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Hilton Als: Oh my God, this book is one of the high points of my life. I begged to review it.
Robin Coste Lewis: Thank you.
Hilton: I said she's going to win this award.
Robin: Yes, I'm glad everybody knew. I didn’t know.
David Remnick: That’s Hilton Als, a staff writer at The New Yorker talking with Robin Coste Lewis about her debut poetry collection, which just won a National Book Award. The book is Voyage of the Sable Venus, and it takes its name from an 18th-century engraving.
Robin: This is a gorgeous black woman on a clamshell like Botticelli's Venus, and she's attended by all these classical figures. It isn't until you really look at it that you realize it's a pro-slavery image because Triton or Neptune is carrying instead of a [unintelligible 00:00:42] , he's carrying a flag of the Union Jack.
David: That got her interested in images of black women in Western art, a research project that got much bigger than she ever anticipated.
Robin: It just led me on this whole path and I really thought at the time it was going to be a few pages long. Then, every time I would do research, it would just get darker and deeper and longer and more horrid. I just didn't stop, I didn't let up.
David: Voyage of the Sable Venus is Robin Coste Lewis's first book of poems. She was trained as a Sanskrit scholar at Harvard, and now in her 50s, she's working on a PhD.
Robin: The Western art project, as beautiful as it is, it also has such an ugly underside for so many kinds of people.
Hilton: Well, ithad to hack away at-
Hilton: -other things in order to stand on something.
Robin: Right. For me, if I would go into a museum and see some kind of grand historical painting about some Emperor doing something fabulous, conquering some land, there might not have been a black woman in that painting but the frame might have had black female bodies carve throughout it in some kind of subservient position. We're not supposed to notice that frame, and we're not supposed to think about it, but it's there and that's what was so fascinating to me, is that there's so many black women in exhibitions all over the world, in every time period, in every country, every continent, it's everywhere, but you wouldn't think of it, because who would think to look at the carving of a comb closely? Or, the face of a button for an emperor?
Why would someone need to carve a black female body onto the button of an emperor? Why? Then, when you start looking just for that, that's when it begins to kind of emerge. I don't know that I would have seen that had my brain not slowed me down, and made me look more slowly.
Hilton: I know that you began writing poetry because of something that happened. Would you mind talking about it?
Robin: Not at all. I was in what they call a catastrophic accident. I fell through an open stairwell.
Hilton: What does that mean? There were no stairs?
Robin: There was no rail.
Hilton: There was no rail.
Robin: And I didn't know and it was a dark room, and I was going to get my coat in a restaurant, and they failed to tell me there was a hole in the middle of the floor, and I walked into air.
Hilton: Where was this?
Robin: In San Francisco. I was at a conference and I was just having dinner with a friend and I got cold and I asked for my coat. They led me back to this room and said it's over there and I could see my coat, hanging on a wall but I couldn't see the hole in the floor.
Hilton: Oh my God.
Robin: I fell through. For the last, I guess it's 16 years now, 16 years, I've been doing a lot of rehab and recovery, and somewhere-
Hilton: What was the effect of the falling?
Robin: Well, oh, thank you. I was diagnosed with permanent mild to moderate brain damage, so a traumatic brain injury.
Hilton: Oh my God.
Robin: Then, I had all kinds of injuries all over my body. I still have so many surgeries to have that I'll be going into soon. The most kind of devastating part of it was the brain injury. At some point, I couldn't read or write and I was very-- they call it exquisite hypersensitivity. Everything triggered some kind of symptom, talking, walking, seeing, hearing, smelling you name it, anything that has to do with the senses would send me into a spiral where I would end up sleeping for days upon days. My memory, I fought really hard for a year to teach myself the alphabet again, I took a year just to do that because the language center of my brain was badly damaged.
I had to be that person that is always looking for the green side of something, but it turned out to be, in many ways, a blessing in disguise. I call brain damage the gift that keeps on taking.
Robin: I know, I joke with my friends that this book is actually about brain damage. I know I would not have written this book had I not had that accident, partly because if I'm going to die, I can write whatever the hell I want.
Hilton: Exactly. You're free.
Robin: I'm so free and there's no one to care about much in terms of pleasing, but also the doctors told me I can only write one line a day and I could only read one line a day. That, of course, spiraled me into an incredible depression for several months, and then at some point, you know how that voice of grace just comes into your mind and this voice just said to me, "Okay, then, it's going to be the best damn line I can think of." So, every single day, I would spin in bed thinking of the best line. I couldn't write because my hands were all in different casts and all kinds of splints.
