It is easy to understand how Kendra Allen’s debut essay collection, When You Learn the Alphabet, won the Iowa Prize for Literary Nonfiction. What is less comprehensible is that Allen won the prize before completing graduate school (she was born in 1994). She writes with a rich and powerful voice, innovative style, and an ability to treat serious subjects with gravitas and humor. With essay structures of her own invention, Allen explores race, class, gender, family, and much more. She is a keen observer at the micro level, as with an African man on a frigid Chicago day in “Polar Bear Express.” Her reportage is equally compelling at the macro level, examining racist insults through a chilling list in “Boy is a White Racist Word.” In fact, her essays work at both levels simultaneously. Some feel like poetry, while others make use of the baldness of a blank page as if they paintings.
The title chapter is a tour de force built around the letters of the alphabet; each entry both honest autobiography and no-holds-barred cultural commentary on growing up Black and female in Dallas.
I had the pleasure of catching up with Kendra Allen about the essay form, how to avoid cultural appropriation, and the pride of being from Texas.
The Rumpus: Can you talk about the essay as an art form and as your chosen medium?
Kendra Allen: I don’t usually see the essay as an art form; it’s kind of been diluted by the masses. Fortunately, a growing number of people respect it as both. I gravitated toward it because it has no real rules. In poetry everything has a name. In fiction, I could never wrap my mind around writing a continuous narrative without changing subjects. And although I loved reading them both, those genres were extremely intimidating to me at first. I didn’t know anything about creative nonfiction other than that I could write things that have happened. So, I took what I thought was the easy way out. But the essay brings out the trauma and horror in your life without warning!
Rumpus: Whoa, what do you mean by that?
Allen: Writing personal essays is like writing down your biggest secrets and telling them to everyone. You can potentially sacrifice relationships, your sanity, and even your art with what you decide to share, but I never felt like I had any other option but to do so. The essay (for me) is most times (not always) heavy content that I’ve bottled up. Once I begin to spill it on the page, I can’t stop. When you write from such a vulnerable place, memories begin to flood you, both good and bad, and your perceptions change. You identify things you’ve never considered to be an internal struggle, like, oh, that thing that happened to me seven years ago or even yesterday was fucked up. The more you write, the more you begin to name those fucked-up things—abuse, neglect, assault, depression, etc.—and by the time you realize you’ve revealed these things, it’s too late. You have to keep writing through to get it out of your head because if you don’t, you feel like you’ll suffocate. Then once you’re done, (which is never the case) you’re faced with the task of working through these realizations in everyday life, which is hard.
Rumpus: I appreciate such a candid answer, which leads me to ask about the tremendous flourishing of memoir that we’re seeing. Is there something about now?
Allen: Readers genuinely want to know more about the “other”—more than they previously did. If there’s a market for something, publishers are gonna exploit it! Writers are feeling less pressure to create trauma porn for profit and instead can do what they want on the page. Thankfully the memoirs in this flourishing come from the minds and hearts of women and gay and lesbian and trans and bi and older and younger and disabled and Latinx and Black and Asian folks who are expanding our ideas of memoir.
My hope is that the publishing world publishes way more Black women than they already do, that editors consider Black women before their own careers, that they don’t police Blackness or woman-ness no matter, and that publishing pays Black women the same advances and royalties they pay mediocre white men. My fear is that they won’t.
Rumpus: In “The Beautiful Ones Always Smash the Picture,” you write: “Paris for Americans… is the obligation to participate, the appropriation of Parisian culture, and the overbearing excitement to prove you care about museums.” How does this connect with cultural appropriation?
