IN NIK’S OWN WORDS: Nik Nicholson is an artist: writer, painter, poet, performer and beginner sculptor. Her highly anticipated debut novel Descendants of Hagar was released in July 2013. It is the first of a two-part series, which also includes “Daughter of Zion” scheduled to be released September 2014, about a woman coming to terms with her masculinity. Nicholson is better known as a spoken-word artist. She performed for years in schools, plays and at several open mikes in Las Vegas, Nevada. Her poetry was featured in Her Voice by Lesbian Memoirs (Aug. 2010). You can find her short stories in Longing, Lust, and Love: Black Lesbian Stories by Shonia Brown (Jan. 2007) and Life, Love & Lust 2011 by LM, Inc. (Dec. 2011).
How long have you been writing and how did you get started?
I wrote my first poem when I was seven or eight as an Easter speech. I don’t remember when I wasn’t writing. I started writing my first novel at 12. I worked on it for years. When I was 17 or 18, I sent out neon pink homemade envelopes with chapters from the book to Sally Jesse Raphael, Ricki Lake, Donahue, Geraldo, Jenny Jones and Oprah (before the book club) asking that I be published before I was 21. I even followed up with Oprah’s staff and was told, “This is not a publishing company.”
Tell us about your debut novel, Descendants of Hagar.
Before I go any further, I want it noted that I believe in God. I’ve read The Bible and it is my favorite book. Every time I read The Bible I learn something else about myself, life, people and I grow. In its proper context, The Bible is an awesome book. The poetry alone is awe inspiring. However I do believe there is a difference between God and The Bible God. God is different from The Bible God who supports slavery, rape, murder and genocide.
I initially planned to name this novel Already Been There. During the editing process I started to experiment with titles, and Descendants of Hagar seemed more appropriate. So much of black religious culture and beliefs are assumed. Most people, blacks specifically, don’t know that the South during the Civil War thought they were fighting in the name of God, and that slavery was supported by God. Most people don’t know that there are several scriptures supporting slavery in The Bible. Most people don’t know that there were two different kinds of servitude, one of slavery and one of indentured servants. There were no social programs like today’s welfare and food stamps. So people of the ruling race could become indentured servants. There were guidelines for how they should be treated. Indentured servants had rights. Then there were slaves and there are scriptures about how slaves should behave and how much they can be beaten.
I’ve read The Bible myself a few times and I’ve also studied different versions. Many people dismiss The Bible’s support of slavery by looping the laws of indentured servants and slaves all together. This is understandable because in some versions of The Bible, servant and slave are used interchangeably. However, they were not understood interchangeably by the men writing The Bible.
Hagar was a slave, and Sarah was her mistress. When Sarah couldn’t bear children she gave her slave to her husband, Abraham. Once Sarah had her own child, but more specifically a son (because if Sarah had a daughter there would have been no competition because women didn’t inherit), Sarah didn’t want her son to have to share his inheritance. Furthermore, the older son gets more because he has greater responsibility. The eldest son looks after his mother and the entire tribe created by his father.
Not to mention, after I began researching what happened after slavery I really wanted to highlight how time almost stopped for blacks in the South. I couldn’t really get into how there needed to be a minimum wage, because whites would just pay them anything… As it was illegal not to pay a man for his work, but there was no law about how much you needed to pay him. There was no such thing as livable wages.
On top of all that, blacks were forced to work for whites. More often than not, blacks didn’t go looking for work. I wanted to re-examine how blacks lived under the Black Codes, which were established in the late 1800’s and didn’t end until 1965. Many of our parents and grandparents were still dealing with post-slave law until 1965. 1965, that isn’t that long ago.
Who is Madelyn “Linny” Remington?
Linny is her great-great grandmother’s granddaughter. She is Miemay’s dream. Linny is someone who is given an alternative truth about a woman’s place and an example of how to live free.
Today we have this saying about how women are gold diggers. However, in the past men couldn’t even discuss dating a woman if he couldn’t take care of her and a family. I have to note, AND A FAMILY because they didn’t have birth control. During this time period, there was no way a woman could prevent herself from getting pregnant once they started having sex. With that being said, that generation was realistic. They made the goal of dating: commitment, security and responsibility.
It was inevitable men and women had sex, which could not be controlled. What they wanted to control was could the man coming for their daughters take care of her and children. The father saw to it that his daughter(s) ended up with a man who could support her. Of course the amount of support is based on the station of life, but we’ll get more into that in the next novel.
