Saturday, September 26, 2015

The Great Debate

For the last 2-3 years, this image has popped up on my Facebook page here and there and when it does show up, it gets reposted and shared for a couple of weeks, then disappears again and then comes back. As an author of color, who uses both English and Spanish in her writing, it is not surprising to me that this was Junot's response. What is surprising, is that folks are STILL asking this question. And, it wasn't until I was asked this question by a high schooler last week, that I realized just how prevalent this notion is and just how angry it made me to have to answer it.

As mentioned in my last post, I recently started up again as an artist in residence for the Alley Theatre. This means that I have the great privilege of going out to schools to share my passion and love for poetry, theatre, performance etc. While on one of these visits, I got asked this very same question: (In reference to slam poetry scores-)
"Have you ever gotten lower scores or had people not like your poetry because they didn't understand that Spanish you used? Because if you don't know Spanish, then you like miss half the poem. I feel like some people wouldn't like it because of that." - 11th Grade English Student

I felt the blood rush to my head as he finished his question. So I took a deep breath and answered as eloquently as possible. (I couldn't use the words Junot did because I WAS at a highschool after all)
I simply told him that no, I had never received "low" scores on bilingual poems and there HAD been times when I performed them for mostly all African American audiences or all white audiences that perhaps didn't speak Spanish and I've always received positive feedback and responses. (Perhaps that's because most people won't tell you if they have something negative to say, but no one has ever approached me to say they felt alienated) I also went on to tell him and the rest of the class that my writing was not there to make them or anyone feel comfortable. It was there to make them think. It was there to make them feel something and if they didn't want to feel or think or ask themselves new questions then my writing wasn't for them. I don't write so people can feel happy butterflies inside (sometimes it DOES have that effect, but that's not its purpose). I write to tell my stories and my stories are bilingual, cultural, sometimes painful and always imbued with emotion and grit.
I think he liked my answer because he smiled. I ended my response with: "Oh and Google is real. If you want to know what I said you can either ask me, or Google it. If you don't have the desire or energy to do that, then again my writing isn't for you."

I often get asked these types of questions by young Latino writers who are struggling with whether or not they should include Spanish in their writing because maybe someone at some time told them it's best not to, so I quickly dispel this notion and tell them it's OK to do so.

In the literary world, us bilingual authors struggle with what to do about our bilingualism often. Our heart and our minds tell us to do one thing and our publishers and editors may ask us to do another. Do we include a translation glossary or don't we? Do we italicize "foreign" words or don't we? How much Spanish/French/Italian/Portugese etc is ok before we lose our reader? It's natural for us to want to ensure that our readers remain engaged, but the first question we must answer is: Who is our reader? Or better yet, Who do we WANT our reader to be?

I wrote Island of Dreams with a very specific reader in mind: 13-19 year old Latin-American females. Have others read it and enjoyed it as well? Sure, but that's not who the target audience was, so if a 40 year old white man approaches me and says he "didn't get it" I can say "ok, of course you didn't, because we don't share the same experiences."

And it is those experiences that deserve to have a place in our schools, in our English classrooms and in our homes. We cannot keep pushing "classical" literature that is not relevant to our student population or they will grow up HATING to read and HATING to write simply because they don't see themselves in the story and in the poetry. Yet so many teachers, educators, curriculum developers and administrators don't see this and don't believe it. They don't think it matters if students see themselves in the books they read. But I know it does.

Aside from being a patient advocate, my first love was Latin-American anything. I started writing because my under represented self was under represented in literature and the arts....15 years later it still is. The fact that it took until 2015 to have the first black woman to win an Emmy for best actress in a drama is just sad..don't get me wrong I'm incredibly happy for Viola Davis..but should not have taken this she said:

The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity....You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there.

