Monday, February 26, 2007

So I started crying today when I went to the website that this photographer has up dedicated to photographs and stories from his trips to the Dominican Republic (among other things). I don’t know what did it, really: the photos of the landscape that I am yearning for so deeply, or the portraits of Dominican `boys' and children in various `settings'. Paul Gerace: I don't know if he's American, Dominican, Haitian, French, Canadian or what, but his tone is reminiscent of all the phrases that the French neo-colonialists occupying the northwest part of the island use. What wonderful, happy, loving people we are, we Dominicans. So generous, that we just GIVE our land, our children, our food, our clothes, our homes away. So generous. Our enthusiasm for life. A life marked by struggle and hustle, fragility and insecurity. Of course we love life. It's all most of us there have.

The Dominican Republic is beautiful. We know that. The Spaniards knew that when they arrived 515 years ago. The French. The British. The Americans. All of them knew that. It’s the most beautiful paradise you'll ever leave, and the most beautiful hell you'll ever be trapped in. The past 15 years of national and international economic and environmental policy are stripping the shores of sand and coral and clean fishing areas, they're stripping the people of viable means of sustenance, instead forcing them into new forms of indentured servitude: hotel work, free trade zone work, tourism. The political economy is based on paternalistic patterns of participation, whereby jobs inside and outside of servitude are granted to whoever is in line with the party in power, or who their family is or to women who make the most out of their appearance (let me clarify that I do not judge the women or the people for trying to make a living, but I do think that as a society, we are cutting ourselves off at the knees). Tourists from the U.S. can stop into the Dominican Republic and get excited about the investment prospects, and then upset when Dominicans request salaries about the $100/month minimum wage. The French can stop into the Dominican Republic and get excited about how beautiful it is and buy land and sell land to each other in French, without regard for the hundreds of families they displace in the process. And tourists can come and take photos of the beautiful children and beautiful beaches and make money, and once again, we are taken.

The peso has been dollarized, and food costs more there than in New York City and there is little I can do about it - me with all my dollars, appearing at cash registers in the supermarket, stationery store, bar or at food stalls in the fruit market - precisely because I work in dollars, and because I haven't made myself a permanent participant in the social/political/economic landscape. I'm registered with a political party there, but it's rare I go back to vote. I have a U.S. passport so when things get bad I come to the U.S. to work and make money so I can go back home as often as possible. I share my opinions with the friends who do stay there, who look at me in silence because they are just trying to build a house, raise their families, and eat.

Sigh. Home, homeland, land - these are all such complicated and complex questions for me. When I go home, I go not only to work (by work I mean write), but I also go as a tourist. I go to beaches, and I stay in hotels around the country, and I travel. I can leave when I want to or need to. As an adult, I have lived there twice. And left many more times than that. And yet, for all that so much of me wants to stay there - because of the taste of the soil that coats my skin, or the diesel smoke that drenches my hair, or the sound of music and voices and TV and birds and wind and factories and cars and children that sing to me constantly - the homophobia, the poverty that marks the legacy of colonialism, the limitations on my person/intellect and heart are too much for me.

What then, differentiates me from Paul? Other than some of the photographs we take? He is doing what he loves - taking photos of people and places in bright colors. I am doing what I love - soaking in the stories from the land on which I was born and vesseling them into novels, poems, and other forms. We are both doing what we love, and so who am I to feel so indignant? And so used? Aren't photos part of the commons - the space where art meets the public? Don't the 18 years Paul has of visiting a place constitute a significant basis for a relationship to that place, when many Dominicans haven't gone back in that same amount of time? Would this upset me so much if these were photos of Paris? or Italy? or Spain? And, I, who write of the land of my birth, when am I going to write about the place where I reside – the world around my present present? Who am I to feel so indignant? Aren't we all just trying to create beauty out of what we live and experience? Or is there something else that's happening here to set me on edge?

I guess the time has come for me to email Paul.


Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Erzulie's Skirt & Empire

A Speech/Reading presented for Last Sunday
Austin, TX
February 18, 2007

A mirror for this posting can be found on the Discussion page

What is empire?

In her 2003 speech on Confronting Empire, Arundhati Roy states:

"When we speak of confronting "Empire," we need to identify what "Empire" means. Does it mean the U.S. Government (and its European satellites), the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organization, and multinational corporations? Or is it something more than that? In many countries, Empire has sprouted other subsidiary heads, some dangerous byproducts — nationalism, religious bigotry, fascism and, of course terrorism. All these march arm in arm with the project of corporate globalization."

