Writers of Color
I learned English as an adult. I speak it with a heavy Colombian accent, which I love –it makes my speech unique—with the same intensity I hate—it makes my speech unintelligible to some. Not often, but often enough to make me self-conscious. Every time I prepare for a reading of my own work, I seem to find sentences that require too many silent vowels, too many diphthongs. I keep running into enunciations that remain a mystery to me –the price one pays for learning a foreign language late in life–. If given the option, I would never read my work in front of an audience. The thing is, when I write, I do not have to know the 44 sounds of English— 25 consonant sounds and 19 vowel sounds—5 short vowels, 6 long vowels, 3 diphthongs, 2 ‘oo’ sounds, and 3 r-controlled vowel sounds—. When I write, my keyboard does not notice my accent, does not tilt its head to one side, and asks, please say that again. When I write, my world is soundless; my fingers, the keyboard, the screen, and I communicate in a nonverbal language of keystrokes and clicks. When I write, I don’t have an accent.
Maybe because I don’t like being the only writer I know who reads her work in English with a foreign lilt, I find myself continuously looking for other Latinx writers with an accent. I’m sure there are many out there with enunciations thick as mud; I just don’t know any. I need a community of twisted tongues, harsh digraphs, and creative ways to land a sentence containing a Future Perfect Continuous tense.
I find the answer to my prayers in a literary journal: a writing workshop for writers of color. A clan of my own actually exists. I sign up for the travel writing workshop, and a few weeks later, I embark on my 20-hour plus (I am temporarily living in the Middle East) journey to my newly-found family of heavy-tongued fellow writers.
After the transatlantic flight, I’m jetlagged and exhausted. I sit on a bench outside the airport, waiting for a taxi. A woman sits next to me. She is white, with blue veins showing through the paper-thin skin of her arms and legs. She makes small talk, and I don’t hide my disinterest, but she gets my attention when she says that she is there to attend a writing workshop for writers of color. I turn my brown face 45 degrees and stare silently into her white, blue-eyed face.
“Oh, I’m eight percent Cherokee,” she says, after a few awkward silent seconds.
I am confused. I don’t understand how a white American woman could be attending a workshop for writers of color, like me, based on her eight percent Cherokee ancestry. Would I, a dark-skinned woman, be accepted into a workshop for white writers? I wonder.
When I arrive at the site of the conference, the first thing that catches my eye is the number of white people. I’m an introvert. I don’t make friends easily. I’m the one walking around at a party, drink in hand, mortified by the prospect of being approached. So, I do what I do best. I walk around, ears pricked, antenna out, radar on. I don’t hear foreign accents. In fact, I think I’m the only writer attending this conference who doesn’t speak unaccented American English. There are skin tones in many hues of dark, don’t get me wrong. I see everything from almost black to deep dark brown to slightly tanned. It’s all there. The sight of dark-skinned writers excites me; the sound of their voices doesn’t. If I were blind and asked to find a name for the gathering, I’d go for, Workshop for American writers.
I soon learn that most of the white writers I encounter have or claim to have non-white ancestors. I have no way to prove or disprove their claims. A few have Native American blood in them; some others have Mexican heritage. One woman tells me that her great-great, some ancestor from way back, was Irish. Irish. A couple of writers have African blood (Yoruba from Nigeria), some others are first-generation Indians. But nobody has an accent. I retreat into my self-conscious shell, feeling like an oddity. I’m convinced that if they hear my accent, they will immediately disregard my prose.
Who am I? According to my DNA analysis, my ancestry can be broken down into three main categories: 37% European, 36% East Asian and Native American, and 13% Sub-Saharan African. Does this mean that I, a Colombian woman, can file as Native American or as black in the USA? If the writer I met in the workshop could claim to be “of color” because of her eight percent Cherokee, could I register myself as white with the 37% European ancestry? Who decides this type of thing?
