Midwife Jennie Joseph on Race, Power, and Changing Birth in America

Childbirth and Feminism aren’t words that are often paired together in the same sentence. The focus for most feminist movements is on the decision whether to have a child or not, and whether a woman has full agency in the decision when deciding not to carry a pregnancy to full-term. But what about the women who decide to have a child? Where do you find feminism active and engaged? In small feminist circles, you can find women advocating for empowering birth experiences, for doulas and birth plans and a bill of rights of sorts for laboring women. And in even smaller circles, you find women banding together to address the awful truth in this country that if you are a woman of color, simply by virtue of your ethnicity and NO other factor, you are 4 times more likely to die in childbirth than a white woman. Why is this circle so small? Why are we not agonizing EVERY day over this very real fact that our sisters are not all treated equally? Why are we not marching in front of the ACOG offices and in front of hospitals that aid diverse populations of women in childbirth? Why are we not pissed off ENRAGED about this uncomfortable truth?

In honor of International Midwives Day, we decided to shine the light on someone who IS making this her mission in life. Jennie Joseph is a British-trained, West Indian-descent midwife who cares for women in Orlando, Florida at her birth center and who lectures widely on a focused, successful strategy for reducing disparities in childbirth outcomes.

I first met Jennie Joseph when she came to a maternal mortality summit that I and a few other women put together in Washington D.C. a few years ago. I’d heard word on the street that she was a midwife who was doing something about it. I heard her name whispered with reverence, with awe, because damn, she was taking on this often silenced and uncomfortable truth about birth in America, and she was making a difference in the lives of the women who found their way to her birth center.

Jennie speaks with a soft British accent and, surprisingly given the weighty subject matter she tackles fearlessly, a great deal of humor. She’s been known to say, “In America, they don’t expect to hear a funny little English accent coming out of someone with such dark skin.” She may be right. And it may be part of why (and I’ve seen this) she’s able to make American obstetricians sit up and take notice (a sad commentary in and of itself). The outcomes at her clinic are so phenomenal, that I’m surprised that the chiefs of obstetrics from every American hospital are not lining up on the tree-lined street in Orlando where her clinic is located. They should.

It’s hard to pin Jennie down – she’s tireless in her mission to provide good care and tireless with her lecturing on the JJ Way® at conferences across the country. But StS is thrilled to have pinned her down long enough to get her take on the important work that she does:

Sheryl: You were born and raised in England and received your nursing and midwifery training in London. Tell us about your first experiences in the United States. Did you experience culture shock? What do you remember most about those first years?

Jennie: I was very surprised when I arrived in the United States. Unfortunately, I had not done any research. I knew about Walt Disney World and I knew Orlando to be a beautiful city—I was very excited about the possibilities, for my American husband to be and I. I came to America in May of 1989 and was married in August of 1989, and settled in, except that I did not realize that I wasn’t going to get any job in any hospital as a midwife in the state of Florida. I was trained as a hospital midwife and had practiced in both hospital and homebirth settings but did not know that there was such a controversy about midwifery and the midwifery model of care in the United States.

The culture shock that I experienced was that as a Black woman of West Indian descent; I assumed that I was culturally aware and able to manage assimilation into the American experience. I knew about the differences amongst races and I knew about racism, having experienced it myself. I figured that I would be able to understand how to navigate and negotiate the American way. In my personal life I experienced a lot of culture shock and certainly in my professional life on so many levels. It was beyond explanation. I felt alienated and marginalized as a professionally trained hospital-based midwife. I felt marginalized as a midwife who believed in empowerment for women and independence. I felt marginalized in that I wasn’t a registered nurse. I was a direct-entry midwife that had hospital experience and had built a career around access and privilege in the hospital system. I was marginalized from a place of being a Black woman with an English accent.

In many ways it was extremely difficult and I know that I could not have been prepared for it ahead of time. It had to be worked through in real time. I remember feeling isolated and was depressed for a good few years. I got to the point where I hardly ever wanted to say anything because I didn’t want the reaction of shock and surprise when I started to speak. So it was very difficult. I do remember I began to explore the history of midwifery. I began to understand the cultural perspective of midwifery, particularly in relation to the grand midwives of the South and their eradication during the latter part of the 20th century.

Sheryl: What originally drew you to midwifery as a career?

Jennie: I was absolutely called to be a midwife. I knew at the age of 16 that I wanted to pursue that path. I barely knew what it meant and I had no experience at that age.

I graduated from high school and was determined to go into midwifery. So much so that at my age I was told I was too young and had to wait until I was 20, but I managed to get started at 19 because I was so enthusiastic and I wouldn’t let up until I was finally admitted into a program a year earlier than I should have been.

I knew in my spirit that I was going to do this work. I have never done anything else. I’m approaching age 55 and I have been working in midwifery since I was 19.

Sheryl: When did you first become aware of disparities in care for women of color?

Jennie: I began to figure it out two years after I arrived. I was also a victim of those disparities in that within a year of arriving to the United States, the OBGYN that I worked for managed to dictate to me that because of my endometriosis—which I had suffered from for many years—the only answer for me was to have my uterus removed.

As a knowledgeable and informed patient with a background in women’s health, I was still drawn into that place where I felt unable to speak for myself and felt concerned not realizing the industry where women’s bodies have been historically taken advantage for gain and for power. I didn’t understand the racial connotation of hysterectomy in the United States.

