When the personal, political and historical collide — in our bodies

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In this interview, Savala Nolan, executive director of Berkeley Law’s social justice center, talks about the “deeply corporeal nature” of her new memoir, Don’t Let It Get You Down: Essays on Race, Gender. “The body is where is all happens,” she says. In 12 essays, Nolan goes deep within herself and unearths moments that are so vivid and raw that it’s hard not to feel like you’re there, in the scene, embodied in her experiences. And woven into the stories are feelings and thoughts around race and gender and class that she has come to realize over time — and that she knows to be true.

portrait of savala nolan next to her book cover

Savala Nolan, executive director of Berkeley Law’s Thelton E. Henderson Center for Social Justice, is author of the new book of essays, Don’t Let It Get You Down. (Photo by Andria Lo)

Read a transcript of Berkeley Voices episode #82: “When the personal, political and historical collide — in our bodies.”

Intro: Hi everyone. This is Anne Brice from Berkeley News, and I wanted to let you know that we have changed the name of our podcast, Fiat Vox. It’s now Berkeley Voices. We’ll still have the same stories about the people who make UC Berkeley the creative, quirky, world-changing place that it is. The series just has a new name. No need to subscribe to a new podcast. Just look for new episodes every other Friday in your podcast feed or on Berkeley News.

[Music: “Discovery Harbor” by Blue Dot Sessions]

For our first episode of Berkeley Voices, we talked with Savala Nolan. She’s the executive director of the Thelton E. Henderson Center for Social Justice at Berkeley Law. She’s also an alumna of the law school — she graduated in 2011. She’s a community organizer and an outspoken advocate for social change. She’s written essays for Vogue,Time and Harper’s Magazine.

And in July, she published her first book, Don’t Let It Get You Down: Essays on Race, Gender and the Body. The book has already received high praise, with critics comparing Nolan’s writing to the work of Roxane Gay and Ta-Nehisi Coates. And the New York Times Book Review described it as a “vulnerable, brutal and beautifully rendered narrative,” calling it a “standout collection.”

In this interview, Nolan talks about how she dated white men to escape feelings of otherness, surviving a racialized childbirth and why we should all have more compassion for our bodies.

[Music fades]

Anne Brice: Can you talk a little bit about the title and where it came from and what it means to you?

Savala Nolan: Yeah, I love that question. Thank you for asking.

So, the phrase, “Don’t let it get you down,” is advice, actually, that was given to me by an older Black person who happens to be my hairdresser. And I tell the story in the book of when he said that to me. I was at the salon, maybe six years ago, and happened to see on my news app on my phone that the cops who killed Tamir Rice were not going to be prosecuted. I was visibly shaken, and I was visibly upset.

And my hairdresser, who has known me for a long time, saw this and he said, “What’s wrong? What’s going on?” And I explained to him that there was going to be no prosecution or accountability. And he paused and sort of took a deep breath, and he said, “Don’t let it get you down. Don’t let it get you down.”

He said it twice, and he said it not in the way that I’m used to hearing it. Right? Which is sort of like, “Don’t let it get you down.” “You’ve got this.” It’s kind of a pep talk. There’s sort of a brightness often to how people say that phrase.

He said it with a lot of weight and weariness and almost like a warning. And I realized that he was offering me a survival strategy in that moment, because if you’re Black or if you’re part of any community, really, that has been marginalized and you let it get you down, like you let the status quo truly get to you and weigh on you, you may never get up.

But I think there’s another way that I almost could have put a question mark at the end of the phrase, because when I am when I’m speaking to people who hold a lot of privilege and power or to those aspects of myself, you know, it’s kind of like, “Well, maybe you should let it get you down.” Like, “Maybe you should actually pay very close attention to the status quo, and dwell in the shadows there, and let it bring you to your knees.”

[Music: “Threads and Veils” by Blue Dot Sessions]

Because I think that that is a prerequisite to more lasting change in society, right, is the people who don’t have to face the problem, by dint of their privilege, nevertheless facing the problem. So, I mean it in a complex way.

Anne Brice: So, in the book, there are 12 essays. As I was listening to them, each story, I was really struck by how deeply personal each of them were in different ways. So, I was curious, first, how you chose which moments in your life to write about? And while you were writing about them, how did it feel to you to be kind of unearthing the stories and the feelings that came along with them?

Savala Nolan: You know, this may sound trite. I don’t mean it to. I think the things that I wrote about chose me. I write about motherhood. I write about sex. I write about state violence. I write about dieting. I write about all these things because they are unsettled territory in my own life.

There are 12 essays in the book, and they are all really deeply rooted in the body. Very often my body, because it’s a memoir and essays, but I talk about other people’s bodies. I chose to do that, or maybe it’s more accurate to say that theme or unifying principle emerged in the writing, because the body is like where it all happens. It’s where we experience life. It’s where we experience the world — the joys and the frictions. It’s where we experience the categories and the divisions in the world. They’re very often about our bodies and how other people see our bodies.

And so, I think that our bodies become, over time, the site of so much knowledge and epiphany and humor and insight and also lies — we all probably believe lies about our bodies. I know that I have, and I probably still do. So, there’s kind of like a deeply corporeal nature, I think, to all of these pieces.

There is a lot of vulnerability in the book, which at times felt difficult. But it also felt necessary. You know, I think if you’re going to write about yourself or you’re going to write about things that are hard, you just have to get as close to the bone as you possibly can, if it’s going to be really rich. Otherwise, what’s the point, right? What are you doing, is sort of how I feel about it.

