A Note on the Collection’s Title

I just answered a series of publicity questions about the book, and since I really love the title, and people sometimes ask me about it, I thought it would be worth expanding on my discussion of the title here.  The title and epigraph of Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self come from The Bridge Poem by Donna Kate Rushin, originally published in the anthology This Bridge Called My Back. Of all of the many terribly exciting things that have happened to me during the course of writing this book and having it published, one of the most exciting was Kate Rushin giving her blessing for me to use a portion of the poem containing the title line as an epigraph. I first encountered The Bridge Poem when I was in college. Courtesy of  the brilliant Alexis Pauline Gumbs (now Dr. Gumbs!), who counts t-shirt modification among her many talents, I for many years had a t-shirt with the poem ironed on to its back. The section on translation, in particular, was really meaningful  to me on both a personal level and as a synthesis of some of what I was struggling with as an emerging writer.

I explain my mother to my father
my father to my little sister
My little sister to my brother
my brother to the white feminists
The white feminists to the Black church folks
the Black church folks to the ex-hippies
the ex-hippies to the Black separatists
the Black separatists to the artists
the artists to my friends’ parents…
I’ve got to explain myself
To everybody
I do more translating
Than the Gawdamn U.N.

I could see some of the characters in the collection identifying with that need for endless translation, and also with the line I am sick of being the sole black friend to 34 individual white people.  But the particular line I chose as the title I like because it has layers of meaning. In the poem itself, it’s directed by the speaker to someone else, and the implication is that the someone else is one of the people who has been using the speaker to define him or herself, or expecting the speaker to explain herself all the time. So, there’s an element of the title that’s confrontational, that’s directed at the reader, saying something to the effect of try to understand my experience before you drown in your own, which seems fitting in a collection that is somewhat concerned with characters who don’t often get to tell their own stories in their own words. But of course,
removed from the poem itself, the title also reflects back on many of the characters in my book, who have often gotten themselves into their own messes, or are at a moment where they need to make a choice about who they’re going to be, and whether their best selves will hold their worst selves at bay, so the title also works as a link between the stories in the collection and a directive to the characters.

(And perhaps also as a directive to the author, who needs to get off the internet for a bit and devote this week to making the words in her novel fit for eyes other than her own. This will probably be the last post for a week or so.)

4 thoughts on “A Note on the Collection’s Title

  1. I’m a huge fan of ‘This Bridge Called My Back’ and have been a fan of yours since reading your story in the Paris Review. Congrats on the collection! I’m excited to read it.

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