Part of Me Does Not Want to Describe Kimbilio to Anyone. It’s Too Precious to Share With Outsiders.
This summer, GrubStreet instructor Jonathan Escoffery found much more than a workshop at the Kimbilio retreat for writers of the African Diaspora. Describing that transformative week to his white peers, however, was not always a positive experience.
View of New Mexico from the Kimbilio retreat, by Jonathan Escoffery.
This summer, I attended Kimbilio Fiction’s annual retreat in Taos, New Mexico as one of approximately thirty Fellows. The organization is in its 5th year, and the retreat offers a week of seminars, workshops, and community building for writers of the African Diaspora. In truth, it offered what I have since struggled to put into words.
“Life affirming” may sound vague, but feels close to the mark.
I have the privilege of writing this from another retreat, which I’ll continue to help run for the next nine months as a Writer-in-Residence. One of the joys of this position is meeting a new batch of writers on a weekly basis. When we’re not tucked away creating in our rooms, residents inevitably meet in the kitchen, where we’ll discuss our respective projects. Often, we’ll share information about retreats and residencies we’ve attended, and, since returning from Taos, in these instances I’ll mention Kimbilio.
Before I do, something in me will hesitate, if I’m not speaking with a person of color. This hesitation becomes validated as I try to describe what Kimbilio is, and as the listener nods weakly, dismissing it as something not for them.
Somewhere in my description of Kimbilio, I’ll draw comparisons to other organizations with similar missions, such as Cave Canem (supporting African American poets since 1996), or Kundiman (supporting Asian American writers since 2004), or Canto Mundo (supporting Latinx poets since 2009), or VONA (supporting writers of color since 1999).
“I think I may have heard of [X] organization,” they might say, before changing the subject.
A part of me dies inside a little during these exchanges, and I imagine the magic of the retreat they are currently on momentarily lifts. And I get it. They’ve escaped whatever it is they have going on at home for a week or two to focus on the part of their identity that we’re all supposed to have in common: Writer.
And here I am reminding them of our differences—that while we value literature similarly, our journeys and experiences have been, and will continue to be, quite different.
Let me describe another conversation.
I first learned of Kimbilio while manning the GrubStreet booth at AWP ’17 when Alyss, a woman I’d never met, approached and asked if I’d be attending the African Diaspora Caucus’ breakfast the next morning. I hadn’t planned to (or been aware of it), but we slipped into that easy kind of talk people have only when their guards are down, and I knew I’d have to at least try to make it there, though I ultimately didn’t.
In a sea of thousands, I was not surprised that one of the hand-and-a-half-full of Black people I would spot would strike up a conversation with me, in which I was given all sorts of crucial career advice. At our best, this is what Black people in America do: We treat each other like family, even when we’re strangers. At some point in this conversation, Alyss recommended that I look up Kimbilio. I’m grateful to her.
Part of me does not want to describe Kimbilio to anyone. It’s too precious to share with outsiders. But what if Alyss never shared this with me? And if I can only explain to the rotation of writers I meet weekly—the teachers, and editors, and counselors—the value of a Kimbilio, or Cave Canem, or Kundiman, or Canto Mundo, or VONA, whom might they tell?
Part of me wants to describe Kimbilio in the negative so as to affirm the need for its existence: Kimbilio is not being told I only gained entrance because of affirmative action. Kimbilio is not being singled out and asked, “What’s the Black perspective on this?” It’s not hearing, “Black characters wouldn’t say that word.” It’s not having a finger pointed my way every time the word “black” is uttered.
But arriving at Kimbilio felt less like a salve for wounds I’ve suffered over the course of my creative life, and more like a home going. Kimbilio, to me, is this: Staying up with your cohort to watch the sunrise because you’re afraid to let each other go, because for the first time in your thirty-plus years you see your journey, your very existence reflected in the lives of others.
Sometimes, when visiting family in Miami, I’ll ask my older brother if one of my childhood memories really happened, and ten times out of ten he’ll say, “Of course it happened.”
Before Taos, I asked, Has this really been my existence? This summer, I learned, Of course it has.
Teen writers can catch Jonathan at Grub on Saturday, October 21st, in his YAWP class, Publishing Your Short Work: Submission Tips to Get Your Work Out There!
Want to support the work of Kimbilio and help fund future fellowships for the retreat? It's as easy as shopping at your local Barnes & Noble. Find out how here!
Jonathan Escoffery is the author of If I Survive You, a collection of humorous and harrowing linked stories following a Jamaican-American family as they seek stability upon moving to Miami, navigating cultural dislocation, tenuous family ties, and the many, conflicting meanings of Black American identity, forthcoming fall 2022 from MCD/ FSG, as well as the forthcoming novel, Play Stone Kill Bird. He is the winner of the 2020 Plimpton Prize for Fiction, the 2020 ASME Award for Fiction, and a 2020 National Endowment for the Arts Literature fellowship. His writing has appeared in The Paris Review, American Short Fiction, Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading, ZYZZYVA, Pleiades, AGNI, The Best American Magazine Writing 2020, and elsewhere. Jonathan earned his MFA in Fiction from the University of Minnesota and attends the University of Southern California’s Ph.D. in Creative Writing and Literature Program as a Provost Fellow. He is a 2021-2023 Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University. For a full listing of his publications and projects, please visit jonathanescoffery.comSee other articles by Jonathan Escoffery