At the age of 30, like a sheep to the slaughter I had my uterus removed and he took both my ovaries at the same time.

Sheryl: Tell us about your method of maternity care, the JJ Way®. How did it come about?

Jennie: I developed the JJ Way® model as I grew my midwifery practice from a homebirth practice into a birthing center practice. I realized that there were very few women of color coming into my homebirth practice. I felt that I could reach women of all races and socioeconomic statuses if I could open the idea of taking care of women in the prenatal period regardless of where they wanted to deliver their baby.

Image from Beautiful! by Jennie Joseph

My experience was that the women of low income or women of color who were not educated or supported in natural birth felt more comfortable in the hospital environment. For them there was some benefit in having their babies that way. So rather than try to convince them and to cajole or try to force on them my way of thinking, I decided to open a practice where I could provide good quality midwifery care for women of all races that was holistic, patient-centered, empowered, safe, and culturally competent and yet those women that chose to have their babies in the hospital still got to deliver their babies with a physician in the hospital.

That helped me to realize that the benefit of that work was that, regardless of where they were giving birth, they were having healthy full term infants, they were empowered, actively planning their births, and breastfeeding after delivery. So I realized that was something that I could offer and I have developed it into a fully replicable model that could be used by any midwife, physician, physician assistant or nurse practitioner in any clinic or birth center setting.

Sheryl: Can you share a few memorable stories about women you’ve served who have benefited from the JJ Way®?

Jennie: Over the years, I’ve seen much change in many of the women and their families. Ultimately, even though it’s intangible—it’s difficult to say if it’s because of a specific aspect of the JJ Way® or the combination of all of the points—something has shifted in the way these women are in themselves, with their baby, with their children and with their families. One woman comes to mind that came to me at 19 years old with her first baby, the father of the baby in tow. They were certainly at least acting excited about the birth and the upcoming pregnancy. They were video taping the first prenatal visit, having a good time. It all fell apart very quickly. It was not a good relationship, they broke up and she was unsupported through her remaining pregnancy and birth. She was very attached to our practice and came to literally depend on us, which is not the goal of the work, but she would call us every day very much wanting information and education—she was soaking it in. She had a very lovely and empowered birth, at term and went on to come back to support the work by volunteering. She eventually started nursing school and she’s currently a bachelor’s nurse. We know that the influence of how we supported her through her pregnancy made the difference for her to be able to empower herself and raise her child in a different way than perhaps she would have with the absence of that work.

Sheryl: What do you think modern feminists most need to know about childbirth in the United States? Internationally?

Jennie: I think all women need to know about having their power in the birth room and the importance of being prepared and educated throughout their pregnancy so that by the time they reach childbirth they know what they particularly want, what helps them feel safe, and what helps feel in charge of the experience—and it doesn’t look the same for everybody.

In the absence of that knowledge, women go into their labor and delivery experience at the whim of whoever is attending. And that is dangerous. In many cases, that can kill you. The lack of knowledge and preparation can put your life in jeopardy because you are so unaware and unable to stand for yourself.

I think that using support such as doula support, having childbirth education and lactation education, involving family and friends in your birth team, and having a very solid plan is the difference between life and death. Internationally, I think women need to understand their specific birthing practices and environments and, again, choose for themselves what they want.

Sheryl: What do feminists get wrong about birth?

Jennie: I don’t think I can address that. I don’t think anybody gets anything wrong about birth. We know what we know and we act accordingly. At this juncture, so many of us know so little that we don’t have a place to stand or any ability to make that difference for ourselves or for our sisters in birth. With that we are somewhat left helpless and at the whim of those who do have power and information.

Sheryl: Tell us about your vision for the future of maternity care.

Jennie: I believe that we can transform maternity care in the United States by changing the way we approach birth in the first place. Until we can embrace the idea that birth is not an illness but actually a transformative time in that woman and her family’s life. Until we remove the fear, because this is a fear-based industry, and provide women with the tools to navigate this fear-based industry we will not be able to see a change.

I strongly believe from the grassroots up we can influence and bring about the necessary changes to re-empower birthing women and families in America. We need education at a level that is accessible, that is warm, non-judgmental, non-punitive, and non-lecturing where women can share stories and experiences, as well as learn from an angle of understanding that is pertinent to their lives.

The educators need to change. They need to be the same women from the communities from which they hale so that there are peer level educators as well as more formally trained educators, but everyone working from the same place.

Finally, if we cannot break down the system that stands—and it would be a very difficult and arduous task—then we need to create a system outside of that for those women that are healthy, low risk and are not expecting complications in their birth. That system could be midwifery, but it could also be public health. It could be private hospital-based services, birth center-based services, or community-based services, or of course, homebirth.

I have a very broad and hopeful vision for the maternity care system in America but I believe it has to be purposeful and collegial. We have to work together to bring about a change, but before that we have to agree that there is a need for change and at this point I don’t think we have that.


Jennie Joseph was born and raised in England and received her midwifery education from Barnet School of Nursing & Midwifery in affiliation with Edgware General Hospital in London. Always a pioneer for women’s special healthcare needs, Jennie brings 26 years of combined expertise to help pregnant women achieve the birth of their dreams. Visit her on Facebook and check out her website.