[Music: “Valantis” by Blue Dot Sessions]

Anne Brice: The first chapter is called, “On Dating White Guys While Me.” In it, you talk about details of your relationships during different parts of your life. And I’m curious why you decided to start the book with this chapter?

Savala Nolan: There were a couple reasons. Just in terms of, I guess you would call it strategy, although that’s such a clinical-sounding word, it’s probably the right one. You know, it’s a narrative. I start, as a protagonist, in one emotional space and by the end, I’m in a different emotional space.

So, the piece is about my former — underlining former — very deep and profound wish to be chosen by a certain type of white man as his romantic partner because I believed, for much of my life, that being chosen by that kind of man would essentially lift me out of the pit of my own otherness. It would make me legible to the culture in a way that I couldn’t be on my own. Because I believed, you know, that there was a certain kind of magic in the approval of a white man that attaches to whatever they approve of. And I still think there’s quite a bit of truth to that, but it’s not like a personal belief system that is governing my decisions in the world the way it used to be.

And so, I start that piece very deep in that belief and that desire and that quest. And by the end of the essay, I have shed most of that belief and come to see that my desire to be made no longer “other” by them is ultimately a form of self-destruction. And I sort of end on a note of self-preservation, whereas I start the piece with the desire to not be who I am.

Anne Brice: In one essay, which was so emotional to hear, was when you were talking about what it was like being pregnant in the medical system. And it struck me that it was one of the first times that I had really such a vivid and detailed personal account of a Black woman’s experience before, during and after childbirth today, you know. You talk about how your concerns and pain were ignored and brushed off, and you weren’t taken seriously. And you knew something was wrong, but doctors were making light of it, even as it was happening. That chapter was just so powerful. 

Savala Nolan: You know, I began what ultimately became that essay probably when my daughter was 2 months old, and I was still very postpartum, very much in the newborn haze and very deeply traumatized and nowhere close to even partial healing. I would just open my laptop and kind of write streams of consciousness around what I remembered from the birth and what I experienced in pregnancy and my feelings about it. And that was six or seven years ago. So, this essay, or at least that part of this essay, was a long time in the making.

By the time I was able to write about it coherently, you know, I had done quite a bit of work internally to make sense of what I experienced.

You mentioned some of the studies that talk about Black women across class being three to four times more likely to die in childbirth or maternal care settings than their white counterparts. Learning that data was very empowering because it put some facts and figures beside and behind and around what I already knew to be true, which is that I survived a pregnancy that was profoundly racialized and perhaps doubly stigmatized by my fatness. So, I already knew that.

I just knew it emotionally the way people who are marginalized or subject to violence just simply know when they’re being targeted, right? It’s a survival skill. You have to know when you’re being targeted or else you can’t gauge danger and escape from it or fight it. So, I knew that.

But of course, it hits differently when you can back it up with data. Like, more people are going to see it. And your voice becomes valid in a way that it isn’t when it’s just you kind of howling in the wilderness about your pain without anything to quote unquote “back it up.”

Anne Brice: Your daughter, she’s 7 years old now?

Savala Nolan: 6.

Anne Brice: 6. You talk about the responsibility you feel talking with her about being a Black girl and woman in the U.S. and also allowing her to stay a child and to stay innocent and free of that burden for a while longer. And I’m curious how you learned what it meant to grow up yourself in this country? And how, maybe, you hope it’s the same or different from how you teach your daughter? 

Savala Nolan: I don’t think enough has changed, in terms of how we treat women and Black people. I’m only 40 years old, you know, so not that much time has passed. One of the main similarities between what I am doing now as a mother and what my mother did is this very difficult sort of flying-by-the-seat-of-your-pants balancing between preparing your child for the reality of the world and preserving their innocence, as you say.

I’m raising a daughter who is Black. She’s very light-skinned. I can’t leave her without a sense of racial belonging and racial pride and racial joy and racial history. I have to give her that. So, part of my job as a mother is to teach her about her body, and that includes her race, and it includes her gender. And when and how do I do that? I think about it all the time. I think about it every day.

Because on the one hand, she has to be able to appropriately gauge the danger that she may be in because of who she is, you know. She has to know that she is subject to certain kinds of trespass in order to have a prayer of protecting against that trespass or responding to that trespass in a way that is healing to her, ultimately.

[Music: “Doghouse” by Blue Dot Sessions]

Anne Brice: So, how do you feel now that your book is out in the world? I’m just curious what you hope people take away from it?

Savala Nolan: I think it’s two things. One, I really hope that they get to the last page, and they feel like they have had an encounter with the truth, that they have touched something that is true. Whether it’s true to them in a revelatory way or true to them in a way that’s like a mirror, you know, and they’re seeing themselves doesn’t really matter to me. I want people to have the sense that there’s honesty, like a depth of honesty, in what I’m talking about, and it’s real what I’m talking about.

And the other thing I hope people take away from the book is maybe a deeper appreciation for what the culture is inscribing on their bodies and the work that their bodies are doing in the culture, you know, as they walk down the halls at work, as they wait for the bus, as they get into bed at night. The personal and the political and the historical are all colliding in our bodies all the time. And I hope that people appreciate that more having read the book and, you know, maybe have more compassion and respect for their body and for other people’s bodies, too, by the time they get to the end.

Outro: Savala Nolan is the executive director of the Thelton E. Henderson Center for Social Justice at Berkeley Law. And she’s the author of the new book, Don’t Let It Get You Down: Essays on Race, Gender and the Body.

I’m Anne Brice and this is Berkeley Voices. If you love what we do, subscribe to this podcast on Acast, Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen, where you can also give us rating. Look for new episodes every other Friday. You can find all of our podcast episodes on Berkeley News at news.berkeley.edu/podcasts.