Join Equality Arizona in celebrating queer artists this Saturday, October 17th, in a Queer Poetry Salon event held virtually. Queer Virtual Salon is local organization that acknowledges the voices and poetry of queer individuals. There will be an open mic where six people will have a chance to share their work. From then, the event will focus on the publication of a new full-length poetry collection by féi Hernandez published by Sun Dress Publications. féi Hernandez is an immigrant trans non-binary artist whose work has been featured in several literary magazines. They are an Advisory Board member of Gender Justice Los Angeles. The event will also feature guest speaker Nicole Goodwin, a New York-based poet and performance artist. Click the link here to register for the event.
History of Violence Binds Us to Live a Life We Don’t Want to Live
L’existence précède l’essence
When Eddy Bellegueule at the advent of his teenage was carrying the unbearable lightness of Anglo-Saxon name representing constructed masculinity intoxicatingly to present himself to the expectations of the social system and to act as per the principles of social exclusion and to remain silent–
a crisis of gender representation,
I standing at the exit door of my teens had encountered an event among the gathering of orthodox Muslim relatives first ever to be acquainted with in my own sister’s marriage ceremony and when I had introduced myself, obviously, as Palash Mahmud, a name combined by Arabic-Bengali words, within a second showing a distaste and shock on their faces, they asked why I am bearing the Bengali word despite of being a Muslim; I could not open my mouth further but to remain silent–
a dilemma of lingo-religious representation.
As Eddy said to Alessandro “Every reality is secretly built upon the rejection of something else,” he excluded the imposed qualities of masculine archetypes for Eddy Bellegeule and transcended to the exposed desires of human qualities for Edouard Louis, on the other edge, I am still carrying the bearable weightiness of intersectionality and enduring the pressure of excluding my linguistic identity to hold up my religious spirit, I could not say anything or write anything but only asking over and over again inside my mind that what’s the sense of not taking a Bengali name along with Arabic name although I don’t speak in Arabic but in Bengali.
Edouard and I have been going through the same societal pressure living in the opposite pole of the world, tolerating the same mass of humiliation and suffering by the different and distinct reasons that proves the objectivity of the human conditions, and adopting two opposite defense mechanisms – rejecting the name Eddy and being a voice of Edouard, oppositely, for me keeping the name Palash and being silent that also denotes the universality of human resilience.
The French debut novel, a global sensation of Edouard Louis, The End of Eddy (En finir avec Eddy Bellegueule in French, 2014) sets in Hellencourt in segregated far-right dominated and melancholic grazing land in Northern France which deals with name, sexuality and identity that are formulated by the norms of class-systemized cultures, social and political decisions that bring shame, humiliations, abuses and sufferings to the individuals. It links up Eddy’s gender representation and sexual preference with his family’s honor and dignity, political bourgeois and supremacy with Eddy’s ruthless poverty which make the analogous tones and themes with Scottish-American novelist Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain which is shortlisted for the 2020 Booker prize and the National Book Awards for fiction; and with Ken Loach’s film I, Daniel Blake which won Palm d’Or in 2016. It shows us the basic structures on which persons and politics intersect and react with each other.
In his second novel, History of Violence (Historie la violence in French, 2016) which has been shortlisted for the 2020 International DUBLIN Literary Award extends the structure into more deeper level where readers can know how person’s identity is reconstructed over and over again by the political malice; and in process politics effectuates violence as a workable instrument evidently.
To show a model of violence in the universal characters, Edouard use bodily assault, the incident of rape from his own life which is very unique in the literary landscape illustrating his psychological journey of pain and grief, rage and revolt so subtly. The truth is no violence or injustice is not singular in nature – it is like multi-folded spider’s web- as soon as you are victimized by any kind of violence- like touching any thread of the web – you are immediately included in the other associate and collateral violences, injustices, humiliations, dominations and sufferings. But the thing is to find out the formula of remodeling the web to degrade the degree of violence and to upgrade the line of human freedom and spirit.
The story has been unlocked after “a whole year since it happened” on the Christmas Eve in 2012 at dawn in Edouard’s apartment when his sister, Clara, is throwing up the swallowed stories of the rape violence to her husband. “Hidden on the other side of the door” Edouard is adding the edited memories and practicing “anxious nagging feeling” and failing to describe the event truthfully because of lacking appropriate vocabulary.
