Centering The Margins Conference Looks To Writers of Color
March 1, 2019 12:42 p.m.
Marivi Soliven, author
Huda Al-Marashi, author
Beth Accomando, arts reporter, KPBS News
Related Story: Centering The Margins Conference Looks To Writers of Color
A three day conference for writers begins tonight in San Diego. But this is a writer's conference with a difference. The event called centering the margins features conversations with writers of color and emphasizes the need for minority writers to construct spaces for creating critiquing and publishing their work. KPBS Arts reporter Beth Accomando speaks with two of the participating authors a preview sort of on and Huda Al Marashi.
Green Book just won the Oscar for best picture. And this is a story about a black man told from a white perspective and that has highlighted how important it is to recognize who's telling the story. This conference centering the margins addresses that issue. V Why did you feel it was important to create this conference and focus on writers of color.
Thanks for asking that question. I think as an immigrant I've always felt that I am on the fringes of mainstream American culture which means white culture and I always felt that I was relating to myself through their eyes like did I fit into this culture.
How was my narrative as an immigrant being received by the dominant may mean culture. And so I felt that it was time that we centered the margins meaning all the marginalized people people of color Asian African-American Latino American. We needed to be able to speak our stories through our point of view instead of having it mediated through the white gaze. And that's why I said well we need to have conversations with writers of color. We need to center the marginalized folks and bring together a conference that not only puts us on the borders or in one specific panel for writers of color but have the whole conference be about writers of color.
Our concerns are specific challenges particularly in a publishing industry that is 89 percent white and how we navigate all of that and still get to tell our stories our own voices stories without having it been being translated or filtered through a white editor's gaze or a white narrator's gaze.
Murphy this is going to be a free three day conference. So what can people expect.
Well they can expect to find six panels four of the panels happen on Saturday at the Cross Cultural Center at UCSD and this the last two panels happen at the library on sunday at the Neal Morgan auditorium by the opening night is going to be so much fun because we have Charmaine Claymore who is a fabulous Filipino jazz singer coming down from L.A. to sing three songs that will open open mike night and open mike night invites all writers of color from the community or among the panelists to read three minutes of their work.
So it really will be a showcase of what we write what we do in various careers everything from novelists to poets to playwrights to broadcast journalists and film producers and all of us telling our own stories the way we want to be then to be told and this is not going to be strictly San Diego based writers you're going to have people coming from all over.
Yes definitely they're coming in from as far away as Chicago Alabama the Pacific Northwest.
We had one person that was going to come in from Singapore but after a year of planning she had to back off for personal reasons but people have been calling or emailing from across the country to see if they can participate because I believe this is such a unique event where there are only writers of color that people sends like this is the one opportunity to shine to be front and center while white folk get to sit down and listen and Hoda you are a writer that's going to be at this conference.
Why is it important to you to bring something not just of yourself but of your culture to your writing.
I am a Muslim American writer from first generation born in the U.S. of Iraqi parents and I really started writing in this terrible political climate. First started with 9/11 and then at the height of the Iraq war and there's this absence of representation. We were just starting to tell our stories. However what I saw was a lot of circling back to these terrible political moments. A lot of our work was in response to 9/11 and in response to this discourse of terrorism and global conflicts. And I really wanted to offer a story that showed young Muslims American kids in a context of love relationships and how we wanted to see ourselves.
And you do that in the context of also kind of bringing up cultural values that you feel are very specific to you and growing up in your particular family.
Specificity was incredibly important to me in this. I think one thing that we saw in the post 9/11 world was Muslims got represented as this big monolith that we were all the same and that there was one kind of mass of Muslims that we could all talk and mobilize and have this concerted response to this one horrific event. And it's not like that you know and so what I was trying to show in my book was one particular family with their own particular habits idiosyncrasies cultural customs and their own attitudes and ideas toward their own religion.
MURPHY Your book is The Mango bride and what kind of things did you want to bring into that book that you felt were representative of your culture.
There were a couple of things. My day job is as a phone interpreter and right around the time of the subprime mortgage crisis I noticed a spike in the number of calls I was receiving from the National Domestic Violence Hotline and social worker explained to me that when the con economy goes down domestic violence goes up. So that was one thing I wanted to point up in my book because immigrant wives are at a particularly vulnerable position when their husbands to an abusive because basically the husband is their sponsor in the country that they live in and they basically have to put up with that for the whole time that they are on a conditional green visa.
