Alternate Narratives

Impressions of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

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So today, after a two-month-long romp with Junot Díaz’s novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, I finally finished it. I am left with more questions than answers. For example, why did Díaz choose to write the novel the way he did? The lengths of some sections are curiously long, others curiously short, and I wonder if the emphasis or lack thereof are significant (they probably are, and I am left with the task of finding the answers for myself. That may actually be the point).

It is a curious novel, to be sure (“curious” in this context signifies “mysterious” and “peculiar”). I do love that Díaz chooses to begin the novel with fukú and zafa. It gives the entire novel that lovely magical-realism feel that I am so enamored of, à la Isabel Allende and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I might say the resemblance ends there as far as the genre goes…I could argue Díaz does it in his own way. I also love his frequent footnotes, which are so long at times it feels as though I am reading two novels for the length of one. The act of physically separating the history of the Dominican Republic by footnote gives the novel a duality that isn’t usually present in narratives. One gets a sense of how much is going on politically in the macro-environment of the country, even while the main course of the book focuses on the trials and triumphs of one family, the De Leons. One could, in theory, choose to completely ignore the footnotes if they wanted to, and it would be a completely different novel. Being a complete dork, this was not the route I took.

There is a lot I love about Díaz’s insane descriptions of the Trujillo-era Dominican Republic (and subsequent Balaguer-ruled D.R. as well). Admittedly, I did not know much about the DR before I picked up this book, but Díaz makes Trujillo sound so scary, I fear retaliation from him even though he’s been dead for 60 years. This dude sounds like a classic fascist (no freedom of speech, violence against anyone who speaks against him) with the added perk of misogyny (rape, stalking, being a general asshole). It’s fascinating how Díaz connects this all-powerful dictator with the De Leon’s (Belicia’s affair with The Gangster, who was one of the Trujillo sisters’ husband). It makes the DR feel like a small place. Even orphan girls are just 6 degrees from the ruler of the country.

The novel felt oddly elastic sometimes with regard to what was easy to read and what wasn’t (perhaps this is because it took me 2 months to read, but perhaps there is more to it). Personally, “The Three Heartbreaks of Belicia Cabral” was one of the hardest sections to get through. Belicia is one of the most difficult characters for me to relate to, and I wonder if that’s just my feelings or if Díaz wrote about her that way on purpose. Young Belicia seems hard-headed and illogical in ways that seem to compliment her future son’s illogical passiveness. As a teen, she is belligerent to La Inca, the one person who really has her back, and seems to take the Aries approach to falling in love: be an asshole to people you have a crush on. It’s hard to watch her fawn over The Gangster, someone who is obviously so bad for her, and then brag to her friend Dorcas about how good he is to her. After she miscarries, it’s difficult for me to feel anything other than pity for her.

This is not unlike the pity I feel for Yunior, though for completely different reasons. Díaz does a great job of portraying Yunior as the fuckboy of the century. Yunior comes off like one of those dense dudes who only cares about the gym and screwing girls, until something actually serious and meaningful happens in his life. It’s interesting that he is the narrator and that he doesn’t appear until mid-novel or so, and the book is a manifestation of this sort of awakening he has after Oscar’s death–about how the experiences he has gone through have meaning, that the people in his life had meaning. After the events that happen, he seems to have the hindsight to wish he could change things, but he also seems surprisingly accepting of himself, explaining that he did in fact love Lola, but knowing he doesn’t deserve her nor could he give her what she really wants.

I love Díaz’s tone throughout the novel, the mixing of both Spanish and English throughout the story. He speaks in a familiar way (perhaps to me), that way of immigrants, which involves hilarious exaggerations, sarcasm, crassness. Perhaps one of my favorite lines in the novel is when Lola is crying over the death of Max. On the plane, “When the woman in front turned around and said: Tell that girl of yours to be quiet, [Belicia] said, Tell that culo of yours to stop stinking” (210). I swear, the first time I read that sentence, I put the book down and guffawed for a whole minute. Admittedly, old Belicia is also a much more compelling character in my opinion than young Belicia.

The run-ins with death are also compelling, not least because of the symbols. When Belicia is caught by Trujillo’s goons, and when Oscar tries to commit suicide, a golden mongoose appears for both of them. The mongoose is said to be a symbol of courage and protection, so it makes sense to me that it appears when these two are at their lowest point, and in need of guidance (both literally and physically. Both need to find physical safety and also to not succumb to the spirit world). The faceless man also appears any time a character is about to have a near-death experience. I didn’t feel like looking up this symbol because honestly, sometimes it’s more fun to leave it up to the imagination, or to try to interpret it myself, which I will attempt to do here. There’s something about the facelessness that suggests two things to me: a fucked system in which people can disappear without a trace, or becoming so much a part of a group (dead or alive) that faces don’t matter (this is an idea that’s kind of toyed with in Code Geass, no?). Both kind of apply. During the Trujillato (and arguably afterwards as well), humans lose some of their humanity. In the chapter about Abelard, we learn how people could be handed over to the government by their own friends. Disappearing is not unusual in the Trujillato, nor is losing things like one’s identity or sense of self, which is symbolized by the faceless man. The self-effacing aspect of national identity is kind of the other side of the same coin. To be able to do the sorts of things the Trujillato needed regular citizens to do, turn their backs on friends, snitch on one another, people had to forget the things that connected them to other people. The faceless man could also be a symbol of that dehumanization process.

Compared to the rest of the novel (these gruesome near-deaths and this tumultuous family history), Oscar’s death is very quiet, almost anticlimactic. It’s almost as though there was a degree of inevitability to it. I would even argue Díaz does this on purpose. I suspect that actually, Oscar had planned to die. Earlier in the novel, his suicide attempt fails, but we know that Oscar is not doing well. He isn’t happy. So instead of continuing to live in New Jersey and suffer, he plans to die for something he believes in–his love for Ybon. Arguably, his last days aren’t so bad, if Yunior’s account is to be believed. He finally gets to spend time with Ybon alone, he finally has sex. I would argue he knows he is going to die for it.

I think the last thing Oscar says is actually really deep and resonant. Díaz writes, “He told them that what they were doing was wrong, that they were going to take a great love out of the world” (321). If you think about it, it’s a pathetic thing to die for. Oscar dies because he has the feel-feels for a ho with a fucking mean boyfriend. That’s, like, really not what you want to see on your kid’s gravestone. But the meaning he gives it is so noble. It is wrong, killing someone who loves another person, so arguably, murder is always wrong. But you know, who is to say that one person’s love is any greater or less than any other person’s? Who is to say that Oscar’s affair with a taken woman is not as valid as any other person’s love? Oscar seems to intuitively know this. He seems to know that to break people’s connections with each other is cruel, to separate them by death is a crime. I think we need more Oscars in this world, at a time when institutions are hell-bent on deporting people, building walls, making it hard for the poor to live, and making sure military-grade weapons are easy to come by. I think an Oscar would know how sad that all is, and would at least have the words to help us name the problem.

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Ode to the First Woman I ever Loved

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Credits: Leonie Barkakati. Swollen River, Montague, MA

I guess the ugly truth I know now is that nobody, not even women, cares about women who love other women. I don’t even have to look too hard to find the apathy. Literally everyone I have come out to so far has responded with “I don’t care”. It has not occurred to them to congratulate me on finding a good person, the best person I have had a relationship with so far. It has not occurred to them to tell me they are happy for me. It has not occurred to them that this is what I really want.

I guess I ought to have expected nothing more.

I guess, more for my own sake more than for anyone else’s, I have wanted to write about the first woman I ever fell in love with for quite a while. I can’t quite explain the reasoning. My brain has been rather foggy these days, either with seasonal depression or just with bad food. I think on one hand, it’s about proving something. I think people in my life suspect I am going through a “phase,” like all the other ones they have seen Leonie go through over the years. I guess they think I will soon see the error of my ways and yield to other people to make decisions for me, like I have so many times in the past.

On the other,…and that’s the thing, I don’t know. I waited ten years to come out properly, but I knew I was queer when I was 15 years old. And I guess I can start my story there.

For the sake of privacy, I have changed her name, but the first girl I ever loved was Wendy Chau, who I met when I was a freshman in high school. She was a year older than me. We knew each other from the Speech and Debate team and from the newspaper staff.

I knew I admired her, but it was a different admiration than the people I usually used the word “admire” for.

I think queerness was this question that I knew, but I refused to ask myself. I knew it was an inconvenient time for me to have these feelings, and although I had never seen anything overtly violent, I knew it was dangerous for me to be queer. No one ever suspected it about me, never brought it up or asked directly, so the only person who could ask me was myself.

I put it off for a long time, the asking of the question. But my fondness for Wendy grew every day. I liked her very much. She was wildly intelligent, but not arrogant, unlike many of our peers. She was a brilliant math student, debater, musician, and writer, and everyone had great confidence in her ability to teach. I think I liked how silly she could be. She would laugh at things I said and call me ridiculous in jest, but I took such pride in being able to make her laugh. I liked that I was close enough to her that she let herself be vulnerable sometimes. She once told me I ought to do things that make me happy, not things I felt needed to be done out of obligation. I have held on to that thought ever since.

