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Monday, June 15, 2015

Talking with the editors of Mixed Company

Posted By on Mon, Jun 15, 2015 at 9:00 AM

click to enlarge mixed-co-cover.jpg
The recently released book Mixed Company is a self-published collection of writing and visual art from New Orleans women of color. A compelling read on its artistic and literary merits, it also repeatedly defied my expectations, hitting from multiple unexpected angles. This is a book that will startle, enrich and engage its readers, challenging assumptions and sticking in the memory.

I spoke with Jeri Hilt and Kristina Kay Robinson, Mixed Company's editors, about the book and the approach it represents.

How did this collection come together? What was the impulse or idea behind Mixed Company?

ROBINSON: The idea to do the collection was kind of a co-project with the New Orleans Loving Festival wanting to put out a publication, and us being in relationship with them, and reaching out to others who we knew would be willing to be contribute something to an independent publication. We all knew each other in different capacities— whether we go to school together or participate in other writing communities together.

HILT: The impulse was very much the want and need for an independent, unfiltered voice from communities of color, and an acknowledgement that it wasn't always happening in ways that were inclusive or in ways where we showed up in multiplicity as opposed to in isolation. So the community was formed quite organically with the Loving Festival... and the impulse was independent black art, on our own terms.

The back cover ends with the line, "From the city of New Orleans, we unite these narratives to assert undeniably that WE REMAIN." This is a creative work positioned explicitly as political, made by people under existential threat. As writers, does politics ever feel like a constraint to your creativity?

ROBINSON: The situation is ever-present. It's not something you can turn away from or not see, especially in present circumstances, receiving a daily onslaught of paralytic-type news. Our writings mostly are of the times, but I've never felt that was a constraint; I think that's an infinite possibility of things to write about. I've never felt it held me back artistically.

HILT: I think it's innately political that women of color are writing in America. Because so many of us did not make it and don't have the luxury of avenues for this kind of expression, to offer it in public ways. So Mixed Company is a political statement in many ways: our existence in spite of erasure and displacement. It was an aggressive struggle to produce this. it came at a cost to a lot of folks, us explicitly — it was a labor of love for our community, and so it is politicized in that way.

ROBINSON: Culturally speaking, for almost everybody who appears in Mixed Company and some who don't, it's always a facet of our culture that these things aren't separate: the impulse to create or say something out loud to others is never just because you feel like it. You have to have something to say, or a reason that everybody can listen to what you're saying— kind of the opposite of art for art's sake.

click to enlarge Jeri Hilt.
  • Jeri Hilt.
How was the process of publishing it yourselves instead of trying to get published by other people or institutions? What have the surprises been?

ROBINSON: The process of getting published usually means different kinds of delays: you write it, it's done, and then you have to send it off to people and wait their prescribed amounts of time before anybody even looks at it. Seeing the whole thing all the way through was such a more active participation with your own work, in a way that was new for me.

HILT: There were women of color at every level of this process — it was designed and laid out by a woman of color. We didn't have a machine around us determining what it looked like; we were able to choose what was on the inside, the outside, the art, the expression. To be able to take full ownership of it was very liberating.

ROBINSON: I've been surprised to find mainstream entities interested in something that is independent. The paradigm has been set up that by going outside the mainstream you are excommunicating yourself from certain kinds of success or exposure. Part of Mixed Company was to challenge that idea, that there are other ways to circulate and have people know your work and know who you are. People were more receptive to this than I initially thought they might be.

HILT: New Orleans is a place where black people have been independently making art for as long as they've been here. This idea that [self-publishing] comes at a cost and a sacrifice is a strategic decision about our audience and who we're doing this for. Established publishing has their matrices for the market, and often the market is not something that aggressively includes us as consumers. So that radical component is actually an old tradition: we can sustain ourselves as an audience for our own art, and it will be so good that others will come here — as they always do — to consume black art and art from people of color... but we're still in the driver's seat. They're our boundaries to police, and we are not dependent on markets that don't acknowledge us or want us in the way that we choose to show up.

Mixed Company has a broad diversity of voices, including those from other continents. What were your thoughts about featuring contributors born in New Orleans versus those who came here from elsewhere? Was that a balance that y'all sought deliberately, or did it just evolve?

ROBINSON: Yes, some people have been like, "Well, everybody in the book is not from New Orleans. Could you have made it more New Orleans?" It's very New Orleans, in my opinion, exactly because of this cosmopolitan nature — this has always been a metropolitan, cosmopolitan place.

All of us in the book all have varying levels of relationship to New Orleans, whether native to the region, born here, having familial ties, longtime residence, or someone who's just a comrade and on the right side of what happened here. We have all of those people present in the book, but whether you're from here or from 5,000 miles away, it's more about a consciousness. People not born in this country who are present in the book have faced forced displacement, forced movement that landed them here. This inclusion was a conscious choice about trying to tie narratives around displacement happening here to the global South, a global Southern experience of forced movement and erasure.

click to enlarge Kristina Kay Robinson.
  • Kristina Kay Robinson.
Indigenous populations all around the world are displaced and under attack. We in New Orleans are not alone in this thing that's happened, and it isn't as myopic and simple as here versus there. It's more a mentality of how we plug into where we are, where you find yourself. Cultural, spiritual, religious or ethnic — the displacement we experienced here in New Orleans is something other people have experienced. Therefore they can add their voice to that cry of "We remain," and it's a global "We remain."

HILT: Some folks have always been standing with us. Because of their own experiences, we have been gifted with these allies. That's an old reality that's still present. We have always shown up together, as people displaced, including local Native nations displaced within their homelands. Our survival has depended on these strategic alliances, and these people have value and give explicitly from their experiences from other locations, when it's not a parasitic dynamic, when it's not "What do I stand to gain by the dissolving of black communities in New Orleans?" The newer dynamic of aggressive invasion and psychic erasure of communities and populations is not part of that old narrative, of peoples and persons of color uniting to make the best life they can here.

What's next for Mixed Company?

ROBINSON: We collectively and separately are always involved in creative endeavors in the spirit of Mixed Company— it's kind of like an articulation of where we find ourselves in an artistic and political economy of people of color in New Orleans: actively creating, actively consuming, however that looks. For instance we just did a reading with Sonia Sanchez at the Free People of Color Museum on Esplanade. Something we're aggressively projecting in the future is more direct international linkages: India, South Africa, places where we have community, places we have friends and allies where they're doing the exact same things. We wanna be present and show up there supporting them as well.

HILT: We're participating in a Juneteenth ceremony at the Oya Market on St. Claude [Avenue], standing in solidarity with them as they open their market owned by a woman of color in the Ninth Ward, juxtaposed to some things that are not really locally based and not really for local consumption. So again you have this acknowledgement of a very present dynamic of liberation in that ceremony, right in the throes of it what's going on around it. We'll be there with music artists, Ms. Charm Taylor and the Road Within, as well as many other artists of color, aggressively in struggle, creating space to say: We Remain.

Mixed Company can be purchased at many local bookstores and galleries — Community Books, Maple Street Books, Blue Cypress Books, Stella Jones Gallery and Antenna Gallery — or you can order it online.

More information, events and readings can be found at the Mixed Company Facebook page

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