Join the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing and Burton Barr Central Library for a talk with poet Danez Smith on Thursday, September 12, 2019 from 6:30 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. in the Pulliam Auditorium at Burton Barr Central Library (1221 N Central Ave, Phoenix, AZ 85004). RSVPs are encouraged, but not required. The event is open and free to the public.
Danez Smith is a Black, Queer writer & performer from St. Paul, MN who is the author of Don’t Call Us Dead (Graywolf Press, 2017), winner of the Forward Prize for Best Collection, the Midwest Booksellers Choice Award, and a finalist for the National Book Award as well as the poetry book [insert] boy (YesYes Books, 2014), winner of the Kate Tufts Discovery Award and the Lambda Literary Award for Gay Poetry. Smith has been the recipient of fellowships from the Poetry Foundation, the McKnight Foundation, the Montalvo Arts Center, Cave Canem, and the National Endowment for the Arts. The poet’s work has been featured widely, appearing on platforms such as Buzzfeed, The New York Times, PBS NewsHour, Best American Poetry, Poetry Magazine, and on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert. Smith is also a member of the Dark Noise Collective and is the co-host of VS with Franny Choi, a podcast sponsored by the Poetry Foundation and Postloudness. Smith’s third collection, Homie, will be published by Graywolf in Spring 2020.
For more information about Smith, visit their website. For further information on the event, see the Facebook page.
In 2017, I bicycled around India for four months with a friend. We witnessed an immense range of humanity: kind strangers who led us through chaotic cities, fellow cyclists who brought us into their homes to stay a few nights, pilgrims lined up outside of temples to pay for blessings, and barefoot men smashing rocks on the edge of steep cliffs as they built roads. I was an experienced bike tourist. My travel partner was well-versed in the complications of international travel. Our skill sets complemented each other well and, as we rode through deserts, mountains, and beaches, we became intimately acquainted with the multitudes of experiences within India.
I, a queer daughter of Indian immigrants, couldn’t have expected we would pull this off. It seemed like a pipe dream. Cross a country with over 1.3 billion people and 700 languages? Ride some of the tallest mountain passes in the world, carrying everything we need on bicycles? Even though I’d bicycled across the United States and Canada, riding across my parents’ homeland seemed like an impossible feat.
When I returned to the US, I was shaken: my cells rattled from the unpaved roads, my eardrums damaged from the persistent honking, my lungs coated in diesel fumes from trucks and autorickshaws. I sought stillness. I moved to upstate NY, where I lived on a property with four horses, thirty chickens, two dogs, a cat, six ducks, and wild turkeys.
While in India, I posted on my social media every day. I documented my emotional truths as they happened. At times, I was ecstatic as I cycled through busy streets with Indian bicyclists during festivals. At other times, I was overwhelmed by the men, the crowds, the chaos of the country. Because I was actively sharing these stories, people reached out to me. They asked for advice in planning their own bicycle tours. They told me that my daily posts were a source of inspiration as they drank their morning coffee. They told me that these stories made them feel like they could do anything they wanted.
As I sifted through my memories, I realized bike touring taught me a valuable lesson: Fuck Impossible.
My previous bike tour in 2014 helped me talk about my own queerness in ways that I never had before. I shared my writing for the first time through a blog. Biking across India in 2017 allowed me to be claimed by Indians as a child of the country, and allowed me to claim India for myself.
Owning my queer identity, sharing my writing and telling stories, and embracing India as where I’m from, were all things I couldn’t have imagined myself capable of. They seemed impossible to me prior to bicycling. Each time I’ve gone on a long bike ride, I’ve found myself unearthing new possibilities for myself and finding different ways to exist in this world.
The time and space of that house in upstate NY allowed me to assess why I’m writing. I’m writing for the people who messaged me on my tour. I’m writing for the kids of immigrants who are disillusioned by this country, its historical and current violence against our peoples, and who rage against the trap of the unattainable American Dream. I’m writing for queer folks, who have had our gender identities boxed in by a specific heteronormativity that lives in this culture, and who undermine colonial gender norms every time we choose to love.
My story is important in ways I couldn’t have a expected before this all started. So, my travel partner and I self-published a CNF chapbook, in which we included photography and writing from both of us. I planned a way to tell this story more broadly, to gift a physical object to the communities that have held me thus far.
I called it the Fuck Impossible Road Trip. I traveled between more than ten cities all over the United States, using my savings to give talks in bookstores, bike shops and coops, and REI stores across the country. I scheduled time in which I could sit in stillness with friends, organizers, and writers, in order to learn. I went on bike rides with Women, Trans, and Femme (WTF) folks of color in Portland. I organized a WTF Bike camping trip in Anchorage, where I’d once lived. I spoke to rooms with fifteen people and standing-room-only rooms of seventy. Everything about this tour has been outside my comfort zone. As an adult, I’d never made a PowerPoint presentation or spoke in front of a group. I’d never self-published anything, worked with an illustrator to take the experiences in my head and translate them visually, or edited the intimate work of a friend with whom I shared experiences with. It was a new experience for both of us.
We said: If we could bike across India, we can make this chapbook together.
And I said to myself, every time I got on a stage: If I biked across India, I can tell a fucking story.
As a young woman growing up in New Jersey to Indian immigrant parents, as a brown bicyclist for whom riding across rural North America seemed like a way to get killed, as a woman for whom queer love has seemed like an impossibility for so long, I’ve learned to say Fuck Impossible over and over and over again.
Fuck Impossible: a rallying cry for misfits who’ve always been questioned whether they can do something, who’ve always been told they can’t, who’ve drawn lines around themselves to keep themselves safe, to protect their hearts, and kept themselves from chasing the life they want.