It amuses me somewhat that nobody figured it out the entire time that I loved her. I talked about Wendy all the time, tried to make every conversation about her somehow, how much I admired her, how smart she was, how kind. I suspect most people just didn’t think I could be queer. They thought I was an innocent little Indian girl who does everything mommy tells her to do. I guess that’s not what queers look like.

One year, we went with the newspaper staff to a conference in St. Petersburg across the bay. On the first night, at dinner, she was wearing a shade of pink lipstick that I don’t think I have stopped thinking about since the day I saw her wear it. I wanted to kiss her, though I never acted on the impulse, and finally the question had to be asked. Was I in love with her, a girl? And the answer was yes, I most undoubtedly was.

I was surprised, shocked even, that that was the answer. I did not think I was capable of loving women, had never considered the possibility that queer was a word that could apply to me. There was no gay-straight alliance at our high school (I don’t think there is even now), and the only queer person I knew was a gay white guy who hung out with one of my friends.

I thought I should detach myself from her. Who knew how Wendy would feel about me if she ever found out? I didn’t want to know. I knew keeping my distance would keep my heart safe.

I never told her. I watched her give a truly magnificent speech as the valedictorian of her class. Her last interp performance at the Speech and Debate banquet my junior year was also excellent, and one I will always remember. She was a good friend and a kind person, and I have remembered her that way.

I thought perhaps that was some quirk of being in high school, some flaw in my system which went away after Wendy graduated. My hope was short-lived. Not even two years later, I fell in love with another woman, one who had a boyfriend so I wouldn’t act on the feelings with her either. I’d get to grad school in Massachusetts and fall in love again.

I am queer, whether or not I like that about myself, whether or not I think it is good. I remember telling this to a co-counselor of mine the other day, that it’s not something anyone would choose. Statistics for queer people of color are abysmal. (I can’t find any links at the moment, but honestly, read a book, they’re not hard to find.) They apparently can’t keep jobs, can’t get housing, can’t access healthcare or education, and are at high risk for mental health illnesses. I don’t think anyone looks at a life like that and says, yes! That sounds like a wonderful way to live!

And here I am, giving testimony that I have, in fact, been this way for a very long time. Life has not been peaceful since this process started, but the thought that pacifies me somewhat is that I have not done anything wrong. It is not wrong for me to love someone who was assigned female at birth. Our love story is as beautiful as any epic ever written, even if no one will celebrate it with us. We are not doing anything wrong.

You Remind Me

Y’all know my man Usher.

Who can bear this agony?

You know what’s fucked up? I’m not talking about being alone or breaking up. Both of those things actually seem fairly bearable. I’m talking about being with someone.

I found my sweetheart…at an aikido class. No, I’m not making that up. And uh…I can’t believe they agreed to date me. I quite literally mean. I cannot. Believe. They’re mine. Like, every time they call me “dear”, I kinda look around wondering…are they talking to me? I mean, because my sweetheart is. Beautiful. Intense in this wildly attractive way. And it’s not like there aren’t other people who are attracted to them. From what I can gather, they’re quite popular among these queers of Northampton. So when I stop and think that literally all I did for them to like me is ask if I could spend time with them, I think this can’t be real life. No tricks? No hit it and quit it? They don’t just want arm candy? They’re not a douchebag? They’re not trying to steal my money? Or use me as an emotional crutch? Like, what’s the catch here?

I guess on some logical level, I can understand there is no catch, but I can’t seem to focus on them. Instead, I seem to be focusing, through them, on everything else. And there is A LOT of everything else, y’all. A lot. I never realized that in my first queer relationship, I would be wildly protective. I refuse to tell my best friend their sun sign because I know she’ll tell me everything about them that I know but don’t want to hear. I refuse to talk to straight men about them because they seem to want me to treat them the way straight men have treated me, and that disgusts me on a molecular level. My very molecules are disgusted by that idea.

They’ve dated a bunch of women before me, and the jealousy is just insufferable. I thought that both of us being ace would make this easier for me, but if anything, it seems to make things worse. The only other person about whom I remember feeling this way is my (current) best friend when I was in love with her, but she rebuffed my advances every time until I no longer felt romantic interest in her and became her best friend instead. We were never together (I can’t imagine what being jealous of her if I was with her would have felt like). But this, this human, my sweetheart, my torturer, they don’t get jealous too frequently (must be nice. That might be slight sarcasm), thus they’ll share things about past relationships that make me want to tear out my organs and set them on fire. The things they’ve said about the most recent ex makes me want to hunt her down and kill her. I probably wouldn’t even feel remorse for it.

Obviously, I’m working through all of it because I really, really want to be there for my sweetheart. I really want to enjoy every moment with them instead of…dealing with whatever stupidity is going through my head when I’m with them right now. How the fuck does one do that, though?

I think the thing I fear most is not that the jealousy will manifest. Deep down, I know that would never happen. It never has in the past. No, what I do best is something I have perfected. I’d abandon them, if it gets to be too much for me. Give them no way to contact me, no way to see me. It will be as though we never met. I suspect that might be very painful for them, a person who has kept in touch with several exes. I’m not a hero. I guess it doesn’t matter to me whether or not people think I’m a good person after I break up. The way I am right now, I’d walk out on them the second I feel like it’s too much for me to handle.

And that would be sad because in truth, they wouldn’t be the problem. I’d be the problem. I’m that tragic human who, I guess, didn’t get enough validation at some critical point in the past and now can’t accept when other people like her. Romantic comedies are written about cliche shit like this. Now you know a real life version.

I’ve been told that a good way to deal with feelings is to think of what this current situation reminds me of. More often than not, the things we have encountered in the past have conditioned us to react similarly in the present to situations that we think are the same. In truth, the situations could be completely different, and thereby deserve to be given unique responses.

That’s where Usher comes in. My sweetheart reminds me of another person. My first friend, we’ll say. (Technically, I think my brother takes that title, but he was also a boy, and he was family. So that’s different.)

For the sake of this post, we’ll call her Divya, though if she were ever to read this, she’d probably know exactly who I’m talking about. Yes, my first friend and I met…come to think of it, 20 years ago. It’s 20 years ago this year.

We met in summer of 1997, right after her birthday. I was so mad I missed it. I loved birthday parties. Looking back, my mother trusted Divya’s mom because she was also an Indian immigrant, and needed a place to keep her kids while she and my dad worked. Divya’s mom needed similar support. So I’d argue it was more of a political alliance. But I was an innocent kid. This girl, she looked like me. We’d get confused for each other at school. We were both little brown girls. I thought it was pretty apparent that we should be best friends.

We did everything together. Everything. We joined Girl Scouts together. We went to the same elementary school. We both got into the gifted program. In second grade, we both wanted to become dolphin trainers when we grew up. We bought the exact same orca plushies and played together with them all the time. We made blanket forts. We would bike together. We’d play tennis together. In high school, we would join band together.

But as the only two brown girls most people knew, we were pitted against each other a lot as well. There was an unspoken competition in everything we did. Everyone knew she was the more athletic of us two. I was the better writer. She could sight-read music better, but I had been playing an instrument for a longer time. I was better at math. She was better at physics. She became a tomboy. I guess I became…the brown girl next door? It seemed that way to all the boys I was always hanging around with.

I was very protective of her. I remember there was this time in Girl Scouts when we were putting on a play, and our parts were assigned randomly (we picked them out of a bag). Everyone was mad that Divya received the lead role. They kept complaining about how somebody else (themselves) would’ve been better for the role. I told them to fuck off (or like, the 9-year-old version of that).

She was in all of my stories, the ones I used to write as a child. She was a main character in every single one. I shared all of them with her. In real life, we never told each other we cared for each other. We never really expressed our affection for each other. To be honest, it has been a long enough time now that I wonder if the affection was real. It may have been one-sided this whole time. I might never know. In the stories, though, my character and hers would always express it somehow. Some way. Usually some grand gesture. If I could put an emoji here, it would be the one rolling its eyes. It’s painful to acknowledge how obvious it was that I wanted those things to happen.

I cared so much for her that I would turn my back on people I cared about for her. To this day, I do not know if those were the right decisions I made. There was a Bosnian girl who lived next-door to me. I knew Divya didn’t like her, so I might have been a little distant from her intentionally because I cared about Divya’s approval. I liked the Bosnian girl, though. She was an Aries, kinda wild and very stylish. Another time, in high school, I liked this boy that played french horn in band, and Divya knew. One day, this girl in Divya’s homeroom died of pneumonia. French horn guy was in her homeroom. Divya thought he had said something insensitive about it. She told me what he said, her disapproval quite apparent. I didn’t admit my feelings to him for three years after that. By then, it was too late.

