Category Archives: The Journey

Sirens and Superwomen: Finding My Way Back to the Power in My Words

I finished reading A Song Below Water by Bethany C. Morrow last night. I put off reading it for a little while because I knew whatever was inside, was going to change my life– or at least the layout of my syllabus.

In the midst of a pandemic and a national uprising sparked by the recent murders of Black folks (in particular, George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade and Nina Pop), I learned I was finally going to be teaching my own self-designed course. It was hard to be joyful; how, I wondered, was I supposed to teach a class on Black girls, new media and magic, when it feels like our worlds are nothing but fear and rage right now. How can I ask them to suspend disbelief– to meet me in imagined worlds– when our world exists the way it does?

Perhaps A Song Below Water didn’t give me answers, but it certainly cleared my head.

Morrow’s debut YA novel takes place in Portland, Oregon. Contemporary Portland, Oregon– not some faraway land you have to dream up the details of. The only difference is that the myths and folktales are true: Sirens walk among us (Seriously. They walk. They aren’t mermaids here.) Except one itty, bitty detail: only Black women are Sirens.

A Song Below Water follows the intertwined stories of two sister-friends, Effie and Tavia, as Tavia learns to embrace the power of her voice as a Siren and Effie comes into herself. (Vague, I know, but any more than that would be major spoilers.)

What readers think is a delightful tale of mermaids and underwater adventures and escapades is actually an insightful social commentary and poignant look at what it’s like to be a Black girl in America. Morrow’s book argues that the threat folks ascertain in Black girls and women can be found in our voices; it argues that our magic is real and it is matrilineal; and it argues that your Black girlfriends? They can always see you, and love you, for who you are. Readers are dropped into the lives of Black girls– microaggressions, love, protests, joy, and all. Morrow smartly weaves this narrative of our realities: being stopped by cops, snide remarks about our hair, the discomfort of being the Only Black Girl in Class with the joy of falling in love for the first time, falling asleep next to your best friend, reveling in the fact that you love yourself. Family love and difficulties hold space with fear of the unknown and connections with the ancestors.

Effie and Tavia’s world is absolutely lush and you want to dive headlong into it.

I picked it up to read a few days after it arrived. I had just woken up from a dream about my late grandmother. Not two pages in, and Tavia’s talking about the connection she has with her late grandmother. Weird, I thought, but not totally bizarre. A few more pages in and Tavia is describing the murder of a Black woman by the police that is sparking a lot of conversation around the nation. It was definitely bordering on prescient. But what truly sealed the deal for me was Tavia’s continued internal battle against her own nature based on external pressures– which is to say, the desire and need to use her voice.

For the first time since starting Black Girl Does Grad School in August 2016, I went an entire month without posting. It wasn’t intentional. Things just went from bad to worse with every passing day, and I felt paralyzed. There was not a thing I could say that would make it any better. So I took comfort in making art– where words failed me, I had images. I read the words of those who have come before me, thinking about the racist institutions they have named and rejected and which we still continue to use despite knowing they are built to work against us.

I thought about how I felt I had nothing to add to the conversation that hasn’t already been said.

I thought about how this was not the right time to write.

I thought about how my body physically resisted any attempt to write.

Even if I wanted to, my body was saying “No.”

And probably for the first time in my 26 year old life (the same age, I remember, Breonna Taylor was when she was murdered in her sleep), I listened to my body and I took time to grieve. Mourn. Reflect.

The expectation is that you come out of these moments of deep introspection with answers. I have none. I only know I am indebted to those who have given me the strength to go on. Those folks range from my parents to Bethany C. Morrow.

A Song Below Water gave me hope not only for a future of freedom; but a present informed by our ability to embrace our own power. Morrow showed me the way back to my voice– my words. My power. My freedom.

It was a lesson I was glad to learn; and one I can’t wait to share.

How Writing Fiction Has Helped Me Write My Dissertation

One of my personal trademarks is my love of undertaking lots of projects at once. My mother characterizes me as someone who loves to stay busy; once she said that if you take a normal person’s full workload and add about five things, that’s my sweet spot. There are a number of troubling ideas tied up in this conception of busy-ness: critiques of hustle culture, the unreasonable workload hefted onto the shoulders of junior scholars of color (specifically women of color) and the very real trope of the Black Superwoman come immediately to mind. There are so many factors that leave someone like me vulnerable to overwork and burnout. However, a combination of boundless energy fueled by anxiety and often hypomania, and a desire to keep myself motivated by pursuing a number of side passion projects helps keep me sane while I’m writing my dissertation.

I have a few different hobbies, including yoga and crafting, that offer respite in different ways, but the number one activity that keeps me ready to dissertate is, surprisingly, more writing.

Since passing my comprehensive exams last May, I’ve been focused on my prospectus and dissertation. Since that same date, I have also drafted two novels, several comic book scripts, and over half of a graphic novel project.

Researched dissertation and article writing uses a different set of muscles than fiction writing. For me, it’s the equivalent of reading for research and reading for fun (which is also something I make sure to do while dissertating). Either way, like various forms of exercise, it’s all still good for you. It keeps your mind well oiled and practiced.

Writing fiction is actually a great motivator for me to do my researched work. I often don’t let myself write any pages on my fiction project until I’ve hit a predetermined goal for my writing session (usually something like 250 words or 2 pages). And because I’m eager to write new pages, I’m more likely to get my work writing done before heading over to my other Scrivener projects. It’s a great break for when I want to write but I’m tired of my “scholar voice” and want to explore things in other ways.

