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July 2024 Feature: Mecca Jamilah Sullivan

Mecca Jamilah Sullivan is the award-winning author of Big Girl, Blue Talk and Love, and The Poetics of Difference: Queer Feminist Forms in the African Diaspora.

Mecca Jamilah Sullivan, Ph.D., is the author of the novel Big Girl, a New York Times Editors’ Choice and winner of the 2023 Next Generation Indie Book Award for First Novel and the Balcones Fiction Prize. Her previous books are the short story collection, Blue Talk and Love, winner of the 2018 Judith Markowitz Award for LGBTQ Writers, and The Poetics of Difference: Queer Feminist Forms in the African Diaspora winner of the William Sanders Scarborough Prize from the Modern Language Association. In her writing, she explores the links between language, imagination, and bodily life in Black queer and feminist experiences. Her stories and essays have appeared in Best New Writing, The Kenyon Review, Callaloo, Feminist Studies, American Fiction, Prairie Schooner, Crab Orchard Review, TriQuarterly, GLQ: Lesbian and Gay Studies Quarterly, American Literary History, The Scholar and Feminist, American Quarterly, Public Books,,,, and others. A BBC Radio 2 Book Club pick and a New York Times Paperback Row selection, Big Girl was named a best books feature by TIME, Essence, People, Vulture, Ms, Goodreads, Booklist, She Reads, The Root, Library Reads, Glamour UK, Vogue France, and others. Her work has earned support and honors from the Bread Loaf Writers Conference, Yaddo, Hedgebrook, Millay Arts, the Institute for Citizens and Scholars, the Mellon Foundation, the Center for Fiction, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, and the National Endowment for the Arts. Born and raised in Harlem, NY, she is a Professor of English at Georgetown University and lives in Washington D.C.

The Club

Author’s Note: “The Club” is a fast and loose riff on Conditions 5, The Black Women’s Issue (1979), revisiting the style of Alice Walker’s critical short story, “Coming Apart,” (Take Back the Night: Women on Pornography edited by Laura Lederer, William Morrow and Company, 1980). Published between 1977 and 1990, Conditions was a lesbian feminist literary journal edited and maintained by a collective of foundational writers including Barbara Smith, Cheryl Clarke, Jewelle Gomez, and Rima Shore. For contemporary readers, Conditions 5: The Black Women’s Issue offers a stunning gathering of black feminist voices. At the time of its publication, it caused significant controversy for its refusal to silence black lesbian voices or subjugate black feminist sexuality and erotic life. This criticism, linked to the “sex wars” of the early 1980s, grapples with a politics of respectability and sexual silencing that persists in some areas of feminist discourse in 2024, particularly in the policing of black women’s sexual self-expression. Where and how do black queer sex, sex workers, trans and nonbinary experience, and other disallowed realms of black gender and sexual being find safety and freedom in black feminist visions of futurity? This is a crucial question of our time. Conditions 5: The Black Women’s Issue lights a path for answering these questions, and reminds us that we’ve been here before. Edited by Barbara Smith and Lorraine Bethel, and containing works by Audre Lorde, Pat Parker, Gloria T. Hull, Beverly Smith, Demita Frazier, Cheryl Clarke, Alexis De Veaux, Donna K. Rushin, Ann Allen Shockley and many others, Conditions 5 is a gathering space for the full, brazen, queer complexity of black feminist being. In “The Club,” I imagine such a figurative space in a not-so-distant physical future, considering how these writers, their characters, and the voices they conjure might inflect our own discussions about pleasure, safety and freedom. Each character in “The Club” is named for a central contributor, theme, or concept in Conditions 5. I take up a speculative expository fiction approach, revisiting Walker’s short story, “Coming Apart,” in which she uses the creative tools of allegorical fiction to contextualize and amplify the feminist critiques of pornography collected in another important anthology of the era—the 1980 text Take Back the Night. It is in this story (itself a critique of porn), that Walker first introduces the term “womanism.” In “The Club,” I tilt the allegory toward a sex-inclusive and pleasure-emphatic vision of Black Queer Feminism, exploring spaces of subversive sexuality, bodily pleasure, and erotic life as sites of black feminist possibility not unlike the space that lies between the covers of Conditions 5, The Black Women’s Issue.


