Identity and Social Justice in Writing: An Interview with Michelle Smith

March 18, 2024

Michelle Smith is an award-winning non-fiction writer, poet, and a member of SDWI. Her recent poem, “The Journey”, was chosen for the top 20 of Writer’s Digest poetry competition. She volunteers with WriteGirl and focuses on social justice in much of her writing. Her website and blog can be found here. Today, we get to hear about her background and the inspiration for her work.

 

 

Rachel Lemmen: You began with a career in medicine. Has this aspect of your life continued to influence your writing? What led you to take a different path in your profession?

 

Michelle Smith: I did have one in medicine as a physician. My history of practicing medicine influences my writing by providing me with plenty of drama and conflict to levy upon my characters, which imbues them with depth and makes them relatable. Thus, many of my stories reflect the darker side of humanity.

 

RL: On your blog, you mention you’re primarily a nonfiction writer but have been dabbling in poetry. With your recent success, do you see yourself focusing more on poetry?

 

MS: I’m definitely focusing more on poetry. I’m taking an online poetry class to learn additional literary tools for my nonfiction writing; however, I’m finding that the shorter format provides a great venue for difficult topics that I hadn’t yet been able to put into a longer form.

 

RL: You discuss on your blog that your poem, “The Journey”, was selected for the top 20 in the Writer’s Digest poetry award and how you felt karma was on your side. With this and your other accolades, have you struggled with imposter syndrome? If so, how have you overcome it?

 

MS: Recently, I told a few other writers that I felt like the “imposter” in the imposter syndrome. Because this win is fairly recent, and because I’ve just received a couple more honors, right now I’m a little in disbelief–mainly because I’m not formally trained as a writer. However, I’ve been studying writing for about 20 years, and I’m always improving. So I’m trying to accept that I’m good enough to receive these accolades.

 

I write on certain topics that I’m quite passionate about. And it’s those more passionate pieces that are getting noticed. Writing what I know helps a lot and resonates with my new motto, “Write what you’re passionate about.” Sharing my successes with fellow writers who critique my work also helps me deal with imposter syndrome.

 

RL: You’ve shared that “The Journey” is inspired by facts you found out about your ancestors regarding the slave trade. What made you decide to look into your heritage? Has it changed the way you write or view writing and should other writers get in touch with their past?

 

MS: I grew up feeling as though I did not have a warm family connection like all of my friends did. Once I left home, I tried to connect with some of my extended family, but I still felt lost, as though I had no identity. Fast forward to the recent pandemic: I decided to utilize some of that down time to research my family tree for two reasons: To confirm that my father was my biological father, and to examine those origins that would help define who I am racially.

 

I’ve always been seen as “different” or “mixed.” My ancestral research has revealed a lineage that taps into just about every aspect of the slave trade as well as the many facets of European nobility. And the two are interminably intertwined.

 

Learning about my ancestry has definitely changed how I view writing. Through writing, I can express my sentiments about fascinating revelations in my heritage. And I’m motivated to research a lot of the history surrounding the eras of my various ancestors, which adds another layer of complexity to my stories.

 

RL: You have a piece being choreographed for performance by Spencer Powell, which began from a collaboration with San Diego Writers, Ink at Creative Alchemy: Igniting Collaborations among BIPOC Artists. What is it like seeing your written work transformed for a different medium?

 

MS: It’s rather fascinating to see this happen. When I was first asked to participate, I had absolutely no idea what such collaboration entailed. Online research provided scant information, so it definitely was a learning process. Since that initial preliminary event, the choreographer and I have partnered to produce two shows based on my monologues. We are still in the early stages of rehearsals and refinement, so I’ll have a better idea of what it’s like to see my work transformed for a different medium in the near future.

 

RL: You volunteer at WriteGirl which supports girls in creative writing and self-expression and you also serve on the SDWI Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee. What is your vision for the intersection of social justice and writing in your life?

 

MS: When I was first published, I was writing health-related articles for local magazines. I was an ardent proponent of health promotion and disease prevention, so I enjoyed getting a message of healthy lifestyles out to a large number of people beyond my office and hospital practice. Now, I want to give a voice to those marginalized and historically underrepresented people who want and need to know they are not alone in their struggles with social injustice.

 

During the aftermath of the George Floyd murder and the summer of racial reckoning, we saw a number of Black folks say they’d simply had enough with institutionalized racism. Many talked about how tired they were having to navigate through life as second-class citizens. Then something happened inside me when I saw others reeling from the same burden of implicit and explicit biases that I’d endured all my life. I realized just how weary I was from decades of having to put on my armor each and every time I left my home.

 

I decided to express some of my dissatisfaction with the status quo by writing essays on social injustices, and I couldn’t write them fast enough. For the first time, I didn’t want to hold back anymore and worry about making folks uncomfortable with the truth. So writing on these issues has been cathartic, informative, and one of many ways of affirming that I am as deserving as the next person of the rights and freedoms afforded to all Americans. And knowing how hard my ancestors fought for these rights and freedoms, I’m not about to let all that sacrifice be wasted.

 

RL: Do you have any advice for other writers?

 

MS: Yes. Build a community of other writers whether it be through critique groups, online writing courses, local library meetups, writing societies, etc. Writing is largely a solitary effort and it helps to know that others are going through the same ups and downs as you are. Reading other writers’ works allows you to study a genre you may want to write in, and it also exposes you to different literary styles and techniques. But that old adage about “write, write, write” is so true. The more you write, the better a writer you become.

 

 

Tickets are now on sale for Mounarath-Powell Dance’s 15th anniversary celebration. Michelle Smith’s monologue titled “Ode to Jesse” will be performed along with several other performances on May 2-4, 2024. Click here for more information!

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