We had the good fortune of connecting with Ashunda Norris and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Ashunda, how has your perspective on work-life balance evolved over time?
Before the pandemic, I was teaching high school English Lit full time and producing, directing, writing films while in grad school pursuing MFAs in Creative Writing. So, to say my life was hectic is an understatement. After the world shut down, I was forced to sit. I used the time to reflect, rest and reset. I reestablished my relationship to myself, and in turn, to my work and my creative ambitions.
These days, I take more time for me. I lessen my workload. I give myself permission to simply do nothing at all for entire days. Being an artist takes fuel. I make sure I fill up the tank. I release guilt around not “being productive.” One of my most constant mantras is that my ancestors have worked hard enough already, they held enough tension in their bodies from having to work “from cain’t see to cain’t see” and all that nerve agitation got passed down to me. Their DNA now lives in my bones. So ain’t no way I’m gon continue to internalize toxic grind culture. Honestly, if Indigenous Black African folk do nothing else from this moment forth, enough has already been given and no more is required.
I learned to set more firm boundaries. Emails, social media use, text responses, requests for free labor, expectations in interpersonal relationships, etc. all get checked at my mental door. If it’s too much for me, I don’t do it. The power of the word ‘no’ is an actual miracle. I claim my rest with a firm hand. Nothing comes before me and my care. Every day isn’t a perfect hold on keeping my balance tight, but it’s vastly different from how I was living pre pandemic.
I see balanced living as recognizing that I am spiritual being with gifts, but those gifts and how I choose to use them don’t define me and my full human experience here on earth. I don’t have to constantly “do” to prove my worth. I don’t have to constantly “be on” to be seen as valuable. I’m worthy just as I am without accolades, without having to perform, without satisfying arbitrary measures set forth by a masculinist white supremacist capitalist patriarchal system of delusion. I live each day in gratitude for simple pleasures; waking up to the sounds of birds talking, the sun beaming on my face, having Elders to learn from, me and my sisters sharing a laugh.
Alright, so let’s move onto what keeps you busy professionally?
I’m a multidisciplinary artist who works across the fields of cinema, poetics, archiving and critical scholarship. I tell stories about desires close to my heart and histories I’m captivated by usually with Black women front and center. I imagine Black futures. The journey to becoming an artist was long and incredibly difficult, but I’m still here and I’m still making. It took me a while to be confident in my abilities, to stand tall in my genius and not apologize for it. For many years, I didn’t want people to see how much I knew my talent was evident, that I knew I could write, could create and just needed time and opportunities to cultivate the brilliance. This was simply my socialization as a Southern Black woman taught not to rock the boat. I quickly found out that if I was going to be a filmmaker, I had to release my own and everyone else’s preconceived notions of who, what and how I should be in the world. The more I learn myself, the more honest I can be in the work. The more time I take to heal those wounded parts of myself, the better I can show up for myself and give myself what I need. When I get distinct and direct about putting myself first, the more candid and genuine I can be when I face the page, the canvas, the edit bay. Chile, if somebody had told me it takes internal work to be the kind of artist I want to be, I wouldn’t have believed them. Healing is such a buzzword now, but for Black womxn and femmes, who sometimes live in constant states of shock, usually spurred by the everyday casualness of misogynoir, that type of tending is paramount. I’ve learned to be more selfish, more self-centered, more self-absorbed and letting folks believe what they want. I’ve learned to release. I’ve learned to redefine what success is to me, to realign my purpose. There were lots of growing pains because I didn’t realize how much the constant rejection and competitive nature would heighten my sensitivity. Thankfully, I’ve realized that rejections are forms of protection in most cases and that anything for me and my highest good will not pass me by.
My latest film work, Mino: A Diasporic Myth has garnered some award recognition which has been a nice surprise. A few stand out; the ‘Jury Award’ given by the Black Film Festival of New Orleans, ‘Best Sci- Fi’ from the Berlin Short Film Festival and the ‘Producer Award’ granted by the Idlewild Film Festival. I produced the film by necessity, because I didn’t want to keep waiting to find someone to assist in that arena. It’s always a balm when the work doesn’t go unnoticed. It’s also fuel for me to keep going, to stay on the path, to not give up on my dreams.
