Interview with Author Eve Ewing

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Eve Ewing’s work reads like a best-kept secret that everyone knows. Her debut collection Electric Arches reflects the intimacies between longtime friends, gospels gleaned from holy books, wisdoms forged around family dinner tables, and knowledges engraved in classroom desks — the things we don’t often acknowledge and honor yet stay with us, archived in our spirits until conjured up by our circumstances. Ewing seamlessly weaves poems, short stories, and lyric essays together, her own drawings and handwritten scribbles lining the pages between. Common threads of Afrofuturism, black feminism, and everyday storytelling bind the book to her roots and harvest good fruit like the seedlings sprouting in her mother’s spring garden. She is an artist, poet, writer, educator, and sociologist with a skilled command of several different mediums that find a home in Electric Arches. Ewing often challenges the notion that her creative and intellectual expression are somehow mutually exclusive saying, “I see myself as doing one project that has many parts.” She stands firm in a tradition of black cultural production made possible by scholars and artists being both scholars and artists, like Audre Lorde, Assata Shakur, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Zora Neale Hurston, whose work as a social scientist and storyteller inspired several pieces in the collection. Hurston’s autobiography Dust Tracks on a Road boasts of childhood tales from her all-black hometown in Eatonville, Florida to her travels as a young anthropologist documenting Southern black life. Ewing read the book at 19, enraptured by Hurston’s unapologetic audacity and immersive storytelling, the kind of boldness that oozes from Ewing’s what I mean when I say I’m sharpening my oyster knife, a poetic response to Hurston’s famed assertion in her 1928 essay How It Feels to be Colored Me. Later, Ewing learned that some parts of Hurston’s account of her life were slightly embellished or reimagined entirely, including the veracity of her age, often recorded as 10 years younger. Ewing remarks, “Hurston wrote a book that had lies in it?! There was something that was just fascinating to me,” a playfulness with truth she adopted into her own writing. The first section of Electric Arches is named true stories, a suspension of disbelief in itself. She invites us to envision black revolutionaries, indeed, dropping to Earth from the moon or LeBron James traveling through time to encounter his younger self or black children escaping police brutality by floating up and away to safety. “What are the presumptions we have had about the way this universe operates that are reflections of our own limited understanding?” Ewing posits in her writing. Each piece asks, “What if?” and moves beyond systemic limitations and digs deeper into supernatural possibility, another manifestation of her unyielding belief “in a world that is infinitely magical and strange.” Bearing witness to the abuses of state violence and anti-blackness, and the effects of generational trauma on whole people, families, communities, sometimes requires balancing pointed articulation, a commitment to clarity, and a deft sense of humor. A capacity for lightheartedness among oppressed groups helps us sustain, co-create joy, and subversively share our living histories, to remind ourselves and others we exist in the face of erasure. Often, our earliest introductions to oral storytelling and literature are folklore, witty allegories mirroring everyday experiences with the whims of a larger world that is, “much like our own but where the rules are slightly bent.” Like many black children, Ewing remembers cautionary yet undoubtedly encouraging tales about Br’er Rabbit, the tricky hare, and Anansi, the clever spider, characters of West African origin. These childhood stories find a companion in True Stories About Koko Taylor, Ewing’s celebration of “people that, to me, seem larger than life,” while toying with the question of truth in line the Queen of Blues’ lyrical and vocal swagger. In the same vein, Ewing folds in speculative fiction, both liberatory and literary device, in pieces like Arrival Day and The Device, stories that encourage us to open our collective imagination and honestly interrogate what shapes us and our ways of being and “offer us an eerie sort of instruction in how to respond to a changing world.” She observes, “It’s not a coincidence at all in the time in which we live that novels like Parable of the Sower or Handmaid’s Tale have blossomed and surged in popularity.” Black authors like Octavia Butler, Derrick Bell, and Toni Cade Bambara push us to rethink how we conceptualize time and the wisdoms time affords. Ewing makes room for the idea that time is nonlinear and historicity could come full circle. In preparation for a poetry reading at the Art Institute of Chicago, Ewing explored West African masks housed in the gallery that once served as portals to communicate with communal ancestors. She is no stranger to otherworldly connection as evidenced in The Device . Her right shoulder blade bears a tattoo tying her name to her matrilineal genealogy, the final name is her great great great grandmother’s, who was born into slavery. Not unlike most Black Americans, Ewing notes, “That’s as far as it goes because I don’t know what happened before her.” As she learned more about her great great great grandmother, she realized “how it’s easy to kind of mythologize these people but they were human beings and they had bad jokes and flaws and beef with each other and questions and dreams and a whole life I can’t possibly fathom.” She continues, “I was thinking about your actual relatives in real life and some of the things they might say to you or things that you do that they disapprove of or don’t like and it wouldn’t be all fun and games.” The Device keeps those kind of invisible realities of our ancestors at the fore, and refrains from a concrete ending on purpose. “And then people always ask me, ‘But why is she laughing?’ and I’m like, ‘I can’t tell you.’ It’s infinitely unknowable.” Ewing praises the intricacies of the craft, “The beauty of the short story is how much it leaves unsaid.” Electric Arches , too, holds that beauty. Ewing creates just enough space within the book’s pages and leaves it to us to ask our own questions and engage them with compassionate care, emotional fortitude, and critical thought — and that is the best kind of secret for us all.

