My Nicaraguan Father: Reflections on Feminism, Letters, and Digital Media
Dedicated to Don Manual Montiello
My Nicaraguan father, who I had not seen in eight years, died this week. A man with a heart condition, he fell onto a street, his face purple, and died. He was walking the barrio, our home, Catorce de Junio, in Nicaragua where I used to live.
I don’t know where this piece is going. Like a storm, I sense something brewing. The signs are there: quiet moments (dark clouds), tears (rain), and fear (wind). A perfect writing storm. This time, though, I have no predictable end. Something is needing to come out and so I write. I write. There’s a lot that’s been thrown in the eye of my hurricane. I’m going to try and let it out…
* * *
In feminism, particularly the feminist blogosphere, the word “intersectionality,” is strewn around like a popular masthead. For those unfamiliar with this term, in a nutshell, it’s a nugget word of the third wave of feminism, a term to explain one’s ability/responsibility to see/understand the complex layers of oppression and severity. It is a theory by I don’t even know who that suggested we look at the varying intersecting locks of lived experience. To put it bluntly, it says that the middle of the wheel is braced together by several spokes. Look at the spokes, it suggests. Consider the spokes.
I’m not the best person to talk about intersectionality. I’m not the best person to talk about intersectionality because I was introduced to it in the feminist blogosphere and the way I have observed its lack of application – its sore failure – makes me a non-believer in the term. I just don’t see any difference “intersectionality” has made in the lives of womyn offline.
My momma raised me to see the soul, not spokes.
* * *
February 11, 2009
I am in a coffee shop. I see a sign: Imported from Nicaragua.
A small thump hits my gut.
* * *
“Buenas dias, Dona Adelia! Como estas usted?” I called out to a neighbor while I was walking in the barrio. It is a hot morning in Managua.
My friend Julia who was walking beside me smiled as Dona Adelia opened her mouth and fired off a response so quick and urgent, I blinked in surprise.
Julia translated for me, “She said, ‘well, that depends. Do you want to know how I am doing economically, physically, emotionally, mentally, politically? It depends.’”
I’ve thought about Dona Adelia’s reply to my simple greeting for nine years. She is a woman, elderly in her seventies, who loves people with so much strength that I pray I am like her when I mature into my later years.
One moment. One response. To my face. And just like that. I understood “intersectionality,” or the multiple intricacies of being. Language, culture, soul. There are so many layers to people; so many things that affect how we perceive one another.
I didn’t need a theory. I needed a teacher.
* * *
The failure of intersectionality is not surprising. Most correlate the term as a method to measure oppression and study its affect on diverse individuals, as if there is a way to truly trace the insidious and camouflaged roots of societal and social demons.
What troubles me about this method is its obsession with oppression and lack of focus on liberation. From what I have observed, most feminists want to understand the surreptitious spreading and practice of oppression – they want to understand that justice is unevenly distributed because of skin color, race, ethnicity, physical and mental mobility, religion, citizenship, class, education, property, age, sexual orientation, gender, and sex – but they don’t want to listen when it comes to transforming the world for liberation.
If liberation means a radical, and by radical I am referring to the Latin origin of radical meaning ROOT, transformation of the world, we need feminists to become more visionary. And fast.
Intersectionality is useless if it merely raises your consciousness but does little else. Ok, so YOU’RE enlightened. Great!
The life of intersectionality is brief. It’s a theory. Nothing more.
* * *
Don Manual has a heart condition. Somewhere, in the maze of awkward translation, I learn his quiet demeanor cloaks a very gentle man. After a long trip to Bluefields, the eastern coast of Nicaragua, I return to my home in the barrio. Once in my room, exhausted, I begin unpacking.
Don Manual walks into my room.
Puzzled and a bit anxious because he has never entered my room before, I turn to face him.
Just a few pebbles of his words were caught in my translation. There are two things I remember, “Allegra. Muy allegra.”
He was happy to have you back home. He was relieved. Others translated the conversation for me later.
