Writing Profile: Mecca Jamilah Sullivan
February 22, 2010
1) How would you describe your writing?
I write fiction that is propelled by characters and their language. I’m always interested in people—who they are and how they’ve become that way, what they do and why they do it, how their decisions change their world, what experiences change them and force them to grow. I really enjoy walking for a while in characters’ heads and lives, figuring out how they think and how they speak. In many ways, I think our voices reflect the depths of who we are and what we’ve experienced. So as a lover of character-driven fiction, voice is really important to me, as well.
2) How does writing fit into your everyday life?
When writing isn’t a part of my day, I definitely notice its absence. Which doesn’t mean that I get to write fiction every day, of course. There are lots of days when I don’t write more than a to-do-list and a couple of belabored emails. I think it’s important for writers to acknowledge all of the different kinds of writing we do. I once took a course on print culture from the Renaissance era onward, where the professor drew our attention to all the various kinds of print we take in every day— the text on sugar packets, five billion kinds of street signs, the logos on the bottoms of our boots. I think writing is sort of the same way. We collage and troubleshoot words in so many ways, and spend lots of hidden time putting words together. I have good friends who treat nearly every email they send like a confection, kneading and pinching and frosting it until they feel it’s done.
Right now, I’m doing a lot of critical writing for my Ph.D., which is definitely different from my fiction. In many ways, though, it works the same muscle; almost any kind of writing gives us the chance to conjure up thoughts and images, then lasso them into being with words. Letters, journal entries, even to-do-lists, even business memos, I imagine, can offer moments of play. On days when I don’t get to write fiction, I try to really enjoy the creative aspects of whatever I am writing. But I make a note of it, and my day does feels a little different. I feel best when I’m creating things with words.
3) What authors and/or poets and writers inspire you?
Oh, there are so many. I am a huge, huge fan of Toni Morrison. I recently rediscovered her short story “Recetatif,” and sort of fell tragically and beautifully in awe all over again. I admire her for so many reasons, and talking about her always feels to me like trying to talk about love, to anatomize it. Her narrators are always completely authoritative and yet infinitely supple—they let you know that they have an important story to tell and that they are in control of that story, but they somehow also charm you into listening, settling in, going along for the ride, no matter how challenging and even painful it may be. I have similar feelings about Virginia Woolf, especially in To The Lighthouse, and Ralph Ellison, and William Faulkner. Jamaica Kincaid’s narrative voices always make me itch for a pen. As does Gayl Jones’s imagination, and James Joyce’s, too.
And there are lots of younger contemporary writers whose work inspires me. Junot Diaz, Edwidge Danticat, and Sapphire stand out as models of folks who explore multiple worlds and multiple experiences—hip-hop culture, immigrant culture, issues of sexuality and gender, exile and alienation, all kinds of fusions and fractures—on a contemporary urban stage that my generation can relate to. I grew up in Harlem in the 1980’s and 1990’s, and I think I’ll always be drawn to stories rooted in that kind of time and place. The voices of rappers like Queen Latifah, Sugar Hill Gang, and the Notorious B.I.G. loom about as large for me as a lot of these authors I’ve mentioned. So I admire writers who’ve been able to tap into the urgency and complexity of young, urban voices and bring them to other parts of the world.
4) How does the community of Philadelphia play a part in your writing?
Philly has always felt like a home away from home for me. My mother was born and raised in North Philly, and that side of my family is still here. On a basic level, Philly and writing have always gone together for me. Throughout elementary school, I would come and spend a week or two of my summer vacation with my grandmother, and I’d always do a lot of writing. Every morning she’d clip the Cryptogram word puzzle from the Inquirer for me, and I’d do the puzzle and then write little stories based on whatever the quote turned out to be.
Now, Philly’s writing community is a sort of home-base for me. Most of the stories that I’ve published were written here, on the slanted stoops of buildings in the Art Museum area, or on the bus en route to West Philly, or in coffee shops downtown. Art in general is really alive in a special way in Philly. Community art is such an important part of the culture here, with the Mural Arts program, for example, which makes a walk through this city like a trip through Wonderland for anyone who loves art. And there are so many talented writers here—communities like Big Blue Marble, the Chapter and Verse series, the Light of Unity series, Moles not Molar, Running Wild Writers, and the Kelly Writers House all bring rich, interesting new fiction and poetry within close reach. Then, too, the legacy of writers like Sonia Sanchez, John Edgar Wideman, and W.E.B. Dubois is definitely an inspiration in itself.
5) What is the last book you have read that you enjoyed? Tell our Big Blue Marble community a little about it.
This is a tough one. I suppose that would be Jamaica Kincaid’s Mr. Potter. It’s a really stunning book about the life of a seemingly unremarkable Antiguan man, told from the point of view of his daughter. As in all of Kincaid’s work, the narrator taps into this unrelenting first-person voice that hooks you immediately, and makes you crave her when she’s gone. The book follows the narrator as she imagines and reconstruct her father’s life, thinking through how forces like colonialism, poverty, racism and classism, infidelity and love have shaped him, and, in turn, shape her. It’s one of Kincaid’s more recent novels, and I think it reflects everything that I admire about her work, and everything I try to do in my own. It makes you fall in love with the characters even through their missteps and cruelty, makes you root yourself in her fictional world, even with its real-world treacheries and flaws.
Mecca Jamilah Sullivan is from Harlem, New York. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming internationally in publications including Callaloo, American Fiction, Best New Writing, Crab Orchard Review, Bloom, Lumina, Amistad, The Minnesota Review, 2010 Robert Olen Butler Fiction Prize Stories, Baobab: South African Journal of New Writing, American Visions and GLQ. She is the winner of the Charles Johnson Fiction Award, the William Gunn Fiction Award, the James Baldwin Memorial Playwriting Award, as well as honors from Glimmer Train, Gulf Coast, American Short Fiction, Best New Writing, Philadelphia Stories, the Boston Fiction Festival, Sol Books, Temple University, Del Sol Press, the NAACP, and others. She is the recipient of scholarships, fellowships, and residencies from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, The Yaddo Colony, the Hedgebrook Writers’ Retreat, the New York State Summer Writers’ Institute, the Center for Fiction, and Williams College. She holds a Ph.D. in English Literature from the University of Pennsylvania. She recently completed her dissertation on voice and difference in contemporary women’s literature of the African Diaspora.