Relentless Files — Week 4
*An essay every Friday in 2016*
Last week the Oscar nominations were announced and people went crazy. Not one black actor was nominated. We could sit here and pretend this hasn’t been an ongoing problem. We can flip out foaming-at-the-mouth style, or post eloquent videos and think pieces about the continued erasure of black and brown bodies. I’ve remained silent for the most part, not because I’m not bothered but mostly because I’m exhausted. I’m exhausted with the erasure and refusal to give props where props are due. I’m just really fuckin tired. Still, instead of complaining and flippin out, I’m more focused on what I can do to counter the problem.
This past weekend, I posted the schedule of classes for the spring semester of my Writing Our Lives Workshop, a class I created four years ago with the goal of sharing everything I’ve learned throughout my decades long obsession with autobiographical writing.
I initially traced my love for memoir to reading St. Augustine’s Confessions back in my sophomore year in college. This after hating so many of the very white, very privileged, mostly male texts that still make up the core curriculum at Columbia University. I remember when I bought the book used at the Columbia bookstore (this was before the days of Amazon) and went back to my room to read the chapters that had been assigned in my Literature Humanities Class. We had already had to read The Iliad and The Odyssey among dozens of other books by dead white male writers. I had never gotten into any of them. To this day I really hate those books by Homer and I don’t give a shit if that’s sacrilegious to white academia.
Within minutes of starting Confessions, I jumped up out of my bed, like “Oh shit, who is this dude? He’s a fuckin saint? Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit!” I read way past the required chapters that night.
Later I would discover that my love of nonfiction actually began in grade school when I read all of my aunt’s Little House on the Prairie books, and went to the library to find more. I read them all several times. I thought Laura was the shit. (Later I’d realize how racist those books were but I was a kid of 10 or 11, what did I know?)
In college, I ate up memoirs, including Piri Thomas’s Down These Mean Streets. After college, despite feeling the writing calling me, I did the safe thing and entered corporate America. I was miserable of course. I escaped into books, bottles of vodka and rum, and marijuana…lots and lots of marijuana.
Eventually I heeded the writing call and did what I always do when I love something—I become obsessive and try to learn everything about it that I can. I started eating up memoirs and personal essays. I put all of this love and obsession into Writing Our Lives. I don’t know how I had the audacity to do that. I look back and see that it was a bad ass move. I’d published by then but barely. I hadn’t published any essays. I hadn’t written a memoir (almost done with my first after nearly completing another that I’ve since walked away from…but that’s another story). I just knew I had this love for the genre and I wanted to share it.
That first class was my petrie dish. I had thirteen students (the # I’d capped it at) and a waiting list just as long. I’ve reinvented the class dozens of times. It went from focusing on how to write the memoir (way too big) to focusing on how to write the personal essay. My philosophy is: learn how to write the micro and the macro will follow.
I can’t count how many classes I’ve taught. I’ve had as few as three students in one workshop to nearly thirty for the one day free class that I offer every semester (how I pay it forward).
My motivation remains the same: I want to help people of color write their stories. Why? Because their stories matter. Because we need more stories on bookshelves and on TV and in movies, and the first step for that to happen is on the page.
I want to help writers write the essays and books and screenplays that I wish I’d had growing up.
Representation matters. That’s really what Jada Pinkett’s call to boycott the Oscars is all about, as is the OscarSoWhite hashtag.
I’ve been a huge reader since I can remember. Like Matilda, I devoured all the books in the kids and YA section of the local library on Irving Avenue, just a block from our tiny apartment. Thankfully, there was a librarian with the stereotypical reading glasses hanging on the tip of her nose, who scrounged up as many books as she could for me through the RIF Program (Reading is Fundamental – remember that?). I went through the Ramona and Sweet Valley High series. I loved me some Encyclopedia Brown. But it wasn’t until my junior year in high school (I was a scholarship kid in boarding school by then)that I read a book by someone who looked like me and came from where my people came from—How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents by Julia Alvarez. I was stunned. I remember thinking, “Wow my people write?” I see that moment as a key step in my journey to becoming a writer.
