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Kalamu ya Salaam's information blog

Kalamu ya Salaam:
When did you decide that you really wanted to be a writer and did being the daughter of a writer have anything to do with it?

Kiini Ibura Salaam:
Being a daughter of a writer didn’t consciously have anything to do with it in terms of “because my father is a writer, I’m going to do this.”

But I definitely think all the exposure to art and artists, because it wasn’t just exposure to writers. We were also exposed to visual artists. That made me feel like it was natural, expressing myself in a certain way. Being a writer just wasn’t even something on my radar. In fact, when I went to college, I was a computer science major going in because I was like, well, people need jobs and everybody has computers and that’ll be a good thing to do. That lasted one semester because it was not me.

I then went straight into being an English literature major but I didn’t want to teach. I still wasn’t thinking about writing as a career. Writing was part of the environment that we grew up in because of all the art that you and mama had in the house. When I finally started publishing, it was because a classmate had an experience when she was on MARTA in Atlanta reading one of Haki Madhubuti’s books and a White man literally slapped it out of her hand. It was this big physical altercation and I couldn’t believe had happened, so I wrote a story about it as a way to deal with this crazy thing. As you know it was published in The Black Collegian.

 

Getting that published definitely made me think like, oh, this is a thing, although me writing it still wasn’t like, oh, I’m being a writer. It was just me dealing with something that happened. And I wrote it and you told me, you should put that out somewhere for publication. You gave me encouragement to do it. Being a writer is something that came out of the environment you set at home. And then having that publication early on definitely made me think, oh, okay, there’s something there.

 

Kalamu ya Salaam:
So, do you think you would’ve been a writer had you not been published early on? I know I’m asking a difficult question to answer.

Kiini Ibura Salaam:
Yeah, that is a difficult question to answer. I think it definitely gave me a lot of confidence. So life is long and I’ve been interacting with writing in so many different ways. It’s hard to imagine that I would not have been a writer, but I know for sure that encouragement gave me a certain confidence to say without a question or a shadow of a doubt that I’m a writer.

 

Kalamu ya Salaam:
Here’s another difficult question. As you became, or as you decided to be a writer, was there a point where you were looking over your shoulder and saying, I don’t know if I want to do what my father does or do I want to compare myself to him?

Kiini Ibura Salaam:
No, I never compared myself to you. I think part of it is that you were doing so many different things. A lot of work happened before I knew what all you were doing as a journalist, as a playwright, as a poet. I wasn’t doing any of those things.

As you know, you were my first editor. You would read the things that I wrote, you would make suggestions. You were always very encouraging. So the connection is there, but I don’t think I ever compared myself. You had a very specific path that I think was connected to you reading your poetry, your journalism, you going out and interviewing people, all that stuff.

I was very different. I always was like, why do you need to know anything about me? Read the words. I just wanted to put the words out there, not be a personality and not be someone that people were coming to see. I’m not saying that was your motivation. I’m just saying that there was an holistic applications to the work you were doing at Ahidiana and as an activist. Your writing was so much a part of who you were and how you were living and I think I was taking a different approach. The writing was my expression and I just wanted people to leave me alone. So I didn’t see myself as following, or replicating, or comparing.

 


Kalamu ya Salaam:

You approached writing as a profession?

Kiini Ibura Salaam:
I don’t know that I approached it as a profession. I think after a while, after I started publishing on a regular basis, then I started thinking about it more in that light. The word I would use is “expression”. You write a story here, you write a story there, I wanted it to become a profession, but that wasn’t my motivation, if that makes any sense.

 

Kalamu ya Salaam:
Right. That wasn’t the goal. Your goal was not to become a professional writer when you first started. It was to express whatever you were thinking of experiences you had.

Kiini Ibura Salaam:
Yeah. And over time as it grew and as it was working and I was getting published more and more, then I was sort of like, oh, okay, well maybe I should think about this a little bit more broadly. Career stuff just comes up.You write something, then you have to do a reading, and then people keep asking you to do things, and things are happening.

 

Kalamu ya Salaam:
Which leads to you deciding to become involved in the profession of writing as an editor, working at Scholastic Magazine. Was that at the point that you decided that writing is what you want to do or was writing something you did because you had to make a living and working at Scholastic became a way to make a living?

Kiini Ibura Salaam:
Yeah. Actually, Baba, before I answer that, I’m curious about your trajectory. Did you decide at a certain point that you wanted to be a writer, or did it just happen? How did that all work out for you?

