Take Away: How a Renovation in Cuba Connected Me to My Chinese and Cuban Heritages

Take Away

How a Renovation in Cuba Connected Me to My Chinese and Cuban Heritages


by Katarina Wong

It was the tiles that clinched the deal.


My apartment search in Havana had grown cold, and I’d just about given up when the realtor called.

“A new listing just came on the market that I think you’d like,” she said.

We hoofed it up four long flights to the top floor and entered a living room with fourteen-foot ceilings and balconies that opened up to a spectacular view. It spanned from the Capitólio, a near-identical replica of the U.S. Capitol building, across the lush green treetops of the Granma Memorial and out to the malecón, the famous sea wall that marked the edge of the island.

But it was the cement tiles that ran the length of the space like an ornate rug that caught my imagination. Original to the building, one pattern of interlocking brick red, forest green, and ochre delineated the living room from the rest of the apartment, while a different configuration filled the other rooms. I thought about how generations of daily lives had polished them to a silky shine.

It was January 2015, only a few weeks after President Obama announced a reopening of relations between the United States and Cuba. The optimism this announcement ushered in was unprecedented, and I wanted to be part of what I hoped would be a new chapter for Cuba. I wondered too if I might find the next act of my story. I hoped to better understand my Cuban roots and maybe even find my place here—literally and figuratively.

This curiosity was sparked by a long-held feeling that I was a cultural imposter. Despite having visited my mother’s family in Cuba dozens of times—the first as a child in 1979 during the Cold War—I felt like the lite version of my Cuban relatives who lived in Miami, lacking any real sabor and sweetened artificially. English was my native language, not Spanish; I grew up in Florida, but not in the Cuban ex-pat community full of its rituals and large family gatherings; I never had a quinceañera, nor did I know who the Three Kings were until I was long past the age when I could expect gifts from them.

So, after all of these years, I found myself standing on the tile floors of a nearly century-old building in Habana Vieja, the oldest part of Havana, saying yes to the purchase.

Even though the apartment appeared solid to me, my contractor advised me to do a complete renovation and correct any underlying problems. He stripped the cement ceiling and walls down to the metal beams and fixed hidden leaks, upgraded the plumbing, and ran new wiring. I also changed the floor plan to make it more open and welcoming, but one thing I didn’t touch was the original floor. In redoing the bathroom, however, I learned my contractor needed to remove the ceramic tile floor to rerun plumbing lines. It was an opportunity for me to lay a new one, and I wanted cement tiles to complement the rest of the apartment. Like most supplies in Cuba, the challenge was where to find them.

Cuban tiles—referred to losas hidráulicas or mosaicos—were first brought from Spain in the late 1800s, and although Cuba became home to the largest manufacturer of cement tiles in the world within a few decades, by 2015 all of those factories had disappeared. Thanks to a Canadian acquaintance who was in the midst of renovations himself, I eventually found the lone fabricator of losas hidráulicas in Havana.

Walking into the showroom was like seeing the greatest hits of Cuban flooring. I recognized many of the patterns on the large panels displayed on the walls. There were the fat-petaled daisies against a background of dusty pink I’d noticed in a friend’s home; medallion patterns from a nearby hotel; and even designs from my own apartment. For the bathroom floor, I settled on a black, gray, and white geometric pattern that complemented the white bathroom fixtures.

While there, I was invited to see how the tiles were made. The saleswoman led me down a narrow staircase to the workshop where an artisan was attaching a metal mold to a twenty-by-twenty-millimeter (about eight-by-eight-inch) cement slab. The mold was divided into sections, and he filled them with liquid cement colored with mineral pigments. When the pattern was complete, the tile would be put through a press, then soaked in water to set the colors. After drying, each was not only a handmade piece of art, but one with a lifespan. I learned that the hand-poured layer (about four millimeters thick) corresponded to about a century of wear and tear—of children growing into adults, of fiestas, of families expanding and contracting.

I also noticed a curious thing. When Cubans made similar home improvements, many opted for mass-produced ceramic tiles made in China instead of traditional cement tiles. I’m sure a big factor was cost. While a dollar per cement tile was a bargain for outsiders like me, a dollar represented one twenty-fifth of the average monthly pay in Cuba. I also wondered whether having shiny new tiles seemed more exciting than keeping the faded cement ones they were used to living with. Perhaps it was like an American updating an avocado-green 1970s kitchen with clean white subway tiles and stainless steel appliances. I understood the impulse, but it broke my heart to see old, historic tiles covered over.

Even on an island so cut off from outside goods, China’s inexpensive, expendable products had come ashore, and with them a business model that favors quantity over quality, desire over satisfaction. This disposability ran contrary to what my Chinese father had reminded my sisters and me about the longevity of that side of our inherited culture and the inventions that continued to reverberate hundreds, if not thousands, of years later.

As a child, he’d prompt us with bedtime recitations of the glory of our ancestors’ ingenuity.

“Who invented gunpowder?”

“The Chinese!” my sisters and I would say, a chorus of little voices chirping in unison.


“The Chinese!”


“The Chinese!”


“The Chinese!