It also helps me hone in on what I want to say in my dissertation and how I want to say it. One of the novels that I wrote and have worked on a lot since I first drafted it last year is, in a lot of ways, a fictional adaptation of many of the themes I’m exploring in my dissertation. Trying to convey those themes in a Young Adult novel requires thought exercises that help me be clear and concise about the idea I am trying to communicate in my dissertation. The likelihood that anyone outside of my committee will read my project is slim, but these ideas are still important to me, so I slip them into my novel. Writing on (at least) two different projects helps me think through who my audience is for my work– all the variations of it.

I think this is particularly important to me as a scholar who writes about Black girls (and women). I want to talk to us. I want to use my words to reach somebody. And I know that my scholarship– my manuscripts and peer reviewed articles– may not be the work that gets to who I want to be in conversation with. But it might be my novels. Perhaps a blog post. Maybe the articles I manage to write when I have the time.

Then, practically speaking, writing fiction reminds me that my whole life isn’t my dissertation. It helps me keep things in perspective. My dissertation is not, will not, be my magnum opus. I am much more than these few hundred pages that I will produce as a representation for this sliver of time in my life when I was deeply invested in chasing this one particular set of questions. I will write other things. I will love writing other things. There’s so much more to explore than what will go between the covers of this project.

There are so many reasons why this works for me. I could write about how it’s a salve for my soul. I could write about how fiction saves me. But ultimately, I do this because I can’t not.

When I was a first year in my grad program, Edwidge Danticat came to campus and someone asked her why she wrote. She replied simply, “I can’t not.” Nic Stone recently said something similar on an Instagram Live video.

I write all of these things because I can’t imagine living with all of these stories inside of me, just carrying around from place to place. Wouldn’t they get heavy? No, I have to write mine down to make space for the new ones, and then one day, I will write those, too.

I can’t control how my ideas come out of my head and make their way onto paper. I’m just grateful I have the tools to work with them and help them find the form they need to thrive.

Dissertation Check-In #2: Motivation

I’m unsure if it was the pandemic or just how I was feeling, but the other day, I was daydreaming about what would happen if I just didn’t finish my dissertation. It had been days, weeks, since I’d touched it meaningfully. Ultimately, I knew it would be fine if I didn’t finish. The world wouldn’t stop and I would eventually find some sort of job. To no one’s surprise, images of myself with a stack of novels–ones that I had written–danced through my mind. I could just step out on faith and pursue writing novels full time. The thought of infinite time, uninterrupted by dissertation work, to write the stories on my heart was tantalizing.

But as quickly as the moment came, it was gone, and I was back working on the conclusion for a chapter as if the events of the previous couple of weeks had been a bad fever dream. (Which admittedly, they kind of were.)

Earlier in the week, I watched two panels featuring Black women authors speaking on their forthcoming, and, in some cases, recently published YA fantasy novels on Black Girls Create. They made me think about the future of Black girls in fantasy, and how bright it was. The feeling sustained me for days, though I didn’t immediately write about it. It gave me a reason to reaffirm why I was even doing this dissertation project.

So I pulled out my dissertation journal, flipping to a blank page, and wrote at the top:

“Motivation Prompt:

Who are you writing this dissertation for?

Why are you writing this dissertation?

Why does it matter?”

In theory and in practice, you should know the answers to these questions. It’s what your chair and committee will ask of you before you even embark on your project. This means, you probably have a rehearsed answer. You probably have what we may think of as “the right” answer.

I needed to give myself permission to answer these questions openly and honestly, without judgment or expectation, because if I didn’t have a good answer, it would have been time for me to make some major reevaluations.

To my surprise, as I sat with the questions I had posed myself, answers–and not the ones I’d been rehearsing for months– sprung forth.

Who are you writing this dissertation for?

Me. 

Yes, I was also writing this for all the Black girls who fly and the Black women who write them, but at the core, I was writing for me. For present me, who couldn’t imagine writing anything else; for future me, who would be extremely disappointed if I don’t give the world this piece of myself; and for past me, who would have been awe-struck to see how many Black girls fly these days.

Especially for little me, whose grandfather always greeted me with, “What you got? That Harry Potter?” when he saw me approach his and my grandma’s house, toting a book and pushing my glasses back up my nose.

She would have been so overjoyed to see that I still believe in magic.

Why are you writing this dissertation? 

How could I not?

What else would I write about?

What else moves me like this?

And also why not?

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about our now ancestor, Cheryl Wall, and the photographs that other Black women scholars and writers have been sharing on social media of themselves with her. I love looking at those pictures, because they often are groups of Black women scholars and writers, lots of love connections in one image. When you look closely, you see that they are of all disciplines– literary theorists, anthropologists and poets… and they all know each other, love on each other, read each others’ words, are inspired by them, and work with them. It’s more than citational politics, this community of creation that Black women have fostered gives them infinite opportunities to be seen and known.

I want to be a part of that practice and lineage.

It also made me realize that I’m already doing some of that work. It’s what Micah and I have found in each other as we build off of each other’s work, getting inspired by each other’s words, finding peace and solace in the other’s worlds.

Some might think it’s self-indulgent to write about a good friend’s work; but this is how Black women writers and scholars have begun to build scholarly and personal community.

This is a love practice.

How could you see that in what is possible in your work and not want to be a part?

Why does it matter? 

Because Black women and girls matter. 

There was a moment where I realized the justification didn’t necessarily need to be much deeper than that. If we love and care about Black women and girls, we need to love the work that’s on their souls.

This is how I’m loving on Black women and girls. This is the work that’s on my soul.

This is the story I want to tell right now. 


If you get stuck writing your dissertation, I recommend giving yourself permission and time to sit with these questions, or your own, and see what’s on your heart. Let it motivate you. And write it down, so that when you lose sight of what’s important, you can return to the core of your inquiry whenever you need it.

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