To me, storytelling is the highest form of artistry. Every form of creative expression should, in some way, tell us a story. As a writer, being able to see the story in a piece of work is so fundamental to me that if I don’t, it doesn’t resonate with me. True poetry is the ultimate storytelling performance art; every stanza, verse, chorus (yes, songs are poetry) encapsulates us with a tale that goes far beyond the words and settles somewhere deep within us.
However, for me, I’ve not really found such a deep connection with many contemporary poets on what it is we talk about when referring to the current ‘poetry scene’. Though their words are attractively woven together to tell their truth, I often don’t see the wider story so there’s a disconnect for me.
In the last year, my good friend Natalie has been instrumental in me discovering voices who challenge my stilted view on today’s poets; phenomenal talents who deliver stories that stay with me for days after. Her introduction of New York poet Aja Monet to me was no different.
Late October, Aja headlined the debut show from Natalie’s production company, Purple Hill Solutions. Upstairs in Shoreditch’s Bedroom Bar, the packed room harnessed a warm and vibrant energy as Eric Lau provided the soundtrack and Aja introduced each support act (including one of my favourite songstresses, Tawiah) before Natalie took to the stage to introduce Aja’s set.
I went to the show knowing very little about Aja. She cracked open her notebooks, allowing fate to decide what she’d share with us as she landed on poems in the books. After studying them momentarily she’d tell us how the words that formed the poem were born. The stories to set up the poems would have us laughing, nodding our heads, clapping or simply awed. Sat on the floor at the front (because that’s how I roll…and the chairs were taken) I was engaged and enthralled.
Keen to mirror the experience for you guys, when I sat down with Aja I didn’t ask her ‘interview’ questions, I asked her to share stories, and poems about herself. Sit front and centre for storytelling with Aja Monet.
Two stories about Aja’s childhood
My childhood was rough in certain parts of it, but there’s a lot of beauty to it too.
So my sister was born when I was 7, and it was a really big deal because I never thought my mother would have another child. I was always her baby and I was always close to my mother. And it was before she started to get sick, because my mom currently has lupus, Addison’s disease, epilepsy and other stuff.
We were in this apartment in Queens, in New Town. I loved it so much, because it was such a neighbourhood apartment; we knew the whole community.
My brother and I, we always shared a room. We had bunk beds. It was a really normal time of my life, and we were really close. We used to go to the Laundromat together, he used to make me wash the laundry even though I was way littler than him and my mother told him to do it. Little, funny things like that he would do, and we’d get into scuffles about it. I remember we used to collect all of our toys and things – like his Marvel comics that he collected and my little teddy bears – and try and sell them in front of this huge apartment building.
As my mother started to get closer to having another child things started to get shook up in the household. In my peripheral I remember that her and my stepfather started to argue a lot, it was about all sorts of things – the house, money, and stuff. And I started to see my mom become more stressed, and I started to feel that.
When I was a kid I used to collect all these pennies. It was really, really cute. I had this old plastic jewellery box that I collected all these pennies in. I spent all my time – it might mean nothing to y’all, but I was really about these pennies!
One night my mom had gotten really, really angry. Something had happened at work. And I think I did something really stupid – I think I forgot to fix my bed or put my toys away or something. So when my mom came in, immediately it went from me being a child, to me being completely terrified by the amount of anger that my mother had. She was almost…possessed by her anger. She’s the sort of person that could get possessed by her anger, but also, she’d be possessed by her love. So she made it hard to feel one way or another about her.
She was so mad, she started yelling at me and it’s sad because I don’t even remember what I did to deserve this, but I remember her taking all my pennies and giving them to my brother. She took the most important thing to me and gave it to my brother. Now as an adult I [look at it like] it was turning my brother against me.
She got really, really angry, and she started to hit me. And it went from a moment of being a complete, unaware, beautiful child – super innocent – to be beaten by my mother, on the floor, with my mother on top of me…and it wasn’t like you beat a child, it was like [how] you beat an adult, it was very, very, very hard. It’s very hard for me to talk about it, but it’s also very hard for me to look back on that child, because many, many more incidents like this happened, especially as my sister came in and my mom started to get more and more sick.
So that happens and I remember being so terrified, and being heartbroken.
Then fast forward, my next memory in that same house – I remember my mom was pregnant with my sister.
