INTERVIEWS | WINTER ’21
TONYA HEGAMIN INTERVIEWED by GABRIELLE LAWRENCE
ART by TONYA HEGAMIN
I was introduced to Tonya by the Director of my MFA program a couple of years ago, just before I started putting together my thesis. We connected over our love of art-making, particularly the use of paint to connect with our inner creative child. It’s something we can turn to when the heaviness of our daily responsibilities feels suffocating. It’s one of the ways we find play. I thought that be great context for our interview and time together. For this paint N’ chat, we talked about Hegamin’s first novel, M + O 4ever.
In M+O, two small town teens from Northern Pennsylvania, who were once inseparable as children, try to cope with the complicated realities of their emerging adulthood. Opal (“O”) and Marianne (“M”) struggle to imagine viable futures for themselves, and despite their love for one another, they can’t seem to find that perfect fit anymore. Or perhaps, the world just seems bigger and more complicated, especially when you’re forced to live for yourself. As Opal’s colorful support system rallies around her to help ease the weight of sudden loss, fittingly, we learn about Marianne, our tragic hero, through the love-soaked lens of Opal’s flashbacks. At the time, this story of two young black lesbians trying to determine the kinds of lives they want to live was not mainstream. The book was buried, and didn’t receive the same publicity or marketing efforts as titles that featured white narratives.
The Tenth Magazine, myself, and Hegamin came together to make space for this conversation because we felt that Marianne and Opal’s stories hold something for us in the present. Tonya and I talked about being an outsider, the complexity of black womanhood, the legacy of black poetry, reigniting curiosity about creativity, finding new ways to take risks, the ways the publishing industry fails black queer people, and more.
GABRIELLE LAWRENCE: I think I’m going to try and use one of these today.
TONYA CHERIE HEGAMIN: Oh, yeah. Sponge brush?
GL: Yeah, to cover some kind of ground or something. It’ll be my first time using it on a canvas, though. So we’ll see.
TCH: I had a piece of paper, and I cut out some weird shapes. I’m going to use that to be sort of a collage, well a stencil. Then I’ll go over it in different colors.
GL: Ooh that sounds like it’ll be pretty. I’ve mixed series of greens, and deep, dark, bluish violet-ish colors. I’m hoping to play with some brown, just all inspired by nature. That’s where your book took me. I felt like I was on a hike the whole time, or in the woods exploring.
TCH: Thank you. That’s what I wanted her to be.
GL: So, Opal and Marianne.
TCH: Ah, yeah.
GL: Such longing and wanting. There’s that scene where Opal is desperately wanting Marianne to run towards her, and instead, she runs in the opposite direction.
TCH: Never comes back.
GL: It hit me so hard, but it was so relatable. Their quiet relationship, where things are known and understood by all but not necessarily vocalized or affirmed; the silence of it all. Can you possibly talk more about why this is one of the first scenes we’re introduced to? Since this gives us major context and insight into these characters and the kind of space they take up in each other’s lives, what was your intention was in writing their relationship? What did you want to explore there?
TCH: Well, I spent a lot of my childhood in or near woods. They played a big part in my identity early on. I used to take other friends from the neighborhood, and do “séances”. I would make everybody wear handkerchiefs around their heads and burn candles.
I was a witch from the get. I lived in a pretty much all-white area, so I knew that isolation and the feeling of being the outsider from very early on. I also think I felt like an outsider around people of color, and abused in many ways by them, because we were all in an oppressive circumstance. Not to dismiss that or to belittle it, but to contextualize it. So in a way I knew how both M and O felt, but also, I didn’t know. That left me enough space to exercise my curiosity and my imagination.
When I was a teenager, my mom started working in Rochester, New York. We moved from where I had grown up, where all my family was, and everything I knew. So we would take these road trips, we would drive through Pennsylvania, to Rochester, and we would pass through, or near, Punxsutawney. I would just look out the window and imagine what people’s lives must be like in those tiny little towns, where it was just the highway going through.
I was always interested in history, so thinking about the ghosts that also inhabited those spaces sparked my imagination. Those are the spaces in which the story was born.
GL: I love that you used to do play séances in the woods when you were younger, and that it shows up in your work. For me, Gran serves as the spiritual anchor in the novel. Whenever she’s in a scene, I now there’s going to be some spiritual movement.
