Pathological Aliveness: A Conversation with Harmony Holiday

October 14, 2022   •   By Lauren Mackler

Maafa

Harmony Holiday

RELEASED IN APRIL by Fence Books, Maafa is poet, artist, critic, and archivist Harmony Holiday’s fifth book of poetry. The book’s four sections weave a lyric poem into a near-epic centered around a shapeshifting character named Maafa. The book alternates sparse pages (paced by the negative space between words) with blocks of prose poetry that preface a Black female (anti)hero’s journey — one that essentially begins just as the book ends. Through her skillful and signature mélange of pointed references and illustrations, Holiday infuses this volume with a sense of controlled resistance and restraint. Maafa is mantra, manifesto, and primer: an act of reparation that questions what it means to disinherit subjugation, linguistically as much as corporeally. This conversation was recorded on June 1, 2022, and edited for length and clarity. — Lauren Mackler

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LAUREN MACKLER: I remember a BOMB interview with you from 2017 about Hollywood Forever where you were already talking about Maafa. You have been thinking about this project of writing about “bodies and reparations” for a long time, haven’t you?

HARMONY HOLIDAY: I’m one of those people who needs the next thing in my mind to finish something. One thing flows into the next. And my project Hollywood Forever was very external in a sense; all those archival clippings intervened on the personal. The poems were trying to fit themselves around that data. And I thought, “Okay, what follows this?” It felt like a disembodying experience. And that’s how I got to Maafa.

​​I was going to ask you about this later, but since you bring it up: Hollywood Forever feels like it reflects the various aspects of your practice. You’re obviously a powerful writer, but then you are also an archivist; you work with your body, with film, with music, with teaching and speaking. Hollywood Forever has an interdisciplinary approach: it points out into the world, to a wide range of cultural production, and has you aggregating, collecting these references, while writing. Maafa presents references in a different way.

Totally. Hollywood Forever feels like it’s not mine. I think a lot of people really like that book because it’s a very different experience. It was trying to mimic that feeling of mindless scrolling but without the mindlessness. I collected these things so that my weird, absurdist encounters while scrolling could become self-aware in both the digital and analog. I was figuring out how to write around the digital world, and bring it into a more tactile place, or make it more permeable.

It sounds a bit like a service, like codebreaking. It’s giving a lot to people?

That’s what I wanted to do there.

On the other hand, Maafa feels more closed in. When you are dropping references in this text, you aren’t contextualizing them. If you know, you know. You are just in the text.

I really needed that. I was just tired of being hyperpoliticized. Even though people will read this and think that it still has various political leanings or stances, people politicize just anything a Black woman is doing. So, there’s that. But Hollywood Forever felt very reactionary. And for this book I thought: “I don’t want to be reactionary. I just want to feel into what the hell is going on with me or with a particular set of catastrophes.” I wanted to pierce catastrophe with music and not use the archival spirit to intervene as much on where past and present blur.

You turned it into a character.

Exactly. And to make that process, make it more joyful and embodied. Even though Maafa is a heavy word, it kind of thuds down when you read the definition on the back and whatnot. It’s like, “Oh, this is about disaster.” But then it’s also just about being, being her, being the one who everyone projects disaster onto while expecting beauty back.

Maybe my whole life, I’ve seen disaster as a playful thing. Not that I’m unaffected by various personal or global disasters, but now that we’ve gone through one collectively, I saw it as an opportunity. Amiri Baraka has this quote — during a reading, he said: “The Chinese character for crisis means opportunity and danger together.” And that runs in my head a lot. It’s how I’ve navigated crises.

I see that in the definition of “Maafa” here, which has so much complexity because the term and the title are also personified as a character. Maafa the character is both a victim and a perpetrator — or rather, a victim, a witness, and a perpetrator. Just like any catastrophe has many facets, many experiences. There’s a way to read this book as a book-length definition and redefinition of Maafa. Over and over again, you’re looking at it — or reclaiming the word for different purposes.

I’m trying to create some kind of alter ego also through defining and redefining this collective “alter destiny.” If my actual name is the opposite of catastrophe, it works.

Like Harmony versus chaos, Harmony versus Maafa.

Exactly. My shadow side might be Maafa.

A lot of your work to date has used biography, your father’s life and death, and your experience. I remember listening to you talk once about your poem “What I Learned About Jimmy,” and you explained how you have to state and restate within the poem itself that you’re aiming to be clear. You want to be as clear as possible for the purposes of catharsis, of demystifying the trauma through addressing it. Inevitably, Maafa, because she is a female character and she’s so powerfully self-establishing in the book — the first chapter, for example, is titled “Say Her Name” — inevitably, people are going to think of her as you. You are Maafa. But quickly, in various poems, she becomes so many other things: She is universal. She is a collective. She’s an event. She is also like a demigoddess because she transcends form or genre. She is a new archetype and trivializes labeling.

