on revolution, freedom, and writers of color…

some fragmented thoughts/reflections after CantoMundo 2012…

I read bell hooks’ Remembered Rapture more than a decade ago…RR isn’t my favorite of her books, I’d be much more likely to recommend Teaching to Transgress, Killing Rage, Wounds of Passion, Talking Back and so on… but there was a line that stopped me in my tracks. Apparently, I was the only one hit this hard by it cause I can’t find it anywhere online, even after scouring through a hundred of bell hooks’ quotes…

With apologies for my very rough paraphrasing, she wrote that someday literary work by women of color would not be revolutionary solely because it was written by women of color…but because of what they were writing…

We have had revolutionary women of color writers: Toni Morrison, Audre Lorde, Leslie Marmon Silko, Maxine Hong Kingston, Theresa Hak Kung Cha, Gloria Anzaldua, Cherrie Moraga are just a few of the names that come to mind—all writers who blew me away when I was in college and changed the parameters of my world.

Don’t get me wrong—I am very happy about the explosion of women of color writers everywhere—happy there are those writing Chica-Lit. And I’m glad there are people of color writing novels that the publishing world considers more ‘mainstream. ’ It’s great that those presses are willing to publish and promote those works. A part of me always rejoices to see Latino/Asian surnames or to see photos of writers of color on fliers for readings, posters for conferences, etc.  I know that every publication, every presence was fought for by the writers that came before us.

But I can’t help it that I want more…I want more revolution, I want more challenge, I want more power and rage and re-creation…

Recently, at CantoMundo 2012, our keynote speaker, E. Ethelbert Miller, spoke about the Black Arts Movement and how critics had removed/erased its revolutionary component…which left me wondering about Chican@/Latin@ literary work–it was also born in the heat of revolution…in the heat of protest against injustices…and in the revolutionary act of loving/claiming ourselves and our heritage(s).

What is our relation to revolution?  And by “our” I mean those of us who are the next couple waves of writers—from age 22 to those writers in their 30’s and 40’s who are still labeled ‘emerging’ and those who are newly arrived at ‘established.’ Can POC/Latin@ literary work exist without revolution?

I want to support all Latin@ poetry, all work by writers of color—but I have to acknowledge that different writers and their work have a different relation to revolution. In a recent conversation with a  non-CantoMundo friend, we talked about an inclination for work that ‘spoke to power,’ that critiqued/dismantled the dominant society and all forms of injustice.

I find it difficult to unilaterally support work that casts Latin@s as passive victims in the world, work that ‘re-inscribes the dominant paradigm’ (I can’t help the quotes—but I can’t find any other way to say this), and work with problematic power relations that objectify/exoticize Latin@s as the (powerless) Other. Sometimes it seems to me that there are more areas of sympathy and overlap between writers who write in close relationship to revolution and power than there are among writers of a specific racial/ethnic group…

But I also want to bring up another thought that has been heavily on my mind since CantoMundo:

Also about a decade ago, I read a P&W interview with Li-Young Lee.  This is also roughly paraphrased—Lee said that one of the things that oppression threatened was our connection to the divine. What I took away from that was that it could be an act of revolution/rebellion/freedom to insist and cultivate that connection—to write from that connection to the divine and thereby resist historical and contemporary oppression.

And in the years since, I’ve come to think that this applies to many other areas as well….that oppression has threatened our connection to our emotions, our own healing, our own stories, our own aesthetics.

There was something I heard at CantoMundo and that I’ve heard echoed in many places by many women of color—an anguish I don’t hear voiced by any other group—that I wanted to speak to…our fear that our poetry, our aesthetics, our desarollo (our development as poets), will take us to a place where we are not connected to our non-poet communities…and perhaps, not easily & identifiably tied to revolution?

We are always pushing ourselves as poets/writers, as women of color—but isn’t it the work of freedom, the responsibility of freedom— to cultivate those connections that oppression has always threatened? What does resistance look like? What does freedom look like? More importantly, what does it sound like?

 

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6 thoughts on “on revolution, freedom, and writers of color…”

  1. “our fear that our poetry, our aesthetics, our desarollo (our development as poets), will take us to a place where we are not connected to our non-poet communities…and perhaps, not easily & identifiably tied to revolution?”

    I am leery of those who say that refinement = not-community, or to be “literary” = to be whitewashed. I hear this a lot, and I don’t agree. I think that development as writers and aesthetic choices we make brings us much closer to communicating our intentions, genealogies, politics, narrative traditions and histories. For me, one thing I am I am interested/invested in is how to really interrogate the language that has been used as a tool for our oppression. Also, how have our narratives been altered/sanitized/Christianized over time to oppress us.

    Thank you for your blog posts. They’re tremendously helpful in getting my head cleared up! Much Love bjr

    1. I’m also leery of those definitions/summations….there are some phenomenal experimental poets of color who i feel are just pushing on the bounds of language and history and perspective–they move me to awe….i feel their work is an exercise in freedom…was it toni morrison or alice walker who said the function of freedom is to free others? …it’s palpable–the freedom those writers have won for themselves–and through their work, i think they extend an invitation or a road map for the reader….

      also, i think people fail to make a distinction when it comes to ‘being literary’ or the ‘aesthetics’ of poetry …it’s possible to be literary/language-driven while also critiquing power and extending freedom…this is not the same as being literary/language-driven and participating/perpetuating the oppressions of power…

      and yes, it comes back to the interrogation of our tools–our language…
      because otherwise, we run the danger of (and this quote i know is audre lorde’s: “”The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”)
      having the master’s tools turn on us…we have to be constantly vigilant…we have to be conscious of what our work actually is…

      much love to you–i’

  2. I think creativity, in general, is a connection to the divine. As in divine intervention. The divine muse. And the connection with other-worldly inspiration from that a-ha moment that comes in writing and art and perhaps elsewhere too, like science. Whenever arts are made general or sanitized it is often the divine, unpredictable, unexplained elements which are “washed clean.” Like in fairy tales or folklore. The unexplained, the magical is often the first detail to be edited out.