Representations of the Feminine Body and Psyche: An Interview with Lili Almog

Photo by Lili Almog

I first discovered Lili Almog’s work at the Brooklyn Museum’s Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, where her stunning images illuminated an intimate stillness in women’s faces and poses, each emotionally naked before the camera. When confronted by the images, I knew I had been invited into a conversation, a conversation about gender, about societal roles, about faith and culture. An energy pulsed from the stark, stripped view she captured through her lens.

Born in Israel, Lili Almog worked as a photojournalist before attending the School of Visual Arts, graduating in 1992. Her vision as an artist has taken her into people’s bedrooms; villages in Western China; Carmelite monasteries in Israel, Palestine, and the USA; and beyond. Increasingly, she stretches the boundaries of her photographic training to include drawing, sculpture, and video in her art. She has exhibited her work in galleries around the globe; published two monographs, Perfect Intimacy and The Other Half of the Sky; contributed to four books; and won awards. One curator says of Almog, “In times when the tides of aggression seem high on the horizon, an intimate seeking for the feminine without gender characterizes Lili Almog’s work.”

We invite you to share in this intimate conversation with Israeli artist, Lili Almog:

Sheryl: How would you define your role in the artist-subject-viewer relationship?

Lili: My intention as an artist is to enter an extremely private space without disrupting the delicate essence of communication between subject, their experience and the viewer. I wish to move beyond documentation, to preserve the private moment by transcending limits imposed by preconceived ideas, cultural stereotype and prejudice so that people may speak their stories to me.

Sheryl: You grew up in Israel and studied art at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan. How did your childhood affect your art vision, which developed in art school?

Lili: My upbringing Israel was a creation of the powerful dynamic between women. I grew up surrounded by my mother, grandmother and sister; men left no permanent trace on our lives. Was this a kind of feminism?  Perhaps in Israel it was, since the greater society surrounding us was very traditional male-centric values. Living in a home created by, and for, women, and we were always aware of the tensions between our family’s modern feminine values and the traditional Israeli society around us. My art reflects the female bonds that were so vividly present in my childhood, and the compelling and dynamic clash of traditionalism and modernism in the culture around me.

Sheryl: Who are some of your feminist influences?

Lili: I will have to start with my mom; my mother was a model of the modern feminist woman, with all the difficult choices she had to make in order to give me a foundation to be an independent and free thinker. But I admire so many women in so many areas of life: I respect and am influenced by Simone de Beauvoir’s theories of the “other gender.” Sarah Schenirer, an early orthodox Jewish pioneer of education for young women is someone I admire greatly because of the changes she made in religious Jewish society.

Sheryl: What personal factors do you feel inform your art?

Photo by Lili Almog

Lili: My art focuses on creating representations of the feminine body and psyche.  I try to capture the cultural and spiritual identity of women set in their private spaces. My images combine elements of history, social class, and personal experience in surroundings that have timely significance.

My subjects are often from remote cultures not experienced with mass media exposure. I utilize a variety of photographic means — portraiture, landscape, and video camera —as testimonial recorders, to emphasize the individuality of my subjects, their enduring dignity, their sense of self worth and their traditional values.

Sheryl: Many of your photos are poetic, stories onto themselves, and they invite interpretation.  If there were one piece of which you’d like to tell the story, which one would it be? What is that story?

Lili: Here is a story about a nun who I photographed during my “Perfect Intimacy” project.

Photo by Lili Almog

On the way to the monastery in Bethlehem we stopped for lunch. I observed a nun fixing her habit, with a fairly large cross made of brass sticking out of a little pocket in the center of her chest, under her scapula. I asked her if her cross had a special meaning and she told me that each sister has her own personal crucifix that she receives on the day of her Profession of Vows.  Each nun receives her Profession Crucifix from the Prioress and always carries it next to her heart. This nun held her cross very gently and lovingly as she showed it to me. I was deeply moved by this and Somehow for me it became a symbol of their relationship with God From that point on, when I would photograph a sister I would ask her to show me her personal Cross.

Sheryl: You’ve travelled around the world and captured women in many different environments. Is there one culture that has affected you most?

Lili: In my project, “The Other Half of the Sky”, I created portraits of minority women in the countryside, small cities and villages in China with an emphasis on Muslim women in China. The Mosuo women are one minority that I encountered in my visits to China. They are one of the last matriarchal societies existing in our world. Geographical isolation enabled the Mosuo society to preserve their matriarchal way of life until the 1970s, when a road built into the mountainous area opened up the Mosuo culture to the outside world.  In recent years, the traditions of the Mosuo society have been severely challenged by modernization, which has brought an invasion of tourists — and tourist dollars to the Mosuo region.  Traditional practices are being abandoned for more financially lucrative opportunities, for example, farmers are leaving their fields for tour-guide jobs and women are charging money for dressing up tourists in traditional clothing. Some male tourists come to the region for sex. In the Lake Lugu red-light district, prostitutes from other parts of China dress up as Mosuo women and offer their services. The younger generation is starting to abandon tradition for all things modern; older Mosuo wonder how much longer their unique culture will survive. My work documented the Mosuo struggle to hold on to their unique matriarchal practices despite the erosion of their culture by modern society.

Sheryl: What are you working on currently?

Lili: My focus has shifted from the private space to more global space. Currently I am exploring the broad spectrum of changes in culture via landscape.  I have been working on a project, “Beyond Presence and Absence”, which documents topographical change in a kibbutz in Israel due to a natural catastrophe. Although I live in New York, I personally identify with the intimate kibbutz community and the way it deals with change so differently than we do here. I am also documenting massive change in the American post-industrial landscape from a local topographical perspective. The visual questions I am exploring are boundless . . . and intrigue me.


