Post-AWP Withdrawals

It’s now been almost 72 hours since Seattle’s own Sherman Alexie closed the annual national celebration of all things writerly known as AWP.  But writers everywhere, and this writer in particular, remain jetlagged and not just because of the 12-hour trips each way for those of us in the east coast.

(Ahem, if you don’t know anything about AWP check out Peter Mountford’s Guide to AWP for People Who Don’t Know What AWP Is. His Useful Stereotypes are especially on-point: example 1. Earnest Poet, example 2. Mid Level Writer You’ve Never Heard Of. )

This was my second year attending AWP and I have to say I was a little less dazed and confused but just as googly-eyed as the first time.

There was running into my undergraduate prof., Allen Gee, at the top of the fourth floor escalator on registration day, then later in a rather intense panel on Writing Fictional Characters of Another Race led by the phenomenal Randa Jarrar and Mat Johnson among others.  (I chased them both after the panel and hope to feature them on StS soon!)

While womanning the StS table at the bookfair along with StS Asst. Poetry Editor, Alicia P, I saw and invited (manhandled-fawned) over the Great Joy Harjo whom we featured back in November, and yes there were pictures and yes this is us bragging.

 

There was the joy in Joy Castro‘s packed panel on Family Trouble: Memoirists on the Hazards and Rewards of Revealing Family which offered touching and surprisingly humorous tales of the logistical and emotional negotiations endured when writing about everything from incest and sex addition to adoption and parenting and autism. StS will work tirelessly to bring Joy to you in the near future.

Dorothy Allison was greatly missed at Lambda’s 25 for 25, but at least I was able to see Butterfly Boy’s Rigoberto Gonzalez in action. Then, there was the pleasure of a first-time reading with Chang-Rae Lee and the discovery of the lazy charm of Chris Abani. (You had to be there! Were you? Tell us about it in the comments! But rest assured Abani would approve of my qualifier.)

Finding and sitting next to former StS Blog Editor, Sheila McMullin, at The (She) Devil Inside: Unlikeable Women in Fiction, where Samantha Chang and others referred to Edith Wharton and Claire Messud’s work to illustrate how Likeable = Respectable in literature and in life, was a special treat. And an impromptu reunion with StS featured poet Javier Huerta in the convention lobby and later at a ConTinta/CantoMundo offsite reading moved me so, it’ll have to be its own post.

So l’ll  stop here and not bore you with any more of my literary stalking, or with what could very well have been three George Saunders sightings –Asst. Fiction Editor, Julie D. is my witness–except we couldn’t be sure. We were too tired and either non or under-inebriated to approach him, though he was, we swear, no more than 5 feet away all three times.

Will continue AWP-detoxing  for weeks to come. Bear with us.

 

Looking Back at StS’s Hispanic Heritage Month Series

Color Guard and Mariachi at the John F. Kennedy Center this past September (Larry French/Getty Images)

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.”

 

The I’ve-been-here-all-along-American

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.

 

 

 

Shopping for Groceries and Identity in America

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?

American Actor Lupe Ontiveros played a maid over 150 times in TV and film. (Getty Images)

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.

If you haven’t yet, take a look at our other two profiles of Latino/Hispanic Americans, Elizabeth Huergo and Frances E. Valdez.

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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.

 

Frances E. Valdez On Why the Struggles of Immigrants Should Matter to Feminists

We recently introduced you to Frances E. Valdez, an attorney and DREAM Act activist based in Houston, Texas. Valdez believes that feminism and  an awareness of and concern for the struggles of immigrant communities across our United States go hand-in-hand.   Whatever your views on the immigration question currently splitting the country–literally, families are being broken up, check out what bonding with your mother through the bars of a steel and concrete fence looks like–the following blog post by Valdez speaks to the seeds and maturity of our different feminisms, and how for some of us, advocating for immigrants’ rights is exactly what being a feminist is all about:

Image property of United We Dream

“I’m often asked, 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.  My answers explain that I am not the stranger.  Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada and Utah were all once part of Mexico, after all.

At times it seems as though people think that the answers to questions regarding my family history stem from some sort of shame of my Mexican ancestry.  While I am extremely proud of my Mexican ancestry, I also have to acknowledge the fact that I am not culturally Mexican.  I grew up in the U.S. with a great deal of Mexican cultural influence accompanied by the array of cultural diversity that makes up the Greater Houston area.  My cultural influences coupled with my progressive political ideology shapes my identity as a Chicana.

If I did not acknowledge my culture complexity, I would be even more confusing for my Spanish-speaking clients who see me as a brown woman but hear my thick “pocha” accent when I speak Spanish. [“Pocho” or “Pocha” is used to single out U.S. citizens of Mexican descent who lack partial or total command or fluency in Spanish.] I used to be ashamed of this accent. Well, to be honest, I still am and probably always will be a little ashamed of my inability to ever speak Spanish without an accent.