The disparity between those mass-produced tiles and the history my father was so proud of stung as I tried to make sense of what was lasting and what was fleeting about my Cuban and Chinese cultural inheritances.

One evening back in New York, I had an epiphany. As I splayed out a carton that held my vegetable lo mein, I noticed the curious angles and cuts that, when folded, came together in a shape known the world over. Here was something designed to be disposable but that was still iconic. What if I juxtaposed Cuban tile patterns on them—not as cartons, but as flat surfaces. What new hybrid thing might emerge?

I ordered a sleeve of takeaway containers, pried off the metal handles, and laid several cartons flat. Using my arsenal of bamboo brushes, I painted a tile pattern from my Cuban apartment across them. I chose a rich yellow acrylic ink reminiscent of a shade called “wong” that was used only by Chinese emperors. This was also the surname given to my father when he immigrated to the United States in 1939 during the era of the Chinese Exclusion Act.

My grandfather had entered the States illegally, so he couldn’t bring his son. Instead, he turned to a friend who was Chinese but had American citizenship. His friend, a Mr. Wong, sent for my father from Guangzhou, claiming him as his own. My father became part of a generation of “paper sons,” and although he was reunited with my grandfather, in the transaction our family name, “Liu,” was erased. This color—this “wong”— references both a royal privilege that lasted through dynasties and a part of my family’s identity that became disposable.

Take Away

by Katarina Wong

(click for full-size images, titles, and captions)

I called my hybrid pieces the “Take Away” series. Sometimes I would scramble the tile pattern, as in “Take Away (Landscape),” which was inspired by misty Chinese scroll paintings, or I’d cut through the cartons, letting the negative space create the image.

Eventually, I wanted to translate these pieces into a medium similar to cement tiles. Porcelain was a natural choice. It is unexpectedly durable, and porcelains play a prominent role throughout Chinese art history. In “Take Away (Runner),” for example, I glazed the Cuban tile pattern purposefully askew across a grid of carton-shaped porcelain tiles, resembling a puzzle that is either coming together or falling apart.

My “Take Away” series ultimately was inspired by a longing for home—a physical one and one I carry in my heart—a way of merging what’s transitory with what endures. My father is no longer here, but my memories of him, stories from his childhood, his pride in his culture, are contained in every brushstroke. These pieces also hold my mother’s stories, my relationships with friends and family in Cuba, and the feeling of walking across the cool tiles in my Havana apartment—floors that stretch across time, back to the building’s beginning in 1928, to the present, and then into the future, where I hope more generations will play, grow, love, and create on them.


Jareen Imam author photo

About the Maker

I’m an artist and writer based in New York City. Through my arts practice, I merge disparate aspects of my Cuban, Chinese, and American cultures. As a first-generation American, I’ve never felt fully claimed by any of these cultures, and my work is a way of reconciliation and reclamation. I use a variety of media, including installation, drawing, painting, and porcelain, and create work that merges iconography and meaning from my diverse cultures. My artwork has been shown nationally and internationally, including at the Art Museum of the Americas in Washington, D.C.; the Chinese American Museum and California African Art Museum, both in LA as part of the 2017 Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA initiative; El Museo Del Barrio and The Bronx Museum, both in New York City; The Fowler Museum in LA; the Nobel Museum in Stockholm, Sweden; Fundacíon Canal in Madrid, Spain; and the Coral Gables Art Museum in Miami. I’ve received numerous grants and awards including the Cintas Fellowship for Cuban and Cuban-American artists and a Pollock-Krasner grant, as well as residencies at Skowhegan; Ucross Foundation; Ragdale Foundation; the Kunstlerhaus in Salzberg, Austria; and the Open Art Residency in Eretria, Greece. My work is in numerous private and public collections including the Scottsdale Museum of Art and the Frost Art Museum in Miami, FL. In addition to my visual arts practice, I write about immigration and Cuba issues, including Cuban artists, as well as professional development articles for artists. I’ve written for The New York Daily News, The Miami Herald, Entrepreneur, the Art Business Journal, and the Two Coats of Paint blogazine. My essay “Between the Lines: Messages from my Family in Cuba,” was included in the Bronx Memoir Anthology, Vol. 3 published in 2019. I am currently working on a memoir about my Cuban Chinese American heritages. I have an MFA from the University of Maryland, a Master of Theological Studies in Buddhism from the Harvard Divinity School, and a BA in Classics from St. John’s College, Annapolis, MD.

Photos courtesy Katarina Wong. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Makers on Making illustration by Brian Dixon for BMP Voices. All rights reserved.

Makers on Making features printmakers, writers, knitters, crafters, painters, photographers, textile artists, and anyone else involved in art. These pieces delve into the psychology of making, the lessons we learn from success and (often more usefully) failure, and what it is to be a human authentically and emotionally involved as a maker in our world.

“Tristan Strong Destroys the World” Is a Magical Tale of Intergenerational Trauma

“Tristan Strong Destroys the World” Is a Magical Tale of Intergenerational Trauma

Kwame Mbalia’s Tristan Strong Destroys the World begins one month after the events of the first book. Tristan Strong and the mythical world of Alke are traumatized—but their battles are far from over.

