In this episode, we wander into a conversation with Nandi Comer. Comer is the author of American Family: A Syndrome (Finishing Line Press) and Tapping Out (Northwestern University Press). She also serves as a poetry editor for Obsidian Literature and Arts in the African Diaspora and as the Director of the Allied Media Projects Seeds Program.
Together, we celebrate the work of Vievee Francis. Vievee Francis is a poet, award-winning author, and editor, and currently teaches English and creative writing as an Associate Professor at Dartmouth College. Of her own poetry, Francis said, “I’m very much saying that how African-American women are defined is inhuman in its narrowness and that I, for one, am not going to allow it.”
We investigate the power of the persona as a tool for deep empathy, and how Francis’s practice of telling stories that break the silence connects to the collective memories of the Juneteenth holiday.
In this episode, we talk about:
- The practice of persona in poetry and in community
- Creativity is a collective practice
- Anticipating contradictions within our personal and collective narratives
- Nandi Comer
[00:00:00] Nandi Comer: How do we look at a more complete history in order to uncover what we haven’t learned about? You know, I do think that in order to be a true Explorer, In our history, we have to be willing to understand that we are not going to find perfect stories.
[00:00:53] Michaela Ayers: Hello there and welcome to black her stories, where we tap into the lineage of [00:01:00] black women artists who inspire us and shape our stories. Join us for nourishing conversations with leading writers, storytellers, and entertainers that center, the lived experiences of black women, past and present.
[00:01:20] Michaela Ayers: Together, we’ll explore what possibilities exist when creativity meets history. When we harness our creative power to unlock our purpose. I am your host Michaela Ayers.
[00:01:46] Michaela Ayers: While it is both hard and easy to believe, we’ve made it to the final episode of season one. You can’t see me, but I’m smiling and truly trying to [00:02:00] savor this moment. Because you only get one first. For me, this has felt like an audio expedition through conversations. We’ve explored identity, creativity, community, and history, all through the lens of black women artists that you may not have heard of. To be an Explorer is to adapt.
[00:02:27] Michaela Ayers: To anticipate and even enjoy the messiness of the human experience. And hold space for ourselves as we uncover our own interior wilderness. This mindset of exploration, wildness, and wonder informs today’s conversation with Nandi Comer. Nandi Comer is the author of American Family: A Syndrom and Tapping out, which was awarded the 2020 society of Midland [00:03:00] Author’s Award and the 2020 Julies Suk Award. Nandi holds an M.A., an African diaspora literature, and an MFA in poetry from Indiana University.
[00:03:13] Michaela Ayers: She is a cave Canem fellow, a callaloo fellow, and a Kresge Arts in Detroit fellow. Comer’s poems have appeared in Crab Orchard Review, Green Mountains Review, Southern Indiana Review, and the offing. She currently serves as a poetry editor for Obsidian literature and Arts in the African diaspora. Nandi is the director of the Allied Media Projects, Seeds program, and currently resides in her hometown of Detroit.
[00:03:47] Michaela Ayers: In the weeks since this interview, some of the ideas that formed the terrain of our conversation have solidified in my mind.[00:04:00]
[00:04:00] Michaela Ayers: There are two big themes that I’d like to share with you.
[00:04:07] Michaela Ayers: The first is Juneteenth narratives. While I am certainly not a nationalist, I cannot deny that I am culturally American. As such. I am curious about the narratives that surround Juneteenth, now that it has been elevated to a federal holiday. I feel the inherent tension of this day that both celebrates black liberation while directly acknowledging collective memories of oppression.
[00:04:42] Michaela Ayers: Both And. One cannot exist without the other. As you listen, recall the first time that you became aware of Juneteenth. How does America’s culture of silence and secrecy inform this [00:05:00] complex holiday? The second is practicing persona. A persona is a tool that helps us understand the self that is projected to the outside world.
[00:05:15] Michaela Ayers: The practice of persona is an invitation to deep empathy, a creative exercise that challenges us to consider experiences from another person’s point of view, to think outside of ourselves, and explore ideas in a different way. As you listen, reflect on the last time that you put yourself in someone else’s shoes, how do you practice cultivating deep empathy for the people around you?
[00:05:53] Michaela Ayers: So without further ado, let’s dive into my conversation with [00:06:00] Nandi Comer.
[00:06:10] Michaela Ayers: Well, I would love to go ahead and get us started. And so I’m curious, of course, I’m a very curious person. So my very first question for you is if you were not a poet, what profession would you be?
[00:06:23] Nandi Comer: Yeah, this is a really hard question for me because I try to do other things and I always keep coming back to poetry.
[00:06:34] Nandi Comer: It is something that really does happen to a space of joy and discovery for me. But the reason why I’ve chosen the letters is because I can’t draw. And I had very little access to musical instruments as a child. And so letters became the thing for me because it became the most accessible way of entering into a space of expression.
[00:06:58] Nandi Comer: Uh, but I also find [00:07:00] myself really in dance. When I think about the things that give me joy, that give me a space for true expression and communication. Dance is a really, really important thing for me. And so I think in terms of my artistic practice, I would never let go of poetry. But if I was not in poetry, if I had to, you know, refine a discipline, other than poetry, it probably would be movement.
