Kicking the Doors Wide Open
Denne Michele Norris ’08 becomes the first Black, openly trans woman to helm a major literary publication.
Names are important in the Norris family, so when Denne Michele Norris ’08 came out as a trans woman earlier this year and had the opportunity to choose her own name, she wanted to make sure to choose something that honored those who have come before her.
Norris’s father, the Rev. Dr. Dennis Earl Norris, had legally changed his first name as a loving gesture to his childless Uncle Dennis, and when he had a son of his own, his mother insisted he name the child after himself.
Denne (pronounced “Den”) honors the nickname that many friends gave her over the years, and “Michele” is an homage to her idols Michelle Obama and champion figure skater Michelle Kwan. “Generally speaking, deadnaming trans people is not OK,” she says, referring to people using a trans person’s birth name contrary to their stated identity and preference. “But for me, I really value the years I spent as Dennis Norris II and the work I did in that time.”
By work, she means the emotional and personal growth, but also the many projects she has worked on, including the critically acclaimed podcast Food 4 Thot, which she cohosts with three other queer writers: Joe Osmundson, Tommy Pico, and Fran Tirado. Described by the hosts as “a roundtable discussion … wherein a multiracial mix of queer writers talk sex, relationships, race, identity, what we like to read, and who we like to read,” the podcast brings humor and wit to conversations about the arts, culture, and the contemporary queer experience, particularly highlighting queer people of color and gender nonconforming and trans people. The group tours the country frequently to give live shows, and has watched Food 4 Thot grow to become one of the most successful Society & Culture shows on Apple Podcasts.
“Denne is one of the most resilient and vulnerable writers I know,” says Tommy Pico, a poet as well as a cohost of the podcast, which launched in 2017. “She tricks you with the levity of her personality, but underneath that she’s extremely hard-working, and she sees and knows everything.”
Norris is also an award-winning fiction writer, penning works that highlight the experience of queer Black characters navigating social, religious, sexual, and academic landscapes. Her chapbook of short stories, Awst Collection — Dennis Norris II, was named one of the best books of 2018 by Powell’s Bookstore, and her stories have appeared in prestigious national publications like McSweeney’s, American Short Fiction, Smokelong Quarterly, and others, as well as in several anthologies.
As in life, names are also important in Norris’s fiction, and she confesses to obsessing over naming her characters. “I can’t just pick any old name,” she says. “It has to be right. And when I find the right name, I know I truly understand who the character is.”
In August, Norris became the first Black, openly trans woman to helm a major literary publication when Electric Literature—an online journal with an annual readership of 5.5 million that strives to make literature exciting, relevant, and inclusive—named her editor-in-chief.
“It feels amazing,” she tells me, as we sit in her West Harlem apartment talking over the sounds of Manhattan traffic and the dings of Slack messages rolling in. Leaning back against her green velvet couch, she is quick to laugh, and speaks with deliberation and grace. “I feel like I have power professionally, which I’ve never felt before,” she says. “I feel like I get to use that to continue to kick the door open even wider. Forty years ago, ‘literary’ meant straight white male and stylistically spare. And now it’s so many more things. And it should be even more things.”
Growing up in the liberal suburb Cleveland Heights, Ohio, Norris was the child of a second-generation Baptist minister and a schoolteacher classically trained in voice and piano. “Creativity is kind of the family business,” she says, referring not only to her mother but to her two sisters: One once worked as the manager of the Public Theater in New York City, and the other is part of the three-time Grammy-nominated jazz ensemble the Baylor Project.
Norris attended the University School in Hunting Valley, Ohio, an academically rigorous private, all-boys school, where she pursued her then-dream of becoming a professional classical violist and was one of the only Black students and one of the only openly gay students. One of her teachers there, as well as her private viola teacher—both Bryn Mawr alumnae—supported her creatively and encouraged Norris to apply to Haverford.
“From the moment we stepped onto campus, literally driving up Duck Pond Lane, I felt at peace and I felt at home,” she says. It also didn’t hurt that her tour guide was a violist of color and that Haverford offered a generous financial aid package.
Norris arrived in August of 2004, the last year that the Tri-College Summer Multicultural Institute was open exclusively to students of color. She describes it as an awakening, similar to how other Black intellectuals describe arriving at Howard University, sometimes called “The Mecca.”