When folk hero John Henry is attacked by a mysterious enemy and Tristan’s grandmother is kidnapped, Tristan must journey to Alke once more to save what’s left of the realm before its stories are lost forever.

One of the things that immediately grabbed my attention about this novel is the fact that Tristan is traumatized by his previous adventures. He has nightmares and distracted thoughts even when he needs to go save the world of Alke again. This is compelling, because I haven’t read a lot of books that show the effects of a grand yet dangerous adventure on a hero’s psyche. In most sequels, the hero seems perfectly fine emotionally and is ready to tackle the next adventure. It is wonderful for young readers to see that it is okay not to be okay, even when you’re a hero.

In addition, Tristan’s trauma allows him to better empathize with the residents of Alke, the world of beings from African and African American myths and folktales. Alke has literal scars and emotional ones, and things only get worse for it as the plot thickens. Yet there is also beauty, life, and history in Alke, and to see Tristan search for and attempt to protect those aspects of the world is poignant and emotional. By telling and collecting stories of Alke’s history, Tristan is able to put his skills as an “Ananseem” to good use in order to get to the heart of Alke’s current problems.

I haven’t read a lot of books that show the effects of a grand yet dangerous adventure on a hero’s psyche. … It is wonderful for young readers to see that it is okay not to be okay, even when you’re a hero.

Part of Alke’s history lies within characters old and new. This second book in the Tristan Strong series sees the return of spunky doll Gum Baby and crafty trickster god Anansi (albeit in phone form), but it also introduces new characters like the mischievous and mouthy boy Junior. The introduction of new African and Black women characters in this book makes up for the lack of them in the first one. There is adventurous folk hero Keelboat Annie, resourceful juke joint owner Lady Night, and regal goddess Mami Wata. And I would be remiss to fail to note that Tristan’s grandmother, Nana, also has a larger role in this book as Tristan’s source of strength and inspiration.

Alke’s history consists of elements rooted in African American history and culture. These elements range from the painful and ugly to the lively and the resilient, embodied in everything from the new antagonist, DJ Culture Vulture, to the jollof rice served at Lady Night’s juke joint. A personal favorite of mine is the SPB, the portable smartphone version of Alke’s Story Box and the new home for trickster god Anansi. It was fun to see more of the phone in action after the events of the first book, especially through the new “Diaspor-app” that allows Tristan to see how Alke’s stories are connected to the Diapora.

Combining Alke’s history, Tristan’s trauma, and Alke’s current issues, Tristan Strong Destroys the World offers a compelling tale of intergenerational trauma and recovery. Whether it be through family, history, or a bit of both, many African Americans deal with intergenerational trauma in one way or other. Not only is this story a good way to teach the concept to younger readers, but older readers can also learn something from it as well.

Tristan Strong Destroys the World offers a compelling tale of intergenerational trauma and recovery. … Not only is this story a good way to teach the concept to younger readers, but older readers can also learn something from it as well.

Tristan Strong Destroys the World is a powerful sequel to its predecessor. There is more magic, action, and stories to learn from than ever before. If the ending is any indication, things are going to be even more epic in the next book of the trilogy. For now, though, readers who enjoyed Tristan Strong’s first adventure can join him once more and have their world rocked.

The Afro YA promotes black young adult authors and YA books with black characters, especially those that influence Pennington, an aspiring YA author who believes that black YA readers need diverse books, creators, and stories so that they don’t have to search for their experiences like she did.

Latonya Pennington is a poet and freelance pop culture critic. Their freelance work can also be found at PRIDE, Wear Your Voice magazine, and Black Sci-fi. As a poet, they have been published in Fiyah Lit magazine, Scribes of Nyota, and Argot magazine among others.

“The Black Flamingo” Is an Electrifying, Poetic Declaration of Identity

“The Black Flamingo” Is an Electrifying, Poetic Declaration of Identity

As a Black Asian nonbinary queer femme from the United States, I find it fascinating to learn about what life is like for queer trans people of color around the world.

Some countries have more queer freedom than others, but somehow international QTPOC always find a way to create a space to be themselves. This is exemplified in Dean Atta’s verse novel The Black Flamingo, which is heavily inspired by UK LGBTQ+ culture. It tells the story of  Michael “Michalis” Angeli, a gay British young man with Greek Jamaican heritage. Growing up, his multifaceted identity makes him feel out of place. After deciding to attend a university in Brighton, Michael joins a drag club and slowly discovers how to combine his identities and his lived experiences to make himself feel whole.

One of the most notable aspects of this book that immediately drew me in was how it flawlessly combines standard poetry with narrative storytelling. As in Elizabeth Acevedo’s The Poet X, this book’s protagonist becomes a poet and gradually uses his poetry to express his blossoming sexuality as well as his gender and his racial experiences. One of my personal favorite poems in this book is titled “I Come From,” which features Michael reveling in his heritage and the experiences that have shaped him to that point: “I come from DIY that never got done. / I come from waiting by the phone for him to call. / I come from waving the white flag to loneliness. / I come from the rainbow flag and the Union Jack.”

