Yabome Gilpin-Jackson is an applied social scientist who was born in Germany, grew up in Sierra Leone, and Canada and studied in the USA. Among many, many other things, she teaches at Simon Fraser University, owns her own consulting firm, and is a cofounder of the leadership network We Will Lead Africa. Gilpin-Jackson’s first collection of fictional short stories, Identities, came out in 2016 and was followed up by Ancestries in 2019. Both explore global African identities and experiences with a focus on familial connections across time and space. Micah Killjoy, a Room collective member, had the pleasure of interviewing her as the commissioned author for the upcoming Room issue 44.2, edited by Isabella Wang.
[This Interview was conducted via Zoom and has been edited for clarity and brevity.]
Room: Hello Yabome! Can you give a breakdown of who you are and what your work is?
Yabome Gilpin-Jackson: You know, who I am in this moment is made up of so many things that have gone into this moment. So it’s the intersectionality of who I am, I can’t flatten that. So who am I in this moment—which might be different next week [laughs].
What my work is centered around is this passion for human development. No matter where we are, we can all develop further, and there’s always possibility for our thinking and our persons to expand. That expansion, for me, is about furthering our individual and collective potential as humanity, and I’m super passionate about that. I often get the question, ‘Oh, you seem to do so many things.’ They’re all connected by that point—What is the human development possibility here that will help us transform ourselves for the better?
Room: I want to talk about your book, Ancestries. It’s a consideration of familial connections, of characters growing as people, but it’s also across multi-generational time spans. You mentioned in your after note that part of the struggle for being a global African is that folks are very far from home and feel very underrepresented in media, and continually seeing themselves as ‘the Other’. What brought you to that theme? What incited that for you?
YGJ: I think the answer to that afterward is in the dedication to the book, a quote which in Krio is, If you nor sabi ouseye you comot, you nor go sabi ouseye you dey go: If you don’t know where you came from, you won’t know where you’re going. It’s that idea that to really begin to dream and imagine and look to the future—the anchor is rootedness. It’s ‘where do I come from?’ What is the context that has formed me? What do I need to know about my place in life—not in the world—but my place in life?’ That would give me a sense of identity and purpose and belonging. And for me, as a Black woman in the societal context of the West, I’m not going to find that outside of myself.
Also, I want to qualify that I’m very interested in this language about “finding yourself” because it’s actually “knowing yourself”. I’m really interested in transforming that language. If you don’t know where you come from, you won’t know where you’re going. Where have I belonged? And therefore, what’s my place in life—past, present, and future—that will help me anchor to this idea of representation and belonging? Because I’m not going to find that externally.
So I’m not going to know that by looking at the social context. I’m going to know by looking at my own rootedness, my own past and also really being influenced by a lot of Indigenous cultures – the seven generations past and forward. We’re not just here in this moment, but we’re really influenced by the idea of ‘what if I had a longer view that extends the timeline behind and in front of me?’ and this way too [moves hands to demonstrate to people alongside her]. Like, ‘who else is beside me?’ What would that do for the sense of belonging so that I don’t just absorb what I’m experiencing from the external environment, but really be rooted and grounded? I think the final influence on that was the experience that often people say to me, (which has sometimes landed with a bit of a pinch when it seems to be a surprise for the asker) ‘You’re so confident! You seem so confident and well-spoken and grounded in your sense of self. Where did that come from for you?’ And for me that came in the rootedness and grounding of my family. Hence Ancestries.
Room: Speaking to my experience in reading global African literature—back in 2009 I started doing internal anti-racism work and trying to tear stuff apart and rethink how I saw the world. I picked up a book that was popular at the time—a collection of short stories that, from what I remember, were all done with beautiful craft. But they were all stories about terrible things happening to children in Africa due to war and conflict. And I remember it didn’t stretch my idea of what actually exists out there. So it was refreshing, especially with stories like ”Chopped” in Ancestries, where you have happy endings. So, thank you for doing that. I’m assuming it’s fairly intentional.
