A Conversation with Deesha Philyaw
Deesha Philyaw is the author of the book Co-parenting 101, which she co-wrote with her ex-husband, and she is a former Literary Mama columnist who wrote the column The Girl is Mine from 2004 to 2007. Philyaw’s writing has evolved from a focus on parenting and family, to race, gender, and pop culture. Her work has been featured in The Washington Post, McSweeney’s, Ebony, Brevity, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. She also curated a column for The Rumpus called Visible: Women Writers of Color. Recently, Editor-in-Chief Amanda Jaros reached out to Philyaw to talk about her writing life since her time with Literary Mama, what it was like writing a book with her ex, and how she faces societal racism.
Amanda Jaros: Literary Mama is celebrating its 15th birthday this year and you were one of our earliest columnists. How did you know you wanted to be a writer? How did you get started on this path? And how did you find your way to Literary Mama?
Deesha Philyaw: I started writing in earnest around 1999/2000, when my oldest daughter was a toddler, and I was a stay-at-home mom. Writing was my outlet, my solace, the one thing I did for myself. Those early stories and novel attempts were semi-autobiographical tales about dissatisfied women leading boring domestic lives.
Poet and editor Kalamu ya Salaam created a Yahoo e-list for Black writers that I subscribed to, and it listed tons of writing opportunities. In 2003/2004, someone from Literary Mama posted the call for columnists on this list. At the time, I was writing some pretty terrible fiction and submitting it to places like The Sun and The New Yorker and getting rejected left and right. Surprise, surprise. Nonfiction about parenting wasn’t at all on my radar, but more than anything, I wanted to be published. So, I submitted a sample column to Literary Mama.
One of the many great things about Literary Mama was that, more than publishing and exposure that led to national print publishing opportunities, I also got to work with, and alongside, some fantastic writers and editors. I got published, but I also became a better writer. Literary Mama was my MFA program.
AJ: Your column, The Girl is Mine, ran for three and a half years and focused on your life as an adoptive Black mother. What was the inspiration for this column? How do you think the story, and your writing, evolved over that time?
DP: I became a Literary Mama columnist when my youngest daughter was just a few months old. She’s 15 now, the same age as Literary Mama, and she was the impetus for my column. The title, The Girl is Mine, really speaks volumes: I was asserting that I was this child’s mother. (And I liked the title as a play on the Michael Jackson-Paul McCartney song.) Because my body didn’t “look postpartum,” strangers who saw me in public with this tiny baby would compliment me on snapping back so quickly. I would explain that we had adopted her and that led to all kinds of conversations and questions.
In retrospect, given what I’ve learned from my daughter and other adoptees, I think it’s more important to assert that the girl is not just mine. She belongs to herself. And she belonged to her birth family first.
When I was writing the column, my focus was on what it meant to be an adoptive mother. How do I meet the unique needs of a child who is adopted? How do I best answer her questions? How do I honor her biological roots? What do I do with my feelings and needs as a mother? Once she was no longer an infant, her adoption status became invisible to people who didn’t know our family. Our friends and family pretty much stopped asking questions related to her adoption. I began wrangling with a different set of questions. How much do I share? Where does my story end and my daughter’s begin? The column became less about being an adoptive mother and more about my mothering experience in general.
And then my mother died of breast cancer. My grandmother and my father also died, and I separated from my husband that same year. It’s an understatement to say that 2005 and the years immediately following were rough. I took a little hiatus from the column. It was hard to write about my parents. It was hard to write about my divorce, and about grief, because I was still very much in the middle of it all. I’ve found that essay writing isn’t cathartic for me until there are some years between a particular moment in my life and the moment that I write about it. On top of that, it was hard to know how to write honestly and clearly, while protecting certain aspects of my private life and respecting my loved ones’ privacy.
I think the column lost focus. But I had grown and learned so much from Literary Mama editors and fellow columnists. I was an exponentially stronger, more confident writer when I decided to end the column’s run.
AJ: Your children were little when you were writing The Girl is Mine. Now that they’re older, have they read your column? Do they have feelings or thoughts about being featured? How do you feel about writing about your kids now?
