What do we owe? What are we owed?
BY ASHIA AJANI
CONTENT WARNING: Sexual assault, transphobia
When I first heard news of Junot Diaz’s sexual misconduct, I wasn’t surprised. Diaz had a reputation of creating shallow, tragic female characters who rely on male attention to feel validated, who put up with so much abuse and manipulation just to feel loved. Some of that, I thought was explained by his childhood, when he released this article. And as a victim of abuse, I can empathize with his pain; childhood abuse festers under the skin and affects so much of your life going forward. The stain is never fully removed. But somehow, the release of this article seemed well timed, as if he was preparing for the wave of survivors of his own misconduct coming forward weeks later. Multiple women, all Black and/or Latinx and younger than him, accused Diaz of inappropriate sexual behavior; many of these women regarded him as a colleague, mentor or someone to look up to. Even before this wave of confessions, article after article, particularly by women of color, expressed sympathy for Diaz’s childhood abuse, but recognized his inherent misogyny and emotional abuse of women, particularly of women of color. As expressed by Briana L. Urena-Ravelo, author of a Medium article that responded to Diaz’s article: “In the darkness men leave behind the women and emerge in the light clean and free.”
Diaz has since apologized. He has withdrawn from the Sydney Writers Festival. So his response is a modicum better than deny, deny, deny. And in this wave of survivors feeling free enough to tell their truths, he’s not the only world-renowned author who has faced a similar, well-deserved shame. Sherman Alexie, a famous Native playwright and author has also been accused by three women of sexual assault. Shake a tree and watch the fruit drop.
Diaz represents one of the first major Afro-Latinx voices in modern literature. His stories are raw, painful and well crafted. There is no questioning his inherent talent and command of language. And Alexie represents a much needed Native voice in a patronizing and indingenous-erasing white narrative. These two authors have been seen and continue to be seen by youth of color. They are inspirations. So what happens when they overstep the boundaries of confidence? What do we do? What do we owe them? What do they owe us?
Backtracking a couple years to when Chimamanda Adiche, author of We Can All Be Feminists, among other works, we can recognize the hypocrisy of a TED talk entitled “The Danger of Single Story” and refusing to acknowledge trans women as “real” women. Furthermore, when Adiche refused to admit fault in her statement, we saw a chance for redemption that was never acted upon. And of course, sorry doesn’t fix everything, but it’s a good start. So the (unofficial) boycott started. We hurt her sales for a little bit. But to this date, as far as I know (and as far as Google tells me), she has not recanted her statement.
I remember first encountering Adiche in 7th grade. My predominately white school assigned books by predominately white authors, and maybe in an act of quiet defiance, my white, but favorite, teacher gave me a copy of Half of a Yellow Sun. I was enthralled to see that someone was looking out for me, for people who looked like me, telling honest stories about a community so similar to mine. When she released “We Can All Be Feminists” my heart leapt for joy. Yes! Black women becoming the face of mainstream feminism (which probably should’ve been my first clue that something was amiss, white America isn’t that progressive). So when authors praise liberation and mutual respect in their literature but cannot find space to do it in their daily lives, I get a little disenchanted.
Even authors like bell hooks and Zadie Smith and Amy Tan have disappointed me in some way. Whether it is slut-shaming or admonishing women for wearing makeup or adhering to a strict gender binary in their works, to essentializing the Asian American experience and constantly crafting men of color as violent and incapable of love, something is always wrong. Writers write what they know and what they wonder. What happens when language fails us?
We have suffered a great injustice in school that does not really teach us the purpose of value systems. What do we value? Why do we value these things? What are we denying ourselves and others by valuing these things? More than that, our schools, which tout great American literature, do nothing to aid us in the arduous task of dissecting language. The history of language, particularly how it is used to oppress and overshadow narratives, has no space to breathe in an already constricted curriculum. So we are then left with a giant blank in our repertoire of knowledge.
I’m not here to air out a bunch of dirty laundry or drag authors for being….human. But many authors, are in way, a form of celebrity. They have the ability to shape the consciousness of our society, particularly the youth, and provide examples of what is right and what is wrong conduct in our world. They provide insight to what it means to be an intellectual of color in a white dominated field that seeks to appropriate our craft but never respect it.
As humans, idolatry is in our blood. We are creates of inspiration and aspiration. Especially as dreamers of color, we look to grasp at any person who reflects our desires because we know that this world is not kind to art produced by people of color. In this way, we can convince ourselves to excuse so much. But in our time of reckoning, the era of our most sacred truths, we can no longer afford to do so. Idolatry is dangerous in the way that it allows us to look so far beyond fault and worship people. When we put people up on a pedestal, our hopes are either dashed or we don’t see fault when there is more than ample fault to be seen. We set ourselves up for disappointment and failure. It’s not fair to the authors, and it’s not fair to us.
Sidney Poitier refused to date Black women. Malcolm X, despite his famous quote “the most unprotected woman in America is the Black woman,” was a pretty overt misogynist. Yuri Kochiyama praised Osama Bin Laden as a radical separatist. Despite all the evidence of the horrible human rights violations he committed during his lifetime, leftists of color continue to applaud the work of Fidel Castro. All of our idols are, to some degree, splattered in paint. Everyone has their baggage and their burdens. It is wrong to speak ill of the dead yes, but truth can never be buried. Does this then, completely discount all of the work they have done to aid our communities?
