What did I learn after a week long writing retreat with writers of color? The question I’m asked. Answer: I learned I’m so blessed. Blessed to have so many lift me, believe in me, and hear me. Something so beautiful in that!
I learned I’m a writer yo! Yes, me the homegirl, with that Brooklyn accent, who in my excitement over words, trips over them like untied shoelaces and says, infinity instead of affinity. The one that loves the way my tongue dips in the inkwell of my Colombian Spanish, as the cadences brush against my lips. Yup, me hater of small talk, lover of long jam sessions. All the hues in a person exposed. My own too. Compelled to hold onto that image, that very moment, my brain begins to draft. I long to capture. Sensitive. Writing my weapon. I didn’t realize it was my medicine too. No, that I’ve learned along the way, with every chapter I write, and every essay.
But those words, I’m a writer, have not always slipped out of my mouth. Unsure. I bunched them up and never ever spoke them, though I always believed it was my destino. When I was young and the world seemed more fair than unfair. Life and its’ circumstances, a leg stuck out, as I walked my journey, ready to trip me, bring me to my knees. And as I busied myself with the bruises, bought on by life, I forgot. Forgot lo que era mi destino. And though I know life holds two fistfuls of fair and unfair, and I will encounter those dips and bends, uneven patches and boulders on the road. Es tu destino will echo, and with one hand on the ground and another on my bent knee, I will stand. Strike forward, and walk, towards mi destino.
It’s the Tuesday after my week at VONA. The irony that it’s Independence Day is not lost. My second time at VONA. And many have asked me, which was better, 2015? Or 2017?
My answer: I loved them both. Blessed to have had the same maestra, Evelina Galang, twice. Sexy, sassy, and words her samurai sword. Her ease and confidence in the way she cuts the air with her words inspired and inspires me to do the same. Blessed to have had two amazing fiction groups each year. Damn good writers with souls that run deep. So, much so when I read their work I waded in their souls. My ankles first, then my waist, and finally my chest, until I’m submerged in their words. Worlds. Soul mates linked by sentences, anchored by the pages, and branded by images. We ran deep. We run deep. We will run deeper.
How can people you met in a week become family, some ask? One word: Tribe. We all love books and words like late night lovers. A passion only you two can know. Outside, we stand out, but together, we stand whole. Writing, a passion, something spiritual that illuminates us from the inside.
And as I said bye to my fiction crew minutes before my family picked me up, whisked me to my life. “This,” I circled my finger around us, as if laced with invisible thread, we moved closer. “This is so deep because before we fell in love with each other, we first fell in love with our souls. Because we left a little bit of ourselves on the page. So, I knew you before I met you, and loved you.”
And that is the difference. Our words pressed in between our bodies as we hugged. Family.
I am different now that I was in 2015. Scared that I would not and could not hold onto the magic of VONA. That as the days became weeks and the months unfolded with every season, the magic would dissipate from my finger tips. Grasp. Unaware that the magic settles into your bones and the crevices of your mind. Evelina’s words: leave your soul on the page, the melody I whistled as I sat in front of the computer every single time since 2015.
Two years later, certain that VONA magic is sustained. I walked in to UPenn sure of this. And sure of something greater, that VONA, like a handwritten page in felt pen caught in the rain, it bleeds. Bleeds to other parts of your life. When you look back at that muddy page of ink, the faint outline of the words can be seen, but the layers of that felt color have leaked. Leaked into how I: read, teach, mother, wife, daughter, sister, friend, and exist beyond the page. And when I arrived at my second VONA, I thought the same page would be there for me to write my name across. My soul ready to be left on the page. My felt pen poised in mid-air I pulled the cap off and reached for that same page. But, under that page was another one. A blank one. Bound by all the pages that make me, me. And I wrote.