If we are to consider how we as U.S. Citizens participate in the construction of Empire and how we confront our own participation and perpetuation of empire, we must begin by asking ourselves some fundamental questions around what we are certain we know: what we have assumed are truths guaranteed and embedded in our social contracts.

I am not a historian, and I am not a political scientist. I am a novelist, a poet, an organizer engaged in questions around the dismantling of oppressive institutions and transformative modes of thinking within U.S. society. I am engaged in these questions because of the very nature of empire: what we decide here affects the rest of the world. An appropriate metaphor would be the waterfall that begins as the wet, spongy ground of a spring and soaks up through the sand as a creek, to become a river and to then plunge off of a cliff into unknown depths, sweeping logs and branches and anything else in its path down with it. We as a nation enacting empire are both the spring and the waterfall. And I have witnessed the sweeping waters of U.S.Dominican Republic. empire tumbling violently across the landscape of the land of my birth: the

Picture this: A hot tropical sun radiating heat across white sand. Turquoise blue sea water lapping at your toes. The sound of the wind in the palm trees as the sweet scent of sand and ocean permeate your skin and every cell of your body. You have just eaten fresh fish and fried plantain served to you on a styrofoam plate. You look out over the sea, happy that you decided to visit the Dominican Republic on your vacation. The people are so nice, the food is so good and the rum, oh the rum. A dark woman, you assume she is Dominican, approaches you and offers to braid your hair for only $20.00. As you rub suntan lotion onto your shoulders, you decide, sure – why not. It would be fun to have braids for a little bit. It would be almost...exotic.

Now picture this: On a hot, sunny day in November 1999 a group of women, myself included, sat on the beach wiggling our toes in the white sands, looking out over turquoise blue waters. But we were not there to enjoy the sun. Just that morning, word had reached us that the President, Leonel Fernandez, had deported several hundred Haitians and dark-skinned Dominicans from the Dominican Republic over to Haiti. His reasons: securing the homeland and ensuring that the Haitians did not interrupt the economic health of the nation. That same day, a boat carrying 85 people, we will assume they were all Dominican, though that boat could have also included Haitians and Cubans and people from any other island in the region, capsized in the open waters of the Mona Channel as they attempted to make their way to Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory that has served as a port of entry for many on their way to the land of opportunity. We were trying to figure out what to do, how to respond to the loss of life, liberty and dignity among our fellow human beings whose only crime was to try and secure a living out of sand, water and scorched earth.

Read from Erzulie’s Skirt, excerpt pages 166 & 167

In the past few years especially we have become acquainted with sweat shop labor and its ramifications. Through the protests of the anti-globalization movements, including the first march in Seattle in 2000 and down to the neat label at the bottom of American Apparel advertisements stating: “Made sweatshop-free in L.A. we as a movement have reached a higher consciousness about sweat shop labor and its implications for people and communities around the world. What we have failed to realize is that foreign economic policies designed in the United States, including NAFTA and the recently enacted Caribbean & Central American version, CAFTA, continue to create a two-tiered system of economic participation – between countries of consumption and countries of production. The Dominican Republic, a land and a nation at the heart of Western history – for being the first place in the hemisphere where colonization was enacted, as well as its institutions, including slavery, large scale cash crop plantations and gold mining – is a nation bound by the economic policies of the United States. In order to maintain its sovereignty as a nation, its leadership participates in economic and social policies that keep it in line with its friendly neighbor to the North. In 1999, this included the deportation of hundreds of people from the land of their birth. In 2003, this included the commissioning of 150 Dominican soldiers to fight in Iraq beside U.S. forces. In 2004, this included cuts in subsidies to Dominican rice agriculturalists and cattle ranchers – foods that were then replaced with imports from the United States. In 2005, the U.S. coast guard reported the highest number of immigrants arriving by boat from the Dominican Republic in recent history.

What, then, are our remedies? I don’t profess to have answers to this question. I will, however, offer two points of reflection.

The first point I will ask you to consider is the legacy of binary thought that we have been socialized into under the U.S. social contract. The either/or paradigm under which we function has limited us to essential concepts and language of black/white, male/female, us/them. The consequences of this paradigm are manifold and specifically affect those who transgress these boundaries of essential identity. We have historic examples in the ways in which white and black women were punished during struggles for abolition and suffrage, and forced to separate their efforts often through violent acts. Today, we see the effects of either/or thinking exemplified through the number of hate crimes against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered individuals. We also see this paradigm enacted in the framing of the Palestinian/Israeli struggle, and in the justification of pre-emptive war.

