Life Balms

Illustrations by: Ruth Basagoitia

Content warning: Abuse, suicidal ideation.

Judnick Mayard is someone who’s both person and place, in and of herself. I associate her most deeply with Haiti (her country) and New York (her city).

While she’s one of the funniest people I know, it’s in something deeper that we find common ground: Judnick (or Nikki, depending on relation) is maybe the most honest person I know. The first time I read her 2014 essay on her complicated, abusive relationship with her mother, I was left quiet, at a loss for words. At the content of the essay, of course, but also because of who was telling this story.

In a world where black girls and women can rarely be their full selves — and especially not their most vulnerable, transparent selves — Judnick’s insistence on truth and speaking power to it is more than admirable. But to her, it’s just her MO.

Over the past year, she’s moved from New York to Denver to Los Angeles, where she now works as a freelance screenwriter (Adult Swim among her clientele). In the past, she’s worked as an event producer, a podcast host, and a freelance writer, penning everything from growing understandings on gendered, racialized labor to a conversation with Miss Tina Lawson and her daughter, Solange Ferguson.

Catch our conversation below, where we talk place, heart, and astrology. I guarantee that you’ll love her as much as I do.

Amani Bin Shikhan: So, how was your 2017?

Judnick Mayard: My 2017 was wild as hell. I moved across the country twice, from New York to Denver then from Denver to California. I’ve never lived anywhere besides New York and Haiti. It was an insane decision I made out of self-care, because I felt as though New York was literally scalping me. I was unable to discern what was real. I spent most of my days dissociating, and I was drinking at a rate that rivaled college, which was making my anxiety go through the roof. I really saw no end.

I knew I had to get my demons out and that I had to go somewhere quiet to do it. I also knew that if I ever wanted to live in New York again, I had to leave. It was probably the first time I felt remotely suicidal. I never entertained the thoughts for very long, but I did realize that all it takes is a minute. Just one minute of that frustrating feeling and suddenly your subway train seems like something else. And I realized that there’s no such thing as self-care in New York [for me]. You have to fight like hell to make it.

[James] Baldwin said that you need to be alone to learn yourself. And that’s all I needed: Space to learn myself without interference.

AB: I’m glad that you got out, but I’m so sorry you had to feel so low first. Why did you move twice? And what did it take for you to feel OK again?

JM: I moved to Denver because I wanted to live somewhere where weed was legal. My landlord in New York had let us smoke in the house for five years, and it had become so integral to my safe space that I could smoke freely. So, I decided to go see what all these white people were enjoying.

I also wanted somewhere I could go to bed at 10:30 p.m. I remember telling my friend that I was so excited to fall asleep early on a Friday, because at that point in my career, it wasn’t even a possibility. I wanted to write a book and learn how to snowboard. And I was in love with someone who lived out there. We had no plans to change our relationship, but he had told me so much about the city, I felt it would be a great place to reset.

I had said that if I hated it, I would move to LA after two months. I didn’t hate it, but LA came calling with a TV writer gig, so I bounced. The gig made me feel better about writing than I had in years, and LA was full of people I loved a lot and had known for years. By then, my lover had disappeared, and I feared Denver would always feel haunted by him. So I said to myself, I should keep it moving. I gave one city 30 years. No need to commit to any city just yet.

The only way I ever saw out of my misery — whether it was at home or racist harassment at school — was to be honest.

I just needed isolation. [James] Baldwin said that you need to be alone to learn yourself. And that’s all I needed: Space to learn myself without interference. I had my heart broken four times in five years. I needed to molt, and I needed a high of 70 every day to do it.

AB: How are you enjoying LA now? And would you live in New York again?

JM: LA is the best and the weirdest [bleep] place of all time. It’s just Florida with champagne money. The people here are just weird as hell, but I love it so much. When you live in this climate, you can’t help but be easygoing. It reminds me of Haiti. Tons of traffic, crazy people who spend way too much time alone, but also a pace that’s like, bruh, it’s 80. The day is just gon’ happen.

