Hugo House instructor DaMaris B. Hill is the author of A Bound Woman Is a Dangerous Thing, The Fluid Boundaries of Suffrage and Jim Crow: Staking Claims in the American Heartland, and \Vi-zə-bəl\ \Teks-chərs\(Visible Textures). She holds PhDs in creative writing and women and gender studies from the University of Kansas, and is currently an associate professor at the University of Kentucky.
On January 31, DaMaris will be teaching Writing Diverse Characters. We recently caught up with her to learn more about her path as a writer, the inspiration behind her latest book, and her favorite things about teaching Writing Diverse Characters.
Can you tell us a little bit about your path as a writer and what drew you to poetry in particular?
As a child I embraced a hyper sense of creativity. This may have worried my parents or just simply annoyed them. 🙂
I was highly attracted to surrealism in any artistic form at a very young age, but I had no idea what surrealism was. I just know I loved Dali paintings, jazz songs, and anything “weirdly” beautiful. My parents allowed me to write and create but did not encourage it. They encouraged scientific and engineering type of work. I favored writing because it was the artform I could hide. Writing was something that belonged to me. Characters were friends to me. I did not admit that I was a writer until I won my first writing contest at 28. A few years later, I relocated from Baltimore, Maryland, to Lawrence, Kansas, in order to pursue my creative writing career. I have a keen interest in the work of Toni Morrison and theories regarding ‘rememory’ as a philosophy and aesthetic practice.
Your most recent book, A Bound Woman is a Dangerous Thing, is a narrative-in-verse that bears witness to American women of color burdened by incarceration. Can you tell us more about the book and what inspired it?
I was inspired by current events, particularly mass incarceration. I began to explore the system of mass incarceration. Shortly after, I began playing in the archives. The Sentencing Project’s fact sheet states, “[b]etween 1980 and 2014 the number of incarcerated women has increased by 700%.” This statistic stayed with me, haunted me. With this statistic and others in mind, I began writing poems about women that have experiences with incarceration.
In addition to earning a terminal degree in English, you also hold a PhD in women and gender studies. How, if at all, does your work as a scholar inform your creative writing?
Technically, I earned my certification in women and gender studies the semester before the PhD approved. Nonetheless, I engaged in both degree programs. The degree programs complemented one another. More importantly, both degree programs nourished me as a writer and provided some eclectic balance.
Patriarchal hierarchies are built into most structures, including education. American literature has a preference for “rags to riches” stories about men building their social status. My intellectual and creative self still desired something different; I wanted some semblance of balance—a reflection of life that wasn’t so linear and one-dimensional. I don’t like stories that I can predict. I wanted to read more stories and experiences of women and people that explored a less prescriptive life. Therefore, when possible, I engaged in courses that stimulated this curiosity. A women and gender studies degree program stimulated my curiosities.
Your upcoming class, Writing Diverse Characters, focuses on how racial and intersectional identities are introduced and developed in fiction. What is your favorite part of teaching this class?
My favorite part of this class is challenging writers to examine their selves, challenging writers to dissect how they view themselves in context with society. I also enjoy witnessing the ways writers explore in detail what they think they know about society and the “characters” within it. I enjoy writers using the techniques for writing diverse characters to further develop their stories or works. I also enjoy watching writer’s stories evolve and take on layered dimensions because of this writing technique and skill.
How would you describe your approach to teaching?
My approach to teaching is based on something I read by writer bell hooks. In Teaching to Transgress, bell hooks reminds us that “[a]s a classroom community, our capacity to generate excitement is deeply affected by our interest in one another, in hearing one another’s voices, in recognizing one another’s presence.” As a teacher, I am committed to teaching practices that require students to invest professionally and personally in their humanity. I intend for this investment to result in a transformative learning community, one that values democracy, intersectional identities, and informs individual writing voices.
What are three things you hope students will take away from your class?
I hope students learn to welcome complexity and the journey complexity presents. I hope these writers welcome the opportunity to challenge what they think they know about themselves and others. I hope students have fun and leave with multiple story ideas.