Interview by Athena Dixon
Cija Jefferson’s book is a small yet mighty thing. I first came across Sonic Memories during my first visit to the HippoCamp Conference in 2016. I was instantly drawn to its bright red and dynamic cover collage and wanted it even more once I felt that smooth cover in my hands. That day, I found a corner and read it in one sitting. I’ve been singing its praises ever since.
I was able to speak with Cija about her debut book, her writing process, and navigating the world through the literary community during these heightened times of COVID-19 and social upheaval.
The Book: This collection of personal essays begins in Utah in the late seventies. The author is two, her little sister a baby, and her parents are hopeful newlyweds in their early twenties. We follow the family back to Maryland where her father’s dream to practice law disintegrates and his upwardly mobile hopes for his family are dashed. The fallout—a fear of being trapped in a life of poverty and dreams deferred—dogs the author through most of her young adult/adult life. Despite these hurdles, she manages to put herself through college, move to Los Angeles after, and build a life on her own terms. In this coming of age story, she seeks to unearth her authentic self and in doing so rediscovers the fierce girl within—that curious and fearless girl she was as a child. (Goodreads)
The Author: Cija (pronounced Kia) Jefferson is the author of Sonic Memories (and other essays), and host of Writers & Words, a Baltimore reading series. She earned her M.F.A. in creative writing & publishing arts from the University of Baltimore, and B.A. from Sarah Lawrence College. Her work has been featured in multiple publications including Sisters From AARP, Linden Avenue Literary Journal, Baltimore Style, Yellow Arrow Journal, and The Conversation with Amanda de Cadenet.
Athena Dixon: The world is, in many ways, in such an unmoored state that people are doing all they can to just keep their heads above water. It seems that writers are either creating at record paces or not at all. How have the last few months impacted your writing?
Cija Jefferson: The past few months have been an emotional rollercoaster. I’m definitely not creating at a record pace, but I am writing. I’ve been deeply introspective as of late and journaling more.
AD: Do you find that journaling is a way of centering your writing on a more personal level versus writing for content and consumption as seems to be the expectation for writers?
CJ: What a good question. To be honest I’ve never thought of journaling in that way. The genre I’m most comfortable in is non-fiction so I find that chronicling my emotions or simply the minutiae of the day is really important. For instance, I’ve grown to love history and dates and times are important to me. Journaling with the intention of looking back later and remembering is important to me for family and personal history. It’s also important for me when I’m struggling emotionally to write down how I feel even when I go back later and cringe.
Oh, to address content and consumption? I’m not that girl. Never going to be on top of producing content for consumption because I really have to observe and digest before I speak on a thing. But if you want me to test a lipstick and tell you how I feel about it? Hey, I can do that quickly!
AD: I think that is an interesting point. I wonder if there is something to be said about writers feeling compelled to connect their personal writing with others in new ways due to our lack of physical contact. As if we are finding ways to morph the personal and private because we are in the midst of history. The importance of dates and times are now so intertwined with the personal and universal.
I’m not too good with the hot takes either. It’s hard to produce on demand, right?
CJ: Absolutely. Especially during such a pivotal time in my life, and I will venture to say our collective lives, but to speak for me personally I can’t produce a think piece on demand. I have to chew on a thought or idea for a bit. I’ve got to declutter my thoughts. I also have spent years worrying about what others think and being on the respectability politics train. So, right now I’m going through a shedding of sorts to get to the root of me. What do I think outside the many voices out there? Does that make sense?
AD: It does! It ties to a few ideas. One of which I think is the rush to include Black voices as a way of assuaging guilt without fully understanding we have our own complicated emotions we need to reconcile before being asked to speak up for our community as a whole.
CJ: PREACH! A friend of mine reminds me that we are not a monolith. I find that I’ll be like ‘we’, speaking on all of our collective emotions when we’re individuals with different thoughts, feelings, and emotions. But you know that already!
AD: Exactly! I was just about to ask you about the essay “Why Don’t You Act Black?” in your collection Sonic Memories. The subject is one I, and many other Black writers, have touched upon. The idea that we are a monolith, yet some of us are “special” depending on what those on the outside need.
CJ: That situation had me angry for years. I wrote the piece as a slam poem during college, then later turned it into an essay.
AD: I wish you could see my book because there are so many underlined portions in that essay. Because of the current, but not new, social climate we are seeing so many outlets trying to engage with Black voices, but it is interesting to see how people seem to believe there is only one voice. What are the most important ideas you want to include in your work, especially what you wrote for the collection?