I thought nothing of it at the time. She meant a lot to me.

So when she chose some white girls in band over me, of course I confronted her about it. I told her they seemed shallow. That their interests were completely different from ours (one of my less creative moments, as we were all in band). That they were such phobics (our mutual term for people who were “popular,” a group of humans we Did Not Like). I think on some deep, inner level, I was imploring that she pick me instead. Or tell me she cared about me as much as she cared for them. I didn’t know how to ask it of her. I was saying it wrong, but that’s what 14-year old Leonie meant to say.

She said she didn’t understand what I was talking about. I think that’s literally what she said, too. Just straight up—I don’t get it. I didn’t believe her for a second. I might be wrong. She might genuinely not have understood. But I felt in that moment that she was choosing to play dumb to avoid conflict rather than validate my feelings. I think that was the moment I started to let go of her.

The next three years would be some of my most painful, and some of the ones in which she was either most in denial, or that she actually enjoyed, and I begrudge her for it if it’s the latter. She let me suffer. Never once offered consolation. Why not? Oh well, I was always with some boy or another. As if boys are what I asked for. As if theirs is the attention I wanted.

And in those three years, evidence that I had let go was apparent. I quit band one year. I claim it was “to study for the SAT”. It might have just been that she was getting on my nerves, like she did on those weeks when we were little kids and we saw each other for 5 days in a row because my mom had to work late some weeks.

Perhaps she had not let go at that point, I do not know. For two school projects, she asked me to be her partner. I agreed both times, feeling both times as though I did a lot of the work, though perhaps secretly pleased she would still think to ask me to work with her. I branched out. I joined the newspaper staff. I joined a dance team.

I think the abandonment culminated on the night of prom. My boyfriend and I were supposed to take Divya home from prom that night. Her white-girl friends were having a co-ed sleepover afterwards, and her mother did not approve. It strikes me now to wonder, why was she hanging out with friends who would do things that she couldn’t take part in? Perhaps the thought is irrelevant.

Anyway, we got to prom. My boyfriend at the time promptly decided to make a stink because I was having fun dancing and he wasn’t. I tried entertaining him on his phone, but he wasn’t really having it. Finally, I told him to just take me home. I didn’t speak the entire ride home. For the short time that I had been in attendance, I had quite enjoyed being, as another friend put it, “one of the best-looking girls at prom”. He was very anxious about how annoyed I was. He kept asking me what was wrong and trying to coax me into talking. It wasn’t until we had nearly reached his house—near Divya’s neighborhood, that I suddenly realized we had forgotten Divya.

My mom chewed me out really hard because of that. If I’m being honest, it wasn’t really the chewing out that surprised me (my mother’s favorite pastime is reminding me that I’m a little shit). It was that I had forgotten Divya for that long. Prom was nearly an hour away from our homes, and it took me nearly that long to remember she wasn’t there. That too, when she needed me.

She wasn’t upset, surprisingly. She had found another ride home. But it felt as though, whether or not I had meant to, I had ended our friendship.

Again, I don’t know if she had let go of me. In truth, she might not have. Years later, when I unfriended her on Facebook, she texted me. She said “did you unfriend me?” I said, “Yes.” She said, “Sad.”

Even now, I do not know if she has let go of me. The one time we actually saw each other intentionally after leaving college (we both went to the University of Florida), she was the one who reached out. I’ve let the whole thing lapse. Perhaps it’s because I know our parents are friends, and will either always be friends or will continue pretending to be until they die. She is never truly gone from my life as long as our parents are friends. Our mothers always know what’s going on with both of us. Why should I bother, then? It’s not like I’m ever really lost. There are days when I crave being lost, I crave disappearing. I wish my past would stay in the past.

My sweetheart knows that I am capable of abandoning them, but they don’t know why. I hesitate with telling them the reason. They remind me of Divya. They’re athletic in the same way as she was. They argue in the same way. Even the way they so ambiguously request information reminds me of Divya. It would certainly explain my protectiveness of them, and the jealousy.

I struggle with separating the two of them in my head, and perhaps that is why I have to name those distinctions now. Divya is someone I have a lot of history with and, realistically, I am probably too biased to be able to judge her fairly any more. Those choices we made, we made at a point when we were both young, uninformed and ignorant, but I struggle with forgiving myself. I blame the younger me for not being wiser, for not being able to express herself fully without other people’s permission. And it is hard not to blame Divya either, even though at some level, I know she was doing what she thought was right at the time.

My sweetheart is not her. We are older people, hopefully with slightly more sense in our heads, capable of disagreeing without destroying each other or our relationship. We do not require approval from each other to be with other people or to take part in things we like. We are not competing either. Their well-being does not come at my expense, and vice versa.

I will tell them how much I love them, instead of writing stories and blog posts about it and never expressing it in words. I will tell them how much I love spending time with them, how much I love their voice and their softness that they try to hide. I will tell them they are graceful like a cat and beautiful like the silhouettes of trees in the evening, like the smell of the sea. I will tell them everything, the way I should have told Divya. Love them the way I should have loved her. I will not leave my sweetheart until I have left everything on the table, every kiss, every embrace. I will caress their cheek until I memorize the shape of their face. I will not leave it unsaid and incomplete, the way I did to Divya all those years ago. If the Universe is willing, I will not keep to myself a single thing I mean to give them, not hold back even one touch, not waste even one second.

Remembering Antonio

hood rats

Hood rats of Holyoke

Forgive me, Jerica.

“That life – whatever else it is – is short. That fate is cruel but maybe not random. Death always wins but that doesn’t mean we have to bow and grovel to it. That maybe even if we’re not always so glad to be here, it’s our task to immerse ourselves anyway: wade straight through it, right through the cesspool, while keeping eyes and hearts open. And in the midst of our dying, as we rise from the organic and sink back ignominiously into the organic, it is a glory and a privilege to love what Death doesn’t touch.” -Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch

I have been meaning to write this for some time, though at first, I did not know what to say. Or perhaps more accurately, I did not know how to write about it. What prepares anyone for the finality of death?

Antonio Nieves Martinez was my professor. It is true that I did not know him that well. I did not talk to him as I should have, I did not spend enough time with him.

We met in my first year of graduate school, in 2014. He was a new professor in my program, and I was a new master’s student taking the hard blows of imposter syndrome for truly the first time. And I’m sure he had felt the same way years ago, yet there he was, graceful, charming. I don’t know how to say this. Antonio was not perfect. He had moments when all transparency went out the window, when I could tell he was only going through the motions, and wasn’t fully present or engaged. But there were other things he did so beautifully.

On July 13 of this year, I was nearing the end of the eighth day of my new job at Hampshire College. A friend of mine, a doc student interning in Alaska at the time, called me over Facebook messager out of the blue. She hadn’t contacted me in a while, and we were going to move in together in about a month, so I wondered if she had had some problem signing for the apartment. I wish that had been the problem. She told me instead that Antonio had committed suicide.

I’m not sure I fully understood in that moment, what she had said. I was living with another friend, and I knew I would have to tell her as well, when I got home that day. She and I were in the same cohort, and we both took Antonio’s class at the same time. In fact, at that moment, I was dimly aware that I really needed to tell all of my cohort and the one after mine, and anyone else who knew him, what had happened. Looking back now, perhaps it was not my place to have done that. But I also knew that the faculty of my program and the administrators of the College of Education would keep it quiet, and that felt wrong. Because personally, I did not care how he had died. He deserved to be remembered.

More than that, he deserved to be loved. The friend I was staying with went to New York that weekend after I told her. We were supposed to meet up with members of my cohort the Friday after that, to celebrate Antonio’s life.

I had the apartment to myself the next day. I drove to my favorite ice cream place, ordered a giant tub of blue ice cream, came home, ate it, and cried. I cried for a long time. I don’t remember when I stopped. I just remember thinking he must have been in so much pain near the end of his life, and I couldn’t bear to think of him feeling that way. Not when he had had such a colorful life, not when he probably knew so much more about living than I did. Of course I know now that he always assigns the Duncan-Andrade piece, the ones about roses that grow in concrete, because he was one himself.

I did my crying in co-counseling. And alone in my car on the way to work. I’d put on all the Spanish music I could find and it would remind me of him. And I’d cry. This man probably knew so many things that I don’t, and I never bothered to ask. I know because I’m going through life now wishing I could ask him.

After I graduated from my program in 2016, I spent a year in my hometown, Tampa. Intermittently, I would think of Antonio. I’d think maybe I should email him, and tell him what I’m up to. In May of 2017, I knew I had received the job at Hampshire, and I knew I would be moving back to New England. I didn’t know then, but Antonio and his family were moving back to Oakland. I thought I’d tell him I got this new job, eventually, perhaps once I moved back and settled in. I’d reach out to him, to the other professors, see how they were doing.

