"Bless the Blood" by Walela Nehanda is a young adult memoir that details the author's experience living with leukemia.
What was your inspiration behind "Bless the Blood"?
I feel like many authors say this, but it’s true: I initially did not know I was writing a book with "Bless the Blood". Writing was my attempt to understand the overwhelm that comes with a cancer diagnosis. I think of Susan Sontag’s metaphor of the kingdom of the well and the kingdom of the ill. With cancer, I was thrown to a place where I was relegated as untouchable: the kingdom of the ill. Writing was my way of feeling corporeal. Of saying, I was and am here, I was and am real, and from that came these extremely unapologetic poems and essays because I was writing as a means of coping, whether in my journals or at cancer support groups.
When I finally knew I was writing a book, I gathered a lot of inspiration from the Cancer Journals and A Burst of Light by Audre Lorde. Both books gave me this deep urgency to document my experiences. Because here was a woman who, you know, society would have said her cancer diagnosis didn't matter because Lorde was a Black lesbian radical, but she shared her story anyway. I felt incredibly seen by the vulnerability and frankness evident in her work. I knew I wanted to give that feeling to younger Black cancer patients simply because I was 20 years younger than Lorde when I was diagnosed. That, combined with a final push of inspiration from hearing Toni Morrison’s words, “If there is a book you want to read, and it is not yet written, then you must write it yourself,” made me realize I had a story worth not only writing but sharing with the world.
What does Reading Rainbow mean to you?
Reading Rainbow means going beyond a slogan and understanding that when we read, we are not only taking in what an author is saying but also allowing that to move us, shift us, challenge us, and change how we show up in the world. We wouldn’t have Pride without those fundamental moments, like Stonewall, where change is not only demanded but incited into this forward momentum that wouldn’t have been possible without that personal transformation and critically engage with what it means to act, organize, humanize, and rebel. Reading with Pride is honoring that, over and over again, and applying it to our own lives and communities.
Why do you feel representation of a variety of people is so important when it comes to books?
Books represent a people's history and culture. I always think about art as what is sort of the living and breathing force of a society. When we look at history, that is often how we understand people's emotional experiences, social conditions, and internal worlds.
When we live under a dominant culture and government that dictates whose voice matters more, then we are at the risk of history being rewritten in a way that does not accurately portray what it means to be alive under a settler colonial government, under capitalism, under imperialism. There’s a reason why book bans are increasing, given that young people with knowledge threaten a status quo that benefits a powerful, inordinately wealthy few.
When we don’t have diverse voices sharing stories, it suppresses the illumination of how society and oppression function; it consequently also denies the opportunity to imagine better worlds than this current one. I think that’s why books, especially from marginalized voices, are considered so threatening, and for that exact reason, it makes them all the more important.
I would not be where I am today without authors who looked like me, whose writing affirmed me from memoir to poetry to history to fantasy, who also showed me the horror and possibilities of being alive. Intentional representation of various people also shows us that our lives and complexities are not meant to be rendered into palatability for the sake of assimilation and that those differences are not threatening but act in service of radical awareness.
Tell us a little more about the book and why you decided to write it.
"Bless the Blood" is a young adult memoir in the form of poetry and essays that details my experience living with leukemia at varying intersections of my life. It tears apart preconceived notions about cancer, illness, and disability while also being an indictment of a healthcare system and government that intentionally fails its patients. It also invites a commentary on intergenerational trauma and how both violence & resilience repackage themselves in our lives both systemically and interpersonally.
My goal with "Bless the Blood" isn't necessarily to give this infallible optimism, sugar-coated romanticization of survival. I wrote Bless the Blood to say to a young cancer patient, especially a young Black cancer patient: I see you, I see you through the rage. I see you through the sadness. I see you in the moments of joy. I see you being tired of having to perform to receive an ounce of care. I see how these doctors are mistreating you. I see how isolating this all is. I see how your friends and family don’t get it. I see you. Let this book hold you.
I also wrote "Bless the Blood" to be in this intergenerational conversation with whatever future book a younger person decides to write 20 years from now.