TCH: Yeah that’s the purpose of her character, to serve as an anchor. I wanted the complexity of black women to be throughout the novel. There’s Gran, the anchor, whose story is very interesting. Her backstory doesn’t really get told, but we know it’s going to be as interesting as she is, where she is, and who she lives with. There’s her legacy, and the mother’s legacy of living your own dream and finding your own voice. Mom comes in as a magical bomb as well. Then there’s Hannah, and her story that guides and uplifts all of these women. They’re all black women transcending in their own ways. I wanted to show how women, in general, transcend the spaces that they have been born into or placed.
GL: What was it like braiding all of these narratives together from a craft standpoint? I’m thinking about the timing of it all, the end of Hannah’s story, a reconciliation, Opal finds her own peace. We learn more about why Marianne took her own life and her mother’s backstory. There’s a big release towards the end, very poetic, and it’s very satisfying. I was wondering if you could talk about how you came to that ending.
TCH: Well, there was actually an entire other half of M+O that was cut by the editors. So that sort of Russian combination is a reflection of that. And poetry, that’s my background. So it was definitely a part of what my writing really was at that time. My other books are less of that, and I miss it.
Originally, I wanted the novel to begin with the ad for the escaped slave and end with Opal’s graduation from Spelman. To give that sort of context for the arc of the story and the general arc of the varieties of paths that all of these women have taken in their lives. Those are little love letters, or poems, or calls to action, in some ways too
Just thinking from where I was in my life, my bachelor’s degree was in poetry. I studied with Toi Dericotte at the University of Pittsburgh, and then also at Cave Canem, so my sense of language was really built around black poetry. My MFA was also very centered around poetry. My first picture book is really a long poem. So I sort of created a novel by accident, because I was in my MFA, and if there’s a time to try a novel that’s what you do.
I had started a novel early to apply, but that didn’t resonate with me as much as the newer work that I put down in grad school. I sold both of those, the picture book and M+O. One in my first semester and one in the second semester. So, it kind of took off for me. A lot of it had to do with my relationship to language, my upbringing, if you will, in the annals of black poetry. Michael Harper sat me down one day and made me learn all the poetic structures and talk to me about theory and…
GL: THE Michael Harper?!
TCH: Yes! These are the very early days of Cave Canem. I watched Elizabeth Alexander breastfeed her second son. Those were the days. Nobody was anybody back then. We were all just kids, so excited to be black and poetic, and thought about.
I definitely felt like I was a part of making history in that time. That novelty wore off eventually. The markets became flooded, and that’s beautiful. I’m not at all sad about any of that, but the work that I was doing, became more about story and less about language.
GL: Can you talk about the difference?
TCH: Well, I think that there’s a space for marriage there, but there’s a lot of courting that has to be done to make that marriage work. That requires a lot of time, space, and energy. Once my diagnosis happened, it became harder for me then to be in balance of a lot of things. I lost a little of my multitasking ability. I don’t want to say all of it, or that I can’t bring it back, but it was something that really changed me. The ability to sit and think about poetry, and words, and how things are said became secondary.
GL: Thinking about how things are said versus figuring out what you wanted to say?
TCH: Well, there’s the constant. I always say my disability is like having a second job. It’s very time and energy consuming in ways that I would have never thought about before. The energy of poetry is incredibly thick, from my perspective. I think in my next book, part of my main concern was about the story I was telling. All of the research that I did for Hannah in M+O I wanted to put to work in a fully historical manner. So I thought of work differently, and what I was doing was the work. It’s funny because I’m doing a talk about the play imperative actually. It’s the importance of play in our everyday lives when we’re going through especially stressful times. Poetry was that for me. It was a lot of play when I started out. Then it kind of became a different. I viewed it differently and I thought it was simply because of my point of view, more than anything. The work of being an artist, and then having to also be a full time educator on top of that was a lot of work. So I think that in some ways, my relationship to the world changed, simply because I was trying to just get shit done. I know it’s very unromantic, but…
GL: But it’s real.
TCH: It truly is. The realest of the reals. I was talking to someone who wants to interview me for her podcast. We were just talking about how some people can really thrive in academia, and they love the system and the institution. Some of us really have a hard time with it, some of us are just not that interested in the minutiae. It’s a very different time period in academia. It’s a different time for poetry as well. How we view words, how we seek connections through literature, I think, is very different now. There’s a lot of different people reading for different reasons, so that changes how the word gets translated.
I had an opportunity in my youth to see the struggle of the people who came before me, and I still get to benefit from it many ways, but it also was not a time where we could fully embrace all of it. We also still have no health insurance and have to work, and have families, and need to make some money for them. The institutions have always sort of been this sort of space for, especially in the past few years, for black artists to find the ability to work and create. However, it has decreased for that usefulness, as time has gone on.