The workshop leader is a woman hard not to love. She is a laid-back half Norwegian, half Nigerian ex-Buddhist nun and travel writer, who laughs often and is genuinely interested in our efforts to be better at this travel writing thing. She doesn’t have a foreign accent. In my group, there are two Indians—two of the most intelligent, eloquent, people I’ve ever met in my life; one is a university professor, the other a physician. They don’t speak English with a foreign accent. There is a Korean woman with an infectious laugh who speaks a perfect Californian English, a Ghanaian with skin dark as a moonless night, a killer smile, and hips like a shrine. She doesn’t have a Ghanaian accent. The soft-spoken young Chicana of Filipino descent has impish dimples and consistently writes about ancestral rituals. Her English is unaccented. I sit quietly at one end of the table, take all this Americanness in, and feel like an outsider. I misled myself when I mistook color for accent. Everyone around me speaks English like they own it. My dream of having a clan of borrowers of the English language won’t come through here.
There is a reading downtown which I’ve been looking forward to attending. It is hosted by a travel magazine that has sent me encouraging personalized rejection letters a couple of times. The organizer is a renowned writer in the travel writing circle, and he has invited our group to the reading. The Bigwigs of the travel writing scene will be there. I can’t wait to shake hands with the editor who has rejected my work but encouraged me to submit more.
The day before the reading, our group leader shares the news with us about the event: there will be mostly white people at the event. I hope she is joking because as far as I’m concerned the audience could be green and I’d still want to go, but the stern faces I see around the table and the Well, No Way, I Don’t Think So comments I hear tells me that my fellow writers find the color of the audience off-putting. When the question, Who still wants to go? is asked, I’m the only one with a raised hand. I don’t understand the root of their discomfort or what the audience’s skin color has to do with writing.
We end up going. By the time we arrive, the hip library located in a swanky hotel is packed. I buy a glass of overpriced wine and happily sit in the back, ready to be taken to faraway places with each story. Some of my fellow writers are sulking, compulsively looking at the clock, rolling their eyes, acting like children forced to go on an unwanted field trip. A couple of them bitterly complain about the prices of the wine and take exception that there is wine at all—the presence of alcohol gives the event a bourgeois air that doesn’t settle well with them.
The reading is going well, nothing breathtaking so far, but a few lighthearted travel stories. We clap at the end of one reading, and the next reader goes to the podium. The writer who had vehemently opposed coming to an event full of white people and who earlier had complained about wine gets up as soon as the reader grabs the microphone.
“Hell, no. What the fuck?”
Suddenly, she gets up and heads to the door.
“I am not here to listen to no Barbie.”
I look up and realize that the new reader is tall, white, has long legs, and a blonde mane that cascades down to her lower back. The disgruntled fellow writer leaves the room before the woman with long legs starts reading; a couple of writers follow her.
When the reading is over, we go out looking for a bite and a drink. There is a beautiful place across the street from the venue. It’s dimly lit, has a massive fireplace and low leather bean bags. We walk in and immediately walk out. It’s too bourgeois, someone in the group decides. We go somewhere else, but some of the writers decide that this place is also too posh, we are writers for god’s sake, not high-class snobs. We need to go somewhere else. And somewhere else we go, but that other place is too chic, too fancy, so we go somewhere else and that somewhere else is also too upper class. We go somewhere else. Before I know it, we are taking the Metro, or the subway, or a couple of taxis, or public transport, I don’t remember, until we end up in some hole-in-the-wall. It is a Korean diner serving delicious food, and I wonder why these writers consider themselves too street to eat at a nice looking, well-located place, or conversely, why do they consider certain places not worthy of our presence? What’s so special about us, a group of word lovers looking for a bite? But more importantly, I think while I savor my kimchi, what would have happened if a couple of white people attending the reading had walked out because a nonwhite writer took the microphone?
A few days later, we go to a bar a short walk away. We arrive just before happy hour, and the place is empty. It’s just us, a whole bunch of writers having a beer. A faculty member, a renowned black poet I’ve never heard of before, sports a t-shirt with names written on it. I don’t know who they are. Too many of them to be a musical band, I think. But the names mean something to everyone who comes to admire her shirt, and I wonder what’s wrong with me. Why do I not know what they know? A few years ago, I made the conscious decision to stop watching the news, and I have since lived in happy oblivion. Coming across as stupid, unaware, or indifferent, I realize now, is the unforeseeable price I pay for this personal decision of living in isolation. A few patrons arrive. They are young, white, and sporting office attire, nifty-looking leather briefcases, high heels, the works. Their presence stirs something among the writers that I can’t name. It’s a public space after all, not a Writers of Color Only bar. The black poet with the t-shirt goes around our tables and shares her plan: every 15 minutes, we, writers of color, stand up and shout a name from her t-shirt. I decide not to partake. I don’t understand what we are doing or why we are doing it.