Allen: Americans love going to other countries and acting like they belong there, thinking they can blend right in, that you should be grateful for their presence. Americans also love to steal shit. Nine times out of ten, it’s white folks who are in refusal, putting themselves in foreign environments and not learning about them, as if entitled to something even knowing nothing about it. If we’re talking about Paris— the romanticized version—and if we’re talking about America’s obsession with Blackness—the cool things we do, say, and wear, but never who we truly are. In both situations, the humanity of the person, the country they inhabit, their pain, hurt, sorrow, and most important, their history, are swept aside. Fun is glorified—which is why we visit the Louvre and Eiffel Tower, because it gives off the perception that we’re cultured and cool. Just like in America, we have to tan and over-line our lips, but God forbid you get compared to a Black girl. You just want to give the perception you could possess a slice of her coolness, but not have to deal with the shit she encounters everyday. Anti-Blackness and pro-Blackface is a global issue. Appropriation is way more attainable than assimilation. It’s all trash. You ain’t gotta look that far to see the bigger picture.
Rumpus: Would you talk more about what appropriation looks like to you here in the US, and how you think about it in literature? Should we, and if so, how should we, write characters who are different from ourselves? And how can we as writers and readers try to get inside each others’ hearts and minds while remaining respectful of boundaries?
Allen: Cultural appropriation here is usually something that is very blatant and sometimes feels as if it’s daring someone to call it out because it almost feels closely tied to assimilation in a way. It’s like a slow leak being watched in slow motion until the source has run dry. I think the way we like to pretend appropriation here is a form a flattery is really dangerous, because we tend to erase all the pain and strife of the appropriated in order to wear a hairstyle, a skin color, use a slur, pass, participate, and ultimately offend without any real consequence except maybe getting cancelled on the Internet for a weekend. Appropriation means a lot to me but I’m at the point where I have to ignore it. My energy is a precious thing and tired of being mad all the time. The great thing is writers of color, queer writers, women writers, etc., go in writing about ourselves in a way that is automatically different than characters we grew up reading and loving. I can’t tell nobody they can’t write about something, but how they choose to do it is imperative. You should write about characters different from yourself.
The easy advice about appropriation is to stop taking credit for things regarding cultures you know nothing about. As Ms. Maya Angelou told that young girl, “you don’t have the license.” A writer’s whole job is to get into the hearts and minds with respect. Talk to people, man. Don’t make assumptions and draw conclusions. Ask people from cultures outside of your own what hurts them and why. Ask them if what you’re doing is harmful. Respect those reasons when you’re attempting to critique and inform the rest of us about it. And if you can, help them get their own stories out by incorporating them in your process. I know that I know writers who’ve done so successfully, but I can’t think of names off the top of my head right now. I can say when I’ve seen white folk try to do it, most times, it’s been done irresponsibly.
Rumpus: Switching tracks, your insights on song make me want to talk about stylistic variety, which is a great thing about your book. How do you come up with your essay structures?
Allen: I was taught that you write an essay incorporating six to eight full sentences to make a paragraph. It must have five paragraphs with an introduction and a conclusion. I could never do it right. My essay formats are me rebelling. I want essays to be as daring as poems. A good concept is my friend. The tab button is my friend. The space bar is my friend. Numbers are my friend. Symbols are my friend. How something is presented on the page may not have some deep meaning for me. But if I like the way it looks, I’m gonna keep exploring until I’m satisfied. The title essay was the most intentional I’ve ever been with a piece. I’m happy with it. I’m attempting to be more intentional with all my choices.
Rumpus: Speaking of intentional, do you place your work within the current political context, and if so, how?
Allen: I would be harming myself if I didn’t place my work in the current conversation, because if I don’t speak up for myself and those who look like me, no one else will. I’m lucky (and unlucky) to experience the times so close and personal, I can’t deny what’s happening. I wasn’t even out of high school when Trayvon [Martin] was murdered. I barely had my foot in college when Mike Brown was gunned down and it will probably continue. I saw the trajectory: no longer being able to hide the racism because so many people were dying for existing. Kids who were around my age. To see the people in charge of our safety blatantly lying led me to conclude that the breath in my body is political all on its own. A lot of the work in When You Learn the Alphabet was in direct retaliation to this realization. You can describe my work as angry and I wouldn’t argue. Anger is a fact. Nobody cares about Black folk like that, and nobody especially cares about Black women and femmes like that, so I make sure their stories, ideas, and thoughts are at the forefront of my work.