I will never tell him now. There was a gathering for him at UMass. I did not go. I could not talk to anyone besides my co-counselors about him. I remembered him by wandering around Western Massachusetts alone. I swam alone. Explored remote towns alone. Stood on the edge of large lakes alone. There was a gathering for him in Holyoke. I didn’t go to that either. His daughter will never have those important conversations with her father, like the one where she calls him at 3:00 a.m. to tell him her car has gotten towed. Again. Or the one where she tells him she finally got a job, so would he please help her move her stuff 1,000 miles away. He is never going to have those conversations with her.

My cohort gathered to remember him. However, they wouldn’t confess to past mistakes they have made. For their dishonesty, I destroyed the cohort. I scattered them to the winds. I did not go to meet them. How could they be such cowards when Antonio was dead?

Finally, my friend and I moved to Holyoke, where Antonio used to live while he was in Western Massachusetts. I know now why he chose to live here with his family. It’s a beautiful town, far too small for how much life it contains. On walks in the streets, I meet people who say “¿’ta bien?”. Little black and brown children run around barefoot in the summer. On my street, there’s an old Boricua who goes to Stop and Shop in an electric wheelchair and blares loud bachata music from two speakers that he rigged himself. I once had a little old brown woman follow me around for 10 minutes because she thought I was someone else. I didn’t really mind.

This was your city,
child of immigrants.
In your memory, in your name,
I will do everything.

We had our own remembering party, my roommate and I. We invited some of the Latinx folks we knew from our program, a small group of 5 people. It was good. We brought things that remind us of him. There was a lot of drinking involved. And bachata. I think Antonio would be proud.

I’ve left the Hampshire job. I loved the position, but my boss sucked. I remember all the ways that Antonio tried to help make my life easier, when it felt like nothing was going right. Coincidentally, a friend of mine who works at a school in Holyoke recommended me for an open position there. I now teach ninth graders. Antonio used to teach in high school, once upon a time.

I wish you were here. I’m bewildered and inspired by these young people every day. Most days, it’s really, really fucking hard. You would have known exactly what to do. I miss your guidance, and I miss you very much.

Antonio had these moments when he could be unfathomably sweet. I remember, on our first day of class with him, he asked us if we would mind if he took a selfie with us. He said that he would like to send it to his mother. He said his mother is a Chicana immigrant who doesn’t fully understand what his job entails. He wanted to send her a picture so she could understand. We agreed to let him take the photo. Who does that? Who remembers their mom like that? Even I don’t, family girl as I am.

I remember he was there on the day I graduated. I remember he asked what I was doing next, and I told him I was going to Tampa to continue prospecting for jobs. He told me congratulations, and I think he hugged me. I hope he did. Antonio deserved a hug.

The Politics of Relationships

bogolis

Storks grazing in suburbs. I want to be a stork. Or perhaps I just don’t like my life right now.

CW: not for little kids

This is going to be some weird shit. I’m fucking a white boy, and you know shit is always weird when I’m fucking a white boy.

Probably not surprisingly, lately, I have been contemplating this question. Should I be with a person whom it makes sense to be with politically, or should I date a person who agrees with my politics? Ten times out of nine (Beyonce Carter Knowles, 2016), these two things do not occur simultaneously in the same person.

I’ll explain what I mean by that. I’m a woman of color, right? I try to praxis in a way that centers marginalized folks. However, I’m also educated and upper-middle class. If I was with a person who politically makes sense for me, I’d probably choose a man of color, probably also someone educated and raised upper-middle class, if we’re going with a traditional partnership which my family would find acceptable. If I’m thinking of personal satisfaction in my romantic and sexual partnerships, I could also see myself with an educated woman, most likely of color as well, though class background may vary (in my experience, I seem to get along with women of color across various class backgrounds).

In a strictly political sense, these categories of people make sense for me to partner with. In practice, partnering with people like this is a whole. Other. Experience. I firmly believe that our first experiences with people of a certain identity sort of “stick” in our brains. They create patterns that we fall into again and again, if we are observant enough to notice. The first men of color I ever dated were very abusive people. There was much behavior-monitoring and slut-shaming in those relationships. Since then, I’m not sure I have rationally been able to trust men of color. The ones I am attracted to seem like surprisingly sub-par people, and I suspect these attractions originate from those early abusive relationships, where my brain now has connections between men of color and abuse. Because that is a familiar dynamic, one which I even romanticized, my brain is wired to be romantically attracted to abusive men of color. This is probably a pattern I need to dismantle if I ever hope to be with a man of color.

With women, while the dynamics are certainly less problematic, they seem vastly more nebulous. There were three women in my life that I ever felt attracted to romantically. For the first, I was so puzzled by my feelings that I never told her. She was a kindly mentor sort of person who I greatly admired in high school. She promptly went off to Harvard, never to be heard from again. The second was quite friendly, though she had a boyfriend and I never told her as well. The third is now a good platonic friend of mine, for whom I do not feel romantic attraction any more. I am not certain what kinds of patterns this sets me up for, or if indeed, a pattern is even in place for women I am attracted to.

This brings us to the second part of the question: instead of a person who seems like my political counterpart, what about people who agree with my politics? Let’s examine that, shall we? First off, very few people seem to truly “agree” with how I see the world. The ones who really do are usually my good platonic friends. I keep those relationships platonic because these people are few and far between, and the relationships are more important to me than some fleeting romantic or sexual experience.

Thus, the options I am left with are varying levels of political compatibility with another person. Even there, the data is somewhat ambiguous, as I have not devised an actual method for measuring how closely my politics align with my romantic partners’. For some problematic reason (and I think this says a lot about how we are conditioned to feel about race in America, as well as how men of different races are conditioned to present themselves as masculine people), the partners I choose are more closely aligned with me around gender politics than around racial politics. This, too, could be inaccurate because I measure the alignment, at least initially, based on what men say, and not always what they do. (The latter usually presents itself later in a relationship, and I find myself disappointed more often than not). Perhaps not surprisingly (again), this means a lot of white men. I speak entirely from experience when I say, the white men I have dated are less defensive around topics of gender. Frequently, they will agree with me about the circumstances of women. Men of color, at least the ones I have been with, are surprisingly resistant to talking about gender. I don’t think this means that men of color cannot be trusted to talk about gender, but it certainly says a lot about intersections of race and gender. I think men of color are usually so targeted with racism that to have to admit they actually have a kind of power in gender structures is actually threatening. After all, it must be confusing to be both targeted and have power. Theorists like Kimberle Crenshaw, bell hooks, and Patricia Hill Collins do a much better job than I do talking about why this occurs. There are a great number of social and political factors that make men of color defensive. I don’t have much to say on the subject besides, it sucks that these systems take so long to dismantle. It really does.

Anyway, after being told in a rather roundabout fashion by said white boy who I’m fucking that he cares more about the white women in his life than he does about me, I promptly find myself running out of faith in romance once again. I feel I have been swindled again, as I always am, and I become progressively cynical, deadened, hopeless. Stubbornly unwilling. I suppose this wheel grinds rather slowly. Just as I gradually discover what I will not tolerate in a professional setting, and what I am willing to suffer for, it seems that my romantic life must follow the same path. Though, uh, I think in the professional sense, I am the more willing creature. I have discovered I would much rather be in a bad job than in a bad relationship. At least a bad job still pays. A bad relationship is just a lot of bad memories clogging the sacred inner world.

Wonder Woman: A Review

wonder womanDisclaimer: Contains spoilers.

So last week, Wonder Woman was released, and I watched it alone on Monday because my family is too annoying to take with me (which is material enough to fill another entire post). Quite frankly, I’m a little disappointed at the discourse surrounding this movie, which seems to boil down to women squabbling over whether or not Gal Gadot is a woman of color (in my opinion, she is not. She is a racially ambiguous white woman. Racial ambiguity is something that should receive more attention among racial justice advocates. Sadly, I think they have moved in a rather nonsensical direction *cough*monoracism?*cough*, but again, that is for another post).

There are so many more controversial and important things going on in this movie than whether or not Gal Gadot is a woman of color.

I’m going to say my first critique of the movie is that it definitely has pacing problems. I’ve never seen anything else that Patty Jenkins has directed, so I feel like I’m kind of missing a point of comparison, but it’s definitely something she could work on. I found the most interesting parts of the movie to be the beginning, when Diana (Gadot) lives among the Amazonians, and the end, when Diana faces Ares (David Thewlis). But then, there’s this strange and heteronormative middle section in which Diana is sort of coerced to behave like a “normal” woman, and it feels like that part drags on and on. I just didn’t give enough fucks. The beginning and end were far more interesting.

I do love that the beginning contains abundant shots of the Amazonians fighting. They’re, like, badass fight scenes, too. These women train like pros. The one thing I’m a little disappointed by is how skinny most of them are. There is literally one black woman among these Amazonians who actually looks like a healthy human being. The rest, if they actually trained that hard while being that skinny, would probably have premature osteoporosis.

