This is from “The danger of the single story” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a TED talk from TED Global 2009. The essence of the talk, as described on the TED website, is: Our lives, our cultures, are composed of many overlapping stories. Novelist Chimamanda Adichie tells the story of how she found her authentic cultural voice — and warns that if we hear only a single story about another person or country, we risk a critical misunderstanding. I was exploring the internet as usual and it ended up in my path. This talk is a gem for anyone who has ever seen something as singular. I was Yaaaaasss-ing my way through it and was only going to share the video and the above quote along with a thought or two when a rush of feelings overcame me and I knew I was going to write more than a sentence. So blog time!
There's a reason why I don't write about where I come from. Not because I don't want to, but because I don't want it to become my single identity. I often find that when I talk about the things I have accomplished, that they are never good enough for the many writerly things I apply for that are supposed to help writers like me, a young POC who wouldn't have the opportunity otherwise to go to retreats, conferences, be published, etc.. I won't say that I am the best writer, but I do have strong skill and some talent. I don't deserve a lot of the chances I seek compared to those who get them. But I wonder who am I really if I am not anything they put down on paper about who these opportunities benefit. I often study those who did get the opportunities I seek, so I can learn what organizations and publications are looking for, and I see patterns in what is said about these writers. For a select few, it is about their undeniable, amazing talent and where they come from. For others, who don't have the strongest writing ability or talent, it's mostly about where they came from and who they are because of it.
They come from nothing, they are making names for themselves. They come from parents who were damaging or homes that took away something from leading a normal path. You read stories of writers who live in near poverty, who have kids and all of their resources go to their families and they can't afford to take a writing class. They fell into drugs and got clean. They were sexually abused or assaulted and learned how to take back their power. They worked three jobs to get through college. There are so many versions of the poor writer's story who had to overcome so many obstacles and now are beginning to tell their story to the world. But as the quote above from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's TED talk says, we often insist on the negative stories.
We let them define how we are seen and we let them define our opportunities.
How dare I say that and diminish the stories of others, you say. How dare I? First, let me say that these stories are absolutely important. They are a part of our identities. They are our story. I don't want to diminish that. But they are not the only versions of who we are. Now it's fine if this is how you want people to see you. It's fine if you wear it proudly like a badge of honor. There's nothing wrong with others defining themselves whatever way they want to. What upsets me is how opportunities are given based on how other people see the stories of writers. What they deem as worthy. There are people who fall into many stereotypes that determines who is worthy to be seen and it's not the writing that's doing it, but how people see the writing and the writers.
All this is to say that there is a reason I don't explore certain topics or I don't explore those topics publicly in my writing. I don't want to be defined by them. If I write about my father's domestic abuse, that he was a drug dealer, that my mom left him and had to go on welfare when I was 10, that we were so poor that financial aid for 98% of my undergrad education (the kind you don't have to pay back), that we got kicked out of our apartment that I lived in for the majority of my life when I was 20 and that until I left for grad school, I slept in the same bed as my mother because we lived in single rooms together and could never afford to do more, how would you see me then?
Would my poetry and myself be defined as these stories, these facts of my life? Would you always see these first and what I am doing with my work second? I am more than the girl, the young woman who has had these things happen in life. I write about love, I write about seeing myself as something better or more. I write because something sounds pretty and because we still have schools of poetry such as language poetry. I like to experiment with writing and sometimes others don't understand it. Sometimes I am not universal enough. Sometimes I am not simple. Sometimes I am told that we don't get to see the real Christina within my good poems even though a lot of them are deeply personal for me, even if they are not about all the aspects of my life.
Sometimes people want to insert tragedy where there is none. I was recently in a workshop and the majority thought my poem indicated an assault that I went through. NO, it's still just another love poem using images of power and submission through the helplessness of loving someone. But if I wrote about the time a guy I really liked came to visit one of my undergrad campuses after graduating and when we had some alone time, he tried to force me to give him a blowjob when I wasn't in the mood to do so AND that I had to run away from him and hide in another building until I saw he walked off of campus, how would you define me as a writer then? Am I worthy because I've been through that or am I worthy because it's a good piece of writing?
There is such a thing as being a bad writer. Experiences in life do not equate to good writing. Being something or defined as something doesn't equate to good writing. The simplest pieces of writing that anyone could have said on a good day are being defined as prolific pieces of poetry and sometimes it's because of the story behind someone's life and not because of the writing! I've seen bad or okay writers receive opportunities to study with great writers and yet I see very little change in their writing. They still get the praise because of the life they lived. What they have survived. Which is all well and good because we all need to be cherished for what we do, what we try to do, and even what we fail at. But this does not mean that we throw opportunities at someone just because of their story. They are more than that. We are more than our negatives.
Our talents aren't defined by the negative things that have happened in our lives.
So I won't write the narratives they expect me to write because I am Latina, because I've been poor (or I am poor, don't let post-grad life fool you - I don't know how I will pay my rent for September), because I am fat, because I am homely, because I am a New Yorker, because I live in Chicago, because I have lived in a home full of domestic violence until I was 10, because my family is screwed up.
I will say that I've been through a lot, but I rather talk about surviving grad school like any other person, about the businesses and organizations I want to start. I want to talk about how I love Grey's Anatomy or how I really love tomato soup after trying it for the first time last year. I want to talk about the good! I want that to define me as well. I want my opportunities because I am a decent or good writer and you see something in me that should grow, even if I only write love poems for the rest of my life and never write about how dementia changed my grandmother or how much I miss her now that she has recently passed. Those would be beautiful poems, but these are my stories if I chose to tell them and these stories aren't who I am when you meet me. They are a part of me and yes, I fall into some of the stereotypes - but they are not the complete story. I am so layered and so are you.
Till next time and with much love,