Kai Naima Williams decided that she wanted to write fiction when she was just 11 years old. Now, as she begins her senior year, it seems clear that her childhood dream has only expanded; she has not only become an acclaimed fiction writer, but she has also founded a non-profit, published a book of poetry, and has ambitions for television writing. As Williams has changed and matured, so too have her creative goals, her visions for the future. The Argus sat down with Williams at her home to discuss her creative development, her experience as a woman of color in the arts, and her numerous accolades at Wesleyan and beyond.
The Argus: So we’ve heard a little bit about the non-profit that you created, can you tell us a little more about what that is?
Kai Williams: Sure! So it’s called Eat At the Table Theatre Company (EATT), it’s a New York City-based non-profit dedicated to providing young actors and artists of color performance opportunities in New York. So me and my best friend from forever ago, from Pre-K, we started Eat At the Table together. We’re both co-founders and executive directors. We founded it when I was 17 and she was 16.
A: Oh, so this is something that you created while you were in high school?
KW: Yeah, it’s been four years! We started it in our junior year of high school. We’d been having a lot of conversations about the issue of diversity in New York City theaters, because especially off-Broadway and Broadway, it does not at all reflect the population of New York City. Part of that has to do with the fact that Broadway audiences are predominantly white and predominantly wealthy. I had [also] been selected as a YoungArts scholar that year. The National YoungArts Foundation is this really incredible program for kids across disciplines and they have some really incredible alumni. So I was really lucky to go when I was 17 as part of the writing discipline.
A: How did you decide to apply for YoungArts?
KW: I applied because I had been writing since I was about 11 and I was in a writing program that had a lot of accessibility and was really good about putting their students into many different opportunities, most of them contests and competitions…which was intense, in a way. So I felt like I was competing for many years, starting from when I was maybe 12.
A: What was that like?
KW: It really prepared me to want to write professionally. And it really sharpened my ability to know how to navigate and present myself in a professional way. And it taught me a lot about writing. So I will definitely say that it really improved my skills, but there are a lot of problems that arise in environments like that. I’m sensing some complicated implications it’s had on my writing in terms of like, being able to see myself as more than a fiction writer or branch out in genre, because I feel like a lot of my writing life in high school was about fitting myself into boxes in order to enter these competitions.
A: So how did YoungArts compel you to create EATT?
KW: Well, when I was at YoungArts, I was watching these actors perform and a lot of them happened to be young actors of color from New York that year. And something just shifted inside of me, and I was just newly incredulous about the potential difficulties in the future of these actors who were so like…just unbelievably talented. So when that happened, having that experienced, I texted my best friend, I was like, ‘I want to do something about this.’ So we came up with the idea for EATT, the idea of making a non-profit. And then we just researched our asses off for months, trying to figure out what the steps were to incorporate. And we’ve been doing it ever since!
A: Had you done a lot of theatre before that? It seems like sort of a different wheelhouse than creative writing.
KW: Yeah, I have always loved theatre. I participated in it from a very young age, just acting, not professionally. Mostly just community theatre and school, but I would say it’s my first love. I wanted to be an actress from a very young age until I was 11 and then I wanted to be a writer. And now I’m figuring out how to be both!
A: When did you first start acting?
KW: I was 5, and I did a production at Harlem School of the Arts.
A: And you just kept going from there?
KW: Oh yeah, I loved it. I always loved it, and it’s been a very important part of my life, although I haven’t really been able to act in the past couple of years. But EATT has completely reinvigorated my love of creating theatre and it’s created a really beautiful network for me and hopefully for everyone who has been involved just to meet other young actors and young artists, and I’m really proud of the work that we’ve accomplished.
A: What does that work look like more specifically?
KW: We usually put on a production a season, which is in the summer…. Eat At The Table derives its name from a Langston Hughes poem, “I, Too,” where he says, “I am the darker brother, they send me to eat in the kitchen when the company comes.” So we’ve drawn inspiration from poets, we did a tribute to Ntozake Shange, which was actually my directorial debut! It was at this little off-Broadway theater, which we were able to get through the Patricelli Grant. We also do a lot of fundraising so we can go into schools and do workshops, camps, etcetera. We have a lot we want to do!
A: What role did your high school play in that project?
