Every week, I’ll be doing a mini feature on my site on activists, artists, and educators who are doing important things in the world. Like Levar Burton says, the only thing these folks have in common is that I like them, and I hope you do too.
It’s my great honor to feature Soma Mei Sheng Frazier, an artist whose work thrills and chills. I first picked up her book Salve and thought: here is a grand work that takes our inner impulses and flaws and beauties and makes something from them. How truly accurate, I thought. How truly intuitive of the human experience. Soma’s work does not attempt to mollify or fix the world through plausible deniability, but rather to show the world a world remade in its image.
How should we call you?
I was raised hearing Mandarin, which employs the gender-malleable pronoun “tā,” so please use whatever’s clever. Regarding names, I prefer either “Soma” or “Skull Crusher.”
Where might we find your work?
My work is currently languishing on my laptop. At present, I’m adjudicating an international poetry contest while balancing several long-term projects – coauthoring a screenplay with badass poet Arisa White, editing v1 of a novel and weaning myself off of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos – that seem to be taking a very long time. A few things are out there in the world already, though: two fiction chapbooks, Salve (Nomadic Press) and Collateral Damage: A Triptych (RopeWalk Press); a few stories in the print issues of Glimmer Train (issues 89 and 96) and ZYZZYVA (issues 101 and 106) and some online pieces, available at Carve Magazine, Kore Press and Eclectica Magazine. You can also check out the multimedia journal COG, which I publish with my students at Cogswell College.
What themes or ideas do you feel your work engages with?
My writing seems to circle around the rude awakening. Having embodied the words “A hard head makes a soft ass” one too many times, I’m fascinated by the experience of learning something the hard way – and how realization impacts behavior, or doesn’t. “Leave,” a short piece available on my website, describes a woman’s last-ditch attempt to show her husband that he is not fit to raise their daughter.
On the flipside, “Everyone Is Waiting,” which won Glimmer Train’s Family Matters competition, is about a man whose consciousness keeps whispering that he needs to take action. Funny, isn’t it, the way whispered messages aren’t always enough; the way we sometimes need the truth to shout in our faces?
Can you remember the first piece of art– performance, literary, fine, street–you saw/read that wowed you?
Richard Wright’s Native Son. Baldwin’s staunchest supporters may pooh-pooh the book, but if there’s room in the world for Coke and Pepsi, Rey and Kylo Ren, then I can find room in my heart to love Baldwin and Wright.
What work do you do that you feel proud of?
I raise my daughter. And by that I don’t mean I taught her to read as a baby, learned to style her hair to flatter her face, or helped encourage her goal of becoming a ninjaneer – engineer by day, ninja whenever trouble strikes. I did that stuff too, but it’s not what I’m proud of, as it’s really neither here nor there. Kids learn stuff and look cute and have goals. No – what I mean is, I feel responsible for my daughter, and act decisively on her behalf. I tell her the truth, even when lies would be easier. My sights are trained on her survival and happiness, no matter where I am or what I’m doing. For instance, one night, when Zoe was a newborn and our amorous Pit Bull mix Patron approached, tail wagging, to sniff her head, my exhausted arm shot out from the sofa where I was cradling her, and I lifted his 76-pound body in the air by the neck, then slammed its wriggling bulk to the hardwood, pinned, because I thought the baby might not like to be licked. (Don’t bring this up to my husband. He’s afraid of me now. For reals.)
In times of political duress and times of political ease, art plays variegated roles: preacher, lover, teacher, friend. My mother, for instance – who endured her share of political duress in China as our family fled the Communists, ultimately leaving her two youngest sisters behind – has always watched buddy cop films. (Ever seen Rush Hour, starring Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker? Turner & Hooch, starring Tom Hanks and a dog?) For decades, as a nerdy weirdo who leans heavily toward comedies like Todd Solondz’s Happiness, I couldn’t comprehend Mom’s pedestrian preferences. How could someone so complex, who’d led such a sprawling life, embrace simplistic, formulaic art? Now I get it. Now I’m just as likely to watch The Real Housewives of Atlanta as to reread De Beauvoir’s The Second Sex; to bump my head to Beyoncé as to Bartók.
Come to think of it, I’ve never bumped my head to Bartók. It’s just not that head-nod sh-t, is it?
Tell us a story.
I have this dear friend who shook a cat until it died. I didn’t know that could happen. It clawed my leg, she said by way of explanation. Well, cats do that, I said, though I’ve never had a cat. Then I forgave her because I knew how rough she’d had it. Once, when we were kids, I heard the phone go dead and assumed she’d dropped it. I later learned her mom had snatched it away and smacked her with it. This was one of those old school, heavy black rotary phones you see in 1940s movies, dialed by celluloid fingers. I visited her recovery room. One side of her face was black. She thought it was a boy, she wrote on a legal pad, because she couldn’t quite use her mouth. Anyway, when I told my friend cats would be cats, she replied, very slowly: You’re right. I probably shouldn’t keep pets. She shook some major memory out of her head. I won’t get another. Now this dear friend has birthed a baby. He looks strong, with stout white legs. Still, he’s a baby, wordless, unguarded, and I worry. He kept crying, I’m waiting for her to explain.
Soma Mei Sheng Frazier is an East Coast native living in the San Francisco Bay Area – where she as served as a 2017 San Francisco Library Laureate, and is presently adjudicating the 2018 Tom Howard/Margaret Reid Poetry Contest. Frazier is Chair of English and the Humanities at Cogswell College, where she founded www.cogzine.com. Her award-winning fiction chapbooks, Salve (Nomadic Press) and Collateral Damage: A Triptych (RopeWalk Press), have earned praise from Nikki Giovanni, Daniel Handler, Antonya Nelson, Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, Molly Giles, Michelle Tea and others. She is nose-to-grindstone on a novel and a screenplay. You can find out more at www.somafrazier.com.