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This writer on her work

September 27, 2014

Years ago, an ex (the drug dealer I dated while a student at Columbia University) told me “You ain’t goin’ out” when he overheard me talking to a friend on the phone about our plans for the weekend. I was folding our freshly washed laundry on our bed. Clothes that I’d sorted, carried down four flights of stairs, washed, dried, bagged and carried up those four flights by myself.

He sprayed himself with his Dolce and Gabbana cologne and glared at me, “You heard me, right?” I stared back at him, poker faced. He walked out without another word.

I hadn’t planned on going out. I wanted to stay home to spend time with him, or at least that was the plan until he ran his mouth. That Friday night, I made dinner then dressed up extra cute in jeans, crop top, Kangol and pumps. I made a show of it. Dancing around the apartment, I slipped a long, silver chain around my waist and looped it into my belly ring. I sipped on a glass of Grey Goose and cranberry while I checked myself out in our ceiling to floor mirror. He watched me, eyes pinched, as I got dressed and sang along to the song I had on repeat on our stereo: “It’s Friday night and the weekend’s here, I need to unwind, where’s the partay, Mr. DJ.” Then I grabbed my keys and my clutch, winked at him and bounced.

I’m one of those women. You cannot tell me what to do. I’ve always been one of those women.

***

One time, when my daughter was two, she reached for the iron I’d just finished using. I said, “No mama, that’s hot. Te quemas. Don’t touch.” In the time it took me to pull my shirt over my head, baby girl reached up and touched the still hot iron with the knuckles of her right hand. I heard the sizzle of skin on the metal. She snatched her hand back and put her knuckles into her mouth. Then she looked up at me, eyes red, the tears pooled and rolled.

“I told you it was hot,” I said, pulling her up into my arms.

“Hot, mami, hot. Owwwww” she moaned as I ran cold water over her fingers.

“You’re just like your mama, aren’t you? You just had to see for yourself what hot is.” Vasia smiled and put her head on my shoulder. Her tears dripped onto my neck.

***

I was a defiant and mischievous child. I’d climb over the rotted wood of our backyard fence into the junk yard next door though mom had told me a million times “no te quiero ver alla.” When I asked her why, she’d grit her teeth and yell, “Porque yo dije, carajo,” then she’d push me out of her way. I never listened even though I knew I’d get a beat down if she caught me. The adventure was worth it. In that junk yard, I imagined I was the female Indiana Jones (this was years before Lara Croft) and the junkyard was a jungle, the weeds that grew tall and thick were the trees, the discarded tires were indigenous ruins, the feral cats were jaguars and leopards. I was on a mission. My job was to save the world.

Adventure has always been worth whatever beat down it got me. Always.

***

However much the realm of diary-keeping has been a female experience that has often kept us closeted writers, away from the act of writing as authorship, it has mostly assuredly been a writing act that intimately connects the art of expressing one’s feeling on the written page with the construction of self and identity, with the effort to be fully self-actualized. This precious powerful sense of writing as a healing place where our souls can speak and unfold has been crucial to women’s development of a counter-experience of creativity within patriarchal culture. Significantly, diary writing has not been traditionally seen by literary scholars as subversive autobiography, as a form of authorship that challenges conventional notions about the primacy of confessional writing as mere documentation (for women most often a record of our sorrows). Yet in the many cases where such writing has enhanced our struggle to be self-defining it emerges as a narrative of resistance, as writing that enables us to experience both self-discovery and self-recovery. ~bell hooks, “writing from the darkness,” essay in remembered rapture: the writer at work

***

Someone bold and arrogant recently insisted that I will never be a “great writer” if I keep writing about my trauma. I have to get over it already, he said. I have to “sort it out,” he said. I am alienating myself from my readers, he said. I am playing victim, am a mental slave, and this is keeping me from being a “great writer.” He listed all the things I write, because, you know, I needed reminding—family secrets and incest, sexual abuse, addiction, my brother’s death. He said he’s read my work, “some of it even made me cry,” but enough is enough. I have to start writing about other topics. Only then will I be a real writer and maybe even one day a great one.

