Ep. 254 Heartbreak is Pivotal to Romance with Camonghne Felix – Transcript

Communications strategist and poet Camonghne Felix joins The Stacks to discuss her brand new autobiographical book Dyscalculia: A Love Story of Epic Miscalculation. We talk about heartbreak as a kind of trauma, trying to understand the world, and the meaning of dyscalculia. We also get into Camonghne’s experiences as a speechwriter for other people.

The Stacks Book Club selection for February is The Round House by Louise Erdrich. We will discuss the book on February 22nd with Mina Kimes.


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Traci Thomas 0:08
Welcome to The Stacks a podcast about books and the people who read them. I’m your host Traci Thomas and today I’m talking with author, poet and speech writer Camonghne Felix. Her new book is called Dyscalculia: A Love Story of Epic Miscalculation. It is a personal and raw account of a traumatic relationship breakup which spurred a period of deep healing and reflection and Camonghne’s life. Camonghne uses her childhood struggles with math as a key to understanding herself her romantic life and the world a little bit better. Camonghne’s first poetry collection Build Yourself a Boat was released in 2019 and made the National Book Award long list. Don’t forget to tune into The Stacks next week on February 22. For our book club discussion of the Round House by Louise Erdrich, Mina Kimes, will be our returning guest for that conversation. Quick reminder, everything we talked about on each episode of the show can be found in the link in the show notes. Also, don’t forget to leave us a rating and a review on Apple Music or Spotify. If you love the show and want more of it, please go to patreon.com/the stacks and join the stacks pack. I could not make this show without the support of the stacks pack. And for just $5 a month, you get bonus episodes or virtual book club access to our super duper lively discord and more. Plus, you get to know that your contribution makes it possible for this podcast to get made every single week. So head to patreon.com/the stacks to join a special shout out to our newest members of the stacks pack. Katie Haushalt Katrina Dodie Jess Phillips, Maura costo, Catherine de Maza. Carol and Tom, Jessica roncone and ginger Rochelle. Thank you all so much. And thank you to the entire stacks pack. All right now it’s time for my conversation with Camonghne Felix.

All right, everybody. I’m very excited. Yesterday was Valentine’s Day. Today we’re talking about the breakup. I am joined by Camonghne Felix, who’s brand new book that just came out yesterday or Yeah, yesterday is called Dyscalculia. A Love Story of epic miscalculations. Camonghne, welcome to the Stacks.

Camonghne Felix 2:15
Thank you so much for having me. It’s a real pleasure to be here with you.

Traci Thomas 2:19
I’m very, very excited. I was telling you. I’ve already read the book twice, because I listened once on audio. And then I read it off the page because I felt like I needed to like have more time with it. But will you let folks know in about 30 seconds or so what this book is about?

Camonghne Felix 2:34
This book is about heartbreak and all of the different ways that heartbreak can manifest in someone’s life. And the way that heartbreak can lead someone to important breakthroughs.

Traci Thomas 2:45
And one of the or like one of the major heartbreaks in the story is a relationship of yours that ended. When did that happen? Like how long ago in your life was that?

Camonghne Felix 2:55
That was about six years ago. And when I first I first started writing the book very soon after it happened. I started writing it probably in the two months that came after. But it was an entirely different book. When I started writing it then it was it was actually inverse, there were stanzas. And I was being a lot more coy, I would say the texture of the book felt different. It was like supposed to be an art project. Right? Not really something in which I said something necessary or anything that I needed to say. And so since then I’ve written it about 10 times.

Traci Thomas 3:38
That’s so interesting, because I had a question written down for you, which was like, when did you start writing this? And how much has the book changed since you started? Because it feels like one of those books where it’s like you’re pulling from your childhood, all the way through to this breakup, and like sort of a little bit after. And it was one of those things where I was thinking like, a lot of the a lot of the themes and topics that come up, you could revisit in a million ways. Like I mean, it’s like relationship with your mother mental health, like and I’m like thinking at 22 This book is really different than what it might look like at 42 or 62. But, but no matter when you wrote it, it would be a necessary story because the themes are like so and not universal. But you know, they are kinda not everybody has mother daughter, but everybody has family relationships. Everybody has, you know, is it hard to write something so personal and like to craft it into something that feels like it can be accessible for people who aren’t in your brain?

Camonghne Felix 4:41
That’s a great question. Yeah, it’s hard. It’s not hard because it’s painful. It’s hard because it’s a challenge in it’s a it’s, so usually when I write, especially when I write poetry, I don’t really write for an audience or even with an audience in mind. When I read poetry poachy is very much for myself first. And then in the editing and revision process, that’s when it becomes, for other people, possibly my same. But I think in dyscalculia, I knew, especially once I got to like the third draft, that I was indeed writing it for people to read. Right. And I think something that I’ve always been against and very frustrated with, is like trauma porn, right? And people writing trauma porn or writing about trauma in ways that are transactional. And I think one of the ways that you avoid that when you’re writing about trauma is to make it worth the readers. While, right. And so with that in mind, as I was writing this story, I’m like, Okay, I know that the story that I’m trying to tell requires that I talk about trauma, and that I talk about it candidly, but I’m not trying to hurt or harm or main, whoever is going to read this. So if that’s the case, then I have to read with them in mind. And because that’s not a muscle that I have really worked, it was hard to do in this to be authentic to the story. And still think to myself, like how do I take care of the person on the other side of this, when they encountered this really intense? You know, that’s what I went through? Like, I read it twice. I was like, Oh, my God. I did not intend for you to do that. But obviously, you are an autonomous person and you read how you read it. You’re, you’re a reader, right? So you’re going to encounter it, how you how you choose to, but there’s so much of that dance of like, how, how much do I guide the reader? How much do I build up? around them? How much safety do I build around them? versus how much do I allow them to just be an autonomous reader coming to the text? So that was hard?