elle
elle roberts (interviewer)

 

elle: You wear a lot of hats and there are also a lot of common threads in your work as an artist, poet, writer, educator, and sociologist. Can you speak to the connections between your essays, poetry, and your approach in the classroom?

 

eve ewing
Eve Ewing

Eve: You know, I’m never very good at answering this kind of question because I don’t really see delineations between these things. I feel like I should have this really good, strategic answer and I don’t have one. I used to try to come up with things and now I’m just honest and say I actually don’t really know. I see myself as doing one project that has many parts. I’m somebody that believes a lot in the storytelling power of regular people. I believe a lot in a world that is infinitely magical and strange. I believe a lot that human beings constructed society as we know it and therefore we have the option of deconstructing society as we know it. Those things are guiding principles and also I really like to have fun, and I really like kids, and I like teaching a lot, I like teaching students of all ages. So I just lead based upon those generic presumptions about the world and then where I end up varies from day to day. I see all these things, exactly as you said, parts of a big whole.

elle: Speaking of teaching, how has teaching in prison changed your creative practice, your perspective as an educator?

Eve: I think that it hasn’t changed my creative practice per se, but I always talk about how education is inherently a radical practice especially for people in this country who education, especially reading and writing, has always been very much tied to our liberation. But I think that thinking in prisons operationalizes that idea in a different way. When you actually come to realize how texts and ideas and understanding and questions and those things that are basic fundamental parts of being human beings are seen as such a challenge to the system and such a danger to a system that is unfair. Another thing is, speaking as an educator, I think that increasingly our society has been talking more and more about what people refer to as the school to prison pipeline and I think that is really important to talk about that and really important to talk about the relationships between the way young people are suspended and expelled at disproportionate rates and the way young people end up in the prison system or incarcerated or otherwise court-involved. But I guess that listening to my students talk about their experiences in educational settings and their experiences with schooling institutions also made me realize how important the basic question of care and love is. So many of my students when they talk about the origins of their issues with law enforcement or the stories that ended up in a long winding road with their incarceration, that so many of them talk about not feeling loved or cared for by the adults in their lives, getting a sense that nobody cared about them, that they were kind of disposable, and given that understanding, doing what they felt they had to do to survive, or in some circumstances, being pushed into situations beyond their control that were, in one way or another, a response to a desire to survive. It’s just made me think about just the basics of love and care and listening to young people, and how important those things are. It’s been a really wonderful experience. I feel really lucky.

elle: To kind of riff off of that last part, of asking your students about care, a lot of conversationaround self-care has kind of popped up in the last couple years, I wonder often about how the concept itself has kind of taken on a life of its own. Really, I just want to know as a creative person who pours out a lot, how do you pour back into yourself?

Eve: I think people find self-care to be a contentious idea partially because if you actually look back at the text where she used it, Audre Lorde, she makes a passing mention of the idea of self-care but she doesn’t really go into depth about what it means or what it looks like. She passed away very young and so we unfortunately don’t get to ask her these questions. I think often times people interpret self-care to mean I’m gonna go get a massage orget into reflexology or I’m going to go on a vacation and that’s self-care and other people rightly point out those things are manifestations of privilege. My understanding of self care is literally anything you can do to acknowledge your own right and need to be nurtured, loved, and supported as a living, breathing human being. To me, writing, having the long bus ride home from work, and taking two minutes to stop and be intentional about your breath and to pay attention to your surroundings, to me, that’s self-care. Helping my mom go to the Home Depot and pick out flowers and prepare for gardening for the spring and the summer, taking time out of my schedule to do that,for me, that makes me feel like a kid again, it makes me feel close to my mom because it’s something that we used to do when I was a little kid. To me, that’s self-care. I think that what self-care looks like can be different for different people and their circumstances and I think it’s really important that we not just dismiss the idea. And that’s something — like every time you do something fun for yourself is also not self-care — going to get margaritas on a Sunday morning for brunch is not necessarily self-care if it doesn’t actually allow you to recharge and pay attention to yourself for a few minutes. I think it’s really important, for me, that we center the idea of What is helping me grow? What is helping me pause? What is helping me relax? What is helping me feel safe for a moment? whatever that looks like. For me, it’s really basic stuff I really love my friends and family – I love to spend time around them. Because I’ve traveled so much this year spending time at home with people I love is something I’ve grown to really cherish, it’s really special to me. I really like bubble baths. I really like reading quietly. I really like video games. I really like the things that allow me to feel like I’m reclaiming my time for a couple of minutes and really doing something that I want to do – baking, cooking, running, nothing that exciting or innovative but it’s really about How do take a second for myself? without admonishing myself over the thirty things I could be doing for that twenty minutes.