After that, I began hunting down books by Latino writers and when I went to college at Columbia University, I was involved in the fight for Ethnic Studies. We took over Hamilton Hall. We blocked Broadway. There were hunger strikes and numerous arrests. We finally got what we wanted in my senior year, and my last semester I had to take 23 credits to complete the Latino Studies major, but I did it because I fought for it. It was about principle at that point.
It didn’t take me long to notice that there was a serious lack of black and brown voices being published. And whenever I complained about it, the token two or three were thrown in my face. Sorry people but Junot Díaz, Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou being published does not make up for centuries of exclusion.
Imagine what it felt like to go to VONA in 2009 and be surrounded by a sea of talented and courageous writers of color who shared my love for the written word and were committed to getting their stories out there in the world. I wanted that energy here in NY and I knew that in order for that to happen, I had to create it. That’s what Writing Our Lives was and still is about. It’s a space where we remember that our stories matter. That we matter. That it’s time to share our work with the world. I’m here to help you do that.
It’s not that I don’t think the “OscarsSoWhite” issue isn’t a problem. It’s a huge problem. My question, however, is what are we, you, doing about it? What are you doing to affect change?
I’ve read dozens of think pieces about the issue. I saw the Jada Pinkett Smith videos. I saw the support she received and also the venom. I get the idea that wanting recognition from the academy equates to wanting/seeking approval from white America/the white gaze.
I get why people are saying “fuck the Ocars” and “we don’t need recognition from the white world,” but I’m more on the side of Lupita Nyong’o who posted a James Baldwin quote on Twitter: “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
There is a larger conversation happening here. We all live in this country. We all work in it and survive (sometimes barely) in it and bust our asses in it, thus we should all be represented EVERYWHERE including on TV and on screen movies and the award shows that recognize them.
Thus, my response to #OscarsSoWhite” is to keep writing and publishing my stories. Keep teaching emerging writers to do the same. To remind them, you, that we need your stories. I believe that so deeply, I created the Writing Our Lives Class to help you through the process. I offer a one day free class every semester for those who can’t afford the six week class. I teach this six week class every semester. I’m bringing it online. I created a voice class because I think it’s also important to write in your voice, no one else’s, despite what popular culture tells you over and over – that you shouldn’t talk like that or write like that, that doing so makes you inferior and subordinate. That’s bullshit, yo. And if you think otherwise, chances are you’ve fallen victim to the white gaze.
As my friend LD reminds us: “The awards are at the end of the racism, not the beginning. The Academy’s whiteness and homogeneity is the middle. The beginning is telling our stories to each other and affirming us.”
So, ask yourself, what are you doing to counter the problem? How can you help?
I read an essay last week that I’ve gone back to several times, bounced around in my head so much, I finally had to bookmark it on my phone so I could refer to when it called. In “Erasure of the Personal Narrative,”s author Soré Agbaje writes:
There is an African proverb that states, “Until the lion learns to write, every story will glorify the hunter.” When someone else has the power to tell your story for you, they can easily make an erasure of your life. They can wipe away parts, present a version they wish to tell and assert themselves as the heroine of your story. In this day of biased media outlets and social media journalism, it is increasingly difficult to know who to trust. The stories that you hear on the news about events like protests and war tend to share no resemblance with what’s happening on the ground. It is more crucial than ever that we seek out first-person perspectives from those being affected.
I think of my beloved Bushwick. To be clear, I’m not trying to glorify or mythologize 1980s Bushwick. I know all about the crack, the violence and the rubble, the fires, the gangs and everything else. I know because I lived it. I was there. The truth remains that I have a soft spot for that neighborhood and what it was back then. Yes, even for the rubble and the decay. I have a soft spot for the people who lived in that and loved in that and pushed and had babies and tried and didn’t give up. I could ignore or shrug off the gentrifiers who insist that they came to save a neighborhood that needed saving. I push back on that notion because you can’t think about the crack era and not consider how public policy brewed the pot to make that shit happen. As the old Latino adage goes: “No se puede tapar el sol con un dedo.”