Traci Thomas 6:55
Yeah. Okay, I have some follow up questions about that, because I’m really curious. First of all, I will say this, you did a good job, because I did not feel like this was a trauma story. Even though as you’re saying that I’m like, Yes, of course, there’s like conversations about self harm. There’s like, you know, like, there’s, there’s definitely like, you’ve had some traumatic experiences that you’ve captured in the book. But it didn’t feel that way to me at all. Like, I never would have used those words to describe it. But I’m really curious about how you’re putting yourself in the shoes of your audience. But even before that, who did you envision that your audience was like, whose shoes were your Were you even putting yourself into as you were writing?

Camonghne Felix 7:34
When I first started writing, this was extremely about myself. It was so I actually have a funny anecdote that goes with that. I texted my very, very close friend, Sophia. Hello. As I’m going through this breakup, she knows all about it. We’ve been close since we were like 16 years old. So I’m asking her, where do I find a book getting real specific? I’m like, where do I find a book that is nonfiction, but like poetic, that is about a breakup is written by a black woman. And she was like, I don’t know. She’s like, there’s like Khadija queen. There’s like the memoirs of the people you already love. But like, I don’t really know what else to tell you. But remember what Toni Morrison said, if there’s something in the world that you haven’t seen, that you want to see, then you should make it. So she said that to me. And I can’t the competition just kind of like ended and I was like, You know what, I actually a couple days later, I was like, I actually do have to write this book, because I really, really need to read it. And it’s not, it’s not here, I can’t find it. So I started writing it as a way to kind of like, soothe myself thinking that if I at least started writing it, I would bide time for someone else to write a better version of it, and then it would come out. And then time kept sort of happening. It kept, you know, I kept writing it. It kept not being published. And so one thing that I’m used to as a poet is like, you take very small parts of a collection of anything, and you’re publishing it pretty consistently over time. And usually, when something isn’t getting published, after a certain point in your career, I would say because it’s really arbitrary. But like, at a certain point, if the poems are not being published that’s assigned to you that like, maybe they’re not working in this situation. I didn’t feel like it wasn’t working. I knew that it was working. And the feedback that I was getting was like, this is a thing that can’t be cut up into pieces. Like we don’t know how to publish this. And then I was like, okay, so this is a, this is a book then I’m just gonna keep writing it like this. And then once I realized that, that’s when the audience kind of came into play where I was like, okay, so this is not just putting out you know, a series of poems. This is not going to be a choreo poem. It’s not. This is going to be a book And it’s gonna be nonfiction. And I have to write it that way. And then I was like, Oh crap, I know who’s going to be reading nonfiction. It’s all the people who are reading the people that I already love the people that I’m reading or reading KSA and who are reading. And I realized that and I don’t know, just made a couple of calculations about how to approach it from there.

Traci Thomas 10:21
And you dedicate the book to anyone who’s ever cried on the subway, which I love. I have cried on the subway. Thank you. Thank you for writing about for me. So there’s a part of the book where you talk about white girls getting to write about benign heartbreak and sort of that comes up later in the book when when you’re like, I’m writing a book about benign heartbreak. And to some like, dude, and he’s like, cool. Yeah, that’s it. He’s like, That’s it. Yeah. I want to know, from your perspective, what what was the draw to write about benign heartbreak? Was it simply like, I want equality and I want to be able to write about what like white people can write about? or was there some like revolutionary feeling for you to like, be able to put something like this out into the world?

Camonghne Felix 11:08
It definitely wasn’t as like binary as I want to like rebel. And I want to like, show why people thing. There was some of that in there. Right. I think that’s ego. Yeah, I would

Traci Thomas 11:23
say, egotistical. Leo, I Yeah.

Camonghne Felix 11:27
Oh, ego. Yeah. So there’s, there’s enough of that in there, for sure. But I would say like, what’s really in there is when I was younger, I went to the library, and I went to the bookstore, not just to find myself, but to escape, and to try to define safety, so that I knew what to look for. And I read a lot of romance novels, a lot of YA novels that were about romance and breakups and things like that I am well versed in the genre. And what I’d never saw was anyone writing about heartbreak, even though it seems like such a pivotal point of romance, right? Or it’s such a pivotal topic in the conversation of romance. And I realized that the reason why people would don’t want to talk about heartbreak and romance, or at least don’t want to talk about it with any real depth or analysis is because heartbreak is about trauma. And people don’t want to associate romance with trauma, they just don’t want to have to do that. But the reality is that, like, trauma is only different for the person it’s happening to, but all trauma is trauma, right? So like, Sure, whether it’s sexual assault, or heartbreak, right, if both things happen in my life, one person who isn’t in my life or isn’t in my body can’t tell me that they didn’t feel the same. I see. And I wanted to be able to bring that to really maximize the scale, like, let’s talk about how big heartbreak can be, and all of the different ways that it can touch you. And I felt like the reason why people hadn’t done that before, particularly white women writers who I feel don’t. And I mean this with a generality that I know is not fair, but aren’t always required to be rigorous. In their approach to literature. I knew that it was not necessarily revolutionary, but a useful fuck you to the industry and, and into all of it, to be able to say, like no, this kind of heartbreak in this kind of narrative. This kind of story has a place in this genre and in this Canon, and I know that it has a place because I put it there, I’m not waiting for anyone to congratulate me, I’m not waiting for anyone to give me a pat on the back. Because I’ve read enough of this stuff. And because I’m invested in this stuff. I knew what I was writing when I wrote it. And I think that that’s not always respected in black women writers. And so often we get pushed into the margins of the literary world, right, whether it’s, you know, poetry or a certain kind of nonfiction. But if I’m lucky dyscalculia will be front and center in bookstores, across the country. And this is not just a story about falling in love and getting your heart broken, but something a lot more rigorous and, and maybe in some ways dense. And that feels a little revolutionary to me that a young black girl is going to be able to walk in and read this a different kind of book and be able to have a different kind of take on her own life and on her own heartbreak see herself differently and thus, like do different stuff in the world that I felt really indignant about

