Flood Is Wa­ter

ON LEAV­ING AN MFA PRO­GRAM

Poets and Writers - - Features - by kima jones

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.

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