*An essay a week in 2017*
I encountered this poem on the train this week:
I’ve read this poem before. I read all of the poems in the Poetry in Motion series when I’ve seen them in my travels across the boroughs. But this one I read with new eyes. I thought about the #52essays2017 challenge and I thought about the first time I actually saw myself in literature.
I was a Latina (Hondureña and Boricua) from Bushwick, Brooklyn and had seen my hometown buckle under the weight of the crack epidemic. I left to get away from my mother and pursue an education that I thought (hoped?) would save me. I didn’t realize that it would also fuck me up in so many ways. It was in Wellesley, MA that I learned the ugly faces of racism and classism. I learned solitude when I realized that I wouldn’t fit in and stopped trying to. I found solace in literature. One day, I was all of fifteen, sitting on the mezzanine in the boarding school I attended. I had my nose in a book, as I always did, when an English professor came up to me and said, “You should read this, Vanessa.” He handed me Julia Alvarez’s How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents. My first thought was, “Alvarez. That’s a Latino name.” I devoured that book in two days. For the first time, an author I read looked like me and talked like me, and I could relate to her characters and their struggles in white America. For the first time, I thought: “Maybe I can be a writer…”
I was a voracious reader, and though I could relate to the characters and the ways in which they lived their lives and coped, there was always something missing. Those faces didn’t look like mine. Their neighborhoods didn’t look like mine. They didn’t speak two languages. They didn’t get called gringa and Americana when they went to their parents’ motherlands. They weren’t called spic and nigger here in the U.S. I kept reading looking for something that looked and felt more like me…
I wanted to know myself…
Don’t we all want to know ourselves?
I didn’t have the language then but what I was ultimately getting to was this: Representation matters.
My love for all things personal writing began early. I read the Little House on the Prairie books over and over as a kid. In college at Columbia University, St. Augustine’s Confessions was the first required book in my core Literature Humanities class that resonated with me. I wanted to know who this daring man was. I ate his story up. I didn’t yet know that his is considered the first memoir in history.
My senior year I did an independent study where I read and analyzed Esmeralda Santiago’s When I Was Puerto Rican. As I read, I wondered: “Can I do this too? Can I write a book about my life? About being raised by lesbians at the height of the crack epidemic in Bushwick, Brooklyn?” Reading a book by someone who looked like me and came from where my ancestors came from made me think that I could. Twenty years later, that’s exactly what I do–I write about my life.
The literature I read throughout much of my academic life was very white and very male. It wasn’t until my junior year in high school that I learned that my people do write and read and have rich histories.
As a woman of color who grew up in Bushwick, Brooklyn, left at 13 to attend boarding school in rich, white, Wellesley, Massachusetts, then went on to Columbia University, I’ve been told countless times, both directly and subliminally that my voice is less than and that my stories don’t matter. I was told that when everything I read was largely white and male, and even the few women that were sprinkled in were white women. The history I learned was western and white, even Egypt was presented as not really being black though it’s part of Africa and clearly a black nation. I did not learn that there are pyramids throughout the Americas, that my indigenous ancestors had written language and intricate civilizations.
When I went to college at Columbia University, I took every Latino Literature and History class I could, and in my junior year I joined the fight for Ethnic Studies because I wanted to study the immigrant experience. I wanted to know myself.
That hunger is still with me. I still seek it out in the stories I write, the stories I read and see on the screen and on stage.
I’m not the only one who’s spoken on this. In an October 2016 Op-Ed, John Leguizamo wrote:
Without a past to glorify and uplift you, how do you propel yourself into an unknown, tenuous future?
I’m only an amateur historian. But I am an expert on my own life and career. So to bring it around to more contemporary slights: Hispanics are the most underrepresented ethnic group in film and television. “Saturday Night Live” has only just hired its first Latina comic. Are we really to believe there are so few funny Latinos? We are similarly marginalized in business and corporate life.
