Thursday, June 19, 2008

Token


Cool photo from here.


Why don't I want to write this post?

Because it's a subject that feels touchy, feels weighted, feels uninformed, and I hate to put something out there in the world on this subject that isn't well considered.

Also, I am lazy.

In my last post, I spoke at length about my difficulties with writing, and about the massive block that resulted.

But I didn't mention all of it.

See, it's hard for me to believe now, but there was once a time when I was thoroughly ashamed of being a Latina.

Like most interesting baggage, this had its roots in childhood. We were a family that liked to party, and no party was complete without dancing. Inevitably, some tio or tia would notice me in the corner, attempting a hesitant little shuffle, and would push me into the center of the dance floor. “Baila, mija, dance!” Their voices would change on that last word, growing strange and accented. Perhaps that moment of sounding Other to their own ears darkened their mood, made them crave someone to push that sense of wrongness onto.

And there was me-- doing my best imitation, but somehow I never quite mastered the insouciant vibrato shoulder shake, or the perfect flirty hip swivel. Ah, here was something they could do, and I couldn't. Who cared then that I could speak “perfect” English? So they would tease, and laugh, and shake their heads. “La Americanita” couldn't dance.

In hindsight, I think all of us kids got hazed about dancing—it's a prized skill in our culture, and woe to those who can't do it. But at the time, I felt the “American” spotlight squarely on me.

I think I adopted a “if I can't join them, I'll just stay here in the corner and wear black” attitude.

It wasn't always easy. Sometimes I would have to run to the bathroom and lock myself in, dancing with careless abandon to the bass pressing against the door.

I am sure I wasn't so bad, then.

So, outsider feelings, blah blah. I still didn't feel inferior per se; I grew up in a heavily Latino area, and while all of my friends were white, black or Asian, I still didn't see myself as different or worse.

Enter college.
(more)

I met the most amazing, affluent, cultured people. And not a one of them was Latino. I read beautiful literature, none of it by Latinos (I was an English major, after all). I listened to glorious music...well, you get the picture. I started to feel the weight of something, some feeling that I came from a void. Everyone else could claim something in their lineage. I just felt a big blank. Sure, we had Celia Cruz, and sancocho, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, but none of it felt significant enough in comparison.

I struggled with this feeling more after meeting TEG, who grew up in India and is fiercely proud of his homeland. He told me stories about the history, mythology, art. I felt sad I had nothing comparable to share with him.

This went on until I turned about 28 or so. I decided that just because I had grown up with little knowledge of the contributions of Latinos to the world stage, that it didn't mean there was nothing there to celebrate. So I started forcing myself to explore, to read Latino literature, both in Spanish (painstakingly slow) and in translation. I realized that I didn't much like Gabriel Garcias Marquez but loved Julia Alvarez. I discovered that the songs I grew up with were beautiful and worthy in their own right, not just always as “booty shaking” music.

In short, I got over myself and learned.

When I started writing again, I felt compelled to write out stories full of Latinos—if only to counteract the (usually unspoken) assumption that if no ethnicity is specified, a character is white. I wanted to share the insides of people who don't always see their own lives as worthy of preservation, and I wanted to show my parents that I could see the beauty of everything they gave up to move here.

All lofty goals, right?

The problem is, all those lofty goals started to feel forced. I found myself wanting to write around them, under them. I wanted to write romances, teen stuff, even fan fiction for my favorite shows. But I still felt like the only writing that counted was the “up with Latinos” stuff.

So, write the other stuff, you must be thinking. Sure, I tried. But then I faced the other side of this problem.

I felt like the only thing that made me special as a writer was my ethnicity. That it was the only thing that made people want to read me (and about me, since I am mostly talking about blogging here). It was my “niche”...my “hook,” if you will. Writing romances, teen stuff, et al...nothing about the way I write those would make me stand out. And I so do dearly love to stand out (just not on the dance floor, at age 11, doing it All Wrong).

Thus, I felt caught in a weird construction of my own making. Writing ethnic fiction was the “right” thing to do, and it was the only thing I had to say that was interesting. But I didn't want to write ethnic fiction anymore. But my other stuff just felt like nothing. And wasn't I betraying all of my newly discovered pride by putting my stories about Latinos aside?

If this sounds a bit like over-thinking, well, you'd be right. But I have been the “token” so much in my life. I was always “my only Hispanic friend.” I was the only Hispanic on my editorial row at my Big Publishing House. And now I turned myself into the Latina in our blogging community (yes, I know I am not the only one; indulge me).

I want to write again, so much, to feel free on the page to say WHATEVER about WHOEVER. And feel that it's interesting, and that it will still matter.

I want to come out of that bathroom, like I should have so many years ago, and shake my hips, even if it makes Shakira herself giggle.

So...why can't I?

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11 Comments:

Blogger Deirdre said...