And because I was getting all of these calls I felt that it was important to me to put in that that part of the immigrant narrative. So that's one woman who was an immigrant and she was a domestic violence survivor. But there was also the other part of the narrative which talks about people who left better situations in their own country to come to the United States. So it's a very nuanced experience of immigration not the one that we're hearing under the current administration where there pictured or illustrated as these hordes who are bringing drugs and crime into the country.
That's not it at all. So I wanted to put more nuance into the into the immigration debate and sure there are all different sorts of people who come to the United States for many different reasons and many of them suffered different fates depending on how how they fall into socio economic like hierarchy of things.
And do you feel in writing these stories that being very specific to who you are and what you bring from your culture that in a certain way that also helps to bring a certain universality to it. And like showing people that hey we may have these very different specific cultural traditions but we're all kind of very similar underneath.
I really thought that my book was going to the conversation about it was going to be more about the bi cultural aspects of it. But when I now that I'm kind of on the road with my book and going to a lot of events I am heartened by just how much the people are more interested in the family dynamics that I wrote about and I wrote about a newlywed couple. And it's their kind of most angsty years. And the main character which is it's my story it's about me trying to reconcile her traditional upbringing with these Western notions of a romantic love.
And this is resonating with a lot of women and a lot of even male readers as well. And it's the angsty ness of that newlywed years that everybody's relating to that and most of my feedback my reviews my comments are all about the relationship and very little to do with the bi cultural aspects.
And if I can add to that I mean even as we are like minority writers writers of color I have to say that for instance in hoodies book the idea of falling in love and trying to cleave your story according to the dictates of what Hollywood considers a romantic love story that is a universal like you know problem for a lot of Americans you know even the mainstream Americans in my case domestic violence and the idea of displacement of moving from one home whether it's from one country to the other or from one state to the other.
That is a universal experience for many Americans. So it's not like being specific puts us apart from everyone it actually brings us closer because it brings out the humanity of our specific experiences and shows hey we're all alike under you know despite our different provinces.
And I think that by cultural experience one thing that's gotten also lost in this discourse about immigration is that your immigrant communities are the ones that are kind of holding up a mirror because we have our lake and both cultures and we're seeing both. And what I was trying to do in my book was hold up a mirror and say look this is how those who have who are coming from the outside are maybe perceiving the western story of romantic love. This is how we are perceiving it this is how we're receiving it from movies television and sometimes I've gotten comments like Well that's not really American culture.
And I said Well yeah I know that I know that's not really American culture but we're also not seeing the nuance lived experience of it in your homes as you might.
And this is the story that you're exporting ties and I think we offer an opportunity to also be critical and analyze the larger dominant culture and what are you hoping this conference is going to achieve is this mostly for other writers to kind of get information or do you feel it's for a broader public to kind of just get introduced to these different voices.
Actually the providence of this or the genesis of the idea for this conference help grew out of the first San Diego Book Festival. This happened two years ago and I guess it was based on or inspired by the L.A. County Festival of Books and I heard about it two weeks before it actually happened and I was kind of startled to realize that no writers of color were actually invited to speak on the panel. And I've lived here about 17 years now and I know there is a community of us that are here and doing work but because we are not perceived as part of this circle of writers or we're not as easily accessible.
No one thought to invite us and I thought well if we can't be invited to this larger thing we're just going to have to throw our own events. So two months after the book festival happened that didn't have any writers of color. I organized a storytelling event at the public library and I called it San Diego beyond the pale because we had an African-American a bi racial and Ethiopian Somali and Mexican-American storyteller as along with myself tell stories and that kind of like continued the momentum after that. Marc Cherry at the Library invited me to moderate a panel called Bad on rez.
Email us. Is immigrant writers speak in a tight time of Trump and because the interest was growing I said Well how about we go big. How about we do a whole three day conference with writers of color because we have the writers here and we actually have the rise across the country and we are all just waiting to be invited to the table. And if the table is not going to invite us well we're just gonna set up over here and you can come to our table.
All right I want to thank you both very much for talking with me. Thank you. Thank you. Now I'd like each of you to read a selection from your book.
My name is Alma Rashi and I'll be reading to you from a memoir. First comes marriage my not so typical American love story. Chapter 1 husband potential I cannot remember a time when I didn't think of Heidi rather as a potential husband. The day my family first met the rhythms Mrs. rather took one look at me. Six years old and my hair in braids and my baby sister Lena and said martial law. Martial law. We don't need to look anymore. We found our pretty girls at the time. I didn't know that my father and Dr. Rilla had gone to the same medical school in Baghdad.
