By Sarah Ford
NAHSON ANDERSON arrived at the annual Alliance of Artist Communities Conference in Denver as one of the few artists in attendance and few expectations. Such a leap is not unusual for Anderson after a lifetime of building their art, and themselves, from the ground up.
“No one took my hand and showed me how to do this. I’ve done this on my own merits. But I’ve gotten this far,” Anderson says over lunch on the second day of the conference.
The conference, held in early October, brought art leaders and funders from across the country to the Colorado History Museum for four days of workshops, networking, and art tours throughout the city. Anderson arrived from New York fresh off their first writing residency and in the midst of work on their autobiography “Shooting Range.”
Anderson, who identifies as transgender, has been working on the book since moving to New York in 2011, when they started their writing career while living in a homeless shelter. Driven by the belief that their story had to be heard, Anderson moved to the city with little to their name and the idea they wanted to be a writer—even without a great deal of writing experience.
Things started slow. They spent two months in the shelter system while scouring for a place to accept their Section 8 voucher. But operating with little means was nothing new.
“I’ve always been low-income,” says Anderson. “Homelessness has always been in my family.” Their family comes from Los Angeles, where Anderson lived the first 30 years of their life dealing with intermittent homelessness and sometimes relying on food pantries to eat. Their brother and sister, too, struggled with homelessness and life on the streets.
A chance encounter with famed rapper Tupac Shakur first set Anderson’s sights on a career in television. Tupac accompanied his goddaughter, Tashauna Howard, to Anderson’s high school prom in 1996, prompting Anderson to ask about opportunities for work in Hollywood. Tupac directed them to the production company Look Here Productions, and by the summer of 1996 Anderson was interning for the production company and working their way up the ladder.
Everything changed one night in early July in the summer of 1997, when Anderson was just 19. In the early mornings hours, Anderson was violently assaulted and robbed by a man who held them in his car, handcuffing them and shoving a gun down their throat. Anderson escaped, but after being beaten, shot through the arm and left with a severe case of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
“The assault I endured was pretty brutal,” Anderson says. “I still have flashbacks and things like that...paranoia, depression once in awhile.”
While the assaulter was eventually convicted for another crime and put behind bars, Anderson was left reeling in the aftermath. They isolated themselves, internalizing their trauma and struggling to maintain forward momentum. They found themselves regularly searching for a place to sleep, still working in the entertainment field but feeling there was little progression.
“PTSD affects everybody differently, but for me specifically...what happened to me is I lost my trust. Not in humanity but just with people,” says Anderson. “Sometimes you give up, you don’t want to live anymore because of the pain.”
It was in one such period of instability that they were hired as an assistant to writer and director Stanley Bennett Clay. Anderson lived with Bennett Clay, helping him produce SBC Magazine, one of the first ever gay black magazines. Looking back, Anderson sees the experience as part of a turning point.
“He took me under his wing,” says Anderson. “I do owe him some credit. He mentored me, he guided me, and I probably picked up more from him than I realized.”
Still, change came slowly. It was years later, in 2011, when Anderson finally found the strength to put their own pen to paper and tell their story. There was no sudden revelation, no moment of the clouds breaking apart to shine a light of inspiration.
“I was getting older, feeling unfulfilled and unsatisfied,” explains Anderson. “And a little angry at myself. I wanted to feel useful again. I wanted something to be proud of.”
What they knew was uniquely theirs, perhaps the only thing, was their story. So, Anderson followed their heart to New York, facing life in a shelter and on unfamiliar streets.
“I might as well figure out how to become a writer and write my story down because I’ve always told people. But I’ve also told people and shared it with people because it was a way for me to feel a sense of normalcy.”
What they found was people who wanted to wanted to hear that story as desperately as Anderson needed to tell it. It started with the Bronx Council of the Arts, which awarded Anderson a $2,500 grant after they submitted 20 pages of their manuscript for “Shooting Range,” detailing their survival of the brutal 1997 assault and life afterward.
Soon, with constant funding applications and workshops, Anderson was finding opportunities throughout the city and country. They have now been published in several anthologies, including “Bronx Memoir Project Volume I” and
“Happy Hour: Our Lives in Gay Clubs.” They’ve received a variety of grants and scholarships, and are coming off of their first residency, which brought them back to Los Angeles.
But Anderson insists there was no secret, just a need to tell their story and the willpower to find the groups that could support their voice.
“It’s a matter of applying. But you have to be willing to put pen to paper and tell your story. It’s your story, no matter how painful or ugly it is,” Anderson says. “People judge themselves. I did that years ago. I’m finally at the point where I said ‘you aren’t going to grow or progress if you don’t share something.’”
Anderson still struggles with finances. Now living in an apartment in New York, they constantly monitor their budget, and sometimes go without. But they are not left wanting anymore.
“Given all that I’ve survived and have overcome I strongly do feel... successful. I’m poor, but I’m rich in another aspect,” says Anderson.
It was through their endurance and commitment they found themselves financing their trip across the country to Denver, networking and engaging with other writers and artists, finally able to follow their dream wherever it takes them. Money was never the barrier; all it took was the chance to find their voice.
“There is help and there’s hope, but you have to walk through those doors first,” says Anderson. “You don’t have to suffer in silence. You have to figure out a way to cope that you’re able to live with.”
Anderson has been accepted for another residency in early 2018, this time a week-long retreat in Knoxville, Tennessee. They are continuing work on their memoir, which they hope to publish within a few years. But whether the book comes in a year or ten, or even never, Anderson says they have found their happiness.
“I didn’t get any justice in my case,” says Anderson. “But in the grand scheme of things I did. He left me with a story, and I can’t stop telling it.” ■