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Negesti Kaudo, author of the debut essay collection Ripe, discusses the art of writing nonfiction; her development as a writer; exploring race, privilege, and the body in on the page; innovative essay structure; embracing work that is uncomfortable; workshop dynamics and etiquette; her job as a Buzzfeed sex toy writer; the joy of writing residencies; and why the popular “write drunk, edit sober” maxim isn’t the best advice for writers.
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Negesti Kaudo (00:00): Have you ever tried to write under the influence? It's horrible. Don't do it. <laugh> Don't do it. Laura Maylene Walter (00:06): Exactly. So listeners, if you can take one bit of advice from this episode, it is: Be sober when you write. Negesti Kaudo (00:13): Absolutely. Laura Maylene Walter (00:16): Welcome to Page Count presented by the Ohio Center for the Book at Cleveland Public Library. This podcast celebrates authors, illustrators, librarians, booksellers, literary advocates, and readers in and from the state of Ohio. Laura Maylene Walter (00:35): I'm your host, Laura Maylene Walter, the Ohio Center for the Book Fellow and author of the novel BODY OF STARS. In today's episode, we're speaking with Negesti Kaudo author of the debut essay collection RIPE published by Mad Creek Books at The Ohio State University Press. Her work has appeared in The Normal School, Best American Experimental Writing, Fourth Genre, Seneca Review, and many other publications. She has an MFA from Columbia College Chicago, is the first (and only) full-time sex toy staff writer for BuzzFeed, is a part-time adjunct instructor at Columbus College of Art and Design, and serves on the board of the Ohioana Library Association. RIPE is her first book. Negesti, welcome to the podcast. Negesti Kaudo (01:16): Thank you, Laura. So excited to be here. Laura Maylene Walter (01:18): Well, congratulations on the publication of RIPE, which will go into more depth soon, but I always opened the podcast by asking my guests about their Ohio connection. So can you tell us a bit about where you're from, where you've gone and where you've ended up? Negesti Kaudo (01:32): Absolutely. So I am a born and raised Ohio in, I was born in Columbus. I grew up mainly in the Lindon area off of Hudson and Joyce. So those are my roots. I went to Wellington, the Wellington school in Arlington from K through 12. So I would leave my neighborhood to catch the bus and go to Wellington over in upper Arlington. And then around my junior year of high school, my family and I moved to upper Arlington. And so I spent my last couple years of high school there. I actually left Ohio for college and graduate school. So I went to school out of state. And then I recently returned after graduate school in 2018 to start working at Columbus college of art and design as a part-time instructor. But yeah, this is my home. I'm a very Midwestern person and now I live in Clintonville. So I'm just making my way across Columbus at this point, Laura Maylene Walter (02:30): Covering it all. I like that. Negesti Kaudo (02:32): <laugh> Laura Maylene Walter (02:33): Well, I would love to ask you about your evolution as a writer, how you got to the point where you were able to write this particular book. So can you share a glimpse of what your younger years were like in terms of how did writing, how did creativity play a role in your younger life when you were growing up? Negesti Kaudo (02:51): My love of writing stems from reading, I've been reading since I was probably like three years old. That was just a really big part of my childhood. Growing up, we spent every summer doing the Columbus public library, book challenges. Like I read a lot in kindergarten. I was one of like three students at Wellington who was allowed to go to the library by themselves as a kindergarten. It was in a different building, really big deal. I ended up in the dispatch for it, along with the other students. And so I've just been reading ever since I knew I could read. And then you learn writing in school, of course, but I think around like middle school, you start like being allowed to write stories. And so I would write stories in school obviously, but I think my first like big memory of me writing a story was like the summer of fifth grade. Negesti Kaudo (03:39): I started writing a fiction story. I don't write fiction now, obviously. So I didn't continue down that path. But since that moment I've been writing, I did the angsty teen poetry and the composition books. I always carried a notebook wherever I was in high school and would just like write down all of my thoughts. Like writing was my little form of therapy. And so whatever I felt, I just wrote it down. I knew I wanted to go to school to be a writer. That was my niche. It was something I was good at. I enjoyed reading. I wanted to know more about it. I didn't know what kind of writer, like I thought I would be a poet turns out I'm not, but college was where I like learned about nonfiction in a different way where it seemed possible and accessible for me. So I took a nonfiction class in college. It was probably one of my most traumatic courses I've ever taken. Like <laugh>, I don't know if you've been in a workshop, but just sometimes you feel like you're bullied. Laura Maylene Walter (04:36): Oh, gosh. Yeah. And especially when it's for nonfiction, it's an extra layer. Yeah, yeah, Negesti Kaudo (04:40): Yeah. And I would leave class and meet my best friends for dinner and I'd just be like, man, that was a rough one today. Like, it didn't even matter if it was my workshop or someone else's, it just always seemed too personal. But in that non-fiction course, I met John Jeremiah Sullivan, who is a non-fiction writer. I wanna say he's based in Kentucky. I don't know where he's based. Exactly. But I do know that he went to Centennial, which is a very random thing to be in the middle of North Carolina and run into someone who knows what Centennial is. And I asked him if I should like keep writing, like if it mattered, basically like if my stories were worth anything and he was just like, yeah, people need to hear your experiences and your perspective that just stuck with me. And I really loved his work and the fact that he was from the Midwest and I was like, yeah. Negesti Kaudo (05:28): So I'm just gonna keep writing about being from the Midwest and my experiences either somebody cares or they don't care from then on. I just kept on doing it. And I went to graduate school for writing specifically in nonfiction and throughout my first year of grad school, I was like, if you don't like it, you can always go back to Ohio and <laugh> start over and figure something else out. So I was never like, you have to do this. But again, it was something that I really enjoyed doing. I spent all of my time outside of school and class writing and like trying to figure out publishing and everything. So I just stuck with it. And I started like forming this book in graduate school and it really just