We’re living in “hate-filled times,” but we always have in this country. Writers have been writing through the hate and upset since forever. Our role is to tell our stories for the people who aren’t getting a chance to tell them. There is pressure for an open dialogue (that the majority agrees with) on everything that happens in our society. That pressure is too much to ask of any writer. Keep creating. Don’t let the hate conquer you, but don’t ignore it, and take care of yourself.
Rumpus: This is such an important point. Can you talk more about Black women as writers and readers, and who you’re excited about?
Allen: Black women are the most supportive group. We want to see everyone win. I read a lot, and I study the business I want to be a part of and the careers of writers whose footsteps I want to follow. We are a large readership but we see the evidence of this time and time again that we’re not the target audience. So it blows my mind that I can’t think of many Black women whose work I’m excited about. Not because I don’t care, but because I can’t see them. Their stories aren’t promoted. They’re not given that push for the masses to become familiar with their work the way everyone else is. While others get the chance to prove themselves, we have to show up as a guaranteed bankable talent while still receiving the bare minimum support on the backend. These women deserve so much more.
I’m excited about every Black woman writing anything. I’m thankful for social media and platforms like Well Read Black Girl who puts these women in our faces relentlessly and introduced me to Angie Thomas, whose stories I love and career trajectory I admire, Tressie McMillan Cottom, Yrsa Daley-Ward, Warsan Shire (it’s crazy how every single person hasn’t read Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth,) Camille Acker, Kwoya Fagin Maples… Black girls write their asses off, so stop making it seem like we’re begging for something we’re owed and let us all coexist and continue our mutual love without painting a fictional crabs in a barrel narrative.
Rumpus: How has studying for an MFA in writing affected your work?
Allen: I would like to say studying for an MFA has impacted my work in a great way, but my particular experience has been being sad and contemplating dropping out every other day. My work has been to go through the motions. There have been great professors and amazing students and I’m aware of the privilege to be in a graduate program, but I can’t say I would take this path if I had to make the decision again. I made it out of fear. I’m grateful that studying for an MFA has kept me aware and in the room of creativity. Being in the room has allowed me to appreciate the processes of others and store it for later.
Rumpus: Texas was clearly a big part of your education. How does it appear in your writing?
Allen: Texans love telling people they’re from Texas and I’m no different. Dallas is the greatest place on earth. The core values of people from Dallas revolve around their upbringing in the city. My best and worst memories are in Texas; they inform the tone of my writing, my slang, the reason I use the word “hoe” as a person, place, or thing. Texas possesses style without getting credit for it, so I make it a mission to have that come through in my work. Dallas has a strong vibe and gives off a strong feeling of soul and innovation without trying. My writing wouldn’t find humor in traumatizing situations or dance without Dallas. My writing wouldn’t exist without Dallas. I’m constantly working to make it proud.
Rumpus: You have an amazing voice that comes through in every essay. How did you find it, and can you talk about your “professional” background?
Allen: Life as a graduate student is as close to a professional life as I’ve had. I worked at a photography studio in high school and worked at Jason’s Deli and Best Buy briefly during college. I’ve been a student my entire life. I came to writing after changing my major for the third time. But words have been a driving force forever. When I was younger, my tennis coach (shout out to Jimmy and Cummings Recreational Center) had me write an essay on Arthur Ashe for a competition. After reading it, he told anyone who would listen that I was a writer.
The idea of being one didn’t stick until my twenties when I took a nonfiction workshop. Oh, This can be a career?! My career?! I had moments of fear and anxiety that consumed me (and still do), but I was a vocal child with ideas and opinions. I’m that girl still. It was truly trash for a long time, but it was present and something I loved and worked on tirelessly. The only thing I want to do with my life in a professional, make money kind of way is to continue to work on words tirelessly (and make documentaries) that say something.
Photograph of Kendra Allen by Carla Lee Allen.