HER KIND: Thank you Ching-In, Evangeline, Cristián, and Nikki for being a part of the Conversation. We love having your voices here, your various points of view. Let’s begin with a quote from Virginia Woolf: “To enjoy freedom we have to control ourselves.” Do you agree with this statement?
Cristián Flores García: I do and I don’t agree with Virginia Woolf’s statement. I live a double life. Freedom is (by choice) and isn’t (by imposition of society) part of my life. I enjoy the privilege of freedom because I do and do not allow myself to have total control.
My life, like the lives of most people, is plagued with unplanned circumstances that are at times good and at times difficult to take in and digest. And although I might not be able to control all circumstances orbiting me, I have learned to find freedom by way of the attitude I take towards these unplanned moments. Self-control is crucial when reacting to my emotions, desires, and ambitions. I believe a person with self-control thinks about the consequences before taking action, is respectful, tolerant, and mindful of others because our actions will always affect others.
Ching-In Chen: Cristián, I also relate to that idea of living a double life, that freedom and control are two sides of the same face (though I think there are actually multiple faces within one self pushing up against the constraints of being forced to be one way or even stuck between a binary—which is another way of thinking about this symbiotic relationship between freedom and control).
Growing up the daughter of immigrants, this quote was something my parents might have said to my brother and I when we were growing up, related to their attempt and desire to live the American dream that never was. This concept of freedom is both burdened by expectations and by the blood histories of this land, which I didn’t learn about until later (something they never teach you in school). However, growing up in an immigrant family, I already knew about stories, histories and languages that weren’t taught in school, about learning to control what kinds of information you presented to the outside world and what ways you controlled your body so you could conform.
I often felt like I didn’t fit in with my peer group. The other kids would make fun of me, mispronounce my name, call me chicken wings and chopsticks, wouldn’t eat lunch with me, would walk past me as if they didn’t see me or discuss my body (how ugly, how odd, how strange, how different I was) as if I weren’t there. In this way, I felt simultaneously like a deformed thing, which was highly visible, and an invisible being my peers looked through as if I wasn’t present. There was a shadow relationship that I had with my peers of Asian heritage too—where I was highly conscious of their presence and my own body in relation to theirs, but also desperately wanting to distance myself by molding myself against what they were, to prove we were not cut from the same cloth, that we were individual beings.
This was a pattern of internalized hatred that I carried over to my family. I was angry at them for immigrating because I was convinced that I would have belonged if they had stayed where they were (even though my parents did not grow up where my grandparents did because of migration due to war). I was ashamed at them because of their/our difference—accent, grammar mistakes, food, the color of our hair, the color of our skin, our customs, even their “backward” ideas. But one thing about my parents that I appreciate is that they always made an effort to create an atmosphere where I knew where I had come from, to pass on their language to me even when I refused them.
When I was in second grade, for my birthday present, I asked my mother if I could get a name change. Looking back, I think that it must have hurt her for me to reject my given name (which they told me meant happiness). My brother followed suit, shortly afterwards.
Nikki Wallschlaeger: I can relate. Especially when it comes to feelings of having a double life, which makes me think of W.E.B. Dubois as having a “double consciousness.” When I first read the quote which sparked this conversation by Virginia Woolf, I was aware that the word “freedom” itself inspired a physical reaction in my body; a series of emotions without boundaries. Fear, tension, anger, longing, euphoria. But the anger came from the context of Virginia Woolf herself: that her insight into freedom was unrealistic and quixotic. I am a woman of color coming from three different racial backgrounds: an African-American descended from slaves, German and Czech immigrants, and Native American. I usually identify as a Black woman. But even though Woolf and me share the oppression that societies have created by making gender an identity sentence, I knew she wasn’t speaking for me. I’ve come too far to trust that a past like the first wave of the women’s movement even had people like me in mind. And if they did, it was most likely for other purposes of securing power, or for a few individuals of color who were on the radar because of their charisma, hard relentless work, or just plain luck.
