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[Above is a "poem poster" I made many years ago as part of a Fil Am Lit project. The image is called "Bayanihan," by Mel Vera Cruz.]

I must live in a “bubble.”

I’ve read these three really great essays on ethnicity/”race” and writing:

“You Are The Second Person,” by Kiese Laymon

“Writer of Color,” by Zahir Janmohamed

“Some Thoughts on Biracialism and Poetry,” by Paisley Rekdal

All of these are excellent essays that I highly recommend reading, and not just for writers of color. Educators of color too. Writers and educators of all ethnicities really.

Still, I think I live in a “bubble,” or that I have built some kind of bubble around myself. Or shield, or armor. Perhaps it’s because I am a poet, not a fictionist or memoirist jockeying for a lucrative book contract, or because I have been long situated nicely in the SF Bay Area. Perhaps it’s because my memories of my MFA experience are these days, pretty far away, that I lived through some crappy racialized crap and lived to tell about it, and that I think of it now as no major deal or deal breaker.

Perhaps the “crappy racialized crap” was just more dramatic in my mind than it really was, because when I was in the thick of it, I was exhausted and overworked and sleep-deprived. Or I just think of it now as some writer of color rite of passage, one of many ways we learn to toughen our hides and our poetics, learn to think, act, produce our best, most incisive work while on our feet and fighting, i.e. in non-ideal, non-comfy, the opposite of luxurious situations.

Maybe it’s because I’ve learned to quickly cut other people off at the knees, figuratively, of course, to sever ties when I know the working relationship is not vibing, not productive, not healthy, not helpful, and all the damage control and relationship repair ain’t worth the bullshit and drama. I learned to move on, find these relationships elsewhere, as my criteria for professional relationships do not include drama and bullshit. Or I’ve learned to move on, work independently (that solitary writer’s work we all hear about), rather than relying on others — of any ethnicity — to validate these things for me: Really, no one can write your body of poems for you, or motivate or compel you to build and finish your manuscript, or submit your manuscript to publishers. That’s your own work and weight to bear.

My “bubble” then, also includes my editors and publishers, who live and work in different parts of the country, and who come from different kinds of ethnic and aesthetic backgrounds, who have never questioned the integrity or “authenticity” of my work, never asked me to change anything fundamental and crucial to the poems, the poetics, the driving force, the multilayered/complex why I do what I do. They have read my work with open minds and with a lot of interest/enthusiasm, and confidence in my work. In response, they have made suggestions, and given honest and knowledgeable feedback and criticism. They have asked very good questions. All of this, with the purpose of making my work stronger/tighter. I have listened, made my own suggestions and changes. I have also asked questions. They have had confidence in my poetic (“writerly”) decisions.

None of this has ever been, in my mind, racialized, though the work clearly and pointedly handles “race.”

I am grateful for this “bubble,” and that my work has been respectfully handled, well produced, well distributed. That my work has made it into different kinds of classrooms. I want this for more folks in my community.

But this is just to say that I am wondering about those racialized expectations and whose expectations those are. I would love to see more essays akin to Langston Hughes’s 1926 essay, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” writing that turns a critical and intelligent eye at the racialized crap we heap upon one another within a given community. So then, community-wise, inward-looking writing that is critical and productive, rather than accusatory and divisive.

I am interested in why we heap that racialized crap upon one another within our specific communities. I am interested in how and why we treat our own like shit. Why we are dismissive of our own. Why do we try to silence our own. What is supposedly gained? What are we trying to regulate? I want to talk about this openly.

As I’ve written above, “that my work has been respectfully handled, well produced, well distributed. That my work has made it into different kinds of classrooms. I want this for more folks in my community.” I don’t know anymore, how to “advocate” for this; as part of the PAWA leadership for some years now, I have done my best to make information available to PAWA’s constituents and those who follow the org — via informational postings on the PAWA blog, FB page, and listserv, and via PAWA and other orgs’ workshops — to varying levels of interest, disinterest, ambivalence, and indifference.

So this is where I am today.

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One thought on “The “Race” Conversation: When we talk about expectations for “ethnic” writing/writers, whose expectations are we talking about?

  • June 20, 2013 at 9:37 pm
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    Hi Barbara,

    First I want to copy and paste this important passage:

    I am interested in why we heap that racialized crap upon one another within our specific communities. I am interested in how and why we treat our own like shit. Why we are dismissive of our own. Why do we try to silence our own. What is supposedly gained? What are we trying to regulate? I want to talk about this openly.

    I think one reason is internalized racism. We struggle with that old shame that comes from colonization. I think Ben Saenz used to talk about the colonized mind. We must resist that oppressive history that tries to tell us that we are “less than.”

    My entire time in grad school in North Texas was filled with snide remarks about multicultural poets and writers from a couple of white guys. They detested everything cultural that dealt with writing, and they insisted it would be “easy” for me to publish because I identified Latina. It was terrible.

    Unconsciously, if we’re not careful, we can buy into this mentality ourselves, and oftentimes I think this is why writers of color try to distance themselves from being “writers of color” or engaging in writing that deals with racial and ethnic issues. It’s hard. It’s a hard choice to write about such things. It is definitely NOT an easy choice to have a voice, to speak out against marginalization.

    In any case, I think this idea of not having our minds colonized is central to us all getting along better.

    Reply

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