Metta Sáma on Activism, Writing, Teaching, and Blogging
Sarah Marcus: You serve on the Board of Directors for VIDA: Women in the Literary Arts. How and why did you get involved with VIDA? From the perspective of being both a teacher and a writer, what relevance do you think VIDA holds for our current literary landscape? What do you think people who identify as inclusive feminists can do to further the cause?
Metta Sáma: When Cate Marvin, Ann Townsend & Erin Belieu founded VIDA (née WILA), I was deeply interested in being part of an organization, in the 21st century, that advocated for the visibility of women writers. We spend a lot of time talking about “how far we’ve come,” I reckon as a way to put a positive spin on the state of the world, and we have come a long way, but not very far, and VIDA addressed this. Because of the vision that led to The Count, we now have more and more open conversations (in newspapers and journals, for example) about the ways in which women—women’s issues & women’s aesthetics & women’s styles & women’s theories—have been pushed aside to create more room for men—men’s issues & men’s aesthetics & men’s styles & men’s theories. Now that VIDA has extended The Count to incorporate the invisibilities of women of color in publishing houses, I see a recognition of a failure of the publishing industry and of writing organizations to actually acknowledge the ways in which women of color have been not only shoved aside, but nearly completely erased, a recognition that the values & aesthetics we hold Literary Arts to is overwhelmingly white and often oppressively white male, and that these values and aesthetics that are being upheld serve white writer communities alone. With this new recognition of the ways in which women of color, even in VIDA, have been swept aside, I find VIDA to be the kind of organization that I can stand beside, an organization filled with writers who are willing to acknowledge their own complicity in erasures, and who are working, deeply and consistently and fully, to address those failures.
What can people do to further the cause to be more inclusive writerly societies? In part, they can do what VIDA is doing: recognize, acknowledge, educate yourself, seek change, be sincere & thoughtful about the reasons you want to change, and change. Don’t jump on bandwagons or follow trends; don’t get on your high horse and change because you need to be the hero; don’t react because you’re afraid of being seen as racist or sexist. Change because you truly see the erasures; change because you truly see the erasures as institutional and personal racisms and sexisms and you want to do better.
SM: I am an avid follower of your extremely honest and powerful blog. In your post titled "I Cried For Years: Making Friends with White U.S. Americans," you wrote: "Years later, I look at the number of white friends who have blacklisted me, who have called me an instigator, who have condemned me for my use of the term ‘whitefolks’, who have said I don’t give them enough credit, who call me harsh, trouble maker, insensitive, uncaring. The white friends who want to be congratulated for every little step they make to atone for not being aware of race and racism. The white friends who tell me I need to find a more generous graceful tone when I talk about race." Firstly, I am in constant awe of how raw, brave, and fierce these posts are. Can you tell us about your experience blogging about race and feminism? Do you deal with or engage with many trolls? Have you thought about publishing these pieces elsewhere? What do you want your readers to walk away knowing?
MS: Thank you for reading those posts, firstly. To be honest, I started the blog alongside a class I teach every Fall semester, a senior capstone course which I’ve re-designed to be as much about students polishing their work as it is about preparing them to be writers in this social media world. I require them to either have a blog or a Twitter account or a Facebook account, something that writers utilize for networking. I re-opened a Twitter account and re-activated my Facebook account and began the blog so I could participate in the world I was introducing them to. In discussing with them the faces we present in our social media world, the faces that are persona, I decided that my blog would be the space of no holds barred, as it operates in sentences and paragraphs.
In the past few weeks, the posts have been way more painful than I hoped the space would be able to hold, yet, the stories have been here with me for decades and finally needed to come out. What has been really wonderful, in part, is the number of bloggers who have been writing about racism and racists in the academy, so I don’t feel alone out here. For every person who says: oh, that’s just her; she put herself in those situations, there is a blogger who is not me whose post basically says, here’s another one of us and another and another and another, ad infinitum. It’s important for these stories to be told, now; the energy is here for it; the refusals to be silenced that people of color are now insisting upon is powerful. I had a friend recently tell me about a racial incident at a university and she said the woman who the racism had been enacted upon went about her protest in the wrong way. I disagreed with her; yes, the woman was very very vocal and gave zero fucks about decorum and respectability politics, and she needed to be. We, as POC, spend so much time worrying about grace and mercy, that we convince ourselves that the racisms enacted upon us aren’t as bad as we thought they were. Why spend that time trying to be gracious and merciful to your attackers? Come at them hard, come at them fiercely, come at them with all of your power. That, too, is love. Love for the self. Love for the community. Love for the generations to come after you.
I don’t engage with trolls. Engaging with trolls is not love. We’ve had enough social media years to identify the markings of the trolls, so why commune with them? I have seen men say on other people’s walls (people who have shared my posts) that my posts which I say are about race aren’t about race, that I’ve just made bad choices in friendship, or that I put myself in those situations so they can’t sympathize with me. I saw those comments and created a new blog to address those comments, to tell a new story. Those men were fuel, I suppose.
And that’s one thing that I hope that people get when they read my blog posts: all of these oppressors, these racists, are fuel. We can’t stop the racists and oppressors from being themselves, but we can expose them, and in exposing them, we can expose our own refusals to be silenced, to be oppressed, to be invalidated and devalued. Our voices, even solo, are thunderous.
