Monday, July 30, 2007

Again on Literacy

This is a major theme in my life right now, and I'm planning on writing an essay on it. The more I talk to folks about it, the more I see it's a very common theme for all people of color--and probably for lots of white folks too, but here in California that history's a bit more obscured from my everyday experience.

But until I get started on that essay, here's an especially moving passage I just read from Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon on the same theme. This is from a conversation between twelve-year-old Macon Dead III and his father, the Junior, talking about what happened to Junior's father, Macon Dead Sr..

"'Pilate said somebody shot your father. Five feet into the air.'

'Took him sixteen years to get that farm to where it was paying. It's all dairy country up there now. Then it wasn't. Then it was...nice.'

"'Who shot him, Daddy?'"

"Macon focused his eyes on hs son. 'Papa couldn't read, couldn't even sign his name. Had a mark he used. They tricked him. He signed something, I don't know what, and they told him they owned his property. He never read nothing. I tried to teach hi, but he said he couldn't remember those little marks from one day to the next. Wrote one word in his life--Pilate's name; copied from the Bible. That's what she got folded up in that earring. He should have let me teach him. Everything bad that ever happened to him happened because he couldn't read. Got his name messed up cause he couldn't read.'

'His name? How?'

'When freedom came. All the colored people in the state had to register with the Freedman's Bureau.'

'Your father was a slave?'

'What kind of foolish question is that? Course he was. Who hadn't been in 1869? They all had to register. Free and not free. Free and used-to-be-slaves. Papa was in his teens and went to sign up, but the man behind the desk was drunk. He asked Papa where he was born. Papa said Macon. Then he asked him who his father was. Papa said, 'He's dead.' Asked him who owned him, Papa said, 'I'm free.' Well, the Yankee wrote it all down, but in the wrong spaces. Had him born in Dunfrie, wherever the hell that is, and in the space for his name the fool wrote, 'Dead' comma 'Macon.' But Papa couldn't read so he never found out what he was registered as till Mama told him. They met on a wagon going North. Started talking about one thing and another, told her about being a freedman and showed off his papers to her. When she looked at his paper she read him out what it said.'

'He didn't have to keep the name, did he? He could have used his real name, couldn't he?'

'Mama liked it. Liked the name. Said it was new and would wipe out the past. Wipe it all out.'"

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Need to get off my butt and two cool pics

I've been in a serious procrastinating funk. Not about life in general--I've definitely been writing more, which is great, and reading more, which is good too--but about specific things, like cleaning my house, filing my taxes (I know, I know, it's bad), staying on top of my bills, etc.

Maybe it's because that stuff feels like real work and my writing (at least right now) feels more fun. I'm trying to ride the wave of actually feeling motivated to write. I'm nearly done with my first real draft of a short story that I'm hoping to submit to this. Just emailed Mel, Denea and Ricardo (from my 2005 VONA novel workshop) to see if they can give me some good critique/feedback on it so I can do more work on the rewrites.

Had brunch last weekend with the always-delightful (and I don't use that word very much) Max Elbaum and his partner Ellen, who are always so supportive of my writing work and are just good people all around. They really helped me feel more grounded and secure in this vision of my life as a writing life, which can still be a political life. We talked about how I'm lucky that the two career paths that I have before me right now--fundraising and writing--are both things that hold a lot of promise and opportunity. One is more immediately lucrative than the other (and if you can't figure out which path this is then you're probably an alien from another planet or a corporate person), but it's nice to know that I have a choice.

Speaking of the writing life, here's one of its perks: meeting your writing idols and getting to take pictures with them. That's Jessica Hagedorn with me (second from left), Mel and Patty (the Pinay crew in our VONA workshop), and me with the rest of the VONA novelistas and our teacher, Chris Abani.

Photo by Patricia Justine Tumang

Photo by Ibarionex Perello

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Recent Adds I Wanna Highlight

Slowly but surely been adding new folks' blogs to my blogroll...including:

Favianna Rodriguez, activist-artist and business woman extraordinarie (my kinda gal!) who helps operate Tumi's, where my partner H. works now.