“My only experience of Black people was in Cleveland where [they] were all Christians and all religious,” she says. “It was the first time I didn’t feel a conflict between being Black and queer. I was in this room with 30 super smart and progressive Black people from New York and California and D.C. just getting to know each other. It was a revelation.” Several of the people in that room would become important friends to Norris throughout her four years at Haverford and beyond. “A lot of those friendships have endured and been important to me personally and professionally,” she says, mentioning in particular fellow writers Mari Christmas ’08, whose fiction Norris had the opportunity to edit when she began working at literary journals, and Joanna Benjamin ’09.
While Norris’s parents tolerated her queerness at home, they did not encourage it, and being a student at Haverford was the first time she felt completely free to be herself. She played viola all through her time at the College, playing in the Bi-College Orchestra and in chamber ensembles.
“I really started to lean into my femininity at Haverford because I felt safe enough to do that,” she says. At orchestra performances, she took to sporting a black dress and sparkly silver heels. One of her musical colleagues approached her after a performance and gushed, “My grandmother loved your shoes.”
Free to explore intellectually, Norris pursued political science at first, but a summer internship working for a congressional candidate quickly disabused her of this dream. “I saw what it took to get elected,” she says, “and I didn’t like it.” On a whim her junior year, she took an English class called “Contemporary Women Writers” taught by then-professor (now dean) Theresa Tensuan ’89, and her world was rearranged. Not only was Tensuan the first to introduce Norris to books written by women of color, but she also showed the class parts of Paris Is Burning, the iconic 1990 film documenting the lives of Black transgender women in the ball culture of New York City.
“One reaction was, ‘Oh my God, this is amazing,’ and the other reaction was, ‘Oh my God, this is too much for me,’ ” Norris says. “I identified so strongly with some of the girls in it, but I was also scared of the reality of what it meant to be a Black trans woman.”
She quickly switched her major to English and took her first creative writing workshop, which led to another and then another—and for the first time heard about a degree called a Masters of Fine Arts (MFA) in creative writing. But, she says, it was her thesis, advised by Tensuan, that first made her fall in love with writing. In it, Norris explored the sexual agency of Black women in Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, among other texts.
“I remember it was a beautiful day, and I was walking across Founder’s Green with my thesis, to go hand it in. People kept stopping me, and I kept telling them about the work I held in my hand, and I felt an enormous sense of pride at this thing that I had created. I remember thinking, ‘This feeling means something. Maybe I want to be a writer.’ ”
But the world would not make it easy. Norris graduated in May of 2008 at the very height of the recession and moved back home to Cleveland without a job.
“I didn’t want to play viola anymore,” she says. “I just started writing. I wrote a short story, and it took me the whole summer, and I read over it and I was like, ‘This is terrible. But this is what I want to do with my life.’ ”
In between shifts working at the high-end cosmetics and soap brand LUSH, Norris wrote and read literary fiction and started looking into MFA programs. Quickly realizing she couldn’t stay in Cleveland anymore, she transferred to the Philadelphia branch of LUSH in Center City and also took a job as an apprentice at the Walnut Street Theatre. Though she was still reading voraciously and watching old Charlie Rose show interviews with renowned writers, she says she actually prized the hours she spent selling fancy soap, too.
“A big part of my role at Electric Literature is being public-facing. I attribute my ability to be a good public representative and be in front of strangers and speak with confidence about who I am and what I think to my time at LUSH.”
An acceptance to the prestigious MFA program at Sarah Lawrence in 2010 soon offered her the opportunity to write full-time. She credits some of her success to the excellence of her MFA education—which allowed her to read more broadly and experiment with new forms and genres—her diverse and talented cohort, and the school’s proximity to the publishing industry in New York. But the program also prompted some deep and difficult reflections when it came to writing about race.
“I understood that most readers would assume by default that my characters were white if I didn’t identify them otherwise,” she says. “And I believed that there had to be a reason within my story for a character to be Black. That depressed me: that my identity was so marginal that unless it had a tangible use as a plot point, there was no value in it.”
After she turned in a story about a straight white couple, one of her colleagues of color took her aside and asked, “Why are you writing about white people? Ninety-four percent of literary publishing is about white people. Why would you want to add to that?”
These questions, in addition to the death of her father later that year, brought about a kind of existential crisis. “I left Sarah Lawrence at the end of my first year feeling like, ‘Maybe I’m not a writer, maybe I should go to law school.’ Not because I didn’t want to write, but because I was so overwhelmed by these questions and didn’t know how to solve them.”