Humans are far behind to picture their conditions in deficiency of exact lexical resources for the feelings and emotions which are kept under the veil of avoidance and rejection.
Being distorted by the rave feeling of reading way back to home, he encounters an Algerian man, Reda, whose “features were soft yet rugged masculine” and with a feeling of romantic and carnal desires for being close together as a man and a woman. They spend a very intimate time, crossing the boundaries of prohibitions and exclusions. During the departure time, Edouard witnesses his valuable appliances and gadgets are stolen and against his charges and protest, Reda exhales his air of violence, rapes him at the death threat. Though the whole narrative is sourced from Edouard own life, he can also replace his physical tribulation and post-traumatic upshots with William Faulkner’s Temple Drake’s rape and its ramification in Sanctuary (1931).
Consequently, Edouard as in Hanya Yanagihara’s Jude in A Little Life (2015) starts to pass through the chronic struggle, internally and externally, to resolve mental trauma; to clean his body, belongings and even his memories. After being raped with physical bruises and spasms he goes to the hospital for medical checkup for “post-exposure prophylaxis against HIV” and speaks “the torrent of words” to make believable the violence to everyone he faces not knowing either is nurse or switchboard operator. He even takes a tactic “remained stuck in metallic moments,” he speaks:
I had cried too much already, I had no tears left to offer. If you don’t cry he won’t believe you, I thought to myself, you need to cry. But my eyes seemed now to belong to a stranger. I made a huge effort. I tried to force the tears to come, concentrating on images of Reda, his face, his gun, so that the tears would flow, but there was nothing to be done, the tears wouldn’t come, my efforts were all to no avail, no tears welled up at the corners of my eyes, my eyes stayed resolutely dry, … I turned to other scenes from my life for help. I brought back to mind other painful memories, the saddest and most painful I had, in order to produce some tears. I thought back to hearing the news of Dimitri’s death.
The reader will also be possessed by every word and even every punctuation mark will occupy you. The most absorbing scenes start to appear when he begins to clean the mirror where Reda has observed and even absurdly strives to dissolve Reda’s reflections and shadows inhibited on it, meanwhile, “possessed by an almost maniac energy” he yields that it’s not any object but his own body and existence to be washed out:
I was the problem. I got in the shower; I washed myself once, twice, three times, and so on. I lathered my body with soap, shampoo, conditioner to perfume it as best I could, it was as if his smell were encrusted inside me,
We know the rape thing happens in everywhere around the world but how many we know their feelings, emotions and everything they endure and adapt except pathological reports, legal and judicial hearings and the most popularly journalistic testimonies. As soon as I come to know the first hand narratives of Edouard’s history of violence disclosing shame, humiliations and the chain of sufferings, I slide down into the whirl of befuddlement and fail to decide of which feeling of him I would exclude or skip over from my list of quotations.
There are controversies and mixed reactions to narrative forms like History of Violence where you cannot draw a clear demarcation between fiction and fact, reality and imagination. Many says without aesthetic imagination you cannot define the ideology of literature, but, surprisingly, Edouard Louis believes when finding truth is the only purpose or making change in human despondency and on the map of violence is the only utility of literature then ornamental literature is an obstruction, and l’art pour l’art is a bygone dream.
Like social or political exclusion, Edouard revolts against the literary exclusion by which writers and poets escape our lived realities to make it more appalling and tantalizing. He uses his own life in the first-person narrative view as a literary material like Norwegian novelist Karl Ove Knasusgaard uses in My Struggle series (2009-2011) and Seasonal Quartet series (2015-2016); Annie Ernaux in The Years (2017) uses third-person narrative angle with her memories, impressions, archival documents and visuals. Svetlana Alexievich uses “the real testimonies that make a unique literary form. Writing lived realities is very much risky and dangerous that can make furies and cries into the hearts of people involved.
The next door neighbors, old school-friends, accidental acquaintances or the closest persons will confront the author incriminating for defamation of their images and disclosure of silence.
Edouard Louis has acknowledged in public his indebtedness for the sociological and political analysis of Pierre Bourdie and Didier Eribon; he had published, in collaboration with philosopher Geoffroy de Langasnerie, the article “Manifsto for an Intellectual and Political counteroffensive” on the first page of Le Monde imposing the vitality of the redefinition of ethical principle and praxis in politics:
Si l’on veut redéfinir et transformer la scène intellectuelle et politique, il est urgent d’adopter quelques principes éthiques la pensée et l’action.
