Negesti Kaudo has taught at Columbia College here in Chicago, and has been crafting stories to document her selves. In a time when “intersectional” has become a buzzword outside critical race theory circles, Kaudo digs into the heartmeat of what her identities mean in these essays that address childhood, race, gender, body positivity, becoming an artist without a safety net of wealth, and much more in her debut essay collection “Ripe.” Kaudo generously shared some time with Newcity to talk about how she put together her book, the influences of Beyoncé, J.Cole and other pop culture figures, visual art, and how so many roads converge while forging a path toward adulthood and building a sustainable life as a creative.
One of the elements that caught my attention was the title and subtitles for the section. In addition to the book being “Ripe,” you break the book into three sections—”Rind,” “Flesh” and “Seed.” How did that come about as you were putting together the book?
The simple answer is that I like mangoes. But, one of the overarching themes in the book is how Black women navigate spaces, public, private and even the ones that are a hybrid of both. So, “Rind” stands for the outside world or the public space and most of those essays are on topics of culture, society. “Flesh” is more straightforward, topics about the body and body image, which I think is a sort of hybrid space where public opinion and private ideals clash. Society expects me, or rather would be more accepting of me, if I looked differently or behaved differently and as a fat Black woman, in many situations I am the opposite of “eurocentric” beauty standards that are popular in society. “Flesh” is host to some of my favorite essays, it’s meaty and tender, pun intended. “Seed” was originally a much longer, much more complicated section all about ancestry and heritage, and literally how I, as a person, came to be. While drafting, I always knew it would be the most vulnerable part of the collection—it’s where “Marginalia” sort of unravels, it’s where I have to reclaim my name, it’s where I look at everything that came before and try to figure out “What are the feelings and emotions” at the root of these essays? The essays that made it into that final section are full of intent and what it means becoming one’s authentic self.
A little more than halfway into the collection, you have these micro-essays where “The One Where My Femme…” starts the title of each piece. Could you talk about that and why you wanted to focus on femme identity?
“The One Where My Femme” started in a Winter Tangerine workshop and before that workshop a lot of people I’d met had labeled me “femme.” It wasn’t until I was trying to figure out what my “femme identity” was that I considered… I might not be femme, that I might not be allowed to be femme because I’m a cis woman attracted to men. In the workshop, Siaara Freeman led an exercise where we had to imagine our femme as something in nature or one of the senses. A lot of the words I came up with were “masculine” things: the sun, fire, reptiles, storms. All I knew was that my feminine energy, or femme, was full of power, and when Black women feel powerful that’s interpreted as aggression or even masculine a lot of the time. I wanted to take those typically masculine and aggressive things and make them beautiful, but still threatening, and so we end up with essays where I’m a flash flood, a solar eclipse, a crescendo. I love those essays, they’re lyrical and brief and I think that’s a lot of their power.
This is more general, but I’m wondering how do you know when you’ve started to formulate an essay? Mine usually start with fixating on some anecdote, detail or subject then working my way out, but I’d love to hear about your process.
Most of my essays are inspired by some sort of pop culture, a song lyric; a scene in a movie; or an art piece. “The Part Thugs Skip” is literally from J. Cole’s “G.O.M.D.” because I knew the collection would need a “Black love essay”—well, I’ve always wanted to write that essay and I knew it would be painful or bittersweet, you know? But typically, I fixate on a line and then everything comes from that line. “Ether” is based on a line I wrote that said “When Beyoncé gets angry she gets Blacker.” The essay “Marginalia” stems from the idea of what would people in a writing workshop do if I told them to “stop reading” something I turned in? Usually that line requires some sort of explanation or breakdown, which leads to more questions—how does Beyoncé get Blacker if she’s already Black? What does anger look like? What’s the difference between Black anger and white anger? Who determines these things? I need to try to answer all those questions that erupt from that one thought or line in an essay, and sometimes there is no answer or I’m not the authority, which means I then have to talk about that… My process is a lot of rambling or walking through an idea and then researching the ideas that emerge during that process. I’m pretty sure I spend a lot more time editing my work down than I do creating it because once I get an idea, I feel like I need to tackle all sides of it and exhaust it before it’s complete. Like a Rubik’s Cube.
One of the things that I appreciated about “Ripe” was how you were not only concerned with being critical of a white gaze, but many of the pieces document and center Black gaze. Are there moments in the book where you felt you unearthed a perspective that you wish someone had written? I’m just thinking of Toni Morrison saying “Write the book that you want to read.”
Yes! I always knew I wanted to write a book, with the image of a Black girl at a PWI in the stacks of the library and picking it because of the cover, which is what I did all the time. In high school, there were never more than thirty Black people at a time. I was the only Black student in my grade from kindergarten until fourth grade. I was the only Black student in my grade that was a “lifer,” meaning I spent thirteen years with my peers—my sister did the same. I feel like there are a lot of books about white women assimilating into Black spaces or Black women assimilating into white spaces, but there’s no book about how Black identity evolves in those spaces? I grew up with a lot of non-Black people and had a lot of non-Black friends, I kept that same energy when I went to college because I was in predominantly white spaces, but what I noticed is that my old classmates didn’t and watching a lot of people I grew up with and loved disappear into homogeneous friend groups and family units was wild! I feel like no one talks/writes/creates work about what happens to the “token” Black kid unless she ends up in one of two extremes: surrounded by Blackness or surrounded by whiteness. I don’t necessarily think I can be boxed into something so simple, and I think my book tries to hold people accountable for things we did when we weren’t thinking about race, but have always stuck with me. Some people will feel personally attacked because they did objectify my body or they said the N-word, but that’s the thing a lot of people did or said that.