We were all excited because we were going have a new baby. I remember praying to God that it was a girl. I was like, “I’ll be the best sister ever, I’ll take her everywhere and show her everything!” Because I remember feeling alone, and I didn’t want to be alone anymore. Everyone else in my family wanted a boy; my brother, my mom, everyone.
I remember the day I came back from school and my mom brought her home from the hospital. I was so small that everyone said I could not hold her, so I was pissed because I wanted to hold my little sister. I was like, “this is my little sister! I prayed for this girl! You guys did not want a girl, stop try’na front! Now there’s a girl around everybody wanna be ‘oh she’s so cute’! God gave her to me – y’all don’t know!”
She was so precious. It was like I had her, she was like my baby doll.
At the time, it was such a small apartment we all kind of in one bedroom, or my mom and stepdad used to sleep in the living room on the couch. They ended up staying in the bedroom because they had the baby.
One night, when everyone fell asleep, I tiptoed to the room, and I remember watching my sister. She was laying there in her bassinette and I started moving her things. She had this little blue elephant, and when you pulled its trunk it started making a carol noise, so I had to be extra careful! I was taking every second really slowly. I was so anxious to pick her up – I think about it now and I wonder what was I thinking? I was so small so I don’t know why I would think to do this! My mom was knocked out – I can’t believe my mom didn’t wake up. I went and picked her up, and I remember she was so cute. I held her for a few minutes and I remember her trying to move into my arms; fit herself into my arms. And she didn’t cry!
I just knew I loved her from the moment I held her. I didn’t want anything to happen to her. I didn’t want her to ever feel hurt. I just wanted her to be loved; I just wanted to hold her the whole night. My mom moved, I remember. She turned over, and I got really scared, so I placed my sister back very quickly, covered her with the blankets, and put her little elephant back in place. I went back to the living room, and no one ever knew that I had picked her up.
That was a time when I was still innocent, but it was like a losing of innocence because I started to become responsible for someone else, in my mind. I wasn’t just living for myself anymore. And it was a relationship that was really important to me.
I tell the story of my mother taking the pennies because a lot of times parents don’t realise how they turn their children against each other. And when you don’t have a sense of loyalty to your own family I think that’s when things start to seep into creating resentment towards other people. If you don’t have a certain love for your own brother and sister how you going to have love for anyone else in the world?
Not to say that I didn’t [have love for my brother], but to say that my sister and I were super-close from the moment she was born. And my mother would do things that really hurt that relationship later on in our lives. And I don’t think it was conscious, I don’t think it was spiteful, but she was a single mom at some point (she divorced my sister’s dad), and being a single mom trying to raise kids, take care of a household and put a roof over our heads and then also trying to discipline them – I don’t think she really knew healthy ways of disciplining us. I don’t think she had the patience to learn that because she was too busy trying to raise herself and keep a roof over our heads.
So I tell those stories a lot of the time because I think I had a really troubled relationship with my mom that created this need to heal it.
My sister is very important to me because I want to be a good sister. And I think sisterhood is the root of what I care about. When I had my sister in my arms for the first time there was a feeling that I can never replicate. It’s a feeling that I imagine a mother has for the first time, of holding a child; I feel towards her the way I would a daughter. I want the best for her, I want the best for us, I want a world that she has access to. When I think of my sister struggling it’s really hard for me. When I think of her not having opportunities or her not having access to being whatever she wants to be it’s hard for me to think that I can’t provide that.
Because there’s nothing like sharing a womb with someone. There’s a certain upbringing, a certain language you have, a certain place you come from that has nothing to do with borders. It has to do with a body, and one woman. Only us – me, my brother and my sister – can know what it was like to be us. And to be raised with the thinking that we were, and to be surrounded with the ideas that we were, and to try to form ourselves as young individuals outside of that. I don’t know why that story is important; I’m just speaking it, but maybe it’s important because it’s never been spoken before. I don’t know – maybe speaking on it liberates the story.
[I interject the story to observe it sounds like she’s talking about women and sisterhood in general when she speaks about her sister – to which she responds]
Because you have that feeling when you hear me speak. That’s the thing that’s powerful about storytelling, or a poet – if they’re doing that well. It’s that I can say something, and it could ignite something in you, and you decipher the meaning. Who am I to argue that I’m not speaking about sisterhood? Maybe subconsciously I do want to hold all of our sisters. And I want us all to be protected, and I want all of us to be loved, and I want all of us to have access to everything we want to be.
