Writer Zeba Blay puts his shadow on the page



It is Disorganized, in which our favorite writers get to the bottom of their own craft. From favorite drinks for writing to whether or not you need to carry a notebook, we find out all the ways they beat writer’s block and do it.

In this edition, we speak to writer and cultural critic Zeba Blay on the occasion of his new book Carefree Black Girls: A Celebration of Black Women in Popular Culture-output today. In the introduction to her collection of essays, Blay writes: “To say that black women are everything, are indeed essential to American culture, to the zeitgeist of the world, is simply to observe such things as they really are. What follows is a tender, critical look at how black women – from Lizzo and Mel B to Zendaya and Josephine Baker – have fueled the continuing transformation of pop culture. In honor of his new book, Blay spoke to Maintenance on what she hopes her essay collection can do for readers, the music that puts her in the zone (a lot of Aaliyah) and her love of the Notes app.


JULIANA UKIOMOGBE: Your first collection of essays released today! What gaps on the shelf were you trying to fill by writing it down?

ZEBA BLAY: I hope he connects with other black women, but honestly the title of the book is misleading. This is kind of a celebration, but it’s also a very sad book that I wrote at a particularly low point in my life. I hope that being open and honest about my pain will create more space for others to talk about it or at least acknowledge theirs.

UKIOMOGBE: Who was on your writing playlist while you were working on Carefree black girls?

BLAY: While I was working on the book, I was listening to a lot of music from my teenage years of the 90s and 2000s. Aaliyah’s latest eponymous album, Spice World, Kelis, Ashanti, Tamia.

UKIOMOGBE: Do you have a favorite essay from the book?

BLAY: The last essay, “Free of Cares”. It was the hardest to write and the one I’m the least satisfied with, but writing it made me feel, I guess, free.

UKIOMOGBE: Now let’s move on to your routine. What’s your ideal writing atmosphere?

BLAY: I need absolute calm when I write. Please don’t talk to me or look at me. I am very easily distracted! That’s why I like to write from home, I can’t write with other people, it makes me too anxious. I need to feel comfortable and comfortable while writing. Sometimes I write at my desk when I want to pretend to be an adult, but usually I write the majority of my writing on my couch or in bed. If I write at night, I like to write in the dark and light a candle for a little drama.

UKIOMOGBE: What are your favorite snacks?

BLAY: I’m not a big fan of snacks. But I like to reward myself with something indulgent for dinner on cut-off days. It gives me something to look forward to like lobster mac and cheese or Ghana jollof.

UKIOMOGBE: Do you smoke or drink alcohol while you write? If so, how do you think they impact you?

BLAY: I’m extremely nervous all the time. Even more when I write. Depending on what I’m working on, I like a glass of wine or a glass of vodka to relax me, but I try not to drink too much when I write because I’m a little light-hearted. There was one night while I was working on my book where I chain-smoked like crazy to complete a particularly intimidating essay – two packs in the span of a few hours. I never smoked and haven’t smoked since, so I don’t know what it was. I think I just needed something to worry about as I skimmed through the paragraphs. The apartment smelled bad for days. I like the grass but it is to decompress.

UKIOMOGBE: Are you an evening or morning writer?

BLAY: I write when I can and when I want to, if I can choose. I am not particular about the time of day, I am more particular about my mood. I can’t write in a bad mood, and I’m usually in a bad mood early in the morning, so there you go.

UKIOMOGBE: Do you keep a notebook or a journal?

BLAY: I use the Notes app on my phone to keep track of ideas and record dialogue snippets that come to me. I also like to record small conversations with myself that I use to map the landscape of any room I work on.

UKIOMOGBE: Can you give us an overview of your Notes application?

BLAY: From my notes: She wondered what straight white men were talking about when they were alone, when no one was looking at them.

UKIOMOGBE: Do you prefer handwriting or typing?

BLAY: Typing. My hands contract too easily when writing by hand and my calligraphy is too messy.

UKIOMOGBE: What’s your favorite quote?

BLAY: From Octavia Butler’s notebooks: “Make people touch, taste and KNOW. Make people FEEL! TO FEEL! TO FEEL!”

UKIOMOGBE: What’s your favorite book to reread?

BLAY: Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke. I’ve read it every few years for the past ten years and it’s delicious every time.

zeba blay

UKIOMOGBE: Who is your favorite screenwriter?

BLAY: Paul Thomas Anderson and Kasi Lemmons. The scenario of The Bayou of Eve is pretty much perfect.

UKIOMOGBE: Do you see writing as a spiritual practice?

BLAY: It’s possible, if you don’t mind. I think writing, like all forms of artistic creation, is a lot about confronting your own ego. Once you’re ready to look at yourself on the page and not flinch, no matter how ugly you are, you are headed for some kind of spiritual growth. For me, I find a lot of my growth comes from writing about things that make me feel ashamed or make me feel weird. When I write, I always try to reach out to the little girl that I was (and still am). Putting your shadows on a page and then out in the world is scary as shit, but I find going through the fear made me feel so much more connected to myself.

UKIOMOGBE: Which writers would you choose to dine with, alive or dead?

BLAY: I don’t think I would Choose to dine with writers I admire and don’t know yet, I’m too shy. But have dinner with writers I know and love: Akwaeke Emezi, Fariha Roisin, Janet Mock, Dr. Yaba Blay.

UKIOMOGBE: What advice do you have for those who want to become better writers?

BLAY: Be honest.

UKIOMOGBE: What are the unconventional techniques that you defend?

BLAY: I don’t know if it’s unconventional, but I find re-reading things that I wrote five, ten, fifteen years ago makes me cringe, but it’s also very useful for understanding. my strengths and weaknesses as a writer. It also helps me come to terms with the fact that I don’t know anything, change my mind a lot, and constantly learn – which is why I became a writer in the first place.

UKIOMOGBE: Can good writing save the world?

BLAY: I think it’s possible and it has done it over and over again. If not the whole world, then little worlds – the individual worlds within each of us. At the very least, good writing, which is honest writing, can give hope. And that’s something, I guess? I do not know. It’s dark in these streets, but I try to keep my hopes up, always!


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