The Sanctuaries | Washington, DC

Collective Artists

Jojo Donovan

 Photograph: Dejah Greene

Photograph: Dejah Greene

Artist Statement

I am a writer and facilitator whose work explores the creative potential uncovered when what has been forced apart is brought together – in the same poem, in the same room, in the same body. I believe in shattering binaries, troubling borders, and interrogating all claims to authoritative truth. I believe in contradiction and paradox as powerful tools for transformation. I believe in magic, where magic is defined as the creative expansion of possibility. And I believe in writing towards that magic, towards the new ways of thinking and believing and acting that become possible when old ideas are held together and cast in a new light.

In both my writing and my facilitation, I am interested in creating space for radical intimacy – space that honors the sacredness of boundaries and consent while opening the possibility of deep and transformative connection. I work to create art that envisions liberation as rooted in tenderness and accountability, that helps to build a world in which we can trust our most authentic selves to be honored, supported, celebrated, and loved. I see writing and facilitation as opportunities to create that world in miniature – within the boundaries of the poem or the workshop, we can share the raw truth we have been trained to keep buried. And the more we carve out space for self-expression and experience the power of shared vulnerability, the more we are able to see, resist, and transform those systems that seek to keep us isolated and contained.

My work is informed by my identity as a queer, non-binary trans woman. By stepping into my truth, my body has become a site of contradiction – the more I learn to hold my fullness, the less fully the world seems able to hold me. Hold as in nurture: as I’ve embraced my trans identity, spaces that once felt like home – or that at least felt neutral, safe enough to navigate freely – have become spaces of struggle, where the reality of my body and how I carry it demand constant physical and emotional defense. But also, hold as in contain: as my sense of possibility expands, as I let go of the constraints that kept me from embracing my truth, the logic of limitation and scarcity so prevalent in this world begins to lose its hold on me. So much of the oppression that defines our society depends on that logic and on our inability to dream ourselves beyond it. Dreaming is not enough, but it is vital – I view both my gender and my writing as sites for the birth of radical imagination, ways to uncover the dreams that will guide the real, gritty, daily work of getting ourselves free.

The writing in this portfolio is concerned primarily with reclamation. Reclamation of spirituality: the religion I was handed worked to sever me from my body, but I find myself crafting a new understanding that sees the spirit in the body, that treats the body as both map and destination in the search for the divine. Reclamation of gender: the struggle to find safe and affirming spaces since coming out led me to begin navigating self-expression from a place of fear, and so a main focus of my writing has been reconnecting to the sense of beauty, possibility, and self-determination at the heart of my trans identity. And, above all, a reclamation of joy. I came to the Collective while grappling with depression, navigating the aftershocks of trauma and abuse, and struggling to manage gender transition within a transphobic society. I have used my time here to write back through the muck in the direction of pleasure – to seek out and celebrate all the ways my body can feel good, and to understand my work for justice as anchored in my capacity for joy.


This poem, a collaboration with fellow Collective artist Nouf Bazaz, arose from our conversations around reclaiming joy. Both of use spoke to the pressures we face when we demonstrate our identities through our clothing - Nouf as a Muslim woman who chooses to cover her hair, and myself as a femme-presenting trans person. The poem reflects the judgments others project onto our clothing decisions (not only from bigots, but also from well-meaning "allies" who flatten us into objects of pity or symbols of courage), but is written primarily as a demonstration of the joy that drives and animates our identities.


god is a great clay bowl


I am fascinated by creation myths. This piece spilled out as part creation myth and part cautionary tale – a meditation on the power of stories, and on what happens to a community that forgets how to honor and channel that power. We have ignored too many of our most powerful stories, and we have let too many false ones go uncontained and unchallenged. We are drowning in the results.


nothing stopped the spill of his words, and no one stopped to listen.

so his stories leaked into the earth.

what no one would take time to hear the dirt gulped down.

stories do what all waters do: seek out containers. drip, ripple, splash into whatever boundaries are given.

given no boundaries, his words did what all unbound waters do: they spilled. they spread. they rose.

the dirt drank what it could, gulped until it was pregnant with story, until it grew soft and full, then joined in the spilling. each new drop a marshy birth.

the stories swelled up from the earth. became puddles, became streams, became rivers, became flood. all through the night, he spoke. nothing stopped the spill of his words. no one stopped to listen. and so all through the night, the water rose.

those who had not listened woke to find the old man’s stories lapping up the steps of their wooden porches. chickens, clucking angrily into damp feathers, climbed to the tops of their roosts to avoid the waves of ancient tales.

the stories mixed together. eddies of tragedy cut through the trickster’s cunning, proverbs swirled into prophecy, nursery rhymes marched to the beat of war drums. great loves crashed into great betrayals, and the difference between the two, if it had ever been known, was quickly and thoroughly forgotten. children shrieked with playful terror as they dipped their toes into epic poems, as they stuck out their tongues at the fantastic creatures who danced with their boggy reflections.

their terror grew less playful as the stories continued to rise.

