Dignity and Dust

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Cowen Park sculptures

In the park near our apartment, we often come across sculptures of carefully balanced rocks. Sometimes they are small and simple, a few rocks tall. Sometimes they are as tall as I am, boulders standing on end.

One day recently we happened upon the man as he was making them. He told us that at larger parks, he gathers crowds who watch him work. The sculptures never last long, he said; kids knock them down at night. But he comes back and makes new ones.

Stacking rocks, one on one, is not so different from stacking words, one on one to the end of a sentence. Words don’t get knocked down so fast, but they do get read quickly and, for the most part, are soon lost to memory.

I have no regrets for the many books I’ve read whose characters have faded forever; the reading in the moment was what mattered. But there’s something special about the words that stay. Three books written by friends that I read this year have stayed and stayed.

Book cover of Hola and Goodbye

Donna Miscolta’s book of linked stories, Hola and Goodbye, brought me into the backyards and kitchens of three generations of connected family and friends in a city near San Diego. The characters dream big, and too often fail to reach those dreams, but the dreaming keeps them alive for years. Lyla becomes, not a Broadway star, but a fortune teller. Julia wanders through Mexico, trying to find her roots. In small, significant moments and perfectly chosen details, Donna, a member of my writing group, gives her characters dignity. Whatever mistakes they’ve made, whatever circumstances have weighed too heavily, they keep trying.

Book cover of Coming Home from CampLonny Kaneko’s poetry collection, Coming Home from Camp, was recently reprinted with a number of newer poems. I will be forever grateful to Lonny for hiring and mentoring me at Highline College, but I’m just as grateful for his poems. They are timely reminders of life in the concentration camp in Idaho where Lonny and his family were incarcerated in the 1940s. Dignity makes an appearance here, as well: “At 70, my father stands between dignity and dust.” But camp has hollowed him out, made him “empty as an open hand.” Lonny responds with poetry: “Our words,” he writes, “work a web around us./They house our grief.” His poetry turns readers into witnesses.

Book cover of Relocating Authority

Although Lonny was too young to write when in camp, many adults around him were writing. My friend Mira Shimabukuro’s Relocating Authority: Japanese Americans Writing to Redress Mass Incarceration unearths many ways that Japanese Americans fought against imprisonment — with words. They argued in diaries, documented in notebooks, and wrote poems, petitions, and manifestos. Mira finds inspiration in these documents; they remind us that we all can “find ways, earnestly and wisely, to rewrite-to-redress and rewrite ourselves.” The book is a stunning combination of theory, research, and personal revelation, inspiring in its own right.

While it may sometimes feel as if writing in hard times is fiddling while Rome burns, in fact it’s more necessary than ever. Our new president has excoriated the kinds of immigrants who populate Donna’s stories and promised a repeat of Lonny’s experiences. We must continue to build our sentences, word on word, because they keep us standing between dignity and dust.

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“Showing Up” Published in Federal Way Mirror

My college hosts a column in a local newspaper, the Federal Way Mirror, and I was asked to contribute. Of course, I was thinking about the recent election. It seemed a good time to think about how our perceptions of historical events change over time, and how our actions today might be perceived in the future. So I wrote “Showing Up.”

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Translation

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Oakland from our Hotel Window

At a recent conference on literary translation, Arline and I sat in a beige hotel ballroom, listening to a panelist make painful, even nonsensical, generalizations about Panamanian literature. When the panel started taking questions, we escaped to the lobby and talked about whether it would be worth having a conversation with the woman, whose primary knowledge of the topic seemed to have come from one writer she was translating. Arline took a deep breath, returned to the room, and, after the session, gently asked the woman a question that might open a dialogue. But the woman retreated into defensiveness and said she had somewhere else to be. A later encounter was more disturbing; when we tried to explain what we had found problematic, she walked away.

