We joke about it sometimes – writing as a mental affliction. Experiencing life from a different viewpoint than non-writers would. Three writers witness something horrific – The poet sees only a new metaphor. The fiction writer gets an idea for a story. The non-fiction writer thinks, Hey, this’ll be great for my memoir.
From an early age I took on the role of the observer, which became the role of the writer. Sometimes, I think it’s helped me survive, building my creative capacity to hold traumatic events as poems and stories, rather than crumbling beneath the frightening truth that those moments are part of my reality. It can also be a way to learn from life, always seeking to express how even the most dreadful or mundane or bizarre experiences can teach us something that we can share with others.
And sometimes, I think being a writer just means I’m crazy. Take now, for instance. At the moment, both of my grandmothers are in hospital beds, fighting for their lives. I can’t do anything about it, except sit around and wait for updates. Maybe I should be crying or talking about it or something, but all I can do is write.
It sort of feels like I’m writing to avoid facing my fear of losing these two woman warriors in my life. But I have a feeling the reality will catch up to me eventually. For now, I write. It’s my own crazy way of telling myself I can get through this and remain whole.
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
I wrote this short piece of fiction this morning, mostly to try to motivate myself when I was feeling weary.
A Weary Poet's Words
I woke to my words rolling from the mouth of a stranger. I opened my eyes, and through the blades of grass beside my face I watched him standing over me. My purple notebook was in one of his hands, his thick fingers covering the smudges I’d left over time with my own hands. His other hand was gesturing wildly as he read.
from the moment we were born we knew we belonged on this earth/we breathed the air though nobody showed us how/filled our lungs with it and raised our clenched fists into the sky above us/knowing we can reach for more, screaming like we were born to be heard,
“Stop that,” I said. “That’s mine, you have no right to read it.”
The man paused, and I thought he’d stop, but he only flipped his fingers through more pages and began to read again.
know your tears aren’t for nothing/let them fall to the earth/to water the seeds/that will grow the roots/to anchor the trees/that cannot be moved./know that you, too,/cannot be moved.
I sat up. At this angle, the world felt new, like I was trying to orient myself to the gravity pulls of an alien planet. But I had enough balance to reach up and snatch my notebook back. So I did. I pulled my knees to my chest, my words tucked into the folds of my body.
“Why aren’t you celebrating?” the man asked, gesturing toward the group of people waving flags and howling with glee. “You know that motherfucker’s dead, right?”
“I’m tired,” I said.
Now he gestured toward my notebook, and I tightened my hold on it.
“Then why aren’t you writing about it?”
“I’m resting,” I told him.
I rubbed my eyes, hoping he’d be gone when I opened them, so I could sleep again. Instead, I heard his voice once more. More of my words.
there never were words for this…
In an instant, I was standing, my face so close to his that I could smell the breath of his pores. He smelled salty as the sea.
“Where did you get that?” I said. “That’s not even in this notebook. Nobody’s supposed to read that.”
The man smiled, stepped back with a sheepish look like he knew he’d taken one step too far. I looked him up and down, noticed for the first time that he looked nothing like the people who were out celebrating. He was barefoot, and dirty, his skin stained with a red, earthy tinge. He carried nothing, but looked somehow like he’d been traveling.
“You’re right,” he said. “Nobody’s supposed to read it yet, anyway.”
He gazed beyond my head, as if he was looking to see where he’d go next. Or where I’d been before.
“Rest well, weary poet,” he said. “But don’t lose your words. You’ll need them now, more than ever before.”
As I watched him walk away, his feet shuffling through the growing grass, that poem bloomed in my mind. The one I’d been putting together in my head, but resisting the urge to write down.
there never were words for this… the poem began. I settled back down into the grass, and began to write the rest of the words.
