Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Privilege

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.

6 comments:

mel said...

rona - thanks for this inspiring post. i forgot about the privilege I have, too. set the world on fire, girl!

ludovic said...

your experience reminds me of mine, with my dad being from haiti. yeah, its not just about 1st and 3rd world, but also 1st and 3rd world within `1st and 3rd worlds...

anyway, i'd love to talk about this with you sometime.

iyan and egusi soup said...

a very thoughtful post rona. i understand that writing is truly a gift of place and time--a privilege indeed.

Leny said...

Rona -- i wish you would write this into a full-length narrative! I can include it in one of my book projects. Think about it?
Leny Strobel

JohnXXV said...

if you are interested in learning the pangasinan language, you can visit and perhaps join Pangasinan wikipedia at http://pag.wikipedia.org . Thanks and more power.

Rona Fernandez said...

Thanks everyone for your comments. It's always cool and humbling when one writes something that one feels passionate about, and to know that those words resonated in the minds and hearts of other folks. I guess I'm on the right track here with this post! ;) Peace, Rona