Interrupting Ritual: A Conversation with Shylah Hamilton and Vreni Michelini-Castillo
Under oak trees, on a table surrounded by two small bouquets of chamomile, I watched Shylah Hamilton, a filmmaker and fiction writer, and rapper Vreni Michelini-Castillo perform a ceremony designed to facilitate creativity and self-reflection. I listened to their thoughts on creativity, racism, and colonization–how these topics affect marginalized artists–and wondered why my life isn’t right¹.
Q: I hope you don’t mind that I took a couple of pictures?
Michelini-Castillo: We usually don’t allow pictures because this ceremony is an ancient form of the phone, of communication. In some traditions, the soul can be captured in a photograph.
Q: So I may have violated protocol?²
Hamilton: The ceremonial protocol for any tradition is “what can I bring?” and “what can I offer to you?” and “how can I help”?
Q: Why is this ceremony important?
Michelini-Castillo: What ceremony does is remind us it’s really important to be in our bodies–and not to run away from our bodies. The ceremony brings me back to that. It grounds my body. You can’t be in 30 other places when you’re in the middle of ceremony.
Hamilton: The ceremony gives me an opportunity to revere Spirit, and it always feels like home. It’s having an opportunity to let people into a space that’s kind and generous or move into a space of love and generosity, a space that’s welcoming to me. If it weren’t for Spirit, there wouldn’t be home. As colonized folks, we have to think sometimes about what we retained–we retained everything that we have because of Spirit.
Michelini-Castillo: The altar has so much power and strength–and we’ve had to hide it and enshrine it into Christianity–and so our spirituality and culture survived in the smallest of gestures, in a candle with an image of a Saint or with this plant [points to chamomile], which I grew up with. We used it when my nose was congested or as a sleep aid.
Hamilton: It’s magic.
Michelini-Castillo: Yes, magic. Chamomile looks like a weed3 but it’s resilient, strong and soft…And the altar helped us to survive oppression…Our homes weren’t fully our homes, but you could have your candle, some things that remain yours…Even though so much has happened to our people, to have this space [the altar] is really powerful.
Hamilton: This is a happy space–and when I have to combine creative practices, the best place for me…We have few things that belong to us; I have only my blood and what runs through my daughter’s blood. So the ceremony is appropriate–it’s more than appropriate, it’s necessary and perfect for the theme of the show4. It’s perfect that we’re just showing people how to be present.
Michelini-Castillo: That’s something I think about sometimes–what could happen if people were able to open their hearts from a place of gratitude and not fear?
Q: So do you believe these ceremonies are still needed today?
Hamilton: Children are growing up addicted to Molly, Adderall. We have to think about what these environmental factors do to our bodies and spirits, and the trauma, the stress being experienced by children whose parents are being publicly executed by militarized police. They need to be taught these tools more than ever.
Michelini-Castillo: These are tools of survival. It’s how we stay sane in an insane environment.
Hamilton: And we have to think of how to build new ways of survival.
1 Because it really isn’t.
2 Maybe this is the reason.
3 It’s a very beautiful weed.
4 The show was Home, California College of the Art’s first Diversity Studies Program’s exhibition. I worked at California College of the Arts, then got fired. For more information, please see 1
Rochelle Spencer is the author of AfroSurrealism: The African Diaspora’s Surrealist Fiction (Routledge, 2018), co-editor of All About Skin: Short Fiction by Women of Color (Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 2014), a member of the National Book Critics Circle, a VONA alum, a former Hurston Wright Foundation board member and current Bay Area Generations board member. She fixed her life speaking with Shylah and Vreni for this issue and with MK Chavez previously.