Tag Archives: Afro-Latinidad

Artist Profile: Malcolm Friend

Name: Malcolm Friendmalcolm-friend-2

Hometown: Seattle, Washington

Residence: Pittsburgh, PA

What is your earliest memory of writing?

This isn’t a memory of writing, exactly, but I remember that when I was really young (it was either pre-school or early elementary), my older sister had a goldfish. I used to draw pictures to place behind its fishbowl and as I drew them I would be coming up with stories behind them—almost like a movie or maybe even a TV episode since they always seemed to revolve around the same characters. In terms of my first memory of actually writing down some of those stories, it has to be third grade. We had journals we were required to write in and I would always write stories in them, fictions where my friends and classmates were the main characters.

How did you become a writer?

My mom likes to tell this story where I was first learning how to write and I kept bugging her to teach me some letter or spelling and I told her “I have to know because I’m gonna be a writer when I grow up.” While I have no idea whether or not that story is real (I take her word for it most times; sometimes I think it’s a sort of origin myth), I do know that I “became” a writer fairly early in life and really do have to go back to those early journaling experiences. There was a certain joy they brought to writing and also a certain ritual. There was a specific time of day every day that we were supposed be writing. When I switched schools in fifth grade, journaling was still a requirement, where we had to produce a certain number of pages per week for homework in Language Arts. All of that got me into the ritual of writing and the practice of setting time aside to write. By the time I was in seventh grade I had fashioned myself a writer and knew that’s what I wanted to be.

Tell us about your writing process.

My writing process starts before there’s any actual writing done. I’ll spend days, sometimes weeks, just repeating a line (in my head and out loud) that I’m obsessed with but don’t know how to place a full poem around. I’ll do this on the bus, in between classes, between grading papers, as much as I need to until I get another line or two that I think I can base the poem around.

Once I actually start writing, it pretty much always starts with music. I grew up in a household where music was frequently present. My dad puts on music whenever there’s nothing on TV and my mom plays music sometimes when she cooks and pretty much always whenever she decides it’s a cleaning day in the house, especially around the holidays. I got used to working with music in the background, to moving with a beat in my head. Plus growing up with three siblings I just got used to noise being in the house and kind of need it to work. If what I’m writing is related to a specific artist or song (as it frequently is), I’ll listen to that artist or song on repeat while I’m writing. Otherwise I put on reggaetón, because the beats are so repetitive and it allows me to stay within sort of the same space mentally.

As I’m writing I’m also saying everything out loud (or wording it, depending on whether or not other people are in the room). That way if anything sounds kind of funky, I can just scrap it immediately or change it into something similar that sounds better, or even switch up the order of the poem to where the different grouping of words sounds better. I keep up with this until I have a draft of poem that I feel satisfied with, sometimes meaning I feel the poem is done or just needs minor edits, others meaning I’m ready to share them with other people and get feedback on them, and then some others that the poem itself isn’t going anywhere but I feel I’ve gained something from the writing process and from writing that poem in particular.

What are you working on now?

I’m currently working on my thesis at the University of Pittsburgh, which will hopefully turn into my first manuscript. The work is really drawing off of my experiences growing up in a mixed cultural household (my mom being African American, my dad Puerto Rican), and how different influences (friends, family, pop culture, literature) affect how you interact with or claim a cultural heritage. In it I’m also interested in looking at different iterations of blackness across the diaspora as both of my parents are part of the African diaspora and, regardless of what heritage or heritages I claim, my body is read as such—as black—in many spaces around the world.

malcolm-friend-3

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?

Absolutely. There are good days for writing, when everything is running smoothly and there are bad days, when every line I write comes with difficulty and feels like the worst thing I’ve ever written. Usually I take it to mean I’m too much wrapped up in myself and not open to letting the poem take me anywhere. At that point I usually find some household chore that needs to be done (do the dishes, cook dinner, etc.) in order to pull myself out of my head for a little while until I’m ready to get back into that writing space.

Which writers and teachers have most influenced you as a writer?

In terms of writers, I absolutely have to name Langston Hughes first. Hughes was the first poet I read and enjoyed and a good deal of my early poetry was me trying to imitate Hughes—the first form I learned was Blues and the Blues poem. And then I also have to writers like Rita Dove, Kevin Young, and Martin Espada, who gave me contemporary examples of things I wanted to write about.

