World of Words

Writer Tochi Onyebuchi and visual artist Stephen Powers are both trying to change the world, one word at a time.

AIRED: November 05, 2021 | 0:26:46

- [Narrator] Articulate with Jim Cotter is made possible

with generous funding from the Neubauer Family Foundation.

- Welcome to Articulate,

the show that explores the big ideas

behind great creative endeavors.

- [Narrator] And on this episode, "Worlds of Words."

Writer Tochi Onyebuchi imagines worlds that never were,

but always grounds them in this one.

- I don't know that we're capable as human storytellers

of getting to a place where we inhabit

a completely alien consciousness

that is completely devoid of human experience or emotion,

or any sort of linkage to our lived experience.

- [Narrator] And Stephen Powers wants the murals

he creates to be democratic

and reflections of the communities they occupy.

- If you do something that people appreciate

and they don't complain about it,

that's a really sweet spot to be in

like that's... there's power and beauty.

- [Narrator] That's all I had on Articulate.

(inspirational music)

- [Narrator] As the child of Nigerian immigrants,

Tochi Onyebuchi has always wrestled with his identity

as a Black American.

- Oftentimes, I've felt like an interloper

in the African-American experience

even though all these external cues are lumping me

into that same bucket so, you know,

my parents didn't live through the Detroit Race Riots.

There's no real, you know, historical, you know,

lived tangible connection between me

and the civil rights struggle,

but I benefit from these things by virtue of my color.

And so, when Black Panther comes out

and it's cool to be from Africa,

you know, I get to walk around with this privilege.

- [Narrator] That ambivalence has manifested in his writing.

From an early age, Onyebuchi wants to be a storyteller

and would grab at any chance he got to write,

but it wasn't when he's in his mid twenties

that he included characters

who looked like him in his stories.

- It was the very first time

that I wrote Black main characters.

The very first time in my entire life and writing career.

I just wasn't imbibing, particularly, speculative fiction

wherein people who looked like me were the main characters.

It just like wasn't, it wasn't readily available to me.

- [Narrator] Born in Massachusetts in 1987,

Onyebuchi was the oldest of four children

but his adolescence was cut short

the day before his 11th birthday,

when his father died of cancer.

Onyebuchi's mother began working multiple jobs

to provide for her family.

He felt obliged to help ease her burden

but that sense of responsibility

held him back from his own grief.

He was diagnosed with depression in high school

and later with bipolar disorder.

He started drinking heavily

and became what he's described as a raging alcoholic.

He was in his mid twenties when he quit

but all the while he was somehow also nurturing his writing.

Onyebuchi was especially drawn

to the escapism of speculative fiction

of science fiction and fantasy.

- We can have work that's so busy, there's so much going on.

There's not just the story that you're reading on the page.

There are all these other levels and illusions

and whatnot that you can unpack.

And that's something that I also really, really, really

appreciate about science fiction and fantasy.

You can live with a book.

Any free time that I had, I was writing.

If I had a free period in the middle of the day,

I was writing.

If I finished my homework early into study hours,

I was writing until lights out.

On the weekends, I was an absolute boon, you know.

I didn't go out to parties or things of that sort, you know,

a terrible amount 'cause I was always busy writing.

And the thing about it was, I didn't...

I never felt as though I was missing out

because I loved writing so much.

- [Narrator] By high school, Onyebuchi estimates

he was already writing a novel a year,

16 of them before he ever got published.

But storytelling, he summized, could never be a career

rather something he squeezed in around a real job.

And so as he began law school at Columbia, he realized

that he wasn't just stealing time to explore his ideas.

His studies were helping to expand them.

- It was in law school that I really got immersed

into the issues of incarceration,

both overseas and in the United States

and that changed my life.

The African-American experience was very much

an academic item in my life

but then, like I started knowing people who went to jail.

I started personally knowing people who went to prison.

I started personally knowing people

who got sort of chewed up and spit out by these systems

and you know, it... that made it real in a way that

it wasn't necessarily real for my parents' generation.

- [Narrator] Onyebuchi's legal training

became a tool kit for him

to dissect increasingly complex realities

through increasingly complex fiction.

And the years that followed as public awareness

of police killings of African-Americans grew

so too did Onyebuchi's need to make sense of it all.

- I knew that there was something sort of maybe poisonous,

sort of festering in me.

It was this combination of rage and hopelessness

and so many other things,

but I knew I needed to get it out of me.

I knew I needed to expel it somehow

and the way that I organize the universe is through writing

that's how I'm able to sort of articulate so much

and when you can sort of articulate

the shape of the monster before you,

would all of a sudden becomes a lot less intimidating.

- [Narrator] Riot Baby was the outcome of that articulation.

The book follows two black siblings,

Kevin who becomes imprisoned

and his sister Ella who has supernatural powers.