came to fruition there and I've just sort of tinkered and added onto it since I graduated in 2018. And then the book was picked up in 2019, 2020. Laura Maylene Walter (06:22): Which is all very fast and very impressive that to have accomplished so much. And you know, it's funny how often writers young writers, meaning either in age or wherever they are in their journey. If they come to writing later in life, how often we need someone in the beginning to tell us, yes, keep writing, you know, often people ask explicitly, should I keep going? Yeah. Which I think speaks to the power of what that kind of encouragement can do for writers. Speaking of both youth and encouragement, I wanted to ask you about the Ohioana Walter Rumsey Marvin Grant, which for any listeners who don't know, you should know if you're in Ohio, but it is an annual grant given to a young Ohio writer under the age of 30 by the Ohioana Library Association. And we actually have this in common because I want it a number of years ago now. Negesti Kaudo (07:11): Congratulations. Laura Maylene Walter (07:11): Well, thank you. But congrats to you because your win was special, I think, because you were only 22, is that right? Which is the youngest winner by by many years. Yeah. I mean, I can't, I can't imagine that's so fantastic. Cause I'd like to hear about this. What was it like for you when you applied? What was your thought process and most of all, what was it like for you when you won and what did that mean to you? Negesti Kaudo (07:32): Yeah, so in college I was a writing major. So eventually I didn't have any more courses to take. And so one of the things that they tried to do was get us to submit work once you got into advanced and intermediate classes. And so my last semester of college, my senior year, since I didn't have any writing courses to take, I was like, okay, we will try submitting work and getting something published. And so my first piece of work I ever submitted was to a monthly response column and NAILED Magazine. It was on masturbation, which came around full circle. Laura Maylene Walter (08:06): <laugh> yeah, we'll get to that later [when we talk] about Buzzfeed. Negesti Kaudo (08:08): That was the first piece I ever published. And the editor of NAILED Magazine, the former editor, she actually reached out and she was like, I really enjoy your work. And like I'm rooting for you. And I was like, wow, thank you. And I remember I was just looking at any possible venue that I could submit my nonfiction work to. Ohioana popped up and I was going to go on winter break for J term. So it was like January 21st and Ohioana's award is due on January 31st. And I found out about it on like the 21st. And I was like, okay, we need to <laugh> build a portfolio. And so I had work, I think I included two pieces. I included what we'll follow, which did make it into the book and an essay called do you prefer African American, which has been chopped up and made it into the book in different ways, but is not in there as a whole Ohio. Negesti Kaudo (09:02): Ohioana requires you to mail a printed version of your manuscript. And so I remember it was like January 29th and I was putting it in the envelope and everything. And I was like, okay, well, if anything, you can say you submitted to this award. I didn't really think about anything coming of it. I was just trying to get out there and submit work. And so I graduated obviously had no idea what I was going to do with my life because I was a writing major and a psychology major, lots of different avenues. I had gotten into graduate school without funding. So it was kind of like, do you wanna go and not have any money? And hopefully it pans out well. And David Weaver sent me an email, actually, he called me and he was like, I just want you to know that you won the Ohio Walter Ramsey, Marvin grant. Negesti Kaudo (09:51): And you're our youngest person. I was 21 when I submitted the application. And technically when he called, I was 21 when I won, but the awards happened and I was 22. And he was like, you're the youngest by four years, he told me how the next youngest person had gone on to win a Pulitzer. Like it was just a big deal. And I was like, oh, that was in July. And I think that really made me feel like going to graduate school was the right thing. I was like, you've won an award, you get a thousand dollars. So I bought a tablet so I could carry my work around with me. I didn't really have a good laptop for carrying. I had a gaming laptop. So I bought a tablet for graduate school. The award ceremony was in October. So I moved to Chicago and came back for the award ceremony. And it was lovely. And the interview that we did, we did a panel. It makes me cringe to this day, like why I was <laugh>. I said, this really dumb thing about a Hemingway quote that is not an actual Hemingway quote <laugh> Laura Maylene Walter (10:54): We've all made mistakes like that, that's fine. Negesti Kaudo (10:55): I thought I was so cool. And I was like, right. Drunk, edit sober. And nope. Laura Maylene Walter (11:00): <laugh> No. Did someone correct you on the panel or did you discover it later? Negesti Kaudo (11:04): No one corrected me. I just discovered it later. And I was like, well, I said that in 2015 on like Ohio public television. So it's just recorded forever. Laura Maylene Walter (11:14): Oh, yours was recorded. When I went, they didn't record it. I did a panel and it was a wonderful event. That was actually one of the most meaningful parts of winning the award was going to the event. If it was recorded, I don't know. And I don't wanna know, but <laugh> Negesti Kaudo (11:27): Yeah, mine was recorded. I cringe. And it was a lovely moment. My mom was so proud. I took my mom, my aunt, and then my sister was in college in Philadelphia. So she couldn't make it. My brother also had something to do so he couldn't make it. So I took my best friend and she has been my like hype-woman promoter of all of my work since that moment. Right. Like she was more proud I think, than anyone else in that moment. And to this day, she still is like, oh, have you read her book? Well, you should get her book. You wrote a book. She's that person. And so it was just a really big moment because it was like, oh, you won an award. I didn't think it was a big deal. And then I found out my best friend was going around telling people I was the best writer under 30 in Ohio <laugh> and I was like, you shouldn't tell people that she's like, why not? Negesti Kaudo (12:12): You won an award. She's like, you are the best writer in Ohio. Yeah. Under 30 own it. And I didn't think about it like that, but that award really just hammered in the fact that writing was something I could do and continue. And if I honed my skills at it, it might end up being really rewarding. And so I attribute that to the start of my writing career, like my real writing career, because it was just two this day. It blows my mind. And no one <laugh>, no one has been younger yet. I just keep waiting one day for Ohioana. <Laugh> Laura Maylene Walter (12:45): I think that's gonna be tough. I think that's going to be a tough record to break because in most cases, writing is such a slow career and it takes people long. And to have that kind of spark on the page and that voice, you can hold that title for a while longer. I think <laugh> and I love that you have a friend who's so supportive. Is your friend a writer or is she not a writer? Negesti Kaudo (13:05): She's not a writer. She is a teacher though. Yeah. But we both went to Wellington our entire life. So I've known her since I was a literal child. Laura Maylene Walter (13:13): Yeah. It's I think it's important for writers to have writing friends, writers need to support each other at all times and hold each other up cause it's such a tough career, but I also have a special place in my heart for my friends or family who are not writers at all. And they're also my hype people and it's, it's really meaningful. And it's also a reminder that what we do it either matters or it's important or it's impressive because sometimes I don't know about you, but the day to day work on the page can feel isolating and uncertain, I guess. Negesti Kaudo (13:41): Yeah. Oh yeah. Absolutely. I always feel like I'm running on fumes and then somebody's like, Hey, remember, you know what you're doing? Like this has been successful for you. Take a break, take a breather and then get back to it. It'll be rewarding at the end. And so it's just great to have those people. And I have a great writing crew as well, a mixed bag of people from college and graduate school who are always there. Like you need something edited. You need me to read something. I've had a friend from college who had two babies. She now has three. She actually got on Zoom with me one day and went over edits. And she was like, my child won't nap. So we are just doing this Laura Maylene Walter (14:19): <laugh> oh my gosh. Hero. Negesti Kaudo (14:21): <laugh>. And I was like, we don't have to do this now. She's like, no, it's okay. And she literally was like trying to put her child to bed her infant to bed while giving me notes on edits for this book. That's Laura Maylene Walter (14:32): A good friend. Negesti Kaudo (14:33): Yeah. Incredible. That's Laura Maylene Walter (14:34): A very good friend. Well, let's talk about the book. RIPE is your new essay collection. Mm-hmm <affirmative> it's your first book. Mm-hmm <affirmative> I really, really loved this collection. It was such an honest and bold accounting of race and girlhood and womanhood and privilege and coming of age. And all of these things told in really often structurally creative and ambitious form, which I love, I love a collection of stories or essays that can play with structure a bit I could go on and on, but I would love to hear you describe the book in your own words for our audience. So can you tell us a little bit about RIPE? Negesti Kaudo (15:10): Yes. Okay. So RIPE is a collection of essays that really talk about the experience of being a black woman navigating predominantly white spaces, public and private, but also navigating ideas of privilege. So privilege, isn't just something that exists for white wealthy people. It can exist in education, body size, gender, sexuality, race. Of course, what I've learned is that RIPE really explores the different ways privilege comes into play. And I think that there's a piece in there for everyone because of that, but it's like a mix of privilege, pop culture and coming of age, which never truly ends, but you know, the book had to be completed. And so <laugh>, and so we forced an end and it just really explores like this idea of ripening and maturing and learning about one's self in these different spaces, public, private, uncomfortable, cetera. Laura Maylene Walter (16:10): Yeah. Speaking of that word, uncomfortable. I watched an interview. You did with your editor and you talked a little bit about that, that some people found the book, you know, makes them uncomfortable. And you said, well, that's part of the point. So can you talk a bit about that and share what role that kind of discomfort plays in your writing about these topics? Negesti Kaudo (16:29): Yeah, absolutely. So one of the things I learned in graduate school was that I was really good at making people uncomfortable with my work. And I sort of had been chasing this feeling of, or this reward of making people feel things with my work. So the first time someone had like an emotional response to my work was in undergrad. A professor told me that she had cried reading one of my pieces and I was like, well, that's really awkward and uncomfortable, but I kind of like really like that you had a visceral emotional response and I'm really into like raw things like emotions. And so I was interested in seeing if my work could continue making people feel uncomfortable either because they were called out or because like it was a situation they had never, they weren't aware of happening in the world. When I started writing, I was writing for white audiences because in my head, those are majority readers, which isn't true, but it also required me to explain a lot of things and be uncomfortable as the writer on the page. Negesti Kaudo (17:30): You know, having to explain things that I already knew as a narrator and a writer, one of my professors was like stop writing for white people. And I was like, okay, <laugh> and ran with it. I started writing, you know, for myself and people who had also had similar experiences to mine, like graduate school was really uncomfortable for me in the writing spaces because people were very much like your race doesn't affect how we read your work. Like at one point someone argued that and I was like, that's. Because every time someone picks up my work, they consider the ways that my blackness has either been integrated into the piece or written out of it. Right. And it was just really like why do people who are not people of color and not people get to ignore an aspect of one's entire identity on the page and pretend like it doesn't impact their work. Negesti Kaudo (18:21): When in fact it does impact the reading. I sort of wanted to call people out on that. My advisor was like, you're gonna make people uncomfortable and they're gonna object to this work. And I was like, let's do it. Let's bring it on. And so there are moments in my work where I would go back in during revision and say, I need to call people out who are reading my work and not understanding it fully. And so sometimes I break just to be like, are you still with me? Because if you are, you should be feeling really uncomfortable regardless of your position here. And if you aren't, you should step back from the book and like evaluate why you don't care about this or why it's not impacting you. And so I really wanted that experience. And then writing about the body is just always very uncomfortable. Negesti Kaudo (19:03): It's uncomfortable for me as a writer. And so I know a lot of people when they engage with my work about the body, either they don't want to, like, they just flat