CJ: By the way, the rush to include Black voices right now is nice, but that assuaging of guilt is so obvious. It reminds me of the NFL now trying to play Lift Every Voice & Sing after blacklisting Kaepernick for taking a knee.
I think the most important idea I want to include in my work is that we each have our own distinct voices and we should cultivate that and not compare ourselves to others. That theme was present in Sonic Memories, and it’s something that continues in the things I’m working on today. Also fear, acknowledging it, and redirecting it from taking you down and looking at it from the perspective of Wow! If there’s fear here, it means I’m getting at something real. Don’t let that fear shut you down. Now that’s easy to say, but it remains a struggle for me.
AD: The microaggressions filtered throughout some of your work brings to mind the fantasy, the harm, and the myth of the Black, and female, monolith. Not feeling black enough doesn’t deny the blackness. It is an offshoot of force-fed Blackness and white supremacy. As is the expectation of the accessible feminine in the closing essay, “Who You Calling A Bitch?” How do you navigate identity, and self-growth, in the collection?
CJ: As I was writing this book I wasn’t thinking about identity and self-growth as cohesive elements in an intentional way, yet I found that all of my writing was centered on this sense of self or lack thereof. When you say, “Not feeling black enough doesn’t deny the blackness. It is an offshoot of force-fed Blackness and white supremacy,” that resonates with me because there was a duality in the way I navigated my life at the time that I really reject now. Like code-switching. I’m not going to strip part of myself to make someone else feel comfortable anymore. This is something I’m exploring now in my writing. I remember my Dad telling my sister and me, “You are a double minority, black and a woman, you gotta be twice as good to get half as much.” That was code for ‘you don’t have room to make mistakes.’ This was expressed through the lens of upward mobility described as the “American Dream” which at the time I didn’t grasp was never intended for black folks.
As for that accessible female bit in “Who You Calling a Bitch?” I always swallowed the disrespect I’d catch in the clubs or the streets, and even had some women ask me, ‘why you so hard on dudes, they’re just giving you a compliment?’ but their compliments made me feel physically naked. It wasn’t until the incident described in that story that I bucked back. I couldn’t stay in my position, meaning shut the fuck up and take it. I stayed in my position all those years because I remembered an episode of America’s Most Wanted when a girl went to a club and at the time the song, I Got a Man by Positive K (that’s some throwback for ya) was out. The song had a call and response refrain, the girl would say “I gotta man,” dude would respond, “What’s your man got to do with me?”
So, this dude said this to the girl when she told him she had a man, and when she declined to dance with him he got in his feelings, and after the club let out he shot and killed her in the parking lot. I was probably in middle school when I saw that, but it stayed with me and impacted my reactions to disrespectful men. Ending the book with that essay really was almost a taking back of power in some way.
AD: I think that’s why the book resonates with readers so well. Your book does such important work in the silences of the world and it connects to what we are seeing now. Quiet allies and quiet history like monuments falling. It all works towards the idea of examination and acknowledgment.
CJ: Damn, Athena!
AD: That work isn’t always loud.
CJ: Talk to me more about the silences. I like this idea, but that has never entered my mind. ‘Quiet allies and quiet history’ is such a beautiful statement. I really felt that.
AD: Even in the title essay. Those are very specific sounds. Trains and dogs and roosters. Those point to a life that I think sometimes gets overlooked when speaking of the Black experience. Freedom, and to some degree oppression, isn’t always sirens. Sometimes it’s the breaking down of the quiet in ways that force you to see from where it sprouts. I’m from a small, quiet town, too. There is so much below the surface of that quiet. It needs to be dismantled and examined, as well.
CJ: Yes! I’m from rural suburbia. There was a cornfield at the end of our street, and woods in the backyard. I’m a country girl at heart. But yes, that is a different kind of “Black experience” than is often discussed & explored when folks talk about the Black experience. It’s why I am happy when I see posts that say something like ‘Black joy is a form of protest’.
I’m currently working on a piece in which I examine the ways in which I have been silent when folks I called friends dropped n*gger in front of me on multiple occasions. Did you read Elaine Welteroth’s book More Than Enough? Total sidebar but she covers some of these themes in her book, from her childhood to becoming Editor-in-Chief at Teen Vogue. I find that many of us have these stories.
AD: I haven’t, but I am adding it to my list now.
CJ: It’s so good! I felt seen.
AD: I think what you just said speaks to the importance of Black spaces and Black connection. We get in where we fit in because often times spaces aren’t made for us, are available to us, or we aren’t wanted. We make our own way. Speaking of that, Sonic Memories is a collection you self-published as part of your MFA program, right?
AD: How did the book take shape?