 

Kalamu ya Salaam:
I decided I wanted to be a writer after I read and was influenced by Langston Hughes. In seventh grade, I had gotten into photography. In eighth grade, I’m sitting in the class and the English teacher, Mrs. O. E. Nelson says, “Put your books away. I want you to hear something.” I was glad to do it, I didn’t like English although I read a lot. And she puts on a recording of Langston Hughes reciting his poetry and one of the poems was about a woman whose husband died and she went around Harlem begging for money to be able to give a proper burial to her husband. And the last line of the poem was, “A poor man ain’t got no business to die.” That just struck me so hard. I went to the main library and asked the librarian for a book by Langston Hughes.

I expected to see, one, maybe two books of Langston Hughes stuff.  There was literally a whole shelf of Langston Hughes’s work. And I said, oh, I guess that’s what it means to be a writer. He wrote two autobiographies, The Big Sea and I Wonder As I Wander. Also he did anthologies of Black literature. He traveled all around the world. He corresponds with writers in South Africa, in the Caribbean and in South America and what have you.

That was it for me. I joined the school newspaper. I’m at a little school in New Orleans and we get a second place prize from Columbia University in New York City. So that was it. And I was also into Black literature at that period, reading a lot of people, among them, John Oliver Killens, whom I met later on. And eventually, Amiri Baraka, Haki and so many other people along the way, but it was Langston Hughes that got me started.

Kiini Ibura Salaam:
Had you done any writing before that moment where you were influenced?

 

Kalamu ya Salaam:
No.

Kiini Ibura Salaam:
So you literally started after this exposure to Langston Hughes?

 

Kalamu ya Salaam:
Once I jumped in writing influenced by Langston Hughes, who was my inspiration, I was just all the way into it. I did every everything I could think of.

Kiini Ibura Salaam:
That was interesting.

 

Kalamu ya Salaam:
I was at Rivers Frederick Junior High School, seventh, eighth and ninth grade. And I always had a camera from seventh grade on, always. You’ve seen me with a camera before. And that was my first love but writing was what I wanted to do.

One of the first things I got published on a national basis was a piece that was a cross between fiction and reality. It was about a Second Line I attended and saw Jerome Smith at the Second Line.

That story was published. It might have been “Cutting The Body Loose”. I was very fortunate because that publication inspired me to do other things. I also became a founding editor at The Black Collegian Magazine.

Later Sonia Sanchez did an anthology called We Be Word Sorcerers, a collection of short fiction. Black World was happening at that time. It was Negro Digest first and then Black World and then it became First World. I was fortunate in that I found publishing outlets and that didn’t happen for many writers. I didn’t know getting published nationally was rather rare at the time.

So I was always in a sense getting encouraged to write. A big break, of course, was joining the Free Southern Theater in 1968 after I was discharged from the army. By the way, when I was in the army I subscribed to The Village Voice newspaper and to Liberator Magazine, and later to The Black Scholar.

While I was with The Free Southern Theatre, we went all over the place doing the plays. In fact, I was known as a playwright first. My plays were published, noteworthy was the massive anthology of Black drama, Black Theatre USA.

I stopped writing fiction for publication at that point. At FST we not only did plays and we also did poetry because we could perform the poetry as well as the plays. That’s the way it happened. And it’s interesting to me and I don’t think most people realize that neither you nor I started out wanting to be a commercial writer. Writing was just something we wanted to do. And then the opportunities came along.

 

Kiini Ibura Salaam:
I think that’s interesting that we both have this moment of achieving something with writing. You talked about the prize, the school newspaper prize. And I’m talking about getting published in The Black Collegian. So these are accolades that made such an impact on us. We both felt there’s value in what I’m doing and it became fuel.

You were asking about editing. I definitely started doing that. I mean, I like editing. As you know we did a magazine when we were in college. Me and my friends did a magazine called Red Clay and there was a bunch of editing and decision making around that.

Editing is definitely a creative outlet that I enjoy doing. The editing I do for my job, it’s not fiction, it’s not creative works. It’s not the same as novels or short stories. I’m creating materials for the classroom. So I still get to envision something, to question what’s the best? The same type of problem solving that you would do for writing no matter what kind of writing it is. What’s the best way to communicate this? How is this most impactful? What are people getting? So I do feel like I continue to strengthen my editorial skills, even though on my day job I’m not using them for creative writing. But one component of the job is that we have contests. We have contests for kids to make up inventions. We have contests for kids to solve math problems and explain their thinking and we have essay contests.

Scholastic also has the art and writing awards, which a lot of writers and artists that are known later in their careers won those awards. So it’s really interesting, just to hear you talk about being published and winning an award making an impact on you and winning an award definitely made an impact on me. Early recognition can make a difference for you thinking of yourself as a writer or giving you that energy. Because like you said, not everybody’s going to get published early.

All writers, no matter what your story is, you’re going to have to believe in yourself. It’s for most of the time, you’re your own fuel. And so anything that can give you the boost to do that is like a major contribution to you continuing on.