It is hard and somewhat unfair to compare injustices. Oppression Olympics should be a thing of 2016. But as long as we recognize injustices and hold our heroes responsible, the healing can begin. Perhaps even denying them to position of idol or hero is necessary. They, like us, are complex creatures capable of mistakes and transgressions (I mean, calling grabbing someone’s breast without permission a “mistake” is a major understatement). So then maybe it’s the author’s response to the mistake or transgression that should be given more weight than what we allow. Maybe we can exist in a fine medium of respect and calculated admiration. But it shouldn’t have to always be this way. Is it possible to separate art from the person who creates the art? I don’t know. I am still trying to figure out when to “cancel” problematic figures. The answer is different for every person, and I think it boils down to each and every one of us asking ourselves this question: what are we willing to accept?
A final thought: at the end of the day, there are hundreds of Diazes and Adiches and Alexies, hidden within our communities who have not had the opportunity to be recognized as game-changing writers. If anything, we can thank these authors for at the very least, opening the door.
BY ASHIA AJANI
Amidst all my paolo santo and lavender water, the wounded child in me keeps calling for forgiveness. We are all on our own journeys towards healing- mine is not complete and I do not know if it will be complete in my lifetime. But here are some books by authors of color that have changed the way I think about myself, the world, and all our heavenly interconnectedness. Happy reading.
This Bridge Called My Back – multiple authors, compiled/edited by Cherríe Moraga y Gloria Anzaldúa
Solidarity is hard. And creating linkages between people of color in a capitalistic, racist, heteronormative society proves difficult at each turn. In the forward to this incredible collection, Moraga and Anzaldúa lay out their goals for this book: 1) to radicalize people of color into action as they themselves have been radicalized into producing this book, 2) to become required texts in all women’s studies courses, 3) to raise the consciousness of white women surrounding issues of misogynoir and racism, and 4) to create ties between “our colored sisters” by using this book as an educator and agitator.
I read this book on the train ride back from the 2016 Women of the World Poetry Slam, where Black women truly bodied the competition. I attended workshops on healing, on queerness, on solidarity and needed to keep that energy going. Compilations of essays, stories, poems by Native women, Black women, Asian women, Latinas, queer and straight, worked their way into my bloodstream. What a beautiful feeling! No narrative dominants another: they are all given their proper space to thrive. During moments of despair in my life, when horizontal aggression I have faced from my fellow Black and brown folk rules my psyche, and I am unable to envision a world when we all are committed to a process of healing and collective understanding, I think back to this collection, and I am renewed. As expressed by Moraga and Anzaldúa, “the revolution begins at home.”
“ ‘Alienation’ and ‘assimilation’ are two common words used to describe contemporary Indian people. I've come to despise those two words because what leads to ‘alienation’ and ‘assimilation’ should not be so concisely defined. And I generally mistrust words that are used to define Native Americans and Brown People. I don't like being put under a magnifying glass and having cute liberal terms describe who I am. The ‘alienation’ or ‘assimilation’ that I manifest is often in how I speak. There isn't necessarily a third world language but there is an Indian way of talking that is an essential part of me. I like it, I love it, yet I deny it. I ‘save’ it for when I'm around other Indians. It is a way of talking that involves "Indian humor" which I know for sure non-Indian people would not necessarily understand.” - Excerpt from “Gee, You Don’t Seem Like An Indian From the Reservation” by Barbara Cameron
Don’t you just love free resources? Enjoy!
All About Love: New Visions – bell hooks
Read this book after heartbreak. After you have lost love and do not know if you can love again. Read this book when you are thinking about the state of our world. When the heart is a lone cry wailing into the night. It will change you. It will change your perception of love. It will encourage you (especially if you are a woman/femme person) to demand more of the love you receive. And hopefully, it will expand the love you feel in your day to day life.
I can’t just do one quote from this book - there’s too much yummy stuff so here’s a couple of my favorite excerpts:
“Contrary to what we may have been taught to think, unnecessary and unchosen suffering wounds us but need not scar us for life. It does mark us. What we allow the mark of our suffering to become is in our own hands.” - All About Love
“Redeemed and restored, love returns us to the promise of everlasting life. When we love we can let our hearts speak.” - All About Love
“When I speak of the spiritual, I refer to the recognition within everyone that there is a place of mystery in our lives where forces that are beyond human desire or will alter circumstances and/or guide and direct us. I call these forces divine spirit. When we choose to lead a spirit-filled life, we recognize and celebrate the presence of transcendent spirits.”
