Category Archives: essays

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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What I am learning

1.

TENABLE. IMMUTABLE. INDEXICAL. PHENOMENOLOGICAL.

How often I want to visit social media. And the call to be a “voice,” or something.

I see your phenomenological. I raise you EPIPHENOMENOLOGICAL.

How to decide what is worth your time, energy, and money.

How to use the phrase “ephemeral archive” as much as possible.

Trust yourself. Trust yourself. Trust yourself. There is nothing left.

How fraught these spaces—and really all spaces—are with our personal and professional expectations and desires. And the underlying social, cultural, historical, raced, classed, gendered expectations for behavior.

And the ensuing silence.

 

2.

Direct from the horse’s mouth, or bastardizations of what poetry professors have said–

-Make collages.

-Some people write with music, but I need to write with words around me. I find words.

-Then using a number system, I went through and killed poems.

-I would ask my dates, “Are you happy with your job?”

-Cut this word out.

-Image cul-de-sac.

-This voice feels authentic.

(This last one bothers me.)

 

3.

By showing up, I inherently pressure the Institution.

Better get used to it.

 

4.

I realize my life is rather “boring,” that most of the time I am looking for ways to spend time somewhere writing or with people talking about writing or listening to people read or perform writing. That when I look around Boulder, there is not much I feel drawn to do. (Mostly, one has the choice of school, the mountains, shopping. Boulder in three words.)

I think the secret now is to embrace this. How much more time can I reserve for writing– without becoming a complete recluse?

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Thank you from an almost thirty-year-old

When I was 16 going on 17, I read Toni Morrison’s Beloved. When I was 16 going on 17, I tried to read Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. That year in AP English, my teacher’s comment requesting that he keep my homework musings on home kept the tender embers of desire to be a writer alive. Thank goodness.

4 years later, I re-read Beloved in a Black Studies and literature course. The other young women and I marveled at our brilliant professor, especially as she was young, black, female, and did I say brilliant. That year I was applying for a teaching program and ripping down Teach 4 America posters on campus. My mentor and advisor stopped our meeting to make copies of bell hooks’ Teaching to Trangress. I didn’t know it then, but he was handing me yet another mentor. Thank goodness.

About 9 years later, I was teaching and learning about excerpts of Pedagogy of the Oppressed with middle schoolers. I had them playing with Morrison’s language to learn about poetic line breaks. These writers and thinkers paved the ground I walked on, and I kept their work alive, while stoking the fires in my young charges. They taught me how to break open my heart and let them in. They flood me to this day, and I have cried more than ever. Thank goodness.

About 13 years later, I am teaching undergraduates, and today I tacked up a collage of Kendrick Lamar reading Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eyes at my desk. Morrison was a poet, who became a professor, who wrote novels, who changed us. I ponder now about my work, my writing, and what’s next for me.

Age is a funny thing. While I am so ready to be 30, I am still 16 going on 17. Still eager, still social introvert, still reader, still laughter, still nervous and moving. But also, I am so not 16 going on 17. Not pining after some baseball player, not wishing to fit in with the right clothes, not wondering about college, not crying under the sheets, not anguishing about my thighs, not writing poems in a secret notebook. Nope. Now I talk too much sometimes. Now I risk not fitting in more. Now I cry in public—all the time. Now I love my body more than ever. Now I don’t wait for no man. Now I write poems in journals and journals and journals. Even read them aloud. Might even call myself an artist or something, sometimes.

***

Age in a funny thing. When my mother was 3 years older than me, she gave birth to my brother. About a year later, she gave birth to me. When I am 33, I may give birth to a book. About a year later, another. In her thirties, Toni Morrison raised two boys and wrote her first novel.

***

Age is a funny thing. Sandra Cisneros might call age an onion, layers on layers that you feel at times. I think it’s more like leaves on a tree, shimmering all at once in the wind. And as these leaves flutter and I stare—mesmerized in the sun—I am full of wonder, joy, appreciation. Disbelief.

