In The Field: Conversations With Our Contributors—Arleta Little
Back in November 2020, we asked contributing creative nonfiction editor Carolyn Holbrook what types of submissions she wanted to receive for our forthcoming issue. “I can’t imagine Vol. 24 not having a lot to do with 2020,” she responded. “I want people to face 2020 head on. Obviously they need to be literary, but it’s important to me that submissions be very personal too, be it memoir or essays. I want to know what happened to you on May 25th. Where were you, what were you doing when you first heard about or saw that video about George Floyd? I’m hoping there are a fair number of people who are willing to really go there.”
The following interview was conducted between contributor Arleta Little and assistant creative nonfiction editor Zoey Gulden discussing Arleta’s essay “Life and Death in the North Star State” from Volume 24.
The first time I read your essay “Life and Death in the North Star State”, you gave it to Carolyn and me in an early draft. I knew then it would be the anchor for our nonfiction in that volume, but I also read the draftness of it, if you will. Can you talk about how this piece came together, the different stages of it? Did any version of this exist before the murder of George Floyd, and how did the spring of 2020 ultimately influence it?
I have tremendous gratitude for the editorial intuition and skillfulness that both you and Carolyn exercised in shepherding this piece, Zoey. It’s true, after I’d set down the initial narrative, this essay grew and developed in relationship with a village of caretakers. I began almost immediately attempting to transcribe my experiences at protest, marches, and in the streets of Minneapolis following the murder of George Floyd. I had written an earlier essay specifically about an experience in George Floyd Square in June of 2020. I wrote “Life and Death” in March of 2021, approaching the one-year anniversary of the murder. By then, I was also exploring the chain reaction of trauma in my own body in an effort at healing. My habit as a poet is to condense an array of impressions into precise language with as few words as needed. Carolyn really encouraged me in the first round of edits to open the piece up and to offer more detail. I shared this essay with my Black women’s writing group. They likewise had questions and wanted more, especially related to my personal narrative in the piece. I’d also done some prior writing and speaking about my grandparents’ participation in the Great Migration but for the first time in this piece, I linked my own journey north to make the piece resonant across generations.
Place is very central to this essay. How do you find Minneapolis fitting in your creative process?
When I moved to Minneapolis, I was ready to put down roots. Indeed, this is the first placed that I’ve lived where I can point in the direction that the sun comes up; or where I’ve learned the history of the land from the perspective of the Indigenous peoples who have stewarded it for ten thousand years; or where I’ve learned the family stories of the people with whom I’ve built community over time. I’ve worked with supporting artists here and I became an artist here. These cumulative relationships and lived experiences make a place a home and have made Minneapolis my home. When I sat down to write “Life and Death”, I was wrestling with some of the deep contradictions of this place, puzzling with questions provoked not just by my visceral responses to successive police killings of Black people in the Twin Cities, but I was also wrestling with the chronic statistical disparities in the quality of life for African Americans in this state. I needed to explore not only what brought me to Minneapolis but also what was keeping me here. Staying proximate with the deep contradictions that exist in this place was tough and fruitful creative work.
I’m thinking specifically about the graveyard prose page. Early versions of the piece listed the names and death dates more like prose, but on the editorial table I envisioned something a little different. How did that editorial feedback coincide with your revision process?
Once I’d completed a draft, I felt confident in the bones of the story. The sinew of themes and the imagery were also there. With this foundation in place, I was open to dialogue in service of making the piece better. It also helped that Carolyn and I had worked together on writing projects in the past. Over many years, we have established trust and mutual respect that buttressed the editorial process. In receiving feedback on this piece, I regularly referred to the African saying that it takes a village to raise a child. So, too, a creative project! That’s how I approached the feedback from the women in my writing group and likewise, with you and Carolyn as editors for the piece in Water~Stone. For example, when you suggested that we visually represent the names of the murdered stacked across the page, echoing the form of the gravestones at the Say Their Name Memorial, I thought – VILLAGE! I was open and eager to see how it would look. The result went beyond my singular vision and was spectacular!
