Praise the Bottom: A Conversation with Malcolm Tariq
Of all the scholars I know, Malcolm Tariq is both one of the smartest and the one most likely to post risqué Snapchat stories on a Sunday morning.
A native of Savannah, Georgia, Tariq moved north in 2013 to do a PhD in English Literature at the University of Michigan. While there, he cultivated his voice as a scholar, playwright, and poetry, and was selected as a Cave Canem Fellow in 2017. His new book of poems, Heed the Hollow, fuses playful explorations of the queer erotic with a study of anti-Black violence and memory. It sounds like it shouldn’t work, but it does. The book turns on a series of open holes and apertures: the hollow, the asshole, the emptiness in the archive where queer Black life should be.
Tariq locates his Black queer Southernness in his childhood landscapes and storyscapes. In doing so, Tariq joins a wave of Black Southern writers who are transforming Southern literature by grappling with its erogenous zones as well as its blood and guts. As Tariq writes, “I don’t hate the South, I hate its longing to / forget ruin. I hate its calling of my not name.” In Heed the Hollow, refusing to forget the South’s ruin allows for the emergence of new forms, new names, new things to praise: the “blackest bottom,” the “bottommost black.” The result is a breathtaking and challenging collection that spans centuries of African American and Southern history, culture, and desire.
The Rumpus: Why did you decide to focus your poetry on this concept of “the Black bottom?”
Malcolm Tariq: [My friend] Michael has a tattoo, it’s a peach and it has one of those ribbons over it, like if there was a heart and the ribbon had somebody’s name. But he has a peach and the ribbon says “power bottom.” And I was like, I want to write a poem about that. At the same time I was writing a long poem called “Tabby.” That was actually the original name of this book. I started writing “Tabby” and then I went to Cave Canem and you’d have to write a poem every day and all of a sudden “Power Bottom,” the poem that’s in the book now, just came out.
Rumpus: You explain in the book that tabby is a building material that’s specific to the part of the South Atlantic coast where you were raised, it’s part of your sense of place and heritage. What’s so powerful about the book is your ability to put those two things together: that Black Southern tradition and the like, straight-up Grindr culture of the peach emoji. Did you always know that these two themes belonged in the same book?
Tariq: I wrote “Tabby” after I read Trilogy by HD. I was home in Savannah. I noticed that I’d never seen this building material anywhere else. It was something I only noticed after I spent time away from Savannah. I think being away, that’s when I started to think more about race and sex. Living in Ann Arbor [Michigan], that’s when I started, like, really exploring my sexuality and being a sexual person. And the book is what’s between those places, Savannah and Ann Arbor.
Rumpus: So it was in Michigan that you were exploring sex and gaining a sense of yourself as a Black queer person. But then those dates turned out to be these racist white boys? Is that aspect of the book true to life?
Tariq: Yeah, I think that in Ann Arbor, I’ve experienced more racism. It would just be these very strange messages I would get from people on the apps. One Valentine’s Day, somebody sent me a message that said, pull yourself up by your own bootstraps. It was very strange. And one guy I dated, I found out afterwards that he only dated Black men and he was a white man. But then I also had very good relationships. Some with white men. Some of them I still talk to.
Rumpus: The way that racism played out differently in the North and South—does that feel regional to you? Or is it like Ann Arbor because it’s affluent in a certain way?
Tariq: The life of racism gets coded as a Southern thing and people in the North, I think they think they’re excluded from that and they don’t have that history, kind of like white people from Europe think they don’t have a history of racism.
Rumpus: There’s a dense, atmospheric quality of the South that you’re evoking in Heed the Hollow. How do you think about Southern-ness now that you’re living in the North?
Tariq: I guess wanting to be Southern is very intentional for me. It’s in the food I cook. I’m always asking, how do I keep a Southern culture alive in my life even if I don’t live there? And then also, like, what is that culture? What does that mean for me as a Black queer person from a working class family in the South, as someone who grew up in a specific Black community? I just remember my grandma telling me all these stories. I was growing up around people in the community and all of us had some type of connection—like, my grandma grew up with the lady down the street, for example. That’s really how I became interested in writing. And then I got older and realized that the older people were passing away and there are these stories that won’t ever get told again. And how do you preserve those stories, and also preserve the culture that bred those stories? For me, cooking is a way for me to do this. And it also helps me to understand like the diversity of the South. So in African culture, for example, they have jolof rice, and here in Savannah we have something called red rice and it’s basically the same, rice cooked in my tomato sauce. I think I’ve put that into my writing a lot. It’s like how Zora Neale Hurston was an anthropologist.