Our Third World lesbian spaces will come

From those of us who are remembering in increasing numbers That imitation versions don’t make it…

Black lesbian writers

Third World women artists from all over Meeting, joining forces, sharing sista energy Speaking to our own experiences and sensibility Without having to explain anything to each other 

Because we are each other’s lives and words

-- Lorraine Bethel, “What Chou Mean We, White Girl? Or, the Cullud Lesbian Feminist Declaration of Independence” (Conditions 5, 86)

Five ran her tongue over her lipstick under her mask and pushed through the door, trying not to think of Angelina. It was August, humid, and the outside air clung to her skin even as the AC from the club smacked toward her. She was two hours early, but still she felt a deep relief on arriving. Today, she couldn’t get to work soon enough. Clearly she wasn’t the only one who felt that way—several dancers were there already, laying out their outfits, eating, talking shit, making out.

Renita, Will, Beverly, and Clemmon stood before the full-length mirror stretching, admiring their lines and curves as the formally trained dancers did. They swore they were true artists. And they were. Five had observed this with some bitterness when she first got to the club years ago, bracing herself for the kind of tired high-art/low-art battle that had played itself out ad nauseam in her own dance school experience, one of the reasons she’d quit. Sometimes that fight did surface backstage at the club, but to Five’s surprise, when it did, it was quickly cut short in a brilliant turn of phrase, often from Renita, who would swivel her head in the midst of a tabletop pose and say “we’re all artists, y’all. Show me a living black woman who ain’t.” To this, Will and Clemmon murmured clear but indefinite affirmation, saying “You right, you right,” agreeing, but giving themselves space to think on it some more.

As she pushed into the club, Five washed her hands, dropped her bags in the spray space, and gave a long, maskless exhale as the Sani-Mist covered her. She waved at the bartender, Alex D, the nonbinary mixologist who had deep skin and a nameless sexy, and who made the best Old Fashioned you ever had, every single time. Once, when Five asked what the secret to their Old Fashioned was, Alex looked at her matter-of-factly. “I put the whole Afrofuture in it,” they said, then walked away with a twerk in their step.

Today, Alex D stood propped behind the bar talking with E.J., another dancer, about one of the club’s favorite topics of discussion: black women and self-care. For Five, the phrase “self-care” rang hollow outside the club—it had been beaten to death since the first wave of the pandemic back in 2020, and now it seemed to mean everything from proper re-vaccination cycling, to outlandish e-vacation splurges, to the latest pumpkin spice trend on white-girl Instagram. But at the club, these conversations enlivened her. So much of what happened here was self-care, truly, though Five wouldn’t have phrased it that way. She would simply call it survival, freedom. The dressing, the talking, the rituals of hair and makeup, the cleaning, the protecting. The sex and the food. Even the dancing—the work itself—felt nourishing more often than not. The club was the first place Five had ever really felt that way, including everyplace she’d called home and every crew she’d called family. This, more than anything, was what kept her coming back to the club. And it was the reason she was here, at work, two hours early today.

She had not found the words to explain to Angelina that dancing at the club was her survival. It wasn’t that Angelina disapproved of her work—not exactly. Angelina was older, but she was quiet and reserved in a way that made Five want both to protect her and to lure her into playful temptation. Five could sense that Angelina admired the freedom and heat of the club, but that she always felt herself an outsider. Angelina had grown up in a strict family steeped in old money and proper Black Middle Class values, among which quietude, rigidity, and respectability were chief. To her credit, Angelina worked hard to free herself of these restraints—Five knew this was part of what drew them together. She liked watching Angelina surprise herself with her desire. She enjoyed luring her further and further into daring, seeing her pleased and startled by the sound of her own voice.