out refuse to read it because they know it will make them uncomfortable or like they have a very visceral emotional response, which is welcome. Nonfiction is extremely personal. So if you have a response that just means you're human and you feel things, which is a good thing. Even if that feeling is like anger or rage, like a lot of the work in my book gets to the crux of these are things that humans do. And this is what feelings look like. If not just in a different form than you're not used to reading Laura Maylene Walter (19:42): One of the many things that came up for me on an emotional level when I was reading your book, was it made me think of this phenomenon that I think is common for a lot of writers or artists, which is this sense of as a writer, almost being trapped in your own head sometimes. And what I mean by that is this sense of how people are perceiving you on the outside. And you just have an inner monologue thinking like I'm more than whatever impression you have of me in this moment. Right now. There's more to me than that, that you can't see. And of course, I think this is universal with every single human being on the planet. That there's just more to their inner life than what we see externally, but it really made me think of that. And then of course you're writing through the lens of being a Black woman in America today, and that adds so many other complexities, but the way you write about how people perceive, for example, your hair or your body or your skin yeah. Was really powerful. So I don't know if you'd like to talk about that a bit about using that disconnect between how people are perceiving you and how you can transform that and express yourself on the, the page in creative nonfiction. Negesti Kaudo (20:49): Yeah. So I try to avoid reading a lot of nonfiction while I'm writing, because I don't want to be like heavily influenced either way. You know, sometimes there are things that you want to bite from other authors and try out yourself. So I definitely do do that. I was reading a lot of poetry, a lot of contemporary poets play with form, and I was interested in how much form could impact the essay. Part of the reason I went to graduate school was because I wanted to learn everything I could about nonfiction the essay so that no one could ever tell me, I didn't know what I was doing. <laugh> I am a very much a "learn the rules and then break them." And so I was so curious about how form could impact one, the reading of a piece. One of the things I taught as a teacher is alphabetic text as image. And so literally looking at the page as a form of image, and I think writing about the body allowed for more of that play. And so like for your pleasure was a visual piece before it was a written piece, you know. Laura Maylene Walter (21:48): Can you describe that essay a bit for the listeners and how it appears in the collection? Negesti Kaudo (21:52): Yeah. So "For Your Pleasure" appears in the collection, it has artwork attached to it from the original gallery exhibition that was created because it is a visual work. It's a visual work with text on the background of just objectifying things that men have said to me, <laugh> with my body silhouetted onto it in various positions. Be it, people read them as sexual or not. I was clothed the entire time, so they're not, but people get to think what they want because they're silhouettes and that's part of the project, but it is attached in the book. There are two pieces from the "For Your Pleasure" project. And then there is a piece from the prospectus project, which is like a addendum to "For Your Pleasure" where I was getting more in tune with my body. And so those pieces exist as visual work only in addition to a piece called "Notes on For Your Pleasure," which explores the creation of the actual project. So like what it was like to objectify myself for the sake of art, because I was literally photographing myself, cutting myself out of paper, creating myself into vector images on illustrator. Like the entire project coming together was me just treating my own body as an object, really weird thing to do, but you know, we're artists, we do whatever it takes for the sake of art. So "Notes on For Your Pleasure" is really just like a debriefing almost of that hybrid work. Laura Maylene Walter (23:15): Yeah. And I really enjoyed the many different ways you play with this kind of exposure of yourself, you know, not just physically, but mostly emotionally. There's a line that really struck me. It's in one of the "Marginalia" sections later in the book, which opens with, "I've been thinking about ways I can force myself onto the page," which in some ways I feel like sums up the entire collection. So I would love to talk about the structure a bit because that section is part of, I'm not sure how you would describe them, but a series of marginalia sections that sometimes bookend a section in your book. But the section is also on an overarching level, broken down into three sections, which are Rind, Flesh, and Seed. So can you tell us a bit about how you piece the collection together, how you settled on those sections, what they mean to you and how you structured the collection? Negesti Kaudo (24:05): So like I said before, part of this book is navigating public spaces, private spaces and the self. And so the book has always been titled RIPE even before the title essay was written. I knew that's what it was. The Rind section focuses mainly on societal perspectives, public spaces, and just sort of how I exist and navigate in public. The flesh section gets more into how I exist on both a public and a private level. So how does my body literally physically exist in these spaces? And how does that affect how I see myself versus how society sees myself? And then seed was originally a section about heritage and ancestry. I ended up changing that because that's a much bigger project that I wanna take on later. And so the seed section became more of a like introspective, how I look at myself when no one else is around, you know, coming to love the body that I'm in and the person that I've become. Negesti Kaudo (25:04): So that's what Seed really is. "Marginalia" was originally one piece. And I had been reading Hanif Abdurraqib's THEY CAN'T KILL US UNTIL THEY KILL US over and over. He has that poem. It's like a poem, but kind of an essay. It's a hybrid piece about Marvin gay on the 4th of July, that's split up into each of his sections. And I was like, that's really cool. <laugh> "Marginalia" originally always split. It was just one piece. It has the definition of the word, black at the beginning of it. And as the piece continues, that definition gets more and more redacted. And so it was always split into different sections by like me redacting that definition, the sections in "Marginalia" coincide with the sections of the book. So it gets more and more personal and deeper. And that's why that last section is before Seed. Negesti Kaudo (25:52): The second section is before Flesh because it focuses on like the body, me dating