Guyana born, New York bred and in Toronto today, Letticia Cosbert is a digital curator and poet who’s redefining how we understand cultural labels

Letticia Cosbert is a writer, poet and digital curator who was born in Guyana, but left as a baby to live in New York. She grew up in Albany and spent her entire youth there, splitting summers between Toronto and Brooklyn. Now permanently in Toronto, Letticia holds a Master of Arts from the University of Western Ontario and is an avid knowledge-seeker, thought leader and activist.

Always challenging the significance of cultural labels and exploring the influence of artistic expression, Letticia shares her passion for speaking up, standing out and staying strong.

Read our full interview with Letticia now:

  1. How often, if at all, do you get to go back to your various home destinations?

Well, when I was 12-years-old, I went to spend some time with family in Guyana. It was my first time returning since I was a baby, and I loved it so much I ended up staying for a-year-and-a-half! My parents were very supportive and left me in good hands, of course.

Guyana is a really special place because of, well, colonization. I learned so much about my family’s ancestry, which happens to include Dutch, Indian, Indigenous, and Chinese heritage. I visited the Amazonia, swam in rivers, celebrated Diwali every year, climbed waterfalls, ate SO much food, and had some really beautiful, transformative experiences, many of which I cherish to this day.

As for New York, I go home every year to visit family and to hang out with my brother. He lives in New Jersey but he takes a day off work, drives to the city, and we spend the day visiting galleries, eating West Indian food and driving around Brooklyn. Hanging out with my brother is my favourite – we have this new tradition where we get a small tattoo together (different tattoos, of course – we’re not nerds!) and I look forward to it all year.

  1. On your website, you talk about how you are “confused” by cultural labels. What do you mean by this?

I think that more people are now aware of the nuances and complexity of labels, and being a Black woman is no exception. It may seem like a straightforward title but, for me, being a Black woman is inclusive of my West Indian/Caribbean heritage, which, as I’ve shared above, is multiracial, multiethnic and multicultural. I’m still trying to figure out how all of these identities work in tandem with one another, but for now I’m just super proud of myself and happy that I’ve made the space for these considerations and conversations with other Black women – whatever that means for us.

  1. What traditional and cultural aspects of your upbringing have you brought with you to Canada? Why do you think these aspects have resonated and stayed with you?

So many. One side of my family is very West Indian, and I don’t think I can even explain what that means – other West Indian people know what I’m talking about. The idiosyncrasies of Caribbean culture is really beautiful and, to me, sacred. I’ve kept that reverence for the culture and I expect I will always carry it with me. The other side of my family is American and from them, I have a clearer sense of our family history and I also cherish those memories and traditions.

Photo by: Paul Miller.
  1. Have you always been comfortable with the traditional and cultural aspects discussed above? What has your journey to acceptance looked like?

Definitely not. Like many POCs, I was often ridiculed for being different and constantly told by people, both irl and in the media, that I was less than. I spent many years, especially in university, trying to shrink myself and blend in as much as possible. I wanted to be undetectable, and sometimes that meant eating sandwiches when I really wanted rice and peas, for example. It’s difficult to map out what that journey looked like, especially since I am still learning and unlearning so much, but I now understand how valuable my culture is – both to myself and to those who are outside.

  1. You recently graduated with an MA in Classics, specializing in erotic Latin poetry. What lead you to pursue this avenue of graduate education?

I know this always seems like a remarkable field of study but to me it was very, um, unremarkable. In my first year of university I took a course in Epic. We read Gilgamesh, The Iliad, The Odyssey, and The Aeneid. I LOVED every moment of it. I was enrolled as a poli sci major, and coming from the U.S., I underestimated how unprepared I was to learn Canadian politics and history. It was an easy decision to just change my major to Classics. I had a meeting with the instructor and I asked her, point blank, “How do I become you?” She outlined the entire thing for me, and that summer I signed up for intro Latin and Greek and never looked back.

Things get a little more complicated after that, but I made it through undergrad, took some time off, and then eventually began graduate studies. Anyone who knows me will tell you how wild my interests are, and I went into grad school open to everything. Though I had originally planned on specializing in numismatics (coins), I fell in love with Latin poetry, especially the love elegies. They’re so special because they aren’t all about love, and they aren’t necessarily erotic. They’re actually quite complicated and have an extraordinary amount political potency. OK, I should probably stop nerding out now.

  1. What was one lesson that you learned throughout your Master’s that you think you’ll carry with you throughout the rest of your life?

