Do you keep a journal?
I’m curious about where the phrase “Dear Diary” comes from. I think it’s funny to address a diary by name, even though when we write in journals, we’re writing only to ourselves. Or are we? Do we think of a journal’s pages as living? As listening?
What’s your reason for journaling? I have a journal, but I haven’t kept up with it much over the past year or so. Last night, I decided to pick it up and write something, and as I wrote, I really wanted to get back into a regular practice of it. I wrote wanting to learn something, and learn I did.
What I learned last night: my journaling style hasn’t changed much since I was thirteen years old. I still have lots of feelings, just a few more words to describe them. Also, heartbreak sucks. Also, when I write just to myself, it still feels a little like I’m writing to someone else.
Of course, I already knew all of this. It’s funny to write seeking to learn, when all I can really write in a journal is what I already know. I think that offers some insight on who this “Diary” character is.
Dear Diary, I think you’re a gray-haired, steady-voiced therapist. When I ask you to tell me something, all you can say is, “What do you think?” and sometimes it pisses me off.
Dear Diary, or maybe you’re a dreadlocked stoner who believes in my energy. “Trust your path, man. You got this,” you say to me. And sometimes I think you might be right.
Dear Diary, you might be a child. Wide-eyed and ready to accept the world as I present it to you. You ask me questions about why things are as they are, and as I search for the answers, I see wonder and magic where I never noticed it before.
Dear Diary, you could just be an older version of me. From my perspective, you have all the answers I seek, but you’re looking back, surprised to see that the answers were there all along.
Dear Diary, or maybe you’re just a book with blank pages. You have breath, but I won’t feel it until I sigh into you. You have voice, but that voice is my own. You’re listening to me, and reminding me of all I can learn by listening to myself, too.
Who is your Diary? What do learn from its voice? From your voice?
This is part of a longer nonfiction piece I've been working on, about discovering the truth of my beauty through art, not the media.
There was a time when I thought beauty had nothing to do with me. I didn’t see any part of myself in the fashion magazines, in the movies, or on TV, not even in commercials advertising artificial ways to turn an ordinary face into a pretty one. In a way, this was a good thing. It helped me find my authentic self. When other girls my age tried to cover their true selves with the right clothes and makeup, I didn’t bother. There was no chance of beauty for me.
As a teenager, of course, it wasn’t as simple or positive as abandoning the quest for artificial beauty to embrace my authentic self. I was pretty miserable about the idea that I’d never be beautiful. I was mad, not at the beauty standards that excluded me, but at myself for failing to meet them. If I couldn’t be beautiful, it seemed, then I couldn’t be loved. At fourteen, I was missing that vital first step toward romantic love – I’d never been kissed, and for that I blamed my acne-marked skin, my widening hips, and most of all, my too dark, too big, unkissable lips.
Untitled by Myra Greene
from the series
Character Recognition, 2006
Though I avoided taking beauty products seriously, there was some fun in trying them out. I remember a day when a few of my closest friends, fair-skinned and beautiful in my eyes, were playing around with makeup. I saw no harm in joining in the fun, giggling and battling for the mirror, holding up photos of models and trying to match their poses.
One of my friends, a girl who often heard compliments on her beauty, handed me her lip gloss, telling me to try it on. Now, I didn’t know much about makeup, but I could tell just by looking at the pale pink bottle that it was meant for girls with lips of a similar color, not for me. I tried to say so, but the other girls encouraged me to give it a chance. I wouldn’t know how it would look until I tried, they said. Then they all waited. The giggling had stopped. I was ruining the fun.
So I sighed, said “fine,” agreed to try the lip gloss on so I could prove them wrong and we could move on. I touched the pink brush to my lips, sure this was a bad idea, but somewhere in the back of my mind was a quiet hope that perhaps they were right, after all. This was makeup I’d avoided, but maybe spreading it on my lips would be the key to unlocking my beauty.
But when I turned to show my face to my friends, I knew I’d been right after all. They shrieked with laughter, and when I turned to the mirror, I could see why. I looked ridiculous. The glittery pink goo looked hopelessly out of place, as if there was nothing it could do for someone like me, with the dark of my lips persisting through, rather than fading to the shimmer meant to make them beautiful.
The laughter burned, and I wiped the gloss away, as urgently as if it was burning me, too. They tried to insist that I join in the laughter, that I stop being so serious and accept the hilarity of the situation.
My friends didn’t know that, while they were surprised and amused by the absurdity on my face, this situation wasn’t new to me. I’d been there before, looking into the mirror with disappointment, sure that nothing I put on my face could possibly make me beautiful. All I wanted now was to leave, and let them continue without me. I was ruining the fun. My lips were destroying the dream of beauty.