A special summer writing program sponsored by the Voices of Our Nation Arts Foundation (VONA), which admits only writers of color, came just at the right time. The members of Norris’s cohort, she discovered, seemed to approach writing from a place of Blackness as central, not marginal, and seemed to have found ways to be writing specifically for other Black people, free of the white gaze.
“They taught me that there is enormous value in me putting my identities on the page every time,” she says. “I think what VONA did was it freed me from feeling obliged to write about whiteness in order to be taken seriously.”
By the time she came back to Sarah Lawrence for her second year, she knew she would never write about straight white people again, and she had the start of what would become her first novel.
Life is twisty, and writers—especially writers with loans from prestigious MFA programs—need to pay the bills, so Norris took jobs at several nonprofits while working toward her dream of becoming a writer, and along the way she added literary editor to that dream. She took a part-time unpaid position as the fiction editor of a small journal called Apogee, and then at a well-regarded online journal called The Rumpus. (“An unfortunate reality of cutting your teeth in publishing for many is taking on years of unpaid labor,” she says.)
While in these positions, Norris published many Black writers and writers of color who have since gone on to win major prizes and secure book deals. Among them: Deesha Philyaw, author of The Secret Life of Church Ladies, and Dantiel Moniz, author of Milk Blood Heat. She also kept writing and got an agent for her novel. But she still feared she would never reach a place where she could work full-time on what she loved: writing and editing.
“When I decided in early 2021 that I wanted to be an editor, I felt like, ‘I don’t have the experience, I haven’t come up in publishing, I guess that’s out of reach for me.’ But then looking at Black Lives Matter and looking at what publishing was doing to bring Black people in, I reframed it and I was like, ‘I think I can do this.’ ” She revised herresume and cover letter, and the first full-time editing job she applied for was at Electric Literature. She was stunned when they made an offer.
Halimah Marcus, executive director of Electric Literature, had this to say about Norris: “In addition to being a talented and accomplished editor, Denne Michele’s warmth and passion for mentorship, on and off the page, helps writers and readers who have been excluded by the literary establishment feel welcomed at Electric Lit. It’s one thing to be an astute editor, and another thing entirely to build community. Denne Michele does both beautifully.”
Jennifer N. Baker, an essayist, fiction writer, creator/host of the podcast Minorities in Publishing, and a former Electric Literature contributing editor, lauds the “empathy, attentiveness, and humor” Norris brings to her work and says, “I am honestly so stoked to see Denne Michele take on a leadership role. What she’ll bring to Electric Literature is a true extension of its growth as a more inclusive and aware literary space.”
Meanwhile, after taking on this new position, the upheaval and quarantine that accompanied the COVID-19 pandemic gave Norris more time alone to think and reflect. She realized she needed to come out publicly as a trans woman and complete her gender journey by changing her name.
“Hello world!! My name is Denne Michele and I’m a reader, a writer, a former figure skater, and a Black Trans Woman,” she tweeted on June 6, 2021. “So happy to meet you!” That tweet quickly went viral in Twitter’s literary circles.
Her family also has been supportive. “I think it helped that we are connected on social media, so my family has seen my gender variant presentation for some time now, so it wasn’t a huge surprise, though it is an adjustment,” Norris says. “They are still getting used to my new name, and I’m gracious about that because I love them, and know they mean no harm. They’ve known me for 35 years as the man they believed me to be; these things take time, and it’s OK to mess up, as long as you own it and learn from it.”
Norris’s novel, following a queer Black boy’s estranged relationship with his Baptist minister father, is on the verge of completion, and she and her agent have plans to send it out to publishers this winter. Her work with Electric Literature has only put a bigger spotlight on her vision for the future of inclusive literature and on her own work.
“Denne’s writing confronts problems both contemporary and eternal—the problem of f being alive, and the trouble of being alive right now,” says friend and fellow writer Hilary Leichter ’07. “I can’t wait to see her take that kind of omnivorous and urgent approach to prose into her editorial role at Electric Literature.”
“One thing I am reflecting on,” Norris says. “Is my time at Electric Literature going to be about me bringing more seats to the table, or is it going to be about me upending the table and building a new table, metaphorically speaking, that has no borders?”
She is especially excited to discover, nurture, and lift up the careers of writers of color, specifically Black trans writers. Of her history-making job, she says: “My feeling is, I’m the first, but I damn sure am not going to be the last.”