A Space for Writers of the World
Nia King is an art activist based in Oakland, California. Her short film “the Craigslist Chronicles” appeared in a number of film festivals; her web comics have been getting some serious buzz; and, most recently, she’s started a podcast in which she interviews artists and art activists of color in order to better understand both the power of art as well as the way artists can make their way in this world. In this Interview, Nia talks to us about her own artistic process and her findings from the conversations she’s had so far.
SAM: You, Nia, are amazing Renaissance woman! You contribute to magazines, you publish theoretical essays, you host a podcast, you are a film-maker, a comic artist, a videographer (among other things). This is a pretty phenomenal combination of artistic forms. Do you feel like you have an overarching artistic vision or are these means of expressing different aspects of your creative self?
NIA: Thank you! I don’t think I consciously choose different mediums to express different aspects of my creative self, I try to use the medium that best suits the story (so it helps to have a lot to choose from). If I want to rant about something that’s really messed up, that’s kind of how I’ve use zines, historically. Publishing it on paper instead of on the internet makes me choose my words more carefully and gives me time to consider the ramifications of putting them out there. If I have musings or advice about how to make a living as an artist and activist from marginalized communities, that’s the type of thing I would use my blog for. I wanted to learn more about how others are making a living for themselves as political artists, which is why I started the podcast. The comics are more for cute little stories about my queer/trans interracial relationship, although I’ve thought about doing some more serious political ones. I did one about LGBT poverty that did pretty well on Tumblr.
SAM: How do you see the inter-connection of these various media?
NIA: I don’t see the various forms of art and media I work in as being related other than in content. The overall body of work I am creating is really focused on amplifying the voices of people from marginalized communities, especially queer people, trans people, young people, mixed people, and people of color. Sometimes the voice I’m amplifying is my own, as is the case with the film and comics (which are autobiographical). Other times, like with the compilation zines I’ve done and the podcast, the idea is to find and share the stories of others, who belong to some of the same communities I do, but may or may not share some of the same experiences.
SAM: Tell us a bit more about this podcast. How in all of this creative energy did the podcast come about?
NIA: The first podcast I ever listened to was WTF? with Marc Maron. He does these in-depth interviews with stand-up comics about how they got where they are in their careers, and his familiarity with the world of “show biz” in which his guests operate enables him to ask questions that an outsider might not think to ask, which adds a lot of depth to the interviews. I wanted to do something like that for art activists. There are a lot of amazing queer and trans political artists of color here in the Bay Area. I wanted to document some of the amazing political art that is going on here right now, and also sort of combat the idea that New York and LA are the only places cool things are happening art-wise.
SAM: I really love aim of your podcast. As you say, you are seeking “advice from other political queer artists, trans artists, and artists of color who seem to have figured out how to make art and make rent without compromising their values.” I know I definitely relate to this. Can you tell us a bit more about this mission statement?
NIA: When I started the podcast, the two biggest sources of inspiration and support in my life were my boyfriend and my boss, who were both white men. My boss Channing tried to give me lots of mentorship and career advice, but sometimes I’d find myself thinking, “I feel like that only works for you because you’re a white man!” Whether he was right or wrong, I needed to hear it from someone “like me” to believe it could actually be applicable to my life. The podcast gave me an excuse to talk to other queer artists of color about how they “made it,” so I could have a wider range of experience to draw from in trying to figure out what might work for me.
SAM: There are a lot of people out there who want art to just be pretty or to tell a story, especially when it comes to short stories and poetry. Why do you think art is a good medium for activism, especially in the Queer community?
NIA: Art has the power to change the way people think about issues, in a way that a court ruling or a law passing might not. I think you need to change people’s hearts before you can change their minds, and I think art is able to speak directly to the heart and sort of circumnavigate the brain when it’s being resistant or difficult. People might not intellectually like the idea of gay people or trans people or immigrants, but if you can show them, through art, the kinds of barriers that are put in place for people from these communities to access things that others take for granted (eduation, housing, jobs, etc.), something in your heart tells you that’s not right and needs to change. I could give you a bunch of statistics about queer homelessness or trans unemployment, but those probably won’t impact you as much the story of one of two people who’s options in life and chances of success are extremely limited due to the prejudice of others. That’s because the statistics speak to your brain, but the storytelling – which often happens through artistic mediums – speak to your heart.
SAM: After four months and a dozen and a half or so interviews do you feel like you’ve found some commonalities and, perhaps in those commonalities, some answers?
I think some of the big takeaways have been:
1.) Don’t work for free, especially if you no longer “need the exposure.” Working for free is a great way to stay broke.
