Interview with Hari Ziyad
Interview with Hari Ziyad
Please tell me a little about yourself!
I am a storyteller from Cleveland, Ohio, currently living in Brooklyn, New York. I come from a blended family of nineteen children raised by a Hare Kṛṣṇa mother and Muslim father, and navigating this experience as a Black queer and non-binary person informs much of my work. I am also a prison and police abolitionist who believes in a world without cages, and in addition to being a screenwriter and author of the recently released memoir Black Boy Out of Time, I am the editor-in-chief of the digital publication I created in 2015, RaceBaitr, which provides a platform for abolitionist perspectives.
I first learned about you through your work as Editor in Chief of RaceBaitr and managing editor in the Black Youth Project. What do you love about editing and how does that hone your writing?
I started RaceBaitr because I was tired of pitching pieces about Black experiences into the ether to no response, or working with writers who had no understanding of abolitionist perspectives nor value for the audience that might appreciate it. RaceBaitr started as a place for me to explore ideas that I otherwise wouldn’t have been able to, and I wanted to give others, especially young writers, the space to do the same before they were reduced to believing it was impossible or that they should censor their own work. Editing became the way for me to materially challenge a system that I knew from first-hand experience didn’t honor the lives and stories of marginalized people, while also attempting to give writers tools they could use later to succeed in the wider world of publishing without shrinking themselves.
On a more micro level, I love the process of bringing out the best in a person’s writing. It’s exciting to recognize and uncover compelling ideas underneath a lack of experience, and to hone the tools to sharpen their communication into the world. I look at editing as an opportunity to learn new ways to make my own writing clear and compelling, too, and attempt hope to use any care and consideration I bring to the editing process as a model for regarding my own work, especially given the fact that finding thoughtful editors is still a struggle (shout out to the few real ones I have found!).
Congratulations on your memoir, Black Boy Out of Time (Little A Books, 2021) available now! When did you start thinking about this memoir and what was the process like finding a publisher and writing it?
Thank you! I started working on this project about three years ago, although it has evolved into something different than what I first imagined as it became clear to me it could be an active part of healing the relationships in the book rather than just documenting them. There were few factors in this realization; the first was that I was in therapy at the time, working through what came up in the writing process, and I noticed that what came up in therapy would kind of feed into what I was writing about. Eventually the process of therapy and the process of writing the book became kind of symbiotic. A good example of this is me bringing inner child work to the page in the self-epistolary chapters to my younger self.
Not long after starting the book, my mother was also diagnosed with a rare and aggressive cancer, which progressed rapidly until her passing, just before the book was released. Given that we had a lot of shit to work through, particularly regarding her discomfort with my queerness, the book became an opportunity to begin the conversations we needed to have. All of this made writing the book a central part of my healing process.
But at first, it was pitched as just an exploration of this odd little life I’d lived, explored through the lens of abolitionism. I received interest from a few publishers, but only one had a Black woman editor who was able to immediately speak to the process of reconciling with the tensions of that came with this experience with my mother, and perhaps because she understood that she made an offer that reflected Little A’s appreciation for the work.
How have you been since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic? How has the pandemic changed your book launch and promotion?
What’s interesting about this time is that most of it I spent so concerned about my mother’s health and her illness that I didn’t have time to grieve everything that I lost with the pandemic. I spent most of last year in North Carolina helping to care for my mother, and the rest my family is there so we were able to quarantine together, which alleviated some level of loneliness and isolation, even if that was completely off-set by what we were experiencing with my mother.
I think it reflects the experience of a lot of people, especially those already navigating an antagonistic healthcare system due to their disabilities, to say that the pandemic was more of an exacerbation of the struggles I was already facing than anything new. The main effects it has had on my book launch are not being able to do in-person events, and making it more difficult to break through a news cycle that still deprioritizes non-pandemic related stories (even though I would argue that all of what is in the book is related to the pandemic, because the response to the pandemic is rooted in structural anti-Blackness).
Your book covers so many important topics and faith is one of them. What does spirituality mean to you? Where do you find faith, sustenance, strength, and hope in such a fraught time?
Spirituality to me means finding a connection with something bigger than oneself. It is being able to find joy in others’ joy, success in others’ success, through recognizing the things that bind us, and our shared responsibility to the earth that birthed us. For so long I saw that bigger thing as disconnected from me. I thought I had to give up my own joy and success to be connected to god. What gives me strength today is knowing that this doesn’t have to be the case. God is not separate from us. Just as much as I am tied to something bigger than me, something bigger is tied to and always empowering me. And so much of this I am learning through my exploration of Hoodoo and African Traditional Religions, which offer a more expansive perspective of spirituality than the religions I was brought up around.
In your preface, you offer a new word, “misafropedia,” the anti-Black disdain for children and childhood that Black youth experience. Can you tell me about the origins and development this term and why it is important to have a word for this phenomenon?