A story of Aja’s home
I can tell what it was like to grow up feeling Cuba in every ounce, every doorway of your grandmother’s house, and not knowing that it was Cuba. That what was weird about actually going to Cuba. It was recognising that everything we had built in another country was still part of the spirit of somewhere else. And when I think of my grandmother’s house specifically, it’s a place that is very magical – it is very mysterious and it has a lot of meaning because so much of our stories and our family come from things that have taken place in that house. I mean, I’ve watched crazy fights, I’ve heard amazing laughter, I’ve eaten delicious food, I’ve danced to some awesome music, and I grew up with that house.
There’s a funny story, we had this dog that was in our grandmother’s house. Everybody on the block knows about this dog. His name was Max. And Max was such a part of the house; he was like this big old white dog, except he was like off-white, yellowish white because he was so dirty. Nobody had cleaned him for a very long time! He was just the housedog. He was like his own person for real.
I used to talk to him. We used to have full on conversations – I swore this dog knew what I was saying! And it was so amazing because this dog, I think about it now, but this dog used to go out in the streets and do his thing, but he always used to come back. He always knew where home was. And everybody knew it was our dog, because he was on our porch with my grandmother. My grandmother used to sit on the front porch everyday with a beach chair. Maybe some of those plastic little beach chairs, the Caribbean beach chairs. Smoking cigarettes, drinking coffee, whatever she was doing, speaking to her friends on the phone. Paying crackheads to paint the front steps for five dollars. Whatever it was, just neighbourhood stuff. And Max was like the cornerstone dog. He was just the dog who was always on the lookout. If somebody was about to start some shit, he would start barking. Max was loyal; the kind of dog that would just be there for you no matter what.
One day he just disappeared. None of us knew what happened to him. To this day, we do not know what happened to Max.
Some people say they saw one of the animal patrol people take him. Or that he was in the park and he got ran over.
Then there’s this other story that Max straight up turned into a man and walked away. And went wherever his home was.
And it’s the weird story we have in the family of this dog, Max, who was the ultimate family dog but we just didn’t really pay him no mind. He was just always there. He was always a present character in my childhood, and I guess that’s just one of the many stories that is part of my home.
The belief in magic was always there. The awareness of spirits. My grandmother was a Santería so we knew that you’d come home, and we’d call it the oogah-boogah stuff. “Oh grandma’s downstairs doing her oogah-boogah stuff”. All her friends were dressed in all white, doing her oogah-boogah stuff. And we had some characters coming in and out of the house. I was always around incredible characters. People who made you laugh or made you cry. Cuba is part of the story, and that magic – having that magic around the house, and the awareness of spirits, of our ancestors, of things that have come before.
When I think of home I think of a place that there are no rules to it. There is no, “impossible”. It is a place that is ever-changing, it has a complete connection to what has come from before, and to those that have come before us. And even when I thought we didn’t have any connection to our past we always have. Anywhere I go I am aware that my past is with me, so that’s what makes me feel home no matter where I go.
A story of who Aja is, in relation to the world right now
So I was just telling a story to one of my friends about called ‘Of Water and The Spirit’ [by Malidoma Some], and it was about this man who has taken his journey back to his tribe. And one of the things that his village finds valuable is that when a child comes they see it as an ancestor returning. So the whole community has to be present.
Prior to the child being born, villages must find out what the child will need upon its arrival because the ancestor has a purpose in coming back. So the whole community gathers around the pregnant mother, and the child speaks through the mother and lets the community know “upon my arrival I will need this, this and this”. And it is the object of everybody in the community to remind me of my purpose if every I forget.”
Every child is given to their elders as soon as they are born because the child is the closest to the cosmos, and the elders are returning to the cosmos so they have lessons to teach each other. One is going back to where the other came from, and one is entering where the other came from so there’s this mutual cycle of reflection.
If I were to say there were any relation for me and my role in the world, then I’m only a part of this cycle. We all have a responsibility to each other. To remind each other of our purposes in case we all forget. Being here sometimes causes us to forget. So I hope to be part of reminding us of our purpose together here, and that others also do the same for me.