womanhood. And the first section is more about like blackness in the public sphere. And so I was like, why don't we just cut it apart and see what happens? The idea of forcing myself onto the page. I was inspired by an artist whose name I'm now just completely blanking on, but she has actually wiped her menstrual blood onto the page. And so I was very like obsessed with this idea of, oh, it's Jackie Wang. I was obsessed with this idea of marginalized people being forced to actually physically put themselves on the page to be seen, but I didn't know how I would do that. And that's what that section is breaking down this idea of like, how do I force myself on the page? Ultimately it feels like as a marginalized writer, there's a little bit of sacrifice, you know, like you either sell out or your work doesn't get circulated because it makes too many people uncomfortable. And so it's sort of coming to grips with this idea of, are you going to sacrifice who you are as a writer in order to become known? Or are you going to try to force people to understand you and your work regardless if they want to, or not Laura Maylene Walter (27:05): Hearing you talk about making people uncomfortable? And you said your MFA program was sometimes difficult in terms of how people read your work. So I know you have taught and you are now teaching in an MFA program, which is fantastic. So I'm curious as a teacher, what do you do or what do you hope to do in workshop to make it a more, either inclusive environment or an environment? That's more aware of how race and privilege and background affects our writing and our reading. Negesti Kaudo (27:34): I teach nonfiction. So I have very strict workshop rules, never conflate the narrator with the writer is the number one rule. Second most important rule is don't show up to workshop, just trying to criticize someone's work because you don't understand it. You know? So like every comment or critique has to have a "why "to it, you know, or has to have a suggestion that really helps you. Can't just show up and say, I didn't like it because I didn't understand it. Which is what someone has actually said to me when I wrote what will follow in undergrad. Someone said, well, my parents were married and live together. So I don't understand your family dynamic. And I was like, Laura Maylene Walter (28:10): Wow. That's why we read! Negesti Kaudo (28:12): <laugh>. 'That was a very helpful comment. Thank you so much.' Like Negesti Kaudo (28:17): I'm really gonna be able to revise from that comments like that are not helpful on people's work. And nonfiction is so personal. The more comments that you receive like that in a workshop, the less you want to do it. So there are moments where people are like, I don't wanna write anything. And "Marginalia" was written out of the fact that I did not want to go to my workshop in graduate school anymore. Like I was just sick of constantly having to read works that were like implicitly racist or ableist or sexist. And I go to workshop and I give people criticism that they can work with. But I was reading work that was just like unacceptable. Not only was it not really good, but it was also like morally wrong. <laugh> I'm not the best example of morals, but "Marginalia" was written as like a, "huh, Negesti Kaudo (29:04): I wonder if people will listen to me if I write a piece where I'm like stop reading the page" and literally I was like, best case scenario, I get to workshop and no one has read the piece because the first page says "stop reading." Best-case scenario <laugh>. And no one stopped reading. I was actually annoyed. I was like, all I asked was that you don't read this piece. Like, that's the only thing <laugh> that the narrator asked you was not to read the piece, obviously it's workshop. So you're going to read the piece, but like, there should have been hesitation. And I only had one member of my cohort who was like, yeah, I put it down. And then I realized, like, we did have to, to read the piece for class. I'm like, but you didn't, you really didn't have to read it if you wanted to respect me as like a writer. Negesti Kaudo (29:47): And so I bring that energy to my workshops and my teaching write about whatever you want. Don't write about something because you feel like you have to make a statement, write about what you feel. Because if you're just trying to make a statement, we are going to come with questions about why the narrator chose to write about this topic. Right. I'm just kind of like always ask questions less than make comments on how you would write a piece and more about why was this piece written in the first place and what is it doing for you as a reader rather than for who you are as a person? Laura Maylene Walter (30:18): Yeah, and non-fiction is, I'm mostly a fiction writer, but I've been in workshops, shopping non-fiction. And what you say about not equating the narrator with the writer is so important, I think. Because I've been in non-fiction workshops, memoir or personal essay where the people critiquing will say, "I couldn't believe it when 'you' went out and did this" to the writer, you know, and calling them "you," it's so uncomfortable. And it maybe it seems strange to non-writers, but when critiquing or discussing non-fiction, to add that distance and to understand that, you know, it could all be true, but crafting it on the page, I think adds a different dimension to it. Negesti Kaudo (30:53): Yeah. I've always been a "the narrator" person, just because like that piece could be from a different part of your life. Like, you might not be that person anymore, but I have been hit with the "you" many times in workshop. So I understand it. The last thing I want to do in a workshop environment is make someone cry. But I've taught in a workshop where a co-teacher has made a student cry because they were just like, your work could be better. And I'm like, that's not how we approach this. You don't go to a workshop because you think you're incredible at writing, you go to a workshop to receive helpful criticism and comments. I believe that workshopping is more about building a relationship rather than thinking you're good at what you do and you don't need to be workshop. There's always room for improvement. A piece is only finished when you either give up on it or you're sick of editing it or there's a deadline. Yeah. Laura Maylene Walter (31:41): <laugh> and I think when I look back, I've been in so many workshops, both in the academic environment and also outside of the academic environment, community workshops, things like that. When I look back at all those workshops, I think the most valuable lessons I learned were not even from the feedback I got on my own work, which often it could be helpful, but really learning, you know, how people read, how to critique, how to talk about writing. And even if you're in a really bad workshop, I mean, learning lessons like, okay, so this is how some people read or respond to work, or this is what to look out for, I guess, in future workshops. Yeah. So everything