- I didn't necessarily see a protagonist

who was a young black woman who basically, you know,

had the powers of a God.

I'd never seen that before and, you know,

growing up in South Central

surrounded by gangbanger culture,

living through the Rodney King uprising, you know,

being in Harlem during the 2000s

and developing this, developing this incredible power.

But being incredibly angry at the same time

and trying to figure out where that anger is coming from

that was very compelling to me.

There's almost a sense of Greek tragedy to it

where, you know, you can do whatever you want,

essentially, with these powers except for this one thing.

And it's the one thing that you want more than anything

to be able to do, which is protect your younger brother.

- [Narrator] Riot Baby was a finalist

for the Hugo on Nebula Awards,

two of the highest honors in speculative fiction.

But fantasy writing wasn't just a way for Onyebuchi

to connect to massive political struggles.

It also helped him to grapple with something more intimate,

his own family's tangled history.

Onyebuchi's mother grew up in Nigeria

during the Biafran War.

After hearing about her experiences, he wrote "War Girls"

a novel set in 2172, which follows a similar civil war.

- I had heard in an off-hand comment as we were driving back

from some family friend's place during some holiday season.

Mom mentioning having to live in the forest

for a period of time with her family,

just an offhand comment

and then we were talking about something else.

And I was like, "Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa!

Hold up a second, can we like rewind?"

And she went into this whole, you know, story

about being an internally displaced person in Nigeria

during the civil war,

which started right after she'd finished kindergarten.

There's this question that I asked myself

or at least asked myself

during the composition of "War Girls" was,

you know, "By forcing my mom to excavate these memories,

am I reinjuring her?"

- Did you ask that question

as you are asking for the stories?

- Yes, I asked my... well.

- She told it and said,


- Well, she is... I mean, she's incredibly stoic, right?

And it, you know, part of that is the, you know,

completely living into the immigrant stereotype of,

you know, you just sort of keep it moving.

You don't let anything stop you.

You do all these impossible things so that your, you know,

your children and their children can have

the much better life and it's the American dream, right?

So she was very stoic about all of it and very, you know,

very generous with her time and with her memories

and things of that sort.

But I could not help this sort of creeping guilt

that I was putting her through something or that, you know,

to a certain extent that I might've been causing her

any sort of pain.

- [Narrator] Still Onyebuchi worked

through any guilt he felt.

"War Girls' wasn't only a chance for him

to write about his mother but also to write with her.

- What was actually really meaningful was at a certain point

towards the end of the writing of the book,

I had to submit a pronunciation guide to Razorbill.

And so, I went through with mom over all the words

that they had questions about

and she recorded pronunciations for them.

And, you know, even looking back on that memory now

I have to like, you know,

I have to control my emotions a bit

because it seemed to like in many ways,

the culminating moment of

what I'd been trying to accomplish with this book,

personally, which was to get closer to mom.

It just felt like there was this abiding love,

'cause it also felt like...

it also felt like validation of my career choice.

So there's that aspect of it too where, you know,

she's helping me be a writer,

she's helping me write a thing.

- [Narrator] Tochi Onyebuchi has navigated his life

by latching onto the core tenant

of science fiction and fantasy.

Oftentimes, to understand the world better,

we have to create and explore new ones.

- As human storytellers.

I don't know that I've come across a story yet

where there isn't that connection.

I don't know that we're capable as human storytellers

of getting to a place where we inhabit

a completely alien consciousness

that is completely devoid of human experience

or emotion or any sort of linkage to our lived experience.

(upbeat music)

- [Narrator] Tochi Onyebuchi fills his stories

with magic, telekinesis, space colonies, and cyborgs

but undergirding it all is a voracious curiosity

to connect how and why people behave as they do

in a world that can seem

unrelenting, unpredictable, and unfair.

And while he hasn't found answers to all of his questions,

he's dedicated to creating vast new worlds

where he just might.

(calm music)

Stephen Powers went to jail in 1999

following a police investigation of him for vandalism.

But this brush with the law changed nothing and everything

for a man who sees himself as part of a tradition

that stretches back millennia.

- I think of myself as a modern day cave painter,

like that makes the most sense to me.

It always has like graffiti was just trying to figure out

like what I could do to transcribe the day-to-day operations

and put them in front of people

and hopefully communicate what it means to be alive.

- [Narrator] And this modern day cave painters,

today, sees himself as something more prosaic

yet somehow also more poetic.

- I think the middle-age,

middle-class sign writer covers it.

But, what I love about sign writing is sign writing is so...

it's so blue collar, but it's also so completely creative.

And, you know,

generally every sign writer I've ever met is an artist.

- [Narrator] Born in 1968,

Stephen Powers discovered the possibilities

of the walls of his Philadelphia home by age three.