Traci Thomas 14:57
Yeah, I I love that. I I, it’s interesting, the way that you’re using the word heartbreak and having read the book, I sort of feel like heartbreak and trauma are synonyms sort of in your, in your world and in this story, and I never really thought about them that way. But you saying sort of like trauma is the same for everyone on the outside, but for people experiencing like, it is different. But you know,

Camonghne Felix 15:23
no, there’s a there’s a poem by km awkward, Rich. I can’t say it word for word right now. But it says, it’s something like, you know, I step outside and it breaks my heart. You know, these little things. I see a cat died, it breaks my heart, these little tiny things that you have to encounter every day that truly do hurt you. But you don’t have language for it. Right? Yeah.

Traci Thomas 15:46
Yeah, that’s so interesting. So you’re a poet, your national book, award fine, our long listed poet, you’re a poet by trade, you’re also you also have other jobs, which we’ll get to later. But this book sort of sits in between poetry and memoir. Part of the reason that I read it a second time is because I listened to it the first time. And then when I was just flipping through it to like, find things to write questions about, I was like, Oh, this is written not how, like, you know, like, sometimes there’s one sentence on a page, sometimes it’s like, two small paragraphs, sometimes it’s a bunch of paragraphs. And I was like, oh, I need to spend time with this book on the page, because I can’t always capture that. With audio, obviously, you know, like, I can’t do it the same way. So I’m wondering, why this form of going like it’s, you knew it wasn’t a book of poems, but like, how did you decide that it wasn’t fully a book of like, regular, regular prose? Traditional memoir versus like this sort of hybrid situation?

Camonghne Felix 16:51
Yeah, I wasn’t sure what what happened is I just wrote the book, and I finished it. When I was done. I was done. I wrote it 10 times. I wrote it that 10th time. And I was like, I’m done. And that’s that on that. And, and that was sort of the job of me, and my editor and my agent to sort of figure out like, where’s this going to sit on the shelves? And like, how is it going to sit in the world? And to this day, we still don’t have a clear answer, like, we still are not sure what it is. But I also really enjoy that like my work as a as a poet. And I work in general, honestly, it’s about ambiguity, living in these really, you know, gray areas and trying to make something out of it. And so dyscalculia feels like it’s like following in my footsteps, right? Because it’s just like, it’s doing exactly what I do. And it wasn’t intentional. Just, yeah, I wrote it, knowing that it would border genre. And honestly, I assumed that by the time it was over, it would have situated itself in one way or another. But it just didn’t want to.

Traci Thomas 17:58
Yeah, I mean, I struggled to to be like, I don’t know what this what to call this book. Yeah, I think I just was like, it’s unique. You know, like, I don’t know, it’s unique. It’s different. Yeah, like other books. Yeah. I want to talk about the title. So the book is called dyscalculia. And I guess you should tell people what dyscalculia is. And then I want to ask you to diagnose me with this calculator when you’re

Camonghne Felix 18:22
okay. Okay. So a lot of people know about dyslexia, they are not the same, and they’re not even necessarily comparable. But it’s an easy setup for you to kind of imagine how it affects someone. And it’s the inability for a person to do basic mathematical sequences, right. So the inability to do arithmetic, the inability to do like bass, and when I say arithmetic, I mean basic arithmetic skills like subtraction, division, addition, and things like that. And then, of course, the inability to do more advanced kinds of maths, especially maths that you might do in in higher education. So if I were to diagnose you or anyone with dyscalculia, first of all, I want to say that I am not a psychiatrist. I’m not a professional,

Traci Thomas 19:11
I actually have to die. I’m bad at math. And I’d never heard this phrase and I was like, oh, yeah, yeah, maybe this maybe I do, because I’m very bad at math.

Camonghne Felix 19:22
Yeah. Well, I’ll put it this way to you. Like, are you unable to do table math? At this point? Yeah. Well, then I know there might be something for you to work through.

Traci Thomas 19:33
I feel like I might have a slight as a not severe, but a mild dyscalculia I think part of it is that I just I can’t I don’t it doesn’t it doesn’t help you. Like I can do like one plus one right? Sure. But like, I can’t really do. I can’t really do multiplication unless I have my little like, I have to do like my fingers for the nine Yeah, like Yeah, I it’s not happening for me. Yeah. Um, but I had never heard this phrase. And then I was like, Wow, maybe, maybe all along, there was just something going on with me. And I’m just not an idiot. Because like you, I like because in the book, you know, you have this traumatic event that happened, and then you know, they take you to a place to figure out what the fuck is going on. And the doctors are like, it could be this, it could be that and then there’s one doctors like, it also could be doubt dyscalculia. But it’s probably not just that, like, there’s other things. You’re like, sucking at math really hardcore. It’s not working for you. But I guess my question is, do you actually have dyscalculia? Or did you just have like extreme trauma and other like mental health things going on?

