Though the first syllable of her name is pronounced like “rage,” RaeJeana Brooks says the guiding principle in her life and writing is “radical tenderness.”
Recently highlighted at a University of North Florida reading and published in UNF’s Talon Review (talonreview.wordpress.com/2016/02/29/strawberry-feels-raejeana-brooks/), Brooks is at the forefront of a new generation of UNF writers.
At a bistro table outside Chamblin’s Uptown, Brooks’ enthusiasm for experience and its expression seems nearly tangible. The painful honesty of her work, dealing with subjects like suicide and venereal disease, strangely fits her warmth and friendliness.
In the prose poem “Strawberry Feels,” Brooks writes, “The first time I ever thought of jumping was from the ledge of a pink staircase.”
She writes of falling “in love with gravity,” with “the way it tugged at my shins from the top of that ledge like my mother pulling off my tights after dance practice and neatly folding them away. The world was always doing things for people.”
So, “I wanted it to fold me away.”
Brooks sees this kind of radical honesty as necessary. She wants to hide from nothing. She incorporates this worldview in every aspect of her life, including her friendships.
“I want my friends to know it’s OK to feel they need to feel and be able to say it.” She exercises a constant acceptance of those she loves.
I ask her if her writing is confessionalism, a label that’s been applied mostly to poets, most famously Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and Sharon Olds.
She thinks so, but doesn’t want to be categorized. Her writing is also truth and reconciliation, an acceptance of being human, not despite, but including human flaws.
Brooks believes “in repurposing vulnerability as communion” and whoever you are, “she wants to eat with you.”
UNF has been a literary laboratory for Jacksonville for years. From Mark Ari’s creative writing workshops came the journals Fiction Fix (fictionfix.net), founded 15 years ago and still going strong, and Perversion Magazine, which formed from a cadre of young UNF writers, including Hurley Winkler, Carl Rosen, and Sam Bilheimer.
Talon Revue is an online journal of student writing, edited by students. It too grew from Ari’s workshops, and though it’s not quite four years old, its list of former editors includes several exciting young Jacksonville writers.
Outgoing editor Georgie Fernandez Salzer chose RaeJeana Brooks to represent the journal at a recent UNF showcase of Northeast Florida literary publications and endeavors.
Brooks read a creative nonfiction piece called “Rituals” that’s like a to-do list for staying sane when your world falls apart.
“Open your blinds in the night time,” she begins. “Remember how your affection made their dishonesty sound like nervousness” and “Think of the last smell that placed you in a memory.”
Then “Rituals” reveals its crisis. “Think of the first time someone made a herpes joke around you and how it was never funny, but how now, it was really not funny.”
After nine more imperatives beginning with the word “Remember,” including, “Remember all the sad dicks you saw in health class,” comes a moment of truth on a first date.
“‘I’m about to tell you something that will probably make me interesting but will also potentially make you want to date me less and I’ve never really done this before but I’m just gonna come right out with it: I have herpes’ and how your date looked at you and smiled before replying ‘And? I have a cold.’ Remember how you laughed together.”
Brooks has written since she was a little girl, but two years ago, she went through a major heartbreak and deep depression. Her anhedonia left her unable to get out of bed, or out of her apartment.
“I’d written before because I wanted to write,” she says. “This was the first time I had to write.”
Her depression and seclusion affected her social life and school performance, but she started to blog a “coping journal,” with which she pulled herself back into the world.
She reemerged with “radical tenderness” and confessionalist glasnost. Expressing the fullness of living in the world requires a brave enthusiasm for every aspect of life.
Brooks’ prose poem in stages, “A•lone•ly,” described as “a visual lexicon of severance, acceptance, and belonging, ferociously, to the self,” illustrated with her photography of local male models, now appears at raejeana.com.
Her newest raejeana.com project is called “What I’m Trying to Say to You.” Each entry consists of one photographic portrait and one confession the subject found difficult to make. It’s a hybrid of The Bell Jar and Humans of New York.
One caption reads, “I covered your sins with my body and my blackness and yet without my proximity who are you?”
The end of “Rituals” seems most appropriate to this project, as well as advice she’d give each of us for daily living:
“Pass a hotel and count the windows with the lights on. Pretend that each light is a story and that each of them is leading a life as full and complex and painful and joyous as your own, then remember that it’s true.”