Negesti Kaudo digs to the core in ‘Ripe’

The Columbus-born author will take part in a book release event at Two Dollar Radio on Thursday, April 28

Andy Downing
Columbus Alive
Author Negesti Kaudo

Negesti Kaudo keeps a document on her computer in which she collects stray thoughts, poems, snippets of lyrics for imagined songs, bits of prose and more. And from time to time, Kaudo will return to this jumble, excavating phrases or paragraphs for use in other works.

“Sometimes I’ll go through and pick out a line and say, ‘Oh, that was really good. I’ll use that in this piece,” said Kaudo, who will celebrate the release of her new essay collection, Ripe, with a launch event at Two Dollar Radio on Thursday, April 28. “Or I might go back and see if there’s anything I started to write about but wasn’t in the right mindset, and then I’ll take that paragraph and start a piece off with it or put it into something else.”

Once Kaudo homes in on a prompt — the word “teeth,” for instance — her brain takes over, giving rise to a series of tangentially related ideas: What was the first animal to develop teeth? How did teeth evolve? How do they operate within the larger structure of the jawbone? 

More: Read an excerpt of Ripe

“I call it a spiral, and it’s really a spiral of who, what, when, where, why,” Kaudo said. “And if I get the answer, cool. But if I don't, I just sort of imagine and ask questions, or pull things from pop culture and things that I've read. And... do you know what a schema is? A schema is basically where you say a word and immediately you think of something else and draw a line to it. ... Like, if I say ‘teeth,’ I’m going to go ‘bones,’ ‘dentist,’ ‘vampires.’ And that’s pretty much how I write. My book is basically a collection of essays that take a subject — race, anger, gender, sex — and draw a line to every single subject that comes with those. Then I mull it about in my brain, put it all on paper and try to make it beautiful.”

Take a chapter of Ripe centered on water, for instance, which started with Kaudo listing every instance from her life in which she recalled swimming in a body of water, be it pools, lakes, creeks or oceans. From there, Kaudo began to pose questions (“Who decided to wade into the water first?"), drew connections to pop culture (Beyoncé's “Lemonade”; “Amistad”; “The Little Mermaid”) and dug up personal anecdotes, including the revelation that when she gets stoned and swims, she often forgets to breathe. “I quit getting high around bodies of water; I was too eager to be consumed by it,” she writes. 

In circling the subject, Kaudo gradually reveals a series of larger truths both personal and societal, her words drilling down to concepts such as the omnipresence of racism, which is captured in her recollections of bodies of water both small (Kaudo writes of her white friends screaming at the site of her hair floating on the surface of the water, as though she had “contaminat[ed] the pool with my blackness”) and large, with the ocean existing as a watery grave for countless Black souls. “There is that scene in ‘Amistad’ where the African woman steps off the deck of the boat with her baby and disappears into the current,” Kaudo writes.

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At times, Ripe can be a discomforting read, with Kaudo fearlessly breaking down everything from the stereotype of the angry Black woman to the racist microaggressions that can compound over time, stretching a person to a breaking point. After relaying nearly a dozen of these instances in a relentless drip, the floodgates finally give, Kaudo repeating the word “uncomfortable” in an unbroken flow of type that stretches over two full pages.

“There are no spaces, and it’s really not even legible, but I wanted the reader to be uncomfortable trying to get past that moment,” Kaudo said. “A lot of my work is written to make people uncomfortable. … I think I’ve been forced to be uncomfortable in a lot of spaces just by being a Black woman, and so, I feel like a lot of my work, because I’m talking from my perspective as a Black woman, makes other people uncomfortable if they haven’t had to live that life or deal with any sort of oppression.”

The research for the book, a portion of which consisted of long dives down Wikipedia wormholes, was driven by Kaudo’s natural sense of curiosity, stoked from childhood by growing up in a family where the children were taught to seek out answers in books. Kaudo, who grew up in Linden, participated in the summer reading challenge hosted by the Columbus Public Library each year, and estimated that she read more than half of the books stocked in the library of her elementary school. 

Along with this curious nature, Kaudo also nurtured a fascination for language that she traced to her name, Negesti, Ethiopian for queen. “Most of my life, no one could pronounce my name, and that got me interested in etymology, asking where names come from, what does my name mean,” she said. “And so, this fascination in where things find their origins is how I got really interested in language: how words come to mean what they do; why we use these words; why we pronounce things the way we pronounce them.”

The cover of "Ripe" by Negesti Kaudo

Kaudo utilizes this language to staggering effect in Ripe. A gifted, giving writer, she fills passages with beautifully raw insights that are at turns poetic and profound, challenging and captivating. Structured in three parts — rind, flesh and seed — the book finds Kaudo gradually turning inward, moving from the more outward-looking concerns of rind to the intensely personal revelations of seed, a number of which center the death of her father, who passed when the author was just a child.

As the book advances, even the typography reflects this compression, with passages in the opening sections occasionally given more space between paragraphs and gradually taking more traditional form by seed, as if even the text itself is squeezed in existing at this core.

“When I first started putting the book together, I would pitch it as the idea of a Black woman moving through public and private spaces,” said Kaudo, who started working on the collection while in graduate school in 2015, writing the last essay included on Jan. 6, 2021. “Public, for me, was everything on the outside, so the rind. You’re in society. That’s where everyone’s opinions impact you. Flesh was more a combination of navigating public and private spaces. How do I feel in my body? … Why do these ideals from the outside impact my body image when this is my private space, my body? And then seed, which is the private parts of me, and me at my most vulnerable. It's asking, what does it mean to be Negesti Kaudo?”