Black Women, Faith, and Sexuality

An Interview with Camille Hernandez

Writer/Theopoet and Interdisciplinary Artist; Author of the forthcoming book The Hero and The Whore

Describing the Work

I am a writer, specifically a poet, interdisciplinary artist, but I focus mostly on naming violence and healing from violence or healing from trauma and currently working on a project that is specific to sexual trauma and sexual violence.

The Journey to This Work

I grew up in a household that was unstable and there was violence, and I’m constantly on this journey of healing from it. I’ve always been in places that have been harsh, and I don’t think it’s because I choose them, I think it’s because I’m used to them. And now that I’m not in those specific places, I want to be able to write about what it meant to be in them and what it means to be out of them. And I have always been a writer but was kind of running away from it. I didn’t think that I was good enough for it. And I have done different forms of art because I was interested in it, but also because I didn’t think writing is valuable. Like I paint every so often. I used to be a professional dancer. I have done local missionary work, trauma-informed caretaker, trauma-informed mentor, and I’ve been a community organizer. In my work as a community organizer, I focus primarily on youth and youth-development. I used to direct creative programs, and I centered my work on youth in underserved communities because in one way, it was a reflection of myself, but I’m no longer in that. Now, I’m just writing full time.

Becoming a Full-Time Writer

It’s been a transition. Writing is a long-term game. You should have something in-line as you’re writing, unfortunately, I don’t have capacity because I have three kids under seven. But I know of other writers who are doing like fellowships…there are fellowship programs, there are artists-in-residence who are going to school. It just depends on what route you want to go through. For myself, I just wanted to write a book. I was just like someone take me, so desperate for it. And because I’m writing nonfiction…the book advance, do you know how that works? If you’re writing poetry or fiction, you pretty much have to have the whole thing written, and then the manuscript submitted to give to the literary agent to give to the publisher. With nonfiction, you don’t need that. So, a lot of Christian writing is technically nonfiction. You only have to send one or two chapters and have an outline for your other chapters. When a publisher picks it up, they’ll provide you with money to write for the rest of the book. It’s not that much. It’s like low five figures…You get the first half of it when signing the contract and the second half of it for submitting the manuscript. It’s not a livable wage. For me, it’s just research. It’s for my research. But with the book advance, the unfortunate part of the advance is that it’s a loan. So, the royalties you’ll be making is going towards that loan. So, it usually takes a writer 2-3 years before they receive royalties for their book. Everyone who wants to be a writer, I’m like, let me tell you the secrets because nobody talks to you about this stuff.

About the Book and the Process

The book is called The Hero and the Whore, and it is pretty much an abolitionist perspective of sexual violence, but I don’t use the work abolition because some people don’t like it. So, I’m looking at eleven characters of the Bible who have been sexually exploited, so that’s nine women and one man and one eunuch, and going into their story with an understanding…I don’t think the Bible is like truth in the sense that we have to refer to it for every story. I believe the Bible is truth in the sense of it can fit into every story. So, we’re looking at these characters that are either well-known or not well-known, I kind of treaded stories that are more well-known and like actually victims of sexual exploitation, not oversexualized victims, those are two different things. It is trying to find like a piece or a weird angle to approach that and really find that angle.

So, for example, my chapter on Hagar was the first chapter that I wrote because, Hagar, and I wrote Hagar’s story in the way of the majority of the Black women in my life do now, is an enslaved woman. Abraham and Sarah were her enslavers. So that story, but I had to tell the story through the lens of human trafficking. I have a memoir from a human trafficker where he talks about the businesses, so I explain like this is the business of human trafficking, and we’re looking at it per the body and womanhood and Hagar and also saying that in this particular critique in the business of human trafficking, this is how it plays out in everyday life for like myself.

So, there’s the reality of knowing that our responsibility is not to write about harm and then villainize people but to write about harm in a way that is open and intimate but also seeks to end the cycle of harm.

For someone who has never been trafficked, this is a manipulative relationship tactic that has worked for myself and has worked for like my sisters who are Asian and my sisters who are Black, like this is a common tactic. And then also saying like in Hagar’s story, I don’t agree with the fact that she returned, but as somebody who is Black and Asian and understands the difference between assimilation and submission, these are the things that I can tell you that I believed help her gain her freedom because it just freaking irritated her enslavers so much that they had to release her. So, it’s being able to read the stories, I won’t say in a different way because I don’t want to assume that I know better than anyone else, but instead of looking at works of theology, it’s looking at works of life and saying how does life fit into this?