elle:Invoking Audre Lorde, one of my favorite writers, I always feel like I discovered her way too late in life but I don’t think that there’s a such thing. I think reading your book Electric Arches I was reminded of another of my favorite writers in several of your pieces, Zora Neale Hurston. I think her being an anthropologist and a storyteller, I wonder about the ways in which she brought all of those things together in one space. And you spoke to that, too, how I don’t see the hats I wear as different entities, that they’re all the same. How has Zora Neale Hurston’s approach to her work that we see in her autobiography, in Mules and Men , has that impacted your work at all?

Eve: When I was 19 I read Dust Tracks on a Road and that book made such a huge impact on me because first of all, there was this writer who was, the word colorful doesn’t even begin to describe her, just the verve of her storytelling and the utter confidence and spark with which she talked about the world, with which she seemed to have belief that she could shape the world, was so inspiring to me. And then, I found out that a lot of the things in the book didn’t necessarily happen or they were different versions of the truth and that was also kind of titillating and exciting to me. I’m like She wrote a book that had lies in it? and there was something about that that was just fascinating to me. In the beginning of Electric Arches I say these are all true stories , like before Arrival Day I say this is a true story from the future or I’ll read a poem about Lebron James traveling through time and be like this is a true story and I think that kind of playfulness with the idea of What is “true?” What is linear time? What are the presumptions we have had about the way this universe operates that are reflections of our own limited understanding? Playing with that idea is definitely something I got from Zora Neale Hurston, as well as the idea of having a little bit of lighthearted humor in what you do even when you’re talking about things that are really sorrowful and really serious. And with what you were talking about, the fact that she was a social scientist, she was also a novelist and that’s part of why at this point, I can’t even pretend to have any good answers about what it means to occupy these two positions because I don’t understand why it’s seen as new or different. Actually, it’s something that has been going on for a really long time. Having somebody like her that kind of normalizes occupying those multiple roles is really important to me as well. It’s kind of like a citation: Hurston did this!

elle: I see traces of that in True Stories About Koko Taylor as well, what’s the significance of black folklore and talltales to this larger idea of Afrofurutism, (which you’ve described as) black people absolutely existing in the future , what’s the common thread for those things?

Eve: I think that folklore and talltales and folktales, those kinds of stories are, for many of us, our first understanding of what literature even is. There’s this great interview with Walter Mosely, and I think this is the kind of thing he says in multiple interviews, he’s like Whenever you ask a writer what their earliest influences are, they always lie. They always say, oh, my first influences were Toni Morrison. And if you’re actually telling the truth, you would say comic books or Nancy Drew. And similarly, some of our earliest literary influences are actually these kind of talltale moments. When I was a kid, we read or they were read to me, Anansi stories and stories that were these kind of points of folklore, even like fairy tales. I think that those stories like Br’er Rabbit, all those kinds of stories are so fun because they appeal to our sense of wonder. They take place in a world that is much like our own but where the rules are just slightly bent, where a mosquito is talking in somebody’s ear or where a spider is playing a trick on a fox or a turtle. There’s something about that that is really appealing, that is latent in our heads in the way we think about the world but that is not necessarily considered high literature or legitimate literature. Even when you think about, in your family, the person in your family that’s like the storyteller and that one story they tell about that crazy thing that happened that they embellish a little bit differently every time and the details are just slightly different every single time or they just have you wrapped in attention or doubled over crying laughing because it’s so funny. I feel like that kind of storytelling tradition is really important to our culture, and for me, bringing that to the fore and playing with that. And in the case of Koko Taylor, it’s also a way for me to uplift people that, to me, seem larger than life and also Koko Taylor she sang about, in her own words, these talltale things. Those are really fun to write.

elle: Going on that train of thought, pieces like The Device and Arrival Day kind of find their place in this tradition of black storytelling that asks readers this What if? Question. How does speculative fiction open up our collective imagination and help us interrogate the world around us?