Other than the sheer beauty of your writing, I'm drawn to exactly what you've written about here, the feeling and experience of being "other". It's not only a Latina voice, but an immigrant experience as well. I'm an Irish girl who grew up in California and didn't ever fit in. On the surface you might think you're writing about only one culture, but you've tapped into the collective unconscious and put words on paper we all "get". How amazing is that?

12:07 AM, June 20, 2008  
Blogger Sacred Suzie said...

Oh the pressures to be one way or the other. I wanted to learn Latvian (my heritage) and my Mom would laugh and make fun of how I pronounced the words. That was the end of that. Even when we try, sometimes we don't fit.

You are special. You are not a stereotype. We are all unique. No perfect fits. Just trying to find out way. Very touching story. I hope that sometimes you dance in your own way alone.

6:57 AM, June 20, 2008  
Blogger Frida said...

Your writing always stands out to me. That's the first thing. Whether you are writing about the sudden emergence of fear in your world as you became a mother, or about being blocked as a writer - your writing stands out for it's grace, beauty and honesty.

The other thing I think when I read this post is that this is your unique perspective. Exactly this. Exactly this tension.

12:57 PM, June 20, 2008  
Blogger Melba said...

I love when you share what you are feeling. You have so much to offer.
You matter.
Your words matter.
I truly understand over thinking and getting caught up within ourselves.
It seems it all comes down to fear. We are afraid.
Let go and you will fly.
so easier said then done.
I am holding your hand!
XO,
melba

6:52 AM, June 21, 2008  
Blogger Becca said...

Perhaps by acknowledging these feelings, and writing about them, you've cracked the door open just and bit and are peeking outside even now :)

You write with such elegance from every perspective. It doesn't have to be from the same one every time - there are as many perspective to write from as there are experiences in your life.
Enjoy exploring all of them with your words - we'll enjoy reading them!

12:07 PM, June 21, 2008  
Blogger Colorsonmymind said...

oh but darling you can........
jump!

xoxoxo

1:20 PM, June 22, 2008  
Blogger Lisa said...

I like Deirdre's comment that you've tapped into the collective unconscious. I struggle with something like this constantly. There is something in all of us that makes us outsiders and I think we have a natural inclination to want to escape that. I feel so foolish when I think about the writers I admire most because I am nothing like them and could never write the kinds of things that they do. I'm beginning to believe that the thing we fear most is the thing we need most to write about. This is so timely because over the weekend as I was still struggling with my sad work in progress I decided to try something I've been fighting since I started writing it. I'm experimenting with a switch to 1st person. I think this ties in somehow with what you're saying because I was determined not to write in 1st from the beginning and I finally realized that it's because I do identify strongly with the emotions of my main character, but I've been trying to maintain a distance -- which is exactly what I think one of the biggest problems might be. Sorry for the long ramble -- you opened the door and I just couldn't stop my stream of consciousness blah blah blah'ing. I think the problem is in deciding what to write. I think we're just supposed to do it and go with what wants to come out.

3:19 AM, June 23, 2008  
Blogger Lisa said...

P.S. I just love the beauty and honesty of everything you write. xo

12:38 PM, June 23, 2008  
Blogger Laini Taylor said...

Hi M! I'm so glad you're back and blogging again. I missed your posts, and have been thinking about you. I'm sorry you've been struggling so much with your writing identity -- it's kind of funny, reading this, because the flip side for me was what I felt after college when I was trying to get started writing. It was the BLANDNESS of being white, the dry milque-toastiness of it. This was the early 90s, the time of Joy Luck Club and Toni Morrison and Isabel Allende and all these luscious ethnic women from INTERSTING cultures where people danced and cooked spicy things etc etc. Being white seemed so dull -- what could I possibly have to write about???? In my case, I had to go away from mainstream fiction to fantasy, because my own "real life" doesn't inspire me to fiction. I can't imagine what it would be like to have an interesting cultural identity. I covet it, but that's coming from a totally ignorant p.o.v.

I hope you will find your voice, your subjects, find your way to what YOU truly love and want to write about. :-) Good to have you back!

6:36 PM, June 24, 2008  
Blogger Amber said...

You know, I didn't think about if you were Latina, black or white for the longest time when I read your blog. I just liked your writing, and somehow I really felt like you spoke many of my own truths. Then I caught on at some point, but...I guess I still didn't think about it, other than I loved the view you could give us.

Maybe I connect with you sometimes, because my background growing up is "wellfare"-- meaning also a bit of an "outsider" in society.

I think I also often feel like my writing has to be about certain things, and writing "lighter" things feels like taking the easy way, or I think I sound stupid or shallow. But really, I think we both just need to get over it. Really it just serves as an excuse not to write at all. *cough*

...By the way, you should pick up this months Writer's Digest. Theyhave an article about how "hot" the Latino market is right now. Ripe for publishers. See? You are so "it". lol! I guess the moment for memiors about druggie white trash has passed. Dang it. heh. ;)

:)

12:58 PM, June 25, 2008  
Blogger Vicky said...

thank you for sharing!
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5:25 AM, July 04, 2012  

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