I first saw Bianca at an open mic in the Lower East Side. We talk about that night in the interview. I remember her getting up to the front of the room, she has this long dark hair, and she starts explaining that her name is Bianca Vivion, Vivion being her middle name, the name of her grandmother. I was distracted, way in the back by the door and some white dudes had just walked in and I was wondering how they were gonna conduct themselves in this prominently black femme space. So anyway, she introduces the piece as something private she wrote for a friend, and by the third line I’d jotted her name down in my phone and forgotten the dudes completely. I tell her this, about saving her name, when we meet on a humid Friday night almost a month later, not far from where she read that poem. While I’m setting up my gear she’s telling me about landing a job with NPR at the age of fourteen, to which I seemingly respond by spilling my glass of seltzer into her lap. As I flip on my mic the sky opens up to rain and we begin.
Can you tell me what your name is?
My name is Bianca Vivion.
So, I came across you at an open mic a few weeks ago and you were sharing a poem right?
Can you tell me a little about that?
Yeah, I ended up at that open mic - I think it’s called Blue Stockings Bookstore - because my friend Amani invited me. I came with my friend Yasmeen who is one of my closest friends, who’s also Syrian, and the poem that I shared I had actually written for her. It was completely private, but some events as of late have made me realize that it’s a very relevant piece of work in several instances that are linked to a larger “global struggle” if you will. And this seemed like a good space to share that, and that’s how I ended up on stage there.
Okay, so do you remember when you first started writing?
Oh, I’ve never been asked that. The thing is when I was a kid I was always writing this like, I mean I’m sure it was above grade for my age, but it was not good poetry. I was always good at school writing, academic writing, and I had a good wield over grammar and a good wield over language. I guess when I became a “writer” is when I understood that it could move people. And I don’t think that I understood that until I was in high school, and that’s when I started working in public radio.
The thing that’s nice about radio as a medium is that it’s very short and to the point. For instance I wrote about one of my best friends in high school, who was actually killed last summer, about his girlfriend being pregnant. I wrote about teen fathers, and how nobody ever talked about them. I loved him so much and all I could think of was the sort of weight of the world that was going to be placed on his shoulders, to not yet be a man and be a father. But that was something that I wanted to talk about to the world, given that my position as a journalist was to talk about issues affecting youth. And that community I was growing up in, in Oakland, California, was such a violent one that [I was] talking about issues that were really affecting youth, not superfluous or superficial things. And so for radio that was like “Do it in forty seconds, as clear as possible.” It hones in your writing skills.
Do you remember the first time you performed one of your pieces or published something?
The thing is, radio is a kind of publishing. While I was working in radio I would also publish everything I did in a written format on Huffington Post and then I would publish it again on National Geographic, depending on what I was talking about. But um when I got to college I started writing for The New York Times and that’s when I started publishing essays. That’s when I stopped being a journalist.
I actually did not go to college to study English or journalism at all. I went to college to study architecture, because I’m in love with design and that’s always been a big part of my life. The way that I write is not actually linguistically, it’s spatially. In high school I would get A’s on tests because I could look at a page of information and remember where the words were spatially, even if I didn’t actually remember the information, and bring it up again. I understood the world and still understand the world a lot through space. I think like Tetris, like a game of Tetris and that’s the same way that words work, I spin them until they fit.
When I got to college I was asked to start publishing essays, which for me was a great form because I could stop pretending that I was objective. I never had any interest in being objective. Honestly knowing how vain I was when I was fucking eighteen, when I went to college, I had no real interest in talking about other people’s stories. I needed to be in the story to give it to someone else. And essays were good for that.
I go to Columbia and the first time I ever shared a poem was during their “Days On Campus” when prospective students come to visit the college. They had an open mic in the house that I would end up living in, and I read a poem about... called “The Blood Dance” and it’s actually such a crazy piece of writing that was more pressing than I imagined it to be. A lot of the things I write are about girlhood or about womanhood and a lot of the things I write are about boyhood and youthfulness in general. I was actually still a girl when I wrote it, but when I returned to it as a woman it meant something completely different. Now when I come across it in my notes I’ll think like “Wow. I can’t believe I read this to a room full of strangers.”
So my perception when I first saw you was that you seemed very outspoken, and then when I found your stuff online I was like “OKAY, she’s writing some serious commentary here.” Have you always been someone who speaks out? Or has that been part of a learning process for you?
