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An interview with Olivia Douglass

On celebrating identity, the changing role of writing and consuming literature in the digital age, and the “mythical and abstract lens” through which Douglass creates with.

Photography: Christy Kuuky

Olivia Douglass is a writer, curator and producer from South-East London, aiming to create a new and innovative terrain for writing, with a focus on re-moulding traditional and colonial images surrounding the black queer experience. We got to chat to Olivia on the release of her debut collection of poetry, ‘Slow Tongue’ (released November 2018).

South East London is currently thriving with creative multi-arts collectives, publications and movements, particularly for people of colour and the lgbtq community – where do you think you fit in with this growth in terms of your style, your inspirations and influences? Who are your current favourite artists/writers?

I try to think less about how I will fit into what’s happening, and more about what will I contribute, or change in my own world; and then hope that this may be of use to the wider community. In terms of how my style will fit in with South East’s growing and inclusive arts scene, I think the concept of growth is at the core of my writing. ‘Slow Tongue’ focuses on growing processes and change. I leave in the notes I made to myself in the drafting process, the language is constantly breaking and then coming together again, the grammatical system is invented to frame the writing in new ways. In this sense my work isn’t about saying ‘here is this nice piece of writing I have finished’, it’s about showing people the process I’m going through and inviting them to do the same.

NourbeSe Philip has had a huge influence on my attitude to writing and language and ‘Slow Tongue’ is a response to one of her books. Other writers I like are Claudia Rankine and Danez Smith, I’m inspired by the urgency with which they write, and how they carve spaces to see themselves in literature. People who have inspired me recently are Travis Alabanza and their show Burgerz.  I’m also constantly inspired by my close friends, both artistically and by the way they navigate their own lives.

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How do you think the act itself of writing is changing for our generation? Why do you think it is changing?

I actually find the act of writing ridiculously difficult, I’m dyslexic and have a very short attention span. There was a long period when I didn’t write creatively at all, but what has made writing easier for me in this current time is that there seems to be less interest in ‘traditional’ forms of writing. Maybe due to the increase in visual content with things like Instagram, Netflix, and music videos, the responsibility of writing to ‘show’ us narratives or to describe what things look like has become redundant. So the role of writing, and words themselves, have become a lot more ambiguous. In an age of digital and visual content overload we are beginning to question ‘what does writing actually do?’ I think that this has meant that the act of writing has become a lot more fun and experimental, because we’re finding new ways to write and new ways to make text engaging and relevant.

Each writer does this in their own way, for example we’re now seeing an influx of ‘Insta poets’ working to make poetry more accessible and active. For me the act of writing has become a way to deconstruct language and explore its colonial effects on my experience. When I write, it doesn’t look like me sitting down and consistently writing something linear, it’s more an act of me pulling apart, making up and stretching words and sentences, writing in pieces and scraps and then collaging them together. I think that the act of writing for people like me, in this generation, is exhausting because there’s so much we feel that the writing needs to do for ourselves and our communities, but it is also healing as we are documenting our pasts and building worlds where we can exist as whole beings.  

You say that you “create experimental writing and film that observes the world around me through a deeply mythical and abstract lens” – define this ‘mythical and abstract’ perspective, and why you choose to create art through this lens.

All of my writing is a result of my fantasies, my imagined spaces where either me, or the things in those spaces with me, can do impossible and improbable things. If I am able to explain the process, it’s that I construct an image or world, and will see it very vividly. I will think about it for days, how things move in that world, who and what is there, the colours and the smells. What’s important is that I don’t try to force these things. It kind of just plays out like a film or a painting that moves as you look closer. I don’t write about it straight away but when I do it becomes a game of how close I can get the language to match what happened. This is where the abstraction comes from, as I am dealing with fantasy rather than the concrete language.

When the piece is then written it becomes clear that each image represents a subconscious thing that I am carrying. I remember writing the first section of  ‘THE MAN GOES BANG, continuously’ and not understanding why I had written it at all, it made no sense. As I worked though it, this image I had created of a fig eating woman embodied so many things that I was trying to build in my life through my writing, she became mythical. I’ve realised that so many of the people or things in my writing also become this. I’m not 100% sure why, but I find it healing.

I continue to make work through this lens because it’s a safe and fun way to explore my conscious and subconscious feelings. It also means the work is constantly surprising me and forcing me to investigate. Abstraction and myth creates a space of freedom and potential, and it’s important for me to write from this position if I am going to use my text as an active tool to build new literature.

What does it mean for you as a queer black woman to be in a safe space? (Such as the Earwax* collective for example).

It’s affirming. Recently I’ve been feeling nervous about life as queer black woman, spaces like Earwax just allow me to exist without questioning or having to justify how I am. I desperately want to see more spaces for older Black queer women to link up with younger ones, and build a supportive space, where they can be told ‘you can live this life and it will be okay’. If you’re straight and/or white, you grow up seeing that your life can be a myriad of ways, but ultimately that you’re ‘normal’ and therefore always safe. For us, as much as there are loads of peers to validate us, there is a huge lack of elder representation making our futures feel ambiguous which can have really damaging effects on people. So safe spaces are reassuring and mean that I become ‘normal’ and safe to explore and celebrate all the other things that I am.

[Earwax is an all womens’ sound and performance collective. It is a space for womens’ experience, opinion and expression].

How do you celebrate your identity?

Through writing, music and dancing mostly. Other things like the process of locing my hair this year has been really great, every time I see my hairdresser there’s something new to observe (hair related or otherwise). By making the effort to get to know know my parents as their own people, free from my expectation of them. I think that most importantly, I spend a lot of time around people who also celebrate me.

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‘Slow Tongue’ is Olivia’s first collection of writing and is available to purchase here! (via BigCartel)

See what Olivia is up to:

Insta: @oliviaddouglass

Twitter: @_oliviadouglass

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