I’m rambling, but I think that the perspective I unearthed was a complicated one. I feel like I complicated my idea and definition of Blackness by paring it down to all its parts: Black, woman, fat, artist, poor, educated, etc. That intersectionality has made me very aware of how people behave and the narratives they weave—bell hooks has written about the nuance of Black men and white women, how their position can make them essentially turn on Black women whenever it benefits them… That’s real—race, gender, wealth, sexuality, all impact how someone navigates the spaces they’re in and that’s what I’m interested in.
When I read pieces like “Unbothered: A Microaggression” and the “Marginalia” pieces, I was struck by how poetic they were. Is poetry an influence on your essays? If so, which poets are moving you?
I love poetry. When I’m not reading essays, I’m most likely reading poetry. While writing this collection, I was reading a lot of Khadijah Queen, Dawn Lundy Martin and Morgan Parker. Dawn Lundy Martin in particular wrote a hybrid poem in “Good Stock, Strange Blood” about how people will always label something Black if a Black person was involved—”Marginalia” explores that idea, how do I unbox myself from that label? Khadijah Queen’s “I’m So Fine” inspired my playing with pace in “The One Where My Femme” and “The Part Thugs Skip” essays. “Unbothered: A Microaggression” is heavily influenced by Renee Gladman’s “Calamities” (which I’m obsessed with) where she begins each essay or entry with the same first line and the brevity is influenced by Queen’s work. Morgan Parker’s “There Are Things More Beautiful Than Beyoncé” and “Magical Negro” helped me understand the ways people were integrating pop culture into their work, Xandria Phillips’ “Hull” has micro-essays and prose poems where they are in imagined scenarios with different Black people in history, Etel Adnan helped me figure out how to write aphorisms. The stack of books I attempted to consume while writing this book is enormous, but the ones I mentioned really made an impact.
The title essay “Ripe” considers what makes you adult around the age of twenty-five. Even though you make the point about minimum wage not matching inflation, the financial concerns of millennials, as well as race and gender, do you have moments where adulthood seems clear or even like an accomplishment? I ask because I still struggle with adulthood, and I haven’t been twenty-five in awhile.
Ha! The scientific answer is that the newly accepted “emerging adulthood” phase can last until thirty-four, so some people will say once you’re thirty-four you just are automatically an adult. I feel like I read somewhere that men don’t mature until forty-one. Girls are getting periods as young as nine. I have no idea what men consider their biological moment of “becoming a man” but I’m interested. I definitely have moments though where I am like, “That’s real grown of you, self.” Living on my own, I’m hoping to get a dog, when my students show some sort of reverence for me and my teaching, even though I’m only a few years older than some of them. When I was in grad school, everyone kept bringing up how young I was and now that I’m edging toward thirty, everyone is bringing up how old I am. I think adulthood is just a catchall for being out of school and having to fend for yourself because technically, it never ends, elders are still adults. I do think I’m grown though, but I feel like that’s a completely different thing than being an adult.
Could you talk about the visual pieces in the book? Although they are not throughout the book, I do think they extend what you’re thinking about throughout the book in some interesting ways.
One of the things I’m always interested in is ways to make writing exist off the page. I didn’t create anything new for the collection, but I had already made the accompanying piece to “How to Steal A Culture” and I think that the image of white women actually appropriating Blackness is important to have with the context of the piece. I don’t think people really understand appropriation, what it looks like and how it works, so how else to prove my point besides taking celebrities and collaging them into the iconic image of Nicki Minaj’s silhouette? “For Your Pleasure” was a visual project before it was…written. I didn’t grow up in a household where people talked about sex. And I didn’t go to a school where people talked about Black sex. Everything I’ve learned about sex I did on my own, but it wasn’t until I was in a class about sex and writing that I realized, no one was showing me (or anyone else) Black bodies in sexual situations and calling it art. That rubbed me wrong—my body can’t be anything but a fetish or some sort of goal? So, I thought about everything anyone had said to me about my body and… It was hard. That’s what those images are of, my body (not even in a sexual pose or anything—in fact, I took all these photos with clothes on) and all things men have said to me to claim a piece of it. I wanted to turn myself into an object, literally, so “For Your Pleasure” was me objectifying myself like all of those men had and then forcing readers to be complicit in that objectification. I wanted readers to be forced to engage with the page beyond words, so BAM, there’s a silhouette, BAM, there’s a collage, BAM there’s a block of text, BAM, there’s no punctuation—I think that helps my work exist off the page and make more of an impact.
Do you have any advice for people who’d like to put together an essay collection?
Remember who you’re writing for. The first draft will look nothing like the final draft. Each essay should exist alone and within the collection, if it doesn’t fit then it probably shouldn’t be there. Some of your favorite essays will not be ready for the collection, that’s completely fine and the world won’t end. Also, make sure every single essay has earned its place in the collection, is it doing something or is it filler? If it’s filler, cut it. Don’t despair if it’s taking longer than you thought… Books, well… Good books don’t just appear out of thin air.
Negesti Kaudo will read in the Columbia College Chicago Reading Series on March 16 at 5:30pm.
By Negesti Kaudo
Mad Creek Books, 248 pages
Newcity Lit Editor Tara Betts is the author of “Break the Habit” and “Arc & Hue.” Her interviews and features have appeared in publications such as Hello Giggles, Mosaic Magazine, NYLON, The Source, Sixty Inches from Center, and Poetry magazine. She also hosts author chats at the Seminary Co-Op bookstores in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood.