Filed under: Interview, Nonfiction, Poetry, Politics, Post by: Sheryl R, Uncategorized
JOY HARJO’S first book of poetry, The Last Song, was published in 1975, during a time period often referred to as the Second Wave of the Native American Renaissance. Born in 1951 in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Harjo’s ancestral Mvskoke (Creek) Nation roots weave effortlessly throughout her many books, books that include nine works of poetry, a poetry collaboration with photographer Stephen Strom, two children’s books, two anthologies, and the memoir Crazy Brave (W. W. Norton & Co., 2012), which describes her journey to becoming a poet. Crazy Brave recently won the 2013 PEN Center USA literary prize for creative nonfiction.
How is it possible to do appropriate justice to an introduction for Joy Harjo, award-winning writer and musician? Harjo’s accomplishments span almost four decades. Her body of work is iconic, diverse.
Harjo never shies away from tough topics; she addresses inequalities and injustices through her writing, interviews, and public speaking. And this interview is no exception. Her razor-sharp intellect sculpts the heart knowledge that she channels effortlessly into prose and verse. Harjo’s imagery slowly reveals to the reader a vantage point that has been there all along, as if mists clear and the reader is shown an expansive vision, a vision each of us earns by virtue of confronting the simple truth that we are human. Harjo reminds us of this. That through our shared humanity, with all of its imperfection and suffering, we can see the wider truths of the universe.
Many contemporary poets are quick to mention her work as inspiration for their own writing. Words like “never afraid,” “quality of voice,” “mythic and timeless,” are used to describe Harjo’s writing. Her literary and music awards include the PEN Open Book Award, the American Indian Distinguished Achievement in the Arts Award, the Josephine Miles Poetry Award, the Mountains and Plains Booksellers Award, the William Carlos Williams Award from the Poetry Society of America, and fellowships from the Arizona Commission on the Arts, the Witter Bynner Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts, and the 2009 NAMMY Best Female Artist of the Year.
In addition to wielding a mighty pen, Harjo is an accomplished saxophonist and, at sixty-two, still performs regularly with her band Poetic Justice, finding time for writing while on the road between shows. She has performed on the HBO Def Poetry jams internationally and in the US, and she has produced four award-winning cds of music. Harjo currently teaches in the American Indian Studies program at the University of Illinois and lives in the Mvskoke Nation of Oklahoma.
Joy shares with StS her thoughts about the political, cultural binds, creativity, and writing:
Sheryl: What do you feel being a feminist in today’s world means?
Joy: I am wondering what the term feels and looks like from a younger generation. Does it smell like mold or dust? Feminism is just a term for equal rights for all, including women.
Sheryl: I read that you write to give voice to all parts of yourself, your sources: the Creek, the Anglo-European, the woman. Is there one body of work in which you feel you most give voice to each of these parts?
Joy: Your reference sounds like it came from an interview response from my younger self. I do not now consider myself “several parts,” though each human takes on several roles, and each of us bears streams of obligations, from our families, generation, people, earth, and so on. I have never called myself “mixed-blood” though DNA reality would affirm this. DNA reality would affirm everyone on the planet as mixed blood. My response about giving voice to so many parts most likely came at an age in which I was called on to represent my tribe (though I do not serve in an official capacity), all indigenous people of the U.S., of the world, and…women. I still am! But when I was younger the responsibility was overwhelming, and I used to suffer extreme stage fright.
I am a Mvskoke person of Hickory Ground tribal town, and female. The voice of my poetry, my music, of that which I was given to do here, is one voice. It speaks through the experience of my physical vehicle. All of my creative work embodies this voice. I have had a European-American education, as has everyone who has attended public schools and universities in this country. I have also had an Indian school arts education, and have been educated traditionally. And, like all of us, these times, and life, are a constant education. The poetic forms I employ have been influenced by all of these educations. I do not feel schizophrenic when I write, rather, hooked in to larger, wild, yet coherent meaning and shape. The creative self is beyond the binds of culture, yet, employs cultural forms.
Sheryl: You have been described as a feminist poet, writing of personal and political resistance through unconscious imagery, as well as a storytelling form. Are you conscious of political and feminist ends when writing your poetry?
Joy: I am taken by the phrase “unconscious imagery” in your question. My imagery is often intuitive. Fresh or unknown images then might be “unconscious.” Some of the imagery is very conscious, and springs from utterly conscious moments, like witnessing bullet holes in the houses of people in Estelí, Nicaragua and listening to the testimony of family members who had lost their relatives to American-speaking soldiers, or a sunrise over the desert on the Navajo reservation being born by twin gods not far from a coal-producing plant.
