Author Aisha Sabatini Sloan on the power of art, crowdsourcing — and meeting Muhammad Ali
Her new collection, ‘Dreaming of Ramadi in Detroit,’ goes beyond memoir and deeply into dimensions of the present
Aisha Sabatini Sloan’s new book will knock you to your knees. In Dreaming of Ramadi in Detroit (1913 Press), she meditates on the United States’ tumultuous existence since 2013 and uses art (conceptual, theatrical, traditional) as well as her own recollections to make sense of it all — and to heal. Sloan’s memories weave through different dimensions in time within each piece: From reckoning with the death of Rodney King to meeting Muhammad Ali, Sloan writes about pain and triumph in visceral, relatable prose. Anticipation for this book is high — it’s been endorsed by Kiese Laymon, Margo Jefferson and even Maggie Nelson — and Sloan does not disappoint. Just don’t be surprised when, upon arriving at the end of this collection, you see things differently. That’s the point.
Your first book, The Fluency of Light: Coming of Age in a Theater of Black and White, was memoir — this time around you’ve written a collection of nonlinear, autobiographical essays.
The first essay in the book [A Clear Presence] was written in 2013. When I’m writing, I’m trying to center the present and I’m trying to move through. But, of course, different time periods are being called upon. The first one feels like it was in the present of 2013, and the second one [Ocean Park No. 6] draws a lot more on childhood. But it’s a progression … moving into the present of 2017. The thing that makes the first book a memoir is that there was more of a trajectory through my entire life, as opposed to just accounting for the last several years. Linearity really bugs me, so if I’m going to do it, it’s gonna be different dimensions and different time periods accounted for in each piece.
You launched an Indiegogo campaign in order to pay for Kima Jones as your publicist. Obviously your campaign was more than successful, but I was wondering if you think crowdfunding is a sustainable way for writers who don’t yet have the clout to get their name out there. Not everyone’s crowdfunding campaign is going to be successful.
One thing that helped my campaign was that it felt like an Etsy store. It drew upon my artistic habits and those of the people around me. That felt like more of a sustainable and credible idea than just asking for money. I like the idea of offering something in return. And it spread the word about friends that I have who I think other people should know about. I’m super inspired by this artist/critical thinker Eunsong Kim. I was really excited that somebody who didn’t know about her got her work. That was part of why I felt OK about [crowdfunding]. I didn’t feel great that [my campaign] had been on someone’s radar as something to give to, when there are people asking for money to stay alive. There’s something really insidious about crowdfunding as a necessary support.
I like the idea of drawing attention to the fact that publicists are necessary, and I like that Kima has created this platform for talking about how much effort and dedication has to go into uplifting voices of color. It draws attention to how much work goes into promoting voices that we just assume are there because they’re good, and that’s really not how it works.
The line between agent and publicist is a little blurry sometimes, but as far as the financial realities, did you ever think about getting an agent instead?
Oh, yeah. I tried (laughs). Strangely enough, I did not end up getting [an agent] until after I started working with Kima. I was in this space where I didn’t have an agent, and I ended up working with a publisher that is just a couple. They don’t have any extra resources. This is two people and a baby, and some volunteers. I was just working with what I had in that moment. I would have loved to have an agent, but it just didn’t work out that way.
It worked out great for you though: Kima is amazing. The work that she’s doing for minority voices is phenomenal and admirable.
That actually made it feel really good. The insidious parts of the campaign felt gross, but I liked getting her name out there. I know that’s not really what I was up to — it was a pretty self-serving campaign — but I like bragging about her. I wanted everyone I knew to know what she was up to. It’s nice to have the opportunity to promote the badassery that she’s up to.
A commonality throughout the book was art, and how you use art to work through pain and triumphs. Was that a conscious decision, or was it more subconscious?
It’s always been the way that I’ve made sense of things, to the extent that even art-making is a real relief. That’s always been a resource for me. [Art] has felt like the most reasonable way to talk about race in terms of being able to hold multiple truths at once, more so than writing. Black conceptual artists have finally been getting the due that they deserve. [With] conceptual art, and performance art in particular, you don’t leave feeling that you’ve figured something out … you’ve gone through what feels like an intense emotional and intellectual experience. After you’ve walked through a William Pope.L installation, moving through many layers of experience and history and complexity, you don’t necessarily feel like you know better how to think about this topic. You feel as though you’ve taken something in and processed it. I’m really dedicated to holding up that kind of work.
It’s made me feel in some ways less conflicted, I think, about race. I wish more people would engage with conceptual art instead of try to use linearity to get to the bottom of what they’re thinking. There’s all these ways to suffer through it and emote through it, that it just seems like a much more useful tool in some ways than reading.
What was it like meeting Muhammad Ali?
I remember feeling incredibly special. I was probably 8 or 9. My dad’s close friend, Howard Bingham, was Ali’s great friend and personal photographer for many years, and he was always talking about how we would meet him one day. [Ali] felt close because of that. It was exactly everything you would think it could be. I was, even as a child, very aware of the enormity of who I was meeting. He was extraordinary — he held me. I was embraced. He was just as emotionally generous as you would hope that he would be, especially to a kid. It was really cool to also, in some ways, have that be my first conscious engagement with Islam as a religion. It was a special introduction.
This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.