Interview: Tsara Shelton On Women Taking Accountability For Rape, Raising Colorful Boys and More
"For those of us who know a lot, we need to share. We need to shine! Go to the store, audition for roles, write a play, paint, build and be in the world."
We are currently living in an interesting time. Our society is in consistent dialogue about the dynamic of how we interact and treat each other. Or rather, that is how it seems. The surprises that have surfaced throughout our presidential election and justice system feels new for us because, in fact, we’re each individually experiencing it for the first time. But it is nothing new for our earth, the place we call home. Our planet has been the only witness to our evolution since day one, attempting to preserve the history, succeeding and losing at the same time. There are people who are assisting with the documentation, providing positive wavelengths despite the political climate. I intend to introduce you to one of these people here.
I discovered Tsara Shelton sometime last year when I wanted to read self-published authors who release raw, uncut and unedited writing. For a writer, or any artist, preservation is important and being able to control that space is humbling. Yes, traditional publishing allows for larger distribution and pretty packaging. However, I found that there is a certain level of bravery that one must obtain to publish no matter what, removing the extra hands and voices to deliver the project. Spinning in Circles and Learning from Myself: A Collection of Stories that Slowly Grow Up is Tsara’s first book that does exactly as the title announces.
Tsara is a daughter, sister, mother and wife from Canada. She maintains an interesting circle of relationships that have shaped who she is today and how she navigates in this world. For instance, her mother is an international mental health expert who adopted autistic boys. Tsara has four boys: the two oldest are half Arabian, the first born wears distinct features that immediately informs the world of a preconceived culture. Her second son, however, has her face and fair complexion. The third is half black, his brown skin and freshly groomed afro serving as a living testament. Her youngest is cuddly, wears glasses and likes his hair long; he has a white father. She is married to a black man “who has never gone camping and thinks orange soda is healthy” (pg 23).
These men in her life live in a space, beyond gender, that Tsara will never fully understand. She is the focal point in observing their lives, often adapting into their voice of reason. Not only do the men in her life bow down to her, but so do her friends who seek her out during their toughest times. Tsara is someone who people love to share things with. Reading her work and receiving her lively comments on my own work, I can feel her good energy from afar. It says a lot about her, who she is and how her presence is soft but truly confident.
Can you remember the first moment you gravitated towards the idea of writing? Describe this time period. What were you going through? How did the process of writing heal you, if at all?
Flowers In The Attic by V.C. Andrews. I was twelve years old and already an avid reader. From my earliest memory books were my go-to form of entertainment. Dr. Seuss, The Value Series, Nancy Drew, Anne of Green Gables; the adventure and ideas, the new perspectives and lived experiences were delightful and addictive. But Flowers In The Attic shifted me, moved me, stirred and frightened me in unfamiliar ways. It surrounded and stayed with me like no told story before it ever had. Every song that came on the radio became a soundtrack to the lives of those children living in the attic; me living curiously there and not there with them. Before I’d finished reading I knew that I had to explore these feelings forever. That more than answers I wanted the questions such stories revealed. It was a classic case of the right book at the right time. Puberty was tickling me in new ways; reading and writing became a direct way for me to explore the changes and what it all meant.
In your collection of essays, you discuss often about how you’re the voice of reason with your friends, boys and husband. But when it comes to your brothers, it seemed that your actions were different. Did you recognize this shift? Did your impatience towards your brothers allow you the maturity to better deal with your own family? How so?
The thing about writing, at least the type of writing I’m attracted to, is that it insists on understanding and relating to each character. Because of this, I’ve always found it easy and even addictive to put myself in the place of another, suspend judgment so I can fully “get them”. Writing with the intention of understanding is a quick medicine. My brothers felt the shift in me and our relationships have strengthened.
It is certain that my struggles and successes as a sister helped me be an intuitive mom. When my youngest sons showed signs of autism I knew almost instinctively how to find the balance between pushing and allowing.
But it is also true that my experiences as a sister were sometimes a detriment. I’d seen how the world and the people in it treated my brothers, and I’d played an unfortunate role myself in the self-esteem issues they suffered because of it. So sometimes my desire for “normal” sons overwhelmed my hope for passionate happy ones. The lines are blurred – the work of fitting in isn’t entirely value-less – so I could justify my mistakes, and make them again. However, in the bigger picture nothing but good has come from having such a diverse family while being willing to be truthful about my own mistakes.
Who do you go to for guidance? Why him/her? How did that space become safe?
“It feels like I’m always calling you to whine about my life and you’re always helping me. This is a one sided relationship,” my friend says with two parts playfulness and one part worry. “No way,” is my quick reply. “When we chat and I give you my ideas, that’s you asking me questions that help me know what I think. My life is great because you whine to me!” We giggle.
My close friends, my husband, and my sons give me that safe feeling; a knowing that I am entirely loved regardless of my truths. With them I feel encouraged to seek my own answers, using them as a living and thinking sounding board.
However, when I seek answers or feedback from outside of myself I go to my sister and my mom. I, too, am a mom who loves fiercely, so I have reason to suspect that regardless of how gifted my mom is when it comes to putting her own agenda and mothering needs aside, our entanglement is persistent, coloring her advice to me. Enter my sister.
Like mom, she is strong, thoughtful, deeply empathetic, and brilliant. Also, she is my closest friend and has always, always, always managed to give me a feeling of active worthiness. Younger than me by three years, we nevertheless grew up together. Nothing is secret or beyond us. All the things we leave unsaid exist in harmony; not hiding, but mingling and known. There is a story of why our friendship is all encompassing but there is no beginning. With me and my sister (rough patches included) it is always. She is my safest space.