I can’t concede that the neighborhood was devastated without also saying that it was in that devastation that I learned to be relentless.
I have to look at the whole picture not just a piece of it.
I remember seeing the pictures of the crack vials in the gutter. The mother pulling on her crack pipe while her toddler watches from a few feet away. The crack buildings that dotted the neighborhood. The trash strewn lots that went on for blocks and blocks so it looked like a war zone, which it was in many ways.
Still, there was so much more. There was a little girl in Apartment 1R of 383 Palmetto street who decades later would write about her neighborhood and that plum tree in the back yard. And she will share her story with the third graders she is teaching how to write the personal narrative.
My Plum Tree
by Vanessa Mártir
There was a plum tree in my backyard where I grew up in Bushwick, Brooklyn. My neighborhood wasn’t safe so I spent a lot of time in that backyard, up in that plum tree. I taught myself how to climb it the summer I was five or six. I scratched my shins and knees, and scuffed my sneakers, but I kept trying. I almost cried when I finally climbed up in the branches. I was just so excited.
My mom yelled at me in Spanish, “Get down from there!” I fell hard climbing down but I didn’t cry. I kept climbing that tree when mom wasn’t looking. I’d lie out on the branches and stare up at the sky through the leaves and ripening plums. They were yellow and purple and green.
It was up in that plum tree that I started telling myself stories of another life where mom let me climb trees and my neighborhood wasn’t so dangerous. So if you ask me when I became a writer, I would say it was up in that plum tree the summer I was five or six.
My mind goes to a young man who came to my Voice Class this past fall. At the beginning, I had everyone introduce themselves and answer “Why a voice class?” Imagine my shock when this young Afro-Latino told me, “I want to learn how to write like white men because they’re the ones in power.” My first reaction was to go in on him and his self-loathing, but I stopped myself. I understand where that comes from. I was him at one time, though I never used those exact words.
We’re taught that the best way/the right way to write is like a dead white man. Consider the books you read in school. The history you learn. You/we are taught directly and indirectly that we are less than, that our histories, our people aren’t worthy of study. So, of course this young man, would think that to write like them is a superior way of writing.
I held up a metaphorical mirror and made that young man look at the internalized oppression in what what he said. I asked, “Do you speak like that? Does anyone in your family speak like that?” Of course he answered no to both questions. “Do you think that learning to write like that will make them accept you?” He just stared at me. “Do you realize that ultimately that’s what that’s about—wanting acceptance from the white gaze?” More staring. “Do you realize that no matter what you do, you will never be one of them. They will never accept you as one of them. You will always be an Afro-Latino trying to be like them.” He put his head down. I went on with the class. Five hours later, he almost walked out without saying goodbye. I called him over and said, “I need you to know that I did that with the utmost love.” He nodded but I could see the defeat in the way his shoulders slumped. I hope one day he will see that writing like himself, all Bronx and Dominican and black, is just as legitimate and worthy of being read as anything by Shakespeare and Keats. I don’t care who says otherwise.
I know that this young man didn’t see himself in the literature he read as a kid. I may have given him a slew of writers of color he could read but that won’t undue the damage that was already done by years of not seeing himself represented in the literature he read and the history he learned in school. That’s why our stories matter. That’s why we have to write them. That’s why I created Writing Our Lives and continue to reinvent it every time. That’s why I offer a one day free class every semester. That why I write my stories. Because our stories matter, and when I see my third graders eyes light up when I tell them, “I write books” and one says, “I wanna do that too,” I can tell him “you can” and he’ll believe it.
We must continue to tell our stories. It holds the world accountable. ~Soré Agbaje