Internal Machinations of the Human Spirit: In Conversation with Venita Blackburn

21 mins read

Venita Blackburn, author of the short story collection Black Jesus and Other Superheroes (her 2017 debut, published as a result of her Prairie Schooner book prize for fiction) visited the UA Prose Series this September. Post-reading, Suyi Okungbowa of the Sonora Review had a chat with her.

Prof. Venita Blackburn is an Assistant Professor at Fresno State. Her stories have appeared in numerous publications, including the Paris Review, Los Angeles Review of Books, American Short Fiction, Faultline, the Georgia Review, and SmokeLong Quarterly. She was awarded a Bread Loaf Fellowship in 2014 and several Pushcart Prize nominations. In 2018 she earned a place as a finalist for the PEN/Bingham award for debut fiction, finalist for the NYPL Young Lions award, and is the winner of the PEN America Fiction prize 2018. Current projects include finishing a new novel, a collection of flash fiction and creative nonfiction. Her hometown is Compton, California.

Suyi: Let’s start off with this question I love to ask authors: What does it for you? Story-wise, writing-wise, and juggling life as an author versus living everyday life.

Venita: Oh my. I just started a new position as an Assistant Professor at CSU Fresno and moved across states to make that happen. I in just about every way have lost it. Moving is so traumatic. I never believed it until now. So, I’m still in a state of recovery even as I travel for speaking events, looking for some kind of balance.

What are some of the more remarkable answers to this question you’ve heard? I’m open to inspiration to help me get it together.

Suyi: I’ve heard everything from yoga to reading outside preferred genres to running/hiking. Some folks have told me it’s the thrill of new story idea that does it for them, or receiving thank-you messages from people across the world. Some say it’s in the writing, like getting their first sentences to sing. For others, it’s spending more time with family. I’ve basically narrowed it down to this: Writing drains, so writers must (A) self-inspire and (B) re-energise, and they will achieve (A) and (B) in whatever ways are most natural to them. Coffee is the most common response I get. Tea, if they’re British, haha. Hot beverages seem to find some way to grease the writer’s engines.

Venita: That’s awesome. I practice yoga too and nap ha. Maybe I have it more figured out than I think.

Suyi: So, when you visited the UA Prose Series, you spoke about your writing doing less of “looking inward” and more of “looking outward”, and that being the reason you write more about what happens around you than about yourself. How do you think that’s in contrast to, or even in support of, the oft-repeated paradigm of write what you know? How does what you know evolve over time, for a writer?

Venita: It might be the circular nature of the writer’s life, you know. Early writers often try to mimic their favorites in ways that are not natural in terms of the content. I enjoyed Jane Austen, but my own life is in no way a pastoral British dramedy. Often brand new writers sound a little stodgy ha, writing in voices that aren’t their own and aren’t connected to the worlds and sounds they know best. Eventually we learn to “write what we know” and that is both liberating and confining. I had to embrace my environment and recognize that there is merit in the stories that are closest to me, and use that environment to develop my own sense of language. I’ve been up to that for a while now, and I’ve found that I can use the skills developed to reach further out, similar to the earliest stage of writing where things far away feel exciting and interesting. Perhaps now, I am better equipped to add connective tissue between the worlds in the distance and the ones I grew up in.

When a writer can view herself as not a singular anomaly but part of the larger scope of civilization, then every human event and relationship becomes fair game and just as interesting to look at as her individual history.

Suyi: LitHub describes Black Jesus as a collection of stories that “…follows ordinary people achieving extrasensory perception. The stories chronicle those who are burdened with undesirable superhuman abilities, but are resilient.” I’m keen on your thoughts as to what consists superhuman and extrasensory, especially taking into context, the collection’s back matter, which proclaims: “Their stories play with magic without the sparkle, glaring at the internal machinations of the human spirit.”

Venita: There is some kind of layer to the characters in the collection that often deal with unusual abilities, some more obvious than others or some more physical than psychological. Many of the characters are struck with a kind of psychotic split from how they should operate in the world and how they must operate in the world in order to remain whole and thrive. The so called powers are never intended to be tools to help them save the world, but they are conditions that represent all of the arbitrary obstacles humans develop. In “Scars” there are two sisters that can achieve intense sensory perceptions, a greater awareness of the careful systems and patterns of the external world but only when under extreme pain. That is to symbolize the idea that in order to understand this world truly a degree of sacrifice and discomfort is required, especially of women and youth. We don’t mature with ease. And though there is some humor in the book from time to time the characters are rarely if ever laughing; they walk on, not in despair or in delight but with an eyebrow kinked in suspicion.

Suyi: Your stories usually explore relationships, familial and otherwise. There’s a prevailing school of thought that relationships are the pedestals on which characterizations stand: the stronger they are, the more characters shine. How do you think this informs (or doesn’t) the way you approach your stories?

Venita: Every character exists only in relation to some other character or circumstance or place, which can also become a character. Stories need those points of opposing objectives and directions in order to really get good. I tell my students to come up with various kinds of relationships outside of the usual parent/sibling/lover combos. They have to come up with at least twenty or thirty. That means eventually we get peewee soccer coaches and their barbers or a sushi chef and her favorite patron. After that they have to establish objectives. All of life is subject to examination when we find how each part relates to another or how each part wants to relate to each other, versus how they really connect. I think this helps us view the world on a macro and micro scale, which can be nothing but helpful right when considering how many problems and inconsistencies and varying degrees of suffering we have to manage. Writers are narcissistic (especially fiction writers omg), but when a writer can view herself as not a singular anomaly but part of the larger scope of civilization, then every human event and relationship becomes fair game and just as interesting to look at as her individual history.

Suyi: There’s also a good dose of wit in your stories. Is that more you, as a person, or is that more an artistic choice, a tongue-in-cheek requirement to drive home the impact of your work?

