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, Art, Contests, Fiction, Nonfiction, Poetry, Post by: Sheryl R, Uncategorized
So to Speak is accepting submissions for the Spring 2014 issue until October 15th. The Spring 2014 issue of So to Speak will feature our poetry and nonfiction contest winners, as well as fiction and art. Submissions for all genres are accepted through our online submissions manager.
The contest judge for the Spring 2014 Poetry Contest is Beth Ann Fennelly, who teaches poetry and nonfiction writing at the University of Mississippi. Her first book of poetry, Open House, won the 2001 Kenyon Review Prize and the Great Lakes College Association New Writers Award, and was a Book Sense Top Ten Poetry Pick. It was reissued by W.W. Norton in 2009. Her second poetry collection, Tender Hooks, and her third, Unmentionables, were published by W.W. Norton in 2004 and 2008. She also published a book of nonfiction, Great with Child: Letters to a Young Mother (Norton), in 2006. The Tilted World, the novel she has cowritten with her husband, Tom Franklin, will be published by Morrow in the fall of 2013.
The judge for the Spring 2014 Nonfiction Contest is Jana Richman, the author of a memoir, Riding in the Shadows of Saints: A Woman’s Story of Motorcycling the Mormon Trail, and two novels, The Last Cowgirl, which won the 2009 Willa Award for Contemporary Fiction, and The Ordinary Truth. Jana’s provocative prose has been compared to that of Pam Houston, Barbara Kingsolver and Pat Conroy.
Winners will receive prize money and publication in the magazine; other finalists will also be published. The contest entry fee of $15 includes a free copy of the Spring 2014 issue for all entrants. Full submission guidelines are available on our Contests page.
If you’ve been putting off submitting, be sure to enter your piece in the submission manager this week. We look forward to reading your submissions!
Filed under: Fiction, Interview, Nonfiction, Opinion, Politics, Post by: Sheryl R, Starring Local Feminists, Uncategorized
(photo credit: National Geographic Magazine Photo of the Day, May 18, 2010)
We continue our conversation with Cuban-American professor and author Elizabeth Huergo. If you missed the first half of the interview, be sure to read it here. A professor of English at Montgomery College and an adjunct professor in Women’s Studies at George Mason University, Elizabeth Huergo recently published her first novel The Death of Fidel Pérez (Unbridled Books 2013), and is a published poet, essayist, and short story writer.
Interview, Part 2
Sheryl: How you feel you subvert, celebrate, or complicate identity and gender roles or power structures in your work?
Elizabeth: Woolf talks about how “mirrors are essential to all violent and heroic action,” and how both Napoleon and Mussolini are obsessed about the inferiority of women because without that inferiority they would no longer inflate the image of men. Once women refuse to be mirrors, we will create a community defined by constructive dissent, an integral though often overlooked and denigrated aspect of democratic governance. We will tacitly stand in opposition to fascism and engage in a community of shared democratic values.
There is a great and greatly sarcastic line in Woolf’s essay. “One of the great advantages of being a woman,” she says, is the ability to “pass even a very fine Negress without wishing to make an Englishwoman of her.” The Beadle and Professor von X, Napoleon and Mussolini–for Woolf they all share an assumption of superiority that leads to the belief that other people (women, racial and ethnic minorities) need to be dominated, divided against themselves. Compare Woolf’s observations here to Fanon’s and Memmi’s observations on the psychology of the colonized.
The political ideas Woolf traces resonate for me on a personal level: that the space of oppression becomes the space of metamorphosis and grace; that women’s invisibility is a form of exile that shapes their identity; and that our sense of belonging develops from the insistence on making the historical narrative that lets us “think through our mothers” visible, palpable. I am very much interested in hearing the subaltern speak and in telling a historical narrative from a perspective all too often left unconsidered, untold by the official historians of empire.
The idea that there are people who need to be dominated, their very consciousness split open, divided against itself for their own good, for the good of one or another’s economic self- interest, still has the upper hand, even in this new century, even after the bloodiest century in recorded human history. I write from the ground of the terrible dislocation that is exile. My writing gives testimony to the human cost of residing between cultures, between languages.
Sheryl: Can you tell us about your educational path and how you found your way to Women’s Studies?
Elizabeth: In this country, after arriving quite literally with the clothes on their backs, my parents struggled to be part of the middle class. It’s shocking to think that their economic struggle was actually easier then, in the 1960s and 1970s, than it is today for families across this country. I attended public schools—really solid public schools in neighborhoods that were not affluent, at a time when the local and federal governments weren’t actively trying to dismantle public education.
Reading was my solace during some very difficult years. It offered me a retreat, a space I could enter that gave me access to a world much, much larger than what I was experiencing at the time. Reading was a very productive distraction that helped me manage a good deal of the sorrow that I felt at being separated from my extended family, as well as the fear that I experienced vicariously as I watched my parents struggle to understand and negotiate a completely alien culture and language.
Strong reading skills became the foundation of other academic skills, so I generally did well in school. I applied to college because it seemed to be what my peers were doing, and I was accepted at Stetson University. I had never attended a private institution. It was really an extraordinary experience and privilege, though I wasn’t fully conscious of it at the time. My professors were from the very best universities in the world. Classes were small—15 or 20 students—and taught directly by these professors. And I received a very well rounded education in the humanities.
From Stetson, I went to Brown, where I completed my M.A. and then my Ph.D. in English; specifically, 19th-century American prose and British Romanticism. I met a few wonderful teachers there: William Keach, Ellen Rooney, Michael Harper, C.D. Wright, Mark Spilka. I was at Brown at the time the Pembroke Center was being developed, and the discipline of English was engaging feminist theory and writing by women. That theory and the work of Mary Shelley became my focus.
What I always wanted, though, was to be a writer. I could only admit it to myself in increments over the course of my life. I had sensed this desire within myself from the age of 8 or so, but I pushed it away in fear. It was easier somehow to keep that desire inchoate and to lose myself, to find my distraction, in the writings of others. Read more