Wendy S. Walters is a founding director of Essay in Public | A Humanities Project, Senior Nonfiction Editor at The Iowa Review, and author of three books, including two books of poems, Troy, Michigan (Futurepoem, 2014) and Longer I Wait, More You Love Me. She has been awarded fellowships from the New York Foundation for the Arts Fellow in Poetry, The Ford Foundation, The Smithsonian Institution, and Bread Loaf.
I was introduced to her work through her prose collection, Multiply/Divide: On the American Real and Surreal (Sarabande Books, 2015) which was named a best book of the year by Buzzfeed, Flavorwire, Literary Hub, The Root, and Huffington Post. This collection, which contains works of fiction, nonfiction, memoir, and reportage, questions genres “seemingly clear as black and white,” as part of a larger reckoning with perception, hard divisive lines, and shades of distinction. The stories we tell ourselves—part fact, part fiction—Walters illustrates in this book, yield real isolation, relationships, complicity, and violence.
When I learned that her current project investigates the history and use of white paint, I reached out to her to know more. In addition to this latest work, we talked about loneliness, anti-blackness, and the need to tell new stories about who we are and what we want to be, as Americans on the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first ship carrying enslaved Africans to what white English colonists called the New World.
This exchange took place via email largely in or surrounded by the white-painted academic and cultural institutions Walters questions as being the most conducive for learning and creativity.
Amy Wright: For your essay “Lonely in America,” you were moved to research the scattered bones of enslaved Africans when they surfaced during construction at an intersection in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Your title suggests the loneliness of this knowledge, which exposed a front unified in denying and deflecting responsibility for the institution of slavery. I recount this essay to demonstrate that I am listening, as are many others, but I wonder if writing it made you feel less or more alone?
Wendy S. Walters: My loneliness during the time I was writing that essay came from being around people who refused to acknowledge the impact of slavery and colonialism on contemporary lives. Where did those people live? They weren’t in my world. Likewise, I have struggled with being in conversation with those who claim to be anti-racist despite consistently and unequivocally practicing anti-blackness. What am I supposed to do with that kind of contradiction? It is better to be alone than to embrace that.
Because there are children and parents separated from each other in those detention camps, indigenous women disappearing all over North America, black transwomen murdered with alarming targeted frequency, and people being contracted to work in prisons without their individual consent, it is increasingly hard for me to think about this history as separate from our present moment. That so many people are beginning to see the connections between these violences is a gift, and it makes the possibility of new narratives more likely.
Wright: At one point during your research on that unprotected 1700s gravesite, pressure builds in your chest and makes it hard for you to breathe. “Intense discomfort…Maybe that’s enough,” you think. Will you speak to the value of feeling the pain and discomfort of past wrongs?
Walters: I am interested in the discomfort that comes with a recognition of complicity. I just finished a piece that attempted to explore my own class antipathy, played out at a party I attended at the University of Michigan Law School in the late 1980s. I think we are at such a weird moment in time because so many people are experiencing discomfort. The world looks different, and I don’t feel I am an expert in it.
Wright: Thank you for specifying the discomfort that accompanies “a recognition of complicity,” because it underscores a value to that upsetting sensation, which can feel inherently wrong. Especially in a context where widespread distress is often expressed or disclosed, someone aware that discomfort can serve as an opening rather than an end point becomes crucial. Does recognizing complicity in cultural biases, institutions, politics, etc. suggest that those who admit their involvement can effect change?
Walters: My grandmother and grandfather, a former family court clerk and MTA token taker, raised a garden in their narrow yard in Queens to supplement their incomes and provide healthy meals for their family. This cultivated landscape was a stand-in for the dream of living upstate, which was unlikely due to practices of racial segregation in lending and rental markets. Their urban, bucolic wonderland, situated beneath the flight path of JFK airport, was designed to allow my grandparents separate spheres in their 4,400 square foot plot: my grandmother tended to the flowers and trees as my grandfather cultivated vegetables and herbs they used year-round. Their garden during the 1970s and early 80s, a time of increased precarity, addiction, and violence in their community, was a powerful affirmation that the country could exist in the city.