[00:07:29] Nandi Comer: Mm,
[00:07:31] Michaela Ayers: mm-hmm yeah, I appreciate this. I see the connection there, um, in between like that kind of fluid form of expression, that just feels so necessary. Like you can’t not do it kind of thing. Mm-hmm um, which I, I also feel in the practice of writing, it’s like something that you almost can’t not do, you know?
[00:07:52] Michaela Ayers: Yeah. Um, so I see that in between dance as well.
[00:07:54] Nandi Comer: Yeah. There’s also just. There’s something about when we [00:08:00] talk about artistic expression that we oftentimes forget about the discipline of it. And much like anything, when you’re like building your skill level, when you’re really integrating yourself into this thing that you love, you really have to build your muscles around it.
[00:08:19] Nandi Comer: And there is kind of these spaces of discovery and it doesn’t matter what art form you’re in. Right. I think that, like, I really do get a kind of joy out of finding out more about my body, even though I like, I’m not the biggest person for exercise, but I do love dance. Dance is definitely something that I can’t do without.
[00:08:41] Michaela Ayers: Mm. Yeah, I find that I find that to be really comforting, just like, as a, as an idea, and also as a discipline to tap into at different points in time. Mm-hmm um, so I guess I’m curious about this idea of a creative practice [00:09:00] and also passions. So I would love to know a little bit more about how do these ideas for you.
[00:09:06] Michaela Ayers: How do they relate to Detroit, where you’re from, where you live? I’ll start there.
[00:09:10] Nandi Comer: Yeah, I like this question because I’m always thinking about Detroit. Detroit is always there, even when I’m writing about other places, it’s through this lens that I’ve had growing up as a Detroiter, even when I’m trying to write through other experiences and maybe histories that are really far-flung from what I have grown up in.
[00:09:37] Nandi Comer: I’ve come to terms with the fact that I’m a river girl, which a lot of people don’t think of when they think of Detroit, but Detroit’s river is, is a pretty large river. And I didn’t realize how much it literally like runs through me because rivers show up all the time in [00:10:00] my poems and I’d seen it happening, but I didn’t understand why, because I was writing these poems from when I was outside of Detroit.
[00:10:08] Nandi Comer: And then I remember. I think I was in a small town and someone was saying like, this is our river. And it was such a small kind of stream that I was like, this is a river. And so these are, this is how Detroit shows up for me, where I, uh, sometimes might be so influenced by my own past and my own identity that I, you know, may negate other realities, which is really not good of me.
[00:10:36] Nandi Comer: But that is one way that Detroit shows up. The river is always constantly with me. Um, I also think that there is a way in which people, some people call it grit. Some people just say, that’s that Detroit in you? Um, I think a lot of the phrasing and a lot of the ways in which I approach [00:11:00] language is because I just really am thinking about.
[00:11:06] Nandi Comer: how I am most getting close to the Detroit experience. These days, my poems about Detroit have been thinking about contemporary Detroit, because I think, oftentimes, folk want to think about a very romanticized Detroit. One that is driven by the auto industry and Motown, and two really world-famous influences that Detroit has contributed to our world culture.
[00:11:40] Nandi Comer: But it, as a Detroiter who is living today, you know, there are other things that we’ve done since Barry Gordy and to a certain extent, those things don’t really drive the way that we see ourselves completely. I still see [00:12:00] the influence, but oftentimes folk forget that we’re a city of techno, we’re a city of other kinds of culture, and that we have other identities that, that show up for us.
[00:12:12] Nandi Comer: And so in my poetry recently, I’ve been thinking about today’s Detroit.
[00:12:22] Michaela Ayers: Mm. Yeah. Well, there’s so many, there’re so many threads in there that I wanna pick up, but one that really comes up for me cuz we’ve talked about the river and previous episodes and I’m, it’s interesting to me that this keeps coming up.
[00:12:36] Michaela Ayers: So one thing that I’m curious about was wanting to know if you could give us kind of a visual on what your Detroit river looks like.
[00:12:46] Nandi Comer: Oh, I could go on all day about my Detroit river. For a long time, whenever I wanted to really step into a little bit of meditation or [00:13:00] step into a space of solace, I would go down to the river, especially in the summer. When I was growing up there used to be.
[00:13:09] Nandi Comer: uh, cultural festivals every weekend. And so the downtown area seemed to like fill with people and it felt like you, we had such a full city, but I would go down there and sit right at the riverfront in an area called Hart Plaza where it’s a really enormous development for public celebrations, public festivals. But in between those festivals, the downtown felt pretty empty.
[00:13:38] Nandi Comer: And so it felt so like, like a gift to be able to wander around a temporarily vacant space that was built for. so many people, but then you would, I would sit at the river at the railings and I could watch these enormous boats floating through, going under the Ambassador [00:14:00] bridge, which connects us to Canada.
[00:14:02] Nandi Comer: And then you would look across and you could see a whole another country. So being down in the river, being at the river in that area in particular is quite unique. Um, you know, when I was a high schooler in the nineties, I would go to parts of the river where you would see, you still see people fishing in the river.
