Nikki Giovanni: “These Are Our Best Years”

nikkiIn 1995 poet and activist, Nikki Giovanni, was diagnosed with lung cancer. She refused to associate with negative outlooks for her future and fired one of her oncologists for setting a date for her death. She underwent surgery and lost a lung but is living, healthy as a cancer survivor. And nearly ten years afterward, Giovanni’s life is still thriving. Below is an account of her recent interview:

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“2005 was a hard year. All my little old ladies — Mommy and Rosa Parks and Edna Lewis — died, and of course my older sister, Gary, so all of a sudden, I had this void in my life.

“I’m still working on filling that void, but first of all, you’re a writer, so you have to write, you know that. I’m a big fan of the power of prayer. You have to pray for the strength to carry on, but it’s not what you want because you want everybody to be 35 years old.

“I think if I didn’t have my art, I would be lost. Nobody can tell you what to do with your pain. I happen to be able to write. Between my mother’s death last June 24th [2005] and now, I completed three books. Acolytes; On My Journey Now (Candlewick Press), where I look at the Negro spirituals — I’m a big, big, big lover of Negro spirituals — and Caldecott Medalist Chris Raschka and I revisited the The Grasshopper and the Ant. I just put my head down and worked. You have to deposit that pain someplace and hope that it doesn’t grow.

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“I’ve been driving the same car for 20 years and I’m thinking I’m going to buy a new car. I did buy a dog, a little Yorkie, whose name is Kennedy. I go down [to Mexico] once a year to observe the sea turtles hatching. If they can get beyond a day, they’ll live 100 years and you know that you’re a part of something that’s going to go way beyond you. When you have family members who are terminal, your time is not your own, so all of the sudden, you find you have your days. I exercise. I’ve always been a reader. I travel. I can pursue some of my interests.

“First of all, I don’t think artists ever retire. People say, My best work is behind me, and I think, How could that be? You’ve had an opportunity to learn so much more, and to bring so much more passion to your work, there’s no deadline, there’s nobody looking over your shoulder, you’re not looking for tenure, you’re not looking for a bestseller, and there’s absolutely nothing to prove, and that makes your art totally free.

“I’m definitely feeling the best is yet to come. One, I’m learning so much more. I have absolutely no pressure on me to do anything. The one regret is I probably lost my primary audience because you write for your mother. You want her to be proud of the book. I was very close to my grandmother, so I wanted my grandmother to be proud. I’m having to re-create my audience, which is not to say the people who read my books, but the person I write for. MORE: You were named Yolande, Jr. after your mother. GIOVANNI: Yeah, but I changed it [legally] because everything is in Nikki. I would not have done it while Mommy was still alive because I would not want her to think that I did not wish to carry her name because I do, I’m very proud of it. Even though there have been some painful experiences, this is a very good time to be alive, this is a good time in the world to see what changes are coming, so it’s a great opportunity to re-create yourself. These are our best years.

Article orginally seen on More Magazine.