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Savala Nolan MOTHER Mag
Mother Stories

Berkeley-Based Author Savala Nolan

Savala Nolan MOTHER Mag

Written by Eirinie Carson

Photography by Senay Inanici

Savala Nolan, UC Berkeley professor and author of Don't Let It Get You Down, is not a person to hide behind politeness. She is honest and upfront with her feelings, from dating white men to "belong," to the heightened risks of being pregnant and Black.

I found the postpartum period surprisingly fertile for work. Has motherhood surprised you in any ways, creatively speaking?

"I was fairly clueless about how motherhood would impact my creative life.  While I was pregnant, I remember thinking that I’d use my maternity leave to write my novel, my baby peacefully sleeping in my arms. Suffice to say, that’s not how it went!"

"My 'fourth-trimester' was rough, including emotional and physical recovery from a difficult birth. My daughter is 7 now, but in many ways I still consider myself postpartum. Motherhood has been less something that happened in the moment my child was born and more a massive flower that continues to open, and open, and open. There are innumerable petals, infinite layers. I am mother, and I am also still, and always, becoming a mother."

"The flower image, by the way, is not meant to signal that it’s all beautiful—some of the blooming is incredibly rough, even painful. I still, for instance, battle with the amount of self-sacrifice and self-abnegation that goes into mothering, even 'good enough' mothering, which is my aim (rather than 'perfect' mothering). But it’s an endless becoming. And, therefore, it’s an endless revelation, an endless plume of insight, or change, or challenges."

"Motherhood means I am constantly being tilled, like soil. Things are always in motion, and motion engenders creativity."

I love the idea of motherhood being an actively unfurling thing. I have definitely found my evolution as a mother to be a learning of myself. And so often the answer comes back to my own mother. Do you find yourself growing towards or away from the mother you grew up with?

"Both! I do many things differently than she did, and I also have deep compassion for her regarding those places where we part ways. We all do our best, right? Even when I look back and think, wow she dropped the ball, I now understand that the love of motherhood is intense beyond description, and my own mother felt it even if she made some choices for me that I wouldn’t have made for myself."

“Motherhood means I am constantly being tilled, like soil. Things are always in motion, and motion engenders creativity.”

You talk about growing up in the balcony and the dance floor, a beautiful metaphor for the duality that comes with being of both Black and white heritage. How does this background filter into your own parenting?

"I suppose the main way it impacts my parenting is simply being aware of race. So much of whiteness orbits around not being aware of race, and I don’t have that privilege (or limitation). My child is young enough—and racially ambiguous enough—that I don’t yet know how other people will 'race' her, or how she’ll understand her own racial identity. But I assume, as a mixed person, that she’ll experience some of the duality I have, in ways that are challenging and also profoundly special. I describe myself to her as both mixed and Black, and I explain why, and I tell her that as my daughter she can be both of those things, too. My approach flows from Maria P. P. Root’s bill of rights for mixed-race people, which I recommend to all mixed people and parents of mixed people."

Are you a writer who has a set schedule? A favorite writing spot? Time of day?

"In my dreams, I rise every morning to write at an antique, massive wooden desk overlooking tidal waters… But reality is a little different! I’m a mom, a professor, and the executive director of a social justice program, so my schedule is usually all over the place from week to week."

"I don’t have set writing hours or use daily word counts—it’s more about working when I can, and until I feel my creative productivity hitting its nadir for the day. I love long juicy stretches where I can dive into a piece, but I can’t wait for them. I just try to stay connected to a piece the way I stay connected to my garden—I don’t water it daily, but I know I need to stay on top of it or things start to wilt. Tillie Olsen described writing as like having a lion in the next room—if you don’t go in there regularly and tame it, pretty soon you’ll be afraid to open the door. That’s so real! So I aim for consistency, but I’m not hyper-disciplined about it."

"I struggle with the fear of working, like most writers. I try to follow Sister Corita Kent’s advice that it’s the people doing work who eventually catch onto things, and Jerry Saltz’ advice that the only cure for the fear of working is (wait for it) to work. I also follow Octavia Butler’s advice that habit is far more reliable than inspiration, and Ursula K. LeGuin’s advice that inspiration usually comes during work rather than before it."