The narrative storytelling in verse is also remarkable because it shows Michael’s life from childhood to early adulthood. I haven’t read too many coming-of-age verse novels that present the character at different stages of their life. This choice allows the reader to see how both small and large experiences shape Michael as he grows up. For example, Michael recalls wanting to have a Barbie doll as a child and how his mom initially thought he was kidding, since boys are socially conditioned to like “boys’ toys” like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. In a more affecting episode, preteen Michael takes an Easter trip to Cyprus and hears about a black flamingo on the news.

In fact, seeing how different experiences shaped the development of Michael’s drag character, “The Black Flamingo,” was thought-provoking and poignant. Inspired by events such as having his dreadlocks touched by white people and reciting his poetry at an open mic, Michael’s becoming The Black Flamingo allows him to transform into a more confident and fuller self. The character also serves as the result of Michael’s growth as a person and how he has learned about, and unlearned, things like internalized racism and Black queer lives of the past and the present.

Seeing how different experiences shaped the development of Michael’s drag character, “The Black Flamingo,” was thought-provoking and poignant.

Furthermore, some of the experiences that influenced “The Black Flamingo” also give the reader an interesting glimpse into LGBTQ culture in the United Kingdom. The contrast between a gay bar and a Black queer gay bar, and the homophobia casually tossed around by schoolchildren with terms like “bwatty bwoy,” show how complex the experiences of Black queer UK youth are, especially those of the children of immigrants. Michael has to unlearn a lot, especially regarding gender norms and heteronormativity. Neither completely fertile nor arid, UK LGBTQ culture is represented as something that Black queer people must navigate well in order to grow into the people they want to be.

Michael’s story also gives the reader a solid introduction to drag culture, with clear and creative explanations of what it is and what it isn’t. Since Michael is new to drag culture, the reader is able to learn about it alongside him. I love these lines that sum up what Michael wants from drag culture: “I’m just a man and I want to wear a dress and makeup onstage…. I’m a man and I want to be a free one.”

While The Black Flamingo is enjoyable as-is, it would have been interesting to see what the Jamaican side of Michael’s family thought of his queerness. Michael doesn’t mention his queerness to them at all, since he knows it’s illegal to be gay in Jamaica and that his family might have brought some of that prejudice with them to the UK. It is entirely possible that some of Michael’s family will not accept him. Yet given how completely Michael’s Greek mom accepts his queerness, it would have been nice to see at least one member of Michael’s Jamaican family do the same.

On the whole, The Black Flamingo is an electrifying, poetic declaration of identity. Through poetry, coming-of-age perspectives, and drag, the novel offers a triumphant tale of transformation and self-expression.

The Afro YA promotes black young adult authors and YA books with black characters, especially those that influence Pennington, an aspiring YA author who believes that black YA readers need diverse books, creators, and stories so that they don’t have to search for their experiences like she did.

Latonya Pennington is a poet and freelance pop culture critic. Their freelance work can also be found at PRIDE, Wear Your Voice magazine, and Black Sci-fi. As a poet, they have been published in Fiyah Lit magazine, Scribes of Nyota, and Argot magazine among others.

Top photo by Wendy Wei from Pexels.


Poetry Month Spotlight: Jessica Mehta

Poetry Month Spotlight: Jessica Mehta

Artist Statement

I am a multi-award-winning poet, artist, and performance artist working at the intersection of mixed- and digital-media. As a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, much of my work focuses on space, place, and identity in post-Colonial America and often addresses the vast disparities faced by indigenous people today. Many of my projects also directly address issues that have impacted me personally, such as mass incarceration, alcoholism and drug addiction, homelessness, eating disorders, and the opioid epidemic. One example of this hyper-personal implementation is my curation of an anthology of poetry by incarcerated indigenous women. I am the only person in my family to never be incarcerated, and offering workshops in correctional facilities while providing these women with a platform for their voices was a project stemming from my own experiences of having family members trapped in the nation’s “justice” system.

In the business facet of my life, I own a small writing services company (MehtaFor) which specializes in creating search engine optimization (SEO) rich content. The emphasis of technology in my business life organically spread to my creative and research life in the past decade. Increasingly, I have been utilizing technology in my creative work, such as the creation of a virtual reality (VR) poetry experience with proprietary software that allows users to immerse themselves in indigenous poetry in new, intimate ways.

My interest in VR partially stems from research from the University of Barcelona that suggests embodiment in VR has the capacity to permanently increase a person’s understanding, empathy, and compassion—my hope is that non-Native users who experience poetry in VR may undergo similar results. I also offer poetry in other non-traditional formats, such as in performance art with elements of shibari rope tying using customized measuring tapes to draw attention to eating disorders. Eating disorders are the deadliest, most under-insured, and most under-diagnosed of any mental disorder, and are especially under-treated in non-white communities.