DP: I don’t know if they’ve read the column. I haven’t asked them and they haven’t told me. I figure, if they haven’t, they aren’t interested in it. Or if they have, they don’t want to talk to me about it. They are 15 and 20 now, and I’m letting that sleeping dog lie.
As my kids have gotten older, I’ve asked permission first before writing about them. They are fine with it, but they don’t seem particularly interested. I know they are proud of me as a writer, and I appreciate that. As for my writing itself, the fiction and the nonfiction, I think it’s too personal for them to engage with it, or to engage with me about it.
These days, I’m more invested in writing fiction and also nonfiction about the non-parenting aspects of my life. Parenting is still a very big part of my life, but I don’t have the same need for community around it anymore. And that’s what my parenting writing has been mostly about—a means of connecting with other parents who could relate or be encouraged by what I share. It’s incredibly rewarding, but I think it may have run its course for me.
AJ: Since your time writing for Literary Mama, you’ve done so much other writing. You co-wrote a book with your ex-husband, Co-parenting 101, about successfully raising children in separate households after divorce. As a stepmother who went through a traumatic custody battle with my husband’s ex-wife over his daughter, the idea of coming together with his ex is impossible for me to imagine. How did you and your ex accomplish this? What is the secret to positive co-parenting?
DP: From the outset, we agreed that we would spare our kids any battles or ugliness. They were aware that we didn’t always see eye to eye, but as far as they knew, we kept our focus on them. It helped that we respected each other as parents and valued the other’s presence in our kids’ lives. That was never a question. We both wanted our kids to be able to spend as much time as possible with each of us and to not feel like they were in a tug of war or having to choose sides. We committed to honoring the relationship they had with the other parent.
Both parents have to be willing to start over, to treat co-parenting as a new, separate relationship—not a new battleground to keep rehashing the past or punishing the other parent. Treat it like a business arrangement, if you have to; you don’t have to be friends, or even like each other; just be civil. It helps immensely if you can trust and respect your co-parent—and if you conduct yourself in such a way that your co-parent can trust and respect you.
Let your kids know that they are free to love and appreciate both of you separately. Kids can benefit even if only one parent commits to focusing on the kids’ well-being and sidestepping the conflict when possible.
AJ: Writing is generally a solitary pursuit. How did you adapt to working with a co-writer? Particularly with a man you were divorcing! What was your writing process like?
DP: I actually enjoy the company of other writers. Sometimes I need solitude, but sometimes I find it helpful to spend time with other people who are also creating.
We had been divorced a few years before we started working on the book. So there had been some time to heal, and to build a new kind of partnership focused on parenting, and not on each other. We launched a blog, a website, and a weekly podcast as part of our process of writing the book, so a lot of the content from the book came from those. In some ways, it was like piecing together a puzzle, looking to see which pieces were missing, and then filling in the missing pieces. We each worked on different sections and then shared with the other to review and tweak as needed.
AJ: Your writing covers many race, gender, and culture issues. Your piece in Brevity, “A Pop Quiz for White Women Who Think Black Women Should Be Nicer to Them in Conversations about Race,” particularly moved me because of its deep honesty. It cuts right to the heart of implicit bias and structural racism. How did that piece come about? What has the response been to it from women of color, from white women?
DP: That piece was born of my frustration and anger in 2016 in the months leading up to the election. I sat down one day and wrote it straight, in one sitting. It was the culmination of conversations I was taking part in and witnessing online, between Black women and white women. I found myself and other Black women responding over and over to white women who were repeating the same things: They had christened themselves arbiters of what is and isn’t racist, refusing to be accountable for their own biases, racism, and complicity in white supremacy. It was like predictive text; I knew what they were going to say at each juncture. And I captured that in the quiz.
Collectively, and compared to Black women, white women are ill-informed about race and racism, and about American history as it relates to race and racism. Yet they insist on dominating conversations about race and racism. Where else do we allow people with the least information to lead the conversation? Dr. King said, “Whites, it must frankly be said, are not putting in a similar mass effort to reeducate themselves out of their racial ignorance. It is an aspect of their sense of superiority that the white people of America believe they have so little to learn.”