SM: There are so many vital posts on your page, but one that I can't seem to stop thinking about is "How We Lie When We Say We Love Women." You wrote: "But somehow, comparing women’s bodies to the earth lets us off easy. The land is pillaged; the woman is raped. The land is drilled into; the woman is raped. The land is land and what is it there for, if not to be attacked by man? The woman is woman and what is she there for, if not to be dominated by man? To talk about rape is to admit that we have a problem with women. We say we love them, but we quickly call them cunts when we’re angry with them. We say we love them, but we blame them for everything that goes wrong in the world." Can you talk a bit more about why the comparison of women's bodies to the earth is problematic? What responsibility do we have as peers and as teachers on social media and in the classroom to challenge these troublesome assumptions and the accepted culture of hate against women?
MS: I’m so happy you brought that post up, Sarah. There was a lot of silence around that post, and I think it has a lot to do with the inability of men to talk openly, effectively, about violences against women. And the ways in which women have been trained, often, to devalue ourselves, to place men above us. There are easy comparisons to be made here. How many white people say: “I’m listening, but I’m staying silent because I don’t know what to say” when they see a racist attack against a person of color? How many men just stay silent when they see a woman attacked by a man?
That post was so incredibly difficult for me to write, because a friend I love immeasurably is one of those men who calls women cunt when he’s angered by them. And I love that dude, incredibly. And I believe he believes he loves women incredibly. And yet, when we attempt to talk about his language against women, there is tension and this new thing we call “policing” of language.
I suppose that post-colonial scholars were “policing” metaphors when they began to talk about the problems of comparing women’s bodies to land. Land is an object, something that men see as theirs to colonize, to bulldoze, to deforest, to mine, to mountaintop remove, to stick a flag in, name and call their own. When women’s bodies are compared to land, the women are seen as the possession of men, an object that is theirs to colonize, to bulldoze, to deforest, to mine, to mountaintop remove, to stick a flag in, name and call their own. This extends to feminizing objects: cars, boats, motorcycles. The woman as brickhouse. The woman who reminds a man of his jeep. The woman as fine china. And, for me, the worst, the woman as a body to bear the weight of man (ie, the men who want to crawl inside of women for protection, for solitude, for warmth). These comparisons of women to land gives way to women as man-made objects as women’s bodies of vessels to hold men and their multitude of problems. It dehumanizes women, so when we attempt to talk about violences against women, it’s difficult. After all, the reasoning goes, women are objects for men to possess.
It’s our responsibility, in part, as humans in this world, to not let men get off easy. I’ve seen enough of the men who say things like “yeah, that song is misogynistic, but hey, it’s rap!” These are the kind of men who blame women for all of their failures in life. The men who claim to love women but forgive the ways in which language is often used a cudgel to knock women down. The more we call attention to these violences, the more work, I hope, we put into dismantling these oppressive structures.
SM: MIEL's description of your forthcoming book, le animal & other strange creatures, says that "despite the poet’s resentment of those who have access to ‘a safe world I can only imagine’, and despite the sound of necks and bones breaking that bubbles as a soundscape under her work, Sáma seems fundamentally optimistic." What role does safety or the lack thereof play in this book? Do you believe that you are fundamentally optimistic? Is this important when advocating through writing?
MS: When I was an undergraduate student, I was a cynic. I had a friend who became my first surrogate mother, who often said to me: “You’re too young to be a cynic!” but in my mind, cynics were the most optimistic people in the world. We had so much hope for the present, so much hope for the potential of humans to behave humanely, yet we were also realists who saw that people were so caught up in striving for capitalistic success that they often forgot how to actually care about people they weren’t related to. Every time an election rolls around, I prepare myself for utter depression. The millions of dollars thrown into these campaigns, for what, ads? Posters? Banners? Office space? It’s truly upsetting. And yet, my core is this thing called hope, and in the core of that hope is this thing called faith in humanity.
I often tell people this little story of one of my ex-professors, who, during my dissertation defense asked me: “Do you have any joy?” I was surprised by the question, affronted by the question. Here we were, talking about these poems that were filled with the myriad problems of the world, poems that addressed poverty and xenophobia and racism and islamaphobia and sexism and homophobia and this professor was asking me if I had joy. I responded: “Yes, I have joy. There is joy in writing about these problems; joy in sharing my thoughts about these problems; joy in calling attention to these problems; joy in seeking justice.”
I’m not sure that writing needs to be optimistic; however. I’m with Toni Morrison, who said, “I did not want to feel anything that did not originate within me. . . I want to feel what I feel. What’s mine. Even if it’s not happiness, whatever that means.”
SM: What are you currently working on, and what will we get to see from you in the future? What advice would you offer to younger writers just starting out?
MS: Thanks for asking! I’ve been working collection of poems and fables about a group of people who follow a person who thinks humans can turn into dragons. A chunk of those poems are coming out soon in Heir Apparent & a chunk will appear in the Kat Dixon edited anthology Dismantled Almosts. A few others can be found in The Baffler, La Fovea, The Rumpus & Valley Voices. The Winter 2016 issue of North American Review will, in part, be an edited collection of poems by African American writers, which I edited and am thrilled by. I’m also on the docket to edit, alongside Racquel Goodison & b. william bearhart the May 2016 About Place journal, from Black Earth Institute, so be on the look-out, in October, for a call!
To young writers starting out: Listen to Nina Simone’s “I Wish I Knew How it Feels to be Free” and enact freedom in all the ways you can imagine and push to imagine more.
Metta Sáma is author of After "Sleeping to Dream"/After After (Nous-Zot), Nocturne Trio (YesYes Books) & the forthcoming le animal & other strange creatures (MIEL). She is Director of Center for Women Writers and Assistant Professor and Director of Creative Writing at Salem College.