Avril Somerville, or SomerEmpress as I first got to know her through our
interactions on Twitter, has a distinct presence that shines through. She
is a writer and speaker who relishes these gifts, but she also values the
other important elements of her personal identity as an immigrant from
Dominica, a first-generation college graduate who became an educator
and a wife and mother of three children who is active in the community
of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania where she resides. I was happy to have the
chance to speak with her about her experiences publishing her memoir,
A Journey Of Life On Purpose: Creativity, Love, Womanhood, Community,
Race, and Identity.
OWAW: The first question that I have for you is, what first drew you to writing as your craft in the first place? What let you know that this was your gift?
Avril: Wow…well you know how you have some that say “I’ve been doing this since the day I was born?” Well, I’m not one of those people. (laughs) My first true conviction that I was a writer was when I was about ten. It was at that time that it became necessary for me to leave a place that had always been home. My sister and I were uprooted from the mostly sunny skies and color of the Commonwealth of Dominica in the West Indies to Brooklyn, New York. I’d venture to say that it was the coldest of winters in more ways than one. I wrote to find solace, to make sense of the displacement I felt, to seek to understand a remarkably difficult period of adjustment and uneasiness, to make peace with feeling like I didn’t belong anywhere really. I wrote to make sense of my new categorization as Black in a place where I hardly felt welcome. Mostly, I wrote to make sense of an environment that was new in every way conceivable – its music and mannerisms, its unforgiving speed and stealth, its seemingly haphazard organization and vibrancy.
OWAW: Okay, great. So since you’ve been writing for some time, what compelled you to now put a book out? Was this a gradual decision or was this just an instantaneous choice?
Avril: Oh no … definitely not an instantaneous choice. I’ve had several personal and professional inventories done so that I can truly arrive in the confirmation of my gifts. I attended Swarthmore College, had gotten my MBA from Penn State, and worked in both the corporate sector and classroom, yet I always asked the question “what was my purpose?” Though it was my decision to be home with our children given all of our moving, I still questioned whether my purpose could be found in a traditional 9 to 5. What exactly was I put here to do, and what am I supposed to do with my talents? It was after numerous assessments that the answers came back: “writing and teaching, encouraging and connecting.” Those were the things that were most resonant after much introspection and work. Once I accepted those callings and gifts, I made a decision to pursue a writing career. I would set out to write and publish books by any means necessary.
I have plans to release several more books in different genres, but this book allows me to introduce myself publicly as a writer beyond those who might already be familiar with my writing. I found that once I pulled together much of what I’d written, I was able to see the arc and viability of this book for broader distribution. The sum of this work was evidence of my journey to find my way as I wrestled with challenges of personal identity as it pertained to race, womanhood, creative gifts, motherhood, and community servant. What I gathered reflected my observations and musings on what lied beneath the surface, through intentional seeking and inquiry.
In addition, I was better able to identify some common themes in my writing that were also of importance to other readers, women in particular: actualization through a closer examination of self, but in relationship to others – to Spirit, our children, other women, our significant others, to community – those in and apart of our natural affinity groups; identity – the tension between ethnicity and nationality; and lastly, creativity – making sense of our creative gifts and that creative space, as well as the struggle to find balance between being and creating. Though this book represents my journey, affording my unique narrative as a Woman of Color, immigrant, first generation college graduate, Black woman mother and wife in America is not only empowering, but necessary for ongoing conversations that respect the diversity of women everywhere, and specifically, among Black women in America.
OWAW: In your writing, you offer a magnanimous ministry of the spirit in everyday life. How have people responded to that, reading your words?
Avril: Surprisingly positive! I rarely write simply as an exercise. Almost every word that I write is written upon inspiration from Spirit; this is true for both prose and poetry. Divorcing myself from Spirit would be an exercise in futility. There is no explicit effort to be ministerial, per se, but rather, spirit makes her way into the work. The revelation comes first for me in the form of conviction; that is, the words that I share have already prompted me to do something different in my own life, along my own walk; they have already allowed me a personal transformation and a deeper understanding that I may need on some level. When I write, my only goal is to be transparent as I work through that revelation; I suppose this is part of what resonates with readers as well – a conviction of Spirit, that something much larger is at work in everything we do. This business of writing, for me, has been a quiet craft, which requires deep introspection and huge amounts of self-examination. Spirit is what gives this work authority; my unique voice is what gives it authenticity; and, language is what renders its transformative capacity.
I’ve been blessed to have a diversity of readers – about a 70/30 split of women and men, as well as an ethnic diversity of women readers. All of them share a common need for connection to this larger-than-life force as they harness their own creative gifts, seek to be more transparent with themselves and others, and continue the journey of finding their most authentic selves. They seem to have found something in this book that gets them one step closer. I am both humbled and thankful.
OWAW: My final question is, for those who look to set out on that same literary journey, what advice would you give to them?
Avril: Keep writing. Don’t be afraid of what and whom you might find on the page when you write. You really never know until you do. Write as if your fingers and keys are one, as if your pen is tethered to your hand, which is tethered to your soul, and your anguish, and your joy, and your deepest fears and needs. Unleash all of it on the page. Even when you write fiction–which I also write and plan to publish soon– own your feelings. Write without the need for sanitizing or serving it up just so. Write for you first, and for others, if at all, last. Avail yourself to constructive criticism and a good editor. (laughs) Writing can be a lonely profession, but editing should never be. Align with those who want to see you flourish, but who will also hold you to an uncompromising standard of accountability. I’ve been fortunate to find a few good people who make the journey well worth every step.
“A Journey Of Life On Purpose: Creativity, Love, Womanhood, Community,
Race, and Identity” is now available for purchase at Amazon, Kobo Books
and Barnes & Noble.