Well I would say that you can’t really distinguish the two. I would also say that if you met my mother it wouldn't even be a question. I hate that whenever someone asks me who I am I always point to my mother, because honestly she always told me that I was the same exact person as her, but an intellectual. She’s one of those people that’s truly freedom embodied, despite several oppressive situations. And I think that she gave me whatever that legacy or whatever that gift is, that’s just not so fearful of being who you are all the time. Now we’re living in a time where people, especially young women and young women of color and black women, are encouraged to come into their own in a way that’s very commercial. And I never had to look for that. I never had to look in a magazine to see myself.
My mother was my hero and I saw her every day and in those ways, um, I never had to look for some sort of superhero in representation. I never had to know if women could speak their mind, because it was never a question. I know that I have been very very lucky because I see young girls, and young men too to be honest, and people, just looking for a way to talk about themselves beyond just vanity -- a way to be somebody in a meaningful way. My mom, she empowered me, and not in a way that was superficial, but really gave me power to be myself because she made me understand that it wasn’t just a good thing to be, it was the most important thing to be. So I guess yeah, that’s how I became outspoken.
How does it feel to get up and read a poem in front of a whole bunch of strangers?
Here’s the thing, for me it’s always... performing is something that I really think comes naturally to me. Because I love people so much, I really do. I need people to thrive, and I think that I wouldn't want to write if I knew that nobody could ever see it. There’s writing that I don’t want anyone to ever see, but that’s because it’s so dark and it’s so unfulfilled that I wouldn’t ever want that to be something that someone else consumes. Words to me are so powerful and I have a favorite poem, the only poem I like of hers, from Nayyirah Waheed and it goes like “ I am the poet, the poem is the one that changed your life.” I think that that’s really sort of an ancient way of viewing storytelling and viewing performance, as I am a performer but I bring something that somebody else may need. I really have no control over how people get the words and what they mean to them, but I get my legacy as a storyteller. That exchange is a sacred one and I’ve always cherished it.
My mother was a jazz singer and my grandfather is a jazz musician who travelled all over the world. My sister is an amazing soul singer, she sings classic soul, and my younger sister is a professional ballerina. My dad is honestly a performer in the sense that he’s just too much. When you meet him his whole personality is performance. I hope that one day he reads this [laughing]. Actually my dad’s an actor. I was born in L.A. and my parents met in Hollywood, making films together.
It’s in your blood!
Exactly, it’s a - for the lack of a better word - a birthright. But of course, when I get on stage it doesn’t feel like that. That’s the thing, no matter how good you get at performing, it’s always so difficult when you’re in a new group of people to psyche yourself out about the distance between you and them. The thing is that when you’re in a room full of strangers all of the sudden it feels like you’re just so far away from everyone and you know nothing about these people and they know nothing about you. It takes a lot to get back to that place where you’re in your room reading something and it comes to you in all these different voices and levels of heaviness and lightness, all these ways of changing words to get to people. The key is to shorten the distance between you and those people now. [The distance] is no longer between you and the words. Like I said, you want to get the words to the people however possible. So that’s the first step, just to be able to get through the piece completely, without freaking out. And that’s hard enough to do, but to actually really get it to them the way that it gets to you when you read it, the way that you were wrapped up in it when you wrote it, that’s a completely different skill and I think I will be working on it for the rest of my life. Truly. It’s a lifetime commitment.
I usually ask people how they think others view them. You can choose, but I am going to ask you what you think other people feel about your writing?
Um, how do I think other people feel about what I write... I was the class speaker for my high school so I gave the graduating speech. People were crying their eyes out and after. They came up to me and were like “That moved me so much.” and I just said like “Oh my god, that’s just so nice.” You know, that sort of fake modesty. It was fake, it really was, because I knew when I sat down to write that, that this speech was the shit, “This is gonna move everyone and everyone’s gonna cry and everyone’s gonna think ‘Wow, who is this girl?’ And that’s why I wrote it and that’s what the goal was. And I actually didn’t care that much about what those people were consuming when they heard that.
When I got to college and I started to read a lot more, that’s what really changed. I began to read and people’s words, who I’ll never meet, moved me to be a different person completely. I do think that that literature time and time again, everyday as far as yesterday, as far as this morning, has changed me as a person. When I understood the actual power of that transformation it humbled me. It was no more false modesty. So now when people come to me and they tell me “your words moved me” or “made me think differently” I am so floored that I actually am usually left speechless. If you’ve ever read my work that’s the honor of my life. That’s my legacy and when I’m gone, you will have bared witness to who I am. I don’t even know what people think about my work but when I think about people engaging with my work at all it’s so moving. It’s all you could ever want.
