In this episode of “The Welcome Table with Sydney and Tatum,” literary journalism majors Sydney Charles and Tatum Larsen interview Ella Turenne, a Ph.D. student in visual studies, about her art, being on the Haitian Roundtable’s 1804 List, and her relationship with her hair as a Black woman.
Tatum Larsen (0:10–0:12): Hi, guys. This is Tatum.
Sydney Charles (0:12–0:13): And this is Sydney.
Larsen (0:13–0:38): And welcome to the fourth episode of “The Welcome Table.” Today, we are very excited to be sitting down with Ella Turenne, who is a Ph.D. student in the Visual Studies Department at UCI. She has also published various articles, poems, and is the host of two podcasts. We’re just really excited to be sitting down with a twenty-first century change-maker. How are you today, Ella?
Ella Turenne (0:38–0:42): I’m great. I’m great. Thank you so much for having me. How are you both doing?
Charles (0:42–0:53): We’re both doing good despite the blazing heat. It’s ridiculous. It’s about ninety-five degrees here in Irvine right now. We’re both like *makes face*.
Larsen (0:53–0:56): As Whitney said last week, the heat is oppressive.
Turenne (0:56–0:59): Oh, it’s bad; it’s time to lay low.
Charles (0:59–1:20): Before we jump off into this interview, we wanted to get started with our little weekly “Show and Tell” to help everyone get to know us a little bit better. So I’m going to go first this week. I brought my favorite candle scent, it’s pumpkin spice. Fall is my favorite season. It just reminds me of a happy time.
Larsen (1:20–1:25): As we talk about her candle, we’re both drinking pumpkin spice lattes despite the heat.
Charles (1:25–1:28): Hot, hot pumpkin spice lattes.
Larsen (1:28–1:30): Yes, we’re very on theme.
Charles (1:30–1:36): And what did you bring to show us this week, Ella?
Turenne (1:36–2:07): So I brought this, which is this bracelet that my dad gave me a really long time ago. It has his name engraved in it. My dad passed away about three years ago, but he was one of the people who inspired me to even go get a doctorate. And I used to wear this religiously when I was in high school. I wore it every day for a long, long time. I just pulled it out because it reminds me of him and sort of like reminds me of my purpose of why I’m doing this.
Charles (2:07–2:11): That’s awesome. Thank you for sharing that with us.
Larsen (2:16–2:48): We wanted to start out with your most recent accomplishment. Ella was included in the Haitian Roundtable of the 1804 list for 2019. The list recognizes Haitian American leaders who have helped foster a better understanding of Haiti. We wanted to ask you, what was that like being honored in that way? Did the honor come as a surprise or were you pretty aware of your influence within the Haitian community?
Turenne (2:49–3:40): People nominate you anonymously, so you don’t know when you’re going to be nominated. I was definitely not expecting it. I had been watching the 1804 list for some time because it includes so many amazing people who range from people who are in politics to people who are in the arts, to people who are in sports. What I love about it is it really highlights folks that, in the larger public, people might not know are Haitian, but are making significant contributions to society and culture.
So to be included in that roster of people was really an honor and I definitely didn’t expect it. I’d always hoped, like, maybe one day I’ll be on that list. It definitely caught me by surprise but I was completely humbled and honored to be part of it.
Charles (3:40–3:50): Yeah, that’s amazing. The impact of that, you must be so proud. On that note, would you consider yourself a role model for Black women?
Turenne (3:50–4:47): Well, I feel like it’s kind of weird to be like, “Yes, I’m a role model.” I guess I just try to live my life as authentically as possible and try to live by my values and be passionate about what I believe in. Hopefully that will be a model for other women, other Black women to do the same. Because to me, that’s the only way that I can see myself living, is to be true to who I am. But I do know, even for me, sometimes that’s been hard. Especially living in a country where there is so much anti-Blackness, it can be really hard to be who you are and to stand firmly in that. So I do hope that if I’m able to do that, that other women will see, other Black women will see that it’s okay for them to do that as well.
Larsen (4:47–5:01): Do you consider that a part of your purpose? When you were talking about your bracelet, you were talking about your father and how he inspired you to get your doctorate and just kind of rounding out this idea of purpose. Do you consider that a part of it?
