Acclaimed author Savala Nolan talks to Hannah Hutchings-Georgiou about her latest collection of essays, Don’t Let It Get You Down (The Indigo Press), navigating interstitial spaces and identities, the ubiquity of violence to women, imagination as a vital tool to access African American history and life writing as a form of cartography for readers.
Content Warning: Please note this interview contains references to sexual violence, racial and colonial violence, and postpartum trauma.
Don’t Let It Get You Down is powerfully born in the interstitial spaces – the ‘betwixt and between’ as you say in your essay ‘Nearly, Not Quite’ – of Black and white, rich and poor, fat and thin. You discuss the difficulties of straddling the line between composite identities and experiences, but the collection also harnesses the liminal as a form of personal and political power. Could you talk a bit more about this power?
The liminality was unavoidable given the resume of polarities that make up my life. Being a mixed race person, with a white mother and Black father; being Mexican in terms of heritage but not speaking Spanish; being a descendent from enslaved people on my father’s side and enslavers on my mother’s; being someone who grew up without money and sometimes touching pretty profound generational poverty through my dad’s side but being a scholarship kid in a private school; and being a woman who’s been fat and thin, and had experience in the “right” and “wrong” kind of body – all of this gives me liminal identities galore! This liminality gives me a sense of having multiple passports – or, to use Dubois’ phrase, ‘double consciousness’. It renders me a kind of polyglot and translator.
Most people have at least one part of their identity which doesn’t quite fit into a socially constructed category. I just happen to have dozens of those in who I am. I couldn’t write these essays without this liminality showing up; as critic and essayist Elizabeth Hardwick observes ‘the author precedes the material’. In an essay, the author comes first. There was no way to tell these stories without being in that interstitial zone of experience and thought; for the liminal to precede the material. What I hope is that for people who are like me and have a lot of hybrid identities, the book is a mirror and that they’re able to see some of their experiences spotlighted in a way that feels good to them. I also hope that quality of being able to translate between cultures provides a window for more readers to understand the terrain of the culture.
You grapple with the ubiquitous culture of (sexual) violence towards women, particularly in ‘Bad Education’ and your titular essay ‘Don’t Let It Get You Down’. In light of recent events in the US, specifically the overturning of Roe vs. Wade, do those essays feel even more pertinent? Your own rallying cry for dramatic cultural, institutional and political change?
Unfortunately, the control of women’s bodies is perennial – and I use the term women inclusively of cis and trans women and non-binary people who present to others as women and are therefore subject to the kinds of treatment I talk about in the book. ‘Bad Education’ grew out of my own discomfort with myself, because I’m someone who is a feminist and has experienced sexual assault, and recoils and rages at violence towards women as a normalised phenomenon in our culture. Yet I found myself consuming it on a regular basis as entertainment in the form of Law and Order SVU. I’m not knocking the show, but there’s a very tricky thing happening in it because the life force of so many episodes is the brutal maiming, torture or killing of women. And it’s not presented in the form of political protest or some communal reckoning or hearing space, but as pure entertainment that we’re supposed to binge on – you’re literally meant to have a bucket of popcorn and enjoy!
That strikes me as very complicated and problematic, on the whole. I was confused by my own ability to be a feminist and a woman who is afraid of crossing a dark parking lot and carries my keys just in case, and yet coming home and watching these very dark fairy-tales, over and over. I wouldn’t do this around Blackness; I wouldn’t watch marathons of racial violence, it’s disgusting! So why can I tolerate it when it concerns women? I wanted to explore that. Where the exploration took me, in ‘Bad Education’, was that I’d essentially been coached, culturally, from a very young age to expect and tolerate violence against women.
I would not go so far as to say Roe is overturned because of Law and Order, because it’s definitely not that simple. Nor can you wholly separate what we count as entertainment and what we consider normal or acceptable in society from our politics. It’s all of one piece and goes into the pot of culture. So I do see them as speaking to each other, even if it’s from a great distance. It comes down to control, at least in the US where chattel slavery was happening on the soil. For so long the control of Black women’s bodies was foundational to the political and economic success of the country, because slavery required the control of Black women’s reproductive rights. To me, violence to women is not only perennial but foundational in our culture, this notion that there are women whose bodies can and should be controlled, violently, if necessary. I see a through-line from that foundation to where we are politically today, just as I’ve seen a line of communication between the entertainment we have and the politics of control that results in these really barbaric policies and policy decisions like the Dobbs case.
Having said that, you also take time to understand how patriarchy and white supremacy have an impact on (especially Black) manhood and fatherhood. You write tender, loving and mournful essays – ‘State’ and ‘On the Sources of Cultural Identity’ – about your own father, and the book is also dedicated to him as well as your mother. Was it important for you to recognise what men – or rather, your father – were going through too?
