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New book looks at love and heartbreak, both romantic and familial

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Camonghne Felix says around the second or third grade, she went from having a generous love for math to being incredibly afraid of it.

CAMONGHNE FELIX: My ability to comprehend what was on the board completely went away.

SUMMERS: Felix suffers from a learning disorder called dyscalculia. That's also the title of her new memoir - a new genre for the poet, whose debut collection was longlisted for a National Book Award. The book, which also touches on trauma and self-harm, is subtitled "A Love Story Of Epic Miscalculation." And within the first few pages, Felix reveals an experience of heartbreak, the end of what she calls a quintessential first love.

FELIX: He wasn't my first boyfriend, but it was the first time that I actually knew what it meant to be in a partnership with someone. And I felt really alone and really unsafe in the world. And he made me feel a lot safer. And I think that's part of what love does is it allows you to let down some of that armor and allows you to redesign your relationship to safety. And I'm forever grateful to that relationship. But I'm also hyperaware of the fact that, for young people, that one relationship may not be the most important relationship of your life. It might tell you a lot about yourself at that time. But I'm engaged now and in a relationship that, to me, doubles, triples, what I was able to feel in terms of that capacity for love. And I'm really happy to have experienced both of those loves and to be able to compare them because I learned a lot that allows me to be a much better partner now. And I have loved a lot, which allows me to feel good.

SUMMERS: In the book, you write about these different types of pain and loss in searing detail. There's the pain within romantic relationships. There's self-harm. There's pain within different types of interpersonal relationships, sexual abuse. And you write about them in such an incredibly personal way. I'm curious what drew you to want to explore loss like this?

FELIX: When I started writing the book and the focus was on heartbreak, it was impossible for me to talk about my own heartbreak without talking about these other systemic heartbreaks that had already happened. Trauma, we don't think of it as heartbreak, but it functions similarly. It causes the same kinds of symptoms - depression and anxiety and a litany of others. I wanted people to have a different relationship with heartbreak. It's something that we only associate with romance. If you decontextualize it and put it in other spaces, if you talk about it in terms of self-harm, in terms of sexual assault, it's a lot easier for people to understand what it means for a person to be in pain and what it means for their heart to be broken. But somehow when we think about romantic heartbreak, we think of it a lot more casually. We don't give people the space and the generosity to say, you know what? You're going through a trauma. This is a trauma that you're experiencing.

SUMMERS: Can you give an example of a moment in your story where you came to this realization?

FELIX: There's one moment in the story where I go to work, and I tell my boss that I am going through a breakup. And my boss - immediately, her instinct was to tell me to push through it with work. And what she said was, the same thing happened to me when I was around your age. You know, I just pushed through with work, and I think if you do the same thing, you'll find that you'll feel a lot better. And I felt so sad for both of us in that interaction because it was clear that this is something that she'd been told. And I wonder, for both of us, what would have happened if she'd had said, I completely understand. Take all of the space that you need. That would have validated me in a really important way and would have focused it for me and allowed me to say, wow, this is serious, and I should take this seriously.

SUMMERS: I was really taken with the writing in the book, and there are a number of places throughout it where there are lines or turns of phrase or places, even entire paragraphs, that you come back to more than once. And I want to ask you about one of them. You write that (reading) as it turns out, nature has a formula that tells us when it's an entity's time to die.

And I thought that was really beautiful, and I wanted to ask you about it.

FELIX: Yeah. I'm speaking to actual physical death because there is some suicidal ideation in the book and also the idea that there's - every relationship has to die and that the entity of the relationship had reached - had completed its lifecycle, and I couldn't really fight its inevitability.

SUMMERS: I think many people probably know you well as a poet and have read that type of work. I'm curious for you what's been different in releasing a memoir, a new style of writing, a new style of vulnerability?

FELIX: Poetry allows you some space to hide if you'd like to. Memoir was different because memoir completely opens up the curtain and says that what is important here is the story, not just the language. There's no beautification that you can do that will radically change the way a person experiences the memoir. They experience your story. And as much as I am slightly embarrassed by how much of my story I put in the story, nothing that I put in the book was without real intention.

SUMMERS: There is this point near the end of the book where you write about this guy who's approaching you as you were working on this very book, and he asks you what your book is about. And you tell him it's about just heartbreak, and then you tell us, your readers, that Black girls get to write about benign heartbreak, too. And I think you describe it as proud and saccharine and pathetic. You got to say more about that.

FELIX: Yeah. The kinds of books that the industry seems most interested in publishing by Black women when it comes to romance are books that are very empowering. So Black women often wind up writing, like, self-help books when really what they wanted to say was, my heart hurts really badly, and I'm sure yours does, too. And a big part of why I wrote this book was because when I was going through my own heartbreak, I was texting my best friend, Safia Elhillo, which some people may know, a very famous poet - excuse us.

(LAUGHTER)

FELIX: But I was texting her, and I was like, I just need a book written by a Black woman about heartbreak. Where can I find one? And she was like, look, remember what Toni Morrison said? If there's something that you want to read and it's not there, then you have to make it. And I had no choice but to write the book that I wanted to read. So when the man said, just heartbreak? I realized in that moment that there was something super powerful about a Black girl taking up space in this nonfiction world and saying, I'm going to write about my heart, and it's not going to be trite. But it could be, and I deserve that space.

SUMMERS: Before I let you go, I do want to come back to the subtitle of this book, "A Love Story Of Epic Miscalculation." Whose love story is it?

FELIX: Really it's my love story, a love story for myself, a love story for my past, a love story for heartbreak. And it's a love story for Black girls. Even though it may not be super overt, and I don't say it a million times, I love Black women. And I see them, and I see their pain. And I wanted to give them a space where they felt represented, and I really wanted to write a love story for them.

SUMMERS: We have been speaking with Camonghne Felix. Her new memoir, "Dyscalculia: A Love Story Of Epic Miscalculation," is out today. Thank you so much for being here.

FELIX: Thank you so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SUMMERS: If you or someone you know is in crisis, call or text the 988 Suicide And Crisis Lifeline. Just those three digits - 988. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Courtney Dorning
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.
Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.