surrounding my own feedback has been actually really helpful. So back to your book though, I did wanna talk about structure a little bit more because I think the structure is so notable here. I wanted to call out just a few essays just to give the audience sort of an idea of what they can expect when they read your book. And then I'll mention a few. And if you wanna mention anymore, please do. But for example, "How to Steal a Culture" is a, a satiric kind of how-to guide for how someone can appropriate and exploit someone else's culture. Negesti Kaudo (32:45): Yes. Laura Maylene Walter (32:46): <laugh> "Unbothered/Bothered," I'm not sure how you would say that, the "un" is crossed out, is struck, is short vignettes about microaggressions with a repetitive section explaining what kind of feelings that brought up. And this really reminded me of Claudia Rankine's CITIZEN in a lot of really wonderful ways. "How to Emulate a White Man," loved this, where you open with whiteness, what it might smell like, which I just find so creative and great. "Nine Minutes" is structured around the time to take an at-home DNA test kit. We mentioned "For Your Pleasure," which has the artwork with the silhouettes of a body over the text. And there is a, I'm calling them a fem flash series Negesti Kaudo (33:26): <laugh> That's what it is. Laura Maylene Walter (33:27): Okay, great. Perfect. <laugh> yes. With a series of short flash essays. Oh, and I have to mention my favorite one. Actually, I have that on a separate page because it's one of my favorites, which is "Self-Portrait from the Coroner's Table," in which the narrator conducts an autopsy essentially. And it's structured around the process of an autopsy. That is completely up my alley. That's my jam. So I really love that. <laugh> Negesti Kaudo (33:51): Love that. Laura Maylene Walter (33:52): Can you talk about your approach to structuring individual essays? Because of course here, I just basically gave the premise for each essay. They're not really about the DNA test kit. It's about something much deeper than that. Right. So can you talk a bit about how you use structure to get at what you were hoping to express? Negesti Kaudo (34:07): I sound like such an artist when I say this, but I am a fan of the idea of an essay does what it wants. You can't force an essay to do something it doesn't want. And so nine minutes was literally, you know, I spat in a tube, I filled a tube up with spit and then I sent it out to the mail. I only did it because a professor was like, you should take a DNA test to like, learn more about your ancestry and heritage. And I was like, okay, <laugh> and I like writing in ways where you just sort of think all the thinking's on the page. And so I wanted to write an essay where I structured it around like the different steps of the test and all of the thinking that was going on during that nine minutes. So like, it really only took me nine minutes on the clock literally, but the essay, you know, is probably like a 12 minute read. Negesti Kaudo (34:54): It's like 10 pages. And it has a lot more information and thoughts in it than nine minutes. But it's sort of tackling this idea of what's the point of these ancestry DNA tests. Why are we taking them? Like, do you know who you are? What does it mean if this test comes back with something different than what you expected, you know? And it gets into this idea of like being just black and it feeds back into "Marginalia" because I'm obsessed with the word Black as like a racial term. <laugh> because it's just a color actually. It's not even a color. And so <laugh>, and so I'm obsessed with this, like literally the etymology and linguistics around someone being a quote unquote Black person. Like I love calling myself a Black person. I do not prefer the term African American because just the layers to the word of "black." Negesti Kaudo (35:42): And I think that "Nine Minutes" really gets into that idea in the thinking of just like, well, what will it mean when your test comes back? And it says that you're from this region in Africa, like, what is your actual connection to Africa? What if it's wrong? Because when I took that test, the ancestry map was not filled out fully. And so there were a bunch of countries missing and I was like, what if I'm from one of these countries that isn't on the map? Like, <laugh> like, what do I do? Ancestry builds its data by getting more tests <laugh>. And so if you're one of the first people to do the test, you can't like have accurate results. So it's always changing. And I was interested in just all of those ideas wrapped in that and the thinking, Negesti Kaudo (36:24): <laugh> "How to Steal a Culture" was just a really fun essay to write. I think it's always fun and a challenge to write in the second person where you're giving instructions. And so I wanted to do that, and I knew that "How to Steal a Culture" was supposed to have a twin essay. Like I knew it wasn't supposed to exist by itself. It did have a piece of artwork associated with it, which is the collage of different celebrities, culturally appropriating black culture, which really not difficult to find on the internet, but I knew it would have a twin essay. And the twin essay I knew was going to be "How to Emulate a White Man," because you know, that could be a form of cultural appropriation, you know, and I was interested in this idea because just so many people, like if you read bell hooks or anything about feminism, when it began, the idea of feminism stems in let's be equal to white men, like that's all we need and everything will get better. Negesti Kaudo (37:16): But the idea of womanism is reaching past that goal, being a independent self-serving community of men, women, and children, et cetera, especially the black community when it comes to womanism. And so I knew "How to Emulate a White Man," had to exist, but it couldn't be a rant and it had to feed into how to steal culture. And I just loved the image of being able to spray on essence of white man <laugh>. And I was working for a shopping company at the time where I had to learn a lot about perfume. And so once I understood how perfume worked put together, like the top notes, the middle notes, it's very satirical, it's satirical for the perfume part. And then it gets into this very like interesting idea of, well maybe the reason that straight white men are the antithesis to any marginalized person's reality is because we made them that way. Negesti Kaudo (38:10): And we should probably sit with that idea. So again, uncomfortable, yeah. "Self-Portrait from the Coroner's Table." Woo. I do not like the idea of death, which is in that essay. And so <laugh> very uncomfortable for me to write about autopsy myself again, that essay was based in linguistics and the word autopsy and where it comes from. But I wrote it in a Winter Tangerine workshop where we were exploring the idea of like being a marginalized person, well specifically being a black person in America. And so I wanted to write this essay. Well, if I were dead, which again, very