This exclusion sends a painful message to every Latino child about how he is seen and judged. Latino people face a double challenge: to create our own positive self-image while battling against the way the broader society portrays us. Without textbooks in schools that do justice to our contributions to the making of America, and without media representation expanding to include more Latin faces and voices, we are vulnerable to a demagogue like Mr. Trump claiming that we are all “drug dealers,” “rapists” and “criminals.”
In an NBC news interview with Lin Manuel Miranda and his dad Luis, Lin Manuel, whose “Hamilton” has transformed Broadway and American theater, shared that Alexander Hamilton’s quintessentially American story resonated with him because: “When I realized he came from the Caribbean I said ‘I know this guy — he’s you, he’s the taxistas (taxi drivers) that became congresspeople, he’s a version of the story we know.”
I think about my first novel, Woman’s Cry, about a young woman in college at Columbia while struggling with her love for a drug dealer from Washington Heights. That book, because it was and wasn’t about the hood, was about the lure of the streets and the familiar, was labeled hip hop literature, and thus relegated to the tables of the vendors on 125th Street and 149th Street and 3rd Avenue in the Bronx.
The personal is political.
Because our lives matter.
Because we’re told to forget and move forward, get over it, move on, but that does nothing to heal us.
Because in story you, we, can take back our power.
Because I did this thing, the Relentless Files, an essay a week in 2016, and I saw how much it helped me confront my ego and push back on the self-sabotage of perfectionism; & I know how it helped me open up to my story and make connections I hadn’t made before, and flex this writing muscle that requires, no, demands so much attention to stay in shape.
I believe that our stories matter. All of our stories. Stories of growing up in Bushwick, Brooklyn when it was a pile up rubble AND growing up in the ‘burbs with its greenery and great schools AND growing up in the montes of Lares, Puerto Rico, wherever it is you saw and the experiences you had, they matter, you matter, your stories matter, and I want to read them. I want to read about how you sang freestyle songs at the top of your lungs from your perch on the stoop of your building, and how you learned all the choreography to Menudo’s Subete a mi Moto. I want to hear about how hard it was to be raised by lesbians. I want to read about the storefront Pentecostal church you grew up attending with the name of the church in calligraphy over the door and the women with their waist length hair, worn in a long braid down their backs, their skirts to their shins, and the men in their guayaberas, bibles in the crooks of their arms, their noses up in the air so as to look down on you. I want to read all of it. About your first kiss and the girl who broke your heart and how you got her back by hooking up with her best friend. Tell me your stories. Write them. Why? Because this is how we “re-write the script.” This is how we take back our stories. How we say: “Look, I’m here” and contrary to what that fool Trump says, my tios aren’t rapists and drug dealers, and my tias aren’t criminals and we do in fact contribute so much to this country, in so many ways. It’s through our stories that we show who we are, that we rewrite the narrative. We write ourselves.
Latinos are already doing it in various mediums. Linda Nieves Powell with her Latina Icons tribute and her plays including Yo Soy Latina; Alicia Anabel Santos and Renzo Devia with their AfroLatinos: The Untaught Story Documentary; John Leguizamo, Junot Diaz, the poets at the Nuyorican in LES and Capicú in Brooklyn and Lunada in The Bay. #52essays2017 is my way…
I had a dream recently where I was in my mother’s garden. It looked like it did when I was a kid–I saw the chipped red paint on the fence, the plum tree with its crooked lean, the dilapidated fence that separated the yard from the junkyard next door. I was standing there, looking around when a hawk swooped down and circled me. Then she perched on a low branch of the plum tree and stared at me. I stared back. We were staring when I woke up, filled with awe at her and her visit.
I created a video this week for the #52essays2017 challenge. I’m always pushing myself to be more vulnerable, more open, more willing to put myself out there. Why? Because this is who I am. Because I’m tired of hiding and shrinking myself. Because I think this work is so very important.