Camonghne Felix 20:42
I mean, that’s the thing you don’t really know you don’t? Like that’s kind of so the the way that what happens with things like this calculated, right, is that like, you talk to your doctor, I have had many doctors, I’ve been diagnosed with many things. We won’t go into it today. But some of it some of us, some of us in the book. Yes, exactly. But the doctors then make like obvious connections, you know, like, you’ll ask, I’ll ask specifically about this inability to do math and how it manifests. And they’re like, Well, you have ADHD. So I mean, there’s that. And then there’s also this thing that goes with ADHD. And then there’s this thing that goes with bipolar, and they’re all dyscalculia. Right? So the way that’s how I’ve been sort of like, that’s my diagnosis. Am I being like treated for dyscalculia? No, because that’s not really how it works. You don’t really, it’s more of like you treat children for dyscalculia. Adults, you kind of just like, Sorry, got a calculator. Yeah, I got a calculator. Yeah. But what I’ve learned about myself through that diagnosis, and through all the subsequent diagnoses, is that traumas was really corrosive for me. And it’s not true for a lot of people, right, because some things are genetic. Bipolar is genetic, usually for most people. And so what happens is that triggers, you know, trauma can either trigger it, or you can live a relatively tribalist life, and it can be pretty latent. And you never really know until something bad happens, you know, some time in your life a little bit later down the line. And what I’ve learned is just that, first of all, we all were not all mentally ill, I will not say that. But we are all on some spectrum of something, right? We all just suffered through and are still suffering through a mass disabling event. That’s what COVID is, and was, and everyone could use a little bit of grace, and could use a story of learning how to give themselves grace, especially around those disabilities. And I think that’s part of what I what this calculator is, is doing in unintentionally, is helping people get more comfortable with disability and get more comfortable with talking about it. It’s not salacious, right, I’m not like, showing you like a weird, sexy thing by talking about mental health disorder, I’m having a very candid conversation, that if we are all prepared to have when if we can all be prepared to have it, we’ll probably feel a lot more free. And maybe we can like lose some of the labels and whatever my mom is, like very sensitive to all the ways that I’ve been diagnosed because she’s been watching it over the years, and doesn’t trust any diagnosis. And honestly, constantly, it’s just like, I just want you to see yourself as a ball of energy. And here, here are the ways that your ball of energy needs to be processed. And I don’t know if I’m always on her wavelength, but I think she’s onto something around. Yeah, just wanting to like, let people understand themselves through like intuitive learning. And anyway, I think that this conversation and talking about disability in this way can help people do that.

Traci Thomas 24:12
Yeah, I mean, I think your mom, she’s such an interesting character in the book. And I think like by the end, especially, I think throughout you can feel her like fierce, protective love of you. And also her like trying to protect herself, not necessarily from you, but from what’s going on with you and the doctors and the things that are like around you. Yeah. And she has this part towards the end way, way, way at the end where she says, you know, come on, it’s not the world’s job to understand you. It’s your job to understand the world and it’s not until you kind of get comfortable with that, that you’re gonna feel any sort of like groundedness or goodness or wholeness. And I’m just wondering, was that actually helpful for you that that kind of like distinction and Does it did it free you up? Do you feel like it changed how you understand yourself and the world?

Camonghne Felix 25:06
Yeah, it was immediately transformative for me. I think because I was always like, a kid with a lot of like, I don’t know, I was I had a lot of analysis, I was constantly analyzing things and people systems. And she gave me an analytical lens that I didn’t have before. And it was the first time anyone has truly said anything helpful to me about how to navigate what I was going through, which was like, if you can basically what you were saying to me, was like, if you can understand how and why the world works, then you can understand how you live in it. And that’s all I needed to know. Because, you know, like, you know, even though I was really troubled and spent a lot of time not wanting to be alive, when I wanted to be alive. What I knew was that I had some stuff to figure out about how to make this world work for me how to be mentally ill, and the way I was mentally ill in the world, because I already knew that it wasn’t going to be accepted that people were not going to make it easy for me. But I had no roadmap and her saying that gave me an open kind of Blink roadmap, right, like a way to, to make it up myself. But at the same time, I felt guided. And I think that it has her saying that, to me, has a lot to do with why I became a poet because I think a big part of being a poet is simply considering, like, being a poet is sitting in one room with yourself, which is your mind. And really asking yourself why a thing is the way it is whether that’s heartbreak or you know, something political. And I think when she said to me that I needed to understand the world, I saw it as a project. And as a thing I could be in control of, and then my poem is just became that my way of trying to see the world and understand it, and chart it down and say to myself, This is how it works.

Traci Thomas 27:17
Yeah. Okay, we’re gonna take a quick break, and we’ll be right back. Okay, we’re back, I want to come back to the title one more time, not not about my personal diagnosis. But I’m curious how dyscalculia as an idea, became sort of the title of your book, or like how you see it as this like, leading piece because for me, as a reader, I thought I was gonna like read all about you like going to math camp or something. I mean, obviously, not that but like it doesn’t, it doesn’t feel obvious to me as to why that was the choice. So I just love to hear you speak about the math Enos of in your mind.