She does not know
she thinks her brown body
has no glory.
If she could dance
under palm trees
and see her image in the river,
she would know.
But there are no palm trees
on the street,
and dish water gives back
-William Waring Cuney
by Paloma Spaeth
There's a girl I'm calling Z. Z is short for my middle initial, not my middle name. Z's been appearing at the center of my work lately. Sometimes, I find it's her voice speaking, when I meant for it to be my own.
But Z is me, sort of. She's a part of me that I don't usually focus on. She's a more daring, more perverse, more shameless version of me. I'd call her an exaggeration of myself, but let's face it, sometimes when we exaggerate ourselves, it just comes out looking more honest than we're used to.
I guess Z is not really a girl at all, but a woman. I forget sometimes because Z can remember her childhood so well - or, should I say, she remembers my childhood. So, I may think of her as a girl-woman, but Z has no question that she's left girlhood behind.
Z tells stories that aren't quite my stories, or so I think at the time. She goes places that can make people cringe, make them approach me after I've read my work, bringing wide eyes and the question, "Wow, did that really happen to you?" I shake my head, and I'm halfway through my no, no, nos when I realize that yes, that is my truth, in a way. They're the same places I've been, just called by different names. The same colors I've seen, cast in different shades. But I continue shaking my head, and draw out my chuckle so it doesn't halt as a lump in my throat.
Z feels what I feel, only she lets herself show it. She even gets angry. Anger, the emotion I fear the most, swells in Z like a beat that won't hit until it courses through all of her veins. She's like me in the way that anger makes her tremble, makes her feel like expressing herself will set off a cannon that can't be recaptured, only Z wants to make a sound. Her biggest fear is, sometimes, my biggest comfort. Silence.
I'm not sure what to do with Z now. Sure, I could set up some long-term goals for her, all the works, with a book series deal and a reality TV gig and all, but I'm talking right now. I don't know how to finish her poems. I don't even know how to finish this post.
In a way, that's why I like giving up some control to a raw character like Z. I think I could learn from stepping back and listening to her memories and insights. It may be a messy process, one full of surprises, but with Z's truth, mine comes stumbling forward.
All biographies like all autobiographies like all narratives tell one story in place of another.
I’ve been really moved by poet Staceyann Chin
’s recent articles in the Huffington Post. If you haven’t seen them, check out her conception story here
, and her open letter to her unborn child here
. Her heartfelt words are touching enough to make anyone cheer for her on her journey into motherhood.
Or so I thought. But amidst the love and support, Staceyann is facing a bit of a backlash
. Turns out, not everyone is as excited as I am about the idea of a single black lesbian becoming a loving mother.
What does this have to do with me, as a writer? Well, first of all, there are the limits that some want to impose on queer women of color. Limits on our bodies, on the stories we can write. And everyone faces such limits – the boxes we’re meant to fit into so that we help maintain the order of things. Where, in the stereotypical images of motherhood, do we find a woman like Staceyann? A woman like me?
This past Mother’s Day, after calling my mother, I headed out for work. The first person to speak to me was a man standing on the street, holding out a cup for change and greeting everyone who passed.
“Happy Mother’s Day,” he said to me. “Even though I know you’re not a mother. I can tell!”
I wondered, how could he tell I wasn’t a mother? Did I look, to him, too young to have a child? Too well-rested, perhaps, to know a mother’s worry? A little too unhappy, maybe, to know the love of a child?
What he didn’t know is that a little over four years ago, I was ready to be a mother. Ready
is a funny word for a newly single, pregnant twenty year old with no clue as to how I was going to support the unexpected new life, but ready I was. Sure the power of love and sheer will would give me the tools I needed. Though I’m not one to believe in destiny, I felt that while this surprising turn was certainly a challenge, it was meant to be. There was a lot of pain in my life at the time, and in a way, the new life felt like the door at the end of my suffering
My entire life had already shifted to focus on my child, but then the new life left the world just as unexpectedly as he or she had come. I had a miscarriage, and fell back into a suffering deeper than I’d ever known before.
It’s a funny thing about pain. I don’t often talk about this time of my life, but it certainly appears in my writing, and often in ways I don’t expect. If it’s meant for others to read, I often wrap pieces of it into fiction or poetry so far from my own story that I don’t bother trying to claim it as truth.
But what of my story of motherhood? Is there room for voices like mine among narratives of mothers?
At the end of Staceyann Chin’s letter to her unborn child, she writes, “Child of mine, these promises are only what I intend. And when I come up short on those grand intentions, I give you permission to whip out this letter and remind me of what I had put in writing long before you were born.”
