Camonghne Felix on calculating love and prose in her new book, ‘I want Black women to feel empowered by it’

Mission Creek Festival: Capstone Reading & Afterparty Celebrating The Sun Magazine

Saturday, April 8 at 7 p.m., The James, included with pass

Camonghne Felix. – Photo courtesy of Mission Creek Festival

Reading Camonghne Felix’s 2023 memoir Dyscalculia: A Love Story of Epic Miscalculation is a gut punch over and over and over again. It’s one of those books I had to put down every couple of pages to catch my breath. Felix’s innate ability to create empathy in her readers is unparalleled. I want to emphasize this: one does not need to have shared Felix’s experiences for her work to impact them.

If you’ve ever heard her speak or experienced her poetry or journalism, you know that Felix cuts straight to the point. Her talent was apparent even before picking up Dyscalculia.

According to Felix, she started writing Dyscalculia thinking it would be a single poem she would publish and forget about.

“I started writing sentences instead of verses after I had gotten past the first couple of pages and with every sentence I thought, ‘Oh, there’s something happening here,” Felix said during a phone interview.

She showed the piece to a friend who encouraged her to keep at it, so she did, writing in whatever form was intuitive.

“I like to write prose blocks. I think prose blocks offer a lot of things to readers. It offers the ability to experience restraint, experience the author’s restraint, it offers the ability to take some space to breathe.”

Dyscalculia, published last month by Penguin Random House, deals with trauma on several levels: it’s a memoir on coming of age, love and a mental health journey.

“We can’t separate these things,” she said. “I knew what I was writing was going to be pretty heavy so I wanted to give it the space to breathe. It was pretty much about how I wanted my readers to experience and how I wanted to protect them.”

The memoir opens with an epigraph from Toni Morrison about recognizing and fixing failures, that failures provide data and with data we can evaluate and change what needs changing. This is followed by an illustration of what appears to be a very old medical chart. (These illustrations pop-up between sections throughout the book. They’re both jarring and exact in the way they’re implemented.)

Felix’s opening line reads: “As it turns out, nature has a formula that tells us when it’s an entity’s time to die.” The first page is just two short paragraphs explaining the formula that precedes death. There’s a page break and then she tells us about Pythagoreans.

“They believed that numbers, and to what rhythms we assign them, give birth to the ineffable, to the faithful. This is how we learn to hear beauty, how we come to know the nature of deficits, how we know what it means to be full, what it means to offer an abundance, and how to quantify the sin of greed.”

She takes her time discussing this logic in sterile language and long sentences, eventually writing that, “of all artistic mediums, mine of choice is one of mathematical impulse, lyrics buoyed by the universal truth of the one and the two.”

Camonghne Felix. – Photo courtesy of Mission Creek Festival

The whole book is like this: artistic descriptions of math and stoic, sparse descriptions of horrors. Felix uses repetition of Pythagorean philosophy throughout the book which effectively anchors the text around fractals, punctuating the passages that precede and follow them.

“It was really according to the way my brain made sense of the philosophy,” Felix said during our interview. “As I was writing the book there were places where that research would pop up for me or where it would make sense to me. It was pretty organic, mostly my brain identifying with that content, identifying with that language. It became part of my thinking as I was writing.”

The book itself isn’t linear but told in vignettes, the narrative building in fits followed by reprieve, the resulting story ends up being full and organic and honest.

“It felt urgent. As I was writing I could tell it was something that people might need to relate to and that they might want to relate to. I didn’t feel responsible but excited to be able to do that in that moment. I wrote this book for anyone who has ever experienced heartbreak, who wants to feel empowered by it. I want women in general to feel empowered by it. I want Black women to feel empowered by it, to know they have the space to feel heartbreak and pain without having to ask permission.”

Felix knew that if she was going deal with trauma, so were her readers. She said that, in order to take care of herself while writing, she had to keep her readers in mind.

“Find ways to make sure you don’t retraumatize yourself as you create the work and that will mean you don’t traumatize your reader,” she said.

As readers, we know of Felix’s trauma, intimate details of the hardest moments of her life, but it is not her trauma that caused me to put the book down periodically, it’s her language. When she falls in love, she makes you fall in love. When she hurts, you hurt. But, somehow, it isn’t triggering.

Lines like this are on every page of Dyscalculia: “Under his love, I was a werewolf at the turn of the moon, and I let the sun in me set to it.”

Felix tricks you into believing her love story is the main event because her love is her focal point throughout her journey, but it is so much bigger than that. This book is a dense prose poem that lifts the reader out of their own life and wraps them inside it. Felix plays with form, layout, punctuation and manipulates it to greater heights. She uses math equations and word play as weapons, like, “what happened in the brackets of her absence was my business.”

Felix knows the power of language and is well-practiced in applying it. Her work as a political strategist and speechwriter gave her an outlet but she’s an artist at heart and with that vocation (and while telling one’s life story) everything is interwoven.

In our interview, she said something I am going to hold on to: “What we do as writers and as artists is we take intersectionality and we illustrate it. There isn’t one social violence or cultural violence that I can focus on if I’m looking at all of them at the same time.”