A woman marrying below her station or marrying a man who can’t take care of her was seen as throwing away her life. There were strict guidelines about how women were to behave and silence about the abuse some endured when they stepped outside of those lines. Now if a woman seeks to date only men who can afford to support her and their family she is seen as a gold digger. A hundred years ago this would have been normal practice.
Off the subject, many people say that divorce is on the rise because of low morals. The truth is, marriage is on the decline because people are not getting married for the same reasons they did when marriages lasted. In 1914, marriage was about responsibility, security and commitment. Women didn’t choose husbands with their heart, which is why it was such a big deal that Linny’s sister Ella married the love of her life. Marriage wasn’t about being happy, it was creating a solid foundation for children and for women it was total submission.
Now, people marry for love. Love is a fickle thing. People leave because they are unhappy. Before being unhappy wasn’t a valid reason to end a marriage, especially since some women went into marriage unhappy.
How did the concept come about for Hagar?
Honestly, I’m a medium and Linny just started showing up while I was working on another story. I was working on the novel I started as a child. I actually wrote a little short story to try and release myself from telling Linny’s story or to put her off. I was then referring to Linny as Maddy. She was gently aggressive, the way Linny is. I wrestled with her mentally.
As an artist you have to make a conscious decision to finish things. I wanted to finish the book I’d been writing most of my life. There are always projects that seem fun when the main project gets challenging. Writing is like a marriage, you can’t abandon your partner every time a new idea or project comes along. Each project is until death do you part, death being bring it to an ending. Then you move on.
The revisiting of the initial novel had become painful. It was deeply personal and explored a lot of my own life events. To escape into a made up world years ago, would be so much easier. I didn’t want to abandon myself or my project. Then I read this famous author’s admission, about how his first book was about himself. He said he was too involved in the story to let go enough for it to benefit readers. He said he decided not to write it, because his life would be better told by someone disconnected enough to actually connect. He said he didn’t abandon that book, he knew he’d be better writing other stories. That was my truth as well.
I surrendered to Maddy, who then corrected me, and asked to be called Linny. Maddy was her great-great grandmother’s nickname. We made the first rough outline of the plot. Looking at Linny, I placed her around the early 1900s. My great grandmother on my mother’s side was born in 1919, which is where DOH initially started. After I began the research and got to know Linny better I had to move the time line back.
After the initial draft was almost completed and I began the research of the time period I found the people and places actually existed. This scared me until I met a woman in 2012 who told me I was a medium.
I initially titled the book something different, but Hagar and Miemay had a lot parallels. Hagar was a slave like Miemay. Hagar was raped. Often times, during slavery in America, The Bible was used to support slavery and the cruelty of it. I wanted to begin a dialog about slavery in The Bible. I want to encourage people who haven’t read it in its entirety, to just sit down and read The Bible.
One of the things I loved about Hagar was the research that obviously went into the storytelling. How did you research for Hagar?
I did a lot of different kinds of research. I probably read about sixty books in their entirety about the time period. I skimmed at least five hundred if not more. I did tons of online research which also included looking at maps. I’ve listened to music from the time period. In fact I put together a soundtrack I listen to, to get into a space to write. I’ve looked at tons of pictures. There is actually a Zion, Georgia, but the one DOH is entirely fictional. Harlem, New York is a living breathing thing. I’m planning a trip to New York next year to finish up my research for Daughter of Zion,the sequel.
I also put out surveys online in lesbian/butch spaces for masculine women. I received around sixty surveys. I initially thought I was doing the research to build a character, now I’m aware that I was doing the research to hear Linny without assumptions. I did the research to support Linny’s journey.
Descendants of Hagar is one of those books that took me through so many emotions. *omg* What parts of Hagar made you sad to write? Made you happy? Made you angry?
I was hurting all while I was writing about Miemay. (I don’t want to spoil it so I won’t get specific.) There were a lot of moments that made me happy, but how strong Linny is, inspired me and made me proud. It also tickled me how well Linny paid attention and how people often under estimated her, or didn’t realize how much she was thinking. She speaks a lot in the book, because we are in her head, but to the people she is interacting with she is silent. I was grateful to be there to witness how she processed.
What made me angry was how powerless women were and that it was other women supporting the oppression. I’m still angry, because we want to challenge the media, marketing and men about how to portray us and how to treat us. In demanding someone give you something, some part of me feels you are admitting you don’t have it. We tear each other down. If we accepted and loved ourselves completely we wouldn’t accept anything less. We wouldn’t receive anything less. I don’t have to tell a man not to oppress women if his mother, grandmother, aunts and sisters teach him how to treat women at home. I’m angry that women have a lot more power than we harness.