GL: How many years have you been working in academia?
TCH: Too many? I started at my current position in 2009, but I started teaching with different organizations and in different capacities since…1998 probably?
GL: So, that’s about 22 years. When you look back on it now, having been in academia, having been a little bit more removed from that time of your life and from poetry, is there some kind of dissonance? What do you see in between that space that you were writing in versus now? If you could reflect on that in the present, what comes up for you?
TCH: Well, I’ve actually not been writing much at all lately. Most of my work has been non-fiction. I’m doing a lot of research right now on disability justice, and being a patient advocate has been very consuming. I’ve began some things and I have some things in the work, but nothing that I’ve shown to anyone of consequence. I was just having a conversation with my friend, Bridgette Davis. She wrote a book that’s being turned into a movie about how her mother was a numbers runner in Detroit during the Motown era. She’s also an academic and a writer but has a very different perspective than mine, of course. She and I were talking about that, and she said, “Oh, I love my agent, I can introduce you.” And I was like, “Ugh.” It’s an emotional work—being an artist is emotional at its core when done right. I’m always surprised when people are like, “I take out the emotion out of it.” I’m like, “How do you do that?” I’d like to know, because I could probably get a lot farther if I wasn’t so concerned about the emotion of the work. I think that’s what it goes back to. The work that I do as a poet can be intense. I was definitely in a space of intensity in my youth when I was doing most of the poetry that I’ve done.
It’s not that I don’t still write poetry sometimes, but it’s definitely not with the ferocity that I did as a young person. I admire people who can. I actually have a hard time with maintaining interest in one thing for extended amounts of time in general. I guess that’s called the ADD, I don’t know. I just like to take breaks, and it’s very hard for me to just be interested in one subject. Which can make it difficult to maintain a sense of curiosity and play in one thing. So, I have to constantly find ways to reinvigorate my curiosity around expression.
That’s lot of, right now, what the visual art is doing for me. Is just creating space where I can play with my expression, and not feel. It’s not a professional setting, it’s not like being judged. It’s just me finding out, learning my own way of doing something, and educating myself. That’s also a part of the excitement —educating myself about something and finding out things that I like about art; which is almost the antithesis of what modern schooling wants you to do. They want you to appreciate what they appreciate, and then go and make your own stuff. In the end, a lot of people get lost in what other people are doing.
GL: Oh my god, yeah, tell me about it.
GL: How did you see the significance, the meaning, and the purpose of these characters living in this story then, versus how you would interpret it now given everything you’ve just talked about? The ways that you’ve grown, the ways that you have maybe set certain things aside for the time being and are re-learning and re-exploring.
TCH: Yeah, that came out in 2010, 2009-2010, so it’s been a minute. It’s funny because the book was not really acceptable in 2009. It wasn’t, really. Now, young adult gay literature is what’s up. There’s still very few black female characters. I think the book got lost because of that, because there wasn’t really as much connection to who I knew my audience was. The people I was writing and publishing with, didn’t necessarily know that those people existed.
GL: And didn’t know how to market to them?
TCH: Yeah, that was it. It was totally about like, “We don’t know who these people are, and how we would get to that. So we’re going to just kind of leave it here.”
GL: Yes. I have so many thoughts about publishing specifically failing black women and black non-binary people in that way.
TCH: Very much so, and that’s a shame. I think that there’s a lot of space for these two young women to enter into people’s lives. They’re not urban. I think there are definitely some stereotypes around them, and that I was working through as a young artist. I was trying to understand my own upbringing and reconciling my own desires. It was the first novel I ever really wrote. So, everything is different, everything has changed. I do have faith that these girls are going to end up being revered in new and different ways in the years to come, in ways that I can’t imagine. I’m really excited for them for that. I think that they deserve as much attention as a lot of the other stuff that’s out here.
GL: Who do you think those characters would be in conversation with today, if any at all?
TCH: I think Jacqueline Woodson. She was one of my teachers and mentors. She’s definitely made space for these types of characters. I think of everything as an experiment. Nikola Tesla didn’t know what his art was going to do, his experiments of electricity. He was just caught up in the frustration of not being the first or not being considered in a time period in a way that perhaps he would have liked to. Now we can look at him from a fresh space. So these conversations around identity and justice that we’re having more and more have me thinking about what justice means to different communities? What does a certain group of people’s perceptions of what their rights mean affect other people in lasting ways? We see what’s happening to the publishing industry. I think one of the reasons why it’s not doing so well is because they haven’t let people in. Now all of a sudden, they want to let people in, but people aren’t reading in this context anymore. They’re not looking to books to satisfy that need, as much.
