Artists as First Responders
It’s 2020, a year I thought might bring clarity.
April showers pour from clouds cast by COVID-19. It is wet outside but we’re inside per a warning from state officials to shelter-in-place. This unsettling phrase tries to side-step the word, home, just as there is nothing to curb the virus’ spread; no language to address people for whom there is no home; to address stranded travelers; essential workers and public servants, with and without personal protective equipment (PPE) who daily risk their lives to ship, stock, cook, and sell food or care for the sick.
COVID-19 has provided our highways an overdue decongestant and our city streets a chance to breathe. Parking lots are empty and businesses shuttered, save grocery and Big-Box stores where people covet toilet paper. And these are the circumstances under which author, activist, and world traveler, Faith Adiele and I start our call.
Adiele is the current distinguished Lurie professor at San Jose State University. She began the semester in a classroom teaching creative writing MFAs nonfiction, specifically memoir, and then the pandemic pushed everyone online. Adiele’s students now leverage learning and lectures via the Zoom teleconferencing platform. Now they innovate ways to generate a little proverbial sunshine online.
My face pops onscreen in a block beside Adiele’s and this topic of our new online existence and general health starts the conversation. The room from which Adiele greets me is vibrant, saffron yellow. It rivals her cheerful energy. I click to unmute myself and ask her about this unprecedented moment in time, how it is impacting her writing and her world. She is well and says that as an introvert she is to an extent at-peace working from home. But everything about the pandemic is worrisome: the way it goes beyond its threat to mortality and exacerbates long neglected socioeconomic problems, interrupts supply chains, and threatens world markets. Adiele, her bright mood notwithstanding, says that she’s worried. “I’m definitely thinking about my family back in Nigeria, which is one of the most densely populated countries in the world.”
Adiele is a self-described “typical Nigerian • Nordic • American girl.” She is “Thailand’s first Black Buddhist nun,” and has written several books about embodying the intersections of these identities. She is cosmopolitan, and yet true to Buddhist teaching, deeply aware of her greater responsibility to humanity becoming self-actualized. Her writing reflects this. “There’s gotta be a social justice mission to [writing across the genres] routing out the institutional racism, homophobia, and sexism that stops our voices from coming out.” Her teaching philosophy marries these to craft and literary criticism. “Is your teaching about activism, is it about social justice, is it about creating a space and challenging things?”
On the topic of challenging things, Adiele mentions a Zoom call she had with a group of artists shortly after the shelter-in-place order. Someone on the call pointed to the quick collapse of the old-world order and the unprecedented opportunity for reform that will come in its wake. She recalls thinking the person’s point was well taken but painful because to be one of many stuck in the craw of reform and unceremoniously expectorated when healing begins, sucks. “I just sent out my latest manuscript and its publishing is at a bit of a standstill. I’m just like, ugh, I wasn’t in love with the old-world order, but I’m not ready to sift through the detritus of reimagining how we succeed under the new-world order.” There’s a little tremolo in her voice as she admits this brought her to outright tears. “It was the first time it had really hit me.”
Adiele is aware of the stories that will pour out about people for whom the meager economic relief and assorted policies will be too little. It seems our federal government can make four trillion dollars appear out of nowhere quite easily. She says, “[That] indicates we could have dealt with homelessness long ago.” It’s an aggravating topic about which she would rather not write. However, she knows others might, so it became one of several things that inspired her to cohost a “writing party,” weekly online sessions for Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) to delve into writing and share stories in safe company. Adiele says, “Artists are to a certain extent first responders, not in the way that doctors and EMTs are, but we’re dealing with the emotional changes, the flotsam, the fallout; we’re the ones who have to create the narrative that makes sense of what’s happening.”
We’re depending on artists, particularly BIPOC and underrepresented artists, to capture the tenor of this moment, the zeitgeist. We trust them to record the truth before hegemonic forces attempt to once again write history as an exercise of their entitlement, telling us our story, feeding us altered versions of things we have witnessed first-hand.
Adiele was creating opportunities for writers to explore craft, experience community, and critique social issues long before the pandemic. She founded the nation’s first workshop for travel writers of color and offered it through Voices of Our Nations Arts (VONA) Foundation.
Established in 1999, VONA is a premiere multi-genre workshop for writers of color. Before it was conceived, less than 0.2% of writers of color were represented in writing workshops across the U.S. The mainstream literary establishment was not equipped to guide writers of color or critique their work. So, VONA provided a much needed forum for this. They created a platform for conversations and support that could not be found elsewhere. Within the VONA platform is a broader definition of craft.
Adiele turns from the camera to look behind her chair for a moment, mentioning fellow VONA faculty member and noted author, David Mura.