They became his canvas and his crayons his tools.

He indulged his caveman tendencies wall by wall.

As a teenager in the early 80s, he turned to street art.

He joined his contemporaries, tagging the signature styles

on walls of abandoned buildings.

On the rooftops, seen from the city's elevated train

and it was his salvation.

- What I write and what I draw is me drawing

from life's from the everyday trials and tribulations,

trying to make sense of it.

It's almost as if I'm creating like a life raft every time.

- [Narrator] The fifth of six children,

Powers is candid about his flawed family

and the issues that daily drove him out of the house.

His parents, early pioneers in computer programming,

met at the University of Pennsylvania.

They agreed upon and soon achieved our startles prescription

for the ideal family, two boys and two girls.

But when Stephen and his sister came along,

the fifth and sixth,

his father, a gifted inventor, felt betrayed.

And so when Powers was 15, his dad abandoned the family.

- And that was perfect for me

'cause I have now had a clear road ahead of me

to do the things that I wanted to do,

which was predominantly writing graffiti

and figuring out like what that was

and how I can make something of myself with that if I could.

- [Narrator] Left alone to raise the kids,

his mother grew increasingly bitter

with their threadbare existence.

His baby sister got some love, but he felt like a leftover.

At 16, he grew tired of self-pity and took to the street.

He invented his own graffiti tag ESPO,

incorporating his initials.

It sounded vaguely official

and soon started showing up around Philly..

When someone would challenge him on the street,

he would tend to working for ESPO

(Exterior Surface Painting Outreach)

and it worked... for a while.

- I was raised on TV in the 70s, in the 80s

and you know, my mind's...

my mind was probably already soft to begin with.

But, you know, rapid fire editing and MTV and, you know,

logos and soundbites and, you know, short attention spans

like I cater to all that 'cause that's where I grew up.

- [Narrator] That brush with the law for criminal mischief

came after a 1999 police search of his Brooklyn studio

that seized art materials, photographs,

computer hard drives, and pages from a forthcoming book,

"The Art of Getting Over: Graffiti at the Millennium".

Powers and his attorney believed the arrest

had been politically motivated

that he had been targeted for protesting

then Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's attempt

to censor a Brooklyn useum exhibition.

For Powers, his only crime then and thereafter

was pursuing his calling like generations before

he sees graffiti as free expression.

Splashing paint on walls

with words and pictures has meaning.

Powers had moved to New York in 1994,

that same year he visited a friend

and fellow artist at his studio in San Francisco.

This spurred Powers to open his own gallery and studio

ESPO's Art World at the corner of 4th and Bergen

in Brooklyn as Powers' creative headquarters.

One prominent sign on the outside of the building declares,

"Perfection is standard, Mistakes Cost Extra."

It was from here in 2003 that Powers unleashed

his sign writing prowess on Coney Island.

With fellow artists,

he developed traveling sign shop "ICY Signs".

Creating colorful hand-painted signage

and advertisements for local businesses.

This established the new Coney Island style of painting

which, in 2015, the Brooklyn Museum of Art paid homage to,

with the exhibition

"Coney Island is Still Dreamland (To A Seagull)"

Powers calls the museum, the nicest cave he's ever painted.

But a more pivotal collaboration in Paris life

had happened earlier when he met his future wife Maryanne.

Not only did he find a supportive spouse,

but a more stable family than the one he had grown up in.

Her parents and siblings welcomed him with open arms.

He called his mother-in-law Dorothy Long,

a master Potter and entrepreneur, his art mom.

And in his new father-in-law Al Long,

he had found a man fully committed to his family.

After Al died in 2019, Powers, now with the son of his own,

formulated what he called the reciprocal deal

between parents and children and the story titled,

"Raise Me and I'll Raise You" part of the collection

"First and Fifteenth Pop Art Short Stories"

published in 2005.

Stephen Powers' experiences with his own father and with Al

informed his own approach to raising his son.

He resolved to be as invested as a father

as his own dad had never been.

- I feel like before there was a time

when everything I made was cynical

and it was still funny but it was cynical.

It was dark like the darker the better,

it couldn't get dark enough from it.

But I had a kid and, you know,

in that second when you're suddenly, you know,

you're a father and you're suddenly like a part of a family.

Your whole worldview just like changes.

Literally, a life came into my life

and everything from that point on became life affirming.

I am a father to him and I thank my father for, you know,

my father did... he did a few great things for me.

- [Narrator] But Stephen Powers' father

was an avid gun collector.

He preached against their actual use.

Teaching his son how to unload

but never how to load or to shoot.

The confusing attitude towards firearms to be sure,

but Powers was never confused

and, in 2017, he illustrated a series of nine essays

about gun violence for Vogue Magazine,

bringing to life the words of the survivors of gun violence.