You discuss many personal things in your collection of essays. Why did you decide to share these stories with the world? What do you hope those personal stories do for your readers?
I’ll admit something to you and your readers. I don’t feel like my stories are overly personal. Indeed, when I share my stories with friends and strangers alike, I am often met with similar stories in return. The stories are from my memories and moments, sure, but they rarely land on an island alone. Almost always I’m joined by “me too” or its cousin “I think that’s how it is for my loved one.” We humans are a fantastic balance of different and same. We chase so many of the same things from such different places.
Perhaps, then, that’s what I hope my personal stories do for some readers. Remind them that we have all judged ourselves, made mistakes, hurt others and been there. We all do it differently but in many ways, the same.
What was the hardest thing to share in your collection? Why did you fight the fear to do it anyway?
What I Was Thinking When I Raped You. The story of raping my boyfriend as a teenager; remembering it in the moment that my son admitted that he was tempted to push girls into sex. I found this one hard to share, but so important.
After I published that piece on an opinion site I was dragged into a few uncomfortable conversations where I was in the position to explain – over and over – why what I had done was rape. “You changed his mind,” was a common argument. But, no. And that’s a problem. My son also read the piece and agreed it was important. Which, to me, is important.
Tell everyone about your initiative with autism and why you are using your platform to educate people about it. What should people do if they are looking for help/answers? What if someone suspects a loved one is autistic but fears asking those questions?
As a reader I have been shaped by a vast collection of stories and perspectives. In so many ways this has helped me remain forever open minded and able to understand people. But there are a few communities of people missing from the popular books (and films, and TV shows) that shaped me and my peers. It seems to me that none are nearly as missing from the spotlight of our cultural narrative as the disabled: characters with Tourette’s or Cerebral Palsy or epilepsy. This is a dangerous and cruel lie about the world we live in. The world they live in. We need them to star in more stories. They are talented actors, writers, thinkers, singers, comedians and creators. Why do we harm each other by mostly using or ignoring them?
So I try not to! I hesitate to write stories where the main character is autistic because I am not. But I refuse to ignore them or use them only to pull heartstrings. I share so that they will share, so that people will be honestly and openly interested, and so that we will admit to our own discomfort in order to overcome it.
If I could suggest only one thing to a person who suspects that they or someone they love is autistic, I would suggest that they reach out to my mom. Ideally, have her come to you for an outreach. She was undiagnosed (or, more honestly, continually misdiagnosed) most of her life and is called “the autism whisperer” by many of the people she works with. For those of you hoping to learn more about autism, or mental health in general, reach out to my mom. And for those of us who know a lot, we need to share. We need to shine! Go to the store, audition for roles, write a play, paint, build and be in the world.
In wake of recent events throughout the country — with Black Lives Matter, the presidential campaign, the bombings, etc. — what responsibilities do you feel as a woman who is a mother of diverse boys and a wife to a black man? Is there anything you’d like to say to the world in an effort to be a voice that demands change? Are you fearful for your loved ones lives? What experiences have you personally had that opened your eyes to the division in this country?
This is a heavy and important question, one I wrestle with often.
You know, I feel overwhelming responsibility sometimes, which leads me to feeling either painfully embarrassed by such self-importance or debilitating-ly unable to have any effect on anything.
Most often, though, it encourages me to keep writing out loud, talking openly with friends and family, and making authentic connections with people I meet out and about in the world. This is one of the reasons that I share so openly the mistakes I’ve made and the ways my life has grown better when I recognized them as mistakes.
In truth, I am a victim of my privilege and my fear of standing out. I wonder if I would have bothered to learn the things I now know had I not been the oldest sister of people with cognitive challenges, had I not become the mother of colorful sons and the wife of a hard working black man.
Thankfully I am, and I did! And the main thing I keep learning because of it is: I don’t know what it’s like to be you. I can see what it looks like, I can know what I think it’s like, but I don’t know what it’s like. So when you tell me, I will believe you.
It’s at that point, when I’ve truly listened and you’ve truly shared, that we can authentically explore what it all means and how we can make any necessary changes.
A Memory: My sons are enrolling in elementary school and I’m sitting at my kitchen table surrounded by school forms and supply lists. I feel like a mom in the movies and even glance up, put my pen to my lips, and imagine myself on screen. A thoughtful scene, I think, so I look for a thought to discover. Looking back at the forms I see that I’m stuck once again on the ethnicity section. Such a seemingly simple question but for the life of me I don’t know the answer. I don’t remember which of my sons the question was relating to but I do remember a sigh of relief when filling out my one Caucasian son’s form. This simple sigh said so much to me. About what it is not to have to think about it, what it is to fit in, what it is to make life easy for people.
A Memory: Donald Trump is talking about refusing to let Muslims into the country. There’s been another attack and people are angry, hurting, afraid. I call my oldest son who is brown, but not a Muslim. “How are you? Are things rough for you again?” “Na,” he answers. “I just shave my beard and people leave me alone.” I call his brother. “Well, I would shave my beard,” he tells me as he’s opening up shop at work, “but my girlfriend likes it.” I’m torn between wanting to tell him to shave it for now so that he’ll be safer because I love him, and wanting to tell him not to let fear guide his choices because I love him. I’m glad, for once, that his girlfriend’s opinion matters more than mine and I don’t have to decide what to tell him. ♦
This interview has been condensed for editing purposes.