Emmet Till! The writers shout.
I sit at the bar and observe. Two more writers, who also decide not to participate, join in and start small talk about our personal lives. Married, single, divorced, with a partner, without a partner, in-love, heartbroken, children, no children. One of them asks me where my husband is from, and I say Scotland.
“Oh, not Colombian?” she asks.
I smile nervously. I feel like I’m being quizzed.
“No, he is Scottish.”
The writers give each other funny looks.
“What?” I ask.
“Is he a black Scotsman?” they want to know.
I see where this is going.
“No, he is a white, blue-eyed, true-blue Scot from the Highlands.”
I have failed the test. Their faces tell me so.
“Why didn’t you marry a brother?”
“Why would I marry a brother?” I want to crack a silly joke about hillbillies. I don’t. “I have always been attracted to white men.”
They make no attempt to disguise their disgust. They are disappointed in me, a brown Colombian who likes white skin.
Trayvon Martin!! the writers shout much to the surprise of the white patrons who smile dumb, polite, but inquisitive smiles and ask what’s going on. The writers of color are mum. It is our secret. Their secret. I still don’t know what they are doing.
“I don’t understand,” the writer to my right says, “why you, a POC, would not marry another POC?”
My heart races. I don’t know what POC is. I think Peoples of China but discard it immediately. Point of Contact doesn’t fit the occasion either. Pirates of the Caribbean is entirely out of context.
I shrug my shoulders. “What do you mean?”
More yuppies arrive. They seem to like what they see: a large group of adults with a skin color darker than theirs. They are congenial and express interest in knowing what the shouting is about because they also want to shout. Only nobody talks to them or smiles back when they grin their white-collar, slightly tipsy smiles.
Whenever all the different groups—poetry, travel, fiction, etc.—get together, the air feels heavy with discontent. I came here looking for a community of like-accented writers, and what I’ve gotten so far is a community of writers with a lot to say, their hearts laden with centuries-old grievances. I take that back; discontent is not the right word; it’s too simplistic. Imagine what happens when people who, through systemic failure, have consistently been denied their place in society get the chance to speak out. Every word comes with a bang and a boom.
On the day we are supposed to hold group readings—fiction travel, memoir, etc., we gather in the conference room. The temperature rises with each passage read; words become lethal weapons, poems are hurled into the air like Molotov cocktails, and slowly a sort of mini-revolution starts to brew. There are rants about cultural imperialism, essays on neocolonialism, references to Uncle Tom (I have never read Uncle Tom’s Cabin), denunciations of post-colonial language, and systemic oppression. Someone reads a poem about breaking chains, and before I know it, everyone is chanting revolution, fists up in the air, revolution, clenched hands pumping, revolution, head bobbing, revolution, feet stomping, goddammed revolution. The last time I fist pumped and chanted revolution, I was a 14-year-old communist-wannabe convinced that I could fix my screwed up country by shouting slogans and singing The Internationale anthem: Stand up all victims of oppression/for the tyrants fear your might…It’s a moment of unity, and as such, it is sacred, like a congregation caught up in a moment of rapture, like that instant at a music concert where everyone around you is as high on tempo and life as you are and the whole place feels like a shrine. Yet, I can’t bring myself to join in. It feels false and childish. Like I’m 14 again and going out of my way just to fit in with my comrades.
The political undertone of the gathering takes me by surprise. Right now, I just want to write about place, to learn from my ex-Buddhist nun how to describe landscapes in a more evocative way, to make the readers feel, taste, and hear places they have never been to. Right now, I’m too naïve or too blind or too removed from the American reality to politicize traveling. It would be years after this event, after I showed a draft of this essay to my daughter—the harshest first-reader a writer could ask for—when she made me realize that travelling and travel writing are highly political, especially for a woman of color like me. My daughter wrote: I understand that you expected the travel workshop to not be political. However, every part of our life is politicized. Especially a travel workshop for writers of color. Politics dictate what you can do or say, what options you have for every aspect of your life. The personal is political. Pretending that life isn’t political is for people who have no stake in it, and that’s not you.