This encounter was not what we had expected when we registered for the conference. We had wanted to think about ways to use translation in our classrooms. Arline, with her degree in Spanish literature, was considering translating some Panamanian writers. But as we talked that evening over quesadillas, we realized we had been naive. Of course, some of the translators would be white, U.S. Americans who, on the basis of a few projects, would present themselves as experts on whole national literatures. Of course, some of their generalizations would dovetail with old tropes about backwards banana republics, where no one reads and young writers don’t care about colonization because they want to “move forward.” These translators might even make strange slips like “Panama, of course, did not have to deal with Spanish colonization” when they probably meant to say that U.S. colonization loomed larger than Spanish in the recent past. They couldn’t know, of course, that a Panamanian might be sitting in the audience, cringing.

What was missing from the woman’s talk, Arline said to me, tilting back her beer on that warm Oakland evening, was an acknowledgement of how her position as a U.S.-born white woman reflected what she knew about the topic. Happily, Arline and I found many others at the conference engaged in nuanced self-reflection. At a session on “grassroots” translation called “Inheriting the Future: Cross-Pollinations of Race and Translation,” the panelists considered the complexities of identities and audiences — who are they and who are they translating for? – and talked about developing communities of readers, translators, and writers. Sawako Nakayasu, for example, talked about how her evolving identity as a transnational poet has affected her work. César Ramos, who publishes the journal, Raspa, described his efforts to nurture Spanish-English translations that can bridge U.S. and Latin American queer communities.

It was at this session that I began to envision a translation assignment for my students, many of whom are multilingual. What if they were to choose a text in their first language to translate? Teams of students could collaborate on revision, considering how their choices might affect different audiences. But how could I possibly find source texts in multiple languages? Arline suggested they do oral interviews with friends or family members. For heritage speakers with varying degrees of reading and writing skills in their heritage language, an oral interview would be more accessible. Great idea. But what would the monolingual English speakers be doing all this time?

I was still thinking about the conference when I returned to work. I shared with a colleague my question about what the monolingual students would be doing during the translation assignment. Avery pointed out that, because translation requires thinking about how much to explain about cultural references, the monolingual English speakers could “translate” their family stories, still in English, for different audiences. Arline had said something similar. I realized I needed to think more about how my own position, as a monolingual English speaker, not fluent in any of the languages I have studied, was influencing my framing of the assignment. What, in other words, was my own relationship to translation, as a writer and reader?

My first thought was this: I know that Arline courted me with a bilingual edition of Pablo Neruda’s love poems. I can sometimes tell that a student is relying on Google translate for an English composition assignment. I know that “thank you” in Portuguese has both a masculine (obrigado) and feminine (obrigada) form because I looked it up in my guidebook this summer. That’s not much. I’ll have to think more about what I do and do not know. In the meantime, the conference made me want to read much more than I do in translation; I came home with a long list of books.

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A Notable Essay!

Recently, my essayist friends were posting on Facebook about the new Best American Essays, due out any day. A certain online retailer allows you to virtually page through books, and my friends were searching the back matter for their own names. Twenty-three essays are published in full, the “best” of 2015. But many more are listed in the back as “notable” essays. These essays are the runners up, the honorable mentions — and it’s quite an honor to be on the list.

A day of Facebook posts scrolled by before it occurred to me to look for my own name. I had to search a few times; the pages available for preview change with each refresh of the site. But then I found it, the page with the “Gs.” And my own name.

I am beyond thrilled that my essay “Twenty Hours and Ten Minutes of Therapy,” originally published in The Gettysburg Review and reprinted by Utne Reader, is a notable essay of 2015.

I spent much of the summer of 2013 writing that essay, which emerged after I listened to the cassette tapes of my therapy sessions when I was coming out over a quarter century ago. While I knew what I wanted to say in the essay, finding the best structure was a challenge. My writing group’s feedback made all the difference, and when it was finished, I knew it was one of the best — if not the best — pieces I’d ever written.

Among the notables are some of my biggest influences, writers like Bernard Cooper, Judith Ortiz Cofer, Rebecca Solnit, Ira Sukrungruang, and Ander Monson. It’s an honor to be in their company.

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The Last Night

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Whiteley Center Cottage

I’m typing at the dining room table of my cottage at the Whiteley Center on San Juan Island, where I’ve been writing for a week. This last night, the sky slowly darkens behind the darker firs, and the first evening lights shine from town across the harbor. Inside my cottage, the gas fire flickers, and my books are stacked on the coffee table, the two I read and the four I didn’t get to. I know that my writing friends, Donna Miscolta and Jennifer Munro, are nearby, writing or reading or packing for our return to Seattle tomorrow.