Lili Almog is an Israeli-born artist based in New York whose work in photography and video investigates female identity. Her exhibition and book, The Other Half of the Sky, portray women in rural China. Beginning in 2006, Almog traveled to remote Chinese provinces to document women of diverse backgrounds and societal functions such as members of the Muslim minority, tile factory workers and farmers. She produced portraits in six distinct geographic sections: mountain, lake, factory, street, backyard and land. Recent solo exhibitions of her work include The Art Museum of Lexington, KY; the Emmanuel Valderdorff  Galerie in Köln, Germany; and Andrea Meislin Gallery in New York.

Fairy Tales and Feminism: Christina Collins on the Need to Retell

Fairy tales—a term that might not be considered “literary” in some circles, but So to Speak’s assistant editor Christina Elaine Collins will argue with you for days on end about the artistic, social, and various other values of fairy tales and of the importance of retelling them. In particular, she has a weakness—no, a strength!—for feminist fairy tale retellings, both reading and writing them. And with her publication of one such retelling in a new anthology from Tenebris Books—Willow, Weep No More—she offered to share her thoughts on what feminist fairy tale retellings should do and why she writes them.

Sheryl: It sounds like you’ve been interested in fairy tales for a long time. Can you tell us what your favorite fairy tale is, and your personal experience with fairy tales?

Christina: I can’t decide between The Twelve Brothers from the Brothers Grimm and The Little Mermaid from Hans Christian Andersen. These two tales have something in common: a mute heroine. That is, a heroine who must be silent to succeed. This fascinates me, and also bothers me.  One could interpret her silence both literally and figuratively—and where there is silence, there is potential for feminist revision.

My experience with fairytales started off like many people’s. As a child I was exposed to the Disney animated classics (the sanitized versions of fairy tales). But I was also exposed to Shelley Duvall’s Faerie Tale Theatre TV series and the Grimm’s Fairy Tale Classics anime series from Nippon Animation, both from the 1980s, and these gave me a better taste of the original tales. And then in adolescence I had quite the obsession with reading fairytale retellings. When I studied abroad at the University of Oxford years later, I wrote several of my own retellings for a creative writing tutorial. Before I knew it, I was writing my senior thesis on mute women in folk tales, fairytales, and feminist revisions, as well as a novel that would retell one such tale. It’s safe to say that fairytales, along with feminism, have always been on my mind.

Sheryl: Tell us about your story “Glint of Gold,” which is included in Willow, Weep No More. Where did you draw your inspiration from, and what were you trying to achieve in your retelling?

Christina: “Glint of Gold” draws on two lesser-known tales: “The Twelve Huntsmen” and “The Golden Goose.” I was first inspired to write “Glint of Gold” when I discovered “The Twelve Huntsmen,” a tale from the Brothers Grimm that I’d never heard of before. Many people are familiar with the “femininity test” motif in fairy tales—The Princess and the Pea, for instance—and The Twelve Huntsmen includes this motif. But I was fascinated by all the feminist potential the tale holds. It is progressive—or at least it was in the nineteenth century when the Grimms published it—in that it shows women successfully behaving like men, proving they can be just like men, and acting in a role (hunter) that was traditionally considered inappropriate for women. Unfortunately, the tale fails to reach that feminist potential; the women are presented as though they would have fallen into the feminine stereotype if they had not been warned about the femininity tests in advance. Plus, the ending, in which the protagonist marries the king despite his ridiculous tests, negates much of the female empowerment that the tale initially offers. In my revision, I changed these two plot points. And my aim was not to portray the king as bad or evil—trading one gender bias for another solves nothing, in my opinion—but I wanted the protagonist to recognize how unreasonable and restricting his tests are. In the end, my goal is to offer liberating alternatives, following in the vein of admirable feminist fairy tale revisionists such as Emma Donoghue and Angela Carter. I hope that “Glint of Gold” can contribute to that crucial literary canon.

Sheryl: Speaking of Donoghue and Carter, what works would you recommend to StS readers looking to read literary feminist retellings?

Christina: Indeed, Kissing the Witch by Emma Donoghue and The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter are excellent places to start in terms of fiction. That is where I started. As for poetry, Anne Sexton’s Transformations is a must-read. I would also recommend Don’t Bet on the Prince: Contemporary Feminist Fairy Tales in North America and England, an excellent collection edited by Jack Zipes. And, of course, the other stories in Willow, Weep No More from Tenebris Books!


Christina Elaine Collins is a Pushcart Prize-nominated fiction writer, an MFA candidate at George Mason University, and So to Speak’s assistant editor. In addition to “Glint of Gold,” she has published other feminist fairy tale retellings in literary journals such as Jabberwock Review, Rose Red Review, Poiesis Review, and Cliterature Journal. She has been a writer-in-residence at the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts as well as the Art Commune program in Armenia, and is represented by Kristin Nelson of the Nelson Literary Agency. You can find her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/CElaineCollins.