For a long time my work has explored the idea that liberation centers on the freedom of Black children, and liberation movements must address the issues facing them or they will fail. When I was writing this book, I was grasping for a term that would encompass this idea concisely, and realized there was nothing that spoke to the specific oppression Black children face.
I had appreciated how Moya Bailey introduced “misogynoir” to assist conversations around the specific oppression Black women experience, and this was inspiration behind misafropedia, which is based on the word “misopedia,” or the hatred of children (due to a source error, the term is misattributed to both Bailey and Trudy of Gradient Lair in the book). I think it’s so critical to have an understanding of this concept because so much of the challenges Black people deal with as adults is rooted in the traumas we’ve experienced as children, and we can’t heal from them until we acknowledge them.
I think a lot about this quote in the preface of your book, “Who can really protect Black children in an anti-Black world?” The pandemic, in addition to mass incarceration, police brutality, the school-to-prison pipeline, and medical racism, has made the world even more dangerous and lethal for Black people. What kind of world protects Black children and what will it take to create that world?
Well, I think that’s still a question I am asking! Maybe I will be asking it forever. I think it’s okay not to know the answer to this yet. But I also think we see bits of this answer in our communities. In the care of our mothers, the concern of our teachers and coaches and extended family. I think that question is closely related to another: “Who has protected Black children in this anti-Black world, and how have they been successful? How have they failed? What can we learn from their failures and successes?” It takes looking to our communities and how they come together, looking to mutual aid organizations and community organizers and the ways we’ve created alternatives to police in our neighborhoods already to create a world where Black children are free.
Mental health is so often seen as something that is rooted in the bodymind only and in your book you write about how the carceral state and anti-Blackness can tear Black people in two with stories about your grandmother, Mother Bhūmi. What are some things you learned from your grandmother and your ancestors that helped you with your anxiety and mental health?
In the book, I write about Mother Bhūmi’s struggle with bipolar disorder, and the mental health crises that would have her lashing out violently, particularly at my mother. For a long time, I blamed her for this, but seeing my mother navigate this, trying to find alternatives to calling the police in dealing with my grandmother when she was having her worst crises, is how I first learned the meaning of abolition; of approaching conflict with the focus on healing rather than punishment.
This entire experience also exposed just how much carceral logics are connected to how we navigate mental health—in our tendency to provide punishment instead of help—and so much of my own struggles with my anxiety are a reflection of that tendency to punish myself.
In the beginning of Black Boy Out of Time you write about your first time going to a Black queer therapist. There is such a need for Black queer therapists and QTPOC therapists. And yet the medical industrial complex is limited and harmful to many marginalized people. How do you reconcile with this tension or is there one? What does healing and wellness look like for you?
I think it’s important not to limit our concept of healing and wellness to what the medical industrial complex offers. Yes, therapy was an important part of my journey, but it isn’t all there is, and it certainly isn’t feasible for everyone. I’ve said many times that therapy is not a replacement for a community that cares for you. I definitely don’t want this book to be used as a cudgel to attack people who don’t or can’t go to therapy. I want to think of therapy as one significant tool in our healing, and then encourage us to find the rest of the tools in our arsenal, and to become part of a caring community for each other and for ourselves.
Since your book came out this month, what are you most excited and nervous about?
I’ve been most excited about seeing if it actually resonates with people! I’m excited to receive feedback in that vein. I guess I’m nervous that it won’t reach the people it was meant for or resonate in that way, or that some of the more difficult passages might be found triggering, because I definitely didn’t intend to further any harm.
What wisdom do you hope readers will leave with after reading Black Boy Out of Time?
I hope readers leave with tangible ways to incorporate prison abolition in their day to day lives, and are able to understand abolition as a healing practice meant to make us whole with ourselves and our communities.
Hari Ziyad is a screenwriter, the bestselling author of Black Boy Out of Time (Little A, 2021) and the Editor-in-Chief of RaceBaitr. They received their BFA from New York University, where they concentrated in Film and Television and Psychology.
Their work is informed by their passion for storytelling, and wrestling with identity as a Cleveland, Ohio-born Black, non-binary child of Muslim and Hindu parents.
They are a 2021 Lambda Literary Fellow, and their writing has been featured in Gawker, Out, The Guardian, Huffington Post, Ebony, Mic, Paste Magazine, AFROPUNK, in the peer-reviewed academic journal Critical Ethnic Studies, and in the anthology co–edited by Michael Dumas, Ashley Woodson and Carl Grant entitled The Future is Black: Afropessimism, Fugitivity and Radical Hope in Education, among other publications.
They are also a script consultant on the drama series David Makes Man (OWN), a columnist (and the former Managing Editor) of Black Youth Project, and an Assistant Editor of Vinyl Poetry & Prose.
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