- Internal Thinking
- Sensory Image
Craft moves, but life moves too. And I shared. I opened myself up. I read. I listened, took note, did not look away when praised or cheered. But I also cheered and praised too. I heard stories. Story after story, some left my heart broken. Wrapped up in power and joy, poetic energy all around me. I took risk. Cracked myself wider, and refused to hold my breath. Hugged close by my fiction crew, and by my Latina home girls I chilled with in between, Vanessa Martir, la loba, leader of the pack.
So, on that last day of class, made bold and brazen by my section. Eight beautiful souls shaped by the seduction of words, I read the prayer I wrote that night before. And revised in the morning. Evelina’s words: little by little it leaves your heart, the new melody.
When I was little and Mami raged against the world. I hid. Made myself small under my bed. A rosary clutched in my fist. My eyes squeezed shut until the world disappeared. I’ve always prayed, buried little novena cards in my bra, even tucked in the waist of my panties. El Divino Nino would guard me. It would be Him that would render me whole.
No longer ok to bury my prayers. I said them a loud. Screamed them even. But, always behind the screen. My head bowed in search of grace. I waited. Atonement evaded me. I wished not to be silenced. The chokehold to be lifted. Silence at first. Whispered next. Said in prayer after.
My Prayer to My Writer Self
Ayudame Senor. Please let me forgive Papi. I no longer pray to be noticed by him. I now wish to have my hurt unloosen. Diminish. Drift. Grow legs and walk away.
Ayudame Senor, be all things Mami, but the good, and not the bad. Once my novel is written. Let the shadows that we created on the page no longer cast their shade in our lives. May I write her story next, erect brick by brick, the words that built her.
Ayudame senor, tell these stories that live in my bones. My knees scooped hollow by the stories that live nestled in there. The ones so buried in the space between my collar and above my breastbone. How I’m afraid of men. And why. Drunken men and their eyes rolled around in their sockets like marbles, whom I stared at before I drifted off to sleep. At someone’s house party, alcohol spread like fingers in a hand in, every direction. My eyes, recorded everything, my soul swallowed everything, broken people all around me. My prayer to make them whole, to tell their story.
Ayudame Senor, tell these stories for the women in my life. Mis abuelas, mi madre, mi hermana, mi sobrina, y hija. Their stories, woven on their backs, vertebrae by vertebrae, hunched by the weight of stories untold. Daughter and niece shoulders piled high, close to their ears. Ready for the weight that is to come, let the weight refuse to take grasp. May it refuse to bend around the dip of their necks, and drag them down. Let it fall by their feet.
Ayudame Senor, give voice when emotion has been stamped dead. The men in my life, a steady march. Machismo a trail they all walk, every last one, as they square their chin, and set off. Mi Ruben made so sad, so early, and with nothing left to do. He grew rage. Both our inheritance. My nephew, quiet, a steady beat of pain with every basket shot. His dreams laced tight like the Lebrons on his feet. My brother in law, imprisoned long before the time he served. Poetic and dramatico, no room for that in the projects of the South Bronx, so he puffed up his chest and false bravado took hold. Hold of where ideas and dreams settled, refused to be heard, held silent by Biggie. The soundtrack he was given in the absence of any other. My son, sweet and my baby boy, at his side a soccer ball, images and metaphors tumble from his mouth without great effort. And my stepson, silence his greatest defense. My men.
Y Colombia pues. Who permeates my writing, every last bit. History. Violence. Joy. Laughter. Mi Colombia. I say the words like it’s my favorite shawl. The one I drape over me, tight, over my back. I carry it everywhere, sometimes tucked in my backpack, unsure when to pull it out. Colombia. La tierra de mis padres. Mi tierra.
Finally, there is me. Ayudame Senor! Let me tell these stories. That the choke hold I have on my own throat unclench. And only then will I be free.
And as I finish this essay. Firecrackers pound the air like fists. Fists breaking through and striking past. I sit in my kitchen with the window wide open and imagine they are for me. For all the writers of VONA. The Voices of Our Nation Arts.