Turenne (5:02–6:29): Yeah, my dad was a dentist and he was also an immigrant. So, growing up, I watched him work really hard for what he had. And coming to this country, you always face a lot of barriers, right? You have to learn the language. You have to learn the culture. And when my dad came here in the ‘70s, you have to imagine that it was like right after civil rights and there was still a lot of things that were happening to Black people. So being a Black person from a predominantly Black country and coming to America where being Black means a different thing is also something that Black immigrants have to adjust to. So if you think about just, like, the courage that it takes for somebody to make a life for themselves despite all of those challenges, to me, it’s really inspiring. And so the fact that he always fought hard, that he was there for his community and his family — I want to be the kind of person that does that as well. I think at the base of everything, I’m a storyteller and as an artist, like, that’s my medium. And so I want to tell authentic stories. I want to continue to tell stories that reflect the truth and the richness of Black people, regardless of whether it’s in America or reflecting the stories of folks who are in Haiti and from Haiti.
Charles (6:29–6:36): Nice, regarding inspiration and your field of study, I suppose, how did you get into this? And what was the first project or article that you worked on?
Turenne (6:37–9:08): My story is very winding and interesting. Growing up, I used to draw; drawing was like my first medium, my first artistic medium. I used to, when I was little, they used to send these catalogs, these hand-drawn catalogs. Now it’s all photographs but before when they would send catalogs for like department stores and clothing stores, they would be hand-drawn images of the clothes on the models. And so I would take them and try to mimic them to create my own models and my own catalogs. That was how I first entered into drawing. And then when I got to high school, I was on the speech and debate team doing drama. I only did that because my best friend at the time was on the team and she was like, “You should do this,” and I was like, “Alright, I’ll try it.” So I very much like fell into that by accident, but I kind of fell in love with it. So that’s how I entered into both of those arenas.
Then in college, I minored in both theater and visual art. So it’s always been like those things have always been a part of me from when I was a young age. Then when I got out of grad school, I wanted to find a way to sort of like bridge my artist-self with my social justice-self.
I went to social work school and studied community organizing. And I was like, “Okay, well, like, my mission has to be to make change in the world. But can I do that through art? Can I do that as an artist?” And lo and behold, I stumbled on a group of people who are doing exactly that, who are my age and who were, it was a group of people of color. Once I discovered that I could do those two things together, like that became my thing. I became really invested in using art as a tool for social change, whether that be visual art or theater or film. Filmmaking I got into because I wasn’t seeing enough of us represented on the screen. Even as an actor, I felt like I wasn’t getting enough roles. And I was like, well, instead of waiting for the industry to come to us, like, we should just make our own stuff. So it’s always been like for me, very, very entrepreneurial as well as very personal, like reflecting our stories and telling our truths.
Larsen (9:08–9:19): What was one of the most rewarding moments in staying true to yourself within your professional and creative career?
Turenne (9:20–11:47): I think the first book that I published was called Revolution, and it was right after I had gotten out of grad school. Soon after. At that point, I hadn’t really known a lot about Haitian history. I knew a lot about culture because I grew up in that culture but we weren’t taught history in school, unless you were getting history lessons from your parents; some of us were and some of us weren’t. So we got some things, but like a real detail of the Haitian revolution and all the players, like we knew their names, but just how it happened and how it came about, all the politics surrounding it, we weren’t taught that in school. And so once, in 2004, that was the bicentennial of the Haitian revolution and I thought to myself, well, what contribution could I make to the culture to celebrate this moment? It’s pretty historic to celebrate the two hundredth anniversary of the first Black republic.
So I thought, OK, well, I could, like, gather all my friends who are artists and poets and compile something that really tells the story of the Haitian revolution and celebrates it and educates people on what happened in a way that, like I said, I hadn’t gotten. So that’s what I set out to do. And I really don’t know—sometimes I look at look at it and I’m just like, what possessed you to do this thing? It was like this blind ambition for a year, working on this thing from scratch. I had never published a book. Nobody told me how to do it. So I was just collecting information, figuring out, designing it myself, putting it together. I fortunately found a Haitian-owned publishing company that was willing to partner with me to do it. By the end, when I finally released it, that was like one of my proudest moments, because it was really at the heart of what I think art can do — educate, celebrate, highlight the stories and history of a culture. Also, I got a chance to meet new artists and really highlight their work and make their work visible, which is something that is also important to me.
I would say that, and also my one-woman show are the two that I’m most proud of.
Charles (11:47–11:50): Tell us about your one-woman show
Turenne (11:50–13:05): So “Love Locks and Liberation” is my one-woman show and it’s about my obsession with hair. As Black women, I’m sure you all can attest to that. It’s about the journey we have with our hair and sort of like our experience growing up with that. The show is about my personal hair journey and all of the different styles that I’ve experienced and the politics around it. I bring up historical figures around it, but also it’s really about self -acceptance and trying to figure out who you are in a society that’s trying to tell you who you should be and what you should look like, and putting all that aside and really loving yourself regardless of what you look like. I’m really proud of that piece because of the number of people I’ve been able to connect with over the story. Like I wrote the story as a Black woman and intended it for it to connect to other Black women. But I’ve been really so amazed at the number of people who are not Black women who really connect with parts of the stories.
