I DON’T WANT TO GET TOO COMFORTABLE
In Conversation With Khadijah Queen
by Yasmin Belkhyr
Khadijah Queen's new book I'M SO FINE is an interrogation of the precise misogyny that exists at the junction of men and fame, an archival of young black womanhood, and a beautiful and funny journey through the landscape of Hollywood in the 80's and 90's. It was a pleasure to see and be seen by this work, and a joy to speak with Khadijah earlier this year.
First of all, congratulations on your beautiful book. I love love love the way you use the prose poem form, and the stream of consciousness narration. I felt like I knew the narrator, like I was listening to a great story from a friend. What is the significance of the prose poem for you?
Thank you very much! I love the prose poem for its ability to exist liminally in the brain and on the page. Is it a story or a poem, can a story be a poem, can a poem be a story? I love its multiplicity and fluid possibilities.
You’ve written in so many different forms — how differently do you approach each genre?
I’m not sure I approach genre so much as I let the work dictate what genre it wants to become. The only exception would be the play that I’m working on, as a traditional play. But, I am finding some pushback – like it wants to be something else! As I’ve tried to keep it as a play, I find that I have stepped away from it for longer than I’d like, but I really want to try something different for myself – to impose the genre on the content. I’m constantly challenging myself as a writer that way. I don’t want to get too comfortable.
Your book is structured around chance and planned meetings with celebrity men, many of whom treat the speaker as a sexual object. It’s the junction of fame & masculinity that seem to afford these men the opportunity and safety to flirt with, stare at, harass and degrade the speaker and her friends. What is the function of fame, within the book, as a method of misogyny?
I think in this case fame comes across as just another layer in the speaker’s navigation of a pretty misogynistic world as a woman. Fame doesn’t elevate a person beyond their culture, and neither do close encounters with it. In fact, problematic behavior is thrown into sharper belief because we (non-celebrities) don’t necessarily anticipate the same kind of behavior from famous people. But they’re only human, like the rest of us.
The narrator seems to flirt with the edges of celebrity, as an extra in a movie, or on the set for a Lil' 1/2 Dead music video, or at Tupac’s hotel party. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything that speaks on fame in such a visceral, immediate way. I never felt like the narrator necessarily wanted to be famous but celebrities intrigue her, the way they intrigue many of us, culturally. Can you speak on the narrator’s (or your) infatuation with fame?
The narrator can’t really escape the edges of celebrity by virtue of location (Los Angeles for most of the book). During the 1990s especially, to be young and beautiful and hanging out in L.A. – celebrities abounded and were unavoidable, whether you were wealthy or not. In my case, working as an extra simply beat out having to be a receptionist or fast food worker. It’s true that the anecdotes are based on my own experiences, and I can say that no, I didn’t want to be famous. In fact, I side-eyed fame as sketchy and a little bit dangerous. Being surrounded by wannabes and seeing both the failures and successes made me see it as perilous. As I said earlier, though, not meeting and seeing celebrities would have been pretty impossible during that time, since the film and music industries had so much going on in the area.
I read in your interview with The Rumpus that you wrote these pieces as part of a poem-a-day project — did you consciously consider the shape of the book, how the pieces would work together while you were writing them? Can you speak further on your process finishing and editing this book?
I definitely did not see these pieces as a book. In The Rumpus interview I mentioned that they started as a top ten list of celebrities I’d met, and what I was wearing at the time. It was just for fun. I didn’t take them seriously until I started to read some at events, and publishers inquired about compiling them as a chapbook or a full length book. It took me until the summer of 2014 (about a year) to get to 50 pieces. Then, when YesYes acquired it, KMA Sullivan’s editorial suggestions helped me to round it out with an older voice, which did a lot to make the book feel more complete.
There’s such a rhythmic urgency to the collection -- what sonics inspire your work?
I absolutely listened to 80s/90s/early 2000s rap and R&B while writing this book. :)
In Postscript you mention needing a “new kind of hijab”. I was also raised Muslim and I remember the teachers at Saturday school at the mosque telling me that the hijab is meant to protect women, to keep them safe from unwanted advances. There’s a separate misogyny within that logic but I wonder if you can speak further on the idea of a new kind of hijab, especially in this increasingly Islamophobic world where the hijab can feel more like a target than a source of safety or protection.
I was trying to imagine what that must be like, a new hijab, but I don’t think it exists outside of the self. If only we could protect ourselves from unwanted advances or misogynistic behavior or violence by virtue of wearing some sacred garment. In my case, the last time I went to the mosque – wearing a hijab—I was ogled and asked if I was married. At the mosque. I was so irritated by that and never really forgot that, or the fact that when I went to join the other women (I was 18), they were working so hard and seemed frazzled and exhausted, cooking and caring for children in the hot kitchen and back room. The men, on the other hand, got to discuss ideas in a calm, pleasant environment – I know because I went to get my dad, who was imam there, so I could leave. I got chastised but I didn’t care. Haha. So, back to the question—somehow we have to arm ourselves with enough knowledge of self and learn a kind of empowerment that helps us through the difficulties we face. Yet and still, I am aware that that rebelliousness or independence isn’t a privilege every woman has, and also that not everyone’s experience with Islam is like mine. In a world, further, where the hijab is perceived as threatening (a completely absurd notion to me) wearing it could be seen as an act of courage. I’m sensitive to the multiple meanings of wearing the hijab, and I think that piece is meant to offer a way to think further about it, rather to prescribe anything.
The literary world is not a safe haven or vacuum from the realities of misogyny and racism. You speak on this in your piece "So when a Famous Poet decides he wants to call me”. For me, it’s somehow more exhausting to face microaggressions, harassment, and bigotry within literary circles because I expect, or at least hope for better. Do you have any advice for young women of color writing in 2017?
I agree that it’s much more exhausting, and much more devastating when you encounter it and you’re not perceived to be in a position of power within the industry or institution. My advice is to seek out and build a community that fully and positively supports you and your work, and offer the same support to others. We are in this together and we can do more if we understand that and operate under that assumption. I believe in community advocacy, I believe in Gwendolyn Brooks’ lines: “We are each other’s harvest; we are each other’s business.” That said, if you’re in a toxic situation, please try to get out of it safely. Find real help and don’t give up until you find it. Persistence means to keep writing, yes, but it also means persistently caring for yourself so that you can write. We need your voices and your powers. Learn and keep learning how to use them.
What magazines and presses should we look to in 2017 for great work? And finally, what do you consider good writing?
I might be biased because they’re my publishers, but I encourage everyone to take a look at work published by small feminist presses -- Noemi Press, YesYes Books, Litmus Press. Also Belladonna*, Kore Press, SpringGun, and others. They make gorgeous books and have been inclusive from inception. Button Poetry is also setting fires. I love alternative presses; they take risks that pay off in terms of edging craft forward into the future.
Good writing—work that stops me, stops the world for a moment, risks both failure and phenomenal success, demands the eye and ear and full presence of the reader.