[00:14:24] Nandi Comer: And there’s a different kinda experience than when you’re at Hart Plaza, where you have people who sit there, usually men, but with men and women who bring out their fishing rods and small radios, and it’s a place of, of pastime. , but then when you go a little bit north towards the east side of the river, you start to see the area that is the other part of Detroit, our own personal island, which has always been so surprising to tell people that like, [00:15:00] yeah, we have like a whole island in the middle of our river and that experience of the river, where there is
[00:15:06] Nandi Comer: even a beach and there’s this, the smell of river that really permeates the area. So yeah, I, I could go down that whole riverfront and talk about all the ways in which it just changes. Sometimes it looks calm and peaceful and you just wanna jump in it. But other parts it’s pretty, it can be. torrential, you know, there’s all kinds of warnings.
[00:15:39] Nandi Comer: Don’t jump mm-hmm in this part of the river, cuz the current can take you under. It’s a dangerous kind of river too. So it’s in a sense, it feels like a space. A transient space that people are traveling through. Mm-hmm to, it’s a place that people travel over and under and [00:16:00] through. Um, so the river has a lot of stories.
[00:16:03] Nandi Comer: The river can be a place of festivity, a place of destruction, a place of travel. Um, we’re talking about borders. It’s, it’s, it has so much, man. I’m like, oh man, I, I need to write I have, I have another project now. Thank you. You’re yes. .
[00:16:25] Michaela Ayers: Oh man. Well, I, I guess in your share, there are so many beautiful gems, but I, I think what I heard you say was, yeah, there, the river has so many stories.
[00:16:35] Michaela Ayers: Mm-hmm and I definitely see that. And I hear that and I think I, I can see the story and the narrative of Detroit in that. Right. And I do agree with you in terms of that outside perspective of Detroit being so driven by the automotive industry and Motown, you know, but it seems like depending on who you talk to, depending on their experience, everybody has a different Detroit narrative.
[00:16:56] Michaela Ayers: And I guess I feel like that’s been such a gift of this very [00:17:00] first season. And speaking with people, who’ve lived here for such a long time and have such a clear affinity for this place that feels fairly. Connected to the land connected to this river and what it brings, like what the river brings to them and also what the river takes away.
[00:17:20] Michaela Ayers: Mm-hmm and that seems so potent. So I’d love to start to kind of weave us into thinking about your icon, Vievee Francis, who you selected. Mm-hmm um, soVievee Francis poet, award-winning author, editor, and currently teaches English and creative writing as an associate professor at Dartmouth College. So in doing the research, I found this amazing quote of her speaking of her own poetry, where she said, I’m very much saying that how African American women are defined is inhuman in its [00:18:00] narrowness and the I for one am not going to allow it.
[00:18:05] Michaela Ayers: And I’ve just found that that particular quote and so many others of her piece is so powerful. So thank you for submitting her. And so I’d love to start off with just thinking about what experiences in your life led you
[00:18:19] Michaela Ayers: ti Vievee and why is her work important to you?
[00:18:23] Nandi Comer: So Vivee has been, uh, I’ve known her since I was in high school.
[00:18:32] Nandi Comer: Um, I had signed up for a summer youth arts program. My me and my best friend, we were young high school writers. And up until that point, I had taken maybe one or two creative writing classes in school. And I had been writing things for teachers and getting good comments, but I really didn’t understand necessarily
[00:18:57] Nandi Comer: what it meant to have a voice. [00:19:00] And I have to say that Vievee is, it’s not just about her work. It’s this personal relationship that I’ve had, where, when I came into her classroom, I mean, I was the definition of a snot-nose kid. Like I didn’t know what I was doing. Um, I don’t think I understood that she was challenging me.
[00:19:19] Nandi Comer: If anything, we thought we were challenging her, but thanks to her patience and her passion and dedication. she like took me aside. I was like, what are you talking about? What do you mean? What are you trying to do? Well, I think it was the first time that I had anyone ask me to stop writing to someone else, but to really write for me.
[00:19:42] Nandi Comer: And so I had this class that was life-changing. I started writing poems that I loved. And then. Later on, when I was a young adult 25, I had been sitting with a notebook of poems and I’d been in undergrad. I had [00:20:00] gone to teach in another country and I just really didn’t know what to do with my writing. I knew there was a professional world out there and Vievee asked if I wanted to join a group of people who were learning poetry and she was leading these workshops.
[00:20:17] Nandi Comer: and she again changed me. Like she set this challenge on me onto the way that I would discipline myself and how I could understand the writing world. And she really gave herself over so that we could expand our knowledge about writing. So in this very personal way, Vievee has had this influence on me, but in her writing.
[00:20:42] Nandi Comer: what Vievee does is she says the thing that we all known when we read it, it needed to be said, we may not have known that it needed to be said, but once she writes it down with the [00:21:00] fierceness that she has, when she comes to the page, it breaks, open all the silence that we didn’t know, we were holding particularly black women’s stories.