Larsen (13:05-13:22): On that note, with non-POC and non-Black people identifying with your one one-woman show, why do you think it’s important for them to consume Black art? Why is it so important that they resonate with Black art?
Turenne (13:22-16:47): That’s a great question. I think for me, while I don’t necessarily make my art for folks other than Black folks to connect with it, I know that other people are going to connect with it. I do think that’s important because art has the ability to touch people in a way that a speech or an academic text may not. And it has a broader reach. That’s not to say that we don’t need those kinds of things. I think we need everything that we can get to help widen the understanding about what the Black experience is. And many of us who are artists and who happen to be Black artists, we’re making art because we have something to say. We have a story to tell. We have a message we want to get out.
So for folks who are not POC or not Black, to really connect with that, I think it is important to deepen the understanding of what it is like to be Black. Not that you’re going to get a full understanding but it may be something that’s a conversation starter or it may be something that gets somebody to do some more of their own research and get themselves educated about a piece of the Black experience. I think it’s incredibly important for people to connect in that way, to be able to disrupt things, to force people to ask themselves questions. As Black women, we have the experience of having to think about products. Our hair is a certain texture and what does that mean to take care of it? But we’re not necessarily the only ones who are going through this. At the same time, there are all of these stereotypes about hair and about Black women’s hair. So having people get a deeper understanding of the complexity of having Black hair, I think is important because Black women and Black men are discriminated against for their hair.
There’s the Crown Act that’s going around now, which I really love, which is trying to end hair discrimination. It’s been passed in California and New York. It’s making its way into the federal system. And some people may be like, “What’s the big deal? It’s hair,” because they haven’t experienced that discrimination. In my play, one of the vignettes that I have is when I did have locs and tried to go through TSA one time, I was stopped because they wanted to look through my locs, as if I was hiding something right there in my hair. They stopped me and I had to go aside and they had to wind me down. I was like, “This is ridiculous.” Then I discovered, other women had experienced this too. Somebody who doesn’t have locs will never know what that’s like, so that’s why art is important, rather than just to tell you. It sounds ridiculous, but in the play, I actually act it out and show what it was like and show my reaction to it. That hits you deeper than just explaining to you what happened.
Charles (16:47–17:04): Exactly. People are able to engage on a deeper, more personal level with it being acted out in front of them. That’s totally amazing. On that note, I want to ask, what is the importance of understanding cultural appropriation and how deeply that affects the African American community?
Turenne (17:04–18:49): I think it’s really, really important. And I know that, again, if it’s not your experience to understand what it means to have your culture appropriated, it seems like it’s just a flippant thing or something that is not that important. But when you have cultures and ethnicities who value something about their culture, whether it’s a hairstyle or a way of dress or a type of music that is deeply embedded in their culture, whether it’s for cultural reasons, for historical reasons, for spiritual or religious reasons, sometimes those things are sacred or they have some kind of political or historical tie. I think it’s very painful for these groups to see then their culture being mass-marketed and showcased by other ethnicities or other groups when it’s not at the very least acknowledged and appreciated by those groups. I think that’s the key too. It’s not just that you might wear something from another culture, but are we able to really contextualize it to help people understand and honor where it originally came from? So you’re not taking it on as something that you just came up with one day and it looks cool. But I think that’s the key. No one would like it if they had a great idea and it was dope and somebody just stole it and was just like, “Yeah, I just decided to do this today.” Everybody wants that acknowledgement, especially when it has deep cultural resonance for you.
Charles (18:29–18:54): Right, someone taking it and has no idea like the story behind what they’ve taken.
Larsen (18:54–19:25): It’s the difference between box braids and “boxer braids.” You know where that comes from. I think that’s why your show is so important, because even when you are talking about the TSA moment, it’s showing the power, but also the trauma behind what it means to be a Black person and to struggle with your hair, but also having a loving relationship with your hair; that’s so important for people to see.
Charles (18:25–19:38): You were talking a little bit about this idea of mass-marketing. We also wanted to ask you, how do you stay authentic to yourself and your own work when creating a piece of art that you know is going to be consumed by mass media?
Turenne (19:40-22:19): That’s a really good question, because the thought does enter your mind, and even if I make a piece and I’m speaking directly to a certain group of people, I know that other people are going to see it. I think for me, as long as I am being true to the work, even if that’s uncomfortable, because it may even be uncomfortable for me to reveal a truth about myself. In the show I talk about my dad who passed away. I talk about being bullied; these are things that I rarely talk about in public. I don’t really share that on a regular basis.