So we’ll see what happens to these girls, because they’ll still be there, these girls are in the woods. These girls are still working out their wants and needs, and they’re trying to understand who they are in the world that is so contradictory to their survival.
GL: Can we talk about that, too? I want to talk about being queer. I don’t know if we’ve talked about this yet, but I’ve been exploring my non-binary identity.
TCH: So where did that identity sort of blossom from? Or was it something that you’ve always sort of felt but not been able to give name to?
GL: I think I’ve always noticed that I was more comfortable than the people around me at various points along the gender identity spectrum. I’ve also always been criticized for it or made to feel ashamed, especially in black spaces growing up.
GL: In grad-school, years of rejection, suppression, body-issues and sexual trauma just kind of bubbled to the surface. I was also trying to be a writer, and the pressure of articulating your purpose, who you are, and who you write for just got to me. I had been seeing the word non-binary and people using their pronouns but I didn’t really pay attention to it at first.
GL: Then one day I finally googled what non-binary meant and I just bawled. I cried so hard. I’ve been working through it bit by bit and experimenting with she/ they pronouns. I’m still coming to terms with that part of my identity. I wouldn’t say that I go around telling people that I’m non-binary, but it’s something that I know for myself, I just haven’t figured out how to communicate it to the rest of the world. Also, the more that I become spiritually in tune, the more that I talk to my ancestors, the more that I feel safety in that.
So these characters really resonated with me. Opal’s family shocked me so much though. When her grandmother defends her, or when they just shower her with love and affection. I found myself in a space of longing.
TCH: Yeah. Well, in that way, I considered it to be a fairytale ending, that moment of full acceptance and embracing. I wanted to give that to my readers. I wanted them, because I knew so many of them would not have experienced it, or maybe if they had experienced it they thought it was a one off, but I wanted to be there for them. All of those characters are me. I’m embracing the characters. I’m embracing the reader. I’m really creating a fairy tale of “And it all turned out in the end.”
That was really important to me to have, because that’s not a story that black lesbians get, or black non-binary people, or people of mixed race, or anyone who is forced to choose who they represent. When Opal and Marianne are in Walmart, and the two girls are demanding from them, “Who are you? Who are you? What are you?” That constant question is being asked. One girl does not know; she loses herself in trying to answer it for others. The other girl is embraced for not necessarily trying anything, but just being herself.
GL: Just being. I think that’s what’s so powerful to me about black literature. The more that I read, the more that I do feel that embrace, the more that I start to understand love. I think being black and queer, in a lot of ways, has been meaning to pull that in for me. To remind myself that even if the people around me aren’t holding me right now, someone somewhere is. Writing from that space of the deep black tradition of poetry, of spirituality, of history, memory, ancestors, all of those things, it has really opened up a lot of space for me to feel or fill in the gaps as far as love and acceptance are concerned.
TCH: Yeah, well, that’s what the whole book is about. Belonging to someone else, but also belonging to yourself at the same time. Even the dynamics of the relationship between Opal’s mother and father, they don’t live together, they don’t see each other, but there’s a clear love and connection there.
GL: And the fact that she chose herself!
TCH: And continues to choose herself. She demands that he is his vulnerable self. He doesn’t want to cry in front of his daughter, and she’s like, “You better cry in front of your kid.” You better show every single one of those tears, because this is all she has of you, is these moments. That’s also kind of key in the book. What we have together is so fleeting when we are so caught up in fitting into otherisms besides our own instead of being a full representation of yourself, risking the journey of rejection, and demanding to be loved within that space. I’m surprised I had that language at that age because I’m still searching for it myself now. To just be my whole full self in relationships, and not be something that I think I’m supposed to be.
GL: Well, at some point you had that language. So maybe you have it still with you now?
TCH: I think it’s a constant evolution. Now, I can look back and have a little more articulation of it in a conscience sense. I think at that point in time, I just knew I had an idea of what I wanted the reader to feel and experience and I tried really hard to evoke that. I tried to basically write the book that I needed when I was younger.
I had some good books when I was younger. I think I stole The Bluest Eye from my dad’s library because there wasn’t a whole lot of that literature just floating around. I was lucky enough to find Virginia Hamilton, and she was a big influence on my writing. As it turned out, I ended up having a really beautiful friendship with her husband after she died. I put together a celebration of her life when I was at The New School, because she actually went to The New School. And she was one of the first, or perhaps the first woman of color to win The National Book Award in children’s literature. So, that kind of research into history, using the modern kid to find their place in the present by understanding their history, that was really a lot of what I was doing with M plus O, or trying to achieve.