Wow, what a great question. Those who have post secondary education know how weird grad school is, and it is even weirder when you always need to contend with being the only POC in the room. I spent so much of my academic career feeling inadequate to my peers, especially those who were white men. I’m a Leo, so I’ll be frank with you: My performance in grad school was nothing short of excellent. I leaned in and exposed the mediocrity of many of my peers. I truly embraced my potential and creative ability throughout those two years and that success has manifested in so many ways. My lesson? Just one win will change your whole outlook on life.

  1. Since graduation, you’ve reinvented yourself as a non-academic essayist, poet and digital curator. What types of projects does your professional brand lead you to work on?

I currently work for a multi-disciplinary arts organization, where I manage the digital programs. I really love my job because it allows me to work with artists that create in various mediums. I make a conscious effort to seek out artists of colour whose work is politically and socially engaged, and I’m so grateful for the opportunity to connect with and learn from these folks. My most recent project was a digital publication, where I asked various people to share their experiences with, and their relationships to, death. I’m super proud of the result – there are interviews with parents, journal entries, experimental obituaries and I even wrote a small piece about the intersection of death and class. Shameless plug: koffler.digital/lesprit.

Ephemera Magazine cover. Photo by: Maegan Fidelino.
  1. Your writing has been published in Sophomore Magazine and Ephemera Magazine, to name a few. What themes do you like to explore in the work you create? Why?

My writing tends to be very personal, because the writing process, for me, is very much an opportunity to work through various ideologies. That’s a really broad place to start from, but it works for me to keep my options as open as possible. I like to write about things that I have experience with, and I like to draw connections – that’s just how my brain works and I’m always looking for allusions. I’m also very interested in language (I’m still a classicist at heart), and I’m experimenting with ways to push linguistic boundaries – though, I don’t often share this type of work with the public. Maybe one day!

  1. You consistently share your journey with mental health, too. What do you hope your audiences gain from the stories you write and share about mental illness and wellbeing?

Sharing my struggles with mental health was cathartic, first and foremost. I found grad school to be the most mentally and emotionally taxing experience of my life and no one was comfortable discussing it, even though I knew we were all suffering in one way or another, and to varying degrees. After I shared that story in Sophomore Magazine about my battle with anxiety, I was really surprised by the response. I got DMs and emails from grad students all over the country and I even had some of my former professors reach out to me in solidarity. I suppose now I just hope that others will also feel motivated to share their stories and, most importantly, seek professional help.

  1. What are some of the risks you face when sharing various aspects of your journey, so openly?

Ugh, this is something I think about all the time. I’m an open book, but I’m also guarded in certain ways which you’ll probably notice by the vagueness of some of my answers throughout this. The appropriation of culture is something that I am extremely sensitive to, and I never want to play a part in handing over my culture for someone to take and repackage. I also know how much more I risk as a WOC when I share certain opinions – ones that some folks might deem “radical.” It’s a fine line, and I don’t have the answers, to be honest, but I am constantly evaluating how much of myself I’m sharing and with whom.

  1. Everyone’s version of the creative process is unique! Sometimes the process can be draining, as well as motivating. What does your creative process look like?

It’s perpetually draining, haha! My creative process is a mess, and very slow. You would not want to see my drafts when I’m writing. I always write linearly, but I create at least three or four versions of a single sentence before deciding which is best and moving on to the next. It doesn’t make any sense. Does anyone else do that? DM me please!

  1. How do you harness and manage any feelings of self-doubt, if they arise?

Oh, they definitely arise, and when they do, I just tell myself that I’m the baddest bitch, à la Katrina Laverne Taylor, and get to work.

  1. What does the Toronto art community currently do well? What does the community need to improve on?

This is a good question. I think the Toronto art community is tight knit, which is a great thing. Artists are very supportive of one another, in general, and they are also very accessible. I don’t think the same can be said for many other cities. As for improvement, the list is endless and I encourage arts organizations to reach out to artists, curators, arts workers, patrons, etc., to have productive and sustained conversations about changes that should be made and implemented regarding access, “diversity,” inclusivity, etc.  

Sophomore Magazine illustration. By: Erica Whyte.

In the months ahead, Letticia also encourages artists, activists, creatives and professionals to send her an email to connect and discuss the status of Toronto’s art community. She also advises other young creators to who are keen to enroll in a graduate career in literature and art to, “make certain you are doing it for yourself and no one else.”

For more information about Letticia and to read her work, visit letticiacosbert.com. Follow her on Instagram, as well, via @prettiletti, for “hot takes and selfies.”

The feature photo is by Jill Botting.

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