Onyekachi Iwu | letters from a dead black woman
an excerpt & interview
From the storm
I hope you read this. I would understand if you didn’t. I know you don’t believe in the things you can’t see or feel. That’s why you don’t believe in God or weather forecasts. Or why you tell Charles to hold you while you sleep. So maybe all of this will be for me. So I can believe that I am an “I am” even though I feel like an “I was”.
I always lived heavy. I remember my feet planting into the Earth, rooting into it like two tree stumps. The weight of the world curved my spine and stiffed my neck and I touched my face and rubbed my bald head and scratched white trails all over my dry body. I felt the firm of my mattress on my back, my hard ass on those subway rides, the bacteria on the pole I gripped as I tried not to fall over when the train jerked. I remember always waiting. Waiting for buses, waiting for a microwave ding, waiting for a 2 AM Chinese food order, waiting for that workout to shed my flesh down because it seemed to hang in all the wrong places, waiting for that woman I met at that party to return my call. I remember bad sex. I remember sweat. I remember crying. Never moving.
When I finished swimming and came out that water, for a long time, I couldn’t stop moving. For about a week, I couldn’t figure out how to stay still. With every heavy November wind, or a tall man’s cough, I was pushed and pulled around, forced to float every which way. I couldn’t stitch myself to the Earth like I used to. I tried to push my brain down to my feet and make it move like it used to. But it’s no good that way. I’m a balloon with no string. When I came out the water, the wind’s mouth found me and blew me up to the sky. And up there, I saw all the other brown and white and red balloons, spinning and screaming with wild eyes. Yelling help. Yelling somebody. But we couldn’t help each other out. I passed over a Delta plane and screamed and screamed. I passed over canyons and mountains and buildings and towns. I could only settle down for a while, only to be blown back up again. It took me a week to plant myself down. They say you can only plant yourself down once you've accepted.
I was lucky enough to make a friend to pull sense into me. Her name is Oz. I have to ask her before I tell her story.
Can you speak to what makes you curious about the epistolary, and how you came to that form for this project?
What made me curious about the epistolary was the intimate nature of it. It was a deliberate choice from the beginning for the story to be told through letters. Writing letters is like speaking behind a locked door. There’s an intentional audience and an attempt at privacy. I see these letters Anika writes to Evelyn as a method for her to say all the things she was never brave enough to say while she was alive. It is a way to escape loneliness, something that continues to haunt her even after death. It was also a way to hopefully be remembered for more than who she allowed herself to be when she was alive.
As audience members, we are intercepting and reading something we shouldn’t really be allowed to see. Anika isn’t writing for us. She isn’t trying to impress us or entertain us with the details of what it means to be dead. She’s writing for Evelyn, and also for herself. I think Anika lives through thoughts instead of actions, or even words, so letters seemed like a perfect outlet for her to tell her story.
I think the epistolary also follows the tradition of women , especially lesbians, finding solace in each other and open sensuality through the privacy of writing. It’s a way to express deep desire without the gaze of men. I’ve often heard about the letters Emily Dickinson and Frida Kahlo sent to the women they loved. It was important to me for black women to also be shown having a deep desire for each other.
A humor regarding death, or transcendence more broadly, emerges through the arrival of the character Oz. What were some of your intentions for her character? What place does humor have in how Anika navigates her new death state?
I wanted Oz to plant a seed in Anika. Before she met Oz, Anika avoided any true freedom about what it meant to be dead. She was more absorbed by the concept of finally being able to communicate with Evelyn. Anika ironically meets Oz while she is writing a letter, and Oz interrupts her. Oz introduces to Anika just how limitless this new death state is ---that you can truly travel anywhere in the world, maybe go see a symphony for free, or even find your ancestors. As two black queer folk, death has the potential for them to escape all the “-isms” that the world didn’t allow them to access before. In death, they can have a second life. Through Oz, you begin to realize the consequences of Anika romanticizing her pain.
Of course, we find out that Oz isn’t truly at peace either. She is a victim of intimate partner violence, and she is coming to visit the man who murdered her. My intention for Oz’s character was to include black trans women within this world of dead black queer folk. They make up a large portion of deaths within the country, yet I don’t think I’ve ever read an ‘afterlife” story where a black trans woman was included. Black trans women are murdered at a very alarming rate, particularly at the hands of men who punish them for their own attraction. It’s something no one wants to talk about, especially within the black community, which centers the struggles of black cis men. Oz is a victim of this. I think Oz has used humor to cope with this deep pain and also uses it to help Anika cope with her own.