Five was also grateful to Angelina. It was thanks to her that they had a home—a cute two-bedroom with excellent public Wifi in a state with no police and a relatively efficient Community Safety Bureau, one of the first to go firearm-free. They shared the apartment with Angelina’s cats, Rachel and Rosalie, who didn’t quite love Five, but tolerated her well enough. Angelina was a teacher, and she spent her days in their brightly lit office ScreenTiming with her tenth- and eleventh-grade literature students in front of the room’s vast bookshelves. Of all the things Angelina had brought into Five’s life, her library may have been the best. Angelina’s shelves were amply curated and meticulously arranged, with prose and poetry monographs from Arroyo Pizarro to Zami, and all the most important anthologies and journals: Take Back the Night, The Black Woman, This Bridge Called My Back, Words of Fire, Mouths of Rain, Home Girls, Sinister Wisdom, every issue of Conditions. Angelina had even installed a Home Assistant audio plugin, multi-programed from title to author to genre and back. Sometimes, between Angelina’s ScreenTime classes, Five would wander into the office before work to stare at the colorful spines and pick the poet who would accompany her through her day. “Homie, show me Living as a Lesbian,” she’d say. Within seconds, the room would bluster up in response: “Living as A Lesbian. Cheryl Clarke. Shelf Four. Row C. Enjoy, girl.”

Five loved how Angelina had her shit together, how she could be counted on to know what the safe bet was and to make it every time. Five also loved playing the role of the young and irascible temptress. She relished thinking of herself as the thick-hipped dancer who encouraged Angelina to come out to her uptight family, who held her hand while she let her body speak in bed. Still, even after Angelina had crept out the closet into the relative safety of their shared life, her daring would only go so far. Her vision of a black lesbian future was a home and marriage, gourmet cat food for Rachel and Rosalie, children, legality, normalcy.

“You know white picket fences are not viral insulators,” Five had joked once. “They don’t even make them anymore.” Angelina smiled, flushed. “Whatever,” she said. “Just give me my 2.5 kids, like they used to say, and we’ll be good. Population law be damned.”

Five wasn’t opposed to this life, intellectually, although having children would mean she would have to stay home from the club while Angelina taught, at least for a while, which she was not willing to do. Where Angelina craved the safe cocoon of acceptance, for Five, inconspicuousness was death. Five wanted space, self-possession, shamelessness. She wanted the warmth of her own spotlight and phenomenal sex. Angelina insisted their desires were not incompatible, but Five was not so sure. This was the cause of many fights between them. Disagreements, Angelina would call them, but still.

These were the disagreements that had pushed her from the apartment to the club two hours early today. Angelina had purchased three vials of sperm without telling her, and had made a down payment on a pair of identical wedding rings. “Not for now,” she had insisted this morning when Five found out by reading the bank statement for their shared account. “Just for safe-keeping. For the future!” But the presumption that this future should be neat and orderly and entirely of Angelina’s devising—the expectation that Five should mute her pleasure for that vision—it made her skin hot. 

“Who’s future?” she had shouted, her voice a crash of sound across the kitchen. Angelina only looked at her, her face blank as an empty page. She looked confused, maybe betrayed. Still, Five continued. “Who’s safety are you trying to keep, Ange? Who is your so-called future for?” 

But before Angelina could respond, Five felt her own heat overtake her. It made her need to move, to leave. She hadn’t been sure how far, or for how long. She still wasn’t sure now. She breathed out again as she thought of it, trying to shake the words off her skin as she moved deeper into the Club.

“You getting my cocktail ready, right?” She said to Alex D on the way to the dressing room. They stood striking, gorgeous, with teal eyeshadow and a bright blue bowtie. “My regular, please,” Five continued. “Old Fashioned. But make it next- level strong. It’s already been one of those days.”

“I got you, Five.” Alex D smiled. “But is it the regular or is it next-level? There’s a difference, you know. You gonna have to choose. She does know that right, Tsaba?” Tsaba was a yellow-skinned dancer with a pitch-fork-shaped scar on her hand. She had volunteered for the first vaccine trials in 2021 and had the sight ever since. Tsaba looked at Five’s forehead, then back at Alex, and rolled her eyes. “Yeah, she know.”

“Fine,” Five said, sighing through a smile. “Give me next-level then. That’s what I need. I’ll come get it before I dance.”