Hilton: Were you a mother when you had this accident?
Robin: No, no, no. They also told me I couldn't have a kid [laughs]. They told me I could never write again, teach again, read again, and not become a mother.
Hilton: You've done all those?
Robin: I’ve done all those things. I was annoyed, I was enraged.
Hilton: Yes. There's nothing like being annoyed to get the juices going.
Robin: Oh, yes, absolutely.
Hilton: Tell me about your son and how did that miracle occur to you.
Robin: Oh, my God. What do you mean? How--?
Hilton: Well, I know how it happens [laughs]. Well, the decision to--
Robin: There’s a bird and there's a [unintelligible 00:06:28] .
Hilton: Yes, exactly. There’s a [unintelligible 00:06:31] and a [unintelligible 00:06:32] .
Hilton: How did you decide to become a mother?
Robin: This is such a great question. I have been haunted with being a mother all my life and when they told me I couldn't have kids, I really had to think about it, and I thought about it for like a decade. What does it mean to be a disabled woman and to have a child, and don't be selfish and mess with this kid's life if you can't really raise him or her well? Then, one day I was walking down the street in Boston, I was doing major rehabilitation at the time. I was in occupational therapy, speech-language therapy. Just going outside would hurt. One day I had gone to do something, and there was a woman, a gorgeous woman in a power wheelchair wheeling down the street at what felt like to me 60 miles per hour with two of her kids in her lap.
Robin: She was high-tailing and they were having such a good time. I was like, "You idiot. If this woman can raise her kids, you can have a kid."
Robin: She was such my inspiration. So, then, I was hell-bent, and I tried and tried and tried for many, many years, and then it finally happened. It finally happened. The deep irony for me is that my father was the first person to tell me way before my accident, "I think you really should have a baby. Robin, you want to be a mother, you should just do it." My father was incredible. He was funny.
Hilton: I love him, really.
Robin: Oh, he was so good. The deep irony is I found out after years of trying to get pregnant, I found out I was pregnant four days after my father's funeral.
Hilton: Oh, wow.
Robin: Which felt so magical to me because I always told him, "When you die you, better take me with you because there's no reason I'm staying without you." The fact that when I found out I was pregnant, it felt like he stayed with me in some way."
Hilton: How does the accident impact you today?
Robin: Well, I have grown comfortable with being brain-damaged. It's become familiar. You know that saying that human beings can get used to anything?
Robin: I got used to it. I don't know. I still very much appreciate that my brain has become an odd little bedfellow with me. We love each other. I'm like, "You're a freak, brain," and that's kind of sexy to me. I like that you see these things that other people aren’t seeing, but keep it to yourself and we'll try to turn it into art at some point.
Hilton: Does it help you parent in a different way, do you think?
Robin: Absolutely. That helps me put it in fifth gear every day from the gate.
Hilton: You wake up with him and it's like, "Look, we're here."
Robin: Absolutely. Also, this is the macabre part, like, supposedly my brain won't last as long as most people's brains will last. I know that and I think that's also why I pushed myself so hard to write and there's a certain urgency like I feel I'm fighting the clock until my brain starts to rot. I try to have a lot of fun, I try to parent him for the future. I have a whole library for him once I'm gone, I have friends sign books to him for the future because I know there's going to come a time where I won't be able to be present in the same way that I am now.
Hilton: Be mobile, yes. Do you talk to him about that?
Robin: I do. I had to because my disability is invisible. So, the way I described it to him when he was younger, I said, "It's like mommy's brain is in a wheelchair. Sometimes, it's hard because he's a gregarious, precocious, fabulous child.
Hilton: He's about eight now.
Robin: He's seven.
Robin: I have to tell him sometime to be quiet, that's a drag. It's just a drag, or I can't-- I'm sad that he doesn't know the person before my accident because I was a huge audiophile, a music collection that's brilliant. I can't listen to music and have people talking at the same time in a room unless it's a lot of people talking. Things like that, I l feel like I'm constantly repressing his little spirit in ways [crosstalk] in order to stay asymptomatic and take care of him or make him dinner. In those ways. It's also okay, because I feel like he's getting to learn about the ways in which bodies are different.
Hilton: Also the ways in which life curtails us.
David: That's Hilton Als, a staff writer at The New Yorker talking with the poet Robin Coste Lewis. Her debut collection, Voyage of the Sable Venus, just won a National Book Award. I'm David Remnick. This is the New Yorker Radio Hour.