A Series About Local Authors by Tyler Mendelsohn
We all experience the world from our own unique perspective, but when we try to understand others, we broaden that world. In celeste doaks’s work, she marries her own voice with that desire to understand others. In her first book, Cornrows and Cornfields, doaks delves deeply into various characters—characters like a guilty uncle or a school-aged version of herself—in an attempt to create justice for them.
doaks was born in South Bend, Indiana. When she finished her MFA at North Carolina State University, she moved to Washington, DC. Soon after, she got a job teaching Creative Writing at Morgan State University, met her now-husband and moved to Baltimore.
The author says it didn’t take long for her to feel welcome in Baltimore’s literary scene. She’s only been here about a year and a half, but has been invited to read at several reading series, and is part of a black women’s writing group, The Black Ladies Brunch Collective. doaks is the Chief Editor of a forthcoming anthology of humor writing by the women from this collective called Not Without Us—a nod to Langston Hughes’s novel Not Without Laughter.
In Cornrows and Cornfields, doaks describes her childhood as a black girl in the Midwest. This ranges from her first time reading her writing aloud to a class, to the first time someone—a girl in her 3rd grade class—called her the n-word. In the book, she describes the latter experience as being handed an unwanted vegetable that sat rotting on her plate for decades. This metaphor reminds the reader of the sickening staying power of a word—one example of how doaks makes her experiences palpable.
There are also poems throughout Cornrows where doaks speaks in persona. Sometimes the voices are of people close to her like her mother and father, and sometimes they’re those she doesn’t know personally, like Richard Pryor’s fourth wife, or Diego Rivera writing a letter to Frida.
“I tried to sit and think and read about their experiences,” says doaks. “Diego and Frida fought a lot, and people on the outside can say, ‘Why don’t you leave him?’, but that’s a judgment call. That’s not trying to understand what drew them together. You have to struggle with that. I enjoy it, but it’s not easy. I enjoy it because it’s not easy. And I’m often interested in doing it because there’s something there that I myself am trying to wrestle with.” The poems are organized so the reader can feel these tensions playing out in doaks’s life, parallel to the way they impact others.
In addition to Not Without Us, doaks is working on a project tentatively titled Gray Matter, about the complexities of race in America. doaks chose the title because the future of America will likely look a lot more mixed race, rather than black or white. She says she was always socially conscious, but that living in Baltimore has influenced her to become moreso.
The Writers Among Us is a series in which we explore local authors’ work. You can find books by these writers—and a variety of books by many other local writers —at The Ivy Bookshop. Check out The Ivy’s event calendar for authors readings throughout the year.
Tyler Mendelsohn is a Baltimore writer and a member of The Ivy Bookshop’s team. Tyler has an MFA in Creative Writing and Publishing Arts from The University of Baltimore. You can find more of Tyler’s work here: http://www.whatweekly.com/author/tyler-mendelsohn/.