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‘I Twirl in the Smoke’: an interview with independent author Meres-Sia Gabriel

June 20, 2011

by Minister of Information JR

Meres-Sia Gabriel (left) congratulates her father, Emory Douglas, and jazz singer Sugar Pie DeSanto on their receipt of 2009 “Goldie” Lifetime Achievement Awards from the San Francisco Bay Guardian.
“I Twirl in the Smoke” is a new collection of writings by Meres-Sia Gabriel, the daughter of two Black Panthers, most notably former Minister of Culture and internationally known artist Emory Douglas.

The prose and poetry between these covers express sorrow, hurt, bewilderment, youthful innocence, political and social lessons, stories of a sensual nature and the like. “I Twirl in the Smoke” is a rather short book in pages. As I finished it, I thought about how relative “short” is. Because although it is only 31 pages, the emotional experience spilling off of those pages is more intense than a lot of books that are three times the size.

This is definitely a book, as well as an author, that will play a part in forming the literary voice of the post crack era generation – the generation of 30-somethings who were alive and coming into maturity during the first decades of the new millennium. Check out Meres-Sia Gabriel in this exclusive Q&A …

M.O.I. JR: Can you tell us a little bit about your history as a writer?

Meres-Sia: My history as a writer begins with the literacy foundation that was established for me as a child. I grew up with two grandmothers who loved to share their life experiences. Both of them found in me a repository for their stories. I was thirsty for their knowledge and wisdom so they poured it into me. I talk about this a little bit in the piece, “Growing up with Grandma.”

My maternal grandmother in particular was also a writer. There is even a story she was working on but never finished before she transitioned. She told me about it and I have been working on it for my upcoming book of short stories.

I grew up with two grandmothers who found in me a repository for their stories. I was thirsty for their knowledge and wisdom so they poured it into me.

I have always been a collector of stories. I have also loved to write since I was a child. My fifth grade teacher, Ms. Hill, further cultivated my interest when she gave the class writing journals that year. It began the invaluable practice of journaling – one that I continue today.

That same year, I wrote my first play. It was called “The New Kid.” I requested to present it in an assembly, so I cast classmates for roles and directed it. We had rehearsals and everything. Then we presented it to one or two other classes.

In high school I was in a rap group. I wrote song lyrics. We recorded in studios and performed locally.

In college, it never occurred to me to major in English or creative writing. I don’t even think I knew that I could major in creative writing, and majoring in English included studying certain literature that was of no interest to me at the time. So I majored in French and we studied francophone literature – literature from throughout the French speaking world.

A professor introduced me to “Rue Cases Negres” (“Sugar Cane Alley”) and “Une Si Longue Lettre” (“So Long a Letter”), which piqued my interest in African and Caribbean literature. I continued to study African and Diasporan writers in graduate school in France. I was particularly intrigued by the work of African author William Sassine and Guadeloupean writer Simone Schwarz-Bart. Her “Pluie et Vent sur Telumee Miracle” (translated as “The Bridge of Beyond” in English) touched me deeply and I read it several times.

I also studied and was inspired by the expatriate lives of Richard Wright, James Baldwin and Chester Himes – all of whom had lived in Paris. During this time in graduate school, I decided that I would write a book one day.

When I returned home from France, my mother told me about the Amherst Writers & Artists creative writing workshops. I attended several of them. I enjoyed their workshop method so much that I trained to become a workshop leader. My experience in France and these workshops really crystalized my intentions to become an author one day.

Then I read Edwige Danticat’s “Krik Krak!” That sealed it for me. I said to myself, “I can write like this!” It was so elegant, simple and beautiful. But it would still be another six years or so before I would actually attempt to write my book. I wrote a lot of poems in the interim.

When I would get an urge to express something deep inside of me, I used to get impatient and poems were the shortest, most efficient and potent way for me to articulate that innermost burning thing. That’s why you see a lot of poems in this book. But now that I have written my first book, I have more patience within myself. I intend to write a book of short stories next.

M.O.I. JR: What inspired the name of your new book? And what inspired you to write it?

