Mai’a Williams is a writer, editor, visual and performance artist. It was her living and working with Egyptian, Palestinian, Congolese, and Central American indigenous mothers in resistance communities, that inspired her life-giving mothering work and visionary art-making practices. She is the co-editor of the anthology, Revolutionary Mothering: Love on the Front Lines and the author of the memoir, This is How We Survive: Revolutionary Mothering, War, and Exile in the 21st Century to be published in December 2018.
Carico: What got you involved in activism?
Williams: Honestly, I’m not sure how to answer this. My father was a Black radical activist in his early 20s in southern California, so I think that my radical analysis started with conversations I had with him as a child. It always just seemed evident to me that the world was not fair to people and it was our obligation as a human to do our best to make the world more fair. I know that a lot of people think, well, all I can do is take care of myself and mines, but I always felt like it was my responsibility as a human on this planet to do more than just take care of myself and my self-interested, short-term goals.
Carico: Were your politics always radical? If not what was the impetus that changed your ideology?
Williams: So yeah I think my politics were always radical. They became more nuanced as I grew older, read more, studied more and listened more to radical elders. I read all I could on Malcolm X and Black radical movements when I was an early teenager. I was really concerned with environmental destruction and its impact on poor, rural folks in the Third World. I identified as an eco-feminist anarchist by the time I was 16.
Carico: What sort of work have you been involved in?
Williams: Okay…I have an already saved bio to answer this and I feel like I am going to just copy and paste it since…it is a lot…
If you have more specific questions about my work, please feel free to ask. But I think this gives a basic overview…
Also I just spent the past two years writing a book to answer this question.. Ha ha ha
Mai’a Williams is a writer and poet and lives in the U.S. with her daughter, Theresa. She worked in Quito, Ecuador in 2014 and 2015 as a journalist for teleSUR English, the global Venezuelan revolutionary news agency. In 2013, she lived in Berlin, Germany and worked as a writer and editor.
From 2009 through 2013, she was a community organizer and journalist in Cairo before, during and after the Egyptian revolution. In January 2009, she spent three days in Israeli detention with her one-year old daughter, during the bombings on Gaza, and after being freed from Israeli jail, she moved to Cairo and organized outreach programs with Sudanese teenage refugees/gang members.
She lived and studied in Chiapas, Mexico in 2007-2008 for six months and attended the Zapatista Women’s Encuentro with her baby daughter. In Minneapolis in 2007, she worked as a doula (birth assistant) for working poor Black American and recent west African refugee young mamas.
In the summer of 2006, she was a print and radio broadcast journalist for International Middle East Media Center, during the Israeli-Hezbollah war. In the autumn of 2005, she researched the effects of the of war on local communities, especially on woman, in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. That year, she also worked on staff as the anti-oppression consultant and training director for Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT). In 2004, she lived in Jerusalem, Hebron, and the village of at-Tuwani in the southern Hebron hills, Palestine, accompanying communities under the threat of Israeli military violence.
It was her living and working with Palestinian, Congolese, and Central American indigenous mothers in resistance communities, that initially inspired her to become a mother and continues to guide her as she practices this life-giving work, called radical mothering.
She is author of two chapbooks of poetry, No God but Ghosts and Monsters and Other Silent Creatures. She is the instigator of the Outlaw Midwives movement, zines, and blog which shifts the discourse around birth, life, death and healing by offering a vision of radical empowerment and accountability. In 2008, she published the Revolutionary Motherhood anthology zine and the corresponding group blog, a collection of writing and visual art about mothering on the margins, which became the inspiration for Revolutionary Mothering: Love on the Front Lines. Her memoir, This is How We Survive: Revolutionary Mothering, War, and Exile in the 21st Century will be published by PM Press in autumn of 2018.
Carico: You write about radical mothering. Can you give us parents some tips on how to engage in that?
Williams: I don’t really give tips on how to be a parent. Like, that is not really my role. I admit I have a strong inclination against using corporal punishment or creating extreme power imbalances between children and adults.
Radical mothering, for me, has meant that I became a mother because I was inspired by the amazing mamas I worked with and conversed with who were doing love work in the midst of so much violence.
When mothering work is centered in our movements, when life-sustaining and life-affirming work is centered in our movements, then our movements become more sustainable. We do need to remember that most of our most successful have been created by mamas and their children. Movement building is care work.
I don’t get involved with movements any more that don’t center mothering, because those movements don’t succeed. They never do. And I don’t want to waste my precious time on this earth battling myopic machismo, grandstanding, adrenaline junkies, celebrity activists, hyper-individualism, etc. I want to see grandmother circles as the center of decision-making for the collective or organization. I want to see mothering work at the center of movemements.
Carico: What do you feel can be done about infighting and sectarianism on the left?
Williams: I don’t know. I assume you mean infighting and sectarianism in the US left…and honestly, I’m kind of removed from all of that. At this point I’m more familiar with infighting in the European left or the MENA left.
