10 Questions for Joselia Rebekah Hughes
- By Edward Clifford
In an attempt to escape another 5AM / got sick stayed sick hospital memory / pink coat phlebotomist posed with puncture / a butterfuly needle to draw 4 vacutainers of / hard to pull hard to flow blood jam / in an attempt to point pain
—from "denominator-mandate," Volume 63, Issue 4 (Winter 2022)
What writer(s) or works have influenced the way you write now?
Paul Beatty, Audre Lorde, Nikki Wallschlaeger, Jamaica Kincaid, Lucille Clifton, Toni Cade Bambara, José Luís Peixoto, Zefyr Lisowski, Vanessa Angélica Villareal, Kayla Hamilton, Jorge Luis Borges, Percival Everett, Kay Ulanday Barrett, Charles Yu, Ntozake Shange, Liz Bowen, Gabrielle Octavia Rucker, Marcus Scott Williams, Shannon Finnegan, Ezra Benus, Karel Čapek, Ken Liu, Deesha Philyaw, NoViolet Bulawayo, Cixin Liu, Cyrée Jarelle Johnson, Yo-Yo Lin, Jzl Jmz, Akeema-Zane, Muriel Leung, Joey De Jesus, Carmen Papalia, S*an D. Henry Smith, and Therí Alyce Pickens. There are so many more.
What other professions have you worked in?
I've worked as an eyeglasses salesperson, a juice bar barista, a quasi-office manager for a gynecologist, a television transcriptionist, a gig walker, and a tutor. I currently work as an access worker, an editor, an interviewer, and a writer.
What did you want to be when you were young?
I wanted to be a pediatric hematologist or a pediatric neurosurgeon.
I spent a lot of my childhood in and out of the hospital. When not hospitalized, the apparition of the hospital haunted me. It still haunts me. When you get sick young or are born ill, you don’t get the promise of “normal” or “aspirational youth”; you learn the pernicious lie of normality.
How absolute it isn’t; how relative it is.
Chronic illness enfleshes imagination. The in/animate is prodigious— full and complex and circling. A lot of sick timespace is frustrating and boring, so I did a lot of w[o/a]ndering.
Patience demands the title of the patient.
I find illness as a power-encompassing, a power compass. I read it. I feel it.
I grew up reading lots of medical textbooks and watching TLC. Back then, TLC aired episodes of medical teams performing surgeries. I was a sick kid searching for control and power while simultaneously developing a gaze. I didn't have the reserves to name control or power, but I did understand my interest as the fire of care. What is in the care of my control? What is the breadth of my power? If my body can hurt (or burn) me without my say, how can I change, at least in part, a course of that hurt into a command I can say? What if it doesn't burn? What if it flies, swims, or rolls? How do I find the air, water, and earth in fire? Where does the alchemy of my transformation live?
I’m fascinated by our interiorities and the societal/interpersonal enclosures we loop for information to reveal what lies beneath. This desire to be some kind of internal doctor ran from early childhood until my high school English teachers, Gerri Woods and Deborah Stanford, opened literature, writing, and reading into blossom for me. I can’t thank them enough for how they helped me understand what language can do and does. In many ways, writing is like using pott’s scissors or adson forceps or a kelly clamp—tools in this work called life. I, as a writer, exist somewhere between implement and gesturer with words as in/organic tissue. I’m trying to usher or transmute those words, those tissues, into different, bizarre, freeing, and hopefully intimate courses. I can alchemize, juggle, and balance all four elements with writing.
What inspired you to write this piece?
"denominator-mandate” is inspired by the surround.
I’ve been an immunocompromised person for my entire life. So when governing forces lifted COVID-related mandates, when the language around COVID (used by governing forces and the people themselves) shifted from urgency to throw-hands-up-in-the-air resignation, I went mad. Mad as in put out of my mind; mad as in furious. I am furious that the world throws around the word love like it is not an actionable condition. I am furious at pathetic excuses to abandon collective safety actions under the guise of protecting individual mental health statuses.