Evangeline Ganaden: I, too, relate with the double life, and of freedom and control being two sides of the same face. The idea that the enjoyment of freedom is predicated on control seems paradoxical, and yet the key to this statement, for me, is that we control ourselves not others, nor that others control us. This freedom, however, is incredibly difficult to attain. As an immigrant and woman of color, I cannot fully relate with Virginia Woolf, as she had the privilege of whiteness. Societal as well as economic restrictions always seem to shape freedom—external forces that dilute and control the individual sense of freedom. How can you enjoy freedom, even with self-control, if you do not have it?
CFG: As an immigrant, I had to learn to live with limited (physical and emotional) freedom dictated by the written and unwritten laws of this country: not everyone likes to be kissed when greeted, so hold back your kissing impulse; the neighbors don’t enjoy your loud mariachi and banda music playing all the time, so get a pair of headphones; without a driver’s license you shouldn’t drive, so I walked until I could buy a bike; English was everywhere and my vocabulary of it was limited to about twenty words, so I picked up the comics on Sunday’s newspapers, a dictionary, and learned new words. The way I react to every situation when confronting life [was and] remains my only way of experiencing freedom on a daily basis.
As an artist, however, I had to learn to let go of all control before I could find my voice. I take Woolf’s statement referring to control of self as self-empowerment because when we empower ourselves—by understanding that we have control over our creations, by understanding that no one should control our body or mind, by understanding that this power shouldn’t be given away even when in doubt, that our self-esteem, self-worth, and self-confidence will be the steering wheel of our self-control, that if we expand our knowledge of the world surrounding us our power will be greater, and that by taking responsibility of our creations, we find the path that leads to creative freedom.
CIC: This idea of control is one that has changed as I’ve grown more comfortable in/with my own body, which ultimately means I’ve grown as a writer. When I was first a baby spoken word artist, I would never have imagined I’d write a book years later, which would incorporate Western poetic forms such as the double sestina. I was responding to all the schooling I had received up until then—where we read no writers of color, one woman writer, only one writer from outside the United States, no queer or trans writers, and on and on. Over and over, what I learned was this very narrow image of who I felt I had to be, this image that felt like something deeply imposed externally. When I began to learn otherwise, I reacted by hating everything that kind of writing represented and rejecting it outright because it felt like to find my voice, to empower myself, I had to go to the opposite, to learn what I hadn’t been taught, to take that knowledge into my own hands. For me, taking responsibility was really teaching myself as a writer. I taught myself by going to community classes in places like Kearny Street Workshop, learning with community artists who exposed me to writers I wasn’t exposed to in school. I taught myself by mapping the gaps of what I hadn’t been taught in school—and by hunting down those books and reading them. Once I felt like I had that freedom from imposed brainwashing, I was able to be more open to what I had rejected—to learn from that as well. I eventually learned to have a more nuanced approach, but it wouldn’t have been possible without that initial push against the restraint.
CFG: Freedom to me means frankness, openness, as well as the readiness and willingness to act upon our emotions in the moment of creation. I was twenty-seven years old when I started to write and had very little training. Growing up, I was always a bad reader and a horrible writer (grammar was the subject I dreaded most). It was difficult for me to learn because I didn’t absorb new concepts/ideas quickly. And then, when I was thirteen years old I was brought to California to live with my parents without knowing the language, so overall my dread of school grew immensely. It took years before I could understand enough English to get by. When I reached the university I took my first creative writing course by enrolling in it by mistake while choosing an elective I needed to fulfill to major in liberal studies. I switched my major after reading poems by E.E. Cummings and Theodore Roethke. I didn’t understand the meaning of the poems. I had no idea what was happening on the page or why I was so moved to the point of tears, but I was and I wanted to do the same, I wanted to write like that, like them. So I gave it a try, took more writing courses, and eventually received an MFA in creative writing. But my time spent in the program I felt constricted, I felt lonesome, I was lost and confined to these feelings of isolation because I knew nothing of the writing world and felt like a constant outsider.
