Cheaper than Time Travel

Suddenly, I’m back there. I’m sitting on the damp grass, boots dangling off of the cliff’s edge, watching the sunset paint the city of Edinburgh, Scotland, golden.

I feel the chilly breeze gently blowing the loose hair around my neck. I see the pink clouds collecting above the distant rooftops; the increasingly violet sky melting into night as the sun slips away. “Cadence to Arms” by the bagpiping band Dropkick Murphys blasts as loud as my wimpy iPhone speaker can manage.

I wish the music would flare out in movie theater-grade surround sound, but nestled on this rocky crag, the iPhone had to do –and it did. Now, every time I hear that song I remember that joie de vivre sunset; the intimacy of that moment as I sat there, just one tiny person in love with the great big world below.

I’m no longer in Europe, but occasionally “Cadence to Arms” plays when I shuffle my music library. I’ll be getting on the treadmill here in Orange, California, thinking of my Trader Joe’s shopping list when that slow, sweet bagpipe opening oozes from my headphones and I am transported to Scotland, to the semester of traveling Europe, to the excitement and wonder that defined me during those four months, to that version of myself. How does music do that? How does it stop a passing moment and freeze it in our memory forever?

A new study from the University of California, Davis, discusses how this recalling works. The study’s author, psychology professor Petr Janata, found that in the medial prefrontal cortex region (the part of the brain directly behind the forehead), “familiar pieces of music [will trigger] a soundtrack for a mental movie” in our heads.

“[Music] calls back memories of a particular person or place, and you might all of a sudden see that person’s face in your mind’s eye,’” Janata said.

Neurologically, our brain has different ways of recalling memory: the first is explicit memory, or the act of consciously trying to remember something, the second is implicit memory, or that spontaneous, reactive form of memory I experience when I hear “Cadence to Arms.”

While explicit memory is crucial, things that affect us from “outside of consciousness” (or implicit memory) can be equally powerful, Robert Snyder, an Art Institute of Chicago composer, told the BBC. This spontaneous recall affects us differently at various points in our lives. During the first two decades of life, memories associated with music will be remembered more strongly than those of later years –a phenomenon called a “reminiscence bump.”

In youth we tend to experience things for the very first time, and those experiences are new and meaningful, according to the BBC. But later in life, our experiences dull our ability to remember.

Research on the relationship between music and memory is being used today to study diseases like alzheimer’s and dementia, as well as depression. In both cases, music can possibly help patients restore memory, or see the past in a new light. Music, Jenkins said, may not cure, but “perhaps it can help heal.”

Maybe when I’m old and gray, I’ll still hear that song and remember that sunset, smiling at the thought of my semester galavanting across Europe. For now, I’ll gladly take these mini song-induced memory experiences. Spotify is way cheaper than time travel.

 

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Behind Closed Doors in an Irish Household

Ballyfermot, Ireland—I patiently follow Dennis’ shiny black leather shoes as they shuffle up the driveway, up to the small, white two-story house. Dennis gets the door for me, and we step into the muck room.

I walk in and feel like I’ve been transported back in time. A thick, old TV plays a black and white movie in the adjacent living room; the light of the screen darts across the empty green sofa and matching lazy-boy. Beside the entryway is a small painting of Jesus dying at the cross. It’s how I imagined an Irish household: homey, traditional, and Catholic.

“Sacred heart of God, there you are!” shouts Dennis’s wife, Annie, as the door opens.

I hear her before I see her, her Irish accent echoing from the kitchen. She’s wearing a bright fuchsia sweater, has reddish orange short hair, and a doting smile, standing a total of five foot two with low black heels on. Her eyes meet mine and light up. She pulls me down to her short frame for a tight hug—as if I were her own grandchild. I give out an awkward chuckle. Dennis leaves us, and settles in front of the TV. “Should I put on a pot of tea?” Annie asks me. It’s not really a question, as she’s already begun walking back into the kitchen. I follow her in.

The kitchen is bright with the late afternoon sun, and warm with the heat of an oven that’s been on for hours. One of the walls is covered in taped-on photos of family members; photos of babies and weddings, black and white portraits of old relatives.

“I’ve just ‘bout finished with supper,” Annie’s says as she sets the kettle on the stove, and then pulls a glass pan of potatoes from the oven.

She’s probably seventy, but she whips around the kitchen with familiarity and roller-coaster speed. She’s the quintessential Irish grandmother: the tireless woman, always looking after others and keeping the house in order—what Annie seems to have done her whole life. And she’s good at it.

“I meant to make up an apple tart, but time’s run out,” she sighs.

Annie carries the steaming potatoes over to the yellow table-clothed dining table, which is already piled high with food. She’s made roast beef, mashed and baked potatoes, peas, boiled carrots and cauliflower, two gravy boats filled to the brim, and a bowl of what looks to be fresh popovers. It’s a feast. The tea kettle begins to steam. She fills a red mug with tea, hands it to me, and urges me to sit.

“Dennis, supper!” she calls into the other room.

Annie begins making Dennis a plate. She tells me they are trying to eat healthier.

“We’re getting older, you know. Best be careful with our diet,” she says matter-of-factly, piling his plate high with mashed potatoes.

Dennis trudges into the room, taking a seat at the head of the table. Annie refuses to sit until we are both served and have begun eating—she flutters about us like a chicken, checking on her chicks. Finally, she sits and eats, although she keeps getting up to rotate the plates in and out of the oven, keeping everything warm. I eat a full plate, and then get seconds.

I’m mid-bite when suddenly Dennis breaks the quiet and asks me, “So what do you think about President Trump?” as he chews. I let out a surprised choke. What a conversation starter. “He’s nothing like the Kennedy’s, is he?” he chuckles.

“We love the Kennedys—those were some classy folks,” Annie nods.

Dennis returns to his potatoes. I change the conversation.

“So what do you do for fun, Dennis?” I ask.

Annie answers for him: “We stay ‘round the house most days.”

“Got ‘nuff to do ‘round here,” Dennis says, chewing.

“And Dennis gardens. He loves his hydrangeas,” Annie coos, gathering empty plates.

Dennis wipes his mouth with his napkin. He looks like he may fall asleep at the table. Annie starts bustling again, bringing the remaining dishes to the sink.

As Dennis slips into his post-meal coma, I ask Annie, “What about you Annie, what do you like to do?”

She scoops the leftovers into plastic Tupperware, chiming, “Well, I go line dancing—started going every Tuesday. I love the dancing.”

Dennis awakens from his stupor and gets up from the table, returning to the lazy-boy.

“Should I put on a pot of tea? I’ll get out the biscuits and cake,” quips Annie. Before I respond, she’s already put the kettle back on the stove.

“So how did you and Dennis meet?” I ask her.

“Well, Dennis lived four doors down this street. We went to school together—known each other our ‘hole lives, more or less. We got married at 19, and been here ever since. See, I’ve lived in this house for more than 60 years. And that picture has been here the whole time.”

She points a wrinkled finger at one of the black and white photos on the wall and says, “That’s of my mother. She died young, died in this house you know, at just 45. Her portrait’s got a new frame on it now, but she’s always been right there.”

She pours us tea, then sits. I look up at her mother’s portrait—they have the same reddish hair. What a tiny world—two women, living in and cleaning this same house, for their whole lifetimes. The room feels cold.

Annie continues where she left off, stating, “I also spend time watching the grandkids. They come over a lot—they live right down the road. Their parents work a lot, you see. So I take ‘em—I don’t mind.”

Her life as a homemaker and child-raiser continues on into her old age; a simple, predictable, and characteristic life of the Irish female. In Irish culture, the young women get married, raise their children, and then when their children have grown, they mother their grandchildren and their aging husbands. According to the Irish Examiner, 61 percent of grandmothers polled believe their daughters to be more dependent on them than they were on their mothers, explaining why they themselves take on child rearing in their old age—as their daughters will do when they have their own grandchildren. My eyes scan all the fading portraits of women on the wall—the cycling generations of motherhood, watching down on this kitchen, year after year.

Yet Annie doesn’t see her life as bleak, rather, she’s optimistic about the future. “Times have changed, really,” she tells me. “Like me, I never used to speak up for myself. But lately,” she says, turning to face me. “Lately, in the church it’d be night mass, you know. There’d be ‘bout ten of us there, we’d do the gospel, and then the priest would say to us, ‘What did you think?’” Annie sets her cup down. “Well, first couple of weeks, nobody said anything. Well just this particular night, I just didn’t get the gospel—I didn’t get a taint of it. So I said so. The funny thing about it is once I said it, all the others start saying ‘Yeah! Yeah!’ Opened it right up.” She’s proud of herself. “It was just—growing up, we were held back a lot. That’s why I like the young people today. They don’t hold back.” She takes a long slow sip of her tea, looking up at her mother’s photo. “I’d do so much if I was your age,” she says, wiping her hands on her apron.

