Local Meets Global: Simone de Bloomfield on Africa, Pittsburgh Weather & The Police
Simone de Bloomfield spoke with us today about her pen name, her nomadic childhood, and some of her creative inspirations.
Keystone Statement: Welcome! Thanks for taking time to sit down with us today.
Simone: Thanks for having me! Sitting is actually what I do most, if not best. Writing when I’m doing yoga doesn't really work.
KS: Not really the juices you want flowing then, but your chair pose is probably pretty good!
S: Anything that lengthens the spine is good in my book. I think Americans in general need that, and no, my chiropractor is not paying me to be here.
KS: Good to know. It's always refreshing to hear an honest endorsement.
S: Some might prefer poetic insult, but I promised to go beyond satire today.
KS: You did, and we’re excited. So tell us where your pen name comes from.
S: This is actually my real name. I’d produce my driver's license, but I left it in my unmarked vehicle.
KS: I guess we'll have to take your word for it. Did you say unmarked car?
S: I did, but I probably shouldn't have. Can you take that part out?
KS: Sorry, this is journalism. We are on the record. What you say is what will forever be noted.
S: It’s okay, I’ll explain.
KS: Just give us a teaser and we'll come back to it if we have time.
S: Well, it's my secret side business.
KS: Secret side business! I can’t wait. So we are here with the authentic Simone… should I use the French pronunciation?
S: Either is fine. I grew up with the French—”Si” like yes in Spanish and shorter on the 'o’...
KS: See-mun. Simone. I see the difference.
S: Almost. Most people don't make the French connection right away, especially because of the South African accent.
KS: I’ve been wondering about that. There wasn't much French influence in South Africa...
S: No, there wasn't, but my family needed a place to go during the First Congo war. My mom had a sister in Cape Town—also named Simone, after my great-grandmother.
KS: So it's a family name.
S: Very much so.
KS: A quick Google search says there's a Bloomfield, South Africa. What a coincidence we have one in Pittsburgh too!
S: Who would have thought? But that's actually when I decided to adopt the surname, about six years ago. I was newly divorced, having just moved to the US...Being essentially native to France and two African countries, it got confusing trying to explain where I was from…
KS: I can imagine.
S: So instead of just lumping my countries of origin all together, not to mention my family’s countries of origin, and saying “Europe and Africa” like they're nations themselves and not the rich, culturally diverse continents that they are, I decided to kind of just start over.
KS: Embrace the present.
S: Exactly. I’ve lived in three Bloomfields now, and they are the environments that birth my words... Not that I’ll never talk or write about my history—immigration is just not really small talk material around most Americans.
KS: Neither is divorce, I imagine.
S: You’d be surprised!
KS: So what happened in Bloomfield, New Jersey?
S: You know what they say, “what happens in…” Let’s blame it on the weather.
KS: In true Pittsburgh fashion. It's surprisingly sunny today!
S: Right? I saw the blue sky and thought, I’d better go outside. Did you hear the Pens are playing?
KS: So tell us how you got into writing.
S: No one’s ever asked me before… I don't feel like I'm far enough along in my career or creative process to be asked that. But I was always a reader—you know, books were kind of my escape from the tumultuousness of childhood… With a book, you can take friends with you wherever you go.
KS: That sounds kind of sad.
S: It was hard, leaving friends behind and not knowing what the new place would be like. Doesn't everyone go through that at some point in their lives though? It's just different when you're young. My mother and aunt made sure I always had something to read, and would challenge me with stories that went a little beyond my level. I think they knew I’d need it to make sense of everything that was happening.
KS: You mean the war in the Congo, or Apartheid?
S: Apartheid technically ended five years before we got to Cape Town. I don't know as much about it as I probably should. As a kid you're kind of oblivious to human rights, especially when your best friends are fellow refugees and your family tries to shield you from the violence... In some ways I didn't know that life could be or was supposed to be anything different, but it’s hard to watch your parents worry and argue over things that other families take for granted, like...
KS: Like citizenship.
S: Yes, and having a home to go back to, a place where you have roots, where you don't feel like you're just visiting all the time. I love my cousins, and I have some wonderful memories from South Africa, so I would never say I wish my life had been somewhere else.
KS: I saw a Parts Unknown episode once about a Cape Town market, so I have this image of it being a really diverse and beautiful city. LOL!
S: It is! I don't know what all Anthony Bourdain said, but it's taken its time to evolve, like any major city. My mother and I would go to the market once a week, every Wednesday. That and whenever I ate at a school mate’s house kind of gave me a peek into the landscape. Maybe I should write more stories about that.
KS: You must. So was there a point where you said, this is it: I’m going to be a writer?
S: It still feels like a horrible experiment. It doesn't pay the bills, and some days you just wonder if you have anything to say at all that no one else has said before in a more interesting or thorough way, but I am here, and I observe. Past writers were reacting to their time, and now I can react to this one, in this moment. It kind of goes back to being new in a city where you realize, I have this unique lens, you know—people see my skin color and they assume one thing, but it's nice to surprise them and say, no, actually, I don't really know about your multicultural American experience. Tell me more.
