I have been a fan of Kiini Ibura Salaam for almost five years. She is a poet warrior that doesn't mind sharing her successes and failures with the world. Kiini is one of the reasons I am able to enjoy the success I have right now,
and I am truly grateful and honored to have been able to glean knowledge from her. Maybe it was just meant for us to wait until now to converse, but it is a CONVERSATIONS that I feel was worth the wait.
* Kiini, I first came in contact with you through your Kis.list. Before we get into that, talk to me about the crusade you seem to have to impart knowledge to others.
My passion, or my crusade, if it can be considered as such, is not to impart knowledge to others, but to contribute to the freedom of others. I know I can’t be responsible for freeing anyone, but I can share information and
experiences that I think will address the blockages, fears and wonderings we human beings have. Because I write and because I travel, I’m particularly interested in sharing my experiences around the challenges and rewards of
writing and traveling. I write the KIS.list with the hope that people will be inspired or encouraged to unleash some creativity of their own, be it through art or travel or creating a unique alternative lifestyle all their
* Was reading and writing something that was encouraged with you at a young age? What are your fondest memories of the beginning of your love affair with books?
We had a ton of books in my childhood home. My father is a writer and my mother is a teacher. My siblings and I read everything in the house all the time. We had our own bookshelf of children’s books—children’s books from Communist China, Shel Silverstein’s poetry books for children, and books the challenged children’s ideas of gender and beauty. We had two different sets of encyclopedias, a four-volume series on reproduction and puberty, and, of course, novels. Young adult novels such as “A Hero Ain’t Nothing but a Sandwich.” We read a lot.
I don’t know if I have a love affair with books as much as I have a love affair with reading. I read magazines articles, advice columns, gossip, novels and memoirs. I don’t buy a lot of books (I don’t buy a lot of
anything, that’s the closet monk in me), but whenever I get my hands on something, almost anything, I read it. More than it being a love affair, it’s just a part of my life and always has been. It’s like breathing or
talking, it’s a part of me.
* It is undeniable that you have a genuine love the community as a whole. When did that develop?
I think my love of community comes from my upbringing. When my parents were in their 20s, they joined with like minded adults (including many of my aunts and uncles) and created an organization called Ahidiana. As a
community, the members of the organization and their families participated in a food co-op, ran a printing press, had an independent school and a work/study group in which they shared the duties of the organization as well
as read texts to help them develop intellectually and socially. It was quite an amazing undertaking for people so young. Well, the organization (along with my extended family) was my entire world until I was 8. We socialized
within this community, celebrated, went to school. So community defined me as a child and continues to define me. I’m not currently part of a formal group—though I have been a member of a number of groups a number of
times—but I continue to believe in community. I believe in the power of sharing the difficulties, confusions and triumphs of life.
* What do you see as the biggest problems affecting the community today, namely our young people?
When you say, the community, I assume you mean the black community. There are so many problems that they are hard to list. When you talk about the black middle class vs. black youth in poverty we are talking about two
completely different worlds. Privilege, opportunity, resources, a family history of education and achievement make all the difference in the world. I would be curious to hear what people have to say about problems affecting
the black middle class. Racism, certainly, and all the stresses and inequalities that go along with it. But when I was a youth, I lived in the Lower 9th Ward of New Orleans—a neighborhood that has been completely
destroyed and now sits in a state almost identical to the way Katrina left it 6 months ago. Although we lived in a poor neighborhood and were ourselves financially poor, we were middle class in outlook. Education was primary and our parents imbued us with the belief that we could be anything we wanted to be and that the world was ours. My parents—my father especially—would probably cringe to hear me say we were middle class because in terms of lifestyle and social and political outlook we were anything but middle class. Anyway, the neighborhood friends we had growing up are no longer our peers. Drug use, jail sentences, or inability to imagine themselves outside
the confines of our neighborhood has separated us. More and more the wedge between the haves and the have-nots within the black community is wider and wider. While I would not call myself a “have”, it would be ludicrous to pretend I am a “have not.”