It can be argued that everything is political in that our dreams, thoughts, and words have been nourished or starved by political movements and weather. I responded to a PEN survey a few weeks ago that questioned writers about the impact of U.S. government surveillance on what we write, how we write, and where and how we publish. The results were startling. Nearly everyone agreed they were more careful these days and many had even backed off from writing about certain topics. Like most writers surveyed, I am very aware that anything I say or do on the Internet is being watched.
I have backed off from speaking about my bullying last year at this time, mostly by members of the academic left, because I refused to sign a petition for a cultural boycott of Israel on behalf of the Palestinian people. There is tremendous injustice against Palestinians by the Israeli government very similar to that of indigenous people in North America. I have seen it first hand, not just during my visit last December but other visits. I have seen the fences, checkpoints, the ugly spread of fresh Israeli settlements on Palestinian lands, the ongoing repression. Of course I don’t agree with this injustice.
But, I was faced with an “either/or” proposition, by the proponents of the petition. If I signed I was on the right side of ethical law. If I didn’t, I was a murderer. There was no room for any other stance.
A campaign to force me to sign flared fast and ugly. A Change.org petition circulated nationwide. One of the instigators of the campaign even called up my friends and colleagues personally to urge them to go after me, to force me to sign. There was no room allowed for anyone who does not believe that a cultural boycott is the most productive way to force Israel to human rights. Our arts, our crafted words and ideas in story, poetry and song connect us beyond politics. We need to speak across harsh political lines, against injustice, through any barriers of artillery or hatred.
Anything I spoke in response was immediately discredited and stomped on by a finely tuned rhetorical machine. I was the subject of hate mail. I feared for my life on my return from Israel. I made enemies of people who will always hate me because they see my stand as a betrayal. I was bullied to sign. I fled Oklahoma as a teenager because of this kind of bullying. You were forced to be Christian, or to roast in hell. There was no other point of view possible in that self-righteous template. And the people behind it were and are well meaning. They truly believe that Christianity is the only path and any other path is evil and punishable. So it was and is around the petition issue.
I still receive emails and Facebook messages by well-meaning people, mostly from the academic realm, who bear that same self-righteous tone. They ask, “When are you going to do the right thing and sign the petition? When are you going to acknowledge your wrong doing?”
I was not the most graceful in the middle of the controversy. I am not always quick with responses, or a word pugilist. I figured that anyone who knows my words, my body of creative work and my actions in this world knows that I work on behalf of justice. Many stood by me through the attack, and one of the most vocal for the boycott took her name off the petition after witnessing the bullying.
We must remember that many Israelis have worked against this injustice, this repression of their Palestinian relatives. I understand. I once suffered a hatred backlash in South Africa because I was introduced to an audience solely as an American, when Bush and his family were killing and maiming on behalf of Americans. I was seen as a collaborator because of my citizenship. I attempted to reintroduce myself from the point of view of my tribal citizenship but nothing I said or sung made it through the barrier of judgment. I was reviled. The audience remained set against me.
Sheryl: Take us into your process of writing. How do you start? Where do your ideas come from? What does revision look like for you?
Joy: Each poem, play, song or story starts in its own unique manner. Each teaches me how to write it. For poems, I often start with journaling. “Prompts” are a relatively new concept. I just…write. Who knows where ideas come from—some of them are very visceral. I literally feel a nudge. Or I hear a phrase, or some notion from a literary or esoteric source. Or I listen to John Coltrane. As for revision—writing is revision.
Sheryl: How do you avoid the sentimental in your writing?
Joy: I try to—what I loved so much about James Wright’s poetry was that he stayed in the heartscape. When he dipped into sentimentality, which he did often in some of his later poems, the poetry went soft and runny. Maybe that’s what it is, how to identify it and then avoid it—when the effect is too soft, you lose the edge, the power. I am constantly working on that heart/head balance. I tend to intellectualize, am too analytical. Most people don’t know that about me.
Sheryl: “Minority literature” is very popular. A re-balancing is taking place in the literary world, although its institutions still remains patriarchal. You’ve been a celebrated author for several decades. Can you reflect on what you’ve seen change and what you think still needs to change?
Joy: This question is a book, not just a quick answer, but I will give my best quick answer. I haven’t heard anyone say “minority literature” in a few years. “Minority” in America meant anyone who was not Euro-American. I began writing as a student at the University of New Mexico and inadvertently caught that wave, which morphed into the multicultural literature movement. When you’re in it, you’re in it, like being in the middle of an artistic revision or ocean wave. It has power and trajectory. You don’t always see it or know where it will take you until you’ve come out the other side.
