Remembering Akilah Oliver
A Visionary Queer Black Writer
The below letter was written on February 24, 2011, in the evening shortly after hearing about Akilah’s passing, may she rest in peace, and posted on my wall in Facebook. I had just finished a conversation with Nancy Agabian over the phone, in which we discussed news of her death, particularly as things were still being pieced together, as well as her life, community, heart, and tremendous contributions—her spirit.
We also discussed other queer people of color we thought we should contact, to make sure they were in the loop, among them Michèlle T. Clinton, a mutual friend of all of us, whom I later spoke with at length that evening. As these two sisters are the ones who brought Akilah into my life, I realize now how fitting it was for them to circle round again with me to honor her on her journey out.
Akilah lived widely, and circulated in numerous circles, and has many, many loved ones all over. The piece below is written from my perspective, one story of many. I offer it with love now as I did then, and hope others, in the weeks and months and years to come, will continue to offer their own stories, memories, and memorializations, tributes of Akilah and her important life/work.
I am thankful to her, her spirit and legacy, and to Antonio Gonzalez Cerna of the Lambda Literary Foundation, who saw what I had written and asked if I would share it with the larger community. May others, in particular other writers of African descent, womanists, and queer writers of color, find meaning and truth, power and possibility in her words.
Peace, beauty, and blessings,
Ahimsa Timoteo Bodhrán
March 3, 2011
P.S. The piece I offer below is a personal first-response piece written on the evening of having lost a loved one, rather than a complete memorial and write-up written later about Akilah’s life and work. I ask that it be understood and accepted in that regard.
I have spoken with Antonio and he said Lambda is more than open to posting additional tributes and memorial pieces about Akilah in the weeks to come, so if you are interesting in contributing such a testimonial, please do contact them, as we need all our stories to construct a more full and loving picture of Akilah. Thank you.
Many blessings. I just received word that a friend of mine, the talented Akilah Oliver, has passed away, may she rest in peace. Akilah was an amazing queer African American poet, writer, and performance artist, a teacher and university instructor, a mother, and community-minded person. She was the author of numerous wonderful books, and will be dearly missed.
I met Akilah years ago through another friend/mentor of mine, Michèlle T. Clinton, a fabulous queer African Native American writer and West Coast homegirl, and through my girl, Nancy Agabian, another fabulous queer Armenian writer. Akilah and I connected, and I got to work with her and attend one of her “flesh memory” writing workshops at Bluestockings bookstore in NYC.
Akilah was a vibrant, creative spirit, an iconoclast, and someone who enjoyed good folk and humor. Deeply intellectual, brilliant, and innovative, she forged wonderful poetics and written/spoken/performative work that really examined a multiplicity of things, including the intersections of language, memory, trauma, violence, healing, and narrativity, as they intersected with African American, female, and queer/trans identities and experiences. She imploded various categories and was a fierce, talented artist.
Her first book, the she said dialogues: flesh memory (Smokeproof Press/Erudite Fangs), is an amazing, powerful book of fragmentary prose poems, and I was honored to read it and later teach it at Michigan State University as part of a Spring 2005 Decolonial Poetics course. The syllabus can be found on my website, and a bio I created for her is in it, which I passed on to her for approval/edits before including it in the syllabus.
I’ve copied and pasted below the bio I created for the syllabus. Please keep in mind it was written at the end of 2004 into early 2005 before the semester began.
Akilah Oliver was born in St. Louis and raised in South Central Los Angeles. A queer African American poet, prose writer, parent, and teacher, she is the author of two books of poetry, the she said dialogues: flesh memory and An Arriving Guard of Angels: Thusly Coming to Greet. Her work has also appeared in Invocation L.A.: Urban Multicultural Poetry, Blood Whispers: L.A. Writers on AIDS, Volume 2, High Risk 2: Writings on Sex, Death, and Subversion, and Civil Disobediences: Poetics and Politics in Action. Oliver was a member of The Sacred Naked Nature Girls, a multicultural women’s performance group, and has taught elementary, middle, and high school, as well as at Naropa University and the University of Colorado at Boulder. She lives in Boulder.
In the years since, Akilah had relocated back to NYC, where I first met her, and had continued teaching, writing, and publishing there.
Below are some obituaries and links that provide a more recent and complete picture of Akilah. As they are so beautifully and lovingly written, I’ll let them speak for themselves.
- “Akilah Oliver (1961-2011) — The Poetry Project” [Source]
- “Akilah Oliver — About the Author — Coffee House Press” [Source]
- “In Memory of Akilah Oliver — A Note from Rachel Levitsky” [Source]
- “Akilah Oliver (1961-2011) — Farfalla Press” [Source]
- “Akilah Oliver — PennSound” [Source]
- “Akilah Oliver — Author Statement — The Tolerance Project” [Source]
I saw Akilah briefly and lovingly in the hallways of AWP in Denver in 2010 if memory serves correct. Brief, it was loving and sweet.
My fondest and longest recent memory of Akilah was spending time with her at AWP in Chicago in 2009, by a fireside in one of the hotel lobbies. We spent a good amount of time, catching up and being loving/good friends with each other, laughing, talking about poetry—including one of her most recent books, A Toast in the House of Friends (Coffee House Press), which she arranged to get me a copy—as well as about love, art, and people we knew. Various others stopped by, or we would mingle with other folk before returning to our seats to continue the conversation. We kept finding each other and picking up where we left off. We kept finding each other.
That is what I’ll remember: how we kept finding each other as loved ones, friends, poets/writers, as queer folk of color seeking each other’s words, vision, and company.
Akilah was a dear, sweet spirit. May others, particularly other queer writers of color continue to find and be inspired by her words, her life, and legacy.
She will be remembered.
Peace and beauty to your spirit, homegirl. Aché, and many blessings as you continue your journey. Aché!
Love and more love, beauty, peace, Aché,
Photo: © Theresa Hurst, used with permission from Coffee House Press