God of Small Things – Arundhati Roy
I love, love, love me some Arundhati Roy! Hands down one of my favorite authors. So, I have to give honorable mention to a couple other crucial Roy pieces: Ministry of Utmost Happiness (which is one of the first fiction books about trans identity I read that was not exploitative or uselessly tragic, and I must say that this was a close, close second to God of Small Things), The End of Imagination, and Power Politics. This novel, wrought with generational pain, resistance and palpable imagery, was one of the first love stories I read that wrenched my heart to pieces. While some may critique the pervasive use of the caste system in her novels, and with good reason, she is an incredibly lyrical writer with such a command for language. The translation of love through mysticism, class, color and generation to such an emotional degree is a skill that I haven’t been able to find anywhere else. Definitely take the time to familiarize yourself with Arundhati Roy’s writing. If you are someone who doesn’t really like, or has a hard time making it through non-fiction writing, Roy’s lyricism and command of language may convert you.
“But what was there to say?
Only that there were tears. Only that Quietness and Emptiness fitted together like stacked spoons. Only that there was a snuffling in the hollows at the base of a lovely throat. Only that a hard honey-colored shoulder had a semicircle of teethmarks on it. Only that they held each other close, long after it was over. Only that what they shared that night was not happiness, but hideous grief.
Only that once again they broke the Love Laws. That lay down who should be loved. And how. And how much.” – God of Small Things
Seam – Tarfiah Faizullah
Talk about an emotional series of poems. Faizullah, the daughter of Bangladeshi immigrants, explores the devasation of the 1971 Bangladesh liberation war, specifically focusing on the narratives of just a few of the two hundred thousand women that were raped during this traumatic period in time. It is a heavy, heavy piece of writing. But more than that, Faizullah seeks to return agency to survivors- tragedy cannot be reduced to numbers, and narratives cannot be forgotten. On the painful journey, Faizullah creates space for this stories to not only be preserved, but venerated. Through sharp imagery and longer philosophical anaylsis, Faizullah weaves her own tales of trauma to those of survivors, formulating a chain of collective healing we desperately need.
I read this book during a time in my life when I was recovering from sexual trauma. The universe sometimes just knows what you need, no?
“I admit that when the falling hour/ Begins to husk the sky free of its/ saffroning light, I reach for anyone/ willing to wrap his good arm tight/ around me for as long as the ribboned/ darkness allows. Who wants, after all,/ to be seen too clearly?” - Excerpt From Dhaka Nocture
A House of My Own – Sandra Cisneros
WOW. Another author who changed. My. Life. The first piece of writing I read by Sandra Cisneros was a short story called , unpacking Latina identity and notions of shame surrounding menstrual cycles, eventually coming to terms with and embracing the things that make us (cis) women. I delved into her poetry with a fervor, letting her rhythm influence my own writing, making my way through My Wicked, Wicked Ways, Loose Woman and Woman Hollering Creek until I finally came to A House of My Own. In this compilation of essays, Cisneros bears pieces of herself not revealed in her poetry and short stories. She takes the reader on a journey through la vida de Sandra; not only does she make peace with her youth, but she venerates her attained wisdom. Through stories like “Que Viven Los Colores!” y . What does it mean to be a woman, alone and independent? How does one come to know themselves through family, through ancestry and indigeneity, through rebellion and heartache and purposeful isolation? How do we formulate connections to land we are not familiar with, but are nervertheless part of our bloodline and ours to reclaim?
(Side note: I met her and my soul lit on fire What a beautiful, hilarious, wise human being: “books are medicine. And the medicine you need may be different than the medicine I need. But always take your medicine.”)
“I do want to inherit the witch in my women ancestors- the willfulness, the passion, ay, the passion where all good art comes from as women, the perseverance, the survivor skills, the courage, the strength of las mujeres bravas, peleoneras, necias, berrinchudas. I want to be una brava, peleonera, necia, berrinchuda. I want to be bad if bad means I must go against society- el Papá, the boyfriend, lover, husband, girlfriends, comadres- and listen to my own heart, that incredible witch’s broom that will take me where I need to go.” - excerpt from essay “I Can Live Sola and I Love to Work”
The Kitchen God’s Wife – Amy Tan
Mo’fkn unnnnnn talk about a problematic fave. Forget what you heard for an afternoon and take the time to read this book all the way through in one sitting. I wonder if a lot of my love for this novel stems from the fact I read it out loud to my mother on a road trip to college (we drove all the way from Colorado to Connecticut with a couple of brief detours in Michigan and Mississippi). I did read it once before, but returning to a book you loved after a long break is a bit like coming home. Like most of her books, the mother daughter relationship is the most prevalent aspect of The Kitchen God’s Wife, but like Roy, Tan is able to weave in mythology, generational trauma, international relationships (specifically between Japan and China in a World War Two context) and class/colonial struggles into one piece of writing. Talk about talent. This book shows just how much our mothers have hidden, and how sometimes we cannot recognize their strength until it is too late.
“That is the saddest part when you lose someone you love - that person keeps changing. And later you wonder, Is this the same person I lost? Maybe you lost more maybe less, then thousand different things that come from your memory or imagination - and you do not know which is which, which was true, which is false.” - The Kitchen God’s Wife
Black Dove: Mamá, Mi’jo and Me - Ana Castillo
The first book I read by Ana Castillo was So Far From God, a collection of interwoven short stories about people living on the borderlands of Arizona and Mexico. It is certaintly evident that she is true to her heritage; even beyond that, she breaks down not only the trauma of being a Brown woman in American, but the trauma of raising Brown children in America. We travel throughout her life, her heartbreak, her upbringing, the lines between Mexico and Chicago, and (thank God) her queerness. If you are in need of some good nonfiction storytelling, Castillo is definitely one to look towards.