I always look forward to writing residencies; they give me the time and solitude to dig deep. But I never know quite how the time will go. Will I meet my goals? Will I get diverted? Or will I discover that what seemed like the right project was not?

This time I had a more specific goal than usual. I wanted to add about 6,000 words to my memoir. My manuscripts are always on the short end of what’s typically expected by publishers, but this one was short even by my standards. Another twenty pages would make it a more respectable length, and I thought some additional information would enhance the book’s themes.

From Monday through Thursday, I wrote five to six hours a day. A post-it note on the refrigerator recorded my progress: 2,674 words, 1,312 words, 1,496 words, 918 words: 6,400 words! Not all of those words were written at Whiteley. Some were pulled from folders, left over from previous revisions. But many of them were new and all of them needed to be incorporated into the manuscript so they didn’t seem patched in. Sometimes I spent three hours on two paragraphs.

Having reached my goal, I spent Friday and today on other projects. Now, as the trees recede into complete darkness and my reflection blurs in the window, I’m spending my last writing hours of the residency on this blog post.

This is my sixth or seventh visit to Whiteley, and I’m fairly sure that on most visits my schedule has been the same: writing from about 8:30 until early afternoon, then perhaps an hour again after dinner. But another writer doesn’t remember it that way.

Lyanda Lynn Haupt, author of Crow Planet and other books, was writing in a cottage nearby in October, the last time I was here. She wrote a blog post about that time, claiming that she saw me writing from 7 a.m. until late into the night! Yes, I am the Neighbor in this story. But no, that’s not how I remember it.

Funny how different writing processes can be. Some say they write every day for at least an hour. Some write when they can. Some write steadily; some write in bursts. The best writing process is always the one that works for you – the process itself shouldn’t get in the way. If it’s stressing you out, it’s not working.

I am always experimenting with process. Long ago, I gave up the idea of writing every day. My life isn’t organized for that. So I write a lot when I can, on vacations and residencies, and, recently, I’ve been writing once a week on the Seattle-Bremerton ferry. Whatever works.

And now this blog post is done. It’s not even 9:30. See, not writing all night. Goodnight, Lyanda. Goodnight, writers everywhere.

 

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Anguish Time

Wooden alms box with paintings of saints

Alms Box, Church of Saint Francis, Porto. Photo by Arline García.

In the Church of Saint Francis — Igreja de São Franciscoin Porto, Portugal, believers once dropped coins into alms boxes, whispered prayers, and hoped that someone was listening. These painted wooden boxes are now nailed to a wall in the catacombs of the church with a helpful explanatory sign. The English translation says, “Alms-Box: Where anonymously, the requester, puts in Money, the promise done in anguish time.”

The Portuguese phrase “hora de angústia” could have been inconspicuously translated as “hour of anguish” or “time of anguish,” but unexpected translations often take on the crooked aptness of poetry. “In anguish time,” we make promises and prayers, offer what we can, and hope for salvation.

My recent trip to Europe was a time of both delight and anguish. I had never been to Paris, and my first sight of the gargoyles and flying buttresses of Notre Dame made me giddy. Arline and I ate tarts as beautiful as jewelry, paid homage to Gertrude Stein and Marcel Proust at their graves, and stilled our breath in the Musée de l’Orangerie, where Monet’s water lilies float on blue ponds.

But the day I took a photo of the inscription “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité” on the Palace of Justice in Paris, police in Baton Rouge killed Alton Sterling. A day later, police in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, killed Philando Castile. Arline and I rode the elevator up the Eiffel Tower, returned to our rented apartment, and scrolled through anguished Facebook posts and online newspapers.

The nauseating tango of joy and horror continued. We were listening to pennywhistles and bagpipes at the World Celtic Music Festival in northwest Spain when the man drove a truck through the celebrating crowd in Nice, killing and injuring hundreds. I avoid watching violent news video, but there it was on a television screen in the tavern where we ate the next day. I forced myself to focus on the table, letting the incomprehensible voices of the newscasters wash over me.