KW: So the school that I went to, Dalton, was predominantly white and predominantly wealthy. It’s on the Upper East Side. I think that when I was creating EATT, I was becoming very, very hyper-aware and uncomfortable and angry with the Theater Department because if you go into these Upper East Side private schools, they got the crazy theater budget! Like their resources are unlimited, and you see a lot of little white girls, and not only are they like…[mock British accent] the-A-ter people, but they also do all of these theater camps! The theater department was extremely white. I definitely saw kids of color being discouraged from participating, because it’s so hierarchical. You know you get cast in one, you get cast in two, then you’re the like ingénue or whatever…. And they were never Black girls or girls of color. And Dalton was in some hot water while I was there because they were trying to put on this really, truly racist production of the Thoroughly Modern Millie and then there was this [whole] scandal. So there were a lot of issues and it was just very clear to me, the disparity in performance opportunities, even in a school like Dalton. Like if you’re a Black student at Dalton, either you have money or you don’t, and you got in through like pipeline or scholarship programs. And yeah, I was just shocked that even in a place like that where all students, regardless of your resources at home, when you’re there, there’s a lot accessible to you…. To see that same disparity reproduced was really…I mean, it wasn’t surprising, but if anything it just further engaged my outrage.
A: When you arrived here, you had already been writing pretty seriously for many years. What was it like to come into a totally different creative environment?
KW: My work has had many, many opportunities to develop and flourish here, and a lot of that has to do with my own adulthood, and my processes of coming into myself since being here. But definitely the environment has fostered that. For so long when I was in high school, I wrote the same story over and over again because I was experiencing the same outrages over and over again, so I wrote a lot about about prep school. Then when I got here a lot of my issues became internal—not that they weren’t before. But I definitely think I became more introspective in my work. But some of the best opportunities that I’ve had for my career have happened in the past couple of years. I definitely think I was incredibly guided and mentored by teachers that I love here. And also just the people around, I definitely draw a lot, like the center of my work stems from the relationships I’ve made since coming to school. And also a lot of the emotionally exhausting and difficult and wearying experiences that I’ve had since being here, including assault, but also just relationships I’ve had with people that failed or that resulted in harm. A lot of those experiences became the subject of my work and I think that one of the best things in the past couple of years is being able to go through those experience and manifest it into work that then has continued to build into a cornerstone that I’m hoping to keep developing. And my book came out of that!
A: How did you manage to publish a book!? Also, what is it called?
KW: So it’s called “He Tried to Drown the Ocean, I Waved.” So this chapbook consists of pretty much the first poems that I wrote. Well not the first poems that I wrote, I won’t say that because in looking back on my writing and my journals from high school, I definitely think that I was writing poetry and just wasn’t recognizing it as such. And like I mentioned before, part of that is because I was always branding myself as a fiction writer, so it took me a while to feel like comfortable participating in that. But the poems are all basically entries in my journal and writing that was just like coming out of me during a really difficult period of mental health in the second half of my freshman year. At the end of that year, in June, I get these emails from submittable—which anyone who writes and wants to put stuff out there should get on, ’cause it’s dope—and I saw an open call from a small publishing press for poetry chapbooks. And I just transcribed them out of the notebooks and ordered them and arranged them and edited them and put it together and I wasn’t at all expecting anything to occur. But a good thing that happened to me in high school was just training myself to put myself out there to be rejected. And just to always go for it, if you can afford it. So I was doing that a lot that semester. I had already had a piece published that meant a lot to me so I was really like…on my grind.
A: What was that piece?
KW: That was a personal essay that was selected for the New York Times Modern Love contest.
KW: It wasn’t published, it was top ten not top five [laughs].
A: So did you have any guidance in applying for that, or for the chapbook?
KW: It was just a whim! I did it in two days. Not that I had written it in two days! Which is why I feel like if you feel like you should go for something, always, always trust that instinct, because the worst thing that can happen is you don’t get it. And if it’s not something you’re expecting, whatever. So yeah, it was published last November!
A: Having come to Wesleyan knowing what you wanted to do, is there anything that has surprised you about your academic journey?