We as social movements and individuals hoping and working towards a better society, must undo our own participation in either/or paradigms. We must reconceptualize the multiple complexities of our society, and our political frameworks (including the bipartisan framework) as spaces for both/and approaches to decision-making.

Secondly, and finally, we must examine our sense of certainty. If there is one major shift in our society as a whole following 9/11 it is that we became less certain of many things. This, I believe, is a positive outcome of a very traumatic situation. Certainty, and I cite Karen Armstrong in this point, is a key element of fundamentalism. And in discussing fundamentalism, I am not speaking of those who have been framed as the enemies of the U.S. Remembering my recent call to intersectional thinking, rather than either/or thinking, I would ask us to consider how we as a secular society have become certain about the separation of church and state, while simultaneously witnessing the melding together of these two institutions into a force that is forming a discrete political agenda that dictates not only how foreign aid reaches other countries, but how we as a people are to think of ourselves in that process. As long as we are certain that our democracy is unquestionable, or that the assumed truths guaranteed and embedded in our social contracts are unshakeable, we will fail to grasp how we U.S. citizens continue to participate in the development of policies that strip the rights and livelihoods of millions of people around the world, including our own.

I will conclude with a final reading from my novel, Erzulie’s Skirt

Read from Erzulie’s Skirt, excerpt pages 79-81


Roy, Arundhati
Confronting Empire, delivered at the World Social Forum in
Porto Alegre, Brazil, on January 27, 2003

Armstrong, Karen
The Spiral Staircase: My Climb out of Darkness, Anchor Books, NY: 2004.

Statistics on the Dominican Republic gleaned from El Listin Diario & El Diario Libre, Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic

Inter-American Commission on Human Rights Country Report (Dominican Republic, Chapters IX & X) OEA/Ser.L/V/II.104, Doc. 49 rev. 1, 7 October 1999

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Today was the introductory Austin Salon for visual artists of color. It was a lot of warmth, a lot of insight, a lot of talent and a lot of fun. Thank you to all the artists and guests who made this day possible.


Sunday, February 11, 2007

I'm at the end of a very engaging weekend of readings and questions. I had a really great time with folks this weekend, so thank you for that!

Now, I wanted to spend some time referring to some of the questions that struck me from the past week. Here's a list of some that struck and stuck:
  • Why the title Erzulie's Skirt?
  • What makes this novel different from other Latina novels?
  • How do I define freedom for myself as a writer and in the context of the novel?
  • Why is there such a specific spiritual context?
So, I will say a little bit about my answers to these questions because I've been thinking about them.

Why the title Erzulie's Skirt?

Because it's pretty to me. Erzulie is pronounced (for English speakers): Her-Zoo-Lee/(for Spanish speakers): er-su-li - accent on the li.

Erzulie is also known as Erzuli Freda/Erzuli Danto/Anaisa/Metre Silie/La Sirene/La Sirena/La Metresa within Haitian & Dominican vudu. The name represents the forces of water - both sweet and salty, tender and wild. It is the water at the ocean's surface, mermaids dancing beneath, the delta, the river, the waterfalls...a combination thereof. In Yoruba/Lucumi practices, Erzulie is similar to Yemanya/Iemanja. Erzulie is the force of motherhood and childbirth, of female sexuality and all encompassing love. I imagine Her skirt wrapping us up as we cross the waters. In an embrace tight as the weight of water, gentle as lapping waves on the shore.

What makes this novel different from other Latina novels?

To get an answer to this, a real answer, I'm going to wait for the theorists and critics to tell me. What I can say is what a couple of folks shared with me - one about how the novel situates Latina bodies in the context of the African diaspora; two about kreyol and Haitian Dominican bodies become part of the Latina landscape and explicit experience.

I know that other Latina authors are definite points of reference for me in my own writing (though not exclusively by any means). Here are a few that I've read over the years:

Sandra Cisneros
Cherie Moraga
Gloria Anzaldua
Angie Cruz
Nelly Rosario
Julia Alvarez
Achy Obejas
Cristina Garcia
Rosario Ferre
Ana Castillo
Isabel Allende
Esmeralda Santiago
Loida Maritza Perez

There are pieces of their writing that I've held onto as points of connection. And, simultaneously, I've experienced gaps in Latina literature that I have wanted to see and am working on creating.

How do I define freedom for myself as a writer and in the context of the novel?

Without giving too much away about how I do this in the novel, I'll say the following. One, I had to ask myself in the writing process about what it means to define freedom for two black Caribbean women. What does freedom look like? It couldn't be as simple as arriving to the United States, and it also couldn't be as simple as death. So, I instead explored how women create relationships across generations as well as a few other things.