“thought of the countless people in the world who were born to live and die in anonymity, playing out lives no better or worse than anyone else’s and no one noticing. Sometimes we give others who don’t make a big mark in some way a moment in the limelight in fiction. Our novelists’ eyes and ears say to our readers, “Look here, please. Listen. This existence mattered, too.” That” - Black Dove: Mamá, Mi’jo and Me
On Beauty – Zadie Smith
Another author with a lot of identity to unpack. And despite the fact that she believes makeup is used to hide beauty rather than enhance it, Zadie Smith knows how to tug at the heartstrings. Drawing upon her own mixed race heritage, she is able to unpack the romanticization of interracial relationships, noting the lives we must give up and the things we must let go of, whether we want to or not. I don’t want to give too much of the storyline away, but imagine, for a moment ,that you are a Black woman living in Britain with your white Professor husband and your half white children...and then learn your husband cheats on you with a white woman. How does that look? What does it do to your family? And what does that do to your self-image, as a Black woman in a predominately white space?
How do we perceive beauty, in relation to each other, to the world, to ourselves?
“Art is the Western myth, with which we both console ourselves and make ourselves.” - On Beauty
Homegirls and Hand Grenades – Sonia Sanchez
How to be Black and poor and depressed and woman in America and survive and survive and survive and survive!
“Your face like/ summer lightning/ gets caught in my voice/ and i draw you up from/ deep rivers/ taste your face of a thousand names/ see you smile/ a new season/ hear your voice/ a wild sea pausing in the wind.” - “Poem for Jessie”
There are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé – Morgan Parker
THIS IS THE BOOK OF POETRY I HAVE BEEN WAITING ALL MY LIFE FOR !!! Thank you, Morgan Parker, for unpacking all of my feelings about Blackness, about womanhood, about depression and resilience and heartbreak. Parker, with the bold title There are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé, explores Black pain, identity and the notion of self through the lens of such folks like Beyoncé, imagining her in a therapists office, breaking down Obama’s existence as Black, as mixed race, and creating personal narratives in poems like “Hottentot Venus”, “Afro”, and “13 Ways of Looking at a Black Girl.”
You can access the first few pages for free through this link: http://tinhouse.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/There-are-More-Beautiful-Things-Than-Beyonce-Preview.pdf
“I don’t know/ when I got so punk rock/ but when I catch/ myself in the mirror/ I feel stronger. So when at five in the afternoon/ something on my TV says/ time is not on your side/ I don’t give any/shits at all. Instead I smoke/ a joint like I’m/ a teenager and eat a whole/ box of cupcakes./ Stepping on leaves I get/ first-night thrill./ Confuse the meanings/ of castle and slum, exotic/ and erotic. I bless/ the dark, tuck/ myself into a canyon/ of steel. I breathe/ dried honeysuckle/ and hope. I live somewhere/ imaginary.” – Excerpt from “Another Another Autumn in New York”
BY ASHIA AJANI
Toluwanimi Obiwole is a Nigerian-born, Colorado-raised poet and performer. She is a Brave New Voices international slam champion, a Denver city slam champion, and author of multiple chapbooks. She has been a member of the Denver Minor Disturbance youth poetry team, and was a member of the 2015 Slam Nuba poetry team. As part of her craft, she also creates music. In 2015, she was announced as Denver's first Youth Poet Laureate.
Tell us about Tolu!
There's no limit to what I can be inspired by. I think my mind has gone through many stages of gravitation to what it is inspired by. No matter what, the constant variable is my healing. Whatever feeds my neglected child spirit or brings me closer to wholeness also fuels my writing. It used to be my pain and the processing of everything that happened to me everything I had been forced or coerced to do that I did not originally have words for. Now, it is wholeness and revisiting the narratives I have lived with a nuanced perspective. Specifically, right now I'm working on a full length manuscript about love and marriage through the lens of an African femme raised in a traditional household and who, in many ways, is still bound by those expectations.
How would you describe your writing style?
I feel like my writing style has evolved as my tools have grown. I used to not care about style or structure at all so everything was writing in my speaking voice in a very open verse / stream of consciousness understanding. Now, I love experimenting with structure even as a form of resistance. I've been taking structured poems and modifying them or using them in conjunction with slang and broken English to create pieces that both reflect who I am and hopefully add to the voices of poets who also challenge the status quo of canonized poets.
How was your writing influenced by your upbringing?
My first book, OMI EBI MI, is an exploration of this very thing. As a Nigerian immigrant living in a traditional household, I've seen how fear and fierce protectiveness kept me teetering on a line between preserving my indigenous identity and staying alive and sane in a country that wanted all my identities to be quieter, fit in a nice safe box, and look American. The poetry that was born out of this double, many times multiple consciousness, was how I survived and made sense of it all.
Walk us through your “poet history.”