CJ: I used a lot of the work I created while in the program, but not every piece made it. At first, I picked what I thought were my strongest essays and then the program director challenged us to look at a piece that we had written and not even considered for the book. I remember being like “this that bullshit! I don’t have time for this” So, I half-heartedly went through writing I had from undergrad and found the poem version of “Why Don’t You Act Black”? I decided to tinker with it and it developed into an essay.
I’m so glad I chose that piece because I discovered the ways in which I had been judging my friend’s Blackness in my reaction to her judging mine. It also turned out to be a piece that folks connect with. Then I had to figure out how to order the book. I wrote the chapter titles on index cards with brief summaries and moved them around a lot before deciding on the final ordering. Then it was all about the book design.
My MFA was in Creative Writing & Publishing Arts from University of Baltimore. My attraction to the program was the fact that we would leave with a product. Enter the publishing piece. We were taught that to help sell your book you need a compelling cover. I love collage so I put together a piece then edited in InDesign to create my cover. I also picked the paper and laid out the interior of the book. This process was so HARD, but to this day I am so proud of what I produced. Doing this work really showed me the amount of work that goes into publishing a book. So, when folks were like I never see you…
AD: That cover, though! I remember seeing it and being pulled like a magnet. It was all over after that!
CJ: Yo, that cover makes me so happy. I wanted texture and color.
AD: It’s gorgeous and yet another example of Black excellence!
CJ: Thank you! They told us don’t forget to design your spine in case your book is on a shelf and folks can’t see the cover.
AD: The title essay of the collection opens “Childhood memories float back to me mostly as a sonic tapestry” and goes on to blossom into the most beautiful, yet brief, history of how you and your family came to the central home in Aberdeen, Maryland. Do you find the book is both a retelling of yourself, but also your family?
CJ: When I consider the word retelling, I think of it in the sense of rewriting history. I feel more that I’m capturing and examining moments that resonated for me growing up. In the title essay, I dig into sensory details to bring the past rushing back. But ultimately the moments I included in the book stayed with me, and I wanted to explore them.
AD: The home that centers so prominently in that essay burns down and you write beautifully “It was as if the sound had been removed from our property; there was a deep stillness, like the eerie kind of a ghost town you know was once bustling.” Do you think the excavation you’ve done of both self and family in the collection is rebuilding legacy in some ways?
CJ: I like that you bring this up. You are giving me something to think about. In the past, I have attached the word legacy to things passed down like property. It’s strange to no longer have access to the place where my earliest memories were formed. Now that I think about it, I called my parent’s house, home. So, when it burned down I had a difficult time with that although I was no longer living there. So, I’ve been forced to look at legacy differently, who are we (my siblings and I) as people, and what type of energy are we collectively putting into the world.
I feel like this comes from my mother who has instilled a way of being in each of us that to me is our legacy. My writing of this book is a testament to my mother raising us to not keep secrets. She feels that family secrets and the shame surrounding them can be detrimental to your health, and she wanted us to know we could always go to her about anything and she would believe us. So, by her raising us in that way, she gave me the freedom to write this book, which is an adding to rather than a rebuilding of that legacy.
AD: Every time I’ve read your collection, I can’t shake the idea of freedom existing in whatever ways we can find it and always on our own terms. You take readers from one end of the country to the other and I’m interested in knowing how you know when you’ve found home and if that is something that can ever truly be settled?
CJ: I find home with my family and friends, with people that know and understand me. I’m finding that it’s not a place for me. I live in an apartment, and have created a warm welcoming space that I am comfortable in, but it is not home. That was the tug of war in the book. L.A. was friends; Maryland was family.
I agree with freedom existing in whatever ways we can find it on our own terms. That resonates for me. So, home may never truly be settled, but as I consider if I should buy a home–which to me is more of a setting down of roots–I wonder if this sentiment will change.
AD: I think that’s becoming an issue for quite a few people. I think putting down roots has changed lenses for a lot of people and I can only see that changing even more given the current times. So, final question!
CJ: Ok, sock it to me!
AD: In the essay, “Getting Caught in the Rain: a Hair Story” you say “there comes a time-actually many times- in a young girl’s life when she clicks the heels of her Converse together and makes a wish.” What was that young girl’s wish and what is the wish of the woman you are today?
CJ: That young girl’s wish was to have white girl hair…it pains me to say it now but that day at the water park that is all I wanted. Today, I wish to trust the whisper from within, that truth-telling voice we all have but don’t always listen to. That is where grace and opportunity abound.
AD: Indeed, it does! Thank you so much for speaking with me today, Cija!
CJ: Of course! Thank you for the opportunity to do so.