[00:21:11] Nandi Comer: When I hear and read Vievee’s work, she doesn’t cease to astound me in the way in which she is approaching the page, which such succinct precision, um, There are other people writing about these things, but she has a particular approach to really unveiling and uncovering these kinds of experiences that, like I said, we did not know they needed to be said, but when she says them, we are so grateful for her, her approach.
[00:21:55] Michaela Ayers: Well, what you’re sharing reminds me of something that we heard in the first episode, where [00:22:00] we talked a little bit about the tradition of silence, that a lot of people in the black community and outside the black community live under this idea of, you know, children being seen and not heard. And the, the willingness to break through that silence, to be honest about one’s life experiences definitely takes a lot of bravery and I see that courage in her writing, um, in a way that.
[00:22:26] Michaela Ayers: Yeah, like you’re saying, like, you didn’t realize that you needed to hear that truth and that, that truth applies to you. um, and to see that on the page is both like it’s so affirming. Um, and it, and it leads to so many more possibilities, I think, um, in terms of how, how you begin to understand yourself and.
[00:22:47] Michaela Ayers: What, what has happened? what, what world you’ve inherited. You know, I think that I see that power in her work as well.
[00:22:57] Music: Mm-hmm mm-hmm
[00:22:57] Nandi Comer: yeah.
[00:22:58] Michaela Ayers: When I was doing the research [00:23:00] about her, I, I started with the persona poetry that she was talking about, and I enjoyed learning about her kind of analysis and synthesis about this approach from the writer’s perspective, being.
[00:23:12] Michaela Ayers: this invitation to empathy, to be willing to explore the human experience without that filter of judgment. So being able to put yourself into someone else’s shoes, who you may not agree with, um, but just to really begin that practice of acknowledging and listening to our differences. So I would love it.
[00:23:33] Michaela Ayers: If you wouldn’t mind, just for folks who maybe aren’t familiar with the practice of persona poetry. Could you just share a little bit about that? So, so folks could be familiar
[00:23:42] Nandi Comer: mm-hmm I mean, it at its basic definition is to assume the voice of someone other than yourself, in order to, you know, oftentimes it’s to tell a story or to think about their history or to think [00:24:00] about their perspective and in persona poems.
[00:24:04] Nandi Comer: you take on the voice where you no longer are telling it from the third person. You tell it from the first-person perspective where you say, I am the one going through this. And so as a writer to kind of expand that definition a little bit, you really are, uh, putting on a mask in a sense you are allowing yourself to step back.
[00:24:30] Nandi Comer: As you, the writer and giving yourself over to the voice, the invented voice, some say, but you are, you know, taking on that person’s voice, you’re putting it in your, in your mouth and using words that you think that they would use to express themselves. So, mm.
[00:24:53] Michaela Ayers: I love how you said that in terms of putting their voice in your mouth.
[00:24:57] Michaela Ayers: And I guess I find myself being [00:25:00] attracted to this idea, especially in this moment where there are so many different perspectives out there. There are so many different realities kind of competing right now. And so I’m curious as a writer, how do you set your biases and your preferences aside? And approach this human experience from that place of nonjudgment where you can put someone else’s voice in your mouth.
[00:25:24] Michaela Ayers: Like, how does one go about that process? Or how does that look like for you?
[00:25:30] Nandi Comer: Uh, so my process, I actually, uh, access persona often, and it looks different for each, for each poem, but there are a couple of things that have helped me. One, I, I’m thinking about the content of the work and what is the story that I’m trying to tell?
[00:25:52] Nandi Comer: What is the, what is the experience that I’m looking to unveil, um, or reveal. [00:26:00] For me, I don’t always start with persona. Sometimes I’m just in the practice of getting out the content of where I think the shape of the poem is going. But oftentimes there becomes a moment where I stop thinking in the she or the he and I start thinking in the eye and it is a practice of trying to get as close as possible to what that experience might have been.
[00:26:26] Nandi Comer: I think it’s important to say that like, persona is for a lot of people, sometimes spirit work. Sometimes you’re actually like to embody someone, you really have to go into what some writers like to call the cave in your writing. And you really allow yourself to really immerse yourself in the idea and experience of that creation.
[00:26:46] Nandi Comer: And so I think working with persona a level of empathy is not just about, oh, I’m trying to understand this person’s experience. It’s really like, you’re asking a lot of yourself and it’s a [00:27:00] hard practice. It can be a very terrifying practice that I don’t think should be taken lightly. So if you are the kind of person that is practicing a persona, know that like, it’s, it, it is not just like joyful to just, oh yeah.
[00:27:18] Nandi Comer: I’m writing from the perspective of Martin Luther king. Okay. But like, you know, I know people that are like, I’m writing from the perspective of a Klansman and that is terrifying. like, right. Like how we walk into that space. Also, you need to be conscious of how you’re walking out of that space. Um, another thing that is a little bit more late is I challenge everyone to change the perspective of poems.
[00:27:47] Nandi Comer: I challenge everyone that if you’re writing in the third person if you’re telling a story from. your perspective, even say, you’re, you’re recounting a memory of your own. [00:28:00] I challenge you to choose to pick somebody else that was in that room and write it from their perspective to practice that deep empathy, to learn more about the memories that you hold.