"All of this is to say, like Rihanna: work work work work work. (Which includes, by the way, periods of doing nothing, of rest, of daydreaming, etc. It’s not about constant productivity but about consistent engagement and self-nourishment)."

I fully agree that often “work” looks like rest, or thinking. I love The Nap Ministry but rarely heed their advice. Are you someone who finds making and taking the time to heal and recuperate easy?

"I say no a lot, and I spend a significant amount of time literally lying down. In the sun, on the couch, on the floor. I also lift weights and take walks and do the row machine and do all the running around of motherhood—I’m not always prone! But I make a point every day, or every other day, to lie down for a bit or sit quietly."

"It’s me shaking loose the consumption, the production of 'content,' the algorithmic blast that’s always vying for our attention. It’s me entering a calm stream and letting it carry my weight for a while. It feels so good."

"I have guilt about it sometimes—how could I not? I’m as acculturated to capitalism and the productivity cult as anyone else is. But once I get over the initial mental fidgeting or sense that I’m getting away with something, it feels so deeply regenerative, so right—almost as essential as sleep."

"It’s gotten easier and easier to claim and take rest the more I’ve done it. And it is essential to my creativity. The actual period of writing is often preceded by a long walk of the mind. I never want to get too far from that long, quiet trail, you know? Resting helps me stay close to it."

How has your practice as an artist shifted since becoming a parent?

"My practice is more ferocious. I am more fiercely committed to my vision, and to my right to have a creative appetite that consumes and uses the world around me in service of my vision. I’m more fierce about centering myself and taking up space. I now make a point to enter my practice with a beginner’s mind on the one hand, but also a sense of entitlement. Entitlement, that is, to be here making work, and to do what I need to do in service of the work. All of this is connected to the fact that I’m raising a daughter. If I model anything for her as a woman, let it be that she has a right to self-expression and to an appetite that serves that expression."

Do you have any advice for emerging Black and brown writers entering into the vastly white rooms of the literary world for the first time?

"Believe in the support we can provide for each other, and contribute to the collective. For instance, the people who ended up blurbing my book (reading it before publication and endorsing it with praise for publicity purposes) were almost all women of color and Black women, though we asked folks with other identities, too. I am now privileged to be in the position to return the favor, and when I have a chance to support Black and brown writers, I do, even if it’s in a small way. We are few, but mighty! And we need each other. Trust and embrace the nourishment we can offer each other, and make your own contributions when you can."

Which Black authors are you currently reading and enjoying?

"I recently finished Who Will Pay Reparations on My Soul by Jesse McCarthy and absolutely loved it. McCarthy’s intelligence is fiery and capacious. I was blown away by The Sovereignty of Quiet: Beyond Resistance in Black Culture by Kevin Everod Quashie. I’d say that book is life-changing for the way it calls Black people to divest, where possible, from embodying 'resistance.' And you’ll always find the inimitable poetry of Rita Dove on my nightstand."

“I still battle with the amount of self-sacrifice that goes into mothering, even ‘good enough’ mothering. It’s an endless becoming. And, therefore, it’s an endless revelation, an endless plume of insight, or change, or challenges.”

Your Instagram handle is @notquitebeyoncé. What is your favorite song off the new album?

"CUFF IT! No question."

What are you working on now?

"I just signed a deal with HarperCollins for my second collection of essays, Good Woman. It’s a blend of memoir, art criticism, social science, philosophy, and legal analysis that lays bare the costs of being 'a good woman' or a 'good girl.' It also explores the freedom (and playfulness and joy) that might be yours if you reject the call to be 'a good woman' or 'a good girl.' And I write a couple of micro-essays each month at Medium. So, I’m keeping busy!"

Shop the Story

Don't Let It Get You Down

Savala Nolan

The Sovereignty of Quiet

Kevin Everod Quashie

The Dead Are Gods

Eirinie Carson

Who Will Pay Reparations on My Soul?

Jesse McCarthy

Collected Poems: 1974-2004

Rita Dove

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