José Antonio Rodriguez’s House Built on Ashes

house built on ashesThis week I had the distinct pleasure of having poet and essayist José Antonio Rodriguez video-conference into my current creative nonfiction class here at Linfield College. We discussed his memoir House Built on Ashes (Oklahoma University Press),  a collection of lyrical essays that delves into his childhood memories, interrogating them for the stories and insights behind them. The essays range in topics from the intersection of the immigrant experience and borderland culture to sexual identity and social class dynamics. What makes the collection richly compelling, however, is how Rodriguez’s writing makes such complex topics human and intimate.

In class discussion before Rodriguez’s virtual visit, I shared the following excerpt from an interview with Rodriguez on the Letras Latinas Blog:

[TK]: Each story has thought-provoking endings that capture José’s feelings about each episode…How did you choose which aspects informed the final lines of the narrative? In hindsight, what importance do you attach to formative thoughts such as these during your journey to adulthood?

[JAC]: Well, I’m a big fan of ambiguity because it highlights moments of uncertainty or doubt in the narrator’s mind, moments that I think are valuable and generative for all individuals. I feel that society keeps pushing us past these moments of uncertainty, keeps ushering us into answers and certainty because that’s supposed to communicate strength and resolve; so those endings are a bit of resistance against that push and a way of communicating this particular narrator’s every-present sense of conflict or uncertainty with the world around him. About their importance, I think many times those thoughts were brief and transitory because life was coming at the narrator from every direction, but they left a trace of potential or possibility, and that capacity to imagine other ways that one might confront a situation or react to it, is their greatest gift to the narrator. To me. It is a great irony that often that which estranges us from our environment allows for the possibility of better powers of observation, which is integral to writing. I was pushed to the margins or estranged from the environment in so many ways, that I was left observing the world rather than fully being in it.

What Rodriguez says here about using ambiguity as a way to remain in uncertainty and, thus, subvert society’s expectation to move away from uncertainty and have things end neatly is a powerful lesson in how to have art and politics meet without one sacrificing the other. This move also invites the reader closer to the experience of the text and provides a space to dwell on complex feelings rather than turn away from them, a turning away that in creative nonfiction can read as false or simplistic.

I also made sure to note the moment in the interview excerpt above where a series of statements by Rodriguez about “the narrator” of his essays is interrupted with the shorter statement “To me.” This brief acknowledgement of self is a lived out example of what is at stake in creative nonfiction and the work one must do in writing it. To speak of a narrator-who-is-you and thus frame a piece this way can establish distance between the raw material and your own self at risk and alive with feelings. In this space, aesthetic moves can be made and revisions considered that lead to illuminations not afforded in real life.

In the piece below, “Open House,” one can see some of these ideas at work. The narrative of an elementary school open house braids the two worlds of the child narrator together, that of his family life and that of his education. The split across language and culture, home and aspirations, is charged by Rodriguez’s use of the present tense. The reader is brought right into the action and thoughts that propel the story. By the end, the meeting of two worlds becomes a blurring of them, to the point that the open house – which itself is an event where others go and see a place – becomes a site where the narrator himself feels the weight of being seen.

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Open House
By José Antonio Rodriguez

It is a strange sight, the school at night, aglow with light emanating from all its open doors. Amá, Luis, Yara, and I walk toward it, together. Amá begins to lag behind. We slow our pace and she catches up but eventually lags behind again, like she prefers to walk one step behind us.

In every room, we find a corner to stand in, Amá wringing her hands like she owes the room money. I tell her about how crowded the school is, built for half the number of students that now live a third of their lives in it. The teacher walks to us. In every room I translate for the teacher. In every room I translate for Amá. In every room I am a gran estudiante. The Spanish reminds me of church. The Spanish sounds foreign—talk of literature, talk of math, talk of science. In every room the white students marvel at my perfect Spanish, my Spanish without an accent, avert their eyes from my mother’s lack of English.

In every room they harbor the suspicion, hear the language, my first tongue, the telling sign that I could not be from here, that I could not be American. How they look at me, see someone they didn’t imagine.

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from House Built on Ashes (University of Oklahoma Press)

Watch a clip of this piece being read here.

climbing with lucille clifton

I recently read an insightful essay by Lisa Knopp on the idea of “perhapsing” as found in creative nonfiction. Perhapsing is a move that allows a writer to speculate in the face of the facts; that is, not make things up, but to come to terms with the limits of what is known, and to reflect on what is known around it and, perhaps, beyond it.

