“We must be good stewards of our gifts”
– Alexis Teyie
Alexis Teyie is a Kenyan writer and feminist whose works have appeared in Short Story Day Africa (SSDA), Q-zine, Writivism, and several other platforms.
In her recent interview with Kreative Diadem, Teyie discusses mental health during isolation and shares some creative self-care tips for navigating the pandemic.
KD: Alexis, your poems are deeply emotional and thought-provoking, and a reflection of the heart where they were baked. What are the things that make your heart bleed? What makes your blood boil when you write?
Alexis: Ah (embarrassingly) still impossible to predict. I hate to see a little dying plant with the same intensity I am floored by intentional communities of care. Lately, I watch videos of dogs uniting with their humans to give me an excuse to cry for all the things I can’t bring myself to cry about (for fear I’ll be overwhelmed, or to avoid seeming petty). The world as it is right now is stripping a lot of us to our small, wild naked selves. This is good and hard. I’m trying to teach myself to sit with the questions, and the difficulty and not to hide from the impulse we’re all being called to — to encounter ourselves and the world we’ve un/built. I’m learning that intensity doesn’t always lend itself to writing, or making. I’m consoling myself saying, as Zora Neale Hurston taught; there are years that ask questions and there are years that answer. 2020 is certainly the former for me. I’m sending love to other de/makers out there: it’s alright to be still, alright to be unmoored, and off kilter. We’ll start again tomorrow.
“We must be good stewards of our gifts, so yes, it can be excruciating to feel turned inside out in this thorny place, but that’s why community is so powerful and necessary for writers. Let’s take good care of each other.” — Alexis Teyie
KD: In your interview with Konya Shamsrumi, you talked about scripting ‘Water Lilies’ after eight months of writing nothing and highlighted how the poem lifted you from a depressing state: “… properly sick and drowning in the most acute loneliness of my life.” As a creative writer, how do you handle writer’s block?
Alexis: Writer’s block…gah. I don’t handle it per se. I’m trying to take a lot more of myself lightly, gently. [Matsuo] Basho has this lovely poem that I scribbled outside my last flat’s bathroom:
Sitting quietly, doing nothing,
Spring comes, and the grass grows, by itself.
So, I’m repeating to myself: you’re a writer even when you’re not writing. Attending to life, and attending to the world is a form of prayer central to writing as well. And, if I am patient, it is not a punishment to take a step back from this part of the work.
KD: What do you think is the main cause of depression and mental health issues in creative writing circles?
Alexis: I am in no way placed to answer this in any meaningful way, especially with zero medical training. For myself, I’ve had to unlearn the toxic idea that all creative work is tied fundamentally to mental suffering. You can be healthy — and should work actively to make it so— and a talented, prolific, insightful creator. Certainly, staying open to the world exacts its own violence upon us; numbness allows other people to move more smoothly in some ways through the world. That said, we must be good stewards of our gifts, so yes, it can be excruciating to feel turned inside out in this thorny place, but that’s why community is so powerful and necessary for writers. Let’s take good care of each other.
KD: As the world slowly crawls out of a global pandemic that necessitated a measure of compulsory solitude, do you think there is a connection between isolation and creative work? And can you be open on how you spent the lockdown if at all it was made compulsory in your corner of the world?
Alexis: I’ve been in Nairobi for much of the year, and we’ve had varied degrees of restrictions in place. I’ve spent the time gardening, making tea, on the phone, staring into the sky, haggling with our dog, making elaborate meals for my loves— all in all, a quiet idyllic set up. I, for one, have been glad for the silence (in some ways) the lockdown has re-introduced into my life. I find myself doodling more, journaling more (thanks to Suleika Jaouad!) and reflecting in a less extractive way than before. In some ways, I’ve become more hungry and protective of connection, and the lovely people in my circle during this time, so I wouldn’t fully consider this period one of isolation. I’m thankful none of my family has been infected, but as someone in the high-risk category, there is an underlying static that’s pervaded my generally mundane day-to-day, and that fear is hard to shake. We keep at it I suppose.
KD: You once described yourself as “anti-colonial,” and one can only imagine your indignation for racism. Do you think there is any form of racism faced by black writers in literary circles and how can these issues be addressed?
Alexis: We do end up haunting ourselves, don’t we? But yes, I did say that, and still hold fast to that identity. De/Anti-colonial knowledges are so critical and necessary, especially now. I’m doing what I can, in minor ways, to contribute to growing this archive and canon, by excavating all the wonderful out-of-print African writers I can get my hands on. You’ll forgive me if I don’t get into the big and small violences enacted within our literary spaces — which, by the way, intersect with ableism and class and heteropatriarchy. I’ll just remind us of my favourite James Baldwin quote: “We’ve got to be as clear-headed about human beings as possible, because we’re still each other’s only hope.”
KD: What are you working on now? Is it another poetry collection or a pet project?
Alexis: An absurd mix of things: my darling Roseline Olang’ and I have some fun projects in the works (including making art books, publishing, and collecting East African photography); I’m super keen for Down River Road and the exciting projects in the pipeline, including Michael Onsando’s new poetry collection out in October. I’m also finishing up a collection (finally!) currently titled ‘Mountain Graves;’ figuring out how to properly grow coriander; and hoping to take up film photography again. We really must find our own light this year…
Source: From the Isolation Issue (September 2020)