Camonghne Felix 28:02
So much of why I wanted to write about dyscalculia is because through understanding my own relationship to math, I really came back to math in a philosophical way. And I was experiencing it through philosophy, and through theory. And that made a lot of sense to me, it made a lot of sense to me, and honestly, really helped me build up the patience and the resilience to be able to try to learn math, again. And to try to start over from from where I abandoned it. And in second grade, and the title, I’ll say this, the title was never going to be anything else. When I sent the first 10 pages to my friend, after I’d written it, or first started writing it. In the email. The subject line says dyscalculia, and I just said, Read this. I don’t necessarily I don’t completely know why. That was the choice. But I think, you know, I’ll say this to so much of the philosophy and the theory, that is really the most exciting part for me. So much of that came a lot later. And I think I see this hacking the, the word in the title is kind of a guide, as like taking me towards this philosophical approach that I didn’t know I needed for myself. And so it’s a risk that I knew I was gonna take. It’s a heavy mathematical term. It’s an active diagnosis, right? It’s something that people aren’t struggling with every day. And I knew that inevitably, some people would feel like I was exploiting it to an extent, because I saw I’ve seen a couple people say things like, I came to this book because I thought she was actually going to talk about this fact. because I have this calculator, I see, I’m open to that criticism because I think it’s fair. But I also think that the choice that I made, could not have coexisted with the choice that they want me to make. Right. And that was to build a philosophical mathematical framework where people could feel math, touch math, experienced math, have an emotional relationship to math, without having to do any calculation themselves. I didn’t want the reader to have to do any labor. I just wanted them to be able to show up and experience math in the way I was giving it to them. So yeah, that’s the story behind the title.

Traci Thomas 30:40
That’s interesting. Since we’re talking about math, theoretical, or like philosophical math, not not not theory, but something that came up for me in the book and there, I have no question. I’ve been thinking about this a lot. There’s no question at the end of this. So you’re gonna have to just hear what I say and then speak, okay. I can do that. Okay. There’s something about math and religion, to me, that I struggle with both things as ideas and in practice. But also, I know, there are a lot of people to whom, to which whom, which things are super important and fundamental to how they think about and understand the world, right? Like, then there are people who like math is the same in every language. And we can all connect through math, right. And there’s the same kind of thing about religion where it’s like, religion, faith will be there with you in your darkest times, it’ll always be there. It’s like this consistent thing. And as I was reading your book, I was thinking about how like, there isn’t like a religious undertone, though the cover has religious vibes to me. And so I don’t know, there’s no question there. But there was something religious in your work, and I can’t figure out what it is. And maybe it wasn’t the math part. But like, does that spark anything in you?

Camonghne Felix 32:01
Sure. Yeah. I think I think what is interesting about that is that I don’t necessarily see math as a religion, I understand the Pythagoreans, and how they got to the religion that they built. And maybe that’s part of where it’s coming from, is that it’s so early in the book that I mentioned, the religion and kind of how it worked. But I do think that math, why I like math is because of patterns. I really like patterns, and I could find them in anything. And patterns are our math, right? So when I’m going through the world, and I’m seeing different patterns, whether that’s in, you know, our socio political environment or our our climate change, right, I’m seeing the numbers of how these things became what they became, I’m seeing, you know, hundreds of years of neglect, hundreds of 1000s of dollars going to the wrong place. Right? Millions of people being displaced, I see those patterns as numbers. And so I think that that is also what brings people to religion is that they feel like they can see God and everything. God is the pattern. Right. And I do think that I set it up, I set up the parallel that way and dyscalculia where I’m essentially saying that math is everything. And I think that kind of like totalizing perspective, feels very religious.

Traci Thomas 33:36
Yes, yes.

Camonghne Felix 33:39
Yeah. And that makes total sense to me. And the cover though, I will say the cover is in some ways, a little anti religious because it’s a tarot card.

Traci Thomas 33:47
Okay, but that’s religiously to me, right? It’s like, yeah, like it has just like religious iconography. It’s not like Jesus or anything. Yeah. Yeah, no. Did you?

Camonghne Felix 34:01
Here’s Jesus, Jesus, but

Traci Thomas 34:03
it has like, yeah, okay, Taro. See, I’m really not into, I don’t know any of this stuff. But

Camonghne Felix 34:08
generally, it is not like religion doesn’t feel, ya know, that makes a lot of sense. I’m very sensitive about religion as well. I don’t really like well, I don’t have to say really, I’d have to qualify that. I don’t like organized religion. I think it is like the seed of all evil. Yeah, but, but I think like, if math were a religion, someone would find a reason to kill someone over it. So I never I don’t want math to be. I don’t want math to feel like a religion, but I do want it. I do want the sense of piousness to be there the sense that like, math is something that you can revere and that you can honor and isn’t just like the thing you were forced to do in middle school that you now ignore.

Traci Thomas 34:58
Well, that’s what it is for. For me, yeah, I was forced to do in school. But I copied I cheated on a lot of tests to get into college. So but I got there and I went to college and I have a degree and I didn’t take a single math class after my junior year of high school and look at me, again about math on a podcast. Here I am. Look at us. Look at that. Yeah. Wow. Yeah, it’s like, the hot wings moment. Yeah. Okay. I want to transition a little bit to your process and your writing. How, how did you make time to write this book, I know that you’re a busy person, you are a you also have this like political activism world that you function in. You don’t just sit at home and write poems all day. So how did you make time to be that come on and write about this Come on,

Camonghne Felix 35:50
I started didn’t I don’t think I don’t think that I’m good at making time at all, I think it kind of just happened in the in the margins of time. So when I had a couple of hours off from the other thing, then you do the one thing if you’re on the train, and you’ve got an hour ride, it’s time to edit some poems, right, just kind of fitting it all in where I can, but still trying to do that, rigorously, I guess, and like, not treating it, like just, like, oh, I have to do this thing. So I’m just gonna, like, do it and get it out of the way, but like, taking real time and taking the tasks really seriously. And now I actually, I do write poems all day now for a living because I, I left my day job about three months ago. Okay, adulation. Thank you. And I did that, in part because of what we’re talking about. Because I look back at this happily, and I’m extremely proud of it I, I think it was as good as it was going to be. But at the same time, there was probably a world where I could have spent spent more time on some of the details. And that’s important to me, as a person who struggles with attention to detail, I want to constantly be building that skill where I can. And I certainly think that being in too many places at once, takes away from my ability to pay attention to detail. So I’m excited now to like work on whatever’s next. Finish up the book that I’ve been working on for the last two years.

