Ashley Cassandra Ford is amazing. That’s what her friends Roxane Gay and Glennon Doyle think too and while it feels good to hear; the writer (lots of excellent bylines but read her 5 Things series on Medium if you’re new to her work), podcaster (if you’re a fan of the HBO series Lovecraft Country her companion show Lovecraft Country Radio is a must-listen) and soon to be memoirist has her reservations. “Who do I think I am? People are gonna talk about me,” the self-described born and bred Hoosier jokingly exclaimed. She explained that for us folks from Indiana, people knowing our deepest secrets is imagined to be the worst thing that can happen. In her case, it’s likely the complete opposite as her debut, Somebody’s Daughter (an Oprah Book) has already garnered rave reviews months ahead of its June 2021 release.
Crew credits: Photography by Polina Osherov, Style by Laura Walters for Style Riot assisted by Mackie Shroeter, Makeup by Chie Sharp, Hair by Philip Salmon, Nails by Maeve, Social Media by Samantha Ripperger, Retouch by Wendy Towle. Special thanks to Ripley Auction House for the use of their beautiful jewelry, and to REGARD for their beautiful dresses.
On a rainy morning the day before NYE 2020, Ford a Fort Wayne native and Ball State grad talked with me about why after several years in the Big Apple, she is back home in Indiana and poised to bring the world to her Naptown doorstep.
I’ve been reading your pieces on Medium and am well aware that you’re tired of answering the question about why you moved back to Indiana. I have a different question about that though. When you were in NYC you shared air with some phenomenal people like Toni Morrison for example. Are you concerned about missing out on those Big Apple possibilities or do you have a plan for how to bring those things to you here?
That’s a big question but I have so many answers for it. I did share air with Toni Morrison before she passed. I have shared air with some pretty notable, fantastic people but the only two places I’ve ever lived in my adult life are Indiana and New York City and I’ve met those kinds of people in both places. I may have met more in New York but that’s the thing about New York. It has really high self-esteem. And people in New York for the most part truly believe that anything can happen there and that, that is what makes them special.
I think a lot of that is possible right here in Indianapolis and the only difference is that here no one really believes in it. I don’t say this as a generalization of every person here, but as a culture for sure Indiana has low self-esteem. Indiana is really bad at like, bragging on itself and telling the story about the history and the people here who have done fantastic things, made fantastic things and lived fantastic lives right here. I’m from Fort Wayne and someone asked me why not move there and to be honest it’s even worse. I mean.. I’ve had some success as a writer and podcast host on a national stage and in some cases an international stage. Do you know that nobody from Fort Wayne has ever really invited me back to speak there? Nobody. I’m serious. Nobody has asked to interview me, none of the local papers or magazines which is fine because they may be genuinely uninterested. But it does promote the idea that people like me don’t come from places like that and it’s false. Totally untrue.
But Indiana really likes its narrative and someone with a life and career like mine doesn’t fit into the typical Indiana narrative. Let’s add that to the reasons I came back. Because I want to force myself into that narrative. I’m a born and bred Hoosier. My opinions, my political affiliations, my art and all of that comes from what made me here. I’m going to force this place to claim me. I want people here, especially young Black people, to know what’s possible for their lives. I want to be from here. I want to make things from here. I want my friends from the coasts to come here and see what I see up close. I don’t want them to be ignorant about what the Midwest is, what it looks like and who lives here. That’s how we get better stories. I want better stories for the Midwest and Indiana specifically.
2020 did a lot of shit to us. Global pandemic that’s still happening, political madness and other traumas. One of the things I think about though is the way that Indianapolis disrupted the narrative, specifically that of Black people being passive and agreeable, via massive protests throughout the city during the social uprisings this summer. What were your thoughts on all that?
You know the thing I always think about, and this is due to years of good therapy and the study of emotion and communication – one of the things that’s tough about being Black in the Midwest is that a lot of people don’t think you exist in other places. Indianapolis is a Black ass city and like most Black cities there are lots of white folks in charge and at the top. And that happens all over, all the time for all the reasons that we know but everybody is tired. Ok. Everybody is tired and we are at a point of global exhaustion with the demand that we live in white people’s delusion and that we cater to them.