I’m a little disappointed that, with the exception of the ice cream scene, there isn’t a single shot of Diana eating actual food. Wouldn’t that have been a powerful scene to add about a movie about a woman superhero? Think about it, right? She’s a badass warrior. She can swim hundreds of miles. Is really good at hand-to-hand combat. Is a skilled archer. Could run for days. Wouldn’t a person burning that many calories also EAT A TON?? How the hell did the director forget such an obvious part of being a human being?? Realistically, this woman probably ate, like, 10,000 calories a day to keep up her energy! How the hell did they not put a food shot in this movie? (Consider other action movies in which men portray gods/demigods are portrayed, e.g.: Thor (2011)).

Then we’ve got…*sigh*…the middle portion of the movie *cue Leonie’s most judgmental eye roll*. So Diana meets (through some pretty violent interference) Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) and agrees to go with him to his world. Not gonna lie, that scene where Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) tells her the world doesn’t deserve her almost made me cry. In some ways, Diana reminds me a lot of myself. Her overprotective mother reminds me of my own; regardless of what she says, Diana will not believe her until she experiences life on her own terms.

But then we run into this weird, heternormative narrative. I don’t get it. If Diana purportedly has only known the female form all her life, and went through puberty on the island with the Amazons, why in the whole fuck would she have sexual feelings for a man?? Would that not be similar to meeting an alien from outer space for the first time and then developing sexual feelings for it? What are the chances of a human being falling for a form with which they are not already intimately familiar? I’m just going to leave it at that.

I’m also a little miffed at this narrative around Maru (Elena Anaya). I feel like making her a villain was a little too ableist and easy. First of all, if she was smart enough to be messing around with chemicals of that caliber in the 1940’s, she was probably a highly educated woman, which was a huge accomplishment for a woman living in the 1940s. Second, it just seemed a little lazy to make her a visibly disabled person. Like, I am pretty sure anybody who worked as a scientist at the time sustained injuries from their craft. It was just a fact of working in that field at the time. For example, Marie Curie sustained some kind of cancer or radiation sickness from her work with radioactive material. Furthermore, what was referred to as “madness” or “hysteria” at the time would today probably be called “depression” or “anxiety,” which are actually highly co-related with genius (can’t find a citation, but there are studies out there). So it seems to me that Dr. Maru is a very intelligent, strategic woman who is just doing a job that will keep her alive during the war (instead of trying to escape from Nazi forces, which was tantamount to treason and would probably get her killed). The “madness” bit seems to be a sad character oversight on the part of the writers.

Furthermore, one of my friends has pointed out (and I agree) that this movie had a decidedly Western exceptionalist sort of feel to it. The best example I can think of is the scene where The Chief and Diana are conversing at night around the fire. Throughout the movie, I felt that Gadot did a great job of portraying a character with very high emotional intelligence. Later in the movie, she feels deeply for a woman and child whom she comes across at the front. However, (and I feel this is more a weakness of the script than a weakness in Gadot’s acting) when The Chief explains that his people have basically undergone genocide at the hands of Trevor’s people, there is not nearly a visceral enough reaction for a character that believes so deeply in justice. Furthermore, why would Diana then sustain sexual feelings for Trevor, a descendant of colonizers? I feel like if the script was true to Diana’s character, that point would have been significantly elaborated upon. It was a good opportunity to start a dialogue around indigenous narratives, and of course, it was tossed to the wayside.

Ugh, I’m going to get shot one day for saying this, but I also thought it was a bit on the nose to cast an Israeli actress in this role and then center the plot entirely on World War II. Like, really DC? You needed the tables to turn so literally? It couldn’t just have been a plot about good and evil like all the other DC superheroes? I can’t.

What I do appreciate about this movie, and I’m not even gonna sugarcoat it y’all, is that the white guy dies. I think that was a wise decision because of the message it sends about real-life activism. I was talking to a friend (another woman of color) who recounted that seeing this in a movie reflects what white allies should be willing to put on the line in order for marginalized people’s lives to get better. The truth sucks, but there it is. Fighting for justice is just that–a fight. Sometimes with very physical violence. Sometimes people die in the violence. Considering the number of black, Asian, Native, and Latinx lives that have been taken needlessly and/or senselessly over the course of history, this is the asking price of being a white ally. Know what it takes. Furthermore, it’s a powerful moment of cinematic justice as well. Consider the hundreds of movies in which Black, Asian, Native, and Latinx people die in movies to further plot points. The cinematic deaths of people of color has happened across so many genres–drama, action, horror, comedy even. I’m impressed to see a white death in a major action film–and not just that of a minor character, but the male lead.

I think by far my favorite scene in the whole film is when Diana refuses to listen to Trevor and crosses the battlefield to the village. I swear, I cried. I felt like this scene could be interpreted in different ways, depending on the viewer. I think the danger is if we consider Diana to be representative of white women. If that is how we interpret her character, that sets a dangerous precedent of saviorism that white women are all too eager to follow. In addition, it was also a rather impulsive thing that Diana did, and white women already do enough impulsive things which frequently endanger the lives of people of color. White women should not be encouraged to be reckless. If we interpret Diana as racially ambiguous, however, this entire narrative changes. It becomes this beautiful act of feminine power. It takes a woman (of color) to empathize with the position of women and children in a war (Which country of the global majority has not experienced prolonged wars?), and to furthermore give so few fucks about what men want her to do that she walks into crossfire alone to solve a problem that hundreds of men couldn’t solve. I think that is the kind of world we could look forward to if more women were in positions of power and didn’t keep getting assassinated, undermined, or overthrown. (No, I am not talking about Hillary Clinton. Fuck off, ye meagre Beckies).

In short, Wonder Woman was a fascinating movie. I think, as always, the premise far exceeds the execution. I do think that for her first major role in a film, Gal Gadot did a spectacular job of portraying a stranger to the world, who is both more naive and more knowledgeable than anyone can reasonably guess. I relate to her so much, as a person who was raised around immigrants my whole life and had no idea what The Real America was actually like until I left home. I think that is the mark of a good actress, being able to make familiar the unfamiliar.

The Phantom, Heart-Draining Menace

bc

*This post is shaped by my ace cis femme brown woman lens

As I’m writing this blog post, I’m looking next to me at (among the rest of the detritus on my desk) a pack of birth control pills. There are two sugar pills left in this month, and then I’m supposed to start a new pack, but most likely, I will not. The new box of pills is small, green and unopened, and sits next to the current pack. My logic is that it will come in handy later if I find occasion to use it before July 2018, when it expires. Fat chance of that happening, though.

A good friend of mine recently told me about this really good sexual experience she had. It sounded to me like it was good because the two people involved actually asked each other what they like, and they did things with each other that they both enjoyed. I was happy for her because this friend hasn’t always had great experiences where sex is involved, and I was glad that this experience went well.

But sometimes, being happy for someone else doesn’t always mean you are happy yourself.

I think, to my great embarrassment, I have to admit that I’m jealous. Which, for me, is shocking because I actually don’t experience being jealous too frequently. Stupid people I know think they can tell when I’m jealous, but they are usually just misinterpreting my anger or sadness. I am jealous so infrequently that I think I can actually remember every single time I have ever been jealous and why I felt the way I did.

It’s not that I’m jealous of my friend, or of the person she had sex with. No, I’m jealous because they got to have that conversation that I have been waiting to have for what feels like eons–the one where someone asks me what I want. You know, without expecting anything in return.

God, it feels good to admit that.

Because now that I have, it’s pretty obvious that the problem is not between me and my friend, but has everything to do with patriarchy.

If I am being honest, at the age of 25, I have never had a sexual interaction in which I did not feel as though I was shortchanged. As I have only ever had sex with heterosexual, cisgender men, this may come as no surprise (at least, it doesn’t to me). Even when sex was consensual (because there are times when I did not consent, but I’m not talking about those), I found myself going through the motions more so to please my partner than out of enjoyment. And I do not think I ever felt as though my partners wanted to give me pleasure. The things my heterosexual, cisgender partners would claim they “gave” me were always conditional; I was expected to give what felt like far more than what I was given in return.

At this point, I have to admit, that sounds, uh, sad. It does, it sounds rather sad, even to me, which I don’t like to admit because I don’t like to think of my life as “sad”. I think it is hard sometimes, and certainly not perfect, but definitely not “sad”. And if this is what all of my sexual experiences amount to, well, clearly something needs to change.

Maybe the sadness comes from shame, which is not logical. This is not an uncommon narrative. I know because other women have written about this same experience again and again. What is it about a patriarchal society that forces women to have to accept really sad sexual experiences? Isn’t that pathetic? We live in a world where, if you are a cisgender, heterosexual woman, you can more or less expect to feel emotionally drained, empty, and hollow after sex.

To preface this next statement, I have nothing against women who have sex with no emotional attachment. If I was capable of doing that, I would. It would make my life so much easier, not to have to think of my past relationships feeling, at best, like I was used as a sex object, and at worst, like I would like to do some really vindictive things to get back at these men. I think it’s really problematic that I have always given both physical and emotional affection in a relationship, and I have only ever received one of the two when I have always wanted both.