Meres-Sia: “I Twirl in the Smoke” is a line from one of my poems. It is also the title of that poem. In my writing and publishing process, I referred to a book by Thomas Williams entitled “Poet Power.” One thing that Williams talks about is the importance of a good title to generate interest and sales. He gave an example of one popular poetry book with a rather lengthy title. The title was a long sentence. I found it intriguing. After playing around with several ideas, I decided to try this one: “I twirl in the smoke.” It had a passionate feeling to me. It can be heavy or light. It’s dynamic and sensuous.

Initially, I wasn’t sure what it meant to “twirl in the smoke.” Although I’d written it, I was still in the feeling or intuitive stage of creating. I was writing and creating based on feeling and intuition. My editor wasn’t sold on that title and an experienced, published poet I consulted suggested that I call the book, “Good-bye, Sorrow,” after another poem in the collection. But that felt too simple and even a little sad. Although I am saying good-bye to sorrow, that title wasn’t me.

“I Twirl in the Smoke” is like digging my heels into the earth and declaring that I am here! Others will read it and interpret it their way, but at the moment I wrote that line in my poem, I visualized myself digging my heel into the earth and then releasing into a spin. There’s smoke all around me that I’ve created from this burning passion in me. But rather than let it consume me, I am dancing in it and creating something new and usable from the experience.

At the time that I wrote it, I couldn’t articulate it as well as I am doing now. But the imagery and sensation stuck with me so I chose it as the title. Many people I come in contact with are intrigued by the title and it causes them to pause. It’s also catchy. I am starting a “TWIRL!” movement.

In the preface, I talk about my inspiration for writing this book. Without being repetitious, I will say that I knew it was time to fulfill my heart’s innermost desires. When I started this process, I had no idea what my book would look or read like. I knew what it would feel like. I knew its purpose was to demonstrate the transformation of sorrow into “immortal wine.”

I quote the “Bhagavad Gita” in the beginning of my book: “What is at first a cup of sorrow becomes at last immortal wine.” I have had that quote pasted on the wall by my writing desk for four years or more. I knew that whatever I wrote, it would follow this script of illuminating the darkness of sorrow into the light of beauty and happiness. I also knew it would be easiest to write about myself. Many authors have made names for themselves and inspired generations just writing about their own lives. Look at Maya Angelou and Alex Haley, to name a few.

M.O.I. JR: Why did you decide to mix different genres of writing in your book – poetry, essays etc.?

Meres-Sia: I used what I had available to me – what I had already created throughout the years. I assembled all the material I had written, then peeled and pared until I had a body of work that told a story. I added and subtracted material according to what called on me and what my intuition responded to. It was a very intuitive process, which is what I love about writing. It takes me there. It is a space where I am closest to myself. I experience myself in “the all.”

So, I mixed genres because I was determined to write a book. I had a few poems and a few essays that were close to being ready to publish. I intended to give people value for their money and to tell a complete story. I also intended to complete a book before I turned 37. All of these factors shaped the outcome of my book: time, material and the demands of my heart. I just used what I had available to achieve my goals.

M.O.I. JR: What was the process of self-publishing like? Will you do it again?

Meres-Sia: Self-publishing is a “beautiful struggle.” I am glad that I did it. It’s very empowering. But it’s important to have a team to help with different aspects. Thankfully, you published your book first and you had good referrals for me, like the printing company. Sir Speedy in Los Angeles did an excellent job! I am also fortunate to have a wonderful friend who is a beautifully trained graphic designer: Lara Amin did the cover and layout of the book.

Both of my parents are amazing artists, but I felt that Lara’s hands and heart would know what to do with this book and its story. Sure enough, people are in awe of the beauty of the cover. It’s alluring. It draws people in so they want to hold it and open it up.

When I showed the book to my students, one of them smiled and exclaimed, “This cover is you!” She wasn’t referring to the woman in smoke on the cover. She was referring to the overall feel and look of it. I shared the image of the cover with my parents at different stages of development and my father imparted some valuable insight that helped enhance the overall feel of the final design.

I hired an editor, Pepper Luboff. She was a referral from a small publisher I know. Pepper was a Godsend. She edits in a workshop style that put me at ease, and I learned a lot from her. She was enthusiastic and very perceptive.

I read and re-read “Poet Power” every step of the way. I created a publishing company and chose a name that I am proud of. That part was fun. So, in self-publishing I had to assemble my team. Sometimes I felt lonely but then I would remind myself to reach out for assistance and help. People are always ready to help – I just had to remember to ask.

