Personal Essays

My Work

Here is an excerpt from a short essay I prepared on this topic, called And God said, “Let My People Go,” and the U.S. Responded, “Only the White Ones”:


Jericho Brown, a poet and professor at Emory University, writes, “You can’t love me if you don’t love politically.”[1] If white people don’t join the conversation, don’t realize that every new friendship formed is a political act, then racism and institutionalized discrimination won’t go away, not because black people cannot overcome (“We will overcome” is a mantra for people of color), but because ignorance cannot be changed by any passing of laws. Hatred cannot be contained by re-evaluating police forces. Change happens in our hearts, in acknowledging our missteps, in admitting that privilege has favored white individuals at the expense of everyone else. I’ve labored to overcome these barriers, to work in solidarity with people of color to create communities of expectation, opportunity, and love.

Now I live in my hometown, where I grew up sheltered and away from the violence and hunger of the rougher parts of town. In February earlier this year, I visited with one of my students, Ivy, over breakfast. We sat in Denny’s, watching people of all colors and backgrounds mingling around us. A sweet Hispanic baby smiled our way over his mother’s shoulder. I wondered what might be going through our black server’s mind as she served Ivy and me, two friends with a gap in years and very different family histories and skin colors. “Does this waitress care?” I thought. “Does she notice the unlikeliness of this breakfast?” Years of reading literature about institutional discrimination and talking with the people around me, whether on a bus ride, in line at a grocery store check-out, or over scrambled eggs and toast had brought me to understand that the more inclusive my life is, the more content I feel.

[1] Jericho Brown, “Conversations.” Kenyon Review. Accessed March 20, 2016.


An excerpt from “Blessed Be”:


All the cyclists I talk with hate helmets. Soon as they pass the Michigan state line, “the helmet’s on the back of the bike,” Steve, another riding veteran, tells me. The helmet law takes away the freedom (and the risk of a fatal accident, I’m thinking). He leans casually against his bike, resting one hand on the distressed alligator fabric covering his seat.

“These are American citizens,” he boasts, gazing around at the other riders standing around catching up. These people are humble and they’re willing to “bring religion into their lives” in a way many other people are not. A bike blessing, after all, brings together a mix of the most interesting people, people who aren’t necessarily religious or regular churchgoers. Everyone here is “willing to help someone out. They care.”


An excerpt from “Good Lighting: A Mosaic”:


I’ve lived in five different bedrooms over the past two and a half years, but in all of them, I’ve strung up twine and clothespinned small scraps of art I’ve collected: maps, photographs, postcards, artist business cards, advertisements from the ArtPrize festival, thank you cards, torn out pages from magazines and newspapers, paintings, concert tickets, a single clothing tag from OBEY, a flier from a play, and lines from my own poetry. This wall collage pulls together beautiful things from my adventures and museum trips, my family memories and community involvement. Art is the great equalizer in my life, the reason I find inspiration and feel connected. I’m moved, still, writing this passage, by just remembering the works that have touched me, the gorgeously-constructed heaps of junk from Schenkelberg, the garden scenes from Van Gogh. On the right wall in his bedroom paintings, Van Gogh painted a collection of portraits which didn’t hang in the real life room. He added them to the scene, embellishing his memory with more art. And he painted the same bedroom three times, returning to this one sparse place, perhaps struggling to preserve it not in an accurate representation, but in a beautiful, contemplative way.

Like Van Gogh, my memories of art draw patterns in my everyday interactions with others and with the world. I feel whole when my time is unveiled like a painting, a film roll, a vast mosaic of color, beauty, motion, and shadow – and perspective. I have reason to hope that I am not alone; instead, quite the opposite is true. I am one person in a centuries-long conversation of art, language, and belonging. I can pause in appreciation of the present, understanding that I have an impermanent place in this world, but that beauty is still worth creating, knowing my own tastes and past experiences leave their own artist signatures on each moment and in each room in which I find myself.


Influences

Chuck Palahniuk: Palahniuk’s style is entirely his own; he writes without regard to what standards or prose norms are. Instead, he pushes boundaries in content, perspective, format, and shifts in time. His nonfiction collection, Stranger Than Fiction, explores, in essay form, a vast array of topics, from the Testicle Festival to U.S. castles. My piece “Blessed Be” is stylistically inspired by Palahniuk’s work. I also got the idea of stopping by a bike blessing event from Palahniuk’s tendency to write about lesser-known or alternative cultures or events. 

Claudia Rankine: Rankine’s advice about writing about race in a different (and not already done) fashion is definitely something I will heed in my own projects. Professor Haven asked, during Rankine’s craft talk at Grand Valley State University, about how teaching children about Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights movement leads to confusion and miseducation for children that “racism” and “segregation” are relics of the past instead of very relevant, still occurring issues today. In fact, some kids might be led to believe that racism is only against black individuals instead of many people of all different ethnicities and heritages, including American Indians, Arab or Middle Eastern Americans, Hispanic Americans, Indian Americans, and Asian American individuals. Rankine’s response was that all of us need to take responsibility to teach our children differently, and Citizen is a good place to start. 

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Claudia Rankine at Grand Valley State University in April 2016. Source: Grand Valley Lanthorn

In Citizen, she uses anecdote after anecdote to give voice to how many situations microaggressions occur in, from being screamed at to get out of someone’s yard, even though that woman had a scheduled appointment with the woman screaming (her supposed therapist) to another story of how someone walked past a person of color in a grocery store to check out with the cashier because the person “didn’t see” the other customer.

“Everybody in this room is potentially my friend until they’re not,” Rankine said, acknowledging that it is important to give people, even white people, the benefit of the doubt, that they can be different and culturally and socially savvy. However, Rankine contrasted this with the concept that she doesn’t “Live by the gaze of whitenesss” in terms of what will or what be published or in terms of what will or won’t be “appropriate” content for a white audience. She writes with only herself in mind, telling the poems that she wants to tell, not concerned with the troubles or heated disagreement that she might stir in readers (particularly white readers). This was very freeing to hear, as I am very worried about some of my poetry and essays being seen as “irrelevant” or of lower value because I’m white and trying to write about social justice. Instead, Rankine encouraged us to “normalize” these subjects in literature. I am now much more confident about being able to discuss race and segregation in my own writing, and I am more confident about selling the idea of “genre-breaking” content to a publisher (although “not as a first book” as Rankine pointed out).

David Sedaris: I love Sedaris’ scathing humor, oftentimes at his own expense, and his honesty about his life, desires, embarrassing moments, family, and on and on. Sedaris’ work gives me courage to be honest and real in my own nonfiction.

Eula Biss: Eula Biss’s On Immunity changed my life, no big deal. Her writing is so deep and wide-reaching; her inclusion of a ghost narrative was very effective; her style of writing about an issue using research, personal insight, anecdotes, and dialogue is engaging, even on a topic that I wouldn’t normally choose to read about. There are so many reasons that Biss belongs in my “influences” category. I’d like to shape my first book after On Immunity, and I’ll draw inspiration and encouragement from that piece throughout my writing journey.

 

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