In 1914, women didn’t have a voice in Zion, Georgia unless it was through a man, but being your own woman was always ingrained in Linny from her strong-spirited great-great grandmother, Miemay, an ex-slave. How did your own ideals of women’s roles in society or feminisminfluence your writing? Are there any women in your family who’ve inspired you like Miemay did for Linny?
All of my grandmothers inspired me. My father’s mother, who they called Granoe, always owned her own businesses. She always worked for herself at least part time. She didn’t finish school but she supported her entire family. She also dated forever, but she was the head of her household. If a man didn’t want to let her lead she kicked him out. She spoke her mind. She challenged anyone who dared come for her.
Granoe was my first inspiration for reading The Bible. Later on in her life she became a Jehovah’s Witness and changed completely. She refused lifesaving procedures after being diagnosed with cancer. She literally died for what she believed. Later as an adult, I was heartbroken again, to find what she believed was an inaccurate interpretation.
My maternal great grandmother, Nancy Koger who was born in 1919 called to tell me she was getting tired, the kind of tired no amount of rest would help. When I came to see her she asked about me being a lesbian, and I was actually angry someone had told her. I was out to everyone else but wasn’t going to mention it to her. *laughing*
She actually took it well. She asked if the woman I was then in a relationship with was nice and when I said yes, she said that was all that mattered. We all needed to find someone we could love would treat us right.
The grandmother I dedicated Descendants of Hagar to was my maternal grandmother Shirley, the daughter of Nancy Koger. I was with her off and on for the last four months of her life. She transitioned in 2009. I miss her. She died in November, so Thanksgiving is always difficult.
My grandmother Shirley summons me to call her back immediately when she found out I was a lesbian. I was afraid she would disown me, instead she was hurt that I told her younger sister and hadn’t planned on ever telling her. Then she laid down the law. No one was allowed to speak negatively about me in her home.
Shirley mothered every one and loved each of us for who we were, not who she wanted or expected us to be. She taught me not to smother people with my expectations of them. She showed up without judgment and she gave it to you straight.
Her life teaches me daily to love myself unconditionally. Her death taught me we are all in different phases of dying. Her death anchored me enough to sit with my thoughts and write this novel. Her fight to live, taught me not to waste my breath.
Linny and Coley are two completely different women who find love in a hopeless place. How did they complement each other? Are you envisioning a happily ever after for them?
I think Linny is the truth while Coley is an idea about the possibilities. It helps that they are both seeking something and are open. About whether I’m envisioning them happily ever after, I don’t plot that way. I allow the characters to direct the narrative. I didn’t know how Descendants of Hagar would end until it ended.
Here’s what I want to know: where can women find a strong, smart and romantic stud like Linny?
Go towards whatever you love and you will find a woman to love who shares your love of those things. If you are into writing go on writing sites. If you like reading, go to book clubs or start your own. If you are spiritual, get into some community rituals that feed your spirit, whether that be church, meditating or yoga and she will be there nourishing her spirit. Take classes, I’m always surprised by the number of butch women in all different age groups on campus.
What are you working on next?
I am writing Daughter of Zion, the sequel to Descendants of Hagar. I already have the first draft copy written. I want to make sure I get better with each book. I am also working on a book of poetry, called Seeking Sex Without Armor. I’m in the editing phase on that project.
What’s a typical day like for you?
I try to cook a hot breakfast every morning before work. When I get in from work, I read something about writing, do some research and hopefully write. I check into a writing group I started. Myself and 11 other women writers in different genres are working on our first draft of a book.
What is your favorite book? Favorite author?
I read a lot and there are a lot of books that have changed my life and a lot of writers I admire for different reasons. The Bible, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day, Bliss, Wounds of Passion, A Writing Life, One Day My Soul Just Opened Up, When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost, The Color Purple, For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuff, Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, Book In A Month, tons of books on how to write more effectively, I could go on.
If I had to pick one writer, on the spot, I’d have to go with bell hooks, her books consistently inspire me to write and be a better person. bell hooks has a way of getting at the core of the human experience without condemning or shaming and she teaches you how to make better choices.
What piece of advice can you share with aspiring authors?
Read. Whenever people find out I write, they always say I’m a writer too. But when I ask them what type of writing they do, they don’t know what that means. So I usually ask whose writing would they say their writing most resembles, then they tell me they don’t read. Reading is important. I know what I love about my favorite books and I know what I didn’t like about books I couldn’t finish. I keep all of that in mind while writing. I read more than I write; I want to read more quality lesbian stories. I pray my book is a quality lesbian novel.
