What motivated you to write this poem?
My writing is rooted in history. I enjoy creating characters and their individual voices grounded in specific moments in history. This particular poem was loosely inspired by the story of Ruby Bridges, one of the first African-American children to attend an all-white elementary school in the South. I remember seeing a photo of Ruby for the first time—I think Ruby was only six when she first attended an all-white school in Louisiana. (Ruby Bridges was the first Black child to desegregate an all-white school during the New Orleans school desegregation crisis in 1960). I remember seeing this black-and-white photograph of Ruby where she was dressed very prim and proper and I just imagined what it must have been like for Ruby’s mother the first morning that she was supposed to send her child to school. It literally sent chills down my spine. Just imagine getting your child dressed in the morning knowing that your child would be subjected to threats and possible violence. So in this poem, I wanted to create the juxtaposition of the ordinary moments between a mother and child on a typical school morning with this particular extraordinary moment in history. I think sometimes when we read history, we’re focused on the facts and the statistics, but I just want to highlight the human element in this poem.
Is there something that made this story a bit personal? Does it relate to anything in your life?
I’m a Pakistani American married to an African American, so my children are bi-racial. I’ve always been very interested in the Civil Rights Movement; it’s an area of history that has drawn me. Lately, I find myself revisiting this period in our country’s history because of the current political climate. With the election of Barack Obama, many people in America thought we were suddenly post-racial and had finally transcended our painful past. The last election cycle, however, shows how much work still needs to be done so that people of all backgrounds can truly understand one another. Looking back at our country’s history is necessary because it shows how important it is to never forget what transpired here.
Do you write in other genres?
Sometimes I like to write sequence pieces where the same character is featured in a collection of poems. I like using shifting perspectives and featuring the voices of different family members situated in different periods of history and then trying to find a string that connects them. My work touches on history, but also family dynamics. My mother emigrated from Pakistan in her 30s when I was very young and that’s often a topic in my poems. She passed away many years ago but I find myself going back and imagining what it must have been like for a single woman with young children to come to a country so different from the one she was born in. The simultaneous fear and hope of the immigrant experience is a topic that emerges in many of my poems. During the past presidential campaign there were so many negative images of immigrants and the multitude of perceived threats they represent to the American life. This made me re-examine my own family history and write about a very different immigrant experience than the one presented by the current administration.
What are your writing rituals?
Before I begin writing, I like to read out loud for 10 or 15 minutes. I don’t read for content at this moment but rather to hear the music in the language. I usually read poetry, but occasionally, it will be short stories. The lyricism of the words will often trigger my own writing. It puts me in the right frame of mind. I usually do this in my bedroom when the house is quiet and the kids are sleeping.
Kally Atkins is a former practicing attorney and currently a writer, wife, and stay-at-home mom of two kids.