Most of the fights I see seem silly to me and that is probably because I have a very sincere and defined set of priorities in my political and personal life and those priorities guide my analysis. And since those priorities are not super popular in the Left, I feel like I disagree often times with most sides of the argument…
I know on the European left there is a lot of back and forth about Syria and Assad, but since my main priority is supporting mamas, it is pretty clear that I don’t support the US, or the Syrian government, or Russia, or imperialism, in general, or state violence, or militant violence that aims to disempower and destroy life-sustaining systems and work, nor pacifist ideologies, etc.
I know there was a huge kerfuffle about Bernie vs Hillary in the US, but frankly, while I think that Bernie’s economic policies would create more sustainable communities in the US, the very fact that he didn’t center Black mama work in his campaign from the beginning speaks to the limits of socialism as a panacea for racism and anti-Blackness. His struggle with including intersectionality frameworks in his campaign was his death knell. Furthermore, his continued support for US imperialism turns me off (I lived in MENA the last time the US elected a progressive imperialist president…) and as for Hillary…yeah…not interested at all.
I mean Bernie decided not to do critical campaigning in the South: https://www.yahoo.com/news/alabama-worst-poverty-developed-world-152119314.html
Honestly, I want us to have wider visions and deeper radical analysis rather than arguing over these piecemeal solutions to structural and imperial problems while the living world is going extinct. We need to decolonize the land and our imaginations.
And I’m not really that interested in creating some large umbrella movement of various competing factions that finally defeats neoliberal capitalist policies in the US. And I don’t really care if you follow anarcho-capitalism or venezuelan-style socialism… I care if you center the most marginalized in your work. I care if you are rooting out abuse culture from within and without your interpersonal dynamics, your organizations, your societies.
Carico: What are your thoughts on preventing near term human extinction?
Williams: Well human beings like all life live off the landbase. What happens to us is not separate from what happens to the land, water, air, plants and non-human animals. To the soil and the atmosphere. My mother worked for nearly 40 years for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and in the 80s I remember reading about the thinning of the ozone layer and global warming in pamphlets she brought home from the office and imagining, as a child, that the end of the world would come through ecological destruction. Some of my early awakenings into activism in my early teenage years were focused on ecological and environmental issues (vegetarianism, forest clean-ups, nature survival skills, protesting the assassination of Ken Saro Wiwa and the violence of oil corporations, etc.).
So I say all of that to say, that the human work of taking care of the land, of creating new ecologies in the midst of environmental degradation and ecological destruction, of re-creating communities in which life-affirming and life-sustaining work is centered (considered to be top priority) is the best chance we, as a human species, have to survive. The best examples of this work that I have witnessed has been done by folks, often times mamas, who are living at the forefront of the effects of life-destructive global systems. For example, women in the DRC who are working daily to save the landbase or indigenous mamas in central america and india who are saving traditional seed cultures. Traditional southern Black midwives who provided the type of care work that saved Black families and communities in the slavery and apartheid era. This kind of work is often referred to as ‘invisible’ labor, it is poorly compensated and not considered glamorous. But it is the work that has made human life possible for millenia and is our best bet for human life to continue in the midst of the death machines of heteropatriarchial white neo-liberal capitalism.
Carico: What would a successful revolution look like in the United States?
Williams: Give it all back, all of it, to Indigenous folks and Black descendants of enslaved Africans.
I find it utterly ridiculous that people envision revolution in North America with intricate analysis and step by step plans and barely mention that all of the land must be returned to Indigenous folks and capital must be returned to Black and Indigenous folks.
Carico: Who are your inspirations?
Williams: Today, I am really inspired by the work of Audre Lorde and June Jordan. Silvia Rivera. The Palestinian mamas I worked with in the West Bank. Mamas in the DRC. Zapatista mamas. Silvia Federici’s work on primitive accumulation and care work. Alexis Gumbs work on the Black feminist imagination and Moya Bailey’s work around misogynoir and disability. My daughter’s joy and brilliance in the midst of violence. My grandmother’s resilience and grace and honesty. Nadia Abou Karr’s work on healing and sexuality. I had great conversations this week with my friends Sharon Mansur and Mary Jo Klinker that has me thinking about the body, artistic creation, movement, social justice, abuse culture, gender and Palestine. I am currently reading Gabrielle Civil’s monograph, Swallow the Fish, that is expanding my ideas on performance art. Heard Winona LaDuke speak last month after the showing of her documentary and I was so inspired by that level of lifetime dedication to justice for the land and for her people.
Carico: What is your favorite art?
Williams: I have no idea how to answer this. Best poetry book I’ve read so far in 2018 is Safia Elhillo’s The January Children. Utterly brilliant.
And I love yayoi’s work: http://artsatl.com/news-yayoi-kusamas-infinity-mirror-rooms-coming-high-museum-2018/
Carico: Any final shout outs?
Williams: Yeah! Thanks for doing this interview and so sorry for its delay! Dear god, life comes so fast sometimes. Thanks to the ancestresses who guide me. Thanks to my daughter who really is incredibly patient and adaptable and has traveled with me across the globe joyfully and humbly.