And then I remember that he covered his heart, his weakened and diseased heart, as he spoke. He softly tapped it as he told me he was glad I was home. Then he and his eyes smiled into me and turned away.
* * *
Thursday, February 12, 2009
I am nearing the end of my three month writing stint at Bitch magazine. The experience has taught me so much about writing and confidence, I find it difficult to translate it to those who do not engage in writing practice.
Recently, I wrote a piece about Nadya Suleman, the woman who recently birthed octuplets and is now a mother of fourteen. In my article, where I raised questions about the issue of choice outside the realm of abortion, I asked that we engage in critical and rich discussion but to do so without berating any one woman or a segment of population of women.
That didn’t go over well.
The feedback and comments ranged from, “I think this has nothing to do with race, I never even thought of the idea until people like you to inject race into the subject to cause controversy,” to suggesting that I “become a conservative,” to “What a goddamned shithead.”
Simultaneously, I received an email from Alex Blaze, the managing editor at The Bilerico Project, who let me know that there had been good news concerning a post I had written two months ago about Agnes Scott College, a private all woman’s college, allowing a degrading and anti-feminist movie film on its grounds. The update alerted me to heightened policies the college had adopted in response to the online noise generated by senior, Louisa Hill.
I learned about Agnes Scott debacle from Jess Hoffman, a visionary friend and co-founder of make/shift magazine, where I am a section editor. It was through her that I heard about it, connected with The Bilerico Project, and helped create some online shaking.
The result: not perfect, but improved policies.
While the situation at Agnes Scott College is not the most ground breaking news or the most inspiring story, it gave credence to the power of blogging and communities working together. As Blaze wrote in his email, “Blogging can improve the world!”
It can also destroy.
These are the opportunities before some of us. And there are many sides to align yourself with. What do you choose?
Do you align yourself with the offense, berating women like Nadya Suleman, defining what is right and good for a woman of controversy and poor decision, but nonetheless a women in the name of feminism and “liberalism”? Or the side that tries to outreach and make one corner of the universe slightly better than it was yesterday?
It’s not that simple, I know, and the situation calls for reflection.
But is calling her a “shithead” how we move forward?
* * *
Thursday, February 12
A friend is driving me through Cedar Lee, an area of independent theaters and coffee shops. A wide sidewalk is cleared for winter, but in the summer, Christina says, the restaurants have great outdoor seating.
Out of nowhere, a thought slips through my window
I haven’t talked to my Nicaraguan family in years.
And here is where they have five dollar theater tickets with all you can eat popcorn.
I haven’t even thought about them in months. What happened to when I used to think of them everyday?
You’ll love it here, Lisa.
Raquel would be…my G*d, twenty-one years old now. They wouldn’t want to hear from me. What would I say anyway? My Spanish has depleted so much. Let it go.
* * *
Both on and offline, it’s not our race, class, ethnicity, sexual orientation or any other spoke on the wheel of “intersectionality” that divides us. It’s our objectives. It’s how we measure liberation and what we are willing to do with our privileged lives in the name of transformation. The differences in our objectives are as transparent as our URLs. Some are here for fun and professional advancement. Those of us who are here for more than business are here to question the systems that contort liberation.
Is there any wonder that there is a divide?
For me, there is only one question: what are you willing to do for liberation?
If it begins and ends with blogging, then don’t bother reading the rest of this piece.
If you say you want a world without rape, what are you doing to transform binary definitions of sexuality, relationships, and love?
If you say you want a country of peace, what cost is paid by other countries?
If you say you don’t know the answers, what are you doing to rectify that?
These are the questions before us. What are you doing?
* * *
The face of G*d for me is the liberation of those in pain, myself included. My definition of feminism is not a worded explanation, limited by my westernized and elitist tongue. It is a drive, dare I write spiritual drive, to do what I can, when I can, and make one thing, or as many things, better for another human being born in my lifetime, on our planet, this place we all call home. With all the mystery and fear in my body, soaked in ethnocentric alcohol, I sober my life by sitting on the edge of my bathroom sink and pulling the bathroom mirror into my face.
