Almost everyone in Seattle turned out Friday night to see Sherman Alexie, Chris Abani, Jonathan Evison, and Joy Mills. The one who made the biggest impression by far was Chris Abani.
Much of what he said blew right past me, but the stuff that stuck hit me right between the eyes, lodged in the forefront of my brain and prompted full on catharsis. He talked about the importance of bearing witness to the things that shape our world view, and those things don’t have to be the terrors I have been so focused on lately. The example he gave was the sort of thing that makes me think people need to just grow the fuck up and stop whining.
A day later it really sunk in. Just because the events are lame doesn’t mean they aren’t important to who I am and how I handled myself as I went through life.
What if the truth of a person’s experience isn’t the worst thing that ever happened to them, just the first?
Thinking back to what that was for me wasn’t hard.
I was ugly.
When I was eleven I stole money from my parents and used it to buy candy. I would pass it out to the kids at school so they would be nice to me. I was desperate to find a way out of the hell that school became after we moved to the east coast. The taunts and teasing, the jokes and the insults, the rude remarks and the hateful notes were hourly distractions from what was supposed to be a place for me to improve myself. As a result I pulled even farther into my books and fantasies. If it weren’t for Stephen King and Clive Barker, I doubt I would be so well adjusted now.
The truly pathetic thing–what I was most ashamed of–was my failure to defend myself. They made fun of my glasses (unoriginal), my crooked bangs (it got old), my clothes (they were terrified someone would find out they shopped at K-mart), my last name (the reworking of it was used so many times I was amazed none of them got tired of it). It wasn’t enough that I was visually horrifying, apparently I was so disgusting that they couldn’t even sit in a chair I had vacated, and wiped themselves off after touching me. When Mr. H. announced the names of the students who had books outstanding at the school library, mine was Stranger With My Face. The entire class erupted in laughter and all I did was stare straight ahead, pretending that I didn’t care.
What I learned from watching Sixteen Candles and Revenge of the Nerds brought my situation into even more vivid relief. Nerds were the lowest of the low, and I was lower than a nerd. At least they had their brains. They could help other kids with their homework or build machines that in the end did something cool. I was so lost in my books that I cared little for homework. My grades sucked, so not only was I repulsively ugly, I was stupid too.
In seventh grade I figured out how to get the worst of the bullies to leave me alone and even found a way to enlist him in my defense.
I blew him.
It did not work because he liked this, or because he wanted me to do it again. It worked because whenever he began the taunts or joined in when someone else started them, I was able to stop him with a knowing look. The last thing he wanted was for anyone to find out that he had been with me.
When Junot Diaz gave this talk at Rutgers University in 2007 he said:
“It’s that if you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves.”
From Scooby Doo to MTV to movies, music and glossy magazines, ugly girls who are not smart do not exist. Worse, they are a waste of space. If most of the people I spent my time with during the day were to be believed, my presence was actually a hindrance to their personal happiness. To those kids I was a monster. Because I saw myself through their eyes, I was a monster. The knowledge that they were cruel, small minded people who had their own sets of problems, did not mean I took their words any less seriously. When ninth grade rolled around I switched to a new school. From then on I was terrified someone would find out what I really was. Even as I grew into new roles: runaway,slut, druggie…no label was ever as revealing as the first one I had worn.
When I met Junot Diaz I was frustrated by the fact that there was no way to explain how important his work and example have been to me. I told him I loved him–in English and Spanish. I babbled about how prizes didn’t matter. Celebrity didn’t matter. I told him that I was Nilda. I was actually much worse than Nilda. Nilda wouldn’t have been caught dead with me, but he had read from that story so it seemed to fit.
I certainly couldn’t articulate how Drown was the single most disturbing book I have ever read in my life. It made me feel like I had been found out and I was both grateful for the fact that someone else got it, and resented him for exposing the feelings. After so many years of pretending to be a member of normal society, Drown reminded me all over again that I am still not quite right.
Junot Diaz showed me what I was, even when the mirror he held up looked nothing like me on the outside.
Chris Abani reminded me of the importance of being honest about what I am and this has nothing to do with sex, or Straight, or even being a mommy or a writer. It does however have everything to do with what makes me, me.
*For the guys out there who believe that all I need is a bit o’ male attention, this post most definitely is not an attempt to reel in compliments, start a flirtation, nor is this an invitation to send your thoughts on how much my appearance has changed over the years. The way I look now, or even how I looked them, is not the point, so please, please, please don’t start.
~There were a few kids who were nice to me. Somehow though they were not the ones in most of my classes! Their friendship and kindness worked like lily pads in the slimy muck filled hallways of that middle school. Their attention proved that I was still human and for the little ways they included me in their lives, I am still grateful.