The questions then follow:  Do you have any family in Mexico?  No, not anymore, not since the Mexican revolution around 1910. Then why do you care so much about immigrants?  I care about immigrants and immigration law because I believe in social justice.  One does not have to be an immigrant or have immigrant family members to have concern for immigration issues.

Image property of Roel Moncivais Blog

I care about immigrants because my maternal grandmother taught my mother to care about the poor living in Juarez, Mexico.  A devout Catholic, she made the priest from El Paso cross the border in order to bless the poor families who lived in abject poverty.  I care about immigrants because despite the fact that my paternal grandmother is a third generation U.S. citizen, she grew up in the segregated town of Ft. Davis, Texas where she was referred to as “Mexican” because she spoke Spanish.

I care about immigration because when I was a child, my mother explained the privileges that came as a result of my random birth in the U.S., and that with those privileges came great responsibility to help others. My mother took me along when she delivered food to the immigrant shelter.   She also opened our home to a number of immigrant women who fled abusive husbands. She taught me to treat everyone, regardless of where they came from, with dignity and respect.

I care about immigrants because even as an English-dominant kid growing up in Houston, Texas, I was looked at as the “other” in my white neighborhood and my white schools.  From kindergarten to law school I was often one of the few, if not the only, brown person in my class.  In my own way, I have understood oppression since childhood.  Anyone who knows what it feels like to be stereotyped, or considered different, or inferior, or weak, or just not “one of the guys” could say the same.  That is why I care 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. For these reasons I have chosen to become an immigration attorney.  I hope that in your own way, you will join the immigrant rights movement so that we can move our country toward meeting its full potential of equitable inclusion for all.

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Frances E. Valdez was born and raised in Houston, Texas where she currently practices immigration law.  She graduated from the
University of Texas School of Law and she is a board member of United We Dream, a national network of immigrant youth organizations.

 

Spotlight on a Feminist in Action: Attorney Frances E. Valdez

Fourth from the right Frances E. Valdez with LGH and 2012′s grantee Casa de Esperanza.

Chicana Frances E. Valdez views her feminism as self-evident in the work she does as an attorney, activist, and philanthropist—and I couldn’t agree more. Her efforts as all three have reached beyond her local community in Houston, Texas.

In 2009, Valdez co-founded Latino Giving Houston, a nonprofit where members commit to charitable donations which are pooled and dispersed as grants to organizations exclusively or primarily servicing the local Latino community. (So far grantees include Casa de Esperanza, a safe house for children suffering from abuse, neglect, and HIV; MECA, which offers arts and cultural programming to underserved youth and adults; and the Academic Achievers Programs whose mission is to increase college enrollment rates for students in the East End area of Houston.)

Long an outspoken supporter of immigrants’ rights, this past January Valdez joined the board of the national United We Dream network under which “immigrant youth [build] a movement for justice.” I’m proud to introduce you to a woman doing more than walking the feminist line and talking the feminist talk. The following is my interview with Frances E. Valdez:

Paula: What do you think it means to be a feminist of “color”?

Frances: I think most strong, independent women of color are feminists.  They might not self-identify as such because the feminist movement has historically been dominated by White women.  But women of color constantly assert their feminist ideology by their very presence in the many circles they navigate.

Paula: As an immigration attorney you come in contact with people from a wide range of socioeconomic, ethnic and racial backgrounds. How does your work reaffirm your feminist convictions?

Frances: I have learned that you must understand where people are coming from in order to be [an] effective [attorney or advocate].  Most women I work with have never heard the word feminist.  However, I encounter a lot of strong single mothers who valiantly come to the U.S. to seek a better life for their children and do everything possible to take care of them.  I have also met a great deal of women who become empowered and leave abusive husbands saving their own lives.  In my
opinion, labeling oneself as a feminist does not matter as much as the daily acts of bravery that I see many of my clients perform.

Paula: I’m always surprised to encounter feminists who readily admit, even announce, “I’m not racist—I mean, I’m a feminist!— but Mexicans, immigrants, illegals, are just…”  Why do you think feminists should consider becoming educated and invested in the struggles of the (documented or undocumented) immigrant population?

Frances: I care about immigrants because even as an English-dominant kid growing up in Houston, Texas, I was looked at as the “other” in my white neighborhood and my white schools.  From kindergarten to law school I was often one of the few, if not the only, brown person in my class.  In my own way, I have understood oppression since childhood.  Anyone who knows what it feels like to be stereotyped, or considered different, or inferior, or weak, or just not “one of the guys” could say the same.   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.  That is why I care about immigrants.

This last question prompted a very personal and insightful response from Frances which we felt deserved its own guest post. We invite you to read the full text here.

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Frances E. Valdez was born and raised in Houston, Texas where she currently practices immigration law.  She graduated from the University of Texas School of Law and she is a board member of United We Dream, a national network  of immigrant youth organizations.

 

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