[Laughing] Yeah so -
What people think about me? That’s very different! I really need to clarify that. I have a lot of people that really do not like me at all, like genuinely. I mean it when I say I know a lot of people who have a great amount of respect for me who I just know can not stand me. Which is completely fine, that actually works out a lot better. I’d rather be respected than loved for sure, because love is often very fickle. That’s why I said I had to clarify the difference because I don’t think that there are very many people who dislike me who also don’t respect me. [Laughing]
What are some expectations you’ve faced as who you are being a writer? What do people expect from you? And if that’s a shitty question, make me ask a different one.
That’s not a shitty question. I just have to think about that. Um...You know I actually think that’s a really good question. That has defined so much of what I’ve written about that now the work that I’m actually putting out under my name is supposed to be defying what people have expected from me as a writer. Because I’m a black woman, and we’re not yet at a place in history (if we’ll ever be) where you can extract so much from that. Because blackness is so heavily rooted in reality it’s very difficult to be a writer who writes and can abstract from that. I mean sure, you could be a science fiction writer, you could write about a completely made up world, but at the end of the day it all comes back down to this fact that beyond anything your identity is as a political creature. And like, blackness is a very political identity, even more so than cultural because it deals with a material existence that’s rooted in violence. Constant violence, state violence. When people expect me to write they expect me to write within that framework, which I feel like honestly is an honor. But I also think that now we’ve gotten to an age in identity politics where being black and a woman, it’s not just about writing in these modes, it means very specific things and very specific assumptions about politics. Like very specific assumptions about feminism, very specific assumptions about the political reality, [about] black people. And you’re supposed to always speak to these things with the same language, and explain these things with the same words.
I was a writer before I got to college, that’s the thing that I think is a big difference between me and a lot of my counter parts. They adapt the language of the academy to describe who they are. But I did not need the academia [for writing]. I needed Columbia for a lot of things, specifically to get my ass out the ghetto, specifically to get my ass out the ghetto, that’s what I really needed Columbia for - but I didn’t need Columbia to tell me how to describe myself as a person, because like I said, my mother taught me how to do that. And it was the language of my mother that I used to describe my world. I didn’t need to talk about a “safe space” or a “trigger” to describe trauma or to describe where I grew up. I didn’t need all of these sort of monikers and buzzwords to do so. And yet now it’s very difficult to participate in a conversation without the expectation that I will use those same words. And I will not.
[Laughs] And that’s the thing I actually encourage [from] young people that I know are coming from the hood and go off to these colleges, especially liberal arts colleges. I’m like “Those words were made to describe your reality to people that are not you.” Do not start using those words to describe your reality to yourself. You knew what being - you knew what your cousin going to jail was like before you learned anything about the prison industrial complex. And you knew what it felt to hurt deeply constantly before you ever knew what trauma was. These words become crutches and they limit your understanding of yourself more than anything. And that’s not on accident, that’s so that you have to use these languages and you have to use these words so that the conversation never moves past these certain experiences. It’s homogenized and it creates a hegemony of these conversations that are constantly repetitive, that never push past you know like, second wave feminism conversations or even womanism. Honestly what it does is it makes it impossible to say anything new.
Every writer is expected - we’re supposed to basically take the people who inspired us most and say that they were wrong. That’s what we’re supposed to use as a jumping off point to make our work relevant. And I reject that. And then we’re supposed to tie in these conversations using these words of our contemporaries. And I reject that too. Rejecting it completely means that I can really write about anything. The limitation of that is that I don’t get published as much as when I once played by those rules. Or my work has to spread organically within a sort of organically built readership by people who honestly, just like when I was growing up in the hood, like when I said some real shit, said “I feel you.” That’s what I’m tryna build and if it takes thirty years to get to a thousand people it would be more meaningful than if it took three years to get to a million. Because artistic honesty is the goal. It’s such a rare thing at this point that I wouldn’t even want to call myself a writer if I felt like I was writing something that wasn’t true to myself. And [true] to not even my experiences, but this moment in history. Because I feel to treat this moment in history like it’s happened before would be the most dangerous thing that we can honestly do. Period.
Okay I don’t want to make you pick one, but what are some pieces of literature that you think everyone should read.