I say blatantly — almost too blatantly in the book — I want to create a Black female epic hero because I want to be one. So, really, it’s playing with that. Everyone has their myth. But I think for Black women our myths have been clipped and limited by the drab fantasies people project onto us that usually have nothing to do with us — like that we might save the world, [which] is really just a white liberal way of saying they hope we do because no one else wants to. Here I wanted to save the disaster itself from those corny projections.  

Right. Totally. The existing archetypes are meant to fit into, to serve a function. Maafa doesn’t fit because Maafa is an antihero — she is also the aggressor. She has a darkness that people are very uncomfortable with. It aligns with something I heard you say to Alexander Provan in the Triple Canopy podcast interview about how you’re really interested in writing about subjects people don’t want to talk about or think about, really uncomfortable subjects. She is that, Maafa.

It’s uncomfortable — I mean, it’s even uncomfortable to perpetrate this word upon the world in such a way because I don’t think people like the idea of rethinking slavery. I mean, slavery, slavery, slavery is drummed into us like a mandate. That’s the only word we’re expected to use when we think about that set of circumstances. And to turn it into a more amorphous disaster that lets you picture journey and transport and music, and the limbo between opulence and ruin, feels overdue.

Yeah, totally. One feels that in reading the book. The second chapter, “Duat,” likens the underworld to the hold of the slave ship in the Middle Passage. This chapter is imagistic; it’s a visceral experience of what precedes slavery — the trauma, death, transformation, torture that’s happening within. There are four sections to the book, and their unfolding feels operatic: there is the introduction to the character in section one; then the fracture, the trauma in section two …

Yes, you get the pace. I use some tricksterism in “Say Her Name” a little bit because I wanted to introduce her as this peppy, has-it-together, Beyoncé–Say My Name–style person, who then has to get through Duat. I put some playful dazzle in the first section, sacrificed the tone to that in places. So it’s more shocking that she hasn’t come into a fully realized form at all when you reach “Duat,” and that she’s basically playing through ruins and disaster after the fact, in a sense.

Yes, the first section is a little bit more pop-cultural, and it has a lightness or maybe a Hollywoodness to it. She’s your epic hero. She’s your superheroine. But then you get to the second chapter, and it’s a really gutting experience of her trauma.

Exactly.

And then, how do you describe the latter two? Do you call them chapters or acts?

I call them sections. But I like acts. It does feel more theatrical in that sense. They are each kind of a different scene. And then the scene closes. The third section, “Leitmotif (Run),” was more about aimlessness in a sense. Like, “Okay, what really does happen once you get to a new territory, once you’ve gone through the shadow side and all that?” There is this sense of, “I’m just going to do whatever I want now.” And that’s when you realize that freedom is a mythic ideal, a mirage, to something set and monolithic as it’s dealt.

I think a lot of Black people realized that probably around the Great Migration, or even just right at emancipation. My dad was a sharecropper, so this idea that freedom was what you were chasing, and then you just end up another laborer trapped on the same land. I guess that section was about this fugitivity that’s always undermining itself. And then section four, “The Ruins,” was where I was trying to get to, the whole book was trying to get to, this idea of reveling in the disaster and in ruins and in dilapidated stuff, and stuff that can’t be fixed.

There’s a lot to say about “Leitmotif (Run),” for example, how it’s anchored in music. I mean, they’re all anchored in music, but that section in particular feels like it plays with a strategy that you’ve been working on with your other books and writing: it really maps the rhythm, structure, score, or even phrases of music into this one space. More and more characters come in, too — sometimes their names are just two words on the page, but they become a vortex, a portal to another story.

The final two acts of Maafa feel like they’re irreverent in the way you described above. They’re freely pulling from these bits of information, stories from various other characters of history, or culture, to enrich or complicate Maafa’s. In the same way you would do with etymology. Sometimes in the text you shift into different languages — there’s Swahili, obviously, in the title, and French. And in those moments, the root of the word, its etymology, enriches/complicates your writing through these layers of history like these cultural artifacts. Here, you also do that through these names.

Yes, I love hearing it described in relation to etymology because really I have been considering the relationships between the body’s gestural language and spoken language as the source of a new origin story, a story more about tone and cadence, and how those can be inflected and scribed is becoming more and more important to me, and to my writing. Haunts rather than explicit antecedents for words and gestures.

I think what it does is it creates a kind of family tree, an ancestry. So it’s like, if you don’t know who a referenced person is, you could look her up or you could just take her for what she’s described as in the book. And in the latter case, these people maybe become archetypes themselves. One example is your mention of Phyllis Hyman near the end of the book. In her name is contained her music, the lyrics she sang, including famously “You Know How to Love Me” and her remixing of Duke Ellington’s music into a Broadway musical form … but then also contained in the reference is her personal life. She struggled with mental health (like so many in a public spotlight) and died by suicide at almost 46.