Within the last 50 years, things have changed as much as they have remained the same for Irish women. According to The Irish Times, in 2017, the number of women looking after a family shrank by 36 percent to 417,300, and the number of men minding the home soared to 10,400. Yet with these numbers, while they do show increasing male participation in the household, women still greatly outnumber men. Additionally, more women have started to join the work force—but only 64 percent of Irish women in total are working, compared with more than 70 percent of men. And for women who are working, they are often still doing the housework and raising the children, on top of their full-time jobs. So Irish women are working harder than ever—in the workforce, and still, in their homes. Yet these women are now not without opportunity. According to the World Economic Forum (WEF), in 2017 Ireland placed near the top for educational attainment for men and women, indicating that women have equal access to education. Yet, regardless of their opportunities, Irish women still they find themselves trapped in the household. The handcuffs of Irish culture and its gender roles—both traditional and strong—bind them tight.  

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Tea & Biscuits

The following morning, I walk downstairs. Annie’s already made breakfast—she’s been up for hours. Huge plates of sausage, potatoes, beans, fried eggs, and toast, crowd the table.

“Morning, dear!” Annie cheers.

She’s back in the same fuchsia sweater, the same floral apron. I hear the TV in the other room. The radio is back on—I’m falling into the pattern of their lives.

“Dennis, breakfast!” Annie calls.

When we’ve finished eating, it’s time for me to head back to the airport.

“We’ve enjoyed having you, dear” she says with a full-teeth smile. “Sure I can’t make you a sandwich?” she asks. Before I can answer, she cuts me off: “I’ll give you some crisps. Cost a dear price in the airport,” she nods to herself. Then, turning back to me, she says: “You have a nice future. It might be too late for me, but it’s not too late for you, dear.” Her eyes shine up at me. I have a feeling she’s not really talking to me in particular, but to all young women, urging us to fly—while we still can. I smile back, thanking her.

Dennis shuffles towards the front door, car keys jingling in his hand. After a quiet moment—I’m not sure how to say goodbye to her—Annie sighs and leans in to hug me, standing on her toes to kiss my cheek. Clutching my hand, she squeezes it tight before letting me go out the front door; and as I do, I think of all the women this door has closed on—all the women left watching as others walk through.


Works Cited

Irish Examiner, Staff. “Grandparents Are in High Demand as Childminders.” Irish Examiner, 28 Sept. 2017, http://www.irishexaminer.com/lifestyle/healthandlife/parenting/grandparents-are-in-high-demand-as-childminders-459891.html.

Reddan, Fiona. “Ireland: No Country for Working Women?” The Irish Times, The Irish Times, 21 Nov. 2017, http://www.irishtimes.com/business/personal-finance/ireland-no-country-for-working-women-1.3294512.

 

A Wasp in the Beehive

Fresh off the plane, I stumble down the jet bridge into empty Gate 51 of the Copenhagen airport. I’m traveling by myself, but I’m not really alone; a bundled mass of travelers spill with me from the gate down into the terminal, a sea of black hats and coats marching, as if they all know the way, all marching towards the metro.

At the metro stop, we wait quietly. A tall, blonde couple stands together, scrolling on their iPhones. She could be a model, so could he. Beside them, a mother and father whisper to each other in Danish, looking at their sleeping baby, kept warm in a grey stroller. The dad squats down and gently touches the baby’s outreached hand; the baby wraps its little fingers around his forefinger. The mother smiles at them. The metro arrives and the familial tableau breaks; everyone gets ready to board, and then files into the metro car.

I get the feeling everyone is Danish. They are all wearing at least one item of black clothing, and most have hair ranging from medium brown to blonde. A lot of them are tall, and everyone has white skin. With my blonde hair, white skin, and black puffy jacket, I could be one of them. I get off at Nørreport station, and the herd moves with me. We walk upstairs to the street, and then disperse into a larger sea of black coats and blonde hair. Headlights and street lamps pierce the darkness, illuminating the array of bikers and drivers, all heading home. In the crowd, I find my sister, Kena, waving at me from across the street. She blended in so well that at first, I didn’t see her: her puffy jacket and black pom pom hat are mirrored twenty times over in the crowd of Danes.

We walk quickly down the clean, cobblestone street. Christmas lights decorate warmly lit shops, and candlelight oozes from restaurant windows, framing couples laughing and sipping wine. Copenhagen seems classy and organized, like San Francisco or something. There is no rubbish on the streets, no sense of danger or crime. Everything has a place, and is in place–like thriving bees, buzzing in a well-run hive. But at the same time, the homogeneity is surprising, almost unnerving. The monochrome nature of the streets and the people is unusual. We keep walking; more quaint houses, clean windows, and people passing, dressed all in black.

We make it to Kena’s place: a cozy flat with a modern kitchen on one side, and a couch area on the other. Sitting on one of the couches with her laptop is Kena’s flatmate, Kelsey. She’s wearing sweatpants and a soft-looking sweater. She has dark, straight, hair, and coffee-colored skin. Kelsey is the first black person I have seen since arriving in Copenhagen. Out of that whole sea of people–in the airport, in the metro, on the street–there had not been a single non-white person. My appearance made me blend in; it made me comfortable here. But just as much as I blended in, I thought of how much Kelsey, and other people who aren’t white, must stand out.

While internally inclusive, Danes are also known for their exclusivity towards foreigners. I asked Kelsey about her experience in Denmark so far, and she had mixed reviews. Kelsey didn’t think Danes would be racist, but she’s had some uncomfortable racial experiences. “At a restaurant in Copenhagen, a waitress asked me what I was doing there, and then told me I should be leaving as she wiped my table. Also, people ask me where I’m originally from. And men have said I was lying to them about my race, because I was ‘ashamed of my culture.’ My non-black friends don’t have to deal with that.” Growing up as a black girl in America, Kelsey has been an ethnic minority before. “I’m used to not seeing many faces like mine, but for some reason here, the lack of diversity of any kind is a big shock for me. Everyone looks the same, and because I don’t look that way, it made adjusting a little bit harder.”

This is not an uncommon experience for non-Danish people in Denmark. “I find that Denmark doesn’t know how to address differences in people, because they never really had to, ” Kelsey says. “Because they’ve been so homogenous for so long, they don’t know how to handle the fact that things are changing.” After Denmark stopped colonizing, the country internalized, becoming very nationalistic. As a result, Danes are famous for their strong national identity and celebration of Danish community: one of the key elements of Danish culture is hygge, (pronounced “hoo-gah”), or the feelings of the coziness and warmth of Danes spending time together. To an extent, Danes can get away with this fierce homogeneity. According to World Atlas, 9 out of 10 residents in Denmark identify as ethnically Danish–leaving a small margin of ethnic minorities on the outside.

The next day, Kena and I walk into what looks like an old church. Made of dark red brick, the church stood out; its bell tower protruding above the other rooftops. I open the heavy dark wood door, and read the sign across it: “Absalon.” Kena says it’s an old church turned Danish community center. “I came here once for a community dinner,” she informs me. “It was so cool–everyone sat at these long tables, and the whole point was to get to know strangers. Danes are so into their families, they don’t really branch out, so this place helps them meet new people.” Inside, the building loses its church appearance; there are no pews or stained glass, but rainbow walls and glass ball lights hanging from the ceiling, making the space feel more like a retro mansion than a chapel. Today it hosts a flea market inside–one of the community center’s monthly events. Steel clothing racks are bunched full of hangers, heavy with vintage jackets, dresses, and coats. Rows of white, plastic folding tables display a treasure trove of old costume jewelry and leather purses, while crates of old rock n’ roll posters and worn-in high top sneakers fill the floor space between tables. It’s packed: we can barely move through the maze of crammed booths and the stream of shoppers–all of which are twenty-something year old, trendily dressed Danes. Kena shops around–she’s looking for a coat. In one of the racks, I pull out a faded brown, sleek wool coat that looks about her size. The Danish girl selling it looks up from her seat in a folding chair. Her blue eyes meet mine, and we smile. I hand the coat to Kena, she tries it on and it fits perfectly. With her blonde hair, black jeans, leather boots, and now the brown coat, she really looks Danish. Kena asks the price, and hands the Danish girl some change in exchange for the coat. “Now I’ll really blend in,” she jokes.

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Absalon Community Center

We finish our lap around the market and then walk outside, back intothe cold. “Everyone’s pretty white here,” I say to her, questioningly. She nods. “And most people are actually ethnically Danish,” she says. “Some people are actually discriminated against for not being ethically Danish, even if they’re white or from Denmark. Many kids of immigrants are called ‘second generation immigrants,’ even if theywere born here.” She buttons up her new coat one button higher while she talks. “Denmark never really got any racial mingling, like in the US. Now they are getting a lot more immigrants from the Middle East–and that really pisses some Danes off. They’re just not really fond of foreigners.” According to an article by The New York Times titled “’I’ve Become a Racist’: Migrant Wave Unleashes Danish Tensions Over Identity,” since 2016, more than 36,000 mostly Muslim asylum seekers from the Middle East have poured into Denmark. Many Danes are hostile to these newcomers: they want their Danish culture preserved, and newcomers to either assimilate immediately or to leave. “But otherwise Danes are so nice,” Kena continues. “They’re just super patriotic–like on people’s birthdays, they decorate with the Danish flag. And they’ve been so friendly to me. That’s just what it’s like here.” Danes are hospitable and inviting–as long as you blend in. We keep walking, and the clouds swallow the sun again.

That night, I’m at Nørreport station, heading back to the airport. I take the stairs down into the metro, sinking back into the crowd of black-coated Danes. They swarm around the metro station; bustling down and up the stairs; filing in and out of metro cars, some waiting patiently on the side while others deboard; calmly shuffling into the metro, and finding a spot to stand or sit–each person ordering themselves in their assigned spot. The metro runs quickly, barely making a sound above a quiet whirr. Soon we’re at the airport, and everyone files out, dispersing into the larger crowd of people checking in for their flights–a single swarm, returning to the larger hive.

Denmark works because everyone has a place, and everyone knows their place. But what about the people on the margins of this society? What about those who don’t check the boxes of blonde and white skinned? What happens to them? Denmark: a lovely place of cozy streets and welcoming people; a place with a strong sense of community, and great infrastructure. A thriving hive for bees–but what happens when a wasp enters the hive?

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Street in Copenhagen

Works Cited

Sawe, Benjamin Elisha. “Ethnic Groups Living In Denmark.” WorldAtlas, 2 Sept. 2016, http://www.worldatlas.com/articles/ethnic-groups-living-in-denmark.html.

Staff.au.dk. “Why Relocate to Denmark?” Why Relocate to Denmark?, 3 Aug. 2017, ias.au.dk/why-relocate-to-denmark/.

Zucchino, David. “’I’ve Become a Racist’: Migrant Wave Unleashes Danish Tensions Over Identity.”The New York Times, The New York Times, 5 Sept. 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/06/world/europe/denmark-migrants-refugees-racism.html.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tomorrow…

(PHOTO: Mine)

“How marvelous books are, crossing worlds and centuries, defeating ignorance, and, finally, cruel time itself.” -Gore Vidal


After this class, I don’t want to stop this project of writing diverse cultures. I want to continue to challenge myself to seek beyond the Eurocentric norm, and to explore the historically unexplored. Especially in a time and place–in a presidency–where the diverse and the foreign seem to be under attack, I want to challenge this homogenizing discourse through the books that I read. As Anne Morgan says in her TED Talk My Year of Reading a Book from Every Country in the World, “…Books have an extraordinary power to take you out of yourself and into someone else’s mindset, so that, for a while at least, you look at the world through different eyes.” I believe in this quote; I believe that the diversity of our world is too wide and too rich for me to do without.

So here’s what I plan on doing:

  1. I am going to actively seek out foreign authors and titles for my own personal reading. As Morgan says, I too have “always thought of myself as a fairly cultured, cosmopolitan sort of person. But my bookshelves told a rather different story.” Like Morgan, I want to work on changing this. Starting this summer, I want to read Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
  2. I plan on writing a lot, especially about the different places that I visit. I will be traveling a lot in the coming year, and hopefully, for the rest of my life. On this note, I want to keep writing–reflectively and responsibly–about the different places, cultures, and diversity that I experience. I plan to continue using this blog, and write regularly.
  3. In the spring of 2018, I am going to Prague to study aboard. While I am there, I will keep this goal of moving towards a more diverse literary experience in mind. I plan on reading at least one novel by a Czech author on my own (maybe Kafka’s Metamorphosis, or The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera), and I know that I will be reading more about Czech culture and from Czech literature in my classes. I also plan on writing about, and photographing, my experience abroad heavily–an opportunity for serious reflection and work in regards to experiencing diversity. Thus, I plan on using my study abroad experience to also meet these goals.
  4. For Christmas, birthdays, etc, I buy a lot of my family members books. From this class, I will begin buying a more well-rounded, international assortment of books. Through these means, the intercultural literary project that I have undertaken will transform into something greater than myself; hopefully effecting others in a positive, and contagious, way.
  5. Finally, I want to create a larger global network. Like Morgan, I want to experience the connectivity of this world, and gain valuable relationships beyond my small reality. I plan to do this by making at least one contact in each place that I visit. These friendships will actively encourage a more diverse discourse in my life; prompting open-mindedness, as well as intercultural and interfaith communication. I hope that building these relationships will ultimately enrich my life–and maybe the lives of others–for the better.

I hope to make goals like this–about seeking out diversity, broadening perspectives, etc–and strive to achieve them, for the rest of my life. What I have learned here is incredibly valuable–I will not stop here.

I will continue on.

I will walk, book in hand, into tomorrow.


“I have always been delighted by the concept of a new day, a fresh try, one more start, with perhaps a bit of magic waiting somewhere behind the morning.” -J. B. Priestley

Writing Diverse Cultures: a Reflection

(PHOTO: Mine)

If we are to achieve a richer culture, we must weave a social fabric in which each diverse human gift will find a fitting place.” -Margaret Mead


In January when I signed up to take a class called Writing Diverse Cultures, I was very excited. With Trump as president–and diversity and inclusion seemingly under attack–I felt like this was a class I needed to take.

Upon taking this class, I quickly saw my own beliefs reflected and expanded by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, in her fight against the “single story:” where one culture “create[s] stereotypes…They make one story become the only story” (Adichie, “The Danger of a Single Story”).

On this note, Becca from our class writes: “I don’t think we should reduce someone’s experience to make it easier for others to identify them. As a society, we should (and can) do better” (Becca, Golden Years).

I have learned that I cannot speak for everyone. I have not lived each cultural experience; I do not have the authority to speak for others.

But, I have learned that there are ways in which I can try. As author Naz of Read Diverse Books Blog suggests, I can “…research extensively…communi[cate] with and liste[n] to the communities you wish to portray…[and] be open to and expect criticism” (“White Authors Fill Your Stories With People Of Color But Don’t Make Them Your Protagonists”).

I have learned that we should tread carefully, and write thoughtfully.

I have also improved. One of my goals was to work on incorporating quotes, which I have worked on, and have definitely gotten better at. I also wanted to exploring how my identity(s) relate to the larger world; something I have definitely done throughout the course of this class.

From this class, I see where I am; I see where I am not.

And now, I write.

(Un)Hawaiian: A Poetry Cycle

(PHOTO: Mine)

“A nation’s culture resides in the hearts and in the soul of its people.” -Mahatma Gandhi


I am a writer from Maui, Hawaii.

I grew up in Hawaii, but I am not Hawaiian.

I am white; I am haole.

I know and love Hawaiian culture, but I cannot fully claim it.

It is as much my own, as much as it is not my own.

With these ideas in mind, I have written a poetry cycle: ten pages of poetry revolving around Hawaiian culture, using both my personal experiences and those of fictionalized others living in Hawaii. I do not claim to speak for others–or share the Hawaiian story–rather, I offer a Hawaiian story. One about growing up there. One about Hawaiian culture. One about being Hawaiian, but also haole. About being both within, and without.

I am (Un) Hawaiian.


View the poetry cycle by clicking here

 

Where is She? Why We Need to Read More by Iraqi Authors

(PHOTO: Mine)

There is a quote by Rudine Sims Bishop where she writes: “A single book can be a mirror for some people and a window for others.” These mirrors and windows help us understand and connect with people in the world around us: “mirror” books reflect and teach us about ourselves, while “window” books show us something new and foreign. In our English departments, we need both: mirrors of our Western society, but also windows into the works of writers from around the world, who may be unknown to us. It is by balancing both that we learn the most; that we grow the most.

