A few months ago I had the great honor of being connected with an amazing sista, Dael Orlandersmith through a good friend who saw we have mutual interests (Good lookin out, Bruce!). Dael’s writing often involves the veracity of the family. I’m no literary critic, however, I see her work as a beautiful depiction of the tragedy that black families experience in America. She describes it much better than I. In fact, I should just let you read the conversation we had, cause it’s dope and she dropped major knowledge on your boy!
JORDAN THIERRY: How did you get first get into writing?
DAEL ORLANDERSMITH: I grew up in the 60s and early 70s in Harlem and the South Bronx, NY. Where I lived it was central Harlem, but if you’d go down the block it was the barrio. I am African American, but I also include Nuyorican—New York Puerto Rican—as part of my culture. It was tough back then. Now it’s getting gentrified, but that part of Harlem is still rough. I grew up a lot around a lot of addiction, a lot of prostitution, cops on the street then—there were few black and Hispanic cops. You had cops harassing black and Hispanic kids just for the hell of it, but at the same time you had people who deserved to get hassled because it was just rough. I mean, it went from Heroin to Dust, back to Heroin, to Crack-Cocaine, where its at today.
It was very hard to live on the day-to-day basis. My thing was to not get pregnant, to not become a dope-fiend. That was not a problem for me, but other people wanted to take you down with them.
What I would tend to do was stay out of those situations. My fighting was not so much about “oh you want to be in my gang”, but instead “oh there goes the freak” because she’s listening to other stuff, and she’s doing different things than other people on the block. I grew up during the disco/funk era, which I did like, but I was also a rock fan, which separated me. So people would be like “oh there’s the white girl, she’s listening to rock and roll.”
In any hood, part of the reason people are oppressed, beyond the socio-economic reasons, is because people take on the very biases and perpetuate them. So for instance, in order for you to be black or Hispanic you have to live in the hood—that’s just the brainwashing that comes from racism. Or in order for you to be black, you “have” to listen to a certain kind of music.
Certainly, there is racism, but also there is the individual. There’s a great writer named Robert Burns who said, “Beyond race, beyond color, beyond gender, you are a citizen of the world.”
As a teen I was coming down to the east village to hang out, and I read a lot, so, I there was something beyond where I was, but I just had very few people in my life to validate that.
JT: Was there a person in particular who put you on to the Arts?
DO: It was my own exploration. In my immediate household, I found a classical record, and I wondered where the hell it came from. It was my mother’s record, and she was a black woman of a certain time, who was bitter and it was a wasted intelligence to a certain degree. There were certain things that she did expose me to, but then would reject it for some strange reason. She worked everyday, but she also suffered from alcoholism, and people with substance abuse/addictions, while they can be very sensitive people, they can also be very mean-spirited and selfish. So, I would say 85% of my exploration was innate.
JT: Is MONSTER the most autobiographical content you’ve written?
DO: All of it is. Most people have interesting stories. A lot of MONSTER has to do with me, a lot of it has nothing to do with me. A lot of it comes out of the imagination. What happened with that genre, the reason why I began to write one-person stuff, in the 70s and 80s the roles for black people weren’t that great. Now for black males, the work is better; for black females its not much better. So I began to write my own stuff.
What happened in the late 80s, early 90s and beyond, is that people began to write these autobiographical things because they were unemployed actors. And most fof these people have interesting stories, but that doesn’t mean it is a piece of theater because theater is about language, and its about a beginning, a middle, an end, a story, a conflict, and a resolution.
JT: Can you tell me about your growth as a writer and your involvement with the Nuyorican Poets Café?
DO: I was initially involved with the Nuyorican as a teenager. The founder Miguel Pinero was a drug addict, and there were problems with people getting paid, and with all the problems the café ended up closing. So I left, went to college, and kept a journal, and came back in the late 80s/early 90s. I had been writing these narrative poems, so I decided to combine these characters from my poems and that’s how I started writing poems.
JT: Can you talk about the consistency of your writing dealing with parents and family?
DO: I tend to write about the sins of the father and the sins of the mother. The author Kahlil Gibran, writes in his book THE PROPHET, “Your pass through you, they are not of you.” I think there are certain people on the planet who should not have kids. And as people get older they say “I did the best that I could” and of course if their kids turn out badly they want nothing to do with them and if they turn out well they claim responsibility. So I think it goes both ways/ Sometimes kids have to give birth to themselves. So I tend to write about the darker side of human nature, its just something that interests me. I’m very interested in the struggle to become oneself, one whole. I’m also very interested in “the outsider.” The person we see everyday who no one pays attention to and when you look at them, you say to yourself, “my God, how did that person get there?” Because there were certain circumstances that led that person there. Now having said all of that, you also have personal choice. Because no matter how hard the circumstances, you have to give birth to yourself. It’s easy just say “I had a bad childhood or whatever”, but it’s very important if you come from that type of background to NOT become your parents.