How do you see Anika’s relationship to her selfhood evolving as the piece progresses? What lessons did you want her to learn?
When the piece begins, we see Anika not really invested in her selfhood. She is totally obsessed with romance and what she believes love to be. She views love as an all-consuming, total devotion to another that leaves little room for the self. As the piece progresses, I think Anika begins to see Evelyn for the full, flawed women she is. When we’re in love, we spend a lot of time in love with the person we’ve manufactured for ourselves. We program this person to be everything we need, to the point we don’t really need ourselves. This manufactured person is supposed to heal all of our trauma, and give us all of the unconditional love perhaps we never received from our parents. We delete traits or moments that don’t align with who we want the person to be. Anika was in love with a woman who never intended on loving her in the ways she desperately wanted to be loved, and Evelyn had never consented to this task. This realization is heartbreaking, but also what sets her free in the end. The most important lesson I wanted Anika to learn was that she was in charge of her own healing. Gaining Evelyn’s love was never going to be the solution. This deep and devoted love she had for Evelyn could also be poured into herself.
Through Anika and Oz’s friendship, and through Anika and Evelyn’s relationship, what do you want readers to witness about the intimacy between black femmes?
I wanted readers to witness just how incredibly necessary the love black femmes exchange with each other is for their own survival. The love and intimacy I’ve shared with other black femmes has personally carried me through so much. In a world that actively degrades, erases, and abuses our bodies, we must aggressively seek to heal one another. We must aggressively applaud each other. We must aggressively accept each other in ways the world won’t. It’s a practice we do every day. Because we have to. We can’t rely on white women, nonblack queer folk, or black men. Only we intimately know and feel the weight of all of our intersections. And if I can’t do the act of loving this other black femme, how can I begin the path of loving myself? She is me. They are me. And I think this is really beautiful.
The immediate connection that Anika and Evelyn, and later Anika and Oz, have is something I’ve experienced with other black femmes in my own life. This sort of automatic friendship and caring. We walk up to each other and complement each other’s hair. If we’re the only two in a room full of white folks, we’ll give each other knowing eyes. I’m so grateful to be part of this larger network, where the only price of membership is that I am myself. We have often been trained by our mothers to pour this deep love into our fathers, brothers, and male partners. Therefore, to have a friendship or relationship between two femmes who are pouring that love into each other, loving another body that mirrors their own, is a radical act. This isn’t an unconditional love. It is a conscious, deliberate love that involves the self and the other.
There’s an attention to language that prioritizes metaphor and a winding consciousness. How did you access these stylistic decisions in the writing process?
You know? That’s a really good question! I’ll attempt to answer it by describing how I write in general. When I write from the first person, I like to give my characters a specific writing style. I think it comes from my acting and theatre background. I like to give my characters mannerisms. When I’m writing, I “am” Anika, like I’m stepping into a character. Because of Anika’s hopeless romantic nature, I wanted her prose to read like poetry. How she was saying things, to her, was just as important as what was being said. This matched perfectly for me with her being a musical teacher. I think music also holds a close relationship between form and content.
The priority of metaphor also comes from my personal pleasure in finding really specific relationships between things in new ways. We’ve heard black women’s skin described as “chocolate” before, or things being “white as snow”, and stuff like that. How can we begin to view the world less easily? Death has brought Anika this new method of seeing, where she can see all the relationships the universe has designed.
I wanted the language to come off as very lyrical and almost aimless, because Anika has no real goal beyond being listened to. It’s like when you tell your friend “I just need to vent”. It’s an outpouring of intensity that, because she really can’t be interrupted by another person or life obligation, is ever-flowing. There’s no concern with conventional story. She’s simply taking advantage of the ability to speak without really speaking, to be honest without really risking anything.
Onyekachi Iwu is a Nigerian American poet, filmmaker, and playwright. She is currently a senior at Columbia University majoring in Film Studies. She is from Nashville, TN, but she doesn’t have an accent. She doesn't know where her life is going, but she is surrendering herself to the universe at the time being. She might try stand-up comedy one day. She is currently directing a film entitled The Black Motherhood Project, which explores the complex relationship between black women and their mothers within the diaspora. She is invested in creating spaces for black women to talk about themselves and uplift each other within theatre, literature and film.