Sinéad Burke sits down with Adam Eli, Kimberly Drew, and Alok Vaid-Menon to speak about the launch of their Pocket Change Collective books and what they offer a fervent, curious new generation of activists, artists, and readers
In times of unrest, certain voices emerge, bringing stability, hope, or both. Penguin Random House sought to platform some of these voices when they commissioned The Pocket Change Collective, a new pocket-sized, nonfiction series centred around timely issues and written by today’s leading activists. Unfortunately none of these authors realised just how timely these issues would prove to be. The series was launched on June 2, 2020, now forever known as The Day Of The Black Squares and the first day New York City had a curfew since the First World War. The inaugural list includes The New Queer Conscience by Adam Eli, Beyond the Gender Binary by Alok Vaid-Menon, Imaginary Borders by Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, and This Is What I Know About Art by Kimberly Drew. All four books are illustrated by acclaimed illustrator and visual artist, Ashley Lukashevsky.
As Alok mentions below, the great and mighty James Baldwin defines being a writer whose job “is to reveal the unconscious of a nation” – in these times of pandemic and as a seismic election approaches, that feels all the more poignant. Writer and activist Sinéad Burke, whose book Break the Mould: How to Take Your Place in the World comes out this October, sat down with Adam, Kimberly, and Alok to speak about their launch, COVID-19 and its constraints on art and activism, and what being a writer really means today.
Sinéad Burke: I know you as friends and peers, but how do you define a writer?
Kimberly Drew: I think it’s about positioning oneself as a voice, and really thinking critically about how you can improve upon a dialogue. It’s not just about saying something to say something. It’s really thinking about the ways in which you, from your unique experience, can help others understand the world around them. I think that’s what writing can do at its very best – Sonia Sanchez, Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, who have helped us articulate best some of the feelings that are really hard to make sense of.
Alok Vaid-Menon: The way James Baldwin defines a writer is really helpful to me, which is ‘Our job is to reveal the unconscious of a nation’. I think writing is about revealing a repressed consciousness, so it already has a political bent – the things that are worth writing are the things that people aren’t saying. Susan Sontag writes about belonging to the world of literature, and I think, as a writer, our allegiance is beyond the borders that are defined by the world. It’s trans-nationality and coalition. My understanding is that the writer exists to articulate feelings, sensations, dreams, that give people something for their lives to be more liveable. There’s a generosity, love, and tenderness to writing where we have to think about the ethics of ’What do people actually need to hear?,’ because there’s a lot of noise in the world.
Adam Eli: The type of writing that I’m interested in doing right now is having an idea of the future, expressing that idea through words, and having those words be used as building blocks to help the reader get closer to that future.
“I don’t know if the goal is moving beyond identity in my writing. I’m so bored of having to explain the basics. I’d rather be able to always bring my trans-ness in with me, writing about anything” – Alok Vaid-Menon
Sinéad Burke: How have you cultivated the confidence to be able to grasp the unconscious? How have you been able to position yourselves, within yourselves, with a belief system, that your voices need to be heard?
Kimberly Drew: I think it’s something that I often struggle with. I think for many, especially femme-identified people of colour, the reality is that we’re socialised around silence. We’re socialised to be quiet, to have the internalised belief that our voices don’t matter. I struggle everyday with overcoming that impulse to be silent, but I’ve realised that it’s important to lead by example. I want my courage, my space-making, space-seizing, to inspire other young people who have similar stories to mine.
With the platforms we have, it’s really important that we are thoughtful about how we are putting our words together. I also understand my voice as one that helps others see and hear themselves more clearly and that takes priority sometimes over that fear that I have.
Alok Vaid-Menon: There’s this trope that writers live in a cabin in the woods and comment on the world from afar. But I don’t think that that’s how any of the people entering this conversation imagine writing. For me, you have to be living to be able to write about life. For me, living in the world is the ultimate inspiration. It’s about really committing to enmeshing yourself in the subjects that you write about. I’m not interested in writing in things that I don’t experience when it comes to non-fiction.
Adam Eli: This is something that I really struggle with, also. There’s the quote, again, by Toni Morrison, ‘If there is a book that you want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, you must be the one to write it’, and I did my best to do just that.