The term “minority” is a pejorative term that preserves the notion that there is one real literature, and everyone else is on the periphery. Or that English has proprietary issues and belongs to those born to England. English will always return to the roots for nourishment, just as any language. I pause to consider the Mvskoke language taken away from its roots. Meanings would shift. It would get lonely for certain places. Languages are different and some languages have roaming spirits. English has certainly elbowed its way all over the world. It has changed us and been changed in return. English moves about and finds delight in fresh use, like red English, the creativity of the pidgin I heard when I lived in Hawaii, the rhythms of Jamaican English. The Jamaican poet Linton Kwesi Johnson had us all moving to poetry as he spoke sang the first time I saw and heard him at an Amsterdam poetry festival in the Netherlands in the late seventies. Change is always happening whether you are a language or a literature.
Universities don’t always mirror or keep up with these changes, even as some faculty are at the forefront, thinking a little ahead. Revolutionary minds don’t tend to park themselves in the academy. Their eyes and ears are usually out in the streets, in the community, synthesizing the creature of culture. Culture is always evolving.
Sheryl: Tell us about your music. Are you still writing and performing?
Joy: Yes, I am still writing and performing. These last two or three years I have been on the road at least three weeks a month performing. My performances usually include music. When I’m lucky I have a whole band. My Arrow Dynamics band performed to a standing ovation at the Krannert Center at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign a few months ago. I am working on a new album, and am at work on a musical that will show how the Mvskoke people are part of the origins of jazz and blues. I am also working to get blues and jazz education going for my Glenpool Creek Indian community. I’ve hired the incomparable Selby Minner to put on blues jams every Tuesday. I’m learning blues bass. Community members come to learn and play. This Saturday we’re playing for the community Christmas party.
Sheryl: Congratulations on your PEN Center award for best creative nonfiction! We’ll be featuring a review of your memoir on the blog this month. Can you tell us what it was like to write a work of nonfiction? How did your writing process differ from your poetry writing?
Joy: The memoir took me fourteen years to write. Much of that time was settling into a form, which was unlike any other memoir form. The memoir taught me to write it. It was in three different forms before I found the one that became CRAZY BRAVE. The first was jazz riffs and memories. The second version was Indian school stories and teenage mother stories as short stories. The process of poetry is language driven. Narration is driven by event and perception. I have applied for grants to begin work on the next version, an exploration of generations, my generation, and the seventh generation before us.
Sheryl: What are you working on now?
Joy: I am working on the musical. Excited about sitting down with it after Thanksgiving and traveling. Traveling almost non-stop on top of teaching eight weeks this fall at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign put a crimp on creativity. I just had to keep up with my duties. I’ve let my saxophone have a break too, but it was wailing away at blues practice a few weeks ago, and at a Michigan gig with Grayhawk Perkins from New Orleans. I am also working on poetry, new songs, and conceptualizing the next memoir.
Sheryl: What advice do you have for writers just beginning their writing journeys?
Joy: Honor the writing spirit, that which is compelling you to write. Take time with it. Writing in journals helps. For me journal writing and note taking is about listening, and writing down what I hear. And feed the spirit. Listen to music, poetry, and stories. Listen to the tree people, animals, and the elements. History has many voices, as do mythic roots. And…write!
Joy Harjo received her BA from the University of New Mexico and her MFA from the Iowa Writers Workshop. Visit her website for more information about her writing and music. Next up on the StS blog, a review of Joy Harjo’s award-winning memoir Crazy Brave. Be sure to listen to her reading of She had Some Horses!
Filed under: Art, Interview, Movies, Nonfiction, Opinion, Poetry, Post by: Sheryl R, Uncategorized
When I first set out to find Native American writers to participate in So to Speak interviews, I aimed high. With my first tentative emails, I received warm and positive responses from the two poets I contacted. I couldn’t believe my luck!
Our first poet, Heid E. Erdrich, was raised in a large literary and academic family by parents who were boarding school teachers for the Turtle Mountain Ojibwe. Her father, from a German immigrant family, and her mother, a member of the Turtle Mountain Ojibwe tribe, were “precise namers of things” who encouraged their children to pay attention to the details in life. Her mother sewed handmade books for her then elementary school children to fill with their own creations. These early lessons in observation and creativity stuck: three of the eight children went on to achieve literary success.