Self-publishing is empowering. It was unnerving at times, but mostly it was gratifying to create a product exactly the way I wanted it from beginning to end without having to compromise.

I have read books where the cover had very little to do with the inside story, or it was so abstract or unattractive, that I wouldn’t have picked it up had it not been required reading in school or written by a known author. Conversely, there is a book I still think about reading one day just based on the cover. It had a beautiful cover and the image comes back to my mind periodically to remind me to check the book out.

Would I do it again? I’m the kind of person who does whatever it takes to manifest a dream. If there is written work – mine or anyone else’s – that fulfills my life purpose and I think it should be out in the world, I will do whatever I can to support that happening. So, if that means self-publishing again, then I will. However, the other component to self-publishing is self-marketing.

Marketing is a big unknown for me. Whereas with writing my greatest challenge was time, with marketing my challenges were time and understanding the process. There is so much to learn. I would love to pay someone to do it for me. I get anxious about marketing. It is an entirely different beast!

M.O.I. JR: “I Twirl in the Smoke” takes the reader through a myriad of emotions and very hurtful memories that you had about your mother. Was this work sort of like a psychological release? How do you feel when people ask you about these specific pieces?

Meres-Sia: No one has asked me about these specific pieces yet. In my writing process, I did something very unorthodox, I think. I assembled a team of people – friends and family whom I thought would be sensitive and understanding and honest – and I sent my very vulnerable manuscript out to them at the beginning stages. I asked for feedback in a specific way. There was even more sensitive material in the initial manuscripts. But in doing that I asked them to treat the work as fiction.

Meres-Sia Gabriel and her daughters, Isandla and Analisa – Photo: Moja Ma’at
Almost everyone respected my wishes and they offered invaluable insight into the process. I name them all in the acknowledgements. But there was one person who read the manuscript and wanted to talk about some of the contents in a personal way. I refused to do it at that time because the content was sensitive and at that stage of writing the book, I felt too vulnerable.

But more importantly, I felt the work had more value once it was depersonalized. By the way, my mother was in that core group. Now that the book is done, people can ask me anything they’d like about the stories inside.

You are right: This book is a psychological, emotional and spiritual release. I’ve also released it from my memory of experiences. I no longer feel attached to the stories and experiences. I wrote the book because these childhood sorrows were once mine. Now that I have opened up and declared it to the world, I feel like I’ve been heard and I don’t have to shout anymore. That may also be due to the way I shared the work when it was most vulnerable. Everyone showed me love.

My mother experienced some epiphanies as a result of this work and we grew closer, in my opinion. So, I feel content now. I also feel detached. I know that what is true for me is true for others, and so my story is other people’s story too.

In fact, one of my motivating factors for writing about my childhood was to humanize children. Children are thinking human beings with a concept of their own boundaries that should be respected. They are affected by the world around them and the worlds inside of them – then they go to school and no one knows what is happening in their worlds.

I am a teacher and I have learned to become sensitive to this. My students are dealing with post-traumatic stresses of urban life. They experience death and murder at an alarming rate. Then they wind up at my school, which is a continuation school, because they couldn’t adjust to the mainstream educational system.

But once you hear their stories, you know why they can’t focus or why they are fighting at school. In my own way, I used stories from my childhood to reflect this. I talk about the Atlanta Child Murders. That happened in Atlanta, but it affected me in Oakland.

I am a teacher. My students experience death and murder at an alarming rate. Then they wind up at my school, which is a continuation school.

None of my friends were murdered growing up, unlike my students who’ve lost many friends and expect to lose more. But the Atlanta Child Murders affected me deeply. And it changed my life in many ways. It wasn’t just their story in Atlanta. It was mine too. But no one realized this little girl was being affected by the horrors around her.

My stories of my mom are common, yet rarely spoken of publicly, stories of emotional abandonment. But the Cameroon proverb states: “He who conceals his illness will never heal.”

Some people are uneasy with my candor and vulnerability. But as long as my message sticks with you, I am happy, even if at first it is difficult to embrace. My students love my book, and one even did a project on it for his English class.

