Thursday, March 10, 2011
On the Writing Life: Questions for Author Niama Williams
Dr. Niama L. Williams is an author, speaker, intuitive counselor and homeless advocate who has written 11 books and will be launching a poetry series to honor the homeless in Philadelphia during the summer of 2011.
When did you begin writing and what was your first motivation?
Well, there was the 5th grade poem about loneliness and death at the top of which my teacher at the time wrote “Good!” and then there were the multiple notebooks of poems my middle school English teacher suffered through with virtually no complaints. To this day I write grammatically correct sentences because of this patient, devoted woman (thank God for Ms. Brown!). I’d have to say though that my commitment to writing as a profession and vocation began in the late eighties when I worked as a library assistant at the University of California at Irvine. I knew then, as I militantly read Toni Morrison, Toni Cade Bambara, and Alice Walker at the Information Desk between helping patrons, that I wanted to create work my aunt the day worker could read and decipher and that would help her face the realities of her work and her life.
I believe in the commitment of the Black Arts Movement artists; that we as Black writers must create work that challenges our audience and equips them with the tools to face meeting Mr. Charlie, whatever color he may be, every day. Meet him and all that he represents yet survive, thrive, achieve and change our conditions—for the better.
You often blend deeply personal themes with sociological and political references. How do your lived experiences and world views influence your writing style?
I wish I had a cogent, logical and rational explanation for the style of writing that pours out of my pen. I thank God every day for Toni Cade Bambara’s THE SALT EATERS, which convinced me it was alright to be a writer between forms who did something a bit unusual. I think Nikki Giovanni’s essays had something to do with it too.
I can only tell you that the personal is extremely relevant in my writing because how we meet the world, how we process what happens to us and the events and circumstances we create through our thoughts, plans, and feelings; how we deal with all of that I only understand and process through my writing. I write memoir and personal essay not because I think my life is so important; I write memoir because I have been through several rungs of hell, and I want to save others who are survivors some of the angst, mistakes, and calamities that I have endured. I want to show others one method of surviving and thriving; I want them to know they are not crazy to react, think or feel about something the way that they do, that someone else feels exactly the same way and she is rational.
I interact intimately with the world, including the world of film and television; I think Eliot would be proud of the way I weave in cultural references with his reverence for the inclusion of history. I do that one because it is unconscious and two because I want readers to have fun devouring my books and poems; I want them to catch references and laugh out loud or go, hmmmmmm. I want certain things in my work to be familiar because I cover some scary territory and those bedrocks of comfort along the way are important.
What form of writing do you believe that your voice is most powerful in, poetry or fiction?
Arrrgggghhhh! I wish, wish I could claim being a writer of fiction! The best I can do is claim memoir, poetry, and personal essay. I love good fiction, but writing is not my forte. I call my longer prose works novels because they tell a story, but in a very unconventional manner. You will pick up one of my novels and you may find a short, essay, poem, film critique or discussion of a television show all within 100 pages. I’d love to be artsy and call it avant garde, but the reality is in the midst of all that stuff lurks the thread of a story and I am counting on you to find and follow it.
Samuel Delany thinks I don’t write worth a damn, but I think there is a hint of laziness as well as a desire for my readers, like Eliot wanted of his readers, to dig a bit for the relevance and common thread. He wanted his readers to work a bit because he cared so much about history and culture; he was terrified of the old world dying through lack of knowledge. He also loved to pack his work with the occasional inside joke for his friends.
I want my readers to do a bit of work, but I also want them to have fun. To have their chests puff out when I make mention of the tv series Brimstone and they know what I’m talking about; to nod wisely when I refer to the conspiracy theorist cop on SVU who reminisces about the young girl in jeopardy on his block growing up whose dire situation led him to serve where and how he does.
Who are some of your major literary influences? Which writers challenge and confound you the most?
I love me some T. S. Eliot. When I discovered him, I read “Prufrock” and “The Waste Land” and all of the references and notes Southam provides in that wonderful book of his. I then read every biographical essay I could about him because there is that part of me that wishes to be “across the pond” and never return to American shores. I loved that he became the quintessential Englishman though his birth and upbringing made him as American as they come. I also love the deep, makes you struggle to understand it erudition of his work and the desire beneath it that culture and cultural references not die. I think that love for tradition and the preservation of tradition comes from the love I felt and experienced from my grandparents and my mother. You loved old people and you respected them because they knew more than you did and if you were lucky, they might tell you something that could save your ass one day.
To say I like the idea of blending the old and antiquated into the new as Eliot so brilliantly does, with a level of artistry and craft (his similies, metaphors, symbolism, etc.) beyond compare, well, I give myself away and indulge in understatement.
I simply adore with a healthy dose of “loving fan” because there is consistent artistry and craft in their work as well Toni Morrison (THE BLUEST EYE, the best novel ever written), Alice Walker, no equal to THE SALT EATERS anywhere, no equal in hilarity to the “Sort of Preface” to GORILLA MY LOVE (Toni Cade Bambara); when is John Edgar Wideman going to win the Nobel ….
As a professor of English, what are three of your desert island books? Which titles would you recommend for young aspiring writers of color?See, this is why interviewers always want to kick me in the head; I anticipate the next question. On a desert island I would need The Bible, THE SALT EATERS, GORILLA MY LOVE, THE COLOR PURPLE, THE BLUEST EYE, THE TEMPLE OF MY FAMILIAR, DAMBALLAH and every one of the original Sherlock Holmes stories written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. If I were comprising a list for young writers of color, I would add a couple by Sherman Alexie (THE LONE RANGER AND TONTO FISTFIGHT IN HEAVEN or the one about the serial killer) and THE HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG by Andre Dubus, III. A dash of Robert Hayden too, so we don’t forget our elders, and James Baldwin’s THE FIRE NEXT TIME so we see how a Black man can write like the most brilliant scholar breathing and still not get his props. Who studies Baldwin? No one. No book-length serious scholarship according to one of my sources. Shameful.
For more information on Niama Williams, keep an eye on her blogs and Facebook pages: