A Space for Writers of the World
7 April 2014. Over the weekend I attended the 31st Annual Tucson Poetry Festival as a representative for a literary magazine of which I will be an editorial staff member. Aside from manning a display table of past issues I conducted a writing workshop with the mighty Simon J. Ortiz, Acoma intellectual, writer, and poet aimed at youth and young adult writers, though anyone, of any age, was welcomed to attend. After the workshop, I had lunch with Orlando White, a Diné poet, and he and I attended another workshop facilitated by poet Harryette Mullen. The focus, or at least what began as the focus (we didn’t stay for the duration of the workshop), was childhood memories. We, the some forty to fifty workshop participants, were asked to think of our childhoods, and engage our five senses for children remember and associate through tactile sensations, concrete connections. We were asked to free write and to describe three to five distinct memories from each one of our individual childhoods.
Colonization and decolonization connote and denote violence. Colonized people are murdered, raped, silenced, dehumanized, removed, extracted, have had their tongues and eyes cut out, have been fed to dogs, are made to hate themselves and their community members, assimilated, lied to, and on and on and on. A decolonized person seeks to shout, scream, relinquish their hurt and hatred, become the navigator of their self-image, obtain productive and healthy positions in their and for the greater good of their communities; they look toward the future while continually waking up to the past. Their sleep is disquieted by night terrors. Their patience stilted by exhaustion.
The workshop prompt proved to be difficult, if not impossible. I’m often adverse to friends inquiring about what I was like as child and even more adverse to my parent’s recollections of specific events or stories from and of my childhood. Do I remember lying beneath a black Chevy truck (or perhaps it was a GMC) with my dad while he fixed it and pretended that I was helping? Or, being ornery on a trip back from visiting my mom’s foster parents in Provo, Utah and pulling over at some nursery where, among the plants, I was in someway calmed? The time at the Navajo Nation fair, fishing trips to Wheatfields Lake, the birth and growth of my sister from an infant to a toddler? No, I remember nothing and respond to these stories with lies about my remembering them because my mom has pictures of most of these moments, and because there are pictures, and because I’m a writer, I can say yes there are memories.
In Susan Sontag’s essay, “An Argument About Beauty” from the posthumous, somewhat unfinished, collection At the Same Time: Essays & Speeches published in 2007, she begins with the Catholic Church and Vatican’s 2002 scandal of covering up the sexual molestation of adolescents by their priests. Sontag quotes Pope John Paul II as telling American cardinals summoned to the Vatican: “A great work of art may be blemished, but its beauty remains; and this is a truth which an intellectually honest critic will recognize.” The Church as art, as Beauty beyond fault. I believe Sontag thought as much, agreed that beauty equals consolation. Her son, David Rieff, writes in his forward on page xiv: “Did she write to console herself? I believe so, though this is more intuition than grounded judgment.” I certainly write to console myself, though I’ve come to realize, and more importantly acknowledge that through writing and the strive to make art I more often than not re-traumatize myself by engaging and going to the dark and ugly memories, which I more easily access than the happy ones that my parents recall. The beautiful notion of childhood; the Diné ideal of hozhó, which can be translated roughly as the balance of walking and living in harmony, in conjunction with all beings and all things, that each element of the universe has its place and purpose in the machination of existence. Now, machination is my word though I’m fairly certain that it’s apt for the translation. Diné bizaad (the Navajo language) directly reflects this ideal in its specificity and precision in regards to who is speaking, your familial and clan relationship to the speaker, when and where they are speaking, in physical relation to whom they are speaking, and in relation to the world, the universe. Essentially, you can’t just say shit, as is the case with the absolute beauty and frustration of English (Bilgáana bizaad). Similarly, the Diné idea of balance can be thought of in relation to William Carlos Williams’ thoughts on poems being small machinations. Every word, space, punctuation, and interaction with the page is intentional, of the utmost importance. One poorly casted cog or wheel and the entire process falls apart, becomes simple thoughts on paper rather than art. Can beauty, then, be all things: the damned, the holy, the sacred, the sacrilegious, the wrecked, the reconstructed, the artificial, and the natural?
We were asked to write for fifteen to twenty minutes, at least that’s how long I think it was. For a few minutes nothing came to mind, I envisioned a literal blackness, a room and darkness—someone flipping a switch. When I finally wrote, I put this on the page reluctantly:
Nothing really useful or impressive, though that’s what first drafts or free writing become for me, for any writer aware of their consistent and constant failures. There are obvious issues in the above free write. First, I’d already written a poem about my neighbor poisoning our dog and robbing our house, although I didn’t include the part about the jug of pennies. Second, being sexually molested/physically abused/abused sexually/molested physically doesn’t sound like squish. More like rip and thud, slow hands clapping. Third, I never ate kale as a child. I didn’t eat kale until my late twenties, after I lived in a city, fell in love, and discovered Whole Foods.