The mythology of the working class exposes when people get down to status of muteness and the difference from the mainstream then people only survive and not have a chance to live a flourished life that brings the spiral of violence to society. As Toni Morrison brought the voice in Black literature in America; as Teju Cole commented in the essay “Unmournable Bodies “(2015) “that unmournability, just as much as the massacre in Paris, is the clear and present danger to our collective liberté.”; or as Edouard tries to break the silence of “the compulsive racism” in France:
At the police station I’d given a brief description of Reda, when they asked, and immediately the officer on duty cut me off: “Oh you mean he was an Arab.” He was triumphant, delighted would be an exaggeration, but he did smile
Lorin Stein, the erstwhile editor-in-chief of The Paris Review (2010-2017), is the translator of History of Violence (2018) and subsequent completion of Who Killed My Father (2019), who has been patrolling the fictional world for years restlessly to find the narrative that always speaks the truth and can “settle a troubled conscience”. Like Edouard Louis he also keeps faith in Ken Loach’s maxim, “art should be anything, it should be what imagination produces”. A translator is a surrogate author who goes through the same creative labor and impeccable pressure to make a bridge between two minds, languages and cultures. As Edouard’s real life appears almost fictional and fictions emerges nearly real, Lorin’s quality of translation draws a blur line between linguistic differences and creates a vivid impression down to the original in the French version. It’s a perfect example of oxymoron (blur-vivid) in transfiction.
The tone of the narrative pushes us to feel stranger than Camus’L’Ėtranger(1942) because it depicts our minuet life that we are habituated with that always has been excluded from the ink and letters. The submission of the story is more on pluralism, truth and optimism than Houellebecq’s Soumission(2015).Memory and imagination make the archeology of knowledge and story that governs and binds us to live a life we don’t want to live.
Once you cross over the title you cannot look away, in some parts you will wish to transplant yourself with the characters only to know how it feels to live a life you have never seen at its core or have been ignoring or keeping in the dark shadows.
I’ve been thinking about collaboration as a means of queering. In writing, collaboration queers the traditional artist-as-precious-genius notion by forcing writers to relinquish creative control while still in the midst of creating. It queers the solitary writing process by exposing our artistic vulnerabilities. It queers the commercial author machine by sharing profit and leaving less room for a promotional cult of personality. It can even queer the almighty “I” on any given page.
I’m currently at work on a collaborative poetry project with Carol Guess about a character named NonMom. Like me, and like Carol, NonMom is queer. Love and sex aren’t structured around binary gender for NonMom. She lives without interest in the heteropatriarchal family structure. She rejects easy categories. Sometimes she refuses a stable identity altogether.
So I’ve also been thinking about what it means to claim that term, queer—andnot just as a verb, which academics (including myself) love to do. I’m talking about a concrete, women-loving woman (to use my own life) kind of queerness. Around the time that Carol and I began this project, I also began to claim queerness for myself in concrete ways, though I hesitated to use the term at first, because it was not a term I’d claimed in the past. When I’d been in straight relationships, I had written about queerness a little—but only in “persona” poems. I’m embarrassed to say this now, afraid of suggesting to you that I was in the closet or simply oblivious. Those notions don’t capture my life in the slightest.
As Carol (who is a frequent collaborator) has pointed out to me, a collaborative poem is a kind of persona poem. The reader knows the “I” is compromised. If needed, the author can hide—but she can also write a role for herself. I didn’t want to hide in NonMom. I wanted to enter into something big and complicated with the support of another queer writer. I wanted to create some of the most confessional poems I’ve ever written by claiming not just queerness in NonMom’s voice, but also her refusal to keep quiet. She’s outspoken about her desires—and her lack of a desire for children, which is embraced in her very name. I, on the other hand, am still learning how to speak up about such things.
A former colleague once spoke to me about an acquaintance who identified as a lesbian but married a man, had a child, then divorced the man and fell in love with a woman. It was just that she made such a big deal about being a lesbian, my colleague explained, and then she wasn’t, and then she was again. It was the swerve that bothered her, apparently—the shift from one lane to another, or perhaps worse: occupying multiple lanes. The question that needled: How could anyone be more than one thing?
