Apogee Journal is thrilled to publish JP Howard’s nonfiction piece, “Goodbye, Mama” in issue 7. In this interview, conducted by our nonfiction editor, Safia Jama, JP talks about her journey from poetry to this nonfiction debut, as well as her literary inspirations and how she found the courage to write about family secrets.
Apogee Journal [AJ]: You’re widely known as a poet. What inspired you to begin writing in the memoir genre?
JP Howard [JP]: In some ways, it feels like my poetry led me towards memoir. My debut poetry collection, SAY/MIRROR, was published last year and while it is a book of poetry, it is definitely greatly influenced by very personal experiences and includes many poems that are essentially memoir snippets; they begin to explore topics that I’ve always wanted to expand in narrative form. Ultimately, my own poetry manuscript, along with positive feedback and encouragement about its autobiographical content, inspired me to write in the memoir genre.
AJ: What time of day do you write? Do you have a routine, or does it vary?
JP: I usually write late at night, mostly because I work full-time during the day in the public interest field, curate a literary Salon in my “free time” and then come home to my sweet family. So after work and family time, I often end up writing very late at night when everyone else in my home is fast asleep. I try, when I can, to get some writing done on the weekends, but it’s often my biggest challenge, finding free time to myself to write. Fortunately, I am a part of a few writing communities which challenge me to generate and share new work throughout the month, so this helps a lot; to be accountable to and a part of various writing communities on a regular basis.
AJ: Is there a memoir that you particularly admire, or that has influenced your work?
JP: Even though it’s been about a decade since I first read Joan Didion’s memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking, I’ve always admired Didion’s brutal honesty in dealing with her grief after the death of her husband. I’m currently reading Elizabeth Alexander’s gorgeous memoir, The Light of the World, which interestingly, also deals with grief and loss after suddenly losing her husband. Thinking about these two women writing through their grief and creating narratives that have a universal appeal, has definitely influenced and perhaps, on some level, given me permission to write about grief and loss, even though topics I am writing about involve a different kind of loss, a loss of innocence and loss of parent.
AJ: What inspired you to face down your fears in writing “Goodbye, Mama”?
JP: My mother passed away a little over six months ago; she was definitely the Muse at the center of my poetry collection, a larger than life Diva and once famous runway model in Harlem. Her death was, surprisingly for me, a trigger to some painful childhood memories and inspired me to write this essay. Family secrets were always to remain buried or hidden in my family, so in some ways, my Mama’s passing gave me permission to explore and unearth those long-buried “family secrets.” This essay is probably the scariest piece I have ever written, because it is brutally honest and in some ways, goes against the mantra repeated in my southern black family “You do not ever air your dirty laundry.” Ultimately, what pushed me to keep writing the essay was the affirming and life-saving words of Audre Lorde, who so eloquently said: “When we speak we are afraid our words will not be heard or welcomed. But when we are silent, we are still afraid. So it is better to speak.” This essay was my way of speaking and in speaking one’s truth, there is also healing.