That’s actually not that difficult, um, everyone that lives in this moment in this period of time in history should read Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin. Everyone should read We’re Trying to Destroy the World which is an interview by Frank B. Wilderson. Everyone should read… I’m really just trying to choose something by Toni Morrison because everything she’s ever written has moved me. I didn’t learn how to be a woman without Sula and I cannot say that about really any other book. I didn’t learn how to be a girl without Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, but I didn’t learn how to be a woman without Toni Morrison’s Sula. There’s another book I could recommend but I don’t even own it because it starts at two hundred and eleven dollars. It’s James Baldwin’s The Price of the Ticket and I genuinely think it’s because it’s the most scathing critique of modern liberalism I’ve ever read. It literally takes it apart and I think that’s why it’s so inaccessible to larger populations.
Okay, those were super solid suggestions. Correct me if I’m wrong, but you yourself are working on a larger piece of writing, right? Can you tell me a little about that?
Yeah I’m working on a book. [laughing] “A larger piece of writing.”- It only gets so long before it’s a book. I’ve actually been writing - it’s changed titles twice - I’ve been writing it for really really my whole life… It’s called Dancing Backwards: Stories of a Girl Who Read the Fine Print and it’s about-- it’s about exactly what I’m talking about. It’s about thinking very well that I knew something, these things which I call identity, that I knew that I was black, knew that I was a woman, and then writing about those things, and then actually living life after I had written about them, and understanding that I knew nothing about what those things meant, and then going back and writing again about them but not about knowing about them, but living through them. The book is about living through things, coming back to them, and realizing I knew not that much about them. Basically every essay ends the same: I need other people. This situation is a collective one, it’s not an individual experience. It’s difficult because it’s a memoir but it’s also a book of essays about collective experience. It’s ten solid essays and I actually just finished the introduction and the forward, which are the ends of a book. It’s the thing you write last, so maybe that means something. I was hoping to be done with it honestly two years ago, but I read it all when I had it in front of me [as] a manuscript and I changed my mind about the entire thing. Like what I was saying before. I said “I need to go out and live more life.”
Alright. The last question I ask is, um, can you describe a time or think of a time when you felt powerful?
Can I describe a time… Yeah. Um… Here’s the thing. I guess there’s one thing I have to say, because it instantly came to my mind, but it has nothing to do with writing really. Last summer I was sitting at my ex-boyfriend’s apartment and I’m reading this story that really struck me as strange. A cafeteria worker at Yale, which I’ve never been to, smashed a window in the dining hall of a dorm named after John C. Calhoun [white supremacist national leader and slave owner]. There had been all these police killings, it was a very hot summer. He one day was cleaning out this dining hall, this black cafeteria worker named Corey Menafee, and he takes a broom stick, goes up to this stained glass depiction of slaves happily picking cotton, and he smashes out the window. He just smashes it out. And I’m reading it and am just like “Oh that’s fuckin’ cool like... " Having been in Columbia you have that experience of constantly being around these very historically oppressive visuals and imagery and forces, and you just kind of understand that to be your reality. But it doesn’t suffocate you in that way until I think a moment when it’s the summer and history is honestly on top of you. So I’m reading about this story and it says that they fired him and that they arrested him!? And like I said, I was unemployed, I was sitting on this couch, and I got so mad about this. I was just like, “Okay that’s fucked up. We need to get him out of jail!” So I wrote to some people and I was like “I need to get this guy out of jail.” And randomly, even though I didn’t know him or his family, or go to Yale, I started a GoFundMe to raise bail money to get him out. I donated the first three hundred dollars. I didn’t think anyone was really gonna do anything but the next day we’d raised like sixteen thousand dollars to get this guy out of jail. And then three days after that we’d reached twenty five thousand dollars. We used that money and hired him a lawyer.
Honestly at the time it gained momentum so quickly but I never actually talked to this guy. He never had a cell phone or anything. We ended up using the money to put in his retirement fund, he got his job back, and it was super cool. But it wasn’t actually until six or seven months later that I randomly get an email from him and he tells me that he was so moved by the act of me getting him out of the situation. I thought about the fact that not just is that window gone forever, this college that’s named after John C. Calhoun, at the end of this year they’re changing the name of that college. Because of that situation. And not just that, they’re naming it after a woman. [Grace Murray Hopper, scientist and mathematician].
When I tell my kids about something that I did, that I started, but that turned into a collective effort that changed something that has been historically so suffocating and so oppressive to my people, that will be the thing that I name. And when I think about people who have moved me, who seemed so forgettable on a day to day basis, I’ll think of Corey Menafee. That is truly a moment that I am like “Wow. Is this what people are killing over and fucking over in Washington? This power thing? I could use a lot more of it as well.” To own your destiny in that way, for something bigger than yourself, is truly strange. I could honestly just describe it as truly strange. It is.
That was thorough, that was thorough. That was good.
It was amazing!