The customers wouldn’t arrive for another hour, but the house DJ, Flowers, had already started playing. Five loved the club’s soundtrack— it was all blackgirl body and blackqueer raunch, a mix of Classical tracks by Salt-N-Pepa, Queen Latifah, and MC Lyte, blended with Golden Age bangers by Foxy Brown, Lil Kim, and Missy, and throwbacks by City Girls, Nitty Scott, Meg Thee Stallion and Cardi B. Just now Flowers played an old school Big Freedia song that made Five’s muscles want to leap and her ass swing into motion.

She made her way to the dressing room, where Linda, Shari, and Ewar were talking in a close circle, vibing on the political potentials of black queer art from under a cloud of smoke. This was another pleasure of the club—close talking and touch. Outside, no one had seen hugs beyond family since the Before Times. But everyone who entered the club—dancer, customer, babymutha, whoever—was tested twice using the H. Lacks Instantscan, which the club purchased monthly with funds crowd-founded by the Taylor- McDade Dirty Computer IT collective and the Muholi Arts Trust. This meant the club was safer than any other place in the country.

Five watched as the dancers talked, brushing shoulders, caressing skin without worry, a collage of lip gloss and neckties and leather harnesses and sequined bras. She basked in the dancers’ flirtation, their loudness, the way they made their opinions known and refused to behave. This was what she wanted. What Angelina couldn’t seem to see. The club was a wonderland of black bodies, genders, and voices, so that even on days when Five didn’t feel like working, the space filled her with something she needed to get through the rest of her life. When she walked in the door, the mask came off and her body was misted and she felt herself yawn open, ready for what the night had to offer.

Unlike her life with Angelina, conversations at the club were different every day. The discussions about art were her favorite. The chance to sit and listen to these queer conversations about black creative force was like water to her. It was exactly what she’d been missing in school, and at home as a child, and in all the other spaces she’d been.

Sometimes, between sets, she and the other dancers sat and talked with the regulars, especially Michelle, the college student activist who looked at you like she was studying for a test, and got all the dancers in their feelings about prison abolition. Sometimes Michelle brought her friends Janet, Muri, Jones and Rushin, and they sat backstage with the dancers, eating Alex D’s famous lemon-pepper wings and talking shit about trifling men or plotting revolution.

Then there was Pat, the beautiful brown-skin trickster with the gleaming eyes who stood at the doorway. With her fly jackets and mercilessly polished shoes, she made the dancers feel safer and clear of their direction just by standing there, reminding people where they were, helping them figure out where they needed to be. No one knew what Pat’s exact title was—Five thought of her as part security, part creative director. She had a V-Port Immunity Passport Verificationist License, a formality for the club, but Pat wasn’t one for titles. When white people or cishet dudes wandered to the doorway, slurring their speech and fumbling over her pronouns, she looked at them like their faces were punchlines and said “Leave me to me and let’s talk about you. Do you need directions home?”

This was how it was at the club. Every night was a study in how to do black queer life. Some called it Black feminism and some said that wasn’t for them—that the phrase was old, something that went out with maskless hugs and live arena concerts years ago. Five was clear that all her feminism would need to be black and queer. And that’s what it was for her: BlackQueerFeminism. But to her, it didn’t matter so much what you called it—she knew it when she saw it: black people unbraiding gender and celebrating the strange in themselves, plotting against their pain and spinning pleasure into art, loving and fucking, wet and ready to re-weave the world.

In the spirit of this vision, Five connected with as many dancers as she could, and she made it a point to learn their names and stories. It was a good way to keep from thinking about her issues with Angelina. There were so many dancers who came through the space, fat and thick and short and thin, those with immigration papers and those without, speaking all kinds of languages and serving all the queer genders you could think of. There was Jonetta, who had one arm and a hurricane of silver hair and could climb a pole faster than anyone. There was Chirlane, the quiet newbie from New York whose eyes brimmed with feeling, and Toi and Allegra, both proudly unchilded, who danced like their bodies were no-one’s but their own. There was a black girl named Becky, who moved like a windmill and always wore a rose in her hair. There were the songsters, Patricia, Hillary, Calla, and Mary; if you listened closely, you could hear them singing riffs and runs in shocking harmony with the music while they danced. Then there was Audre, the fat, black, half-blind ambidextrous aerialist. She was a powerhouse whose inversions shifted gravity. She made you think the ground was the air, and when she was flying, you were flying with her. There were rumors Audre owned the place, but she never commented either way.

