Nikki Harmon on Women-Centered Spaces and Storytelling

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.

Nikki Harmon, an alumna of The Philadelphia High School for Girls, Wesleyan University and Temple University, has always pursued academic challenges. However, cursed with an overabundance of curiosity, she chose a creative lifestyle as a way to indulge her many interests. As a filmmaker, television producer and a teacher of the aforementioned, she gets to spend her days weaving stories and images together and trying to make sense of it all.

Having ruined her eyes at a young age reading Stephen King by flashlight, it is only fitting that this Philly native finally come full circle to squint at her own scratchings on the page. Here is one truth learned… it takes much longer to write a book than it does to read one, especially when one has dropped out of typing class in high school.

When I Was Your Girlfriend is your first independently published novel. What have you learned about writing and publishing since releasing your book?

I learned that I knew nothing about it and every moment was like learning a new language. I was constantly searching for definitions and clarifications. What is a “gutter”? Chapters start one-third down the page and don’t get indented? What? Thank God for Google. I also started meeting other writers and realized how much of a community and network existed that I was completely unaware of. I am a filmmaker and teacher and for 20 plus years have trafficked in the independent film, video, and television world. I have always loved reading, though I don’t get to do it as much as I would like. But, I had never heard of Goodreads or Bowker or CreateSpace, etc.

Writers are no stranger to infusing their sociopolitical and culture views in their work, sometimes we do this with sprinkled hints. Other times, we use heavy-handed strokes. Dee Armstrong, your main character, attended an (a) all-girls high school and grew up to be a (b) same-gender-loving woman that is a (c) midwife— a profession that serves (d) women. Women-only spaces seem to be at the core of this novel, was this purposeful? If so, why? If not, can you tell us a little more about these spaces and themes as they relate to your work?

I wrote from personal experience. My extended family is female-heavy, I did attend an all-girls high school, I did want to be a midwife at one point, and being a lesbian, I often find myself hanging with friends who are also black lesbians. I’m also a parent, and talking with the other “moms” at school and kid-centered functions is my everyday life. I don’t think I was purposefully trying to create a theme, but I was trying to write a book specifically for other black lesbians to enjoy. I think going to an all-girls high school was a blessing. Not really as a lesbian, because back in the ‘80s, nobody would identify as lesbian, only as a girl growing into womanhood. It was just one less thing to worry about. No boys to impress or compete with, no relationship pressure throughout the school day. Every president was a girl, every best-in-class was a girl, every star of every show and sports team was a girl. We had other issues, some racial, some cultural, but gender dynamics were not a problem.

You have created, and helped to create, narratives in various pockets of the media industry. What has the novel, as a medium, taught you about the craft of storytelling?

One of the things I really enjoyed about writing was how lost I could get in the characters and the world they inhabit. I found the process pretty immersive and the story fun to live out in my head. I think I struggled with not writing it as a screenplay. I’m very used to the structure of traditional movie narratives and I found myself trying not to follow those guidelines– inciting incidents, 180 degree turns– but, I don’t think I was too successful. I also like some very quirky things in stories that I kind of wanted to try, but I didn’t think other readers would enjoy them as much. For example, I like stories that start out as one thing, or one genre, but then morph into something else entirely. I tried to stay pretty straight and narrow my first time out. I wanted to write a fun beach read with a happy ending. I think I accomplished that.

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

It’s hard to choose one… Octavia Butler would be fascinating. I read her books like 20 years ago and I was and still am so impressed with the scope of her imagination. Dawn, Imago, and Wildseed really sparked my imagination and introduced me to a whole other way of perceiving our world, perceiving humanity really. I just feel like she must have been a great student of people and civilization to be able to stand outside of it and write about it from a sentient alien perspective.

But, I also love Alice Walker and find her to be a fearless explorer of humanity in the here and now. She, too, just transported me, not off planet, but inside of other people. I love her work, her voice, and also her conviction to carve out her life according to her own wishes and desires.

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

I find writing can be a lonely business. I would say to seek out companionship with other writers. I think that would make the process easier and more fun. Find a few other people who understand your comma struggles, who will listen to what your crazy character just did, or who will just sit and write with you. Also, you need someone who will watch your laptop while you use the bathroom. Truth.