The Brooklyn-born Cuban-Jamaican poet Aja Monet has emerged as a powerful voice of struggle for justice against police violence and violence against women. Her poems also critique capitalism and men who make war. Monet spent time in Palestine and has become an outspoken critic of Israeli occupation. Aja Monet’s weapon is her poetry and spoken word. She has a new collection of her poetry that has just been published by Haymarket Books. It is called “My Mother Was a Freedom Fighter.”
On the Intercepted podcast, we talked to Aja Monet about the struggles of being a woman in modern society, racism, war, and Donald Trump. She said that Trump has not changed her or her work. “It’s no different,” she said, adding, “I think it’s different for a lot of white people. I think a lot — a majority — felt like this country was progressive because it had a black president. And so I think people were really blind to what’s actually going on in this country and what’s always been going on. And so, for me, I think Trump is only a reflection of their quote-unquote “worst,” but there’s even worse out there. And I think white folks have to face who Trump is and they need to face what he represents and what he’s spewed to the world and the values that he’s demonstrating that he believes are American.” What follows is the transcript of the entire interview:
Aja Monet: Thank you. Thank you for having me.
JS: There’s a lot I want to ask you about, but I first wanted to go in on the title of your latest book, “My Mother Was A Freedom Fighter.” Maybe you could just explain where the inspiration for that title came from?
AM: So the title is from a poem that is called “My Mother Was A Freedom Fighter,” and the poem essentially covers what I feel is the story of the trajectory of women who have nurtured and who have had to take care of other people and raise society and raise cultures and raise civilizations. And we think about mothers in such a, like we say it in a very romantic way, like, “Oh, my mother, I wouldn’t be here without my mother,” blah blah blah. But I don’t think we talk about it very practically. Like, what women do and what specifically women who bear children and take care of children, or maybe not be able to bear children, but nurture and take care of other people’s children, they teach the values of society.
And so I feel like every woman I know who has tried to exist in contemporary society, at least, or in any society in their time, has struggled to be and exist and to love and to nurture, and to raise up other nurturing loving people. And I think we haven’t really seen, at least in America, we haven’t seen a lot of support around what women do for society and the values that they instill in people.
JS: It’s interesting how you write in some of your work about the about the body of women, and about stretch marks in particular, and you talk about it as like, almost like pieces of art in some of your writing. And also very powerfully talking about C-sections, contemplation of abortion, what it means then for the child that’s born. I mean it’s really visceral stuff that seems borne of your personal experience, too.
AM: Yeah I think part of it is my mom. I wouldn’t be here without my mother, of course. And it’s been a complicated relationship for me.
I think a lot of young women daughters go through that where a woman trying to raise a child but also a woman trying to raise another woman is in and of itself its own difficult journey. And no one really teaches you how to do that the right way. I don’t think there is a right way.
However, my mom was a single mother and so seeing her raise three kids by herself and seeing the decisions she had to make and the ways that she had to make them. And some of the stories she shared and the things that she — the trauma she carried. And the complication of having these children. Yes she loved us but it also made her life very hard and very difficult and there wasn’t a lot of help. You know, there weren’t people — my father wasn’t really there. And I think that there should be safety nets for women specifically who are creating quote-unquote “the labor force of society,” that there’s something more than just being a being a romantic notion of motherhood is great. It’s like, the struggle that women have around whether they should have children, not just because I want to be a pro-feminist and I’m like, “Oh, abortion is my right!” But it’s also like a lot of black women never had the right to have children, during slavery their children were taken from them.
So the whole, the story of the transatlantic slave trade, and what people had to go through during babies overboard. I mean that’s all part of our narrative. So our whole relationship to the right to have children and to raise them is a whole different narrative than the “white feminist” quote-unquote narrative which is, “I don’t want to be in the house and I don’t want to…”
You know, there’s a lot of black women know that we love the chance to be in the house and not have to always take on the role of both “the man” and “the woman,” quote-unquote.
Obviously gender is very different and depending on how people identify. However I do believe that the womb is non-gender-conforming. You know, I think that it holds both masculine and feminine energy. And those are things I question why are we so focused on this one performance of gender or what that is, when I believe women, as we call them, have defied what the performance of gender is supposed to be, and particularly mothers.
