By Wendy M. Walker
I recently chatted with Dennis via email.
WW - I generally think of writers as being more in tune with the undercurrents of the world. Over the past year, American politics seems to be greatly amplified. I would imagine that regardless of one's political leanings, the level of "noise" has to take its toll. Have you felt overwhelmed such that it has affected your ability to write productively? Has the influx of news over the last year been overwhelming or a motivation?
DN - Wow, starting with a heavy hitter! I think the answer begins with an emphatic yes to both sides of this. On a personal level, I've noticed a definite uptick in my general anxiety just moving through the world on a daily basis—in a very point blank, facts of life kind of way. And while this can be attributed to numerous factors in my life, I have to keep in mind that as a gay, black, femme-presenting body moving through the world, there's a lot of... distaste... directed towards my very existence and identity. This is amplified in our politically turbulent context, when studies are coming out left and right that folks on the more conservative, Trump-supporting side of the political spectrum have moved so far beyond the pale in their frenzy that they've surpassed their threshold for being reasoned with. Which, of course, is the tactic of a political demagogue. I am certainly living an overwhelmed existence. Having to work harder to arm myself both emotionally and tangibly for survival in a climate where politically, I'm poised to lose the protections I've come to know and expect—measures that protect my communities, in their separateness and their intersections—equates to intense emotional and psychological labor. And certainly, that serves as a distraction from writing. But also, the "noise" at this moment in time, seems imperative to survival. And anyway, I'm not the first artist to feel this way, and I certainly won't be the last.
Because much of my writing focuses on telling the stories of bodies like mine—gay, black, biologically male (but with perhaps more complex gender identities and expressions at work)— my commitment to writing these stories has been a huge source of motivation and orientation for me. I think most of my fiction implicitly explores the idea of safety, of protection for black queer male bodies—getting at the idea that these bodies are as vulnerable, and as precious, as any other. Writing about situations in which we find ourselves in danger, in which we fall victim to the society we live in, feels as important as ever. I write first and foremost for boys and men like myself because we need to see ourselves taken seriously as the subjects of art. Our stories—our pains and our pleasures, our heartbreaks and our joys—must exist for all the world to experience. This is more important now than ever—for us, so we can thrive and laugh and love and build community—and also for the greater good. In an era such as this one, when reason and facts and statistics fail us in our efforts to reach (and evolve the thinking of) those who would seek to harm us, stories are our most important tool. Stories, reading, and art, in general grow our empathy more than facts and figures ever could, and empathy is crucial to preserving our humanity. Where are we, as a race, once we've forgotten empathy? I don't want to live in that world, which means I don't want to live in a world without stories. So I write. I do my best to push myself beyond the limitations I think the world has in store for me. I frequently return to a reminder* that was said to Toni Morrison when she was rather distraught after the results of the 2004 presidential election: "This is precisely the time when artists go to work—not when everything is fine, but in times of dread. That's our job!"
*Source, The Nation, March 23, 2015:
WW - You're the fiction editor at Apogee Journal and co-host of the popular podcast Food 4 Thot. How has your role with these projects affected your own writing?
DN - Being part of the team at Apogee Journal has been amazing because it's provided a framework for consistent engagement with art and literature as activism. That is central to our mission, so we must always keep that in mind with every aspect of everything we do—whether it's promoting greater access for writers from marginalized identities, or even just remembering that this is part of our evaluation process when submissions come in. As a writer, the lessons you learn as an editor are tenfold. You want to become a better writer faster? Find a gig reading or editing at a literary journal. The speed at which we have to read and carefully evaluate, and then edit and work with the writers whose work we accept is pretty incredible. You spend so much time talking shop, debating and considering a story's merits and weaknesses. It can be sort of like an accelerated MFA program at it's best. It is undeniable that working as a fiction editor has made me a better writer, more authoritative in my own craft.
Food 4 Thot has quickly become a seminal part of my life. It goes beyond the fact that it's been magically well-received by its audience. Because while that's been amazing, the heart of it is my friendship with those boys. They are so important to me—they make me smarter, more compassionate, stronger, and honestly, less fearful of the world I live in. I find a lot of my bravery in our conversations, both on the mic and off of it. All of this affects my writing in a very direct way by making my life better, having a community to bounce writing and writerly situations off of, and giving me a space where I can talk about writing in an extremely personal way. They're just all so smart that I always feel like I'm learning from them, and that's really exciting, and it influences my writing in very direct ways.
WW - There has been a push in recent years to elevate diverse voices and balance the numbers in publishing. Is the industry there yet? As both a writer and a person involved with a publication, do you think more needs to be done? And if so, what?
This is a good question, and a very worthwhile conversation to have. Not because I think we're even close to being there, but because I think we've probably hit one threshold of progress, and so we need to recognize the next iteration of this work so our efforts don't die. I think the push has been wonderful. Greater recognition for diverse stories is critical, but we've seen similar engagement before, most notably in the late sixties and the early nineties. Currently, the best safeguard we have to ensure that this won't be a passing trend is the fervor of those actively involved, who seem committed to lasting change. And the breadth of this current push—it's not just black writers, it's writers of all colors, queer writers, women, immigrants. Surely the current political climate has been a harsh wake-up call.