KW: Yeah! I want to do television. I want to write television, I want to act…. I really want to do that. And in my mind, for a long time, I thought it had to be writing or acting. And then, when I created EATT, I was like, ‘Okay, I can be interdisciplinary.’ But I still think that…I don’t know, with Wesleyan being a film school, I was…not intimidated initially, but was like, ‘That’s not my thing, that’s other people’s thing.’ I was like, ‘I know what my thing is.’ And a lot of my friends were in film, so I did begin to feel like it just wasn’t my forte, but I worked for this screenwriter for two years and that has really made me want to like…. Well, my whole life, I’ve been imagining and envisioning film, like myself. But I just thought that was like…not anything of substance. And then I realized, I talk about TV so much. I watch TV so much more than film, and it’s a medium that I adore in terms of storytelling. The past like two years, I’ve been just like ‘Fuck it, I’m gonna just tell stories however I want.’ I think that that’s what I want to do: tell stories. And I definitely want to write and I want to be a fiction writer, like I have since I was 11. And poetry, too! I do spoken word as well. So I can do whatever!
A: Going from one predominantly white institution to another, do you feel that your experiences at Dalton and Wesleyan were comparable in that regard?
KW: I had a different experience to a lot of my friends who weren’t coming from predominantly white, wealthy schools, because I loved Wesleyan when I got here. I felt like even though it is absolutely predominantly white, predominantly wealthy, and—we know—incredibly ridiculous and absurd, as those dynamics get played out. But for me, coming from Dalton, Wesleyan did not seem predominantly white to me when I got here, at all. I felt really, really welcomed into and entrenched into SOC circles and communities, but also just like spaces on campus where that existed. And I picked Wesleyan—I applied ED—I decided to because when I got here I saw so many beautiful POC students who were, just carrying themselves with confidence and existing physically, styling themselves, clearly presenting themselves to the world. I caught that vibe immediately, and obviously I can only speak for myself, and I don’t know if I still agree with this, but for me freshman year, I felt like even though the SOC are a minority in this school, it felt like they were a cultural and popular majority for me socially. That was gorgeous, and that was exhilarating. At Dalton, I felt like all the SOC were constantly hiding, obscuring, pretending, or just dimming themselves. Not everyone obviously, but it’s an environment that breeds that. That is reproduced at other liberal arts schools with the same amount of Black kids that Wesleyan has, but it’s a different thing. I just had so many beautiful, incredible, thoughtful, intelligent, mind-opening women of color in my life immediately when I got here. And that was a huge reason why I loved it freshman year.
A: To go back to your writing, who do you imagine your audience to be? Who are you writing for?
KW: That’s a great question. I mean, of course I think it’s going to fluctuate based on what I’m writing. I hope that the audience will change, based on what I’m writing. I also hope eventually I’m the kind of writer that everyone can pick up, and for people of different communities and different identities, mean something different, but that I can resonate with people on a human level no matter how distinct that might be. But right now, I would say that my audience is the people that I write about. Which for me are mostly women, but also all young people of color and Black people. I’m particularly interested in women and the people who have been in my life that are my peers and that are my friends, who are interested in understanding themselves, are interested in manifesting healing for each other and for others. So like, I write a lot about witches. A lot of my work over the last few years is about magic and how it is generated amongst young women of color, within relationships between women that are not just romantic or just platonic or just sexual, but are intersections of everything. I just know a lot of women that are, you know, with their academic work or tarot or Yi Jing, the Chinese Art of divination, that are driven by this innate idea that they are able. That they can create. That they can manifest. That they can do magic, that they can envision their future. That are interested in skills that allow them to do that more truthfully. Who are learning from older generations of people who have done this. I’m so inspired by the women around me, I think that I’m just really really enamored by them, and with people that I see online, with artists that are creating work and creating themselves, and deciding what life is like inside their bodies. And I want that to be a form of magic itself, to connect, to feel themselves opened up by it or reflected in it.
A: You mentioned people online, do you feel like the internet and being a writer in the age of social media, do you feel like that has been uplifting? Or how has that influenced you as a writer and as an artist?