I, too, wrote letters, made pacts with my child, promises to be loving, forgiving and honest with each other. The child I lost left these promises in my hands. And there’s no reason I shouldn’t still keep the ones I can. To remember what it’s like when my body is a vessel for another life, and caring for myself is the first step in caring for another. My eyes were opened to a gentleness about the world that I still cannot unsee.
Yes, it’s a funny thing about writing about pain. Much of what I’ve been through makes it difficult to get close to people, hard to open up unless it’s in writing. But when I declare that this is my story, not meant for anyone else, what’s meant to keep me at a distance often connects me to others who have, to my surprise, walked in my shoes.
I appreciate someone like Staceyann Chin adding a new perspective to those voices of mothers we hear in the media. When we hear unexpected voices, it’s an opportunity to learn, and expand our ideas of who can write what stories.
So I’m not waiting, either. Not waiting for anyone else’s permission to write as a mother. Yes, I was a mother once. And though I may not be what you’d expect of a mother – queer, young, childless – yes, I write as a mother still.
Last Thursday's Generation FIVE fundraiser
Tonight at InsideStorytime
, I'm reading a piece set in Trinidad. It's a piece that feels deeply personal, in a strange way. I guess I can wait until after I've read it to elaborate on that. But it makes sense that the idea of writing as an act of discovery
applies to reading and sharing work, too. Each reading brings surprises. Sometimes, discoveries come through self-reflection on my work and its relationship with the audience. And always, I find something new by sharing the experience of that work with the audience.At last Thursday's Generation FIVE fundraiser,
for example, I gained more insight on how my poetry fits into the framework of Transformative Justice
. It really felt right to be part of an event that included the brilliant voices of Vanessa Huang and Janee Smith, as well as a moment to join a stand for human rights by making phone calls to support the Pelican Bay Prisoner Hunger Strike
. I'm still in the process of taking in everything that evening offered. For tonight's reading, I'm already making new discoveries, as I think about this piece and what it means to me. I'm also looking forward to readings by Michael David Lukas
, Angie Chau
, Heather Fowler
and Andrew Dugas
. With Ransom Stephens
as the MC. Come by if you're in the Bay Area tonight. Our art engages us in conversation, and the more people join, the more we can all discover.
800 Post Street
San Francisco, California
Yesterday, I had a conversation and writing session surrounding the question of memories in error. What does it mean to look back in time, memories in mind, only to find that the truth was not as we remember it? And is each person's memory just one version of the truth? How do we construct our truths - is it some combination of memory, filled in with fiction, overlayed with what some may call lies?
I'm finding these questions especially intriguing now in light of the developments since my last blog post
about Syrian "A Gay Girl in Damascus" blogger Amina Adballah. To fill you in: Amina, called a hero
for her courageous blog chronicling her life as an out lesbian under the oppressive regime of Syria, was allegedly abducted
by armed gunmen earlier this week.
Amina's story has spread, just as those of us supporting her had hoped, with major news outlets
covering her abduction and the following campaign to release her. The result is that, even in her absence, Amina has continued to raise awareness around the world of those who are suffering, their human rights violated as they struggle for the freedom to simply be who they are.
And now, a new layer
to the story - apparently, photos of Amina that have been circulating may be photos of someone else entirely. The media has had a difficult time finding anyone who has actually met Amina, and now people are wondering
whether the Amina we are rallying for even exists at all.
And what would it mean if she didn't? There are some who say that it doesn't matter, because whatever the truth of her identity, the author of the blog has raised awareness, telling some part of the truth of LGBTQ Syrians who are suffering. They also remind us that focusing on whether or not Amina exists may distract from the possibility that there is somebody, still, being detained against her will. Others would say that such a revelation would take away from everything "Amina" has done,
with the truth that rallied us to action revealed as nothing more than a lie. Part of the argument against Amina's existence is an old blog post explaining that some of what she writes will be autobiographical, while some will be fiction, and she won't always say which is which. Does this mean we've been swallowing lies?Well, regardless of who it is who wrote those blog posts, I believe I can relate to her. Not only as a queer woman of color, but also as a writer caught somewhere between fact and fiction
in storytelling. I know that I've written fiction some have read as truth, and told truths read as fiction. What does it mean when I don't take the time to clarify which is which? Am I telling lies? Or exploring just another way of illuminating the truth? What do you believe is true?From yesterday's writing: shipwrecks on the water's surfacesailing with wind blown from boneslong buried in an ocean grave
Lately, my poetry has been leaving me with a heightened sense of identity. Of course, I've always been
constantly aware of walking the wire
between who others expect me to be and who I am. But recently, I've been putting more of myself in my work, in such a raw, honest way that I imagine anyone reading might actually come closer to understanding my identity than ever before. The thought terrifies me. So I've been working it out through pieces like this one, which will be ever-evolving...
