Quick note: we're happy to welcome Savannah Harris to the #aCreativeDC content team this semester. A drummer and writer currently studying journalism at Howard University, she'll be contributing interviews and writing to our blog for the next few months. Full bio at bottom, and we're proud to publish her first interview for ACDC, with DC native and author Kesia Alexandra, today.
Kesia Alexandra is a D.C.-based fiction writer whose voice has emerged from an experiential knowledge base usually reserved for older writers. As a young child in Washington, she navigated a world of contradictions: she attended Sidwell Friends School in upper northwest while her mother was incarcerated in West Virginia; she was one of few black students at a predominantly white and upper-class school, but took advantage of community-based programs like DC Youth Orchestra and Higher Achievement Program.
Alexandra honed her skills at Boston University, developing the stories that would become her most recent published works, It Ain't Easy and Eating Off The Floor.
A Creative DC sat down with Alexandra to learn more about her process, and what it’s like to come of age as a writer in Washington, D.C.
Within your writing, you've developed a warmth and introspection that some would say defies your youth. What life events have led you to this self-awareness? I definitely think probably the biggest thing is my mom going to prison. I was 10 when she was in the D.C. jail, and 11 when she went to prison. In D.C. you can get sent pretty much anywhere; she was in West Virginia. I didn’t see her for that amount of time. I guess everybody at some point comes to realize that their parents are not supermen or superwomen and that they’re not always going to save you. For me that was when I really had to step up, also because I had a younger brother.
I went to Sidwell Friends, and I left for one year to go to public school. When I left, that was honestly when I understood the difference between myself and the other kids at Sidwell. If I had my choice I never would have gone back. I was finally around people who were like me, not only in race but in socioeconomic status; it really makes a huge difference around that age. I understood that I didn’t have money, and the other kids I went to school with did. Being in that environment without any parents to look after me is probably like the biggest thing; I really just had to depend on myself.
What is the role of a young author in literature? What perspective do you provide that might be harder to access for older authors? I’ve co-authored some books with my mom, and one of the main reasons why she asked me to do this was because she said I’m able to capture the voice of young people so well. When you read things by older authors, it always kind of seems like they’re reflecting on their youth.
Teens are very impulsive, they move very quickly. Even in the pace of my work, the stories move very quickly because that’s how teenagers move. They make choices that they may or may not realize are life changing. Everything is so dire; it just feels like this is the end, you’re never going to have another chance to do this, you’re never going to meet another boy. I also know, as a millennial, that people read in different ways now. I don’t even feel like I can ask people to dedicate 30 pages to get into my writing. I have to pull them in immediately or else they’re going to pick up something else.
Racial and socioeconomic trauma factor into your stories. Do you feel like these issues are represented in modern literature? Do you as an author have a personal responsibility to shed light on these stories? I’m Internet friends with a handful of young black female writers, and I notice that a lot of what they write is romance. A lot of the stuff that I see people writing, they tend to avoid the issues that I’m talking about in It Ain't Easy, and I completely understand why. When you’re actually living in that day to day, when you go to read a book you want a break from that. I was exactly the same way, but when I thought about things...it made sense to me to write about those issues, because that had more of a purpose to me than writing romances.
Sometimes it comes down to the difference between a Spike Lee and Tyler Perry. They cover different material, and we need both of them. I understand that people don’t want to be buried under these issues all the time.
What is the state of Washingtonian youth today? What are they facing in this rapidly changing city? There’s a normalization of all of the opportunities that are available in D.C. Some programs, you now have to pay to be a part of it. The culture in the city has changed in the sense that there are people here who have the money to pay, so everything’s not going to be non-profit anymore. People need money to continue to have these things available.
I feel like a lot of kids in D.C. don’t quite know what they have. The programs that were available to me in D.C. weren’t available to the kids in Boston. It’s much more rare. D.C. has a very unique culture; somehow a lot of the teenage kids in the city now are getting left out of it.
Shed some light on the process of publishing and marketing your work independently? What are some of the challenges? What's most rewarding about doing it on your own? When I wrote most of the stories that were in It Ain't Easy, I was in college. My number one thing was to get it into D.C. public schools and D.C public libraries. Because when I was growing up, that’s where I spent most of my time and that’s where I got all of my books. I’m still more or less an amateur, and I still have to earn an audience. Part of that, as a self-publisher, is giving away your time and some of your work for free. For me right now, it’s more so building up the respect from people and credibility, because I don’t have a publishing company or MFA degree that says ‘you should listen to this girl’.
I N T E R V I E W by Savannah Harris: a drummer and writer currently studying journalism at Howard University, where she writes for Howard University News Service, The Washington Informer and the Afro. Growing up in Oakland, Calif., she learned drums at an early age, studying with her father Fred Harris and her step-father Khalil Shaheed. A member of the Howard University Jazz Ensemble, she has also performed independently with names such as Geri Allen and Cyrus Chestnut. In 2014 she joined the world-renowned faculty at NJPAC’s All-Female Jazz Residency Week. Reach Savannah on Twitter @SavvyKnows.