In the first chapter of The Wretched of the Earth Frantz Fanon writes, in regards to the colonized, “As soon as they are born it is obvious to them that their cramped world, riddled with taboos, can only be challenged by out and out violence.” I first read this text in high school after seeing it pictured among a pile of other texts in the liner notes of Rage Against the Machine’s newly released CD, at the time, Evil Empire. I misunderstood Fanon’s thoughts completely, as many younger readers do and as many older, “educated” readers still do. Anger is nothing to turn one’s head at, to disregard, or to use as an excuse to criticize. Jamaica Kincaid, in her conversation with The American Reader, tells her interviewer, in response to a question regarding Kincaid’s mixture of humor and anger in her writing: “There all sorts of reasons not to like my writing. But that’s not one of them. Saying something is angry is not a criticism. It’s not valid. It’s not a valid observation in terms of criticism. You can list it as something that’s true. But it’s not critical.” As we say, and others say, on and off the reservation, past and present, fuckin’ A right. Anger has long been, and used to be, my response to the circumstances of my childhood, ethnic demographic, and creative voice. Always more anger than love, though there was for me, or might have been, an obsession with violence—daggers protruding out of my skull, barbed wire wrapped around me body. My every response was anger, often misdirected, but always refocused upon myself. I sought to understand not only my mental and physical trauma but also historical trauma, both of which I still seek to understand. Love, I believed, to be associated with weakness. Pussy ass motherfuckers fell in love. Strong, stoic, the not-giving-a-shit types refused love, refused ideas of heaven, denied the ability of happiness to last. I drank/drink, popped/pop pills, snorted/snort cocaine and crushed pills, smoked/smoke bud, and tried desperately to fuck away the anger, depression, guilt, and suicidal thoughts brewing in my psyche, in my entire being. I’ve existed in all and in a variety of these fashions from thirteen to thirty-three. I have not found a definite answer, know no absolute. Rather, I’ve taken the view that my life, my existence is a job; making the continual attentiveness to my partner’s emotions and well-being a priority, not solely for her, but for myself as well. I would never have voiced this in my life previously (though that may be inaccurate): I have learned that is possible to love myself. To say, all right violence, you’ve had your limelight, now it’s time for you to take the backseat and observe for the remainder of the trip. As for anger, it can always take the helm while I watch the passing landscape.
The excuse that I used in order to leave the “childhood writing” workshop early was my adverse reaction to the strange and unfamiliar patty-cake sort of activity that ensued after the timed writing exercise. I won’t recount the details of the activity because I didn’t understand the activity and have no ken of it. I was unable to access anything after the prompt about childhood because it had triggered my non-responsiveness, my retreat. Here is why, which some may have already inferred up to this point, I retreated. Beginning with my early childhood on the Navajo Nation in Window Rock, Arizona I was sexually and physically abused at the age of three or four by a neighbor who babysat me and her cousin, and by an older boy at a Catholic School I attended: after moving to Flagstaff, Arizona at the age of five or six my abuse continued with another babysitter whose eldest son welcomed me into his gang (though I wasn’t ever actually a gang member aside from his kicking my ass, he was a sixth grader and I in preschool), and finally by two older cousins, first by a female, then a male; all of this until eight, nine, or ten. These years are all blurred to me. And not every instance was of a single occurrence, some lasted summers, some lasted years. I prayed to Jesus, to the Virgin Mary, to God, to the archangels Michael and Gabriel, to the Hopi Kachinas I’d memorized for some reason, and not one answered. So I prayed to Satan, or darkness, the idea and story of being cast out, of being the knower of a knowledge that was poison or a different kind of light. Eventually, I stopped praying, “believing.” Christianity, Catholicism, organized religion are systems of colonization. I felt/feel that they made the colonized feel guilty, evil, yearn for forgiveness, judge one another, and base their ideals on an existence that is greater than this earth. Did I mention that I stopped praying, stopped believing? Nowadays, I wake before or with the sun and I pray to it, to the sky, to the earth. I don’t always know what I’m saying but at least I know what each hasn’t done to me.