All gestures do not have to happen in a graduated or progressive order to be effective. Linear thinking is not necessarily the best way to make sense of profound change. Some of us will need to admit complicity in order to imagine a better future than what seems possible right now. Right now, complicity is my garden.
Wright: Also, in “Lonely in America,” you visit a New Orleans cemetery where members of your family are buried to see if flooding has disturbed them. It hasn’t, but your mother hurries you from the site with the admonishment to “let the dead rest.” There are rich implications here in terms of what it means to disturb people, which makes me wonder: how do you think of disturbance—in terms of respecting your ancestors, illuminating the past, and serving the future, including your son’s?
Walters: In high school, I had a friend whose plane was held hostage by terrorists. She was pretty badly injured during the intervention. When she finally returned home, the TV news crews and all of our friends from school were there to meet her. For some reason, I felt the whole thing was overwhelming and did not go. Later that night I dropped off a note for her and came over once her mom said it was okay. Apparently, I have always been like this. I think my reluctance to disturb people when vulnerable comes from a sense of respect.
With children, it’s especially hard to talk about the future. They know about climate change, they have seen their cities inundated by floods, they have witnessed seemingly unstoppable fires. The school shootings. So much cruelty is very obvious right now, even if it goes underreported. The kids see it all. But they are very smart and intuitive. It makes sense to get behind the kids and their ideas, to let them tell me about the future they want to see.
Wright: A man introduced a talk that you attended by pointing out that in New England the term “servant” is often used in lieu of the word “slave,” “because people don’t want to remember the dehumanization.” Although the issues of slavery and climate change are very different, the reluctance to be implicated in wrongdoing seem similar. Is there anything your examination of the language and narratives of slavery has revealed to you that could be applied in other instances requiring collective responsibility?
Walters: I’ve been thinking a lot about how often the words “migrant” or “immigrant” now signify people seeking refuge from climate-related conflict. On the local level, I think about the word “zone.” I do not live in a flood zone, but I am adjacent to one. I do live in an asthma zone in Harlem. This has been known for over fifteen years, and yet, still there has been little effort to mitigate the impact of the bus depot that is considered to be a source of the neighborhood’s poor air quality. I wonder what other zones am I subject to? Because I am busy with life, I don’t do enough to understand how these maps of survivability are being drawn around my community.
Wright: You say, “empathy requires us to dig way down into the murk, deeper than our own feelings go, to a place where the boundaries between our experience and everyone else’s no longer exist.” This statement is so direct, its profundity might go overlooked, for it positions empathy—also presumably a feeling—deeper than personal feelings. Will you elaborate on how you access its depths?
Walters: There are people who talk about empathy as if it’s an intellectual exercise, often a flawed one, and there are those who experience it as pure feeling, frequently inchoate. My experience is more akin to the latter. I thought everyone was like that. Once I was driving with a teacher I admired and she said to me, “It’s so hard to feel things for other people” and I responded, “I think it’s so hard not to feel for other people.” She looked at me strangely, shook her head. Later that evening, I went to thank her for inviting me and she said, “Oh Wendy, you almost fit in this time.” Her words were devastating at the time. She thought I wanted affirmation (which she wasn’t going to give), and I wanted company. That was when I realized I lived in a place she had no interest in getting to.
Now I understand better that people access the world in different ways. And while I try not to judge other people’s explanations of how they relate to feelings outside of their own experience, I am pretty confident in how I process sensational input. It’s messy, by the way.
Wright: I have witnessed my own and loved ones’ ability to feel for others grow as a result of personal grief, pain, and loss. Has the way you process sensational input changed over the years, or been changed by a particular experience?
