Herald Arts Editor Nyeda Regina Stewart, PC ’22, sat down—on Zoom, of course—to talk with her friend Leila Jackson, SY ’22, about her experience as a writer at Yale. The conversation covered Leila’s goals as a writer and their frustrations and disappointments with the Yale environment when it comes to mental health and having courses and professors who represent their community.
Nyeda Regina Stewart: What inspired you to become a writer?
Leila Jackson: I would say I definitely have always written. I always gravitated towards reading and writing when I was younger. It feels like it makes sense when I do it. The first two years being at Yale were very difficult and I was struggling with something and I just didn’t know what it was. And then last semester I got diagnosed with bipolar disorder. And the only thing that made sense when nothing made sense was getting my thoughts out through writing. That was always something I moved towards but I think over the past year or so when I started picking up journaling again and taking it more seriously I realized it feels like I’m letting go of something when I write. It was something I’ve always done, but I’m definitely taking it more seriously.
NS: Would you say that writing is a core part of your mental health?
LJ: Yeah I would definitely say that cause again I feel like I also express myself best in writing. If I’m having a stressful conversation with somebody, I’ll write something like I’m going to send it to them and then I don’t send it to them but then I’ll edit it and be like “Okay this is what I’m trying to say.” It’s just a lot clearer to me when I write and I feel like my thoughts fall into a more sensible thing. It’s grounding.
NS: What type of writing do you do?
LJ: I kind of go through phases. I used to write fiction a lot when I was younger, probably up until 12th grade. Then I started writing personal essays. That was the first time I wrote non-fiction. Right now, I’m really enjoying writing poetry and I’m in this course called “Daily Themes.” They give you a prompt everyday and you write 300 words or so and then receive feedback. Through that I’m writing a lot of fiction, but I’d say for my personal work I’ve definitely been moving more towards poetry and prose.
NS: What is your purpose for writing?
LJ: I do feel like I’m a selfish writer in that it is something that’s allowed me to work through my mental health especially at a time when I know something isn’t right but I don’t know what it is and I can’t put my finger on it. It’s definitely become one of the most therapeutic things for me. Trying to get mental health services at Yale as a Black woman is just like… They try their best and it’s not even the psychologist’s or psychiatrist’s fault because they don’t have enough people and they do not pay them enough. But it’s just hard to open yourself up to someone and get that help from someone who just doesn’t understand you. And I feel like in writing I was like “Okay, I’m getting to know myself even when I don’t make sense to myself.” I think I’m also getting to a point now where I do want to take writing more seriously and create for a larger audience.
In terms of thinking about who am I writing for, when not myself, I just think of first-generation Brown and Black women, cause that’s who I grew up with and that’s who I grew up as. And even thinking about like damn I’m going to graduate from Yale and my mom didn’t even get a college degree. That’s crazy. I think if writing for an audience, I would want to write for younger women like myself. You feel like, “Okay, I got to Yale, that’s it,” but it’s just like a whole new thing getting through that. I really want to get something out of my time at Yale that I can share with an audience that’s similar to myself and write for more of this transitional time for younger women especially being a woman of color or a first-generation woman in a space like Yale or in academia. That’s who I’d like to think would be my larger audience in the future, but for now it’s definitely more for myself which I’m content with.
NS: Do you feel the same about the purpose of your fiction work?
LJ: I feel like the fiction work at this point is more experimental. I actually just started working on a manuscript for a novel and it feels very much like it’s fiction but also semi-autobiographical. The largest thing was… and I’m just opening up about it cause it’s just the truth, it is what it is. All of my sophomore year I was in a pretty bad manic episode and I didn’t really know until towards the end of it. Looking back at that time now, where I’m in a much better place and a place of awareness of what was happening in my head, I want to get something out of that. So I started working on this. I knew I wanted to write a novel and I knew I wanted it to be something related to my experience at Yale. So right now it’s still in the early stages, but I would say generally experimental but I’m hoping to get something out of that. It goes back to trying to get to know myself.
NS: That’s really cool. Have you ever read Claudia Rankine’s work?
NS: Since you’re also getting into film photography, you might be interested in her work. She writes prose poetry and within her poetry book she has different artworks and photographs which contextualize what she’s writing about and I feel like it could be interesting if you used your photography alongside the novel. I’m looking forward to reading it when it’s published.
We’ve talked about how you’ve felt unfulfilled as a writer here at Yale. What were your expectations as a writer coming to Yale and what were you met with instead?
