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13 Ways of Looking, with Dantiel W. Moniz

Ahead of her stunning debut collection, Dantiel W. Moniz shares 13 images that informed her stories, which are set mostly in and around the Jacksonville area and focus on resilient young Black women.
Book cover of Dantiel W. Moniz's short story collection, Milk, Blood, Sweat

These are images I captured myself or came across, but either way, they stuck in my mind. Some sparked a story or a scene, some made me think deeper about how to layer in complexity to ideas that had already begun to seed. My intention for this collection was to portray the fullness of the human emotional experience, especially when that’s uncomfortable or frightening to sit with. Even in those moments, there can be beauty.

Head of a dead crimson bird.
Body and tail of a dead crimson bird.

These first two photos were taken by fellow writer Cat Ingrid Leeches some years ago, around 2016. The titular story of the collection was just beginning to take shape in my mind and I felt struck when I saw the bright red of this bird. Those delicate feet. I saved the images in my phone and came back to them as I wrote. The bird appears in a scene, as well as thematically, and it wouldn’t be the same story without it.

Jacksonville, Florida skyline at night

The Main Street Bridge in downtown Jacksonville, Florida. Obviously, this is a Floridian collection, but most of these stories take place in Jax, my hometown, specifically. I wanted to write about this place because I don’t often see it represented in film or literature, and the people here are worthy of stories, too.

Octopus sculpture by the Canadian artist Ellen Jewett

A sculpture by the Canadian artist Ellen Jewett, who made a series of animals and figures out of clay, polymers, and glass. I came across this image on Tumblr in 2015, after I’d begun drafting the story that would become “Feast,” and it seemed like a sign. This sculpture also became the inspiration for my octopus tattoo, Faye.

Atlantic ocean in north Florida

I grew up with the Atlantic Ocean just 15 minutes away and was a regular at the beach for most of my life. Because of this, the ocean pulls at my creative energies. The sound of the waves, gulls overhead, the powder of sand underneath my feet. It’s beautiful, but facing it, I remember its power. What can happen if I’m carried away.

Jacksonville, Florida houses at sunset

The sky down here is always doing wonderful things with light. In the spring and summer especially, I’m in near-constant awe. In this picture, I came outside just as the sun was setting on these trees, imitating fire. I love this mix of beauty and danger, plus we see the ubiquitous retention pond, featured throughout the book.

Dantiel W. Moniz smoothing down her bed
Dantiel W. Moniz laying in bed while holding sunflowers

In graduate school, I took a photography class and did a series entitled “So Lie In It,” which comes from the saying “You’ve made your bed…” These are two of the twenty-nine photos. I was thinking a lot about choice and consequence, and how Black women specifically are not usually allowed to redeem their mistakes or own their decisions. There’s also commentary on sexuality and domesticity, which runs throughout several of the stories in this collection.

closeup of raspberries

I always keep an eye out for compelling textures during my daily doings. Tree bark, light and shadow, whatever. I snapped a photo of these raspberries right after I brought them home from the store. I wanted to replicate this feeling of touch and physicality throughout the collection. When I’m reading, I like the idea of being wrapped in layers of language and image.

Closeup of pink peonies

This was another one of those texture moments for me. I snapped the pic of these peonies in Seattle, Washington May 2019. The flowers in bloom were, of course, striking, but it was made more so by the buds yet to bloom, and the ones already past their prime, decaying on the branch. There’s this interesting idea of past, present, future here. The full experience that I’m after in this book.

A dead fish on the beach

This fish on the shore of Lake Mendota made me think of Sylvie and her collection of bones. This is death, but there’s something aesthetically pleasing about witnessing this organic matter return to dust.

A dead duck on the sidewalk
A cracked duck egg showing yolk

These two images have that same sort of death/beauty aspect as the last few, but there’s a personal story here. In April 2018, when I was living in Madison, a mated pair of ducks made a nest behind the trashcans of my apartment. They’d been hanging around for about a week before I discovered the nest. I wanted to photograph the mother but I didn’t want to spook her, so I kept my distance. I let everyone in the building know the ducks were there so they wouldn’t be disturbed. Then one day after bringing in the bins, I noticed the nest uncovered, the eggs in plain sight. It was a cold spring, so I was worried. I kept watching to see if the mother duck would return but I never saw her, though I did see her partner, always settled a short distance from the nest. Two days passed and one day, while asking the male duck where his mate was, my eye followed up the yard, and I saw her. I don’t know how I missed her. She’d been attacked and was splayed on the sidewalk, her feathers ruffled in such a way that I could see the singular brilliant blue feather beneath her wing. I felt like I had to take photos of her, to honor the missed opportunity of doing so while she was still alive. Later, I checked on the eggs and something had already found them. It was such a startling moment for me, and this heaviness stayed with me for days after, and made me think deeper about the unpredictability of life. The un-safeness of it. But I also wondered if something was a little wrong with me, that I could feel this sadness and still think: how perfect that blue and yellow. I think this story collection is like that. Some heaviness, but with an appreciation that we can feel so deeply at all.

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