KW: It’s such a double-edged sword. I like the internet for me. It can create linkages between people, writers, that have been super valuable for me. It’s access, which is valuable to so many communities; not separating writing out into something that’s above or beyond this thing that young people have created together and have been forced to navigate together, that thing being social media. But it can be competitive. When I went to YoungArts, I had a little imposter syndrome because I was with so many kids that have been published so many places. So, there’s all of that industry stuff, and all the feelings that are tied up in social media that are so directly reflective of one’s self. If you’re in it, it’s hard to separate yourself out of it, until you don’t feel good about it, honestly, is what I feel I’ve been realizing lately. So I definitely think that it can be discouraging for people, but I also think that it’s really cool and has created spaces for people…. Eventually, I want to do this project that’s an online database of people’s writing, because in any discipline, it really allows you to take inspiration and formulate connections. I track my social media writing stuff against my other stuff ’cause it’s all there on my Instagram. Just, like, gauging response. With any social media, if you don’t get a good response or the response you were looking for, it can really feel reflective of you, maybe. Everything else I’ve put out I don’t really see people read. The only way I know they’re reading it is if it’s online. It’s definitely been important to me, not important like I value it, but that’s how I’ve been able to understand what people like.
A: What about your thesis?
KW: My thesis! She’s a little messy, but I’m putting her together. My thesis is a collection of short fiction, and it is going to be about a lot of things, but I’m interested in witches. I want to repeat characters. I want to create worlds within worlds, and I think I want to talk about myth. I think what I want to write about is witchcraft, magic and everything I was talking about before, like relationships between women and how that magic is utilized, and what those usages look like, what is the need for that. But I want to talk about myth because I think I want to talk about fame, and how that in and of itself is a creation, a manifestation, and I want to talk about social media and I want to talk about reality television. So, the only way I could tie that to witchcraft for me was if I’m talking about legends, if I’m talking about how people become the villains of people’s stories and how people become just a name or just a story, that is passed on and becomes something else. There’s something monstrous about it but I also think there’s something magical about it. So I see the connections in my head but I can’t quite articulate them yet. But I’m gonna figure it out.
A: I want to read it!
KW: I’ll send it to you!
A: I’m curious as to, I guess if you’ve changed in your time at Wesleyan. How you have grown and what this place has done to you, for better or for worse.
KW: Yeah, right! For better or for worse. So, I completely feel like a different person than the person I was when I walked in here. I think I learned how to discipline myself to want to create long-term happiness in my life. By watching others and by being put in emotional situations where I was made to have to help myself and grow up, I’ve been able to garner a lot of tools for living my life honestly and kindly to myself. I let go of some toxic behaviors and some conceptions of what and who I needed in my life to be happy and to be healthy. And I learned how to choose that over comfort, obviously it’s an everyday struggle, and I’m dealing with a lot right now that are the recyclings of these past insecurities coming back up, just to be honest. But I learned how to care for myself. Those tools. And those tools are not always working, and those tools I think are always going to need to be refined and practiced and exercised, but yeah, I learned a lot about myself and how to be a good person to myself. And hopefully to others, cause that’s really, really important to me. I try to be a good friend, and I’ve been able to go through experiences here that made me know for myself what that is for me. And I met amazing people here, and they changed me for the better.
A: I guess also, a peripheral question is how do you receive feedback, like what kind of stuff makes you grow, how do your peers support you, what kind of feedback do you think is helpful to give, get?
KW: I love feedback. I think it’s the most important thing. It’s like, the best thing ever. Feedback that’s been helpful…. I haven’t joined many creative writing classes here, I mostly have met people who I’ve shared my work with, but I think I’ve met a lot of people who understand or are able to understand what I wanna do with my work. There are two different camps. The people who will actually get into the gritty of what’s not working in a technical sense, that’s been great. My thesis advisor, Professor Yanique, she’s like my mentor, she’s like my everything I love her. Craziest teacher I’ve ever had, absolute best writing teacher I’ve ever had. She’ll tear my shit up, which is great. I like a really hard, if it’s not mean, I like a really hard review. But also, just people telling me how my work made them feel, like what they wanna feel, what they were expecting to. Feedback is not always the same as revision, but the pieces that I’ve published that have felt the most successful to me have been where I’ve then been able to engage with people and have them talk to me about what it did for them, or what they were thinking about while they were reading or feeling, and sometimes that’s what makes it worth it. That’s all you can want.
A: Are you ever surprised by how people respond to your things? Like, ‘I did not intend that, but cool.’