Given that I’m not a member of the community you speak of, i.e. I’m not struggling to escape the vice grip of poverty, my ideas about the problems and the solutions are speculative. When we speak about poverty, we speak
about people reared in an environment of no opportunity. This is true for poverty in the U.S. as well as poverty around the world. There is such a tension and interplay between the problem/plight of individual black youth and the need a capitalist society has for people to pimp, enslave, and discard. Solutions are often aimed at the youth and adults caught in the situation of the underdog, and that’s good. However, to my mind, if a large
part of the problem of poverty is the oppressive forces that profit from poverty, than any solution must include removing or diminishing that oppression. My only solutions are directed at the individual youths, rather than at the system (which, to my mind, makes them incomplete solutions). It seems to me that opportunity and exposure is everything. The two things that distinguish me from my neighbors—African American youth challenged by a system that needs an underclass and is happy to use skin as a marker in designating that underclass—is parenting and education. My parents’ outlook, regarding their role in my life and their belief in education, was largely influenced by their own family history, the fact that they were parented by
powerful people. What does that mean for people stuck in the sticky spokes of the hamster-wheel of poverty? Given that they clearly do not have my parents or family history, how can we expand their awareness of the wide
possibilities in the world and bring more opportunities to their doorstep? I am constantly meditating on philanthropic community building that—through education, parent development, and international travel—can reveal the world beyond the limited vistas that poverty has argued is the norm.
* Being as talented as you are in so many areas, did you feel your male counterparts in the arts were intimidated by you?
That’s a strange question and something I’ve never thought about before. That’s a question that’s asked a lot in romantic relationships, but as for whether I intimidate my male counterparts, that’s question you’d have to ask
them—whoever they may be. The thing about writing is that it’s a solitary act. You do it on your own, for yourself. You may come in contact with your writing peers at readings and conferences (which I don’t attend with any frequency). Maybe that’s something that will become more relevant as I move into a public sphere, but for now I’m just one individual doing what she can to stay creative, keep growing, and liberating myself on deeper and deeper levels.
I can say about four of my male counterparts—artists who were part of my community in college—that we have always been very encouraging of each other and, I think, very impressed by each other. A mutual admiration society. Although this may have dropped off as some of us accelerated in our fields and others didn’t. I have many peers who are more recognized than me. Peers who are actually compensated for their work and have some level of artistic freedom. I am crazy excited by their success and I doubt that they are in
any way intimidated by mine.
* From the strength you have I know you must have experienced some strong role models in your life. Tell us about them and what they learned from them?
My parents are number one. I’ve already mentioned the organization they built and the community they nurtured. My number one goal in life is to live in a world of my own making and contribute to the development, contentment, self-love, liberation of others. My parents and their peers did all that when they were 10 years younger than I am now! They have always encouraged each of us (I have four siblings) to do whatever it is that we most want to do. They are ridiculously proud of all our achievements, in whatever form they come. They raised us with so much intelligence and they viewed their job as parents as making powerful adults—independent beings. I have so much admiration, respect and gratitude for them. Both of my parents continue to
reject conventional lives for a life that fits them. They want to lead significant lives, lives that are significant to themselves as well as to the world at large, more specifically to the black community.
* Being a multi-faceted creative, what is your most enjoyment form of the arts?
While I was painting, I’d say painting was easily my most enjoyable form of art. But I don’t paint anymore, so it’s not really a fair answer. For me, painting is pure enjoyment. Of course, you have to think to paint, but it’s
not a rational thinking. It doesn’t require the type of organized, logical thinking I employ when writing. Of course, writing a first draft (of a short piece, not a novel!) is like that, pure flow. The most pleasurable moment of creating art is being in the flow. Wrestling with writing, bringing it to another draft is can be pleasurable too, but it is more rare. Almost every time I picked up a paintbrush my mood altered, everything around me drooped
away. Sometimes while editing I tap into that flow. I know exactly what needs to stay in a piece and what needs to go. I also get an amazingly gratifying sense of accomplishment from decoding what I’ve written
about—getting to the core of a thought or a story. But for me, painting is (or was) all about FUN.
* Now, Kiini, tell us about the Kis.list. What made you start it, how did you bring it to the attention of others and what do you hope it accomplishes?
Well, in 2001, I was telling my father that I was going to put together a website to connect with an audience, my audience, interact with the public and he said a website is good, but you’d do better with an email list.
Around the same time, I had just completed the 6-week Clarion West Writers Workshop and while there I sent out weekly reports about what it was like to be a writer in the workshop. People responded so well to my reports that I decided I’d keep writing about writing. I’d write about going on the radio, about doing readings, about moving past artistic doubt. So I created the KIS.list. I sent the first KIS.list out to friends and family—I’ve got a pretty large and supportive community. And I just really got into sharing my ideas. Initially it was a weekly list. Can you imagine? Every week I had something compelling I wanted to say about writing and being an artist. I started getting great feedback from the people on the list and they started forwarding my list to others and it just kept growing. Now my father forwards the postings to his list, the e-Drum which reaches thousands of people. Farai Chideya posts particular installments to her website popandpolitics. And others forward it their own writing e-groups. So I have no idea how many people it reaches. It’s odd, I sit in my room and write something and send it to the list and then it reaches thousands of people—people I don’t see, the majority of whom I don’t know. It’s easy to forget the impact. That’s why I value feedback so much. So many people send a response here or there when they’re particularly touched by a posting, and it’s like they’ve given me a gift. I go, oh yeah! People are reading this! Oh yeah, people are getting something out of this. Oh yeah, there is a reason to go on.