This realization has suddenly forced me to contend with how much I value my own heart. How many times has RuPaul told us that if we can’t love ourselves, how in the hell are we going to love somebody else? How many times did Professor Harris say that if there are too many people draining our love, there will be none for ourselves? How could I have forgotten the first rule of being an empath? Everything I do comes with a side of emotional investment. Every person in my life gets emotional nourishment from me without asking. That is the benefit of being friends with someone like me, and also, that is the thing I have to be most careful of. All of my good friends know this about me, and they also know not to take advantage of me.

So you never know, maybe I will start that second pack of birth control pills. But I feel like the better choice would be to hold myself accountable so that I don’t need them in the first place. I’m a little sad that I live in a world where I have to be this cautious. I wish I could have had a great experience with every partner I had sex with. But the fact is, straight men aren’t expected to be like me at all, and thus are usually incapable of giving me what I need unless I explicitly tell them. I’m waiting for that person who asks, and not just because they want to get into my pants. I’m waiting for the person who is willing to take responsibility for this tender and giving heart that is drained all too easily by careless, unfeeling people.

 

Impressions of Custer Died for Your Sins

cdfysThis week, I finished reading Custer Died for Your Sins (1969, 1988) by Vine Deloria Jr. My reading coincided with our newest presidential administration’s violations of land rights and first amendment rights in the #NoDAPL protest at the Oceti Sakowin camp. White supremacy is rearing its ugly head in the worst ways because of the 2016 presidential election in the United States, and people of color are feeling it on every front. Deloria’s book gives me much to consider on how to fix these problems, and whether or not Deloria’s solutions, which he wrote in 1969, still apply today.

Deloria is quite the writer. I really appreciate his crass, part comedian-part philosopher style. He and Thomas King, author of The Inconvenient Indian, which I reviewed back in July 2016, write about similar material in very different ways. These differences I attribute to a number of things, of which the first has to be sun signs. Laugh if you must, but that King is a Taurus and Deloria is an Aries is quite striking in their writing. King treats writing as an art; as I said in my post, he is like a poet. It felt as though he revered the process of creating the work almost as much as he did the content. His book also came out in 2013, a time when many of the predictions that Deloria made in his 1969 book could be evaluated. Deloria, on the other hand, unapologetically bashed the United States government, Christianity, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), whiteness, white people’s accounts of history, anthropologists, and a great number of other things with a signature coarseness. His writing is more utilitarian–a way to clearly state ideas in a way that is credible and easily distributed.

King, while born in California, most recently resides in Canada, a nation of relatively liberal, friendly (albeit, super white) people who say “eh” a lot and are a lot more sympathetic to Native folks. Deloria resided in America during his life, a place where white people consistently tell other people to “go back to their country,” even though this land clearly wasn’t theirs to begin with.

To preface my analysis, I’m going to say here that there is no way in hell I will do this book any justice because there is so much in it that is so, so important. I’ll do my best with the parts I liked.

First off, I really appreciate how fucking funny Deloria is. His opening chapter is filled with too many good witticisms on the relations between American and Indian (Deloria uses the word “Indian” to refer to the indigenous people of America). Within the first ten pages, Deloria makes fun of both American values as well as old country music:

Like the deer and the antelope, Indians seemed to play rather than get down to the serious business of piling up treasures upon the earth where thieves break through and steal (1969, p. 6). 

The implication here is that perhaps piling up treasure in a capitalist frenzy is a folly after all, since all it does is attract thieves. Or perhaps the thieves exist precisely because there is an uneven distribution of goods?

Another gem was Deloria’s comment on the “paternalism” of whiteness.

Whites have always refused to give non-whites the respect which they have been found to legally possess. Instead there has always been a contemptuous attitude that although the law says one thing, ‘we all know better’ (1969, p. 8). 

Probably any non-white understands this sentiment. Deloria doesn’t say “the respect that non-whites possess”. Rather, they are “found to possess,” as though even the existence of the damn respect is dubious until white people say it is so. Thus white people think they are the arbiters of law, what people are worth, and basically everything and anything. In truth, white people know little to nothing of the lives of people of color and how different racialized minorities relate to one another.

I also appreciate how little Deloria does to shield the scholar-reader from poverty. For some reason, in more recent books, these descriptions are glossed over, though I can’t imagine why. Oh wait, yes I can. It’s to make sure Millenials don’t have a proper class analysis. Consider his description of the Wisconsin Menominees.

The Menominees had been so poor in comparison to other Americans that the only experience Watkins [a senator] could relate his reservation visit with was his visit to refugee camps of the Near East after World War II. (p. 68). 

This was in Chapter 3 on “The Disastrous Policy of Termination”. Termination was the process in the late 50’s (p. 60-71) by which the United States government tried to end government funding of Indian entities. This is not unlike the constant conservative backlash against providing welfare. The logic is, the government gives the tribes money over a certain period for things like healthcare, building schools, and constructing homes (p. 71) until the tribe’s economy stabilizes and it can support itself. It seemed an irony at the time that the United States was concerned with “keeping its promises” in Vietnam when it hadn’t kept even one promise to the Indigenous people of America (p. 76). If anything, it continued to break those promises.

Like King, Deloria talks a great deal about land. In chapter 5 on “Missionaries and the Religious Vacuum”, he states,

Most mysterious [to the missionaries] was the Indian reverence for land. When told to settle down and become farmers, most Indians rebelled. For centuries they had lived off the land as hunters, taking and giving in their dances and ceremonies (p. 103). 

In Chapter 8, “The Red and the Black”, he continues,

No movement can sustain itself, no people can continue, no government can function, and no religion can become a reality except  it be bound to a land area of its own…So called power movements are primarily the urge of peoples to find their homeland…(p. 179).

Most beautifully, in Chapter 9, “The Problem of Indian Leadership”:

But when they attempt to articulate what they are doing so that the white society can understand them, unity dissolves into chaos…Indians simply cannot externalize themselves. Externalization implies a concern for the future. Indians welcome the future but don’t worry about it. Traditionally the tribes had pretty much what they wanted…The land had plenty for everyone. Piling up gigantic surpluses implied a mistrust of the Great Spirit and a futile desire to control the future (p. 221).

While each of these three quotes alone serve their own purpose in the chapters where they are written, as a whole they also put forth a philosophy on land. Perhaps more, even, than a philosophy. The way Deloria talks about land reminds me of the way Desis talk about Hinduism or Hawai’ians talk about their religion. They are things appropriated by white people that simultaneously, white people will never understand. Even if they study these things for years in their classes on anthropology and human evolution, even if they devote their lives to these things, white people will never be descendants of the people to whom these things belong. Deloria talks about land as though it is a living entity, one that should be developed, but not in the way that Americans think. It should be developed the way a child is nurtured to grow older. Dividing up land for different purposes is as futile as claiming your arm does not belong to the same body as your head. Function does not determine entity.

Custer Died for your Sins is organized into 11 chapters of which my favorites, without a doubt, are chpater 4, “Anthropologists and Other Friends” and chapter 7, “Indian Humor”. In the former, Deloria scolds academia for its futile attempts at being useful. In the latter, Deloria comments on the many entities, human or otherwise, that plague Indian existence, though he makes them sound more like mosquitoes bothering a large creature rather than the life-threatening things they are. Arguably, that is the beauty of humor. The unthinkable and inhumane can be reduced to entertainment that Americans then actually pay attention to, hell, even pay money for.

While Deloria undertook an important task in writing this book, he is not without his faults. Although he gives ample commentary on the relations between white and black people, he gives little in the way of how Indian men and women relate to one another. Gender is not given a chapter, a weakness that King incidentally does address in The Inconvenient Indian. Deloria also has a tendency to generalize, claiming that “Indians” all feel a certain way, or do a certain thing, or behave a certain way about a great many issues (see the last of the three land quotes above). I do wonder if this is not so much a fault of Deloria’s as it is a symptom of the times in which the book was published, when identity politics did not dominate so much of academia and people were not yet compartmentalized into their little individual tribes. In 1969, divisions were still quite simple: you were either a woman or a man, a person of color or white (yes, I am aware that that is a generalization as well). These days, you must specify that you are an able-bodied, black, cisgender, heterosexual, working class, right-handed, woman, or not. If you are a person with the same social identities but you are left-handed, academia now dictates you have nothing in common with your right-handed sister.

In addition, Deloria seemed to have been very optimistic about certain outcomes when this book was written. On the revival of religion in the Northwest, he appears to have been right (p. 115). Upon rekindling their connection to their ancestral religions, the tribes of the Northwest are some of the most active at the moment (at least, it looks that way to me. All the Native activists I meet on the East Coast are from there). On how whiteness has endured (and I apologize, I can’t find my tab for this citation), he  was rather optimistic. I do wonder, though, if that is also a symptom of the times. The end of the Civil Rights, while tumultuous, was also a period of great leadership and uprising among many marginalized peoples. While we also see activism today in the Black Lives Matter movement and the #NoDAPL protest, both of the current organizations seem to be throwing pebbles at a fortress, where perhaps in the 60’s, organizers may have had flamethrowers. The playing field is not as even. I feel the actions of the movement are not making as much of a dent in the machine as they used to. Then again, I am still just discovering the whole picture, and may not be fully informed.

