A Bit about Shonda Buchanan
Shonda Buchanan is a calm force in the writing world. Raised as a Black woman “who grew up hearing cherished stories of her multi-racial heritage, while simultaneously suffering from everything she (and the rest of her family) didn’t know,” her work culls forth dynamic voices.
The author of five books, an awarded poet, and a beloved instructor, Shonda is a Sundance Writing Arts Fellow, a California Foundation Fellow, a PEN Emerging Voices, and a Literary Editor for Harriet Tubman Press. Her collection of poetry, Who’s Afraid of Black Indians? was nominated for the Black Caucus of the American Library Association and the Library of Virginia Book Awards.
Shonda’s work travels back through one family’s cultural heritage — Black and Indian, thus the title of her awarded memoir: Black Indian, winner of the Indie New Generation Book Award for Memoir — and reaches beyond her own people.
Shonda describes Black Indian’s scope as “Black Indian and Free People of Color history; ethnicity and gender issues; identity and heredity; hybridity, bi and tri-raciality; family and cultural heritage; writing as a recovery and healing tool; women and abuse; murdered and missing Black and Indigenous women; the power of language to redefine selfhood; migration and assimilation, and much more.”
The book has been compared to Amy Tan’s: The Joy Luck Club and described as Alice Walker’s: The Color Purple meets Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony, though Shonda points out: “This isn’t fiction.” PBS NewsHour included her memoir on their list of the top 20 books to read to learn about institutional racism.
To read Shonda’s stunning, beautifully wrought poetry, memoir, and other work is to travel through an overlooked, silenced history that traces the harrowing migration of Mixed Bloods or Free People of Color, communities exploring identity, ethnicity, landscape, and loss. Death, destruction, and love stipple vivid imagery in reverent language for those forgotten or misunderstood.
Alongside her work as a literary activist, Shonda is a teaching artist and a mentor for young writers. She currently teaches at Loyola Marymount University in the African American Studies Department and has taught at Hampton University; William & Mary College (Writer-in-Residence); California State University, Northridge; and Mt. San Antonio College.
An active board member of Beyond Baroque Literary Arts Center and columnist for the LA Weekly, Shonda received an MFA at Antioch University Los Angeles where she lives and writes.
She is editing a collection of poetry about Nina Simone and working on a second memoir, two screenplays, and a novel.
To learn more about her, you can follow her @shondabuchanan, email her at info [at] ShondaBuchanan.com, or visit her website.
Get to Know Shonda
WNBA: What appeals to you about poetry writing, and what do you look for in a good poem?
SB: I don’t know if “appeals” is the right word. I live, eat, sleep, and breathe poetry. And if I do this that means poetry is all things to me.
Poetry is a way for me to express myself but also to testify about what’s happening in my family, in my community, in the world.
Poetry is also a way to help my students access thoughts, ideas, emotions that they would not normally have accessed without the writing of that poem, or without studying the great living poets such as my friends Luis Rodriguez, Joy Harjo, Tyehimba Jess, E. Ethelbert Miller, or Ruth Forman.
Neither myself nor my students would be able to express ourselves if not for studying the work of Gwendolyn Brooks, Langston Hughes, Basho, Stephan Crane, Sonia Sanchez, Li- Young Lee, Mary Oliver, Lucille Clifton and so many others. All of these amazing poets, in some way, shape, or form, have grown me as a human being through the way that they write poems.
Poetry is also a way for me to talk about the intersections of race, ethnicity, intersections, and racial formation particularly for African Americans and American Indians in this country.
My collection of poetry, Who’s Afraid of Black Indians?, which was the side project for my memoir, Black Indian, has helped me unearth a hidden tapestry, and a hidden narrative in our country which I initially thought was just my family. Poetry helped me confront and expose that erasure.
As a poet, I look for poems to move me emotionally, to make me cry or outright laugh in joy but also to help me transcend something, to understand a moment or a social, cultural, political issue in an entirely different way.
WNBA: How did you discover poetry is a passion, and whose poetry do you admire?
SB: All the poets I listed above are poets that I truly admire and respect.
I discovered poetry was my passion in the third grade. I had a hard time in the third grade because I was one of only a few Black kids in a small country school of predominantly white kids, and several of them were pretty cruel to me. When my family was moving away from the farm back to the city, I wrote a poem about how I was leaving that place, and my teacher loved it so much that she had me read it out loud to the class. I felt truly vindicated and knew immediately that language would be my weapon yet also my salvation. I didn’t know how to articulate that just then at that age, but I knew it in my heart and my soul.
WNBA: Two favorites: what your poem of all time, and because WNBA members love books, what is your favorite book ever?
SB: This is such an incredibly hard question because there are poems that I have kept for over 30 years in the creases of books. I would have to say Langston Hughes poem, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” is one of my favorite poems. Joy Harjo’s “She Had Some Horses” is one of my favorite poems. But again, I live, eat, sleep, and breathe poetry, so I have so many other favorite poems.
My favorite books ever would have to be One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, but it’s in a dead heat with Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison.
WNBA: We’ve been experiencing a pandemic, a racial reckoning, and wildfires. How does writing contribute to your social justice pursuits? and how has this changed in these unprecedented times?
SB: These are definitely unprecedented times, and it has been hard for me to write about it. I see predominantly women of color caregivers dying as they take care of Covid-19 patients.
I see a president who is a child, a bully and an embarrassment to our country.
I see police officers with their knees on Black necks and shooting Black women, and they rarely get punished.
It’s hard to write about it because it feels as if it’s never finished. The social justice mission that I have established for myself as a literary activist has been waiting for me to write, waiting for me to articulate it and really hold it like a sheet at arm’s length so that I’m not smothered by the injustice I see.
I’m still waiting to write those poems in a space where I won’t go insane.
WNBA: What’s next for you?
SB: I’ve got a lot of projects. I’m working on a second memoir as a follow-up to Black Indian. I also want to compile a book that helps other people find their Black Indian heritage.
I just finished writing a collection of poetry about the iconic concert pianist and civil rights activist Nina Simone. I’m editing those poems now to submit for publication.
I’m also working on two more books. The first one is about Black women who have experienced violence in this country, and I know that’s going to be a hard book to write. The other collection of poetry is about the founders of Los Angeles because I find the history of people at the beginning of a place incredibly fascinating and instructive; in that, I see how we can/should conduct ourselves as human beings in a community because we know that we need each other to survive, and we treat each other accordingly — with that kind of grace in the knowing of something so simple: I need you, and you need me.
But maybe that’s just poetry talking to me.
We thank Shonda for being our poetry judge this year.
The 2020 WNBA Writing Contest has four categories: fiction, creative nonfiction, flash prose, and poetry.
The contest is open to everyone.
The views and opinions expressed in this interview are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Women’s National Book Association.