I see a similar gesture in the poem “climbing” by lucille clifton below. Within her classic and ever-surprising lyric mode, clifton begins a narrative of following another woman in climbing a long rope. The poem then begins a series of “maybe”s, each a glimpse at a decision the speaker contemplates in hindsight. This listing of maybe’s and should’s creates a lyric suspension, placing the reader alongside the speaker in a speculative space.

grey braided rope on wooden plank

The metaphor of climbing returns in the third to last line to cut off this speculation, moving the narrative back to action. The poem ends where it started, in the act of climbing, but the act itself is charged with the energy of speculation and a sense of its meaning.

climbing – lucille clifton

a woman precedes me up the long rope,
her dangling braids the color of rain.
maybe i should have had braids.
maybe i should have kept the body i started,
slim and possible as a boy’s bone.
maybe i should have wanted less.
maybe i should have ignored the bowl in me
burning to be filled.
maybe i should have wanted less.
the woman passes the notch in the rope
marked Sixty.      i rise toward it, struggling,
hand over hungry hand.

from The Book of Light (Copper Canyon Press)

new work & book review!

Just a quick post to share that the first chapter of my hybrid memoir, A Personal History of Want, was published this past November in The Acentos Review.

Read the excerpt here.

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Also, wanted to share the release of my latest creative review for The Bind. For this one, I spent time with Khaty Xiong’s collection, Poor Anima (Apogee), 2015) and created a cento around the Rimbaud’s idea of the self/I.

Read the creative review here.

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See you Friday!

José

unrealing with kelly davio

In my recent microreview & interview of Kelly Davio’s It’s Just Nerves: notes on a disability (Squares & Rebels, 2017)I spoke of her essays being driven by “a voice capable of insight and snark, as well as compelling honesty.” These three elements are in full effect in one of Davio’s recent poetry projects, a series of poems focused on the persona called the Unreal Woman. Through this persona, Davio brings together these same elements from her nonfiction essays to create a fulcrum to dig further into her experiences as a woman with a disability.

While the persona of the Unreal Woman takes center stage in Davio’s upcoming poetry collection, The Book of the Unreal Woman (Salmon Poetry, 2019), she is also an influence throughout the essays of It’s Just Nerves, as can be seen in the following from “Strong is the New Sexy”:

The product of a generation of girls who grew up with the specter of anorexia stalking our friends and siblings, I was told that “real women have curves” as though it were a mantra.

Our elders were trying. They wanted to flip the arbitrary concept of thin-body beauty on its ear. They wanted us to find self-acceptance, but when they tried to scare us with photos of undernourished bodies and with cautionary tales of the dangers of disordered eating, we learned that being skinny was one more way in which we could fail—one more way our bodies could be repellant.

With the onset of a progressive neuromuscular disease several years ago, my body’s relationship with solid food became a complicated one. I was never a curvy woman to begin with, but with each of the more feminine attributes I’ve lost, I’ve become, I am given to understand, less and less of a real woman.

I wonder at what point I will become unreal altogether.

davioIn the poem below, Davio approaches similar ideas as here but in a more visceral manner. Where nonfiction allows for the unpacking of rhetoric in a meditative manner, poetry allows for moves that go for the jugular as much as the heart and the mind. By subverting the well-intentioned phrasing of “real women have curves” and creating the persona of the Unreal Woman, Davio pushes against the erasure of women whose experiences don’t fit into the neatness of this phrase’s logic.

This poem brought to mind Anne Sexton, in specific her poem “Her Kind.” Through the imaginative and interrogative space created by the Unreal Woman persona, Davio evokes some of what and who is left out of the “real women” conversation, and invites it in with the conviction of one who has been “her kind.”

Real Women – Kelly Davio
—“Real Women Have Curves”

They fit in size-Q panty hose, we’re told.
Their volume fills the special-order bras
built wide enough about the lacey bands
to suggest a well formed plentitude

in fully lined and double-lettered cups.
Real women give birth to multitudes
of Gerber-blonde babies in a continual
swell and retraction not unlike that

of a latex balloon, so quick to snap back
to size. Real women, after all, work out.
They repeat a mantra: healthy is the new,
but forget what was old. They raise dumbbells

and celebrate themselves. They know
what would fix you, Unreal Woman, disposing
of your sharps in the bright orange canister.
They have tut-tutted you, unreal woman,

when bottled prescriptions spill forth
from your open purse. They have watched you,
unreal woman, vertiginous and clutching
for the staircase handrail or shuffle-stepping

with a limp, your slacks dangling from meatless
hips, from bony kneecaps. And under the Lasik
clarity of their vision, Unreal Woman, you
become small as they expand, claim the space

you were never meant to occupy. They start
with your hair, thinning from steroids,
and thread it out by the root. They nibble
at the keratin of your fingernails, roll skin

from your limbs like wet paper, knock
your bones together in a jaunty tune.
Seconds are all it takes to absorb you.
Real women, they eat your heart out.