Jesus Angel Garcia, David Corbett,
Evelyn Pine and myself
live writing to some
damn good live music
by Erma Kyriakos
Well, that was fun!It was Easter Sunday, and perhaps I should have been
spending time with my family instead of writing sexy stories. But there I was at the Portuguese Artists Colony reading
, heart pounding, typing away for ten minutes as I put together a story based on the first thing that came to my mind upon hearing the prompt "she listened for breath."Stripper nuns. What? Am I the only one? Well, I guess I shouldn't be
ashamed of the way my mind works, because the story was a success, in the sense that it earned me just enough audience votes to win the crown. My competitors could've easily taken it -- Jesus Angel Garcia
, Evelyn Pine
and David Corbett
each were fabulous, and I was glad just to be writing alongside them. Not to mention how lovely (and distracting!) it was to write to the beautiful live music of Erma Kyriakos
. So this win means that I'll be developing my story to read at the next Portuguese Artists Colony on May 22nd. The good news, for me, is that I'll get to return for another fun evening of music and words, and this time I won't have to be nervous as hell about the live writing part.
The bad news is that now, of course, I have to figure out what in the world to do with stripper nuns in a fully developed story. We'll see how this turns out. But until then, here's part one of my winning story. Edited only to add a title and correct typos. Big thanks to the Portuguese Arists Colony writers and to everyone who was present, in body or in spirit!
Today I'm feeling antsy, because tomorrow I'll be reading, and writing. That, of course, doesn't sound any different from any ordinary day, so I should specify that I'll be doing it in front of a live audience. Scandalous, I know.Each month, the Portuguese Artists Colony
hosts a reading featuring live music, local writers, and the part that's fun for you as an audience member, and terrifying for me as a participant -- live writing. That's right, that means I'll be writing on a topic I don't yet know, to then read in competition with my fellow writers as the audience determines a winner. Fun, yes? Terrifying? ...Yes. But mostly, I'm really excited, because I know it'll be a good time. My competition will be fierce -- Jesus Angel Garcia, David Corbett and Evelyn Pine.
I'm calling myself the underdog, because while they can say "refer to my book(s) and multiple awards for proof of my writing skills," I'll be using the line "refer to my blog, where I regularly demonstrate my live writing skills by posting the first words
that pour out of my head in the morning." There will also be featured readings from writers who are not to be missed, including Shideh Etaat
and Matthew Siegel
. Plus, music by Erma Kyriakos
. It will be quite a night! At least if I'm terrified for part of the evening, I'll be entertained for the rest. And I'd love your support, if you're around the Bay Area and can make it out to the reading.
Here are the details
Sunday, April 24
Doors open at 4:30 pm
Show at 5:00 pm
As for tonight, I'll be getting cozy with some creative inspiration at one of my favorite reading series, the Living Room Reading Series
. Read this post
to learn why I love it so much, and if you're interested in attending check out the details on Facebook
. I hope to see you at some point during this lively weekend of literary life!
I suppose I should comment on the Huck Finn / n-word controversy. If you’re not familiar with the latest race-related storm over publishing, here’s the story: Mark Twain scholar Alan Gribben has adapted Twain’s classic novel “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” for New South Books. The change he’s made that’s gotten the most attention is to use the word “slave” in every instance where Twain used “nigger.” Now, much of the media is paying just as much attention to the original story itself as they are to the bonus flap, critic Roger Ebert’s tweet that he’d “rather be called a nigger than a slave.”
I’m commenting on this in part because it’s an important issue, of course, though not because I’m particularly invested in the preserving the book as it is each time it’s published. I have to admit, too, that I’m joining this conversation here partly because I’m a black writer and so I’ve been getting those looks.
You know the ones. The looks you get from someone in a position of privilege, who wants you to give permission to speak on an issue by speaking up about it first. Those looks I complain about now, but that maybe Roger Ebert could have used with a person of color before he went and spoke up about an issue that has nothing to do
with him. The issue of the tweet is simple enough – as a white man, Ebert wasn’t in any position to state his opinion on which term he’d prefer, when he’d never have to worry about being called either. He knows
But the question remains about the use of the word itself, about censorship we’re demanding for not only modern spaces like Twitter, but for literature published as far back as 1884. I think it’s one thing to discuss what the n-word means to us today – to question whether modern hip-hop artists who popularize the term, for example, should be criticized for disregarding its history or praised for reclaiming the word. Personally, I believe that the word’s long, ugly history is enough that we should put it behind us for good.