This is a current dilemma in our English departments: juggling windows and mirrors, or namely adding diversity to the literary canon. I believe, as do many of us english majors in the United States, that we are reading too often the works of the same old dead white men. While strides have been made, we are nowhere near done. We still have too many mirrors, and not enough windows.

English literature has a history of this marginalization of foreign voices. As he writes in his essay “Theory Before Theory,” Peter Barry notes the destructive nature of the English canon, as since it’s start has “generalized, supposedly inclusive, human nature…marginaliz[ing], or denigrat[ing], or even deny[ing] the humanity of women, or disadvantaged groups [and cultures]” (36). Today we recognize the error in this generalizing–we recognize that our world is more dimensional than that. It’s time that we reflect that insight in the that books we read.

Peter Barry continues in his essay, saying “Politics is pervasive, Language is constitutive, Truth is provisional, Meaning is contingent, Human nature is a myth” (36). In other words, our reality is dynamic, symbolic, and subjective. This applies to language: what we say, write, and read becomes reality. If this is true, then what reality are we creating? How are the books we read creating this reality?

Historically, we have created a discourse with the voice of a single Western culture. This single voice is dangerous. As Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie notes in her TED Talk “The Danger of a Single Story,” Western literature is guilty of “creat[ing] a single story, show[ing] a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become.” We must be aware of the work that our literary canon is doing: by leaving out the stories of the non-western, we harmfully and inaccurately construct reality. Our world is a chorus, not a solo-performance. We must listen to all of its voices.

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Language constructs reality | Image from TED.com

As Thomas Cushman, author of A Matter of Principle: Humanitarian Arguments for War in Iraq, writes: “[T]hose who are in a position of strength have a responsibility to protect the weak,” referencing the United State’s motives in the war with Iraq. I think this quote has interesting implications as it applies to literature–specifically in regards to that of the traditional canon, and the work of Iraqi writers. If we think of literature in this context of strong and weak, then in our Anglocentric college system the white male voices dominate as the “strong.” Even in literature on Iraq, I hear them–namely white men like Cushman. Why are they chosen to tell the story; to create that truth? Where is the Iraqi voice? Going further, where is the female Iraqi voice? If it is it our responsibility to to protect the “weak”–or to foster the growth of the historically oppressed; to turn up the volume on the traditionally silenced–where is she?

Beyond literature, in a reality where the Middle East is a hot button topic, Americans don’t know enough about Iraq. For example, in a study conducted by UK magazine Newsweek, “three years after the Iraq War began, only 37 per cent of young Americans could find Iraq on a map of the Middle East.” In 2003, the US Strategic Task Force of Education Abroad reported that America’s ignorance of the outside world was so great as to constitute “a threat to national security.” We are so ignorant that we are dangerous.

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United Media’s political cartoonist Steve Benson commenting on destructive American ignorance

This ignorance is unacceptable–we need to learn more, read more. In a reality where people in my country are ignorant, and afraid of Iraq–of this region, of these people–we cannot trust or valorize our version of the story. We need to hear the Iraqi story, as they tell it. We need to read the words of someone who has lived that life first-hand.

Enter Absent by Betool Khedairi.

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Photo mine

I recognize that reading a single book by an Iraqi writer will not give us an all-expansive knowledge of Iraqi experience and culture–but that’s okay. You can’t break down the oppressive literary canon overnight, but you can take steps in the right direction. For even if Absent is a tiny taste of what Iraqi literature has to offer, it is more than we had before. Khedairi’s is a voice that has been historically quieted, and one that I think–now in 2017 especially–we all need to hear.

Betool Khedairi’s novel Absent paints a picture of everyday life Iraq under Sadam Hussein’s control during the Persian Gulf War of the 1990’s, as shared through the eyes of Dalal, a young Iraqi woman. The novel starts as Dalal recounts her beginnings: she was born in Iraq, and quickly orphaned at only four months of age when her parents died in a landmine explosion. After the accident–an accident that left half of her face paralyzed due to a minor stroke–Dalal was given to to her childless aunt and uncle to raise as their own. This is where the novel takes off: in the domestic life of Dalal and her caregivers, as well as their interactions with the surrounding members of their apartment complex.

It is through Dalal’s unique interactions with each character that the story unfolds, and that Khedairi comments on larger Iraqi society itself. Khedairi explains her structure–her focus on a diverse array representing Iraqi society–in the afterword of her novel. She writes: “Absent is about Iraqi families struggling to survive during the sanctions in Baghdad. The events take place in one building…The story shows the effects of the economic and infrastructure collapse on the social and moral structure of day-to-day Iraqi lives” (217). This perspective of daily life in a war zone is unique and uncommon; our news may tell stories of missile attacks and air raids, but nothing is as intimate or impactful as these stories being shared first hand. In Absent, it is through this powerful first person narration and personal chit-chat of characters that the reader gets the story.

For example, at one point Dalal listens to her neighbors through the phone:

“The woman listening at the end of the line gasps, ‘What? How could you send him to New Zealand? What about the hole in the ozone layer? Don’t you care about his well-being?’
‘My dear, if you manage to get out of Saddam Hussein’s hole, who cares about the hole in the ozone?’
I replace the receiver. End of conversation.” (23)

While the novel is mostly dialogue like this, occasionally Dalal makes observations and reflections on her past. She writes of post-Hussein expectations:

“In our teenage years, we had to join the National Union of Students. There we were told that our aims were ‘Unity, Freedom, and Socialism,’ and that we had to strive for ‘One unified Arab nation…with an eternal message. . .  We had to attend the meetings unfailingly, maintain secrecy, and learn the president’s quotes by heart” ( 51).

It is through this combination of dialogue and reflection that the peril of life in Iraq is personalized: the protagonist and surrounding characters become real people dealing with the real implications of war. As mentioned before, language constructs reality: here outside readers get one Iraqi individual’s authentic montage of life in Iraq. This personalized experience allows us, the foreign reader, to grasp and feel a sliver of what it is really like to live in this culture, and in the war zone. That’s a perspective that far outshines any construction we–people who have not lived that reality–could offer, and one that deserves our attention.

The novel most clearly offers a voice–a window–from a group very much discriminated against: the Iraqi woman. In her afterward, Khedairi writes: “Since so many Iraqi men died due to war and unstable circumstances, most of the characters are women…My novel portrays the less privileged people [women] struggling in the back lines…in terms of what the world knows of them, they are absent” (218). This female dominance and noticeable lack of men reveals the real consequences of Iraqi life–especially female Iraqi life. Through their chit chat and Dalal’s reflection, the reader gains valuable insight into a otherwise untold story–a story that we Western readers need to hear and understand, so that we may dissipate assumptions and reveal truth. But Absent does not only reveal the experience of just Iraqi women. As Khedairi writes in her afterword: “I named the novel Absent to symbolize the dilemma of the Iraqi people. They had been excluded, and were ‘absent’ from the international scene for decades…I needed to give birth to their story” (216). Absent is a story written for Iraqis, but it is a story that we need too.

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Painting by Iraqi painter and women’s rights activist Samira Abdel Wahab

This phenomenon of sharing the real Iraqi story–that which the western world blinds itself from–is not unique to Khedairi. In fact, in her article “Baghdad Burning: Women Write War in Iraq,” writer Miriam Cooke reflects on this cultural phenomena of authors–especially women authors–who are speaking out, and sharing the Iraqi story despite the danger of challenging censorship laws. She says:

“Some authors bypass the censor to condemn a war they were expected to extol. The women’s texts in particular exhibited considerable courage, especially during the last year of the war. The Iraqi women then, and also after the Gulf War and today…do not quietly lament and submit to a fate that might be cruel, pointless violence. They fight this violence with their pens…Whether they write novels, short stories, poetry, or blogs, for the past quarter of a century creative Iraqi women have been sending dispatches from their homes that are the front…Readers of these women catch the pulse of life in situations of absolute injustice whether inflicted by Saddam Hussein or the American Operation Enduring Freedom.”

To return to the quote I used at the beginning, Absent and works by other Iraqi authors act as valuable windows that help us navigate our trying, changing world; they help us to create a more accurate depiction of the world we live in, through the books that we read. We need these different stories to reflect and teach us about our inherent difference, and also unite us in our underlying similarity. Our literature, and our culture, is not the only one: we need to stop acting like it is. We need these stories.

Khedairi’s novel is so valuable in that it offers us a window into an especially untold story. It’s a story that Americans are harmfully stereotyping and overlooking; it’s a story that we need to hear the authentic version of–and we need to hear it now. We need insider accounts like Absent to help us understand what Iraqi life is actually like–as told, or constructed, by an Iraqi. Delving further into that of untold stories, we need that of female Iraqi authors–a voice silenced two-fold for it’s race, and gender. This voice: this female Iraqi story, is all thus the more worth sharing.