I read an article not too long ago by my friend Adam Serwer at the Atlantic where he essentially wrote that there was a contract in America. An unspoken and unwritten contract between Black folks and white folks and that white folks consistently break the contract. Black people have been letting it go, well not really that, but Black people have been in survival mode. When you’re in survival mode, trying to make sure your kids have food to eat and you have a roof over your head … just trying to have a little but nothing is working out or going your way and you see why? Eventually, you’re going to stop toiling and you’re going to start asking questions. If you’re lucky, someone will give you an honest answer and if they do, you’re going to get pissed. And our emotions are tunnels. What happens when you’re in a tunnel? You just have to make it to the other end, right? There’s no secret hatch or trap door. You have to go through to get to the end and for the most part, Black people in this country and all over the world have not been able to get to the ends of their emotional tunnels to deal with that anger and rage because we get cut off in the middle. Somebody builds a wall in the middle and says you aren’t allowed to fully express your anger or rage. Because the cost for that, for you, is your life. Eventually what happens is people who are stuck in the middle start banging on the wall. And we saw a bunch of people this summer decide to bang on the walls because they weren’t going to be trapped in their homes and in their emotions and rage and oppression. At some point you just freak out and try to break out. And that is a response that has been coming for a really really long time. For a really long time. And in Indiana especially.
Switching gears a bit, your memoir is coming out this year?
Yes. June 1, 2021.
How are you feeling about all of that?
Terrified. Very excited. Very terrified. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done and it’s also the most meaningful thing I think I’ve ever done, as far as my work is concerned. And that is a lot of pressure you know? My publisher is very supportive of this book. Roxane Gay is starting a book club with my book as part of the lineup and Glennon Doyle is the first person to blurb my memoir. Having my friends and colleagues come in and basically say, we want to help you make this book a big deal and we want to get it into as many hands as possible, that feels awesome. It’s not a polite book and it’s not a polite story. It’s just real and it’s mine and pretty soon this part of my story is going to belong, in a certain way, to a lot more people than just me. It’s hard to fathom but I’m really looking forward to the potential for connection that comes from that.
Your writing certainly has the ability to draw people in. There’s this deep personal connection a reader feels to the subject whether it be a personal essay or a profile of someone like Anne Hathaway or Missy Elliott. Is there any connection between the two processes, memoir writing and doing profiles?
They’re very different. With a memoir, I’m investigating myself which is its own weird act and what it requires of me emotionally was something I didn’t totally expect and really struggled with. That doesn’t really happen with profiles. It’s not that I don’t ever get emotional or have moments you know? Let me tell you…interviewing Missy Elliott was a moment for me. That was a moment. Being in the studio with her, going to Serena Williams home to interview her, meeting up with Tess Holliday at Disneyland to interview her, breakfast with Janelle Monáe… doing things like that can be intense but I feel such a responsibility to the subject I’m writing about. No matter how they seem to me or react to me, they’re probably a little nervous and my job is to make them feel comfortable which means I can’t be nervous. I can’t go into the situation being shaky. If I’m that way they lose confidence in me and my ability to hear them and tell a story that makes sense about our interaction in the context of their entire life and career. Writing a memoir is crying at my computer, getting into arguments with people who are close to me about things that happened 15 years ago. I think that the two things almost demand different versions of me and the way I present myself to the page.
This is the time of year where a lot of people reflect on their feelings and experiences. Some, for a reason I fail to understand, even set resolutions. As you go through this transition of moving homes and embracing this new chapter, are there any successes or failures that stick out to you?
I think my successes come from finally allowing myself to have what I want and really giving it my best shot. I wanted to move back to Indy for years. I finally made that happen and that feels like a huge success for me because it was honoring what I wanted and being on my own side which is something I have traditionally struggled with.
As far as failure, I would definitely say that because I knew that moving to Indianapolis was what I wanted, I probably failed to adequately prepare myself emotionally. You don’t just prepare for the fact that you need to pack and you need to coordinate with movers and you need to make sure the utilities are on at the new place or whatever it is. Yes you need to prepare for that but you also need to prepare for the fact that eventually you’re gonna have a bit of a breakdown. Like eventually the stress of moving, you’re gonna feel it in your body and when you feel it in your body your best bet is to communicate that to someone you love and trust to care for you and to rest. It took me a while to realize that, not even to realize but to remember that and to let myself have what I needed here.
I got that Hoosier thing in me, man. If there’s one thing true about us in general; we work. We expect to work hard and we expect to work a lot and we usually do it with few complaints because that’s like a cultural thing. That’s how we were raised but that shutting down of self and the idea that what makes you strong is losing your humanity and being impervious to your own emotional experience or to your needs… like, nah. It’s the opposite. I do so much better when I allow myself rest. I make more money when I allow myself rest. And, I think people should hear that more and know that more because I didn’t hear it enough. And so I still struggle with that lesson. But, I’m getting it. I’m getting it.