taking heed from the chickens, the people began to climb. shingles splashed down into creation myths as families scrambled onto their roofs. windows cracked under the pressure of the words. no one could tell for sure whether the dark objects drifting away under the surface were heirlooms or the stories of heirlooms. no one could tell for sure which would be missed more if lost to the flood.

there was no escaping the old man’s words. there was nothing, now, to stop their spill. and so the stories spilled into the earth. and so the earth spilled them back. when the people could no longer climb, they swam. when they could no longer swim, they drowned.

we have been drowning ever since.

to my queer mothers (revisited)


The lives of other brilliant trans women – their commitment to their truths, their struggle and love and joy – made my self-discovery possible. And nothing in my life has been more joyful than that discovery. But I often catch myself understanding my trans identity only in terms of fear: fear of violence, fear of making others uncomfortable, fear of getting it wrong. This poem was written as an attempt to move beyond that fear by reclaiming my place in a lineage of queer resistance.


My mothers:
I do not know your names. 
I have been trained in smallness.
I have been trained to hollow my bones,
to scoop out my marrow and live in the cramped caves left behind.
I have been trained, so well-trained, in silence.

But I turn back to you, my mothers.
I do not know your names,
but I hear the echo of your lives in my longing.
I long for you, my mothers.

You who refused your training.
You who knew better than to be made small.
You who knew the power of ink and skin to speak when speaking was impossible.
You who spoke – who laughed, screamed, shouted, fucked, whispered, spoke, always spoke
– when speaking was impossible.

You who charged the margins electric.
They stole your homes from you.
They shoved you into corners,
and when they saw the beauty you made of those corners
they tried to steal those too.
So you threw rocks at their windows
and danced in their alleyways.

You could have been made small -
Instead you made life out of the bodies they made targets.
(Was it your bodies they feared,
or the pulsing of the life you made of them?)

And still, my mothers:
I do not know your names.

My mothers. Could I have lived the lives you lived?
I struggle enough with this one,
this life made so much more possible by your lives.
I have stepped, I have tried to step
into the truth of you, the truth of me.
I have named myself your child, your daughter, and still –

so often i am made small.
so often my shame keeps me locked inside these hollow bones.
i forget the flesh of me.
i forget the edges of my skin.
i forget what it is to live in this world.

My mothers, you knew:
In this world,
to live is to collide.

while i spend another day alone in bed,
I imagine the impact of your love.
How you threw your bodies at the world.
How you knew your beauty well enough to make it real.
How you rejected your training and became yourselves.

there is so much of myself i have yet to become.
there is so much of my own name i have yet to learn.
there is fear, so much fear,
stacked like weights on cracking, hollow bones.
a great velvet curtain has fallen from the rafters and pinned me to the stage:
soft and warm. airless. impossible to breathe.

My mothers,
i am so afraid of breathing.
i am so afraid to step into this world.
i am so afraid of the collision that would make my body real.
i am terrified to learn the edges of my skin.
i am terrified to learn where i end and the world begins – terrified
to reclaim that border, to erase that border
with the impact of a life lived fully alive.

i ache to expand as you expanded.
but the first time i wore lipstick in public,
the first man i saw pointed and laughed.
the first time i wore a skirt on a bus,
another man preached to a silent crowd about the dangers of my sins.
when i argued back,
he said he only condemned me because he loved me.

i told him he didn’t get to use that word.

My mothers, i have forgotten how to use that word.
i am so afraid of those who cannot love me
that i hide myself form those who could.
the plates of my chest could collide and birth mountains –
each day i flatten myself instead.

Teach me to love as you have loved, my mothers.
Teach me to throw my body at the world
and cherish the tenderness of every break and every bruise.
Teach me the softness of your calloused hands,
The hands that fought each day for the love they were owed
Yet never stop reaching out to hold and hold
and hold.

Hold me, my mothers.
Teach me your names.

A letter to my first-grade self


I believe in tenderness as a path to liberation – but I struggle so much to be tender with myself. This letter was a chance to practice holding myself the way I ache to be held, to give myself the forgiveness and encouragement and support I need to continue healing. More than anything, I come to writing to practice love. This is what it looks like when I practice loving myself.


Dear Jojo,

I hope you don’t mind me calling you that. I know right now you get angry if anyone calls you anything but Joseph - it’s the name you were given - and that’s okay. It’ll be another couple decades before you find your name, and I thought you might like to hear how it sounds.


It’s a good name, whether you’re ready to hear it or not. No one will tell you this, so I’ll tell you now: you’re allowed to decide what you want to be called. You’re allowed to decide how you want to be seen. How you want to be known. How you want to be named. You’re allowed to decide. And you’re allowed to take your time deciding. You’re allowed to change your mind. Every name you call yourself will be the right one, until it isn’t anymore.

Good news! You’re going to take your time deciding. You’re going to change your mind, which is one of the best things a mind can do. That might be hard for you to understand - you’re going to hear from a lot of people and a lot of places that minds are supposed to be made up. And that’s true, but not in the way the people saying it think. Minds aren’t supposed to be made up like cement, like a thing that gets one chance to spill then has to hold the shape it dries in forever and ever. Cement is a thing humans made up, and it wasn’t the best idea we’ve had. Nothing is supposed to hold one shape forever. Even the hard things are supposed to shift and change. Trust your feet - they’ve always liked walking on the grass more anyway. And when you have to walk on the sidewalk, look for the cracks: they’re the proof that even hard things shift and change.