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“Baghdad Burning” by artist Daniel Zezelj

If you are interested in more works by Betool Khedairi, her first novel entitled A Sky So Close also offers a unique perspective on Iraqi life. While I recommend Absent as a great starting point for diving into the world of Iraqi literature, I would also recommend the works of Riverbend– the pseudonym of a Iraqi woman in her twenties who, in 2003, began writing a blog relating her first hand experiences of the U.S. invasion and then occupation of her native Iraq. Her book is that of Baghdad Burning, as referenced earlier. If you would like a more extensive list of Iraqi authors and their works, check this link out: Iraqi Authors You Should Know About

This Book I’m Reading: Absent by Betool Khedairi

(PHOTO: Mine)

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As a writer, and someone fascinated by cultures around the world, I am reading a new book. It’s outside of the typical English major canon. Unlike many authors in the canon, the author is a female Iraqi.

I am reading Absent by Betool Khadairi. I am reading Absent to explore; to explore a culture that is foreign to me, and to explore my relationship and connection to it.

I don’t have any friends from Iraq. I don’t have any family from there either. In fact, I don’t know anyone who has been there. I am reading Absent to learn more.

In a reality where the Middle East is a hot button topic, my ignorance is unacceptable–I need to learn more. In a reality where people in my country are deeply–and may I say ignorantly– afraid of this region and these people, I want to see what they are actually like. In a reality where the U.S. government has unashamedly banned people from this region, I do not want to blindly accept this fear of the Middle East. Instead I want to read the words written by someone who was born there, who has lived that life first-hand. I want to understand, to learn. I don’t want the knock-off story, I want the real deal.

I am reading Absent because I want to know what it’s like to be a Muslim woman growing up in war-torn Iraq. I am a white Christian woman from Maui–the protagonist and I are noticeably different. But I want to see through her eyes. Again, I want to understand. I want to know her fears, her dreams, her memories–and I want to see where they intersect with my own. We may be different, but I think we may be more similar than we realized. I want to appreciate this difference and enjoy this possible similarity–I want to revel in the essence of exploring and connecting.

I am reading Absent because I am an English major, and I have not read enough literature written by someone other than a Western middle-aged man. I have read many sonnets and epics and plays and novels–but not a single one from a young female, Iraqi author. I am enjoying seeing what makes this voice unique. I am enjoying spying the nuances of her sentences, catching a whiff of the distinctness of her words, and savoring that variety–and then comparing it with my own. Observing. Learning. Reflecting.

The story of Absent will teach me about a time, a place, and a culture that although I am confronted with it daily, I do not know very much about. Yes, I have taken classes where I studied Islam. Yes, I have watched and read news clippings about the conflict in Iraq. I have sipped from this river of diversity, yet I cannot pretend to have truly tasted its flavor: I know about Iraq and a little about life their, but I cannot pretend to really know. I recognize that reading a single book by an Iraqi writer will not give me an all-expansive knowledge of life in Iraq and Iraqi culture, and that’s okay. I do not need to drink the whole river, I simply need to keep tasting, keep trying, and keep learning. From this continued exploration–not from simply reading a single book, but the habit of exploring–will I grow, and understand. For even if Absent is a tiny taste of what Iraqi literature has to offer, it is more than I had before. It’s just a start; it will spark the fire of more to come in the future.

So, I am reading Absent to explore. I am reading Absent to see. I am reading Absent to grow.

So, I am reading Absent because this is a voice that I want to help echo throughout the literary world. This is a voice that has been historically quieted, and one that I think–now especially–we all need to hear.

So, I am reading Absent. I have only begun, but I can’t wait to see where I end.

An Interview: Life as a Trump Supporter

(PHOTO: Mine)

After the 2016 U.S. Presidential election, our country seemed to split down the seams. The divide between Republicans and Democrats deepened overnight, and with that polarization, came destructive stereotypes. Republicans became “monstrous, uneducated racists” while Democrats became “radical, antagonizing  liberals.” While a lot of people are afraid of the next four years of Trump’s presidency and foreign policy, what we should really be afraid of is this internal divide. If we want to emerge from this turbulent era stronger, first we have to unite. First we have to engage in respectful dialogue, and start listening to each other.

Today, colleges and universities are hotspots of political tension. Liberal students are rioting, isolating some conservative students, while others speak up–the tension is real. As a student at Chapman University, I have noticed the divide among students as well–on election day, in the classroom, etc. The national divide is permeating our campus, but we can do something about it. It is for this reason that I decided to interview my friend Alexa. We are both English majors, but while I consider myself a liberal, Alexa is more conservative. While neither of us fit directly into the binary of Democrats and Republicans, I wanted to talk with her in hopes of reaching a greater understanding–in hopes of showing the problem of this binary, and dismantling its bias.

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The date is March 8, 2017. I’m sitting at a cold wooden table in one of the Leatherby Libraries’ study rooms. There’s some yellow afternoon sun filtering in from the big windows. It’s quiet as I get my notes ready. Alexa is sitting on the same side of the table as me, faced my direction–the sun hitting her blonde ponytail. She is sitting with her legs criss-crossed on top of her chair, and takes a sip of her pink smoothie. Her eyes dart around. I think she’s a little nervous, but she smiles at me like she’s ready to start. I hit the record button on my phone.