So that’s that struggle for myself has been there because I’ve seen my mother struggle with it. And I’ve gone through personal experiences where I’ve wanted to have children and I wanted to create a life, and maybe felt like I wasn’t in the best position and felt like I wasn’t supported.
And there’s so much fear around it, there is so much—just, we don’t talk about it in a very uplifting, loving way. You know? How the narrative built around family is so weird in America, is like the picket fence and that whole narrative. But the complication is not often told. And so, I think I look forward to sharing these poems because it complicates the narrative and it gives something else to show what motherhood could be, I think.
JS: Which piece do you think would be most relevant for this part of the conversation? I mean if you have one based on what you were just saying. I don’t want to tell you what to read.
AM: So, there’s so many different poems. There’s a poem that I wrote called, “Dream Deferred.” There’s also a poem called, “The Emerging Woman After Aborting A Girl.” “Dream Deferred” is shorter. So the first poem is called, “The Emerging Woman After Aborting A Girl.”
“Eight a.m. in September, my daughter chose to show up at my doorstep unannounced. Had the nerve to come talk to me about being a mother when I wasn’t ready for no giving up my life to mother no ungrateful child. Wasn’t in no place to open no doors, to let her see my empty cupboard, to open my empty fridge. I ain’t got time to explain to no child why I write poems to relic the ruckus, why I collect sally-made letters in bags and post collages on walls. Or why I can’t love the way nobody taught me how. Or why my flaws show up in her face. Or how my dimples fall deep in her cheekbone. Ain’t got the heart to reason with her. My selfish choices are all the ways I couldn’t be of sacrifice. I couldn’t be nobody’s Christ. I ain’t got enough hours in the day to be somebody’s God. And I look at her face. I couldn’t bring myself to open the door. I couldn’t stand to see her through the peephole. All my life flashed before my eyes and one day, one day she’ll be a woman or not, have some children of her own or not. She’ll understand or not. Not till she does will she know the depth how we raise our heartaches and love the world whole, healing through snatches at glimpses of ourselves while we offer pieces of flesh to earth. Naw, there ain’t no mother here. You best be on your way.”
AM: And, I’ll share why those two poems in a bit. But this is “Dream Deferred”:
“I wear a wreath of miscarriages, the right and wrong of it. Heavily drugged, I bled and bled, watching droplets of me swirl down the drain, my breasts were voltaic to touch, shouting words at doorknobs. I cry my worst cry,
ugly, my mouth is frightened, my partner cannot face me, he is on call. Everywhere we go, I am a single mother mourning in public, my joy is short-lived. I mutter confessions to strangers, “I’m fine, I promise, I’m fine.”
JS: So you chose those pieces in the context of this conversation. What was going through your mind, or what was the connection?
AM: Well, for me, there’s several different poems I could have chosen, that all touched on different parts of what I was saying. But I think the first one was a poem that I wrote trying to reconcile my own — the things that were told to me about having a child and how that might have shaped the moment where I didn’t want to have to have a child, and I didn’t think I was ready, and I didn’t think the life was really … You know, I mean, I say, “Eight a.m. in September, my daughter chose to show up at my doorstep unannounced.” You know? And, “Had the nerve to come talk to me about being a mother when I wasn’t ready for no giving up my life to mother no ungrateful child.”
Part of that is these are things that are said from mothers, and my mother, that I know had she had more support or had she been around a better relationship with her mother, that perhaps it would’ve been a very different response to having a child, and joy that you come with having child. And I think I think there’s a different woman who emerges after a woman decide to not keep a child. I think you come into questions about what does it mean to be a woman why are you bestowed this “responsibility,” quote-unquote? Why does your body change? And what does it do and how does that affect you?
And so, I think it was a moment where I felt mostly transformed, and also that I needed to find a way to process what I was feeling, you know? That sometimes words help you communicate that.