Rumpus: You talking about food makes me think about how often food and erotics appear together in this book. That’s a really different story than is usually told around Southern food. Like, the poem about Tastykake, “Malcolm Tariq’s Black Bottom.” It’s a funny poem. It’s got pleasure in it. It’s got a beautiful rhythm to it. It references fast-food and Little Debbie culture. But it’s also so distinctly Southern and Black, referencing Moon Pies and cakewalks. And so erotic! What’s the origin of that poem?
Tariq: I was just on a date in Baltimore and we were like outside sitting down and there was a sign up advertising Tastykake. But it also looked very erotic and I was like, how strange is it that they chose this picture, with the filling all coming out like that! [Laughs]
Rumpus: It’s especially striking though because there’s so many moments in this collection where you’re seeking out pleasure with the knowledge that violence is part of it. Like, you have an erasure poem about lynching that exposes the language of erotics in the racial violence in the South. How do you think about sexuality and violence together in this collection?
Tariq: I had visited the lynching memorial in Alabama. There’s this part of the memorial where they write out like the reasons why certain people were lynched. I was doing research for the poem and I came across this book. The reports in the book… there’s something very erotic about these reports. It seems like people were getting off on describing the lynchings. Now, I’m trying to think more about how I write certain things that depict violence but where it isn’t shown, because of how some people love to see Black pain.
Rumpus: Yeah, it reminds me of Saidiya Hartman, too, like the way that racial violence can be a form of spectacle and therefore reiterate subjection. And in your book, there is no erotic outside of the story of racial violence.
Tariq: You know that quote from, like, John Waters or somebody, where he’s like, never fuck anybody that doesn’t have a bookshelf? I think for somebody like me, it’s very important for me to ask whether the other person is aware. I’m bringing my whole self into the situation. Not just the body. In the book, I tried to really talk about the mind along with the body because I think we have a tendency to write “the black body.” And like, yeah, that’s a real thing, but also there’s like a person with that. There’s the afterlife of slavery and how it happens to that person and that body.
Rumpus: But the way that you use the phrase “Malcolm Tariq’s Black Bottom” as a repeated title of some of the poems, you’re almost daring somebody to disaggregate your body from your mind in those poems. Why is it important for you to ask readers to first conjure a body, and a part of a body that causes social discomfort and also has so much racialized meaning?
Tariq: The bottom is: you can shit and then you’re gonna fuck! I’m always like, wow, like, that’s so amazing that it can all happen there! But I’m thinking about the Black bottom, the place where Black people live. That name was very purposeful. It’s reclaiming of Black space and practice. It’s the land that nobody wanted, that wasn’t fertile. But there is power coming from a positionality where people read it as trivial or nothing or lesser.
Rumpus: That’s bottom power.
Tariq: Yeah. Praise, praise, praise.
Rumpus: It’s almost like you want to imagine a queer Black Southernness that is able to reckon with that racialized erotic. Do you have a vision of sexual liberation that would somehow resolve that tension?
Tariq: I think that I have a weird relationship with sexual liberation. Some sexual liberation is like, just do anything you want without shame. Which is cool. But then you also have to know that your own liberation can also infringe on somebody else’s liberation; people have their own histories. I’m thinking about why I don’t like going to pride, because people just feel that they are so free and they just feel the need to touch and state certain things to you. And it’s like, actually I didn’t come here for that. I guess when I was in Atlanta, I liked Black pride. I felt more at ease there than I do at a normal pride event.
Rumpus: So when you were composing this book, you have these two origin stories, the “Tabby” origin story and the “Michael’s butt tattoo” origin story. Why did you want to wave these together into one single narrative?
Tariq: I didn’t just want it to be a collection of poems. I wanted it to be one single statement. Because I think a lot about what I am contributing to Black letters, to American literature. Like what am I doing in that room? Who am I in conversation with? And so a lot of my process, it’s just how I learned to be an academic. And I’ve learned to ask: what’s missing? That was one of the most important things about grad school for me.
Rumpus: It’s interesting that you bring up your contributions to American literature and your way of asking “what’s missing.” Because I see you in conversation with Jean Toomer’s Cane, for example, but also making your book a feminist project. Is that a way of asking what’s missing?
Tariq: Yeah. When I think about lynching, when you’re a student or whatever, you’re learning about a lot of men being killed. But there’s violence against women; in Frederick Douglass, he’s writing about his Aunt Hester being beaten. Even if I cannot speak to that experience, it has something to do with me. And I also realized that I didn’t have as much difficulty reading the violent stories about men, but when they were about women, I would have a much harder time.