Decolonization and love seem like unlikely partners or unique inner demons. But that, too, is erroneous. Since that workshop, that trigger, I’ve read and read and read, which is one of the ways that I’ve taught myself empathy, that and thousands of dollars worth of counseling, EMDR, failed prescriptions by a clinical psychologist (I was prescribed an experimental delivery system, meaning pill, of Risperdal and a shitload of Xanax after expressing a history of addiction to pharmaceuticals that culminated in my trying to shoot myself at twenty-seven and my gun stovepipe jammed and having worked up the nerve to transcend the fear of it shit and vomited all over myself and laid in my kitchen alone for a couple days), and finally cognitive and behavioral therapy. I’ve learned to forgive myself or to let play that scene in Good Will Hunting where Matt Damon’s character is having a sort of breakdown and Robin Williams, as the school-of-hard-knocks doctor, consoles Damon’s character, telling him something along the lines of It’s not your fault, it’s not your fault. A scene that one of my first girlfriends in high school played for me, as if the simple act of viewing it would dispel the hallucinations, both visual and auditory, that I developed as a result of the years of repressed memories and trauma. Hallucinations that lasted for years, that caused night terrors I still deal with (though significantly less frequently), that helped me hate, that compounded my anger, that lead me to two suicide attempts (the first at twenty with Jack Daniels and Demerol, a trip in an ambulance to the ER, stomach pumps, IVs, rehydrating suppositories, and my first required visit to a counselor), that led me to live my life in parentheticals and footnotes, though there are no footnotes here because footnotes are another colonizer, as Junot Díaz illumed to us in The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Decolonization is violent, it is spiritual unrest, it is for me the other side of the river, the western lands. William S. Burroughs, in what is regarded as his finest work since Naked Lunch (though this can be argued heatedly), writes in the culminating sections of The Western Lands (published 1987 by Penguin Books):
——I want to reach the Western Lands—right in front of you, across the bubbling brook. It’s
a frozen sewer. It’s known as the Duad, remember? All the filth and horror, fear, hate,
disease and death of human history flows between you and the Western Lands. Let it
flow! My cat Fletch stretches behind me on the bed. A tree like black lace against a gray
sky. A flash of joy.
——How long does it take a man to learn that he does not, cannot want what he
——You have to be in Hell to see Heaven. Glimpses from the Land of the Dead,
flashes of serene timeless joy, a joy as old as suffering and despair (257-58).
In a way, and even more so for others, decolonization can be the recognition, the recovering of a time between “filth and horror,” “disease and death of human history”; a bold way to say this would be, a time before Columbus, the Slave Trade, the sugar trade, Christianity, Thanksgiving, Manifest Destiny, massacres, forced walks, displacement, reservations, scorched earth campaigns, boarding schools, oil and coal companies, uranium, superpower, the Washington Redskins and Chief Wahoo, the XL pipeline, the femicide of Indigenous women, and on and on and on. A time when we were able to kill one another fashionably, with “honor” because fuck all that noble savage bullshit. Humans have beef, sure, but the greater evil will always be greed and “power.” “You have to be in Hell to see Heaven.” You have to know the devil before you know the savior, and sometimes vice versa, but you have to know the colonizer before comprehending the destruction of angels and the angelic; the acceptance that there’s no reward after this life, only this life.
After completely ditching the workshop and opting for a drink outside on the patio of the Hotel Congress, haunted by the myths of John Dillinger, some of us poets sat, talked shit, and negotiated the events for the evening that remained. A writer, not Diné, but Blackfeet from Montana said something along the lines of you never ask a Native to talk about their childhood. That’s Indigenous 101. You think life on the reservation is pretty? Fuck that. Natives never talk about their childhoods. In the days that I’ve been composing this, erratically and with disregard to other life obligations, thanks to all the literary-triggers, I’ve thought of two things. The first was triggered by the workshop, of course, and Orlando White himself, though not at that specific moment, but by the memory of the words and images from the first poem, “To See Letters,” from his debut collection Bone Light. The speaker’s step-father calling him by his middle name so as to dehumanize him, the speaker’s fascination with letters, his physical abuse at the hands of his step-father, his adolescent ability to forgive, and the final stanza: “When David hit me in the head, I saw stars in the shape of the// Alphabet. Years later, my fascination for letters resulted in poems.” This is decolonization. The violence we mirror on ourselves and others nulled. The second is the hardcore band Converge, whose discography I’ve listened to exclusively in writing this, but more specifically the song “All We Love We Leave Behind” from their latest album of the same name. It’s about the singer’s, Jacob Bannon, loss of one of his dogs, which he had for the majority of its life. What’s important about this for me is that dogs have always been one of the few solaces I’ve had. I think of protection, love, family. Not property or accessory. I think of the days of sleeplessness and exhaustion. I think that one day I’ll figure out how all this happened.
BOJAN LOUIS is a member of the Navajo Nation — Naakai Dine’é; Ashiihí; Ta’neezahnii; Bilgáana. His poems have appeared in The Kenyon Review, Platte Valley Review, Hinchas de Poesía, American Indian Research and Culture Journal, and Black Renaissance Noire; his fiction in Alaska Quarterly Review. He is the author of the nonfiction chapbook, Troubleshooting Silence in Arizona (Guillotine Series, 2012). He has been a resident at The MacDowell Colony. He earns his ends and writing time by working as an electrician, construction worker, and teaching fiction writing and first-year composition at Arizona State University and Phoenix College. He is Co-editor of Waxwing, a new on-line literary magazine