Processing While Writing

I’m like always processing something. I’m like washing the dishes, and I’m like that popped up or I’m doing laundry, and I’m like that happened. There’s a lot of things that pop up. Like I wish I could be in therapy weekly, but I don’t have the financial capacity to. So, I do go to therapy once a month. There’s an understanding where I have dissociative anxiety, and I’ve also been gaslit a lot of my life, so I’m always questioning the reality of something. So, I can go to my mom, but my mom is also a victim of domestic violence and like intergenerational domestic violence, so it’s like I can’t even ask my mom if this is true. I have a really tight family and really close cousins, my cousin who’s my age, I’m like, did this happen? In the sense that I’ve been in survival mode my entire life. I remember the worst things, and he remembers the best things because he didn’t have the same experience as I did. So, I’m always like, did we have this happen or did we not? And I lean on my cousins a lot. Not for them to like reframe my mindset but because I’m going into like these dark places, not dark places, but places where I need someone to send a lifesaver because I ruminate real hard. So, there’s that.

There’s journaling, and there’s also, I don’t hear enough people talk about, especially nonfiction writers of color, the responsibility that we have to tell our stories in a way that understands harm and violence but doesn’t dehumanize the people who have harmed us because then we put these people into stereotypes, stereotypical roles, and we can’t control who holds those stories. So much of my book has poetry in it, and I have to understand I want to be very measured in what words I write because my poetry style is very visceral and is very embodied and my own. It’s very sexual. For me, I’m like if I want to write this, I can’t control who holds it, so I have to be very measured and making sure I write it with certain intimacy. And so, when I write, when I interweave these stories of the Bible with my own story or my own experiences, I always lean on, I think there was an interview with Toni Morrison, where she talks about The Bluest Eye, which is my favorite book, and Toni Morrison said that she was so particular in making sure that every character was humanized, even the character that did harm. That’s the hardest part where I feel like, “man that really hurt,” or “yes, my dad was abusive in that way” and also processing that I have to explain that he was abusive in this way because he was raised in the Mississippi delta in the 40s. What violence did he experience that he hasn’t healed from? So, there’s the reality of knowing that our responsibility is not to write about harm and then villainize people but to write about harm in a way that is open and intimate but also seeks to end the cycle of harm.

And since my book comes from an abolitionist perspective, another example is that I have a chapter on purity culture, and it was probably one of the hardest chapters to write because there’s so many angles to approach it. So, I’m writing about purity culture, and the problem with purity culture books is that the prominent ones are written by white women and white women for the most part write about, it’s very individual. And when you read like womanist [or Black feminist] writings on purity culture, like Jezebel Unhinged or Passionate and Pious [by Dr. Monique Moultrie], like we are looking at all of these outside factors to understand why we are here. And since I was raised in the white church and then the Black church and then back to the white church, I’m switching back and forth like this is what I experienced here, and this is what I experienced here, and this is what I experienced here, was that like all of these experiences are not individualist problems. It is a problem that was created by this bigger system that we aren’t allowing ourselves to see. In order for this cycle to end, we have to end this bigger picture.

And at the end of the day, I believe that survival is moral and how we choose to survive, shows our morality. And I think the communities that you’re in are the people you’re choosing to survive with, and that also shows your morality.

Challenges or Barriers to the Work

I would love to say that it’s time management, but our understanding of writing is particularly classist. They’re like, “oh, you have to make sure that you write like three hours a day and xyz.” It’s classist, and it’s ableist. Like I don’t have capacity to write all the time. I usually write after I put my kids to bed or when I take my kids to my parents’ house, which is once or twice a week or on the weekends. So, in that time in between, I’m listening to audio books and trying to squeeze in whatever time I can. I’m technically paying my mom tax. Your mom tax is when you give birth to your child and your career is halted. When you leave your career, you have to go back to entry level, so I haven’t been working since 2015. So, I’m still paying my mom tax, and there’s no financial assistance when it comes to mothering. A lot of the barriers are accessibility and assistance. I just have to work really hard in order to work really hard.