CIC: That’s funny that you bring up loneliness and isolation because this was crucial to me in becoming a writer. I think if I were well-adjusted and happy, I wouldn’t have always felt compelled to create an alternative world outside of the one I was living in (which is useful too as someone invested in social justice work, I’ve found:-)). I was a lonely little girl and I survived those years by telling myself (and imaginary friends) stories I made up to entertain myself. I think that was really the root of my desire to become a writer. In those stories, I felt like I really belonged somewhere else, if only I could get to that other place. I believed two things: one, there was no room for failure because of this burden to conform to this ideal that my family had sacrificed for; and two, that if only my family hadn’t left wherever they had left, I wouldn’t feel this terrible pressure to make good, and I would be normal. So I felt like I lived in a body which was divided and battling with itself, with what I imagined my family expected of me, with what it seemed society imposed on me, and, of course, my own expectations of myself.
EG: I agree with you both about the loneliness and isolation. And it, too, propelled me to write because it was the only way for me to make sense of this new place, to reconcile conflicting emotions: the gratitude for our family’s opportunity for economic security and yet the overwhelming resentment for the separation from everything we knew to be home, especially from my brothers, who could not migrate with us because of strict immigration restrictions. Writing became my salvation, and even now, however much I struggle to shape my thoughts and intentions on the page, it is perhaps where I feel most free—not because I don’t continually edit myself but because it is a place of discovery and even, sometimes, peace.
CFG: My time in the writing program was spent trying to write what I thought others expected from me. I wanted to write like others and censored myself of the true emotions that overwhelmed me when I sat down with pen and paper or in front of the blank screen. I forced myself to write fancy words, even when I wasn’t sure of their meaning, but they sounded impactful and pretty. It was only through the constant support and encouragement of my mentors, professors, and fellow writers that I was able to slowly break down my own censorship. I had to let go of my constant desire to control my thoughts and emotions when writing and reading. But some censorship remained because I didn’t want to be the person who felt so angry, so dirty, so sick, and so evil when writing. And it wasn’t until last summer, while at the Millay Colony, when I was having a conversation with fellow writer and dear friend, Ching-In Chen, that I saw how much I was blocking and blinding myself of my emotions. I read to her one of my poems, afterwards I explained to her what the poem was about, and she took a minute to think, then she said: “I don’t get any of those feeling you’re talking about in the poem. And those feelings weren’t there.” I knew it, I knew at the time I was writing the poem that I kept avoiding my confrontation with those feelings, but I thought I was clever enough to play with words and say what I felt without actually feeling. But that was it—it was the moment I knew I needed to let go of my imposed restrictions and allow myself to have no control and just write, just feel. Perhaps as an artist, the only control one must have is the control over form, craft, and aesthetics. All else shouldn’t be control.
NW: Freedom comes in different forms. If we are to take freedom as a physical phenomenon, then freedom has nothing to do with controlling ourselves. Freedom means the will to survive, to cut off physical ties as my ancestors no doubt had, to have at least some kind of autonomy over their lives. I think a lot of people forget that. Slavery wasn’t that long ago. I was in Savannah, Georgia, in March, and I had the opportunity to go on a tour of the city, at night, to meet up with its ghosts that haunt its downtown streets. I learned that for blocks there used to be pens—animal pens—where Africans were kept until they were auctioned off on the public auction blocks. When I think of freedom as interior freedom, as the freedom to at least have an inner world to cultivate, how can this happen when survival is the first priority? And in the lives of slaves, their survival means they have to survive only to turn a profit for their owners. One may comfort themselves with the knowledge that their lives, as they exist in perceptions of the world in their minds, are free. But that’s not enough for me—on this idea of how freedom and control translates in concrete terms. I have a suspicion that Woolf was trying to comfort herself by exalting the limited freedoms she perceived she had by invoking the freedoms of a creative life she was able to nourish, while in the material world, she was still a second-class citizen despite her wealth, in an oppressive imperialist society.
