Friday, April 22, 2016

Cultural ReProducers Reading Group

Yes! Cultural ReProducers is organizing a monthly Reading Group to discuss writings on parenthood in the arts, artist-child collaboration, expanded concepts of motherhood, art and everyday life. If you’re looking to flex your cultural-critical mind from home and think through ideas like these with us, consider yourself invited.

The goal here is that no matter where you live or what your family situation is you can participate through live chat, a dedicated Facebook group and (coming soon) visiting artists and live conversations through Skype or other online video programs. We’ll be figuring things out as we go along, so your feedback is always welcome.

We'll discuss our first selection of essays live via Facebook on Wednesday, May 25th, 2016 at 8pm Standard Central Time. If you’re in a time zone where that’s not ideal, the conversation will continue through our private Facebook group. Interested in joining the discussion? Join the CR Reading Group and we’ll get you a link to the readings.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Interview: Oubria Tronshaw

Oubria Tronshaw is a writer, a mother of four, a collector and circulator of human experience. She received a BA in creative Writing from the Santa Fe University of Art and Design and several years later earned her MFA at Chicago State University, a degree she began while raising three small children on her own and struggling to make ends meet.  An incredible tenacity and pragmatic optimism ground her writing practice, and in sharing experiences with other women she's discovered a new creative direction.  Her current project, Marrow Women, is an evolving archive of anonymous interviews that dig deep into poverty, sexuality, abuse, transformation, and everything between. 
CR: To start out, could you briefly describe your kids?

Okay, well first there’s Nzinga. She is eight, and she is very sweet, and very helpful, and also grown as hell and I just always feel like I’m never good enough for her (laughter).  Othello is seven, and he keeps lying about brushing his teeth in the morning. He tells me he loves me all the time, gives the best hugs, and … I don’t have a favorite, but if I did... it would be him. Free is four. She runs my life. And If Nzinga’s like a teenager then Free is the naked grandma who doesn’t give a shit. (more laughter) She’s done everything she needs to do and she’s ready to just have fun now – she doesn’t give a damn what you think. Amun is eight months, and he lights up my life. Just lights it up. I mean, even when I’m mad at him, his smile is just…. oh! So juicy. I love him to pieces.

CR: You pursued an MFA in creative writing when your children were little. Graduate school can be a challenge even without kids. How did you make the decision to go, and how did you make it work?

Well, I already had Nzinga and Othello and I started looking at MFA programs when I was pregnant with Free. I never really wanted to be a teacher, but I've always known I wanted to be a writer. I had a Bachelor’s Degree and I had a job writing online, writing articles for and stuff at $15, $20 an article. I’ve done almost 1,500 articles now, and that was paying the bills. It was nice to work from home, but it wasn’t joyful – it was such a grind, you know?  And then I got pregnant again and I was like “now I’m gonna need MORE money. This isn’t going to work.”

My mom took me out to dinner for my 30th birthday. I was pregnant, I was super nauseous, me and my husband weren’t getting along and I was thinking about leaving him, and my mom said to me – and she’d said this to me before, but somehow I didn’t really hear her ‘till then – she said, “an MFA is a terminal degree.” People always try to push you toward a PhD if you’re black and you’re smart - it’s a thing - and I didn’t really know if that was for me. But when I realized an MFA is a terminal degree in my field… and I realized I could get loans and I wouldn’t have to work so hard at this internet stuff and then maybe we could move and get a fresh start, I really threw myself into the application process.

So how did I make it work? I got a graduate assistantship. I’d left my husband before I started the program -- we needed some time apart. I lived with my stepmom who had a home daycare. So that was, you know, I don’t know how I would’a done it otherwise because I certainly didn’t have enough money to sustain us at all. At ALL! My assistantship paid me $630 a month. So between that and writing as many articles as I could, that’s how we did it.

CR: But I mean, how did you make it work as far as your own writing? Paying the bills is a serious part of things, but doing creative work is so…

Oubria: Yeah. I wrote a hundred and sixty pages of a novel for my thesis, and lots of ten and fifteen-page papers. But don’t forget, for work I had written about 1,500 articles, so I was used to writing with people crawling on my head. And even more so with the motivation of “I gotta get this grade,” but I was already writing for “well I gotta feed you tomorrow, so I gotta write through you being on my head.” Once you can do that…

CR: So many of us struggle to prioritize a creative practice, but in your case writing was actually putting food on the table! Time management aside, has parenthood affected your approach to the kind of creative work that you do?

Oubria: Completely. I’ve always had a gift for writing, but before I had my kids and my husband I really didn’t have much to write about. I’d write about, like, failed relationships or that angsty “I don’t know what the fuck to do with my life” feeling. But to be honest, there’s enough of that in the world, you know? If you’re an artist you want to contribute something real, and I just couldn’t find – I just couldn’t tap a vein that was deep enough to think, “this is what I was meant to share with the world.” I think that if I hadn’t had children I would have been perfectly fine with this vague, distant disgust with my life. Forever! I would have traveled with it, and had affairs with it, and had lunch and taken selfies and looked awesome with it, but I just would’ve been this miserable, lonely, super smart and sensitive and creative… unmoored person with no real purpose.