 

In spite of its shortcomings, Custer Died for your Sins should really be a requirement for college liberal arts degrees. There is far more in there that I did not talk about (the challenges of uniting people of a single group! The commentary on how Black and Indian relate!) that provides so much insight into community organizing and environmental justice. I now understand why this is considered a landmark of a book.

Works Cited

Deloria Jr., V. (1969, 1988). Custer died for your sins. New York, NY: University of Oklahoma Press.

On Healing

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Skies over Hillsborough Community College, Tampa, Late October. For some reason, all my good photos come from work.

CW: abortion

I have read so much bullshit on healing from trauma. So. Fucking. Much.

So for those of y’all who don’t know, I got an abortion about 14 months ago. It was difficult and sad. My partner at the time pretty much left me to fend for myself. With no one else to go to, I had to go home and tell my mother, which was neither pleasant nor something I really wanted to do. My mother is an anxious, overprotective Indian immigrant, and I knew this would break her as much as it broke me. This woman learned to drive just so she could take me to this middle school with a science program that I wanted to attend. She has never held it against me when I ate beef (we’re practicing Hindus) or got my father’s car towed (has happened twice) or done a number of other stupid things when I was growing up. Even though my pregnancy was an honest mistake, something that happened because I made a bad decision, even though it wasn’t rape, I knew the way she thought of me would fundamentally change, and I knew there was nothing I could do about it but allow her to deal.

I had to allow myself to deal as well, though my mother and I did not agree on how that should be done. I wanted to take a semester off from grad school to take care of my mental health. It did not bother me so much to think I might have to spend another year in graduate school. That seemed like a small price to pay for being healthy. I was distraught and incapable of concentration. My mother, on the other hand, was probably thinking of the amount of money it cost the family to support me while I was in grad school. My parents basically took care of rent for me because my assistantship wasn’t covering it. At the time, I selfishly thought she was being harsh, but looking back, her concern made sense because my brother was still an undergraduate going through school (with his own costs). My mother harangued me to the point that I didn’t want to be at home any more.

So I did one of the hardest things I, or literally anyone (I’d like to see anyone go through this level of shit and come out the other side with a master’s degree), have ever done. I went the fuck back to grad school. I went back to that place where enough bureaucracy goes on that even mentally healthy, hardy, and/or charismatic people want to leave. The best part is, I told almost no one about the abortion. There were maybe 4 people I trusted enough with the information. I told none of my professors, none of my co-workers, my supervisor at work, my staff, or my colleagues. It just didn’t seem like something they needed to know, though I know they probably noticed how tired I was, how lacking in emotion, how little I wanted to engage with human beings. Perhaps my entitlement is showing, but I think I ought to be given a medal of honor for having given enough fucks to finish graduate school in that condition.

My therapist has told me that people who are allowed to grieve openly usually have an easier time of overcoming grief. I wasn’t open at all about what I was grieving, so you can imagine the kind of complex shitstorm I am in now.

On healing from trauma, the one thing I might respect about the literature is that it consistently claims that everyone heals differently. That might be the only part I agree with.

The other things written about healing from trauma are so sugarcoated as to be irrelevant to my life. The literature consists of either Tumblr-tier, hippie, self-love bullshit that prescribe things like bubble baths, getting your nails done, and lighting candles (don’t get me wrong, if that works for you, do you), or it’s got this underlying narrative of “treat this poor, tragic person with kindness because they need it”. (My apologies for not being able to come up with examples at the moment. I might have rooted out all the offending articles from my newsfeeds and thus have none to show you).

The fact of the matter is, healing has not been some fun process of chillaxing and spoiling myself. It has been incredibly frustrating to feel as though I have to take time off from regular activities to heal. This is difficult to admit because it’s not as though I am some workaholic who drowns her pain in work all the time. Even before trauma, I was a person who liked to have fun. I would drop everything to hang out with friends. I would skip studying to go to a party or go on a snack run in the middle of the night. I would splurge on expensive shoes. I would buy plane tickets to some far off state at the drop of a hat. I loved the freedom of being impulsive.

But I find I am not impulsive any more. I have become cautious and guarded. While I think that has been a necessary process, I also know my life looks very different now as a result. I resent having to take time off from being social. I resent having to ask for help, and how weak it makes me feel to do that. We are surrounded by incredibly ableist narratives that dictate that a person in their mid-twenties should be at their physical peak, and should also be financially independent. Thus, it pisses me off to no end that I am not either of those things.

I am not enjoying my healing process. Perhaps this is due to a number of other things that coincide with this time, like the fact that getting a job takes forever these days, I am living with my parents again, my job pays me in bread crumbs, and I have enough bills that I have forgotten what life without debt looks like. Maybe I would fucking light a candle if I felt I had any time or energy. In an ideal world, I wouldn’t have to go through healing at this point in my life. In an ideal world, I’d have a community and financial support and a job that gives me fucking paid leave! But the fact is, I am healing, and I wish I didn’t have to. And that’s probably why this process is taking so long.

Thoughts on The Space Between Us by Thrity Umrigar

Content warning: Sexual assault, abortion trauma, domestic violence

You know, before I go into talking about the book, which is commendable even as I critique it, I will say it’s been a hard week. In the United States, there have been a number of really depressing developments, which I wrote about in a previous post. The newest is the #MuslimBan. I cannot overstate how dehumanizing a move that is. At the same time, though, it has sparked some pretty spectacular protests all over the country. While I personally doubt the administration cares much about why people protest, I do think protests hinder normal operations. I think this is actually where our strength lies. Hinder the normal operation of things. Throw a wrench in the gears. If things are slowing down, that means the effects of capitalism and colonization come to at least a temporary halt. That means we can buy time to do more strategic planning.

tsbuSo I recently finished The Space Between Us, published in 2005which could actually provide some insight into the turmoil that is under way. If I’m being really honest, the plot is not unlike that of The Help, except the role of Skeeter Phelan is played by Umrigar herself. That is probably my biggest critique of the book; Umrigar’s role is not unlike those of well-intentioned anthropologists who think they are “saving” Native Americans by collecting data on their lives and presenting it to the world. In reality, they take from the community without really giving anything in return. Just as Skeeter plays white savior to Aibilene, Umrigar plays upper-middle-class hero to Bhima. Umrigar claims that the character of Bhima is based on a real person who served her family when she lived in Mumbai. If that is the case, did the Bhima of Umrigar’s life ever receive any compensation for basically being her inspiration? Was she given any credit for providing the details to fill the pages of this book? While I can understand Umrigar and the person she is writing about may not keep in touch due to social taboos in India or because of the passage of time, nothing is explicitly stated about the process by which this story was told in the interview that follows the text. I prefer a little more transparency.

In addition, the “message” of the novel is a little heavy-handed if you ask me, though perhaps understandably so. The experience of poverty (which, it should be noted, is neither mine nor Umrigar’s) is to have the effects of sexism and classism compounded in everyday life. Thus, Bhima’s family experiences AIDS, an industrial accident, alcoholism, separation and displacement, sexual assault trauma, and abortion trauma. The character Sera Dubash also experiences domestic violence. You’ll notice a lot of these are phenomena that disproportionately impact women. It does feel like every few chapters, Umrigar hits us over the head with the message “INDIANS NEED TO DO SOMETHING ABOUT THE STATE OF ITS WORKING CLASS WOMEN.”

By contrast, what makes this book radical is Umrigar’s descriptions of Bhima’s thoughts. The process is frequently laced with a humor that only the Previously or Currently Colonized will understand. In one example, Bhima describes her encounters with white people:

Serabai had once explained to her why these people had yellow hair and skin the color of a hospital wall–about how something was missing from their bodies…She felt sorry for them then and, seeing their long hair and shabby clothes, wanted to give them some money, but Sera laughed at that and said she needn’t pity them, they actually were very proud of their white skin. How can you be proud if something is missing from your body? Bhima wanted to ask, but before she could, Sera said they didn’t need money from her and that they came from places far richer than she could imagine. Now Bhima was sure that Sera was lying…one look at their dirty hair, faded shirts, and torn blue pants, and any fool could see that these untidy, colorless people were very poor. (2005, p.93)

Bhima has clearly never been around white people before, and her worldview reflects this reality. The beauty of her lack of (Western) education is that she does not think that structures of power apply to her (and in fact, they don’t!). Thus, she does not follow the narrative of being “less fortunate” or inferior to the white people she encounters. If anything, she truly believes she could be of help–to them! In spite of Bhima’s stubbornness, Umrigar’s description of her won me over with this passage.

