I moved to Harlem from Brooklyn with my mother when I was about 15; since then, the neighbourhood has influenced me as a New Yorker, a storyteller and an artist. There’s living history here — the immigrant communities, ethnic groups, working-class folks and struggling artists make the culture in New York, and Harlem’s representative of that.
I know there are people who spend hours at a desk crafting a world. I can’t do that without watching the people around me. I’m fascinated by how people from so-called different worlds can occupy, negotiate, interact, engage and disengage within the same block. I’m always hearing the cacophony of sounds, accents and energies that come from all the different kinds of people who live in a borough.
I used to be under the impression that writing was getting up at four in the morning before the sun comes up, but that’s not my process. Instead, I write by observing and seeing stories unfold — a method I developed over the past 10 years. When I’m sitting on a bench, I’m just absorbing. Then, when it’s time to write, it just comes out.
So a lot of my writing involves walking through Harlem and Brooklyn and seeing what I call subway theatre. There’s always a couple. They might be on some stuff, you’re not quite sure, but they’re talking in a way where you know their entire conversation. You know that they took the train from the Bronx and it’s going down to Midtown. There’s a part of them that enjoys having an audience.
This kind of observation leads to compassion and empathy. While somebody might say, “You’re just being nosy,” it’s really about trying to understand human experience and human relationships. I’m not an outsider. I see myself as the people I’m writing about, but there are things that separate us. To understand those things, I have to be open. That’s what distinguishes one artist from the next — the level of honesty with the message that’s being given to them. Being an artist is also knowing that the art is bigger than you.
It ain’t really about you; it’s about the person who experiences it. I’m always at odds with that because sometimes I feel selfish. When that happens, I get up; I take a walk; I listen to music. I honour the stuckness. It means that the work needs a breath, or it wants to pivot and I’m not allowing it to. I don’t get mad or upset. After 30 years of writing, I’ve learned to accept it.
You’re also nothing without the fellowship of other artists, especially as a Black artist, a Black woman, a Black queer artist. When everything about the business says, “You’re not qualified, you’re not interesting, you’re not smart enough,” you need like-minded individuals who can get down and dirty with you. I’m obsessed with getting a house on Martha’s Vineyard and, during the off-season, turning it into a place of respite for artists. You won’t have to make anything while you’re there. Everybody’s always asking what you’re working on. Maybe you’re not working on anything. Maybe you’re working on yourself.