In collaboration, voices can meld, but they can also clash in fruitful ways. I often teach collaborative work from literary journals and anthologies (like They Said: A Multi-Genre Anthology of Contemporary Collaborative Writing). One of my favorite collaborative essays to teach is “Pink” by Denise Duhamel and Julie Marie Wade. I ask my students why it matters that the essay has two authors. Many admit that they didn’t at first notice there were two authors, while others say they knew because one author calls herself “straight” and speaks of an ex-husband, while another calls herself “a proud gay woman”—though it’s not necessarily clear who is speaking at any given moment in the essay. At this point, someone in class typically reminds everyone that who you’re with doesn’t determine your sexuality. Maybe someone else says sexuality can change. A pregnant pause enters the room. Eventually we conclude that although there are two distinct authors, the lines between their identities and experiences intersect and even blur. After that, my students usually create fantastic collaborative essays that use “I” to challenge the very notion of a stable identity.
On the page I am Rochelle and I am NonMom, who is also Carol, who is also I. We travel a loop through the poem, leaving in the center a wide-open space for being.
Join writer Rogelio Juárez at the Valley Bar, Reading Room (9130 N Central Ave, Phoenix, AZ 85004) on Thursday, October 3, 2019, 7:00 p.m. for a discussion on race, gatekeeping, and white gaze.
Heavily inspired by Toni Morrison, acclaimed author of Beloved,Juárez intends to delve into some burning questions, including: How does colonization affect the creative process? What do we assume the reader knows? What do we explain? Who are we writing for? What is the white gaze? How do political, social, and cultural discourses around specific ethnicities, races, and groups shape the marketplace for literature?
The event is free of charge, but guests must be 21 or over (18 or over if accompanied by a parent or guardian) and the maximum amount of people allowed is 24 for everyone to be able to speak.
Rogelio Juárez is a Phoenix-based writer, a graduate of the VONA/Voices of Our Nation and Tin House workshops, a grandson of Braceros and son of an immigrant and a marine. His writing can be found in J Journal: New Writing on Justice, The James Franco Review, and Zócalo Public Square.
Changing Hands Bookstore (300 W Camelback Rd, Phoenix, AZ 85013 will be featuring best-selling author Jacqueline Woodson on Friday, September 30 at 7pm. Moderated by fellow poet Natalie Diaz, the event will focus on Woodson’s novel, Red at the Bone, which follows the story of 16-year-old Melody and the role of her birth and life in the history, community, and overall union of two families from different social classes. Exploring sexual desire and identity, ambition, gentrification, education, class and status, and the life-altering facts of parenthood, Red at the Bone examines how young people must make long-lasting decisions about their lives–even before they have begun to figure out who they are and what they want to be.
Jacqueline Woodson, named Young People’s Poet Laureate by the Poetry Foundation in 2015, is the best-selling author of more than two dozen award-winning books. Her most famous works include 2016 New York Times-bestselling National Book Award finalist for adult fiction, Another Brooklyn as well as her New York Times-best-selling memoir, Brown Girl Dreaming, which received the 2014 National Book Award. Woodson is also a a four-time National Book Award finalist, a four-time Newbery Honor winner, a two-time NAACP Image Award Winner, and a two-time Coretta Scott King Award Winner. She lives with her family in New York.
Natalie Diaz is the author of the poetry collection When My Brother Was an Aztec. Her many honors include a MacArthur Fellowship, a USA Fellowship, and a Lannan Literary Fellowship. She teaches at Arizona State University and will be publishing a new collection, Postcolonial Love Poem, in March 2020.
The event itself is free and open to the public, but you can purchase a copy of Red at the Bone and learn more about the event from the website.
The world is fractured. History is fractured. The ecosystem is fractured. Is the universe as we know it fractured? Is there a broken space beyond which there is another universe? Or is it a joke, like the “Fractured Fairytales”? Fractures shape each of us, giving us to do whatever we were meant, and have the desire to do. Yet it is not always what we want or expect.
I criticize the dark, the light; the night, the day; the sun, the moon and the stars. Night seems a betrayal for diurnal people, yet there are people who are nocturnal, by choice of work, or temperament, or a combination: do they take a job because it is a night job, or does the job transform them into a creature of the night?