Few things please me more than traveling, beaches, plant medicines, the backwoods of Georgia, and talking to my Elders, so I’m currently working on ways to merge cinema with my obsessions. I’m excited about the archiving work I’m doing within my family structure. It seems I’ve ordained myself record keeper of the family history on both the maternal and paternal sides. It’s been my plan to organize the ancestral tree for years, so I’ve used recent downtime to focus on it more and let me tell you, finding lineage on the Census is breathtaking. It’s a form of ancestor veneration, and the rewards of this work are endless.
I’ve started to call myself a maroon filmmaker; as in uncontrollable, wild, feral, runaway. I’m in the midst of another shift in my practice spurred by a desire to be merciless in pursuit of complete autonomy of my work, relentless about who the gaze captures and how, and my fascination with the complexities of Black female life.
Any places to eat or things to do that you can share with our readers? If they have a friend visiting town, what are some spots they could take them to?
It’s great when folks come to visit because it gives me space to remember why I love this city so much. After much trial and error, L.A. has finally grown on me. Day one is spent recovering from jet lag, but food is usually on the agenda so I’ll take them to Taqueria Los Anaya for some of the best Mexican food in the city. I used to go to this hole in the wall spot on Western & 5th but it closed down and is now some gentrified influencer hang out [ugh] so Taqueria is where I usually go for a fish burrito. If the next day is nice, we going to the beach. Visiting the ocean is medicinal, active recuperation from whatever problems are ailing. Nothing is more constant, more calming that the sea. Day three is the day of rest so lounging around and taking naps is on the agenda and since I love movies, we’d watch a classic like Love Jones or a more obscure picture depending on what my guest is into though honestly, I’m usually always trying to get people to watch films like Daughters of the Dust, Sankofa and Touki Bouki. Speaking of cinema, one of the best theatre experiences here in the city was at the ArcLight in Culver City but it’s closed now! So going to see a film at the Academy Museum is well worth it. Sushi in L.A. is top notch, so a stop by Noshi Sushi. Another day can be spent on some culture: museums and bookstores. The Broad currently has 13 of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s artworks on exhibit, and it’s worth a visit. For books: Eso Won Books and The Book Jewel are two of my favorites. Day five is for some daytime drinking and lounging at one of L.A.’s rooftop bars. Another good restaurant is Castaway in Burbank. They serve amazing sea bass. Before those blue cage type gates went up around Leimert Park, it was a great place to be on lazy Sunday afternoons. The vendors, the drum circle, the people out vibing is a scene. Hiking in L.A. is part of the culture and two of the most popular places I like to expose folks to are Griffith Park and Runyon Canyon.
My sister Jhwanda and my Aunties. Jhwanda saw my talent before I did, read the beginning chapters of my novels, my poems, my scripts, watched the first cuts of my films, and kept encouraging me to keep going even when I didn’t really believe in myself. She risked so much to be a singer and watching her chase her dreams left me in awe because I could not fathom how she was doing it, especially with limited support. I had buried my ambitions so to see her living every day with her gift front and center gave me courage to take the leap myself. I am not an artist without my sister. She’s my biggest champion and the prototype. My Aunts see right through me and know what I need even when I don’t say a word. They give me space to laugh, weep, wail, tell my secrets and just be myself. They live their lives so fully, so bravely, so distinctly, I am amazed by their everyday divine. Southern Black Women are one of a kind and those in my family are no exception. Entertainers, honey. All of them. That creativity brewing and boiling over in my Aunties reminds me that I come from a people of genius. My cousins always boost me up, hype me and support my wildest dreams. I appreciate them so much. I also want to shout out my teachers; Mrs. Daniels, Mrs. Hobbs, Mrs. Lewis, Ms. Corbin, Ms. Pauldo, Ms. Alligood, Ms. Bush, Dr. Traylor, Dr. Williams, [trying to remember all their names! Charge it to my head and not my heart] for seeing promise in me, for listening to a shy, weird kid ramble on about anything at all, for saying ‘yes’ every time I asked to go to the library, for not telling me to put my book away in class, for pushing me to live up to my best potential, for not allowing me to settle for crumbs, for showing me anything is possible.
Breiana Autena Moon Ink Photography Marcus Jackson