Be Prepared to Let the Writing Go: An Interview with Shonda Buchanan
Award-winning author, poet, essayist, and educator, Shonda Buchanan has been writing since childhood. She is the author of the memoir Black Indian, and the poetry collections Equipoise and Who’s Afraid of Black Indians? Now a content producer for Push Black, Buchanan has added her voice to the nation’s largest non-profit media organization for Black Americans, currently serving nine million people across all platforms.
Over the summer, we met via Zoom to discuss the power of ancestry, her multi-cultural identity formation, and wisdom gathered along her writer’s journey. Initially, Shonda was interested in my background, as a writer and psychologist. Immediately, she gravitated to the theme of healing, agreeing with me that art and health are inextricably connected.
Shonda Buchanan: As a writer and professor, I had always been striving for how to heal with language; how to use language as a tool for transformation, redemption, transgression; how to use what I do as a poet, a memoirist, as a fiction writer, as an essayist, to always level the playing field or show a sense of disparity, and how that disparity can change equality.
The themes of my memoir Black Indian are family dysfunction and trying to heal through it; it’s about racial disparity and institutional racism, the evolution of racial formation, and then how that impacted my family, over the centuries, and then ultimately, directly, how that impacted me and my immediate family growing up in a violent childhood. For me, it’s always been about using language to create a different paradigm.
Regan Humphrey: That’s so transcendent. What was your coming of age like? When did you discover your love of language and writing?
SB: There’s an anthology of new Negro and Harlem Renaissance poetry called “I Am the Darker Brother.” Serendipitously, it came out the same year I was born, 1968. The first time I read it, I thought, “Wow, Black people are talking about what it means to be Black. In one of Langston Hughes’ poems, he wrote on the concept of being mulatto and multi-racial. That was a narrative I grew up with. That book taught me that I could use language to redefine myself. I realized I could say things in a way that reflected what I felt. I could write as honestly as possible.
It just connected ethnicity, race, and modalities, stuff that I hadn’t thought about before.
RH: What was striking about the place where you grew up, that setting in the seventies and eighties?
SB: I was born and raised in Kalamazoo, MI, and what was really striking about it was the landscape. We are surrounded by all the Great Lakes, and I always say this about Kalamazoo: If you don’t know how to swim, you’ll drown. Because there are lakes and streams and rivulets and swampland.
Black Indian was infused with the landscape, as well. And I knew there was something about Kalamazoo and the other surrounding townships where my family first settled in the 1800s, mid 1800s, Dewajack, Ipsilani, Mattalawn is where we had one of our farms. Almeda, … They’re so many Indian names—the Pattawademe, the Ottawa or Adelowa. They also call them Chipowa or Missionawe. They were in that community, long, long, long before we were. And so, for me, it was rich in family; we were rich in laughter and loudness.
I call us a tribe of elephants, and then there are other times, I call us a tribe of wolverines. Hence the Michigan Wolverines. But then, also, there’s a sense of disparity in the communities of color. And it happened over time, just like it happened in other states where you had the eradication of the status of free people of color. If you were a free person of color in the 1700s, 1800s, you could own land, you owned slaves, you could vote. And a lot of people, we always think our Black historical memories start at slavery, sometimes it will go to Reconstruction, and then it skips to the Civil Rights Movement. And if we look at the history of it, there was a systematic onslaught of the rights that free people of color had, and that relegated us to a certain status—in the legislature, in education, in every facet of what was then the burgeoning American society.
So, my book, Black Indian, really reflects the de-evolution of the status of free people of color. For example, one of my grandfathers, on the US Census every year, he was a different ethnicity. So, the first time I saw his name, George Manual, he was Indian. He had Indian on his WWI Card and record, and then ten years later, it was mulatto, and then ten years later, Negro, and then ten years later—and I don’t know how this happened—maybe because he moved—he claimed white and then disappeared into white society. That happened for so many free people of color who were either Black-White-Indian, or Black and White, or some other ethnicity that they didn’t even know of, or super-light-skinned Black person and you could just pass or disappear, and never go back. You could marry white, and your DNA could evolve into that “23 and me piece” where you have mostly white in you, but you have some Indian, you have some Black.
RH: Heritage is fascinating for so many reasons. It’s a common experience for those of us who are part of the African diaspora in America, that we have inherited cultural erasure. We have no idea who our brown ancestors are or where they come from. We walk the earth not knowing ourselves. For you, did you grow up with someone who passed your heritage onto you? Or did you have to go and search for it?