Traci Thomas 37:22
What is that book about?

Camonghne Felix 37:26
it’s, it’s called let the poet’s govern. And it’s not what it’s also a book that is not what it sounds like, is basically talking about the end of the world, how we came to the end of the world speaking as if we are already there, how we came to the end of the world and kind of the legislative history and legislative landscape that built that. And the kind of things that poetry, or is that it’s not poetry? It’s in between? Sort of in between? Yeah, you know,

Traci Thomas 37:56
we’re both shaking our shoulders.

Camonghne Felix 38:00
Yeah, yeah, it’s something something in between. But I have a feeling that this one is going to feel a lot more nonfiction and feel a lot. So which is, which is good. I think it’s important for me, because again, ego, that no one thinks that I can’t.

Traci Thomas 38:17
So this is a thing. So a thing that I know about you is that you’re very close with Jason Reynolds, I have this chip on your shoulder thing. It’s a very Jason Reynolds thing. He talks about it every time he comes on the podcast, he has mentioned that every time I talked to him, he mentions it. And it’s such a funny, it’s such a funny thing for someone like him or you who is so talented and has already accomplished so much in such a short amount of time to be like, I just need to let people know I can also do this. Like, nobody’s doubting you guys. You’re already great. We love you. We love it here. You’ve got so funny also understand that like, I’m a very petty person. And so like I need I need an enemy to be creative. You know, it’s not. Yeah, like, it’s not actually that I meet an enemy, but like, I’m just so much better if there’s someone outside of me that I can be like, I hope one day they hear this episode and they’re mortified forever, you know? Got it. Yeah, it’s just funny to hear people that I’m like, wow, these incredibly talented people are still feeling like I have to prove myself and I’m like, No, you’re doing great.

Camonghne Felix 39:22
That’s so funny. I think I got some of it from Jason actually. I’m gonna I’m gonna take that. i Yeah, that’s it’s God. It just it you absorb it. It just gets on you the chair. Yeah. You know I’ll be sitting at dinner and I’m like, I’m gonna get concerning.

Traci Thomas 39:48
I love it. I love when you are writing. how, like how do you like to write? Is there music or no? Are there snacks and beverages? Where are you physically if you have a I mean Sometimes you said you’ll be on the train or whatever. But if it’s a when you’re sitting down to write, like, what’s that setup? Like?

Camonghne Felix 40:08
It really depends. I mean, I like to write from my office, I have a home office that me and my fiance have worked very hard to make it like my space and to feel like my space. So we go really hard for my space. It’s got a couch, like it’s super cute. It’s really I think that Apartment Deco should come do a look at my office. But other than that, I mean, I like to travel a lot. I like to travel and write. So I write well on planes. Honestly, I edit well on planes. I write with pressure. So if I’m in a workshop, and I have something to be delivered, you know, the next week, then I can get it out. No matter where I am. One time, I was randomly just added library in Mexico City and had no plans with being there. But I knew I had to write this poem. So that’s what happened. But yeah, it’s everywhere for me, which I think speaks a lot to how I write and the kind of writing that I do. So much of it is a conversation in my head, and that conversation can happen anywhere.

Traci Thomas 41:19
What about snacks and beverages?

Camonghne Felix 41:22
Oh my goodness. Okay, so there’s this snack called Twin Snakes by Haribo? No, not the twin steaks. It’s called sour, sour spaghetti. Oh, I go sour, sour spaghetti. And I buy maybe four packs at a time and pack in. Like, it’s ridiculous. So I eat that. I love having graham crackers. They’re really convenient. keep you full keep you fed and full. I love to have fruit. So that could just have like, raw fruit just like hanging around and pineapples and watermelon. That’ll do it. But honestly, like, I’m a snack girl. I love to snack. So if there are pretzels around, chips around. That’s what I’m eating when I’m writing anything that is salty or sweet. Give it to me.

Traci Thomas 42:20
I love this. We can I’m going to come to your office. Yeah, with you. Yes. Probably won’t get much work done. But I’ll just come and eat your snacks. I’m a fat girl. You did something that’s really, I don’t think anyone’s ever done on the podcast, which is you actually started with your least healthy snack and then went to fruit. Most people try to like, oh, I only eat grapes. And then I’m like, really? And they’re like screw. I do cocaine and whiskey with the grapes.

Camonghne Felix 42:46
Exactly, exactly. No, fuck that. I’m not going to even try to pretend what I like Yeah. Are the sour small spaghetti things that probably are causing me to gain weight. And you know what? I’m just going to accept the weight. I’m just gonna take it.

Traci Thomas 43:01
Spaghetti Yankee are delicious. I know. I’m a big gummies fan. I love Swedish Fish. That’s my friends. We will be fun. Yeah. Oh, yeah. I love this for us. Okay, here’s another important question about how you write or about your writing. What’s the word you can never spell correctly on the first try?

Camonghne Felix 43:20
Oh, my goodness. idiosyncrasies.

