On experimental writing and the seams of the world: after reading Barbara Jane Reyes’ post: FOR #APIAHERITAGEMONTH, ONGOING THOUGHTS ON TEACHING FILIPINO AMERICAN LITERATURE
(A bit messy, but too many thoughts were fighting for mental space. I have the feeling this may grow into a much larger beast.)
For many years, I resisted being called an ‘experimental writer.’ It made no sense to me—there was no self-conscious effort on my part to experiment with language or story structure. As I saw it, there were stories I needed to tell and it was my job to figure out how to best tell them. I was looking for the most natural and most complete way to represent them on the page.
As a younger writer, I was told that my stories weren’t stories, that they were too difficult, too strange, too intense, and too dark. One famous writer told me that my stories belonged in a drawer. One of the agents I spoke to told me that, given my work, I seemed remarkably functional and organized. They’d known writers like me who’d jumped off buildings and cut off their own ears.
At the time, these remarks left me wounded and incredibly frustrated. Twenty years later, I consider “difficult,” “strange,” and “intense” to be compliments, and I’m glad I never backed down and never compromised. Though even I don’t know how I persisted through a decade of rejections—most of which stated my work was “too experimental” and not something anyone would ever want “to read on a beach.”
In retrospect, I don’t know why it took me so long to send my work to Aunt Lute Books, a multicultural feminist press that had published Gloria Anzaldua, Audre Lorde, Gayle Jones, Emma Perez, and Alice Walker. When I set out to have my stories published, I sent the manuscript to Latinx, university, and independent presses—thinking they were my best shot.
This November will mark four years since flesh to bone was published. It is immensely validating that flesh to bone won various literary awards and that it has been taught in Latinx and Native American Studies, multicultural literature, and creative writing college courses across the country and abroad.
All of this came to mind when I read Reyes’ blog (mentioned above), and made me think that the lack of eagerness for publishing my work came from the misconception that it was not work that would be wanted or appreciated by Latinx readers or readers in general.
“Never, ever underestimate what our predominantly Filipino American students are capable of . . . I am tired of our community underestimating our . . . people’s capacity for literary, poetic rigor. I think we resort to what is most simple when studying our community’s literary work, because we are compartmentalized — we believe intellectual work belongs only behind the closed gates of the highest echelons of the academy, and then we resent that intellectual work exists only in singular form, only behind the closed gates of the highest echelons of the academy.
We want to be passive and just watch a performance. We want to be entertained. We want meaning spoon fed, glossed over, and given to us in memes. We don’t want to engage what we don’t already know. We don’t think we want to expend the energy or invest the time. We dismiss complexity in literature as “colonized,” as literature for “white people,” and in doing so, we dumb down. . . amazing work that folks in our community are creating.”
Reyes writes about Filipino American students, readers, and writers, but I think this applies equally to Latinx students, readers, and writers. There is an assumption that Latinxs want only entertainment or literature that reflects back their own lives or literature that conforms to the expectations of what has come before—whether that is work from the dominant society or work from Latinx writers. If we assume that “only white people write and read complex literature; we are saying to others that our own people are not capable of literary complexity. . .that we are passive.”
What I will say next I will say without the benefit of a dozen books to my name. I can only speak to what I think I want to do and why I’m now more willing to be labeled an ‘experimental’ writer.
As I’ve come to understand it, ‘experimental writing’ is not solely an aesthetic choice, especially for writers who have come to realize that the language and story structure of dominant society is either insufficient or structurally oppositional to the needs of the story.
For multi-lingual writers, one language is often not enough to convey an exact meaning, to capture the voices of a community, or to represent reality and history as the multi-lingual experience they are and have been.
“I want to say that suspicion of those who wield English is legitimate. This is part of our colonial legacy. I also want to say that as we collectively work towards decolonization, we have to look very closely at our use of English. . .Do be critical of our mastery of it, the language and its literary forms. But yes, strive towards mastery of it. Not to be in its thrall, and not to oppress our own, but to complicate it, to hybridize/mongrelize it, to transform it. . .[R]ather than replicating those same oppressive systems, rather than perpetuating inequality among our own, let’s wield our Englishes to communicate well our complexities, use it in our everyday liberatory practices.”
