Category Archives: culture

The time I met Jericho Brown but didn’t know he was Jericho Brown

It was a warm day in March earlier this year. I was in Miami at AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs), the largest literary gathering in North America. Writers were everywhere. I remember taking a break in the conference hall, curled up in a nook and charging my phone. My eyes widened as I saw Ross Gay 20 feet from me, just catching up with Danez Smith, Fatima Asghar, and Franny Choi. Getting to listen to, interact with, or just stare at Tyehimba Jess, Bich Minh Nguyen, Patricia Smith, Don Mee Choi, and so on and so on.

So I should have expected to meet writers everywhere.

On the first day of the conference, at 8AM I was at an acai truck, because healthy foods help me feel better and more grounded when I travel. I leaned my uncorrected proof copy of francine j. harris’s poetry collection play dead against the metal siding of the truck as I put away my wallet. A tall, athletic man with dreadlocks, who had just pulled up in a sporty car with a woman, leaned in to look at the book. Squinting at it, he asked, “Is this yours?” I said no and explained how I ended up with the proof copy of the book. He asked to look at it and if I liked it. I started to talk about how harris came out of Cave Canem and Cave Canem writers have a reputation of being top-notch. He nodded and said he’ll look into the book. I got my acai bowl and left for my first-ever AWP session.

Fast forward two days. It’s Friday night and I’m at the Lambda Literary X Copper Canyon reading to support friends and for the hot writing. Poet Jericho Brown is last to read, and I’m happily surprised by his short poems and direct, tender lines, a style I feel contemporary poetry is moving away from. (Also, in all fairness, it was reassuring to hear poetry that resembled my poetry a little.) I also loved how casually he sat on the stool, reading and bobbing along with his lines, sometimes almost falling off.

When the event ended, Jericho quickly left to make it to another reading. I turned to him to say thank you and to tell him I appreciated his poetry. He shook my hand, smiled, and said, “Have we met?”

I was very certain we hadn’t and onto our separate nights we went.

Months later though, this moment still bothered me. I’m usually the person who recognizes familiar faces before they recognize me. I might not remember names or how we’ve met, but I always always remember faces. So, how come Jericho Brown thought we met, when I couldn’t recall him?

Obviously, I put it together that Jericho Brown was probably Mr. Acai from that first morning. But again why didn’t I remember his face?

I have to admit to myself that I did not remember him later, because I read him as a stereotype instead of looking at him fully when we first interacted. I wrote him off because of the sporty car, his Nikes, the joggers, and just how fit and attractive he is (y’all, Jericho Brown is the hottest). I also want to believe that race wasn’t a part of this. It would be easy to say that I don’t think of writers as athletic, attractive men. It is more difficult and important to say that I don’t think of writers as black, athletic, and attractive men. Was it the combination of these qualities or explicitly race itself that activated my implicit bias? I’m not sure, but I remember this initial moment with Jericho Brown and remind myself of all the races and colors of writers, all of our complexities– the shy awkward parts, the extroverts, the capitalist-in-us, the spiritualist, the revolutionary, even the athletic parts, and the shades of in-between that make living possible. I remember to hold myself responsible. I remember to reflect and confront my unconscious stereotypes and internalized racism.

You can read more of Jericho Brown’s work here and here.

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Filed under culture, essays, non-fiction, race, writing/writers

Two Sides of the Pacific

I am from words unspoken

silence at the dinner table

I am from are you hungry?

meaning I care about you

I am from why didn’t you visit?

meaning I like seeing you

 

I am from dry crushed ramen

hot Cheetos from the green corner store

red dye staining our fingers

I am from free school lunches

and chili cheese fries

I am from race rumbles

cool girls in overalls and dark lip-liner

 

I am from the highlands of Viet Nam

Hue’s heat and delta coconuts

I am from grandmothers

who plant me guava trees

a father who grows

passion fruit in California

his dreams resisting common sense

 

I am from the poet in the Citadel

forever protected

forever inscribed

safe from your Offensives

 

I am from wedding dresses in tin boxes

far-off eyes and the spirit of freedom

I am from exploding mortars, peasant food

fine silks and world-class tailors

I am from 16-hour flights and layovers

I am from so much history and too much distance

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Filed under asian americans, culture, immigrant, Oakland, poems, viet nam

Book Line-up Winter 2015-16

Here is what I’ve been reading at the end of 2015:

Finish poetry books not yet finish:

7) The Fact of a Doorframe by Adrienne Rich

15) How to be Drawn by Terrance Hayes

21) Home Course in Religion by Gary Soto

 

Finish or start these novels/collections:

22) Toughest Indian in the World by Sherman Alexie

23) Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work by Edwidge Danticat

26) Son by Lois Lowry

27) To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

28) Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

 

How I hope to start 2016:

1) Playing in the dark by Toni Morrison

2) Renaissance by Ruth Forman

3) Revolutionary Petunias by Alice Walker

4) My House by Nikki Giovanni

5) My father was a Toltec by Ana Castillo

6) How The Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents by Julia Alvarez

7) Bloodchild by Octavia Butler

I’m happy to end 2015 with hopefully 28 books under my belt. I do have to say that it is increasingly hard for me to focus my mind on reading because of the growth of tech in my life. I’m not against technology, per se. However, it is good to be aware of its impact on my focus.