White women who think racism is merely a set of bad actions and attitudes, not a system of oppression that they benefit from—these women have the nerve to lecture Black women. Certainly, white feminists don’t let men lecture them on what is and isn’t sexist, or how they should pursue justice as it relates to sex and gender. And yet, white feminists feel entitled to tell Black women what to do and how to feel, often in the name of some mythical, ahistorical “unity” and “sisterhood” that they feel is undermined by criticism like mine. And the pearl clutching begins: “If we keep fighting amongst ourselves, THEY win.” To which I say: “You are THEM too.” Fifty-three percent of white women voted for Trump. That’s not just an inconvenient little truth.
White women in these conversations see this as a fight against Trump and his base. I see it as a fight against white supremacy that is centuries old; this is just the latest manifestation. Justice and accountability and dismantling white supremacy are the goals, not sisterhood. Sisterhood and unity are concepts that make white women feel better and purposeful. I’m interested in justice. Yes, we can work together, if we’re fighting the same fight. If you want to fight Trump and think we can address Black women’s concerns later, you’re no sister of mine.
White women inevitably said something to me like, “If we could just get to know each other, you’d see we have more similarities than differences.” Again, they fail to see systems at play; it’s all personal. They just want to be seen as one of the good ones. Now, instead of engaging in these conversations, I post the link to the quiz and say, “Read this, and if you still want to meet for coffee, let me know.” Crickets, LOL.
Black women and other women of color have thanked me for the quiz because it affirms how maddening and exhausting dealing with white women can be. And some white women have thanked me for it as well, because they realize that they have much to learn.
AJ: Women, and particularly women of color, have long faced discrimination and inequalities in the literary community. What has your experience of this been? What challenges have you faced in pursuing a writing career?
DP: I’ve been very fortunate. Relative to some writers of color I know, my experience has been good, for the most part. I was spared the racist BS you find in MFA programs and academia because I don’t have an MFA, and I’ve never taught as regular faculty in a literary program. So, my experiences in the community have been centered on publishing and working with editors and those have been positive with a couple of exceptions.
I once had some magazine editors tell me that my lengthy primary and secondary research supporting the fact that racism exists in the adoption and child welfare system was inadequate. They told me that racism was such a serious claim to make and that we needed a famous Black scholar to vouch for it—not the preeminent Black woman scholar on the subject whom I’d interviewed and whose book I’d cited. No, she wasn’t enough. This was almost a decade ago and racism in child welfare and adoption was an open secret even then. The claim of racism made these particular white women editors—and, I presume, their magazine parent company—nervous. So, we needed a random Black (male) scholar with a big name to be the spoonful of sugar. I opted to kill the story rather than cater to that nonsense.
I think it’s also important to point out that inequity persists in the acceptance/rejection process. When you get generic form rejections, you have no idea whether bias, implicit or otherwise, is at play. Everything is about “fit,” and if a publication’s bent has historically been toward white writers and a particular aesthetic that’s different than what writers of color bring to the table, then no, we’re not going to “fit.” I submit my work to those journals with a long history and no people of color on the masthead, but just as often I submit to newer publications that specifically seek out and showcase work by writers of color, publications that have people of color on the masthead. So far, I feel like my work has consistently found a good home and ended up where it’s supposed to be.
AJ: How would you define success?
DP: I like what poet Nayirrah Waheed suggested that we ask ourselves about our relationships:
how is your heart.
is your breath happy. here.
do you feel free.
I am succeeding when my heart is in good shape, when my breath is happy, when I feel free. Sometimes that’s how I feel when I finish a story or publish one. Sometimes that’s how I feel when I start one. It’s how I feel when one of my children laughs or stands up for herself or does a hard thing she didn’t think she could do.
1 reply on “A Conversation with Deesha Philyaw”
My book club just finished discussing your book and loved it. I learned today that Tessa Thompson is doing an adaptation. Congrats!