Interview by Anna-Claire McGrath
Ashaki Jackson is a Houston, Texas native who now resides in Los Angeles. A social psychologist and programs evaluator, Ashaki’s poetry and activism often intermingle as evidenced in her debut chapbook, Surveillance, a meditation on the brutal murders of black and brown youth by police officers in America.
Ashaki returns with Language Lesson, Miel Books, August 2016, an equally emotional and exquisite book. Here, Ashaki returns to her southern roots to follow her grandmother back to her final resting place.
THE FEM: So this book is about mourning your grandmother, and I wanted to talk to you first about the impetus to write a book of poetry about that. What was her role in your life and why did you feel that poetry was the proper vehicle for paying tribute?
ASHAKI JACKSON: We lack any emotional intelligence around loss as children. Our families largely protect us from having to do the work of grappling with why someone is not returning home and why that person has taken with them their voice and scent and textures. There is no such grace in adulthood; the mechanics of death are much more pronounced to us and deeply felt. I lost my paternal grandmother in my late twenties and feel that absence daily.
I remember sitting in her Central Valley hospital room while on the phone with someone discussing the particularly deadly fire season for Los Angeles, where I lived, and the timeline for finishing my dissertation. Everything felt urgent and stressful and simultaneous. The only thing I trusted was that my grandmother would be OK. She suffered from congestive heart failure and sometimes had prolonged stays in the hospital like this, but they were not indicative of her staying power. She survived three different cancers. As a young woman, she kept a pin knife in her bra. She was a survivor of domestic abuse and technically abducted her children from their father for their safety. My grandmother was indestructible, to say the least, and I fully expected her to be home in a couple of days.
I cannot give her memory full justice in a few lines, but I’ll start here: Grandma Audrey was our comforter. She had kept house for white families in the south and in San Francisco and was later a nurse’s assistant in Houston—a position from which she retired in her sixties. Helping others was her expertise. She tamed my hair into 100 beaded cornrows. She cooked every Creole dish and was happy to share, unlike me. She passed her singles to her grandchildren from a small, dedicated pouch that sometimes held candy. I keep her last bottles of tomato red nail polish, Chanel No. 5 and talc in my home. No memories have blurred even after eight years; thinking of her keeps her smile lines very clear in my mind.
My parents took shifts sitting with Grandma in the hospital, and I thought it would be OK if I drove back to Los Angeles to quickly finish up work on the dissertation and survey what threat the fires posed. My grandmother died within 12 hours of my departure. I left her in dumb confidence—having no sense that I would never see her again. I left her in a hospital room, knowing that my parents already prepared to bring her home because she did not want to stay in that place. The grief stole my sleep and language for months. LANGUAGE LESSON is, in part, the bits of language I could muster during that time and an exploration of mortuary rites that were much, much more appropriate than her burial. Poetry was a vehicle that allowed me to subvert structure—pull words from margins like meat from bones—use white space, and the absence of language to convey my grief.
THE FEM: Thank you for that response.Wow, I cannot imagine what that would have been like, and I’m so sorry for your loss.
The idea of language is so present in your poetry (and that’s not surprising, given that the book is called Language Lesson) and oftentimes silence as language plays an important role. In “The Anterior (or the Pidgin She Taught Us)”, you transcribe sounds in a really curious way. What is it about language (writing, words, speech, etc.) that seemed to be the proper frame for grieving?
ASHAKI JACKSON: Language dies. Despite our attempt to keep it stable, we lose words and alter meanings. My grandmother’s immediate family was polylingual (English, French, regional pidgin). Her father spoke a tribal language that many of the 10 children did not understand. A handful of words that he might have used are in the work, but I don’t define them because they are long gone. We say bloom now instead of tełk atap-íc. But, I keep this in mind—how my grandmother’s father communicated with some of his children using a few understandable words, sounds and gestures. These became my tools when writing the poems: that dead language, sounds, gestures.
True, too: silence held as much meaning as speaking. The weight of my grief was quiet. The writing that I attempted felt too full and telling. I erased and pushed the words around the page in ways that a reader might feel tongue-tied or breathless. I ran words together then stopped like a choke. I refused structure at times. I floated words and tumbled them onto each other. It was a relief not to ask permission to do this and allow my exhaustion to emerge on the page.
THE FEM: I also want to talk to your work as a social psychologist. How did that impact your writing?
ASHAKI JACKSON: I’ve kept my social psychology and poetry worlds separate with regard to content. I am, as an applied social psychologist, very interested in learning about how to manipulate psychological theories to reduce youth incarceration rates. I’ve met many youth during this journey who have trusted me with their narratives—their trajectories toward incarceration. Yet, I keep their stories out of my work. These are very tender and frightening stories that do not belong to me, and I respect those borders.
Social psychology has taught me how to ask questions in my work. I maintain my qualitative methodologist spirit in approaching the poem drafts, asking myself where is the pain, what is its source, and how do I want to address the pain, if at all. In poetry, I’m allowed to be both objective and subjective in my responses to these questions, and I can stop the self-interview without fully reaching a set objective. That border is less permeable in psychology where there are answers to the research question(s) and a clear end to the study.
THE FEM: Thanks so much.
Lastly, I’m curious what other writers are you excited about right now? Who can’t you wait to read?
ASHAKI JACKSON: I can’t wait to read Tafisha Edwards’s The Bloodlet. She’s been publishing fascinatingly restrained and thoughtful work in response to a series of sexual assaults in the literary community. The poems land on me as having a deceitfully soft voice that eviscerates the assailant and the systems that protect him. I respect that payback will arrive to me in paperback. I am also excited to read Tommye Blount’s forthcoming poetry collection What Are We Not For, Melissa Chadburn’s first novel, A Tiny Upward Shove, and Natalie Graham’s poetry collection Begin with a Failed Body —this year’s Cave Canem Prize winner. These words are coming for you; no emotion will be spared.