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Posted under: Interviews

Liberation through writing: A Conversation with Key Ballah

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This article is the second installment on a series on writing, poetry and liberation. Read the first installment, featuring Safia Elhillo, here

The voids that have been filled by black female poets have been refreshing and overwhelmingly fulfilling to say the least. The rise in exposure of these writers’ work goes to show that they are quenching a very real thirst. Their poetry and storytelling have validated the experiences of many, creating a bond between writer and reader that is rarely seen. The work of black female poets has contributed to the journeys of healing, self-love and liberation for many of their readers.
Key Ballah is a Toronto-based writer and Hip-hop enthusiast. She is the author of the poetry collection, Preparing My Daughter For Rain, she melts faith, love and her experiences of being a woman of color navigating the western world in her writing. She believes in empowering the brown girl to reclaim her selves and her body by connecting and healing collectively, over borders, oceans and time zones, through storytelling and poetry. Below is a conversation with Key Ballah, discussing spirituality, self-love, writing and raw storytelling.
  BLAVITY: Toni Morrison once said “Freeing yourself was one thing; claiming ownership of that freed self was another.” In what ways has writing been a form of liberation for you? KEY BALLAH: Toni Morrison has changed my life so many times. This quote has always been, to me, a conversation about being responsible for yourself. Freeing myself is writing, it’s telling truths that burn on their way out. It’s watching people hear my stories and poems about white supremacy and colonialism and watching their disposition change. It is having people come up to me and ask me what I truly meant, and if I don’t feel like it might be divisive. The other half of that is my response, my ownership of my free self, taking responsibility for my truths and the way they affect the world, is in itself freeing for me. Standing in my self and saying “yes I wrote that, yes I meant that, yes this is my life on a page” it means so much to be able to do that. In so many parts of this world, people write anonymously because they must, and I am grateful for the opportunity to stand together with myself and say “Yeah, thats me”. Writing forces me to be honest, it forces me to tell truths that I haven’t even admitted to myself yet, it demands truth. This is what is freeing — the ability to tell those truths and stand beside them, in one way of another. B: The Self Love To Do List from Preparing My Daughter for Rain, is one of the most freeing things I have ever read, describe your journey with self-love and healing.  KB:I hear self-love and sometimes it makes me cringe. The self-love to do lists out there can be so capitalist, and sometimes so counter-intuitive to self-love that I’m almost offended by them. Buy yourself something, sit in a tub with bath bombs from Lush, with aroma therapy candles and flower petals, and I’ve read those before and thought “Yo, Lush is expensive and my favourite store is mad expensive and I hate soaking in the bathtub” so I wrote a self-love to do list for myself. My journey to self-love has been shedding everything that I’ve been taught about myself and renegotiating that with myself. Sometimes, when things get rough in my life, I stay in the house for days, and sometimes all I need is to stand on the balcony and that heals something instantaneously. Talking to my mother is always healing, hearing her voice, listening to her stories, her "I love you’s" are the most sincere "I love you’s" I have ever heard in my life and so to hear them truly affects me. For me, healing and self-love is activating what is truly authentic in my life, the bare bones, the simple, the true and not overindulging, but taking only what you need. Self-love for me is about balance, it's about actually taking care of yourself. It’s about identifying what you need and giving it to yourself and being grateful for it. It is apologizing to yourself, to your body, to you heart and saying, “It’s been rough these few days, these few weeks, these few months, these few years, but I’m recommitting myself to you.” It's about cutting away toxicity and making amends. Sometimes it means getting one thing done on a to do list, calling your friend and apologizing for being a flake, drinking more water, going for a walk, writing a bunch of poems, or stories or love letters. It doesn’t need to be complicated or expensive.   B: In Preparing My Daughter for Rain, you dedicate a fourth to "The Body" touching on body politics, self-forgiveness, being unapologetic, the divinity of the body, and worth. In your opinion, is emotional healing inherently tied to physical healing?    KB: Absolutely. How you feel about yourself and your body affects who you are, affects how you see the world, how you interact with and participate with it. When I feel like I’m bigger, when I put on weight, I become obsessed with how much space I take up. I see people sitting on the subway and wonder how much space I will take up or how much inconvenience I will bring if I try to sit between them. I stop trying on clothes because I wonder how bad I will feel if I don’t fit into the clothes that are hanging on the wall in the change room. When my friends want to do things like go swimming or go out somewhere that requires me to dress up I don’t go. Not because I don’t want to because I am obsessed with how my body will be viewed in the space. It is isolating and lonely and it hurts and it's all because I feel like I can’t love myself, because I don’t love my body, my body which shows me day after day after day that it loves me. My relationship with my body has been an emotional rollercoaster, I try really hard to love my body, to treat it with kindness and respect, but I’m not perfect. I see the difference in how I feel when I am actively caring for my body and loving it and appreciating it and showing it gratitude and when I’m not. Caring for your body, healing your body, is healing your self and healing your self is healing. I think that the more we care for our bodies, the more time and effort we put into them, and I don’t mean necessarily spending hours in the gym (although for some people that is what it looks like), I mean listening to what you need, what your body is saying, are you stretching, are you walking, if you aren’t able to walk [are] you doing other things that your body needs. When you do something good for yourself you feel good, it feels right. We need these things for our spiritual, our emotional and our physical health.   