Ouch, and yes, Paula, thank you. I needed your shoulder-shaking words to see the whole picture, to realize the obvious: I, a dark-skinned Colombian, get, in general, a different treatment than my white husband does when we travel together. In some countries, white skin is associated with wealth; dark skin is not. My husband screams purchasing power as we walk hand in hand into a Thai shop, a Cambodian restaurant, a Nepalese hotel, a Moroccan seaport; I don’t. Often, we get asked at check-in counters if we are traveling together, a question, I believe, is asked because of anti-miscegenation views are still ingrained in people’s psyche. Once, while visiting my husband, who was working in Turkmenistan, a security guard stopped us in the lobby of his hotel: Sorry, sir, no prostitutes allowed here. Humiliation and misunderstanding aside, it was true. The five-star hotel did not allow his guests—mostly Americans and British—to bring sex workers in, unless they were high-end Russian call girls who could pass as their wives without tarnishing the hotel’s reputation.
I have lived in two Middle Eastern countries for a total of twelve years. I am used to being ignored at restaurants when the waiters come to our table to ask, “how’s your food, sir?” and I am entirely bypassed. In the Middle East, while in my husband’s company, I become a pocket of air, not for being dark, but for being a woman. I live at the crossroads of religion, culture, history, politics. I have learned that my husband is much more successful at making things happen in the bank, getting answers at the immigration department, sorting out visas, paying bills, getting a plumber. How could I ignore how political travel is for a woman of color?
I suffer from chronic wanderlust. I am an avid reader, a traveler, a cultural anthropologist. At the intersection of the three, I have come across many travel narratives where the writers describe their experiences with the “Noble Savages” they encountered, or present themselves as the saviors of a group of people (usually dark) who would have perished without their intervention, or cross oceans and mountains on so-called spiritual journeys only to “find themselves” in faraway lands peopled by the oh-so-exotic other.
Pretending that life isn’t political is for people who have no stake in it, and that’s not you.
Ouch, and yes, Paula. Thank you.
On the last day of the workshop, we meet outside the campus at a big auditorium. There is a faculty reading, and everyone is abuzz with curiosity about what our teachers will read. Then one by one, they take the microphone and let us see why they were chosen to lead the workshops. Towards the end, a black poet takes the stage. She is known for incendiary slam poetry. Her poem starts out as something mundane. She is at a McDonald’s having a bite when a white woman asks her if she can sit with her as there are no tables available. And that was it. The poem progresses into a rant about the white woman ignoring the poet’s No and sitting at the table anyway, forcing her to share a space she had claimed as hers earlier on. What started out as a simple exchange at a McDonald’s flourishes into an explosive denunciation. I understand that someone imposing herself at my table after I have refused is inconsiderate, to say the least. I also believe in sisterhood and therefore assume that if there are no tables available and another woman asks me to share mine, it is only civil to allow her to sit with me, regardless of the color of her skin. But quickly, I realize that I’m missing her point, for this poem is not about not wanting to share space. This poem is about a white person invading a black person’s space, world, culture, history. It is a hermit crab poem, something she created from the shell of another, like the hermit crab that lives its life within the shell of another mollusk. The poem is not about what happened in the restaurant for McDonald’s is just the shell she used to slam the system. From the french fries, the poem morphs into a denunciation of the master-slave culture that brought the first blacks into the new world. The poet becomes livelier and livelier with each passing minute; each stanza a re-ignited torch, each calculated pause laden with contained anger. The poet is a flame thrower; it seems as though if she doesn’t release all that energy, she will self-combust. So she releases her poetic atomic bomb. She sets the auditorium ablaze. There is ardent fist-pumping, chaotic feet stomping, and interjections: damn right, you tell them, word, no more, no more!
I leave the auditorium feeling keenly alive, feeling Berkley pulsating under my skin with every step I take on my way back to my hotel room. I turn on my laptop and read most of the night.