 

Kalamu ya Salaam:
Some of my work although not all of it, not even the majority of it, is speculative fiction. A lot of your work is speculative fiction. Was there any of my fiction that you read that you thought influenced you one way or another.

Kiini Ibura Salaam:
No, I didn’t know that you wrote fiction before. I knew your poetry. I knew your essays and I knew that you were a journalist. Of course, I knew that you were a playwright, but I don’t think I ever read any of your plays. I knew about the music journalism. I think the thing that’s more informative for me than the work itself is just having a creative life, and that being normal, and that being something that’s pursuable and possible. That interacting with people and creative expression, and the fruits of your own imagination can be the foundation for a professional life. I think that’s more influential for me than the actual work itself. Because I didn’t even know that you wrote fiction until later.

When I went to Readercon and someone was there and they had their Dark Matter book and they asked me to sign it and I saw that you had signed it, probably many years before. So they were bringing that copy around for years. And I was like, oh, this is one of the things Baba was doing when he was leaving home. These things started to take shape for me as an adult. As a child, I just knew that you’re going somewhere, you’re doing something. I don’t know what you’re doing. But I do remember two things that happened. First, when you got me the internship at the National Black Arts Festival and second, you did A Nation of Poets event at the Black Arts Festival, I was there for that.

And so I got to see an event that you produced and I saw you perform and other people perform. That was eye opening. Oh, okay. This is something you’re doing. And then years later me seeing your name was in this book and I was like, oh, this is one of the places he was when he went away to do his writing stuff. So it didn’t have a strong shape for me. I didn’t know. I just knew that, that was your life, but I didn’t know what it meant. And as I had more experiences I began to learn what it meant. But I started my journey separately and then I just got informed along the way.

 

Kalamu ya Salaam:
Right. So in one sense you became a writer without knowing directly that I was a writer.

Kiini Ibura Salaam:
No, I knew you were a writer, I just didn’t know what it meant. It didn’t have form and shape.

 

Kalamu ya Salaam:
Okay. So I’m saying the writing itself was simply something you decided you wanted to do. You knew I wrote, but you weren’t necessarily influenced to be a writer because I wrote.

Kiini Ibura Salaam:
No, not because you wrote, but as I said, you spent a lot of years encouraging me to write and to be a writer. And that was more of an influence on me. You edited my work. You encouraged me to put things out for publication. We talked about writing. All that support work that you’ve done for kids as a teacher with Students At The Center and as a mentor at NOMMO, all the work you did helping to develop other writers. You gave me things to read. You gave me feedback on my writing. You encouraged me to publish all those things. What you did made a huge difference. And I think almost everything I wrote at the beginning went through you. At a certain point I was like, I could do this on my own. But the big influence was the encouragement, and sort of talking through everything and support. You rememmber?

 

Kalamu ya Salaam:
Yeah, I do remember. My thing is I wanted all of you all to do whatever you wanted to do and I would encourage you however I could be of assistance. The point I’m getting to is that in one sense, you are doing fiction and you didn’t even know I wrote fiction.

Just like I influence you, you have influenced me also. And your generation has influenced me. And that’s one thing that I always remember that many of the people of your generation influenced me a lot. I was embraced by them as an elder, a teacher, an example, or what have you. For example, your friend from your days at Spelman and the AU Center, Saul Williams and I were good friends–and I shouldn’t say good friends, I might be overstating it. But we knew each other and I remember he came to town once to do a program. He called me, said, “Can we get together?” I never felt estranged from young people as some older folk did.

Kiini Ibura Salaam:
And I think you’re unique in that way. I think you and mama have a little bit of a different attitude about who young people should be in terms of hierarchy and stuff like that. And I think it allows you to, like you said, get inspired by young people and also touch young people in a different way. People listen differently to you when they know how much you value them. And that’s something that comes up a lot. I made a post about this. Your birthday, we made a board and some of your students were saying how much they valued you actually taking their work seriously and telling them what was valuable about what they were doing.

A long time ago when Kina was getting married, Mama Melba told her to listen for the gold in her partner’s communication. That is not going to always be easy, but I love that, to listen for the gold. Your willingness to listen for the gold in what people are doing, no matter if it’s a first time writer, or a veteran writer. And you be able to challenge them on it, question them and then encourage them. You always did all those things for everybody. I think it’s a loop where you’re receiving, but you’re also giving and in your space you’re open to receiving. It makes that relationship possible between you and younger people and younger writers.

 

Kalamu ya Salaam:
Did you choose to be a fiction writer? Was that a conscious or did that just happen?