Venita: I didn’t always know it was okay to be funny on the page. Humor seemed sort of beside the point to me in school. The stories we were taught were very serious. Literature was like Calculus, chalk dry but necessary for some reason. Shakespeare never seemed funny until a lot later in life then it became funny as hell at times. I discovered some contemporary writers in college that were legitimate authors but were downright hilarious. I’ve had young students of writing tell me that my work gives them permission to be funny or queer or brief (because of my affinity for flash). I had that same experience with Zadie Smith and George Saunders. They gave me permission to be witty I suppose. Even though I wanted to be Toni Morrison I could never be so frightening in my language, so instead of failing to be Toni Morrison I allowed myself to speak in a voice that was more natural. I’m lucky others find it entertaining.

There is something very mean at the core of it all, something bristly and terrifying to look at, a thing that inspires more funding for prisons instead of schools and bigger walls instead of charity…Equality in this nation is a still myth everywhere except on paper.

Suyi: Let’s talk about race for a second. As an African American, how much pressure do you feel to represent yourself and your community? As an African, I found I didn’t have to think about race when I was domiciled on the continent–post- and neo-colonialism are more pressing matters. But as my proximity to America increased, I found I started to think about race more. How much do you think the racial climate in America (and in publishing) frames and influences how and what you write?

Venita: America is unique indeed. I’ve had others close to me that were raised either away from the country or around mostly white people say something very similar. The race based tribalism and the irrational prejudices and animosity lingering from generations of unreconciled history of oppressor and oppressed are difficult to articulate without experiencing. This is an inescapable part of my existence; it informs my worldview as a citizen and a writer. My experience is not one of rage or resentment though because I recognize the senselessness and imaginary nature of race. James Baldwin mentioned that it isn’t really the duty of black people to fix this system because all will be lost until white people stop believing they are white. I’m paraphrasing of course, but I take that to mean that we are mired in a kind of psychosis that props up this dangerous and miserable system. There is something very mean at the core of it all, something bristly and terrifying to look at, a thing that inspires more funding for prisons instead of schools and bigger walls instead of charity. The reconciliation of that requires honesty and a shedding of archaic beliefs that still govern the choices and perceptions of many people in power (and those that are not). Equality in this nation is a still myth everywhere except on paper. There are comforting warm phrases like “everyone can achieve the American dream” and “hard work will always pay off” and “justice is blind” and some cliché about pulling yourself up by boot straps that I still find baffling. We tell each other these things from positions of privilege that keep the spectacular internal failings of our country dim and far far away, but those corrupted elements are demanding illumination more and more.

I’m curious about your experience with race as America presents it. What did you encounter that makes the presence of race so distinct?

Suyi: I mean, generally, I didn’t dig much into my identity as a Black person until now. Nigeria’s tribal tensions are usually centered around ethno-geography and religion, identities that aren’t right there on your skin for everyone to see. These differences inform my work in a way that’s more nuanced. The Nigerian worldview is more a potpourri of various identities, from ethnicity to religion to socio-economic background, amongst other things. In America, all of these feel tied up in race, almost as if by taking one look at you, people want to make conclusions, to label in all the ways that make them feel comfortable. The strain to represent this aspect of self, especially as an artist, feels much more in America.

Venita: That all sounds very familiar. The class differences are prominent, but the prejudgments here are rooted in superficial observations for sure. I’ve heard that a lot of middle class latin americans don’t vacation in America because they are often assumed to be poor or undocumented or in some way perceived as a violation just from a glance.

Suyi: Violation at a glance. I like how that sounds, even if I frown at what it means.
So, the Sonora Review is currently reading for our next issue, themed Desire. Do you want to tell us how you explore desire, in its various forms, in your stories?

Venita: Ohhhhhhh. I feel that desire is more about longing, desperation, obsession, the perpetual grasping for something wonderful despite all evidence to the contrary ha. Whatever drives our pursuit stems from desire, and that is the grand human condition right? We are in a perpetual state of want that keeps cycling over and over. There is something unsatisfying about satiation, but desire feels like something that lasts much longer in life. My stories tend to operate in the spaces in between our pivotal turns. Just like failure is a great catalyst for self-discovery, the beginning and end of things isn’t so important; stories are most interesting in that torturous space before the conclusion; that’s where real life happens, where we are most challenged and learn the greatest lessons, where we experience the deepest burn of desire.

Go to the uncomfortable places, the ones you can’t help but think about, the ones that worry and fascinate us. Trouble the waters.

Suyi: Wanna share what you’re currently working on?

Venita: I’ve been writing some speculative fiction that considers the many unnerving directions we might all go should we proceed on our collective trajectory in regards to the self-made cultural chasms and a kind of corporate manifest destiny. Comedies really. I still have a love of the short-short, so I write those as ideas come.

Suyi: I like how you mirror speculative fiction with comedies. Because, aren’t they really? Satire, one of its oldest forms, is literally using humor, irony, exaggeration or ridicule to expose and criticize. I should be taking notes, haha.

Venita: Oh man, humor is a great soothing technique for all kinds of trauma. Sometimes we run the risk of becoming the joke when we write so close to the pain that audiences far removed miss the point. The laughter is not healing or healthy but another layer of destruction. Let’s not do that!!!

Suyi: Okay! So, one last word for emergent writers?

Venita: Go to the uncomfortable places, the ones you can’t help but think about, the ones that worry and fascinate us. Trouble the waters.

Suyi Okungbowa is an MFA candidate in fiction at the University of Arizona. His short fiction and essays have appeared in Lightspeed, Fireside, Podcastle, The Dark, Ozy, Omenana and other magazines and anthologies. He tweets at @IAmSuyiDavies.