January 14, 2004
Saturday morning, Miles begins the seminar with another cautionary note. The night before, the Lebanese-American performance poet that I mentioned in Communique #1 (Elmaz Abinader) had given a performance piece on the plight of the Palestineans. It appears people had become very angry that this piece seemed one-sided.
Miles says to the assembled group: "If you are angry, it means a door is open. When a door opens, don't let it slam shut. Agreement can be reached only by confronting what is disagreeable."
As the conference progressed, I found myself in conversations with people who were not consoled. While people understood that as a performance poet Abinader was speaking personally about her feelings and perceptions--she was presenting her art--they still thought it was an area with so many sides and entrenched misunderstandings that it was a mistake to include her performance in the seminar. As far as I could tell, the debate remained peaceful. Ronnie commented that if a conference makes some people angry, then it's doing its job. I'm not sure if that's how Miles wanted its job to be perceived.
Miles read from Richard Rorty "human solidarity is to be achieved not by inquiry but by imagination, the imaginative ability to see strange people as fellow sufferers. Solidarity is not discovered by reflection but created. It is created by increasing our sensitivity to the particular details of the pain and humiliation of other, unfamiliar sorts of people." He added that we have diverse voices at this conference so that "we can learn to hear."
Sandra Cisneros, An American author of Mexican descent, talked on the topic of "Milagritos: Sustaining the myths and stories of my people." She says she now lives in San Antonio, Texas, because "I wanted to find a landscape that matched the landscape in my heart" ... where she could hear her mother's Spanish being spoken. Her grandfather left during the Mexican revolutions and followed the routes of the railroads. Wherever a railroad travelled, she said, you'll find communities of Mexicans because they worked the rails. She talked about her battles with her father. He wanted her to get married, have children, live at home during college like her six brothers. Instead, she wrote, was politically active, taught writing in the barrio and published two very successful novels (The House on Mango Street, 1983, and Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories, 1991.) However her father continued to want her to get a real job, get married, have children. In 1995, she won the MacArthur Foundation Fellowship -- a grant of $250,000. At this point her father said, "Don't get married. He'll only take your money."
Elmaz Abinader and David Wong Louie: Two second-generation American-born writers look at the question of family, race, and ethnicity. It was in the context of this discussion, that the uncomfortable feelings of the second-generation writer emerged.
David Wong Louie:
- The first generation immigrant knows that he or she is an outsider. They have travelled from another place and look back on that place with nostalgia.
- The second generation have the underlying premise that they belong. They were born here.
"As I got older, the mainstream challenged that assumption and treated me as a foreigner. I was made to feel like a guest who doesn't quite belong. To be in this country, the second generation feel compelled to leave their parents behind -- to assimilate. To reclaim their birthright, they have to turn their backs on their parents. Parents become symbols of what makes you uncomfortable. At the same time it is our parents who defined us--- who gave us our faces and our speech."
"After a while, we start to construct borders in our own heads."