I've been journaling and writing in different capacities pretty much since I could form my own sentences, but I didn't start intentionally making art out of it or speaking those words out loud until my freshman year of college. I was taken to a dark basement by one of my friends and listened to a poet magically bring his stories to life with his voice and movements. From then on, I started attending open mics regularly, taking writing workshops, and competing. Even through all of that over the past five years, I feel like I'm just beginning to really find my voice and delve deeper into poetry in a way that honors my ancestry and healing work.
What does home mean to you?
Wow, this is a really big question and complex. Home is comprised of many things for me and rarely means the same thing depending on the space I'm in (mentally, spiritually, and physically). Home is diaspora. I'm at home with the feeling of not having a home or having so many that I cannot concentrate my loyalties. Of course, physically I will always feel a rooted connection to Nigeria and soil I was born on and that birthed so many of the ideologies I hold dear. America is my broken home that I can't decide to patch up or run away from. Home is also very kinetic for me right now. It is the process of creating sanctuaries for myself in whatever space holds my body. My body is just now becoming home as I figure out how to heal my whole self.
What brings you joy?
Deep understanding and revelation brings me joy, especially when the shit is consistently flying. It brings me joy to stop and watch honeybees do their thing, to linger on a particular smell in a garden, to realize when the chaos is absolutely perfect. When I allow myself to be aware of beautiful minutia in nature or a moment, I feel like I'm actually looking at the bigger picture and understanding just understanding in a way that honors the most ancient knowledge in me.
Why do you think literature by authors of color important?
Because. It. Is. Not only is representation important and we must have an alternative to mediocre white canonized poets, but people of color, indigenous peoples, have always been the original storytellers. Our writing is not just important for publication, but spiritually, it is what heals this world. Our stories, which are often connected to indigenous ways of preserving history, balance out the disharmony created by white victor narratives. Our stories are prayers and spells, and invocations for justice, to call back the spirit into a world where capitalism has de-spiritualized the earth and severed our connection to it.
How do you bounce back from heartbreak?
Yikes, you tell me. I'm still figuring it out. I'm still heartbroken, and the only thing I'm learning is to be in it, to honor that heartbreak, to feel my grief completely, get up underneath it, and go through it. The only way out is through. Self care and love is great, but not a cure, the only way not to allow my heartbreak to conquer me, is to square up and go through it.
What are your pre-WOWPS (Women of the World Poetry Slam) and post-WOWPS feelings?
I believe I had slammed four years in a row trying to go to WOWPS and for one reason or another, I couldn't go. This year, I went with a giddiness in my heart to see some friends and hear incredible writers, who despite my best efforts, I would inevitably compare myself to. I was nervous but happy that it was my first time actually competing so I couldn't judge myself too hard. I was slightly disappointed that I didn't do better, but also by the poems I heard getting the most love. I like to think of slam, while a game, as a community forum or conversation. We get to hear the things most pertinent to writers and open up new and nuanced conversations. Sadly, I did not hear that this year. What I heard were poems that used the same language to say the same thing (white feminism sucks, black people are dying) they seemed like very preliminary conversations. Now, this I know, is an opinion that I have to check since I cannot assume that everyone is having these conversations about black folks dying or white feminism and fragility. However, what I appreciate the most about poetry is its connection to the writer. I don't like hearing poems that I feel anyone could have written with the right formula. I was disappointed to see many strong writers go unnoticed, but I had to remind myself that this is the game of slam. But, to honor my feelings I also have to acknowledge that while it is a game, it is also a very amplified conversation and the world is listening, and what it needs, rather than gimmicks, is genuine writing and connection.
What advice do you have for young writers of color?
Write and write and keep on writing. Write for you, write out the parts of yourself you want to know more. I know it seems more tantalizing to hit bars and have popular art, but all of that comes and comes deeper when you're more connected to yourself. When you connect to yourself, it's so much easier to connect to the rest of the world, and to really understand how you feel about things.
ASHIA AJANI is a junior Environmental Studies major specializing in environmental justice and food rights at Yale University. She is a poet and activist who combines her love of natural spaces and women of color to inform her writing. She is the co-president of WORD: Spoken Word at Yale. She recently ended a two year term as head coordinator of the Yale Women's Center, where she worked alongside other badass femmes to diversify their constituency. She is a Minor Disturbance Denver Youth Poetry alumni and took 4th place alongside her team at the 2014 Brave New Voices International Youth Poetry Slam Festival. She was awarded honorable mention in the National YoungArts Foundation’s poetry section in 2015. She has been published in Rigorous Magazine, Atlas&Alice Magazine and The Hopper Magazine. She released her first chapbook, We Bleed Like Mango, in October.
BY SHEREEN LEE
THADDEUS RUTKOWSKI is the author of six books. His novel, Haywire, won the Members’ Choice Award, given by the Asian American Writers Workshop. He teaches at Sarah Lawrence College, Medgar Evers College and the Writer's Voice of the West Side YMCA in New York. He received a fiction writing fellowship from the New York Foundation for the Arts.
Read his TRACK//FOUR piece, "Seeing the Light," in VOLUME TWO // ISSUE TWO here.