Award-winning Joy Harjo on the Binds of Culture and More

JOY HARJO’S first book of poetry, The Last Song, was published in 1975, during a time period often referred to as the Second Wave of the Native American Renaissance. Born in 1951 in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Harjo’s ancestral Mvskoke (Creek) Nation roots weave effortlessly throughout her many books, books that include nine works of poetry, a poetry collaboration with photographer Stephen Strom, two children’s books, two anthologies, and the memoir Crazy Brave (W. W. Norton & Co., 2012), which describes her journey to becoming a poet. Crazy Brave recently won the 2013 PEN Center USA literary prize for creative nonfiction.

How is it possible to do appropriate justice to an introduction for Joy Harjo, award-winning writer and musician? Harjo’s accomplishments span almost four decades. Her body of work is iconic, diverse.

Harjo never shies away from tough topics; she addresses inequalities and injustices through her writing, interviews, and public speaking. And this interview is no exception. Her razor-sharp intellect sculpts the heart knowledge that she channels effortlessly into prose and verse. Harjo’s imagery slowly reveals to the reader a vantage point that has been there all along, as if mists clear and the reader is shown an expansive vision, a vision each of us earns by virtue of confronting the simple truth that we are human. Harjo reminds us of this. That through our shared humanity, with all of its imperfection and suffering, we can see the wider truths of the universe.

Many contemporary poets are quick to mention her work as inspiration for their own writing. Words like “never afraid,” “quality of voice,” “mythic and timeless,” are used to describe Harjo’s writing. Her literary and music awards include the PEN Open Book Award, the American Indian Distinguished Achievement in the Arts Award, the Josephine Miles Poetry Award, the Mountains and Plains Booksellers Award, the William Carlos Williams Award from the Poetry Society of America, and fellowships from the Arizona Commission on the Arts, the Witter Bynner Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts, and the 2009 NAMMY Best Female Artist of the Year.

In addition to wielding a mighty pen, Harjo is an accomplished saxophonist and, at sixty-two, still performs regularly with her band Poetic Justice, finding time for writing while on the road between shows. She has performed on the HBO Def Poetry jams internationally and in the US, and she has produced four award-winning cds of music. Harjo currently teaches in the American Indian Studies program at the University of Illinois and lives in the Mvskoke Nation of Oklahoma.

Joy shares with StS her thoughts about the political, cultural binds, creativity, and writing:

Sheryl: What do you feel being a feminist in today’s world means?

Joy: I am wondering what the term feels and looks like from a younger generation. Does it smell like mold or dust? Feminism is just a term for equal rights for all, including women.

Sheryl: I read that you write to give voice to all parts of yourself, your sources: the Creek, the Anglo-European, the woman. Is there one body of work in which you feel you most give voice to each of these parts?

Joy: Your reference sounds like it came from an interview response from my younger self. I do not now consider myself “several parts,” though each human takes on several roles, and each of us bears streams of obligations, from our families, generation, people, earth, and so on. I have never called myself “mixed-blood” though DNA reality would affirm this. DNA reality would affirm everyone on the planet as mixed blood. My response about giving voice to so many parts most likely came at an age in which I was called on to represent my tribe (though I do not serve in an official capacity), all indigenous people of the U.S., of the world, and…women. I still am! But when I was younger the responsibility was overwhelming, and I used to suffer extreme stage fright.

I am a Mvskoke person of Hickory Ground tribal town, and female. The voice of my poetry, my music, of that which I was given to do here, is one voice. It speaks through the experience of my physical vehicle. All of my creative work embodies this voice. I have had a European-American education, as has everyone who has attended public schools and universities in this country. I have also had an Indian school arts education, and have been educated traditionally. And, like all of us, these times, and life, are a constant education. The poetic forms I employ have been influenced by all of these educations. I do not feel schizophrenic when I write, rather, hooked in to larger, wild, yet coherent meaning and shape.  The creative self is beyond the binds of culture, yet, employs cultural forms.

Sheryl: You have been described as a feminist poet, writing of personal and political resistance through unconscious imagery, as well as a storytelling form. Are you conscious of political and feminist ends when writing your poetry?

Joy: I am taken by the phrase “unconscious imagery” in your question. My imagery is often intuitive. Fresh or unknown images then might be “unconscious.”  Some of the imagery is very conscious, and springs from utterly conscious moments, like witnessing bullet holes in the houses of people in Estelí, Nicaragua and listening to the testimony of family members who had lost their relatives to American-speaking soldiers, or a sunrise over the desert on the Navajo reservation being born by twin gods not far from a coal-producing plant.

It can be argued that everything is political in that our dreams, thoughts, and words have been nourished or starved by political movements and weather. I responded to a PEN survey a few weeks ago that questioned writers about the impact of U.S. government surveillance on what we write, how we write, and where and how we publish. The results were startling. Nearly everyone agreed they were more careful these days and many had even backed off from writing about certain topics.  Like most writers surveyed, I am very aware that anything I say or do on the Internet is being watched.

I have backed off from speaking about my bullying last year at this time, mostly by members of the academic left, because I refused to sign a petition for a cultural boycott of Israel on behalf of the Palestinian people. There is tremendous injustice against Palestinians by the Israeli government very similar to that of indigenous people in North America. I have seen it first hand, not just during my visit last December but other visits.  I have seen the fences, checkpoints, the ugly spread of fresh Israeli settlements on Palestinian lands, the ongoing repression. Of course I don’t agree with this injustice.

But, I was faced with an “either/or” proposition, by the proponents of the petition. If I signed I was on the right side of ethical law. If I didn’t, I was a murderer. There was no room for any other stance.

