The end of the year is a time for reflection, a time to take stock of the year and ourselves, a time to look forward. Mensah Demary is a voice I look to for all of these things, whether in fiction, essays, columns, or tweets.
In a piece at The Toast/The Butter, he writes, “happiness is an act of civil obedience, an outright declaration of violence against the status quo…” I find happiness in his words, in fighting the status quo, in these stories here. Even in their potential hopelessness. He’s 33 and preaches love in an angry world that crucifies people for their skin color, their gender, their religion (sound familiar?). I believe that we need his message of love and joy more than ever. His is a voice to follow, and I hope you will.
Georgia Bellas: You tweeted recently: “Love as an act of revolution.” Can you talk about what that means to you and how you realize that idea in your life and in your writing?
Mensah Demary: That tweet sounds a little more political than I intended, or more “universal,” because it was really a personal revelation, one I’ve reached over the last six months or so. I realized it after two years of not writing, or writing so little that the output hardly constitutes as “writing” at all. I had never experienced a block like that before, and it was during a time when I needed writing the most. These last six months, I’ve been able to finally snap out of this block, in part, because of love. It sounds trite, but I mean it: the end of a love that lasted two years, the beginning of love with someone I care about deeply, and, most importantly, love of myself. It is, in my mind, a revolutionary act for a black man to say “I love myself” or, more to the point, “I need to learn how to love myself as a matter of survival.” The reality is that someone who looks like me isn’t supposed to love himself, and use that love as a guiding principle through life. To use that love to turn away toxic people and situations, to use that love as an evolutionary force. It is revolution when a person decides to love himself wholly. It is an act of violence against the notion that I, a black man, can’t be loved, should not be loved, is not worthy of love.
GB: Make a mixtape for the soundtrack to this revolution of love: What is the playlist? Any hidden tracks?
MD: “Black Messiah” by D’angelo. In the absence of this album, I would’ve cobbled together a mixtape, but I don’t have to now. D’angelo saved me the trouble. The album, fifteen years in the making, is a soundtrack for revolution, both for the personal—me—and for a greater collective of people, those who refuse to allow injustices to proceed in silence, injustices often inflicted upon people who look like me.
If I had to pick one song from the album, I’d choose “Betray My Heart.” It is a song of intentional love, a song in which someone chooses to love another person, and makes this choice anew, every day. It is about dedication.
GB: You wear many different hats: essayist, fiction writer, editor, columnist, Twitter phenomenon… How do you balance them? What are the main similarities in how you approach each role? Differences?
MD: I’m many things, but I’m hardly a Twitter phenomenon! [Eds. note: He is.] Though I do love the medium, and I spend a lot of time there. (Far too much, sometimes.) That said, it’s not easy balancing all of those hats, particularly while working a day job, which comes with its own stresses. I do what most creatives do, I suppose…which is generate time: time on the subway to read and jot down ideas, time on my lunch hours to answer emails, time in between meetings at work to post and reply to tweets, time before or after work to write a column, to review submissions. Even now, I am sitting at my laptop, responding to these excellent questions, after 10 long, aggravating hours at work. “Balance” is simply making time for the important things, and saying “no” to everything else.
Each hat requires something different from me. Editing Specter is different than guest editing Literary Orphans, a project I’ve been working on since this past summer. My columns for The Butter and Fourculture require different elements of my writing, and I treat each column as its own project with its own voice, if that makes sense.
And Twitter? Twitter is a literary space for me. It is performance art, in a sense. I play with my persona, my voice. An inane, silly tweet will be followed up by ten tweets on literary “cliques” or on the editorial process of an online literary magazine or the idea of the #CarefreeBlackBoy.
GB: The Ghost of Christmas Past arrives to take you back in time: What age do you visit and what message do you bring that younger self?
MD: Probably age 20. I was living in Washington, D.C., away from my New Jersey for the first time in my life. I was mourning the death of my best friend. I dropped out of college and ran away to D.C. and started having people call me “mensah” and I was writing bad poetry and worse prose. The whole time, in retrospect, I was self-destructive and most likely in the midst of a depressive episode. The message I would give my younger self is, “You are depressed. You will suffer from depression for the remainder of your life. Seek help. And call mom.”
GB: What is the first obsession you remember having?
MD: First obsession? My father. I wanted to be him, to please him, so bad. I still do. I was obsessed with obtaining his approval, and I’m certain that obsession still drives me.
GB: If the characters in your stories got together and unionized, what would be their biggest complaint? What would they be most satisfied with?
MD: My characters would beg me to give them healthy relationships. I don’t know if they’d be pleased with anything I’ve done with/to them. My work has been consistently called “dark” and I’m sure there are fair reasons for the description. My characters would be eager to explain.
GB: Can you describe your writing routines and revision process?
MD: I don’t have a writing routine at this time. I used to be very disciplined, very prolific; I would sit down and write. “Just write” was the motto. Octavia Butler shunned the idea of inspiration and embraced “the work” of writing; that resonated with me as I worked toward my first publication in 2008. These days, I don’t write to “just write,” and I don’t wait for inspiration. I write when I have something to say or, at the very least, I know I want to say something.
Revision is pretty straightforward. I cut until there’s no more to cut. I over-write, knowing I’m going to be merciless in how much I cut. When I revise, it’s all about what I hear in my head. There’s a rhythm, a cadence, I try to shape from the prose. I’m not interested in finding the perfect word. I try to create the perfect sentence.
GB: What do you consider the five most joyful words? The five loneliest?
MD: Truth, beauty, wonder, wanderlust, kindness. Depression, melancholy, can’t, won’t, never.
GB: The stories featured here deal with the complexities of relationships and border on hopelessness. Yet I find hope in them. Am I wrong? Do you feel hope for these characters?
MD: There’s always hope in love and in relationships, even when love is over, and relationships end. I don’t think they’re hopeless. Indeed, they’re sad at times. Violent. Messy. But I think the characters hope for more, and desire more, from these relationships, from themselves.
GB: You are the guest editor for the upcoming Black Thought issue at Literary Orphans, and currently have a call for submissions out. Can you discuss this call and why it is important?
MD: I was asked to guest edit an issue of Literary Orphans; I remember reading the email and thinking to myself, “Well okay, I’m going to do an African-American literature issue.” It was an immediate idea, but I struggled with it. I wasn’t sure if it was a good idea to perpetuate the notion that African-American literature is separate from “mainstream”—white, heterosexual, male, Western—literature. And there’s the issue of asking for African-American literature and receiving work that bludgeons the reader with heavy-handed ideas of what “blackness” might appear to others. So in the call, I tried to be as nuanced as possible. I want work from black writers. I want to hear from black atheists. I want to hear from black conservatives. I want to hear from the black trans community. I want the issue to be a mixtape of sorts. This is important because the reality is that our work is considered separate from “mainstream” literature. That sucks, but there’s a silver lining in that too. That means we get to write what we want, and imagine what we want, and create worlds of our own design, where our lives matter. It’s necessary to foster as many safe spaces like this as possible, and I’m grateful to Literary Orphans for wanting to create such a space, and for allowing me the opportunity to give it life.
GB: What will you take with you into the new year, and what will you leave behind?
MD: I will take with me the people, the sources and the objects, that inspire me, that fill me with love and creativity; I look to leave behind everything else.
GB: If you were a stuffed animal, what would you be?
MD: A stuffed lion. What can I say? I’m a Leo.
Photo By: How I See It