In a theater the next night, listening to beautiful music — concertina, saxophone, bagpipes, and flutes — the tears came. How can we humans build both stunning cathedrals and systemically racist institutions? How can we practice both musical scales and terrorist attacks? How can we live with ourselves?

I remind myself that the cathedrals were the products of oppressive systems. Upstairs from the alms boxes, the interior of the Church of Saint Francis is stunning for its Baroque ornamentation. In the 18th century, elaborate, gold-plated carvings of flowers, leaves, and animals were added to the Gothic structure. The surfaces are so intricate and so blindingly rich in color that they’re hard to take in. The gold came, of course, from Portugal’s colony, Brazil, and much of the labor that produced the gold came from enslaved Africans, but little of this story appeared in the brochure the clerk handed us as we paid our euros to enter. Throughout our European travels, Arline and I frequently found ourselves supplementing brochures and plaques with asides to each other. In the Army Museum in Paris, for example, a map depicting political boundaries at the onset of World War I claimed that, at this point in time, Africa had not been explored. By whom, we said to each other.

It seems to me that if we don’t translate the official narratives into more accurate ones, into stories that fully account for the terrors and exploitations of history, we are doomed to perpetuate them. The murders of Sterling, Castile, and the people of Nice are horrific in and of themselves, but they are representative of thousands more similar deaths. Even as we cradle in our hearts the names of the dead, we have to see the patterns, the systems, and the structures that enable such suffering. We have to challenge the narratives.

Writing is my alms box, and it’s what I turn to “in anguish time.” So this is the promise and prayer that I make: to tell a fuller story. This is my coin, its small rattle in the wooden box.

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Ferry Writing

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Seattle from the Bremerton Ferry

Every Saturday for the last five weeks, I’ve gone to Colman Dock in downtown Seattle and bought a ticket for the Bremerton ferry. Usually, my colleague Avery is there when I arrive, and we chat about department politics and stacks of grading we are, temporarily, ignoring. Seagulls reel and call, tourists snap selfies, and finally the rust-stained ferry, usually the Kitsap or the Hyak, floats between the pylons and into dock. Avery and I trundle behind the other passengers. On board, he peels off to one table, and I take another one a few seats down. He told me the first time that the tables on the right side of the ferry are better for avoiding shafts of sun on the laptop.

We take the Bremerton route because it’s the longest ride – an hour. Arline asks me every time I come home: “Did you see a whale?” But my gaze during that hour is mostly directed down, at my laptop and notes. Hopefully, if a whale were to breach nearby, the captain would come on the loudspeaker and tell me.

Twenty-two years of teaching at the same community college have accustomed me to a yearly rhythm. Fall quarter: teach writing; winter quarter: teach writing; spring quarter: teach writing; summer: write. As soon as grades are turned in, I waste no time getting to my desk for three to four hours of writing every morning. But it has always been hard to write during the school year, although I have managed some. Most notably, in fall 2008, I got up every morning at five and worked for an hour on what would become my second book. But typically, my brain is too focused on email and that student who needs to meet with me and the next committee meeting to do my own creative writing.

So when Avery told me about ferry writing, I thought: what a brilliant idea. A cheap office — $8 round trip – and a defined period of time away from distractions. I had no papers to grade that first weekend, so I joined him. As I opened my laptop and watched the Seattle skyline drift past the window, my heart sped up. Sometimes my brain tells my body to be anxious when it should be happy. Don’t waste it, my galloping heart was telling me. I didn’t waste it. I wrote nonstop to Bremerton, then for another hour in a coffee shop, then back to Seattle. Three full hours of writing. I disembarked as buoyant as if the ferry still floated beneath me.

I can make time for writing during the school year after all. In the weeks since that first ride, I’ve found that the prospect of weekend writing has motivated me to get more of my grading done during the week. I even cleaned the bathroom on a Wednesday once, so I wouldn’t have to do it on Saturday. Those ferry writing hours now feel like sacred time. I’ve written blog posts and, the last three weeks, revised a manuscript. Ferry writing has improved my teaching, too, I think. I’m more relaxed in the classroom, knowing that those three hours are ahead of me. Now I get to be both writer and teacher: whole.

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