I am entirely furious at this doing of Capital Life, furious at the ease of fascism resettling, for who is left behind, and at what is being actively forgotten. I write because the page is where rage, care, madness, and concern swell and cohere. I want to remember the pandemic. I want to remember how I am changing, who's taken, who's being sacrificed, what’s sacrificing, who’s debilitated, what’s debilitating, how forgetting informs propaganda, how propaganda saturates networks of caretaking, how propaganda advises the differences between "give" and "take," how propaganda incites property and ownership.
I want to remember because it hurts. I caregive. I want to remember because memory is where we can glow and spark together. I wrote “denominator-mandate” because I care, meaning "I grieve/cry out" with the mass.
The thing about a pandemic is that you can smell the fear. I won’t ignore it. It’s atmospheric. Make a deep, long, hogging cough and watch somebody flinch.
“Eye Trick” explores my interest in the word "able" which means "to hold." My interests around the word include, but are not limited to, what is the power of the hold? Where have holds appeared historically? How does the TransAtlantic precedent of The Hold inform how we understand our interactions as binding or not? “Eye Trick” is a joke about ocularcentrism or the perceptual and epistemological privileging of sightedness over other senses.
Is there a city or place, real or imagined, that influences your writing?
A lot of my work takes place in Old Porus, Jamaica. Old Porus enshrines much of my familial history. I imagine myself, perhaps 6 or 7 years old, trying to find my balance on a red dirt mound I used to climb near my great aunt’s house. I envision the unpaved road my grandmother lived on. Grandma’s house is bleach white. The sky is lavender, turning blue, turning pink. The soil is a rich terracotta red. I can see, forefronted by a line of coconut trees, the rain coming down from the mountains. I’m always there. And here. Here is the North Bronx. A gridded city with more greenery than you’ll see in the rest of NYC. Here, it's always summer night. The wail of ice cream trucks hi-hat the wallop of sirens. Birds tumble in play on awnings; bedtime is always on the other side of 00:00.
Is there any specific music that aids you through the writing or editing process?
I tend to listen to songs on repeat as a stim (or self-stimulatory behavior. Anyone can stim, but stimming is often associated with neurodivergence). I've been listening to Tobi Lou, L’Rain, Bartees Strange, Exøtix, Hiroshi Yoshimura, Slauson Malone, Liv.e, 1-800-GIRLS, Teebs, Everette Harp, Contour, and PinkPantheress.
Do you have any rituals or traditions that you do in order to write?
My writing process is ritualistic. The process is relatively hush, but I can name some broad strokes. First, I check in with myself. “Tell me how you feel” is one of my favorite sentences to repeat and answer. Second, I switch disciplines according to a seasonal schedule, with writing happening after I complete a round of practice within another field. My routines include weeks of dancing or working out, weeks of painting or illustrating, weeks of fiber work, weeks of reading, and weeks of doing puzzles or playing games. These routines are how I sustain a thinkingfeeling practice.
When I am most in my magic, I cycle through all of these routines in a day-to-day choreography that I call an ecstatic dance.
When I’m in a rut, I redact random documents like Wikipedia pages, opinion pieces, and interviews. I redact to the point that my work is in a subterranean connection with the original. Redaction is how I dig it. Those excavations are as terrifying as they are revealing. When faced with confusion, I go into my dark.
Who typically gets the first read of your work?
A range of friends and colleagues from different disciplines: Akeema-Zane, Justin Moore, Zefyr Lisowski, Marie Renée Cita, Taja Cheek, Khari Johnson Ricks, Mia Smalls, and Dan Schapiro. Sometimes I drop works in progress on my Instagram stories. So whoever reads that!
What are you working on currently?
I'm still editing my full-length manuscript, Blackable. I'm also working on a collection of children's poems called Songs.
What are you reading right now?
Dr. No by Percival Everett, maroon choreography by fahima ife, a selection of chaplets by Belladonna Collaborative, and Mess And Mess And by Douglas Kearney
JOSELIA REBEKAH HUGHES is a Mad/disabled writer and artist living in the Bronx. She’s a poetry co-editor at Apogee Journal. Her writing has appeared in Blackflash Magazine, Ocean State Review, ICA: VCU, The Poetry Project, Split This Rock, Apogee Journal, Leste Magazine, and elsewhere. She’s currently editing her first book, Blackable: A Nopem.