Chris Abani, Junot Diaz, and What I Have Been Afraid You All Will Find Out

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.

Chris Abani (400x400)

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.

In chair w cat

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.

2012-09-17_21-27-21_9

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.

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12 Responses to Chris Abani, Junot Diaz, and What I Have Been Afraid You All Will Find Out

  1. Isla McKetta says:

    Great post, Sarah! I’ve been thinking a lot since the Abani reading about how artists are the ones who are asked to be vulnerable all the time–to open ourselves for rejection and to stay open even when it comes. But your post makes me realize we should be proud of how strong we become in the process. It never stops hurting, but we find somewhere I think that the hurt can’t control us.

  2. Terry Persun says:

    Well said. We have more in common than you might have thought. About bearing witness to things other than the terrors is something near and dear to my heart. Those events are the most profound because they affect us alone, without having to have the world, our neighbors, our family “understand” why we are so affected. I’m sorry I missed the event.

  3. Katherine says:

    Just when I think I have seen most of your genius, you shine a new light into another mental corner. If it were possible to go back in time, I would help you see yourself then as you are now, so that the pain would not last as long.

  4. Sarah Martinez says:

    Thanks for taking the time to comment. Yes, I think there is something about going to a very vulnerable place inside ourselves, or as some wise one said, going to the back of the cave. The writers I go apeshit over are always the ones exposing themselves in this way. I want to be able to do the same. A  great example. Especially important in cases of subjects we don’t hear about much. Now bullying is a big topic, and I was of course glad to see this, but it also seems to be swallowed up by the larger discussion of gender and sexual preference. There are likely “ugly” little girls out there who don’t believe they matter because they still don’t fit into the right group. I would like to in some way be a voice for them, but also if I do my job right, and get really specific, make my experience universally accessible as my favorite writers have.

  5. Sarah Martinez says:

    Thanks Katherine. I am really impressed by the level of response to this post.
    You call me Baby and take good care of me now, that is all that matters!
    What is interesting to me is that life was a bitch back then, and I wouldn’t wish my existence on anyone, but it has given me a much richer emotional life now, which of course flows into my books, those weird twisted creations…

  6. Sarah Martinez says:

    Terry,

    Thanks for posting. I believe we have discussed some of this. I think where I ususually click with people on this topic are the people who don’t fit (a rampant theme with me already). The gay latino, the stupid ugly girl, the Indian who doesn’t look like one. Where people don’t feel like they can associate with any one group for some reason means there is no way to come in from the cold. I was talking to an Indian American friend of mine who said that she at least had her brother to commiserate with because they were two members of the same tribe (figurative) out in the lonely world. In my case, since I wasn’t smart like my parents and sister, I didn’t fit at home either and I think that added to my sense of alienation.

    Funny, I just read and analyzed to death Kafka’s Metamorphosis and this bit just clicked. Gregor really was just like me. Now that frigging story makes sense  

    More for discussion at some point.

    Sarah 

  7. Renee says:

    Sarah- Your thoughtful post was quite provocative for me. I have nothing profound to say, I’m not even sure I understand the exchange between you and Jack Remick, although I *really* want to.  I am reminded of the awkward girl, hugging the wall of the Jr. high school hallways, in her homemade skirt and top, and her brand new bright gold tennis shoes, head down, hair hanging to hide her face, her shame that she wasn’t a ‘fit’…a ‘fit’ anywhere, surely not with the cool kids, with their stylish clothes and perfect smiles. Not with the nerds, I was never smart enough for them. And not even with the freaks, as much as I tried. Even this woman today, thirty eight years later, is still the awkward girl-child, never quite fitting in. I wonder at the idea that a few days shy of 50, I can still crave to fit in. My clothes are stylish and no longer handmade. I know better than to wear sports shoes with short skirts. My hair doesn’t hide my face, but it does hide my scars. And I still feel shame that I don’t belong, and don’t understand why. The words “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” were spot on. My life has been shaped by my mirror-memory of the girl in the hallway, and the countless other events that left me feeling ‘less than.’ I still must struggle with the ‘how I handle myself,’ how I identify myself, and what the woman in the mirror must say to the damaged little girl who still looks back.

  8. Sarah Martinez says:

    Renee,

    Thanks so much for your well thought out and revealing comments.

    Where to start?

    In regards to Jack’s comments on facebook as relates to this post, they actually had very little to do with the content that most of my readers have picked up on. Jack and I are good, as I hope we always will be. He was addressing the absolute joy I take in praising my favorite writers. We have long discussions about this that are incredibly valuable as they go to how to define oneself as a writer and not losing my own vision and creative world while being lost in someone else’s. This is very important advice for me.  I think he just wants to make sure I stay true to my own course. You might take a look at the comments again with this in mind and you’ll likely find some great gems.

    In regards to originality, and my need to eschew labels in everything I do: Eminem, Junot Diaz, Chris Abani, Marilyn Manson, Lady GaGa, Led Zeppelin, are all artists or groups I can name off the top of my head who went their own way and gave the world something new and interesting. They drilled holes in the mass psyche. I always look at the examples of people like this to keep me going. I actually believe that conformity and all the things that make school at any grade level work are the enemy of creativite energy.

    Conformity is so comfortable. If you are comfortable you need a really pressing reason to venture out. I also believe that people who go out and blow minds have to deal with so many challenges while doing so. The only way to really prepare for that–for actually making it happen–is the bullshit we put up with as kids.

    Defending our art (selves) is also an exceptional way to get clear in our own minds what it is that makes us different. What do I really have to offer and is it worth the years it is going to take for me to make it happen?

    One more thing: keep following the blog. I am almost ready to post on the word “pretty” that includes one of my favorite Rush Limbaugh quotes. Also, the stuff that I did later might also interest you coming form the same background.

    Lastly, one of my favorite albums deals quite a bit with adolescence, or at least that is how I interpret it.

    Flaw: Through the Eyes

  9. This is a great post, Sarah. The bravery to share pain and let others know that they’re not alone is one of the gifts that writers give the world, and even as I type this, I am reminded that no matter how much I believe it’s a good thing, I’m still terrified over and over to go back and share what’s happened, no matter how small, because the same is so powerful. Thanks for sharing your process so honestly.

  10. Sarah Martinez says:

    Thanks Elise,

    I am really humbled by the response I have gotten here. It gives me faith that the next batch of scary mess I put up won’t cause you all to go running for mommy and a warm blanket. There is something about knowing I have an audience for my weirdness that keeps me going.

    Sarah

  11. Lisa says:

    Wow! Sarah, you continue to amaze me. I think this is your most powerful post to date. You made tears rise in my eyes because I too know how cruel people–sometimes especially young people–can be. And it hurts me to know how cruel those kids were to you–my beautiful and brilliant friend. Keep writing; it lets the world see the real, honest, powerful, resilient, and exceptional you.

  12. Sarah Martinez says:

    Thanks for stopping by to comment.

    Seems I am, as one other commenter stated, opening veins lately. This is just the beginning.

    Stay tuned!

    Sarah

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