In terms of teachers I have to give a shout out to Mark Jarman, Rick Hilles, and Beth Bachmann, who were all teachers of mine in college. I point to Jarman because it was during his poetry workshop as a junior in college that I realized I wanted to seriously be a poet (I had originally come into college wanting to be a fiction writer). He was also the person who turned me onto Espada, lending me his copies of both Imagine the Angels of Bread and City of Coughing and Dead Radiators. I point out Hilles and Bachmann because they believed in me and worked with me my senior year of college. I highlight this because it showed me the importance of teaching to writing, and what having people in your corner can do for a young writer. And along those lines I also have to highlight Yona Harvey here at Pitt. As my first graduate workshop teacher, she really whipped me into shape and helped get my poems. But she did it in such a nurturing way that I never felt like I couldn’t write and I could tell that it was out of care. She was also the first Black writing instructor I had ever had and that was a big for me. Her presence alone was an affirmation to my place in an MFA program but also her comments on some of my work, pointing out that certain things reminded her of experiences she was familiar with, affirmed me as a writer.

What books have had the biggest impact on your trajectory?

The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes– I first learned to write poetry by reading it and Hughes was a big part of that, really what made me want to continue writing poetry. During my junior year of college I checked out a copy from the Seattle Public Library and just kept renewing it, hoping no one would place a hold on it and that I’d have to take it back.

Thomas and Beulah by Rita Dove- This wasn’t the first book by Dove that I read but it’s probably the one that sticks with me the most. Thomas and Beulah got me thinking much more so about how poetry can serve as something to document history and in particular to document family history.

La Carreta Made a U-turn by Tato Laviera- This book was big for me because going into my junior year of college I had never read a Puerto Rican author before. I mentioned Jarman turning me onto Martin Espada, and that made me want more. The Vanderbilt library had copies of all of Laviera’s poetry collections, and I dug in, completely caught by Laviera’s attention to Afrolatinidad and the connection between different populations in the African diaspora. Laviera was the first Afro-Latinx poet I read and made me feel for the first time that I didn’t have to choose between being Black or Puerto Rican because I could be both.

Reggaeton, edited by Wayne Marshall, Deborah Pacini Hernandez, and Raquel Rivera- This is a recent add to the list and the only scholarly/critical text, but I turned to this book last year while working on a project about Puerto Rican national music and what claiming reggaetón as Puerto Rican means. Going through the book and seeing how much a part of the African diaspora reggaetón is (having ties to Jamaican dancehall and hip hop in the States, being tied to Afro-Panamanian reggae en español, growing in San Juan neighborhoods populated by poor Afro-Puerto Ricans and Dominicans, etc.), reggaetón became something that I started writing not just through but about.

What’s your advice to aspiring writers?

First, read. A lot. I first learned how to write poetry by trying to imitate the writers I loved to read. And I’m not saying “just reproduce what’s already been done because that’s the only way to write,” but rather that there are things to learn from other writers. Some writers will teach you imagery, some will teach you form, somehow to turn a phrase—and good writers will take lessons and techniques from the writers they enjoy reading and turn them into tools for their own benefit.

The second piece of advice is to find a writing family. And there are a number of ways to do this, whether through school clubs, classes, or even outside workshops. It’s just that there’s this idea that writing is something solitary and I think that’s only half-true. Absolutely you need time by yourself, away from distractions, in order to reflect and write. But you really get better by opening that up to the world; by both opening yourself to critique through sharing your work and by surrounding yourself with other writers who push you to stay on top of your game with their own work.

***For more on Malcolm Friend, see:malcolm-friend-1

 

Artist Profile: Raina León

Name: Raina Juanita LeónRaina Leon 1

Hometown: Philadelphia, PA

Residence: Berkeley, CA

What is your earliest memory of writing?  I remember writing, really before I could write, criticism for a dance production my mother took me to see. She tells the story that it was an Alvin Ailey performance.  I remember giving the pieces letter grades, A through C, and telling my mother why the performance merited one review or another.  Considering that I had only ever watched dance performances on PBS before that, had just started dance lessons at 6, and definitely knew next to nothing about the craft, there’s something to be said about my perception of the value of my eye and regard. 

How did you become a writer?  Life made me a writer.  I instinctually was pushing back against institutional, systemic, and internalized oppressions from an early age.  Writing helped me to find my path within the insanity.

My mother is also a poet and brought all of the arts into my life at an early age.  If it was a choice between paying the light bill or for Scholastic books, she was paying for books, and she read all of my very sad poems and stories.  I wrote mostly stories as a child with very sad endings, nothing like the Scholastics books or Highlights stories.

My father made time to take us to the library and talk to us about what we were reading.

Life made me a writer but my parents; the librarians of elementary school and high school; Sr. Ave from West Catholic High; and countless other teachers and friends over the years who read and challenged and questioned and gave me more ideas and resources, they are the folks who helped me speak back to the calling that life gave me.

Tell us about your writing process.

