This is for the People of Colour in SF Carnival Special Edition — Interrogating the Text, De-Colonizing the Mind: An Intra-PoC Dialogue.
This is a short break in my I Can Dream of Dragons series to expound on the theme of (oppression-related) writer’s block. I thought it was wiser to let Gloria Anzaldùa say what I wanted to, since she said it earlier and better, and there’s no reason to reinvent the wheel.
Re-reading this, it strikes me how apt it is for RaceFail09. So much of it. And no doubt many of you have read this before, but I would like to share it with you again. And for those of you who haven’t read it before, enjoy your first time.
from This Bridge Called My Back, pp. 165-173
Speaking in Tongues: A Letter to 3rd World Women Writers
21 mayo 80
Dear mujeres de color, my companions in writing —
I sit here naked in the sun, typewriter against my knee trying to visualize you. Black woman huddles over a desk in the fifth floor of some New York tenement. Sitting on a porch in south Texas, a Chicana fanning away mosquitos and the hot air, trying to arouse the smouldering embers of writing. Indian woman walking to school or work lamenting the lack of time to weave writing into your life. Asian American, lesbian, single mother, tugged in all directions by children, lover or ex-husband, and the writing.
It is not easy writing this letter. It began as a poem, a long poem. I tried to turn it into an essay but the result was wooden, cold. I have not yet unlearned the esoteric bullshit and pseudo-intellectualizing that school brainwashed into my writing.
How to begin again. How to approximate the intimacy and immediacy I want. What form? A letter, of course.
My dear hermanas, the dangers we face as women writers of color are not the same as those of white women though we have many in common. We don’t have as much to lose — we never had any privileges. I wanted to call the dangers “obstacles” but that would be a kind of lying. We can’t transcend the dangers, can’t rise above them. We must go through them and hope we won’t have to repeat the performance.
Unlikely to be friends of people in high literary places, the beginning woman of color is invisible in both the white male mainstream world and in the white women’s feminist world, though in the latter this is gradually changing. The lesbian of color is not only invisible, she doesn’t even exist. Our speech, too, is inaudible. We speak in tongues like the outcaste and the insane.
Because white eyes do not want to know us, they do not bother to learn our language, the language which reflects us, our culture, our spirit. The schools we attended or didn’t attend did not give us the skills for writing or the confidence that we were correct in using our class and ethnic languages. I, for one, became adept at, and majored in English to spite, to show up, the arrogant racist teachers who thought all Chicano children were dumb and dirty. And Spanish was not taught in grade school. And Spanish was not required in High School. And though now I write my poems in Spanish as well as English I feel the rip-off of my native tongue.
I lack imagination you say
No. I lack language.
The language to clarify
my resistance to the literate.
Words are a war to me.
They threaten my family.
To gain the word
to describe the loss
I risk losing everything.
I may create a monster
the word’s length and body
swelling up colorful and thrilling
looming over my mother, characterized.
Her voice in the distance
These are the monster’s words.
Who gave us permission to perform the act of writing? Why does writing seem so unnatural for me? I’ll do anything to postpone it — empty the trash, answer the telephone. The voice recurs in me: Who am I, a poor Chicana from the sticks, to think I could write? How dare I even considered being a writer as I stooped over the tomato fields bending, bending under the hot sun, hands broadened and calloused, not fit to hold the quill, numbed into an animal stupor by the heat.
Hot hard it is to think we can choose to become writers, much less feel and believe that we can. What have we to contribute, to give? Our own expectations condition us. Does not our class, our culture as well as the white man tell us writing is not for women such as us?
The white man speaks: Perhaps if you scrape the dark off your face. Maybe if you bleach your bones. Stop speaking in tongues, stop writing left-handed. Don’t cultivate your colored skins nor tongues of fire if you want to make it in a right-handed world.
“Man, like all the other animals, fears and is repelled by that which he does not understand, and mere difference is apt to connote something malign.”
I think yes, perhaps if we go to the university. Perhaps if we become male-women or as middleclass as we can. Perhaps if we give up loving women, we will be worthy of having something to say worth saying. They convince us that we must cultivate art for art’s sake. Bow down to the sacred bull, form. Put frames and metaframes around the writing. Achieve distance in order to win the coveted title “literary writer” or “professional writer”. Above all do not be simple, direct, nor immediate.