Heid has published four collections of poetry and one book of nonfiction, written plays, and curated over a dozen exhibits. A four-time nominee for the Minnesota Book Award, Heid received the 2009 award for her collection National Monuments. She has been a finalist for the Montreal International Poetry Prize and the recipient of the Minnesota State Arts Board Fellowship. And she has received awards from the Loft Literary Center and the Archibald Bush Foundation.
In addition to writing, Heid has taught at three universities (Johns Hopkins University, Augsburg College, University of St. Thomas), run writing workshops, and curated visual art and community literary events. Her latest creative endeavor is Artifact Traffic, a collaborative, multi-discplinary exhibit and performance. Heid also runs the Wiigwaas Press, an Ojibwe language publisher.
Heid’s poetry integrates the everyday world with the mythical; her poems blend universal themes of life, death, and spirituality as easily as a baker sifts together flour, salt, and leavening. Whether discussing laundry on a clothesline, her grandmother’s hands, or the sounds of nature, she creates powerful images that connect unlike experiences in surprising ways. She has described her poems as conversations and views her thoughts and feelings as not just belonging to herself, but rather to her readers and community.
Recently Heid has begun collaborating with other Native American artists, creating visual performance works of art that include her poetry. Her poem films have been screened at the Imaginative Film, Headwaters Film and Co-Kisser Poetry Film (where she won an award) Festivals, as well as the 2013 Native American Literature Symposium.
Wherever there are lines dividing literature or art (even dance), Heid challenges our assumptions:
A tad less than 5’8” and quite round. My hair is long and just a little gray. There is something bear-like about me, of which I am proud. I laugh a lot.
I am also a feminist poet, professor, scholar, and playwright—also a curator of visual arts exhibits and multi-disciplinary performances for the past seven years. And a publisher of the world’s only mono-lingual Ojibwemowin press. AND a laundress.
Sheryl: Tell us about the Ojibwe language and Wigwaas Press. Did you grow up knowing Ojibwe? How does the Ojibwe language inform your poetry, written in English? What projects are underway with the press?
Heid: Indigenous languages were much disrupted, deliberately, by the U.S. education system and by the churches. My grandfather spoke and understood several indigenous languages, but he spoke Ojibwemowin only with his sons as they worked in the field. My mother did not learn her language, although she understood conversations as a child. I began studying Ojibwemowin as an adult. My studies coincided with the births of my children, so I created an entire book about language acquisition, The Mother’s Tongue. Many of those poems are selected in Cell Traffic.
Wiigwaas Press publishes mono-lingual Ojibwe-language books for use in language revitalization efforts. We are about to publish our fourth book. We are pretty much alone in our field.
Sheryl: When did you first know that your path was that of a writer and teacher?
Heid: Books were always magic to me and both my parents were teachers, so it seemed like the ideal life. I taught college English for twenty years, left to work in the community in 2007, and I am returning to an MFA program in 2014.
Sheryl: In addition to being an accomplished scholar and writer, you are a mother. How does motherhood affect your writing?
Heid: The secret about Moms is that they do not mess around! My writing comes faster, is more sincere, and is much more a focus of my day than before I had kids. I have to make it count, because I know it is taking away time I could use to, say, wash their socks.
Sheryl: You’ve recently begun experimenting with poetry expressed in video form. How did this come about? Tell us about your experiences using this form.
Heid: A few years ago I started to see book trailers in which the poet read a bit from the book—just like a movie trailer. You’ve probably seen them. It occurred to me that one could make a film of a poem—and I have often thought of my poems as little films or exhibits. The fit seemed natural and I knew filmmakers, actors, animators—all Native American artists—so I knew my team. I got a grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board and was able to give everyone involved a little fee. It was a joyful creation and I want to keep making these films now.
The poem films feel like they give my poems reach in a way I never could have imagined. Students who “don’t get poetry” are more interested in poetry after seeing the films, and the films have gone to other countries—most recently Brazil. We’ve won awards and spots in competitive film festivals, so obviously, the quality of the artists I worked with (R. Vincent Moniz, Jr., Elizabeth Day, and Jonathan Thunder) shows through.
Heid: Creating community is what my curatorial efforts and my playwright work is about. I needed to get out of my box and feel connection to others to expand my audience and my understanding of my work. It has been wonderful work and my love of visual artists has really grown. Performers are a bit too, well, too dramatic for this introverted poet. I might be done with that part of my community work!
Sheryl: Tell us about your writing process. Where do you find the most inspiration? When do you write and what is your revision process like?