CFG: Virginia Woolf herself seemed to live a double life when it comes to freedom. Her work examines the difficulties female writers and intellectuals were, and still are, confronted with due to the fact that men hold disproportionate legal and economic power and for a long time seemed to hold the future of women in education and society (just look at all the laws that are been proposed and passed regarding women’s health care rights). I don’t believe her work would have the enlightening it did if she didn’t let herself be out of control when it came to her work, not her craft, but her themes, her boundaries, her explorations, the challenges within her work. In her life she certainly seemed to have followed her own statement and in order to enjoy her freedom she had to control herself, control herself from acting upon desires of suicide brought on by depression and despondence. She seemed to have forced herself into a “normal” life that included marriage and a literary career.
Perhaps we must control ourselves in society to not end with chaos, breaking laws here and there, and hurting one another because of it. But when creating art and thus examining life, should we be controlling our minds and our hearts? I choose to keep the freedom I’ve learned to find within my life and my art, knowing when to have control fully and when to let go of it completely.
EG: Yes, I couldn’t divorce slavery from this question. Yet even now, freedom, which should be everyone’s right, is instead a privilege. And so its enjoyment, and the responsibility of self-control in its enjoyment, is relative. I have more freedom now than many women or men had or have. But I am constantly negotiating this freedom, both within myself and within society. I am so grateful to have freedoms, even with their limitations, as an artist, a woman, a person of color living here in the United States that still so many others, including the people of my native country, cannot access. But there is a kind of burden to this, of history as well as of the present, which perhaps adds to the sense of control and responsibility in my own freedom. Growing up within the economic distress of the Philippines, the idea of becoming a writer, let alone a poet, was highly impractical if not outright unthinkable. It wasn’t until I’d lived here for years that I gave myself permission, because I was finally able to, to follow my impulse. Now as a writer, I am compelled to examine myself and the world, to push my own boundaries as well as the world’s, because I have certain privileges of freedom. It would be wonderful if one day Virginia Woolf’s statement, however hard-won it was for her in her own time, applied to everyone because everyone had freedom to negotiate, to begin with.
CFG: Freedom indeed comes in different forms, I agree. And I, too, think that freedom is hard to attain. When Evangeline mentioned the “privilege of whiteness, societal and economic restrictions,” all playing a role in the shaping of our freedom, I instantly thought of my years growing up in Mexico City and how I have attained certain freedoms in this country that my parents could never attain back in our country. One of those freedoms is the freedom to walk into a bank and be treated just like any other customer. To be indigenous, black, and/or inmigrante in Mexico was to be treated most times as second-class citizen. I inherited indigenous roots from both parents, my skin is like my father’s and my grandmother’s, and my great-grandparent’s: the color of an old penny. And growing up, many times, we were looked down upon and followed around at the mall, supermarkets, banks, and most governmental offices, because of the way we looked: poor, indigenous, and desiring so much. People often whispered under their breaths as we walked by: indios, not with pride but with resentment because indio to them meant someone stupid, un-educated, un-adapted, un-pleasant to tend to. Everywhere we went, even before leaving the house, my parent’s warnings would be: always walk straight and with your chin up high, always look people in the eye, never take insults with you because we are all equals. But I remember feeling inferior when incidents of discrimination happened. I also felt left out whenever the telenovelas were showing on TV. Soap operas are a big deal in Mexico, but most of the population is not truly portrayed in them, although the story line is most of the times the same, about a poor indigenous girl who falls in love with the rich white man who saves her and in the end love conquers all. Blond slim women, white tall men, blue-eyed, skin the color of butter—these characteristics are idealized in the soap opera world. Even in fiction, in fantasy, our place was not in it. And of course if you are poor you have less access to privileges such as art and high quality education. Our freedom felt negotiated always: if we go to the museum then there won’t be a birthday cake; if we eat beef today then we are vegetarian for the rest of the week; milk vs. bread; do I speak against my boss’ abusive behavior or do I keep my job; do I borrow clothes for the job interview or do I take my chances dressing in my tattered clothes and hope for my application not to be dismissed into the pile of Don’t call us, we’ll call you. I value the freedoms I’ve come to attain and constantly remind myself of people like Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, Cesar Chavez, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela. How much they had to negotiate their freedom, and yet how at every step they had to have the knowledge and control to know which way to turn, to keep going, to not give up.