Traci Thomas 43:26
Oh my gosh, that’s, I can’t even say that word. That’s really hard. Well,

Camonghne Felix 43:32
I can’t get it. I know.

Traci Thomas 43:33
I have no idea. I can’t help you. Okay, so you worked in politics? You wrote? Like speeches for people? Correct? Yeah. How is that for you? Because I know you as a person who writes very personal thing. Yeah. And I feel like writing words for other people to say, is very far from that. And very far from what I read in dyscalculia. So are you like, Okay, I’m gonna put on my political hat and like, Put like, or are you given like patterns? Like you said that you can kind of like hit on like, how do you change your voice so much so drastically that it could be someone else’s slash? Would you ever write a movie screenplay or television show? Because it sounds like that sort of in that same world of like creating another? Yes, not you

Camonghne Felix 44:27
to answer your question. I’ve already written a TV show. I’ve written a couple of pilots. And I love it. It’s one of my favorite things to do ever. I don’t know if I’ll ever like actually get to see any of them come to scream. Yeah. Because it’s like actually kind of hard to do.

Traci Thomas 44:43
I live in LA. I’m very familiar. Very familiar. Yeah,

Camonghne Felix 44:47
it’s hard. And people are not very nice. So I don’t know if that’s ever gonna happen. But yeah, to answer your question about how I jump in between these voices, it’s all about patterns. It’s Back to what you said, basically, I watched someone talk, right, I’ll watch a speech that they gave that maybe they wrote or that, you know, they did off the top, and you watch their speech patterns, you watch the kind of anecdotes, they like you watch, you know, the pace that they speak at, when people fall asleep, when they’re talking when people park, when they’re most activated. You watch all of that. And then you kind of you kind of, I don’t know, it’s just in, in your head. And then they tell you that they that there’s an something’s happening. And there has to be a speech. It’s always a theme. And you think about the pattern, okay, how does this person talk? What are they good at? What are they bad at? What is the message they most need to get across for this to be successful? And you work together with a bunch of people to figure that out with the policy people and you know, and then you just kinda write it with their voice in your head, right? You spend, you kind of immerse yourself in them. It’s the same thing that I do when I write profiles, you immerse yourself in their life and in their voice, and then you kind of come out mimicking them.

Traci Thomas 46:10
Right. Okay, this is sort of a weird question. I don’t know. But I’m just thinking, I’m like, looking at you, like, black woman. I know you wrote for Andrew Cuomo, I know you were Elizabeth Warren. I’m not gonna ask you about him. I’m thinking and then I’m thinking about like, Barack Obama had those like, preppy white boys that wrote for him? And how like, how much do you feel that a politicians speeches are? The voice or like, are the how much like responsibility do you take for the speeches that politicians give? Do you feel like there is a lot of commotion in them? Or do you really feel like, it’s a lot of like, okay, I’m channeling Andrew Cuomo. I don’t actually feel this way about a lot of things. But I’m just like, doing my job, I guess, is sort of the question.

Camonghne Felix 47:01
So I will tell you a funny story. It’s very, very quick. Andrew Cuomo, I worked for him for about a year and some change. Andrew Cuomo never gave a speech I wrote. Okay, not one time,

Traci Thomas 47:14
because so you’re completely off the hook. People talk about nothing to do with it, nothing to do with me.

Camonghne Felix 47:21
And part of the reason why that happened is because to You’re exactly what you’re asking, there’s almost no way for a speech writer to not put themselves in, if a speech writer is just doing their job, and they’re doing it all wrong. Your job as a speech writer, among the many jobs is to help push your candidate or your principal, in the direction rhetorically that like makes them have to do something, right. So if I give, you know, let’s say Elizabeth Warren a speech that’s about climate change, we’re going to put things in the speech that she either can do should do or will do, right? And when she sits down with that speech, she’s gonna look at it and be like, can I commit to that? Can I commit to doing this thing, right. And then if she can’t commit to that, then maybe we need to work rework and maybe this different commitment that can be made, right. But that is your job as the speech writer is to be the sort of the rhetorical guide, helping to channel policy, and, and all of the other elements of politicians profile, candidacy, whatever, to channel that into a message that everybody can be proud of yourself included. So sometimes, you write a speech, and you give it to somebody, and they’re like, these, I’m not I’m not doing any of this. These are not commitments I’m willing to make. And then somebody else writes the speech, right? Because they already know now that you are further left than where they want to be.

Traci Thomas 48:55
So I see. Yeah, so as your ideology is in the speeches that you write, I mean, that’s why you hire a speech writer who is like, super different from the politician because you might have a perspective or like, a set of things that you want to see happen that maybe they hadn’t considered or whatever.

Camonghne Felix 49:16
Yeah, for sure. Some of my ADR ideologies in there, if my complete ideology was in there, none of them would have jobs. So would I write, which, which is actually part of why I quit because it’s just not. These questions are, are useful, because they help remind me of why I made the choice that I made. And it was particularly that is the fact that people don’t even know how much space a speechwriter is required to take up in a politician’s portfolio in order to like make the do a thing that is useful. And even you fight all year, one speech to get them to do one big thing. And it’s not even a 10th of the way towards where you know they need to be or where you know, everybody needs to be. I’m an abolitionist at heart, I am funding, I’m an abolition. I’ve been abolitionist, almost my whole life, since the first time I went to a prison at seven years old. There is not a single politician that I’ve ever worked for, who has been willing to use the language of abolition, mainly because they can’t defend it on the floor. They can’t take it into into whatever house that they’re in. Right? If it’s Congress, if it’s the governor’s house, it has no bearing there, because it’s not a political ask, right? Abolition is not something that can be achieved through voting. Abolition is something that has to happen through a lot of other elements. And voting is probably not going to be one of them, right? Or it’s gonna be the smallest part of it. So yeah, I’m in a lot of it, but not enough of me and not the right parts of me. And that’s why I left.