Kiini Ibura Salaam:
I would say it just happened. And I found something I’d written some time ago, like some kind of fairytale retelling, but then it turned out that somebody was a witch and a witch did this or whatever. So I was surprised when I saw it because I was like, oh, okay. So I’ve always been writing just weird stuff, but I don’t know if you remember, I was writing a lot of personal essays too maybe 10, 15 years ago, which I enjoyed doing. I think I’m reaching for a creative format that will be some hybrid something. But yeah, I think fiction comes naturally to me. I think it’s interesting to me and secular fiction makes it more interesting to me than telling a straightforward story. I like the twists and turns of imagining something else that’s happening beyond what you can see. So I think it just happened because it’s just my natural area of interest.

 

Kalamu ya Salaam:
You have for whatever reason, tried to be more than just a writer that people read. You set up workshops, you blog with suggestions for activities. I don’t want to say organize self-help events, because that’s not what it really is.

Kiini Ibura Salaam:
Yeah. Support activities, some kind of way.

 

Kalamu ya Salaam:
Yeah. It’s setting up some kind of community for writers. And I think that is the politics of your period. A lot of people may not initially recognize that as politics, but that’s your way of making a political contribution. And I’m not talking about taking a membership in this data or the other organization. I’m saying, that becomes your life commitment to how are you going to develop the environment within which you live? And that’s a conscious commitment. That doesn’t just happen and it’s not something that all of your peers are doing.

Kiini Ibura Salaam:
Yeah. I mean, I don’t know that I can accurately say what it is and what it isn’t, and where it comes from and where it doesn’t come from. But I do think that there’s so much pain wrapped up in the creative process for so many people and it’s a shame. It’s a shame that people be like: my work’s not good enough, I’ll never be able to A, B, C and D, I keep getting rejected because it’s not worthy. There’s all this stuff. And I guess if I want to put a political lens on it, I can widen it to commercialism and the general dissatisfaction with the human being as do a lot of people who say that by keeping us into dis-satisfaction with ourselves, we’re always going to buy something or seek something to improve ourselves. And that leads into commercialism. I’m not skinny enough. I don’t have the right clothes. I don’t know. I don’t have the answers inside of me. I’m not good enough, all those things.

And it hurts me because I think creativity is something that we’re all born with. It’s just innate. Kids just create. I remember Ua, my daughter, when we were in Mexico and there was this Japanese teacher. I don’t know why, but he taught abstract painting to children. That was his thing. And Ua was vibing in there. She was three, she loved it. She would do her little abstract paintings. The teacher would encourage her. It was beautiful. But once she realized that there was such a thing as representational painting, she quit being an artist. And it’s not that she doesn’t have any artistic instincts, it’s the judgment of what it should or shouldn’t be.

And I think that sums up human beings in general, in ways that we probably don’t even know. I remember I won some award when I was in college and a classmate starting looking at me differently, speaking with awe in her voice. I was like what is happening right now? I’m the same person I was yesterday. And now I’ve won this award and I’m some other rarefied thing. That’s just weird to me. I like to demystify things. Yeah I’m published but that doesn’t mean I don’t have to self-manage myself when I sit down to write. That doesn’t mean I don’t procrastinate, doesn’t mean that my work is more valuable than your work.

 

Kalamu ya Salaam:
I always was conscious of supporting you in whatever you wanted to do, rather than encouraging you to do what I did. From what I’m hearing you say, that was not common. Because most people, and this has nothing to do with just being writers, it could be in the medical field, business field, whatever.

Far too many adults try to tell their children what to do, as though they can direct their children, do this, or do that, do something, so forth and so on. And I think that’s a mistake. That’s a mistake. That’s part of what kills creativity, because you can never be what your parent was because it’s a different time period. Many parents do not understand that.

 

You are exceptional in yourself and what you can do as whomever you are, but somebody else is no less exceptional or can be no less exceptional, I should say. Because some-

Kiini Ibura Salaam:
And I’m inspired when I see people doing amazing stuff. I’m inspired when I see somebody write something amazing, or sing something amazing, or pull off some kind of physical, whatever it is. You know what I mean? It’s inspiring to me.

Beyond that, what’s more important is seeing what’s next, seeing what else you have to express, seeing what else is in you? I have to write another novel for adults. I have not published a novel for adults. I have a few that I’ve written. I have to do that. Because I have to see what happens. That’s something that’s just kept me going over the years, years when I couldn’t write. When I say, okay, I can’t die without trying. I could try and fail, that’s okay. But if I don’t try, if I don’t see what I have in me, if I don’t see what I can produce then I’m not living up to my potential as a human being. And I think the creativity and the creative expression is the fullness of it. Obviously, we want people to read it. We want people to see it. But one of my favorite things to do is to go to a retrospective of a visual artist and see their journey and know that if they didn’t start off doing whatever they started off doing, they would never get to the thing that everybody knows them for. And they’re famous or whatever, but they wouldn’t have gotten there if they didn’t keep going to see what else they had inside them. So that’s what I think it’s about.

 

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