Can you explain the making of "Seeing the Light"? (Events or people it was based on, your writing process, etc.)
"Seeing the Light," is based on my experience—it’s an “autobiographical” story. I grew up a biracial child in rural Pennsylvania. My mother is Chinese, and my father was Polish-American. In high school, I worked on a farm for pocket money. I often went fishing.
This was an earlier time, and Carlos Castaneda’s The Teachings of Don Juan was a big thing. I liked the idea of achieving higher consciousness through exotic substances. In my story, the boy uses tea made from a burdock plant to get high. I doubt burdock has any mind-altering properties, but I had to make things up to fit the story.
I rely on memory for source material, but one’s memory is imperfect. Scenes appear as I reimagine them, not necessarily as they happened.
I collect images, pieces of dialogue, actions—I make notes—and then look back at them to see how they might form a story. When I see some kind of a story, I add to it or cut from it until it has a working shape.
I tend to put things in chronological order—I rarely use flashbacks. This approach is to compensate for the fact that there are gaps—missing explanations or exposition—in my stories. My idea is to create a kind of cinematic effect: “flashes of light in darkness,” as someone once said.
How do different parts of your identity impact your writing?
I try to bring both parts of my identity—the Chinese part and the Eastern European part—into my writing. When I write about my childhood, I draw on what my father and mother said or did. My mother still speaks with a slight accent (her native language is Mandarin), while my father was proud of his Polish roots (his parents spoke Polish).
I haven’t spent much time in either Poland or China. I visited Poland once, for lunch. A host of a Berlin poetry festival gave me a ride to Frankfurt on the Oder River, then across the bridge to Słubice, Poland. I remember dozens of men walking over the bridge from Poland into Germany to go to work. The traffic was slow at the border, and I was told that people became poorer as one drove east. In Russia, driving was risky, because of bandits. We went back to Berlin that afternoon.
I’ve visited Hong Kong a few times and Singapore once to attend writing festivals. I was excited to be in my mother’s home country (parts of Hong Kong are on the mainland)—I finally made it there, and I want to go back.
There’s another angle to this topic: how I’m perceived by people. I’m often seen as the “other,” and the other can be anything. My Medgar Evers College students, most of whom are of African descent, see me as Caucasian. Many Asians also see me as Caucasian. But Caucasians see me as Asian, Latino, Hawaiian, Native American, etc. Few people see me as Eurasian, which is what I am.
How do you approach revision of your writing?
I believe that revision almost always makes a piece of writing better, though it is possible to over-revise. I revise in order to “re-see” the story. The revision can be of each line, each sentence, to make the voice or tone consistent, or it can be a more substantial, structural change. If I’m not getting a good response from readers or editors, I know it’s time to revise.
It often helps to let the work sit a few days (or longer), to let your mind get away from the circular pattern of being close to the work. When you go back, you might see the text with a fresh eye.
Do you have a piece of work that you return to over and over again?
I take this to mean a piece of my own work. I have files of unfinished work grouped as dreams, childhood memories, or current incidents. I often go back to this material to see if there are things that jump out, fit together, or suggest more. The idea is to push the material beyond the everyday and make it more meaningful—to transform diary-keeping and make it “art.” Anyone involved in creating something must go through a process like this.
Who or what are your greatest non-literary inspirations?
Some of my greatest non-literary inspirations would be places I’ve visited, whether those places are far or near, recent or in the distant past. I’ve been fortunate that my mother still lives in the village where I grew up. When I visit her, I remember things about my childhood, and I see places that remind me of where I’ve been and what I’ve done. I’m also something of a traveler; I always like to see new places and discover what happens there.
I’m also inspired by animals and nature—I grew up in the country. I’m interested in how we relate to nature, and how we share things with animals. I care about how animals “think.” This tells us something about how we think. Some of my works are solely about animals, with some humans thrown in.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention my family: my wife and daughter, who I live with in Manhattan. Daily life is the reality; but there are moments of hyper-reality. Those are the moments one wants to “write down.”
Redefining Radical Love
BY ASHIA AJANI
This article is the first in series on POC culture and politics by our new contributing blog editor, Ashia Ajani.
“Indeed, all the great movements for social justice in our society have strongly emphasized a love ethic.” ―Bell Hooks
We need more stories about how people of color relate to one another. More stories about how people of color love one another. Because we can, and when we do it is a beautiful thing. There is no other way to put it.
This is not to say that mixed race folks who are part white do not deserve to have their stories told. These folks have a unique experience navigating our world, especially America, which does not make space for such transnational blood to exists without question. But why is it when we say “interracial” we immediate imagine a white person and a person of color? Probably because as people of color, especially in America, we are always thinking about our relationship to white people. Most of us descend from a colonized people, either exploited or massacred by white hands. As we delve deeper into the “post-colonial” world, we are constantly aware of our positionality, oftentimes centering whiteness in order to better understand ourselves.