Sinéad Burke: Confidence feels like a really important thread here – as activists and writers, our confidence is fragile, and we need that constant balance between being vulnerable and sensitive to assuming more confidence than perhaps one naturally has. That too can be emotionally exhausting. How do you manage that fragility and importance of your ego within this work?
Kimberly Drew: This is what we talk about all the time, Sinéad (laughs)! So it’s conversations with friends that help me, parsing out what I’m trying to say before it goes public. Your tweet does not have to be the first step of communication. Talk to your friends, talk to your people who know what you’re trying to say. Allow your community to help edit you. I still struggle with the importance of the things I need to say. Even in the process of pushing these books out, I’ve still on a daily basis wondered if the world really needs my voice. But it’s conversations through community that have helped me quiet the inner saboteur, and move to a space of more confidence and patience with the journey.
Alok Vaid-Menon: I’ve been doing this for a while now, and I’ve learned that I have to have counsel. It’s so important to have a group of people who care about you enough to hold you accountable. Accountability is care. I had a Zoom session with friends where we were just, like, workshopping my life. Having friends who can name your anxieties and frustrations has helped me figure out where I belong and where I don’t. Everything I made is testament to the love and care that I have received. So often I think that, especially in the US, we have a deep romanticism of a heroism narrative, of ‘you overcame so much’ and there isn’t a conversation there about the people who helped you overcome that.
Adam Eli: I would echo what Kimberly and Alok are saying, and something that’s really helped me is Oprah’s What I Know For Sure, about the principles she lives her life by. In my book, I talk about how queer people come from all different types of experiences, and therefore you can only represent your own. If I speak about something, it comes from my experience, it’s what I’m sure of. I still find writing daunting and scary, so before I wrote this book, I didn’t write for two months. When I sit down to write it, it’s usually quick because I spent so much time literally writing it in my head.
“My dream is to promote the idea of the new queer conscience, the idea that queer people are responsible for queer people everywhere” – Adam Eli
Sinéad Burke: What were the questions that you had for yourselves and for the reader before you began to write?
Kimberly Drew: ‘Why am I doing this?’ (laughs). I think that’s a really valuable question for any writer! We exist in a capitalist society, and it’s really important to make sure that you know your ‘Why’. That ‘Why’ can be to pay the bills – totally valid – but I think there needs to be a certain other motivating force. You hit a wall many, many times, and you have to revisit that ‘Why’ to get across the finish line. Then, ‘What did a younger version of myself need?’. My book is very much an invitation to young people to do art and protest, something I wish I had.
Alok Vaid-Menon: ‘How do I respond to the rise of anti-trans legislation?’. Then, ‘How do I create a handbook that people will have tangible arguments and rebuttals to the rhetoric of anti-trans discrimination?’ Then, ‘How do I make gender theory and politics more accessible?’ We’re bringing people into a conversation who’ve needed to be in it, but often lack the exposure or the vocabulary to do it.
Adam Eli: I asked myself, ‘What did I need at this age or even older?’ and ‘How can I be as clear as possible?’ Our editor gave me the advice to write to my 12-year-old self. My goal was to make the words as clear and accessible as possible.
”As much as I would like – and I’m not afraid to say it – to live in a Black world, we exist in a larger ecosystem. I want to be afforded opportunities to engage with the world in all of these ways“ – Kimberly Drew
Sinéad Burke: The publishing industry is diversifying, but many believe that writing about our identity is the only thing that we can do. How do we write about our experiences and identities, and go beyond that?
Kimberly Drew: I’m of two minds about it all the time. I think about Toni Morrison of course, and her explicit intention around writing Black stories. I feel an incredible, larger purpose writing Black stories. To echo Adam, that’s the thing I know best. You are the expert of your experience. But I’ve had so many interactions with folks who only feel like they can talk to me about Black artists, or only feel that I can talk about or interview Black artists. You see this incredible rise of Black photographers in fashion, but they’re only asked to photograph Black subjects. As much as I would like – and I’m not afraid to say it – to live in a Black world, we exist in a larger ecosystem. I want to be afforded opportunities to engage with the world in all of these ways. There’s an incredible awareness that’s required when you're a marginalised person in the world. I would like to be able to fashion myself an expert in many different things.