For myself, I'm constantly trying to understand what freedom means and how to negotiate that in this world and context. It's something I struggle to identify in concrete terms, but I know when I don't feel free. And I know I have the strength of character to fight for my freedom.

But that's all I know. Today. Right now.

Why is there such a specific spiritual context?

In Erzulie's Skirt, vudu/magic/healing is part of the characters' landscape and reality. It is my experience that in the Dominican Republic there is a thinner veil between the worlds and that many people in general believe in spirits (of the dead, etc), in dreams and their meanings, and in the power of prayer and magic. These beliefs manifest in different forms depending on individual and communal world views. The characters in Erzulie's Skirt navigate and negotiate their beliefs in various forms.

So, these are some thoughts. More will follow, these will develop as I receive new questions, insights and perspectives.


Thursday, February 08, 2007

The reading with Lenelle Moise on Tuesday at Bluestockings was absolutely wonderful. We decided to do a call and response to each others' work. And the chorus that unfolded was so powerful. Lenelle sang and performed pieces, including a beautiful piece for New Orleans. And wow - together we were talking about transnationalism, poverty on the island and on the mainland, love and madiviness. Prior to starting we had music going from the Musica Raiz de la Fundacion Cultural Bayahonda, which helped to warm up the space. Here's a link for samples of the music, in case you're lookin. The only sad part is we didn't get any photos.

Yesterday I visited the Little Red Schoolhouse and met with I.J.'s class. The students were really sharp and sweet and asked very inciteful questions. One student (R) asked me whether all the moving I've done has anything to do with my interrogation of ancestors/ancestry. Very sharp. I.J. asked me to speak about intersectionality, as well. Which is what this work is.

I later led a writing workshop up in the Bronx. I want to thank those students who really wanted to be there and got something out of it for themselves. I'm honored by them. And by the mamas and sistahs thanking me and encouraging to keep doing this work. Thank you.

New York is what New York is. Getting ready to roll to Baltimore tomorrow, and College Park on Saturday.


Monday, February 05, 2007

So much to write about. My reading at BookWoman on January 31 in Austin was sweet. We ended up staying for a long time and having conversations about theatre and transnationalism. During the Q&A, KT asked inciteful questions about language, and my choices around use of language in Erzulie's Skirt. I could answer part of her questions, in particular, that I was very intentional in my use of language (I always try to be as intentional as possible). One, in using Spanish words and two in using Kreyol words. I cited conversations I've had with Y.C. about use of language in fiction - how she and I often get into the discussion where she ultimately points out "but if the novel's taking place in that language, why insert the word for the reader. It's already there?" and where I retort, "how do you then write a novel in English with concepts that don't exist in English, and when we as bicultural/transnational people don't live in English?" Myths of purity serve no purpose, really, but it's also not a closed debate.

Since then, I've been in NYC. I saw the exhibit at the Met titled: Flowing Streams - Scenes from Japanese Art & Life. There were many gorgeous illuminations and wall pieces, but one piece in particular (and if I had been smart, I would have written the name of the piece and the artist, but I didn't) startled me. Especially in thinking about Tu B'shevat and the unification of life. In this piece, the artist had drawn a scene in which several men, worshippers of the Buddha, are enthralled by a painting of the Buddha. So, first, I was moved by the complex layers of meaning within the piece itself - we are viewers watching viewers contemplating the Buddha. There is a large tree in the background, with tender willow-like branches. But, what blew me away was that the entire piece, all of the scenery, Buddha and all, was drawn by using and overlapping Chinese characters/writing. So the intention of the piece is not just its process or content, but the actual use of language to draw. Love that!

Yesterday, we all headed out to Newark to the show at Gallery Aferro to hear Wura-Natasha Ogunji. She was giving an artist's talk. The name of the show is Black rock: The Metamorphosis of Home from Isolation to Connection. She spoke about thread and connection and the ways in which Obatala, as an orisha in Yoruba spiritual practice, play into her thinking. Some of the pieces she showed included images from her Monumental series and some of her orgasm maps. To me, what's interesting to think about is how these might all be connected or speak to each other - the body, the breath, and the monumental.

Of course, this led into the years old debate between T.B., W.O. and me about the role of the artist in the world. Yes, this is a broad, contentious topic.