There’s also this perception that people here don’t hustle, and it’s laughable because people in LA not only hustle, but they make far more money off the hustle than NYC. People here work hard simply to play. LA is like, “That’s under my rate” or “I need six months to write this thing that will make me six zeros at one time.” The idea of having a dream isn’t so beaten down in LA.

I also got to be a writer out here. Not a writer for hire, but an actual writer that takes time to create and cultivate and not just pitch and deliver. That was invaluable. I wrote on an Adult Swim show that’ll be out next year, and I’m working on a screenplay and a TV show. I’m working on short stories and essays, too.

There’s this insane beauty in honesty because it demands vulnerability and courage.

In NYC, it’s about having a plan. I would definitely live at home again. I never planned to live in NYC full time as an adult. As a teen, I always planned to split my year in Europe, but now I’m not concerned. My whole family lives in NYC and probably always will. I can go back whenever I want.

AB: Congrats, boo! So much of what I identify you with is tied to place — Haiti, New York. How do you grapple with place as identity versus place as something that’s actively keeping you alive or killing you?

JM: I think I finally learned that my identity was all that I held dear, rather than my presence in a place. New York kinda tricks you when you’re a native, because it’s so catered to you. It’s like latex. In your hood alone, you have everything you could ever need. And so your identity becomes about your literal placement. I remember when I moved to Bed-Stuy — and even when I moved to Boerum Hill — I felt like my identity as a New Yorker had changed. The city is so segregated and classist, even with all it denominations.

Place is only an incubator for identity, not the foundation. As diaspora children, oftentimes we connect with our parents’ homes through their memories and the way it forms them, far before we even step foot in the home country. I remember Haiti the way my mom or my aunties taught me. That’s my identity.

AB: Diaspora kids often romanticize that placed placelessness, that existential purgatory. Do you find beauty in that, or are you bored by it now?

JM: I find beauty in it now because it’s settled within me. I have nothing left to prove as a New Yorker. Like, who is ever gon’ be more New York than me? I will say that when I went to move from NYC and all these people were saying that I could never, I said, “My mom moved to this crazy place alone and didn’t speak the language. She doesn’t deserve a coward as a child.”

AB: What are your life balms? The things that get you through, literally or otherwise?

JM: Chani’s horoscopes. I’m now really into spirituality and astrology. I find that my history as a Roman Catholic leads me to constantly look for outside forces and energies, but I’m no longer interested in pretending the things higher than us would be stupid enough to take human form. The universe has never needed human form to create.

I’m interested in spirituality that is not mired by the perception of humans as creators, but rather as the players in the game. That, and sitting outside drinking. I have a very love-hate relationship with drinking, because I’ve always seen it as something to do when you want to release your inhibitions about relaxing.

I remember in 2013, I went to Hawaii with my partner, and we would get sun-drunk on the beach and then walk home up this mountain to watch the sunset. That is the way I always want to feel when I’m drunk: like I have all the time in the world to let go of being serious. Not to assuage pain or hide from things.

And I love dancing and cooking. They are two things that you can’t really do while doing anything else. They will always demand your full attention. I also got back into beauty routines, ’cause they force you to sit down and shut up inside your house.

AB: What are the routines you find yourself returning to?

JM: I do an at-home facial every 10 days. I do a clay mask and steam, then I exfoliate, hydrate, and tone. I have, like, 17 masks from the plug in Koreatown. Then, I slather on the night oils.

AB: Where do you get your beauty recommendations from? And how has your understanding of beauty changed with age?

JM: Honestly, Arabelle and Ashley Weatherford of The Cut. I only trust experts, people that take it seriously and study it like science. Also, my amazing friends mail me stuff all the time, especially when they hear I’m having a hard time.

I think, for me, my idea of beauty has expanded. So much of my life before my 30s was being categorized and then staying real within those categories. I’ve always been very intentional about how I wanted to look. I don’t really have space to ask for many opinions, but being able to reprioritize what’s gonna keep changing and what is pretty much set in stone is so relieving and more expressive and creative to me. Also, I’ve accepted that I will look 16 ’til I look 42, and that’s great.

AB: When do you feel most beautiful? When do you feel most comfortable in your skin?

