Flood Is Water
ON LEAVING AN MFA PROGRAM
On leaving an MFA program.
LATOYA and I have just a few days left in New Orleans before we are to return home to our lives, to our work. We’re here for our annual writing retreat, time we take together each year to work on our novels. We’ve been to Taos, Tuscany, and Saratoga Springs, and this year we decided on New Orleans. It’s a pact we’ve made as best friends: two weeks, anywhere we want, every year, no exceptions, until our novels are finished. Our writer friend picks us up and brings us across the bridge, into the Lower Ninth Ward, where Hurricane Katrina’s damage did the most harm to poor black people, where many homes are still abandoned, twelve years later. It’s raining hard this evening. I feel a dread rise in my chest and settle over me. I fear water because I cannot swim. Yet here we are, in the Gulf, driving past Fats Domino’s house on a rainy evening, taking photographs, being inside and outside of this city at the same time. Our friend, Maurice, points out Brad Pitt’s renovation projects and landmarks and abandoned lots. Lot after lot after lot of nothing. “Not nothing,” he says. “Used to be. That used to be somebody’s house.”
I peer through the raindrops to look for foundations, yard signs, small flower beds, a broken window, anything to document the fact that a family lived and died in that place, but there is nothing now. For every house that survived, another ten or fifteen lots. Maurice drives slowly through the streets. LaToya and I roll down our windows to see better, to take clearer pictures, but the rain won’t let up. Maurice tells us that many families never returned to New Orleans because they didn’t have the right insurance. “They bought water insurance, not flood insurance,” he says. “But flood is water,” I say. “Tell that to the insurance man,” he says.
I stay up the rest of the night thinking of the ways language is so often used against black people and the ways it has been used against me. I am thinking about myself as a child, as a genius speller, as an avid reader, a lover of English, fascinated by Shakespeare, enthralled by Gwendolyn Brooks, eager to read anything put in front of me, understanding, since I was a child, that nonblack people say things to me in “plain English” when they are actually saying an opposite thing to me. I’ve learned to listen for that second meaning. I am thinking of people calling my poetry “raw” and “brutal” and “real,” my syntax “familiar,” my voice “authentic.” I am thinking about fine print and nicknames and my name, which my family says with such ease but strangers stumble over so frequently I’ve learned to say it for them before they can manipulate it. I am thinking of the many times language was politely used to rob me of my personhood.
If a flood isn’t water, then what is it? The trick of “plain English” is intentional: Black folks were meant to be cheated. The sentences so clean, the daggers nearly invisible but the blade always dull when it sticks. I have just a few days left in New Orleans, but I am up in my nightgown, thinking about the vernacular and thinking about the institution and how I got to be on the inside and outside of language and academia and publishing.
IAM leaving my MFA program, a place where I am on the inside and on the outside. I am the only black woman in workshop, but that is not why I am leaving. I am the only queer in workshop, I am the only genre writer in workshop, I am the only poet and fiction writer in workshop, I am the only person of color in workshop, I have to pronounce my characters’ names in workshop, I am the only person with queer characters in workshop, I am one of three black women in my program, I am the only black woman in fiction. There is one black faculty member this semester. But none of these reasons are why I am leaving. When it’s my turn to have my writing critiqued, I take notes on my pages. Most of them say, He did not read my
I stay up the rest of the night thinking of the ways language
is so often used against black people and the ways it has been used against me. I am thinking of people calling my poetry “raw” and “brutal” and “real,” my syntax “familiar,” my voice “authentic.” I am thinking of the many times language was politely used to rob me of my personhood.
story. I thank the class for their time. What I really mean by “thank you” is I am so humiliated and so disgusted that I have nothing more to say. I’ve learned polite language, too.
I tell this to LaToya at 1 AM. I’ve woken her up with my crying. If I can’t speak up for myself, if I can’t defend myself, then what is the use of language? If I can’t use the language I’ve been taught to make meaning, what’s the use of fiction? If the institution can use language against me, a language I’ve loved and studied all my life, then what are we doing here in the institution? What does it mean to ask a black woman to change her tone and call it craft? They say the tone of the piece. They say the feel of the dialogue. The texture of the sentences. The tone of the language. Flood is water. I understand that I’m being told to watch what I say. I am being asked, Who do you think you are speaking to? I am being asked, Who do you think you are? I am being told this talk is black-talk. Better turn around.
IMAKE the decision with two days left in New Orleans, after several more calls to friends for advice. I feel like there’s a style guide to an MFA program, and I am not of it. I don’t like the way those folks talk to me. There’s so much work to do, and fixing my tone isn’t chief among the labor. I am a book publicist who has built a business around the sole decision to publicize and empower black writers and writers of color. I have four books by clients forthcoming this fall, and already work has started on my spring projects. I have two employees, and I am thinking of my mother’s retirement and my own. Sometimes I work eighteen-hour days. Some days I am not a poet, I am not a writer, I am a small-business owner who needs to file her quarterly taxes and payroll taxes and send media follow-ups and schedule an office cleaning. Some days it takes more than I have in me to remember that in addition to my work, my job work, my make-a-living work, I am writing a novel. It’s all blurred into one now: I am a writer who is a publicist who works with writers who works in publishing who is selfemployed and an employer of two poets with MFA degrees. My friends are writers. My friends are clients. My Twitter followers are prospective clients. Everyone I meet at any given conference or event or retreat is a prospective client. I have a client who won the Pulitzer. I have a client who won the PEN Bingham. I have a client who won the Midland. They are all black writers. I think of watermelon jokes on national award stages and I get busy. I think about
making the New York Times Book Review versus making the best-seller list and I get busy. I think about the number of black editors, agents, and publicists I know and I get busy. I think of lazy, unimaginative book covers and I get busy. I get on the plane. I go to the meeting. I make the call. I send the e-mail. I get back on the plane. I order room service. I follow up. I shake hands. I post the photos to Instagram. It’s all work, and it’s the work I do every day.
“I’m not going back to that workshop,” I say to LaToya. “Not writing another evaluation for these folks. Not changing my tone.” I am in New Orleans to hear the horns and eat the oysters and feel the sun on my back before I return to my work as a publicist—promoting and hustling and fighting for the books I believe in. For the writers I believe in. I love being in this city, where everyone is black and doing their best just like me. I love being in this city knowing we have so few black cities left, but here I am. I am thinking we’ve lost Brooklyn, and Harlem, Detroit, and Oakland, but we still have New Orleans—at least for the time being.
Here, flood is water. When I speak, the locals ask me where I’m from. My New York accent is nothing like their singsong lilt. We don’t sound the same, but we’re saying the same thing. I don’t have to doubletalk with my folks. Nobody is trying to two-time my language. I don’t have to send one e-mail to my client and another to her white agent. No one mispronounces my name. No one says diversity like a bad word. No one thinks inclusion means less mastery. Ain’t nobody telling me to watch what I say and how I say it. Ain’t nobody standing over me with a red pen stripping me of my language and calling it craft. Ain’t nobody telling me to stay in my place and calling it tone. Ain’t nobody gonna talk to me any old kind of way. Ain’t no less genre. Ain’t no less black. I wrote it down this way for it to be read this way. Ain’t fooling you. Kima got too much work to do.
Here, flood is water. When I speak, the locals ask me where I’m from.
My New York accent is nothing like their singsong lilt. We don’t sound the same, but we’re saying the same thing. I don’t have to double-talk with my folks.
Nobody is trying to two-time my language.