Description: What does it mean to write from the center? In Indianapolis, the Crossroads of America, we’ll consider the many facets of “center:” the position and perspective a writer takes, how place and geography influence written works, and the core self that the writing process engages, to name a few. We’ll also explore “crossroads moments:” the point of no return in a poem, story, or essay, and the lived experiences that may have influenced that moment. This session intends to highlight Indiana writers and writing, offering conference goers an opportunity to interact with practicing writers who are actively writing and participating in literature-based community events throughout Indianapolis and the state of Indiana. The audience will be invited to participate in the conversation, to deepen the connections forged around the idea of “the center.” Panelists: Sarah Layden, Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis; Callista Buchen, Franklin College; Maurice Broaddus, independent author; Terry Kirts, Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis

Indianapolis is the place that I’ve called home since I was ten years old. I set most of my stories here. The theme of identity is common in much of my work and Indianapolis is where my roots are, my social network, my community, all the things that are pieces of my identity. So I feel like I am constantly interrogating the idea of what home means.

A few years ago, not long after my novella, Buffalo Soldier, sold in 2015, I began thinking about what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I was in a sales job, in my early 40s, but I had given myself permission to dream about possibilities for my life. I wanted to make a difference. I wanted to make my community a better place. I wanted to make my world a better place, leave a legacy worthy of my children.

But I’m just a writer.

I was talking about making a major leap from my job to re-create my life with purpose and intentionality, but the only recent thing on my resume, my main skillset, was being a writer. I had no idea how to go about leveraging my gift for the benefit of community, no idea what a possible job or future could look like—and mind you, none of this process made my wife, mother of my two children, nervous at all—so I did what I always do when I’m unsure about things.

I wrote.

The Learning Tree – learn your neighbors

At the same time, I was looking at what kind of art-based work was going on in my community. a journey that first landed me with the grassroots organization, The Learning Tree. The Learning Tree has been doing community building work in the United Northwest Area (UNWA) neighborhood since 2010. When I joined in 2016, one of the projects we did was called the Portfolios of Joy. I would go and learn the gifts and talents of the neighbors. What were they passionate about? What moved them to get out of bed in the morning? What skills could they teach to someone else in the community?  And I would talk to other neighbors to see how they saw each other. When I was done, I would compile the stories of the neighbors.

We were gearing up for Open Bite Nite II.  Open Bite Night launched from the porch of one of our neighbors, my sister as a matter of fact, to encourage local businesses and artists. It came in the wake of a spate of police violence toward the African American community. The event proved to be a healing one, allowing residents to grieve and protest while celebrating community. For Open Bite Nite II, we were setting up an open-air gallery of art. You see, 25 doors had been dumped in an alley in the neighborhood, a perfect metaphor of how the neighborhood was seen from the outside: someone in the city decided we were no longer useful or had any value so we’d been discarded and left to be forgotten. One of our artist neighbors came up with the idea to have the artists in our community paint their stories on the doors. While some of our neighbors working on setting up the art display, I passed out the Portfolios of Joy.

Well, they read their stories on the spot (nothing is more nerve-wracking for a writer than having people read your work in front of you, because you’re going to be looking for that immediate feedback). I waited. And waited. And waited. Wanting to see their reaction. But then they started swapping the stories with each other like they were collector cards. Asking each other “is this who I am?” “Is this how I’m seen?” Why? Because our culture doesn’t often see us for who we are. We’re labeled, we’re discounted, we’re invisible. Unless some aspect of the system needs someone to blame. But to have who you are, the blessing of what you bring to the community, reflected back at you, it can be life affirming. That’s the power of stories.

The Kheprw Institute – Resident Afrofuturist

I moved on to work with the Kheprw Institute. KI is a nonprofit organization focused on empowering youth and building community wealth in Indianapolis since 2003. I’m their resident Afrofuturist. Many organizations have futurists on staff, people using their vision and skillset to consider new alternatives or be a guide to navigate current circumstances. Futurists by definition look for new ways of examining our society, technology, and the world to extrapolate and create blueprints and roadmaps to innovate tomorrow.

With an Afrofuturist lens, however, that visioning is rooted in black history and culture to create a vivid picture of what the world could look like.

For KI, a resident Afrofuturist represents a public statement of the attitude and mindset of the organization and community, about creating desired future states in the present by constantly re-imagining the work and the way the community moves through the world.

We live in a culture that doesn’t value imagining as a skillset. But we also live in the midst of collapsing systems that are past reforming and require radical re-imagining.

By strange coincidence, I just had a story published a couple days ago. “The Legacy of Alexandria” in Apex Magazine. It’s about a community organization full of books used to train up future leaders (in a near apocalyptic version of Indianapolis). Basically, a story about finding resilience, purpose, and identity through the power of books. The power of stories.

My Work

Part of my work involves hidden worlds. With Knights of Breton Court, I retold the legend of King Arthur through eyes of homeless teenagers, set here in Indianapolis. I had been working as a volunteer at the homeless teen ministry, Outreach Inc, at the time. I used magic as metaphor for homelessness. Again, with the idea of making the unseen seen.

I also love secret history, the hidden stories. I returned to the world of a short story I’d written a decade ago, “Pimp My Airship.” I wanted to tell the story particularly through the eyes of a poet named Sleepy. I wanted to work some things out in my head about what it means to leverage your gift, your art, for change in the community.

Sleepy’s journey started in a spot where he was comfortable in life. Had a 9-5, his bills paid, and he could do a little thing of his own at night at a poetry spot. You know, life was comfortable. That “I gots mine” mentality.

Only to have his world intruded upon and expanded by the reality of the systems that control the pillars of his world:

-redlining

-over-policing

-predatory capitalism

-poverty criminalized

-mass incarceration

Using the trappings of the subgenre steampunk allowed me to tell this story within the context of turn of the century Indianapolis in order to add the weight of history to the lens of viewing those issues.

-Being opened up to the reality that the world is bigger than “the I”—that there’s in fact a “we,” your community—that puts “the I” in context. A greater story that puts your story in context.

-What it means to examine your gifts, use them to find and define your voice, and organize into a chorus of voices that can leverage change. To learn the stories of your neighbors and join them into a force.

Conclusion

The power of story. Now you have to understand that I write for me. But part of me writing for me is telling the stories of and within my community. My community work informs my writing and my writing informs my community work. That’s what writing from the center looks like for me.