Katherine Agyemaa Agard Wins the 2018 Essay Press MFA Book Contest

katherine agard wins 2018 essay press book contest

Available now from Small Press Distribution, your local bookstore, and elsewhere.
Selected by Mary-Kim Arnold for the 2018 Essay Press | UW Bothell MFA Book Contest.

of colour is an experimental essay about color, hybridity, and art-making. It is a memoir of Agyemaa Agard’s coming to North America and encountering binaries of black and white within global anti-blackness. It is a manifesto for an experience of color that embraces change: the prismatic, the perverse, and that which is wholly beyond categorization.

KATHERINE AGYEMAA AGARD is the eldest daughter of a zoologist and a botanist. At 18, she won, and declined, an Open National Scholarship in the Natural Sciences from the government of Trinidad & Tobago. Her interdisciplinary work is rooted in painting, performance, and writing. She holds an AB in Visual and Environmental Studies and Social Anthropology from Harvard College and an MFA in Writing from UC-San Diego. KAA has received fellowships from Kimbilio, Lambda Literary, VONA/Voices, and Callaloo. She lives in San Francisco and is a dual citizen of Trinidad and Tobago and Ghana.

Interview with Katherine Agyemaa Agard

Interviewed by Stephanie Segura and N. L. Sweeney
Questions curated by Scott Bently, N. L. Sweeney, and Stephanie Segura

IAS alumni Stephanie Segura, N. L. Sweeney (class of 2020) and graduate student Scott Bentley (class of 2021) recently interviewed author Katherine Agyemaa Agard about their book of colour, winner of the 2018 Essay Press / UW Bothell MFA Book Contest.

This interview was conducted in September 2020, in the virtual space of Zoom amidst the pressure of a pandemic, racial justice uprisings and wildfires topping off the end of an overheated summer. Physically we (the interviewers and interviewee) were separated by miles of distance. Katherine met us in this virtual space from her home in San Francisco. We entered the virtual space by talking about self care tips, and Katherine’s Herbalist group that has been bringing her joy in this distanced time.

Katherine’s warm spirit made for a pleasant interview full of light hearted laughs. The interview progressed with ease and led itself into deep conversation; one that could’ve lasted all night. We ended on a high note and left with our minds on poetry, humanity and language.

Stephanie: How has your writing process been amid the white terrorism placed the shoulders of black people and people of color in America?

Katherine: I think – in the before times – my writing process was plagued with a vague worry that I needed to manifest all my ideas and become broadly legible or else I’d be a failure. That desire to be productive… a desire fully recognized within a white supremacist culture, was there. Within this period, I’ve realized that the most important thing for me to write and to say is the thing that is needed at the time to those who are listening. I’m more discerning of when explaining myself feels like extraction, and choose to step away from it. Of colour is about that.

I think my writing process has shifted to be more about noticing and taking note of all the things that I come across in a day and holding them until the time is right without necessarily sharing all of them. At the beginning of quarantine, I began writing a newsletter almost every day to about 20 people. A friend called them my dailies. It began to falter when insurrection began in earnest in May. I think I’m still writing the dailies. A lot of what I’m thinking about now is time, and different ways of marking endings and beginnings. What the natural world teaches us about time and origins, and beginnings, and how thin the separation between past and present and perhaps future is these days.

Stephanie: What is your creative process like? By “creative process,” I mean anything that includes the development of your poetry, getting through writer’s block and anything you might do to take care of your creative soul.

Katherine: I think my creative process is characterized by being in community and then needing to withdraw in order to process and reflect on what was learnt with others. [Then I] integrate that into my way of operating in the world. That dynamic of being in a group and then being alone is important to me. An important part of my creative process is conversation – one-to-one, intimate conversations. Including with myself. I find that if I am ever really feeling stuck finding a way to be with others, or talking to one person or writing to myself helps. Being with others is a little aspirational sometimes, so sometimes ‘others’ includes reading clusters of books or media on a shared question, or going to visit my plants, or going to the ocean, or moving with what’s around.

Stephanie: What kind of advice would you give to a writer who is writing about their genealogy?

Katherine: You’re the only person who knows what you’re doing, so trust yourself. And distrust anyone who asks you subtly or unsubtly to not trust yourself and your own intentions. Also be clear on your own intentions so that you can discern who to trust. Also, be gentle.

I’d also say try to write the material first, without self-censoring, and then work on it and revise it with the idea of your responsibility to yourself and any responsibility you might feel to the people you are writing about.

N. L.: At one particular point, you explained that your grandmother’s character is one which is an amalgam of different people and also the idea of the maternal. Can you speak a little about your relationship to issues of fact and fiction as an artist?