CIC: I think that’s the paradox as writers we live with—because we are writers, we do have privilege to shape words and this is powerful, especially in a world where we may have so little control over other things. Sometimes too, in writing, it is easier to push against something that’s set there as a limit than to create something completely out of nothing. I had one teacher who I fundamentally disagreed with on most things related to poetry, but he made me write angry poems to prove him wrong. That pushed me to a greater level of artistry. And I relate that to my queer and transgendered communities of color—where we are usually never reflected in any of the literature or culture. Or if we are, it’s as aberrant or ugly or freakish.
One reason why I love the zuihitsu hybrid form, which Kimiko Hahn likens to a fungus, is that most Western forms are set with these hard rules. But the zuihitsu is a slippery-monster form, because it is jagged, chaotic, and crafted with a feeling of randomness. It’s a paradoxical form. It is unfinished, like the practice of leaving that one piece on the plate—for your ghost ancestor, to leave open the possibility of a visit, out of generosity. This is what I would like my writing to do—to find a way to make beauty between these contradictory impulses—to find what’s between the boundaries and borders and to make a new path to follow.
In Incubation: A Space for Monsters, Bhanu Kapil writes, “The monster is that being who refuses to adapt to her circumstances.” This can be seen as a negative thing, but I think the monster identity can also be liberating. If, as Kapil writes, “this was monstrous: the inability to assimilate,” then f*ck assimilation. As a writer, then, part of my role is to write our discomfort with the status quo, with fitting into a world which it is not in our best interests to fit into, to detail our realities and daily lives—no matter how painful or violent—to show how beautiful our bodies are. To reclaim and love our monster/mutant selves.
Ching-In Chen is author of The Heart’s Traffic and co-editor of The Revolution Starts at Home: Confronting Intimate Violence Within Activist Communities. A Kundiman and Lambda Fellow, she belongs to Macondo, Voices of Our Nations Arts Foundation, and Theatrical Jazz writing communities. Ching-In has been awarded fellowships from Soul Mountain Retreat, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Millay Colony, and the Norman Mailer Center. She has worked in San Francisco, Oakland, Riverside, and Boston Asian American communities. In Milwaukee, she is Cream City Review’s editor in chief and involved in her union and the radical marching band, Milwaukee Molotov Marchers. chinginchen.com
Evangeline Ganaden is a poet living in Los Angeles. She is a 2006 PEN Emerging Voices Rosenthal Fellow.
Cristián Flores García is a poet. She holds an MFA from the UC Riverside. She has received fellowships to Canto Mundo, The MacDowell Colony, and The Millay Colony. She is currently at work on her poetry collection, Diary of a brick Eater. Her poetry has been featured in PALABRA Magazine, The American Poetry Review, Spillway Magazine, and Connotation Press, among others and was selected for Pushcart Prize XXXVII. Currently, Cristián resides in Southern California.
Nikki Wallschlaeger lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She is the author of one chapbook, Head Theatre, which etched itself out of her palms unexpectedly. Her hands continue to talk, which is why she writes. Publications include Nervehouse, Esque, The Smoking Poet, Word Riot, Pirene’s Fountain, and DecomP ( forthcoming). Currently, she is working on her first full-length manuscript of poems.