My Boston & Fanny Howe
A frantic pace with work, city, family and words innundating me. Autobiographical impulses. I was born in Boston in 1970 and left when my parents moved to Caracas in 1976. Although I returned here regularly, including 3 years of high school in the 1980s, when I settled here in 1998 (again, for "school") it was a complete shock for me to realize how little I knew about Boston. I do feel "at home" here, but living in Boston has made me realize how nowhere is completely home for me. No lament, just an awareness of melancholy, displacement, etc.
There have been certain poets whose work has helped me understand my place in Boston. One of these poets is John Wieners, who I feel lucky enough to have met briefly. One memorable reading he gave was at the now-defunct Waterstone's Bookstore, off Newbury street in 1997 or 1998. Fanny Howe read with Wieners that night, and since then I've found pieces of my Boston in her work as well. This afternoon, I've been reading the introduction to her recent book of essays The Wedding Dress (2003). The Boston she remembers (from the 1960s to the present) in her introduction, is one that in many ways remains the same:
"Encircling this rather quiet and interior domestic quest was the city of Boston and its racist and violent rejection of progress, desegregation, dialogue. Louise Day Hicks and the vociferous Boston Irish were like the dogs and hoses in the South. No difference. Boston, always segregated into pockets of furious chauvinism--from the North End to the South--from rich white sections of Cambridge to poor working-class areas there--did not know how to separate issues of race and class. The poor were set against the poor, while the rich continued to glide around the periphery dispensing moral judgements."
"There is very little cross-cultural exchange even at the most privileged level in Boston. From that point down, the divisions have enlarged and darkened and continue to enlarge and darken."
"I quickly learned that white people are obsessed with race, and the subject comes up at least once in any three- or four-hour gathering. One night I went to a small town in Massachusetts to give a reading, and when I entered the room where an all-white group of people had gathered afterwards, they were saying, "If the lines ever get drawn, and the situation gets seriously violent, I know which side I will be on." And then they began to speak (liberals, all of them) about their fear of blacks, and their judgements of blacks, and I had to announce to them that my husband and children were black, before hastily departing.
This event has been repeated so many times, in multiple forms, that by now I make some kind of give-away statement after entering a white-only room, one way or another, that will warn the people there "which side I am on." The situation most recently repeated itself about a hundred times in my presence over the subject of O.J. Simpson. His name was like the whistle of a train coming down the line, and I knew what was coming--vindictive racialized remarks, coming from otherwise socially progressive white people. You would think that he had organized mass murders and guerilla warfare on American streets. Louis Farrakhan is the only other public person who produces the same reaction. On these occasions, more than any others, I feel that my skin is white but my soul is not, and that I am in camouflage."
My Boston is mapped by color, and I too often feel "camouflaged." Thinking about the mestizaje in my own family, in this city I am a camouflaged being, a mixture of white, Indian, Black, "Spanish," Venezuelan, "Mexican," etc. Sometimes "passing" for a few moments but usually trying to navigate Boston's class and racial map as unnoticed as possible. Ellison's "invisibility" as a method.
Howe's daughter, Danzy Senna, has written so much of this "mixed" and Black Boston in her amazing first novel, Caucasia. At one point, the book's narrator, a teenage girl named Birdie, mentions how the subway map of Boston effectively graphs the racial divisions of the city: blue line, orange line (Black and Latino), red line (poor and wealthy whites), etc. Reading her novel, at times, for me was a way of finding out what city I had been living in as a child.
What I love about Boston is the presence of so many writers whose work I admire. I find the city to be as divided as Howe describes it, yet in some way the books I encounter are part of that other, intellectual city I aspire to live within. I can't imagine staying here permanently, but for now it works. What I dread about Boston is the dull repetition of the same situation Howe is referring to and how these politics of race and class get played out on a daily basis. At work, on the street, with my white family, etc. Many dramas with no resolution in sight. But I'm grateful for Fanny Howe's attempts at writing a different city, for her poetic Vision.
Reading Nick Piombino's wonderful comments today on Walter Benjamin in relation to blogging.
Also, Leny Mendoza Strobel's comments on Barbara Jane Reyes' work-in-progress "Poeta en San Francisco":
"How wide does an angel's
Wingspan have to be to
Carry all your sorrow?"