The things I learned and ruminated:
POC: A person of color. How could I be a POC and not know it? I don’t want to be known as POC or a writer of color. My skin color doesn’t define, confine, or propel my writing. My experience of the world transcends the edges of my skin. I want to be read as if my written words were diamonds: transparent and colorless. I don’t want my work to be referred to as the work of a writer of color. I don’t write with my skin. I don’t write in hues of brown, light chocolate, dark café au lait, or caramel. I write with my heart and my brain, both of which, I presume, are of the same universal color as the rest.
I don’t want to be called a heterosexual writer. I don’t write with my sexual preference. What I do behind doors doesn’t have anything to do with what I write. Or at least I hope it doesn’t.
I don’t want to be known as a Buddhist writer because I practice Buddhism. And so on and so forth. I want to be referred to as a woman who can write.
Never did I imagine being chastised for being married to a white man. A paradigm that begs the question: Is that how it feels to be white and married to a non-white? Why would that matter? What kind of allegiance does my skin pledge to in matters of the heart?
Some people who appear white to me, don’t consider themselves so, a realization that boggles my mind. A writer friend of mine, whose skin color I would confidently describe as white—for lack a better qualifier—calls herself brown because she is Puerto Rican. How could I find this so confusing just now in my forties? Would you not be confused if after seeing me—a brown woman—I tell you that actually, I’m white? (I’m not). Surely all these paths are two-way streets.
Trayvon Martin: I have seen your picture many times. I recognize your piercing eyes and the white hoodie. You were shot by an overzealous citizen who killed you under the protection granted by Florida’s Stand Your Ground Law.
Dontre Hamilton, you were shot just a few months before the writing workshop. Your schizophrenia and erratic behavior were the excuses your killer used to put 14 bullets into your body.
Other black men will be shot dead before the end of the year.
Ezel Ford, twenty-five-year-old, with the mental capacity of an eight-year-old, you will be pinned to the ground and shot 3 times in the back.
Tamir Rice, you will not get to celebrate your thirteenth birthday. Your killer will not think twice before shooting you dead—your crime: to carry a replica toy Airsoft gun.
Eric Garner, you will not celebrate Christmas. You are about to die when a police officer puts you in a chokehold
John Crawford III, soon you will be walking into a Wal-Mart holding a B.B. gun. This will cost you your life.
Michael Brown, your Don’t Shoot cry won’t stop your killer from firing twelve bullets in your direction, six of which will hit your black body, all from the front.
Laquan McDonald, there will be something off about your gait. The way you walk will be perceived as so erratic, so terrifying, so threatening that your killer will shoot you dead as you walk away from him.
Antonio Martin, you live two miles from Michael Brown, and like him, you will not wake up on Christmas day.
Jerame Reid, you will not see the new year. One day before this year is over, you will be shot in the chest as you are exiting your car, unarmed, your hands at chest level.
White people will be shot too, as well as brown. For them, there will be no organized protests or t-shirts memorializing their names. If we were to memorialize all those shot unjustly by a system quick to draw its weapons and shoot anything perceived as a threat, we would need whole quilts sewn to one another. The thread the color of blood, the batting corrosive and congealed, the edges heavy with street grit, mouths wide open against the concrete, teeth shattering on the curb; the top fabric a tangled mess of hands up shaking with fear and contained anger, the backing material a chorus of Don’t Shoot, Don’t You Fucking Shoot.
It has been seven weeks since I began to observe the rules of social distancing imposed by our current situation. I have time to look up the poet known for incendiary slam poetry. I have binge-watched her videos on YouTube; some of which made me weep in solidarity, not because of our skin color—two different shades of brown—but because we are women and she talks about her body in a way that I feel in mine all the damage that has been done to hers. I look up the black poet with the t-shirt and see all her credentials and accolades. I read her poetry, and although I don’t read poetry in English, I am ashamed of not knowing her work until now. I revisit the names of those black boys and men printed on her t-shirt, those human beings whose unnecessarily violent deaths galvanized the society, birthed the Black Lives Matter movement, and denounced systemic brutality. Where have I been all my life?