Indigenous audiences are a natural fit for my work, but I know that those who might benefit the most are non-Native. I consider myself an artist and writer first, but hope to also serve as a source to help encourage knowledge-sharing, the opening of discourse, and information exchange beyond indigenous communities. I am constantly working towards making poetry, art, and technology as accessible and engaging as possible. Unfortunately, poetry is often seen as the literature genre which is the most elite, dry, and boring—even though this, of course, is not true. By introducing poetry to audiences in different formats, I aim to create a welcoming opportunity to experience the genre.

For more information on my art, background, and projects, please visit my site at www.jessicamehta.com.

Do You See the Stars?

This is waking up. Remember
when you pressed your thumbs,
thick and unforgiving,
into my eye sockets? Slow as death
until I caved
to the dizzy and you whispered,
accent sticky, dripping in rose syrup,

Do you see the stars?

And I did. They burst in the darkness like kisses.
This city has a heart, fluttering
crazed and drunken as a beast, hands
itchy and always wanting, wanting
and a mouth with hunger so palpable
I gave myself in an instant. I was new,
damp when I came here, ridiculous
as one of those puppy mill survivors

too petrified to take a single step from the cage
into green grass and sunshine. I stumbled,
but for the stars.

I risked it all for you
because it was home, because it was you,
the cage I left behind, dank and cloying
and so sadly, pathetically familiar. It was a husk,
forgotten like nightmares and used to be’s,

but it was all I’d ever known.

Pulitzer Prize Pig

Pulitzer Prize Pig spoke of what it means
to be ***** as a ***** man with a look
the look      that look
women were born knowing
how to read. I knew
that look      the look
at fifteen when the AP teacher crouched
beside my desk in the dark
while flashes of syphilis
and gonorrhea shuddered
across the projector screen. (Still, even now,
I hear the tired clicking of the tapes).
I knew the look, saw      a look,
at eleven when grown men whistled
at my unfolding hips and high
school boys rolled Corollas
along middle school parking lots
with eyes that spider-scurried
pressed breasts. And I knew, I saw
that look,      his look
at four. In the bathtub, I learned shame—
I shot my father
in the eye with a plastic alligator squirt
gun and never bathed with open doors again.
Pulitzer Prize Pig sidled up close, nosed for nipple
drinkers and sniffed out my slop. Trough walls
are low, but sticky, slick beside stys,
and boars are happy with scraps.

I Thought You Were Praying

Through the deserts outside Al Ain, the baby
sucking like a beast at your breast,
mosques gave way to dunes
and the oiled street workers to palms.
Beyond the camels,
past the tribesmen,
we didn’t stop until we were away from it all—
the malls with their ungodly air conditioning,
the fat children making loud love to their sweets,
the fat wives engorged in their abayas, rolling
like sun-swollen beetles through the shops.
In ballet flats and the jeans that hugged my ass
like a fetish, I climbed the dunes as if I belonged,
while beautiful golden men in glorious keffiyehs
honked safely from the highway. And I,
staggering like a drunk
as the sand clung begging and desperate,
my cuckolded lover to my perfect white feet,
mounted the crest, dropped to my knees,
ready and eager as a whore,
to fill a mason jar with contraband. And you,
nipples burnished as the sand, laughed,
I thought you were praying.

About Jessica Mehta

Jessica (Tyner) Mehta is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, multi-award-winning poet, and author of over one dozen books. Place, space, and personal ancestry inform much of her work. She’s also the Editor-in-Chief of Crab Creek Review and owner of an award-winning small business. MehtaFor is a writing services company that offers pro bono services to Native Americans and indigenous-serving non-profits.

Jessica integrates technology, archival photos, and performance art into many of her creative projects. “Red/Act” is a pop-up virtual reality poetry experience made with proprietary software. It aims to introduce more people to poetry, and specifically indigenous poetry, through a uniquely immersive encounter. Her “emBODY poetry” performance series features experimental poetry on nude form while incorporating shibari rope work to address topics on body image and eating disorders.

Her novel The Wrong Kind of Indian won gold at the 2019 Independent Publisher Book Awards (IPPYs) and at the American Book Fest Best Book. Jessica has also received numerous fellowships in recent years, including the Everett Helm Visiting Fellowship at the Lilly Library at Indiana University in Bloomington and the Eccles Centre Visiting Fellowship at The British Library in London. Jessica is a popular speaker and panelist, featured recently at events such as the US State Department’s National Poetry Month event, “Poets as Cultural Emissaries: A Conversation with Women Writers,” as well as the “Women’s Transatlantic Prison Activism Since 1960” symposium at Oxford University.

She has undertaken poetry residencies around the globe including at Hosking Houses Trust with an appointment at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford-Upon-Avon, England, Paris Lit Up in France, and at the Crazy Horse Memorial and museum in South Dakota. Her work has been featured at galleries and exhibitions around the world, including IA&A Hillyer in Washington DC, The Emergency Gallery in Sweden, and Institute of American Indian Arts in New Mexico.

Jessica is also an experienced registered yoga instructor (ERYT-500®), registered children’s yoga teacher (RCYT®), certified Yoga Alliance Continuing Education Provider (YACEP®), and NASM-certified personal trainer (CPT). She’s the founder of the Get it Ohm! karma yoga and strength movement, which offers free classes to groups that don’t have access to traditional yoga studios and/or don’t feel comfortable in such environments.

