headshot of Negesti Kaudo and the book cover of Ripe: Essays

If you’re fat and Black, do you feel fetishized in two ways at once? Do you ever want to ask your lover, “Choose: fat or dark-skinned, which one got you off more?”

Can you trace your roots back before slavery? Without them do you feel “black and only black” and wonder what that means when “blackness is a construct morphed into an identity?”

Do you wonder how to separate out being a femme with patriarchal ideas of femininity? Those institutions that “push [you] to be many things [you’re] not: soft, submissive, silent, and sweet.”

If any of this hits home, then Negesti Kaudo wrote her debut essay collection Ripe for you.

In Ripe, Kaudo investigates many ways that her identity is objectified, attempts to find her authentic self, and describes a journey to self-love. But this description of Ripe really doesn’t do the book justice.

Kaudo admits it’s not an easy read. It’s not a self-help book. And, in it, you won’t find answers to your questions. What you will find is a beautifully written blend of cultural criticism and memoir that may leave you feeling called out or seen or both.

Kaudo is the sex toy staff writer at Buzzfeed, a Pushcart nominee, and generally a writer to keep your eye on.

Rebellious writer Jera Brown interviewed Kaudo about her book.

There are a lot of places where you talk directly to the readers in these essays. What kind of relationship do you imagine that you have with the readers or would like to build with them?

So I wrote the book for myself and other marginalized people who have felt similar ways. But most of the time when I’m addressing the reader, it’s not to those people. Most of the time, when I address the reader, it’s to an oppressor or objectifier: someone who’s never engaged with the things that I have had to experience. And I develop that relationship because one thing I learned while working on essays and learning the craft is that I like making people uncomfortable. And I didn’t want people to read my work and simply be able to gloss over things because they didn’t understand it or they couldn’t relate. So if you’re here and you can’t relate, we need to talk about it and address it. And I feel like that’s what I do whenever I stop to talk to the reader. 

There were a couple of pieces that I workshopped and people were like, ‘I don’t really get. You’re making a big deal out of nothing.’ Like the microaggression piece. I workshopped that outside of a classroom environment. And it was received really well from one person, and from another person, it wasn’t. And it was interesting because one person was a woman, and one person was not. So maybe you need to take a second and think about why this means nothing to you.

So you wrote it for a different audience than the audience you address. How do you imagine the people that you wrote it for reading it then? What I’m imagining is that they are alongside you addressing these people and that you’re speaking for them in one way. Although the book is exceptionally personal, as well.

I know the book is difficult — it was difficult to write. My most vulnerable self is this book, and so I feel like for people who are reading it—the audience that I wrote it for—this allows them to see that vulnerability without putting themselves in that same vulnerable space. 

I wanted to carve a space for people who have been in a similar situation to one I’ve experienced without having to force them to sit and reflect on it. As someone who writes nonfiction, most of the things I write require me to dig into the dirty, ugly part of life, reflect on it and find a way to make it beautiful.

So for the people who aren’t writers or artists, what kind of similar experience of self-knowledge and self-discovery would you wish for them? 

Everyone should go to therapy: that’s just a thing people say, right? But therapy doesn’t work for everyone. I am much more honest and vulnerable with my writing than I am with my actual therapist. Because if I feel some type of way about something, I’ll just write about it. And then in revising, I can make it beautiful. There are a lot of times going back to my work while putting together this book, that I read stuff from graduate school, and was like, ‘Huh, I was in a really dark place. I should have told an authority or something.’ But when I approached one of my professors and asked if they read these things, my professor said it seemed like I was working it out. I respect that.

So I’m not saying don’t go to therapy, be a writer. But there are a lot of times when I stop and look at something from a different perspective to understand it myself.

You wrote: “I haven’t found a way to write about the body without objectifying myself or quitting. I still don’t feel like it’s completely mine. I’ve been asking myself the same question for what seems like forever, ‘How do I reclaim my body?’ And so far, the only answer I’ve come up with is time.” Do you feel like writing about it has helped you reclaim it?

I’m gonna say no, and here’s why. A lot of the time when I talk about my body, I still refer to it as “it.” It, she, her — I am never like mine or me. I think that writing those pieces helped me understand my body a little bit more and the ways it should be mine. Like, at one point, I had to just say a lot of words that no one wants to say. I had to be like, ‘Oh, this is sexual assault.’ No one wants to realize that they’ve been sexually assaulted a decade after it happened. I had to sit there and unpack that and figure out what I do with it. And then you’ve got the fact that I realized I was demisexual while writing the book. Now, what does that mean? So a lot of the time I have to explain myself.

Explain what it means to be demisexual?

Yeah, nobody knows what that means, and so I have to then explain why I don’t want to just go around having sex with people.

This is not the question you asked, but this is the best way I can explain it. 

I’m trying to figure out how I can be in a relationship with someone without them coveting my body before wanting to know who I am. We live in a world of hookup culture and that’s not something I’m interested in. And so because of that, I come off as a bitch or a prude or all these other negative words for women who don’t put out. Actually, I’m just not attracted to people I don’t know. Like, I write about sex toys and sex every day. It’s something I enjoy, but I’m not going to enjoy the experience or be physically involved with my body unless I meet certain parameters. I realized that through this book.

What makes a personal essay is different than a lot of other types of writing out there is that you don’t need to have the answers: you just have to show a really vulnerable process. One line that really demonstrates this is: “I won’t believe you if you tell me that I’m beautiful. I’m not there yet. But I sill take the compliment and pocket it for later.” And it feels like, in a way, this book is that pocket.

