April 1, 2018 at 9:00 pm

Lit Fest | ‘No Way in but Through’: The Essays of Aisha Sabatini Sloan, April 12, 13

Aisha Sabatini Sloan, portrait

Aisha Sabatini Sloan. Photo credit: Hannah Ensor.

The 2018 Spring Literary Festival welcomes author Aisha Sabatini Sloan for a reading on Thursday, April 12, at 7:30 p.m. in Walter Hall Rotunda, and for a lecture on Friday, April 13, at noon in Alden Library (4th floor).

By Sarah Minor
Assistant Professor of Nonfiction, Cleveland Institute of Art
Graduate student pursuing a Ph.D. in Creative Writing: Nonfiction

Last summer, I listened to Aisha Sabatini Sloan deliver a keynote address at the NonfictionNow conference inside a glass concert hall facing Reykjavík’s gray harbor. Sloan had just spent 24 hours in an Icelandic hospital after a bad bout of food poisoning, and she was seated in a chair on stage when she opened with the subject of imposter syndrome.

I remember feeling how the leveling strategy that Sloan employed was being doubled, in that moment, by her posture on a concert stage. Closer to us and beside the podium, she spoke to the literary conference about what it had meant to be invited to replace Maxine Benba Clarke, the black female writer who had canceled: “A distinct feeling of having arrived somewhere without the proper qualifications, or with this one, specific qualification, that paralyzed me for a little while.” Later, the essayist Wayne Koestenbaum would step up to the mic for his turn and summarize how, like the artist Adrian Piper, Sloan had “politely or impolitely refused the frame, and stepped outside of it.”

The essays in Aisha Sabatini Sloan’s books The Fluency of Light and Dreaming of Ramadi in Detroit are about doublings, identities, artists like Piper, and inhabited spaces like this stage. Often, Sloan’s essays pair all of these subjects at once to reconsider a place she has called home. In Sloan’s video essay “Detroit: Basquiat,” opera music plays inside an abandoned building. White text floats above the footage and describes Jean-Michel Basquiat walking the halls of a museum, sprinkling water on the floor below paintings by Picasso and Kline. “I’d piss like a dog if I could,” he says, with great seriousness.

In “D is for Dance of the Hours,” my favorite from Dreaming of Ramadi in Detroit, Sloan pulls us further into this video essay’s frame as she drives around Detroit with classical music on the radio. “The world seems to click,” she writes, in how “[c]olors pair best with their opposites: bloodred and new-growth green. And in this way, the east side of Detroit is complimented by music from worlds away: Burned wood and the entrance of a conductor.” “D is for Dance…” alternately follows her father’s Concise Oxford Dictionary of Opera and the day she spent shadowing her cousin, a lieutenant of Detroit’s Ninth Precinct. Writing about that city, looking out the window of her cousin’s squad car, Sloan adjusts her lens to shift Detroit in and out of focus and reveal how the cracks in that lens are integral to her depiction of the city:

It reminds me of movies about children growing up in the South, spending days investigating floor after floor of old barns and farmhouses. Except, in these films, there weren’t two men breathing heavily behind the side door, hands calloused from ripping at the aluminum siding, waiting for the cops to leave.

Across her essays, Sloan’s voice is patient, funny, urgent, sad, and critical of her reader as she paces around an idea. Later in my day, when I’m remembering her work, I think of Sloan’s voice and its reverence for cityscapes, for Joan Didion, Noxema cream, dirt floors, for the “globe-green” eyes of a dead poet, or for a black man sketching Frederick Douglass’s house from a curb and listening to the Wu Tang Clan. What I remember is the awe driving each spiraling inquiry that pulls each detail into the conversation. If one version of an aesthetic is more is more, then Sloan’s is something closer to in is in is in is in . . .

At NYU, during her M.A. in Cultural Studies and Studio Art, Sloan studied postcolonial narratives like those pioneered by Kamau Braithwaite and Jean Rhys. Most of her essays could be described in that style, as nonlinear—their perspectives shifting, their structures braided—not to be confused with tri-part memoirs of the same name. Sloan’s approach often layers artistic, cultural, and literary materials, inviting the audience to use her personal cosmology as their viewfinder. By pairing the “overgrown grass and the sweep of a violin bow,” or the light in a swimming pool and the threat of racial violence, Sloan reveals how “Pulling a gun on a protestor may not be that different from screaming at the top of your lungs in the beat of your mother’s pause.” These wide-angled essays not only render the complexities of Detroit’s Ninth Precinct, Rodney King’s pool, the Fogg Museum, or Galway Kinney’s pond, but they also subvert the assumption that these subjects were ever distant in the first place.

After NYU, Sloan studied in the MFA program in Nonfiction at the University of Arizona, the same program I attended two years after she graduated. On a stage in Reyjkavík, six years later, I listened to her describe how peers and professors at Arizona questioned her formal decisions and her interest in a shifting perspective. How unaware these commenters were of their colonial underpinning. How, during her first workshop, a professor told her “Nobody cares about this.” Today, Sloan thinks about the books she might have written otherwise—experimental books that address truth “as an emotional or political or communal experience.”

When the essayist Maggie Nelson describes Sloan’s work, she writes that the explicit and implicit argument is always “there’s no way in but through.” Sloan’s parents moved back to Detroit a few years ago. “It is the place,” she says, “we have been heading back to my entire life.” Sloan writes her family’s “inevitable” city tenderly, but without sentimentality, as if conducting an “autopsy” on a family member. “I have hesitated to share it” she says, about this writing, “because there is an implicit understanding among people who love Detroit that you shouldn’t talk shit.” But, because “healing results from staring struggle straight in the face,” she explains, “Here goes.”

Sloan’s keynote, “The Dangerous Lure of Writing for White Readers in an MFA,” was delivered to a majority white audience, as is this article, as are most workshops, panels, essays. But the point of that talk, like the panel she organized in a 95 percent white country called “Ekphrasis and the Black Female Gaze,” is a reckoning with that dominant perspective. Sloan asks those onlookers to consider, instead, the “shadow books” a writer of color might have written had they chosen a diverse program; or, say, how a white writer entering an MFA in 2011 could see fights about experimental form as gendered, or about aesthetic politics, but not as a reassertion of dominance upon another race; a pedagogy of the literary braid as pioneered by “subaltern” voices who fractured the narrative and the dominant power simultaneously.

In a response to Sloan’s keynote (later published on Lithub), writer Tisa Bryant suggests that writers of color use the approach of “writing apprehension:

A redirection of address away from a presumed white audience, by the inclusion of multiple registers of language and frames of reference that don’t explain Black subjectivities but embody them through resistance, desire, and sonic action.

This type of writing, Byrant says, “requires a reckoning with the discomfort of not knowing.”

The inertia and tact required for “writing apprehension” also recall a scene Sloan recorded in Detroit of a man in dreadlocks on a skateboard, “skating with the grace of a ballerina, headlong into traffic, swerving assuredly between oncoming cars.” Nothing heals when you look away from it—Sloan embodies this notion as she writes headlong against the expected current. And so I disagree with Koestenbaum when he says that on and off stage Aisha Sabatini Sloan refuses a frame and steps outside of it. I think Sloan’s essays are a way of stepping into the spaces assigned to her, and then past that space, maybe through it. Because this writing isn’t a frame, Sloan is telling us, it’s a threshold—she wants to know how you plan to go too.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *