Interview with Mecca Jamilah Sullivan
Date of Interview: 10/1/2020
Mecca Jamilah Sullivan is the author of Blue Talk and Love, an anthology of short stories published in 2016. Sullivan, a winner of the 2018 Lambda Judith A. Markowitz Award for Emerging LGBTQ Writers, uses powerful storytelling to give voice to the characters that are rarely the protagonist of their own story. The collection is built on themes of race, sexuality, gender, and body image; Sullivan often incorporates her own experiences from her upbringing in Harlem. Blue Talk and Love also goes beyond Sullivan’s own life, exploring a multitude of cultures and languages that unite in the shared identity of Blackness. Sullivan is currently teaching as an associate professor at Bryn Mawr College. I interviewed Sullivan to learn more about how she engages with her myriad of characters throughout Blue Talk and Love, and to gain insight into Sullivan's role as not only a storyteller, but also as a Black woman living in modern America.
Alexi Ralston: Blue Talk and Love contains a variety of characters through which you tell stories that differ greatly in circumstance, while also revealing themes that remain consistent throughout the collection. Do you often come up with these characters before writing their stories, or do they mostly come to life throughout the writing process?
Mecca Jamilah Sullivan: This is a good question. For the most part, I'm a voice- and character-driven writer. Voice is often the first part of the story that comes to me, and it's usually my curiosity about the characters (especially the narrator or central character) that drives me through a story. But I also really enjoy learning more about a character as the plot unfolds-- seeing more deeply who they are by watching how they respond to the conflicts and challenges the story presents.
AR: You strike an interesting balance in your stories between your own experiences growing up and the experiences of characters very different from yourself. How do you use your own unique voice to give voices to characters that exist in different bodies and circumstances than your own?
MJS: I think about this a lot. I think you're right to frame this in terms of voice, too. When I pay close attention to a character's voice, it's not difficult to notice the distinctions between my experience and theirs. When I really listen to voice, I hear the nuances and idiosyncrasies and little personality details that are usually very different from my own. In some cases, like in "Saturday," "Powder and Smoke," and the title story, "Blue Talk and Love," this just adds to the fullness of the character, and allows me to evoke the complexity and nuance of experiences that are similar to my own-- for example, the experience of being a big black queer woman from New York. But in other cases, like in "A Strange People," "Wolfpack," and "Sererie," where I'm writing about experiences very different from my own, it's important to me me think carefully about why I want to tell this story—what my voice or perspective is adding to the conversation about, for example, disability, enslavement, mass incarceration, reproductive autonomy, or sexual assault. I think it's crucial to ask myself these questions as a writer—what does my perspective bring to stories I haven't lived? For me, in most cases, it has to do with intersectionality. I often think about how Blackness, fatness, womanhood, non-normative sexuality and desire come into play in these experiences, often in ways we don't talk about. It's often my own experiences of difference that compel me to explore the nuances of power in circumstances distinct from my own.
AR: When writing a short story, do you often consider how the story will speak to your other stories, or do you primarily focus on how the story exists on its own?
MJS: This collection was written over many years, and in some ways I think it reflects my core themes as a writer. I will always be interested in the intellectual, interior, and bodily lives of black women. These are the things I think about in other areas of my life, too-- as a reader, a teacher, a friend, daughter, partner, etc. So I don't know if I spend time planning those connections, although I am aware that they're there, and that they're important to my work. The process of arranging and structuring a collection is interesting, though, because it does require you to name those connections and link them in a sort of arc for the reader. So in Blue Talk and Love, the goal was to introduce and name those key themes of Black women's intellectual and bodily life boldly at the outset, while also shaping a journey for the reader over space, time, and fictional genre from one story to the next.
AR: One of the stories that stood out to me the most was "Ivy," which is structured around the lines of a poem by Georgia Douglas Johnson. Why did you choose this poem in particular to expand into your own story? Are there influences of certain pieces of poetry in your other works?
MJS: Absolutely. I am a great fan of poetry, and an admirer of poets. "Ivy" actually emerged from a story I first drafted many years ago as an undergrad in an African American literature course. I had been thinking about Black genders and embodiments, and the tension between embrace and a kind objectification, which Johnson names so beautifully with the line "to hold me/or perhaps uphold." I was and am very much interested in Black women's articulation of need, which is of course at the center of that poem—literally. I was so taken by what Johnson does with form and shape in that poem, how the use of whitespace evokes what one might think of as one kind of woman-like form on the page. And so I wanted to explore what that would look like in a narrative form that disrupted expectations of Blackwoman need and embodiment. I was also experimenting with form there as well, so the lengths of the sections, the use of italics, the shifts in voice and point of view are all part of that exploration.
Also, hip hop is a major poetic influence on my fiction. My work is influenced as much by Biggie and Missy and A Tribe Called Quest as it is by Toni Morrison, Audre Lorde, and Jamaica Kincaid.
AR: Which story in the collection do you feel is most relevant in today's political and social climate? Does this change the way you view that story at all?
MJS: I recently did an interview with Michelle Brown for her podcast, “Collections,” and she pointed me to a line in the story, "Blue Talk and Love," which is set in the early 90s. In it, the queer Black girl narrator imagines herself in "a post-apocalyptic city sometime around the year 2020—an impossible distance away." I remember writing that line and thinking about how, when you're twelve or thirteen, twenty-five years really does feel like an unfathomable distance. But I had no idea how apocalyptic (or, optimistically, post-apocalyptic) 2020 would feel. And yet, here we are. I have to say the name Breyonna Taylor here. Her murder and the seismic failure of justice in the refusal to prosecute her killers shows us where we are. Ultimately, I hope all the stories are relevant. I think we've needed to have clear, direct conversations about race, gender, class, sexuality, disability, queerness, and Black women's joy and freedom for a long time. I hope my work contributes to that conversation.
AR: What writing projects are you currently working on? I know you have a book coming out called The Poetics of Difference: Queer Feminist Forms in the African Diaspora, as well as a novel in the works.
MJS: Yes, that book is coming out in the next year or so. It explores a lot of the ideas we've talked about here, particularly the connections between creative form, intersectional experience, and political critique in Black women's art. The novel does, too. It focuses on fatness, family, and Black girlhood, considering how inherited gender norms and legacies of economic disenfranchisement impinge on Black girls' bodily freedom, and exploring the fierceness and complexity of Black women's love, pleasure and joy.