A campaign to force me to sign flared fast and ugly. A Change.org petition circulated nationwide. One of the instigators of the campaign even called up my friends and colleagues personally to urge them to go after me, to force me to sign. There was no room allowed for anyone who does not believe that a cultural boycott is the most productive way to force Israel to human rights. Our arts, our crafted words and ideas in story, poetry and song connect us beyond politics.  We need to speak across harsh political lines, against injustice, through any barriers of artillery or hatred.

Anything I spoke in response was immediately discredited and stomped on by a finely tuned rhetorical machine. I was the subject of hate mail. I feared for my life on my return from Israel. I made enemies of people who will always hate me because they see my stand as a betrayal. I was bullied to sign. I fled Oklahoma as a teenager because of this kind of bullying. You were forced to be Christian, or to roast in hell. There was no other point of view possible in that self-righteous template. And the people behind it were and are well meaning. They truly believe that Christianity is the only path and any other path is evil and punishable. So it was and is around the petition issue.

I still receive emails and Facebook messages by well-meaning people, mostly from the academic realm, who bear that same self-righteous tone. They ask, “When are you going to do the right thing and sign the petition? When are you going to acknowledge your wrong doing?”

I was not the most graceful in the middle of the controversy. I am not always quick with responses, or a word pugilist. I figured that anyone who knows my words, my body of creative work and my actions in this world knows that I work on behalf of justice.  Many stood by me through the attack, and one of the most vocal for the boycott took her name off the petition after witnessing the bullying.

We must remember that many Israelis have worked against this injustice, this repression of their Palestinian relatives. I understand. I once suffered a hatred backlash in South Africa because I was introduced to an audience solely as an American, when Bush and his family were killing and maiming on behalf of Americans.  I was seen as a collaborator because of my citizenship. I attempted to reintroduce myself from the point of view of my tribal citizenship but nothing I said or sung made it through the barrier of judgment. I was reviled. The audience remained set against me.

Sheryl: Take us into your process of writing. How do you start? Where do your ideas come from? What does revision look like for you?

Joy: Each poem, play, song or story starts in its own unique manner. Each teaches me how to write it. For poems, I often start with journaling. “Prompts” are a relatively new concept. I just…write. Who knows where ideas come from—some of them are very visceral. I literally feel a nudge. Or I hear a phrase, or some notion from a literary or esoteric source. Or I listen to John Coltrane. As for revision—writing is revision.

Sheryl: How do you avoid the sentimental in your writing?

Joy: I try to—what I loved so much about James Wright’s poetry was that he stayed in the heartscape. When he dipped into sentimentality, which he did often in some of his later poems, the poetry went soft and runny. Maybe that’s what it is, how to identify it and then avoid it—when the effect is too soft, you lose the edge, the power.  I am constantly working on that heart/head balance. I tend to intellectualize, am too analytical. Most people don’t know that about me.

Sheryl: “Minority literature” is very popular. A re-balancing is taking place in the literary world, although its institutions still remains patriarchal. You’ve been a celebrated author for several decades.  Can you reflect on what you’ve seen change and what you think still needs to change?

Joy: This question is a book, not just a quick answer, but I will give my best quick answer. I haven’t heard anyone say “minority literature” in a few years. “Minority” in America meant anyone who was not Euro-American. I began writing as a student at the University of New Mexico and inadvertently caught that wave, which morphed into the multicultural literature movement. When you’re in it, you’re in it, like being in the middle of an artistic revision or ocean wave. It has power and trajectory. You don’t always see it or know where it will take you until you’ve come out the other side.

The term “minority” is a pejorative term that preserves the notion that there is one real literature, and everyone else is on the periphery. Or that English has proprietary issues and belongs to those born to England. English will always return to the roots for nourishment, just as any language.  I pause to consider the Mvskoke language taken away from its roots. Meanings would shift. It would get lonely for certain places.  Languages are different and some languages have roaming spirits. English has certainly elbowed its way all over the world. It has changed us and been changed in return. English moves about and finds delight in fresh use, like red English, the creativity of the pidgin I heard when I lived in Hawaii, the rhythms of Jamaican English. The Jamaican poet Linton Kwesi Johnson had us all moving to poetry as he spoke sang the first time I saw and heard him at an Amsterdam poetry festival in the Netherlands in the late seventies. Change is always happening whether you are a language or a literature.

Universities don’t always mirror or keep up with these changes, even as some faculty are at the forefront, thinking a little ahead. Revolutionary minds don’t tend to park themselves in the academy. Their eyes and ears are usually out in the streets, in the community, synthesizing the creature of culture. Culture is always evolving.

Sheryl: Tell us about your music. Are you still writing and performing?

Joy: Yes, I am still writing and performing. These last two or three years I have been on the road at least three weeks a month performing. My performances usually include music. When I’m lucky I have a whole band. My Arrow Dynamics band performed to a standing ovation at the Krannert Center at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign a few months ago. I am working on a new album, and am at work on a musical that will show how the Mvskoke people are part of the origins of jazz and blues. I am also working to get blues and jazz education going for my Glenpool Creek Indian community. I’ve hired the incomparable Selby Minner to put on blues jams every Tuesday. I’m learning blues bass. Community members come to learn and play. This Saturday we’re playing for the community Christmas party.