SB: I had oral history, yes. The oral narrative that my mom would say is: “You know, you’ve got some Indian in you, you’ve got some French, some German, and a little bit of Black.” It was an oral narrative until I saw my great aunt Katherine’s family tree. In the chart, all the different ethnicities were there—free person of color, mulatto, Negro, Indian, Delaware Cherokee. From there, I sussed out new information about my cultural heritage. I became a bit of a sleuth with that, trying to discover those connections and those strands.
RH: I got a chill hearing you talk about that. I get these pangs of envy whenever I hear people talk about their ancestry. Because I don’t fully know what I am. For people of color who are around today, what would you say to them about the value of discovering your heritage, researching it, and finding it?
SB: I think is goes back to the old adage, “If you don’t know who you are, you won’t know where you’re going.” If you don’t know who you are, how can you actually talk about nationhood and nation-building, unity with other communities, other people of color who suffer and experience the same kinds of things your folks suffered? We need to know where we came from, so that we can reclaim a sense of power that existed prior to the current status that we have. Is there a way to get back to that? Is there a way to come back to land ownership? Is there a way to come back to real representation? I’m on the reparations train now. I’ve really started to understand the argument. I’ve really started to say, Wow, that forty acres and a mule helps! That land allotment for Indians, American Indians, helps. And it’s not even enough. It’s not even enough.
RH: No, it’s not. How has your “Americaness” been shaped by all these heritages that are a part of you?
SB: When I travel out of the country, that’s when I know I’m an American. I was giving a talk in Malaysia a few years ago. I was giving a talk on being Black Indian, Black Indians in America. And after my talk, I ran into a Malaysian person who asked if I was white. I was like, huh? In Malaysia, there are ethnic and cultural minorities that are separate from ours in America. I started talking with this person about that, and I realized so many people still don’t know that Black folks exist or that Black Indians exist. The whole multiracial conversation isn’t an international conversation. But at the same time, I know I’m an American because I have certain rights. I have certain perceived rights that “Americaness” grants us. Which is why we get to march; we get to fight; we get to “write-fight;” and to say, I don’t have all these American rights that are written behind Abraham Lincoln. I’m not experiencing inalienable rights, or my brothers and sisters are getting detained at the border, even though they have a certain American status that was relegated to them based upon the documents that were created.
So, why do we have to always keep fighting for our Americaness? Why do we have to keep fighting for that, particularly, if you’re looking at how, without Black folks, America would not be this country, if we had not worked for free. And I don’t know if that has come out of any white person’s mouth, particularly a billionaire’s mouth or anyone who has inherited millions or inherited billions. Go back and check. Those families had slaves. Those companies reaped the benefits of slavery. (That’ll be one of my next books!)
RH: I think you’re completely right. I’m also curious about your spirituality and how that filters into your writing.
SB: There’s a book—I can’t remember the title, but it talks about the King James Bible is a creation of Constantine, a document for the purposes of the rich. And then over the years, it changed and became different, and it moved from the priests have the power because they could read, when the printing press came and then everyone else could read, so, I took all this back to my dad, a Baptist preacher. So, I was like, “Daddy, did you know that in the book of Moses… this happened, and there are more books, not all of them are in the Bible…” and he stopped me. Fella (my dad called me Fella), as long as you’re a good person, it doesn’t matter. Just as long as you believe in something, believe in God, you’ll be good, you’ll be okay. And I was like, what??!! It was revelatory for somebody to say it was okay to discover different religions and from there, I just really took that page as permission to see what was out there that felt good to me, and that’s when I started doing African religions and American Indian spirituality. I felt good. I’m honoring my ancestors; I’m participating. In terms of my European ancestors, I don’t do anything specifically druid, I just say, “yeah, okay, I know they had a part in the creation of me. I acknowledge you and honor you.”
RH: I think that is a common dilemma for people that have that ancestry in America, especially when the ancestry is ugly—linked by rape. How do you celebrate being connected to someone by something that is violent or damaging?
SB: Yeah. That’s a whole other piece. If you leapt [backwards] past slavery and past the Middle Passage, and tried to find those ancestors, then you could find something beautiful. But you can’t frog leap past a concerted effort to de-humanize people.
RH: Would you describe the trajectory of your professional journey?