And these are two very different situations. “Dream Deferred” was, for me, it has a lot of meanings and I don’t know without crying, I don’t know how comfortable I will feel speaking about it. But my partner is the head of organization called Dream Defenders and Langston Hughes wrote a poem speaking on “Dream Deferred, and “a raisin in the sun” and “what happens to a dream deferred?” And he speaks about it from the perspective of a black person in America, what happens to someone when they don’t fulfill their dream. And, for me, this was a time when I was in a different place in my life and I thought I would have loved to have a child and I was at the best place to, in my spirit and ability, and I couldn’t. I didn’t.
And everyone around me had seen the hysteria of what I was in engaging in, or what that felt like, but they couldn’t understand it. And so that’s why I said, “I’m a single mother mourning in public.” Something about it was you felt like, he couldn’t understand it, he couldn’t empathize, there was no–as sad as it is, there was little to no compassion. And I think men have very little understanding of what questions women are forced to face in light of how their bodies are. You know in light of a lot of what their bodies do and speak and say for them and the spirit of that.
And I think that there was a moment for me in this poem where I felt like I spoke up, feeling so silenced about the whole situation. A lot of my poems are the ways that I kind of speak to the situation and I try to resolve something in it.
JS: In terms of the world that you live in, and the work that you do and the creativity of your work, does it change from president to president, particularly in the case of having—I mean you wrote you wrote a poem that really cut to the heart of the hypocrisy of some key parts of Barack Obama’s legacy, which also is one of my favorite poems that you wrote in terms of the overtly political work.
Has it changed you or your view of the world at all to have someone like Donald Trump in power? And saying some things overtly and plainly that are considered a little more couth if you say them, if you only whisper them in the corridors of power in Washington, rather than tweet them or say them out loud?
AM: I think it’s not different. It’s no different. I think it’s different for a lot of white people. I think they, a lot — a majority — felt like this country was progressive because it had a black president. And so I think people were really blind to what’s actually going on in this country and what’s always been going on.
And so, for me, I think Trump is only a reflection of their quote-unquote “worst,” but there’s even worse out there. And I think white folks have to face who Trump is and they need to face what he represents and what he’s spewed to the world and the values that he’s demonstrating that he believes are American.
Because I’ve always known America was not him and I’ve always known that America was not great. And so it’s not lost on me that we have a lot of work to do. We’ve always had a lot of work to do.
I think now it just gets more people at the protests maybe, you know? Maybe more people show up to the rallies and maybe more people are trying to do things like this in interviews or new marketing, and people are trying to find their own ways of making a difference in a more profound. Because I think for a lot of America it was all about “how much money can I make?”; “how much money can I make?”; “how much —?” and when you brought up race or sexism or any of those things it was like, “Oh you get in the way of money, so shut up.” You know?
And so I think we have to find ways to really redefine what it means to be human. We’ve always had to do that. And what it means to love one another and to truly stand for freedom, equality, justice. Those are all things that only the people who have been fighting this country really know, because they’ve been pushing the country to really stand for what it means.
And am I scared of the fact that women are under threat, et cetera and he says crazy things?
Yeah, but, honestly I was talking to someone today, I feel like it might have been worse if Hillary Clinton was in office. Because people thought Obama made racism a foreign thing, and all we saw was the escalation of racial violence because people were so just disgusted by the possibility that a black man could be president. And I feel like if Hillary would’ve won, it might have been, there might have been women getting in all types of crazy situations.
So I think, regardless, we’re in a country that has not faced itself and has not done the work it needs to do. And most countries, nation-states, whatever have to re-evaluate what it stands for, why it is, who it is, and who does it represent. And, so we’re in a place where we need to do that. And we’re a young country. You know, we’re fairly young.
JS: Maybe you could share, given that we were just talking about the previous presidency, “It Is What It Was.”
AM: “It Is What It Was.”
“it is what it was”: “When your president bails out the banks, not the students, it don’t make no difference
if he’s black or blue. All you care about is how much money you got before you overdraft your account, for reading books and writing essays, and all you got to show for it is garnished checks, cups of noodles, fancy friends, and terms your family don’t understand.