2.) Institutions of higher education can be really hostile places for queer and trans people of color, but ultimately having some extra letters after your name can help increase your perceived legitimacy, and often every little bit counts!
3.) Pay it forward. Making it as an artist shouldn’t be like climbing the corporate ladder. Offer mentorship to those who seek it (when you can) and don’t be afraid to ask for help/advice when you need it. You might be pleasantly surprised by others’ generosity.
SAM: It seems these interviews have been a great example of such generosity. What impressed me most about your podcast was there is such a range of conversations. The most recent one, for example, is with Nick Mwaluko who, as you say, is a “Tanzania-born, Kenya-raised American playwright, journalist, and fiction writer” who grew up gay in Africa. Your first interview is with Virgie Tovar, a writer, sex educator, and radio host. If someone were to visit your podcast for the first time, are there any interviews in particular that you find to be emblematic of the entire project? (Or, if not, are there any in particular that are your favorites?)
NIA: Thanks! It is really hard to pick one interview to represent this body of work, because I think its diversity is really its strength. I’ve talked to scientists and sex workers, people who work for the government and people who are aggressively outside the system. Ryka Aoki is definitely a fan favorite. She is incredibly wise, and sweet, and seemingly above-all-the-bullshit. She’s also really funny. Generally, the interviews I’ve done with trans artists of color (Ryka, Fabian Romero, Lovemme Corazon, etc.) seem to be the most well-received.
SAM: The project is a fairly new endeavor, less than a year old. Where do you see the project going in the near (and perhaps distant) future?
NIA: My biggest goal right now is to make it financially sustainable. I have been pouring my heart and soul into the podcast and now I need to figure out how to monetize it so I don’t burn out and have to quit. I think it has value, and I think it’s something folks would be willing to pay for, I just need to figure out how to make that work, logistically.
I’m also working on turning the transcripts into a zine, an e-book, and a print book, which should be coming out this fall. I have about 20 hours of interviews and 200-300 pages of transcripts total. I’m trying to make it available to many different audiences in many different formats so that folks can access this archive I’ve created of queer artists’ stories.
SAM: You started this project because you were a student looking for information on art activism and found the area severely lacking. If we were to fast-forward 10-20 years, what do you hope this book might accomplish?
NIA: Oh man. I hope there is a really flourishing body of work being developed on how important queer and trans people of color’s cultural production [artwork] is and how important our voices are. I really believe QTPOC art activism saves lives.
SAM: That’s a powerful statement. How so? (Also, perhaps can you define QTPOC art activism?)
NIA: I define queer and trans people of color art activism as political art by queer and trans people of color intended to empower those who are marginalized based on their race, gender identity or sexual orientation. I think QTPOC art activism, and specifically QTPOC storytelling, saves lives in a number of ways:
1.) It builds community by bringing people together (particularly in the case of live performance.)
2.) It gives QTPOC a chance to see themselves represented when they’ve been largely shut out of the mainstream media.
3.) It gives QTPOC access to stories like their own.
4.) It shows QTPOC that they’re not alone and that the oppression they face is not all in their heads.
A lot of queer and trans people of color are isolated from other queer and trans people of color, which can make you feel that you are all alone, that there is no ones else like you, they no one else faces the challenges you face, and thus that you must be “crazy” or the challenges must be all on your head. QTPOC art and storytelling shows you that you are not alone, that others face the challenges you face, that they are real, and that they are symptomatic of a larger oppressive system, rather than a series of isolated incidents or “micro-aggressions.” QTPOC art and storytelling combat these feelings of aloneness and “craziness” that often drive queer and trans folks to suicide.
SAM: One final question. Do you have any advice for art activists out there wanting to make a difference in this world?
NIA: I guess the biggest thing is to believe that you have something worthwhile to say. Overcoming self-doubt can be really difficult, and I spent a lot of time beating myself up for not putting myself out there and being afraid to fail. I think my biggest challenge was believing that a.) I had the skills to accomplish what I wanted to accomplish, and b.) that my community would come forward to support me once I gave them something to support. These things were true for me, and I hope they will be true for other art activists as well. I think they are things you have to convince yourself to believe in order to start making art and sharing it with the world.
To learn more about the life of a queer art activist, visit Nia’s Podcast at http://niapod.tumblr.com/. Additionally, if you like the work Nia is doing, she is also working publish her interviews in a book so the works and thoughts of queer artists can have a more permanent place in our literary archives. If you are interested in donating, here is a link to her indiegogo campaign, which ends September 30th: http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/interviews-with-queer-artists-of-color