[00:28:13] Nandi Comer: so true and try to understand what other people in the room may have. Experiencing and they may be people. They may have been your mother. They may have been your father. It could have been somebody who was at a store watching you buy a t-shirt. It doesn’t matter. I challenge people to do that because what happens is you really do surprise yourself and you find more, you access more.
[00:28:40] Nandi Comer: And even if you don’t decide to write the piece from that person’s perspective, and you go back to your own personal perspective. I guarantee you found something else.[00:29:00]
[00:29:06] Nandi Comer: So many beautifully bloodied sounds tucked under my chin breaking under pressurized note. I’ve made it through the night, working lines into a damp thigh, a stalled truck, a woman humming into her husband’s ear without occasion or motive. I’ve buried voices. I’ve studied the slow-motion of carving breast meat.
[00:29:35] Nandi Comer: I shadow the butcher’s cut. I feel my faces open grin. When I sharpen my shears. The baritone of a bruised man’s chuckle rattles my lungs, a child starlike hand reaches across my belly. I have to yank them out. I had [00:30:00] never heard wanting strapped to a boy’s wrist until I tied him down, made him sing. I’m a borrow of voice boxes, a surgeon of tongues.
[00:30:14] Nandi Comer: I’m warning you, you ought to stop loving me. You ought not lay your story on my counter. You ought be careful before I take you up by your throat. Before you find yourself barefoot in my kitchen, mute and panting.
[00:30:47] Michaela Ayers: That was Nandi Comer, reading the Warning for A.I.
[00:31:08] Michaela Ayers: Hmm, going back to a few things that I heard you say, one, moving through the world with this level of deep empathy. Even if your practice isn’t poetry, there’s a lot of power in looking at a situation from outside of yourself and just. The level of awareness so that it creates in your interactions and the quality of your connections.
[00:31:29] Michaela Ayers: Um, and there’s a spectrum. Mm-hmm, like what I’m hearing you say around tapping in and thinking about somebody who’s creating violence in this world. Mm-hmm through their actions. Yeah. Like putting yourself into that. Mode of thinking and awareness. That can be scary. That could be frightening, like, think about how you’ll leave that space.
[00:31:47] Michaela Ayers: Don’t stay in that space. Um, and then on, on the light side of that, I’ve definitely appreciated this concept of the persona poem as something I can use. Even just going to the grocery store, you know, [00:32:00] just like the people who are taking care of me in a restaurant or in a hospital, you know, thinking about them as, as personas that I can perhaps tap into to challenge my own biases, to challenge what I, I believe to be true.
[00:32:15] Michaela Ayers: So going back to Vievee, I wanna tap into how her approach to poetry. How has that informed your writing practice?
[00:32:28] Nandi Comer: I think that I mean, I honestly cannot talk about my writing without going back to those days in her classroom, much of my foundation was built in being under that discipline with her. Weren’t in a.
[00:32:46] Nandi Comer: Traditional large institution where we had at our access, all these resources, which is also quite common in the Detroit experience is that as an under sourced community, [00:33:00] we tend to turn to each other for our own resources. And so the one thing that I’ve learned from her. was how to be self-disciplined and how not to look towards the institution necessarily in order to gain knowledge about the field.
[00:33:18] Nandi Comer: Um, the other thing that I think is really valuable to me in terms of Vievee, is that the idea of just reading broadly reading, this is the first thing, but reading broadly and allowing yourself like you, you know, it seems. Seems like a no-brainer, but I think that oftentimes we get very much stuck in the world
[00:33:43] Nandi Comer: That is our career. It’s really good to allow yourself to really just immerse yourself in things that don’t have to do with building your craft. Vievee definitely taught me [00:34:00] that, you know, your library should be broad and allow that to influence you. This is the other thing that I got very frustrated with.
[00:34:09] Nandi Comer: With some writers would tell me that they didn’t wanna be influenced by other writing. Mm. But to me, everyone is influenced by everything. And, um, one of the things I did learn from Vievee was that it’s you, you should not only study broadly, but really study the people who are doing things that you feel astonished by and to really reread them and really engage deeply with that writing so that you can see how they’re working through it, to not just read, just for pleasure, but to be reading as a writer.
[00:34:46] Nandi Comer: And that seems really basic. And probably every writer is going, of course, but as someone who have gone through college. No one taught me how to [00:35:00] read really closely that the, the writers that I really admired and how they were working through sentences and lines and Stanzas. It took me so long. I mean, I shouldn’t have been almost 30 getting to that point of like learning how to do that.
[00:35:15] Nandi Comer: And I had somebody, Like the really like engage me in a way where, where she saw in me and us this opportunity to really build our knowledge. And I’m grateful for her teachings around that.
[00:35:36] Michaela Ayers: Yeah. Well I think something that I wanna pick up is this idea of studying broadly and what was coming up for me is
[00:35:45] Michaela Ayers: Just, it, it reminded me of the power of diversity, diversity of thought. I find oftentimes diversity has become like shorthand for meaning ethnicity and gender specific concepts. But [00:36:00] I think what I heard in your share is that it’s a diversity of craft and content. It’s a diversity. Of curiosity I guess, for, um, when it comes to the type of things you’re consuming and it’s very easy to stay in the familiar and stay in the things that make you feel safe.
