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Episode XLI: "I had to reach deeper into myself, and engage with the world on a deeper level"

Published 12/2/15
In this installment, I speak with Mensah Demary of CatapultTopics include Catapult's model, mental illness, advice for young black writers, Coates, Baldwin & more.

I am here with Mensah Demary, a writer, an editor at Catapult, a music columnist at Electric Literature, and a host at LIT: A Music & Reading Series. If you haven’t read Mensah’s piece on Catapult, This Is How You Become an Editor, you ought to. Now. To start, can you give us the (very) brief story of how you came to Catapult, and, to the uninitiated, explain what Catapult is all about?

I was approached by Andy Hunter, publisher of Catapult, who was in the process of rounding out the web editorial team here. After a series of interviews, and a few stressful weeks of waiting, I came on board in August of this year. In short, Catapult has three components: a publishing press of fiction and nonfiction, a series of writer workshops held here in NYC (and hopefully soon, online), taught by some of the best emerging writers working today, and an editorial website where we publish new fiction and narrative nonfiction, alongside our Community platform, where writers can sign up and post their work to the site immediately.

So as an editor, which of the three fingers do you work on?

Primarily the web, but we don't work in a team, we're aware of what each of the other "fingers" are working on, and we work together knowing that one "finger" can and should assist the other, wherever possible.

What differentiates Catapult's publishing press from other independent publishing houses?

Each indie publishing house is differentiated by the books it publishes, and the types of voices it looks for. We're still a very young house, but I like to think we publish books that can only be written by the writers we choose to work with. We publish stories only these writers can tell. 

In the Catapult piece mentioned above, you write about your depression with incredible articulation and clarity. “The ill intent of depression is to steal light, to crush lives, to waste time, to kill,” you say. In our Writers on Mental Health series, we’ve sought to offer a window into mental health issues, without any of the romanticism or taboo usually associated with it. What I’ve found (and which is echoed in you saying “I am terrified of death, and the ill intent knows this, so it is my daily practice to find the light, to grasp it, to never let go”), is that, to many writers, writing is an escape, a cure, salvation from the horrors of depression, of addiction, of mania and OCD and whatever else plagues the mind. Obviously you don’t need to have familiarity with mental issues to write great literature, but do you think there’s a fundamental difference in material produced by those who have these issues than those who do not?

Great question. I don't know if there's a fundamental difference. I do know that dealing with depression has perhaps granted me access to parts of me that might've otherwise been unreachable. But in regards to literature, I don't know...I can't speak for other writers, but I know I would rather never deal with depression again, and live my life, and write my work, accordingly. Whatever fundamental difference there is, I would gladly give up said difference if it meant mental wellness for the remainder of my life.

That concept, gladly giving up the issue and the difference, has also been a steady theme in the essays and interviews. To ask you to further articulate the impossible-to-articulate, when you say "access to parts of me that might've otherwise been unreachable", how do you mean?

I mean that I was diagnosed with depression when I was 25, and the specific kind of depression I have--dysthymia--means I have to be vigilant in knowing myself, my moods, how I feel within myself, how I feel when I engage with the world. How this has changed me, I can't articulate. To be blunt, I would've ended my life years ago if I didn't have the will to live. And I guess, if nothing else, depression has forced me to answer the question "Why do I want to live, to go on?" I had to reach deeper into myself, and engage with the world on a deeper level, to answer the question or, at least, realize it's a question that warrants an answer which, in turn, warrants a itself.

That's beautiful Mensah. Thank you for clarifying and accepting the impossible question. In the same Catapult piece on becoming an editor, you write “As a black literary writer and editor—rare combination indeed—I am usually the only black person in any given room I walk into now, certainly the only black man in many instances. So I must flood these spaces to which I now belong with people who look like me, who want to ‘do what they love.’ I feel on display. I am in full view. I am seen. I stand out. I cannot hide. And so I stand. I feel alone, but I’m not alone. I believe in the people who’ve helped me. I believe in the black young writer I have yet to help, but will—as soon as he finds me.” If you have one piece of advice for that black young writer you’ve yet to meet, what would it be?

