Exploring the art of prose


Author: Shaina Phenix

Author’s Note

My writing is obsessed with the many-ness of Black femme bodies and experiences. Everywhere I turn there is something, someone, somewhen that urges me to document: the things we’ve passed down, our names, the ways we mother, the ways we love, the ways we grow, the ways we understand our bodies in a country where being both Black and girl endangers us. This essay came to be after I reread Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye for at least the fifth time since I first encountered it in high school. I arrived at this piece thinking about Morrison’s tender and nuanced portrayals of problematic characters; the ways she made us see the flawed and hurt humans we’d categorize as monsters on first thought. For me, Morrison busted open the relationship between beauty and ugliness, between pain and joy as it related to growing up both Black and girl. Pecola Breedlove could have been me. Maureen Peal could be my daughter. Claudia MacTeer could be my little cousin.

In addition to her portrayals of our many-ness, Morrison utilizes moments of cataloguing when readers get presented with an idea and we almost get beat with it. And the beating feels done with love in that it leaves no real scars, but it refuses to let us forget or shake what we’ve encountered. I wanted to emulate that in this essay, I wanted folks not to forget us—not to forget me—when they walked away from this. We all grow up knowing that there were rules, we do our best to follow them, and we learn there are consequences for when we don’t. As children, we seldom ask who made them or where they came from. We’re taught not to question whether or not they make sense. This essay felt like a home in which I was allowed to question; where I could start digging through the source of some of beliefs I was raised to adopt, where I’d start to sift through the ways those teachings materialized for me and the other girls I grew up with into adulthood. I wanted to know how some of the things I knew by the time I was seven years old colored the ways I (we) navigated my (our) Blackness, the way I (we) bargained amongst ourselves trying to substantiate our existences.

I wanted the essay to hold space that we seldom got as children. I wanted to feel the ugly, weird, nasty feelings out loud and with purpose. I wanted to say things like: I understood a version of romantic love not from watching my mother or father or television, but from practicing whatever I thought it was with the other kids in my family. I wanted the essay to make me squirm a bit with thought of having to say the things aloud, to teach me something about a freedom—to telling the raggedy truth and not dress it up for my own comfort or the comfort of other people. While the I is most of the essay’s focus, in conversation with and in admiration of Toni Morrison, I am always writing toward more versions of we.


SHAINA PHENIX is a queer, Black femme poet, other-art-maker, educator from Harlem, NY. She holds an MFA in Poetry from Virginia Tech and is the 2021–2022 Jay C. and Ruth Halls Poetry Fellow at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in West Branch Wired, Glass, DIALOGIST, Foglifter Press, Cosmonauts Avenue, Salt Hill Journal, The Pinch Journal, Puerto del Sol, and Frontier Poetry.