Monday, October 27, 2008

Defending New Voices: On the Road with Latinos in Lotusland

Guest essay by Melinda Palacio

At the risk of labeling myself a one-hit wonder, I’ve taken to the road with my less than a thousand word short story in Latinos in Lotusland: An Anthology of Contemporary Southern California Literature (Bilingual Press), reading it in Los Angeles, New Orleans, Santa Barbara, and San Diego. The little piece has received more play than any other poem or story I’ve written, not to mention my unpublished novel. On August 23, actor Gregg Henry, from Payback, read my story “The Last Time” at Word Theatre and, weeks later, I turned around and read it on television, during the 30 minute segment on David Starkey’s Creative Community Channel. By the time I arrived in San Diego, after having done the LiL panel with Reyna Grande and Sandra Ramos O’Briant in Santa Barbara the week before, I decided to do something different. I read some of my poems instead. However, a woman in the audience shook things up in ways I never imagined. Our audiences for Latinos in Lotusland have been warm and welcoming, made up mostly of friends and family. However, in San Diego, we had a less than friendly questioner.

The audience started off with the usual queries. However, when one woman asked, “how do we find time to write?” -- a standard question to pose to writers -- another woman in the audience wanted to impose her own agenda on the panel of four Latina contributors from Latinos in Lotusland: Helena Viramontes, Reyna Grande, Melinda Palacio, and Jennifer Silva Redmond. We kept our cool in light of what Jennifer calls, the question that wasn’t a question. The comment went something like:

I believe you are either born with the talent to write and if you don't have talent, you should not be writing. I was always told I had talent and I've gotten some things published and I don't think people who don't have a natural ability to write should be writing. There are so many people who claim they want to be writers and can't even formulate a proper sentence. They don't know anything about grammar and they say they want to write and I think they should not be writing if they can't put together a proper sentence.

Helena took the floor first, emphasizing the importance of craft and paying attention to details on the sentence level. Viramontes then stressed the potential to learn, especially when you are from an underserved community, where families don’t have regular access to books in the home and other priviliges that might foster a love for reading and writing. I was especially touched by Helena’s comment that she didn’t grow up with books in the home, other than a set of encyclopedias, because I had a similar experience and, as a child, pored over those torn encyclopedias that were relegated to a closet. I could picture my grandmother putting those books on lay away because she couldn’t say no to the door-to-door salesman, no matter that the books were in a language she couldn’t read.

Jennifer emphasized the importance of discipline, of joining a writing group. “Practice may not make perfect,” Redmond said, “but it helps. If someone has a really great, orginal story to tell, their writing style is less critical -- if they don’t have a really great story to tell, then writing ability is obviously much more important (Which is why interesting people who aren’t great writers can often write compelling memoirs).”

I chimed in and told the audience not to let anyone tell them they can't write, not to believe in naysayers, to tell their stories and not let anyone stop them from achieving their dreams. In my opinion, it’s important to listen to positive voices, to the one voice telling you that you can do it, even if that one voice is your own, especially if that one voice is your own.

The woman in the audience was not satisfied when we didn’t validate her point or start arguing on stage with her. I can’t say which reaction she would prefer, especially when she went on to say something about how 90% of high school grads in the U.S. can’t write a comprehensible sentence. Helena offered the audience a chance to pause and laugh when she said, “Well I personally do not know 90% of students in the U.S. so I couldn’t say.”

We’ll never know why that lady with an upperclass British accent said all that she said. Why she felt it her mission to silence new voices who want to try their luck at writing, who want to find time to tell their stories. As our panel of four Latina authors proved, silencing new voices is not the answer. After the panel, so many people in the audience came up to us and thanked us for encouraging students and community members to follow their dreams.

Aside from the zinger of a comment, the San Diego City Book Fair laid our the royal author carpet and treated us to a two-night stay at the Sheraton, beautiful brochures and t-shirts with our names on it and a well-organized fun festival, the honorarium was generous as well. Gracias San Diego City College for a warm welcome on the Latinos in Lotusland Tour.

[Pictured in descending order: Melinda Palacio, Helena María Viramontes, Jennifer Silva Redmond, Reyna Grande and Sandra Ramos O’Briant.]

◙ We at La Bloga will be doing some political posting leading up to the election next Tuesday. So, on Monday, I will make my predictions on the presidential race and perhaps add a few other thoughts. So, until next Monday, enjoy the intervening posts from my compadres y comadres at La Bloga. And remember: ¡Lea un libro!


Manuel Paul Lopez said...

I was in the audience that afternoon in San Diego. I must say that all of you on the panel handled that woman's outbursts with class. I'll especially remember the way Helena Viramontes cooly and tactfully suffocated that woman's words with the response you mentioned in your essay. Pow! In a matter of seconds, "That was the end of that," as they say.