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For more about Davio and the Unreal Woman poems, check out this 2016 interview and poetry feature at Easy Street. Also, visit her site here.

microreview & interview: Kelly Davio’s It’s Just Nerves

review by José Angel Araguz

davio

Kelly Davio’s It’s Just Nerves: notes on a disability (Squares & Rebels, 2017) is a collection of creative nonfiction essays that explore and report the inner and outer realities of living with myasthenia gravis, a “a chronic autoimmune neuromuscular disease that causes weakness in the skeletal muscles, which are responsible for breathing and moving parts of the body, including the arms and legs” (NINDS). The language of this definition, in light of its clarity and conciseness, or perhaps because of it, does little to bring the condition into human terms. One of Davio’s gifts is her ability to translate the complexities of her experiences into relatable moments via an authentic, engaging voice, a voice capable of insight and snark, as well as compelling honesty.

The opening essay, “Strong is the New Sexy,” for example, starts:

In the hospital complex, I sit in a room with a woman who plans to teach me how to swallow. Or, to re-teach me. I came into the world knowing how, born with the universal instinct to suckle and feed. I knew how to swallow just as I knew how to breathe. It’s just that, somewhere along the way, my body’s muscles have forgotten.

Here, Davio recasts her condition as a species of “forgetting,” a phrasing that would seem simple were it not also connected with “the universal instinct” mentioned earlier. This connection evokes the depth of vulnerability felt in this moment; the breaking down of the body means a breaking down of the self. This transition and necessary “re-teaching” doesn’t happen in a vacuum either, but rather in the public, fraught atmosphere of a hospital. The influence of the outside world is evident a little later in the same scene:

On the other side of the plate-glass window of the physical therapy room, hang gliders swoop down from the pine-covered mountainside. Their sails are the bright neon of 1990s fashion, and it’s impossible to miss the daredevils with their spectacular, spandexed bodies. I wonder whether the location of the window is intended to be inspirational: a call to the possibilities of good health, a motivation to perform one’s exercises well and get back out there. I have an impulse to drop the blinds over the window. I’d like to occlude the mountain.

In these opening paragraphs, we have a different kind of clarity and conciseness than that of medical jargon. There is the clarity of one’s thoughts and feelings during the awkwardness of physical therapy, but also the clarity of what colors the experience. The indirect violence and insistence on difference implied by most so-called “inspirational” posters is never more charged than in a medical setting. In a context where one is forced to question and doubt who they are bodily, posters like the one described here force an inner questioning of one ‘s attitude. For this reason, the sentence “I’d like to occlude the mountain,” is striking not only in its agency and defiance, but also because it comes from a speaker who themselves is feeling “occluded,” blocked and forgotten by their own body.

One of the questions I feel this collection of essays keeps asking and answering is: Who are we in the face of what we don’t know? This is engaged with in a dual manner throughout. Like in the above, the essay “On a Scale of One to Ten” presents a scene where outside pressure, this time in the form of a doctor’s question, forces a quick gauging of one’s self. In response to a doctor’s request to tell “what percentage [she’d] been debilitated by [her] neurological disease” during an assessment for surgical intervention, Davio experienced the following:

“What percentage?” I had prepared myself for all kinds of possible outcomes in this consultation. I was ready for anything, from him brushing me off to telling me that I’d need one of the more gross and undesirable procedures for which he’s known. One thing I hadn’t prepared for was performing quality-of-life math on the spot. I didn’t know how to put a number to the way I lived, or to the extent to which I’d adapted, year after year, to a new and inadequate set of circumstances.

I told him, “I have no idea.” He assured me that he just wanted an estimate, as though that clarified anything. At this point, I was emotionally exhausted, and I was frustrated. As I often do when frustrated, I said whatever came to mind.

“I haven’t been able to chew a salad for three years. I can’t teach a whole class anymore. I can’t walk anywhere without falling. I stop breathing sometimes. You tell me what percentage that is.”

He stopped typing away at his computer, swiveled around in his chair to look at me, and smoothed out his tie. “I think you answered my question.”