When I was a toddler, I would cry when given gifts. I would overwhelm myself. I don’t know exactly why I cried at 3. Now at 30, I know I cry because I feel so much. I am full of all those who made me me, as I am becoming me. I am full of immense gratitude that my body cannot hold without release. So I cry. I cry because I am 3, I am 16 going on 17, I am 30. I cry because—thank you.

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Where is There freedom?

I begin this essay at the beginning of my second day of my MFA program. One orientation week and one day in, I am showered with opportunities to learn, to create, to publish. I am reminded that almost every hour I have here may be used as a choice– to study, to write, to play, to rest. Though I am a Teaching Assistant, I am utterly privileged to do essentially whatever I want with my time. While I relish in this, I also find the disparity of opportunities like these in institutions like these compared to what is available to the everyday working person, shameful. An MFA graduate once called his program’s financial support and outcomes an “embarrassment of riches,” though I think I am emphasizing a literal definition of “embarrassment” more than the writer.

Yet, in some ways, I came here for this, for learning, for tools, for writing time, for freedom. I reflect on how my applications to programs last fall discussed the value of protest poetry and literature as well as its trap. How do we speak to people? Move them? How do we maintain accessibility and become artists who break boundaries? How do we free ourselves from their and our expectations? When we write for freedom, do we find ourselves in another kind of trap?

Yesterday, I was given a sign that these are the right questions when I came across Ravi Shankar’s interview with Gregory Pardlo, where Pardlo says that Callaloo’s Creative Writing Workshops “have a more catholic conception of diversity. And in terms of the theoretical constructs of identity that you are talking about, I think we interrogate identity in a way that a simple statement ‘I am a black writer’ or ‘I am a white writer’ reduces me to a two-dimensional concept. There’s no way that term can contain the breadth of my worldview and my sense of myself. And yes, it is a kind of shorthand that we use to trade between people in order to arrive at some brief and quick understanding of one another, but if the conception of myself that I bring to the page is merely that ‘I am an X writer’ then it could be that I am limiting myself of that I am acquiescing to the bureaucratic logic of the very institutions I would oppose.”

Pardlo goes on to say, “The world on the page is not the world outside. The rules that apply in our social world, and yes, we need community, whether hyphenated or not, these shorthands are very useful out in the world, but on the page, my imagination needn’t be delimited by a particular worldview or cultural imperative.” Shankar replies, “Of course, your experience will be inflected by that perspective of being a person of color, but you’re saying that it doesn’t need to be overtly manifest. Not unless you want it to be.”

As much as our identities are important, we may be limiting ourselves when we write. Shankar and Pardlo discuss the importance of choice. What are you choosing to do? Can you weld writing intelligently– as a tool– with precision? Can you put down the tool and choose to write for some other purpose? Some other kind of freedom?

I hope so, and honestly, I write this today to reaffirm that amidst crazy-making interactions with a housemate; the very white and wealthy town I live in; and the perceptions of undergrads, peers, and professors, I can make choices. I am not only in a physical location I realize, but also in a new psychological moment (as well as a historical moment nationwide). A moment where I am checking how I present myself against how others may perceive and receive me. A moment where I remind myself I may want to hold my cards closer to the vest. A moment where my whole self may not be welcomed. A moment where my mistakes may alienate me further personally and professionally. “Further” as in beyond how my gender and race already push me aside or erase me. I have experienced these moments before, but now they come in a package called Graduate School.

But now I come with more experiences, insights, and tools to make choices.

I reaffirm to myself everyday and every night who I am. For the breaths I have the right to take. I reaffirm I can choose who will know me fully. I reaffirm my desire to approach the page for personal freedom. I reaffirm my desire to work and write for collective freedom. I know this is not some ideal of freedom, but I get to make some choices. I will not let it trap me– not protest literature, not this institution, not this place, nor this moment.

Lift up your head and keep moving, (keep moving)…

Peace to fashion police, I wear my heart

On my sleeve, let the runway start

You know the miserable do love company

What do you want from me and my scars?

Everybody lack confidence, everybody lack confidence

How many times my potential was anonymous?

How many times the city making me promises?

So I promise this, nigga

And (I love my myself)

When you looking at me, tell me what do you see?