Baguio, Philippines native Frank Cimatu's Pine for Pine. I don't know Frank but I liked Baguio and I like his blog, so there it is.

My friend and former co-worker Jeremy Smith's teamblog, the Daddy Dialectic, a cool forum for men who are new fathers but longtime activists to talk about the challenges and joys of daddyhood in the early 21st century.

Ludovic Blain III, a new-ish friend / movement buddy who's into so many different things it's hard to keep track. From electoral politics to Garifuna and lots of other kinds of music to environmental justice to philanthropy, he's got it covered.

Enjoy the musings and weird antics of my friends in the blogosphere! ;)


Friday, July 20, 2007

It's a Small Start

As someone who's worked for or been involved with progressive, grassroots organizing groups for the past ten years, I know that sending random letters like this won't solve alll our social problems, but it's a start. And it makes me feel better. And hopefully someone in Dellums' office will respond to me and tell me what resources the City of Oakland already has to prepare its residents for the next Big Earthquake.

I encourage you all to write similar letters to your city council representatives, to Dellums, etc. And soon I"ll try to pull folks together for a more organized effort to prepare ourselves and our beloved City.

emailed to:

Dear Mayor Dellums-
Let me first say that I am pleased and proud of your actions regarding the current Waste Management lockout of our garbage workers. I know that your efforts and those of other stakeholders will ensure that everyone in our city regardless of income level, race or neighborhood will receive the garbage pickup service we are entitled to.

I am writing to you because I know that one of the reasons you ran for Mayor of Oakland was because you wanted to 'save' Oakland from the fate that the great city of New Orleans faced in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina--to save our city from the inevitable fate that, as a 'minority majority', largely African-
American city, Oakland would someday end up struggling to survive after a huge natural disaster.

The small but still shocking earthquake last night at 4:42am was just one of Mother Nature's reminders to us that we have a long way to go to ensure that Oakland is prepared for 'The Big One'--the 7.0+ earthquake that is predicted to hit the Hayward Fault sometime over the next 30 years.

It's clear to me that Oakland--although we may have some important resources to prepare our residents for this disaster--is far from being ready to potentially shelter, feed, and provide medical care for thousands of injured people if a large quake does strike. Oaklanders are a resourceful and community-oriented folk; if we weren't we wouldn't have been able to elect you our Mayor. But we need the resources, strategic thinking, infrastructure and coordination of our City government to take us from being good neighbors to each other to being able to take care of each other when the next big disaster strikes.

I don't want to stand aside and wait until the Big One happens for us to find out that our City can't take care of its people. And I hope that you don't want to wait either. Disaster preparedness should be a major priority of your administration, for being prepared is all we can do to protect ourselves against the potential loss of many hundreds or even thousands of lives during a major temblor.

Please let me know if there are city- or regional-government initiated efforts to address our city's preparedness. I am willing to organize in my neighborhood and beyond to help make sure that Oaklanders have the infrastructure we need to survive the Big One.

Rona Fernandez
Oakland, California

That Wasn't No 4.2 Quake!

But alas, it was. The USGS says the reason it felt so strong was that it was centered closer to the surface (not in the deep depths of the very active Hayward Fault.

The temblor jolted me awake, made my heart thump like a running bunny's, and prompted H. to urgently whisper, "Let's go!" He forgot that doorways aren't really safe places during earthquakes. If you're in bed during an earthquake you're supposed to stay there and cover your head with a pillow in case shit starts falling down on you. Makes sense.

These smallish quakes are nice, fairly gentle reminders from our all-powerful Mother Earth that we need to get prepared for 'The Big One', children, and I for one am not going to be one to stand around (especially after what we've seen happen to New Orleans and the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina) and watch Oakland be ignored after a major catastrophe strikes. Which is what will happen unless Mayor Dellums and other powerful Oaklanders (and people like me) don't get together to prepare ourselves for the inevitable. San Francisco and Berkeley are both way too prominent socially, politically and economically to NOT draw resources and media attention from Oakland, where the damage will be just as great if not greater when the Hayward Fault ruptures someday.

So let's get a campaign started, people. Let's get Oakland ready for the Big One. Gimme a holla if you're down for the cause.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Following the Process

I keep saying I'm going to blog about this and keep forgetting. So here goes. In our VONA novel workshop, Chris Abani gave us this 'homework' for after the (very intense) workshop:

1. Put your novel away for one month. Don't read it, look at it, or start rewriting it.
2. During this month, read novels, watch television and movies. Absorb and study everything you can about storytelling. (Chris promised us reading list(s) in August, but told me in the meantime I should read James Baldwin's "Giovanni's Room" which I am about half-way through now).
3. After one month, STILL don't look at your novel, but rewrite (from memory) the first 60 pages of your novel, longhand. Yes, longhand.

He said we'd be amazed at what we came out with at the end (in the longhand 60 pages). That by this time we woud've sliced away / forgotten all the unnecessary stuff and be left with the raw, nerve-hitting, essential stuff of the novel. I'm pretty sure that me and all the other women that were in Chris' class are going to try it. We'll see how it goes. I for one am enjoying having permission to not work on my novel for a month! But Chris says that research, and reading other novels, and watching TV and movies, etc. is all part of the process too. (And I am working on a short story that is completely separate from the novel, so I'm still writing, which is good).

Friday, July 13, 2007

Needing a Change

Not sure what kind of change, but I feel that this most recent VONA experience has left me (once again), a different person. I feel a much stronger pull to my writing now, now that I've been validated as a writer by two accomplished, published writers whom I respect and admire, the fierce, funny and multi-genre diva Jessica Hagedorn, and the equally fierce, brilliant and generous Chris Abani.

I've heard this from other writers before, that there were writers that came before them that they felt gave them 'permission' to write. Natalie Goldberg writes about this, I forget in which book. For me, this 'permission' came in the form of both Chris and Jessica telling me (and the other students in our workshops) that we are writers, and in them treating both of us as adults, giving us lots of good criticism and not as much praise, which is what I feel like I really needed to believe that I have the writing ability and talent to make a go of it in a more concerted, systematic way.

I'm actually writing this right now from a Holiday Inn room in Louisville, Kentucky, where I'm attending a conference for work. While the people here are quite open and welcoming and the content of the conference is interesting, after being at VONA the last couple weeks it just pales in comparison to that vibrant, provocative community of writers and artists.

I've been scanning the 'Conferences and Residences' section of Poets and Writers, and even had a talk with H. the other night about how, since he's working more steadily now at his job at Tumi's, maybe I can start making a plan, in the next couple years, to work less and write more. It's a scary thought to me, and one I need to mull over carefully. Obviously, I also need to talk to my job about this, but they also know I'm a writer and that this is important to me.

I just need more time to write. Even here, alone in my hotel room, I feel a peace and an openness to the act of writing that I haven't felt since my time at VONA. I can understand now why some people just really need to go away to write. I just need the time.

So I took some time tonite to work on a short story I started a while back, involving a bit of time travel and political commentary. Thinking of submitting it to an anthology of Philippine speculative fiction that Dean Alfar is editing. Wish me luck!

Monday, July 09, 2007

Some things

Just added a bunch of new people to my blogroll:

Jason Guillermo Luz, an old friend from Cal, who also just recently returned from a trip to the Philippines and Southeast Asia.

LA Foto Boy aka Ibarionex Perello, who took photos at VONA and has some gorgeous images on his blog.

Melanie Hilario's The Mel Mystique. Mel was in Jessica Hagedorn's class with me last week at VONA. Another Pinay writing sci-fi/fantasy. Yeah!

Olufunke Grace Bankole's Iyan and Egusi Soup. Olufunke's another VONA alum, but didn't get to meet her.