Music and musicians as a topic allow you to quantum leap in those ways, because it’s a kind of apotheosis. Phyllis Hyman went the way she did and John Coltrane succumbs another way. Black music seems to have its own Duat within the larger underworld, its own rites of passage.

I guess I feel like, at some point, we should talk about suicide. We should talk about suicide because parts of the really difficult subjects that you often broach are obviously death and grief, and that’s always a part of your work, but I feel like this book really gets into suicide, and suicide as an act of liberation, or murder as an act of liberation. Do you want to talk about suicide?

Yeah. Well, I mean, as you know, while writing this book, I was also writing God’s Suicide, a play about James Baldwin’s suicide attempts throughout his life. So he definitely comes up in Maafa as part of that genealogy. And his consideration of suicide definitely opened up this other dark matter in the archetypal consciousness for me, because we often think of archetypes as well-adjusted. And we always want to think of our heroes as well-adjusted. The people who died in the jazz tradition often died of addiction-related causes — that fast, glamorous life that doesn’t seem exactly tragic. But James Baldwin’s melancholia was tragic because he endured it without much blatant overcompensating. So thinking about him alongside thinking about Maafa was a good way to break the spell of a well-adjusted archetype twice.

You’re rewriting an archetype because you don’t have one and you need someone who’s being forthcoming, about all these things.

Exactly. Before learning about Baldwin’s biography, the suicidality aspect of it would never have crossed my mind. It got me thinking about suicidal slaves, and the culture at large, how it might be geared towards doom or this desire to fail. It’s why I get to the “Paradise of Ruins” [section four]. Systems of thought and aesthetic conditions tend to intentionally ruin themselves and sometimes even revel in that self-annihilation in a way that one human alone can’t.

Productively, you’re saying.

Productively, in this very cryptic sense. How do you get a blank slate without destruction? You burn down a forest and it grows again. So what are the ways in which that happens socially and personally, and are they unethical or modes of salvation? You have to live in such a way where you’re risking it all on some level, if you want the kind of renewal. So, yeah, that’s where suicide — what you asked about — comes in. I wanted to kill this idea of a tidy enslavement and uncomplicated redemption. There’s all the mess. And Baraka does a little bit of this clearing in his writing. He has this one poem that he wrote toward the end of his life that I was trying to also pick up on. It’s in In the Tradition. The refrain in the poem that I’m thinking of is “your own hands sold you.” That’s an uncomfortable conversation. The one that attributes your sabotage to your own will or kin.

The conversation of what happened in Africa, before slavery.

Yeah. Being sold by your own, what that does, or what that even is. People don’t want to talk about it. It’s a kind of dying in this life and rebirth into a new sense of identity to discuss it. There’s a lot of essentializing back-to-Africa talk without acknowledgment of that, or blame even being misascribed to the white race indiscriminately. What is the real tradition, the one that feels unspeakable until we scream about it? That’s what I wanted to unearth throughout this book.

Also the idea that class is actually at the root of prejudice. But it’s very difficult to talk about because it’s so much easier in some ways to create these kind of —

To do race only.

There’s a haunting scene in your book where Maafa’s in the hold of the ship and she’s still attached to someone who’s dead, and it’s alluded to that it’s her father and that she is the one who killed him, and now she’s still attached to him until somebody puts him overboard. Those are the moments in the book that are so visceral, but also bigger, allegorical. It stays with you as a really different image of what makes a person good or bad, survive or not survive. Actually, there’s something I should send you: there’s this amazing symposium at the Schomburg about Michael Jackson — it was held one year after he died.

Oh my god. I really need to see this.

It was organized by DJ Lynnée Denise. During it, Arthur Jafa talks about how people would wrongly describe Michael Jackson as attempting to no longer be Black as he starts to whiten his skin and everything, but he explains that there’s “nothing Blacker than being a shapeshifter.” In the same talk, he describes an African people, the Igbo, who were known to evade slavery through self-suicide. There was a mass self-suicide. It was a refusal of subjugation.

Wow. I didn’t know about that specific incident but it’s def a recurring impulse and some kind of epigenetic censor we just know about.

It’s maybe redundant saying self-suicide.

No, I mean, what else would you call it? There’s almost no word for this kind of suicide, like there’s no word for Maafa. It’s the kind that is a penance to God and not a turning away from creation. It’s recreating the self through departure when the will is interrupted. And Maafa maybe is trying to be a proxy to that absence of a word for what our collective disaster really is.

There’s a way in which Michael Jackson is like that too. He makes new languages not just possible but mandatory.

A kind of suicide through transitions.