I didn't know that they'd found each other at an American Academy of Neurology meeting in San Diego and that doctor rather had invited us to his home for dinner. I didn't know that the rhythms were also Iraqi and Shia because those were descriptors. I still didn't know to apply to myself all. I knew that day was that the rhythms were different in the same way we were different. They spoke Arabic with just sounds replacing the course sounds they eat rice with stews called Merdeka and they kept their five daily prayers even though Mrs rather like Mama did not cover her hair with the hijab.
These were my signs that of the two types of boys in the world those who were possible to marry and those who were impossible. The rhythm boys belonged to the former. The small population of boys from which I'd be allowed to choose a husband. It was a remarkable discovery for the early 1980s. The only Arab community in our small seaside northern California town was a secular social group filled with a mix of Lebanese Palestinians Syrians and a few Iraqis who had immigrated so long ago. They spoke more English than Arabic no one in my parents small band of friends was quite like the rhythms whose dialect was still so fresh on their tongues.
Who knew so many other Iraqi immigrant families in the United States and who matched our family not only in religion and level of devotion but also in ages and interests the fathers got along the mothers got along the rhythm boys played well with my brother Ibrahim and lean in I played well with their daughter Jamila in spite of the 400 mile distance between our northern and southern California homes our families clung to each other when the rhythms came to our house we took day trips to Carmel beach big sur and San Francisco. We came back dirty and tired and waited in line for a turn in one of the two bathrooms in our small ranch home when my family stayed with the rebels.
They drove us to Los Angeles County to their newly founded Islamic center or mastered and to events with the other Iraqi families gradually moving into the area by the time my little sister Lina was 4 years old she'd already intuited that the rhythm boys were the marriageable kind. After a picnic one sunny afternoon in big sur she turned to Jamila rather the oldest child among us and said I'm full now. Can I have my wedding Lena had been gripped by wedding fever ever since she'd fallen asleep and missed her chance to be a flower girl and Jameel us on sweating.
Jamila had promised Lina she could have a pretend wedding just as soon as everyone was done eating at home we'd bake Lina cake using a box mix while she put on her favorite summer dress. The one with the ruffles and the hula dancer print. And then she stuck a comb with a short tulle veil in her mess of curly blonde hair now. Jamila brush the potato chip salt off her fingers reached out for Lena's hand and guided her off the bench of the picnic table. Together we walked down the poison oak lined trail to the creek where our brothers were building a dam.
Jamila climbed to the top of a flat rock cupped her mouth and called out. Guys come here.
I listened to her voice bellow and admired the ease with which she commanded our brothers. Jamila was 13 years old four years older than me and I believed in her authority. The boys however were unimpressed. The three of them continued slapping down the rocks they chosen for the creek down with a clank and a splash guys. Jamila repeated. We promised my older brother Ibrahim waded out of the water looking peeved. He hated it. When Jamila tried to organize us down from the rock. Jamila said Ibrahim you'll do this ceremony.
Ibrahim shook his head. His eyes were green and his eyelashes so thick and bold that the girls at school teased that he wore mascara. I'll do it for Lina he said. Not because you asked me to well Jamila said turning to her two brothers who were approaching in their swim trunks. Which one of you was going to be the groom without a word. The rhythm boy stepped into their sandals which were left at the side of a nearby rock and moved in behind Ibrahim. The sun had deepened the tone of the brothers already dark skin.
I'm Jed the younger and shorter of the two was wiry pure flesh and bones. While Heidi was stuck here with a small tummy and a waist that gave in on both sides to a slight crease I crouched down so that Lina and I were the same height and said You don't need a boy to have a wedding. How about if you get married by yourself Lina dropped her chin so low it almost touched her chest and pushed her lips into a frown. But a bride has to have a husband. She said with such certainty it was clear that Lina already understood there were rules to getting married.
Just play along. Jamila said to Amjad. But he folded his arms and gave a firm no. She then turned to 12 year old hottie. You'll marry Lina won't you. She's little. She doesn't understand what being married means. You don't want her to be disappointed. Do you Heidi stood there with water dripping from his hair and listened to his sisters argument with his hand on his hips.
He looked down and kicked the rock closest to his foot. He watched it scuttle across the ground OK. He said surely Heidi knew there would be teasing that our parents would laugh heartily at the memory of the little bride and her new husband for years to come. And yet he was willing to put up with this for my sister's happiness from the front of the camp ground fire pit where I stood as lean as maid of honor. I watched Lena walk down the dusty aisle between a run of benches clutching a bunch of artificial flowers with one hand the other hand so trying to suppress a giggle our mothers looked on from a bench.