Walters: Some of this came to light when I was in my twenties and living in Washington, DC. Often, I would walk home from the business/restaurant district along a main thoroughfare alone at night. On several occasions, taxi drivers followed me honking their horns and yelling I was not safe, that I should get in their cab. I did not trust the cab drivers any more than I trusted the men on the street, so I kept walking, sometimes running to keep myself feeling free. I was in DC, in some ways, to escape from grad school in Ithaca where I had encountered too many men who were certain I owed them more attention than I was interested in giving. One of them belittled me frequently in front of my peers. A married colleague sent me harassing notes and obnoxious mixed-tapes anonymously until he confessed, distressed and in need of comfort for his transgression. Another sad man would knock on my door in the middle of the night when he needed emotional comfort from some troubling encounter elsewhere. As this was going on, I was just trying to come into my own mind, to gain perspective on what it feels like to hold authority. So, it is not so much loss that has shaped my experience, but, rather, the frequency with which other people have tried to impede my space to feel what I feel, to know what I know.
I should also say that my awareness of my own sensitivity to sensational input is part of what has made me interested in environments, writing about the relationship between objects and the spaces they create. My new project on white paint comes out of my enthusiasm for understanding how others’ sense of value and proportion might be impacted by design choices that seem obvious, though for reasons presumed and unverified.
Wright: I know people can commune with one another who have not shared a particular experience, but must empathy be earned? If so, how, and are there limits to empathy?
Walters: I suspect everything good connected to other people must be earned, consciously or unconsciously. But as far as empathy goes, I am not sure everyone has that in them. I am not certain everyone should. In lieu of empathy a certain set of personal ethics would do, but many people don’t even have that to call on. But personal ethics can be employed at any moment, and if maintained with some consistency, I think they can be more effective than empathy. That said, I think it’s unhelpful to mock people who experience a lot of feeling for others. They can’t help this any more than those who don’t have feeling naturally come to them.
Wright: You offer several personal stories in Multiply/Divide, including the first of multiple times you, an African American, were mistaken for your son’s nanny, since he has the complexion of his Jewish father and “is often presumed to be only white.” Later, your son is mistaken at daycare as the twin of another boy, which offends his white mother. In the same essay, you recount the shooting of three young men near your Manhattanville apartment, and a trial for an assault you served jury duty for, in which thirty witnesses refuse to testify. Together, these stories illustrate the danger, prevalence, and gravity of race issues in America. How do you address outrage fatigue, or otherwise direct your responses to overwhelming injustice?
Walters: America has been about “race issues” from the go. I struggle to understand how anyone can think they are talking about this country without discussing the categorizing and disenfranchising of people that has been the history of our economy. That said, I think the stories that have evolved in this country, in spite of these violences, the narratives of shared ambitions for collaborative governance are still really compelling. I am interested in which new narratives will develop as a result of this harsh reckoning with the inability to live up to our stated ideals.
Given the abject conditions so many people are subject to, I can’t worry too much about “outrage fatigue.” Sure, I get tired and overwhelmed by the immensity of the perceptible human and environmental catastrophe, but I try not to forget what a privilege that is. As for my responses—I try to focus my attention on writing about things I want other people to see as important. I believe I can offer insight. That’s my role in all this right now, I think.
Wright: In your “Creative Matters” talk at the University of Iowa, you suggest that our cultural obsession with covering over scars, wounds, and blemishes affects our ability to interact with each other. Do you see exposure, damage, vulnerability, and recovery as integral to relationship?
Walters: There is no neutral body. Or rather, all bodies are neutral if any one body is. The presumption that anyone might get through life without experiencing damage is narrow-sighted and also, possibly, dangerous to others. Underlying so many prejudices against those with disabilities, those who have experienced trauma, those who can’t help but to show the impact of their distinct life experience in a physical way is to do a terrible disservice to the range of human experience. As for relationship, it’s something that is very important to me—my marriage, my parenting, my extended family, my friendships, my collaborations. I work at all of these. I really like how you framed this question—maybe I’ll say damage, vulnerability, exposure, etc. are not integral to relationship, but, rather, that they are inevitable aspects of it.