Katherine: This is a hard question to answer. The easiest and most anti-climatic answer is to say that I like the label of speculative non-fiction, which allows me to reflect on basic truths and speculate on various matters related to them. It’s important to retain that freedom when I write. I was reading a lot of color theory as I was writing, and playing with paint, so some of my writing is a reaction or performance in response to certain materials. Fact and fiction are less important there. I’m just trying to write things that offer insight, and I try to offer it as it comes.

Otherwise, I am still working out my answer to this question. There are people who write about fact and fiction and ethnography. The format of the book – which moves between genres, slipping from poetry to personal essay to fiction to image to computer to human voice – allowed me to speculate on the effects and footholds of colonialism without lingering or centering or glorifying its evils. When you’re writing about worn-out behaviors the thing to do is keep it moving. I mean, that’s an argument too. Don’t stagnate! Don’t hoard! Moving between fact and fiction and genre and voice was a way to do that, and creating characters as archetypes was a way to do that as well.

N. L.: I wonder, too, could you speak a little about the difficulty of exploring the experiencing oppression in the English language, which has historically been used as a tool of oppression?

Katherine: In some ways the preface is the key to the whole book, or the section I like reading because it feels the most complete, and the rest of the book invites being read out of order. There’s a Twi dictionary in the preface – it’s an ode to a language lost, but also one that still shapes ways of seeing the world. And one that I can still try to know, and it’s important to try and know it, and learn from speakers of indigenous languages, and integrate non-colonial languages into our worldviews. I’m basically saying, look for meaning away from English. Or make English do what we need it to do, something that Black people have been doing forever.

I use certain colonial terms in the book – particularly drawing on Moreau de St Méry’s taxonomies of race – to show that the terms we still use today are colonial ones, made to draw separations based on class and labor position within a plantation economy. Even the term people of color is that. We need new terms and ways to have discernment that aren’t about class and hierarchy. And that don’t conflate skin color to being of any particular value, without denying visible difference. And so I use certain words in the context of conversation, as well as trying to show their origins. All of this, I hope, underscores the exhaustion of their use value. Simultaneously, knowing certain words allows us to find our history in written records and reclaim it for our own needs. The use value can be archaeological and connective across colonized peoples, but not really creative or decolonial in itself. I’m tired of innovation on the same old themes. We need language that comes from new systems of thought. I’m more inspired by plants lately, and try to stay as close as possible to the origin of a symbol.

Scott: How do you see your use of media, art, and color in conversation with this discussion of meaning and meaning-seeking in your work?

Katherine: I aim to get to a place of exhaustion with language, and begin from there. This book got me to a place of exhaustion, like peeling off old husks, and I’m excited about what comes next. Some of the images preceded the writing, and some were made at the end of a thought, once the words were exhausted. Making the paintings preceded some of the writing, and it was a way for me to begin to get a hold on the complexity of coming to the US and encountering really new and unfathomable hierarchies of race and class that were entangled in things I took for granted in Trinidad. Writing begins in that place, of not knowing how to say something. If it is possible to say something clearly, then one should. So I do. Hierarchy is bad. Genocide is wrong. Life is precious. Racism is painful and deadly, and also deeply tedious. These things are so obvious as to seem silly said out loud, and yet these essential beliefs are obscured in daily life by seemingly thousands of small decisions in a capitalistic society that wears away at our discernment. The things that are harder to say – that are genuinely difficult – can only really be communicated in the nuance of poetry, and in image and in story. And I tried my best to intersperse some very lucid fact-telling with the kinds of nuance that can only be found in images, or the accumulation of small moments. That’s where I prefer to dwell.

The Interviewers:

Stephanie Segura is a Southern California-born poet and the daughter of Central American immigrants. Her poetry explores a lineage of displacement through speculative testimony, audio transcriptions, and written recollections. Her work is featured in Pacific Review Publication and Clamor. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing & Poetics from the University of Washington Bothell and a 2020 Hugo House Fellow.

Scott Bentley is a student in the Master of Fine Arts program in Creative Writing & Poetics at the University of Washington Bothell. He is a curator for the Gamut literary series and an editor for Clamor. His poetry and prose have appeared in Pacific Review, Albion Review, Clamor, and other journals.

Born in Federal Way, Washington, N. L. Sweeney is a writer of queer, feminist speculative fiction and graduate of the University of Washington Bothell’s Creative Writing & Poetics MFA program. They have been writing stories since they were old enough to spell (badly). Some of their works have appeared in Unbound III: Goodbye Earth, Sublunary Review, Twisted, Flash Fiction Online, and Clamor. When not writing, they keep busy by escaping into video games, brewing cups of tea, and asking if they can pet strangers’ dogs.