“Do you know David Mura’s book? A Stranger’s Journey: Race, Identity, and Narrative Craft in Writing?” She wants to show me the copy she uses in class to emphasize how identity informs craft—it’s why VONA doesn’t waver when looking at identity. Mura makes an extended argument in his book about issues of identity, ethnicity, and race, and shows these topics are central to teaching creative writing.
Mura explains when white writers write about identity, they, and we, presume their characters are white. White is normative, making everything else the exception, and causing readers to see whiteness as a universal default in most literary canon. MFA and PhD required reading therefore still tends to list the work of authors who are old, white or European, and male. In this world, whiteness is not consequential to the white writer in the same way it is to writers of color. A white writer’s privilege comes in being able to write about [his] experiences as if not informed by race.
Mura posits this lies on the conservative political spectrum, the notion that race doesn’t matter and doesn’t have to be part of the narrative. He challenges white writers, especially those who embrace progressive ideology, to examine BIPOC narratives in order to fully understand whiteness, history, and structures that favor whites. Mura seeks to make stronger writers out of students who acknowledge identity, ethnicity, and race in their writing and learn to contextualize these topics. He says, “Creativity comes out of difference.” The type of curriculum and discourse Adiele illustrates with Mura’s text might inform the future of MFA programs. This might inform how we move toward learning experiences that are transformative, representative, and inclusive in ways that matter.
Adiele has a diversified model for creating transformative experiences for both her students and contemporaries. She uses more than one approach to build platform and community. She mentioned social media, teleconferencing, teaching, and collaboration, the latest of which is with The Museum of the African Diaspora (MoAD), situated right above San Francisco’s busy South of Market district.
Adiele tells the story of her MoAD partnership; it evolved from her brainchild, African Book Club. African Book Club was one of only a few of its kind in the U.S. It held physical meet-ups in Oakland but it also attracted remote participants, a lot of people bought books both during and long after the club featured them in discussion. Adiele pauses like she’s about to set-up a joke and says of African Book Club, “The idea came to me in response to someone who’d recommended a great new read; Chinua Achebe’s, Things Fall Apart.” She deadpans as she comes to a full stop and says, “Are you kidding me?”
That was the moment Adiele vowed to bring great African literature that is truly new to the attention of the masses. In fact, she only chooses 21st century titles for her book club events. She says, “African literature is hot. London knows it, Paris knows it, New York knows it.” In her little box on Zoom she’s looking quite animated. “African literature is insane right now. This is clearly a renaissance.”
So, when MoAD decided to launch a book club, naturally they came to Adiele. She had, with African Book Club, created a respected following. It included a cadre of African authors she had befriended both in the United States and on the continent. She was the perfect fit for MoAD and presence was representative of African diaspora’s breadth. Her second memoir, A Nigerian-Nordic Girl’s Guide to Lady Problems, captures, sometimes tongue-in cheek, the many ways in which diaspora presents itself. It rejects the practice of those on the outside looking in, who see Blacks as a singularity, mitigating the diaspora’s farthest reaching roots with euphemisms like African American.
Adiele mentions her PBS documentary titled, My Journey Home. “It starts with that provocative statement, ‘Though I’m African and I’m American, I’m not African American.’” She emphasizes that she has, in narrative form, been writing iterations of her diasporic experience since 2004 with the release of Meeting Faith: The Forest Journals of a Black Buddhist Nun. “I’ve been Black Finnish, forever, which people still can’t wrap their minds around.” She laughs. “And I’ve been Nigerian and American, for a long time, and seen those connections that other people haven’t. It’s about complexity.” Complexity is apparent in who we are, and in our response to the unprecedented opportunities that lie before us. This pandemic insists we go forward with our eyes opened and artists must be forthright in both illustrating what we have seen and what we imagine for our future.
My conversation with Adiele started when rain was falling, and we were at the mercy of broadband. I click “end meeting” and the sun is now peeking through the clouds. Nature’s way of showing we needed some downtime to think through this social project.
Link to view Faith Adiele’s site: https://www.adiele.com/
Link to a list of Faith Adiele’s books on Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/619179.Faith_Adiele
This article was written by Carmen Kennedy
Kennedy is a part-time Creative Writing, MFA, at San José State University (SJSU) and a full-time fixture of the Silicon Valley gig economy, composing and editing copy and mixed-media content. After full and part, there seems to be no time left, but she finds some to devote to activism in its many forms: reading, writing, and showing up. She built a SJSU platform for folks to join her in doing the same. It’s the Diasporic Peoples Writing Collective and it illuminates author activists and their work. DPWC2020.com