Here we again have a disconnect between the clarity and conciseness of the medical world versus the language of human experience. While the use of math terms to discuss one’s pain carries its own thwarted ambition, what stands out more in this scene is the disparity between Davio’s frustration and consequent edged statement “You tell me what percentage that is,” and the detail of the doctor “[smoothing] out his tie.” This latter detail symbolizes the discomfort, even on the part of the professionals trained and paid to treat patients with chronic conditions, feel in the face of said patients’ realities. Which is where the duality of the question, Who are we in the face of what we don’t know, comes into play. In this scene, Davio has to summarize an experience in an impossible way; in the process of giving an answer she doesn’t know how to give, Davio herself becomes something that the doctor doesn’t know how to respond to. At the end of this scene, she is frustration, he is a tie to be smoothed down.

What these essays make clear through scenes like this one is the range of things one has to reckon with as one learns to live with a chronic medical condition. From unpacking the shaming and misinformation about disability in mass media, popular culture, and writing conferences, to her experiences living and working in England pre-Brexit, Davio’s gift for writing relatable, unromanticized accounts of her life remains consistent. One thing that the trio I mentioned above – insight, snark, and honesty – do well in this collection is to keep things dynamic. Time and again, when the world shows itself as wanting to neglect, ignore, and not see her, Davio stares right back, answering the impulse to “smooth down” and look away with essays that are undeniable and unignorable.

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Influence Question: Did your background as a poet come into play in any way as you put together this essay collection?

Kelly Davio: I think my work as a poet did play a role in how I approached the subject matter of this book. Poets have these great toolkits for examining the world indirectly; it’s as though the whole of our training is geared toward delivering ideas and information in the least likely way possible. If we can compare nonfiction to another medium, like photojournalism, then poets are probably the most like these intrepid photographers who take underwater portraits of people’s pet schnauzers. So yes, poetry taught me to come at my subject matter from unusual angles, and that has allowed me—I hope—to keep this fairly universal subject matter fresh for the reader.

But there’s another respect in which writing these essays was a new experience for me. When I write a poem, I’ve typically gnawed on the idea for some time before I put the text down on the page. I have an idea of what I want my underwater schnauzer portrait to look like. Essays turned out to be more exploratory for me; in my early drafts, I was writing to understand something, whether about myself or about the world around me, eventually revising down some more fully formed idea. That was a really exciting process for me as a writer, because I hadn’t really felt that same kind of freedom to wander around on these long, intellectual hikes before.

Influence Question: One of the great accomplishments of this book is your ability to write sober, unromanticized yet relatable accounts of experiences like being an American living abroad and engaging with the (mis)representations of disability in popular culture. What were some of the obstacles and/or lessons learned in evoking this hard-earned clarity on the page?

Kelly Davio: First of all, thank you for that! I think that the greatest challenge I had in writing these essays was getting past the stigma that exists around my subject matter in the literary world. I cannot tell you how many times I was lectured by other writers on the global truths that there’s no audience for books about illness or disability, that reading about other people’s pain is boring, that personal essays aren’t a legitimate thing to be publishing in the first place…you get the idea. For a long time, I bought into that stigma.

I got over it one morning as I sat in a panel discussion on the craft of essay writing at a literary conference. I had been hoping for a discussion of—oh, I don’t know—the craft of essay writing. But what I and the other attendees got was an hour or so of some hung-over looking guys I don’t think any of us had ever heard of roundly mocking the work of several well known women writers who publish personal essays. I left that room knowing exactly who my audience wasn’t. Who cared what those guys thought?

After that panel, I decided I to write whatever the heck I wanted. I wrote the kind of thing I wanted to read, and I trusted that there were other folks who might want to read the same kind of thing. Since the book’s come out, I’ve been enormously gratified to find that, yes, there is an audience for this work, and they’re much more pleasant people to hang around than those sour-grapes panelists, anyway.

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Kelly_Davio_web-1Special thanks to Kelly Davio for participating! To find out more about her work, check out her site. It’s Just Nerves can be puchased from Squares & Rebels.

Kelly Davio is a poet, essayist, and editor. She’s the author of essay collection, It’s Just Nerves and the poetry collections, Burn This House and The Book of the Unreal Woman, forthcoming from Salmon Poetry in 2019. She also writes the sometimes-column “The Waiting Room” for Change Seven Magazineand her work has been published in a number of other journals including Poetry NorthwestThe Normal SchoolVinylThe ToastWomen’s Review of Books, and others. She is one of the founding editors of the Tahoma Literary Review.