Why do they fight us? Because they think we are dangerous beasts? Why are we dangerous beasts? Because we shake and often break the white’s comfortable stereotypic images they have of us: the Black domestic, the lumbering nanny with twelve babies sucking her tits, the slant-eyed Chinese with her expert hand – “They know how to treat a man in bed,” the flat-faced Chicana or Indian passively lying on her back, being fucked by the Man, a la La Chingada.
The Third World woman revolts: We revoke, we erase your white male imprint. When you come knocking on our doors with your rubber stamps to brand our faces with DUMB, HYSTERICAL, PASSIVE PUTA, PERVERT, when you come with your branding irons to burn MY PROPERTY on our buttocks, we will vomit the guilt, self-denial and race-hatred you have force-fed into us right back into your mouth. We are done being cushions for your projected fears. We are tired of being your sacrificial lambs and scapegoats.
I can write this and yet realize that many of us women of color who have strung degrees, credentials and published books around our necks like pearls that we hang onto for dear life are in danger of contributing to the invisibility of our sister-writers. “La Vendida” the sell-out.
The danger of selling out one’s own ideologies. For the Third World woman, who has, at best, one foot in the feminist literary world, the temptation is great to adopt the current feeling-fads and theory fads, the latest half truths in political thought, the half-digested new age psychological axioms that are preached by the white feminist establishment. Its followers are notorious for “adopting” women of color as their “cause” while still expecting us to adapt to their expectations and their language.
How dare we get out of our colored faces. How dare we reveal the human flesh underneath and bleed red blood like the white folks. It takes tremendous energy and courage not to acquiesce, not to capitulate to a definition of feminism that still renders most of us invisible. Even as I write this I am disturbed that I am the only Third World woman writer in this handbook. Over and over I have found myself to be the only Third World woman at readings, workshops, and meetings.
We cannot allow ourselves to be tokenized. We must make our own writing and that of Third World women the first priority. We cannot educate white women and take them by the hand. Most of us are wiling to help but we can’t do the white woman’s homework for her. That’s an energy drain. More times than she cares to remember, Nellie Wong, Asian American feminist writer, has been called by white women wanting a list of Asian American women who can give readings or workshops. We are in danger of being reduced to purveyors of resource lists.
Coming face to face with one’s limitations. There are only so many things I can do in one day. Luisah Teish addressing a group of predominantly white feminist writers had this to say of Third World women’s experience:
“If you are not caught in the maze that (we) are in, it’s very difficult to explain to you the hours in the day we do not have. And the hours that we do not have are hours that are translated into survival skills and money. And when one of those hours is taken away it means an hour not that we don’t have to lie back and stare at the ceiling or an hour that we don’t have to talk to a friend. For me it’s a loaf of bread.”
My family is poor.
Poor. I can’t afford
a new ribbon. The risk
of this one is enough
to keep me moving
though it, accountable.
The repetition like my mother’s
stories retold, each time
reveals more particulars
gains more familiarity.
You can’t get me in your car so fast
Complacency is a far more dangerous attitude than outrage.”
Why am I compelled to write? Because the writing saves me from this complacency. Because I have no choice. Because I must keep the spirit of my revolt and myself alive. Because the world I create in the writing compensates for what the real world does not give me. By writing I put order in the world, give it a handle so I can grasp it. I write because life does not appease my appetites and hunger. I write to record what others erase when I speak, to rewrite the stories others have miswritten about me, about you. To become more intimate with myself and you. To discover myself, to preserve myself, to make myself, to achieve self-autonomy. To dispell the myths that I am a mad prophet or poor suffering soul. To convince myself that I am worthy and that what I have to say is not a pile of shit. To show that I can and that I will write, never mind their admonitions to the contrary. And I will write about the unmentionables, never mind the outraged gasp of the censor and the audience. Finally I write because I’m scared of writing but I’m more scared of not writing.
Why should I try to justify why I write? Do I need to justify being Chicana, being woman? You might as well ask me to try to justify why I’m alive.