Heid: Usually I write in the morning, just get down to it with coffee and as much quiet as I can get. Sometime I write after a nap. I write to and with voices I have read from a variety of sources, often sciences articles. When I am creating and revising, I like to walk. If I can find the beat of the poem while I walk, I can memorize it a bit and get it on paper in a more complete form than if I just try to dump it out of my brain on to a page.
Sheryl: Who do you feel are your greatest writing influences? Personal influences?
Heid: There are so many. Adrienne Rich, Joy Harjo, Gwendolyn Brooks, Kimberly Blaeser, my teachers at Johns Hopkins, my teachers at Dartmouth. Roberta Hill was my mentor in the Twin Cities and the novelist Jonis Agee really mentored me, too. But my friends who write are my biggest influences: Eric Gansworth, Leslie Adrienne Miller…I will get in trouble if I name more than two and leave anyone out. Of course my sisters influenced me. Both Louise and Lise always wrote, so I thought it was normal and did not get any romantic notions about the process.
Sheryl: What are you working on now?
Heid: At the moment, a multi-disciplinary show with “poem skits” and poem films, including at least one starring my sister Louise. The show is called Artifact Traffic and it is about collaboration between artists, the traffic of ideas as artifact, and contemporary Native American art. My next two books of poems are begun and should be done in 2014—hopefully published in 2015. First I have to do PR for my books of stories and recipes on indigenous foods, which just came out from Minnesota Historically Society Press. That was a labor of love, for sure!
Sheryl: What do you feel it means to be a feminist in today’s world?
Heid: Such a hard question. At a recent book festival, I was lucky enough to sit next to Susan Dworkin, the author who wrote reviews for Ms. Magazine back in the day—not Andrea, who also worked at Ms.. Susan was wonderful to meet and very interested in my generation of feminists—the little sisters of the First Wave. We talked a little about early feminism and today. There’s an easier feminism today that looks at work mostly, and ignores everyday life. There’s less risk in talking about work and politics. I’d rather talk a bit about every day life. We have a feminist marriage and it is hard. My husband is a researcher, his name is John Burke. We are really 50-50 in our domestic work. But since most women do 100% more than they need to domestically, or feel they should do more—always more—it is hard to let 50-50 stand. Stuff does not get done. Housework is not a priority. We have issues, but they are minor. Most women writers who talk to me about their marriages or partnerships have taken on way more than the male partner or even their female partners. There’s an imbalance that comes from early training, but also from being the lesser-wage earning person as most writers/teachers end up being. I see that easing with my younger friends. They expect more from a partner in terms of the work of the home and relationship—and they sometimes get it.
My poetry continues to have a feminist bent—it is always about the body, the way we relate to the world, and increasingly about women’s relationships to the natural world and the Ojibwe woman’s role as water keeper. I may not take a traditional woman’s role, but I hold sacred that women protect and relate to the waters of the earth.
Check back soon for Poet Sarah Winn’s review of Heid’s Cell Traffic. Still to come on StS, an interview with Poet Joy Harjo and fiction writer Shelby Settles Harper’s review of Harjo’s award-winning memoir Crazy Brave.
Heid E. Erdrich received degrees from Dartmouth University and the Johns Hopkins University (Writing Seminars). Visit Heid on her website to keep up with her latest creative endeavors! Discover Heid’s books at Birchbark Books.
Filed under: Announcements, Interview, Nonfiction, Poetry, Politics, Post by: Sheryl R, Uncategorized
So to Speak celebrates Native American Heritage Month!
The systematic dismantling of Native American culture and land rights is one of the most devastating cases of geographic invasion (some argue genocide, although historians disagree on this point) in human history. Modern day Americans often find themselves tongue-tied and at a loss for words that can provide adequate testimony for the pain the resulting conflicts caused not only the indigenous people of North America, but also all of humanity.
Diversity—pluralism—were continental values before Europeans began to settle in North America. Hundreds of distinct tribes with unique languages, customs and traditions co-existed on the land. Because of their diversity, when European settlers began appearing on their shores, Native Americans often embraced them, not knowing that the dismantling of life as they knew it had begun. It’s been a long road headed back to a full celebration of diversity and an acceptance of differences, a road we are still traveling.
Today, half of modern Native Americans live in urban settings, while the other half still live on their tribal lands, where poverty, alcoholism, and violence (a more complicated subject) provide visible proof of a continued grief and loss of full agency. One contemporary Native American writer recently wrote that the reservation can keep the Native American imprisoned; he advocates for the Native American to think beyond the reservation, to go out into the world so that the Native American is more visible and present, and fully engaged in the political.