I am fractured: a Jew, a Christian; introverted, extroverted; an Estonian, an Italian, with a piece missing that would help to heal one of my fractures: conflicted as a Jew by my German blood. I am an ethnic orphan, but embraced by parents who fight and beat each other, and then caress one another with long, broad strokes, and disappear into their room. As a child, I wasn’t sure what went on in there, but if it was the master bedroom, who was the master guiding the marital ship?
I am a glutton; I am a skeleton; I scream and I am silent. I am the first generation in this country, born of a mother, guided by my grandmother, who were the only ones of the family to survive the Holocaust. They were truly displaced persons, not refugees: they were not fleeing for a principle that threatened their lives in their country; they had no country or place to go, no verifiable identity. They, like many DPs, were given new papers: birth certificates, religious identities, names, papers for a tight-fisted, antisemitic president, who thought they were Nazi spies and refused to let them in. Think of the SS St. Louis in 1933, forbidden to land in the United States for fear of the evils these thousand Jews threatened: they were forced to turn back and return to Europe, where many of those on this “luxury cruise” (which is how it was billed, but the passengers didn’t buy it for a minute: they were refugees) ended up in the death camps, the labor camps, dying just like everyone else. Even Anne Frank, put into a camp, was no more heroic than her fellow inmates, screaming, fighting over bread, soup; dying of typhus two weeks before the camp was liberated. Saintly Anne: no less fractured than anybody else, but fractured in circumstances designed specifically to bring such features out in their many ways.
Fractured, I am a man who is a woman who is a man; a woman who is a man who is a woman. LGBTQ! Peaceful, wanting a quiet, loving family life, and the others who persecute them: they are God’s abomination.
Fractured, I am well-educated, but for what matters in my life—writing—I am an autodidact; I am wise, I am a drooling idiot. Disciplined, I am loose, narcissistic: I look to the heavens (if there is such a place; it depends upon your beliefs), but my feet are walking to Sheol. Or is there, in fact, no afterlife, no paradise, purgatory or hell. I’m taking my chances, I know, risking the evil eye, and by the time I know, it’ll be too late: I’ll either be awash in endless liquid fire, or I’ll disappear, soulless: a bit of space dirt.
I am fractured, fractured. I am the hunter and the prey. I am honest and a cheat. And so, in the twilight, in the evening, at the time of night and darkness, I lie alone, or with a companion whom I may or may not know, and come face to face with myself, in a shattered glass.
RED INK Journal is the new version of RED INK Magazine, a magazine started at the University of Arizona. RED INK Magazine was published for twenty five years, but now it has found a new home and a new name. Arizona State University English Regents Professor Simon J. Ortiz brought RED INK to Arizona State University and is working to make it a literary journal. Simon Ortiz is a well-known and well respected Acoma Pueblo poet and writer. The purpose of this journal is to promote a native voice through literature, art, and humanities. This serves two functions. First, it preserves native voices by collecting and publishing their writing. Second, it promotes native voices by distributing the journal and getting people to read native writings.
RED INK Journal is a periodical published bi-annually and is being run by Arizona State University grad students.. The journal aims to preserve the native voice with writing about land, culture, identity, and community. While RED INK Journal is relatively new, they are looking toward the future and hoping to grow. They are accepting creative writing, essay, and scholarly submissions. In the future, they would like to get submissions from global indigenous people.
The journal looks different from the magazine, but what remains the same is the promotion of the native voices. RED INK Journal is part of a larger initiative Ortiz is working on called RED INK International. RED INK International has the same goals as the journal: to promote and preserve the native voices. It wants to educate and get a native view point across to the public. RED INK International is working toward those goals, but through a different method than publishing a journal. Ortiz wants to put native voice out into the community. Not only is a native voice important to native peoples, it is an important part of America’s voice and history. Ortiz thinks it should be taught at all grade levels. RED INK Journal is just one of the ways to help get the native voice heard in the community.
To find out more about the journal and the RED INK initiative, click the links and check out this article. You can also follow them on Facebook to stay up to date with all the RED INK Journal news and happenings.
Intermedia Grad Student Shiloh Ashley has been hard at work preparing for their thesis show, including the arduous task of constructing their own language. Our Art Editor, Regan Henley was lucky enough to get some time with Shiloh to talk about this process and see what exactly this whole project entails.
Regan Henley: So, my understanding is that you are creating your own language as part of your thesis. Can you speak a little about that?