I hope it makes everyone who reads it do what they want to do. If they want to write, if they want to travel, if they want to do performance art. I hope it quiets people’s negative voices and demons enough for them to appreciate
their work and their expressions as a part of the natural and essential flow of life. Creativity is central to being a human being and the more different types of expressions we have around us the more validated and sane we are as humans.
* Why did you feel it was important to be honest about your own successes and rejections where your own work was concerned? Did that help you put everything in prospective?
Well, the success and rejection meter actually wasn’t for me, it was for the readers. I had already put rejection into perspective. You have to. You can’t be a writer—or any type of artist—without making peace with rejection.
There are so many artists in the world—so many artists who are “better” than you and so many who are “worse” than you and so many who are just different. With that level of variety and proliferation, you are not always going to win, place, or get published. It’s the same with life, but somehow we can let other of life’s rejections roll off our back much easier. So, early on in the KIS.list, I was telling a friend I got a rejection and she was shocked. You, she said incredulously, you get rejections? And I thought, hell, yeah, I get rejected. I’m not sure why she thought I wouldn’t. I haven’t been published in any major literary publication—with the exception of maybe African American Review. I’ve never received a literary grant or writing fellowship. Not that I haven’t applied. I have, but I’m a growing writer struggling to move forward. I realized she thought I hadn’t been rejected because I’ve published a lot. She didn’t understand that the only way you’re going to continuously get published is to submit your work over and over and over and over again. You submit past rejection. You get a rejection and keep moving. Since the KIS.list was meant to inspire writers, I thought it was the perfect place to lay it bare how many rejections it takes to get published. I think that helped some readers understand that rejection is the other side of the coin of acceptance. When you submit, the coin is either going to fall on heads or tails. Regardless, your job—our jobs as writers—is to keep submitting and keep looking for a platform to voice our expressions.
* Two of the commentaries I remember strongly from you that changed my life as a businessman were the ones on Stedman Graham's Life Brand book and your experience with making a chapbook. I don't know if you even realize it, but both of those are part of the reason why I felt I could handle self-publishing as well as my radio and television shows. I felt because of your examples, I could actually do it. I hope you a great deal of gratitude for the blessing you have been to me. Do you have alot of people that tell you similar experiences?
I had one other person tell me that she felt I was a part of her success as a writer. And this was a woman who was writing way before I was an adult, way before I began the KIS.list. That made me feel good. One friend—who is
an academic, not a writer—told me that she has applied to a ton of academic fellowships particularly because of my revelation of my successes and rejections. It is so gratifying to know that I have inspired and encouraged
people to push themselves to be the people they want to be.
But the sad thing is the minute the praise is over, I rush off into my life, juggling the million things I juggle, working on my writing, and I forget that the KIS.list is important and relevant to others. It’s been harder to
keep up with it since I’ve become a mother, but when I struggle through and send out another installment, I get at least one note of gratitude that reminds me to keep it going.
* What is the legacy, Kiini, you hope to leave?
Legacy? I don’t think my legacy is for me to decide. Legacies are after the fact, after you’re already gone. It will be interesting to see what kind of legacy I leave. I have so many more years on this planet—and I have not yet
lived my wisest or bravest years. There’s so much more to come. God only knows what my legacy will be or who I end up becoming.
* your life were to end today, what would you say was your crowning achievement?
I’d say my crowning achievements are making the world a loving place for all the friends and family with whom I’ve come in contact and always going for the life that I think will make me happy.
* Okay, if you were given 24 more hours, what would you want to do that you haven't done?
Depends on my mood, and depends on the last 24 hours and/or year. If I’ve just spent a year exploring, I might not want to do something new. I might just want to be still. Call all my family and friends and tell them how much I love them and what they brought to my life. That’s how I’m feeling today. I wouldn’t fly off on some wild journey, I’d eat a lot of good food, hang out with loved ones and enjoy my daughter.
* Kiini, again this has been a real pleasure. Tell our readers how they can find out more about you and the work that you do?
People can go to my website www.kiiniibura.com to learn more about me. It isn’t the most current document, but probably the most expansive regarding many of my facets as a writer. I look forward to adding many more interesting literary experiences to my website in the coming years.