Learn more at www.jessicamehta.com or find Jessica on Twitter and Instagram @bookscatsyoga.


National Poetry Month

BMP Celebrates National Poetry Month

For this year’s National Poetry Month at BMP Voices, we seek to celebrate the ways in which we’re interconnected — highlighting community, gratitude, and the ways in which creativity redounds upon itself, fed by collective energy and goodwill. Our fee-free contest is open to all styles and forms of poetry, with an eye toward our mission of discovering voices that are immediate, immersive, and urgent. Poems inspired by the work of others are welcome. We also welcome poems written to other poems or poets.

Where Stillness and Resistance Have a Form

Ex-patriot Cheyenne writer Lance Henson’s new work in Dead Zone et autres textes has the same powerful slight lines, imagistic suggestiveness, and resistance vision of his earlier work.

The poem “secret” claims the kind of revelation I have always discovered in Henson’s work: “the half blindness that allowed you to see further / words forged in motions” (24). The back cover text “places” Henson and his stance with this description:

somewhere between rage and freedomI am sitting in the ashes of a dreamsinging. . .

Finally, one of unnamed poems in the collection offers the kind of straight-forward societal indictment that also characterizes his work:

americaamericano longer a theme parknow a killing fieldif you are          the other. . . . (54)

A member of the Cheyenne Dog Soldier Warrior Society, veteran, Native American activist, AIM member, and member of the Native American Church, Henson also holds an MFA from University of Tulsa and has worked as poet-in-residence in over 800 schools in the United States and Europe. Since his first volume of poetry, Keeper of Arms, was released in 1971, he has published twenty-eight chapbooks or volumes of poetry which have been translated into twenty-five languages.

Throughout his oeuvre, Henson presents his sparse uninflected poems in lower case, without capitalization, and with ellipses as his main form of punctuation. His poems often weave together images of the external landscapes with spiritual terrain reflecting on their porous interconnections. They also offer commentary on historical and contemporary failings of the U.S. government and on the broader capitalistic colonizing forces at work in the world. Henson’s comments in “The Whirlwind is a Mirror” shed light on his aesthetic when he claims, “All poems are prayers when they work,” and “Poetry is revolutionary. It must be to survive.” About his preference for the short poem, he notes: “I think brevity is one way to acknowledge strength and one way to acknowledge and pay homage to the Great Silence we came out of.” Indeed, Henson’s poetry may be crafted to a large extent of prayer, revolution, and great silences.

A poem like “strong heart song” that gives title to his 1997 collection Strong Heart Song: Lines From a Revolutionary Text seems to contain all of these elements:

nadors do mi uts e mghon bach ni tseheskotseoehmin

i will walk on the ashes of the earthsinging (iii)

By opening the poem first in Cheyenne, the bilingual Henson enacts a revolutionary response to the colonization of language. Then, with the phrase “the ashes of earth” he implies something about the fleetingness of physical reality and perhaps offers a warning about the inevitable destructive effects of contemporary human actions. Still the poet will proceed “singing,” which in the larger context of Native ceremonial tradition is often the equivalent of prayer. Both verbally and visually the poem is small — much is left unspoken; much is contained in the implied silence.

Perhaps the finest gesture in Henson to silence comes in the poem “celebration” which opens with “cold light / at the edge / of words” and closes with this word picture:

in a portraita woman isholding herapron

catching thesnow (Selected Poems, 10).

The poem accumulates meaning from the idea of an artist’s creating a picture/portrait, the vision of the woman “catching” snow (or perhaps manna), and the idea of her making of herself a vessel — attempting to gather or hold that which will only melt as snow or dissipate as fleeting knowledge. Such, of course, is always the poets’ futile quest, particularly in the light of injustice.

It is as well Henson’s quest in Dead Zone. In the poem “Kofi,” he recognizes that Sisyphus-like task of poets to build with language even as we already acknowledge its inadequacy:

now your words have entereda frontier known only to poetsin our collectivebookof the wind. . . . (70)

In this new book, as in all that came before, the success of Henson’s poetry stems partly from its eloquent portrait of its own fleeting reality.

About the Author

Kimberly Blaeser, writer, photographer, and scholar, is the author of three poetry collections—most recently Apprenticed to Justice; and editor of Traces in Blood, Bone, and Stone: Contemporary Ojibwe Poetry. She served as Wisconsin Poet Laureate for 2015-16. Blaeser is Anishinaabe and grew up on White Earth Reservation. A Professor of English and Indigenous Studies at the University of Wisconsin—Milwaukee, Blaeser is also on faculty for the Institute of American Indian Arts low residency MFA program in Santa Fe. Her photographs, picto-poems, and ekphrastic poetry have been featured in various venues including the exhibits “Ancient Light” and “Visualizing Sovereignty.” Her fourth collection of poetry, Copper Yearning, will be published by Holy Cow! Press in fall 2019.