Off to the side squealing in pure delight at Lena's irrepressible joy. The fluff of golden hair peeking out from behind her veil Mrs. rather called out to her sons. Pay attention boys. One day you will dream to marry such pretty girls when Ibrahim opened his facetious wedding ceremony with Dearly beloved. With the exception of Jamila my gaze fell on Heidi standing at Lena's side playing along with the sincerity I'd never seen in a boy. I took a snapshot of Haiti in my mind still in his swim trunks and as tanned as a piece of overdone toast I decided if I did indeed.
Mary Heidi one day this would be the moment I'd say I first fell in love with him.
My name is V Sullivan and my novel is the mango bride. Ten minutes before 8:00 that evening Beverly stepped through the revolving doors of the hotel Intercontinental in Manila. The last time she'd been there was to see Lisa and her husband Lt. Dell off to the airport nearly three weeks ago. She glanced at the concierge desk and was relieved to see that the hottie fairly see dad was not on duty that evening. Beverly Carmela waved from an armchair at the far end of the lobby. She knew from the tilt of his head that the Filipina sweetheart manager was sizing her up.
As she approached. She wondered if he was ticking off the checklist that he called the pointers for self-improvement hair worn long and flowing tasteful makeup elegant jewelry a dress never pants Hamm no longer than knee length pedicure toenails open sandals. That last instruction would have been hard to pull off with a heavy monsoon downpour. But she had carried her sandals in a plastic bag and put them on in the taxi and beyond. They may support among the love. Why are you carrying that plastic bag. Carmela stood up. Eyebrows raised as he looked her over.
Huh. Good night man. You remembered to pluck those eyebrows Orange you glad I made you take lessons at the sheer beauty salon or pull Mr. couple along. Beverly blushed. A weekend ago. Esperanza that the shit Salon's glamorous transsexual aesthetic directories had used Beverly's face as a blank canvas for a painter's palette of shadows creams and ruses. After demonstrating how to use each cosmetic as beat answer directed Beverly to buy it for practice at home in two hours Beverly spent a fourth of her waitress month's salary on a handful of beauty in matching pink jars at Esperanza taught me everything I need to know about makeup.
Good good. That's why I insist all my girls here before meeting the guests. Best investment you'll ever make. Carmel up with a finger under Beverly's chin to lift it.
I see you're using as Beyonce's fave lipstick made in mauve. Very nice very nice. He glanced lower and frowned. Next time you wear a strapless bra with that battle neckline. Huh. Only certain women Umar baba baba ugly but those low flying doves expose in underwear. None of my girls I like that. Kamala straightened her blouse tucking the straps beneath its rim eye. His hands spread wide as though presenting a magician's trick. See how much prettier it is when you show off those color Bones. Trust me her had been doing this for ever.
Now when I introduce you. Don't be nervous. Just give him your best smile.
Yes smile like your heart will explode through those pretty lips and like an obedient child. Beverly smiled despite the chill numbing her bare toes the gnawing emptiness of her belly and the cramp between her shoulder blades that came from standing beauty queen street as Esperanza had directed. She had come this far to claim happiness and by God she was going to smile even if it killed her. Kamala stood arms akimbo his under by growing more and more pronounced as he assessed Beverly's tight green.
Hey Nicole. Just practice practice practice till that feels natural. Okay. Yeah. Now give me that plastic bag. The only thing a lady should have in our arm is a handsome man.
Oh poor Mr.. Beverly murmured passing the rain spattered plastic to Carmelo who rolled it into a tight cylinder and stuck it under his arm like a clutch bag. No one had fussed over her appearance this way since Lisa had prepped her for Filipina sweetheart photos. Kamala is badgering attention was almost maternal making her feel like one of the coddled 18 year olds at whose debuts she had often waitressed. All right. You ready to meet Mr. Right. Carmelo looked over her shoulder his face brightening into a beatific smile. Here he comes.
Beverly what turned around to see a whippet thin man striding toward them. The gray hair was so severely trimmed as to make a bullet of his oblong skull but his smile seemed genuine. Beverly. At last we meet in person startling both Filipinos he buried her in a tight hug. Nice to meet you mister. I mean Josiah. Beverly leaned away to reply dismayed but a smudge of Maiden more. She had left in his white color. She had dreamed about this meeting hundreds of times but could not now recall any of the greetings she had rehearsed.
She took a step back and gazed at the man with whom she had been exchanging love letters for the better part of a year. Josiah was taller and broader than he'd appeared in a few photos. He had sent she notice that the tops of his ears angled away from his head like soft pink horns that his lips were the same color as his cheeks that the cleft in his chin resembled a scar. But what most impressed her about Josiah was that he smelled rich. His clothes bore that newly arrived from abroad sent that suitcases released when first opened Voltaire the caterer once had her unpack his luggage after linen shopping trip to California and she had never forgotten that odor of crisp vaguely metallic newness essence of America.
