Author, professor and academic Emily Bernard answers questions about storytelling, her writing process and the real-life experiences behind the essays in her latest collection, Black Is the Body.
In your introduction to Black Is the Body, you quote the author Zora Neale Hurston. Did her artistic legacy inform or shape the overall narrative of your collection? And if not, who are some of the writers that helped solidify your vision?
Zora Neale Hurston’s 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, as well as her autobiography Dust Tracks on a Road, excited and inspired me when I first read them many years ago. Throughout her career, Hurston was writing against the grain and defying expectations of what a woman writer—what a woman in general—was supposed to be doing. Their Eyes Were Watching God looks like a love story, but it is really about a woman learning to tell the story of her life. I read it when I was very young, and the deep lesson of that book didn’t occur to me until much later. I didn’t realize how much and how precisely Their Eyes had influenced me and shaped what I was going for in my own book until almost the very end of writing the final draft. What I love about Zora Neale Hurston is her ability and willingness to surprise, which is something she does a lot in her autobiography. Good writing, I think, should surprise the reader. When we get what we expect, we don’t have a chance to consider life in a different way, which is what all meaningful stories should enable us to do.
As both a writer and a reader, how does the act of storytelling provide freedom or resolution from trauma—both personal and generational?
As a child, I watched my mother, who was a poet, use writing as a way to remember, understand and master the past. For me, writing is freedom. Freedom from pain, rage and memories that haunt me. Writing enables me to discover resources of strength that I didn’t even know I had.
I don’t believe that storytelling really provides relief from trauma. I used to think it did. I actually thought writing “Scar Tissue” would dilute, if not completely obliterate, the trauma that I describe in the essay. Years after its publication, however, I was in yet another emergency room facing down another bout of adhesions in my bowel. It had been 10 years since the last hospitalization; I truly thought that I had written myself well. I was wrong. So, I no longer think that writing can provide absolute liberation from pain. What it can do is enable a person to learn to live with pain and transform it into something meaningful.
In the essay “Scar Tissue,” you write, “If my story is about pain, it’s also about rage. Rage is a physical condition.” How does rage, in the aftermath of a tragedy or violent situation, form a lasting scar in either the physical or emotional sense?
Rage is a symptom of helplessness. It’s normal, it’s predictable, it’s human, but it’s not productive in the long run. It can overtake you if you’re not careful and corrode you to the core. Rage helped guide me to the writing of “Scar Tissue,” it’s true. But in the end, I consider the essay a kind of love letter to the entire experience of being a victim of random violence. It is my attempt to honor the rage and offer it a civilized, humane place to live. Writing is a means of confronting rage with love.
Many of your essays touch upon pain—what it means to sit with it and also deal with it head-on. If pain can be weaponized against a victim, how can it be used as a tool on behalf of the victim to seek justice?
One thing I wanted to explore over the course of writing this book is how pain can be utilized, maybe not so much in a search for justice (which is ultimately so subjective) but in a search for truth. As for me, I was satisfied with what happened to the man who stabbed me, but I know that other victims felt that he should have suffered more. Personally, I felt acutely aware that there would never be true vindication because the damage caused by his knife could never be corrected, not really. I did not feel triumphant at his sentencing; I did not feel angry at him. I still don’t. He was sick; 25 years later, that still feels to me like the beginning and the end of the part of the story that involves him. My own pain is my own story. Ultimately, the degree to which it defines me is something I cannot control. Above all, I believe it is important not to let pain shame or silence you.
Your essay “Teaching the N-Word” is a powerful recollection of your attempts to get your all-white honors class at the University of Vermont to say the word in question and the complicated social politics surrounding the word. When responding to Sarah, a student who refuses to say the word, you tell the class, “I’d just like to remind you all that just because a person refuses to say ‘nigger,’ that doesn’t mean that person is not racist.” How does the concept of “wokeness” or “being woke” contribute to racial politics? What does it reveal about our current political landscape and the way in which America handles race?
I am suspicious of handy terms like “woke” which, like “diversity,” looks like an answer to a problem—the problem of racism—when in fact there is no easy solution. Racism is durable; like a cancer, it adapts to its environment and changes shape over time. Language can’t cure a sickness; racism won’t be eradicated by a term like woke or any term at all. I like that the term has gotten people to aspire to be alive to the problem, but I think there is a huge possibility that becoming fluent in the language of wokeness can lead a person to a sense of self-satisfaction that does nothing toward actual social justice. In so far as wokeness seems to suggest a state of being, it is the polar opposite of action, which is the only way change can be achieved. True and lasting change happens incrementally, through the mundane, puny choices that we make every day.