Little Boxes, On the Girl's Side
It begins when they hear of my poetry. There are, after all, certain expectations of poets. I will arrive wearing glasses and a thick brown coat. I will arrive with my own beer tucked into my sleeve.
Instead I arrive wearing long brown cloak they believe has been designed for the sole purpose of attracting attention. I know it as my skin. They use it as the basis for their next expectations of me. Of where I’m from. Of what I’ll say. Of who I’m with.
At the first mention of queer, they understand me as a lesbian poet, even though I am not one.
If I mention first, instead, the touch of a man, they understand me as a straight poet, even though I am not one.
Anything in between, and they think they get me now – get that I’m just setting out to break the mold, for surely I can be myself without being so defiant. Surely I can pour my story into them without stirring the crowd.
Surely they understand me. As long as I tell my story like I’m a mama at bedtime, covering with band-aids the cracks that may send their souls falling the eternal distance from the world they believed to be true.
Of course I am who they want me to be.
Their fears would blow gusts of nightmares through their daydreams if I dared to be anything else.
I don’t know what to call this, but I’ve been working on it during the past couple of days. Let’s call it creative non-fiction. I may add to it later, so you might see it again.
The Practice of Peace
A thank-you card faces me as I write this morning. It’s from CUAV
, for my involvement in last year’s Safetyfest
. “Thank you for building queer & trans power to create safety,” the front of the card reads. I like to think it applies to what I do when I sit here, blogging and writing.
Life in the Bay Area these days: Safeytfest
is coming, and the coyotes are returning
to the city. I guess this means it’s time for me to sacrifice something to them again. When I was a child, it was the cats they captured, and recently I’ve been feeling like it’s my writing routine. The coyotes, I hear, come out during the hours I used to reserve for writing. I imagine their slender bodies slinking through the streets, camouflage colors gleaming bright against the black asphalt beneath the rising sun as they gobble up the words I don’t record when they can find nothing else to eat.
I can find plenty of other ways to sit before a blank page, when I’m not writing on it. This morning, I’m thinking about Safetyfest, non-violence, the idea that a commitment to ending violence can take so many different forms. I’m thinking of peace as a practice, a discipline, in the same way that I develop a writing routine as a practice.
What does peace look like when I’m practicing it as I write? Where does it land in my body? Is it in my fingers, which uncurl to find letters, rather than making a fist? Is it on my skin, in my scars? For every moment that I’m not retaliating against someone who hurt me, that I’m writing instead of continuing the cycle of violence, is the practice of peace settling in my hunched back, laying rest in my unflexed muscles?
I imagine, in this sense, that you’ve done something this morning to practice peace
. What was it? Staying silent to listen to the birds, or adding your own song? Taking up a child in your arms, rather than taking up arms? Re-opening your favorite book, instead of old wounds?
Here’s a thank-you to you. Thank you for practicing peace. May it rest in your body always, in all that you do.
I’ve been feeling a little guilty about something. Namely, about the fact that I’ve been doing all this complaining
about growing up without seeing myself reflected in the books I was reading, which wasn’t entirely true. It was true most of the time in school, but I’m grateful at least that I had a mom who was conscious enough of how difficult that experience would be for me to make sure I saw myself in books at home. The books she brought home for me usually focused on little girls of color, so in some way I knew I wasn’t alone in the world.
She has no idea what she got herself into. I’m sure a simple thank-you would have been fine, but no, I’m showing my gratitude by telling the world how inspired I was by those stories and writing my own. So she finds herself showing up sometimes, in places like my holiday coming out story
. And in today’s holiday time story, which was inspired by her determination to have me see myself in another art form, dance. I don’t remember the details, so let me start by saying that this is a completely fictionalized, highly dramatized, and frighteningly accurate version of the story.
That last part is a joke, as far as I know. Read on...
I’m back from a holiday break. This break was relatively uneventful for me, as usually I like to shake up the holidays with some life-altering announcement, you know, like saying I’ll be eating tofu instead of turkey. Usually in my family that’s enough to create some excitement.
I seem to be running out of material, though. This Thanksgiving my most exciting announcement was that I’ve decided to apply to grad school, but that was boring. Nobody cried.
So instead of that I’ll share a story from Thanksgiving six years ago, when, like a good little rebellious daughter, I returned home from college to tell my parents that I was queer.
Click "Read more" for the whole post.