I write generally between 10pm and 6am, and mostly during the summer or on long breaks.  As an educator, during the academic year, my creativity goes mostly into my work with students.  I teach evening classes, too, so I find that I need a few hours to shake loose of my teacherly commitments (this person needs clarification on this assignment; remind the students of this due date; etc).  Once I am home and after my husband has gone to bed, in the silence of a Berkeley night, I can get some writing done.  Even in the day, when I might have lots of time, my mind needs to decompress with court shows or walking the dog or something like that.  I can do academic tasks but rarely creative work.  Even if it means being sleep-deprived and cranky the next day, if I want to write something, it has to be at night, in anticipation of the dawn.

What are you working on now?

I’m working on a full-length manuscript, which has become my way of exploring blackness as an identity in and out of time; generational trauma; ecopoetics that is connected to mythologies, spiritualities and communities; explorations of the lyric; transnational and translanguaging work; and Afro-futurism with a contemporary lens of tragedy and the inevitability of trauma within the conspiracy of control by hegemonic powers.  You know, nothing too deep.  As I’m going into this next step with the work, I am really interested in African deities, diaspora studies, myth and history around blood, water, and crossroads, and an Afro-futurist eco-poetics.  I am also very interested in crafting the character of Elisha, an Afro-Latino immortal, husband to the god in this world I’ve created.  He’s this complex guy who, despite having been a slave and suffered firsthand being dehumanized in multiple horrific ways, manages to nurture hope and light, laughter and love.  He’s chosen for the gift of immortality, because his strength is built on an internal light that never dies.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?

I suffered deeply from writer’s block in late 2014/early 2015.  With the inundation (that continues) of images of Black peoples murdered and violated through state-sanctioned violence and the lack of justice for the perpetrators of that violence (those stories that we do get), I found myself unable to write, unable to push through the horrors.  I became paralyzed by fear and mourning.  What does one do when you are trying to convince yourself that your Afro-Latina life matters in a time when Black Lives Matter emerges as a movement because the world would say we don’t?  I didn’t want to leave my house, let alone write a word.  I still have moments when fear and anger rise suddenly within me.  It’s in those small moments like seeing a police car in my neighborhood and then seeing it on the highway on the way to work.  Writing, for a long while, took a backseat to paranoia and mourning, and I’ve been in mourning for the last four years already for other familial losses.  That familial sorrow extended into sorrow for the world, which was massive and overcame any joy.

Of course, this block that I suffered came after I had just entered into a MFA in Poetry program.  I was supposed to be writing things, and when I began in the program, I had written a great number of poems, all the time, widely experimental, but soon enough I found myself staring into dark when I wrote and the dark staring back, baring its bloodied teeth. The only thing I was good for was reading the work of others and discussing.  Very little writing was happening.

I got into an online discussion with Teri Cross Davis about vampires, the hair of Black vampires, actually.  In some mythologies, a vampire has to be perfectly groomed upon being made, because that’s how they stay forever.  Sure, their hair may become lush and seductive, but the transformation builds on what is already there.   But what about slaves and those who became vampires while in that state?  They certainly weren’t going to be looking their best, stripped of their humanity.  Somehow Teri and I extended that Facebook conversation into a consideration of doing a collaborative piece, a crown of sonnets with an ancient woman vampire and her newly created male vampire.  Possibilities for plays on the Lilith myth, an homage to Octavia Butler.  Sonnets that shifted from Elizabethan iambic pentameter in the female voice to more experimental sonnets in the male voice.  It was all there.  Trying to get myself hyped up for the collaboration, I started imagining a world.  I didn’t want to work with the typical vampire myths so then I started thinking of elemental connection and causation of drought through the drinking of blood (a cosmic transference that allows both spirit through blood and body through water to persist over thousands of years), generational trauma and transference of memories, the possibilities that these “vampires” were really (nearly) immortals with the ability to have human children.  These immortals, in taking life, also drank souls and so carried and were influenced by those souls.  I started to think about how one would gift another with this immortality, what was the creation story of these people, and what was it like to be the human child and recipient of thousands of years of memory of an “immortal”, particularly one who has been marginalized, brutalized, dehumanized and still survived for the crime of being woman and of African descent.  I even had my partner create an algorithm to account for the population of immortals given certain scenarios.  Faced with the horrors of our reality I created characters who had dealt with worse, survived, and had something to teach through their lives.  I faced writer’s block through dissociation with reality and the revelation of a surreality, and in the oddest of ways, that is how I came back into encountering reality and writing about it head on as activism.  I had to create a world to enable me to encounter and deal with the world.

Which writers and teachers have most influenced you as a writer?

My mother was the first writer that I studied consciously wanting to understand what she had done.  One of her poems was published in an anthology, I believe it was called Generations, and I was fascinated by the idea that my mother had written something in a book.  I never thought about it until this interview, but that may have been the birth of me thinking that I could write books, too.