But Joseph - I’ll call you Joseph from now on, I promise, until you ask me to call you something else - you do get to make up your mind. Over and over, in all the best ways. Make it up: invent it, create it, imagine it real. Make it up like the rules to all the best games: on the fly, as you go, as you need. Make up your mind as a container to hold your play: just enough structure to keep things fun and fair, never so much that they start making too much sense.

Make up your mind like all the best stories in all the best books are made up: it’s not about making them true - not in the yes-no- right-wrong way - it’s about making them so good you can’t put them down. You get to be your own best story, Joseph. You get to find out for yourself what’s true inside you - true in the real way, the deep-belly way, the way a story gets so good you can’t help believing it, so good you have to keep turning the pages, so good you have to find out what comes next. That’s what it means to be alive, Joseph - you get to follow the parts of you that you can’t put down. You get to make yourself up.

Like a game and like a story - I think those will make sense to you, but there’s one more way to make things up that might be harder for you to understand. That’s ok - you can tuck it way for now and come back when you’re ready. You can make up your mind like makeup, like a pretty painted face. All you know about makeup right now is what you’ve been told, and what you’ve been told is that makeup is for girls, and that you’re not a girl - and it’s not for good girls, either, it’s for girls who care too much about what they look like. I’m really, really sorry you’ve been told these things, Joseph. You would have so much fun with makeup, but you’ll believe what you’re told, and you won’t get to play that way until you’re much much older. Even after I learned about makeup - how fun it is to try on faces, to paint myself onto myself - I’ve still had a hard time letting myself play. I’m so, so sorry that you have to wait. I promise I’ll do a better job of playing, so when you get here you’ll get to have all the fun you didn’t get to have before.

But what does all of that have to do with making up your mind? Makeup is deciding for yourself how you’re going to be seen. Makeup is a choice - wear it when you want to, don’t when you don’t. Makeup is spending time with your body, and this will be hard for you to understand, but it’s okay to spend time with your body. Really, it’s okay. It’s more than okay. It’s beautiful. Makeup doesn’t make you beautiful, but it lets you play with the beauty that’s there, and Joseph there is so much beauty there in you to play with. I’m so sorry that it will take you so long to learn how to believe in your own beauty enough to play with it. I’m so sorry that I’m still struggling to learn. But good news - you’re always learning. We’re always learning. You’ll get here, and you’ll remember that you’re allowed to be beautiful, and you’ll remember that you’re allowed to play. You get to makeup your mind - you get to decide for yourself how you’re going to be seen. By yourself and by the world. Always always always, you get to choose. You get to spend time with your body. You get to be beautiful. You get to make your beauty loud, painted, pretty. Whenever you want, and only then. However much you want, and no more than that.

Three more quick things on makeup: it’s not just for girls; nobody gets to tell you whether you’re a girl or not; and whether you’re a girl or boy or something else, you don’t need to spend so much time worrying about whether you’re a good one. It will be a long time before you understand this, and that’s okay. Tuck it away for now. Learn about seeds instead, how big beautiful things come out of tough little nuts. Boys and girls - that’s a tough little nut, but there’s something big and beautiful waiting to find its way out of it. Out of you. Look at flowers and you’ll start to understand.

Learn about your bones too. How they hurt a little, when you grow, but how you still want to grow. I won’t tell you whether you end up growing to be 6′6′’ like Michael Jordan and your cousin Matt, but I’ll tell you there are other things that will hurt, bone-deep. Some of those hurts will mean you’re growing, and other ones will just mean you’re being hurt. It’s confusing, I know. I’m sorry it will take so long to learn how to tell the difference. What I can tell you is this: if it hurts, it matters. If it hurts in your bones, it really matters. Listen to what hurts. It means your body has something to tell you. And you’re allowed to listen, Joseph. It will be hard for you to understand - I’m so, so sorry for how hard it will be to understand - but you’re allowed to listen. The way you listen to mom and dad, to your teachers, to the priest at Mass, to the words in the books - you’re allowed to listen just as hard to yourself. You’re allowed to listen to your body. You’re allowed to listen to your bones.

And Joseph – I forgive you for all the ways you won’t listen. I forgive you for all the hurts that just hurt. I forgive you, and I’m sorry, and I’m so proud of you, so so proud. Because even though you’ll learn not to listen, even though so much will hurt, even though you’ll spend so much time locked up tight inside yourself to hide from yourself, you’ll get here. You got here. You’re going to remember, Joseph. You’re going to listen to the wrong ideas, you’re going to try so hard to make up your mind like concrete, you’re going to try so hard to freeze yourself where you’re spilled - and still, you’re going to remember. You’re going to remember what’s already there, bone-deep. You’re going to make up your mind. The seeds are planted. They’re going to grow. Your games are waiting to be played. Your stories are waiting to be told. Your lipstick, too - even that’s waiting for you. You’re going to make up your mind. You’re going to love what you make up.

I love you,


The Sanctuaries