Chuck Cuyjet's Open Journal. Chuck was the workshop director this year at VONA, and always had a smile and a hug ready. I loved his energy.

Want to blog soon about the REsegregation decision of the US Supreme Court, but I feel like I'm still in denial about it. Give me a minute, I'll compose my thoughts and send the out soon.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Saw this coming a mile away...

Your Score: Katharine Hepburn

You scored 14% grit, 28% wit, 42% flair, and 23% class!

You are the fabulously quirky and independent woman of character. You go your own way, follow your own drummer, take your own lead. You stand head and shoulders next to your partner, but you are perfectly willing and able to stand alone. Others might be more classically beautiful or conventionally woman-like, but you possess a more fundamental common sense and off-kilter charm, making interesting men fall at your feet. You can pick them up or leave them there as you see fit. You share the screen with the likes of Spencer Tracy and Cary Grant, thinking men who like strong women.

Find out what kind of classic leading man you'd make by taking the
Classic Leading Man Test.

Link: The Classic Dames Test written by gidgetgoes on OkCupid Free Online Dating, home of the The Dating Persona Test

I knew it even before I took the darn quiz, but I love these things so I did it anyway. How predictable! I got Katherine Hepburn because she's the only old-school Hollywood leading (white) lady who was complicated enough to come anywhere close to matching the sass, smarts and style of women of color.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007


As I sit here writing on my boyfriend's computer on July 4th, I'm thinking about privilege. My mental gears have been churning frantically since I got to VONA last week, and being in Chris Abani's workshop has only switched the setting higher. He throws out so many things to process, at such a rapid pace, and challenges you to stop being lazy and really think and take control fo your novel. It's a wild ride, intense and overwhelming, but incredibly healthy and healing, in a strange way, at the same time.

So today I'm thinking about privilege, because Abani told that all of us in his workshop are middle class, that no matter what our socioeconomic background we've had the privilege of an education. Yes, all true. But then it got me thinking about the many levels of privilege I have, and how much privilege I've attained in just one generation here in this country, how removed I am from my mother's experience and even further from my grandmother's experience (and I'm only focusing on my mother's side of the family because that's the only part of my blood-family that know well).

It's interesting that in a writing workshop that was exclusively people of color, I started to ponder how privileged I am. Some people might think that all we talk about at VONA is oppression and 'The Man' and how we are so downtrodden and silenced in the mainstream. God, if we only talked about that, how boring VONA would be! Instead we have much more engaging and relevant conversations about themes of voice, language, self-loathing, immigration, violence, relationships and love in our work. And we see over and over again how even if we are only writing about people of color without even talking about colonialism or whiteness or racism in the US or whatever, we've got plenty of privileges and oppressions to deal with just within our own nations/peoples/communities.

I started listing today all the different kinds of privilege I have: economic (I have enough money to not just eat but to have health care, go to therapy, have a computer, go to this workshop, buy new clothes every so often, etc. In other words, I'm not just surviving, even if I am living paycheck to paycheck most of the time); educational / intellectual (I have an undergraduate degree in a country where only a small percentage of people even attend college, let alone graduate with a degree); access to money and exposure to people with money (through my fundraising work); political (I vote and have knowledge of the inner workings of our government through my job, and have more access than some people to policymakers and decision-makers); literacy and communication (I can read and write at a fairly sophisticated level in one language--English--and I can communicate somewhat in three other languages--Spanish, French and Tagalog).

This last privilege, the privilege of literacy, is one that has been haunting me lately with the weight of its importance. Not just for me as a person--who would I be if I didn't know how to write? I wouldn't haev the job I have, the friends I have, I wouldn't be a writer, I wouldn't read books--but for my family, the people that I've known as my community, etc.