After you decide what you are writing, you need to decide why you want to write.
How many stories do you have to tell? Is it just your story with the names changed? Or can you weave a story and do you plan to sell your work and be a career writer? If you are writing to sell, there are expectations and rules.
If you just want to get your story out, free publishing is the way to go. Let your friends read and edit it. In fact, you can do the edits yourself and give them copies when you’re done. The most you should have to pay is $35 to copyright your ideas. If you don’t care about copywriting, well you can publish for free.
On the other hand, if you are a serious writer looking to build a career you need a budget, $1,500 is a great place to start. Your friends are not editors. You need to plan to have at least two different editors read your work. You need to adhere to the expectations and rules of your genre. In order to know those rules you’ll need to do some research.
Recently, I had someone argue that they are an artist and want to be free to create whatever they feel. Great! Oprah better be your godmother. If she isn’t and you plan to sell the book as an unknown writer, every genre has rules because readers have expectations and you need to be competitive.
You need to hire at least two real editors. If it’s your first book a content editor is a requirement. You still need your friends and some other folks to read you before publishing. You need to be ready to invest in a professional book cover or buy a publishing package that includes one. Side note: before you trust a self-publishing company to make your cover look at other covers in their library. You may have to get an independent artist.
You also need to have a mailing budget. I had eight different people read this book, each time it was sent out that was $30 round trip, $15 each way. We’re not even talking about the price of the content in each of those packages. Then if it was going to editors, they had their fees. You never email your manuscript for a number of reasons I won’t get into. The only emails you should ever send of the manuscript is right before it’s published, is to the copy editor who is the last person to review it and they need to do it in Word to catch any errors all the other editors missed, before your final review.
Make sure all your readers are not friends and if they are friends, make sure they are friends who can be objective. You don’t need someone to be nice. You need honest and constructive criticism. If your friends don’t read, they are probably not going to be that helpful. You are putting a lot of money on the line.
While I was writing, I had all these brilliant ideas about the dialect. Readers said they didn’t understand things. On the editing table I had to change over 130 words individually, to make it more readable. I stopped counting after that number. Editing was brutal. Entire chapters were cut out. I sent out red pens and high lighters in every reading package so they would make my book bleed. I wanted to see all the issues. Wherever I saw a lot of people having issues more changes were made. Descendants of Hagar was in editing almost a year. There were still a three errors that got through and make me wish I’d gone through one last round of edits.
You ever heard that saying, any client who acts as his own lawyer has a fool for a lawyer. I know college English professors who wouldn’t proofread their own work. Just because you are self-publishing doesn’t mean you do everything yourself.
With that being said, walk away from your work when it’s done, so you can come back and read it objectively. I was so heavily involved in the editing process and making changes… I missed things on the final read through. If I had worked on something else and came back to it, the three things I’m seeing now would have stuck out. It would have been like reading someone else’s work.
If you are looking for a traditional publisher do everything I said to self-publish except worry about the cover, maybe even the title. Then start shopping it around to agents and publishing houses. Never send out your first rough draft. You want it to be polished as possible, especially if you aren’t Alice Walker.
You need to do genre research to figure out which agents and what publishing houses. You also need to research their submission guidelines.You still need a budget of about $1000, to hire professional editors, more specifically a content editor. Spelling and grammar errors are NOT detrimental if the content is awesome. Especially since, if you get picked up by a publisher you no longer own the story and they will make whatever changes they see fit, including putting whatever cover they choose and edit it again.
Why do you feel it’s important for black lesbians to tell their own stories, as you did with Descendants of Hagar?
I think it is important to tell our stories so that the perception of us isn’t a combination of over sexualized stereotypes and prejudices. Like, all masculine women are not aggressive. While among masculine women, less aggressive masculine women tend to have their masculinity questioned or completely dismissed. In some regions here in America, any woman who dresses masculine is called “Agg” short for aggressive, that’s a huge generalization.
One of the reasons I surveyed masculine women was so I wouldn’t write Linny as of lot of assumptions. I learned a lot about masculine women and I’ve been out and dating women almost a decade. Mostly I learned how to support them better. I didn’t realize how one, in a lot of instances they are more sensitive than feminine looking women. Two, they are constantly evaluating how to act and react because their physical appearance, demeanor and energy automatically makes people feel threatened.Three, how almost daily they experience some form of discrimination. Four, how committed they have to be to embrace themselves in the face of so much opposition.
Interviewed January 2014