I think the next phase is really addressing the question of financial access to the literary world for early-career writers—access to workshops, to MFA programs, to the AWP conference, to residencies—getting into them and making attendance financially feasible. This still serves as an enormous barrier for many writers of color, queer writers, and frankly, economically disadvantaged writers. And often the individuals who are most vulnerable to financial barriers are individuals who live at the intersections of these identities. Thanks, America! This might not seem like evidence but being a queer writer of color who's attended numerous workshops and an MFA program, I have a pretty vast global writerly network. And yet, the only writers I see on my FB timeline who have to turn down opportunities, or crowd-sourced funds for these opportunities, are writers of color. Talented, often well-published and well regarded emerging writers of color. This means that gatekeepers are not putting enough money where their mouths are. Perhaps they don't have the money—and that's a problem in its own right. But beyond that, a commitment to diversity in publishing and actual, tangible change must become a personal responsibility for writers and folks in the industry if they claim to support this effort. There's this idea that talking about money is inelegant, but it's essential to upending the status quo. You know that story about Jessica Chastain and Octavia Spencer, where Chastain pitched their movie using a "favored nations" strategy so that everyone would make the same wage? And now they're making over 5x what they initially asked for? That happened because Spencer educated Chastain on how women of color make even less than white women, and Chastain put her money where her mouth is. She made sure Spencer got paid. She made wage equality for Spencer a personal matter for her.
Here's another story: In 2016, I was awarded a scholarship to attend the Tin House Summer Workshop. There was another writer of color in my workshop who happened to tell me that she'd made the decision not to apply for one of the scholarships because she had a well-paying corporate job. She felt that were she to win a scholarship, she might prevent another deserving writer from attending the workshop if they needed scholarship funds in order to do so. There's a bit of prestige that comes with winning one of these scholarships, so she was certainly within her right to apply. But instead, she made a personal, financial, decision—a sacrifice, really—in hopes that a writer who was less financially viable would win the scholarship she might've won. It was personally important to her to maximize access to opportunity. I don't know if she knew I was a scholar that summer or not, but hearing this meant the world to me because there is absolutely no way I would've been able to attend that workshop had I not received the funding. And attending that workshop changed my life; it changed my entire literary trajectory in numerous ways. I found sustained mentorship and friendship with Alexander Chee, who is a fierce advocate for many, and I also met the F4T boys. And by the way, the good folks over at Tin House are doing the work. So are the people at The MacDowell Colony. They're putting their money where their mouth is.
I rarely see writers who've published a first book discuss in any substantive detail whatever privileges or circumstances allowed them to get where they are—whether it's getting their work into the hands of the right gatekeepers, or simply being free enough in their everyday lives to get their writing done. I always hear how difficult the writing process is, and that's crucial, too, but the reality is that building a literary career is not equally difficult for everyone. And I think that's important to acknowledge because writers tend to be really hard on ourselves. And sometimes, understanding other people's circumstances allow us to look at our own circumstances and remember that even if we're not where we want to be, we're actually killing the game, all things considered. It also helps us better understand how to identify and stay steady on our own path. I have always, and will always, talk freely about the way my financial circumstances have influenced my writing career—from working my way through grad school (at one point I had 3 jobs!) to my mother's generosity (she paid for me to attend several workshops earlier in my career). It's a critical factor for any writer, but especially for folks from marginalized groups. I'm well aware of many more established writers who are part of these communities and are incredible mentors and do this every day. I have them myself, thankfully. But it must become personal, active practice for everyone in the industry, including white people, rich people, straight people, and men if lasting change is going to happen.
WW - Tell me about your creative process.
DN - I wish I had a better sense of my process. I'm still figuring it out, to be honest. But I can tell you that I very much approach my writing thinking about a visual aspect. I often start with a picture or vision in my head—usually the setting of a specific moment—and when I find the sentences for that, it places me in the story. I always listen to music when I write, often to film soundtracks or something oriented around the piano. A lot of Phillip Glass. The cadences help me form sentences. I'm very committed to the idea that sentences should have a distinct way of falling on the ear of the reader. Reading, for me, is an aural experience—I hear what I'm reading in my head, even when I'm reading silently to myself. I don't know if everyone experiences reading in that way, but that's the reader I write towards. And music helps me find a rhythm. So does rain, if I can hear it coming down. I often have tea or coffee, or a glass of wine nearby to help me relax. When I was at The MacDowell Colony, and I had my own studio, I learned a lot about my process that I didn't know before. I used to think I wrote best at night. Turns out that when I don't have to be at my job, I write best during normal working hours—more of a 9-5 schedule. It relaxes me to have a scented candle lit, and it's helpful to feel relaxed, and not rushed or fervent. I know people who are good at stealing 25 minutes here, 40 minutes there, and I have tried so hard to work in that way, because of my circumstances as a working person living in New York City, (I'd imagine parents have to do this, too), but I can't seem to do it. I have a lot of trouble shutting off the rest of my brain if I can only engage for a short time. I've never been a great multi-tasker so that probably has something to do with it.
WW - Can you share with us what you're working on next?
I can share a little bit, sure! My primary project is finishing up the novel I've been working on for the past 6 years. It deals with a gay black man's complicated relationship with his father and how, in his grief over his father's death, his marriage to his white husband suffers. In this book
I’m writing about fathers and sons, about boyhood, about race, about sex and sexual identity. A portion of this novel, written and first published in Apogee Journal under the title "The Reverend", is actually included in an anthology called "Everyday People: The Color of Life," which is forthcoming from the Atria Books imprint of Simon & Schuster in August 2018. I love this novel, but I'm hoping to finish it by the end of this summer so I can move on to my next novel, which deals with a gay black boy who is an elite figure skater. I'm also dabbling in some essay writing, and recently, the idea occurred to me to possibly start shaping a collection of short stories... so a very full plate. Basically, I just want to write all the things.
Stay tuned for more of Dennis's work to be posted next week on the website. For a copy of his newest story, order his chapbook.