KW: Some of the work that I’ve done on my own experiences with sexual abuse, having people reach out to me and share their story is always really—like it shakes me a bit. We both then feel in a way some responsibility for the other, you always want to be able to respond and relate to someone with utmost respect. If you feel you can be able to connect on a level, if there’s healing involved or healing that is possible, yeah. Some of that has been sobering. I think heavy, but not in a bad way at all. Also, I just hate all my work, and it’s nice to have people be like no, I like this.
A: It also like, feels like you’re expressing your own experience that is so unique to your memories and life, and having someone be like, this spoke to me in a way that you couldn’t have predicted.
KW: It’s always super surprising just to have someone be like, I went through a similar thing, or I went through something that this triggers for me. It’s not always assault, like the Modern Love essay that I published on a different site. A lot of people hit me up and were like, this exact thing happened to me. And I was kind of feeling like my shit was specific.
A: It’s not only changing other peoples’ opinion; it’s also changing your own.
KW: Also, that’s the best thing to read too, right. That’s what you read and you’re like, oh, yeah. I read this woman who was at YoungArts with me. She’s an amazing writer, like, intense, she’s insane. She did a piece for The New Yorker on her body…. She has a similar body type to mine, so it was just on being small and weightlifting. I read the piece and I was like, this shit came when I needed to read it, and I was breathless. You know when you read something and you’re like, that’s my fucking life! It’s crazy to have someone be like, yo, this shit happened to me, and this is how I feel about it. Now we can talk about that, cause even if we’re not close, we’ve had this connection. It’s so, like, fun.
A: What are the projects and the things that you do that you’re most looking forward to doing, in your last time? You wanna go out with a bang, what are your goals?
KW: Honestly like, there’s stuff I’m excited to do… I usually do the SOC fashion show, I guess that’s what I do on campus.
A: I saw so many pictures and I was like, I can’t believe how fucking cool this is. It’s literally the best thing ever.
KW: Oh my god, it’s the event of the whole fucking year, you guys! I just walk. I love that shit.
A: Who designs the clothes? What clothes do you wear?
KW: Different people have different lines. So sometimes it’s just styling, sometimes they’re actually making the stuff. I’m excited for my own shit, I’m definitely gonna do some shit I’ve never done before. There are a lot of things I wanted to do, like I wanted to take the taiko class. I didn’t audition cause I went to this poetry class instead, and I wanted to do Ebony Singers, maybe I will. But yeah, I’m excited to see other peoples’ theses, their projects, I’m excited to see what everyone’s doing…. Zurich Deleon did Let’s Talk about Sex last year, I wasn’t here to see it, I saw the video it was mind-blowing. She’s fantastic. She’s doing her projects, I don’t know if it’s a secret so I won’t talk that much about it, but I’m excited to see that shit. My friends Lina and Fran, Fran is writing a thesis that I’m so, so excited to read. Lina is, like, if you haven’t seen her work you have to. So, L.G. Mitchell. Lina Gwendolyn Mitchell. Yeah, everyone else. So many people I wanna see their stuff.
A: Okay, last question. What advice would you give to yourself as a freshman or any incoming freshman?
KW: Ooooh! Very college question. I would say to myself not to worry so much about protecting myself. And to be open and daring and honest with my instinct because everything turned out okay. And to trust myself always, cause that that was a lesson that I learned, but if I had had that from the beginning…. I had an idea, but I also think I second-guessed myself a lot, and everything that I had to go through I had to go through. That’s not the case for everyone hopefully, but that’s the case for a lot of people. So, to not be afraid of being hurt, ’cause it’s just a part of it. And also to love everyone that I loved, because some people I’m like, I wish I had met you earlier…. I mean, I’m so happy for the friendship we have now, but I’m like ah, this could have been like all the time. To other people, oftentimes you actually do know what you want, and to let that be more important than what you should do, or what you need to do. And to trust yourselves as well, and your own instinct. I think trying to be good to yourself. It’s really only easy or difficult based on where you are at that time. Everyone’s gonna come to it and come at it differently. It’s a really great goal just to be a good person to others and to be a good person to yourself too.
Sasha Linden-Cohen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Steph Dukich can be reached at email@example.com.