I write about the writers’ workshop without suspicion, without anger, without judgment. I write about what I found in them and in me. I learned that being white is almost as complicated as being black or brown. What makes a person white? Their skin color—like my Puerto Rican friend who appears very white to me but considers herself brown—or their provenance? I have a white friend who was born and raised in Zimbabwe when it was called Rhodesia. He later came to the USA, fell in love with and married a white American woman, and became an American citizen. When the census guy knocked at their door, my friend demanded to be recorded as African American, which for all intents and purposes, he is. The census guy refused. He thought it was a joke. How could a white man be African American?
A few years ago, while living in Florida, a sort of news exhaustion came over me. News was a misnomer for unsurprising pieces of information that failed to contribute towards my awareness of the world. I started to call them Olds rather than News, stopped buying newspapers, turned the television off, and gradually retreated into a bubble of quiet ignorance. For years, I have found snippets of the world through my timid activity on social media, which are enough to make me recoil back into my deaf-to-the-world office. But it’s the year 2020, my daughter has read the draft of this essay, and has popped my bubble of oblivion with the sharp tip of her pen: The privilege of deciding to not know what goes on in the world is an immense luxury that American POC can’t afford.
Ouch, and yes, Paula. Thank you. Turning a blind eye to the current situation and choosing ignorance over knowledge is an obscene luxury, a sin I can no longer commit. People of all colors are marching, protesting diligently, and painstakingly working to change the status-quo- to tip the scale so that we all stand the same chance of living fulfilling lives. I see their names, their faces, their tragic ends. I see them gasping for air, uttering their last words, and drawing their last breaths. One called out for his mother. One was killed in her sleep. One was maced to death.
I can’t breathe.
I can’t breathe.
I can’t breathe.
I can’t breathe.
I can’t breathe.
I can’t breathe.
I can’t breathe.
I can’t breathe.
I can’t breathe.
I can’t breathe.
I can’t breathe.
I am still suspicious of the news broadcasters telling me what’s going on in the world because they have power and that power comes with an agenda. I’m terrified of misinformation, of being misled, manipulated, seduced by the appeal of believing what everybody believes, that dangerously comforting “common knowledge” hastily drawn from headlines and individual imagination. I’m afraid of the people who refuse to admit that we have a problem, who fix “this mess” over drinks or coffee with flippant rhetoric that lacks any knowledge of history and who think that compassion is an overrated word used by hippies, feminists, and do-gooders. We have a problem, one which can only be fixed if we stop thinking according to the color of our skin or our sexuality. Black Lives Matter is not just for blacks; it is non-blacks who need such movement more than anybody else. Feminism is not just for women; it is for all of those who agree that men and women have the same rights under the law. LGTBQIA is the school that all heterosexuals should attend to learn about respect, how to be an ally, and to understand that behind the Love is Love slogan is the core of our existence.
I read the news.
Zohra, an eight-year-old girl, illegally employed as a maid, was tortured and killed by her employers in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, for letting their pet parrots escape. Read again. An eight-year-old girl working as a maid. Think modern slavery. Shiver. Feel ashamed of being human.
Dreasjon “Sean” Reed
A 13-year old Emberá indigenous girl was raped by seven soldiers in Colombia. Seven grown-up men who were trained to serve and protect took turns to break a little girl half their weight. What kind of men are we raising?
Imagine every single inhabitant of Santa Monica, CA, living in a cage. Outrageous, right? Unfathomable. Crazy. Yet, that’s about the amount of undocumented immigrant children living in cages at detention centers all over the USA.
A door pull rope left in the garage of Bubba Wallace, the only black NASCAR race car driver, was initially thought to be a noose. A noose. That a knot becomes a noose is a sign of the tragic times we are living.
Lynchings. In recent weeks at least five men — four Black and one Latinx — have been found hanging in public across the U.S. These deaths are being investigated and could have been suicides, but the mere fact that they could be lynchings makes me want to crawl under my bed, go to sleep, and unread and unsee. Scratch that. Reading and watching the news make me want to scream, cry, rage; the news makes me want to put fists through walls, vomit, and switch species.
Yes, we have a problem. Not just as a nation, but as a race.
