write in English. I’m the only one in my family who has been exposed to an elite English discourse. So whatever poems I write and perform, even this manuscript project, cannot be read or made legible, in its form, to the people I love the most. There is a translating work that has to be done. I pursue this relentlessly, because I have few greater dreams than the dream of someone like me, a weird, awkward, but loving person who believes in the goodness of people even when they betray that. I have dreams of that child, like me, who may be trans, who may be queer, or gender non-conforming. Who may have no friends at all, but the people they think are their friends, the people who are in proximity to them by circumstance, who speak to them and make them feel like a real person until they discover that these proximal friends don’t think and invest in their personhood. This young person, in a family that may or may not be raised by a single mother, who is working three or four jobs, and therefore has little time to look after them, and therefore charges them to look after themselves. I dream of this person, with or without experiences of abuse, unspeakable and unthinkable sexual violence, of incredible foreignness and otherness in a place that shows them no images of themselves. That tells them they are not worthy. I dream that maybe this person can walk into the public library down the street from my house, where I grew up. And because that is the only seemingly safe place in the world, they can spend the entire day there, going through the stacks. And they reach that point in the shelf where someone’s last name appears vaguely familiar to them. And they can pull my silly book off the shelf, and open it up. And they will never again be able to say that they never found themselves somewhere else in the world. They will know that they were never actually alone. Their experiences weren’t exceptionally tragic, because of that loneliness, or because of that perceived unworthiness. They can find whatever viable knowledge I acquired in my short life to give them perspective for where they’re at. I think, most importantly, that they can hold this physical object in their hand and have that feeling of possibility. All of the millennia of labor and sacrifice that led to that book being on that shelf means that there’s more for them ahead.
I do all of these impossible things for me. The sitting down to write, convincing myself that my voice matters, even though there are so many telling me that it doesn’t. Even my own, somedays. I do it because I want this person who I have not met yet to feel loved, in the way that you described how family will love you long before they meet you. I want that, and I say all of that now, because if you think about the ways that we consider identities in their most basic operations, then I never saw myself in the world. I suffered incredible mistreatment, prejudice, ongoing discrimination, and ongoing harassment, all because of this. My own father was able to molest me and able to get away with it, because of this. The men in my life, who I thought I loved, were able to hurt me emotionally and physically, because of this. Because when I stepped into the world, no one imagined that someone with my face or my body could have a story, or a past. Therefore, no one imagined what happened to this body. To someone with my face. And therefore, no one imagined that someone with this face could be a survivor. Could have grown up in poverty. Could have pulled myself out of that because of the resentment and rage I had towards the betrayal I felt towards a country that promised freedom to my people. A country that pulled us here, against our will. A country that didn’t follow through on the promise that it gave many young people, a promise of being safe in our own homes. Because people can’t imagine any of this, it continues to happen. The people who perpetrate those violences continues to get away. The small joys, the small measure of resistance that I make every day is also illegible. It is also unknown. I am propelled by those experiences to capture acutely this life I live, so that it might be rectified for someone else down the line. It would also be inaccurate to answer this question and not say that my mirror in the world is my mom. My mirror in the world is anyone who has ever loved me, without any reason to. My best friend who sat next to me on a full bus in the 6th grade, because none of the other kids wanted to sit next to someone who was queer. And she did. She’s still my best friend today. I see myself there. I see myself in those like you, like our friends in this incredible fellowship, who work hard every day. Despite all of the things opening up a casket for us in the ground. Because we have to survive, and we have to ensure the survival of people we love. In doing that, we face things that will never die. We face ghosts that will never die, and we face them anyway. And that courage, that relentless determination to make it wherever we’re going, I see myself there. I’m really grateful for that.
Now that I’ve given you all that time, you surely have a good answer here. Let’s go.
Willis-Abdurraqib: You know, I think my mirror in the world is always going to begin with black women. My first mirror was black women, and I still look into that mirror to most see myself reflected, the history of people who have loved me and still love me. As a son, brother, artist, person. My mother wrote. I first saw writing at the hands of my mother. My mother was so loving. I grew up poor, and my mother taught me such lessons in giving of myself. I watched her do it so effortlessly. When you grow up poor, giving of yourself, giving of your time, giving of the things that don’t cost any money. All of that is really important. I still really value that, even though I’m not as poor. It began there, but so much of my education has been at the feet of black women. I’m lucky to still have so many around, black women of various generations, who are willing to work with me, dialogue with me, teach me. I can still see my roots in the work they’re doing. I see myself in this beautiful cohort. This generation of poets that we’re in.
