Tell us a bit about who you are, where you come from, and what inspires you.
Hi, family! My name is Najya (Nye-yuh) Williams and I am a sophomore at Harvard College, where I am studying Sociology as a pre-medical student. In terms of ethnicity and race, I identify as an Afro-Caribbean woman. My mother is a native Washingtonian by way of my South Carolinian grandmother, and my father is a Guyanese immigrant. In thinking about where I come from, there are so many thoughts that come to mind. I am a proud native of Washington, D.C. proper, the home to mumbo sauce and go-go music. I come from Ward 7, a notoriously marginalized community within the District. I come from a family of griots and storytellers who have fiercely protected our history. I come from the prayers of my enslaved ancestors. I come from a divine royalty that will always make a temple out of my body.
I began writing poetry as a form of healing after my maternal grandmother lost her battle with colon cancer in 2006. I began writing poetry as a form of activism and political dissent after the death of Trayvon Martin in 2012. These two moments transformed my life as an artist and writer forever, and they always serve as the force that drives almost everything I do as a writer. As I grow older and experience more as a young adult, I find that generation Z’s potential to change the world, the pure divinity of Black women and Black love lie at the heart of what I create these days. I’ve always wanted to leave this Earth happy, in love (with myself first and then with my partner) and having made it better than I found it, so much of my inspiration lies there as well.
What does your writing process look like?
My writing process for poetry flows best in the wee hours of the night, and it only happens when I am inspired! When something peaks my curiosity, which could be a scene from a rom-com or a local protest, I will hear the first or last line mentally! It’s the wildest thing to me! I’ll immediately grab my phone or open my laptop, jot down the line, and as soon as I see it on a screen, I can finish the poem within 20-30 minutes. Normally, I’ll end up finishing 2-3 poems in one night, and then I’ll go a few days without writing anything else.
What made you decide to publish your book and what did you find most trying about the process?
I’ve always dreamed of writing my own book, but I never found the nerve to pursue it seriously. So, I just kept writing and performing. By the time I reached my senior year of high school, I would perform and people would ask me if I had a book for them to purchase. I would shrug it off, kind of shying away from the question and dive back into performing. However, once I entered my first year at Harvard, I was immediately surrounded by other young people who were passionately living out their dreams without pause. I felt SO inspired watching my peers aim for the stars, and I knew then that it was time to stop being afraid. I knew I had a powerful story to tell that could inspire generations of Black people to fight for their liberation. I knew that the book was bigger than myself and the limitations I had placed on my success, so it was time to rip the Band-Aid and follow my dreams.
There are two aspects of this process that I found most trying: learning the ins and outs of the publishing industry and believing in my work. Even though I didn’t actively begin compiling my manuscript in high school, I attended webinars and read countless books about self-publishing, vanity publishing, and traditional publishing houses. I knew that self-publishing would be my best option because I didn’t have the resources to invest thousands of dollars upfront for vanity publishing and I didn’t want to surrender the creative and financial control over my project that would’ve been required for most traditional publishing houses. Therefore, I had to learn proper formatting, print-on-demand service legalities, graphic/cover design, legal protection, etc. while still juggling classes, jobs, and internships. Talk about busy! It really forced me to think long and hard about if I was ready to take that leap of faith. Looking at the final product, there are several things I would have improved upon had I known what I did now, but I wouldn’t have traded this experience for anything in the world because I am a better artist and businesswoman as a result of it. Etched in my initial hesitation to write and publish this book was my fear of inadequacy. I often wondered to myself, “Who am I to write this book? Who am I to actually become a businesswoman? Who am I to claim authority in the publishing industry as a writer?” Overcoming those thoughts and actively believing that I deserved everything that would come from Cotton were some of the most challenging journeys I have had to overcome, and it unveiled a lot within myself that I needed to unpack and address.
Which piece are you most proud of and what inspired it?
This is such a hard question because I am proud of several pieces for the roles they’ve played at various times in my life. If I absolutely had to choose one poem from Cotton, I am most proud of “Tongue” because I hesitated to write it. “Tongue” reflects on my feelings and thoughts from the 2016 Presidential Election. I remember crying with my classmates in the dining hall the day after the results had been announced. I remember sitting in a safe, discussion space for Black students, and squeezing hands with one of my close friends as we tried to be strong. I was afraid not only for the country as a whole but for my own family. Half of my family hail from the Caribbean, so it’d be naïve to think that the immigration threats created wouldn’t potentially apply to them. It was an incredibly difficult time and painful to even reminisce about, but the words had to come out. I had to release and move forward with more fire and passion for justice than I had ever possessed before. I knew I could potentially be opening myself up to attacks, verbal and otherwise, from supremacists and racists of all kind, but my art isn’t authentic if I don’t tell my truth.
Any advice for aspiring writers/poets?
You are already enough. Write for yourself. Speak your truth. Take care of yourself. Say no when you want to. Don’t seek validation from anyone else outside of yourself. Don’t shortchange your genius. Don’t accept insufficient payment for your art. Don’t conform to what society deems as “hot” right now. Don’t be discouraged by the first 100 no’s you receive; they won’t be the last. Don’t marry your first drafts and don’t prematurely divorce editing. Advocate for yourself. Hire a good lawyer. Copyright your work (seriously). Find an accountability buddy. Join a writing club, organization or art society. Write for at least 20 minutes a day. Carry a smartphone, pen and pad, or notebook with you everywhere. Learn as much as you can about the industry. Practice performing in front of your friends, family, and that trusty dusty mirror or wall. Practice self-care. Protect your artistic space; don’t allow others to dictate what you should be doing with the art you create. And if you ever find yourself lost, step away, live your best life and come back.
How do you think that your work relates to our readers?
Cotton is a representation of what The Reign XY is designed for. As an Afro-Caribbean woman, writer and activist, my collection of poetry taps into multiple communities and spaces simultaneously. There is something for everyone in this body of work, ranging from the love letter you needed to hear as a Black woman (“Dear Sister”) to a reminder of just how bomb you are (“Wounded”). Just like you can find various parts of myself in every poem, you can find so many of The Reign XY community there as well! All you have to do is dive in, soul first.
Where can the people find you? (i.e. Instagram, Twitter, website, a chance to shamelessly plug!)
You can follow my journey as an artist, author and activist via:
Book: Cotton by Najya Williams is available on Amazon as a Kindle e-book and paperback.
You can also learn more about my Black feminist perspective via my articles that are housed with ForHarriet, Healing Points, and We Are The 94 Percent.