Kendra Allen, author of When You Learn the Alphabet talks about her experience as a student of color attending Columbia College Chicago as well as her evolution as a writer.
Interview by Kaitlyn Palmer
I first discovered Kendra Allen at a Columbia Chicago reading in spring, 2019. I was blown away by her voice, style, the color and shapes she evoked through her writing, her accent, the way she seemed to tell a story that was necessary to the future of literature. I purchased her collection of essays following her reading.
After reading, I wanted more. I was impressed by the vulnerability intertwined with Kendra’s ability to tell stories. Her stories were relevant. She was the kind of writer I wanted to know.
Kendra Allen is the author of essay collection When You Learn The Alphabet and winner of the 2018 Iowa Prize for Literary Nonfiction for University of Iowa Press. Born and raised in Dallas, TX, Kendra exists as an MFA candidate at the University of Alabama where she is working on her thesis and leading students astray. You can find other works from her in brevity, december, and The Rumpus among others and her tweets @KendraCanYou
Columbia College Chicago? Columbia may be seen as diverse in ideologies and student body, however, I am interested in your experience as well as the way in which you navigated such a space.
Columbia is only diverse on paper but really it’s a bunch of white folks who think they’re good white folks because their favorite word is “liberal” when in reality they’re just leading each other astray. And like most spaces in the academic world, they tend to think diversity only means black yet I have been the only black person in a few of my classes there.
I think the only way I could navigate the space without combusting was going to campus for class and taking my black ass home to sit in my room. I would be so emotionally exhausted leaving campus and didn’t really understand why. I was young and Columbia really was my first experience being in close proximity to so many white people. So it was a constant lesson on things I didn’t know of the name of at the time, such as code-switching, micro-aggressions, or even living with white people— all these things just slapping me upside the head all day. I really had to force feed myself that it’s not my job to correct the blind spots and, like all things, this is temporary and I didn’t need to romanticize it in order to finish. For most of my time there, I isolated myself. I knew if I got too involved, I wouldn’t have made it through, so I didn’t join any clubs, teams, etc. And what I did do (Habitat) I didn’t really have to talk to anyone face to face. Columbia worked for the kind of person I am and also taught me a lot about intention but even more than that, about silence.
On becoming a writer at Columbia, can you recall pivotal moments in which you were supported or encouraged to visualize beyond your own expectations? This encouragement may have been by teachers, peers, or supporting administration.
I think it’s when I kept meeting writers who made me jealous of how well they wrote. I’m a competitive person and it’s been put in check, but when I first started going to these workshops, I would always try to identify the best writer (to me) in the room and try to keep up with them through metaphor, scene building, etc. Me being in admiration of them is what made me write so much during my time there. I was never doing it thinking this is gonna be a book, I was doing it thinking I want Meg in my poetry workshop to think I’m good or I want them to like my work as much as I like theirs, etc. I just love words and I can always tell when someone else loves words, so my visualization was all about how I can transform words into feelings and luckily I was placed in rooms where teachers, peers, and supporting administration always told me to keep going, that I was good, that I could be better, that they wanted to read more. And people wanting to read more is THE quintessential pivotal moment. So I’m real grateful for the creative writing department at Columbia. I can’t really say my time was wasted anytime I was in those rooms.
If you could speak to a group of girls, girls of color, entering Columbia College, what would you offer them? This may be in terms of a “survival kit” for being successful throughout one’s college career. You may direct your audience as you see fit with this question.
Black girls across intersections entering Columbia College: you’ll thrive, because you’re a black girl. You’ll survive, because you’re a black girl. These are things you’ve just always had to do. Find at least one other black girl to complain with or you’ll drive yourself crazy doing it alone. Y’all won’t know how important that comradery is until it’s over. Take advantage of the few people you have there, take the classes with the professors who will nurture you without pandering to you. When whiteness is running rapid, remember that you black, not a martyr. Read. Write. But most importantly, don’t internalize the dumb shit that is guaranteed to happen. It’s gone be hard but ain’t it always. Get a therapist as soon as possible. I also heard marijuana is about to be legal there, so ya know, do you boo.