This was another of the club’s mysteries. More than once, it crossed Five’s mind that someone should write a history of the club—a documentary, maybe, or a biopic, like the one Bambara’s Revolution Black Film Collective made about the Combahee River Collective back in 2026. The club had so many origin stories they were hard to gather into a single thread. It had moved around, changed purposes and locations often over time and tellings. Some said it began as a weekly voting-rights fishfry hosted by Atlanta’s most notorious 1960s bulldagger. Others said it started as a women-only speakeasy in Harlem during prohibition. Occasionally, Five overheard the college professor regulars, Barbara, Ann, and Gloria talking about the history, their voices lifting up to bold tones in vibrant debate. They talked about the club with passion, as though it meant as much in their hearts and bodies as it did in their minds. And so they were part of the club, to Five and everyone else, though they would probably never get on stage and dance. Then again, scholars could surprise you—often they were low-key artists too. Five relished dancing for them, bumping extra deep, grinding extra juicy before them while she listened.

One thing the scholars did agree on was that the club had no owner. Over the years, it had borrowed various spaces, stayed around for a while, expanded, changed a little. Eventually, it attracted too much of the wrong kind of attention, and you would find even the off-nights overrun with white people and cishets, winding in awkward mimicry of the dancers as though crashing a gay club for a bachelorette, their presence so space-taking it threatened to strip the walls of color. Then it was time to switch up, morph again, recreate and move on, cropping up new, different and unexpected somewhere else.

In this way, Five thought, Angelina was not so unlike the dancers. She was predictable in some respects—her need for sameness and safety, her yearning to be right. But she had a way of popping up in a space and a form you wouldn’t anticipate, a penchant for pleasant surprise. She had this in common with Five, too. Perhaps this was what frustrated Five most. If she’d felt that Angelina didn’t understand her, it would have been easier. But Angelina did understand—knew her in the same language in which she knew herself—and she judged her anyway. This was what hurt.

Five was lotioning up backstage when she heard Pat announce that Angelina was at the door. She appeared at the entrance looking hot and upset. Her plain pink mask covered her face, and her breath steamed against her spindly glasses. Pat screened her and checked her V-Port. “Sorry Ange,” she said. “I have to.”

Angelina nodded and finally Pat ushered her in. Five waited for her to unmask and spray so they could kiss, but Angelina lingered in the doorway, her mouth still covered. She looked around the space as though she’d never been there before. Patricia and Chirlane walked by with feathers in their hair.

“You can take your mask off, girl,” Chirlane said, laughing. “We all safe in here.”

Five watched as Angelina stepped under the spray mister, her mask still on. Five loved to watch the dancers spray-mist when they entered, their shoulders relaxing in deep exhalation as they washed off the rigid distance outside and opened to the closeness of the Club. But Angelina remained stiff, uneasy. 

“I just came to support, see what y’all are up to.” Angelina said. “ScreenTime’s down again so I had to cancel class.” She looked away.

It was thirty minutes until opening, and the music began to play. The first shift dancers began stretching, making last-minute repairs to their costumes, practicing spins and splits against the poles. Angelina looked back at Five. “I’m sorry about this morning. I’m just tired. Work and all.”

“Yeah,” Five said. This was their rhythm. Half-throated fights that never came to full volume, too-quick apologies that never reached full depth. Five was about to offer her own apology—she wasn’t yet sure for what, when Afrekete walked by. “Scuse me, y’all,” she said, managing to look them both in the eye at once. Afrekete was unanimously considered the Club’s most beautiful dancer. Part sky creature, part Sahara cat, with slow-blooming eyes and an easy smile, she looked at you in a way that pierced you, made you think she’d known you all your life. But then, just as quickly, she dropped your gaze, as though she’d never actually noticed you at all. Rumor had it she’d broken Audre’s heart back in the day, but no one could confirm this. Now she sashayed past Five and Angelina, all wide hip and swinging thigh, her costume an elaborate puff of fruit cutouts and peach-colored tulle. She smiled, the melony smell of her body oil settling between them. She was stunning, surprising. Five felt both herself and Angelina lose their breath.