The act of writing is an act of making soul, alchemy. It is the quest for the self, for the center of the self, which we women of color have come to think of as “other” — the dark, the feminine. Didn’t we start writing to reconcile this other within us? We knew we were different., we internalized this exile, we came to see the alien within us and too often, as a result, we split apart from ourselves and each other. Forever after we have been in search of that self, that “other” and each other. And we return, in widening spirals and never to the same childhood place where it happened, first in our families, with our mothers, with our fathers. The writing is a tool for piercing that mystery but it also shields us, gives us a margin of distance, helps us survive. And those that don’t survive? The waste of ourselves: so much meat thrown at the feet of madness or fate or the state.
24 mayo 80
It is dark and damp and has been raining all day. I love days like this. As I lie in bed I am able to delve inward. Perhaps today I will write from that deep core. As I grope for words and a voice to speak of writing, I stare at my brown hand clenching the pen and think of you thousands of miles away clutching your pen. You are not alone.
Pen, I feel right at home in your ink doing a pirouette, stirring the cobwebs, leaving my signature on the window panes. Pen, how could I ever have feared you. You’re quite house-broken but its your wildness I am in love with. I’ll have to get rid of you when you start bring predictable, when you stop chasing dustdevils. The more you outwit me the more I love you. It’s when I’m tired or have had too much caffeine or wine that you get past my defenses and you say more than what I had intended. You surprise me, shock me into knowing some part of me I’d kept secret even from myself.
— Journal entry.
In the kitchen Maria and Cherríe’s voices falling on these pages. I can see Cherríe going about in her terry cloth wrap, barefoot washing the dishes, shaking out the tablecloth, vacuuming. Deriving a certain pleasure watching her perform these those simple tasks, I am thinking they lied, there is no separation between life and writing.
The danger in writing is not fusing our personal experience and world view with the social reality we live in, with our inner life, our history, our economics, and our vision. What validates us as human beings validates us as writers. What matters to us is the relationships that are important to us whether with our self or others. We must use what is important to us to get to the writing. No topic is too trivial. The danger is in being too universal and humanitarian and invoking the eternal to the sacrifice of the particular and the feminine and the specific historical moment.
The problem is to focus, to concentrate. The body distracts, sabotages with a hundred ruses, a cup of coffee, pencils to sharpen. The solution is to anchor the body to a cigarette or some other ritual. And who has the time or energy to write after nurturing husband or lover, children, and often an outside job? The problems seem insurmountable and they are, but they cease being insurmountable once we make up our mind that whether married or childrened or working outside jobs we are going to make time for the writing.
Forget the room of one’s own — write in the kitchen, lock yourself up in the bathroom. Write on the bus or the welfare line, on the job or during meals, between sleeping or waking. I write while sitting on the john. No long stretches at the typewriter unless you’re wealthy or have a patron — you may not even own a typewriter. While you wash the floor or clothes listen to the words chanting in your body. When you’re depressed, angry, hurt, when compassion and love possess you. When you cannot help but write.
Distractions all — that I spring on myself when I’m so deep into the writing when I’m almost at that place, that dark cellar where some “think” is liable to jump up and pounce on me. The ways I subvert the writing are many. The way I don’t tap the well nor learn how to make the windmill turn.
Eating is my main distraction. Getting up to eat an apple danish. That I’ve been off sugar for three years is not a deterrent nor that I have to put on a coat, find the keys and go out into the San Francisco fog to get it. Getting up to light incense, to put a record on, to go for a walk — anything just to put off writing.
Returning after I’ve stuffed myself. Writing paragraphs on pieces of paper, adding to the puzzle on the floor, to the confusion of my desk making completion far away and perfection impossible.
26 mayo 80
Dear mujeres de color, I feel heavy and tired and there is a buzz in my head — to many beers last night. But I must finish this letter. My bribe: to take myself out to pizza.
So I can and paste and line the floor with my bits of paper. My life strewn on the floor in bits and pieces and I try to make some order out of it working against time, psyching myself up with decaffeinated coffee, trying to fill in the gaps.
Leslie, my housemate, comes in, gets on hands and knees to read my fragments on the floor and says, “It’s good, Gloria.” And I think: I don’t have to go back to Texas, to my family of land, mesquites, cactus, rattlesnakes and roadrunners. My family, this community of writers. How could I have lived and survived so long without it. And I remember the isolation, re-live the pain again.
“To assess the damage is a dangerous act,” writes Cherríe Moraga. To stop there is even more dangerous.