Savy: “So I am here with Alexa, and first I wanted to say thanks for coming and talking with me.
Alexa: “Of course!”
Savy: “I think you have a valuable story worth sharing. Ok, I just want to introduce you first. So we will start with some easy questions, like what is your name? [laughs] And where are you from?”
Alexa: [laughing] “My name is Alexa Burnstine, and originally I’m from Las Vegas but I’ve lived in California the last three years or so–before I started at Chapman.
Savy: “Gotcha. And what are you studying?”
Alexa: “I’m studying English literature, and a minor in Law, Justice, & Social Control.”
Savy: “Awesome! Ok, and then I just wanted you to start by describing your family background.”
Alexa: “Ok, so my dad is from Detroit, Michigan and my mom is actually from Cuba, so I have a lot of family actually in Cuba. My mom came to the U.S. when she was about one I think, so she doesn’t remember it, but she wasn’t a U.S. citizen.”
Savy: “And then you come from Vegas–you grew up there?”
Alexa: “Yes. Born and raised. Grew up there, and then graduated and did a year of cosmetology school, and then came out to California, and then decided to come back to college. And now here I am!” [laughs]
Savy: [laughing] “Here you are! So as this interview is sorta about politics, sorta about you in general, how much–what are your family’s beliefs?”
Alexa: “So in politics, or real general?”
Savy: “In general, but if you have something real specific you want to share, go for it.”
Alexa: “Ok, so my dad is definitely–so it’s funny because he’s actually a registered democrat, um but recently in the past decade or so, he’s identified as Republican. But he’s not socially conservative it’s more just financially conservative. And then my mom–so we hadn’t really had conversations like that growing up. So it’s like, she’s super liberal–hates Trump, loved Hillary.”
Savy: “Do you think your parents have influenced what you believe? Beyond, but also including, politics.”
Alexa: “I do. I think everyone is influenced a little bit by what their parents believe. I’m super close with my dad, so I do see myself sometimes taking the same side as like what he believes and views stuff as. And then I do see myself sometimes, just because my mom and I have clashed so much in the past, maybe just like to spite her, think the complete opposite of her. But I mean, I like to think that I’ve formed my own options and beliefs as an adult, but I do think it’s hard…”
Savy: “We don’t live in a vacuum.”
Alexa: “Yeah, so I do think it’s hard to not be like completely unbiased.”
Savy: “Okay so now I want to hear a little but about your values. I know that you are a feminist.”
Alexa: “Yeah, but you see that’s hard because I never use that term for myself, but then I know that they’re are feminists who hate the feminists that don’t like to be called feminists. So I don’t know what you would call me, I’m just like for…”
Savy: “For women’s rights.”
Alexa: “Yeah, or like I’m just a human being who wants humans to be able to do what they want to do. And you know, sometimes its hard with social media, especially with how the world is right now with everything going on, like it almost makes me feel like I’m a bad feminist. But that like just feeling the way your feel isn’t enough, like you have to…”
Savy: “Like you have to go march, or you have to…”
Alexa: “Yeah, or like even like talk bad about someone, or denounce someone publicly or something. I don’t know, I don’t think that’s right either. I don’t think it’s right for people to, just because someone has a different view from them, for people to go and just like tear them down. Which is why I have a problem too with like who I am politically, because I do feel like I’m sort of more like my dad where I’m pretty conservative but I am very socially liberal, but I wouldn’t dare call myself a republican because I feel like right now if you say you’re a republican, then automatically people are like ‘you’re racist,’ ‘you’re this, you’re that,’ like ‘you don’t care about immigrants.’ And it’s like automatic, like people assume thing the you’re a republican. There’s a lot of assumptions going on right now.”
Savy: “What stereotypes do you see for both sides, like you were saying, republicans are seen as ‘racist,’ and ‘immigrant-hating,’ etc?”
Alexa: “I think that’s why I’m so confused because it hasn’t always been like that. Like I feel like back in the day if you were republican you were like super right, and liberal you’re super left, and then  feel like recently in the past few presidencies it’s been more like what we knew as republican and democrat was more like in the middle of the scale…”
Savy: “More shades of grey.”
Alexa: “Yeah, and then it’s like now after this past election people are now looking at the other side as being all the way on the other side of the spectrum as them, and then it’s like people don’t want to accept that there’s some middle ground being shared. And um, I mean yeah it definitely  goes both ways, like you could look at the democrats and you could say like, ‘oh we,’ like the republicans can say, ‘we didn’t go riot in the streets when Obama won,’ like ‘let’s be classier than that.’ But it goes both ways because now if someone finds out, like I said, if you’re republican, they’re like ‘oh, you must be racist then.’ And that’s just not true.”
Savy: “Ok so let’s just jump into some of the stuff about the election. So, well, I guess first, what do you think a president should be like?”
Alexa: “So I’m 23, so I’m a little older, but I remember a few presidencies now. Ugh, it’s hard because I’ve never really been interested in politics, it’s just not really something that interests me.”
Savy: “But you’ve voted before right?”
Alexa: “I didn’t vote this election, because I didn’t get my absentee ballot and couldn’t go home to vote. But I have voted once before. But um, I don’t think there’s any right or wrong answer to this question. Like obviously it’s evident with what’s going on right now, but I just think that a president should care about the country. And that’s what I’m also struggling with right now, because I didn’t vote, and I feel like if I would have back then–I don’t know about right now–but I would have voted for Trump, but like strictly for like financial conservative reasons, not like anything socially that they were gunning for. But, it’s hard because I don’t know if what he’s doing right now and some decisions that he’s making, I don’t know–it’s hard because you don’t know if he’s purposely trying to ruin the country [laughs] or like I don’t think he is, but like he could purposely be out to get like for example, transgender people. But, you’d like to think in his mind he’s doing what he thinks is the best for the country. And no one can no for sure if he’s like doing this with what intentions he has. And so that’s what I think people are missing too, like people are think that he’s intentionally out to just destroy a bunch of people’s lives, and I’m not so sure if like that’s what he has in mind, you know. Like he could totally in his mind, have like the best intentions, but no one knows.”
Savy: “Okay, that’s good. So did you keep up with political race as it was happening this current election?
Alexa: “So [laughs]. I didn’t do it consciously, but I did see more than usual because. My boyfriend is a lawyer and he was a Poly-Sci major, and we live together so whenever he got home he would put it on, or I would ask him questions because I didn’t know who was running and stuff, and he would like explain to me a little bit about all the different candidates. So I did keep up more than usual, but I didn’t make a conscious effort myself.”
Savy: “So did your opinions on the election shift before, during, and after? Like did you notice a change just in what you were feeling?”
Alexa: “Yeah um, probably a lot differently than most people. But yeah so when Donald Trump first decided to run–I watched The Apprentice when I was young so that’s like all I pretty much knew him from. And I didn’t know anything about him though regarding his rhetoric, or what he had done in the past, like his behavior and stuff. So when it was announced I didn’t think anything of it. And then I watched a couple debates when I would go home to visit, and I just know most people find it infuriating how they would like pick on each other like kids, or go on Twitter and call each other out, but I honestly think it was kind of genius. And I do think it is totally unprofessional, and I don’t think that a presidential candidate or our president should be doing that, but I do think that it’s kind of genius because it had never really been done before. And it’s something that everyone does so it reaches the masses, and by not using such complicated language more people were able to understand it. But I don’t–I didn’t hate him as much as everyone–not everyone, but most or a lot of people did. My opinion did shift just because I got to know the candidates a little better. When it came down to the final two, I don’t want to say it was the lesser of two evils because I hate it when people say that, but I think that whole FBI-email hack thing, like I do think that that statement at the end screwed her when the FBI came out and said they were going to reopen it. Because people thought he was done, and after the…”
Savy: “The ‘Pussy-grab” thing…”
Alexa: “Yeah when the audio came out…but I was just confused because I thought that was a crime to use your personal email. So I was just wondering why legal action wasn’t being taken.”
Savy: “So were you more alarmed by some of the other…”
Alexa: “I honestly was. Because when he was talking about the wall and stuff, in my mind, I thought it was more like a metaphor [laughs], like in my mind I didn’t think he was actually going to go an do it. And I still don’t hate him as much as a lot of people do. And I didn’t even vote anyway so it doesn’t even matter. I just, I don’t know, I feel differently about him than a lot of people do.”
Savy: “So what does that mean? How does it feel now that he has won the presidency? Like in our society, or even just Chapman in general. How does that make you feel? I’ll get into Chapman more specifically later, so I guess just, in the world…”
Alexa: “Ok, in the world. Um, so, I remember watching that night and not really having any idea who might’ve been in the lead before that, and then I just remember seeing the um, commentators reactions on TV, and I was like, ‘oh this must be, like not expected.’ And I fell asleep because I always go to bed super early, and I woke up and he had won. And my dad was super excited, and he was like ‘the economy, it’s going to get better!’ like ‘jobs and stuff, it’ll be super exciting!’ and um, I remember my boyfriend’s mom texting me that next morning. She started the text with like, ‘Good morning, how devastated are we today,’ like ‘the world is over, I can’t believe it, I don’t even want to leave my house,’–whatever, and I was just…I don’t know the right word for what I was feeling, but I couldn’t believe she just assumed that she knew how I was feeling. And I just found that that has been the general reaction everywhere I’ve gone. It’s just like everyone assumes that–because they couldn’t fathom that anyone would actually vote for this like ‘evil’ man. And I just couldn’t believe–like you felt a shift in the universe, like it was HEAVY. And um, then people going off on like Facebook and stuff. And I have never once posted about it, that’s why this is the first time I’ve really talked about it, like out loud, or definitely being recorded [laughs]. I partly feel like I don’t have a right to speak about it just because I didn’t vote, and people say ‘if you didn’t vote, don’t b*tch about it later on.’ But um–an so I’ve never interacted with anyone on Facebook. But like, at a dinner later, my boyfriend’s mom said how now all of the sudden, anyone who had talked about Trump on their Facebook page, she went and deleted and they were no longer her friends. And she said, ‘oh I had to delete like a hundred people,’ or something. And I just found it so crazy that, like, people you use to see as your friends, now all the sudden some man wins the presidency and then they’re not your friends anymore? And I just found it bizarre, I felt it was like a general rule of society that you just don’t talk politics, unless you’re in the comfort of your own home, or if you really know someone. But all of the sudden now, it’s like…”
Savy: “Made it okay…”
Alexa: “Yeah! Like now it’s okay to go after someone for believing different from you on something political. And I just thought that was so strange how the world shifted like that.
Savy: “So do you think that it’s–I think that you see that there is a difference between talking about it and then talking at someone about it. Where do you stand on that? Like would you rather–do you think it’s important to talk to people who have a different belief system from you?”
