INTERVIEW | “You Kind of Wind Up Being a Canvas a Lot”: Osimiri Sprowal on Transition, Representatio
My essay, “The Privilege Walk” (Puerto del Sol 52.1) is an extended letter, addressed to my former student. When I reached out to the student about the essay, I offered to substitute a pseudonym for the name that appears in the essay. In my student’s response, he informed me that since we’d last spoken, he had come out as trans. As a result, he no longer goes by the misgendering “dead name” found in the essay, and instead goes by the name Osimiri. Osimiri and I met for coffee to discuss some of his questions about the piece; our conversation eventually led to this interview, which addresses only some of the many discussions we’ve had about transphobia, race, intended audience, the 2016 election, white privilege, cultural misappropriation, and empathy. Osimiri is a poet and a sophomore at Temple University; he hopes to study social work, with the ultimate goal of becoming an advocate for trans youth.
Rachel Toliver: Do you feel like there are still some documentations of your previous identity and your dead name that you understand to be something like an artifact? Or are you done with that stuff existing in the world?
Osimiri Sprowal: Well, it’s complicated. It’s something I’ve seen a lot of different trans people have a lot of different answers to. A mentor of mine, who’s trans, he’s very comfortable with showing people pictures of himself before, and talking about it. Although I wonder if part of the reason why is because he’s post transition. So it’s not like he’s at a point where he’s constantly having to validate that he is who he says he is. So I feel like maybe it becomes less of a big deal, the older you get as a trans person. But where I’m at, that’s not the case at all. I am very uncomfortable with a lot of things like that existing because it’s immediate to me. Misgendering happens literally constantly.
But I feel like I have that issue, even in my own writing. Things I wrote earlier, I’ll have to edit. I just submitted a piece for a thing, and I had to edit it because I was talking to my dad and when I wrote it I used the word daughter, and I had to figure out how to change the line because this is not accurate.
A mentor of mine wanted to work on a piece with me, sort of similar to what you wrote, but more of a collaboration. But I didn’t want my dead name or any sort of misgendering in the piece, mostly because it isn’t an isolated memory. She was going from a point in the past to the present, and when you’re doing things like that, especially if the person writing it is cis, you have to be really really super careful.
When you and I talked the first time about your essay, the dead name didn’t really bother me because it’s a memoir. You’re clearly talking isolatedly about me—as you knew me at the time, as I understood myself when I was a junior and a senior in high school. That’s who I thought I was. So it didn’t bother me only because it was point A, point B—same understanding of self. But I feel like a narrative where you’re literally dealing with a trans person as they’re realizing they’re trans: that’s way more tricky, and honestly I’m like Should cis people even write that?
RT: How does this question—should cis people even write that—apply to writing across other identities such as race or ability?
OS: I have a lot of thoughts in terms of fiction. As a person who is really really super intersectional, if I’m writing something that’s fiction—like I’ve been working on a lot of ideas I have for comics, and there are a lot of characters in the comics that have disabilities that I don’t have, and who are races and ethnicities that I don’t have, and part of me wanting to write those things is because I’m a very marginalized person and I want other people who are also marginalized differently than myself to be represented. So, is that wrong?
I feel like it’s more like what people do with the characters. Like, this comic that I love, The Wicked and the Divine, it’s super-queer and it’s super-POC and it’s super-great and the writer is a cis white guy. I don’t know if he’s queer or not. But he’s a white guy and he talks a lot about how he vets and goes over the characters with artists who are those things to make sure what he’s doing is OK. For my part, when I’m character-building people that aren’t like me, I make sure I really do my research. I think about names, I think about where people are from, I try and figure out if they’re from this country, where in that country are they from? What’s that city like? What language do they speak there? What would this person’s name realistically be? I try and do research. I was working on a thing, and I was working on a character who was Sikh. And I was like Guess I’m gonna have to find a Sikh temple and meet some Sikhs. Because if I’m going to write this character, I’m going to do it right.
RT: What about poetry? Say, for instance, persona poems?
OS: I definitely have way different feelings about that. I’ve only written one poem that wasn’t about something that I had directly experienced. It was only because the person who I wrote the poem about asked me to. I wrote a poem about a lot of instances of Islamophobia that one of my best friends, who’s Egyptian and a hijabi, had experienced. And she’s like my sister and she loves my poetry. And that’s the only reason I wrote the poem and I still opened it with I normally never write about things I don’t experience, but what the actual fuck? That’s not literally what I said. But that was the gist.
RT: How did you feel about having your experiences included in “The Privilege Walk”?
OS: The first time we talked about it, I’m pretty sure I went on a thing about how it’s sort of weird that this keeps happening to me. Being a really really intersectional person who knows a lot of artists, you kind of wind up being a canvas a lot. I feel like the fact that I’m an artist makes me feel better about that, because I understand the need for that sort of thing. And also: I make my own art. So it’s not like people are just using me for a reference point. Like, I write poems and comics about being a trans person, I write poems and comics about being disabled, I write poems about being mentally ill.
RT: Do you want to tell me more about the comics? That sounds like an exciting project.
OS: All the comics I have an idea for are very disabled heavy. The characters are all brown and queer and disabled. Because I am. Because I really like taking characters and giving them powers that—if it’s a more sci-fi thing—are oriented around disability and ability. The one that’s probably the most original is this thing called The Slurs. The premise is there was a civil war about a 100 years before, and all the POC groups and allies got together. They tried to overthrow the state. And they lost. So the punishment was that the government basically separated everyone by ethnicity and put them in sort of like—for lack of a better word—internment camps. Based off of race. But they’re all named after slurs. That’s how the title came about. Because… Yes, I do think people are that awful. And I don’t feel like that’s unrealistic, honestly. And so it’s about kids from each of these isolated blocks, getting between the walls and interacting with each other all over again. And sort of re-unifying the people. And being revolutionary.
RT: Can you talk a little about ally-hood? What it means to be a productive versus unproductive ally?
OS: In the grand scheme of it, it’s like look. If you’re not at a point where you’re willing to actually do some work to actually either deconstruct or alleviate the burden of the systems that oppress me, you’re not doing any good. You being a good person still isn’t doing me any good, because you’re not mobilizing or doing anything.
What a lot of people do when they realize they empathize with people of color is think about how they can help, directly: How can I insert myself in this community? Honestly, my response to that is: for the most part, we have ourselves. We’ve done a lot of organizing and community building in places all over the states. We’ve been doing that forever. But, educating your own community so that I don’t have to waste my time trying to do it? Now that would be super helpful.