Back at you

Ntozake Shange, poet, playwright, and fiery author of “for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf,” minces no words.


 

What’s your opinion of Shange’s thoughts? E-mail: backtalk@motherjones.com.

It’s pronounced en-toe-zok-ee shan-gay, and she’s utterly frank about–well, everything. We caught her just as her novelLiliane” came out.

Q: About this “Bell Curve” business–

A. Oh my God, it made me so mad. Do you believe that just because they can’t control us, they’re gonna say it’s Darwinian–[that] they’re better?

Q: It’s not that they are better, just smarter.

A: Well of course they are–we fed them! They took all the land, all the food–we ate chitlins and they ate beef! But who carried that nice food to them? And who is still talking and thinking? Now all they can say is that they’re better? It’s not even a new idea!

Q: Toni Morrison writes about the ways we try to get over, around, and underneath our slave history, but it’s still there. How do you deal with that?

A: I have spent my life undoing language until it works for me. We must not only repossess the language, we must deslaveryize it.

Q: Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write?

A: I write for young girls of color, for girls who don’t even exist yet, so that there is something there for them when they arrive. I can only change how they live, not how they think. I want to say, “Here, look where you can live, look what you can think.” I concentrate on giving this to young people because they are the treasurers of black culture.

Q: Do you consider yourself a separatist?

A: No. I’m not trying to go away from anybody. I don’t go where my feelings get hurt. If you’re going to be nice to me, I’ll come.

Q: What is your take on multiculturalism?

A: Multiculturalism is a white people joke. Black people have always been here as different. People need to stop saying that there is one way to be–and then the issue will disappear. I don’t tell Navajos they can’t speak Navajo. I don’t tell Asians they can’t eat noodles. Because black people have refused to eat potatoes and cabbage, white people are terrified. Now that we’re saying “I’m talkin’ Zulu, I’m changin’ my name, my child’s goin’ to a black school with Muslims,” white people get upset and have to call it something. Multiculturalism isn’t about culture, it’s about power.

Q: What are you working on?

A: A play with Ladysmith Black Mambazo. They gave me four lines of a song to work with! It’s been the biggest challenge of my intellectual life. It opens in April at Steppenwolf in Chicago. Friends ask why they didn’t ask a South African to write it. I tell them [Black Mambazo] wanted a love story. People involved with apar-theid all their lives can’t write a love story without talking about apartheid.

Q: Why do you choose to stay in America?

A: I have an American daughter, and she is American. It tickles me to death. When she was three and we lived in Texas, I took her to the town Christmas party. She got up there and sang “The Yellow Rose of Texas”! Can you believe that? I’m the great black nationalist mother and my kid is singin’ about Texas in front of all these white people! I thought I was gonna die. But it doesn’t matter where I live. Just give me a room to write in.

Q: Does your life, or your writing, have any boundaries?

A: I used to have boundaries up all the time, which is limiting. I never want to feel limited. If anything is life changing, being the descendant of a slave is. I went into therapy 10 years ago because I needed to work that out. I’ve gotten better. Everything about me is more fluid, much less rigid. I’m gonna do everything I can, feel everything I can, until it hurts. Then I’ll stop. All they did was buy us–it’s not an honor, it’s just something that happened. Our gifts belong to us.

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