[00:36:21] Michaela Ayers: Um, but in reality, your practice, your craft or discipline expand so much more when you are willing to step outside of the box. And just play a little bit, just give it, allow yourself to play, to make the conscious choice to be influenced, to be open. Um, I find that to be, you know, such a much more like generous place for ideas to emerge and thinking about, you know, somebody who maybe doesn’t think of themselves as a writer who could be listening to this, I would argue everybody is a writer.
[00:36:54] Michaela Ayers: you know, whether you are writing an email, writing out your grocery list, [00:37:00] writing a note to yourself or writing for others. Like I think writing is such a big part of our human experience. Um, and I also really wanna lift up this idea around astonishment. Like maybe that’s that invitation to explore more mm-hmm to, to be willing to tap into that a little bit more.
[00:37:21] Nandi Comer: Yeah. And I mean, why I, I think. , I would totally invite the influence of Lucille Clifton or Toi Derricott on my work. Not in a way of like copying them, but if I could at all create work, that is as bold as these writers, let them influence you, you know, allow yourself to be influenced because it also assumes that you are not.
[00:37:52] Nandi Comer: A thinking human being that doesn’t know how to really engage in your own creativity. So like, I [00:38:00] understand the need to, you don’t want to, you know, plagiarize, but every writer I know that has written something that has just really arrested my attention. They all acknowledge their influences. They all acknowledge the people that they’re borrowing from.
[00:38:16] Nandi Comer: And so, and just to like, not try to act like everything that we come up with has to be this like completely original idea. I don’t think that that’s necessary. I don’t, I don’t buy that. I don’t buy that. It’s that every writer is just. coming up with a, like this thing and they didn’t, they just came out and just came outta nowhere.
[00:38:38] Nandi Comer: Right. That they have this idea. I don’t buy that. I believe from everything from their walk that morning to the thing that they read five years ago to the whatever they ate, you know, like I think that’s all of an influence, so.
[00:38:54] Michaela Ayers: Yeah. Yeah. Well, and I think something that I’m learning through these conversations is that creativity is [00:39:00] collective in like what we’re saying around. what you come in contact with, whether that’s
[00:39:06] Michaela Ayers: your experiences and nature, or the books that you’re reading or the movies you’re watching, or the food that you’re eating, you know, these are collective, but then as the ideas kind of transform into that individual experience, that’s where we can really it’s become so much richer. But I guess what I hear too, is like, it’s easy to get kind of hooked by this individualist capitalist culture where it is about like, trying to, to compete in the arena of ideas by saying like, this is my original thought, and this is just my content without, without influence cuz it, because I think that’s, what’s been rewarded.
[00:39:47] Michaela Ayers: Um, and at the same time, I see so much beauty in saying and kind of that, that reference point to say. Like I wanna write in the lineage of Lucille Clifton and lifting up her [00:40:00] work mm-hmm or I wanna write in the lineage of Tony Morrison and, and just being in the collective creativity of people. I think that there’s something so kind of beautiful about that.
[00:40:13] Michaela Ayers: Mm-hmm and as, as a kind of like community, a creative community of ideas versus an individual, like kind of has to set themselves aside
[00:40:22] Nandi Comer: mm-hmm oh, if I could, if I could. If I could create something like, like Tony Morrison, like allow, I’ll keep reading her every day. If that, if that is the result. Sure.
[00:40:34] Nandi Comer: Let’s do it.
[00:40:37] Michaela Ayers: Yeah. Well, and I, I guess thinking about the collective and memory, I was reading an interview with Vievee when she was talking about. You know, the act of writing, offering us a way to return to events through memory. And I really appreciated this idea in the context of this particular moment, you know, thinking about [00:41:00] Juneteenth
[00:41:02] Michaela Ayers: and in this moment where I feel like we’re kind of on the precipice of Juneteenth, transforming from a memory and a celebration that’s held predominantly within the context of the black community.
[00:41:15] Michaela Ayers: Into a larger, more commoditized version of itself. So I feel like we’re in this kind of middle zone right now where we’re both like, I, I I’m describing it as this tension between joy and maybe a little uncertainty or it’s like, we’re gonna witness both the seemingly inevitable whitewashing of history.
[00:41:42] Michaela Ayers: Mixed with more vivid expressions of black liberation.
[00:41:47] Nandi Comer: Mm-hmm mm-hmm
[00:41:49] Michaela Ayers: so I guess, starting off, when you think about Juneteenth, what memories do you return to?
[00:41:56] Nandi Comer: Um, [00:42:00] Juneteenth? I, I probably think more about my mother than any other time of the year, even. not even on her birthday. Do I think about her as much as I do on Juneteenth?
[00:42:10] Nandi Comer: Because my mother, when I was growing up, she made it a day for us. It, I remember it feels very much summer. It feels very much a day of remembrance. Um, a day of, I know it’s not traditional because my mother was not a very traditional woman, but she would make a caramel cake. she would, you know, remind us of the importance of it.