They just want to know why you got two degrees and no health care and no decent income. I tell them, I got all the ways of talking about the problem but no way to make solutions. So, dear Mr. crazy foreign policies, false flags, war and propaganda, Mr. GMOs, chem trails, drones and deportations, dear Mr. false hopes and bamboozled dreams, Mr. Osama bin Laden and Gaddafi killer, Mr. no powers to close Gitmo while chastising black folk to defend your white cousins, we know Trayvon could’ve been your son. Sad thing is, he was. He was you, too.
JS: We only have minutes left and I want to try to run through two other quick parts of your work.
First, talk about your involvement with making, I mean, some people think of it as a hash tag, #sayhername, because it went viral on Twitter and on social media.
But maybe talk about that campaign and your role in it and what was at the center of it.
AM: Well, I was reached out to by Eve Ensler, who was working with, I believe it was Kimberly Crenshaw she was working with on it. And there was another friend of mine, Rachel Gilmer, who now is the co-director of Dream Defenders in South Florida, who was helping to organize this event that they wanted to do that would share and pay homage to all the women who have been murdered by police. Because, I don’t think it matters whether you’re women or men, who’s murdered by the police, it’s just wrong.
However, we do tend to memorialize and lift up the names of men a lot more than we do women. I think that’s just in all fields, in all scenarios that happens. And in this specific situation, the mantra was “Say Her Name.” You know? There’s power in a name. There’s power and people’s spirits are carried through names, and so how do we lift up these names and let them know that one, they’re not forgotten, and two, the world is going to do something about it and that their lives were not lost in vain?
And so, Eve Ensler asked me if I would read a poem, and at the at the time I didn’t know what I was going to read or what I was going to say, and so I wrote this maybe about a few hours before the actual rally in Union Square.
And I was, I think there’s a lot of pressure when you’re a writer, just in general, to write things on a deadline. But there is always even more pressure when it is for the people, and you want the people to feel it, and you want them to know where you’re coming from and you want people to feel elevated or risen in some way.
And so I think there was a, there’s still issues I always have with my writing, where I’m constantly grappling with: Did I communicate when I really want? Did people really get, come away with what I hope they did? And did I, did I speak truth to power for myself?
And so “Say Her Name” for me was a poem that I felt needed to be written. And I was grateful I was asked to read it because it was my marching order, it was what I was called to do so.
So, “Say Her Name”: “I am a woman carrying other women in my mouth. Behold a sister, a daughter, a mother, dear friend. Spirits demystified in a comrade’s tone. They gather to breathe and exhale, a dance with the death we know is not the end. All these nameless bodies haunted by pellet wounds in their chest. Listen for us in the saying of a name you cannot pronounce. Black and woman is a sort of magic, you cannot hash tag the mere weight of it, too vast to be held.
We hold ourselves, an inheritance felt between the hips, woman of soft darkness, portal of light, watch them envy the revolution of our movement. We break open to give life flow, while the terror of our tears, torment of our taste, my rage, is righteous, my love is righteous, my name, is righteous. Hear, what I am not here to say: We too have died. We know we are dying too. I am not here to say: Look at me, how I died so brutal a death, I deserve a name to fit all the horror in. I am here to tell you how if they mentioned me in their protest and their rallies, they would have to face their role in it, too. My beauty, too.
I died many times before the blow to the body. I have bled many months before the bullet to the flesh. We know, we know the body is not the end. Call it what you will. But for all the hands, cuffed wrists of us, shackled ankles of us, the bend over to make room for you of us. How dare we speak anything less than: I love you?
We, who love, just as loudly in the thunderous rain as when the sun shines golden on our skin and the world kissed us unapologetically. We be so beautiful when we be. How you gonna be free without me?
Your freedom tied up with mine at the nappy edge of my soul, singing for all my sisters, watch them stretch their arms and my voice, how they fly open chested toward your ear. Listen for Rekia Boyd, Tanisha Anderson, Yvette Smith, Aiyana Jones, Kayla Moore, Shelly Frey, Miriam Carey, Kendra James, Alberto Spruill, Tarika Wilson,, Shereese Francis, Shantel Davis, Malissa Williams, Darnisha Harris, Michelle Cassell, Pearlie Golden, Kathryn Johnston, Eleanor Bumpers, Natasha McKenna, Sheneque Proctor, Sandra Bland.
