Shayla Lawson Didn't Want to Write a Book the World Didn't Want

An interview with the author of 'This Is Major'

Shayla Lawson says in the interview below that she didn’t want to “write another book again the world didn’t want.” So she wrote This Is Major: Notes on Diana Ross, Dark Girls, and Being Dope (paid link). In it, Lawson shares her experiences as a Black American woman and on the discrimination and prejudice forced upon people of color in the U.S. in the past and present.

What caught my attention throughout This Is Major is the depths to which prejudice and racism are baked into every layer of this country’s cake. Lawson touches on everything from the dolls she had as a child to living in what she calls the most racist city in America. (And, no, it’s not in the Deep South.)

That’s my perspective, a white dude from rural Missouri. Some reviews I’ve seen speak to how This Is Major resonates readers of color, providing the consolation and assurance that comes through shared experiences.

Shayla Lawson didn’t want to write a book we didn’t want. Thankfully, she did not.

Lawson’s other books include a poetry collection, I Think I’m Ready to See Frank Ocean. And she’s a member of the Affrilachian Poets, which she discusses below.

Thanks for reading,
Nick


Enjoy the interview below. Then help spread the word about Shayla Lawson and This Is Major. And grab your copy of This Is Major (paid link).

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Interview with Shayla Lawson

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

I live in Brooklyn, N.Y., and teach at Amherst College. I play music and pole dance. I have a dog named Sammy Davis Jr. (the name both literary and iconic) that I’m crazy about.

What does being part of the Affrilachian Poets mean to you and to your work?

The Affrilachian Poets created the title “Affrilachian” in direct response to the erasure of the Black diaspora from the Appalachian mountains—the original dictionary definition of the region only referred to “white settlers” as Appalachian. This is a recurring theme in my work—looking at the underside of a history to redeem what has been lost.

What’s the genesis of your book, This Is Major?

I wrote the proposal and sold the essays as a collection because I was freelancing, a poet, and poor. I mention this because there still seems to be quite a bit of stigma around poets who move into prose as a genre.

A book proposal was a bit of a long con in terms of a financial pay off but I knew, as a writer, if I wanted to continue sustaining the work I was passionate about I’d need to find a way to make writing financially viable. The genre did matter to me; I love writing. But I wasn’t going to write another book again the world didn’t want. I’d already spent years doing that as a poet.

You talk many times in This Is Major about white people taking from or mimicking Black creators without giving credit. Why did you want to shine a light on this phenomenon?

I wouldn’t call it a phenomenon, I’d call it stealing. And Major is focused on Black creators but the majority-white marketing and advertising world is guilty of wide-scale BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) appropriation and erasure. I talk about it because I have a platform a lot of BIPOC creatives do not.

You use the term “dark people” and “dark girls,” including in the title of your book. What does the word “dark” in these uses mean to you? Why did you decide to use it instead of, for example, “people of color?”

I talk about this in the chapter “No My First Name Ain’t Whoopi” in which I describe being mistaken for Whoopi Goldberg often (although I don’t look like her) and how the same lack of legibility renders dark-skinned women unrecognizable to artificial intelligence. I use “dark” in reference to the “physical and cultural” darkness discussed by Tressie McMillan Cotton and Audre Lore that renders people of specific phenotypes (but also socio-economic classes, abilities, etc.) invisible.

Within BIPOC culture, many women suffer from being considered dark-skinned within the frame of their ethnicity or race. So the term “dark” is loaded with a lot of references that extend Blackness beyond the expected scope. Black people—and by extension, physically and or culturally dark people—experience discrimination by degrees.

How’s the reception been to This Is Major?

It’s been a lot of people’s book club picks over the past few months, which I am very thankful for. I also get a lot of feedback from women of all races about how much this book has meant to them and their daughters. It hasn’t been out long, so that really means a lot to me.

Who are some of your favorite writers?

I probably wouldn’t be writing if it wasn’t for Toni Morrison, Gloria Naylor, Milan Kundera, Italo Calvino, and Zadie Smith.

What are some of the best books you’ve read lately?

I loved Cathy Park Hong’s Minor Feelings and Trust Exercise by Susan Choi.

Anything else you’d like Bidwell Hollow readers to know about you or your work?

I want everyone to know there is enough space in the writing world for your work. I don’t like the scarcity mentality around what writing is and who writers get to be. Read a lot. Write your best things. The world needs your awareness and sensitivity.


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