“Teaching the N-Word” is a study in ambivalence, which is why I tell it in fragments. The spaces in between the episodes are there to give the reader room to imagine and insert their own experiences. Even though the books and articles I bring into class make it impossible to ignore the “n-word,” I am impressed by the students who have a philosophy about why they won’t say it, Sarah in particular. It looks like I want the students to say the word out loud, and maybe I do, but I desperately do not want them to do that at the same time. So much is going on inside of me that I cannot share with the class because I worry it will conflict with the linear aim of teaching, which is to make sure my students have something concrete to take away at the end of class. In my writing, I feel free to tell stories rather than give lectures. Readers will use them how they see fit.
In the essay “Interstates,” food is mentioned as both a way to access familial memories and a way to unite people across different cultures. If there was one dish specific to your family that represents you, what would it be? Why?
I am a little sheepish about answering this question since I still don’t cook well. When I do cook, I wind up serving meals that have no personality. I don’t as much make meals as put a bunch of different ingredients together. Despite my distant relationship with cooking, it is in kitchens and around dining tables that I have experienced heartiest and most intimate relationships of my life. I miss my mother every day, but most piercingly around the holidays. I miss her Thanksgivings; I miss watching her prepare squash casserole with onions and sour cream, and green beans with bacon and almonds. For New Year’s Eve, she would create the Caribbean meals my father grew up with, like ambrosia with Cool Whip and souse, which is pickled pig’s feet. These days, my daughters and I agree that my husband’s broccoli cavatelli brings us all to the table faster than any other meal he prepares for us.
A combination of guilt and stubbornness sends me back to the kitchen periodically, despite my culinary insecurities. The problem is, when I get close to mastering a dish, my husband comes around with his kitchen magic and turns it into something a million times better than what I could come up with.
The title essay, “Black Is the Body,” begins with the line, “My brown daughters became black when they were six years old.” Can you tell me a bit more about what that line means to you? Looking back at your own personal history, was there ever a similar moment for you?
That line captures, for me, what it means to raise my daughters and witness the profound and yet utterly mundane process of their growing up. Writing that essay was a way of accounting for the experience of watching them truly become their own people, making sense of the world in their own language. Eavesdropping as they revealed to each other their growing understanding of what race meant left me feeling exhilarated and sad at the same time. I felt I hadn’t done my job to guide them into the world of race. I had left them to figure it out on their own. But the lessons my elders tried to share with me during my childhood I rejected out of hand immediately, if only because I didn’t want to be told how to understand myself; it was as if they were trying to tell me how to feel about my own body. In the end, in not doing my job maybe I’ve done my job, at least as I see it, which is to allow them the space to define themselves.
The essay “Her Glory” discusses the politics of black hair and what it means to have so-called “good hair.” How does the concept of “good hair” relate to respectability politics and the policing of the black, female body?
It floors me, how many stories are contained on the tops of our heads, particularly when it comes to women, and even more particularly for black women. “Good hair” is a shorthand that I try to avoid using because of the way that it seems to condone an unforgiving standard of beauty. It is a concept that menaced me during my adolescence, another way I knew my body was being evaluated by others. Regrettably, as I got older, I started to make direct connections between the way I put my hair together and the way I thought others would perceive me as a black woman. I’ve recently begun getting my hair braided in cornrows, and it’s a completely liberating experience, more than I expected it to be. For me, it’s a way of turning my back of the burden of respectability politicking.
How do you practice the concept of self-care as a black woman, a writer and an academic?
I think I’m pretty bad at self-care, and I admire others who practice it well. I tend to run headlong into scary things, the same way I do in “Scar Tissue.” I can’t seem to help myself. It is the goal of my life to find a balance, to practice recklessness in a smart and safe way. Writing allows me to lean into fear and pain in a way that is productive and enriching, not only for myself but for other people, or at least I hope so.
What is one major misconception about being a writer that you wish people would understand?
There is no magic to writing, only labor. Well, there’s always magic involved in anything that comes about as the result of love, but just like true love, there are no shortcuts on the road to good writing. It takes time.
Writing is rewriting. It’s a simple lesson, and it’s a lesson that I have to keep relearning every time to sit down to write anything. It is only after I get sentences down on the page that a story begins to emerge, and only then after I’ve made my way through multiple drafts. For me, the terror and anguish that accompany almost every writing effort diminish only after I’ve put in the work. The good news is that if you stick with it, the labor itself can turn out to be the most satisfying part of all.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of Black Is the Body.
Author photo by Stephanie Seguino