We always go back to Kara Walker. Dear Kara Walker. If you don't know, I am one of the people in the world who is highly offended by her work, and wishes that I was seeing her other work - the gorgeous paintings hiding out in her studio, for example (Kara if you ever read this, I'm asking that maybe, before a retrospective, you might consider this). This, in part, has to do with how I was introduced to it. I first saw her work when I was in Germany in 1998; I walked into a gallery and saw all of these caricatures of black female bodies (that's how I read it, since I don't read German and could only go off the visual). Not only was I disturbed by the work itself, but also by the fact that I was the only black female body in a white gallery space, feeling the white male/female gaze on me as I perused the work trying to understand its meaning and implications. Since then, I have seen her work in numerous other places, including the Studio Museum of Harlem. And I still find it disturbing and am still offended.

Well, for some reason, whenever her name comes up, this always leads our little trio into discussions on the artist's responsibility to self, work and community (it's usually, actually, the other way around - we start with that discussion, and then hold Kara Walker up as one of the people who is a polemic example; we've got to come up with other examples!). And to the deeper question of how do we talk about black female sexual subjugation in contemporary and colonial history? How do we allow for the artist's freedom and move away from violence and trauma? Is the point of art to investigate or reify collective trauma? Or is it to create new language? Or both? And why does the question of artist in community only seem to apply to people of color, or marginalized peoples? When in fact, we're never divorced from community or the responsibilities of that ever? And what does responsibility mean? Does it mean falling into essential ideas of what "correct" or "right" art is? Or does it always lead to censorship? And why has that been the response?

And for me, why does Kara Walker offend me and Laylah Ali does not? They are both dealing with histories of violence against black bodies. Is it about the audience response? The way in which our dismemberment continues to be an object for primarily white audience consumption? Then, if we extend these questions and analogies to writing and music, why is it so much easier to get mad about the commodification of hip hop and the implications of that on the integrity of the work? So then, is it about the market? Is it about how we as artists must function in a consumer oriented society, where art is divorced from practical application in a context where application is linked to productivity for capital?

What does it mean to make art for art's sake and who can do that and is that even possible? And why is this usually framed as a dichotomous debate?

I am of the opinion that art shapes our thinking and cultures in very fundamental ways, and that it's therefore really important for us as artists to know what we're doing. Whether we know that we're entertainers and that's what we are here to do, or whether we are interrogating history and must then research and know our subject matter intimately. We must know what we're doing and be willing to ask ourselves hard questions about how we are participating in the creation of worlds and cultural thought.

But, again, this is not a closed discussion, nor for me, a dogmatic one. I'm not looking for one response or one way of seeing the world. I'm looking for our individual and collective freedom and liberation. From trauma. From history.

Yesterday I headed to the Jewish museum and the Museum of Arts & Design. Despite myself I’m starting research on my third novel, which is leading me into an interrogation of Caribbean narratives around Jewish experience, Converso experience, migration, diaspora, land, faith. You know. There’s a show going up on comics, but it wasn’t up as of yesterday, so I’m sad to be missing that, as I’m a big fan of comic books/graphic novels. I used to be an X-men afficionada, via my brothers’ comic book collection. That was after Asterix & Obelix and Tin Tin – highly problematic comic books that I nonetheless devoured well into early adolescence; in my early 20s it was about Maus, Aeon Flux, Hothead Paisan – in that genre of future tripping and political commentary; right now, it’s about Bat Woman, Persepolis, the series coming out of AIDS Project L.A., Michelle Tea’s graphic novels, etc.

The show at the Museum of Arts & Design was fantastic. The title of the show is: Radical Lace & Subversive Knitting. There were three pieces, specifically, that impressed me. The first was a triptych of three panels where the artist, Piper Shepard, had hand cut lace out of three (at least) 14’ long pieces of muslin cloth, and then gessoed it so that it hung stiffly from the ceiling. Not only were the pieces absolutely gorgeous, but I have utter awe for the artist’s labor. I have no where near that kind of obsessive patience to hand cut lace out of cloth, so my appreciation for her work is deep. The second artist whose work really interested me was Henk Wolvers who makes lace like compositions out of porcelain. He has this one series of small individually designed squares that were not only sculptural in form, but also filmic in their layout. They created a beautiful dialogue with each other and the wall. And the third artist, whose work I can’t stop thinking about is Hilal Sami Hilal. His work consisted of these 2 cm thick cardboard lace panels, where the lace was composed of letters and words. But, he has layered the panels, so that as you look at them, it’s as if you’re inside a book, inside the letters. It’s both intriguing in the age of digital pixilation, and ephemeral to experience.

The Sephardic Film Festival's in town, so I went to a film last night (Shalosh Imahot/the Three Mothers), and am going to check out a couple of others as well. Later today I’m going to dive into the Archives at the American Sephardi Federation. Despite myself, I’m starting research for the next writing project.