Sheryl:  Congratulations on your PEN Center award for best creative nonfiction! We’ll be featuring a review of your memoir on the blog this month. Can you tell us what it was like to write a work of nonfiction? How did your writing process differ from your poetry writing?

Joy: The memoir took me fourteen years to write. Much of that time was settling into a form, which was unlike any other memoir form. The memoir taught me to write it. It was in three different forms before I found the one that became CRAZY BRAVE. The first was jazz riffs and memories. The second version was Indian school stories and teenage mother stories as short stories. The process of poetry is language driven. Narration is driven by event and perception. I have applied for grants to begin work on the next version, an exploration of generations, my generation, and the seventh generation before us.

Sheryl: What are you working on now?

Joy: I am working on the musical. Excited about sitting down with it after Thanksgiving and traveling. Traveling almost non-stop on top of teaching eight weeks this fall at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign put a crimp on creativity. I just had to keep up with my duties. I’ve let my saxophone have a break too, but it was wailing away at blues practice a few weeks ago, and at a Michigan gig with Grayhawk Perkins from New Orleans.  I am also working on poetry, new songs, and conceptualizing the next memoir.

Sheryl: What advice do you have for writers just beginning their writing journeys?

Joy: Honor the writing spirit, that which is compelling you to write. Take time with it. Writing in journals helps. For me journal writing and note taking is about listening, and writing down what I hear. And feed the spirit. Listen to music, poetry, and stories. Listen to the tree people, animals, and the elements. History has many voices, as do mythic roots. And…write!

Joy Harjo received her BA from the University of New Mexico and her MFA from the Iowa Writers Workshop. Visit her website for more information about her writing and music. Next up on the StS blog, a review of Joy Harjo’s award-winning memoir Crazy Brave. Be sure to listen to her reading of She had Some Horses!




Feminist Poetry, Exhibits, Performance Art, Academia, Publishing, and Laundry

When I first set out to find Native American writers to participate in So to Speak interviews, I aimed high. With my first tentative emails, I received warm and positive responses from the two poets I contacted. I couldn’t believe my luck!

Our first poet, Heid E. Erdrich, was raised in a large literary and academic family by parents who were boarding school teachers for the Turtle Mountain Ojibwe. Her father, from a German immigrant family, and her mother, a member of the Turtle Mountain Ojibwe tribe, were “precise namers of things” who  encouraged their children to pay attention to the details in life. Her mother sewed handmade books for her then elementary school children to fill with their own creations.  These early lessons in observation and creativity stuck: three of the eight children went on to achieve literary success.

Heid has published four collections of poetry and one book of nonfiction, written plays, and curated over a dozen exhibits. A four-time nominee for the Minnesota Book Award, Heid received the 2009 award for her collection National Monuments. She has been a finalist for the Montreal International Poetry Prize and the recipient of the Minnesota State Arts Board Fellowship.  And she has received awards from the Loft Literary Center and the Archibald Bush Foundation.

In addition to writing, Heid has taught at three universities (Johns Hopkins University, Augsburg College, University of St. Thomas), run writing workshops, and curated visual art and community literary events. Her latest creative endeavor is Artifact Traffic, a collaborative, multi-discplinary exhibit and performance. Heid also runs the Wiigwaas Press, an Ojibwe language publisher.

Heid’s poetry integrates the everyday world with the mythical; her poems blend universal themes of life, death, and spirituality as easily as a baker sifts together flour, salt, and leavening. Whether discussing laundry on a clothesline, her grandmother’s hands, or the sounds of nature, she creates powerful images that connect unlike experiences in surprising ways. She has described her poems as conversations and views her thoughts and feelings as not just belonging to herself, but rather to her readers and community.

Recently Heid has begun collaborating with other Native American artists, creating visual performance works of art that include her poetry. Her poem films have been screened at the Imaginative Film, Headwaters Film and Co-Kisser Poetry Film (where she won an award) Festivals, as well as the 2013 Native American Literature Symposium.

Wherever there are lines dividing literature or art (even dance), Heid challenges our assumptions:

Sheryl: You’ve been described as a feminist poet, professor, scholar, and playwright. How would you describe yourself?

A tad less than 5’8” and quite round. My hair is long and just a little gray.  There is something bear-like about me, of which I am proud.  I laugh a lot.

I am also a feminist poet, professor, scholar, and playwright—also a curator of visual arts exhibits and multi-disciplinary performances for the past seven years. And a publisher of the world’s only mono-lingual Ojibwemowin press. AND a laundress.

Sheryl: Tell us about the Ojibwe language and Wigwaas Press. Did you grow up knowing Ojibwe? How does the Ojibwe language inform your poetry, written in English? What projects are underway with the press?

Heid: Indigenous languages were much disrupted, deliberately, by the U.S. education system and by the churches. My grandfather spoke and understood several indigenous languages, but he spoke Ojibwemowin only with his sons as they worked in the field.  My mother did not learn her language, although she understood conversations as a child.  I began studying Ojibwemowin as an adult.  My studies coincided with the births of my children, so I created an entire book about language acquisition, The Mother’s Tongue.  Many of those poems are selected in Cell Traffic.

Wiigwaas Press publishes mono-lingual Ojibwe-language books for use in language revitalization efforts.  We are about to publish our fourth book.  We are pretty much alone in our field.

Sheryl: When did you first know that your path was that of a writer and teacher?

Heid: Books were always magic to me and both my parents were teachers, so it seemed like the ideal life.  I taught college English for twenty years, left to work in the community in 2007, and I am returning to an MFA program in 2014.