YGJ: You know what, initially it wasn’t! But I’ve heard that same sentiment expressed in reviews of Identities. Someone wrote to me and said, ‘This is one of the few books I have read about Africa and African issues— ‘ and this is from a global African also—’because I’m tired of the usual story line. And what I loved about your book is that you didn’t play from the usual story line of what’s hard or the social issues of being African. And you also filled in the picture with all the other things that are in the human context. The context of the person, of the place, and where you have been,’ she said. Initially I was like, ‘What? I didn’t intend to!’ [laughs]. So, even other comments like, ‘You talk about the war but not only about the war. It’s such a different angle about the impact of different war experiences on people and identities.’
And then it was a bit more conscious with Ancestries. Someone else said of Ancestries, ‘My only reference for Sierra Leone has been the big negative things: Civil War, Ebola. And then I read your book and it was compelling to focus on the human stories of Sierra Leoneans beyond the civil war.’ Those were not the things I consciously intended to do. But what it says about me as a writer, is what fuels my work in the world, and that idea, again, of social change and transformation and human development needing a systems view. What we often have is not the systems view, or full awareness of the impact of actions that might seem well-intended or ‘positive’ on the surface, but are really not looking at the systems view and the long view and the full picture of how things impact people: real people behind these actions.
Room: Will you speak a little bit more to that? How would you define a systems view? What would that look like?
YGJ: The thread between the parts of my life is human development. My scholarly and research background is in human and organizational systems. And the ‘systems view’ is about being aware of the whole context rather than taking one element out.
And therefore, being aware of questions such as: If I change this one piece of the puzzle, how does it impact everything else? What are we actually choosing when we change this one thing in the system? You need to look at all the parts to see how they’re interconnected to understand the impacts of moving any one piece.
The popular negative narrative of Africa as the poor ‘Dark Continent’ in need of help and saving doesn’t account for the world system view of when people in a place have lived with a context of oppression for X number of years and then, all of a sudden, there’s this wave of social justice, and then there’s a change. And in that change, there’s different kinds of impacts.
That popular narrative doesn’t account for all of the reasons things continue to happen, like war. It doesn’t account for the fact that the resources on the continent are still not accessible or being used by the people on the continent because dominant systems of oppression are still operating, just differently. And individuals and groups on the continent are still not getting basic human needs met that come with having the right resources.
It’s like, if you look at it from this lens of the popular narrative, that narrative says let’s reinforce the stereotype of poor Black Africa. Or on the other end, let’s romanticize the ‘resilience’ of African peoples, because in spite of all that, here they are, still existing and (surprise!) moving forward. Neither is the right story, from a systems lens.
Room: That makes me think about your scholarship. One of the things that you got out of doing transformative learning was, ‘don’t divorce yourself from your scholarship.’ I’m curious how that has played out in your professional life. What are ways that you’ve tried to really live that out?
YGJ: It’s been huge for me. The dominant educational context—Western education—really dichotomizes things. And so to be an empirical researcher means that you’re looking at the data dispassionately. That’s what I grew up learning; you’re being objective about looking at the big picture. It’s that very positivist view that separates the human from the data of the situation, of the learning task at hand. That transformation, that journey for myself, was huge. Because then it meant that if I don’t separate myself from the scholarship and pay attention to notions of interpretivism—that my experience and context matters in my research—everything changes. It changed the questions I asked, to explore in my scholarship. It changed where I chose to work. The idea from The Sociological Imagination, by C. Wright Mills, is that good sociology, which for me is research, reveals the public issues inherent in troubles privately felt. That idea opened a whole new world for me as a scholar. For me and my identity as someone who’s a Black woman from Sierra Leone, who moved to Canada, who has had these lived experiences as a refugee and immigrant, I realized how much the systems behind those issues are not well-considered in popular narratives, as well as policy consciousness. I wanted to do research to explore the questions that seemed to be unexplored and thereby make contributions as the research bore out.
