"I've never been anywhere in this world that someone didn't offer me some food, or a place to stay, or some work... people know how to treat people in other places, that's why they thrive. These are gifts, and you should feel some sort of exchange when you go somewhere." (Zuri, Episode 33)
Zuri McWhorter is a poet, screenwriter, and visual storyteller whom I met a couple years ago when she was selling her original work along with some used books at the inaugural Detroit Bookfest. She seemed like an interesting person but I was too shy to converse with her, and the constant movement of so many people in close quarters made it hard to take one's time and browse leisurely. So I bought her used copy of Beijing Doll as well as her original book of poetry Not Too Far from China, and kept it moving.
I wrote a review for the latter on my personal blog, and early last year Zuri emailed me out of the blue thanking me for what I'd written (she'd been feeling down about writing, so she Googled herself in search of encouragement and found my review.) Easily one of my top five favorite moments of 2018. Anyway, from there we kept tabs on each other via Instagram, and Zuri became an early supporter of Young, Gifted and Abroad. After seeing one of her posts about wanderlust where she mentioned "a summer abroad in Ireland" and "playing cello across western Europe in high school", I invited her to be a guest on the podcast and here we are today.
Zuri toured Europe during her 11th grade year at Renaissance High School in Detroit, when her school's band director "Mr. Mack" organized a tour for the concert and jazz bands to perform in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and Italy. After months of fundraising and preparation, they arrived in Frankfurt in late April and over a nine-day period they were living the tour bus life, playing in numerous small towns in addition to passing through larger cities such as Munich, Salzburg, and Venice. She recalls that everyone was stoked to be going on this trip and no one was nervous or afraid. And even when they occasionally got stared at or were randomly approached for photo ops by people who weren't accustomed to seeing such a large group of Black teenagers together, Zuri and her classmates were unbothered. Being in a group allowed them to focus on playing music and enjoying their time, which she remarks, "speaks volumes to what a group can do, when you have a community behind you".
Mr. Mack and the chaperones were firm in making sure the group stayed together and were respectful wherever they went, but of course the tour wasn't without the typical teenage shenanigans. (Imagine being 16 or 17 and going to Europe for the first time with your friends from school.) Zuri saw some beautiful sights, collected some art, and may or may not have slipped away from the group with a friend to search for grub while Switzerland. Overall, her favorite part was simply hanging out with her two best friends in a different place, and being able to relish the feelings she had during their shared moments. As a collective, she and her classmates received immense community support leading up to the trip as well as upon their return. By the fanfare they received at school, you'd think the football team had won the state championship. That's how much their peers and the school at large respected what they'd just achieved.
Zuri went on to enroll at Michigan State University, where she struggled to find her place. Coming from a city like Detroit (indeed, Detroit is still a city in its own right), Lansing was "too blue collar and weird" and unfriendly for her. On top of that she was living with "terrible people" and wasn't making any friends. She looked to study abroad as a way to escape for a little while. An English major, at the time she was taking an Irish literature class and was surprisingly drawn to the material and the history behind it that the professor shared. She did so well in the class that said professor invited her to join the upcoming junior-level summer study abroad program in Ireland, so she wound up spending six weeks studying Irish literature in Galway, Sligo, and mostly Dublin.
While she tended to keep to herself while in Ireland as well, Zuri found a way to make the experience her own. She spent her free time observing her surroundings, writing, and enjoying the kindness of people she met. Whether on a quotidian basis or at special events like barhopping during the Irish Derby, she was impressed by how nice and fun-loving people were. Wherever she went she was one of few Black people around, but she says people got used to her. Although, she still stood out by her body language and how she dressed. People would tell her, "You look way too cool to be from here!"
Take heavy things and create light from them
Just like on campus at MSU, reading, reflecting on, and writing about the literature she was studying played a major role in making Zuri's experience at least a little more enjoyable. She was "hella depressed" in college, and found herself enthralled by how skillfully writers like James Joyce and W.B. Yeats were able to write about death and sickness and loss while also birthing such beautiful love poetry at the same time. Being able to take heavy things and create light from them through writing is a feat that intrigues Zuri to this day. She half-jokingly claims that Irish literature saved her life. For her, "it was the sea of depression I needed to wade in" in order to work through the confusion and loneliness she felt during that time.
Ultimately she didn't finish her studies at MSU. It wasn't the right fit for her and she felt she'd already checked all the quintessential college boxes, so she left school and delved more into her own writing. She learned from the artsy people and business-minded artists with whom she surrounded herself at the time, built up her confidence in her writing, learned to talk about herself as a poet, and eventually published three books of poetry. Now she's making a living and traveling as an artist in both written and visual mediums, and she remains ever open and curious. After having visited much of Europe numerous times, she now wants to travel to warmer, colorful, tropical, more earthy and community-oriented places. Morocco, South Africa, and the Maldives are high on her list. Zuri is based in Detroit and can be found on Instagram (@zurimcwhorter) or her portfolio website (zuri.ink).
Be sure to listen to this episode, "On Paper Poetry Girl (WESTERN EUROPE)" for more! And don't forget to check out the resource list below!
Detroit band director write-up (including Willie McAllister, Jr.)