And what of stories? I can list off so many books that portray white/person of color romances. On Beauty by Zadie Smith. Kindred by Octavia Butler. How to Seduce a White Boy in Ten Easy Steps by Laura Yes Yes. Most Amy Tan novels (though I will note in The Hundred Secret Senses there is a brief marriage to a mixed race Hawaiian and white man, but this romance ends in tragedy in a way the white love interests in her other books do not). The list goes on and on. And it’s understandable. On the other end of the spectrum, there is a gross amount of erotic novels that center race, but not in a way that is productive. Try fetishitic on both ends, a serious exploitation of women of color, jungle fever, yellow fever, you name it. And if I read another erotic novel that describes a woman with my color skin as chocolate….
Our society is entering an era of increased mixed race identity: in 2013, 9 million Americans chose two or more racial categories when asked about their race, so we can only assume the numbers have increased since then. So what of the stories brewing in the souls of those of Korean and Mexican blood, rapidly growing in number because of the proximity of Koreatown and los barrios in California? What of the Afro-Latinx youth, constantly misplaced, misnamed and misunderstood? The Jamaican-Chinese immigrants, undoing levels of colonial trauma and internalized racism we can only begin to understand? As Americans, whether we care to admit it or not, we are obsessed with dominant-submissive tales. Though horizontal aggression is a real phenomenon and readily needs to be addressed, not only in our stories but in our interpersonal interactions, there are so many things that connect us. And that is not interesting, There is no tragedy to unfold, no plantation dreams to exploit and fetishize, and there are no colonial stories to be told without a center on whiteness.
The first book I read that dared formulate an interracial romance that did not feature white people was The House on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford. Jamie Ford himself is a mixed race son, born of a Chinese father and white American mother, so one can assume that the concept of love as a melting pot has been on the forefront of his conscious for a while (he’s also a Cancer, so you know, hopeless romantic from the start). This book told the story of two children, one Chinese and one Japanese, who fall in love during World War Two. The Chinese boy, Henry Lee, falls in love with a Japanese girl, Keiko Okabe, and this experience changes the way he views himself as a Chinese person during Seattle in World War II. His father, who does not speak very good English, makes Henry wear a pin that says “I am Chinese” so he will not face the ridicule endured by Japanese citizens and residents. As he begins to fall more in love with Keiko, Henry realizes that his silence will not protect him, and that he has a duty, as another marginalized person to align himself with her struggles. This is the first introduction I had to the concept of “throwing in” with other marginalized group, a practice that perhaps possesses more optimism Even outside the scope of romantic love, Henry is good friends with a Black saxophone player, Sheldon, a good number of years older than him, exploring transracial solidarity and how we oftentimes inherit biases from our predecessors.
Henry and Keiko are separated by the war, then find each other years later, both in their sixties and their respective partners deceased, and we catch a glimmer of hope. This is the happiest happy ending I have read regarding interracial romance between two people of color.
Granted, I haven’t read many interracial romances solely featuring people of color- I wonder why that is - not for lack of trying. Fast forward to junior year of college. I read White Teeth by Zadie Smith and Beauty is a Wound by Eka Kurniawan. I want to give honorable mention to The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which features the story of Oscar’s mother, Belicia, a dark-skinned Dominicana who loves and loves and cannot make love stick to her in return (I feel you girl). What do all of these stories have in common? Tragedy. In White Teeth, a plus sized Black (young, Caribbean mother and old British father, so levels there) girl, Irie, tries to love two Bangladeshi twins, Mallit and Magid (whose father has an affair with a white woman he finds more attractive than his conservative Bandgladeshi wife, so more levels) into loving her, has sex with both of them and then gives birth to a dual-fathered and fatherless baby. In Beauty is a Wound, the story takes place in post-Dutch occupied Indonesia centers around the life of a mixed race but Dutch passing sex worker, Dewi Ayu, who mothers four daughter by four different men, all of them either Japanese, Indonesian or some mix of both. Most of these girls experiences are shaped by sexual assault and colonial trauma- the youngest daughter, who is black as can be, is portrayed as ugly, unattractive (more levels), yet her name is Beauty, given to her ironically. Though all of the daughter die in some unfortunate manner, Beauty’s fate somehow is more tragic, as she meets someone who finally will love her and he is ripped away from her almost as soon as he is introduced into her life.
Why must we always portray love as tragic? Why must love never work out, never be empowering, but disenfranchising? What does it mean for our general psyche when the only stories we can think to tell are of heartbreak and betrayal?
When we understand each other, we can better understand ourselves and our relation to this earth. Realizing that love is sacrifice, is strength and courage combined with overcoming fear, is an essential part of our spiritual and cultural growth. When we tell stories about our relationships to other brown people, we are affirming that indeed, there is a cultural revolution brewing, and yes, we are capable of looking our differences in the face while simultaneously embracing what connects us.
I myself am a hopeless romantic. I love me some good old fashion love stories. I love imagining romance as supportive, engaging and revolutionary- the way love is meant to be. There is strength in numbers, there is strength in radical love. In the era of Trump, of climate change and automatic weapons and all the other bad vibes floating around our fragile universe, shouldn’t we stress loving each other, linked through ancestral trauma and ancestral strength? Where there is diasporic angst, there is also the potential for a radical love outside the scope of whiteness. Let us demand not only more of our literature, but of ourselves.