B: Your poems often deal with the complexities of love, whether they be unrequited, familial or romantic. What are your thoughts on the relationship between learning to love yourself and recognizing how you deserve to be loved by others?     KB: God, the process of learning to love myself has been a long and exhausting one and I don’t always realize what I deserve, and what I don’t. It is a lot of trial and error. It’s a lot of being hurt and hurting other people, its a lot of being lonely and being happy being alone, it’s a lot of loving myself and a lot of not being sure if I actually do. It’s such a human process, so full of mistakes and overindulgences and forgiveness. I don’t have a special recipe, I am just learning that tomorrow is always a new day and every morning can be a new beginning if you wish it to be. It’s been A LOT of taking responsibility for myself, my words and my actions and making sure that the people that I surround myself with are taking responsibility for theirs. If everyone takes responsibility for themselves, then when you hurt someone they can tell you and you can recognize and things can change and vice versa. This question is really difficult to answer because I don’t know it all yet, I just know what I must tell myself when something hurts, “You are worth more than those words, than that action, than that inaction,” everything else either falls into place or doesn’t, but if we are taking stock of how we feel and taking responsibility for those feelings, things can change, and we can be on the road to understanding how to love yourself, and who you allow to love you and how.   B: What connects me to your work is how beautifully, and honestly, you speak on your relationship with Islam. In my view, Islam and poetry have always been intertwined, in what ways has Islam influenced your writing? And in turn, how does your writing bring you closer to God?    KB: My ability to write, I believe with all of my heart, is from God. I am grateful every day to the being that I believe has created and curated me, and I am grateful for this and that alone brings me closer to God. Islam is ingrained in my everyday life. I’m a veiled woman, I see the world through this lens. So especially in that way, Islam affects everything in my life, including my writing, because everything I experience comes, in a way, from my religious/spiritual location. However, in terms of creativity, Islam to me is intricate and designed, and I see it often when I’m writing my poetry, even when the subject matter is about love or more political and not specifically about Islam, I try to be conscious of intricacies and design when I’m writing. I don’t know, I feel like Islam is part of me, It is an integral part of who I am, so it affects everything that I do, everything that I see, everything that I say. It exists there in the background, I bring it with me always.   B: You do not shy away from addressing sociopolitical issues in your writing. How do you channel the hurt, anger and frustration that results from oppression into your work?   KB: I don’t know how to express feelings like anger and frustrations well outside of writing. My favourite poems are political and address oppression, my favourite writers can write about oppression and politics in one breath, and in that same breath write about love and sex and God, I’m not sure that they are so far removed from one another. As a Muslim, it is incumbent upon me to seek peace and fight oppression, just as it is important to speak with love and kindness and reverence for God. I am a writer, and so I believe that it is how I must express my hate for oppression. I am also black, and so I experience these oppressions that I write about intimately: emotionally, bodily, psychologically, viscerally. My writing is how I advocate for myself, how I shed light on my experiences navigating this, as bell hooks puts it, "imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy.” I use my political writing to locate myself in this world, to stand beside people who believe in revolution, to create awareness. It’s really important for me to write these things, because everything else depends on humanity, and that's what I’m writing about.   B:  If we don't tell our own stories, no one will. What are your thoughts on the need for black poets, storytellers, and writers to continue to create?   KB: WE NEED MORE! There are so many stories, we live so many lives, we are a people who not only have deep skin but deep stories and our literature needs to reflect our multiplicities. I think a lot of writers, especially black women writers, fight to carve a space for themselves, and to see someone else come into the space you’ve carved is difficult to feel good about. People often ask me how I feel about other black women writers who are on the come-up and they expect some hostility, but I can’t be anything but thankful and happy for them. Warsan and Nayyirah are (to me) the mothers of black woman poetry for my generation, and their wave made it easier for me to share my poetry. They inspired me and I am so grateful, they showed me how possible it was to write and publish and be heard. If I wasn’t able to access them and speak with them I wouldn’t be the writer I am today. We need more, we need more black women writers, we need stories, we need love. I love reading black woman literature, it makes me happy and proud and I want more.
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