“I’m sorry,” Angelina said again, this time with a tight laugh. She gestured to the corner, where Mocque, the club’s accountant and trans-advocacy consultant was practicing her pussy-pop handstands against the back wall in a leather bustier. “You can’t tell me this is where you want to spend your life. This is the work you want to do?”

Five watched as Afrekete walked to the mirror beside Janet, bent into a forward fold, and shimmied herself up, her costume flapping over her bare behind. She did this a few more times, gave a pigeon-toed twerk. Then she ran over to the table where Pat and Audre were sitting and swiped a lemon-pepper wing, laughing.

“Look. I admire it. I really do,” Angelina’s voice went plaintive, siren-like. “I love your body. I love all our bodies. I love how we move. And I want us to love our bodies too. But I just wonder… why the stage and the lights? Why does it all have to be so big, so public? So loud? I mean, isn’t there something to be said for privacy? Safety? As feminists, black queer folk, lesbians, whoever, don’t we deserve that too? I mean, if we want it?”

“I don’t want it,” Five said. Now it was her turn to be surprised by her own voice. “If safety is the limit of your vision, I don’t want it. What I want is to get my Black queer feminist life. I want something complex and contradictory as us. Something that’s as strange and shameless and as much about our pleasure as we need to be. I don’t want anything else or anything less.”

Customers had started to gather, some taking notes, others just being nosey. The music got louder.

“Okay,” Angelina said. She raised her voice, looking afraid. “I hear you. I’m not shaming or whatever. I’m not. Sex and desire and ass-shaking. It’s all a part of it. I get it. It’s just…” She hunched her shoulders and gestured around at the dancers, laughing, stretching, arranging their outfits and talking shit. Teasing each other, kissing each other, breathing. “These women are so brilliant. All these folks,” she said. “Wouldn’t we all be

better off with y’all at the library? Or making policy? Or even out in the street, protesting? Someplace where real work can actually happen?”

Now the dancers began to gather: Gloria, Barbara, Beverly, Cheryl, Becky, Audre, Lorraine, Donna, Ann, Toi, Pat. They stood there, a dazzle of black skin and body, waiting. Five couldn’t pull her eyes off them.

“We are the library,” she said, clear as night. “This is the school and the Smithsonian. Show me a black woman surviving that ain’t an artist. Show me a black queer person living in pleasure that don’t deserve a Nobel prize.”

The dancers watched Angelina watch them, all their states of costume and undress. Five watched, too, wondering what she would do if Angelina started to cry. They stood there, everything quiet but the song playing from the speakers, a wail of black girl raunch and wanting.

“Ok,” Angelina said.

“You can take your mask off, baby,” Alex D called from behind the bar. “We all safe in here. Safe as we can be. Come on in. Let yourself breathe.”

“Ok,” she said again. But she didn’t move.

Five walked toward her slowly, her arm extended to help, but Angelina pulled away. She stepped under the mister again and Pat pushed the button, the air moistening and fog frosting the plexiglass shield as Angelina pulled the cloth from her own face. She moved toward the dancers again, still clothed, but now, somehow, more naked than anyone. 

The bassline thumped. Pat called the welcome greeting and the regulars flocked to their favorite seats as the first-shift dancers took the stage, a pageant of long-limbed flags and leans and attitudes from floor to pole. The air smelled like lotion, and bodies, and sex, and good food. Irresistible. Five picked up the drink that was waiting for her at the end of the bar. Next-level. She handed it to Angelina, and they walked into the music.

 "The Club" was originally published in Sinister Wisdom: Vol. 123. Jan 2022.


This interview was conducted between Mecca Jamilah Sullivan and Jae Nichelle on July 5, 2024.

Firstly, wow, thank you for sharing “The Club.” I want to live in this story. I’d love to hear more about your approach to bringing a different form of life to the 1979 Conditions 5, The Black Women’s Issue. How did it feel to name your characters after the magazine’s contributors and themes and bring them into an imagined future? What was your process?

Thank you for this. I want to live there too! As an artist/scholar, this was a very cool project for me. I originally wrote the story for the fantastic 2022 Sinister Wisdom special issue on the iconic feminist magazine Conditions, which published from 1977 to 1990. As a scholar of Black queer and feminist literature, I had spent a lot of time studying Conditions–and especially Conditions 5: The Black Women’s Issue. It was one of many crucial journals and anthologies that gathered the voices of so many of our foundational Black women poets, writers, and theorists, including Audre Lorde, Pat Parker, Cheryl Clarke, Alexis De Veaux, Demita Frazier, Barbara Smith, Akasha Gloria Hull, and many others. In my scholarship, I think a lot about how these anthologies and journal issues work as hybrid, multivocal texts, highlighting work across genres—including poetry, fiction, theoretical/critical essays, and sometimes interviews—and bringing together several different and sometimes contrasting voices to highlight the complexities of Black feminist and queer life. For me, this is the poetics and politics of genre-bending. This idea of how we complicate voice and write across literary genres is at the center of my academic work, and it also motivates me as an artist myself. So when Sinister Wisdom’s editor, Julie Enszer, reached out to me to reflect on The Black Women’s Issue in any genre—including fiction—I jumped at the chance. 

In terms of feeling, there was a lot of pleasure in this story for me. That’s partly the pleasure of genre-bending and working across the creative-theoretical divide, which I’ve always enjoyed. But it’s also partly because the story is about pleasure in many ways. I wanted to imagine a Black queer future that centers the pleasure of our bodily expression, one in which we’re in close conversation with history, and in which our survival is complex, collective, oppositional, and juicy. 

In detailing her dispute with Angelina, Five says that for her, “inconspicuousness was death.” In Black queer feminist practice, do you feel that there is tension between the desires of space + shamelessness and safety + comfort?

Absolutely. I think that we’re living in a moment when, for many of us in the US, there’s an expanded sense of choice in how we imagine our lives, at least to some degree. The middle-class American ideal of safety and comfort seems to be in reach for many of us. For some, this might entail marriage, children, property ownership and social recognition. But in the same way that the women these characters are named for showed us that silence is not a protection, I think there are conversations we still need to have about whom the cover of social recognition protects. This is not to throw shade on comfort or safety in any way. I think we need to make strategic use of both of those things. But I think there’s still much more to say about the dangers of respectability politics in Black queer and feminist communities. If the structures of safety we’re aiming for don’t protect the disabled, trans, fat, poor, and working class folks in our communities (for example), they’re not really safe, so they shouldn’t feel comfortable. And, of course, a lot of this unsafety happens through the policing of the body—what one wears, who one desires, how one does gender, in what way one expresses the erotic. When Five talks about shamelessness, for me what she’s envisioning is a space of value outside of respectability, where the self and the body can find safety in and through pleasure, not in spite of it. 

I keep thinking about Five’s declaration that “We are the library,” coupled with how you’ve previously said that Black queer feminism includes recognizing “the body and the interior world as sites of knowledge and power.” In what ways do you remain grounded in your own body? How do you stay validated in your experiences?

Ok citation, come through! I love this question. Yes, I absolutely believe that our bodies and our inner lives work together as resources that can sustain us. You know, that line, “we are the library,” is something I’ve been coming back to recently, although I didn’t realize it until you asked this question. I recently had the chance to write about Cheryl Clarke’s brilliant new collection, Archive of Style, and it has me thinking a lot about Black lesbian, queer, and feminist archives. What does it mean to imagine the body as text and archive? What do we keep there, and how do we keep it? For me, this is key to grounding and validation. I refuse to accept the lie that the body and the intellect are separate. I say “refuse” because it often requires an active, ongoing refusal. We’re often encouraged to imagine our bodies as things to “master,” police, and change, and too often this becomes a major responsibility of the mind—to alter and manage the body. Of course, this is a great way to keep us distracted from both the fact of our pleasure and the task of our freedom, because we’re busy trying to change the only thing we may really have—ourselves. So I stay grounded and validated by reminding myself of the pleasure of my body and the importance of my inner world. When I started writing “The Club,” I had a dance practice and a wonderful community that sustained me. I’ve moved since then, but I still dance. I also run, and kickbox, and savor love and delicious food to stay connected to my body. And to stay validated in my inner world, I write. But more than that I read. Reading is the best company. 