[00:42:41] Nandi Comer: My mother was a black nationalist, a true black nationalist at heart. She, um, believed in pan-Africanism and she was an activist. She was a revolutionary. And so for her, she was very much invested in her children knowing. [00:43:00] The details of black history, not just the highlights and for us Juneteenth was a detail that not a lot of people knew that she wanted to make sure that we imparted and that we recognized and that we celebrate it.
[00:43:14] Nandi Comer: But it was also a story of remembering how we as. as an African people living in the United States, how we have continuously been robbed of our humanity by what has been an oppressive country. And so it wasn’t just like, oh, this was the last day that the last slates finally found out, but it was also a remembering of that depravity that had happened in our history of
[00:43:52] Nandi Comer: a group of people who were still being robbed of their freedom until someone from [00:44:00] outside had to tell them, you know, this is, this is unjust. This should not happen. This is actually illegal now. And so I think in keeping in line with that, the one way that we can not whitewash it is to be remembering what this day actually is that it’s not just.
[00:44:22] Nandi Comer: a celebration that the reason why it’s so important is that we, as a group of people live in a country where we are not told, or not even allowed to live our full humanity. And if that is the way in which we can teach. Then we can think about ways of upturning these narratives and, and making it so that we don’t experience this again.
[00:44:52] Nandi Comer: That’s the kind of world that I want to live in. And I think we have to keep that in our memory instead of acting as if, [00:45:00] you know, like, it’s just like when we’re looking at MLK day, we have to remember that that man was assassinated. Right. It’s not just that he created this opportunity for million. To, you know, reflect on equality, but that also we have a history of violence.
[00:45:17] Nandi Comer: And how do we prevent that from happening again,
[00:45:21] Michaela Ayers: right. Yeah. Well, I, I appreciate this invitation to think about and reflect on your mother and the caramel cake. Mm-hmm and mm-hmm , you know, that sweetness, that, that combination between. Something delicious mm-hmm and a story that is hard mm-hmm, , that’s complicated to hear, but is the truth and that she held both of those things for you simultaneously is what I also hope that we can do with Juneteenth that we can still have and celebrate the [00:46:00] sweetness of blackness, like the beauty and the ritual and the movement of blackness.
[00:46:06] Michaela Ayers: And simultaneously not abandon the hard truth that we wouldn’t have this day. We wouldn’t be celebrating this day if we were not enslaved. If we, if there wasn’t this collective memory of our oppression.
[00:46:18] Nandi Comer: Yeah. Yeah.
[00:46:22] Michaela Ayers: So when you think about this narrative around Juneteenth that’s unfolding, what do you think remains unspoken in our kind of collective understanding of the holiday?
[00:46:36] Nandi Comer: um, that’s a great question. It’s a difficult question to answer because there’s so many narratives that go unspoken. I think it’s, I think even in the way that the holiday has been introduced into our national imaginary kind of brings us to this unspoken thing. There’s [00:47:00] something about the untold truth about the way this holiday, even.
[00:47:03] Nandi Comer: Became recognized as a holiday that we need to be mindful of in remembering what does it mean that the, the president who will likely go down as one of the most controversial and racist presidents that we had in our contemporary history of the two thousands? What does it mean that he’s the one that can now lay claim to creating Juneteenth as a holiday?
[00:47:35] Nandi Comer: Mm you know, those are the kind of stories that I think about the contradictions in American history. Mm-hmm, that it’s okay to study history, but understand that if you’re going to understand the full story, understand the full scope, you’re going to find moments of contradict. yeah, you’re going to find moments that are, yes, we [00:48:00] had this thing, but you know, it came about in this way.
[00:48:04] Nandi Comer: Yes, we had emancipation, but it came about as a struggle of slavery and it came about and a world of civil war. Yes. We have independence at the expense of people still being enslaved. Like how do we look at a more complete history in order to uncover what we haven’t learned about. You know, I do think that in order to be a true, uh, Explorer in our history, we have to be willing to understand that we are not going to find perfect stories.
[00:48:40] Nandi Comer: There are no perfect men. Mm-hmm yeah, there are monsters in our history, too, that we celebrate, but understand that you’re going to encounter. mm-hmm I’m not going in to find the perfect people, the perfect freedom fighters, nor am I [00:49:00] going in to demonize everyone in history. But to know that I will find humans who did things, some of them were awful.
[00:49:09] Nandi Comer: Some of them were incredible. Mm mm-hmm
[00:49:14] Michaela Ayers: yeah. well, I wanna walk into this invitation that you set out around being an Explorer in history, and also holding the contradictions that it’s not just this or that. It is likely a both-and situation. And then within that, within that practice of knowing that you’re going to encounter that on this exploration.
[00:49:39] Michaela Ayers: Finding that threshold around, like, and where do I fit? Like where do my values fit? Mm-hmm within this contradiction, like where, where can I celebrate and where can I perhaps take a step back? And so I guess just anticipating the, the contradictions is what I’m hearing in terms of the narrative of Juneteenth unfolding [00:50:00] continually in front of us.
