Nikki Harmon: On a lighter note…

Nikki Harmon: On a lighter note…

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On a winter night with temperatures dropping into the single digits, there’s nothing better than curling up in front of the fire with a good book. (I don’t exactly have a fireplace here in the city, but I found a great YouTube video of a crackling fireplace. And with enough imagination, I could almost feel the warmth and smell the burning logs.) My book of choice: “When I Was Your Girlfriend” by Nikki Harmon.

I’ve known Harmon for a while, but as a filmmaker, not a novelist. She warned me that it was a light but enjoyable read. It did not disappoint.

Part of the fun of this book is recognizing all of the Philadelphia references, like when two of the main characters go to dinner and then head down to First Friday in Old City. Many references are to places we used to haunt: Sneakers, Zipperhead on South Street, Kelly Drive. I’m sure you’ll recognize old favorites too.

PGN: What’s your origin story?

NH: Both of my parents are from Philly, I grew up in West Mount Airy. I had a nice Middle-Class upbringing, lots of kids and friends who lived on the block. I was out of the house all of the time. I was never inside except for eating and sleeping. I have a brother and sister, but they were a little bit older so I kind of felt like an only child. They’d go off on their own. As a result, I spent a lot of time with my parents and other grownups. But it taught me a lot. I was quiet and enjoyed listening, so I would hear all the adult conversations. I gained a lot of wisdom and learned all the neighborhood gossip! 

PGN: Were your grandparents nearby?

NH: Yeah. Both sets of grandparents lived in Philly. We’d visit and spend holidays with them. I mostly spent time with my maternal grandmother, who’s still alive. If my parents wanted a break, I’d go to Ocean City with her and her friends.

PGN: Big family?

NH: Yes. My father was one of eight kids, and my mother is one of four. So I have a lot of extended family. We’re also very close and do big reunions. When we can’t get together, we’re all on Facebook! It’s great. You have a special relationship with cousins. You’ve known them all of your life, but you don’t have the same dynamics that you have with your immediate family. I actually have a script on the back burner called “Cousins.” It’s about … cousins! [Laughing]

PGN: What did you want to be when you grew up?

NH: A midwife.

PGN: Really? What prompted that?

NH: I don’t know! I was like, 12, and I just thought that bringing babies into the world was pretty miraculous. I still do. Then I did some research and realized that midwives don’t make any money, so I wanted to be an obstetrician, run a birth clinic and have midwives work with me. I’d be the doctor on call. That was my plan until I got to college and then it changed completely.

PGN: When did you start dabbling in the arts?

NH: I always liked creative writing. In English class I wrote these dark, disturbing stories, which if it were this day and age, would have sent me to a counselor! [Laughing] They would have been having meetings about me. The stories were full of talk about suicide and death, you know, teenage angst. I also took a class in photography and dance lessons. But it didn’t really click until I was finishing college. That’s when I thought about having a creative life — my last semester of college, when it was too late to change majors. I graduated with a degree in religion.

PGN: Say what?

NH: I know! I did all this pre-med stuff in high school. I took anatomy classes. I did an internship. I was a candy-striper at Chestnut Hill Hospital. I volunteered at a nursing home. I was on a career path until I went to college. I went to Wesleyan and it was in the midst of the anti-apartheid movement. There were sit-ins and demonstrations at school because they had money invested in companies doing business there. I got involved. We were protesting day and night, having consensus meetings that went on forever. I just got caught up in it and decided I wasn’t into medicine anymore. The anatomy classes, with the cutting-into-people part, might have been a factor too. 

PGN: When was your coming-out process in all of this?

NH: Oh, that was long and drawn-out. It started in high school, where I messed around with a few girls, and then stopped when I got to college.

PGN: Most people wait until they get to college to come out.

NH: Yeaaaaaah … nope. I got to school and looked around at the girls who were out and none of them appealed to me. It was the ’80s, and most people “in the life” were underground. And the ones who were out were not my style. [Laughing] I looked at who was available and did a risk-management assessment. It didn’t seem like the payoff was worth the risk. So I waited until I finished college to be gay again!

PGN: That’s hysterical. So I probably met you not long after that. I just remember that you were the fly girl all the women were after! Everybody loved Nikki!

NH: Oh yeah? Get out! I sure didn’t feel that. I mean when I first came back, I was dating men and women. I was open with everyone about it and they were all cool with it. That was fun for a while. And then I dated a guy pretty seriously until he pissed me off about something and I was like, “That’s it! I’m done with that side!” Oh, and it probably didn’t help that I’d gone to D.C. that summer with a friend who was in the life and we went to D.C. clubs. If you remember, at that time they had those exotic dance groups like Onyx. After seeing them I was like, Yeaaaah, I’m not going back!

PGN: Oh, how could I forget? There was one dancer named Ouzie, who would slide across the floor with her legs completely over her head! I would try to convince her that we’d be good together, Ouzie and Suzi!

NH: Did it work?

PGN: No. But it was fun trying.

NH: Ha! We had some good times. That’s what I wanted to recreate in my book.

PGN: You succeeded. What started your writing career?

NH: When I came back, I got into film and video. I worked at WYBE. I did a video through Scribe, where I work now, and got a master’s in film and media arts at Temple. I don’t know if you remember, but my thesis was a short film called, “A Little Fierce.”

PGN: OMG. I forgot about that. My best friend Tibet played the lead, Fierce. You had Gail Lloyd and a bunch of the gang involved.

NH: Yeah, that was fun. Then I produced a show called “The Wedding Story” that ran on TLC for a few years.

PGN: Any bridezillas?

