On Thursday, September 15, 2016, Professor Wendy Call invited professional writer Anastacia Tolbert to PLU’s campus. Tolbert visited Professor Call’s Writing 101, Intro to Creative Nonfiction, and Creative Nonfiction Capstone classes that day.
Along with my Capstone classmates, I was able to spend the evening at Garfield 208 to discuss Tolbert’s work and what it means to be a writer in the world, and what the world may mean to her as a writer.
Before our conversation started that evening, Tolbert wanted us to play a game, which was for all of us to judge her. Wait, what?!
The rules were simple: the judgements we made had to be based beyond surface observations and be something that pertains to her character or identity, including race, class, gender, sexuality, personal/home/work/outside life, dog/cat/any animal person, etc.
“I am soliciting your judgement,” Tolbert said to us, “Whenever I say that people tend to clench up—I can hear people’s butt cheeks clshhhhp shhhhp!” her hands motioned as if they were a crab’s claws, pinching and snatching something up.
“But then I think to myself, I’m the one who should be afraid [of your judgements]. But my butt cheeks are just fine.” And it appeared that they were because while we judged her (“you look like a dog person”, you’re definitely a lioness who lets no one mess with her cubs”, “you’re an independent woman who is comfortable in whatever outfit you’re in”), Tolbert only nodded her head and gave us responsive mmm-hmm’s. After the judgements were done, Tolbert talked about every judgement made, and spoke the truth in response to each one.
For someone to be able to stand in front of strangers and only ask for their judgements is scary. That person has armor made of the highest-grade of celestial bronze to not let any judgement seep into their heart. Also, that person must be very self-aware and truly know their authentic selves.
Tolbert is the kind of writer we need, now more than ever. In her essay “Ambiance on Sundays” in City Arts, Tolbert writes about all the things she juggles and balances daily—whether it is attending to her different roles in her different communities, to her constant thoughts about her two sons’ safety. Tolbert writes,
“I am growing African-American boys in a world laden with stereotypes, police homicide against people of color, wars and looming environmental catastrophe. […] Some mothers count sheep until they drift off to dreamland; I count memories. I chant. I pray. I shake off scary thoughts of one of my sons being stopped by a racially irresponsible trigger-happy person in a uniform or a balcony collapsing in the midst of a birthday celebration. I remember how I felt when each of them rolled out of me and how automatically responsible I felt for the trajectory of their little lives. Then the memories transform into a collage where I imagine them as much older, happy and settled in their adult lives.”
Tolbert brings our attention to our world’s current affairs again and again through her written pieces. Especially in a world full of strife and fear of the other, the world needs writers like Tolbert to guide us, illuminate us, lift us from our darkest moments.
As a single mother-of-color of two Black American sons, her sons are constantly on her mind. I asked her that night, “How do your sons feel about you writing about them?” She said that at first, they felt vulnerable and embarrassed, but it took them awhile to accept it. Because although it may have embarrassing, her sons thought “someone has to do it”, that someone has to tell the story, and if they are going to do it, they have to do it right. Thus, it might as well be their mom writing it.
~ Charlene Quach