Beyond the standard pieces of advice—keep writing, read broadly, habitually, voraciously—I would say "Find other black writers. As many as you can. Become friends with them or not...that's besides the point. Just know they're there. You'll need them as guides when you feel utterly alone. And read Baldwin."

What do you find meaningful and necessary in Baldwin? You wrote a wonderful review of Between The World And Me for Salon. Many (some with good arguments, some on shakier ground) have compared Coates to Baldwin. Do you find the connection helpful, or somewhat fabricated?

Baldwin is the light, the way. I'm joking, but not really...time and again, I've returned to his work, specifically his nonfiction, because he was a witness. He saw all that was around him, and tried to negotiate his feelings through his writing. Baldwin wasn't always right (who is?) but he always had his eyes open. That said, it is better to remember that Coates is his own man, with his own language, his own open eyes. The comparison is a justified compliment to Coates' body of work, and that's where the comparison should end. Coates is not the 21st century Baldwin because literature is flexible enough to have both Coates AND Baldwin in the same canon, on the same shelf.

And the world was so fundamentally different from when Baldwin wrote. And yet. It's arguable his writing has never been more relevant. What do you think would be the most helpful takeaway of his writing to the public at large today?

Funny enough, the most helpful takeaway from his writing would be that the world is not so fundamentally different after all. Its continued relevance is a testament to his writing ability, but is also an indictment on a society that continues to treat me as an "other," that expects me to be grateful because I can vote, because I can use the same bathroom as a white person, attend the same classes, eat from the same table. I'm expected to be grateful because I've been invited into white spaces. I am supposed to be grateful when "spaces for marginalized voices" pop up. I just want to live my life, love my family, and write books (eventually). But I don't live in that world. It doesn't exist. It never did. I'm not sure it ever will.

At the same time, do you feel as though Baldwin inspires hope in you?

No, but that's not why I read Baldwin, and I think that's why people tend to misread Coates. Between the World and Me is many things, but I don't think it's a book that inspires hope. The book disposes of hope and deals only in cold facts, as seen through the eyes of Coates. Baldwin's nonfiction worked along similar lines. If hope appeared, it came from Baldwin's faith, his religious upbringing, the echo of a child preacher's voice. 

I couldn't agree with you more on that last note.

Switching gears entirely: What is the LIT Music & Reading Series and how did it start?

It's a reading series here in Brooklyn. I started it with Alicia Kennedy and Sareen Patel back in March of this year. In short, LIT is an attempt to bring a party atmosphere to the literary reading: good music, some drinks, and mingling. At the heart of it is the reading itself, which is themed around a specific musical artist. Our first event was themed around Drake: accordingly, writers read work that was explicitly about Drake, or it shared an implicit connection to his work. To date, we've done seven events. LIT is on a brief break for the remainder of 2015, though I'm looking forward to its return in 2016.

I just interviewed Katie Rainey of the Dead Rabbits Reading Series, and they also hold their event in a bar. There seems to be a conscious break from formality in reading events. Does this mirror a fundamental change in the industry at large or is this attempt at synecdoche tenuous?

If at all possible, a reading should be entertaining. I think people organizing readings are simply taking another look to see how the event can be entertaining. And I think writers continue to look at how their work engages and entertains an audience when read aloud.

We're nearly out of time, so close us out: what can we expect from Mensah Demary in 2016, 2017 and beyond?

Completing and publishing my first book is the top priority, followed very closely by continuing to improve as an editor, and for that I thank Catapult and Yuka Igarashi, the web editor in chief, for the opportunity. I would like to edit books, too. I'm on the lookout.

Thanks for your time Mensah, and your words.

Excellent. I'm glad to have participated.