Here’s what gets me about reactions to my work: 1. Someone will always think they know you, the heart of you, the all of you, just from reading a few lines you penned; 2. There will always be an arrogant pendejo telling you what you should write & how; from my experience nine times out of ten, these people will be men; 3. No matter how hard you try, and although the praise & encouragement far outnumbers the negativity, the negative will sit in your maw, it will taste like stomach acid, you will have to process it, it will not feel good but you know that in triggers there is material so you will use it in your writing and that will be the greatest pa-la-mierda-contigo you can give to the haters…hence this blog.

I think of the writers I admire. I think of my mentors. I think of VONA, of Chris Abani, Elmaz Abinader,  Mat Johnson, Patricia Smith, Staceyann Chin, Audre Lorde, Dorothy Allison, Julia Alvarez, Junot Diaz. I think of all these great writers and how none of them became great writers by listening to people who told them what they should and shouldn’t write. They’ve all heard it.

I read somewhere that a professor in the Cornell MFA program once told Junot: “When are you going to write about real people?”

Cheryl Strayed has gotten some pretty ugly criticism for writing so much about the death of her mother. Her incredibly successful memoir Wild has been made into a movie starring Reese Witherspoon and still there are people who insist she needs to write about something else. She shared how she handles this on her FB author page: “Sometimes I’m asked how I deal with the haters. I don’t deal with them. I pity them. I don’t expect everyone to love my books. In fact, I frankly expect the opposite. (In the history of books, there isn’t one everyone loves.) But I must say I marvel at the ugliness it takes to gather one’s forces in the direction of what one loathes rather than loves–to go out of one’s way to say to a writer: YOU SUCK. So I send out a little silent non-God-connected prayer to the jackass who felt the need to share his or her jack-assed-ness with me. And then, without comment, I zap them forever from this page.”

The status has received almost 5500 likes and 200 shares.

These writers remind me of what I already know: I will continue to write lo que me da la gana because I want to, because I can, because I told you, I’m one of those women.

Trying to silence me won’t work. Trying to get me to do what you think I should do, won’t work. It didn’t work when I was a kid and my mother threatened me with violence. It didn’t work when I was with a machista who thought it was my duty to listen to him. It won’t work on my Facebook (I will delete you without hesitation) or in the comments section of a published essay. It. Won’t. Work.

My stories are mine. I will tell them however and how often I please. I thought I told you, I am one of those women. I always will be.

From → Essays, Memoir

15 Comments
  1. I love this! 🙂 I think it’s funny, too when people (men in particular) will say that you shouldn’t write “too much” about your trauma….but no one would ever say to a man “Hey, stop writing so much about war! It’s boring!” Or “Hey, no one cares about you trying to get laid! Why are all of your characters so focused on getting women!” 🙂 It’s so interesting to me how “male topics” are seen as All Worthwhile All-The-Time, but when you talk about anything having to do with emotion (aka “female topics”), suddenly that’s seen as Less Valuable. Never mind that it might be what more than half the population of the WORLD is going through….

    Le sigh. 🙂

  2. Reblogged this on Tina Fakhrid-Deen and commented:
    Vanessa Martir, keep giving, keep telling, keep being.

  3. Your stories captivate me. Keep. Sharing. Truths. Thank you.

  4. Brooke permalink

    I think you’re an amazing writer! Keep doing what you do!

  5. Ardent fan here.

    There aren’t enough derogatory words for the jackasses who think you can’t be a “great writer” unless you market to men. What arrogance makes them think their opinions are even welcome?
    Each writer decides for herself who she’s trying to reach, and each reader evaluates “greatness” by her own standards. Your work is moving, intense, important, and deeply true; I hope that you — in your own mind — recognize the greatness of that.

  6. kia tillman permalink

    I found your blog last week via xojane and I am a fan! I appreciate and respect how honest you are about yourself and your experience. I am not a writer, but I am married to one and I love how great writers are able to articulate the difficult topics and make them beautiful by virtue of just getting them out, so to speak. Keep writing what YOU want to write.

  7. yes!

    you. are. amazing.

    and you remind me how to be amazing too.

  8. Corinthia Resendez permalink

    You are amazing please keep sharing. You’re so brave to be so honest. I am deeply humbled by your writing that from such pain can come such beauty. Thank you for sharing your gift.

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