Advice For Those Who Hope to Do This Work

You have to find the right community. When I say find the right community, it’s like really be selective about who you surround yourself with. In the sense that I’m writing about abolition and freedom, and I was going to join this organizing to be in one of their leadership positions because for me, it was like, “this is a BIPOC-only led organization and program. Great!” But when it came to LGBTQ+ identities, not everyone was on the same page. At first, I was like, “it’s okay, this is a BIPOC-only led community.” And then I started really questioning like, is this okay? What does this look like on the outside? I don’t know if it’s helpful that I always ask myself these questions but for me, integrity is really important. So, I when I say have the right community, it’s not just your writing community but the counsel of people you have around you and that you go to when you need assistance or help or need someone to look at something. I was going to be on the leadership board for this organization. I went to these three Black women that I trust, and I was like, I need your opinion on this because this doesn’t feel right to me, and I need to see what you see from your perspective. And they were like, “yeah, this is not good.”

As a writer, the unfortunate part is that we are now in a time in publishing where they want more BIPOC writers. They want more BIPOC, queer, trans writers, and yet a publisher will look at your manuscript and say, “I’ve seen this before,” yet they don’t do that for white people. Like how many types of Jane Austen stories have existed? How many times has someone redone Pride and Prejudice? But heaven forbid you have a manuscript that has like the same sentence or the same character or some minor detail. To me, you need to be in the right community for the support. I know I get really drabbed. I was receiving a lot of rejections, and there are people who like bounce back from rejections. I don’t bounce back from them well, but the people who are in my community had to give me perspective, especially when it comes to Christian publishing.

Christian publishing is now being held accountable by people. Before, Christian publishing, they could publish whatever they wanted, and they weren’t getting as quick backlash. Think about Bad and Boujee and like that white lady. The whole situation, it blew everyone out of the water, but that was people power. That was accountability. We don’t want our stories told by these people. And when I was receiving rejections, I went to a person in the community, and I was like, “Maybe this is just bad. Maybe I shouldn’t do this.” And this person was just like, “Camille, you have to realize that the publishing industry, especially Christian publishing, has the responsibility of knowing that whatever they publish today, sets the tone for Christianity for decades to come, and you are so radical in your writing that it makes sense that a lot of people are going to say no.” And so that is why community is so important. You need perspective. You need accountability and also need to be with people who see you and teach you how to see others.

I feel like God calls us to be creative and expansive, and we can’t do that in homogenized communities.

And so, for example, my council of Black women, where I’m like what does this look like? And there’s also my actual publishing and writing community, and it is 50% trans, all BIPOC. I think I’m one of two straight girls, so it’s mostly queer, mostly trans, mostly nonbinary, but this is what I need to be held accountable. If I’m not intentionally in these communities, making relationships, not to be transactional because that’s the problem with Christianity, we’re taught to be transactional but making relationships, learning from people, having them tell me that my work sucks, having them tell me that I need to work on things better, then what I write is not going to serve anyone. It’s going to be from my own little perspective, but if my perspective is not expansive than it doesn’t do the service that God needs it to do. I feel like God calls us to be creative and expansive, and we can’t do that in homogenized communities. That’s my perspective as someone who has the privilege of being straight, not being single, but those specific privileges, it’s different.

And at the end of the day, I believe that survival is moral and how we choose to survive, shows our morality. And I think the communities that you’re in are the people you’re choosing to survive with, and that also shows your morality. Everything has to be done in community, has to be done collectively. It goes back to our ancestors. Like they did things in community and collectively. I’m working on a writing project with an organization where the editor-in-chief is very decolonized. Like the project was supposed to launch in February, and it’s not launching until January of next year because in the way we have constructed our decoloniality in publishing this thing, we’re like, okay, we need to go way slower. This needs to be done way slower. The integrity of that is so good.

But also, if I could just comment on writing and publishing, my assumption is that it was for a Christian writer [responding to a conflict of opportunity and differences in theology/ethics], I think that in regards to literary journals and publications, I am hoping that one day there is someone, who is not me, who will create a Christian literary journal that’s LGBTQ+ normalizing, not just affirming, because there’s really no spaces for us to write. And I’m in the headspace now for myself where after this book is published, I might just gravitate towards not being a Christian writer because I don’t really want that moniker. That means that we have to expand ourselves out of a very narrow category that we’re in because for the most part, I just don’t think we’re going to find what we need. I believe that we can make what we need. Alongside believing in that, I also know that we need finances, like we need to get paid what we’re worth and what we’re due. Which is why I think I’m so happy that you have the FTE grant because you have access to creating that. It’s just real hard. It’s always hard when you’re pioneering new things.

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