 We have so many privileges that other women in history didn’t have, but they just made it work. We’re not the first women artists to be mothers.

For me, the way I had children and the way I got with my husband and the way I had to parent -- through eviction and poverty and swallowing my pride and living with my Mom and living with my Stepmom, and breaking up and gettin’ back together and then his ex-wife and all these things about motherhood that no one explains to you! Like how you don’t always want to… more and more you just don’t want to. How tired you are. How sometimes you just don’t recognize yourself or your life. How you don’t have any time for yourself…. Your kids will never give you permission to have a moment or be sane. Ever. You have to learn to be an advocate for yourself. All those things inform my art.

I was having these conversations with other women, like my friend Sagashus who’s doing “Infamous Mothers.” She’s a single mom with six children, she’s in a PhD program, and we talk about how motherhood is changing our lives and ourselves. And we talk about how there is really nowhere you can go when you’re having a breakdown and you want to read that someone else is dealing with this. So my art became to just be as transparent as I can for anyone else who might be feeling the same way. I stopped trying to make up stories, because all I could do was just be like “no, this is some real shit… realer than what’s in that book!” 

CR: How did your project Marrow Women evolve out of that, and how does it work as an extension of your writing, your creative practice?  

Oubria: Yeah, I think about that. Am I selling out because I’m not ‘writing’? But it’s more important to me right now to create a resource for women who want the real. We always give people a polished version of life and that’s not what we need. We’re starving for reality.

When I was in undergrad for creative writing we had to write an apology for why you do what you do. Mine was that I just always want people to know that they’re not alone. And that I really would like to create an encyclopedia of human experience. This was in undergrad – I had no idea how I was gonna do this, but I wanted a giant encyclopedia from A – Z, like Abortion, Abandonment, Adoption, Betrayal, Betrothal….whatever. Whatever you were going through, like you… murdered someone? Here’s a story of somebody who murdered someone, and they’re okay! Like, oh God, there’s a space for me! (laughter)

When I was a graduate student I was talking to other women I met there. We would just talk all the time about our husbands and everything we were dealing with. There’s all this emotional labor, physical labor that comes with marriage that no one tells you about. And then another woman I was talking to was telling me a story, and… I can’t tell you the story because I’d have to mention where she worked. These women would tell me their stories and they were super personal, and I’d be like "damn, her story would help you but I can’t tell you because…" fuck it. I’m just gonna type down people’s stories, and then whoever needs it can read it. I don’t have to be a gossip, I can just put it there and if they need it, get it. I see Marrow Women becoming a series of books in volumes. I look forward to seeing how many volumes there can be.

CR: Who would you say are your models for artist-parenting?

Oubria: Tony Morrison. Buchi Emechata. She had a lot of kids, and her husband destroyed her first manuscript. Can you imagine? Lucille Clifton. They all talk about just writing when your kids are in the room. Lucille Clifton’s daughters talk about how the dining room table would just be papers everywhere, and the typewriter… I think it’s so important. You know, first of all, your kids are never gonna leave the room long enough. Second of all it is important for them to see that you’re an artist and not just a mom. And they may feel now that "aw, I should be the most important thing to you," but there’s gonna come a time in their lives when they have to [make themselves] the most important thing. And if they can see “oh, that’s what she was doing,” then they have a model for that. If you devote everything to them and you hide your art in secret… They’ve got to see that you’re a full person outside of them.

We have so many privileges that other women in history didn’t have, but they just made it work. We’re not the first women artists to be mothers, or even the first mothers whose art couldn’t be public but who had these artistic impulses. I think sometimes we say “I’m an artist and I’m a mother and that’s so important.” And it is important… but when you make it such a big deal I think you don’t make the art you might want to because it’s like “no, you have to take the children because we need to make art.” If you need to be an artist then you’ll find ways to do it.

CR: What was your process like for returning to your creative work with a newborn? Do you have any advice you can share with artists who are struggling with that?

Oubria: Do it right away. Because they sleep the most when they’re new. I know it’s hard for new moms because… you’re new. But if only you knew that this was the most time you were gonna get, then you would take advantage of it. As they get older you get your bearings, but what you realize is that damn, they slept 20 hours a day that first month! What did I do? Did I just try to invite people over? No! If you want to write, then write! When I look back at my journals when I started to write heavily, I have entries from when my babies are days old. You know, I’m sitting here with this newborn and then all this angst comes out, but it’s good writing. Don’t wait. Just do it.  Do it at the hospital if you have to, you know? Take your journal.