In The Field: Conversations With Our Contributors–Cherene Sherrard
Tell us about your CNF piece “Isle of Refuge” in Volume 22. How did it come to be?
A few years ago, I was in Bermuda over spring break researching the life of Mary Prince, an abolitionist from the nineteenth-century. I couldn’t stop thinking about how this fantasy island with pink sand beaches and translucent, aquamarine water had been a place of torture for its enslaved population. “Isle of Refuge” is the first of a series of essays following in Prince’s footsteps. The second is “Saltworks.”
What excites you as a writer? What turns you off, makes you turn away or stop reading a piece of writing?
Free-writing and exploration of an initial idea excites me. Finding out that someone has already written what I want to write is deflating. I’ll stop reading until I get over myself. I won’t read deliberately or inadvertently racist, sexist, or homophobic writing. It’s just lazy.
What was an early experience that led to you becoming a writer?
Editing my high school literary journal with my best friend, who is now a filmmaker. Initially, I wanted to be an actress—I grew up in LA, but I’m too body conscious to be on screen, so I “lettered” in theater. At some point, I started writing my own characters instead of pretending to be someone else’s.
What books, writers, art, or artists inspire you and your work? Do–or have–you had any mentors in your writing life?
Toni Morrison’s ability to write in any genre. I went to graduate school to learn how to be a better reader of her books. Reading Sonia Sanchez’s homegirls and handgrenades taught me that poetry could be a sharp knife. When I finally met her in a workshop at Cave Canem, it was transformative. Other writers that excite me include Jaquira Díaz for her honesty and exquisite structure; Jesmyn Ward for her courage and shattering subjects; Vievee Francis and Safiya Sinclair, whose poetry tells the stories I want to hear about what it means to be a woman in the diaspora at every stage of life.
Do you practice any other art forms? If so, how do these influence your writing and/or creative process?
I am also a poet. Creative nonfiction is similar to poetry in that I have to force myself to be economic with my diction, and not overwrite. But I do feel like poetry allows me to give in to the lyric and occasionally indulge my image-making impulse. Each genre has its own set of parameters and demands.
What craft element challenges you the most in your writing? How do you approach it? What is your quirk as a writer?
Writing convincing dialogue in creative nonfiction is a challenge. Making it sound authentic even if it’s not exactly how it was. In my poetry and fiction, I use the imagination as a shield. In creative nonfiction, you have to let yourself be vulnerable or readers disengage. I’m a very private person, but I also have a deep need to speak my truth and sometimes that wins out over my preference for abstraction.
How does the current political climate influence your art or creative process?
What is it the Hulk said in The Avengers movie? “That’s my secret, Captain. I’m always angry.” Sometimes writing helps me cope; other times I do yoga. I just contributed to a collection in a forthcoming series from Terrain called Letter to America. Being part of a collection that addresses our current climate—political, social, and environmental—felt like a productive way to channel cynicism and disappointment.
What are some themes/topics that are important to your writing?
I love museums, special collections, and old books. In another life I may have been docent or curator. I’m weirdly attracted to decay, plantations ruins, the foundations of castles, a forest after a fire. Also, my kids; when they stop playing baseball and video games long enough to take notice of the world, their insights can be shattering.
What does your creative process look like? How does the environment you are in shape your work or where do you like to write?
I write in the morning. Later in the day I don’t have the clarity to generate new work. I can revise in the afternoon, but I need my kids to be gone or otherwise occupied. I used to work in cafes, roaming like an itinerant James Baldwin in search of the perfect latte, but there was too much instability. Now, I put my faith in habit instead of inspiration.
What projects or pieces are you working on right now?
I’m always working on multiple projects at the same time. I just finished a new poetry collection, Grimoire, which will be published in 2020 by Autumn House Press. Right now, I’m outlining a CNF piece about coral cities and black girls who surf. In preparation, I finally learned how to swim with the correct form: I stopped being afraid to put my face in the water and found the right rhythm to freestyle.
Cherene Sherrard is a writer and scholar of African American and Caribbean literature. She is the author of Dorothy West’s Paradise: A Biography of Class and Color and the poetry collection Vixen from Autumn House Press. Her work has recently appeared in The Rumpus, the Journal, Terrain, and The New York Times Magazine. She teaches in the English department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. You can find more about her and her work at her website here.