Yes, it was, but it emerged slowly. I didn’t start writing about my father knowing exactly where it was going to go. The timing of all this is important. He died in 2018, which was a few months before I got a book deal. When I got the deal I was very much mourning the loss of him and the way he died. I remember my agent saying there was nothing in my book proposal about my dad and asking if I was going to write about him. I said, ‘I don’t know. My dad just died, I’m grieving and I can’t promise you anything’. At the same time, I did have this gut sense that racism was part of how he died, but I wasn’t in a place emotionally where I could promise I would write about it. The essay ‘State’ – which is about the role of state power in my dad’s life and death – took 3 years to write. It went through a lot of different iterations before I landed on the form it’s in now. And yet I wrote ‘State’ in its current form in one pass; I hit a certain point of readiness and then it all just came out.
What was important to me was to push back against the very flat stereotypical reading the culture tends to have towards people like my dad, who was a very big Black man. He walked through the world and was instantaneously plastered with people’s projections of him because of his body, because he was dark skinned, because he was 6”4 and 300lbs. I wanted to make it impossible to read that essay and only see that flattened caricature of a man. I wanted to do that for my dad; to try and give him something in death that he didn’t have in abundance in life, which was being seen as a whole human being as opposed to being read as a stereotype.
Like all people, my dad was a complicated person: he had joy, humour, a temper; he was incredibly intelligent and made mistakes. I wanted to present him as a full human being, not just a big Black man that people made no further attempt to understand. In order to do that, I had to write about how racism, patriarchy and poverty collided with his body to produce all kinds of patterns and outcomes in his life that might not have been produced had he been born in a different body. That was how I came at this essay.
This whole book is rooted in the body and my dad gave me a really incredible gift, which was having a body like mine. He was a man, so he walked through the world differently, but he was Black and he was big, as I am. For a lot of my life, as a kid and teenager, he was the only person who had a body like mine. That was an incredible gift. We all need to be seen; we need to see ourselves reflected. When we don’t that can be quite difficult. So I also wanted to talk about his body in a way that was honest about how hard it was to be a big Black man in this culture but was also expressing gratitude and reverence, as a person who bares his genetic blueprint, as his daughter.
Legacy – or legacies – run deep in Don’t Let It Get You Down. You continually demonstrate that the past is alive and active in the present – that there is no past, just a present continuum when it comes to state brutality, institutional racial violence and misogynoir; but also Black joy, creativity, resilience and love. Do you see the book as another space for mixed-race Black women and fat Black women in particular, to inherit and see and find themselves? Are these essays a form of encouragement and reassurance in the truth-telling, as much as a reckoning?
What I thought of again and again when working on this book was map-making and cartography, and my own dislocation in the culture because I don’t fit neatly in it. I just don’t belong neatly anywhere, and I have this sense of being without a location. This book, therefore, was a form of mapmaking. It was a form of laying down the topographical features of my life and the culture around me in order to see where I’m located and create an understanding of the terrain in which I’m living my life.
Of course, like any mapmaker, you want what you create to be useful to other people. It was a selfish impulse at its most germinal phase, but ideally you make a map to share with other people so they get to put their stars that say, “you are here and here and here”. I envisioned the book having – and continue to hope it has – a usefulness to other people who feel somewhat dislocated in the culture for one reason or another. It might offer others a model for their own mapmaking, for telling their own stories and examining where and how your stories butt up against features of the culture in which you find yourself.
You repeatedly turn to the power and horror of the imagination. Imagination as reconstruction, ‘rememory’, revival, release in ‘To Wit, and Also’ when envisaging the lives of Filliss, Grace and Peggy, the three Black women your maternal fifth great-grandfather enslaved and sold. Imagination to underscore the link between current systemic racism in the US and trans-Atlantic slavery through the ‘tiny rip’ in time. Could you talk more about these important imaginative interludes or punctures in your work?
In ‘To Wit, and Also’, I talk about the enslavers in my family and the women – Filliss, Grace and Peggy – they enslaved and people they trafficked. What was most surprising to me when writing the essay was coming face-to-face with this incredible contrast between how white families and Black families in the US have or don’t have access to the past. On the Black side of my family (my father’s), I’m descended from enslaved Black people, and I can’t go any further back then the late 1800s. Once you get into chattel slavery there are simply no records for Black families. In the US, it’s extremely common for Black families to have this intense emotional yearning and desperation to understand and know something about the people they’re descended from. It’s an unquenchable longing; there are no records before the Civil War because our forebears were treated as property. On the white side, however, there’s a ton of information. There’s property records, annual property taxes going back into the 1700s for each family, and because enslaved people were considered property, they’re listed on property taxes as assets. If you’re white and your family descended from that era, it’s very easy to find out how it intersected with chattel slavery, but often there’s no desire to do so.