M.O.I. JR: How do you feel exposing your mother to your inner thoughts about her in front of your daughters, who may be harboring feelings about you?

Meres-Sia: I really appreciate this question. As I stated above, my mother was a part of this whole process and I think it has drawn us closer together. Writing “Twirl” was the best way to share my innermost thoughts with her. She and I tried other ways to mend our relationship, and I was never satisfied – although she may have been. This was my therapy.

I recognize that my daughters could grow up to have unresolved issues with me. However, I do allow my children to express themselves with me. I allow them to get angry without making them feel guilty about it. I talk with them a lot. I apologize when I’m wrong, and I share my vulnerabilities and concerns with them. So they know that mommy is perfectly human and imperfect in many ways. We laugh a lot and I spend a lot of time with them. I am sensitive to their psychological and emotional needs.

In the “Generations” piece, I demonstrate my understanding for my mother’s behavior as a legacy of hurt and pain handed down from generation to generation beginning with slavery (in this case). But someone has got to choose to break the cycle. I am doing that.

My mother’s behavior comes from a legacy of hurt and pain handed down from generation to generation beginning with slavery.

I have done and said some hurtful things to my children in the past when I felt unsupported and overwhelmed with the responsibility of raising them. I see mothers go through this all the time. I have also apologized and changed my life so that I can feel supported and stronger in raising them. I intend to always be open to hearing my children’s voices regardless of whether I agree with what they have to say or not. I will always hear and reflect them.

M.O.I. JR: Is there a reason why you opened up with pieces that spoke to hurt and loss then moved on to pieces that were more of a sensual and sexual nature?

Meres-Sia: I was following the trajectory of the “Bhagavad Gita” quote, which speaks of going from sorrow to immortal wine. But I didn’t see it as going from sorrow to sex. The experience of immortal wine, according to my interpretation, is the fulfillment of my full self and my deepest heart’s intentions.

As I transition into a woman in the book, I express all the aspects of being a woman. Some of the poems exude the natural sexuality of being a woman, a creative being and a manifestation of Source. Other poems are conversations with Source or about Source. Some are about creating my own identity as a woman. I end with poems and a story about my children.

There is no relationship per se between the sorrow and the sensual experiences imbedded in some of the poems. I love sensuality and think it should be cultivated and celebrated.

M.O.I. JR: Do you feel a certain pressure to be something other than yourself because of the fame of your father?

Meres-Sia: No. I didn’t grow up with a famous father. I grew up with a dad who worked for a newspaper, who took care of me and who used to be in the Black Panther Party. That’s how I saw him. Once Rizzoli published his book, “Black Panther: The Revolutionary Art of Emory Douglas,” he started to travel and gain mainstream notoriety. I was a full grown adult, with two children by then. I was already working to raise my own family.

However, even now with so many people requesting his presence internationally, my dad remains humble. Nothing has changed the dynamic of our relationship. I never wanted to be a visual artist either, although I have enjoyed drawing since I was a child. Perhaps if we were in the same discipline, I would feel pressure. But his fame doesn’t really factor into our relationship. He is still the same calm and caring father he has always been. So through his example I know the importance of being true to myself and to my artistic expression.

M.O.I. JR: How can people buy “I Twirl in the Smoke”?

Meres-Sia: My book is now being sold at two locations in Oakland: Marcus Books on Martin Luther King near 40th and at Laurel Book Store, 4100 MacArthur. You can find my book at Marcus Books in San Francisco, too, at 1712 Fillmore St. at Post.

You can also purchase directly from me at www.palmoilpress.wordpress.com.

M.O.I. JR: How can people stay up with you?

Meres-Sia: I’m on Facebook. I have a page for “I Twirl in the Smoke” on Facebook. Also my publishing company website is www.palmoilpress.wordpress.com. I just opened a twitter account, which I am learning how to use. And you can send correspondence to Palm Oil Press, P.O. Box 1544 Oakland, CA 94604 or email Spiritintobeing@hotmail.com with the subject of “I Twirl.”

I am working at making it easier to identify and communicate with me. I welcome any feedback or insight others would like to offer toward my reaching this goal. Thank you!

Email POCC Minister of Information JR, Bay View associate editor, at blockreportradio@gmail.com and visit www.blockreportradio.com.


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