Adiba Nelson is the author of Ain’t That A Mother; the memoir that Essence, Bustle, Ms. magazine and Shondaland all hailed as a “must read”, and subject of the Emmy winning documentary, The Full Nelson. She is also a retired burlesque performer, disability rights advocate/activist, freelance journalist and very tired mom! In 2013 she wrote and self-published her first children’s book Meet ClaraBelle Blue after not being able to find a children’s book that adequately and appropriately represented her daughter (disabled, Black). Since then Adiba has led numerous workshops and given keynote addresses around the country for parents, educators and education professionals/paraprofessionals, focusing on DEIA from a disability perspective. In 2017 Adiba delivered her first TEDx talk (Skating Downhill: The Art of Claiming Your Life) to a sold out crowd, and has since joined the NPR affiliate Arizona Public Media as a regular contributor on Arizona Spotlight, spoken at the Smithsonian Institute National Museum of African American History and Culture, and led a memoir master class in sunny San Juan Puerto Rico at the request of the poet dubbed the “Maya Angelou of the Millennial Generation”, Azure Antoinette.
Adiba Nelson is the author of “Ain’t that a Mother,” a hilarious and vulnerable memoir about Black motherhood, Cerebral Palsy, and surviving intergenerational trauma. Adiba’s memoir is timely and so important because it discusses important themes such as Plan B in today’s post Roe v. Wade climate, postpartum depression, and the *shit* show of dating. The memoir even dips into the beautiful world of burlesque dancing.
Adiba is an author from my hometown, Tucson, Arizona. We also went to the same high school, a lower to middle-class public school that is now enclosed by huge metal fences and looks more like a prison than a school, so I’m so proud each of us not only survived but also became writers. Adiba is a shining light in Tucson’s literary community (and in all literary communities!). I’m honored I was able to interview her.
Tamara MC: You and your book are hilarious. What role does humor play in your life?
Adiba Nelson: Humor is just as important as therapy, and can even be a form of therapy, if you will. But I don’t think I’d have gotten as far in life as I have if I wasn’t able to have a sense of humor about some of the ridiculously absurd things that have happened. And I say absurd because it lightens the weight of the trauma of it, right? Because in actuality these things are absurd by definition. They are also traumatic in how we experience them but the acts themselves are completely insane and absurd. When you can look at it through that lens and be like, all right, who’s pranking me? What kind of crazy joke or fresh hell did I step into? It makes it easier to process and figure out my responsibility in the midst of the absurdity.
TMC: What advice do you have for people who are not naturally funny or who just don’t use humor in their lives or in their books?
AN: Oh, God, drink. No kidding. Step outside of your situation, and just look at it as a spectator and remove the emotion that you have to whatever that situation is. And just pretend like you’re watching it on a movie. Like, what would you say if this was happening in a movie?
TMC: I’d like to know more about your journey from Puerto Rico to New York to Tucson, Arizona. Could you tell me more about the places in your life?
AN: My mom was actually born in New York, but she was sent to Puerto Rico to live with her grandparents when she was six months old. She lived there until she was 15 and then came to the States, but she didn’t speak English. She taught herself the language by carrying a dictionary with her everywhere she went.
Then when my mom was 22, she had me in New York City, and I lived there until I was almost 11 years old. She had asthma and the doctors told her that her lungs wouldn’t make it another year and that she needed to move to Arizona. So, she dragged me here kicking and screaming. No one in Arizona in the 80s even knew where Puerto Rico was. The Spanish in Tucson was also different than the Spanish in Puerto Rico. Arizona was also the first place I’d been called the n-word. Tucson is only 4% Black, but while I love my community, I also want to see myself when I go into a grocery store. I want my daughter to feel affirmed in her Blackness.
TMC: What about your high school experience?
AN: I’m one of those weird people who loved high school. I wasn’t the party girl because my mom was not gonna let that happen. But I did everything that I wanted to do. I said to myself before I went to high school that I wanted to be in the drama club, be a dance line girl, and be on student council. I’d like to be in homecoming too. I accomplished all of my goals.
I was friends with everyone: the skaters, stoners, hip-hop kids, drama kids. I just floated around, and I’m still that way. I still float around. The thing I would change about my high school experience is that I wish I had closer friendships with some of the girls that were in the African American Culture Club. I always felt a little bit out of place there because that was the era when everybody was wearing African medallions, Malcolm X hats, and rap was the big thing. But I wasn’t allowed to listen to rap, and I wasn’t allowed to wear any of the Black style of clothing, so it kind of put me on the outskirt of things. I do think that there’s strength in having close friendships with people you can relate to culturally. I have that now, but I didn’t then.
TMC: Tell me about college and your decision to go.
AN: From the time I was a child, my mom said, “You’re not done with school until you graduate from college.” There was no question about it. Every year on Mother’s Day, I asked her, “What do you want for Mother’s Day? She’s like, “Your college graduation.” There was never a question of whether or not I was going to college. It was a question of which college and how much it was going to cost. The first two years, I did the sorority thing. It took me a while to get back on track, but I graduated with honors.
TMC: How did you first become a writer?
AN: Well, according to my mom I’ve always been a writer but I don’t remember writing anything real until I was 12. I wrote a really cheesy love poem and my mom put it on the refrigerator—right next to “Mother to Son” by Langston Hughes. I didn’t understand the weight of that then, but in hindsight—whoa. I went on to write all of the angsty poems of my teen years, and then when I was in my early 20s I got into spoken word and slam poetry. Shortly thereafter I took a creative writing class at my community college and loved it. Turns out I was also pretty good at it, and for a while I really tried to figure out how to break into the magazine business, studying mastheads of all my favorites, looking for a name and address (this was before Google). My creative writing teacher never told me how I could actually become a writer, so I graduated with a social work degree. However, after having my daughter I struggled with postpartum depression, and to get through my days I started a blog… it grew quite a following, and I think *that* is how I finally got started thinking a bit more about writing as a career. Two years later I wrote my first children’s book, and the rest is history.
TMC: Why is writing important?
AN: In my opinion, writing provides place, nuance, insight, context, and new ways of experiencing. It can transport you to fantastical places, or tell the stories you’re too scared to say out loud. With writing, someone else can tell the scary, have the crush, lose the baby… in short, writing provides sanity for those who feel very outside the lines of their own life.
TMC: Is there anything you’d like to add?
AN: Just so you know, I curse a lot. There’s this idea that people who curse are not educated or they don’t have vocabulary. I like to combat that because I think curse words are punctuation marks. Sometimes cursing is necessary to really get your point across and to illustrate a message.