Posted by: birdmaddgirl | 4 March 2014

race, culture, writing, reading – on being a bilingual poet

so today i encountered Shannon Barber’s article “Writing and Reading While Black. Lessons Learned.” you can take a few minutes to go check it out if you’d like, i’m not going anywhere.

my lessons aren’t Barber’s lessons but – as good writing does – her work gives me insight not just into a world that is not my own but also into how my world overlaps with hers. that’s the real magic of the written word as far as i’m concerned: it preserves what is unique about an individual experience while underscoring our shared humanity. i’m grateful that she inspires me to be more curious about my habits and position.

i run up against the race/culture problem basically every time i sit down in front of the page. at this point in my life, i don’t have a satisfactory answer to give myself (never mind other people). i’ve cobbled something together in my own head that let’s me get through the day. the short answer is: history has fucked up a lot of things, and who gets to be indigenous and how is com-pli-ca-ted, and i want to figure out a way to own my background without being a jerk about it. (the long answer is unsuitable for a blog post.) and i don’t write about it very often because i still feel very tentatively about the whole situation, as you can tell from all the vague goobledegook in this paragraph.

more concretely, i write from a bilingual position. i grew up with spanish. i speak spanish now. is my spanish perfect? absolutely not. but at various points in my life i’ve tried to walk away from it, and it doesn’t work. turning my back on it is disingenuous. i’m not being true to myself when i try to squash into a monolingual, monocultural box.

what i hear time and time again, from teachers, in workshops, from other writers, is that my spanish is a problem: i’m alienating readers. i’m asking too much. i’m a turn off. i have to watch it, dial it back, not be so foreign. if i’m gonna go there, i have to provide more background, more translation, more history, more story. i shouldn’t make people have to go look this up.

here’s the thing: if i don’t understand a classical reference to greek mythology in (insert one of a billion english poems here), tough shit, i need to go look it up. if there’s a french phrase or latin phrase, i go look it up. the onus is on me, not on the english-speaking (often white and male) author. as long as the point of reference is one that cozily fits into the accepted canon of western literature, no one says don’t bother reading that poem, it’s just got a bunch of references you won’t understand. i, the reader, must educate myself and get on the same page as the author.

this is all fine and well – i like looking stuff up – except for the double-standard (double doesn’t even begun to cover it, but hey). when i write a poem that references latin american history, for example, i’m told i have to write more context. i can’t just name an event, i have to explain it to the reader. and the spanish needs to be in short, controlled, small doses. set off from the rest of the text. easy to digest. not intimidating. don’t scare people away with stuff they don’t understand because it’s hard enough to get people to read poetry these days without being difficult about it.

so look: i take this feedback into consideration. but i am judging you. and if i find you wanting, lazy reader, then you are not my reader. if more than two words of spanish in a row scares you, then i can’t help you. if a publication rejects me because there’s too much spanish, because i refuse to let them italicize all my spanish, because if i want to quote neruda why can’t i just do it in english so it will be familiar, then i don’t belong in that publication. because while i am studying to hone my craft, while i have lots of technical things to sort out so i can be a better writer, i am not here to spoonfeed my poetry to anyone. my reader is going to have to do some work, and i believe that my reader can handle it. my palette isn’t just the traditional anglo- and classics-centric western template. i can do that, but it’s not why i write.

i write from a bilingual position. i write because language inspires me and i want to be part of the global multilingual literary conversation. i write to understand how i fit into a nation and a world that can’t comprehend why i speak a language that no one else in my family speaks. i write to figure out how to be a good person on this planet, how to find out as much as i can about the people who revolve around the sun with me – the living and the dead – in the short time that i am given. i write to challenge the received notions of my time and place. i write to learn. i write because i am curious to the point of pure distraction. i write because i read this way and because i believe there must be other readers who want this too.


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