This inversion – where Black people are hungry for such information but they can’t get it, because it isn’t there, whereas white people can easily get their hands on it but they don’t want anything to do with it – fascinated me when seeing it in my own family, where I couldn’t find anything about enslaved people on my dad’s side, but I know all kinds of things about the enslavers on my mum’s.
Back to your original question: the way this works in regards to using my imagination is there is no other choice. If I want to engage with my Black forbears going back a generation or two, I have to use my imagination. It’s an informed, disciplined and necessary imagination, of course. It’s not a wild imagination untethered from reality – it’s a disciplined one that is informed by poetry, newspaper clippings, family history etc. There’s no other way to access those times and places, because the archive of history is silent. The lives of enslaved peoples did not count.
Scholar Saidiya Hartman talks a lot about the gaps and silences of the archive. Hartman models what it looks like to go into that darkness and use an informed imagination to correct the archive. This is what I’m purposefully doing when I’m imagining Filliss, Grace and Peggy; when I’m imagining their days or the experience of being in the hold of a slave ship. I’m attempting to correct the record using my own power: my own imagination and knowledge.
That is a necessary, technical process – as well as a pleasure. Since I’m a creative person, this is how I am able to touch those lives and places in a way that feels good viscerally, for pleasure; because it feels good to write a beautiful sentence. An homage to Filliss, Grace and Peggy. There’s something about me, in this century, thinking of them, and not just using pain to connect, but using the pleasure of rendering them with words that are beautiful and rhythmic. This is really important and restorative; it’s a political and personal necessity. The alternative is unthinkable. We have to acknowledge the hollow and the silencing that happens in the archive, but to stop there is unthinkable. We have to find ways to breathe life into those spaces, and to coax them into the present and out of that void of the silent archive.
Could we talk about the body, which is part of the sub-heading of this collection, and is figured, conjured, described, centred so beautifully across many of its pages. Has it felt liberating to centre the body, more specifically your body, in your book? In the writing of your body, in all its various stages, fluctuations, losses and gains, do you feel you’ve come to love, appreciate and encourage her more?
The personal and the political are in constant collision in our bodies. With the Supreme Court’s ruling on Roe vs. Wade, Dobbs etc. there’s no clearer example of how the personal and political collide in our bodies all the time. Sinking into the space of my body and examining and witnessing how the personal and political collide was very liberating in the way that good information is always liberating. If I’m honest, the more powerful relationship between creativity and my body is actually the inverse; in doing some of the work toward my own liberation as a fat person and a Black woman, I was able to write the book, because I couldn’t have dwelled in the space of my body with this analytical patient gaze ten years ago when I hated it. If you’re constantly renovating a house it’s a nightmare to live in it, and that’s kind of how my body was. Who can rest in that space? I couldn’t have written this book without being able to rest in my body.
The moral of the story is, for people who want to create, sure creativity can be a very healing and liberating process in and of itself, but doing some liberatory work with your body can also open space for incredible creativity. That’s more how I think of it: doing my own work to exfoliate all this racist, misogynistic, fat-phobic mythology off my own body really tilled the soil for me creatively. It gave me the space and energy to be creative on a deeper level.
Motherhood and the significant change of being pregnant and going through (a traumatic) labour make up a notable part of this collection, particularly in essays ‘White Doll’ and ‘The Body Endures’. These experiences inevitably dramatically shake us up and shape our relationship with our bodies – and the institutions that are suppose to help and “birth” them. Was it important for you to include these experiences and the bodily pain – and joy – they entail in the collection? And, again, did some healing come about in the writing of them?
During the pregnancy and the post-partum period was very traumatic. They were the blessing of my life, because I love my daughter more than life itself and I would go through it all again to have her; but they were also incredibly traumatic and destructive, because of the way the medical system viewed my body and was very dismissive of my legitimate concerns, which is part of the course for Black and fat people. That was part of another piece I was trying to write, before I had any idea of a book, just to make sense of it for myself. The piece about becoming a mother and about race, and the differences between my mother and myself and what they means, that took five years to get right, because it was such a difficult experience. It was healing, but not in a sense that it undid the harm: no way. I still physically bear the impacts of that – mentally and emotionally too. That experience has profoundly changed the course of my life, because I’m someone who wanted many children and can’t imagine going through labour and delivery ever again. This potentially alters the course of a family. So, it was not healing in the sense of undoing all of that; but it was healing in the sense that I was able to make sense of an incredibly chaotic experience, one which was very fragmented in my mind, the way trauma often is. It was healing in the sense of being able to speak, because one of the commonalities in a traumatic birth is a sense of having no control and being silenced and violated by the procedures and processes involved (and they don’t really want that to come out or be heard). Finding a way to assert my voice, even retroactively, to say “I didn’t want that to happen” or “I did want this to happen and it didn’t” – that’s healing. But it’s not a situation where through writing I somehow reverted to the pre-harm version of myself.