Both past and contemporary Native American artists give important voice to their tribal histories, personal experiences, and unique cultures through literature, visual art, and music. They have lived on reservations and off reservations. They have struggled with racism and access to opportunities. Most importantly they have kept the Native American heritage in the universal consciousness through their paintbrushes, musical instruments, cameras, and pens.
So to Speak is proud to highlight two Native American artists during our celebration of Native American Heritage Month: Heid E. Erdrich and Joy Harjo. Erdrich and Harjo, poets, engage the political, explore agency, and celebrate their heritage. More than that, they create works of art both universal and mythical, both image-rich and musical, and that leave the reader grateful to have savored each word, to have journeyed with them in their imaginations. Our celebration includes interviews with both poets, as well as reviews of their most recent work.
Filed under: Announcements, Fiction, Interview, Monthly News Round-Up, Nonfiction, Opinion, Poetry, Politics, Post by: Paula B, Starring Local Feminists, Uncategorized
The past few weeks So to Speak has devoted the blog to “Hispanic Heritage Month,” the official national recognition and celebration of the contributions made by generations of Latino/Hispanic Americans in the United States.
With a population totaling over 50 million, we at StS are aware that unique political, economic, educational, cultural, and linguistic dynamics are at play in each individual community within this broad classification. In our series we featured the voices of three Americans we felt represented significant segments of the Hispanic/Latino population in the nation.
The Exiled American
George Mason’s very own Women Studies professor and professor of English at Montgomery College, Cuban American Dr. Elizabeth Huergo, entered the United States with her parents a political refugee as a young child in the 1960’s. Huergo talked to StS’s blog editor, Sheryl Rivett, about how exile negates choice.
“Immigration can be very difficult, but at least there is some degree, however small, of choice. Exile obliterates choice. We are separated from everything we know (family, friends, homeland, language, culture), elements of our lives that deeply shape our identity. And exile also does great damage to our sense of agency in the world. The regaining, the reconstruction of identity and agency becomes the work of a lifetime, and that is not the easiest sort of work. Though if you can manage to endure, to persevere, there is a certain degree of joy to be experienced in that process of reconstruction—if you can come out on the other side.”
U.S.-born Frances E. Valdez, a Houston-based immigration attorney and activist, reflected on how she seems to frustrate people who ask her where she’s “from” and why she “cares” about immigrants when she hasn’t had relatives in Mexico “since the Mexican revolution around 1910.”
“Where were you born? Houston, Texas. Where were your parents born? El Paso, Texas. Where were your grandparents born? El Paso, Texas, Balmorhea, Texas and Ft. Davis, Texas. That is when people usually start to get frustrated and ask, Well, where is your family from originally? The actual meaning behind this statement is, you are a brown-skinned woman and brown-skinned women are not native to the U.S.” As to why she cares about immigrants: “Anyone who has ever experienced the feeling that you will never truly belong because of your gender, sexuality, skin color, ancestry, disability or a myriad of categories that differ from mainstream society, can develop sympathy for the immigrant struggle. When we recognize the similarities amongst oppressed communities, we realize that by fighting for justice for immigrants we fight for equality for all oppressed groups.”
The American Son of Undocumented Immigration
Poet Javier O. Huerta, a doctoral candidate in English at UC- Berkeley, identifies as a “Chicano poet from Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas [Mexico] who lived as an undocumented immigrant in Houston, Tejas from 1981 to 1981.” We asked Huerta what it meant to him to be a 21st century feminist male and he told us of his work on a collection of poems inspired by the actress Lupe Ontiveros who told the New York Times that she played the role of maid 150 times.
“At the center of the poem is the problem of a double translation: “aspirar” as “to aspire” or as “to vacuum.” This is not really a choice for many poor women of color who for generations have had to turn to domestic work to support their families. Ontiveros claims she portrayed every maid she ever played with dignity and respect, so the 150 verses are my way of thanking her. The diversity of roles available to Latina actresses is definitely an important issue but one that should be tied with the more crucial issue of real life roles available to young Latinas. To be a 21st century feminist man means to support efforts that offer women more freedom of choice in their careers and in their lives and to oppose efforts that attempt to limit that freedom.”
