Interview with Sekai Ward, a Quarter 4 Creative Nonfiction Essay Runner-Up

Sunday, December 30, 2018
Today we interview Sekai K. Ward, a runner-up in the Quarter 4 Creative Nonfiction Essay Contest for her essay, "The Passing." You can read her beautiful essay about when her grandmother was dying here. Sekai was born in Nigeria and raised in-between Wisconsin and Zimbabwe. She holds a master's degree in clinical social work from the University of Michigan and an MFA from Antioch - Los Angeles. Sekai is in private practice and utilizes bibliotherapy and expressive writing to help clients struggling with depression, anxiety, PTSD and other mental health disorders. She lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan, with her husband Stephen and their son Che.

Margo: Congratulations, Sekai, on being a runner-up for your essay, "The Passing." What a heartfelt and beautiful essay about what I can only imagine was a very emotional time. Sometimes, writers have a difficult time polishing a piece so full of emotion, such as this one about your grandma's passing. How did you work through that to publish such a beautiful piece of work?

Sekai: Thank you! Yes, it was an incredibly emotional time when my grandmother died. I had to let some time elapse and allow myself to properly grieve before I could write this piece. I wasn’t ready to revisit that time in my life until recently. The feelings were too fresh. I’ve learned from experience that if I write when I am too emotional, the work tends to have a tone of self-pity, which I absolutely hate. I was also a bit afraid to put all of these feelings down on paper. Even though my feelings were honest, some of them felt really ugly, and I felt terribly guilty. I didn’t want to anger or hurt anyone. I just wanted to speak my truth. Being that close to death was humbling and frightening and horribly sad. It forced me to look at my relationship with my own mother, which hasn’t always been the strongest, and ponder what I might regret should she die. Was I satisfied with the current state of our relationship? What could I have said or done differently to make things better between us? All of these questions start running through your head. I think when someone close to you dies, it inevitably causes you to consider your own mortality and question whether you have lived your best life. It was sobering because it felt as if my grandmother’s death pushed all of the women in our family up one rung higher on the ladder leading toward death.

Margo: I have the same type of  issues when I try to write about something that happened during an emotional time. I always try to turn to humor somehow, if possible, when it has to do with parenting or divorce. But death does bring up so much for all of us, especially death of a loved one. Thank you for sharing with us. What universal themes were you exploring while you wrote about your grandmother's last days?

Sekai: Much of my writing involves common themes found in literature: identity, mortality, family conflict, sexism, racism, colorism, and the struggle to determine where and how one belongs in the world. Most people can apply some if not all of these themes to their own lives. I wrote "The Passing" because I needed to examine some of these themes in order to make sense of the opposing emotions I was experiencing towards the end of my grandmother’s life. I am a bi-racial woman, and it is my white, maternal grandmother that I was writing about. My grandmother was a smart, strong and generous woman but she also harbored some racist viewpoints. I loved my grandmother, but at the same time, I hated the part of her that was bigoted. Conflicting emotions such as these aren’t so easily reconciled.

Margo: I can only imagine how extremely difficult that was for you. Do you write a lot of memoir type pieces like this one? Why or why not?

Sekai: Yes, definitely. Writing about my life experiences helps me make order out of chaos. It’s a way for me to understand my place in the world and how I came to be who I am, for better and for worse. It’s therapeutic. It is a way to purge all of the feelings and thoughts that are constantly whirling around in my head and in my dreams.

Margo: Your bio is so interesting! You have lived in many different places and have a few degrees. How have these experiences and education shaped you as a writer?

Sekai: Growing up in between the United States and Africa was a wonderful opportunity, but it was also lonely and isolating and confusing. Because my mother was a white American and my father was a Black Zimbabwean, I never felt I truly belonged in either country or culture. This constant search for belonging - geographical, racial and cultural – led me to move multiple times throughout my twenties and early thirties in order to search for a place to call home. The concepts of home and identity are woven through most of my writing. I am very grateful for the access I have had to travel and education because I was exposed to people, places, and ideas I never could have experienced otherwise. It was also a way to figure out who I was and to feel okay about that.

Margo: I have heard the same type of statement from young people who have had to move a lot in their lives, especially great distances. It's hard enough to be a child or teen and fit in and make friends! But I have also heard the same as you stated that the opportunities moving presented were cherished; and some people, like me who grew up and lived in the Midwest my whole life, have never had. What are you currently working on in your writing life?

Sekai: I always seem to have a couple of projects going on at the same time. I’m working on another creative non-fiction piece about the premature birth of my son and the trauma surrounding the whole birthing experience. I’ve also just started an essay about living with a chronic illness. I was recently diagnosed with a rare vocal chord disorder called spasmodic dysphonia. Basically what happens is the muscles that generate my voice go into periods of spasms that strangle my voice, causing it to strain and making it difficult for voice to come out. Until my diagnosis, I didn’t realize how important my voice was to my sense of identity. And then finally, I have been slogging my way through a memoir growing up in between the United States and Zimbabwe. It’s served as a type of life review, which I seem to be engaging in quite a bit these days as I grow older. The memoir starts off with my family’s move to Zimbabwe shortly after the country’s independence from white minority rule in 1980. My two siblings and I were the first non-white children to be integrated into the formerly whites-only school and our multi-racial family bought a home in a neighborhood that had a whites-only designation. As you can imagine, we faced a great deal of racism during those early days of Zimbabwe. It was also challenging because in the United States my siblings and I had been racially classified as Black; but as soon as we crossed the Atlantic, we were re-classified as “Colored” which is a racial and cultural category in Southern Africa about which we knew nothing.

Margo: The memoir sounds fascinating and I'm sure brings up many emotions to work through. I'm also sorry to hear about your vocal chord disorder. It sounds like you have a lot on your plate, and we are grateful for you taking the time to speak with us today. Thank you very much for your time and your thoughtful answers!


Sioux Roslawski said...

Margo--Thanks for doing this interview.

Sekai--I was moved by your essay. I plan on using it in my classroom (I teach middle school) when we study essays (giving you credit, of course) because it's so filled with detail and emotion.

Congratulations on being a runner-up.

I'm fascinated by your bio. Bibliotherapy and expressive writing? I am a voracious reader, I read mostly memoir and fiction, and now wonder how books have helped heal me. As far as expressive writing, I'm a firm believer in the power of writing. Within the last 10 years I suffered an emotional blow from the dysfunctional branch of my family tree. I was filled with bitterness, rage and the need for revenge. What put an end to my daydreams full of felonies? I was working on a novel (a memoir thinly disguised as fiction) and created an unplanned daydream for my main character (which was me)... and in that daydream, my character (and I) found forgiveness--which led me to inner peace.

Congratulations, and good luck with your work on your memoir. That is a book I would definitely read.

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