JM: Most beautiful is probably when it’s 90 [degrees out] and I have a light sheen and I’m outside in something sheer. I feel cleaner and more beautiful in the sun than anywhere else. I feel free to wear makeup, and I feel just as gorgeous without. It’s why I moved to California — I think black skin was created for the sun.

I only allow people I mess with to call me Judnick. People who pronounce it right and who do it because they love the name. They find it beautiful. Those are the only people that should get to say my real name. It took a long time for me to realize I didn’t hate my name — I just hated hearing it wrong.

AB: Something I love and admire about you is your dedication to truth-telling and truth-seeking. It’s something, though, that can be so draining. How do you keep finding beauty through it all?

JM: There’s this insane beauty in honesty because it demands vulnerability and courage. Sometimes one, and sometimes the other. People always love saying that they’re honest while giving you reasons as to why they lie. It’s like beauty. People love telling you what’s actually healthy, or what makes them feel great, and immediately follow up with 100 excuses as to why they can’t do said thing.

I think maybe, for me, coming from an abusive background, I see that abuse is built on lies. It literally grows and builds on lies. The only way I ever saw out of my misery — whether it was at home or racist harassment at school — was to be honest. And the way people love me for that honesty is the only thing that ever makes me feel beautiful. It means that I am real. I exist.

AB: Nikki, I [bleep] love you.

JM: I love you too, bb. But you knew that.

AB: OK, last question, and kind of a random one: How do you choose who calls you Nikki and who calls you Judnick? Is it a conscious decision?

JM: So two background things: My mother’s name is Nicole and my father’s name is Jules. In Haiti, he is called Jude; my mother’s nickname is Nikki. My name is a compound of their names. When I was little, the only people that called me Nikki were my grandma and auntie. They called me Ti Nikki, [Kreyol] for Lil Nikki.

We out here doing our best. It’s all black women can do, and it’s the hardest thing we could ever do. It’s the only reward for being real, I think.

When I got to school, kids couldn’t say my name because the Ju- is a Z sound, and the -nique accent is too heavy for an American tongue. I got sick of the kids [mispronouncing my name], so I changed it to match my best friend in third grade. Of course, this became easier than hearing people butcher my name. Everyone called me Nikki, and then everyone who wasn’t rude would call me Judnick.

But then, my family met my friends and started calling me Nikki, and it made me remember how I had that nickname from a place of love and not just from shame of people making me feel weird. So now, my family calls me Nikki or Judnick or whatever they want, but I only allow people I mess with to call me Judnick. People who pronounce it right and who do it because they love the name. They find it beautiful. Those are the only people that should get to say my real name. It took a long time for me to realize I didn’t hate my name — I just hated hearing it wrong.

AB: I’m glad that you chose what was right for you. I’m glad that you keep choosing yourself.

JM: We out here doing our best. It’s all black women can do, and it’s the hardest thing we could ever do. It’s the only reward for being real, I think.

Judnick’s Life Balms

  • Pikliz: A Haitian condiment that’s made of shredded cabbage pickled in vinegar and scotch bonnet peppers. Something about tangy, hot things really comforts me, because it makes me feel my tongue. Even the smell of it comforts me.
  • Body oil: I take about as much time to moisturize as most people take to do their makeup. There’s something about oil that reminds you to feel the muscles of your body. It’s a daily checkup for pain, for soreness, and sometimes, it’s simply beautiful to touch yourself. Reassure yourself. Feel your own skin. [Nikki’s favorite is L’Occitane’s Almond Supple Skin Oil.]
  • Eating together: Whenever I feel insane, I always want to have a big dinner that I cook for friends. It’s an incredible way of grounding and reminding yourself that your community is give and take. If you need their love, you can ask for it. And if you need to share love, they are happy to receive it. [Nikki’s favorite thing to cook is Ina Garten’s recipe for roast chicken paired with her mom’s lasagna recipe.]

Like Judnick’s thoughts? Follow her journey on Twitter and Instagram.

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Amani Bin Shikhan is a culture writer and researcher with a focus on music, movement, tradition, and memory — when they coincide, especially. Follow her on Twitter. Photo by Asmaà Bana.