I'm sure that with the warmth and reason that all of you on the panel expressed to the young lady who asked the question: "what does it take..." she'll continue to write, despite what that woman suggested.

Thanks so much for a wonderful afternoon.


Daniel A. Olivas said...

Manuel: I wish I could have been there! I am so proud of the authors who are in the anthology. I'm also proud of such wonderful writers as yourself who are adding to our literature.

msedano said...

The prickly woman has an axe to grind. She sure raised a few hackles. Maybe she's employed as an editor and sees her life tick tick tick away in hours spent with too many pages of artless writing and vain hopes. May she find genius in the next page she turns. I hope she bought a book. She'll find what she seeks.


Christine said...

Why is this lady's factual comment or question to the panel considered an outburst? Good writing does, in fact, mean you have to have an understanding of the basics of language. It doesn't mean she was trying to silence anyone or put down our community. She was merely raising an obvious point. In order to be GOOD at something a person must practice and master it. And many Latino writers, me included, have not yet mastered the fundamentals of the process. And yes, we are at a disadvantage (people without a lot of money usually are), I know I am and was, because of our education but that doesn't mean we can't work our asses off (which is really what it takes) read, read, read and write chingos of crap until the good bleeds through. I really don't understand why the panelists would be defensive. Don't we want the BEST writing to come out of our community? Once crap leaks through (gets published) than we'll all be tainted by that same shitty smell and all our work will be considered less than stellar. Que no?

Anonymous said...

We have to give credit to the panelist for standing up. Yes, it is understood that not everybody is cut out to be a writer. However, that does not mean we should not tell our stories. For those that have the knowledge and talent for writing should help other learn the craft; writer programs for latinos in general are not a common site. We have an important story to tell. We need to encourage and value those that have the courage and perserverance of putting their stories out their for all to critic. In regard to lowering the standards, people with their dollars shift out the crap from the good stuff. Remember what is crap for one person is treasure for the next. Let us not get stuck on silencing our stories based on subjective notions of what is appropriate styles and grammar. Let the stories come out!!! Support your local writer programs in particularly those that work in our latinos communities (which are few).

Christine said...

Here we go again. Who is saying, "Don't tell our stories." Why don't/can't we offer criticism to make "our stories" better. It's okay to critique, point out error,and things a person/community needs to work on, such as reading more (which must of us don't do, me, included), POV, sentence structure, etc. it makes "our" stories better and in turn everyone's stories better. Actual critism and critique doesn't mean silencing people it means getting better.

And good for those people who are helping less educated people with their stories but that is activism and has nothing to with writing and publishing.

Anonymous said...

And good for those people who are helping less educated people with their stories but that is activism and has nothing to with writing and publishing."
In the contrary, writing and publishing as well as activism are forms of expressions. It sure sounds like you do not live in these communities where activism and expressing ourselves, regardless of the form, go hand in hand. And, no I am not talking about radical ideologies or actions. Just passing and teaching your knowlegde to
others. In regard to using the term "less educated" seems very condenscending from your part. Some individuals in our communities have had high level of education, if you are refering to academic education, but in another language. Hopefully you can see that words serve a bigger picture and are not just rote arrangements of grammar - they are tools to communicate and to express.

Anonymous said...

All I have to say is beware the hypocrite activist who dwells among us. It's difficult to tell the good kind concerned ones from the selfish lying frauds. The frauds usually tell everyone how "loving" they are, but won't associate with anyone truly poor or truly marginalized. I dislike the elitist activist who writes badly! Yes, I've said it anonymously. ;)


So if someone works hard on their writing in poverty and the activists only love those with resources, I question their activism. A lot.

Watch those appearances. They lie.

Anonymous said...

I agree. Do not get me wrong.l just do not believe that those that have had the good fortune of having an adequate training in writing propagate that they are the only ones that should be heard or should express themselves. Peace to all!

Christine said...

All I'm saying is that "our community" needs to be open to constructive criticism because without it writing doesn't get better. Just like in baseball or football if you are not challenged or open to solid competition and/or criticism of methods than you do not get better mentally, physically, or emotionally. We seem to be forever stuck in this baby/nurturing stage when we as a community should offer solid criticism and critique to one another, and as individuals should be able to take it. Instead I see many hide behind the race card and automatically disregard anyone who raises an opposing view then makes them out to be someone who is out to stifle our creativity. Criticism, questioning, and open discussion is not stifling. It means growth. And we don't get greatness by coddling and promoting less than stellar work.

Anonymous said...

By your very existence as Latina writers, people feel threatened. You're already in a pollitical debate before you open your mouth. Congratulations on remaining cool under fire, I would definitely prepare for more comments of that ilk in the future.

I find you all an inspiration. Keep doing what you're doing!