Stephen Powers' work has always leaned towards the pithy,

the straight-forward.

His larger than life murals marry words and pictures

to profess love and pledge devotion.

And the work he makes comes out of both the oldest

and the newest forms of human communication.

- I love those stories that are so short

and they get passed around like dollars.

You know, like the joke you told and, you know,

they're really small, easy ways

of just transmitting humanity, you know,

and very easy to remember, easy to pass along.

The first bit of artwork that was drawn on a wall

that we know of is 65,000 years old and it's a ladder.

And depicting a ladder, the person that drew that ladder

depict the technology. They made a story.

They depicted a way forward, you know,

and it's something that speaks to me all this time later

like I drew a ladder yesterday,

like I draw ladders all the time.

A ladder laid out on the ground

turns into train tracks, you know.

So, these are the things that convey us going

to our next station, rising up a little bit.

And it's useful to know that

no matter how terrible things are,

no matter how stuck we seem to be.

A ladder is a way forward, train tracks are a way out.

- [Narrator] Although Powers works around the world,

he's often back in his hometown.

He remembers being a kid riding the El,

the elevated train in West Philadelphia

and the way his eyes were constantly drawn

to the graffiti of rooftops.

- Just like me. It was like a hundreds of teenagers

that were finding themselves and being themselves.

And it was like the most beautiful, powerful thing to me

and I contributed to it.

You know, I painted a few rooftops myself

and I felt like I just added to this tapestry

that was gonna last for hundreds of years, you know.

There's no reason for it not to last.

- [Narrator] But it didn't last. In 2008,

he noticed that Philadelphia's Anti-Graffiti Network

had painted over all the rooftops.

This official act of destruction hatched

one of his most well-known works,

a mural series called "Love Letters".

A love letter to use a series of 50 murals

that runs along the 20 blocks stretch

of that same market street, El.

They express love from a boy to a girl

and from a man to his city.

This was his chance to make something

that people might care about and hopefully enjoy for years.

But almost before the paint was dry on his first work,

an overzealous operative from the Anti-Graffiti Network

had whitewashed it.

- All the forces of good aligned behind me.

This guy just painted right over,

and, you know, we caught up to him immediately

and I asked him like, "What were you thinking?"

And he goes, "I knew that was you."

Like, he remembered me from 15 years before or whatever.

I was like, "Well, I'm doing it again."

And it was easier to do the second time.

(instrumental music)

- [Narrator] 13 other cities around the world

have since invited Powers to create love letters.

With input from local residents,

he and his crew create poignant affirmations

stitched together to reflect the hopes

and dreams of each community.

In Charleroi, a small Belgian industrial town,

south of Brussels.

The key concept came from one person on the local team

who when asked what he might say to his grandchildren said,

"Bisous, m' chou."

- You know, Bisous's kisses,

M' Chou was like very specific to this region.

They say it in different ways

but in the particular way that they said it

and we spelled it, it was like theirs.

- [Narrator] Now in his early 50s,

Stephen Powers still believes that graffiti

has a place in urban culture.

And he believes that if people find value in the work,

it will survive his philosophy,

" Let the people be the judge."

- And it was the first thing that I learned was

if you do something that people appreciate

and they don't complain about it, that's,

that's a really sweet spot to be in

like that's... there's power and beauty.

A painting that Black Lives Matter mural in Union Square

and it got defaced, you know,

and the owner of the property who gave me the wall to paint,

who's been a great steward of the wall,

she's a really awesome theater impresario.

She was really depressed by, you know, she was like,

"Ah, I just feel so bad that somebody would do that."

And I said, "It's just paint. It's four cans of paint.

It's a lovely afternoon."

She's like, "Wow. I feel a lot better.

I feel a lot better about that."

I was like, "Yeah, the next time, like, you know,

somebody writes on the front of your theater,

keep it in perspective. You know, it's just paint."

(calm lively music)

- [Jim] For more Articulate, find us on social media

or on our website

- [Narrator] On the next articulate,

Playwright Sarah Gantry believes

it is a spiritual act to make someone laugh,

but this idea was born out of grief.

- I wanna be able to move people to this point

where that happens with humor and with comedy

where it's like, I have this idea about the world

and then I have another one.

They directly conflict, but they are both true.

And that clash releases laughter, it releases joy.

- [Narrator] And for Folk Musicians

Jay Younger and Molly Mason,

proven partners in life and in music

for more than four decades

playing together privately has fixed many atif.

- Sitting down to go through something, play a tune,

or just have a little jam with a couple of

culture dance tunes or whatever, and immediately

all that's gone and it's all about the music

and it's wonderful.

- [Jim] I'm Jim Cotter, join us for the next Articulate

(instrumental music)

- [Narrator] Articulate with Jim Cotter is made possible

with generous funding from the Neubauer Family Foundation.


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