Furthermore, Umrigar’s greatest strength is her ability to describe rare moments of humanity, especially those shared or experienced by women. The strength with which I relate to some of these moments is eerie. For example, this is a moment when Bhima is massaging Sera’s arm, after Sera has been beaten by her husband:

Sera recoiled. Bhima had never touched her before…Although Bhima’s thin but strong hands were only massaging her arm, Sera felt her whole body sigh. She felt life beginning to stir in her veins…Even at the sweetest moment of lovemaking with Feroz, it never felt as generous, as selfless as this massage did…When you got right down to it, sex was ultimately a selfish act, the expectations of one body intrinsically woven into the needs of another. (p. 108)

I am bemused by how Umrigar seems to know the inner workings of my head. Perhaps this is a common experience among Desis? Among women of color? Among all women, even? I am not sure, but this moment embodies the eroticism described by bell hooks, the kind that is not sexual, but life-giving. It is a kind of human connection I have only felt with other women. My tendency to intellectualize causes me to connect with people on more of a conversational level rather than a physical one. Even then, my discussions with other women make me feel more connected to them than I ever have during sexual encounters with men.

Bhima is capable of giving life with her hands. Moreover, Bhima seems to symbolize those whose humanity is still in tact to give this kind of care. She is a simple person–not stupid, but uncomplicated. While she massages Sera, her only concern is to keep the arm from scarring and to make Sera physically better; to stop what she is doing because of class divisions does not even cross her mind, though it crosses Sera’s. This seems indicative of how deeply Bhima, and people like her, knows her own and others’ humanity.

The eeriness does not stop there. Many of Maya and Sera’s experiences are ones that I relate to as well. After her abortion, Maya is described as

…stone-faced, as if the abortion doctor has killed more than her baby, as if he has…scooped out her beating heart, just as Bhima scoops out the fibrous innards of the red pumpkin that Serabai puts in her daal. (p. 129)

Maya refuses to go back to school or take a job after her abortion. Again, I question whether or not this is a universally Desi experience. It cannot be some mistake that I remember this feeling after my own abortion. I was told I would feel relief afterwards. I waited for days, weeks, and months to feel anything. I did not feel anything, and it was not until I found a therapist 9 months later that I understood why. My therapist said that a person who is allowed to mourn publicly will feel relief. This is how people move on after someone they love dies; they grieve, and their community comes together. But for many women who get an abortion, we are not allowed to grieve publicly because we do not want people to know that this is what we have done. Thus, we grieve alone and internally. No one comes to our side to comfort us. People treat us as though nothing has happened, as though we should be the same. It is not the same. Knowing I could have had a 5-month-old child right now is sometimes unbearable. My only consolation is that perhaps if I am lucky enough to give birth in this life, it will be under far better circumstances than the ones I’m in now.

Maya’s experience with sexual assault is also strikingly familiar to me. Viraf asks her to give him a back massage somewhat flirtatiously, but she is unaware of how powerless she truly is.

It felt good to be giving him so much pleasure. As her hands kneaded and caressed Viraf’s back…Maya felt important and strong–and powerful…But then he spun around so fast that for one confusing moment, her hands strummed air…and somehow [she recognized] she was the cause of that tension…And her awe turning to pride and the pride turning to panic…She protested; she did not protest. It did not matter, because it was inevitable what was about to happen…(p.277)

I admire Umrigar for the ambivalence of this excerpt. Sexual assault is rarely the violent, horrific act that Alice Sebold describes in The Lovely Bones. It is frequently much more gray. This passage is immensely complicated. On one hand, Maya seems to discover for the first time that she possesses an immense bodily intelligence–one that people who are more embedded into society’s upper crust or positions of privilege hardly know. I have a theory that because of capitalistic consumption, people in the upper strata of society cannot easily know that kind of intelligence. They listen too much to propaganda about what they are “supposed” to be doing, instead of listening to The Gut, which operates on a far more physical, sensory frequency.

At the same time, Maya’s discovery is not an invitation, and Viraf takes advantage of this moment when she is incredibly vulnerable. This is something men have done to me again and again. The power to unfurl the human body is terribly dangerous, simply because it puts one in close proximity to another person. When I was a much more naive person, men I hung out with asked if I would mind cuddling or if they could sit next to me when we watch a movie in their apartment, and somehow I never saw sexual assault coming. The word “sex” was never explicitly said, so I was never even given a chance to say “no”. And in the end, it was always me who walked away with a reputation for being “easy”. This is the power that men have–with the skills of a lawyer, they trap me in situations I cannot escape from, and then act as though it was my fault.

Sera’s experience with her abusive husband, Feroz, also reflects the hypocrisy of sexism. Her situation is complicated by the fact that she and her husband shared many friends, and these friends knew very little about the reality of her life. When her best friend asks her if she is missing her “dear husband”, these are Sera’s thoughts:

Sera looks at her oldest friend, unsure of what to say. She envies Aban her innocence, her simple way of dividing the world into love and not-love; good and bad…Does she miss Feroz? She is unsure of the answer. She does not miss the shame-inducing beatings…In fact, what she misses is not the marriage, but the dream of the marriage. (p. 160)

Sera has to deal with a complicated grief after her husband dies. Her friends and family remember him fondly as “loving husband” or “loving father”. She knows a very different reality, and is not able to share this with the people she knows because she has hidden the truth from them for the duration of her marriage. Arguably, the only person who actually knows what has transpired in her marriage are Dinaz, her daughter, and Bhima, her maidservant.

This is also a feeling I can relate to. Abuse can be convoluted when community is involved. I have avoided events, blocked people on social media, and blocked phone calls from people because of the abuse I experienced from men I used to date. I was stupid enough to choose men whose parents are friends with my parents or whose social circles intersect with mine somehow. On rare occasions (because I have mostly left these circles behind at this point) those people come up to me and tell me things like “You and that person seemed like such a great couple! Why did it end?” or “Why weren’t you at this event? We really missed you!” And I know I never give them a satisfying response because dragging the truth out in the open means defending myself against an onslaught. These people would feign confusion, defend my abusers and rapists, or tell me to get over my feelings before they admit to obvious facts–that sexism is a violent structure, that women are frequently abused by the people closest to them, and that I tell the truth.

On a last note, I think my favorite thing about this novel is the Pathan. This is a character from Bhima’s past, a man who used to twist balloons at a stall on Chowpatty Beach in Mumbai. A Pathan is a person of ethnic Afghan descent, and the word is synonymous with the Pashtun people. Bhima and Gopal would frequently encounter the Pathan when they were younger and went for walks together at the beach. This was one memorable exchange:

Gopal had said, “Compared to our Bombay, with the monsoons and all, your Afghanistan must seem as dried up as an old woman, no? All hills it is, dry as a bone, correct? I saw a picture of it once.”

She had expected the Pathan to be insulted, but he laughed, “Nahi, sahib,” he said in his low, dreamy voice. “My Afghanistan is very beautiful. A hard land, yes, full of mountains, but toughness has its own beauty.” (pp. 199-200)

I think it is no mistake that Umrigar evoked the image of a woman with this exchange. I think it is no mistake that the earth has always been called “Mother Earth”. Just as the Pathan defends his homeland as beautiful, I would like to think this exchange alludes to, in Warsan Shire’s words, “women who are difficult to love”.

I also think it is no mistake that the Pathan symbolizes a number of things, of which the most important are perhaps God (or a Creator of some sort) and diasporic people. He is depicted as a creator of beautiful, colorful things (his balloons) that give children joy. Yet, his life was probably not easy, as he says:

“Everybody in my homeland is a poet, sahib. The country makes you so…That is, everybody was a poet. Now the country is broken. Too many people fighting over the poor land, and the land is sick in its heart. Night and day it is weeping. Now it cannot take care of its sons and daughters…There is a saying in my community…They say that when something is very beautiful, the Gods of Jealousy notice it. Then they must destroy it. Even if it’s their own creation, its beauty begins to make them jealous and they are afraid it will overshadow them. So they destroy the very temples they have built.”(pp. 200-201)

This excerpt made me cry the first time I read it. I’m not sure I can even convey what it means to me, but I can tell you what images come to mind. I think of Natives fighting for their land, and for the right to live, and for a chance at creating a more meaningful life than the one the American dream offers. I think of all the immigrants that come to this country under the illusion that life is going to be better, only to find out being successful in this country is a pipe dream, and perhaps even to be turned away at the doorstep. I think of the land we live on being ravaged for its resources, in order to keep feeding a capitalist existence that allows for a select few to live in luxury that the vast majority of people will never know. I think of the wars of this century and the last, almost all of them started over colonial feuds, and which only colonizers have any hope of “winning” (what does that even mean? To “win” a war? At what cost are wars won? How inhuman do you have to be to want that?).

In short, I admire the depth and reverence that Umrigar gives to her characters. While I wrote a pretty lengthy post here, I still have a great number of thoughts on this novel, things I am still grappling with because I struggle to find the words to describe them.