The Joy Mentors: Writer/Activist Sonya Renee Taylor – ‘Radical Self-Love To Me Is Active… It Makes Shit Happen’

Welcome to our Joy Mentors series. Over the next few months, Capsule will be profiling people we consider joy mentors – people who are not only examples of a shining light but use that light to help others as well. Sonya Renee Taylor is the founder and radical executive officer of The Body is Not An Apology and she doesn’t want you to aim for body acceptance, she wants you to aim for radical self love. The poet/writer/activist extraordinaire talks to Emma Clifton about her work, her mental health and why she made the move to Aotearoa.

You know that feeling you get when you hear an interview or read a piece of writing by someone and then immediately want to absorb everything they’ve ever done, thought or written? That was the wave of enthusiasm that swamped me when I listened to Sonya Renee Taylor’s game-changing interview with Brené Brown on Brené’s podcast, Unlocking Us. This meeting of the minds had happened due to a bit of confused kismet; early on in the pandemic, a quote had been given the meme treatment and was circling social media feeds around the world:

“We will not go back to normal. Normal never was. Our pre-corona existence was not normal other than we normalized greed, inequity, exhaustion, depletion, extraction, disconnection, confusion, rage, hoarding, hate and lack. We should not long to return, my friends. We are being given the opportunity to stitch a new garment. One that fits all of humanity and nature.”

The quote was attributed to Brené Brown, the powerhouse researcher and author whose work is beloved by millions (very much including Capsule). However, there was one problem: Brené hadn’t written it, Sonya Renee Taylor had. Brené’s people got to work fixing the attribution of this all around the internet and eventually the two met up to record an episode of the podcast where Sonya discussed her best-selling book: The Body Is Not An Apology. So informative and eye-opening was the interview, I immediately went into an internet deep dive on Sonya, only to find out that the African American activist/poet/writer/founder was living in…. Auckland!?!?!?! Turns out, she was the recipient of the Edmund Hillary Fellowship and has been living in Aotearoa for the last three and a bit years, with an upcoming event as part of the Auckland Writer’s Festival.

Rugged up in a fleecy purple jumper as she’s finishing her morning walk, thirty seconds into our Zoom conversation Sonya is pointing out the pond that sits on the property she moved into just a couple of weeks ago, on the outskirts of Auckland. Because the shift is so new, she’s still getting used to her new surroundings – “I just discovered I have pears!” – and her enthusiasm levels are high as she simultaneously shows three tradies around her new accommodation while also deftly managing to answer some very serious questions. I, the floating head on the other end of the Zoom, are introduced to each tradie as they come into the house (“Robert, how are you? Robert, meet Emma, she’s interviewing me”) and the entire hour has the air of well-organised chaos. This is apparently par for the course for her busy life, but also might explain why Sonya has picked Aotearoa – and, in particular, our nature – to surround herself with over the last few equally chaotic years.

She “came here for the scenery”, she grins down the camera, explaining that growing up in suburban America, “nature was a thing that you went to, rather than part of your everyday life.” In her years down here, she’s lived all over the place: New Plymouth, Waiheke, Whitford and now rural Auckland. Living out of a city and surrounded by nature is a key part of her mental health, she says. “I need a lot of quiet, I need space between me and the outside world. I’m a pretty intense empath and so I’m like an energetic lint roller, picking up all the energy in the world. In order for me to be in my most authentically creative space, it requires me to be away from other people sometimes.”

Quite often when people have big, public jobs, they need an extra level of down time to recuperate and Sonya’s is certainly a big, public job. I ask her when she travels – back when that was a thing – what she wrote under the description of ‘Occupation’ and she lets out a laugh. “It depends on the day – I usually say writer or author. If I’m feeling cheeky, I’ll say Radical Executive Officer of ‘My Body Is Not An Apology.’ At this point when people ask what I do, I say ‘I talk for a living and I write.’”