The caterer had called it in jest. She was still staring at Josiah when Carmela nudged her murmuring in rapid Tagalog and Uncle Benjamin Don't just stand there Say something. Are you hungry. Beverly was barely breathing. Dazed rolling his eyes Carmela rushed to salvage her attempt that chitchat. You must be absolutely famished Mr. Stein. Shall we have dinner. Yes of course. I made reservations at the Prince Albert rotisserie. Oh my God. Carmelo clapped the hand to his heart. Prince Albert is only the fanciest dining destination in Manila nor he had originally planned to treat the couple to a modest bistro.
But since Josiah had chosen the hotel's most opulent restaurant the bill was going on the Americans tab. Only the best for my girl. Besides at 21 pesos to the dollar I can afford to burn cash here. See how lucky you are. Carmela tap Beverly on his shoulder. This is just the first date. And already he treats you like royalty. Shall we. Jose Josiah held out an arm and Beverly took it marveling at the surprising amount of hair that carpeted the freckled skin. Carmela ushered Beverly and Josiah down a hall show slowing as they pass the boulevard Boulevard near launch whereas sequin drenched singer belted.
It's raining men to a to an undulating throng of dancers. Beverly stood transfixed. Apart from Barbie bitterly attacked she had never seen a live musical show. What a racket. Josiah pulled Beverly along. Good thing I'm on the seventh floor father on the quarter ended at the restaurant's grand entrance fronted by a mahogany podium. Prince Albert rotisserie is old world elegance stood in sharp contrast to Café Japanese cheerful Filipino quiche thoroughly intimidating Beverly a maitre d in a wine colored jacket. Check the reservations book and nodded at Josiah. Good evening Mr. Stein.
You requested a table for three Yes. This way please. Beverly followed the waiter past porcelain skinned women and men in bespoke suits their muted conversations mingling with chamber music and the clink of silverware and bone china plates. The room glowed with rich tones of Amber Ruby and gold from the stained glass mosaic that lit the ceiling to the gilded medallions on the wallpaper and carpet. It was as though she had stepped into a jewel box. The waiter left. That led them to an alcove in the far corner with a brief nod.
He indicated that Beverly would sit between the two men pull the arm chair out for her then eased it back as she sank onto the claret damask. She stared at a daunting array of cutlery plates and glasses laid out for her own use. She had waitress that many sit down dinners catered by Voltaire. But even he had never employed this multilayered table setting taking cues from Carmelo. She unfolded a snowflake napkin upon her lap another waiter arrived to fill the water goblets but as he reached for Josiah as the American held up a hand to stop him.
You'd better set out a clean glass before expecting me to drink from it. Josiah pointed to a barely visible visible smudge. Yes of course Sir I apologize for the oversight. Let me bring out the new one. The waiter bowed his apology and hurried off. Can't be too careful in a Ford country you know. Josiah smooth his napkin on his lap and leaned back in his chair. Hey I've got more important things to do than catch a stomach flu. He reached for Beverly's hand and set it on the table under his in a gesture that was both affectionate and proprietary.
I hope you saved up vacation days babe. I expect to spend as much time with you as possible on this trip Beverly stared at her fingers smothered beneath Jose's heavy palm I worked double shifts for three months or so I could take all of next week off. Smart planning Carmela interjected. See how industrious this girl is. Gary Miller's crowing reminded Beverley of a civil matter touting his champion rooster in a cockfight. He knew he was egging her on first impressions count a match matchmaker had said over and over again during that first interview it was time to make an impression.
I took a look at my skin. It's brand. Go ahead. Look at my nose. It's flat.
I'm singing for all my sisters going on thinking. They don't look right. It's day eight. Why. Scrubbing with soap to make it my.
Girl. I think you say. You shoot.
My gun duck.
He co I. Indeed he co. A Filipino funny Brown none. Suey. Comic book. You. Make me.
Smile. Just. Say I laugh and photograph of who. He. Jorma. Is. Less than green.
Is your mouth. Oh little. When. You. Need to speak he. You smart. Oh say your hair.
For me. Not if you care for me stay. My.
Each day we celebrate.
In fifteen twenty one. Ferdinand Magellan cleaned us for the king of Spain for five hundred years. We were conquered.
By you. I kinda done nagging Fogarty down the bunk Oh. Among the.
That was KPBS Arts reporter Beth Acommando speaking with authors McGreevy Sullivan and Huda Alomar Rashi.