Whether we are talking about people of color, immigrants, refugees, the physically handicapped or the mentally handicapped, LGBTQ communities, the invisibly ill or the chronic pain sufferers it's time we removed the blanket that does a terrible job of covering the elephant in the room and begin having honest conversations about how we can truly INCLUDE and not simply TOLERATE these individuals in our society. We need to make an effort to create opportunities where they haven't existed before. We need to share and tell the stories that are often stifled and oppressed so that those who ARE stifled and oppressed can begin to feel liberated and heard. 

Addendum: I know my focus was on secondary schools in general, but MFA creative writing programs aren't much better. I've had several friends tell me of their horrible experiences with diversity (lack thereof) in their programs and Junot also talked about his issues with MFA programs and their lack of diversity not just in the literature studied but in the faculty and students in the program. You can read it HERE.

AND the Association of Writers and Writer's Programs (AWP) hosts an annual conference where they have authors do workshops and panels etc. and one writer says he will never attend another one because they were not accommodating to his disability not to mention the fact that they rarely if ever include panels and talks on literature that address disability or illness. You can read his take on it HERE.

Monday, September 21, 2015


"Society needs both parents and nonparents, both the work party and the home party. While raising children is the most important work most people will do, not everyone is cut out for parenthood. And, as many a childless teacher has proved, raising kids is not the only important contribution a person can make to their future."
View of NOLA from Hotel
-Virginia Postrel

Lupe and I recently spent a rather fabulous and relaxing weekend in New Orleans attending the American Literature Association Symposium.  We went because Lupe was on a panel sharing the research and poetry he's done on the Huelga Schools of the 1960s-70s in Houston. We spent time mixing and mingling with other academics talking about the state of literature and the arts in our schools and in our cities. 

We were all in agreement that there was still not enough minority representation in our schools or in our arts communities (especially in Houston). We brainstormed ideas for what could be done while we drank wine and spirits and listened to jazz. It was all very Harlem Renaissance(y). I left NOLA feeling renewed, refreshed and re-inspired. It didn't hurt that NOLA is a very beautiful city, rich with culture, great architecture and AMAZING food. (Lupe and I even said it was one of the few places we could see ourselves moving to sometime in the distant fantastical future) 

It struck me how passionate all these individuals were about their chosen topics of study. I remembered being that way once and I suddenly longed for it. 

The Awesome Peeps of the conference
I have been toying with the idea of pursuing an MFA in creative writing or a PhD. in something for awhile. (A couple of years actually) But the thought of returning to school, paying out of pocket or going into debt always seemed to hold me back. Truth be told, I just couldn't figure out what I could spend 2-4 years studying without getting bored or going crazy. 

Afro-Latin Studies?
Women's Issues?
Creative Non Fiction and Memoir?

I wanted to do it ALL! And yet, I kept coming back to my failing health. How could I possibly commit to something when my body and my health were so unpredictable? I couldn't possibly start a degree program and then miss class all the time, or have to decide do I pay tuition or do I pay for my pills this month? It all seemed so overwhelming that every time the thought entered my mind I quickly pushed it out. 

But something changed that weekend in New Orleans. It finally felt possible. I saw individuals who were married, with kids, without kids, young, old, from here and from all over the world pursuing degrees and teaching subjects at the university level that they loved and were excited about. I realized that that could be ME. Truthfully, it's what I've always wanted since I started on this path known as "what I want to be when I grow up." Perhaps all these trials and tribulations were the kick in the pants I needed to get me back on track. 

