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.

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