Cultural Criticism and Fiction with Bre Sanders
Breone Natalia Sanders, who goes by Bre, is a 30-year-old graduate student from Atlanta, Georgia. She is pursuing a master’s degree in Comparative Literature at the University of Amsterdam. Identifying as a black woman, a black feminist, an African American, a writer, and a black writer, Bre is the second face of the Amsterdam Creatives series, publishing in The Amsterdammer every Friday for the coming weeks.
By FLO MCQUIBBAN
“There is a really nice, cozy cafe on the water called Bocador (Sloterplas) where we can meet,” Bre wrote to me last week when we were still in February. Now it’s March, and I’m standing in front of a big wooden box, with glass panels for doors, tall green plants, and hanging ceiling lights. In front of the box, on the other side of a path, are a few children swinging around on a huge playground climber composed of thick orange pipes. As I’m gazing at the swans in the body of water behind Bocador, I recognize her face in the distance. We’ve only met briefly before, in an elective course on history, cultural memory and trauma. Bre and I step into the box to order some tea and food.
“I came to Amsterdam to be a writer,” she says, “and I wanted to go overseas for grad school and a writing career, to work on a portfolio. I applied to a bunch of schools. I really wanted to be in Africa, but I wasn’t able to go even though Ghana had said yes.” Bre sighs. The U.S. has partnerships with certain universities, but for some reason, she couldn’t use her funding in Ghana. “I chose the UvA, but I’m still thinking of visiting. I’m gonna find publications in Ghana – even if I’m not there, I can still interact with the literary community,” she grins, cupping her tea between her hands.
Before coming to Amsterdam to study and become a writer, Bre was a teacher at a middle school in Atlanta. She worked for Teach for America, an organization that helps students to expand their own educational experience after a 2-year teaching post. “I love Atlanta; it’s very hospitable. I’ve stopped comparing it to Amsterdam, so I can appreciate it on its own. There are things that are here only, that I can now appreciate,” she notes, referencing, for example, Amsterdam’s proximity to other European cities that are bubbling with creativity and diversity. “It’s close to Ghent in Belgium, where I just went to this international art festival on decolonization and identity, Same, Same But Different. There were artists, activists, community organizers, all talking about colonialism and black representation.”
Bre leans back into her chair, and looks at me intently. “Atlanta though, it’s like a black Mecca. It constantly comes up as a city where black people do very well economically, socially. It has this black power, what would you call that?” she asks me. I think. “A hub, a hotspot” I suggest. “Yeah, it’s… a powerhouse. It’s a powerhouse for the black community. I do miss being in a city like that. There is a lot of diversity. And I miss my friends and family. I also miss the food,” she reminisces – she’s thinking about soul food in particular, though she’s okay substituting it with authentic Mexican food, and frozen peach and mango margaritas in the meantime.
Bre has traveled quite a lot, and not just in America, the Netherlands, and Belgium. “I was a military brat. My parents were stationed in Germany – this was the late 80s to 90s, when the US had a military presence in Germany. I was there on and off, and then I came to southern Georgia permanently when I was about 6. At 15 years old, I moved to Wisconsin. In college, I did a semester in Paris, and a second in London. Then I came back to Wisconsin and graduated, and then worked for a little while. I moved to Atlanta permanently when I was 27, and fell in love with it, then stayed for teaching.” I gasp inaudibly. “No way,” I almost shout. “It’s very hard to tell,” I say in reference to her age. I admit to her that I would easily scratch a solid ten years off her passport. “Well, you know,” she laughs.
At Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where Bre studied Political Science and English, she remembers being exposed to a “kind of a mix of everything,” though her English lectures focused more on American literature and postcolonial literature. “American [literary] curriculums… tend to be very diverse. They often include cultural studies, and ethnic writers. Sure, within the American literary canon, there are always a lot of white men, but it’s in a curious place right now where there is so much literary talent that is coming in from the margins. I was really lucky at Marquette. Regardless of your major, there was a core liberal arts curriculum everyone had to take. After that, I branched out and focused on my own literary curriculum.”
Bre describes her own work as an “intersection of race, culture, gender, and politics, and fiction and cultural criticism.” I tell her that I’m curious as to what exactly cultural criticism means to her. “My cultural criticism has to do with, you know, U.S. race relations, Afro-American culture, diaspora, the black body, black cultural practices as political intervention,” she replies, “What does racialization look like? How is representation of the black body rooted in forces of colonialism, systemic racism and a racialized iconography? For fiction, my most serious work is a collection of short stories – it could possibly end up being a novella because they’re all related – and it’s all about the experience and memory of a black family in the coastal South and how they’re dealing with loss. It’ll explore family bonds and transgression.
“Anywhere you see intersectionality, or looking at the ways race, sex, gender, intersect and are co-constitutive of each other, in literature and outside of it, you’re in debt to black feminist theorising.”