As I was writing it up, I thought of a writer who showed up to my free five hour Writing Our Lives Workshop the other day. This writer rolled her eyes and said she’d worked through all her shit, all this stuff we write about. She said she didn’t feel attached to her trauma, yet she kept going back to that poetry book she wrote that was pulled by the publishing company when her half sister threatened to sue. This is the thing: there is always a different way to reflect on our lives, to explore and mine our memories for story. I don’t want to not to be able to reflect and remember, even if I’ll be called or considered a victim for doing it, like my sister did on Christmas. This is how I write my narrative, the script of my life. That power is in my hands, no one else’s.
There’s always a writer in this free class who comes in unwilling or unable to learn. This writer sits in the front row. This writer is here to challenge me. She is here to remind me of why I do this work, to stress the importance of it, even if you don’t see it. This writer represents imposter syndrome and that cualquiera who wrote to me years ago to tell me that I had to stop writing “these sob stories.” This writer represents my mother and my sister and those people who question why I do what I do, who don’t respect it or me. This writer is there to remind me that people like this exist and there’s nothing I can do to control that or them. What I can do is dig my feet and heart deeper into the work, and keep doing it and believing it and being fuckin’ relentless.
I told the writer that if her writing felt boring and “not visceral” as she described it, that didn’t mean she had reflected on all of it and milked it for everything it had. Writing for me isn’t about exploiting my experiences, what has and still aches. Writing to me is about reflecting and learning, and yes it’s part of my healing journey. I don’t think about the destination or that moment or place when I will feel completely healed. When she described herself as having worked everything out, I didn’t feel any authenticity in the statement. Instead, it felt rigid and dismissive. It felt like she was avoiding and trying to numb. To me, someone who is healed doesn’t come into a class closed and unwilling to learn.
I don’t want to be so sure about everything. I want to always have questions and be open to a variety of answers. I want to always care enough to keep digging and looking at the world and my traumas through the eyes of someone who is always evolving.
A writer chimed in and encouraged the resistant writer to read more. I thought of James Baldwin’s quote: “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive.”
I’m writing this at The Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota. On the flight here I was seated in the middle seat, which I hate. I prefer to sit at the window. I always have. Why? As a kid looked for heaven in the clouds. I remembered that in all the images of God in heaven, he is surrounded by clouds. Heaven rests in clouds. God rests in clouds. So when I traveled with my family, to Puerto Rico and Honduras, and that time I traveled to Turkey with a dance group when I was 13, I searched for heaven in the clouds from my window seat. And I was always disappointed when I didn’t see heaven with its golden gates, the angels with their white gowns and glimmering wings. I stopped searching for heaven in the clouds long ago. Still, the perspective from above the clouds is glorious. Truth is: I like to know how far off the ground I am. I like to see when we’re taking off and landing.
I always get anxiety before a trip. My chest tightens so I have to use my nebulizer since my albuterol inhaler is useless in these moments. I make lists of what I need. I always overpack, no matter how I try not to, though I’m getting better at leaving things… It’s the flying that gets me. The hulk of metal hanging out in the great expanse of sky, traveling at hundreds of miles per hour. The reality of it is both frightening and miraculous. I am grounded knowing the earth is below, the mountains and the rivers and pastures and cities and towns; the blanket of ice I peeked at over my neighbor’s shoulder. Seeing the earth from the window seat reminds me that no matter how high I fly, I will make it back down. I will land.
And isn’t that a metaphor for the work I do mining my life. I pull back the camera and zero in on these moments. Nostalgia creeps in when I remember our trips to the beach when I was growing up. The days long preparation that included a trip to Western Beef, the seasoning of all that meat, ribs and beef chunks and chicken legs, the smell of sofrito and comino filling the apartment and the hallways of our three story building. Joy and sadness inevitably fill my chest when I remember how different things are now, that my Millie is gone and so is my brother…but I also know that no matter where I float in my memory, I will land, in this life, more aware of how these stories have shaped me and continue to shape me. What to do with that awareness is up to me…
This weekend I was reminded that poetry is image. What images do we go to when we think of love and loss and hope and desire. What images do we go to when we describe the people we love and/or have hurt us.