The title of the book The Body Is Not An Apology came from a conversation Sonya had with Natasha, a friend who admitted she was worried she was pregnant after the person she was sleeping with didn’t use a condom, and Sonya asked why that had happened. Natasha, who had cerebral palsy, replied that her condition made sex already difficult and she felt like she already had to apologise for that, which made asking someone to use a condom feel that much more out of reach. Sonya replied, “Your body is not an apology,” and the simple but revolutionary sentence struck both of them. Over 10 years later, it’s a best-selling book and international movement, and it’s very much a talk that Sonya walks as well. Part of her daily life is a decadence practice, she says. “It’s about ‘how do I treat myself in ways that feel lush and decadent and vibrant’. My decadence practice extends to my meals, the furniture I sit on – does it feel lush, does it feel like a hug… it’s considered in all the key parts of my life.”

Creating a warm and welcoming life around her was something Sonya realised she would need to construct herself from a very young age, after learning that the world absolutely wasn’t going to do it for her. “I’m a Black, queer, fat, dark-skinned woman in the world and so there’s never been a time when the world has felt like a fair place to me,” she says. “From a very young age, I knew the difference between what I was told was valuable and what I was. At the time, you don’t think ‘I understand this is systemic oppression!’ but I understood, ‘oh, there are different rules.’”

Those rules came both from the outside world and also from inside her home as well. “I come from a childhood of addiction and there were large swathes of time when my mother wasn’t there because she was struggling in addiction. It didn’t seem fair that I didn’t have my mother, or that sometimes she was struggling and so that meant my brother and I didn’t have the food we needed.”

As hard as parts of her childhood were, Sonya says that when kids grow up all too aware of how hard the world can be, it means they can develop a sense of efficacy from a young age. “If they know what they’re entering, they know how to plan how to take care of themselves. ‘How can I strategise for my own wellbeing, what are my tools that I’ve been given?’”

At the time when Sonya was growing up, there were also huge influences at play around the ideal female body shape and she had internalised a lot of that, she says, all of which “informed what I should believe about my body.” It was only when she started working in the public health field, in particular working with marginalised people, that she saw – again and again – the different rules for different bodies. “I started doing more radical work around HIV and saw the ways in which we treat those bodies, or whose bodies get stigmatised. Then I did some work with sex workers and I was like ‘Oh, this is how we treat those bodies.’” Around this time, she became a poet and she saw a lot of people incorporating their bodies into their art. There was one poet in particular that stood out to her, Sonya recalls. “She did a poem called My Body Is My Revolution; this person was visibly fat, they have facial hair, they were very much outside of what I perceived to be a normative body at the time. And I remember being both intrigued and appalled: like, ‘how dare you just be okay to break these rules?’ Part of me was very resistant to it, but over time, these experiences made me think ‘no, the body really IS a revolution.’ It’s a site of either defiance or acquiescence to these systems and we get to decide that.”

One of the core messages of The Body Is Not An Apology is the idea that ‘body acceptance’ isn’t enough. Part of Sonya’s kaupapa is the use of incredibly joyful language to describe her body – and this is a very deliberate choice, she says. “We spend so much time being in a non-joyous relationship with our bodies, right? Being in a relationship of real challenge and pain and discomfort and I love the idea of returning joy to this site that is our bodies.” Sonya believes that we all start off having a good relationship with our bodies when we’re kids and both explicitly and implicitly, that relationship gets morphed and damaged by outside influences. The only way to restore that relationship, she says, is an influx of self-love.

“Radical self-love to me is active: it is causal, it makes shit happen,” she laughs. “And I am interested in the kind of love that makes shit happen, that changes things, that transforms our understanding of ourselves and transforms these systems. And ‘acceptance’ just doesn’t do it, it just isn’t strong enough to take down systems of oppression. ‘Acceptance,’ to me, isn’t any difference to the language of tolerance. And I’m not interested in being tolerated and so I’m not going to ‘tolerate’ myself. I’m interested in being respected and being treated with dignity and care. I’m interested in love.”

For more information on The Body Is Not An Apology movement, visit here. Sonya will be part of a panel at the Auckland Writer’s Festival at the THE UNIVERSITY OF AUCKLAND FESTIVAL FORUM: A NEW POWER event on May 11, talking about the impact of ‘cancel culture’ in our modern discourse. For more information on the event or to buy tickets, visit here. A new extended version of her book The Body Is Not An Apology is out on May 4, for more information visit here

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