Alok Vaid-Menon: I think we can be pigeon-holed into a place to be instructive about identity, or explicative. We have to teach people about identity – my writing about my trans-ness allows me to comment on the human condition more broadly. People we think aren’t writing about identity are still writing about identity, it’s just that it’s unmarked.
I don’t know if the goal is moving beyond identity in my writing. I’m so bored of having to explain the basics. I’d rather be able to always bring my trans-ness in with me, writing about anything.
Adam Eli: Sometimes I write about just being gay, sometimes I write about being gay and Jewish. At this moment, I only want to write about those two things. Two years ago, I was commissioned by an editor at a magazine to compare two different photographers who were both queer. The editor graciously said ‘You don’t have to write about the subject’s queerness or queer history. You can write through any lense you want’. I said, ‘Thank you for saying that, but I want to write about this through the lens of queerness.’ I wrote about the different times the photographers lived in, how the Trump era compared to the Regan era, and the AIDS crisis.
Things are getting worse for a lot of people, for example, my book opens with the shooting in Pittsburgh synagogue. From Trump’s arrival, to the general rise of the far-right, the tremendous shift of anti-Semitism, and queerphobia – I don’t know when I’ll be ready to stop writing Judiasm and queerness. When I am ready to stop I imagine that my white cis male privilege will help me break some of those boundaries more quickly.
Sinéad Burke: What does success look like to you, how do you define it?
Kimberly Drew: That people read the book and feel seen by it.
Alok Vaid-Menon: Success is ending anti-LGBTQ+ laws and putting protections into place. It’s not just about removing violence, it’s actually creating a culture of celebration, affirmation. We need a youth, trans, and GNC movement to actually address the crisis of mental health in our community by creating supportive, collaborative spaces. I want to connect with youth organisers and states that have typically been under-resourced and under-thought. I created this campaign to donate 5,000 copies of my book to LGBTQ+ youth. I’ve now connected with organisers in Alabama, Wyoming. I’m doing webinars and book clubs – being able to speak with the demographic that I was directly writing for is incredible! We’re so inundated with preexisting ideas of success, we have to remember what we’re actually here for.
Adam Eli: My dream is to promote the idea of the new queer conscience, the idea that queer people are responsible for queer people everywhere.
Sinéad Burke: A 12-year-old kid is going to pick up each of your books. When they have the book in their hand, what do you want the talking point to be right then?
Kimberly Drew: That's a beautiful question. Especially among Gen Zers and Gen Alpha, there is a level of ‘cool’ around art and creativity that I fucking love. I’m like, ‘Yes! This is the generation that I’m talking to!’ I name artists and activists in the book that I hope become part of their lexicon. I hope that young people understand that, not only is liking art cool, but that it can be a space that helps us better understand ourselves, that perhaps we might work in these spaces to help broaden the discourse around art, and how it is offered in communities and institutions. I hope in the beginning it’s like, ‘here’s some tools’, and by the end, it’s ‘here’s how I can implement these tools’.
Alok Vaid-Menon: I think there’s been a lot of media in the last few years about gender fluidity. My hope is that readers will emerge with an understanding of the gender binary as a system, and that people of all genders can and should tear it apart and benefit from its dissolution. I also really want them to understand more than just trans visibility. Feminism is allowed a politics, but trans-ness is just allowed to be looked at. I want us to actually understand that there is no feminism without transfeminism.
Adam Eli: I want my reader to understand that being queer, Jewish, or both means you are never alone. That you are a part of something greater than yourself. That being part of something greater than yourself comes with tremendous beauty, but also responsibility.
Sinéad Burke: I really hope that there are teachers, community leaders, siblings, and friends who will be brave enough to give these books to children who have had books written about their lives forever.
Adam Eli, Kimberly Drew, and Alok Vaid-Menon all wear clothes by Gucci
The New Queer Conscience by Adam Eli, Beyond the Gender Binary by Alok Vaid-Menon, Imaginary Borders by Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, and This Is What I Know About Art by Kimberly Drew are out now