Open Wound Writing
Behind the Book: Writing on race and gender as a Black woman
Writing a book sucks. It’s a long, painful slog. You become cranky and depressed and stressed out. You become an unwashed ogre hunched over a cursed keyboard surrounded by crumpled candy wrappers. There are so many times that you think you can’t get through it. If you do manage to get through it, you swear you’ll never do it again. It is a wonder that any books get written at all.
I am not speaking in hyperbole. Writing books is the worst. Any writer I know and love feels the same way (if you are a writer friend of mine and you feel differently, you better keep that shit to yourself in interest of our friendship). But if you are a Black woman writing - especially if you are a Black woman trying to write about race and/or gender, the process is so much worse.
I knew from watching my sister-in-law write her first book that my first book was not going to be easy. I knew from writing essays on issues of race and gender for years that a book wasn’t going to be easier than a 1,000 word essay. But I was not prepared for the magnitude on how much more difficult it would be as a Black woman.
I had long been known for essays that talked about complex issues of race through a deeply personal lens. My goal has been to tie the statistics and headlines to our humanity and our lived experiences as Black people. I would often use personal anecdote to elaborate a point, or make clear how said point applied to real life. But there was a secret to that work: almost every personal anecdote I used was pulled from an event that I had pretty thoroughly processed already. Yes, that story from my childhood may be shocking and traumatic - my therapist thought so too in the many sessions we had discussing it over the years. That distance from the trauma allowed me to connect it to current day events without the combined waves of trauma drowning me in a sea of racist and sexist violence.
But in writing So You Want To Talk About Race, the chapters themselves dictated what personal stories went into the book. And many times the chapters needed experiences that had been long suppressed, and not at all processed. I tried very hard to avoid these stories. I could feel the pain rising up in me like bile and tried so hard to swallow it down. But it needed to come out. The book needed the parts of me that had lived this. And so I wrote it out.
I remember having to pause every two hundred words or so to just put my head on my desk. I remember having to sleep for hours after each personal story was finally written down. A few days before the book release I tried to give a reading of one of these particular chapters and I remember my throat closing shut. Unable to take in breath. Unable to get out words as tears filled my eyes. I remember feeling the pain in my throat for hours after.
Like the horrors of childbirth, after the pain and tears and bloating, the pushing and tearing, we writers get a strange amnesia. We have this beautiful thing we created in our hands. Wouldn’t it be great to make another? Surely the creation of something so beautiful couldn’t be as hard as we remember it. Surely the next one will be easier.
Reader, I really did think that writing MEDIOCRE: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America was going to be easier than SYWTTAR. I am at a loss now, even looking at the title, to explain why I thought that. But I will say in my defense, that I did not see 2020 coming. I wrote MEDIOCRE in the time of Trump, while reeling from a swatting attack on our home, then through a pandemic, through an uprising for Black lives, through a house fire. In the midst of all of this chaos, I would turn off the news and sit at my computer and pull up one of the many many folders I had dedicated to acts of genocide against Black and Native people.
I was not very far into this process when I started to feel sick. I wasn’t sleeping, I was anxious all of the time. I was randomly crying at seemingly nothing. I was in a constant state of hyper-vigilance. I had no sex drive. My hair was breaking off.
I went to my doctor convinced that I was entering into early menopause. My doctor asked me if anything stressful had been going on in my life lately. As I started listing events her eyes grew wider and wider.
“And what is it you’re writing about again?” she asked.
“The history of violent white male America,” I answered.
“So Ijeoma,” she said, looking a bit puzzled that I hadn’t made this connection yet, “You are a Black woman in America, who is currently being terrorized by white supremacists, in a time where all of the news stories are about more violence against Black people by white supremacists, and then you sit down to work and document more violence against Black people why white supremacists? And you don’t think that’s connected to how you’re feeling physically right now?”
“It’s been a stressful year, sure. But I’m pretty sure I have menopause or something.”
I bet you can guess which of us was right and which of us was wrong.
Writing isn’t therapy. Writing pokes at all of your wounds to see what is inside, with little care for your pain threshold. Writing may help heal readers, but it will often leave you bleeding harder than you were before.
In So You Want To Talk About Race, I wrote: “It is very hard to survive as a woman of color in this world, and I remember saying once that if I stopped to feel, really feel, the pain of the racism I encountered, I would start screaming and never ever stop.”
But that is what writing on race and gender often requires. It requires us to fully open up to the pain of what we experience in the violent world of white patriarchy.
Every day that I sit down to write, I feel the burden of it. The dread of what is to come. And yet I still sit here. I still write. And I feel privileged to be able to do so.
Perhaps it is the difference between the unknown deadly illness that eats away at you in silence, and the illness diagnosed. The diagnosis doesn’t cure it. Nothing might. It might end you either way. But not naming it will guarantee that it will kill you. And it will guarantee that you will spend your last days wondering why your body has turned on you and where you begin and your illness ends. But if you name it and you fight it with everything you have and it kills you anyway, at least you know what did it. And every day that you are alive you at least know you are alive and that this thing that is hurting you is the death. You are not doing this to yourself.
Writing about race and gender in America does not cure racism or sexism in America and it does not cure the wounds I have encountered and continue to encounter from it. But I know what it is that is hurting me. I am not afraid to look over my entire self, to gaze deeply into wounds and know that the enemy I seek to fight is not myself. I know what is hurting me, so I can begin to figure out how to fight it, and so I can begin to care for the parts of me that have been harmed.
Cry all of the time. I tear up during almost every single talk I give, even though I’ve given well over a hundred at this point. I cry when I read my work. And while I refuse to perform that pain (and no longer give readings of SYWTTAR to majority white audiences), I also refuse to act as if that pain is not a part of me as worthy of love and fresh air and sunlight as any other part of me. I insist on entering every room as a whole Black woman, and writing has helped enable me to do so.
My pain is mine to do with what I will. And in a world that will begrudge a Black woman just about anything, to turn part of my pain into beauty and into healing for other Black women is part of my resistance.
It is vital to my mental health when writing to remember who I’m writing for. I am often writing to many different groups of people. I’m often writing to whomever believes that systemic racism is bad. I’m often writing to whomever believes we might have a problem with patriarchy. But I am always writing for Black women. At the end of the day, I need my work, and the pain that it often magnifies, to serve Black women. I need my work to protect Black women. I need my work to help Black women feel less alone. I need my work to help undo the gaslighting of Black women. And where my work accomplishes that is where I measure success. It is amazing how much we can endure when we act out of love.
My healing is outside of this. My healing is hard work to be done elsewhere. But my writing reminds me that I am a person worthy of that healing.
I am more than trauma. I am more than pain. When I started openly facing the pain caused by white patriarchy, I became more open to everything else within me as well. If I write for Black women and I am a Black woman, then trust when I say that these are not the only stories that I have to tell. And every story, because it comes from me, will be an act of love.
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