Although the terms “Latino” and “Hispanic” are used interchangeably by media and interest groups, the decision to self-identify as one or the other is less a point of debate within the community (who tends to default to country of origin), and more a challenge for those outside who attempt to homogenize multi-ethnic, multiracial, astoundingly diverse millions. Since the surge of popularity of “Latino” in mainstream media especially, however, the umbrella terms are lately perceived as less contentious, and as such their use is now on the rise over what some feel are the more alienating “Mexican/Cuban/Dominican/Salvodorean American” labels.
“I think we should be cautious about the use of “Latino” because it is being used to target us, as voters, as shoppers, and as readers,” said Huerta when asked about the rising popularity of the umbrella terms. “The more specific the better is what we teach our students.”
You don’t need to be a feminist to know the risks of engaging in sweeping, simplified generalizations, even and especially if, these are deemed the norm or “official.” We are proud to have introduced these three stories of feminism in action to the So to Speak community. As American feminists and world citizens, it is imperative that we learn to recognize and value the myriad of experiences lived in Latino/Hispanic America.
Filed under: Interview, Nonfiction, Opinion, Poetry, Politics, Post by: Paula B, Uncategorized
This past April when I conceived of an international poetry showcase to celebrate George Mason’s diverse undergraduate student body, Chicano poet Javier O. Huerta’s “El Coyote” from 2007’s Some Clarifications y otros poemas was one of the first to go on my list. The prose poem gives voice to a child’s bewildered awareness of not only domestic violence as perpetrated by his father, but also of the father’s occupation, that of a human smuggler, or coyote. Check it out:
“Tu jefe es coyote,” my cousins said. I was only six, so I pictured Father on all fours with tongue out, panting, on the prowl. “No seas tonto,” my cousins teased and laughter spread. I tried to smile. They never heard his paws scrape, scrape our window screen. Never saw him tear up our couch or knock over the kitchen table. They never heard my father growl. They did not have to take a trip to visit the razor wire. They were not speechless when keepers opened Father’s cage. They did not spend sleepless nights dreading they, too, would grow gray fur and fangs. They did not understand. No, they never fought the urge to howl.”
To close So to Speak’s “Hispanic Heritage Month”-themed series, we invited Huerta, a doctoral candidate in English at the University of California, Berkeley, to share with us what feminism looks like to a brown male poet in 2013.
PB: What does it mean to you to be a twenty-first century feminist? How does being a male or POC inform and complicate your feminism? Does being a poet?
JH: My little cousin Jacqui is starting middle school in Laredo, Texas. She’s small for her age but does really well in school and in extracurricular activities. Her mother (mi prima Viri) makes a living by cleaning houses; her grandmother (mi tía Morena) makes a living by cleaning houses; and her great-grandmother (mi abuelita Tila, QEPD) made a living by cleaning houses. I think of Jacqui as I’m working on 150 verses in memory of the actor Lupe Ontiveros, who played the role of maid more than 150 times. At the center of the poem is the problem of a double translation: “aspirar” as “to aspire” or as “to vacuum.” This is not really a choice for many poor women of color who for generations have had to turn to domestic work to support their families. Ontiveros claims she portrayed every maid she ever played with dignity and respect, so the 150 verses are my way of thanking her. The diversity of roles available to Latina actresses is definitely an important issue but one that should be tied with the more crucial issue of real life roles available to young Latinas. To be a 21st century feminist man means to support efforts that offer women more freedom of choice in their careers and in their lives and to oppose efforts that attempt to limit that freedom. My little cousin Jacqui, and the many other young women of color working their way through our public schools, should be able to aspire to more than vacuuming other people’s houses.
PB: Your latest work, American Copia takes us into the grocery aisles of identity and language politics. What do you make of the pervasive use of ”Latino” nowadays among the hyphenated millions officially categorized as “Hispanics” in the U.S.? Is it simply a matter of survival at a time when people apologize for calling someone “a Mexican?” Why should feminists of all persuasions be reminded of the power of labels, self-imposed or not?
JH: The demographic shift in which Latinos are projected to one year become the majority is mostly discussed in terms of the Latino vote and electoral influence. For example, the increase in Latino voters could transform Texas from a red state to a swing state. But another intriguing conversation understands the increase of the Latino population in terms of the Latino consumer and economic influence. This means not only that certain businesses will more aggressively target the Latino consumer, but also that local businesses and politicians, hopefully, will take an interest in increasing the purchasing power of those Latinos. The “Latino” consumer is the one that walks the grocery aisles of my copia. But I quickly narrow him/her down to an immigrant shopper, a Mexican, Mexican-American, Salvadoran shopper, a Houston shopper, an Oakland shopper, a local going to buy groceries at the local grocery store. I think we should be cautious about the use of “Latino” because it is being used to target us, as voters, as shoppers, and as readers.