It’s too easy, blaming it all on the white man, or white feminists or society or on our parents. What we say and what we do ultimately comes back to us, so let us own our responsibility, place it in our own hands and carry it with dignity and strength. No one’s going to do my shitwork, I pick up after myself.
It makes perfect sense to me now how I resisted the act of writing, the commitment to writing. To write is to confront one’s demons, look them in the face and live to write about them. Fear acts like a magnet; it draws the demons out of the closet and into the ink of our pens.
The tiger is riding our backs (writing) never lets us alone. Why aren’t you riding, writing, writing? It asks constantly till we begin to feel we’re vampires sucking the blood out of too fresh an experience; that we are sucking life’s blood to feed the pen. Writing is the most daring thing I have ever done and the most dangerous. Nellie Wong calls writing “the three-eyed demon shrieking the truth.”
Writing is dangerous because we are afraid of what the writing reveals; the fears, the angers, the strengths of a woman under a triple or quadruple oppression. But in that very act lies our survival because a woman who writes has power. And a woman with power is feared.
What did it mean for a black woman to be an artist in our grandmother’s time? It is a question with an answer cruel enough to stop the blood. — Alice Walker
I have never seen so much power in the ability to move and transform others as from that of the writing of women of color.
In the San Francisco area, where I now live, none can stir the audience with their craft and truthsaying as do Cherríe Moraga (Chicana), Gennie Lim (Asian American), and Luisah Teish (Black). With women like these, the loneliness of writing and the sense of powerlessness can be dispelled. We can walk among each other talking of our writing, reading to each other. And more and more when I’m alone, though still in communion with each other, the writing possesses me and propels me to leap into a timeless, spaceless no-place where I forget myself and feel I am the universe. This is power.
It’s not on paper that you create but in your innards, in the gut and out of living tissue — organic writing I call it. A poem works for me not when it says what I want it to say and not when it evokes what I want it to. It works when the subject I started out with metamorphoses alchemically into a different one, one that has been discovered, or uncovered, by the poem. It works when it surprises me, when it says something I have repressed or pretended not to know. The meaning and worth of my writing is measured by how much I put myself on the line and how much nakedness I achieve.
Audre said we need to speak up. Speak loud, speak unsettling things and be dangerous and just fuck, hell, let it out and let everybody hear whether they want to or not.
I say mujer magica, empty yourself. Shock yourself into new ways of perceiving the world, shock your readers into the same. Stop the chatter inside their heads.
Your skin must be sensitive enough for the lightest kiss and thick enough to ward off the sneers. If you are going to spit in the eye of the world, make sure your back is to the wind. Write of what most links us with life, the sensation of the body, the images seen by the eye, the expansion of the psyche in tranquility: moments of high intensity, its movement, sounds, thoughts. Even though we go hungry we are not impoverished of experiences.
I think many of us have been fooled by the mass media, by society’s conditioning that our lives must be lived in great explosions, by “falling in love,” by being “swept off our feet,” and by the sorcery of magic genies that will fulfill our every wish, our every childhood longing. Wishes, dreams, and fantasies are important parts of our creative lives. They are the steps a writer integrates into her craft. They are the spectrum of resources to reach the truth, the heart of things, the immediacy and the impact of human conflict.”
Many have a way with words. They label themselves seers but they will not see. Many have the gift of the tongue but nothing to say. Do not listen to them. Many who will have words and tongue have no ear, they cannot listen and they will not hear.
There is no need for words to fester in our minds. They germinate in the open mouth of the barefoot child in the midst of restive crowds. They wither in ivory towers and in college classrooms.
Throw away abstraction and the academic learning, the rules, the map and compass. Feel your way without blinders. To touch more people, the personal realities and the social must be evoked — not through rhetoric, but through blood and pus and sweat.
Write with your eyes like painters, with your ears like musicians, with your feet like dancers. You are the truthsayer with quill and torch. Write with your tongues of fire. Don’t let the pen banish you from yourself. Don’t let the ink coagulate in your pens. Don’t let the censor snuff out the spark, nor the gags muffle your voice. Put your shit on the paper.
We are not reconciled to the oppressors who whet their howl on our grief. We are not reconciled.
Find the muse within you. The voice that lies buried under you, dig it up. Do not fake it, try to sell it for a handclap or your name in print.