Alexa: “I say…that if you have a safe person, like a parent, girlfriend or boyfriend, husband or whatever–I say those people that you’re like sharing a home with–because you’re home should be like your safe space, then you should feel safe to talk about it. My boyfriend and I, um, had a few conversations about this because he was not for Trump, and I just felt differently, and so we had to have conversations about like watching what we say to each other. You don’t want the other person to feel that their belief is wrong and doesn’t matter. But I feel like in regards to, um, people you don’t really know or like even on Facebook–I don’t think that’s the right place, and I feel like it never was the place. But I feel like that never even really was a thing until this time around. And um, and then it’s like, like it was hard for me to hear that my boyfriend’s mom had gone and like deleted all these people because I was like, she now knows how I feel, because after she had texted me I had replied like ‘oh, I’m ok, like I don’t feel that way.’ Like, I never said anything like ‘F Hillary, Hillary sucks, it’s a new day for the world,’ [laughs] nothing like that at all. Like I literally just said like, ‘oh I think it will be fine, let’s just see where it goes from here.’ And then she like never wanted to talk to me ever again, and she never text me back. It just hurt me that like I thought I had a certain relationship with someone, and all of the sudden because I had a different belief from her, it was like we’re no longer friends.
Savy: “Was that the only person that happened with, or did that happen again?”
Alexa: “Well my boyfriend had a really emotional reaction too that day. Like we had some issues–we got over them, obviously [laughing] but like, I had to also, we had to talk it out and he had to realize that I wasn’t saying one was better than the other, where as he would say you know like ‘Trump is going to ruin this country!’ and stuff. And I just–I never said anything like that in the opposite, so um, we had to have conversations…My mom, we never fought about it or anything intense like that, but…We had to like–she called me that next day, and I was like, ‘how are you feeling,’ and it was hard, like we almost had to like side step round each other, and ultimately kind of just like agree to not talk about it. Which is sad because you should feel like, like you should be able to like call your mom and talk about the world [laughs].”
Savy: “So you were saying it felt like a universal shift, and I think that too–but if we can’t talk about it, how do we navigate a world that feels polarized? You know like we have two people on two extremes, and then talking about it is tricky–how can we navigate that?”
Alexa: [deep breath] “Ugh, I get what you’re saying, and I just don’t know there is really like an answer right now. I mean, we’re young so we haven’t been like–like I don’t know if this has ever happened before, I don’t think  it has in this like grand-scheme of it all. I don’t know, like I still see myself struggling in classes sometimes. I don’t know if we’re going to talk about…”
Savy: “Yeah we can go there.”
Alexa: “Okay.”
Savy: “Like, so, how do you feel at Chapman? Like do you feel–what’s the consensus?”
Alexa: “So for me, I felt that I was not able to express my opinions on the matter–and again like what I said before, like in the classroom I found that…I think that pretty much all of my professors–most of them–had just like assumed that everyone in their class had just like felt the same way. And it also just felt like it was  kind of this unspoken rule going on where if you were in favor of Trump, like don’t you dare open your mouth about it. And um, I just felt really frustrated. Because I was having a really hard time at home already–like getting in a fight with my boyfriend about it, and his mom, and being attacked like at home, so I was like, ‘ok I’m going to go to school, and I’m going to skate…”
Savy: “Was this election day?”
Alexa: “Yeah, or like the day after. So I was like, ‘good, I’m going to escape this, go to class and keep my mind off of it,’ but like I couldn’t even escape it here. And like I totally understand because it was like, a really intense day that affected a lot of people in like very different ways. And I totally get that people should have the right to express themselves, but um…like I had one class where my professor had like, prefaced it with like ‘we’re going to do our lesson, and then at the end, if anyone needs to talk we’re gonna open it up, but you’re not required to stay.’ And so I thought that was like a great way to handle it, like, because I felt like people still have jobs, and lives, and you can’t just like stop your life because something happened that you don’t like. But some people were acting like that. Like some of our peers were not coming to class, and it was disruptive to the other students too, because like there was a noticeable absence. But then I had like another class where we spent like that whole class period talking about it, but I didn’t open my mouth one time. Because again, I felt like, like I didn’t feel safe in doing so.”
Savy: “Is this just in the English department, or other…”
Alexa: “It was, actually yes. There was one girl who actually said out loud that she was so furious–like she was a little odd–but she used the words ‘I will mutilate,’ and she was like ‘I will mutilate anyone if I find out they voted for this man.'”
Savy: “So you felt like actually, physically threatened…”
Alexa: “I felt like unsafe in this place that should’ve been a safe space. And I felt like I was kind of forced to be there because unlike that other class I had, she never said or gave the option of walking out, and I didn’t want to like again, make a scene, like just leave in the middle of the conversation you know [laughs], but I didn’t know how long the conversation was going to be. But we literally talked about it the whole class. And I was struggling, and then kids rioting outside–like…”
Savy: “Did you see the riots here?”
Alexa: “I did.”
Savy: “Where were you?”
Alexa: “I was getting Jamba, and they were outside of AF. And again, like I don’t have a problem with that like, freedom of speech, but in my head, I was like nervous to even let on that I didn’t feel the same way as the protesters, or like I was nervous if I walked outside and I saw a friend and they were like, ‘hey, come join us,’ like I was actually scared to be in that situation. I understand that because Chapman is like a private school professors feel like using there classrooms to like, you know…have conversations they want to have, but I just felt like at the same time, some weren’t mindful of there student’s feelings. Because again, the world was like a different place that day, and I just feel like it was, I don’t want to say selfish, but I just felt like there was a line that was crossed between like personal boundaries and like professionalism, and like keeping it a safe space versus like opening the floor to have people–there were very fine lines that day, and I feel like some were a little bit blurred.”
Savy: “Do you still feel that today?”
Alexa: “Um…[deep breath] It’s definitely a lot better, like it’s a semester after. Like of course you can’t go a full day without it, or like a week at least without someone saying like ‘did you see the the latest tweet’ or whatever. Something is always happening, and again like that doesn’t bother me. Like I’m not going to hate on people for having their own opinions, but I do have one class right now where I feel like my professor takes it a little too far. But again, I don’t mind people expressing how they feel, what bothers me is when it gets in the way of the curriculum.”
Savy: “So have you ever spoken up in those types of situations? Do you ever join the conversation?”
Alexa: “I have not.”
Savy: “Do you think that’s because you’re afraid?”
Alexa: “It’s definitely because I’m afraid–100%. I don’t have a problem challenging my peers, or having like constructive debates with them, but I feel like this is a topic where people just can’t seem to hold it together. Like literally you don’t know if someone is going to get physical. [laughs] Like also I don’t want to say something to someone that I might like, and then all of a sudden we can’t be friends anymore because she or he find out  that I have a different political belief than they do. And I wouldn’t want to jeopardize that. And same goes for my professors–I wouldn’t want to jeopardize my relationship with my teachers either.”
Savy: “So you feel those stereotypes we talk about earlier actually actualizing on yourself?”
Alexa: Yes, definitely. It’s hard to because when that recording came out–that ‘grab her by the pussy’ recording–my dad had a hard time with it because I’m his only child. He was really excited about Trump, but when that recording came out, he had a really difficult time because he was like, ‘I don’t know what I would do if someone said that to my daughter.’ And I’m the only girl in his life, and he had this inner conflict going on because he still wanted this change, but he didn’t know if morally he could still do it.
Savy: “Do you think you would have gone through that same process if you did vote?”
Alexa: “Yeah, I don’t think there’s anyone who went to vote that didn’t. It’s hard to because that happens as a woman regularly. It’s just that it shouldn’t be done by a president.”
Savy: “So how do we reconcile–like you are for women’s rights, and the ‘pussy grab’ comment really bothered you–how does that continue to effect your thoughts on Trump’s presidency?
Alexa: “I think Trump’s a very smart man, but I do think he’s just a little dysfunctional. I want to partly believe that some of it’s a generational thing. Like he’s an old man–do we just ignore some of the stuff that comes out of his mouth.”
Savy: “Are you saying we should excuse it then–this misogynistic behavior?”
Alexa: “I think it shouldn’t be excused because he’s the President of the United States. Like if he wasn’t the president, I probably would have excused it like whatever. But like when you’re running a country, it’s not okay.
Savy: “So how do you feel about his presidency in general so far? Are you upset about the immigration ban, or…like have you been pleased with his presidency so far? Is it what you expected?”
Alexa: “Again, I didn’t vote and I’m not really into politics, but I do think it’s great that he was able to get so many women out and protesting…”
Savy: “So almost like reverse-psychology…”
Alexa: “Yeah! When was the last time that many women got up and did something? And protesting does get the message out, but otherwise it’s not really doing anything. Like I donated money to Planned Parenthood, but I didn’t go and march, so some people were like ‘you’re not a real feminist.’ But I felt like marching wasn’t actually doing anything for the cause.”
Savy: “So, what do you think about the future? Can we stop the increasing divide in our country?”
Alexa: “I hope so. Because what scares me more than anything would be Pence being president. [laughs] No but I do hope we can get together. I hope that as a country we can start supporting each other, stop deleting each other, and making assumptions about what everyone else believes.
Savy: “So we do have some reconciling to do as a country. Are you taking steps to listen to people with a different opinion from you?”
Alexa: “Definitely. And I want to say other people’s sides of it, which is why I’m kind of on this like limbo path, but I’m in the minority because I’m not just bashing, and hating, and speaking out about our president right now. But in my head I feel like we have gone through much worse things, and there are also worse things going on in the world.”
Savy: “So we have to focus on our interpersonal relationships, and not on destroying them–because of the election.”
Alexa: “Yeah, and we have to stop blaming each other. We have to stop like pointing fingers at the hidden voters, or the electoral versus the polar vote. It’s over, and I just think you don’t have to like what he does, but we also can’t go around like spreading hate against each other. You can’t go and tell people they’re right or wrong, because you’re going to alienate yourself. I mean, I felt like that for a while. I feel like I was alienated from the rest of my peers at one point, but I don’t feel like any of them if they knew, I don’t think anyone would have consciously wanted to do that to me.
Savy: “To wrap this up, I want to know how you felt just now sharing all of this with me. I know that we don’t share the exact same beliefs. How did this experience make you feel?”
Alexa: “I felt comfortable because I feel like we know each other really well, and we’ve had similar conversations before. Like on election day we talked, and I felt like our conversation was really therapeutic [laughing]. It literally felt like the entire world was depressed, and I even felt the same way because I felt fear for speaking out. Today of course when I hear people talk about Trump it still bothers me, but I always bite my tongue. I’m such a strong believer in freedom of speech, so I just have to remind myself that a lot of people feel personally attacked and they’re just venting or expressing themselves. I also never engage because everyone has the right to their own opinion, and who am I to say that someone is wrong. I don’t know. We will see what happens.”
Savy: “Yes, we will see. Thank you!”