Shiloh Ashley: I am very interested in languages, codes, puzzles, and games, and the ways in which these things intersect during play. I wanted to deepen my knowledge and expand my understanding of the how language, codes, puzzles, and games influence communication and interpersonal relationships. I felt that the best way to investigate the dynamics between the intersections of those elements and how they lead to transformation would be to create my own language.
RH: This project is obviously a huge undertaking. What has been your process throughout this work? Have you been following some outline for creating language or is it more of an intuitive task?
SA: I am working intuitively with a plan of action, which means that I set aside time to focus on only writing, only music, only building, etc., and the work develops from there. It helps me to corral my thoughts but not limit them too much to a set of expectations as I find art has a way of making itself regardless of what, I, as the artist think it should be.
RH: Has language always had an important element in your work, or is this a more recent fascination of yours?
SA: Language has been a constant in my work.
Language is important to me because I believe languages are adventurous journeys to new worlds, not just verbal or gestural languages, but also languages like mathematics, coding, and the use of acronyms in cyberspace. There are many different ways to say the same thing, there are similar ways to say different things, and too many ways to say the wrong thing.
RH: Do you think language plays an important role in defining personal identity to you? And if so, what are you saying in creating your own?
SA: I grew up in a multilingual setting. My family is Lakota from the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe in South Dakota, and so I grew up around English and Lakota. I got in trouble in first grade for coloring out of the lines on a picture of a pig that we were going to cut out and put on a wall. In protest of getting reprimanded by the teacher, I called her a name in Lakota and was sent to the principal’s office. I learned that there was a lot of power in terms of what is said, who is saying it, and who what is being said is being said to.
Also around that time, my parents worked at a summer camp along the Missouri River, and the majority of the counselors were international coming from Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Australia, Jordan, and Japan. It exposed me to the world in a way that still informs my curiosity about people and how lives are lived across the globe.
Outside of those experiences, I took a couple years of Spanish, learned to read music, became interested in technology, and am learning to code.
I have in the last year started to learn Lakota. The extent of my knowledge comes from language used in ceremony and things I remember from my aunts and uncles. My parents spoke mostly English. It is important for me to reconnect with the language of my people because it connects me to who I am, where I come from, and the values of my people. All of these languages are important to me because they help me understand and process the world. I am creating my own language because I feel a responsibility to communicate sincerely with the world in an attempt to join in on the conversations that address issues related to our planet and the future of humanity.
RH: The idea of ceremony definitely seems present in how you construct language. Last semester I got to see you do a performance art piece at a live art platform in which you used audience participation and line dancing to teach participants your new language. Can you tell me a little bit more about that?
SA: Line dances and dance crazes interest me because they facilitate space for temporary communities to come together for about five minutes to just have a good time. Momentarily, race, sex, class, gender, politics, and prejudice are suspended, and people just dance. There are other ways of looking at it, but I am focusing on work that brings people together, and I felt like the line dance was a good way to integrate learning, performance, and participation into the work.
RH: Will you be following this line of thought (doing any more line dancing/performative elements) in your thesis show?
SA: I sure hope so! Bring your dancing shoes just in case.
RH: This work has definitely been a long time coming for you, given your background and experiences it seems. What have you learned throughout this process?
SA: The most helpful thing I’ve learned is about having the patience to allow space for the work to evolve and to trust that it will eventually come to make some sort of sense. It is new territory, and I am very excited about the process moving toward thesis show as I am approaching the work in a more focused manner now that the foundations of the language have been established.
RH: Last but not least, where can we see you and your work?
On the very first day of TA training, back in 2007, we were asked to think about how we were going to introduce ourselves to our students. They asked us to consider teacher identity in the classroom. Things like where we sat, what we wore and what we called ourselves were tossed around the discussion. Were we going to make them call us mister, miss, professor, or by our first names?
I had a bigger problem. Since the very first day I entered school as a young boy, my name took on another sound. Fur-nan-doe Pur-rez fell from the lips of all of my teachers and classmates. My identity split. I was no longer just Fernando Pérez, as my parents pronounced it. It was at this point that my curiosity with the power of language grew. At home my name was always pronounced in Spanish. My folks and relatives said it correctly, but all of the new people in my life made me think that Spanish held only a place for intimates in the homes of cousins and grandparents. It’s not that my relatives could only speak Spanish. In fact, we are quite assimilated. Most of us have actually held on to the language and culture of our Mexican roots while integrating successful American practices, careers, and attitudes.