I will be traveling to Mexico with Harper Lee’s books tucked in my backpack, hoping I will finish both amidst exploring and relaxing. And as 2016 rolls around, I have a lot of poetry on my list. As always, am wondering about the Asian American voices I should also find to read. I am also slowly mulling over Feminist Without Borders like it is medicine. It has been years since I started this academic, non-fiction book, so it doesn’t belong on any one list.

On this new moon I also set intentions on sending out my poetry collection in February, a grad school application timeline, and a commitment to use public/shared modes of transportation. The new moon was a week after someone hit my parked car. It was celestial timing, I suppose. It feels right.

What are you reading? How are you reflecting and ending or beginning this winter?

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Filed under biblio-file, culture, inspiration, journal, writing/writers

Against the Myth of Easy Achievement (esp. on Social Media)

I had to write this to do justice for myself, for other writers, and just living, breathing people who know what it’s like to struggle and to have dreams. (Not to mention it’s been more than three months since my last blog post. Why not?)

So recently, I was accepted into Voices of Our Nation’s Artists (VONA/Voices), a writing workshop focused on nurturing writers of color. The program is now housed at the University of Miami. (You can donate here to get me there!) A solid 30 hours after the high of my acceptance notice, I was feeling like myself again– critical. I remembered that a friend’s old facebook post about being accepted into another workshop years ago showed up on a search that day. It was typical of the status posts on social media, especially those of facebook. It was excited and celebratory. It reeked of a sense of achievement. Good for her. I had no reason to feel frustrated; I had even helped to edit some of her poems for another writing program.

Like I said, 30 hours later, I began to understand my feelings. My friend’s post is an example of the way we share our lives in this modern world and therefore, a sign of how we live it. Our connections are brief, often shallow and limited by the medium of social networking. For example, how many times have discussions of race, class, gender, queer issues, and transphobia been discontinued, because social media has been restrictive to our communication (granted, this would be helped if people were better writers and regulators of their expression of emotions).

Social media is the equivalent of the question “How are you?” in U.S. culture. Although the question is asked, cultural norms require that you reply with something brief and relatively up-beat. When I’m not doing well, I pause and lie, “I’m… O.K.” Getting into specifics of– for example– your great-aunt’s death is not socially accepted, for the most part. I even have friends who consciously ask people three times, “how are you?” so they challenge the speaker to open up beyond what is socially accepted. Also, some writers punctuate this question with a period, not a question mark. “How are you” in this culture isn’t a question. Just a passing statement.

Social media postings are similar–brief, often shallow and limited. They say “Hey, how are you,” post a grinning picture, tweet a 140 characters. Rarely do people detail their life’s journey through grief, uncertainty, or other struggle. It is culturally accepted that we refrain from sharing how depression affects the way we get up, how we work through relationship blocks, or how grief-ridden we feel after a death. The mothers posing with happy toddlers don’t share about custody battles that lay behind the facade. Teachers don’t rant daily about their long hours and labor contract infractions. The list goes on. Sound happy. Show your achievements. Stay in the social norm. I’ve even noticed this norm affecting people posting about their elderly parents passing away. The posts may be upbeat or end with a remark about the life lessons learned. While these feelings could be true, what do we lose when we rush to hide our difficult emotions or grasp for wisdom that needs more time to ripen?

Diving even deeper, how does social media perpetuate beliefs in a post-racial, meritocratic, and arguably worst– a classless U.S. society and world? When achievements seem to spring up for people around us, one can feel that achieving in our society must be easy, must not be tainted with systemic oppression. Status posts, tweets, and even this blog offer no deep, consistent window into people’s lives. You don’t know from my facebook the changes that I have made in my life to invest in writing. Or how I feel on days when I have nothing to say. Or how the choices I make are financially difficult, let others down, and still offer no guarantee. What is shared on social media is brief, often shallow and limited. The palpable disconnect between our lives and social media (others’ lives as represented) can bring up feelings of rejection, questions about self-worth, and perpetuate this already free-flowing myth of easy achievement.

While there exist examples disproving what I’m describing, for the most part social media users accept these cultural norms. This begs us to ask, how will our children grow up in this world, especially buttressed by the “How are you” culture of the U.S. and neo-liberalism worldwide. Or– even closer to home– how are we faring? What happens when we don’t have a culture that can grieve together? That demonstrates and embraces the real time and labor it requires to achieve something. That can step back to appreciate and question all the different types of risk involved.

As I write, I remember the many leftist thinkers and their thoughts on how technology can be used. I’m hopeful because of writers, thinkers, and activists like those at Jacobin magazine, whose current issue explores technology’s dialectical relationship to revolution. Older thinkers like Ivan Illich, in De-Schooling Society, envisioned a world where essentially the internet helped us form webs of connection for skill-sharing and self-education. Social media is already a part of what we can and are achieving for ourselves. (Heck, it will help me get to VONA.) These achievements, however, aren’t easy and offer no guarantees. We won’t get there unless we keep an eye on goals we would like to achieve with social media and technology, rather than give into the ways these potential tools dominate us, obscure our humanity, and produce culture counter to our highest good.

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Filed under culture, essays, memory