You were born in Harlem, and the city is an integral part of your novel Big Girl as well as your story collection Blue Talk and Love. Living in Washington D.C. now, do you feel connected to the city and culture? Do you see D.C. creeping into your work?

It’s so funny that you ask this. Just this morning I was looking out on my DC neighborhood and wondering when and how the city will show up in my fiction. When I started writing Big Girl in earnest, I had left Harlem and had moved to Philadelphia. Now I’m working on something that’s set partly in Philly. I’m enjoying DC, and I’m really liking the process of setting up community here, so it’ll be exciting to see how it comes into my work. 

Do you have any hobbies, hidden talents, or passions that people would be surprised to learn about?

I’m not sure how surprising it might be, but I haven’t talked or written much about my movement practices. I found a wonderful dance community a few years ago that allowed me to tap into parts of my creative self that I hadn’t connected with in a long time. I had taken some dance classes as a child, but those experiences weren’t positive, and so I kind of ran from dance as soon as I had the option. Returning to dance was actually part of my process in writing The Poetics of Difference. I was writing about Black queer and feminist practice in a range of forms, including poetry, fiction, theatre, music, and visual art. I had had at least some hands-on creative experience in each of those forms as an artist, but dance was something I hadn’t done since childhood. So I decided to take some classes, and I fell in love with the community I found. I also like to run. I started running 5ks a few years ago, and I’ve run thirteen or fourteen races since then. I like it because it feels like flying. 

In a Center For Fiction interview, you mentioned that while working on Big Girl, you had to trust your voice and your vision. What types of practices keep you motivated even when something isn’t happening in the timeline you hoped it would?

Wooh. Honestly, this changes for me depending on what’s going on in my life, my work, and my writing. Over the years, I’ve learned to be flexible, and to listen to what I need to support my writing today, knowing it may be different from what worked in the past, and that it may not work in the future. Big Girl was my third book, and neither it nor either of the previous two happened on the timeline I had originally envisioned. With my first book, Blue Talk and Love, I was writing stories, which helped soften the impact of departures from my little timeline. I find stories to be more manageable, so that I could finish a draft of a story, send it out, and start another story or work on something else while waiting to see where it landed. I was working on my dissertation, which later became The Poetics of Difference, while finishing Blue Talk and Love and revising Big Girl. Each was a long process, with several different movements and eras and moods. But there are two things that sustained me throughout: reading and purpose. With everything I write, I find it helpful to connect with why I want to write it. Audre Lorde says “I started writing because I had a need inside of me to create something that was not there.” I try to stay close to that need, knowing that if I need to read something, someone else may need it too. And when tapping into purpose is hard, I read the writers that sustain me. I usually start with Lorde, Toni Morrison, Ntozake Shange, and Jamaica Kincaid. Their voices get me writing every time. 

What’s a short story you’ve read that changed your perspective on what a short story can be?

Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl.” But really, many of her stories. Partly because when they came out, people wondered whether they should be classified as stories at all. They are so voice-rich, so interior, and they theorize blackness, gender, mother-daughter relationships and the complexities of Black girls’ intellectual lives in ways that I find irresistible. 

How can people support you right now?

It’s always a joy to connect with readers. I’m on the road a lot these days for events, so if I’m stopping by your city, I hope you’ll come and say “hi.”

Name another Black woman writer people should follow.

Bettina Judd is the truth. Her latest book, Feelin, takes this conversation on Black women, pleasure, and creativity to incredible places, and the way she represents for the Black feminist artist/scholars is beautiful. I can’t wait for folks to read Cheryl’s phenomenal new collection, which I mentioned. And I’m excited about the reprint of the iconic Alexis De Veaux’s 1984 Blue Heat, which is coming out through Sinister Wisdom with a new introduction by Alexis Pauline Gumbs, whose new biography of Lorde I just got my copy of and cannot wait to read. That’s more than one, but I believe in the spirit of more. 


Torch Literary Arts is a 501(c)3 nonprofit established to publish and promote creative writing by Black women. We publish contemporary writing by experienced and emerging writers alike. Programs include the Wildfire Reading Series, writing workshops, and retreats.


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