uncomfortable with that entire idea. If I were dead, what would they find? What would they say? And so there's the narrator who is performing the autopsy. And then there's the secondary narrator who is essentially the body on the table. They're one and the same, but they're written in two different ways because one narrator has to be very objective with what she sees. Negesti Kaudo (39:08): Whereas the other narrator is explaining what's being seen in the autopsy, you know, and I was really interested in following that format of the autopsy. I think around this time I had watched that horror movie where the woman in the coroner's office comes back to life. <laugh> and it's actually a really pretty good movie, but I love movies where, you know, possessions and demons and things. And so I was interested in this idea, well, if the body on the slab could talk, what would they say? And I'm like, I would try to convince them, Hey, everything's okay. Yes. <laugh>, we're performing an autopsy, but don't worry about anything you're seeing. Like I lived a good life, you know, even though it seemed this way. And I think that essay was really like the one that made me a lot more comfortable with my body, because I was just like, if you died today, this is what you would look like. Negesti Kaudo (40:01): And if you're okay with that, then we can keep moving on. But if you're not okay with it, then we need to figure out what we wanna do to fall in love with our body a little more. And I sort of just went through all of the things I had done to my body. Like, you know, being fat, smoking hookah for a few years, I don't really drink that much. So the liver, like I said in the piece is unremarkable <laugh>. But yeah, I was just kind of obsessed with this list of things coroners do when they perform an autopsy and how it's just so objective, but like that body on the table lived to life and like, what was that life like? And what's the story. Laura Maylene Walter (40:36): Well, you also have a line unrelated to the direct autopsy part. There's a line near the end that I also marked because it struck me: "I love my family, my friends, and writing for the simple fact that none of these needs to be perfect to be authentic and honest." I would love to hear your thoughts on that on perfectionism in writing and how being imperfect is an option for writers, which is something I think some writers need to hear. So what are your thoughts on that? Negesti Kaudo (41:02): I think perfectionism is not a trait that writers should have, like if there was a perfect way to write something, a lot of us would not be published. I certainly wouldn't be published if there was a perfect way to write something. Laura Maylene Walter (41:13): Oh God, no me either. Negesti Kaudo (41:15): And so I think once you get away with that idea in all forms of art, that perfection is a necessity to make it, you can do whatever you want. I'm very pro do whatever you want as long as it's beautiful. Laura Maylene Walter (41:28): Well, and now I feel I have to ask, because you had mentioned that you don't drink a lot, but you also mentioned the quote erroneously attributed to Hemingway, right? Drunk, edit sober. So I was going to ask you, do you write drunk, edit sober? And if so, how does that work out for you? Negesti Kaudo (41:42): Absolutely not. Absolutely not. Have you ever tried to write under the influence? It's horrible. <laugh> Laura Maylene Walter (41:49): Yeah. It's a disaster <laugh> Negesti Kaudo (41:51): And it's not something where you look back and you're like, wow, that was so prophetic. It's not don't do it. Don't do it. <laugh> like I have gotten stone before and tried to sit down and write and nothing came of it. Nothing good. I wasn't proud of it. It was just like, blah, blah, blah. So no, I don't. No, no. There's the idea of not writing by Anne Boyer. And so anytime you're not actually doing the physical act of writing, you could be taking notes or like memory photographing ideas for an essay later. And I think that is a thing one can do, but I wouldn't say yeah. Oh, you've gone out binge drinking or you've had a couple margaritas. Let's sit down at the laptop and just try to knock out an essay. It's not going to be good. And that's the only time I'll say something is not good, cause usually you can like salvage things, but drunk you, high you intoxicated you <laugh> is not thinking about craft at all. <laugh> Laura Maylene Walter (42:49): Exactly. Exactly. So listeners, if you can take one bit of advice from this episode, it is be sober when you write. That is the best way to go. Negesti Kaudo (42:58): Absolutely. Laura Maylene Walter (42:59): Okay. I have to ask you about your job at Buzzfeed. So you are a sex toy staff writer. And I ask about this not just because what a wild job to talk about, which is one reason. But another reason is realistically as writers of creative work, making money through either marketing-related writing or writing about products. I know many writer, friends who have jobs along those lines. It's just realistically sometimes the best way to get a stable employment that you can count on. So I would like to hear how you got this job and what does it take from you? Because I've had a lot of different types of writing jobs aside from my creative writing. And sometimes it uses the same space of my brain as creative writing and sometimes it doesn't, so I'm just curious what that is like for you doing that kind of work. Negesti Kaudo (43:46): Yeah, absolutely. So first things first, like I said, my first piece I ever published was about masturbation. I've been writing about professionally longer than I have been writing about race and gender, et cetera, sex writing is something I'm good at. I was a ghost writer for a creepy guy who was trying to write an erotic novel, Laura Maylene Walter (44:05): Amazing in a terrifying way. Negesti Kaudo (44:07): <laugh> yes <laugh>. And then when I came back to Ohio, obviously being an adjunct does not pay your bills. And so I was job hunting and I had a job interview for planned parenthood and Zulily. At the same day, I ended up working for Zulily for two years. And I don't know if you know anything about Zulily, but they do sell sex toys. It is a volunteer only category that you can write in. When I got there on day one, I found out they wrote them and I was like, I volunteer tribute. I would like to write about the sex toys. Zulu is a very conservative website. So one, you can't find the sex toys unless you're looking for them and have found them before and two, you can't actually use any anatomical words to describe what they do. So very difficult. <laugh> Laura Maylene Walter (44:50): What a challenge. Negesti Kaudo (44:51): To write about sex toys. So that's where I started writing about them as products. And then my friend as a joke sent me the Buzzfeed sex toy writer job. And he was like, haha, look at this. And I was like, no, this is literally what I do already, but I could do it full time and that's all I have to do. And so I applied; my cover