For this year’s National Poetry Month, Brain Mill Press & Voices want to add to your #TBR pile, sing siren songs of unsung heroes, and signal boost living poets we should be reading more. By the end of the month, we hope you will have acquired 30+ new books of poetry and that they continue to multiply in the darkness of your library. Explore new voices & new forms — re-read some old favorites — play if you liked this poet, you’ll like… the old-fashioned way, algorithm-free — just poetry lovers talking to poetry lovers, as the Universe intended. Happy #NaPoMo2019 from Brain Mill Press.

When One’s Anger Is Justified But Silenced

It all began with an article I posted on my Filipino Student Association’s Facebook page.

Entitled “My ‘Get Out’ Moment as an Overseas Student,” my essay is about how my first landlady in New Zealand, a white woman, gradually unmasked her racism to me while I was living in her house, beginning slowly but surely with a series of microaggressions that turned into racial slurs and, eventually, into blatantly hostile behavior. A leading news network in Australia ran this short piece, giving me the chance to finally call my landlady out for the way she had treated me during my first month as a new PhD student in the country. By doing this, I sought to render her and other people who have behaved similarly toward new immigrants accountable for their actions. Finally, my voice had been recognized for its value, and though I expected backlash, I was sure that I was helping those who had once been in my position to feel seen and heard.

Finally, my voice had been recognized for its value, and though I expected backlash, I was sure that I was helping those who had once been in my position.

Having lived in America and New Zealand, I have grown used to being disbelieved and dismissed by white people whenever I speak openly about my experiences of racism. You are making a mountain out of a molehill, I’m often told in so many words. Maid, illegal immigrant, terrorist, mail-order bride. Why is your country so poor and your English so good? I am expected to invalidate my feelings of hurt and to remind myself, repeatedly, that I’m wrong to feel disrespected. I learn to tell myself that these people who offend me mean no harm. I am told that I must give the benefit of the doubt to those who flatten my humanity by reducing me to a stereotype. They are human, even when they casually disregard my humanity. Like many people of color, I learn to give all sorts of excuses to white people when their failure to acknowledge my feelings becomes too overwhelming, and too difficult to fight.

But while I have learned to expect my experiences of racism to be dismissed and belittled in white-dominated communities, I normally don’t expect the same from fellow people of color, who normally go through these same experiences—almost as though these are necessary rituals of initiation into a world where our existence is erased. This is why I was in shock when my article, which described instances of racism that I felt were pretty obvious to those who have unavoidably experienced it, was mocked and misunderstood in my university’s Filipino student association.

I am expected to invalidate my feelings of hurt and to remind myself, repeatedly, that I’m wrong to feel disrespected.

The first instance of microaggression that I cited in my essay was when my landlady, on my second day at her house, said to me, “I do not know how it is in your country, but here we open the windows to let in fresh air.” One doesn’t have to be a genius to sense the statement’s racist implications: that the Philippines is a dirty place, that our air is filthy, and that I have likely grown used to keeping my windows closed. A member of the group immediately replied to my post by saying that I had misinterpreted my landlady’s statement: that indeed, in New Zealand, people open the windows to let in fresh air. He also went on to say that if I hadn’t read malice into her statement, I would have avoided all the other “misunderstandings” that followed my misinterpretation. Never mind that I hadn’t complained, or called her “racist” to her face, when she told me this: all her other actions that followed, like checking on my cooking to make sure I wasn’t preparing something that “smelled,” locking my bathroom door so that I couldn’t use the toilet, hiding my food containers from me, blaming me for making her stove make “weird” noises, forcing me to hose down, squeegee, and towel dry my shower stall after every wash before scolding me for “spending too much time in the shower,” or telling me that I was “so domestic” before asking me if I could walk her dog, were the results of this initial misunderstanding on my part, which unleashed her abusive behavior. But I had been offended by what she said, and because of this, according to him, I had somehow brought on the abuse I received, even if I had kept my feelings to myself.

In response, I pointed out to him that I hadn’t misunderstood my landlady’s statement at all. I had clearly understood the message it was meant to convey: it was meant to remind me of my inferiority and to put me in my “proper” place in her household. I added that his remark indicating my hurt feelings had set the tone of her future behavior toward me was a clear case of victim blaming.

I had clearly understood the message it was meant to convey: it was meant to remind me of my inferiority and to put me in my “proper” place in her household.

No one in the group came to my defense.

A few hours later, another member responded to my comment with a laughing emoji before proceeding to call my essay “a so-called article.” He said that none of the behaviors I had described in my essay were racist or demeaning: to him, my landlady was just enforcing house rules, and that if she hadn’t done and said these things I mentioned in my piece, I would have failed to keep her house tidy and bright. I don’t know how walking her dog, staying silent when my bathroom door was locked or when my food containers were hidden in a coat closet, or “smiling more” for her whenever I cleaned her kitchen had anything to do with keeping her house tidy and bright. His comment made absolutely no sense: it was clearly meant to belittle my hurt and to cast me as hysterical and unjust in my anger.