Rumpus: Why is that?
Tariq: I think being raised by a group of Black women. Just the injustice, like men had more freedom and it just has always made me uncomfortable. Like growing up, I did not like to say “sir.” I would say “yes ma’am” and “no ma’am,” but I hated to say “yes sir.” I would find ways to get around it. I was seeing, like, the everyday violence done against the women in my life. I think I felt this early in life. I just identified, I felt with women.
Rumpus: That makes sense, because while you’re talking to Jean Toomer and you’re talking to Ralph Ellison, I also see Camille Rankine and you mentioned Zora Neale Hurston. Are there other people who you’re in conversation with?
Tariq: I was reading E. Patrick Johnson’s work as I was writing. I asked him to write a blurb and he graciously agreed. I was thinking about what it would mean for literary culture to center a Black queer subject. What does that look like? That was how I was writing a lot of these poems, thinking about making that intervention in the field of literature. I think Southern literature is very interesting to me right now, because there are a lot of people in our generation, like Jesmyn Ward, for example, who are changing what Southern literature means. Rickey Laurentiis, Justin Reid, Jericho Brown. Like, even if the South isn’t as present in all that work, the Southern and queer Blackness informs the process. It will be interesting to see how scholars write about what we’re doing right now. I’m always thinking about it like that.
Rumpus: I think I wouldn’t have guessed that you were thinking about the category of “Southern literature” here. It’s clear that your work engages the South as a place, but the category of Southern literature is so overdetermined by white writers, whereas Black Southerners are categorized into “African American.” Like, establishing a genealogy Southern lit that isn’t obsessively returning to Faulkner feels like an intervention to me.
Rumpus: I wonder if that alternative genealogy shows up in “Cento In Which The Narrative Proceeds the Lyric,” too. Because this poem seems to contain a theory of history.
Tariq: In the first line, “I wanted to craft a cento made from lines of slave narratives,” that’s very straightforward, it’s really just me talking myself through a process of: can I write this poem? Ultimately like I asked my friends if I could write this type of poem. Like it seems maybe disrespectful. And they were like, yeah, just go ahead and write it. I was going to actually try to, but I couldn’t, I just, it just felt too weird for me to write. But also, this form is like a mathematical proof where you have to—from what I remember in geometry—you had to write down each step that you did to prove something. And this poem, it’s kind of a form of evidence, but it also at some point it’s a lie. Like, I think I say that, “the slave narrative is not a poem” in the beginning of the poem, and then at the end I’m saying “this is one form of poetry.” So the proof is also untrustworthy.
Rumpus: Yeah. I mean this is a poem that says clearly that there are ways to write poetry poems that are unethical. Is that something that you believe as a writer?
Tariq: I think of ethics as personal, so something can be my ethics and not your ethics. But also it’s like: what are you doing with the poem? You can write anything you want, but if you’re showing it to other people, those words contain power. My philosophy is that literature is part of what I’m contributing to history. So to answer the question, I would say yes, there’s some poems that maybe we should not write or share, not put into the conversation.
Rumpus: Yeah. I’m thinking about, I mean there’s some high-profile instances of white writers pretending to write from Asian American perspectives, while Asian American writers have a hard time breaking into the “mainstream.” And I think there’s a sense that you probably shouldn’t deploy a lyric “I” to mimic identities that you have power over. But you’re also examining your proximity to the people in these poems. You write, “I am a descendant of these descendants” of enslaved people, but “I am not one.” It’s a lyric “I” but it’s also a way to ground yourself in both difference and descent. Are there other ways you’re thinking about descent?
Tariq: So the poem “Sugar” is dedicated to Dr. Byrd, and the whole book is also dedicated to him. I took his class on African American studies during my first semester in grad school at Emory. He edited a version of Cane, so that’s why Cane is so important for me. I was twenty-one and he was teaching this class, but then he had cancer. He took leave to get treatment and then within the course of like a month or so later he passed, but he was also a queer Black man. I think that seeing how he like taught that class and also how he lived his life as a professor, like a teacher and mentor to people, made me more conscious of what I was studying and what the work I was doing was for.
Rumpus: All right, my friend. I should let you go because we’ve been on this phone for a while and I’m trying to write tonight. I hope you like give yourself a hot shower after this.
Tariq: I’m going to go to Wendy’s.
Photograph of Malcolm Tariq by Hao Feng.