letter was like "making the world a better place, one orgasm at a time." And I ended up getting the job. I've been in it for a year. I called myself a pleasure activist since I was younger because I read so much, I've been obsessed with why humans do things. And one of those things is sex. And I'm also obsessed with like uncomfortable, awkward, raw moments, which is literally sex and pleasure. And so I've always been curious in the most simplest terms, how people deal with their horniness and how I can help them. Negesti Kaudo (45:39): And so I spent my high school years being that awkward girl who was always asking questions about sex and like how people...this makes me sound like such a creep being like, how do you pleasure yourself? I wasn't doing that. I promise. But I was like, oh, other high schoolers as I am a high schooler, do you guys watch pornography? Oh, what kind of pornography? Why? You know, I was just interested in this pleasure world that I didn't learn much about in my home. And so doing this at Buzzfeed, I have taken all of the knowledge I knew and just like multiplied it by infinity. But this time I can actually like help people find things that will help them enjoy, you know, enjoy or experience pleasure a little better. Like not everybody's a fan of sex toys. I get that. But I wanted to like make people understand that sex toys can be gender neutral can be an inclusive space, can be for fat people. Like a sex toys is not gonna look at you and be like, uh, no, I don't think so. They're not gonna swipe left on you. Like that's your buddy <laugh>. And so I spent my days just writing about like, here are multiple sex toys you can have as a buddy. Laura Maylene Walter (46:47): <laugh> Maybe we can start to wrap up if you could offer other up and coming writers, younger writers, some advice. And this could cover anything either from your experience, you know, working as a writer in quite an unusual field or just those writers who are working on their own essay collections, their own personal essays. What advice would you offer young writers today? Negesti Kaudo (47:09): My first little snippet of advice is don't worry about time. There's no time limit on being a writer. There's no time when you have to have a book done. And if you have a full time job, like I do just find those little pockets of time to write, you know, what you enjoy meet up with another writer friend at a cafe on a Sunday morning and just write for a couple hours. You know, if it's your passion, you will find the time to do it. So don't worry about it. And then my second thing is if you want to like embrace this writing lifestyle more, I was just telling my class this last night ,definitely apply for a residency. The worst thing that a residency can say to you is no. And writers get a lot of no's and we are very good at taking rejection. Negesti Kaudo (47:49): And so apply for residency. Especially if you have a job with PTO or unpaid time off, apply for residency. And then if you get it, someone will give you three to 25 days where they will feed you and give you a bed to sleep in and put a roof over your head. So all you have to do is write.I was at the Ragdale residency in winter 2019. I don't know if you've ever been to the Illinois prairie in the dead of winter. It was actually really lovely <laugh> I was there for 18 days in the middle of the prairie and all I had to do was write and it was wonderful. There was no pressure. And so I would definitely say, if you are interested in seeing like how writing can work for you as a lifestyle, try to apply for a residency because yes, it'll cost a little money unless you get a scholarship, but you'll be able to feel like, is this something I can do where I can pump out a lot of work in a little bit of time? Negesti Kaudo (48:40): Like I finished my book at Ragdale, I think I wrote like five whole pieces in the first week. And I still had a whole nother week and a half to be there. And I was just twiddling my thumbs <laugh>. And so I was like, well, we will write new work. And then we'll just go back and revise that work. If you are not passionate about writing, I would not waste your time going to a residency. But if you are, this is a moment where you can learn, like this is something I want to do for the rest of my life. And I think that residency are a good way of getting the time that a lot of us full-time people don't have. There are residencies for young writers. There are residencies for parents. I think that the writing world, especially with COVID, has created a lot of ways to be accessible for people from different backgrounds. I think it could always be more accessible of course, but definitely if you're interested residencies and then submitting understand, you're gonna take a lot of rejection. That's just a thing we do. But that one time where someone's like, I really enjoyed your work and I'm gonna publish it can change your life like it did for me. Laura Maylene Walter (49:41): I second everything you say about residencies. When I look back at my writing experience, I think going to residencies has been some of the most fulfilling and magical and satisfying parts of the process, cause it's really just you and your work. And ideally you'll get to meet other writers there as well. And someone else is feeding you. It's the complete dream. So I will try to link in the show notes for this episode. Some resources people can use to look for residencies. Negesti Kaudo (50:04): Fantastic. Laura Maylene Walter (50:05): Negesti, thank you so much for joining us. I could talk to you for another hour easily, but we're past our time. So I'm going to let you go, but would you like to let our listeners know if they would like to find you online? Where should they go to find you? Negesti Kaudo (50:18): Absolutely. And thank you Laura so much for having me. I'm really glad you enjoyed the book. If you want to find me, you can find me on Instagram or Twitter @KaudoNegesti just my last name then my first name. If you're interested in sex toys, <laugh> we are launching a new Instagram profile for Buzzfeed sex toys called @bfafterdark. So I will technically be there as well, but it's a little more not safe for work, so. But yeah, I'm on Twitter, I'm on Instagram, if you read the book and you enjoy it, definitely let me know, take a selfie, take a pet photo, but thank you to everyone. Laura Maylene Walter (50:54): Thank you so much to Negesti Kaudo. Buy RIPE from Two Dollar Radio or your favorite independent bookshop. Page Count is presented by the Ohio Center of the Book at Cleveland Public Library. Learn more online at ohiocenterforthebook.org. Follow us on Twitter @cplocfb, or find us on Facebook. If you'd like to get in touch, email firstname.lastname@example.org and put "podcast" in the subject line. Finally, learn more about Cleveland Public Library at cpl.org, and follow me on Twitter and Instagram @LauraMaylene. Thanks for listening, and we'll be back in two weeks for another chapter of Page Count.
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