NH: Not really. I went to 38 weddings and, for the most part, everyone loved having us there. The best thing for me was that I got to travel a lot, though after a while that wore thin. This was before laptops and Netflix, and there was only so much local news you could take on the hotel TV. But the good side was that I met people from all over the country, all different economic backgrounds, different races and religions. I learned that all over most people are decent and nice and kind. At least at wedding time!

PGN: That’s good to hear.

NH: Yup. So anyhoo, after that I met someone and settled down, we got married and had three kids. I got into teaching so I would have something steady. I taught video production and media studies at Temple, Drexel and Arcadia … [talking into my recorder] and I’m still available to teach!

PGN: Good to know.

NH: It was great. But I realized that I was taking care of kids at home and then at school and I wasn’t doing anything creatively for myself. I was teaching colors at home and color correction at work. I was desperate to do something and I came across this thing called NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month. They challenge you to write 50,000 words in one month. You get word counts that are due daily. They give you email prompts and they have local meet-ups, and support on how to move on if you get stuck. So I signed up. I was like, This is great! I can ignore my children for a month and it’s legit. That was in November 2009. You start the project on the first and on the 30th you finish and go back to your life. And that’s what I did. I thought about it, what I wanted to draw from my life to create a fictional story, and Nov. 1 I was like … [mimics typing furiously]. And I wrote, and I wrote and I wrote. When I was getting my oil changed, I brought my laptop and wrote. Between classes, I would write. After the kids went to bed — because at that point they still went to bed without fuss at 7 — anywhere and everywhere. I didn’t hit 50,000 words, but I got to 48,000 and then finished over the holidays. So then I had a book! Great. But I didn’t know what to do with it, so it sat in my computer for a few years. 

PGN: This interview is becoming a suspense novel. What came next?

NH: There used to be a collective for brown and black women in the arts called ImageWeavers including me, Aishah Simmons, Roxana Walker-Canton, Nadine Patterson, Nadine Stanley and others. We had a reunion at my house and I mentioned that I’d written a book. One of the women, Yvonne, said, “You should publish it. I’ll help you.” And she did! I’d send her chapters and she’d edit them. Then when that was finished, she told me I needed hea shots. So I got head shots. Then, “You need a cover.” So we created a cover. She walked me through the entire process. And now it can be purchased at Giovanni’s Room, Barnes & Noble and through Amazon!

PGN: The power of women helping women.

NH: Definitely. It probably would have still been sitting in my computer if she hadn’t jumped in, God bless her.

PGN: So tell me about the family now?

NH: I have three kids. My son is 13, which is still hard to believe! He didn’t start off that old. Then I had twin girls, who are both 10. The journey to get pregnant and all that is fodder for another book and maybe a movie, but it’s great being a parent. 

PGN: Did you have all three kids?

NH: I had all three kids. Kelly was not at all interested in being uncomfortable. So it was up to me, but I was always intrigued by the process and I wanted to have that experience. I was not expecting twins, though; it wasn’t a medical fertility result. Twins run in my family. They’re fraternal twins and totally opposites, like one likes chili, the other one doesn’t. It’s annoying. But for real, it’s great that they have each other and all three of them get along well. They’re good kids. What’s cool is that when my son started school and later when the girls went, there were other two-mommy families, so they were never the only ones and we haven’t had too many issues with it. 

PGN: That’s great.

NH: I think the biggest problem is that the other kids are curious. They want to know if they were adopted and, if not, how does that work with two mommies. So we were forced by a bunch of curious kindergarteners on the bus to speed up our information process and talk about the birds and the bees along with the ABCs much sooner than we’d planned.

PGN: What does Kelly do?

NH: She’s a teacher in the school district. Poor kids, having two teachers as parents. When I was a professor, they would groan all the time. Academics are big in our house.\

PGN: On the plus side, they have help just down the hall.

NH: Uh, not really. I’m a film professor. Do I want to relearn algebra? Noooo. That’s what peer tutors are for, because Mommy is done with all that.

PGN: Back to your book. Tell me a little of your thought process.

NH: I love to read, but so much of what’s out there for lesbians, especially women of color, is so traumatic and sad. I wanted to write something that was fun, not completely fluffy, but fun. No fancy language requiring a dictionary for every page. Something that was a quick read and had a good ending — a lesbian beach book.

PGN: Fun.

NH: Yeah. In some ways it was the alternative life I could have had. The main character is a midwife and part of me thinks that, had I gone that route, I could have been that cool black midwife who delivered all the lesbians’ babies in Mount Airy.

PGN: And when did you come out to your parents?

NH: It was the ’80s. I’m a Cancer, and we tend to side-step things. So I don’t know that I ever came out and said it. It was more like, “Yeah, I saw this lesbian film, it was great! I think it’s my favorite movie!” Do you remember “Desert Hearts,” Suzi?

PGN: For sure. [Laughing] I went with Tibet and during the love scene, she tore her napkin into little pieces, saying, “Oh no she didn’t, oh no she didn’t! Oh yes she did!” as the scene progressed.

NH: Yeah, I saw it at the Ritz with my girlfriend. It was awesome. So for me, I just dropped little hints like that and let [my mom] work it out for herself. I’m married now, so she probably has a clue.\

PGN: So what’s next on the literary front?

NH: I’m working on a book called, “Neither Here Nor There.” It’s about a young black lesbian nerd who’s studying at Temple to become an astrophysicist. One day she discovers she has certain powers, and while she’s trying to get a handle on her new ability, she finds herself entangled with a secret cohort of students who are counting on her to help them undo a vast conspiracy to reshape the world itself! 

PGN: Is that all? So when will it be available?

NH: In a perfect world, it’ll be out in time for Pride month. But if I don’t make it, it’ll be ready before the summer is out, so you can take it to the beach! 

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