I’ve been watching a lot of stuff about the productive struggle in education, letting kids get through things in their own way, shape, and form in order to learn what they need from the exercise or whatever. Instead of pushing them through it, let them pull themselves. I find that interesting.
GL: So how would you say then that connects to what we were talking about earlier? Taking a step back and allowing innovation to happen?
TCH: Well, that’s what play is about. That’s why the creative process is reliant upon play and the deliberate mistake. You can look at the Tarot as the creative progression. You can do different readings on the creative process, as the cards. 0 is the fool. And the story behind him is that he is the son of a powerful goddess, so he has this innate feeling of being protected and safe. He’s taking a step off a cliff, and so he has little friends who are trying to distract him and friends who are trying to pull him back. Yet the joy of that one foot hanging in the air is what is embodied in the card. No creative endeavor is done without a risk.
And play also has to be a risk. If you think about asking kids to play when you were young, kids you didn’t know or kid you did know, the fear of rejection, the trying to assimilate to the rules or the parameters of the play. There’s a lot of risk and vulnerability that is at stake, when we begin the play process.
Especially when we’re joining others. It’s not as hard when we’re doing it for ourselves, but that also can be problematic, because then we’re not necessarily always risking as much. Or we have to find different ways to encourage ourselves to take risks.
GL: This kind of reminds me of Marianne. I think about the fear of rejection and all of these demands that the world makes, and that people around me make, maybe consciously and unconsciously. Then I read about what that did to her, or how she chose to handle it. It reminds me a lot of the times that I’ve been in that space too.
TCH: Well, like I said, there was a whole second part of the book, in which it was Marianne’s perspective. Marianne finds herself at the bottom of the ravine. She is with the ghost of Hannah, who was like, “You stupid bitch, what have you done? I did this so that you could live.” The whole second part was her reconciliation with what she had taken for granted about the people who were trying to love her for who she was, and not, all those other things. And her not being able to receive it…yeah
That’s her tragic flaw. I didn’t want her to be a tragic mulatto, but I kind of used it in that way. I wanted her to reconcile that identity, but she didn’t get to do that in the final version. She just sort of ends muted.
GL: Yeah. She says something though on that note, “I got tired. So I flew.”
TCH: So also in the original second part, she had made plans to leave town. So the “flew” was really about her leaving. She also was doing drugs, not really secure in her decisions, and very caught up in herself. Too caught up to really fulfill her own dreams. That’s another big part of the book: you need your foundation, your ancestors to fulfill your dreams.
Ultimately, the note gave her some closure. It was an effort to soothe her friend but also to make herself feel less accountable for her actions I guess. It’s a dismissive avoidance tactic.
GL: Can you expand a bit?
TCH: It’s sort of…feeling like you’re in that trap that we get into as the outsider. This is the thing, you’re growing up in an all white area, constantly being questioned about your identity, and then when you do reveal your identity then that’s invalidated. So you’re like, “Where do I place my trust? Do I have a place to grow trust?” And luckily because of Opal’s connection with Marianne, and the loss of Marianne, Opal was able to find that sort of space with her family. Otherwise, she might not have had any chance to say these things. If Marianne hadn’t taken her life, Opal’s family would not have all come together in this moment to be there for her. That was what reconciled not being able to put in that second part of the book for me, at least this gave Opal a time to shine.
GL: Right. It’s a little bit more full circle too. Even though Marianne didn’t have the chance to, it’s like the energy’s still is opened up for healing.
TCH: Yeah, I would love to see it reprinted and resurrected, and to hold its place as one of the only African American queer historical, history-based books. It really did, like we said, get buried at a publisher for lack of knowing where to put it and how to handle it.
GL: That’s pretty unfortunate.
TCH: Yeah, it happens to a lot of people, a lot of good books. Unfortunately, this book was bought by a black editor and then passed to a white editor who really had zero clue how to reach an audience around it. So it’s brought the girls this far, but I think that there’s space for it to come back. I think that there’s space for it to resurrect.
GL: And I hope it does.
TCH: Thank you.
Gabrielle Lawrence is a writer, editor, and narrative designer from Southern California. Their poetry has been nominated for Best of the Net and Best New Poets. She is an interview correspondent for TERSE. Journal and the former EIC of Linden Avenue Literary Journal.