Bri Heath: At SAFE SPACE, we always open any Studio Session or "Truth Project" session with the question, "How do you feel?" It allows us to get connected to one another and grounded before we do any creative work. So, how are you feeling?
Te' V. Smith: I feel challenged. There's a lot on my plate, right now. But, I'm excited about it...[and] I'm putting some order to it...
Bri: Cool! So why writing? I know I've asked you this before, but why writing?
Te': So, it's always come easier than speaking. It's the only way I've found, properly introduced, maintained and seen myself off with care. I remember I had an elder once, an artist, who told me not to romanticize the writing. But, for me at least, being a global citizen and being a man without a country (and a man without a family) it's been the only sense of belonging that I've ever known.
Bri: Yeah. So, in SAFE SPACE, one of our creative practices is the use of an "origin story." So, basically, you think about your life in the form of "beginning, "middle," and "end"--and that seems kind of restricting, right? But, it allows us to find an entry point to thinking about our personal stories. So, who are you? Where were you lborn? Where are you now? Where are you going? And, these questions are completely open.
Te': I was born in Illinois, in East St. Louis, Illinois, left the hospital and went to France, went to Paris, and went to Marseilles, went to Lagos, then went to Tokyo, then went to London, then went to Madrid, and then back and forth from Marseilles to Illinois. I was born to a sixteen year old writer, singer, dancer, artist named Patricia Smith, and a twenty-six year old...uh...let's just say "jerk" for right now. I think I was born rebelling and repenting. Where I am now is in a state of repentance and a state of forgiveness for all of that, and a state of acceptance. Where am I now? I'm in New Orleans. Maybe about...eighty percent of the way into being a full time writer. I've been a teacher for the past ten years. Since I was sixteen I've been teaching, and in between that time I was a full-time musician--a touring musician, a full-time sessions musician for Def Jams for a few years. I was a ghost writer for Def Jams for three years. So yeah. I feel like I'm rambling, right now [laughs].
Bri: [laughs] Oh no, you're fine!
Te': Where am I going? To be a full-time writer in Brooklyn then from Brooklyn to Lagos and Nyrobi to finish up a three-book project--a trilogy novel project--titled Come Home, dealing with the topics of black masculinity, hyper/toxic masculinity, toxic femininity, and the concepts of home and belonging. I'm also self-publishing a young adult novel. I'm creating a middle school, ELA curriculum to go with the novel for next year. I don't want to wait for publishing houses to decide to give me a book deal, I want to be a full-time writer so I'm setting myself up now. So that's where I'm headed. And, to have someone who likes me enough to kiss my beard, everyday [laughs].
Bri: [laughs] How do you personally describe your work?
Te': I guess...healing work from the inside out. So, whatever I'm writing about is usually something I'm dealing with or I have dealt with. I started preaching when I was twelve years old. And, then I left the pulpit...I didn't leave the pulpit, but God was like, "This thing is too stationary, let me give you this notepad." The notepad has always been there. I went to the pulpit, and God took me back to the notepad and said, "This is the real pulpit. So, tell all the stories that need to be told, share all the messages, share the good news and the bad ones. Share the human news." So, I try to write in a human way so we understand that life isn't black and white, love isn't black and white, God isn't black and white. Everything of merit exists in the grey.
Bri: That's beautiful. How do you describe your creative process? What does that look like?
Te': Ok, so this is probably why there's nobody around to kiss my beard every day [laughs]. For me, it's a lot of solitude--reclusion. I very firmly believe that if someone walks into your home, they should leave knowing what it might be like to sit inside of your heart and your mind. So, that's how I treat my home. My home is my sanctuary, my personal safe space. So, I try to make sure that I always cultivate a space of inspiration and creation. For me, it's making sure I have that consistency and energy in the space. The practicality of it is quiet, usually Charles' Mingus' "Moanin'" is always playing when I'm writing, there's always water, always tea, and that's it.
I just sit, and either read something that'll inspire me. My go-to books are Giovanni's Room by, Baldwin (that is always an inspiring book for me) and Ade' by, Rebecca Walker. Those two books always encourage me to write, [as well as] anything by Chimamanda [Ngozi Adiche]. I'll either sit down and read until something comes to me, or I'll meditate and pray and wait for my characters to come in the room and sit down with me. "Alright, Te', let's continue talking." And, they're fickle, they're fickle people. I realized that anytime I'm not right or the energy in my space is not right, they won't talk to me. So, if they're not talking to me, it lets me know I need to center myself. I need to quiet my thoughts, quiet my spirit, so I can hear from them again.
Bri: Yeah. So, to that process of quieting your spirit. There's a lot of talk about self-care, and that means a lot of different things to many people. So, is this process of self-care different from this "quieting of the spirit" within your creative process?
Te': For me, I think the quieting of my spirit is this idea of self-care. My characters, Aiden and Maria, know when I'm not taking care of myself. So, they're always waiting like, "When you're ok, then we can share." It's like the scriptures when they [talk about] putting new wine in an old vessel. The idea of "Check you first, and then we know you're safe. We can't be safe until we know you're safe with you." So for me, the quieting of the spirit, the calming, the centering is that self-care.
Bri: Yeah. So, who or what inspires you? Who is guiding you? Who or what is that person, thing or idea that you can go back to to help center yourself?
Te': For me, it's just silence, seclusion, separating myself from people. But, what guides me--other than my characters coming to me--are my mistakes. I've lived a lot. I've made a lot of mistakes. For me, those mistakes...understanding that I had to get those stories out. I remember my grandmother told me, she said, "Well, baby, you were born to be writer. Why do you think you have to go through so much stuff? You go through so much because God had to give you so many stories. Who else he gon' give all these stories to? These aren't trials, these aren't mistakes, these are just more stories. You da' one dat said you wanted to be a writer." So, for me I know that there are so many stories in me that need to come out. I could easily go the self-righteous route and say, "These stories need to come out because they need to help somebody!" But, they also need to come out because they need to help me. They need to come out so that I can be unburdened from them. So, each time I share a story properly, honestly, and fearlessly I'm unburdening myself as well.
We tend to get it wrong when our scope is outward. We're like, "I want to heal people. I'm going to do this..." Then, if people don't respond the way we feel they should, we feel slighted or we feel like a failure. But, my motto is, "If I live earnestly, and if I live fearlessly out loud, and if I heal fearlessly, and if I heal myself on purpose out loud, then it is bound to help somebody else. If I just mind my own damn business. Someone is bound to see it, and it's bound to touch someone. So, if I write and put everything out there, all my hurt and healing out there, in this book, it will reach someone. I don't have to point a finger and get behind a pulpit and preach against yo' sins if you just see me take care of my sins.
Bri: Yes, beautiful! Well, that's all of my questions [laughs]! Thank you so much, Te'!
Te': Absolutely! Thank you!
Te' V. Smith's book Here We Are Reflections of a God Gone Mad is available for purchase online through Amazon, and his website www.tevsmith.com. Also follow Te' on instagram @tevsmith!