LJ: That’s a really good question. I thought I was gonna come into this really artistic, free-flowing place where everyone is so immersed in the work they’re doing and giving feedback. I thought it was going to be something very different. Even you’ve mentioned it, like you’ll create something and then you’re in a room and people are just looking at you and you’re like…okay. That’s when writing became very personal to me. I was like if I want feedback or I want a responsive audience, it’s really going to be from people who I’m intimately tied with. I think it’s been much more of a labor—finding a space for feedback, or seeing other people’s work, or collaborating—than I expected, aside from creating. At the same time, I think that’s probably been the largest thing that’s pushed me. A large feeling I had, especially my first year, was just disillusion. I think it’s important to know that you can imagine something to be really really great and just cause it’s not that thing doesn’t mean it won’t be good. Knowing that probably would have been helpful my first year.
NS: Yeah, that is really Yale. They make it easy to start things but also hard to start things. It’s just a lot.
LJ: You just be getting stripped of your creative energy too. I didn’t really journal at all until second year. That’s when I started feeling it again. My first year I didn’t even have the capacity to be creative cause I was like, “What is going on?” It was crazy.
NS: I feel you, there’s just too much going on. Sometimes, when I look back on my first two years, I forget the amount of times I really was not doing good mentally. I remember my sophomore spring, I was like “I just don’t want to be here, like I need to take time off. This place is literally stripping me of all my creative energy. I’m not doing anything here.” It’s just so hard sometimes to create here because there’s so much going on and even when there’s so little going on, it’s still so much going on in terms of emotional and mental stuff.
LJ: Yeah, even when there’s nothing going on you’re recovering from everything that was going on.
NS: Literally in recovery mode.
LJ: Mhm. Over winter break I wrote so much and now being back here it feels like I have to force myself. That was also why I dropped the English major because I was like it’s going to take something that I really enjoy it and make it insufferable. It’s just hard when you put a lot of work into something or you’re really eager to hear feedback on something and you could tell someone’s halfing it. I’ve had professors who really try, but even then…I remember I wrote a piece and then somehow the conversation got into the professor talking about how he wrote a book on the Dominican Republic. I was like, “Have you been there?” And he said no. I’m like…
NS: Not that.
LJ: And that was one of my better professors for writing. I was like okay.
NS: It’s really not giving much at all. I’m like how are y’all gonna help me if y’all don’t even understand me? I don’t know of many Black writing professors here except for Claudia Rankine and Branden Jacobs-Jenkins right now. They need to work on that.
Do you have anything else to say about your experience as a writer in the English major?
LJ: The largest thing was there’s just a lot of courses that I felt were creatively draining. I didn’t want to be in a course and read only Walt Whitman; that isn’t something that moves me. It got to a point where reading and writing, both things I love, began to feel very much like a labor that wasn’t even returning anything for me. I didn’t want to ruin the two things that have always made sense to me and for the first time in my life it started to feel like it didn’t and started to feel like something I dreaded. I was also in a space where I didn’t think I was gonna get feedback that I’d like. A lot of the courses I had to take weren’t creative writing courses anyway. It felt like a space where a lot of people wanted a writing credit cause this was also in my early time at Yale.
Another thing is challenge. I wasn’t feeling challenged in a lot of the English classes. It felt very mechanical, doing close reading or things like that. I didn’t feel like I was growing as a writer and I was like I could spend this time better working on my personal work or taking other creative writing classes without having to worry about filling major requirements. Cause it’s not a creative writing major; it’s an English major. And a lot of the books that a lot of these professors choose are not of particular interest to me. It started to make something I love something that felt unbearable.
NS: What do you think would make writing here feel more productive and like an environment you want to be a part of?
LJ: One, we need more Black creative writing professors. Even Hispanic creative writing professors or even focus on diaspora work, just literature classes that aren’t just again, American. And when they say “American literature,” what American literature? Like, who are the Americans? Two, more intentional work. I don’t want to say the word diverse, not even diversify, but intentional work to have a wider range of classes and literature classes and writing classes. I feel like they do one class a semester for us to be honest. They be like “Here, take this one.”
NS: And everyone’s trying to get into that one class.
LJ: That’s what I’m saying. It’s horrible. And then they’re like, “You can try again next year.” Like…okay. But yeah just intentional work for it to not be such a White space with White-centric literature. I feel like that would be one of the largest things, at least for me. If it was a matter of me trying to get that space out of Yale that I mentioned, that would probably be the largest thing cause I think within those spaces, those connections would develop. But I just feel like the classes that are offered are not conducive to creating those communities. It feels like something you have to find. Or even again juniors and seniors are getting that priority and it would be hella discouraging your first two years looking at all these classes like, “This isn’t for me.” By the time you get to your junior and senior year, you’re tired already. And that’s the thing, it’s tiring.
So I feel like that would be the largest thing: intentional work to have a wider, Blacker, more colorful range of work in writing and not White professors teaching it. You can have spent your whole life studying something but you’re not living it and you can’t, no matter how much time you spend or how much you read. There are professors that try but like it’s never gonna be you, no matter what. And you feel that. You could feel the difference no matter what.