KS: Or they assume you're from Europe.
S: Yes! I get the British question at least twice a week. That, or I'm Australian.
KS: Accent recognition is really an acquired skill. So where is your favorite place to write in Pittsburgh?
S: I don't know if I have a favorite yet. There's this little diner… wait, are you going to publish this too? I can't tell you all my secret spots! (laughs)
KS: She enjoys hiding.
S: Call it leftover trauma: There's nothing illegal about it. I will say I love coffee shops, but just for the smell. If I order anything but green tea, things start to sound sort of manic.
KS: Coffee is one of those contentious subjects.
S: It's not for everyone, but Pittsburgh has some great roasters. I'm actually sad at the moment that 21st Street Coffee’s landlord forced them out of their original strip district spot.
KS: Really? I hadn't heard about that.
S: Our entrepreneurs really deserve better. 21st Street is adapting, because the owners are awesome—resilient is the word—but they just had a fantastic working space.
KS: So you write satire, you sit—second to yoga, and you care about the economy.
S: Someone has to.
KS: Do you do any other kind of writing? You mentioned stories...
S: It’s all unpublished.
KS: I heard you debuted some poetry late last year.
S: Poetry comes to me mostly when I’m conflicted, or irritated by election cycles.
KS: I'm sure your background makes for some nuanced reflections.
S: I suppose, but I think most Pittsburghers can appreciate how complex it is navigating life between worlds. You're such an immigrant-friendly city.
KS: That's what we strive for!
S: Thank you. It really has felt like home.
KS: So you're planning to stay, or are other Bloomfields calling?
S: For now, I’m happy. It's too soon to say I’ll retire here, but it's a delightful city.
KS: Which you observe from your unmarked car.
S: Yes, my Honda hybrid, to be exact.
KS: I wouldn't expect anything less from a progressive Pittsburgh poet! We're not going to get you in trouble with the police are we?
S: Doubtful, since we've been collaborating.
KS: Collaborating? Can you expound on that?
S: Only because it's part of the city's initiative against gender discrimination.
KS: We are perhaps not as progressive in promoting women as we are in local agriculture. When did this collaboration begin?
S: A couple of years ago. A prominent local...leader—sorry, I have to be discreet, it was part of the agreement—he harassed me and a few of my coworkers at a bar, not realizing who he was messing with. Instead of going nowhere with complaints to authorities, we brainstormed a broader effort to change things.
KS: This sounds oddly exciting.
S: It's an extremely dangerous operation.
KS: Tell us more—that is, if it won't compromise your cause.
S: I think awareness is a necessary component of change, so I’ll explain what we’ve already done in phase one. Phase two is underway, so… let's see. It's not quite Charlie's Angels, but I and a few women—we train everyone first, then we create online personas. Once a man starts flirting with us—he has to be in Pittsburgh. We ignore the rest...
KS: That doesn't seem fair...
S: You won’t think that in a minute! He must initiate it—otherwise our evidence is invalid.
KS: So you bait and wait.
S: For really sad cases we escalate to in-person interactions. There's another facet, which is where the police come in. Say they have a target suspect in the community, someone who’s been reported by multiple women in multiple contexts.
KS: Which they know through...
S: We’re talking beyond Missed Connections on Craigslist, although we do mine there for potential victims. The police manage anonymous online forums. When women don't have enough evidence to charge a dude for harassment in the workplace, they call us, then we go in to investigate.
KS: So you swipe right on serial sexists?
S: Yes. Figuratively speaking, and on purpose. Our response times are rapidly improving.
KS: And then what?
S: We go on dates and collect data.
KS: This is… Wow. Go on.
S: I wish I could tell you specifics, but... perpetrator privacy.
KS: What's the most dates you’ve had with one guy?
S: Oh we never go out more than once. We’re in, we're out, we got our facts.
KS: And what are you looking for, exactly?
S: It's a basic questionnaire to report afterwards: sliding scale stuff, simple measures. Like how condescending is his tone when he asks you questions? How many times does he comment on your physical appearance vs. how many times does he ask about your job, education, or hobbies?
KS: Hmm, I bet I could come up with a few.
S: How long does he wait before inviting you home? How many other women's names are in his phone?
KS: Really? You keep track of all this?
S: Of course not! I just made this up for the interview.
KS: Oh man!
S: You think the police have time for that? They're too busy tryna keep men and women from murdering each other. They can't invest in subtleties. Isn't that the community’s job?
KS: Subtle or not, you make a fair point.
S: Goodness, I really had you going.
KS: You can take a girl out of satire, but you can't take the… Guess we’ll have to delete that part then.
S: Oh but you can't! It's journalism...
S: I hope our readers forgive us.
KS: I was really starting to get paranoid about my dating apps. Anything else in your creative future we can look forward to?
S: We’ll see where the winter takes me… I have a few projects going, poetry and otherwise.
KS: Well, let us know what you come up with. Always a pleasure.
S: I will. Thanks for the chat. It's been lovely!
END OF INTERVIEW.