Well, also just like pathological aliveness. There’s nothing more Black than subjugation, that’s true, and there’s nothing more Black to me after dealing with so much Black shit throughout life than this openly pathologized existence. This showing of your wounds disguised as art. Open the blues up and let some of the bruised blood come out to show them. I guess that’s a form of subjugation, but there’s something more to it. It’s like this well-adjusted pathologizing. Look at Michael: he’s a virtuosic everything, but he’s clearly still pathological and fucked up. It’s like we’re playing two roles simultaneously, clowns and judiciaries who outlaw the circus.

In your writing, you look at what is inherited, but also what is disinherited trauma, which acknowledges legacies and refuses them. And to do that, your story begins in the hold of the ship, a vile cocoon for the transforming of a psyche and creating —

Exactly. It’s like dark matter. And really trying to mine that —

It’s a story that begins in mitochondria. Which is also the title of one of the poems.

Yeah, yeah, exactly.

Where does it live? Where does it stay? It stays in there.

Exactly. And why do we want to keep it? MJ kind of makes an argument for discarding some of the evidence.
That’s why the ruins were so important to me, because coveting archives (even though they don’t show up as much in this book) is a collective obsession with the past, and also, there is no past to obsess over. So we’re obsessing with this broken building of the subconscious where we don’t even really want to address the missing parts, but we’re still kind of obsessed with them as phantoms and haunts.
And I think personally that is the case. I mean, when I was writing about the holds, I was also thinking about how I needed my father to die to become myself, which is a crazy thing to say, maybe. But it’s the gleaming secret of my own ruins, the portal he gave me into them.

I understand that.

It also feels connected to Fred Moten and Stefano Harney’s thinking and writing around the middle of The Undercommons, where they talk about “tearing shit up.” This idea that the existing structures, whether they be physical or psychological structures, are already ruins. It’s not that in order to build anything else, you’d have to burn them to the ground; they’re already burned. If you don’t see them like that, or how they implicate you, you’re not really looking.

It makes sense to me that the next book you’re working on is called grift/grief because in a way, one thing that Maafa doesn’t do is grieve. She doesn’t grieve. And then, in a way, that maybe is one of the saddest aspects of the final sentence, “And now I have this perfect life.” That’s the irony or the sort of chilling aspect of your final words in Maafa because it’s like most of us know grief, it catches up to you. You can’t evade it.

Exactly. You don’t just suddenly release yourself from a set of circumstances and then you’re done. That’s the thing I think I was also trying to just really get to, that effort in exchanging one thing for another — like white for Black, disaster for slavery — all of it is so futile to try and avenge with its opposite.

The last thing I want to say or ask you about regarding the book is that it’s not a tidy narrative. It doesn’t end. It doesn’t encapsulate. It’s messy.

It is messy! My most self-conscious feeling about this book is that it’s messy on purpose. And I’m like, is it messy? It’s supposed to be messy. She’s messy, spectral — she has to be to encapsulate so much and really enact a new archetypal field.

I think it feels like it doesn’t tie up the story in a way.

Ah, yeah, it’s inconclusive.

And also, “she,” Maafa, feels young. I mean, it ends on this image of you. Is that you at five years old?

Yeah, or like four.

That Maafa feels young is important because it does generally set the stage for a lot more to come. The book ends when the story is essentially just beginning. It’s been a primer, a preface. In the final image, you are a small child looking at a bubble and you look tiny and fragile, but in another way, you also look huge like the bubble is a planet floating in the universe and you’re a god hovering over it. In your personal life, it’s a moment right before a trauma, but it’s also the image of a child who endures generational trauma. It’s cyclical. Can you say a little bit about why you included this picture at the end?

It started out as an instinct: I just knew that photo belonged for some reason, but then it became more of a conviction. There’s Sade on the cover gazing cryptically into her scrap of mirror, the Black female gaze finally privileged but as a fragment. And she’s grown. But the book is traveling in every direction at once, so I’m her, too, in that image with the bubble, the destroyed Iowa winter lawn, looking into my version of my distorted mirror for an insight I shouldn’t even know how to seek yet, at that stage of life. It really soothes me to have the photo there, as if the book might heal my inner child on some subconscious level I can’t even articulate in this ego-driven language. But the impulse to include it proves I really do have this perfect life now, in the same glib way I write it, because I’m good at reconciling events and seeing crisis and chaos as opportunity. I finally have the power to become the kind of inexplicably mutant human who can see all sides of life and still choose her own private sense of peace and witnessing. The other end is the fugitive slave ad where they’re looking for her, unaware she’s already become someone else entirely. I love that play between doubling and disappearing that happens in everyone from MJ to Miles Davis to Sade to me here, a long complex tradition. Thank you so much for that question. I had wondered what I was doing there. I guess I was showing up for myself and for Maafa.

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Lauren Mackler is a curator and writer based in Los Angeles. In 2010, she founded Public Fiction, a forum for staging exhibitions, performances, and programs by contemporary artists and writers, as well as a journal with the same mission in print.