I am still trying to understand why these young people were so eager to justify my landlady’s behavior, even going as far as saying that she had behaved fairly toward me. It made me wonder about the kind of abuse they were willing to put up with as new immigrants to New Zealand (since many of the group’s members came to the country as teenagers or young adults), if indeed they found her behavior acceptable.

It didn’t help that a female member expressed sympathy at first in response to my essay, before going on to say, “I know Filipinos who experienced the same with fellow Filipinos too, which just goes to show that this kind of behavior isn’t isolated to any particular group. This doesn’t change that New Zealand is a very welcoming place.” She was condoning my landlady’s racism, implying that because I pointed out how racially charged my landlady’s bullying was, I was singling out white people as abusers while disregarding the nonracist abuse taking place within other ethnic groups. (In other words, if others are doing it toward their own kind, then why call it racist?)

This, of course, ignores the fact that racism isn’t merely a direct attack against another race but a set of institutionalized privileges that are given to one or several ethnic groups to dominate and oppress others. To understand how racism operates in white settler societies such as New Zealand, we must recognize the privileges that white people possess as a consequence of European colonialism and the subjugation of non-Europeans. Though many claim colonialism is a thing of the past, its legacy persists: my landlady possessed immense power in our relationship as a result of her white privilege, and because I was new in the country, and a person of color, she exploited her power over me to belittle me, often with racial slurs, and to bully me. This I tried to explain to the girl, who seemed to have no notion of what white privilege was, and whose understanding of racism was flimsy at best. She did not respond, leaving her boyfriend to defend her honor, and her ignorance, on her behalf.

When I reached out to the association’s president, bringing to his attention the abuse I was beginning to receive, he curtly told me that “he’d deal with it later” before falling silent. This baffled me, considering how he often positioned himself—quite aggressively, too—as an “activist” leader in his posts and in meetings. Due to his claims of being enlightened and woke, I assumed he would see the bullying and tone policing for what it was. But a few weeks later, I received an email from the group’s leadership ordering me to unblock the two young men (which I did to protect myself) so that they could comment on my piece again. If we were to take out the phrase “so-called” from one of their comments, the officers of the group said, the comments of these two men were “well thought-out, reasonable, and objective.” In the interest of allowing a free exchange of ideas, according to them, it was not right for me to block these members from airing contrary opinions to mine. Thus, in the interest of free speech, I had to permit those who had told me that my story was illegitimate, and who had resorted to illogicalities and victim-blaming to justify my landlady’s abuse, to exercise their free speech—even as it delegitimized, and therefore took away, my voice. They ended the email by saying, “None of you are completely at fault,” as though to absolve us of a crime we all shared.

When I reached out to the association’s president, bringing to his attention the abuse I was beginning to receive, he curtly told me that “he’d deal with it later” before falling silent.

I am still at a loss as to how our leaders came to the conclusion that these comments were “well thought-out, reasonable, and objective.” These two young men had obviously not given much thought to their comments, or to the prejudices inherent in them. Is it thoughtful, reasonable, or objective to call my landlady’s request for me to walk her dog “necessary to keep her house clean and bright”? Is one being objective when one consents to or defends what is clearly abuse? Or does “objectivity” mean a refusal to see the power structures inherent in racial abuse in order to humanize the abuser and “balance out one’s judgment” of the situation?

Perhaps these Filipino student leaders truly believe that allowing racism to persist, even when it is leveled against us, is to take an objective view of the situation by ignoring our feelings of hurt—by becoming “unfeeling,” in other words—even when we experience it first-hand. Perhaps these young Filipino leaders see nothing inherently wrong in these unequal relationships, having accepted them as the natural order of things. The comments our leaders called “well-thought out, reasonable, and objective” were accepting, and even protective, of our inferior place in New Zealand society. If I understood them right, what these commenters hoped to say was that we deserve to be treated poorly by white people. If the leaders of our group had no strong objections to what these two young men told me, it appears to me that they, too, have internalized the kind of racism leveled at me by my landlady, to the point that they have accepted her abuse as a fair and reasonable occurrence, enabling it by consenting to the silencing of my voice.

To survive, we have learned to disregard our anger, to accept our lower place in colonial society, and to make ourselves small and unthreatening to our white masters.

Denying one’s experiences of racism, and tone policing one’s compatriots who choose to speak against it, is a habit Filipinos have developed from over three hundred years of colonization. To survive, we have learned to disregard our anger, to accept our lower place in colonial society, and to make ourselves small and unthreatening to our white masters. It’s a habit that we carry with us when we move to Western countries. We deny our own experiences of discrimination and gaslight ourselves into disbelieving the facts of our oppression in our efforts to be respectable, uncomplaining, and grateful in the eyes of white people. We think that this will help us survive, when it only results in our erasure, in our disempowerment.

But I will not allow myself to be silenced by my own countrymen. I choose to give voice to my anger, to resist erasure.

Top photo by Helena Lopes on Pexels

“What if we took all this anger born of righteous love and aimed it?”

—Ijeoma Olou, “We women can be anything. But can we be angry?” Medium.com

ANGER showcases essays and poetry featuring well-aimed anger from femme writers, writers of color, LGBTQIA+ writers, First Nations writers, and disabled writers.