I consider this piece ekphrastic in its nature, describing both art around George Floyd Square and the artfulness of Minneapolis itself. I’m especially moved by the line “The depression in the land cupped both the weight of the cemetery and my heart.” In what ways was Say Their Names influential as an art installation near the memorial site? What is it like for you to write about art?
This is what art and artists do! They help us to make meaning of our lives and experiences. Beyond this, they connect us with the lives and experiences of other human beings and the planet. The Say Their Names memorial is so realistic. It is hard not to believe that there weren’t bodies under the ground. For anyone who has been to or seen a military cemetery, the installation really evoked the same solemn, iterative grief. But beyond the object of the installation itself, the real power was in knowing that there was a life and a story that went with each of those 100 markers, just like the story of George Floyd’s life and death that we are still living in Minneapolis. For me, after being present and bearing witness … my writing was an offering that I could make. Just like the people who brought flowers, played music, left paintings, offered books or prayer or massage, left shoes, handed out water or hand sanitizer, or circulated petitions … like whatever folks offered in illustration of community at and around George Floyd Square, writing was something I could offer to honor both the dead and the living.
What led to the decision to publish this with a literary annual like WSR? Did you find this a good home for the piece, or did the piece need this to be its home?
Honestly, I knew Carolyn better than I knew Water~Stone when I submitted this essay, so this is a testament to the communities that different editors have access to and can bring along with them into literary spaces like WSR. Now, with the book in hand, I love seeing my essay in with a mix of forms, a diversity of voices, and images all connected with a thematic through line, exquisitely curated as both a feast for the imagination and a document of communal discourse.
Meditation and mindfulness are a strong thread in this essay. How does your practice influence your art? Do you have any guidance for artists trying to infuse meditation with their lives?
My creativity and spirituality are rooted in presence, practicing being present with what is unfolding in the moment whether in a sit or on a page. The ability to focus and to be present gets better with practice so the most important thing is to keep showing up to the practice. Studying and having a community with which to practice also helps a lot!
We titled Volume 24 “Ghost(s) Still Living,” from a line in a poem by Heather A. Warren, as a way to honor the ghosts still alive inside of us, or perhaps, in honor of us—the ghosts who go on living. What does this mean to you, in relation to the pandemic and the murder of George Floyd? How do you understand this title to reflect through your particular piece?
Heather’s poem is so powerful especially because we go on living in the midst of both pandemics, COVID and racism. Both of them disrupt the distinct boundaries of time and space that separate us from our ancestors and progeny. Many of us know people who are now ancestors because of COVID. And yet, they live on inside of us, in our memories and in the stories we share with the next generation. Similarly, we know our history of white supremacy, and yet, it lives on in our daily lives threatening our dreams and hopes for peace and democracy. And too, there’s living on this planet in this moment when we know that our actions here and now could extinguish the viability of future life on Earth. So many ghosts. And yet, we cannot succumb to fear and alienation. Here’s where a bell can bring us back. As I write near the end of my essay, “Then I took a seat on a blanket and struck a Tibetan bowl. The sound of the bell echoed over the field and I felt myself centering down, connecting to the ground beneath me. My mind slowed its running. Time and distance, life and death, ancestors and progeny converged in the here and now of each breath.” Now, how can we show up as the change that we most need?
What projects are you working on now?
Happily, I have several projects in process.I am assembling a collection of poems. I have a collaborative project in the works with visual artist Ta-coumba Aiken that will pair his paintings with my writings. I am also working on a book of meditations inspired by the 20th century African American contemplative mystic, Howard Thurman.
Arleta Little is a writer and culture worker, and the executive director of the Loft Literary Center. Her literary work has appeared in Blues Vision: African American Writing from Minnesota and in Saint Paul Almanac. She is a co-author along with Josie R. Johnson and Carolyn Holbrook of Hope in the Struggle: A Memoir about the life of Josie R. Johnson. She has worked as the executive director of the Givens Foundation of African American Literature and as an arts program officer and the director of artist fellowships at the McKnight Foundation. She lives in the Longfellow neighborhood in Minneapolis, Minnesota..