Eve: I think that it’s exactly what you said. Speculative fiction allows us to toy with taken for granted notions and I think it’s not a coincidence at all in the time in which we live that novels like Parable of the Sower or Handmaid’s Tale have blossomed and surged in popularity. One of my favorite bookstores in Chicago reported that the Handmaid’s Tale is one of the top selling books, if I recall correctly. I don’t want to mislead you. I feel like they said it was one of their top selling books for the last year and I think it’s books like 1984, there’s something about this space for “fiction” that allows the mind to trace pathways to other possible ways of being, some of which are good and liberatory and some of which are authoritarian and frightening, but which offer us an eerie sort of instruction in how to respond to a changing world. I think that is so powerful and so important and I feel really grateful for those authors for mapping that space for us.

elle: Another thing about The Device and you mentioned this already as it brings up this concept of nonlinear time and that we are connected to our ancestors in this kind of inextricable way. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard this podcast called How to Survive the End of the World? It’s a pretty good show, it’s adrienne maree brown and her sister. They had a guest, Alexis Pauline Gumbs, and she was talking about how she’s studying sound and time and how time isn’t linear, that it takes the shape of a spiral and that when we need to reach out to people who have come before us and maybe not physically here, that connection is still real. She brought up this idea that during the TransAtlantic Slave Trade that the sounds of our ancestors coming over is still in the water, it’s all still there. And The Device really reminded me of that and brought that to the surface for me. I guess my question is where the kernel of that story come from – the connection between this young girl and her great great great great grandmother, I don’t know how many greats there were, and what did it elicit for you in putting that story down on paper?

Eve: This one actually has a good origin story so that’s good. Most of them I was just like, I don’t know, I was thinking about some stuff. So I was asked to do a reading at the Art Institute of Chicago which was really exciting to me, I love the Art Institute, I grew up going there. I was asked to do a reading and I picked the African art gallery and I went several days before the reading and I was looking at all this art and there were several masks that were West African masks and they were intended to allow the wearer to serve as a portal to the collective ancestry of the group. If this person was wearing this mask they would go into this altered state of being or altered state of mind through shared ritual and then you could use the mask to communicate with your ancestors through this person. And I was like, that’s cool. As an African American person, there are questions of ancestry and the limitations to how far we’re able to trace our ancestry. I have a tattoo on the back of my right shoulder blade and it has my matrilineal genealogy. It goes from my name to my mom’s name to my grandma to my great grandma to my great great grandma and then my great great great grandmother was born into slavery so that’s as far as it goes because I don’t know what happened before her. At the same time, I also have been thinking about the ways in which sometimes I feel like we mythologize our ancestors. When I was looking up this information about my great great great grandmother, I saw she had seven kids, she was a sharecropper, and it made me think about how it’s easy to kind of mythologize these people but they were human beings and they had bad jokes and flaws and beef with each other and questions and dreams and a whole life I can’t possibly fathom. I was thinking about how talking to ancestors seems so beautiful but then I was thinking about your actual relatives in real life and some of the things they might say to you or things that you do that they disapprove of or don’t like and it wouldn’t be all fun and games. Are they gonna clown you for being too fat or too skinny or not being married or how you wear your hair or whatever? So thinking through what would it actually be like to talk to your ancestors. And then people always ask me, But why is she laughing? and I’m like, I can’t tell you. It’s infinitely unknowable. For me, on the craft level, I’m really proud of that story because I think that short stories are really hard and I have always admired some of the great short story writers. I remember reading Toni Cade Bambara, Roald Dahl, Shirley Jackson, a lot of classic short stories, and just thinking on the beauty of the short story is how much it leaves unsaid. It’s just enough to set up a world and set something up and leave it for people to kind of figure out or parse out or have a grand realization or a big question that you end with so I just left it with an opaque ending.

elle: In the interest of time, I wanted to ask you, on a partial tip, have you listened to/watched Dirty Computer? If you have a burning thought about it, expecially considering you are a fan of Janelle Monae and her work around Afrofuturism?

Eve: I’m so sorry to say I haven’t listened to or watched it yet. I’ve just been really really busy and wanting to sit down and take some time with it. I have high hopes for it and I think subconsciously part of me not watching it is also like a fear that it’s not gonna, that somehow I won’t love it. It’s silly. I just need a little time. A key to my productivity is that I’m really slow. I’m often not, like oh my gosh this just came out and I just watched it and now I have a hot take, you know. I’m often the person, like, I watched Lemonade probably two weeks after it came out. I had it on DVR and I sat quietly one evening to just watch it. I often sacrifice quickness for quality of experience.