As for teachers, Mrs. Burgess, Mrs. Tulba, and Dr. Steven Herb were the greatest.  They were the librarians of my life.  Mrs. Burgess allowed a little girl of 7 or 8 to convince her that she could read the books the big kids read AND that she should be allowed to take out more than 2 books at a time.  She let me take out up to 8 at a time, and I devoured them within a week or two each time.  She maintained the connection with me and my brother.  She came to my grandmother’s wake and to my wedding, two of the most difficult and most revelatory times for me.

In high school, my locker in my first year was literally right next to the library, and I took it as a sign.  I ended up the editor-in-chief of the newspaper, that Mrs. Tulba supervised, and I worked in the library all the time.  I would sit outside the library in the morning until she arrived, return during lunch to do work, and then spend time there in the afternoons for newspaper or just to work on school.  The library was a refuge then.

In college, my first honors seminar was lead by Dr. Steven Herb; it focused on folklore and storytelling.  For years, that group of students met with him over lunch in State College, CA.  He put his whole self into the class, and we responded in turn.  I’m still good friends with many from that time.  Many of us even worked in the library on fellowships because of his influence.  One became a librarian.  He ran the Pennsylvania Center for the Book, which contacted me a few years ago to do a bio on me.  It’s actually one of the most complete biographies that has ever been done, mostly through research from the Center for the Book.

What books have had the biggest impact on your trajectory?

This is a trick question for me, because I’m discovering and rediscovering books all the time.

  • Wisteria by Kwame Dawes
  • The Fields of Praise by Marilyn Nelson
  • Alabanza:  New and Selected Poems by Martín Espada
  • Arcade by Erica Hunt with prints from Alison Saar
  • The new black by Evie Shockley
  • Black Swan by Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon

What’s your advice to aspiring writers?

I don’t have any tattoos, but if I did, I would have these:  the ankh on my left wrist and “defy, defy, defy” on my right wrist.  The ankh would remind me of the eternal quality of the soul, that one must be true to the higher purpose, seek justice, and connection as the world beyond is watching and waiting.  The words would remind me to persist.  I’ve had many times in my life as a writer when I did not write, because I believed a critic that I was not worthy, as woman, as scholar, as poet.  Eventually, that need to write for my own sanity would win; I would write, because I believe that my voice means something.  It doesn’t come easy.  And when I found that much of none of my work that blended English and Spanish was getting published, I founded (with Eliel Lucero) The Acentos Review for the many I knew like me who were facing the same walls.  If they can’t understand the majesty of our tongues, then why not create a place that honors what we do, see, feel, breathe, are?

So my advice to writers is 1) to seek justice in one’s work, because writing is political activism, too and 2) be defiant and create.

Raina Leon 2

“The Stories of Us” by Jelisa Jay Robinson

Stories of Us 2

Somewhere around the middle of Jelisa Jay Robinson’s The Stories of Us at Teatro Vivo in Austin, it hit me. I couldn’t recall seeing a play that so boldly tackled Blackness, Latinidad, and Afro-Latinidad. Sure, I’ve seen plays with Afro-Latin@ characters and lots of Latin@ plays, but nothing quite like The Stories of Us. Black. Brown. Neither. Both. The Stories of Us offers a rich and nuanced view of life in the contemporary United States. These are stories that need to be told all across the nation, from Los Angeles to New York and everywhere in between. Produce this play!

The Stories of Us began as The Untold Stories while Robinson was still an undergrad Theatre and Latin American Studies major at the University of Texas at Austin. The play was later selected for Teatro Vivo’s Austin New Latino Play Festival in 2015 and received a full production this April-May under the direction of Florinda Bryant. The play is a series of vignettes that explores the intersections between Blackness and Latinidad and how this complex relationship continues to influence these (sometimes) overlapping communities today.

Besides “The Wobble” and knockout performances from Stacye Markey and Krysta Gonzales (who I finally got to meet!), what struck me the most about the play was Robinson’s writing. This girl has got it! She is doing important work to update the narrative on multicultural identity in 2016. As The Stories of Us demonstrates, we need to be having conversations about Afro-Latinidad. We need to understand the nuances of being Black in America, being “black enough,” having that “good hair,” being Latin@, speaking Spanish, having light skin, being racialized, passing, and using certain language (the play includes a poignant vignette about using the “n” word). Yet, why in 2016 are these conversations so few and far between in theatre, especially  in Latin@ theatre? Why isn’t there more Afro-Latinidad on stage?

Aside from the play itself, perhaps my favorite part of seeing The Stories of Us was witnessing a young artist find success by telling her stories, her truths. Robinson is living her dream and it’s beautiful to witness! I first met Robinson earlier this year and, through a combination of happenings, she has quickly become an important part of my writing community in Houston. My tribe—Jasminne Mendez, Icess Fernandez Rojas, Lupe Méndez, Josh Inocéncio, and, now thankfully, Jelisa Jay Robinson.

Stories of Us