I, however, internalized the split as the following: English belonged at school, among friends, and in the classroom; Spanish belonged at home. Whenever Spanish crossed into the English boundary that had been set, I would become nervous or embarrassed. I even began pronouncing my own name in English. The struggle with identity increased as I encountered far more Latino students in high school than I had ever had in my elementary and junior high where I was among only three.
Fast-forward to graduate school and TA training. My first semester at Arizona State University, I had a Poetry class with Professor and renowned poet, Alberto Ríos. I remember the first day he took roll. When he got to my name my face flushed with blood. He said my name in Spanish. The line had been crossed. This was the first time any teacher had ever said my name the way my mother does. What’s more, I felt the guilt that I associated with the times my mother said my last name—usually reserved for moments of scolding. I remember asking my professor after class if he was embarrassed bringing Spanish into an “English” class. His answer has stayed with me to this day. It was something along the lines of saying, “We are in the Southwest, and what’s more, we are in a place of higher learning, where language and culture is not limited to those whose primary language is English.” He continued to say that Spanish and any other language should be attempted by those who cannot speak it—at the very least a word or two here and there as a way of building bridges. From that moment on I felt empowered, yet I still accommodated my English language students by providing them the option of pronouncing my name in English, the way I had been used to hearing for half of my life. I felt content having at least provided the Spanish option as recognition for those students who knew my struggle.
Today, I don’t provide the English option. Instead, I say my name in Spanish, provide Ped-diss as a way of sounding it, or tell my students that they can call me “Mr. P.” Introductions are important. Identity is important. I share the history and struggle of reconnecting with my name on the very first day of every class. Seeing myself as belonging in this place of higher learning has been a struggle. I know that several students feel the same way. It is not surprising that students both at Arizona State University and now here at Bellevue College have come up to me after class and told me how much they can identify with the struggle of holding two different languages in their heads and how they have also struggled with the split in identity.
It is with identity and my name in mind that I had to speak up when my business cards here at Bellevue College were printed and my last name was misspelled. I was not insulted or even slightly stirred; I just knew that it would be important for me to ask that they be reprinted. I thought about how my cousin Carlos used to tease me when we were children, asking me, “I bet you don’t even know where the accent mark goes in your last name. From that day forward, you better believe I learned it. It was important then for me to set an example for my Latino students that our names should be pronounced and spelled correctly, that they can be points of pride, and that the sounds they create are welcomed on this campus. It was an easy mistake for whoever printed the business cards to make. I don’t consider it a micro-aggression in any way. How can anyone know how important a little accent mark is? In the end, what mattered was in the way my request to fix the problem was handled. No one raised an eyebrow, no one sucked their teeth, or rolled their eyes. The cards were changed and that was that. This was very reassuring to me as teacher of color at this school.
All aside, I find that my mere presence before these students of color is important. Teaching is a humbling vocation for me, but my face and my name are important for students to see, especially in an English class. I do find that my students of color, my Latino students especially, are eager to speak up and share their thoughts in class. They are eager to come up and establish a relationship with me after class as well. They want to tell me their stories and they want to know how I am adjusting to the weather and culture here. This is not to the exclusion of my white students. Because I care about education and learning, because I am excited about nerdy things, or articulate well, I find—understanding that I am making a sweeping generalization—my white students are eager to invest in me as well. They are curious about me at the very least, and I am certainly eager to invest and to be a bridge to all my students.
Whenever I take roll, I read my students’ last names and ask them to tell me how they would like to be identified. This is an important way of empowering my students and honoring pluralism. How they identify themselves within the context of race, gender, or sexual orientation matters. I will be honest, it used to upset me inside that some of my students had “American” names they would ask to be called by—as a way, I thought, of accommodating English speakers. I used to want those students to accept their “foreign” names and allow me the room to learn how they were pronounced. When I think about it, I can only offer my anecdote about my name and the struggle I faced with identity as a model for my students. If they are not worried about it or if they are not ready to address that within their own lives, it is not up to me to push. Honoring their choice to be called what they ask to be called has been my pact.