[00:50:02] Michaela Ayers: And I, I guess I wanna move us into an imagining state and thinking about the future. And what kind of narratives do you hope to see around this holiday?
[00:50:11] Nandi Comer: I am always interested in thinking about the individual narratives that we don’t necessarily get to hear about the reason why we celebrate some of our.
[00:50:26] Nandi Comer: Freedom fighters is because we can look towards a history that was uncovered after. Great research has been done. I, I don’t know the story of the, the actual people that were notified on Juneteenth. Right. I don’t know what, what happened to them afterwards? Is it just that they, they were notified and then we don’t know what happened.
[00:50:50] Nandi Comer: you know, Um, and that’s an example of what I mean by like taking it further. There’s nothing wrong with more research. There’s nothing wrong with learning more. And I [00:51:00] think that we, especially in the African American community have a sense of loss when it comes down to our own histories, whether it be dating back to our families during slavery times, but also because of movement because of migration, because of family’s just being very quiet.
[00:51:21] Nandi Comer: About their own stories, their own taboos. We lose a lot of stories. Well, I have, I, I don’t know how other people have experienced their family narratives, but I have a whole side of my family that I don’t know their stories because we don’t talk enough. We don’t, we don’t really allow ourselves to keep these names in our mouths and record their narratives.
[00:51:46] Nandi Comer: And so. Not just Juneteenth them thinking about how do we tell our stories and how do we allow ourselves to really learn from our past and, you know, not allow folks to [00:52:00] become bookmarks in one event, becoming a bookmark in our history. I am curious about what did they go on to do? Mm-hmm , you know, what happened the day after and the day after and the week after and where were they a year?
[00:52:21] Michaela Ayers: mm-hmm yeah. I’ve, I’ve had similar thoughts imagining what it would’ve been like to hear that news to be the last to know mm-hmm in that, in that context,
[00:52:30] Nandi Comer: were they even told they were the last to know, like, this is like, I don’t know if you know, but here you’re the last ones to know. And for me, I remember when I was learning about it.
[00:52:41] Nandi Comer: Like I said, my mother, like we think about celebration, but my mother was quite Jade. with this story that it, that so much time had gone by mm-hmm and they were the last to know and I’m well, how did they feel about that? Right. You know, like,
[00:52:59] Michaela Ayers: you know, they had feelings for [00:53:00] sure.
[00:53:00] Nandi Comer: So, yeah, that’s the Juneteenth story is only one in a lot of things that we can do to unearth, you know, going back to our conversation about persona.
[00:53:11] Nandi Comer: I think that’s one of the ways in which I try to get to that research is I try to tell stories through persona thinking about how can we uncover and how can we, you know, really unearth the experience of folk, whose stories haven’t been told. Mm-hmm.
[00:53:45] Michaela Ayers: As I reflect on my conversation with Nandi in the depth of her vivid imagination, there are a few ideas still floating across the river of my mind. The first is [00:54:00] balancing sweetness with hard truths. As we continue to explore the known and unknown of our personal and collective histories. I am holding on to the lesson of the caramel cake, the act of questioning narratives and holding multiple truths must be met with rituals of sweetness and deep care.
[00:54:25] Michaela Ayers: As you enter the cave, remember to look for the exit as we balance the tension between light and shadow. Let offerings of gentleness support you as you excavate life’s many contradictions.
[00:54:43] Michaela Ayers: The second is creativity as collective. When I step back and look at all of the conversations I’ve had this season, I see a social pattern that surrounds creativity while dominant culture preaches, individualism, [00:55:00] and rewards original work. The reality is creative expressions are shaped by the people and places that surround us.
[00:55:10] Michaela Ayers: In the pursuit of a creative practice, we have to allow ourselves to be influenced by the work of others, acknowledge our creative lineage and be astonished by the radical possibilities of what could be. A sincere thanks to Nandi COmer for joining us in this episode. And a very sweet shout out to Vievee Francis.
[00:55:36] Michaela Ayers: If you would like to celebrate these artists, be sure to check out our show notes, to learn more about their work.
[00:55:45] Michaela Ayers: This episode of black her stories was produced by Laura Dolch and me Michaela Ayes. It was edited by Jennifer McCord. Our music is by [00:56:00] artist composer, and my, dear friend, Chris Sims. Now I don’t know about you, but I need some time to digest some of the delicious conversations that we’ve had this season.
[00:56:15] Michaela Ayers: So I’ll be taking a break from interviews for the rest of the year to marinate in the themes that surfaced in season one. I’ll be recording solar reflections over the next few months. So you will still be hearing from me, but in bite size doses. And on that note, I would really love to hear from you what conversations and topics really resonated with you.
[00:56:43] Michaela Ayers: And what are you still curious about? Don’t be shy. Drop me a line @nourish.community. And in the spirit of curiosity, you know, I’m gonna leave you with a question. [00:57:00] How do you use your voice and what is a truth that only you can share? Thank you so much for listening and a very sincere thanks to the many folks who have sent me affirmations and notes of encouragement along the way.
[00:57:20] Michaela Ayers: It really means so much to me. To know that these conversations mean something to you too. So until next time, please take good care.[00:58:00]
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