What that idea from transformative learning drove home for me is that each of us bring unique gifts to the world because of who you are. And if I don’t grab on and make that contribution—it doesn’t mean that contribution is not going to be made, I’m not that egotistical [laughs] — but that’s the opportunity, is bringing our uniqueness to the world. And so it allowed me to just give up trying to fit the mold of convention—conventional researcher, conventional graduate student — and just really explore the places that I’m truly passionate about. In a lot of sense, you know all this movement about being an ‘authentic leader’? Well, if I’m not divorcing myself from my leadership, then I don’t have to think about being an authentic leader. I can just be.
Room: In Ancestries you’re imagining this distant future where people are talking about their histories and what it means to be an African. I love that speculative fiction aspect of it. I’m curious about your vision—what would a world look like where all Black lives matter? What are your dreams for that world?
YGJ: A lot of that is spelled out in my short story “We Humans Love”, which I wrote before the current moment. You know that weird sensation when you write about something and then feel like you’re now living it? Or people read the book who have reached out to me and said ‘OMG, you wrote this story before all this.’
So I think a lot of my vision is spelled out in that. It is a world where we can get past the defenses that we humans put up when we don’t want to see the suffering of others. So that we/they can keep living life guilt-free. Yet, there are the realities of living our lives guilt-free when there’s so much suffering in the world. That goes as much for me as for anybody else, right? I might be wearing clothing that was made in a sweatshop, where the standard of living or the conditions that people face are not things that I would want to benefit from. I say this not with a relative sort of judgment of right and wrong, because I also again understand the fullness in some of those contexts working in that warehouse is the difference between income and no income, the difference between food and being on the street. So I say that with humility also.
Fundamentally, the idea that there’s no looking away. That, in my view, is not possible anymore. So we have the whole world where it’s possible to look at, and step into those shoes and we get empathy. Not in this way that we’ve been doing, where we’re talking about the thing in some session enough to feel good and go like, ‘Okay, check! I’ve absolved myself of some guilt so I can move on now. Not in that way. But in a deep way. So, in ”We Humans Love,” you know, my imagination was ‘What would it be like for people to have such an embodied experience of these realities that having enough empathy to do the right thing is not even a question? How do we get to that world?’ That is what’s on the other side of the question of vision. We’re in a world where nobody turns away from the issues facing Black peoples all over the world. Nobody turns away from the issues facing people with different identities, whether that’s gender identities or whether that’s sexual orientation or the whole spectrum that we’ve created of these artificial hierarchies and privilege.
At the core of it, for me, is humanity and human suffering and human rights. I think the thing I can’t stomach is humans inflicting suffering that we are choosing—by choice—to continue against different people groups, and in this case, specifically Black people. So, that’s my thing: we just won’t be okay as a society with people being hurt avoidably, and continue to cause harm because we’d rather be blind, because it’s easier to enjoy the privilege of dominance over doing the right thing.
ROOM: You’ve also discussed the struggles your kids have had in starting to embrace, investigate and navigate identity as Black in North America and as part of the global African community. I often assume, to a certain extent, that most writers are writing in a way to their younger selves, their family, or their kinship connections. As you’re writing, what idea or concept do you really wish you could impart to them?
YGJ: It’s really giving them a sense that they do not need to explain themselves to anyone. They do not owe anyone an explanation because they are grounded in the knowledge of who they are – the good, the bad and the ugly. Whatever it is, that’s there—even in their lineage, their ancestry, wherever we’ve been, and wherever we’re going. It’s saying to them, ‘You don’t owe anyone an explanation, but you have a choice. You can choose when and how you explain yourself, but while making that choice you ought to know where you’ve come from, as an individual, as a person, and where you stand relative to the impact and the influence you want to have in the world, now and for the future.’
I think that’s what it is. And here it is, the very hopes I have for them, the very things I say to them outside of writing, about identity and belonging and confidence in their self-identity and their self-determination. Here it is, written down also in different ways. And maybe, just maybe, one day they’ll read it (because no one wants to read their parents writing at a certain age) and feel reaffirmed in the messages we’ve tried to impart to them growing up.