Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The Lucky Seven Interview, with Adebe DeRango-Adem

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Adebe DeRango-Adem

The metaphor of striking out to explore unknown land is a particularly apt one for the act of writing, so the title Terra Incognita (Inanna Publications) fits Adebe DeRango-Adem's new collection of poetry perfectly.

Exploring racial discourse in both contemporary and historical contexts, Terra Incognita teases out cultural memory and the impact of social and racial histories on the personal experience. Questioning what these forces mean for the creation (and imposition) of identity, Adebe's deft verse mimics the physical and spiritual movement of those seeking identity within and beyond social and political borders.

We're talking to Adebe as part of our Lucky Seven series today, and she tells us about seeing eye to eye with your words, good advice from Ta-Nehisi Coates and the insurgency of a great book.

Open Book:

Tell us about your new book, Terra Incognita.

Adebe DeRango-Adem:

Titled after the Latin term for “unknown land” — a cartographical expression referring to regions that have not yet been mapped or documented — Terra Incognita is a collection of poems that explores various racial discourses and interracial crossings both buried in the grand narratives of history and the everyday experiences of being mixed-race. In my most recent book, the quest for the meaning of identity in the interracial context becomes part of the quest to unearth the territory of those who cross borders — racially, ethnically, culturally and geographically.


Is there a question that is central to your book, thematically? And if so, did you know the question when you started writing or did it emerge from the writing process?


Fellow poet Andrea Thompson (who co-edited Other Tongues: Mixed-Race Women Speak Out [Inanna Publications, 2010] with me) notes that my book does acknowledge “the incomplete mapping of our contemporary racial topography.” My book struggles with the notion of a “post-race” world or “post-racial” identities. Rather, and in pushing for malleable borders of self-identification, the questions Terra Incognita asks/asked/will ask are: how do the places we inhabit exist alongside changing notions of self, racial and otherwise? What does the experience of interraciality have to do with the larger “problem” of identity as a particular set of fixed relations, when the very “essence” of interraciality is a troubling of any (racial) epistemological guarantee? How might all forms of identification be processes of entering what we are estranged from? What is it to move physically, spiritually, for our bodies to arrive and depart, our souls to relocate and change their scope? Terra Incognita is a book interested in all sorts of “crossing” — especially in light of the “moving roots” of race and mixed-race identity within diasporic and geographically shifting spaces.


Did the book change significantly from when you first starting working on it to the final version? How long did the project take from start to finish?


The process of writing Terra Incognita was at least two years, with most of 2014 being the time where I sat and wrestled with what I envisioned as the final product. But even before embarking on it, I knew I would write this book; I had known this for many years. In some ways I think the vision you have for a book doesn’t change once you start writing it… but of course in the process of writing, the book inevitably does change. In other words, the writing that emerges is something you've already lived through, to some extent. The act of putting words on a page is just an act of transmission, translation, re-creation; in any case, an unfolding.


What do you need in order to write — in terms of space, food, rituals, writing instruments?


A room of one's own is necessary for me and I think many writers would agree. I like cafes but am easily distracted; I like libraries but the book fiend in me would be distracted there, too. I think there comes a point when you need to be alone with yourself and see eye to eye (mano a mano?) with your words. Once upon a time I used a typewriter so I could feel each letter of every word I wanted to deliver. Nowadays I proceed with pen and paper (anywhere), then desk, and eventually word processor. Ideally, my writing would begin as soon as I rise, or even more ideally, when the sun rises. Toni Morrison's ritual was to rise very early, make coffee and "watch the light come." There’s something haunting and majestic in that, and possibly life-changing. I tend to focus on my writing in the late afternoons/evenings, though I am always recording fragments throughout the day as they come.


What do you do if you're feeling discouraged during the writing process? Do you have a method of coping with the difficult points in your projects?


Stasis and uncertainty are at the heart of the experiment and excitement of writing (and life?); I see them as signals of a desire for creation. When Ta-Nehisi Coates famously described writing as something that emerges through failure, with breakthroughs only possible by putting immense pressure on yourself… I think there's something to that. The act of writing is always at odds with itself, a battle between the uncertainty of (a) "getting it right" or getting it as you envision it/want others to envision your vision and (b) the need to work hard amidst the chaos of not knowing if your work will be “gotten.”

It’s funny how writing for me is a prime way of coping with life’s difficulties; so when I find myself at a difficult point in my writing, my method of coping is to try to remember that the words are “here for you.” Also, I think that when writing moves from being a hobby to your central “work,” it changes you; so in the midst of feeling discouragement, I think it's important to remember that infinite possibilities always lie ahead. You might scribble boring or bland stuff sometimes, while the muse laughs. But eventually they'll come around and make you take yourself seriously, and the moment that spark happens, it’s important to take off with it wherever it leads. The main thing is to show up when the spark does.


What defines a great book, in your opinion? Tell us about one or two books you consider to be truly great books.


A most difficult question! I have too many books I consider great. I will say anything and everything by Langston Hughes, for his optimism against all odds, and for being a true jazz poet. And then perhaps Jack Kerouac (who I see in Hughes's light) whose On the Road propelled my adolescent self into the curious world of writing deliberately but with a good dose of spontaneity and "undisturbed flow from the mind." I'm not sure I can speak for what makes a book in turn speak to an essential foundation in literature, or to a universal audience, or anything along the lines of universals, really. I do think there are a few elements that make a book "great," though — one being that the book reads as though aspiring to greatness isn’t its main goal, that its primary purpose is to deliver a message, ignite a critical discourse and that it reads as though it has a relentless need to exist. I think there's a level of insurgency, broadly defined, that makes a book great. A passion for newness, also; to make new and renew the one reading.


What are you working on now?


I continue to harbour curiosity about the relationship between identity and exile. The poetry project I’m currently working on reconsiders the experience of exile through charting various movements from unknown territory (i.e. Terra Incognita) to new ground, using nautical imagery as a way of documenting the multiple watershed moments — including birth and death, experiences of belonging and otherness — that test the waters of our ability to “coast” through this life. I see it as a book about learning how to swim, essentially; how to navigate the various and often difficult depths of living whilst remembering the value of enchantment along the way. Stay tuned!

Adebe DeRango-Adem is a writer and doctoral student at the University of Pennsylvania. Her work has been published in various North American sources, including Descant, CV2, Canadian Woman Studies and the Toronto Star. She won the Toronto Poetry Competition in 2005 to become Toronto’s first Junior Poet Laureate. Her debut poetry collection, Ex Nihilo, was one of ten manuscripts chosen in Frontenac House's Dektet 2010 competition and was longlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize. She is also the co-editor, alongside Andrea Thompson, of Other Tongues: Mixed-Race Women Speak Out.

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