So allowing myself to be vulnerable because I know it’s going to serve the purpose of the story is one way I think about it. It just requires some courage sometimes because I have to think of my larger goal. If my goal is to tell this story, I have to do that in a way that makes sense and is going to resonate. Because at the end of the day, I have had young girls who have seen the play. They may be going through this. In writing this, in my mind, I also was thinking like if a young woman sees this, I want her to be able to be like, “Okay, lots of people have gone through this. What I what I might have gone through with being bullied or being told that I should wear my hair this way or that way, and somebody came out of it okay.” I’m still figuring it out too. I have days where I’m just like, “What’s going on?” But you don’t have to be beholden to all of that. So when I’m writing it, I may be writing it for that young girl. But if somebody else is watching it who may have an opinion that’s maybe contrary, I try not to think about that because they’re allowed to have their opinion. They’re allowed to think whatever they want about my art. My job is to just be as authentic and real as possible. As long as I do that, then I feel good about what anybody says. They might not like it. That’s okay. It’s there for a dialogue, it’s there for people to critique, to think about. And I think, again, going back to our earlier conversation, that’s the power of art. It does have the ability to spark these debates and these dialogues and these critiques. I think that’s important now.
Larsen (22:19-22:55): Then on the subject of being a creative, that was great advice that you just gave. And obviously your art spans abroad many mediums. Like being a journalist, being a Ph.D. student, being a poet, being an actor. Do you have any advice for other creatives who are hoping to achieve just like a sliver of what you’ve achieved within your life? Like how does one really fully go into their art-making process, just completely uninhibited, or is that even possible?
Turenne (22:55–25:55): Oh, yeah, it’s totally possible. For me, like art-making and being creative is a necessity. It’s not a side project or something that I do in my spare time. I made a decision a long time ago to be an artist, and I think that really was the time—and I said it aloud and I said it to other people, which sort of like held me accountable to that. Once you declare something, there’s a very different feeling to it than if you just keep it to yourself the whole time. Because you can always go back on that. But if you put it out in the world, then this is it for you. Not to say that it can’t change but now you’ve put it out in the world and then you can hold yourself a little bit more accountable to it. I made a decision a long time ago that I was going to be an artist. I didn’t say I’m going to be an artist because I want fame and fortune. I just did it because I felt like it was a necessity for me. To me, creating is like breathing, I need to do it to survive. So that’s why I then always find ways to make it happen. I’m always experimenting with different mediums. I’m always curious about how to do something. I just learned how to, a couple of years ago I discovered this thing called foil art, where you can make art pieces and use a foil technique and it like shimmers. I like shiny things. So I was like, this is amazing, and I just went to town. I watched videos. I did everything that I could and it just gave me a new excitement for art-making. So I always approach it also with curiosity. I want to learn how things are made, how you do it, what’s the technique, what’s the process, because that’s as much a part of the product that you make.
The process of the journey is just as fulfilling, sometimes more fulfilling, than what you make at the end. So I would advise, if I was going to give advice to folks, I would say approach it from curiosity, approach it from necessity, and don’t be afraid to put your stake in the ground and say that you’re an artist, whatever kind of artist it is. Because I also come across a lot of young people who are like, “Oh, well, I write some poetry, but I wouldn’t consider myself a poet.” If you’re writing poems, then you’re a poet, right? If you’re making art, if you’re painting, you’re a painter. You don’t have to have a bunch of credentials behind you to claim that this is what you are, and claiming that you are something will give you the power to move forward and do more of it.
Larsen (25:55–25:29): Did you guys write all that down? We’ll have footnotes.
Charles (26:02–26:13): Well, Ella, this was really, really wonderful. Thank you so much for sharing with us a little bit of your passion, a little bit of your work, and just you. So thank you so much. I really enjoyed this.
Turenne (26:13–26:27): Oh, thank you so much. I just I really appreciate what both of you are doing and just giving a platform for folks to talk about and other people to learn about the work that’s happening. So kudos to you both because I know it’s not easy.
Charles and Larsen (26:27–26:28): Thank you — we appreciate it.
Charles (26:28–26:35): Thank you to everyone for joining us for another episode of “The Welcome Table.” I’m Sydney again.
Larsen (26:35–26:36): And I’m Tatum again.
Charles (26:36–26:38): We’ll see you guys next time!
Watch all episodes of “The Welcome Table with Sydney and Tatum” here.