I look up.
* * *
February 16, 2009
I open an email letting me know about a post raising questions about feminism and digital colonialism.
* * *
For the most part, generation X has been the largest population which the digital age has watered. We’re the first generation of this “new media” and its shifted the way we think, communicate, and organize. It’s even changed our dreams.
As little girls, I would bet those who journaled and dreamed about writing imagined hard cover books or putting pen to physical paper; their name in print.
Blogging has ushered in a new alternative to traditional publishing and while it has created this avenue for information exchange and sharing, it has also created a monster. We, privileged activists and writers with the most immediate form of communi/gratifi/cation at our disposal, gladly reap the surface benefits of new media and, I fear, are satiated by that. We’ve yet to fully incorporate a feminist energy and discourse to digital media. Bloggers, writers, web-users have yet to fully embrace the power and responsibility to transform knowledge, journalism, and expression and bring it to a feminist standard of acceptability and practice.
We’re working on that. We’re still debating and defending privilege.
There has been no sustainable on-going and consistent effort to confront the communication patterns of womyn/gender-centered/feminist blogs or dialogue ethos. Who has time to create that analysis, to write about it? To try and put a lasso on a thousand bucks gone wild?
We’re either too busy feeding our children, finding sustainable employment, caring for our ourselves and loved ones, and making ends meet to commit to dismantling the ways blogging and new media perpetuate the existing kyriarchal systems. It is, after all, a flick of a hand to turn off our screens or we can simply walk away.
Or we’re too busy maximizing our latest idea to utilize blogging as a means to further our professional careers.
There’s a pull in two legitimate different directions that leaves the middle empty. What’s left? The space of blogging. THIS space that we say is the resting pulse of the “women’s movement.” All of it goes unchecked, with no accountability, no rules. We can call each other out, but in the end, if you think it, you can write it. We obviously don’t want a hierarchy or limitations on our speech, right? It’s as if we have lost the capacity to freely explore options and conversation, we don’t know how to dictate basic premises of decency on how to relate to one another over lines of difference.
And so the cyclic, vicious feminist problems continue. The conferences are divided, the blog wars are revisited, the colonialism/racism/classism/capitalism/ everything-ism continues in its original score. Actually, I think this screenplay was written decades ago by our ancestors. We’re all just assuming their roles.
(Who wants to play Sojournor Truth?)
* * *
February 16, 2009
I receive an email telling me of Don Manual’s death just hours after he had passed. I read the words and am confused.
My emails are usually about the latest happenings in the activist world, listserves I love, writers I follow, blogs I cherish, and updates from friends. This message was nestled in the midst of RSVPs to my 30th birthday party. Requests from writers to blog about a spreading story. The message startled me, but not more than my own reaction.
My heart continues to audibly break with each letter I type to admit this: momentarily, I didn’t even recognize Don Manual’s name.
That is how removed I have been.
For a moment, I did not recognize the name of someone with whom I lived, had spoken, formed some of my brightest moments of life, embraced, and breathed.
* * *
That night I muster every strength I could to get over my own guilt and self-consciousness.
I call my family in Nicaragua.
With no fallback of translators, my mind rewinds itself to its rusted Spanish files, long put away.
I speak first with my sister, Lynette, who now has three children. When I lived with her, she only had one son. She is mopping and I can hear her smile into the phone.
Her father just died and she smiles at me.
“Necessitas, Lisa, regressar a Nicaragua pronto.”
You need to return to Nicaragua, soon.
I sputter out my condolences, whatever is left in my vocabulary and try to twist it, try to offer whatever G*d-awful limiting words that remain and tell her how much I miss her and will always miss her father. How grateful I am for all that they gave me.
All I can make out from her response is “triste.”
She asks if I want to talk to her mother.
I remember why I was so afraid to speak to my host mother. She was soft spoken and that made translation even more difficult. I am shaking inside.