I think of the faculty reading tonight. I remember a poem by Elmaz Abinader about work and labor, and how it starts with her in a pedicure chair and ends with her talking about her father and his shoe business, how he spent his life at people’s feet. I think of Chris Abani’s reading. Chris spoke of the South African poet Keorapetse Kgositsile. When describing him and his compassionate heart, he told us two stories. Once they facilitated a poetry workshop at a prison in South Africa. This is the prison where the hardened criminals were incarcerated. In the courtyard where they were reading, there were four men in steel cages that the poets were instructed not to look at or talk directly to. These were the lifers. The hardest, most violent, most dangerous. The cages were meant to protect the poets, or so they were told. At one point during the event, Keorapetse Kgositsile could not be found. They searched high and low but found nothing. They were worried for his safery. Where could he be? He was later found seated cross legged in front of one of the cages, one hand slipped between the steel bars of the cage, he was quietly reading poetry to the caged man who was now sobbing.
The next story is of a reading Chris and Keorapetse participated in. There was a poet who went on and on for more than twenty minutes, crying out repeatedly “Oh mother Africa.” At one point, in a pause in the poem, Keorapetse, in his seventy-plus-year whisper that the entire audience could hear, said: “I can’t believe Mandela spent 27 years in prison for this!” The audience roared with laughter. I marveled at Chris’s ability to show the layers of what it means to be human.
I thought of the images I go back to when I think of my brother. The way he flicked the pantyhose he wore on his head that time we were playing house when we were children and he insisted on being the mom. Years later when he finally came out to me, I flashed to that image and said, “Pa, I’ve known for years.” We laughed and went on loving each other as best we could…
I thought of my sister and how she would wipe her dirty feet on my head from her bunk bed above the cot I slept on. I pictured the way she would glare at me while she did it, lip curled with a disgust and resentment I didn’t then nor do I now understand. Recently, when she told me she was tired of me playing victim, this scene flashed in my mind.
I think about the ways we love one another and the ways we don’t. The ways that we are tender with each other and the ways we aren’t.
I think of the heart to heart I had with Elmaz Abinader, my memoir mama, the first night we were here. We talked of the work we do. I asked her how her family dealt with the memoir she wrote, Children of the Roojme: A Family’s Journey from Lebanon. I told her about what happened with my sister; that she called my work bullshit and said that I don’t think about how my writing will affect people. I said, “I think about it every day.” “Of course you do,” Elmaz said. She said that I am dealing with people’s shit that they haven’t or can’t come to terms with. “Your sister has her own trauma,” Elmaz said. I nodded. “But I’m not trying to heal my entire family, Elmaz.”
The first time I said that was to my therapist this past Thursday, and I was surprised when I said it. He leaned forward and said, “How does that make you feel?” I teared up. “It’s sad that I can’t heal them, but I know I can’t.”
I thought of Dorothy’s craft talk at Tin House last year. At one point she said: “There’s no get out of jail free card. You will be damaged.” She told us about the time her sister called to tell her that her daughter, Dorothy’s niece, was following in the family tradition–she was raped by her grandfather, her father’s father. Her sister wanted to know why it happened to so many of their girls in their family. “You wrote that book. You should know,” she said. Dorothy stared off into a corner and I could almost feel her ache. “You’ll wonder if you’d been better, you could have protected your niece.”
Chris shared excerpts of a book of poems he’s working on about his relationship with his brother. Of course I was sobbing through much of it. One line made me almost cry out: “I wish I could have saved you.” I wish I could have saved my brother. I wish I could have saved my mother and my sister and my grandmother…but I can’t. I can only try to save myself, again and again, the best way I know how: through my stories. That has to be enough. It just has to be.