Equally, “those same oppressive systems” are replicated not only in language but also, and perhaps more powerfully, in the structure of stories. Such that multi-cultural writers, writers influenced by cultures other than the dominant society, or writers that see writing as an integral part of “everyday liberatory practices” may discover that the stories they need to tell will not fit neatly into the structure(s) formulated by dominant society, formulated with the intent to maintain current power inequities, and even, to disable the capacity to enact the initial stage of a liberatory practice—to imagine freedom. Freedom. Wholeness. Healing. Expression. Empowerment. Creation.
And so, yes, work that is striving to liberate the writer and the reader—work where both writer and reader are involved in the making of meaning and the employment of the imagination in the service of liberation—almost can’t be considered anything other than ‘experimental’ due to the work’s inability, in fact, its unwillingness, to conform to and to perpetuate oppressive systems.
I think it is a mistake to say that the oppression of native/conquered/minority cultures is something that happened only in the past. The truth is that oppression is a force that works through time—in the past, in the present, and arcing in to the future. It is beyond time and anti-time because, by oppressing, shaming, and othering a culture, it in fact, shapes the perception of time and of reality. It is not just language that is disenfranchised, it is concepts and worldviews and perceptions of time…the body, inter- and intra-personal relationships, the very way we move in the world.
So then, what does literary work look like that is seeking to uncover ancestral ways of understanding ourselves and the world? How will it shape English or any other dominant tongue to speak to concepts and relationships that are foreign to it?
I am focusing here on literary experimentation that is ancestral in nature because I think that is something Reyes and I have in common—as well as many other writers of color—in our literary strategies of liberation (specifically, Reyes’ poetry and my fiction). And when I say liberation I don’t mean solely an aesthetic or artistic liberation—I mean a liberation of empowerment, a liberation of recovery, a liberation of healing, a liberation of the very way our mind and hearts and souls see this world and not only imagine but manifest transformation in it.
I am not saying that this project is focused on bringing the past forward…it is also about interrupting and transforming those aspects of our histories/cultures/languages that practised oppression as well—both Reyes and I write about women’s bodies, violence, and exploitation.
There is something incantatory and muscular about Reyes’ work, about its sound, its terrible eye, and its constant explosions of beauty and horror that form little cracks in the crust of the world, that bring other worlds into a hazy focus. Even the most beautiful lines are taut against something, are rebelling and remembering, resisting and creating.
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My mother was a talented seamstress. Magic to me how she navigated through fabric stores when she was intent on creating a new blanket. Colors and textures and threads and filling and yarn and whatever else. No two were ever alike. Unique and functional and beautiful. I marveled at the way she could make a dress without a pattern. How she’d look at a person and take a few measurements and then with what barely seemed a pause, take her scissors to yards of cloth. Magic to me that she knew what shape to cut from flat cloth to form a puffy sleeve that would end just exactly there, how to form the collar that would drape so gracefully over a collarbone, the meticulous construction of fabric following the line of one’s spine to accentuate or obscure a waistline. Magic to me too the way she could take a garment and unmake it. All the seams undone. Fabric made two dimensional once more. And again with a frightening
assurance, she’d cut and snip and shape…sometimes changing out whole panels of fabric. And then the sewing. And it would slowly emerge. A completely new thing. And if you hadn’t seen it before, you would never know it had had a different shape.
I think sometimes that this is what writing is. Symbol and sound and meaning, the world’s seams
undone. And I am using every bit of skill I have, snipping and shaping, changing out one line and another. I will make stories to keep us warm. Make these stories to fit our souls. Make these stories to unmake the world and create it anew.
I am not a master of my art yet. I can only speak to the direction my heart leans. What I attempted. What I will be attempting. Some writers came to writing to be loved. To be heard. To dream. To remember. I chose writing to make myself free.