We are each saying we do not vanishing the baited breath of our brothers. Show me. Show me a man willing to fight beside me, my hand in his, the color of courage. There is no mountaintop worth seeing without us. Meet me in the trenches where we lay our bodies down, in the valley of a voice. Say it. Say her name.”
JS: I wanted to ask you also about the time that you spent in Palestine and you see the connection between the other work that is so clear in your work, in your written work and your spoken work, the work that you’re doing on a daily basis. What is the connection between that and the time you spent in Palestine?
AM: Well, I met my partner in Palestine. I was invited by a friend of mine, Maytha Alhassen, who’s a credible scholar. And she’s been writing it for her entire career.
JS: She wrote the forward to your book, also.
AM: Yes. And she had been writing about, she spends a lot of time looking at the relation between African-American and Arab-American communities and she studied a lot, extensively, Malcolm X and the ways in which poetry showed up in his work and Arabic poetry in particular. And that there’s been these connections, even though the narrative has not always been showing or demonstrating that.
And she thought would be powerful to have a poet go on this delegation that they were helping to organize with Dream Defenders.
And the delegation started Ahmed Abu-Zaid, he is from Palestine, he had been working with Dream Defenders from its inception and essentially saw the connection between what was happening here in the state violence against black and brown bodies and what was happening in Palestine and the violence, the state violence, the state of Israel’s violence against Palestinians.
And, so, for him it seemed like a no brainer. And he wanted, it was always his dream to be able to bring people to learn about the culture and just everything that’s happening there. And he believes, as I do, that in order for our resistance movements to be strong, we have to be united and we have to, you know, wherever injustice is taking place I think we should be speaking against the injustices of human dignity and human kind in freedom and existence. And that’s definitely taking place in the state of Israel against the Palestinian people.
And so, we were we were very vocal about wanting to demonstrate our, our solidarity with them and what that means for me is engage witness, it means carrying the debt with them. It means saying, “I don’t go through the same exact thing as you. It’s very different in actuality. However, I see the complicities of my country. I see what my tax dollars goes towards. I see that it is unjust in many ways back home. But now I’m less alone, I feel less alone and almost less afraid because I know I’m less alone.”
And building that those relationships with Palestinians is part of our humanitarian work as international peoples, you know, people of the diaspora.
So, you know, there’s so many layers and so many connections. And for me, I’m still learning, still processing. We want arts and culture to be a big part of how we demonstrate solidarity because we believe art and culture is how we help introduce new values, ideas and and start to understand the meaning of why are we here, what are we here for, and what is our purpose together.
And so, we’re trying to make more ways for Palestinian artists to be heard and seen and spoken for, and, for themselves. And to make it so that conversation is not all one sided, the master narrative is often from the perspective of Israelis, Zionist Israelis. So how do we lift up the counter-narratives, the stories of people who have been oppressed and silenced? And we’re still discovering what that relationship-building looks like.
And we believe in engaged witnessing. Not just coming and being a tourist and go, “That’s really sad over there.” But how do we take action? How do we see something and not try to speak for other people, but empower each other to be free by our shared love of humanity and dignity and justice?
JS: There’s so many more poems and pieces I’d like to ask you about, but we’re short on time. So, I’ll just ask you to end with what I thought was a really beautiful, albeit very short, poem: “Undressing A wound.”
People often accuse the left of having no sense of humor or of being all fire and brimstone about how terrible everything is. I used to joke when I would go on book tour that I would give out razors to people to just end it after the talk.
AM: Oh man!
JS: But there were flashes of the famous Che Guevara quote, when I was reading this for me, about that the “true revolutionary is guided by love.” And I don’t know if that’s intentional or not, but to me it’s kind of an epic, almost mini-anthem that you wrote here, for hope. And I was just wondering if you’d share, “Undressing a wound.”
AM: Oh, you mean the little thing on the bottom?
JS: It’s simple, but I love it.
AM: “Undressing A Wound: “Radically loving each other is the only everything worth anything.”
JS: Aja Monet, thank you very much for joining us on Intercepted.
AM: Thank you. Thank you for having me.