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Life & Work with Ashunda Norris

Today we’d like to introduce you to Ashunda Norris.

Hi Ashunda, we’re thrilled to have a chance to learn your story today. So, before we get into specifics, maybe you can briefly walk us through how you got to where you are today? 

I was born and raised in rural Georgia. My childhood home is near the woods, creeks, streams and used to be surrounded by pecan trees, gardens, plum trees, cotton fields, flower beds, strawberry shrubs. Country living, what I call the Black pastoral. Seeing kingsnakes and rattlesnakes was typical. Playing with frogs and rolly-pollies a classic standard, especially in the summertime. 

I’ve always had a vivid imagination. It was in my paternal grandma’s backyard where I made up most of my stories, using nature’s elements to create whole worlds and even friends. I was a lonesome child. If I wasn’t outside conjuring up characters, my head was in a book. The library was my second home. All the librarians knew me by name. I liked how books made me feel and wanted to make others feel that way, so I started saying to myself that I’m gon be a writer which I now know was in me from birth. I came here with that gift. I kept a journal (and still do!) and started writing stories down and for school assignments. My teachers read what I wrote and encouraged me. The affirmations from them gave me a particular joy. I used to write my favorite authors asking to be their intern. I was so serious! Only like one wrote me back, but it was enough to keep me dreaming. 

I was a secret writer for so long, getting jobs in fields related to or adjacent to writing; journalism and reporting, academia, teaching English Lit, but keeping my ideas, scripts, novels, poems hidden from the world. I went to Howard University as a grad student with every intention of becoming an academic. Finished up at Howard, with another degree in hand too afraid to go after what I really wanted. I was terrified of my own ambitions. I continued to hide myself from myself and everyone around me. While I was suffering through an emotionally abusive relationship that most, even myself, didn’t know was abusive, I found D.C.’s poetry scene. I started going to all the local open mics, writing poems on the daily, hosting events and participating in slams. My confidence in my talent surged, and I finally stopped lying to myself about how much I wanted to create art. 

I transitioned to filmmaking in 2012, and I write direct, produce, and sometimes edit short narrative content. After making a film in 2015, I decided to pivot and returned to grad school, where I wrote feature scripts and starting writing poems again. I was in a poetry drought at the time and was excited when lines came back to me. Since then, I’ve learned to weave between cinema and poetics and sometimes merge the two. Writing a script, making a film and conceiving of a poem are three very distinct skill sets, but I’ve realized that each of them informs the other. And even if I’m not conscious of it as I’m making, there is a deeper knowledge base within me. I’m downloading from ancestral realms. I’ve recently added archiving and painting to my practice. I’m excited by where it all will take me. 

Would you say it’s been a smooth road, and if not what are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced along the way? 

Is this a trick question? [laughter] – The road has been bumpy, curved, leaning toward the edge of cliffs with mountains smack dab in the middle of it. And at each block or detour, I’ve had to figure out a way to adjust. Nine to fives provide some good benefits and good money depending on where one lands, but absolutely none of it really prepares someone for being an artist, for sticking with the journey. 

I used to let my own fears of the unknown stop me from pursuing art making as a career. I was too busy letting other people’s perceptions and expectations dictate my path which ain’t helpful and is so damaging to the psyche. Once I really committed to writing life, I realized how arduous it can be. I’ve thought about giving up so many times because sometimes it feels impossible to make a vision come together and up to the standards I’ve set for myself. I’ve struggled with immense, paralyzing self-doubt and debilitating depression. I’ve had to work through healing a mother wound, childhood traumas and my own personal triggers to stay on this journey. It is not for the faint of heart. Being an artist is pleasing to my spirit, exciting, and delights my inner child, but it’s also difficult, demanding and painful. For every reward, every exhilarating experience, there is a challenge to overcome. I had to learn to trust myself, my first mind and believe what my eyes and soul are telling me. I’ve sometimes ignored my intuition to my own detriment. It ain’t fun cleaning up the mess after my spirits warned me, and I didn’t listen. What keeps me grounded and clear about my purpose is a stellar therapist, altar work, hikes to communicate with nature, visits to the goddess that is the sea and teacher plants. 

Thanks – so what else should our readers know about your work and what you’re currently focused on?

I’m a storyteller. I use the creative mediums of film, poetry, archives, essays and painting to express my joys, frustrations, triumphs, confusions, difficulties, ecstasies and rages living on this planet as a Black woman. My most recent film, Mino: A Diasporic Myth is an afro surreal, afro futuristic narrative short about a coven of Black womxn who can conceive without men. I specialize in writing and directing films, writing poems and using my skills as an academic to conceptualize theoretical frameworks. All that researching I had to do for grad school(s) is useful to me now, and my years as a teacher gave me an extreme level of patience I employ when gearing up to produce and direct a film. I’m currently working between several projects that include a full-length poetry collection, archiving family records and development on a feature film. I’m most proud of my ability to evolve, to shape-shift in my creative practice and to keep honoring myself in the work. I’ve grown so much as an artist over the years, and it’s because I stay dedicated to building my knowledge base, learning new ways to approach the craft and never leaving 3 yr old, 9 yr old, 13 yr old, 17 yr old, Shunda behind. She kept dreaming, and look at us now, baby. 

So, before we go, how can our readers or others connect or collaborate with you? How can they support you? 

Folks can visit my website (https://ashunda.com/) for an archive of my films, poems and writings. And email me for collaborations, work inquiries. Watch my latest film Mino: A Diasporic Myth on Kweli TV

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Image Credits

Breiana Autena Mariah Harrison

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