I say “we” and mean both of us, everyone in this brilliant fellowship and beyond. All of us, doing such necessary work around shattering binaries. Reimagining narratives around gender, race, sexuality, and survival. We’re doing it in a way that is also really joyful. I have a relationship with death that has been ongoing since I was thirteen years old. It is easy for me to only see myself in that. To look in a mirror and only see ghosts. But I am fortunate to know that there are people who have walked through traumas, and grief, both shared and unshared. Grief that is adjacent to mine, or grief that is unlike anything I have experienced. To watch all of you work into where survival and joy intersect, I see myself there the most. I see myself reimagining the idea that we are born and then we die, and in between we suffer. I am so glad to have writers who have pulled me out of that. Who encourage me to chase after the work in a way that honors all of our living.
I see myself, also, in my absolute best friends who don’t write poems. Who don’t care about poems at all. It allows me to return to a space where I am my most at ease. Cracking jokes while watching sports on the couch, or marathoning a TV show while not looking at the time. Things that are disconnected from this space where I am feeling everything. I go back home, and in my neighborhood, there are young black kids playing in the street when it’s warm out, in the same way I did when I was young. There are still kids who, on the first day of summer vacation, run across the street and shoot baskets on the bent basketball hoop that hasn’t been fixed for years. There are kids playing hopscotch on the faded blacktop at the park that I played at when I was young. Seeing my history reflected in that, seeing that lineage of youthful black joy is so fulfilling. I think of how that joy fed me, repeatedly, at a time when I needed escape. I think that is where I most see myself. I most see myself in the living joy of black youth, and how it fills the air. When my niece laughs, or when my niece falls while roller skating and bounces back up because pain is temporary. That’s where I want to live. I want to live in those moments for as long as I’m fortunate enough to be alive.
She draws a blood talisman on rice paper.
Dog gnawing a bride’s hem.
Shoves it under his windshield wiper
like a parking ticket. Violation—
not for his infidelity but her inconvenience
catching him. Freezing in downpour,
me delirious with fever, my mother
deciding whether she’ll break
into my father’s mistress’ apartment
to end their marriage or accept
their miserable union was already finished.
Ceaseless rain drags ink off the page
until just its phantom print remains—
confirmation. All magic requires sacrifice.
My mother trades the phoenix
ao dai she embroidered for a funeral
smock, freedom. Shroud removed
for unveiled world. Useless king
overthrown. Checkmate: the Queen
Regnant carries me to a room
where animals mistake their thirst for doors
they pound stupid against to open,
where my father unburies himself
from a breathless woman, falls completely
exposed at her feet. He begs for mercy,
swears he’ll change through yellowing
dentures, his only honest attribute.
She could’ve killed him. She could’ve
given back the knife he slammed in her heart,
commanded him to castrate his manhood,
stir it into cold congee, his last supper
in the underworld. She lets him live
instead. She sheds her crown
forged from black widow silk,
and we reenter the storm-lit night.
Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib is a poet and essayist from Columbus, Ohio. He is a Callaloo fellow, and his first collection of poems, The Crown Ain’t Worth Much, is forthcoming from Button Poetry in 2016.
Paul Tran is a Vietnamese American historian and poet. His work appears in Prairie Schooner, The Cortland Review, The Offing, and RHINO, which gave him a 2015 Editor’s Prize and Pushcart Prize nomination. He has received fellowships and residencies from Kundiman, VONA/Voices, Poets House, Lambda Literary Foundation, Napa Valley Writers Conference, Home School Miami, and the Vermont Studio Center. Paul lives in New York City, where he is a graduate archives scholar at the NYU Asian/Pacific/American Institute and coaches the Barnard College/Columbia University slam team.
The Conversation continues tomorrow with Jeremy Clark and Thiahera Nurse.