In “How to Become an Ancestor” the second criteria is “die violently.” I’m curious why no other options are provided to allow for elders who pass peacefully into ancestor-dom while they sleep. Can you say more about this?
When the idea came to me for “How to Become an Ancestor,” I didn’t envision the story as a how-to manual for all people of color. Not everyone who passes into ancestor-dom is an elder or dies peacefully in their sleep. I wanted to specifically focus on victims of police brutality.
Around the time Breonna Taylor was murdered, someone tweeted, “She has gone to join the ancestors.” I know that person probably meant she had ascended to this peaceful, almost Wakanda-esque plane where our elders reside, but in the months after her death, I’d heard that phrase used most often when people of color were killed by the police. Those victims were shot, choked to death, or otherwise brutalized. Violence seemed to be the passport to the ancestor realm.
That the main character has a “perpetual smile” is ironic given her demise. Also, the line, “But people loved their ancestors to be radiant. Or solemn. There was no in-between” makes me ponder a real mural artists’ choice. How they choose to represent a new ancestor, and how much the family of the ancestor is (or is not) consulted in that choice. Do the artist and family want the ancestor’s likeness to reflect them at their happiest, even if they died violently? Or do some prefer a somber image to show the gravity of a prematurely filled grave? Would love to hear your process on how you settled on the main character’s happy visage.
It’s interesting that you mentioned if families of the slain are consulted in the community’s memorials of them. Breonna Taylor’s sister Ju’Niyah Palmer said all the images floating around of a smiling Breonna in her EMT uniform didn’t tell the whole story. In the photo that Ju’Niyah shared of her sister, we see a cute little girl with braids who looks slightly impatient, like she can’t wait for Mom or whomever to take the picture so she can run outside and play.
A mural captures one moment in time. I understand that murals are a way to honor a person’s memory or to say we still need justice for him or her, but they don’t tell the whole story of the person who was slain. I wanted to reflect that incongruity by having the main character walk around with a “perpetual smile,” even though she never smiled that much when she was alive and she’s on the wall because she was gunned down.
“The girl was twenty-seven. Much too young to be anyone’s forebearer or sacrifice or guiding light.” Being too young to be a forebearer or a guiding light makes sense to me, however, the idea of being too young to be a sacrifice at twenty-seven is a new idea, since there are so many tales about young, virgin sacrifices. I’d love to know the thought behind twenty-seven being too young to sacrifice.
The main character in “How to Become an Ancestor” has reluctantly awakened to this new world of being a murdered woman memorialized on a wall. I think part of her reluctance is because she died at such a young age. She was living her life, clubbing with her girls, trying to find a decent guy. I was thinking “sacrifice” in terms of people who say, “Hey, I know you died violently and tragically, but your death has helped us move closer to police reform,” or “Your murder has helped us understand that black lives matter.”
I love the imagery of the girl’s “chroma rivulet” constitution finding rest on the church stairs as the gospel choir vibrates through her essence! There are so many possible interpretations of this moment, can you tell us a bit about your thoughts and writing process that led to this eventuality?
The main character in “How to Become an Ancestor” loved music. When she went to clubs, she always feared the bass from a hip-hop song would cause her heart to burst. The bass didn’t. A bullet did. She is drawn to the church because she hears the choir practicing. I think the music helps heal the heart that was punctured. These are her ancestors, not in some far off realm, but in the land of the living. This experience frees her from the confines of her manmade realm on the wall. I like to imagine her essence returning to some vibrant, nurturing place.
Spread the word!