La Toya Hankins on Zora Neale Hurston and Eradicating Self-Doubt

The following excerpt is part of our interview series where we talk to members of the lesbian literary community. A longer version of this interview will appear in an upcoming issue of our literary journal, Serendipity.

La Toya Hankins is the author of SBF Seeking, and K-Rho: The Sweet Taste of Sisterhood. The North Carolina native is an East Carolina University graduate who earned her Bachelor of Arts degree in journalism with a minor in political science. She is a proud member of Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Inc. and currently serves as president of the organization’s Chapel Hill, NC graduate chapter.

Hankins currently works for the State of North Carolina in a division of the state’s Health and Human Services department. Prior to her current employment, she worked seven and half years in the field of journalism.

What has surprised you the most about being a writer?

What has been most surprising for me are all the moving parts involved in the process of being a writer. It’s not enough to simply create or put words to a page. It’s the research, the editing, and the promotion of the product. Even with fiction, you have to make what you are creating believable. I tend to write what I know, but even then I have to make sure what I am capturing is not too far-fetched. That involves research. Once the story is written, then it has to be revised to make sure the gem of my creation shines. The first draft is just the first step in a journey that at times can be frustrating as well as enlightening. Revising and editing forces the writer to really assess the quality of the story. A diamond is a diamond, but one that is polished looks so much more attractive. Then, you have to promote it. I am a shy person at heart so promotion of my work is something I had to come into, but I feel I am making strides. Being a writer, I have found is more than just sitting at my laptop until the early morning hours typing my thoughts. It’s a process that gives me joy as well as pain, but something I take pride in being able to do.

Which of your characters do you identify with the most? Why?

The easy answer would be Yvette Thurman from SBF Seeking. The novel is a semi-fictional story about my own coming out process so a lot of her traits are my traits– save the whole twin with the deceased father thing. But, the character I think I identify with most is Donna from K-Rho: The Sweet Taste of Sisterhood. I feel, I too, was misunderstood in college due to bad romantic choices and had an unearned reputation in college that wasn’t very flattering. But like Donna, I grew up and learned how to forgive myself and other people. I also love a good scripture and can let loose a stream of profanity when the time calls for it. Donna is smart, funny, and giving. I see her as the one who changes the most but still remains the same among all my characters. She grows up in a way I feel is authentic.

If you could sit down with any writer, living or dead, who would it be and what would you want to talk about?

I would want to sit down with Zora Neale Hurston and talk about how to balance representing the complexity of the rural black Southern population without it coming across as condensing or mocking. Hurston is my favorite author who manages in her fiction and nonfiction to capture community of small town folk using dialect that doesn’t seem to be pandering or mocking. She did it for Blacks in Jonah’s Gourd Vine as well as whites in Seraph of the Suwanee. Hurston explored such complex issues such as colorism, redemption, infidelity, domestic violence, and female friendship in a way so skilled that it takes my breath away each time I read her work. I aspire to reach the realm of her greatness. Along with writing, I would also like to discuss the state of society. Hurston had strong opinions about integration, she was against it, so I would love to discuss with her the present situation communities of color face to get her feedback. She lived so many lifetimes during her time on earth, I simply would be content to listen to her stories and let her share her wisdom.

If you could give one piece of advice to an aspiring writer, what would it be?

Never doubt your ability and know whatever you write is valuable, affirming, and needed. Every published writer has experienced the terror of feeling not up to the challenge of expressing their thoughts. Self-doubt is a dangerous acid that will eat away at your gift. No matter what, push back against the notion your words aren’t worthy. Keep writing in whatever way you need to in order to finish the project or at least come to a conclusion where you are satisfied. Every effort won’t be published, but it should be expressed. Honor your gift. It’s okay to be frustrated and to second-guess yourself. That is natural. But know the key to being a writer is to write. It doesn’t have to be a great novel. Just know that whatever you write is an achievement.