Yeah, for sure. I wrote that line years ago, and it still holds true. Sometimes I show my friends pictures of people that I think are cute. I had a crush on this person years ago. And they’re like, this person’s not attractive. I’m like, Okay, well, everybody’s subjective. And then they’re like, you’re attractive. And I’m like, I hear what you’re saying. And I understand it to be nice. But I do not agree. I don’t have that perspective.

In one essay, you talk about the sex writing class in grad school which featured a lot of pornographic images. At one point you realized you weren’t going to see any images of Black bodies in the curriculum, so you were not going to be represented in the class. You ended up writing down a striking sentence, “The black body is so sexualized, it can’t even be taught.” Did that understanding turn you into an ambassador? 

I see what you’re saying. I’ve been writing about sex since I started writing nonfiction. I’ve been called a smut writer, and I’ve been told it’s unnecessary. I’m not going to say that those things are because I’m Black; I think it’s because people are not used to sex being in the world. But when I was in that class and there was just sex in everything … and it wasn’t all good sex. It wasn’t all healthy sex. It wasn’t all consensual sex, and I was like, I’m still never going to see a Black vagina in this class.

Around the same time, I was at the gynecologist’s office looking at the posters on the wall. And I realized even the posters were white. Like, what am I supposed to do? 

When I was in high school, and I had just started watching porn, I would ask boys in my class if they watched porn and what kind of porn did they watch. And I remember someone telling me that they didn’t watch Black porn because it felt objectifying. And it’s like, that’s the only way you’re going to see yourself or someone like you having sex in it. It feels objectifying because it’s literally become a category. How are Black people supposed to understand sex if every time we encounter it, it’s a fetish?

Then to be an ambassador are you objectifying yourself in order to normalize it? How do you grapple with that?

I’m not the most sexually active person, so it’s really not a problem for me. Do a lot of people think I am down? Sure. And that’s cool. I don’t care. I don’t think there’s any negative qualities that come with being perceived as a hoe. I encourage everyone to do what they want with their bodies. But I do think I’m here to — in any way that I can — advocate that sex is about pleasure and nothing else. There’s no reason that I should have to walk into a situation or be with someone and be worried about being fetishized because of the color of my skin or because of my body weight. But for some reason, this is literally a thing that is taught. You learn it through watching porn and movies and reading books and going to school and seeing the relationships you’re surrounded by. And I didn’t grow up in a world where people talked about sex, so everything about it is just some melting pot of popular culture and research. And then my personal experiences were not anything like I read.

And so I guess I’m not going to say yes or no. In a way, I’m an ambassador. I try to make sure my job is inclusive across all sorts of ways when it comes to showing that pleasure is for all bodies and everybody. I just want people to understand it’s normal for shit to be awkward and uncomfortable. And if you don’t like it, say something. Sex is always going to be a weird venture. I don’t think there’s a point where it’s completely not weird now. There’s always going to be something weird about sex, even if it’s normal, and you can laugh it off. I’m just in my head about everything. And I know it’s okay to be in your head. Literally, everyone else is also in their head.

It sounds like you’re saying it’s okay to question things and not just accept them as normal. Like, whether that’s what you’re taught about sex or the way that you were taught that you’re supposed to be viewed.

So I watch ethical porn, of course. And ugly shit’s happening. That’s what I want to say: sex is really ugly, but because of the pleasure of it all, it goes ignored. I think people understand that, and I don’t think that’s talked about enough. And so when I write about it, I kind of want to be like, you know, it’s not cute. Having sex while the projector is on, for example. That’s not cute. It’s actually really anxiety-inducing. Because you’re like, this whirring sound, I should just turn it off. But then somebody will know that I’m having a whole thing.

Similar to this idea that we don’t tend to see Black bodies having sex, we don’t tend to see images of God as a Black woman. In my favorite essay in the collection, you imagine God as a Black woman. But it’s God as a Black woman in this reality of how we treat Black women. 

Imagining God as a Black woman is a thing that a lot of Black men say to sound woke and feminist. So I’m not that religious of a person. Sure, I believe in God. But there’s that’s just an omnipotent thing. There’s no body to it, I think. So I was like, Well if you go by that saying that we’re created in the image of God and God’s Black woman, that’s got to be really tough. The first few pages are like actual conversations and musings, but then took it a step further and was like, well what does it look like? Because in my head, if God is a Black woman, chances are she’s being treated like a human. And I was pulling from a lot of different mythologies. And so I was sort of thinking about how the other gods would treat her. And in my head, when she starts getting mistreated and ignored, it’s by humans. 

I feel a lot of religions, you know, when they’re like, ‘We need to get back to what we’re supposed to be doing.’ They’re like, ‘You’re ignoring God.’ But what happens when you ignore God? Like they have other things they have to care about. And so it ends with this idea that if God’s a Black woman, then she’s Atlas because, as God, you have to carry all of the burdens. And I feel like this idea of God being a Black woman, whenever it comes up by people who are not Black women, it’s typically a “black woman knows how to just make the world a better place and keep it together and fix everything.” And that’s not what God is supposed to be about. That’s not what religion is supposed to be about. 

Somehow humans would find a way to put all of their burdens and everything onto this omnipotent being they couldn’t see. And all she did to end up with this baggage was create a world. Does that make sense?

It does. Yeah.

As a Black woman, God never exists as just God. She’s never smiting people. She’s just fixing shit.

Jera writes about sexuality, spirituality, and social justice. They are the author of Just the Tip, a queer-friendly, sex-positive, relationship advice column and the editor of Sacred and Subversive,...