(I love myself)

-Kendrick Lamar

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For Racial Justice– towards an honest, internal look

What a week. I am listening to Beyonce’s Lemonade album all the way through for the umpteenth time, feeling in-love, excited, melancholic, and nostalgic. And that’s just on a personal level, not even considering our current, painful political climate. Of course I have been thinking and feeling, as most if us have about the murders of Black people and people of color in our country. These concerns have been intensified by international attacks in France to Turkey to Baghdad and the ongoingU.S. violence abroad. It has been a rough two weeks to be an empathetic human being in general, and even more so if one is black, queer/trans, woman, working-class, migrant, and other oppressed identities. As I hurl into my future and think about my various roles, I think of my parents’ adage– look at yourself first. Look internally, they would say. To diagnose the problem and think of solutions, we need to look internally. Even on the national level, we do not have to go too far to consider what we need to do for healing and justice. At least a part of what this means is to look at ourselves honestly as a country. Will the people (particularly officials) be upfront about the racist policies we have created, carried out, and continue enabling?

A few days ago, I returned to Michelle Alexander’s amazing book The New Jim Crow, after needing an emotional and intellectual break from it. Her research and the narrative she weaves is horrifying, illuminating, and so necessary. And I ask again, are we all ready to be honest and brave enough to acknowledge it? Only then can we dismantle these systems of injustice and create something different.

Will we acknowledge that the War on Drugs was stimulated to attack communities of color? Alexander writes, many studies have found that during the War on Drugs, law enforcement and media used a “predictable ‘us against them’ frame[…], with ‘us’ being white, suburban America, and ‘them’ being black Americans and a few corrupted whites” (Alexander, 105).

Will we acknowledge and critique that the Supreme Court has essentially legalized implicit bias? In the case of McCleskey v. Kemp, clear and well-researched evidence of discriminatory sentencing  in Georgia was not enough for the Supreme Court to consider the state’s practices unlawful. Alexander explains, “The court accepted the statistical evidence as valid but insisted that evidence of conscious, racial bias in McCleskey’s individual case was necessary to prove unlawful discrimination” (110). In other words, even if the prosecutors applied the death penalties in clearly racist patterns, it cannot be used as evidence of racism unless someone explicitly used race as part of the reasoning. And in today’s U.S. society, who is going to sentence someone and– for example– include a racial slur? What’s more, the McCleskey case evidence was so strong, it questioned the validity of the entire criminal justice system, to the point that the Supreme Court wrote, “Taken to its logical conclusion, [Warren McCleskey’s claim] throws into serious question the principles that underlie our criminal justice system… [I]f we accepted McCleskey’s claim that racial bias has impermissibly tainted the capital sentencing decision, we could soon be faced with similar claims as to other types of penalty” (Alexander, 111). The Court openly worries about claims of bias would weaken the criminal justice system. Their ruling that implicit bias could not be used as evidence of racism then could be read as an example of the corrupted system trying to save itself.

Finally, will we acknowledge and critique that the Supreme Court has essentially legalized the use of race-based discrimination? The “Supreme Court has indicated that in policing, race can be used as a factor in discretionary decision making. In United States v. Brignoni-Ponce, the Court concluded it was permissible under the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment for the police to use race as a factor in making decisions about which motorists to stop and search” (Alexander, 131).

These disgusting facts keep coming in The New Jim Crow, and I deeply hope these points are brought up more often in the national conversation. While recent events are about the murders of individual men, it is well-researched that racist policies enable and exacerbate these interpersonal encounters with police. Sometimes in our hashtags and comments, we do not raise just exactly how deeply rotten is our criminal justice system (and government). When the President invites people for meetings about police brutality, are government officials able to admit to this level of wrong-doing? I believe we need these conversations, and I hope some emotional vulnerability and rigorous analysis is happening from all parties.

That said, we are emotional beings and need to bring our honest and vulnerable selves  to see and to be seen by others. We need support to to do so, in personal ways and in systemic ways. I believe we must engage as a country in a truth and reconciliation process to begin to heal wounds and have space to continue systemic changes. National discussions would lead to a washing of deep wounds and hopefully bring us to some shared understandings. Without heart and historical clarity, any progress made in one generation will be maimed and contorted by the following. I hope we can move towards this as part of the work to end police brutality and the larger efforts for true justice.

