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Women of Color and Body Politics

By Barbara Jane Reyes

Niki Escobar, “Native Song,” (February 2009). oil pastel, india ink, acrylics, including lines from Poeta en San Francisco.

My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you.

What are the words you do not yet have? What do you need to say? What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you will sicken and die of them, still in silence?

— Audre Lorde, “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action,” from Sister, Outsider

Thank you Bhanu Kapil, for your beautiful and painful response to my women of color post. That’s some of the best and only public honesty I’ve received from other women of color on the difficulty of writing the diasporic woman body. The best way I know how to do this myself, is to look at the work of other women of color.

I believe that many of us are doing this, writing to reclaim, restore that body to wholeness, in (re)configurations which we determine for ourselves. I just reviewed Brandy Nālani McDougall’s The Salt-Wind, Ka Makani P’akai, in which think she does a great job pointedly addressing Western male desires for a prone, objectified brown woman body, made so by military conquest, anthropology, Christian missionaries, tourism. That body must be humanized. June Jordan wrote that poetry is a humanizing project. McDougall’s poems do this.

You are right; it is horrible thing, writing that diasporic body. It’s a horrible thing that we must write in defense of our bodies, that what should be private, intact, sacred, is not. It’s commerce. The Filipina body withstanding historical and socioeconomic violence is one of the recurring themes in my work. I appreciate that you call it courage to do this, when others have called it “white man hating.”

The truth is, I am so fed up to the point of nausea being viewed as a Filipina body that is supposed to be silent, a body whose sole purpose is serving and servicing others. I hate that in this world, to be a “Filipina wife” means someone at the gym in Oakland can think out loud to my husband that he bought me through a service.

I write to speak to that ugliness, to dig through the muck of it, until there’s no more muck left (I haven’t reached this point yet).

I consistently return to Audre Lorde (I highly recommend The Cancer Journals). Her essay, “Poetry is Not a Luxury,” also in Sister Outsider, is one of those formative works for me; it speaks to why I have chosen poetry, and reminds me what we can make possible:

For women, then, poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action.

Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought. The farthest external horizons of our hopes and fears are cobbled by our poems, carved from the rock experiences of our daily lives.

I do not want to dissociate myself from other Filipinas because of the prevalence of Filipina bodies in commerce. I find resonance in Sasha Pimentel Chacón’s “Blood, Sister,” from Insides She Swallowed, in the First World privilege as Filipina American consumer, needing to find kinship and human connection with other Filipinas whom global economic policy has made into Christian missionary sponsored children:

We eat the developing body and I eat you my blood
My sullied brown knock-knee, my sponsored child
My limbs and bowed shins, my little squatter hemorrhaging into the river, darling

[…]

I am the eyeful, the fistful, the severed self—
I am the countryman who has run, is underdone, and undone
And I am the tightened asshole, the sliced onion
And builder of all shanties; friend, I am your disease
And I am at ease …

I dread this little squatter’s implied future as a sex worker. I dread it, and I know this is the only way the world can envision her, and us.

A few years ago, I was a guest speaker to a creative writing course at San Francisco State University; the students were reading my second book, Poeta en San Francisco. During the Q&A portion of my talk, I was asked by a student whether I or any of the women in my family were ever in the “bar girl” profession — an intellectually lazy question. I thought of my three sisters and my mother, and I was livid with nausea. I thought of Ninotchka Rosca, the internationally renown Filipina author, journalist, and women’s rights activist, who was asked by a fellow (white) woman journalist at a New York press conference on Filipina mail order brides’ rights, whether she herself was one.

“I am the maid of the world, and the world has made me dirty.”
Irene Faye Duller

That line from Duller, who is my colleague in Philippine Studies at USF, I heard in a poem she performed about a decade ago. I can’t let it go. It’s so concise and painful. It reminds me that the student and the journalist were not exceptions. Their uncritical assumptions are a reflection of our social norms and mainstream world view. Educated, intelligent people do think this way about other human beings’ bodies and worth; they need to think this way about others, and so they need to be called out for it.

If it is true, what Lorde has written, “poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought,” then this is what I want my poems to do: to envision and to encourage the enaction of the Filipina and the woman of color as not a silent, servicing, passive body, but as a self-determined human being coming to terms with the history that has made the world view her as it does.

I think of Evie Shockley’s “Ballad of Anita Hill,” in a half-red sea:

We crowned you for a day, a week, Miss Black
	America: knew you as a round, brown face
pegged in a sharp, square frame: condemned your lack
	of style--those tailored suits could never grace
the breasts of chocolate milk, the fleshy hips
	we knew you had, the way an evening gown
would have: judged you on the size of your lips,
	their color, whether they trembled, or turned down:
considered your talents--writing, teaching law--
	yet ranked you highest for your undemonstrated
but patent skill at giving head (we saw
	through your disguise): and ultimately rated
you a queen-bitch-Jezebel-matriarch-whore,
	destroyer of black manhood, and so much more.

I think of Tara Betts’s poem, “Escape of Choice,” from Arc & Hue:

She swelled at two months
like red print of a slap
beating a rhythm on her face.
He offers his fist instead
of groceries, and she knows
this can happen more than once.
She has contracted. She has eased.
This is a lost baby poem.

In order to overcome dwelling in victimhood, it is necessary to expose the indignity done upon women of color, as in these poems, and so I return again to Audre Lorde. Silence will not protect their bodies or ours.

Others prefer we inhabit brokenness, but that is not where and how I live, in pieces.

Others find satisfaction in the spectacle of our brokenness, and the spectacle of us fretting over our brokenness, not knowing what to do about it, paralyzed into inaction about it, defined by it. I believe this is what Lorde meant when she wrote about “the tyrannies you swallow.”

The spectacle of auto-victimization, and the satisfaction derived from it, are obscene.

Again, I write to speak to that ugliness, to dig through the muck until there’s no muck left. As I read in Suheir Hammad’s breaking poems, an entire volume of being restoring from brokenness poems, with each new poem, clarity is more and more attainable:

something in me is dying it is brilliant
and the thing is who i use to be it is

I need the discourse about woman of color poetics, and the poetry of women of color to center on creating ourselves anew, without avoiding confronting the mainstream world view which needs the objectified and violated brown woman body in order to maintain and satisfy itself. I am so thankful for our poet activist foremothers, would be nowhere without them. But today, to sustain me in my everyday practice and this difficult work of unraveling/getting past dwelling in the ugly politics of shame, exposing and overcoming brutality, I need the words and work of women of color poets like Brandy Nālani McDougall, Sasha Pimentel Chacón, Irene Faye Duller, Evie Shockley, Tara Betts, Suheir Hammad and you, Bhanu.


Posted in Uncategorized on Thursday, April 7th, 2011 by Barbara Jane Reyes.