2017 Best of the Net nominations
TRACK//FOUR is pleased to announce our nominations for Sundress Publication's 2017 Best of the Net anthology!
"Leticia was a Less-Dead Ghost" by Sergio Ortiz
"The Teenage Girl as Velociraptor" by Aline Dolinh
"Wick" by Farah Ghafoor
"Scene" by Christina Im
"Creation Myth" by Lily Zhou
"Nanjing" by Carissa Chen
"Operations" by Jordan Harper
As a fairly new indie journal whose merit and potential are communicated largely via online posts and the occasional bout of word-of-mouth communication, I believe that TRACK//FOUR can only benefit from acknowledging magazines and booklets of similar status and/or motive. That is why I've compiled a brief list of collected and individual works that I've been reading as of this week that can be slotted into that category. With so much stellar art by and for people of color going unnoticed because of bigoted publishing practices and the general scrutiny that seems to tail marginalized people in every aspect of daily life, there can never be a bad time to acknowledge and uplift our work.
#10: Lighthouse for the Drowning by Jawdat Fakhreddine (BOA Editions, Ltd.: June 13, 2017)
"Presented bilingually, this first US publication of Jawdat Fakhreddine—one of the major Lebanese names in modern Arabic poetry—establishes a revolutionary dialogue between international, modernist values and the Arabic tradition. Fakhreddine’s unique voice is a breakthrough for the poetic language of his generation—an approach that presents poetry as a beacon, a lighthouse that both opposes and penetrates all forms of darkness.
"JAWDAT FAKHREDDINE was born in 1953 in a small village in southern Lebanon. A professor of Arabic literature at the Lebanese University in Beirut, he is one of the major Lebanese names in Modern Arabic Poetry, and is considered one of the second generation poets of the modernist movement in the Arab world. He earned an MA in Physics and taught at the high school level for more than 10 years. During this time he published a number of poetry collections and was encouraged by Adonis to work on a PhD in Arabic literature. Fakhreddine intermittently publishes articles and new poems in al-Hayat newspaper, which is an Arab newspaper published in London and distributed worldwide, and in as-Safir, one of the two major Lebanese Newspapers. He writes a weekly article in al-Khaleej newspaper, a widely distributed gulf daily newspaper. He currently lives in Beirut, Lebanon."
This past weekend, the world watched as an estimated 2.9 million people came together to form the largest one-day protest in U.S. history, and while the event itself will no doubt be remembered as a landmark moment in Washington’s long record of reactionary marches and protests, the Women’s March was not without flaws. One of the largest complaints-- voiced overwhelmingly by women and gender non-conforming people of color-- was that in refusing to accommodate the concerns of queer and/or disabled nonwhite people, and promoting cissexist Second Wave feminist rhetoric, the march alienated the people who will be most affected by Trump's administration while praising for their “efforts” those who have the least to lose: cisgender, middle-class, able-bodied white women.
The truth of the event is that for many people, it will be a one-time commitment; an unfortunate reality is that not everyone is willing (or able to) invest the time and energy that on-ground protesting necessitates. Thankfully, there are other ways to support the necessary activist work that marginalized people are doing that go beyond the limits of physical labor. Amidst rumors that Trump plans to cut funding for the NEA and NEH, making a commitment to fund the artistic aims of nonwhite people will be especially important in the next four years. Here I've compiled a list of organizations to support, with special attention given to two collectives for trans women. A larger list can be found at the bottom of the blog post.
I'll preface this by saying that I’m not embarrassed to admit that even over a month since Donald Trump’s election win, I still find myself reeling from the shock of it all. I don't cry, not anymore, but I wish I could. In hard times tears are their own sort of amnesty, and it is a strange thing to feel chained to your own body as a direct result of the bigotry of others, overcome by a strange fear: the fear, slow-crawling and inescapable, that every time I stand in a room full of white people I will experience a sudden bout of synaesthetic paranoia and hear that 58%, bleeding through the fraudulent concern in their voices.
Blame it on our hopeless optimism, maybe even our naivete, but many people, particularly people of color and queer people and disabled people, genuinely believed that America would do the right thing. Make the right decision. We hoped, and though we were awestruck when the antithesis of that hope hit us like a double decker bus, we managed to right ourselves and keep walking, even when it meant we had to wander through the haze of anxiety and indecision for weeks. Quite a few people coped in the aftermath of the Trumpist tumult by doing what they always did: making brilliant, breathtaking art. But I’m also not embarrassed to admit that I couldn’t bring myself to be one of them.
But, because I couldn’t write, I read. I devoured thinkpiece after ridiculous thinkpiece, and marvelled at the ability of my peers to counter the election’s unbridled bigotry with scathing critiques and brutal grace, and asked myself what it meant that my coming of age would be characterized by a presidency that had the potential to ruin my life as a queer Black person. There was no answer, obviously, and after a while, the half-assed lambastes of identity politics coming from the liberal left started wearing on my nerves; I suppose it was convenient enough that in my time of darkness, the book I picked up just so happened to be the Holy Grail.
(content warning: mild nudity)
The TRACK//FOUR Blog discusses all things literature and art, and celebrates the accomplishments of our contributors.