One student last quarter shocked me then, when she asked me to call her “Skunk.” Had she not been in my Creative Writing Poetry class, I might have found it difficult or odd, but I honored her request because she seemed sincere. As I got to know her through her writing and our conversations, I learned that she too was struggling with identity in her own way. Skunk identified culturally as Persian. If that weren’t complex enough, she felt the burden of feeling out of place in a White-dominant society. She could have passed for being “white” but she didn’t identify that way. She would say things like, her parents don’t like her speaking Farsi in public or that they don’t want her to date anyone whose culture comes from the Middle East.
Her own family and the dominant culture at large placed Skunk in the middle of complexity and confusion. Sometimes her confusion was self-imposed, but whatever the case, it was real and felt.
I worked with Skunk, nudging her to drop a line or two of Farsi into her poems. I told all my students that other languages or modes of speech were priceless nuggets in poetry. I think, if properly placed, other languages and modes of speech add a tremendous amount of flavor to any writing. Over the course of the quarter I noticed subtle changes in Skunk’s behavior. Her confidence improved. This quarter she is registered in my ENGL 101 class and when I took roll on the very first day, she wasn’t embarrassed when I came across her last name—something she quickly discouraged me from saying in our Poetry Class. Skunk now goes by her given first name.
English Language Learners populate my classrooms as well. One such student in the fall quarter was Zaw. He was a quiet guy, rarely offering his thoughts during class discussion. I would carefully nudge him every now and then and one day after class he approached me. Zaw informed me some students feel uncomfortable speaking their minds because that is not how they are culturally used to doing things. He asked that I bear with him as he adjusted to my request to share his thoughts. I was happy that he felt comfortable sharing this with me. Zaw also told me that he felt stupid because he had an accent and because his English was limited. I quickly informed him that my pedagogy favors clarity of thought over mechanics and the use of “big” words. I told him that if it made him feel more comfortable he should consider writing out his ideas in his native language first and then work toward translating his ideas into English. I wanted him to know that his intelligence was not going to be measured by how well he spoke English. Zaw’s attitude and confidence improved from that point on and he was further supported after we read and discussed “Mother Tongue” by Amy Tan in class.
I want my students to feel like they can come to me for anything. I don’t pretend to know everything, but I inform them that we can work through their issues with writing or life outside of class, and that I will help them to find additional resources if necessary. Some students recognize and utilize my accessibility and support right away. For a variety of reasons, others do not.
Being so far away from my own forms of support/community has, at times, made the days seem very long. My family and friends are integral to my being. Transitioning into the new culture here at Bellevue College, the culture of the department, the quarter system, the Pacific Northwest (my apartment, the climate, the people), and all without my partner and while dealing with the recent loss of my grandmother, have shaken the ground I stand on. Remembering my identity, who I am and where I have come from in the midst of these challenges, has helped me to grow as an individual and as a teacher.
My identity is constantly being forged. I am working on the relationship I have with myself so that I may also improve the relationship that I have with others. I am learning to quiet the voices that say that I don’t belong here and that I don’t deserve this position or that I do not have anything to contribute to the department or the college.
I am becoming more deeply rooted in the belief that students have the right to their own languages and that I am not a gatekeeper toward the “next level” of the English language or writing. I want to encourage students to fall in love with writing the way I did. I want them to enjoy their time in all of their writing class, whether they are required courses or not. I do not believe that a student’s writing will be transformed over the course of one short quarter, but I do believe that their relationship to the subject and desire to continue on this path can be fostered in my classroom.
Ultimately, I have come to accept that students respond to my style of teaching, my accessibility, and who and how I am as a person. When students invest in me, they begin quickly to invest in the class.
When I was an undergrad I made similar investments. I knew I wanted to be a teacher when I sat as a student in Dr. Velvet Pearson’s Intro to Poetry Workshop at Long Beach City College. I liked how we sat in a circle and each weighed-in on a poem. Everyone, from their own corner of the world, with a fresh and different take, offering their perspectives on issues that affect us as human beings made me realize how valuable this act can be. It made realize that we learn from each other, not just the teacher, that our voices matter, and that we need these human stories. Dr. Pearson was the first English teacher that treated me like I was someone who was smart and that made me feel like my contributions were valid. She got me excited about writing, which made me invest in the journey that lay ahead of me as a writer. That is, at least, what I took away from her class and what I hold as an integral part of my pedagogy as an instructor today.