So, as soon as we got back from our trip I did what I do best and I started to research low-residency MFA programs. Mind you, I considered several times over what I wanted to go back to school for and decided on a creative writing program because I didn't want to spend all my time reading and analyzing other people's work, I wanted to create my own. I knew I wouldn't be happy just writing research papers for 4 years. I wanted and needed the incentive and motivation to work on my own writing projects and an MFA was the only place I could do that. Plus, an MFA is a terminal degree and takes half as much time as a PhD in anything else. (Practicality always wins)

I found 5 schools that I really liked and that seemed to fit my philosophy as a writer. They have diverse teaching staffs and offer classes and mentorships that sound like a good fit for me. I have one that is at the top of my list and I'm speaking with the director of the program to learn more tomorrow- wish me luck! (Once I get accepted into a school, I'll share more details) While the thought of paying for this THIRD degree is still a bit scary and uncertain for me, every time the doubt and fear creeps in I simply say "I'll figure it out." I shrug it off and decide to keep pushing forward with my applications, recommendation letters, writing samples etc. If there is one life lesson my dad taught me that I always carry with me it's that "no one can take your education away from you, once you have it, it's yours forever." 

But of course, because I can never seem to get out of my own head, the other day while staring at cute baby pics of my wonderful niece, I thought to myself: why is it so easy for me to shrug off having to pay $30k for another degree but when asked to consider to pay just as much for IVF as an option for conceiving a child I simply "cannot"? 

Isn't having a child just as much a dream of mine as this MFA or publishing another book?
Won't the joy of having a child surpass any joy I get from earning this degree or finishing my second manuscript?
Aren't children most people's "greatest" accomplishment in life?
Can you really put a price tag on the miracle of life?

Truth is, I don't know that I have a really good answer to any of the questions that ran through my mind. What I do know is the following: (this may upset some of you parent folk...this is just MY opinion)

1. I cannot (and will not) fail at my MFA degree. With IVF there is NO gaurantee. It might work, it might not. - Talk about money not well spent.
2. An MFA is an investment. It could lead to a book contract, a teaching gig, a non-profit job etc. My child will be an expenditure (even AFTER IVF, do you know how much it costs to raise a child for 18 years, not to mention paying for THEIR college?!) 
3. Children can and will disappoint you. As long as I continue producing work and writing, I will not be disappointed. 
4. My life should not be measured by what my ovaries and uterus are or are not capable of doing. 

Those of you who know me and keep up with my blog know how desperately I have tried and longed for a child. The longing is there. My desire to be a mother is just as strong as ever, but my willingness to PAY for it to happen is not.  I have a clearly defined budget for how much I am willing to pay for fertility treatments and I promise you it does not even come close to the 30,000 range. 

I want a family just as bad as the next girl, but if the universe has other plans for my body, then so be it. It's either going to happen naturally with as little intervention as possible or it's not. I have too much to offer this world to agonize over parts of me that I cannot control. Do I want to give Lupe a child- more than anything on this Earth. But he and I both understand that my body may not be able to make that happen for us and so, we will cross that barren bridge when we get there. 

School is the one thing I have always been good at. I used to joke that if I could be a professional student for life, I would. (I am truly my father's daughter- he's currently in his first year of med school at the age of 63- GO DAD!) Of course, everyone has to earn a living, so full time professional student isn't exactly an option for me, but perhaps going back to school will provide me with the inner peace and joy that I have so desperately been searching for and missing these last few years. 

There is still hope, I am only 30 and I'm getting healthier every day. We will still try for a family and we will still hope for the best. But until then (and maybe we'll get our "oops" one of these days), I will read books, write poems, teach other people's kids, inspire young minds, and continue baking real buns in real ovens. 

Monday, September 14, 2015

One Match

It's been four whole months since my last post...and what a crazy ride it's been! I don't want to just list a bunch of stuff that has happened...I'd actually like to impart some wisdom and hope with this post, but I know many of you are wondering "what's been going on?!" So I will do a QUICK recap of life and illness for those that are wondering.