JT: But how can one do that?
DO: You have to see a very good therapist. Lol. But it could be conventional religion or spirituality, or, like what I do, you take it and you put it into something like language or a paintbrush, it becomes transformative and universal.
JT: In MONSTER, the character Marsha is suicidal, obviously because of her circumstances. Do children innately have the ability to overcome this type of thing themselves or do they need something else?
DO: Even with her, to a certain degree, although Marsha is tragic, the act of suicide is a vicious act because what it does is punish the people that are living. Although her loneliness is understandable, its like she’s trying to make someone else responsible for it.
I was reading about this woman who experienced the concentration camps during the holocaust, who said something like, “I know that among all these Germans there is one good German, and that one good German should not be seen as an animal at the expense of all of them.” How the hell do you get to that type of thinking? Similar to what Mandela thought, who recently had dinner with some of the people who jailed him. So I think even in the most severe circumstances, there is that one iota , that mico/nano second where you know that there is a choice, and that’s the one that you have to follow which will alter your entire life.
So even with someone who is a kid, the struggle is knowing that there is a struggle, and within that struggle you are questioning whether what you are doing is right or wrong.
Traditionally for those who do commit suicide, they don’t do it right away/they have to lead up to it because they are struggling with their own conscious.
JT: In MONSTER, when Emma talks about Theresa’s mother, and how she used to be a good woman but got lost along the way, is that “getting lost”, how is that prevalent in American families?
DO: I have a certain empathy with Theresa’s mother. She is the character that you don’t have to like, but you have to understand her. But what annoys me about that character/ man and woman/ is that they don’t utilize their choices. Like for the kid Marsha, I have more sympathy. But you must know on a certain level, when you’re drinking and drugging like that, and you have a child in the world, you are now endangering your kid. Do I realize in that community that racism plays a certain role? Yes. But as one gets older, because the mother in that story is well grown, (in a weird kind of a way I do understand her) but I despise the fact that she exposed her kid to that stuff. And yes it is very prevalent in our community but in major communities as well.
JT: The character’s in YELLOWMAN, are very interesting to me, especially the father who envied his son, but provided for him through and through, materially at least.
DO: There is a different kind of abuse with YELLOWMAN. Exactly like you said, yeah he provided. The version of abuse that people often have, particularly non-white people, are “we drink/we drug/we kid our kids in the ass.” The flipside of it is, this man is abusive as well. Because these people have a beautiful house, and its perfumed, vaccumed, air-conditioned, most people outside of the situation would have asked “what’s he complaining about/he’s got it all?”.
The reason I made them affluent, is because there are affluent black people. But also because these people experience racism, taken with the sins of the mother and the sins of the father, and this family took it on and perpetuated it with their kid. But to me it all comes down to individual choice. And you see that with Eugene and Alma as well.
Looking at the characters, it is a lot about masculinity. The flipside to that masculinity is quadrupled, when it is non-white. The way we survived slavery, and you see this with people on the streets, you were not allowed to show any sort of vulnerability. When we came up, it was like “You better not cry!”. Because you can’t let anybody know whats going on with you. Because we were treated as animals, in a weird way that legacy is still there. You don’t show that youre human. You’re super hard and your super stuff. You’re told you’re an animal and you take on the behavior of an animal. But even animals break down. And when people talk about there is no suicide in the black community, all you need to look at is the drug addictions, alcoholism, high blood pressure and all that stuff. There’s also this expression suicide by cop, where you see cats with the police yelling, “yeah mothafucka kill me! Kill me!” Why would you put yourself in that position? That is very suicidal. The masculinity is based upon some sort of self-loathing, that stems from slavery.
JT: In YELLOWMAN you talk about maintaining the cool and how that distracts you from taking care of your business.
DO: It also extends to the woman thing as well, because you are not supposed to let anyone see you cry. I’m sure you’ve seen women who can fight as good as a man. You have to maintain your cool in terms of the hood. Its about putting on a mask.
In YELLOWMAN, where being a gentleman is considered weak. Eugene is indeed a man, but we’ve taught our boys and our men, no matter what color you are, “if you cry you’re a punk, if you cry you’re a pussy.” I mean, you have tear ducts for a reason, don’t you?
JT: Thank you for your time Dael! ONE LOVE!