It’s been a few years since the workshop for writers of color. I now understand things that I didn’t back then. For example, I know now that the best way to understand collective anger, whether openly expressed or bottled up, is if seen within a historical or sociopolitical context. Those choosing to stand outside a collective expression of anger have the responsibility to educate themselves in the matter; those who learn history from movies and news headlines ought to shy away from the belief that a handful of misled looters speak for generations of slave descendants. I understand that the names imprinted on the writer’s t-shirt are an incomplete memorial, for there are not enough t-shirts in the world to stamp the names of those executed, tased, raped, tortured, maimed with the complicity of the system that was designed to protect them. I understand that when a white woman invades a black woman’s space at a McDonald’s when this black woman has fought all her life to claim her spot in a society, the act is much more than a microaggression, it no longer is one more stripe on the zebra; it is the insult that broke the proverbial camel’s back, it’s a, “Really, white woman? I said no. This table is all the space that I’m allowed today, and I’m claiming it as mine and mine alone. I will not share this, this, this, this, with you.”
I get it now. Not all of it, but I’m closer.
I’ve been perusing the workshop website. Faculty, board, and alumni are hugely successful, collectively, and individually. I don’t know if its mission statement has changed over time or if I simply didn’t read it when I applied to it. It is clearly stated. The workshop is “… the only multi-genre workshop for writers of color in the U.S. founded by and for writers of color as a revolution.” A revolution. How did I miss this? It continues. “At the intersection of social justice and artistic mastery, it builds individual mastery and artistic communities that create new cultural understandings, changing the way individuals and societies perceive themselves.” An intersection of social justice and art, which is precisely what I do. I work with marginalized women, gather their stories, and voice them on the paper. We do the same. The only difference being, they don’t have an accent when they deliver their stories to a live audience. And in the light of what they do and have accomplished, my wish for a family of men and women who write with the fluidity of water and speak with r’s heavy like lead seems petty and juvenile.
Who am I? I am a Colombian woman, mother, sister, wife, writer, teacher, activist, women’s advocate, this much I know. I learned English late in life, and I speak it with a heavy accent. I’m in my fifties now, and I have to admit, I wish I could go back to the workshop for writers of color knowing what I know now. I wish I had written this essay earlier so that Paula could have read it also earlier and opened my eyes to the reality she lives day in and day out in the USA and from which I am so far removed.
Who is she? She is a woman of color with fire in her belly. She is a psychologist, Navy veteran, wife, daughter, and a terrific first reader, this much I know. When I brought her to the USA, my command of the English language was basic, and hers, at five years of age, was nonexistent. But she picked it up, like children do, mastered it, made it her mother tongue, and speaks it fluently, beautifully, eloquently. The country she inhabits in 2020 is not the same country I brought her to in 1992. We are not the same people either. We arrived in the USA, voiceless and powerless. Two Colombian girls who had never seen snow, learned, blindly, clumsily to navigate this utterly foreign culture. Now we are American citizens, no longer powerless and not voiceless. It is my hope that Paula gets out of bed every day and uses her power and her voice to get involved, fight injustice wherever she sees it, and that she votes for people who can carry her strength all the way to Washington. I hope she partakes in this revolution, fist-pumping and all. I hope she can enjoy a good story because it is well told and not because of the skin color of its reader. I hope she carries a torch to illuminate the path for those who can’t see the way ahead. I hope she has learned that there are many ways to push and to shove and does it unabashedly as she sees fit. I hope she continues being kind, soft, sympathetic, and aware of the world. I hope she doesn’t forget where she came from: a long line of poor, borderline illiterate women, who shielded themselves from gender inequality armed with nothing but faith and strength; a long line of women who moved mountains for generations so that she and I could be where and who we are today: Two immigrant women fighting a good fight, she in perfect English, her mama in a heavily-accented one.
Adriana Páramo is a cultural anthropologist, writer and women’s rights advocate. She is the author of Looking for Esperanza, My Mother’s Funeral, and Unsent Letters to My Mother. Her essays have appeared in multiple literary magazines and been noted in The Best American Essays for consecutive years. She teaches creative nonfiction writing in the low-residency MFA program at Fairfield University. Currently, she writes from the Middle East, where oddly enough, she works as a yoga and fitness instructor.
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