Bre’s main influence comes from New Yorker James Baldwin, a writer and activist who is notable for his work on race, sex, and class distinctions. “Baldwin is the role model of cultural criticism. I had just graduated, I was on my way to an internship and No Name in The Street was just so perceptive,” she says in reference to Baldwin’s fourth non-fiction book first published in 1972. “I love him. He didn’t go to college, it all comes from his experience in the U.S. and as an exile.”
Bre also holds American novelist and Nobel Prize laureate Toni Morrison dear to her heart. “Oh my goodness,” she exclaims, raising her hands in to the air. “I just love her. She changed the game, and the game was the American literary canon,” she laughs, “I have never seen a writer do in language what Morrison does in Beloved. What it meant to create a project like that, the places she had to go to, how she uses metaphor, how slavery impacted the American psychology, and the black family and identity. Her personal story as a writer stayed with me too. She was raising kids, going to work, getting educated, and trying to publish until she discovered other up-and-coming black writers. More than just her contribution, I love her story.”
Bre concedes that her interests are intertwined with her personal background, at least to some degree, of being a black feminist writer, and points out that anyone interested in the same subjects are in many ways indebted to the black feminist community. “I prefer the writing of people who have had an experience that is similar to my own – of course, it’s not always the case. But anywhere you see intersectionality, or looking at the ways race, sex, gender, intersect and are co-constitutive of each other, in literature and outside of it, you’re in debt to black feminist theorizing. We’re talking Barbara Smith, Cathy Cohen, Patricia Hill Collins.”
Though she opines that Marquette’s structure and curriculum allowed for the inclusion of diverse voices, she recognises that it was, at least when she was there, a predominantly white environment. “It had its own little diversity, you know. I came in through the TRIO program, and in summer we had to take some classes before college began. There were a lot of first generation university-goers, low income students.” But this changed when the year began. “We were all very shocked. You’d be the only black kid in the class, or the only Latina. It was hard. People had views, and these views weren’t challenged by any diverse experiences.” One particular moment in an American politics class sticks out to her. “When the subject of immigration came up, the teacher had to be like a referee, and you just had to defend what you believe in to people who weren’t having it. I’m glad that I had that experience early.”
Though she admits to not having had the same experience as her mother and father, who are from Chicago and Philadelphia respectively, Bre acknowledges the ever-present race-related dangers which must always be touched upon in the black family nucleus. “I grew up in a black middle-class environment in the South – it was safe – but there are still positions you have to talk about. My oldest brother has been harassed because he is a black man, you know, ‘oh we thought you were someone else, let me give you a citation for jaywalking’.” She claps her hands together, laughing in annoyance, and I am sat in front of her, both shocked and not. “Baldwin would say there’s a very real social danger that surrounds being a black male in the U.S., but you know, it’s just that it’s different abroad.”
Over time, despite being able to point to some good in-class experiences at the UvA that have been both “lively” and “respectful,” the Atlantan has noticed that people in Amsterdam are quieter when it comes to controversy. “There’s probably not the same gun violence in Europe, so it makes sense. But there is still racial violence. Sometimes it’s like pulling teeth to get people to talk about it honestly, if at all. But I have seen things that remind me of U.S. racial violence,” she confesses, as she sits back and crosses her arms. She looks out of the window at the children on the playground climber, and then back at me. “I’ve seen that here.”
Although Bre doesn’t often see her work as purposefully speaking for a certain community, she says that it is a necessary byproduct of her identity. “I’m mostly a selfish writer; it’s mostly for my own pleasure.” We both laugh as she falls back into her seat. “But I do have a responsibility as a writer, to speak truthfully, and to be supportive towards my community. I also feel a responsibility towards the kids I taught: it was a rewarding and challenging profession – my kids were growing up with realities that I hadn’t experienced, with a real racial danger around the corner. The young adult is definitely a readership I would write for. I’m both proud of them and in debt to them.”
Having already been shortlisted for the Logical Peril Award for her piece entitled Girl Scout, originally published on Needle In The Hay, Bre plans on publishing “seriously, and soon.” She says it can often seem like there is a long way to go. “Sometimes, I look at my stuff, and I’m just not happy with it.” I ask her how she deals with not feeling good enough. She sighs, and smiles – she’s about to tell me something funny. “You know what I do, this is what I do,” she motions her palms towards me and splays her fingers in a jazz-hands-gesture, “I take authors I’m amazed by, like Morrison. I go back and look at their first publication. And it makes me feel better, ok?” She erupts into a small laughter. “These masters of literature didn’t just fall from the sky. So just keep at it. The only thing you can do is write honestly and compellingly.”
For now, Bre has left me with the promise of grabbing some frozen margaritas in the near future, alongside her story Girl Scout, which she describes as “speculative short fiction.” The story focuses on how men strip women of their agency, and its unexplained characters have no explicit racial background. “It’s meant so that you can project whatever you want onto them,” she affirms.
- Columnist (Winter 2019)