Traci Thomas 51:06
Okay, last question about this, because I could do this for hours. But we got we got a late jump on this. So we gotta go see if the right candidate came along. Someone who was more politically aligned with you maybe not fully where you are, because I just can’t imagine that they would have the budget for someone like, but like someone who was like pushing that direction, and they were like, come on, I need you because I need your push. Would you? Would you think about doing it again? Or do you feel like there’s no, you’re no longer interested in political writing? I think you want to choose Chief of Staff?

Camonghne Felix 51:54
Nightmare, no. What I want is to be able to look them in the face and say, I’m for this, I’m for this, I’m for this, I’m for this, I’m for this, pick three of them. And that’s what you have to be for two. Got it. That’s, that’s where I want to be. That’s the kind of power that I want to have. And if I’m not going to have that kind of power, then it’s not worth it to me. Even if you’re like, almost aligned, even if you’re like close, but not just just not quite there. Like I’m not working for anyone who wants to talk about reform anymore. Right? We’re not talking about criminal justice reform. That’s it. It’s done. That’s diet. So as long as I don’t have to make those kinds of compromises, then, yeah, we’ll be down to do it. And if there’s a candidate who would not ask me to make those compliment compromises, especially running for like, you know, some sort of major see, yeah, I’d be happy to help them out. Because I’d be like, This is gonna be hard as shit. Good luck. Yeah. You need somebody who can help you weather the storm, but it’s very unlikely.

Traci Thomas 52:54
Okay, that’s fair. Okay, we’ll come off of this topic, though. You might have to come back and just talk with me about it. Fascinated. We already talked about what comes next for you. So I just have two, three more questions for people who love dyscalculia. What are some other books you might recommend to them that are in the same conversation? Push by Sapphire. Okay.

Camonghne Felix 53:16
But a goodie that was made into the film, don’t watch the film. No matter. Of course, if you’re here, ignore what you’re listening. Ignore what I said. You will never watch the film precious, but you will read push by Sapphire.

Traci Thomas 53:30
Elizabeth Alexander’s memoir, in light of the light of the world like we did on this show. We did it as a book club pick. So yeah,

Camonghne Felix 53:39
yeah. That book. And then I would say, life on Mars by Tracy K. Smith.

Traci Thomas 53:46
Oh, okay. She’s a poet. Is that poetry?

Camonghne Felix 53:50
Yeah, poetry. Because Tracy in that book, does an excellent job at explaining the ineffable, which sounds contradictory. But I think that’s a big part of what I tried to do. It is calculus to try to, to, to understand heartbreak as an ineffable set of emotions, and then to try to articulate what that ineffability is.

Traci Thomas 54:19
So yeah, when people read this book, what do you hope they’ll keep in mind as they’re reading?

Camonghne Felix 54:25
I hope they’ll forget that I’m a real person. I hope that people will see every person in that book is a character, which means that they can be analyzed as characters. You can think of them as characters. I say that because I know that with memoir, I mean, it’s not fiction, right? So people come to memoir because they want to know a particular thing about a person. But this book is no longer about me like on February 14, when it comes out. It is no longer about me it is about all of the diff In all the myriad of ways that we all experience heartbreak together and break each other’s hearts. And I think if people can remove me as a person and see me as a character, it’d be easier to get what I was trying to do.

Traci Thomas 55:13
Okay, last one, if you could have one person dead or alive read this book, who do you want it to be?

Camonghne Felix 55:18
Oh my god, this is the most cliche answer, and I know somebody’s gonna drag me for it. But how can I not say Tony Morrison? Come on? Sir, can I give you another answer? I say Tony Morrison. And then I’ll also say Sylvia Plath. Okay,

Traci Thomas 55:36
I’ve never I have had Tony Morrison before as an answer to that, but I’ve never had Sylvia Plath. Yeah. So we’ll take it. I love it. All right, everybody. This has been a great conversation with Simone Felix, her new book dyscalculia a love story of epic miscalculation is out in the world. You can get it wherever you get your books. You can listen to it on audio, come on, reads it. And you can read the physical copy. And if you’re like me, we’ll do both. Come on. Thank you so much for being here.

Camonghne Felix 56:02
Thank you so much for having me. This was the best interview so far. And you’re so good at this. I’ll be keep doing it for a long time.

Traci Thomas 56:08
Thank you and everyone else. We will see you in the Stacks. All right, y’all. That does it for us today. Thank you for listening and thank you again to Camonghne for being our guest. I’d also like to thank Carla Bruce Eddings for helping to make this conversation possible. Reminder our February book club selection is the Round House by Luis Erdrich, which we will be discussing on Wednesday, February 22 with Mina Kimes. If you love the show and want insight access to it, head to patreon.com/the stacks to join the stacks pack. Make sure you’re subscribed to the stacks whoever you listen to your podcasts and if you’re listening through Apple podcasts or Spotify be sure to leave us a rating and a review. For more from the stacks. Follow us on social media at the stacks pod on Instagram at the stocks pod underscore on Twitter and check out our website the stocks podcast.com This episode of the stacks was edited by Christian Duenas with production assistance from Lauren Tyree. Our graphic designer is Robin MacWrite. The Stacks is created and produced by me Traci Thomas.

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