 

Children’s Books and Why They Matter

(PHOTO: Mine)

“Story is the most powerful force in the world–in our world, maybe in all worlds. Story is culture. Story, like culture, is constantly moving…It exists as a truth. As a whole. Even if the whole is in constant change.” -Deborah A. Miranda, Bad Indians: A Tribal Memoir


While my sisters and I were in kindergarten, my parents would read to us every night. These books were normally short, illustrated stories with light-hearted plots. One of my favorite books was called Skippyjon Jones by Judy Schachner. On her website, Schachner posted the following book description:

“Skippyjon Jones is no ordinary kitten. Oh, no…He’s actually El Skippito, a great sword-fighter ready to battle banditos the world over! With a little imagination and a whole lot of fun, this frisky cat dons a mask and cape and takes on a bad bumble-beeto to save the day. And along the way, he’ll be sure to steal young readers’ hearts, yes indeed-o!”

200-skippyjon

(Source: skippyjonjones.com)

Skippyjon Jones was incredibly popular when I was growing up. It won a lot of awards: in 2007, the National Education Association named the book one of its “Teachers’ Top 100 Books for Children.” My family loved it. I remember giggling as my dad read it; laughing at the funny rhyming lines of the story. Skippyjon Jones is written in Schachner’s “Spanglish:” what is primarily English, with a mix of Spanish-like phrases, such as ending words in “-ito.” As a girl growing up in Hawaii, to me this spanish flare was both foreign and funny–amusing. Other readers and critics have made similar positive comments on the website. For example, the E.B. White Read Aloud Reward Association–an award Skippyjon Jones won in 2004–writes:

“Unique, quirky and memorable, Skippyjon Jones is chock-full of rhyme and rhythm. Peppered with Spanish expressions and full of energized fun, Skippyjon Jones is not only entertaining for the listener, it’s also enjoyable for the reader.”


My sister Makena is studying education at Colorado College. This year she took a class on children’s literature. One day when I was Facetiming her, she brought up Skippyjon Jones. I laughed as I slowly pictured the book’s cover and remembered its plot. She saw me smile, and I thought she would too. Instead, her forehead crinkled in concern as she said, “Well, I found out in class today that it’s actually a terrible story.” I was surprised–now my forehead crinkled. “What do you mean?” I asked.

Skippyjon Jones does not seem so bad. A story about an adventurous Siamese cat? How innocent! The blog De Colores: The Raza Experience in Books for Children elaborates on this appearance of Skippyjon Jones. Blogger Beverly Slapin points out that “Schachner’s expressive acrylic and pen-and-ink illustrations…would be very appealing”–which the undoubtedly are. But she continues: “[Skippyjon Jones]…would be very appealing were it not for these godawful stories themselves.” And that’s what my sister proceeded to say; that while Skippyjon Jones may seem to tell the story of an innocent sword fighting cat, in reality it reveals a white woman’s–and all of white American society’s–problematic and stereotyped play on Spanish, especially Mexican, culture. Slapin continues by saying Skippyjon Jones actually “prepare[s] young children to accept immigrant-bashing…and the racist campaign against Mexican American students…[It’s] a model for how racist stereotypes are marketed to young children.” Skippyjon Jones may seem fun, but it’s really making fun of, and propagating harmful ideas of, what it means to be Mexican.

Beyond the stereotyped plot, there are problems obvious problems with Schachner’s “Spanglish.” Slapin writes:

“Adding ‘ito’ to an English word does not make it Spanish. Further, you don’t just make stuff up and call it ‘Spanglish.’ Mocking someone’s language and culture in this way is not ‘silly,’ it’s racist. The Skippyjon Jones books and materials are insulting to Spanish-speaking children who are learning English, English-speaking children who are learning Spanish, and their parents and communities.”

While Skippyjon Jones may seem to use Spanish in a “playful” way, this “playfulness” really demonstrates the white community’s complete lack of respect for a culture and language that is not our own. 

This may seem over dramatic–isn’t it just a children’s book? But that is exactly right. This, is what we are teaching our children. 

As young children, the stories we hear shape our understanding of reality–whether we know it, or not. These stories define culture, they define who we are. As the website Partners Against Hate writes in their article “The Importance of Multicultural Children’s Books,” “Literature is a powerful vehicle for helping children understand their homes, communities and the world…The impressions and messages contained in these stories can last a lifetime.” I think this is true. When I originally heard Skippyjon Jones, I did not have the tools to recognize its problems. And while I do not hold the stereotypes it perpetuates as true today, when I was a child, I may have taken them as truth. Children’s literature, despite its best intentions, creates biases and prejudices that slip into consciousness unknowingly–for better or for worse. The website Partners Against Hate explains this notion best through the concept of “windows and mirrors:”

“Children’s literature serves as both a mirror to children and as a window to the world around them by showing people from diverse groups playing and working together, solving problems and overcoming obstacles…Unfortunately, not all children’s literature sends the messages that we want children to learn. Children’s books often contain the same stereotypes and biases of other media…there is a danger that such distortions will become a part of their thinking.”

In Skippyjon Jones, I looked through a “window:” as white girl growing up in Hawaii, I was unfamiliar with Mexican culture–a saw it from a window, or for the first time. Yet Skippyjon Jones added to my limited insight into an unfamiliar culture in a horribly stereotyped, Americanized way. Today I do not valorize “Spanglish,” or think all Mexicans are sword fighters or own chihuahuas as a result of reading Skippyjon Jones; but at one point in my early life, before I knew better, maybe I did. That is terrifying.

These are the stories my generation grew up with; this cultural stereotyping has been taught to us since we were first learning to read. That is terrifying.

This problem is larger than Skippyjon Jones; this is a societal issue. According to the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, “of the 4,500 children’s books published in the United States in 1997…[only] 88 were by Latino/a authors or about Latino/a themes.” This harmful narrative, this cultural appropriation, is undoubtedly still being told today–while the real Latino voices go unheard. It is time to make children’s literature–these “silly” stories–a serious issue. It is time to listen to what stories we are telling, or listen for those that are not being told. It is time to reveal the dangers of our narratives, and change them.

My parents may not have realized they were teaching me this harmful story of Mexican stereotyping by reading me Skippyjon Jones–but still they read it to me. So parents, I encourage you to stop; to think about what you are reading to your children. To stop, and think about what you might read to them instead.

I’d like to return to the epigraph of this piece. In the introduction to her novel Bad Indians: A Tribal Memoir, Deborah A. Miranda writes: “Story is the most powerful force in the world–in our world, maybe in all worlds. Story is culture.” I think she’s right: the stories we tell do shape our world and our culture, who we are and who they are. And it is up to us to determine if those stories become harmful–perpetuating prejudice and stereotypes–or helpful–revealing diversity and inclusivity. As she continues: “Story, like culture, is constantly moving…It exists as a truth. As a whole. Even if the whole is in constant change.” While we may have written a culture one way, we can change it. That truth can be rewritten.

I may have loved Skippyjon Jones–but this time, let’s write a story that is authentic and respectful.

This time, let’s exchange stereotypes, for diversity and acceptance.

This time, let’s rewrite the cultural narrative.

This time, let’s read to our children, and change the stories of tomorrow–for the better.