Life Recap:

1. I won first place at the Latino Book Awards!! Island of Dreams is the official winner of the Best Young Adult Latino Focused Book Award! It was an amazing honor, a great experience, a fun trip to San Fran and I am truly greatful. Here's my Acceptance Speech

2. My sister had a baby!!! She's is the most beautiful thing I've ever seen! Her name is Brooklyn Luna Monrreal and she was born on August 1st. I just want to kiss her face off!
Brooklyn Luna Monrreal
3. Lupe's aunt passed away in July. It was sad. But we know she lived a long full life.
4. I start working as an artist in residence with the Alley Theatre today. I'm excited to get back to teaching performance poetry and a little theatre. It will definitely make me a happier person.
5. A flash fiction piece (Neurology Suite 101)I submitted to Telling Our Stories Press ages ago was finally published. - Reflections
6. I got into a car wreck in early July, spent 6 weeks without my car. It sucked. But I wasn't hurt so that was a good thing.
Car Wreck :P
7. I resigned from the Scleroderma Foundation board. I had a lot on my plate and didn't want to commit to something I couldn't give 100% to. My energies had to be focused on my health and on my family. I will still volunteer for the organization but only when I'm able.

Health Recap:

1. I have entirely too much protein in my urine still. They did a kidney biopsy and it shows I have Class 5 and Class 3 Lupus Nephritis. Basically that means my kidneys are inflammed (surprise, surprse) and that I'm leaking protein.
2. We are in the process of getting me approved for Rituxan infusions.(This will help kidneys) I'm not excited about it, but the other alternative (Cytoxan) would've left me without ovaries...not. good. There's an 80% chance this will help get me into at least partial if not full I AM excited about that possibility.
3. I have a really ugly infection on my ring finger...but it looks like it's drying up and will heal on its own. The last thing I need is another amputation.
4. Lung inflammation and pleurisy persist. But, it's not as bad and I'm finally able to sleep lying flat!!!!
5. All my other symptoms are very quiet which is nice because it means I have energy, little to no pain or muscle aches, GERD is under control as long as I eat right, and fatigue is mostly gone with only a few minor flares.

So...that's about it...and that's a lot! I'm sure there were a few other things I missed in there, but those are the most important that I can think of at 7am on a Monday. Now..on to the compelling stuff...

All of the various life and health ups and downs over the last 4 months have given me a lot to think about. I have been on the highest of highs- winning the book award- and on the lowest of lows- waking up in the middle of the night and getting my best friend to convince me out of taking a bottle of pills. I've seen the light and been the light, but I've also been surrounded by a pit of darkness feeling hopeless, angry and afraid. Sometimes within a matter of days. It was not an easy summer to say the least. But I am pulling through.

I started to go to therapy again, but have decided not to continue, mainly because I can never seem to find a good one, but also because they're not telling me things I don't already know or do. So, I just need to be better at doing the things I know will help - yoga, meditation, writing, laughing.

I also think that my break from social media the last month and a half has really helped me to refocus my emotions and my energies. For those of you wondering where I disappeared to, I left Facebook and Twitter because it was only feeding my negative side. And that was all my own doing. I felt like I needed validation for my feelings and I needed to be heard about how much pain and suffering I was in. But I realized that that was only making the pain and suffering worse. So, I just up and left. No goodbyes, no explanation..just woke up one morning and deactivated all of my accounts. And I apologize to those people who freaked out because of it. Many friends and family sought me out or asked Lupe what happened because they were worried about me. So I'm sorry for causing concern, but I needed the break for myself, for my soul, for my sanity.

I plan on being back, but my posts will be limited to sharing my blog, poetry events etc. I will use social media for positivity and encouragement, rather than as a platform for pain. I don't want to give negativity anymore power than it already has. After all, you get what you give. What you put out into the world comes right back to you right? So I only want to put out hope, joy and success.

This summer I have been inspired and uplifted by Rachel Platten's Fight Song. Every time I hear it, it makes me cry (in a good way) and makes me feel like I can keep going. I know that my purpose in this life is to write and to teach. The more of that I do, the happier I am. I forget that sometimes. But I'm working hard every day to stay focused on what matters and why I'm here. My words and my stories, my blog and my book(s) are my one match, and I'm make an explosion. (Maybe an MFA maybe a Ph.D..maybe "just" another book?)