There is a deep need to look at ourselves. We need cold, hard objective facts. We need warm, tender, difficult feelings. We need to look at ourselves honestly to create a healthy and just society and planet for ourselves and our loved ones. Finally, because we need uplifting and spirit and the intangible, I want to end by sharing this an amazing video from the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater doing their thing with Beyonce and Kendrick as a soundtrack: Alvin Ailey “Freedom” Chereography.

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On Age: The Wisdom of Youth

“You know you look like you eighteen, right?” said the store-owner skeptically. Without knowing it, I was speaking to Regina Y. Evans, the owner of Regina’s Door, which is a social enterprise, vintage shop in Oakland that I was peaking into when our conversation began. I was happy that she noticed that “Black don’t crack” applies for Asian folks.

After we parted, I thought about my age and walked down the construction-ridden Webster Street passing 18th, then 19th—for this is the view in Oakland’s downtown now. The ripping up of old buildings, the invasion of hipster art and white-owned shops. It is getting even more personal to me now that the edges of Chinatown are being engulfed.

Like this disrespectful gentrification, I can learn from the layers of the past that was there. In this case, I reflect on myself. Age, experience, and purpose have been on my mind recently. On my brother’s birthday a few weeks ago, I thought he was older than he was because I had it fixed that I was 28. For whatever reason, I have been collapsing these last years of my twenties. Maybe wanting my uncertainties to finally reach clarity. Or for desires and needs to be better met. For a sense of confidence I still crave. With all these conditions and the sense of being that I wanted, I sometimes lose track of what I have achieved and who I have become—as I continue to become even more.

I started to think about the younger versions of myself. While there are wounds to be studied, cleaned, and healed, there was a liveliness and strength I sometimes forget and can still learn from.

For instance, as I ponder and plan intentional steps for entering graduate school, I found myself so careful to the point nothing seemed to fit what I wanted in a program. I wanted a school that did not isolate itself from the surrounding community, students and faculty of color, a school large enough and a program supportive enough of taking classes outside the writing department. I wanted an Ethnic Studies program and an Asian American Studies program. The list goes on, and I actually think it is a reasonable one and well-informed by past experiences and current goals. However, this thorough list was keeping me from going for it.

Interestingly, my older self wants to be cradled in a world not made for me. Yet my younger self would have not have been so hesitant; it has been ready to break the cradle and reach for independence.

For example, I forget my courageous 17-year old self. The one that did not question the fact that learning and college were made for her. (And it was. And it wasn’t.) The one that assumed she could do anything rather then be filled with caution. (Travel across the world? Check. Make new friends? Check.) The one who fought for what she needed rather than feel full of fatigue, heavy with grief, or cringing from cynicism. Looking back, I feel that my younger self demanded these experiences, knowing I could find what is worthwhile in them.

As I approach 28, I desire those experiences but wait and think them through. I imagine my hesitation, caught between biking down a hill and thinking about biking down the hill. The thinking is often more frightening than the act itself. As I get older, I want to find myself caught in the act more often—present and demanding of the world. I want to ask myself what I want and what to do to get there. To shrug off the sense that time has shortened, that my next steps need be painstakingly planned, that there is no room for risk-taking.

In giving value to my younger self, I won’t downplay the growing sense of nuance, knowledge and sense of self that comes with more experiences. Yet with awareness, we can benefit from all the parts of ourselves, playing synergistically. As living more may temper the fires of youth, youth can fuel the embers of wise living. Being wiser and gaining experience shouldn’t mean we stop still in our tracks, frozen in fear of what’s possible. I want the growing wisdom to clarify what I want and need, and the strength to help me communicate and achieve it. I need the younger versions of myself to inform this wisdom and strength.

I am so grateful for this more complex awareness of myself and the concepts of “young” and “old.” I am my 17 or 18-year old self. And I hear the wisdom of old age saying There will be pain and the spirit of youth screaming I will survive!

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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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