Wright: Multiply/Divide makes a powerful compositional statement by alternating fiction, nonfiction, and lyric essays, with imaginative works also citing references. In your opening author’s note, you identify each piece’s genre, even as you question the distinction. Is there a function or goal you look to all writing to serve, beyond categorization?
Walters: I like to imagine myself as part of the broad tradition of African American writing, which is so dazzling and diverse right now, but I also think there’s not enough recognition that we are and have been in conversation with writers across the hemisphere, from the top of North America to the bottom of South America. Writing through and across disciplines is not unusual among writers in Canada, Latin America, and the Caribbean, especially in indigenous and Native communities who attempt to reckon with deep, unresolved histories of colonialism and violence. Some of the writers who have been helpful in my thinking about this broad tradition include Jorge Luis Borges, Gabriel Garcia Márquez, Tomás Rivera, Rosario Ferré, Rosanna Reguillo, M. Nourbese Philip, Valeria Luiselli, Natalie Diaz, Daniel David Moses, Monique Mojica, and N. Scott Momaday.
Wright: Given the biases inherent in any narrative, do you measure a story’s truth by its range or consideration of perspectives, or by something else?
Walters: Many people expect philosophy to be the mechanism for finding truth, which is great if one loves philosophy. But philosophy is full of bias that does not suit my personhood. I get bored with arguments about the weight of one perspective over the other. Narrative can feel like truth because it leaves a trace in the imagination. I carry so many narratives long-distance without feeling burdened by the weight of them. And narratives exist in time, which for me is part of the reason they are compelling. But you are right, narrative isn’t always about truth. Truth moves through narrative, it’s in the music of the piece, how it resonates in the ear. There is truth in the shape of a work, too, how it looks. Truth is also subject to time—the moment it was made and the moment it is recognized—and because of that, truth might not always hold steady as narrative.
Wright: In another interview, you say, “Fact and fiction can both serve those in power and those who are not.” How have you seen fact and fiction best employed?
Walters: Many years ago, I read a story called “Bashai Tudu” by Mahasweta Devi. I read the translation from Bengali by Gayatri Spivak. In this story, which takes place during an agrarian revolution, a single man—Bashai Tudu—emerges as a revolutionary figure. There is a movement he does, something like wringing the air with his hands, before he is killed. But then in another part of the country, another man is killed, and before he dies, he too, wrings the air with his hands. This is a crude summary of a more complex, historical story, but I was impressed by the idea that through gesture one might align one’s own identity with the ancestors who gave their lives serving those who might live in the future. To me, this is a way that fact and fiction are present at once, and it is incredibly powerful.
Retelling the same stories can undermine our collective opportunity to access power. People like myths because they know how they end, people like pundits because they claim to know where the chaos is headed. Ultimately we are going to go where our stories go—the ones we dig up and the ones we invent. If we don’t make better stories, the worst of our stories will make us.
Wright: Your current project researches the history and use of white paint. Will you tell me more about it?
Walters: This project came out of my personal obsession with rooms painted in white. The piece started one fall when I was complaining to another parent at my son’s school about the freshly covered walls. She thought I was being ridiculous. The school looked so much better than it had the previous spring. But I didn’t feel right about the color—about children learning in a space that was so bright, so reflective.
The project brings together my personal, aesthetic, and creative interests in design in a new way. The drafts I have of the early chapters are still very much in-progress. My hope is that this project will change the way people talk about color in space, especially in cultural and educational institutions. By thinking about color in rooms where significant learning and social decisions are made, we might develop a more nuanced understanding of our relationship to creative production. I am really interested in the way design and nonfiction might intersect in method, how together they might reveal new formal opportunities.
In addition to that, I am writing a book about the industrial Midwest, with an eye to how the black middle class fit(s) into that space. I am interested in the aesthetics of class experience, and the ways that industrial backdrop shapes perceptions of power and beauty. I’m also working on a collection of lyric essays, which like some of my poetry, I call experiments in organic form.