Stories of Career Triumph: One-on-One with Author Ntozake Shange

Award-winning author talks working through illness and advice for young wordsmiths

Ntozake Shange (Image: File)

In this special series on professionals who turned their passions into fulfilling careers, BlackEnterprise.com talks with Ntozake Shange, world-renowned author, poet and playwright best known for her Obie Award-winning choreopoem For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf.

Below, Shange talks about her career journey and challenges, the special role Philadelphia has played in her success and her advice for young writers still excited about the gift of literary expression.

BlackEnterprise.com: Everyone knows you from For Colored Girls. Several generations grew up knowing the story and being empowered and moved by it. Talk about your career journey from there until now.

Shange: I lived in Philadelphia for almost a decade, and the city was always a good, nurturing place for me. They appreciated my work. Some of the most spectacular performance memories I have are from performing at the Art Sanctuary.

One year, I performed a reading with my daughter, from Liliane: Resurrection of the Daughter. It was received so warmly and intelligently by the audience that Savannah and I had never gotten over it. It’s one of the best readings we’d ever done or seen, and it was because of the audience and work that the Arts Sanctuary had done in support of the work to bring me there to do it.

All writing has its cities and time periods for taking place, and my life has been lived across the country. The novels and poetry reflect that. Also, they reflect the changes in my life—when I was a single person, when I became a mother—and all those periods are reflected in my work as well.

I had two strokes in 2004, and then in 2010 I was afflicted with severe neuropathy, which means my nervous system is retracing itself. I also lost control of my ability to walk, so two years ago, they couldn’t tell me whether I’d be able to walk or hold anything again. It’s just been last year that I’ve regained my ability to walk and I’m getting better with my hands.

And that’s where my life’s journey has brought me to right now. And the Art Sanctuary has given me such a boost to my career and it’s been an honor.

What advice would you have for young women who want to be writers today, who may be discouraged from the career because of salary or financial reasons?

If they’re in the arts to make money, I’d tell them that they probably shouldn’t do it. But if they’re in it because they can’t help themselves—when your passion is so keen that it can’t be denied—that’s when you know you have an artist’s soul. You’ve gotta want to do it because you love it.

Also, read as much as  you can, as many different kinds of books on different subjects as you can. Read everything you can get in your hands. Keep feeding your soul with words of other people so you can see all the different kinds of things that can be done with words and experience it yourself.

It’s also a good idea to keep a journal. It’s instrumental in developjing the discipline of writing. There has to be some discipline in it. You can’t just wait for the moment to strike you every time. Keeping a journal on a daily basis allows your body, brain and psyche to get used to the idea of creating something on a daily basis. So, if 5 p.m every evening, if that’s when you write, your body will be ready to do it every day.

I think the digital world is a wonderful world. The more people communicate with eachother however they do it, it’s important and should be acknowledged as important and shouldn’t be disparaged in any way.

Now, my iPhone lets me dictate text messages, and I’m at a new phase where I can text, which I couldn’t do before because my fingers are too clumsy.  I can also get on my computer, with a firm-touch keyboard, I can type something without having a million errors. So, I’m looking forward to expanding my digital interaction.

What career advice would you give your 21-year-old self today?

Be tech savvy and have a good liberal arts background. You can be employed with those skills and a liberal arts background never fails you.

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