    And, hence, very often these elements are what writers of color bring to the party. Last week I was at The Gathering at Keystone College where the theme was Believing, un-believing and the Moral Compass. These thoughts you write of about losing identity and inspiration, keyed into faith were at the foreground of lectures and panels and lunch time discussions. Thanks for writing such a thought-provoking piece!

    1. Millicent: Thanks for writing…your response made me think this: that it’s that connection to the divine that is what is the most transformational about creative work…in the best moments of making or receiving art of any kind–in those moments, we are free and we are most and most not ourselves–and that is the place where transformation happens…

      and so then, when, as you say, the unexplained and the magical are edited out–well then, that potential for transformation is weakened or killed out right…

      abrazo!
      i’

  3. Thanks so much for your thought-provoking, post, ire’ne. You touch on several issues that have gnawed at me for longer than I care to admit. So here are my two rusted centavos…

    Revolution. Hmm. How are you/we defining the term?

    “Revolution begins with the self, in the self,” says Toni Cade Bambara. I think that’s as fine a place to start as any. When I go back to the etymology of the word revolution, I begin wondering about what to turn over, what to recycle, what to renew in my thinking-feeling-doing as an educator, as a poet, as a lover of possibility. Most days I think we (with that pronoun I embrace all poets, writers, thinkers) have lost the revolution of letters. Cynical though that appears, let me explain where it comes from: as an instructor of English at a Hispanic-serving institution and at a two-year college where the majority of the student population is African American and Mexican American, I can tell you that our young people are increasingly distanced from ‘literature.’ (The single quotation marks are snarkily [?] intentional.) The public school system, as we know, does not encourage students to think critically, and if a student can’t think critically, she certainly isn’t going to excel as a writer. Also, this classist paradigm (’cause we know this does not apply to students in affluent school districts) suggests students aren’t being required to read literature in ways that build and strengthen their analytical skills. I start the first class meeting of every composition course I teach with this basic maxim: Writing is thinking. This, sad to say, is a major revelation to most of my students. So, my first question: For whom, then, are we writing? I know, I know, this is a tired, hoary question. But remember, “revolution,” in its strictest sense, compels us to turn the ideas over in our minds.

    Eduardo, I know you’re frustrated by younger-generation poets and writers who are passive where change is concerned. (“Be the change that you wish to see in the world,” said Gandhi.) But my teaching experience tells me that most undergraduates (with the exception of those at first-tier research institutions, perhaps) feel/have been disempowered, so they’re at a loss as to how they should take their first steps on the path to Change.

    On a related note: far too much time and energy has been devoted to bashing MFA programs—that’s wholly understandable, since they are culprits here (I hasten to add that I’m a product of such a program). But there is, of course, a reason for this: a vast majority of these programs extrude a kind of writing that’s palatable to mainstream publishers, contest administrators, and critics. The irony is that genuinely revolutionary writing is too often derided by the MFA machine as facile, or, worse, dismissed with that deprecating descriptive, “accessible.” Make it new, MFA faculty constantly echo Pound’s imperative. (The irony here is that what’s truly new doesn’t fit the template many of these faculty employ, so it’s cast aside.) But here I think of my college students, who yearn for work that speaks directly to them. Work with which they identify, work that moves them, work that doesn’t condescend to them; work that is, in other words, accessible to them. Another Toni Cade Bambara quote: “The job of the writer is to make the revolution irresistible.” But we can’t make revolution alluring if we’re removed from those who will join us in revolution, however constructed and enacted.

    Recently, a not-for-profit literary organization found itself at what I understand to be a challenging, soul-searching juncture: one faction of its Board felt that the organization should focus more sharply on literacy efforts, since the organization is located in a city with a painfully persistent literacy problem. The other faction believed it should continue its focus on supporting poets and writers and “literature.” As if the two are mutually exclusive! A revolutionary idea: you can’t have a vibrant, dynamic, inclusive literature without literacy. This is so obvious. And yet, a writer friend, when I shared this scenario with her, accused me of being simplistic. ¡Ay, caray!

    ire’ne, you demarcate writing along generational lines, which I realize is a standard, often useful practice. However, as someone who’s deep in the thickets of middle-age without a book and still struggling to find his place in the ‘community’ of poets and writers (there are those queer single quotes again!), it’s something I’m sensitive to/about. We expect younger poets and writers to chart new literary terrain—that’s what the young do, after all. But that’s a one-handed, lopsided revolution. If, as bell hooks exhorts African Americans to do, we return (a revolution!) to love as a path to healing wounded environments, we have to work together—women and men, queer and straight, young and younger. If I have to compartmentalize aspects of my life in order to revolutionize, count me out. As a gay man, I had to do that for too much of my life: it’s O.K. to be ‘out’ in this context, but not in that one; it’s all right to hold hands in this neighborhood, but you risk life and limb if you do so in this one. Some days, the most revolutionary, the most transgressive thing my partner and I can do is hold hands in public. So let’s hold hands, I say.

    There are many paradoxes here, chief among them the fact that writing is a solitary pursuit, but revolution requires collective, active bravery. I am inspired by the many who understand—and live—that paradox.

    I don’t know, ire’ne, but in this case revolution may require nothing less than a redefining of the very term literature. We need to turn it over, sass it, caress it, prod it, and at the end of the day, tuck it in and turn it over in its restlessness. In the meantime, I’ll keep returning to your ideas, questions, and burnished, burr-under-the-saddle commentary. Te mando calurosos abrazos desde Appalachia.

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