Black History In The Making: An Interview With Vanessa Alamo
To close out the month in celebration of Black History, I had the pleasure and privilege to be interviewed by Vanessa Alamo, a previous writer for the Huffington Post, and fellow Brandeis University alumna. Her work in journalism can be described as "aiming to empower minorities through accurate media representation, highlights the stories of creative individuals that have overcome various obstacles in order to achieve success within the Arts & Entertainment industry." Click the link here to see her work with HuffPost. Vanessa expressed an interest in interviewing me to celebrate my book, artwork, and her theme of "Black History In The Making" for Black History Month. I was more than willing and really enjoyed the interview, Vanessa's questions, and the opportunity to reflect on my work with someone who has been around to witness some of the processes! Vanessa's elegance and kindness have always been qualities I've admired. I'm more than grateful for this opportunity to network across and share love, beauty, inspiration, and art with someone also dedicated to this craft and passion. Check out the interview below and follow Vanessa and I on Instagram @remember_v_alamo and @ashleymaesimmons!
"Ashley Mae, Author
Origins: Lamentations of the Blackbird
Ashley Mae recently graduated from Brandeis University with a double-major in English and Creative Writing. “Origins: Lamentations of the Blackbird” is her first collection of prose, poetry, and short stories. The book explores mental health, religion, ancestry, intersectionality, micro and macro aggressions, race relations, and the Black experience. As she explores various avenues within the arts, Mae continues to advocate for POC voices, specifically women of color, and inspires her audiences to find their voice and share their personal experiences with the world.
How old were you when you first got involved with the arts?
I was about four years old when I began playing the piano. I didn’t know how to read music so I taught myself to play by ear. When I was about six, my mother took my brother and I to work with her and gave us pens and paper to draw on. That’s when I started writing short stories.
Of all the artistic mediums you’ve tried, which do you prefer and why?
At around 10 or 11 years old I started carrying a notebook everywhere I went. Because I was an avid reader, I was inspired to create my own stories through writing. Not only did I find an avenue into other artforms like playwriting and digital storytelling, but I also realized writing was a foundation for all art forms. That’s why writing is such a big part of my identity.
Did you ever imagine pursuing a career from this passion?
Definitely. I’ve always known I wanted to be a writer in some capacity. While I didn’t exactly know what my career path would look like after college, I knew I wanted it to include my love for the arts and for writing. By sharing my story and having meaningful conversations with diverse people, I became inspired to continue storytelling.
A few months ago you published your first book, “Origins: Lamentations of the Blackbird.” What motivated you to write your first book?
It was a series of events that naturally put me on a path to self-publishing. In 2016, I visited the National Museum of African American History and Culture in DC. It was an emotional experience but also overwhelming and frustrating. It felt like international tourists only observed the museum’s pieces like they would observe a Mona Lisa. I don’t believe they actually internalized just how real everything they were looking at was. And how present history is now.
That visit was so powerful it launched me into a fight to find my voice and to be heard. My senior year at Brandeis, I did a capstone project titled “Unapologetically Black.” I wrote the scenes for the show and they all interacted with heavy socially and politically controversial topics. The scenes in the show, combined with the other aspects of it, were intended to provide a platform for black voices to share their experiences freely and celebrate unity and joy despite our hardships — much like the book. Being in a predominantly white institution, I wasn’t sure if writing about a black experience in such a bold and uncensored way would be problematic, but I found it necessary to share with the entire community.
“Unapologetically Black” was well-received at Brandeis. Having that experience inspired me to continue writing from because I knew there was more to say and now there were people watching and listening. I wanted to provide some representation for those who may have felt it was lacking in some ways like I did.
So I kept writing. My book is a collection of many experiences turned into stories, as well as the experiences of close friends that felt “othered” in a predominantly white space. It also touches on love, culture, some aspects of Afro-futurism, and ancestry to overcome adversities and hold onto a sense of self.
Do you mind telling me what inspired the title?
Two iconic artists referenced blackbirds in their works: Nina Simone’s “Blackbird” and Maya Angelou’s “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings”. Both works use the blackbird as a symbol for the black individual and black life. In that way, it becomes representative of freedom and oppression at the same time as well.
I also designed the cover art myself. It’s representative of the Black experience in America. As an outsider, you see the bird living trapped in a jar without knowledge of how long it will live but you see that for now it is living and thriving. I felt like that mimics black life in many ways because we are living and thriving, despite the things that try entrap and confine us.
What were some challenges you faced when starting this project?
Anxiety. Even before I published, I was concerned about receiving pushback for being too real or blatantly pointing out some of the realities and uncomfortable truths of black life. I feared that the controversial content of this book would impact the possibility of getting a job, especially when the employer may not agree with what I wrote based on their personal beliefs. By creating hypothetical downfalls, I was hindering myself from presenting something to others that could have been helpful. I faced a lot of self-doubts because I didn’t know what I was doing but I followed my heart and learned throughout the process. Relying only on my English and Creative Writing majors, I self-edited my book before submitting the final version to publishing.
I really had to get out of my own head and give myself more credit for the space I was creating. I still don’t know if this book has benefited anyone but I think it’s created a space for people to express themselves honestly and see themselves reflected in something, which was my intention.
Reflecting on the political and social tensions our country is facing, why do you believe outlets like writing are necessary to our community?
There is always someone out there that feels alone and misunderstood if understood at all. Outlets like writing provide assistance for people that feel like nobody can understand their experience. It allows people to validate their emotions rather than discredit them. Many people often question themselves and writing is a way to affirm that they’re real people living real experiences and that they are not alone on this journey.
What do you hope audiences take away from engaging in your work?
I hope it inspires them to create their own work. I hope it inspires them to engage in meaningful conversations with people of all identities and walks of life. I hope audiences feel something. Whether it be anger or frustration or relief or hope, I want to ensure audiences are fueled by curiosity and look forward to humanity.
Don’t disregard the differences, acknowledge what makes you unique, but don’t let your self-awareness make you think you’re higher than others. If nothing else, I want my work to remind people that we are all human and all here to love, which is what the book ends on. Despite our differences, which are beautiful and full of so much rich culture and heritage, we are all of one kind. Being human is about giving, sharing, and loving and I think that’s all we’re really here to do."
- Ashley Mae