SB: So, the poetic journey… Reading good poetry multiple times, emulating those poems, writing poems like that about race, ethnicity, identity, gender, spirituality was like a continuous apprenticeship. I really didn’t start writing what I thought was really good, good poetry until I was in my early twenties. I’ve been reading consistently, voraciously—everyone—not just Black poets, but every poet I can get my hands on, so I give that advice to other people. We have a multitude of voices from which to choose from in order to define our own style as a writer.
As a fiction writer, I started working on my first novel when I was twenty-six, and that first novel wasn’t great. I wrote that first novel in two weeks (I wrote between midnight and four a.m.), I continued to work on it over the next several years, ten to fifteen years, and workshopping it.
In terms of the memoir, Black Indian is my ten-year baby. Even though I worked on it over a twenty-year time period, if I condensed it, it was a ten-year book, and it evolved from that first hand-written composition book, typing notes out of that to putting it in a document on my computer, printing that out, editing it, and doing the same thing four, five, six times, changing the chronological to non-linear, pulling out stories that I felt weren’t mine to tell.
On the creative writing side, I’m also an essayist, and I started writing at the LA Weekly when I was in my twenties, as well. I actually started there as an intern, and I recommend internships for people. I have been lucky, but I have worked hard. I’ve paid attention. If I’m giving the top tips on what to do to become a professional, published writer, I paid attention. I showed up in the rooms where I knew other writers would be. And, if there was someone I really wanted to talk to, and I thought they could give me advice that I couldn’t find from anyone else, I would wait until after the panel, and then I would go up and say, “Hey, I was wondering if maybe I could ask you a question.” Or “I’ve got this idea for a book, and would you be interested in hearing it?” And that’s really how it happens at AWP, as well, and everyone knows that at any of the writing conferences, that’s how it happens. Like SLICE, as well, in New York; this is why people show up. Folks are looking for where the next great narrative is coming from; where’s the next great book? Will it come from someone who is in this line to talk to me?
And, now, I’m a digital content producer/writer for Push Black. Push Black is a platform that writes about Black issues, Black history, of course, current events, and what is that positive spin—what can happen because of it—and how do our stories and our narrative impact the larger community, which impacts the vote, right? How can we galvanize voters, you know? How can we galvanize people to do X, Y, and Z? It’s actually a really large platform, and I’m so grateful to be writing Black stories again.
For writers of color, I would say… Stay true to your voice and your story, and don’t let any white person—teacher, critic, editor—make you feel bad about what you are writing.
RH: What is your advice to up-and-coming writers? What do you want them to think about?
SB: If I’m talking to a writer in college—like a freshman—write what you know but allow for other perspectives. So, write what you know, but then pay attention to the other voices around you. Diversity matters. Truth matters. The truth of a thing matters.
For writers in general, I would say, don’t bullshit, basically. When you know there is something wrong with your poem, and you’re not serving your poem, or you’re not serving your short story, or you’re not serving whatever it is you’re working on, pull it apart or give it to someone and ask, “hey, do you see what the problem is here?” Say, “I need you to be brutally honest.” You’ll get some really, really good feedback.
And don’t only hang around people who will pet you and pet your work. That is a detriment. You want to hang around people who will call you on your shit. Who will say, I really like this part of it, but this part you really need to work on. And I had that. I was really, really lucky that I had some people who were ready to go there. For the poem that I wrote, they were ready to fight me to write a better poem!
I finished a collection of poetry about Nina Simone. I’m focusing on Nina Simone’s life. I gave it to my friends to rip the poems up. Do that; I need this. I’ve been sitting with these poems for a long time. I finally have a nice, good collection, and I’m expecting some really salient feedback. We have to be prepared as writers, to let the writing go, and to see how it serves our readers as well.
RH: Do you have specific advice for writers of color?
SB: Burn the house down. Burn it down.
Claudia Rankine talked about the MFA program for a [POC] writer can be emotionally stunting and hurtful. Because you have white professors who don’t have your cultural perspective, who are following the Great White Arc, who will denigrate your dialect, they will feel offended by how you write about racism, how you write about sexuality. And it’s like, I’m bringing my real perspective to you, how can you be offended? I almost stood up, ran up there, and put some money on the stage when she said that! Because I have had that experience.
For writers of color, I would say… Stay true to your voice and your story, and don’t let any white person—teacher, critic, editor—make you feel bad about what you are writing. Don’t let any white voice dictate the premise of what you’re trying to say. We are serving the story, but we are also writing a story that reflects and represents us.