The label works in Spanish; therefore, it should also work in English. We have been saying “nosotros los Latinos”[“we Latinos”] for decades now. So why does it work so effortlessly in Spanish, yet in English it doesn’t have the same music. I guess I’m waiting for a manifesto arguing for the power of “Latino.” Instead of passionate manifestoes for “Latino,” what we get are introductions to anthologies full of circular reasoning: they begin with the premise that Latino is a term for diverse peoples, and they conclude that Latino Lit cannot be described as one single category because it contains many styles and traditions. There’s no argument to argue against there. Whatever happened to intellectual warfare is heaven. I want “Latino” to stand for something. To be as exciting as “Chicano” and “Nuyorican” once were.
Anyway, I identify as a Chicano poet from Nuevo, Laredo Tamaulipas who lived as an undocumented immigrant in Houston, Tejas from 1981 to 1987. The more specific the better is what we teach our students.
PB: As a dual-language poet, what’s your take on the continued use of the “/” and the “@” to “correct” or denote the inclusivity of the gendered plurals of Spanish in general and especially when applied to terms like “Chican@ Lit” or “Latina/o Identity”?
JH: I attempted to create my own sitcom about a couple of years ago, even got as far as writing a pilot and getting some friends/colleagues to help me out with shooting the script. What is left of that failed attempt is some unedited footage, and among that unedited footage is a dinner date scene between the main character Nina, city planner by day and aspiring comedian by night, and a man she went on a date with so she could borrow his jokes. As they start to munch on some Caesar Salad, Nina wonders what would go in a Cesar Chavez salad. They go back and forth wondering if the salad should include grapes or not, or if the grapes should be included only so you have a chance to boycott them, or if you should abstain from eating the salad at all to honor the hunger strike. Then this moment:
NINA: But hey, why’s boycott gotta be gendered? Why can’t it be girlcott?
DATE: In that case, why do we have to order from a menu? Why can’t we order from a womenu?
NINA: Yes, dang it. It’s the 21st century. A woman should be able to order her womenudo from a womenu.
As writers, we believe that language matters and can affect change, so the correction of gendered language intends to correct the institutions that privilege men. I suppose the danger in correcting the gendered language by changing “o” to “a/o” or “@” or by spelling “women” with a “y” or by spelling “mujer” with an “x” is that this correction can easily be reduced to wordplay and lose some of the critical force it originally intended.
PB: When approaching new work do you consider a particular audience? I was a few pages into American Copia before I realized that my appreciation of the work would be severely limited if I spoke only English, or only Spanish. Are you aiming for a specific—bilingual– audience?
JH: In my MFA, I wrote a failed novella, novela corta in Spanish, titled “Linda.”The narrative followed the eponymous character as she journeys to Mexico to bury her recently deceased husband. It is narrated in English by a 3rd person limited narrator, limited to Linda’s perspective, but the dialogue is in Spanish because that is what the characters are speaking. I think that at that time I was frustrated with the use of Spanish in the works of U.S. Latino writers, the way Spanish phrases were immediately translated and were used to set up conversations that were supposed to be in Spanish. Honestly it made me feel like those books were not meant for me, or more importantly that they were not meant for people I knew back home. They explained too much. So that’s why I attempted this bilingual novella. I was fortunate to attend UTEP for the MFA because my instructors and classmates allowed me to experiment with bilingual form.
As for my Copia, the verse is in Spanish, and the prose is in English for the most part. It also includes a nonfictional play based on a friend’s experience as a grocery clerk in a Los Angeles Mexican grocery store. The dialogue in the play is in Spanish, English, or Spanglish depending on the character. The play ends with a not so short speech in Spanish by an older female employee giving advice to the main character. The advice is about men and violence and the need to keep moving on in spite of them. Honestly I didn’t even think about the language at that point, mostly because I don’t understand how that speech could have been written in any other language but Spanish. One failed part of Copia was my attempt to include as many languages as possible, languages that are actually spoken in communities all over the United States. I actually contacted friends and asked them if they would help me out with this part and many agreed. But time and the editorial and publication process did not allow it. This multilingualism is an aspect of American Copia that I would like to pursue if I ever get the chance to release a second edition.
Javier O. Huerta is the author of American Copia and Some Clarifications y otros poemas, a recipient of the Chicano/Latino Literary Prize. His poems have been included in numerous anthologies, including American Tensions: Literature of Identity and the Search for Social Justice and The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2011.