It’s not true of all women or people who can get pregnant, but it was true for me – without diminishing me to my reproductive capacity – the reproductive aspect of my life was and is central to my idea of who I am as a person (whether that’s nature or nurture, I don’t know). To have that aspect of my being violated and battered by a system that is racist was painful in a way that I don’t think will ever go away.
This was an essay where a lot of friends and family said, “I had no idea you went through that” because afterwards you get home and you are fine and baby is fine, and everyone’s focus is on the fact that you’re alive and baby is alive, as it should be. It’s a joyful time. So I didn’t talk about the shadow side of what happened. It felt like to talk about what happened would have been inappropriate given that I lived and my baby lived. My mum and my husband knew what I was going through, but nobody else did. There’s also a lot I don’t say about the experience, because it’s too tender and painful to share.
Music is such a palpable, emotive and triggering force in your work. From the misuse and misappropriation of a Beyoncé lyric in ‘Dear White Sister’ to the sugary white femininity your younger self internalises in Britney’s ‘Sometimes’, musical culture carries so much emotional sway and political weight. Could you talk more about the importance of music to this collection and to your writing in general.
I love music, and I’m from a family who loves music and are musicians. I always have music playing. When I’m writing, I’m often thinking musically. I’m thinking about how things sound and the rhythm, the movement, the crescendo of the piece, and where the beat falls in a sentence or a paragraph, and because of that I always have music in my head. I’m also someone who pays a lot of attention to music lyrics and the visuals of music videos. Those things are embedded in my mind, like with Britney and Mos Def in ‘The Body Endures’ and ‘To Wit, and Also’.
Last music-related question, I promise! In Beyoncé’s visual album, Lemonade, there is a gathering of women for the filming of ‘Freedom’, a sort of female church or chapel. This gathering includes Zendaya, Ibeyi, Winnie Harlow, amongst others. Which Black women would you invite to your gathering and why?
It’s one thing to ask about a stoop or church, but a chapel is a particular kind of space. It’s a space of reverence and quiet at times, and exuberant joy at others; a place of grief and family togetherness. A chapel is also a space where the veil between our pedestrian existence and the mysteries of the universe lifts, billows and blows, and those spaces mingle a little bit. Whoever you pick, there’s a certain energy around it. We go to chapel in the peaks and valleys of our life. The first people that pop into my mind are my daughter, and Filliss, Grace and Peggy, and it would just be to sit and behold each other, in that reverent, joyful space, but, again, in a place where the line between this worldly life and the mysteries of the universe is porous.
Savala Nolan’s Don’t Let It Get You Down: Essays on Race, Gender & the Body is published by The Indigo Press in the UK and is available to purchase online and in all good bookshops now.
This interview was commissioned for our mini-series, Our Body’s Bodies
Everything is written on the body – but what does it mean to write about our bodies in the era of Covid-19? And is it possible to write about bodily experiences in the face of such pervasive and continued violence? Using different modes of writing and art making, Lucy Writers presents a miniseries featuring creatives whose work, ideas and personal experiences explore embodiment, bodily agency, the liberties imposed on, taken with, or found in our bodies. Beginning from a position of multiplicity and intersectionality, our contributors explore their body’s bodies and the languages – visual, linguistic, aural, performance-based and otherwise – that have enabled them to express and reclaim different forms of (dis)embodiment in the last two years. Starting with the body(s), but going outwards to connect with encounters that (dis)connect us from the bodies of others – illness, accessibility, gender, race and class, work, and political and legal precedents and movements – Our Body’s Bodies seeks to shine a light on what we corporally share, as much as what we individually hold true to.
Bringing together work by artistic duo Kathryn Cutler-MacKenzie and Ben Caro, poet Emily Swettenham, writer and poet Elodie Rose Barnes, author Ayo Deforge, writer and researcher Georgia Poplett, writer and poet Rojbîn Arjen Yigit, writer and researcher Hannah Hutchings-Georgiou and many others, as well as interviews with and reviews of work by Elinor Cleghorn, Lucia Osbourne Crowley and Alice Hattrick, Lucy Writers brings together individual stories of what our bodies have endured, carried, suffered, surpassed, craved and even enjoyed, because…these bodies are my body; we are a many bodied being. Touch this one, you move them all, our bodies’ body.
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Read the series so far here.
Feature image of Savala Nolan courtesy of The Indigo Press. Lucy Writers and Hannah Hutchings-Georgiou would like to express their heartfelt thanks to Savala Nolan, Jordan Taylor-Jones, Jess Payn, Phoebe Barker and all at The Indigo Press for making this interview happen.