Sheryl: In addition to being an accomplished scholar and writer, you are a mother. How does motherhood affect your writing?

Heid: The secret about Moms is that they do not mess around!  My writing comes faster, is more sincere, and is much more a focus of my day than before I had kids.  I have to make it count, because I know it is taking away time I could use to, say, wash their socks.

Sheryl: You’ve recently begun experimenting with poetry expressed in video form. How did this come about? Tell us about your experiences using this form.

Heid: A few years ago I started to see book trailers in which the poet read a bit from the book—just like a movie trailer.  You’ve probably seen them.  It occurred to me that one could make a film of a poem—and I have often thought of my poems as little films or exhibits.  The fit seemed natural and I knew filmmakers, actors, animators—all Native American artists—so I knew my team. I got a grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board and was able to give everyone involved a little fee. It was a joyful creation and I want to keep making these films now.

The poem films feel like they give my poems reach in a way I never could have imagined.  Students who “don’t get poetry” are more interested in poetry after seeing the films, and the films have gone to other countries—most recently Brazil.  We’ve won awards and spots in competitive film festivals, so obviously, the quality of the artists I worked with (R. Vincent Moniz, Jr., Elizabeth Day, and Jonathan Thunder) shows through.

Sheryl: Writers can often find themselves isolated, but I’ve read that you strive to create community with your writing. Can you tell us more about that?

Heid: Creating community is what my curatorial efforts and my playwright work is about. I needed to get out of my box and feel connection to others to expand my audience and my understanding of my work.  It has been wonderful work and my love of visual artists has really grown.  Performers are a bit too, well, too dramatic for this introverted poet.  I might be done with that part of my community work!

Sheryl: Tell us about your writing process. Where do you find the most inspiration? When do you write and what is your revision process like?

Heid: Usually I write in the morning, just get down to it with coffee and as much quiet as I can get.  Sometime I write after a nap. I write to and with voices I have read from a variety of sources, often sciences articles.  When I am creating and revising, I like to walk.  If I can find the beat of the poem while I walk, I can memorize it a bit and get it on paper in a more complete form than if I just try to dump it out of my brain on to a page.

Sheryl: Who do you feel are your greatest writing influences? Personal influences?

Heid: There are so many.  Adrienne Rich, Joy Harjo, Gwendolyn Brooks, Kimberly Blaeser, my teachers at Johns Hopkins, my teachers at Dartmouth.  Roberta Hill was my mentor in the Twin Cities and the novelist Jonis Agee really mentored me, too. But my friends who write are my biggest influences: Eric Gansworth, Leslie Adrienne Miller…I will get in trouble if I name more than two and leave anyone out. Of course my sisters influenced me.  Both Louise and Lise always wrote, so I thought it was normal and did not get any romantic notions about the process.

Lyrics to songs are a huge influence on me as well.  David Bowie, Laurie Anderson, Patti Smith…the usual suspects for women who came of age in the 1980’s.

Sheryl: What are you working on now?

Heid: At the moment, a multi-disciplinary show with “poem skits” and poem films, including at least one starring my sister Louise.  The show is called Artifact Traffic and it is about collaboration between artists, the traffic of ideas as artifact, and contemporary Native American art.  My next two books of poems are begun and should be done in 2014—hopefully published in 2015. First I have to do PR for my books of stories and recipes on indigenous foods, which just came out from Minnesota Historically Society Press.  That was a labor of love, for sure!

Sheryl: What do you feel it means to be a feminist in today’s world?

Heid: Such a hard question.  At a recent book festival, I was lucky enough to sit next to Susan Dworkin, the author who wrote reviews for Ms. Magazine back in the day—not Andrea, who also worked at Ms..  Susan was wonderful to meet and very interested in my generation of feminists—the little sisters of the First Wave. We talked a little about early feminism and today.  There’s an easier feminism today that looks at work mostly, and ignores everyday life.  There’s less risk in talking about work and politics. I’d rather talk a bit about every day life. We have a feminist marriage and it is hard. My husband is a researcher, his name is John Burke. We are really 50-50 in our domestic work. But since most women do 100% more than they need to domestically, or feel they should do more—always more—it is hard to let 50-50 stand.  Stuff does not get done.  Housework is not a priority. We have issues, but they are minor. Most women writers who talk to me about their marriages or partnerships have taken on way more than the male partner or even their female partners.  There’s an imbalance that comes from early training, but also from being the lesser-wage earning person as most writers/teachers end up being.  I see that easing with my younger friends.  They expect more from a partner in terms of the work of the home and relationship—and they sometimes get it.

My poetry continues to have a feminist bent—it is always about the body, the way we relate to the world, and increasingly about women’s relationships to the natural world and the Ojibwe woman’s role as water keeper.  I may not take a traditional woman’s role, but I hold sacred that women protect and relate to the waters of the earth.

Check back soon for Poet Sarah Winn’s review of Heid’s Cell Traffic. Still to come on StS, an interview with Poet Joy Harjo and fiction writer Shelby Settles Harper’s review of Harjo’s award-winning memoir Crazy Brave.


Heid E. Erdrich received degrees from Dartmouth University and the Johns Hopkins University (Writing Seminars). Visit Heid on her website to keep up with her latest creative endeavors! Discover Heid’s books at Birchbark Books.


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