Would you say, you, as a writer, was represented on a cultural level by faculty during your college career? Were there professors who taught in a manner that was culturally responsive?
Not at all. Of course there’s CM Burroughs and Eric May, but I didn’t get the opportunity to take any of their classes or even know them while I was a student. And even if I did, I doubt that’d be enough. But I did get to know Jenny Boully who is amazing and fearless at her job, and the other professors I did have were culturally responsive and responsible for the most part. Or I should say, as much as they could be. I think around my second year of undergrad I stopped looking to be represented and just started trying to find spaces where listening and application were important factors in the classroom. I’d take Kathie Bergquist whenever I could, ReLynn Hansen helped tremendously as well, and then there were those who weren’t so responsible. Which is how we get “How to Workshop N-Words” written or realizing a class you loved had a sexual predator as an instructor and no one talks about any of it.
I don’t know the aesthetics of the faculty now, but it could have 1000% been better when I was there, but that also applies to almost every school, especially where I am now where we have no black faculty at all in the graduate department, or even a faculty member who’s a person of color. I think we’d all benefit more if we stopped trying to teach and appease blackness and just hire some black people, but whatever.
What inspired you the most during your college career at Columbia? What activities or engagements allowed you to remain inspired when creating and writing?
Honestly, I think reassurance inspired me most during my time there, whether that was from classmates or instructors, I always felt guided and supported in what I would put on the page, even if it was trash. But also the state of our society during that time played a prominent role in my work. A lot of WYTLA discusses current racial events and tragedy. I was at Columbia during Mike Brown and Sandra Bland and all the many other black people murdered by police, and even the election of Trump. So that urgency to say something always revealed itself whenever I would sit down and do my workshop assignments, so the biggest inspiration was constantly knowing things were happening and me trying to find an understanding of why we love to live in a cycle.
College, as you know, entails so much reading. Were you able to see yourself in the required reading as a whole? Are there any readings that continue to resonate with you?
I think the worst thing about Columbia is also the best thing about Columbia: how liberal it perceives itself to be, and we all know that’s a very slippery slope. I would be lying if I said I didn’t see myself in the reading material. I read a lot growing up but I didn’t really read widely and Columbia introduced me to writers I should have known all my life. Reading at Columbia introduced me to books I’ll obsess over for the rest life. From Kiese Laymon’s How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America, Bell Hook’s Bone Black, James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, Hilton Als’ White Girls. I read The Bluest Eye for the first time at Columbia, so I’m really thankful for being exposed to myself in that way even if the intention of those inclusions is kinda tricky to fully navigate.
What would you like the legacy of When You Learn the Alphabet, to be?
This is a great question and the answer(s) to it probably conflicts with one another, but if you asked me this at the start of the year I’d say I’d want WYLTA to be a undeniable piece of work that is widely read and love me love me love me immediately, but I’ve spent time reevaluating what success and even legacy means to me. I feel like a lot of times black folks talk about creating legacies and how it is a burden when you don’t have a blueprint in front of you—and when I wanted those validations in those perimeters, it most definitely felt like a burden. But now, I’m hoping when I look back on WYLTA I can see it as the beginning of me freeing myself from my own expectations and that I did the best I could with words at that time in my life.
If you could describe your mission as a writer and an author, what would it be and how do plan to accomplish your unique vision or mission?
In the past, I think my curse as both a writer and a person has been sacrificing myself in search of absolute truth. Thinking that the only way I could feel like a writer, especially through personal narrative, that there was only one answer to every question I had about myself and this world. Now, I think my mission in my work is clarity. I’m writing for clarity, and that goal opens up the page in a way it hadn’t beforehand. I haven’t mastered it, but I think I’m in the process of figuring out how to execute it. When I was searching for unaltered, absolute truth, I never felt fulfilled with the finished product because it never was about me, it was about what was done through me, for me, and against me. And if I’m working so hard, I want to feel fulfilled. I remember in one of her notes on a piece I submitted for workshop, Jenny Boully wrote to me, “It seems like every time you begin to reveal yourself, you hide behind abstractions.” She was completely right, because the truth is always cloudy and I was living in the sky. I wanna be clear from now on.
When You Learn the Alphabet
University of Iowa Press