The importance of literacy struck me in a very simple but deeply emotional way when I was in the Philippines. My second day there, I was in Lingayen, where many of my cousins grew up and still live. The cousin I was traveling with, R., brought me to the bamboo hut (bahay kubo in Tagalog) that he and his siblings grew up in for part of their lives, and I saw with clear eyes the poverty and rural conditions that my mom had known as a girl growing up in the Philippines, not far away. My cousin and I talked about how our mothers--his mother is my mother's sister--had lost touch for a good 30 years, being in the US and the Philippines respectively. It always was a question in my mind how they could have 'let' that happen. It never entered my mind how difficult it would've been to maintain communication for them during that time, given their class status and life circumstances.

My cousin explained how in the town they were growing up in, there wasn't even a phone until a few decades ago, and even then there was only one phone in the whole town, so communication by phone was not very reliable.

"Why didn't our mothers just write to each other then?" I asked naively (my mother can write, although she doesn't like to because she's not very skilled at it and usually makes me write out checks for her and sometimes even sign her name; she's embarassed that she doesn't know how to do this well).

My cousin just looked at me and said matter-of-factly, "My mother doesn't know how to write."

I felt so stupid that I hadn't even considered that. For the first time in my life, I think, I realized what a huge privilege it is to be literate. And because I was literate, why I was the one who was asked to write the obituary for my adopted grandmother when she died seven years ago, and to write and give the eulogy at her funeral. i finally realized how hard it must've been for my mother to have me get impatient or frustrated with her because she wanted me to write out her checks or sign a birthday card for her. I realized that I had taken for granted the one skill I have that I would be an entirely different person without. I cannot imagine life without writing, as I can't imagine life without eating or drinking or music or dancing. It's inconceivable to me. Even something as simple as writing a letter to your sister who is an ocean away was not something my aunt could accomplish by herself.

And in one generation, me and my cousins have this privilege, this right, really, to write. Being at VONA has helped me understand more deeply how important this is, and how important it is for me to use my writing to make the best damn novel or short story or poem that I can. I'm not going to squander this gift, this privilege, this right; I'm going to use it to set the world on fire.

Monday, July 02, 2007


I feel a bit beat-up, like I had a long, drunken night that ended in a mini-brawl that I can't remember and now I'm awake and trying to figure out what happened. No bruises or anything, just that feeling. Ass-kicked. I did not literally get my ass kicked--well, actually I did get my literARY ass kicked. I had my fantasy/sci fi novel workshopped in Chris Abani's 'Complete Novel Workshop' during my second week here at VONA. It was a good whuppin', because I'd been a 'bad' writer--hadn't developed my characters enough, hadn't written my 'bible' for the world that I've created, etc etc. Chris at one point even called it an 'intervention' to 'save' me, the 'addict'. Addicted to writing an illogical book, I'm supposing.

It was about what I expected. He had told us yesterday in orientation that he would make us cry, that he would really call us on our shit. And he did. His favorite question it seemed was: "What are you afraid of?" And at first I couldn't figure it out. I didn't think I was afraid of anything, but I realize now that I am afraid of making my protagonist vulnerable, of making her human (even though she's technically not), of making her consider doing something I feel every woman has a right to do but at the same time I would never want to do: have an abortion.

It was such a big revelation to me, but it came in a pretty unspectacular way, after a fellow workshop participant mentioned something about my protagonist being conflicted about wanting her baby, about whether she might abort it. As my stomach muscles tensed and I felt a strange nausea that rose to my chest, I realized that that was what I had been running away from in my story: my protagonist has to want to abort her baby. Whether she does it or not is an entirely different situation--or should I say whether she succeeds at aborting her baby or not is an entirely different situation.

It's so fascinating how the psyche works. I'm very openly pro-choice, have been trained to do clinic defense and was on the advisory board of Our Truths a publication which provides a forum for women who've had abortions to talk about their varied experiences. From happy to conflicted, from depressed to relieved. But this was still a hard thing for me to allow my character to even think about, let alone to do. Call it Catholic guilt, call it unresolved emotional issues, or whatever. It's the thing I needed to realize before I could really let this characcter be vulnerable.

As Chris said, I've had my breakthrough. Now I just gotta figure it all out in my writing. Wish me luck.