Unearthing itself after nine years, my intense desire to articulate the depth of my emotions runs again into the language barrier and I feel ashamed at my lack of Spanish practice.
It’s not just about language. Language, as once famously stated, is the house of being. It is a bridge of culture, a valor of heartfelt effort and humility. It’s not just about communication; it’s about respect and offering.
Her voice is barely audible and I want to weep in her arms. Or have her weep in mine.
Neither would happen.
I tell her that she and her entire family is always in my heart.
We have deep pauses of silence. I let them rest between us knowing the loss of her lifelong spouse cannot be explained in language.
We communicate what we can. We communicate love.
* * *
There comes a time to revisit our promises and commitments. We are forever in need of smoothing them over, enhancing the details for better fits.
I remember promising to write my Nicaraguan family. I said those words. In English. They understood.
But I broke that promise, repeatedly.
I broke that promise to write when I decided to put it off and write about what I knew – feminism – instead of a what I needed to write, letter to my family. For every post on this blog, now past seven hundred, I allowed myself to slip away into what I knew was so dangerously easy about life in the United States: living individualistically.
Oh, I’ve learned how to be a married activist, a warrior poet salivating after Audre Lorde. I’ve written letters to lovers, biological family, posts, articles, and even begun book projects. I’ve collaborated with strangers who became confidants and healed broken relationship.
“Individualism” is no longer about singularity, it’s about living in a disconnected state, where we are accountable only to those who are like us, agree with, nod with us. Nuanced individualism is serving not just ourselves but only those we choose to be in our communities, those whom we deem supportive and relative, staunchly defining who we want and gives us what we need.
Gifts of baking pans, trinkets, and money mean nothing without connection and in some realms of life, attempted communication trumps clarity. I wanted to communicate safely, with a translator so they knew precisely what I meant and they understood me. I forgot that tapping one’s heart in gesture can convey more about concern and relief than words.
I waited for perfect communication. That day never comes.
In my subconscious fear of not wanting to be uncomfortable or reminded that I lazily let my Spanish subside, I never wrote a letter. Not one. I didn’t want to be reminded of my helplessness, the nightmarish panic I had of not being able to connect transnational experiences with my own damn life. I didn’t want to look at the clock and see that I had allowed so much time to pass.
And in the customary selfish rape of wandering foreign lands merely for one’s own enlightenment, I took my “enlightenment” and applied it to my own life.
I never wrote one letter.
I’ll set up a feeble social network online and write flip responses on the digital walls of high school acquaintances who have taught me nothing, but I won’t confront my own fear of inadequacy and contact a community, a family who gave me shelter and food.
And for those who do not understand the significance letters hold, paper that’s traveled the winds of ocean, just know that it delivers more than anything that can be conveyed in language. It conveys that they, the recipients of the letter, are remembered in a walled country that makes you forget.
* * *
Feminism is not about self-flagellation or “saving” the world, or even piping ourselves up by saying we have the capacity to do so. But I do believe it is about living an authentic existence that challenges our comforts, our talents, and agenda. I believe that we, those with unspeakable luxuries that we cannot put in context because few other nations can even compare to our excessiveness, must be held accountable to our neighbors. Not out of obligation, but out of love.
We are accountable. In our lives. In our letters. In our writings. In our blogs.
As I repeatedly learn in painfully elementary ways, “Not everything is about you.”
Your guilt. Your discomfort. Your understanding. Your. Your. Your.
“I don’t feel like engaging.”
“I don’t want to be attacked or misunderstood.”
“I don’t want to risk.”
“I don’t want to put myself out there.”
“I’ve earned this.”
“I already explained myself.”
“I need to defend myself.”
“I don’t know what you expect me to do.”
I. I. I.
If you can, unstick yourself.
Move beyond your self-consciousness.
We are accountable. To someone.
Without accountability, without liberating practices for all, there is no “Movement.”
Find someone to whom you are accountable.