I think of my position as a writer, however, and I know if I’d used the n-word as much as Twain had in a work of my own, I would feel it was excessive, I’d be uncomfortable with it, and I’d certainly try to avoid it. If I were writing a historical work in which the word has a role, however, to censor myself would be to deny historical truth. Avoiding the use of a word with a violent history simply to allow readers to stay in their places of comfort
is dangerous, and not in a good way
. Rather than attempt to rewrite history in terms we can all find on a page without spilling our morning coffee, we must face the truth of our past, even those uncomfortable truths we’d rather avoid.
The important part of this whole controversy is that it’s led to a discussion
. We can ask ourselves and each other why these words feel so awful to us, so we remember their history and understand how we should move forward. These conversations should happen all the time, though – it shouldn’t take censorship to threaten to take away our words for us to realize their significance. But Mark Twain has already made his statement – I say let that remain as is, and let’s keep the conversation going between you and I.
I've been doing some early morning free writing, as part of a goal to write more this year. Here's some flash fiction from this morning.
Winds of Change
And with the heaving sigh of the train’s departure, she’s on her way. It all went so smoothly that she retraces her steps in her head, to make sure she didn’t forget anything.
She left no part of herself behind, not even a lipstick trace on the champagne glass she hadn’t sipped from yet. Excused herself to the restaurant bathroom once they’d settled in for dinner, then recovered the duffle bag she’d left in the last stall earlier that evening. She changed into a t-shirt and jeans, smoothed a long black wig over her brown hair and changed her makeup, thickening the foundation over the purple bruises on her cheek and chin, wiping away the dark blue eyeshadow he’d insisted she wear to dinner.
Still making changes as she slipped out the back entrance of the restaurant, she pocketed her new ID card, the one with the name she’d used to book the train ticket, and shoved the old one to the bottom of her bag, along with her old clothes and the heels she’d replaced with sneakers. When she reached the train station across the street from the restaurant and scurried onto the platform, a red blinking sign that buzzed like an alarm clock told her she had five minutes left until the train arrived.
It was too much time. She must have hurried into the bathroom too quickly, because if she’d timed it right, she would have two minutes or less to spare. Each extra minute could change everything. Or rather, could make it so that nothing’s changed at all.
He’d notice she was gone soon. And he’d know she’d gone far, of course. As soon as he got the feeling she’d been gone too long, there’d be no question of whether she’d gotten caught up on a phone call or taken a wrong turn on her way back to the table. He’d search for her escape route. And all he’d have to do is look across the street to find it.
She turned away from where he’d enter, put her back to the doors. Her wig felt suffocating, overwhelmingly artificial, and she began to feel like this was an absurd idea. He’d know it was her, wig or not, as soon as he saw her.
The alarm clock said there were two minutes left now, and she could feel the breeze of the train, though it was still far away. First, swirling around her feet, dashing between her shoelaces and tickling her ankles. She found her shallow breaths come easier as the train’s wind rose, circling her legs, whispering beneath her t-shirt to reach her belly, cradling her head and stroking the hair in her wig.
By the time she saw the train arriving, one bright headlight illuminating its way, she’d forgotten about him and the possibility of his arrival at the station. She was already riding the winds that would carry her away. She hummed a tune of victory as she sank into the soft seat cushion on the train, didn’t remember who she was victorious over until the train let out its breath and began to move.
She wondered if he’d gotten up to look for her yet, or if he was still sitting at the table, running a fat finger over the rim of his champagne glass, preparing his toast.
“To new beginnings,” he would have said, as he always said on the nights she had to cover up her bruises before they went out to dinner.
This time he could mean it. She nodded to the trees growing along the train tracks, lifting their arms in a toast to her freedom.
“To new beginnings,” she said.
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...