Note: This blog post contains spoilers — read at your own risk!

It all started with Colson Whitehead’s book The Underground Railroad. After reading it and seeing Colson in person in San Francisco, I’ve wondered whether the book was going to make it into the big screen. The good news came after I found out Barry Jenkins closed a deal to adapt Whitehead’s masterpiece for television.

I’ve never heard of Barry Jenkins but soon enough, I started seeing his name on headlines again and this time, for a movie that’s been hailed as “best of the year” — Moonlight.

I saw the movie last night at the New Mission and I saw what everyone else has seen: a three-part coming-of-age movie with layers of brokenness and tenderness, with Chiron, a gay black man at the center.

I’ve always looked up to queer black writers for their genius and while I am a queer immigrant woman of color, I realized that so many of the film’s elements have influenced a lot of my own life in three particular ways, through three brilliant poets: James Baldwin, Danez Smith and Saeed Jones.

My bookshelf beckoned:

In Saeed Jones’s book Prelude to Bruise, I reread a few of my favorite poems like Blue Prelude and After Last Light. After a particularly hard day at school, after being made fun of his demeanor, his clothes, Chiron made it to the ocean where he met up with Kevin. The latter has been the former’s sole friend. By the water, Chiron was raw, honest, vulnerable.

A moonless night cliff-side steals the sea
from us. What was sapphire beyond churlish blue

is just howl now: waves darker than closed eyelids
wreck the rocks we also can’t see. Sunlight forgot

the two of us here. The taste of salt, an ungiven kiss
on our lips. And silence is the rush of blood

in our ears, a violet pause between your question
and what I will not say. I have no answer;

my throat is the ocean now.

 —Saeed Jones, After Last Light

screen_shot_2016-10-13_at_12-46-27_pm_1050_591_81_s_c1

Chiron, Kevin (Moonlight, 2016)

When he was younger and ran away from a group of boys who was bullying him, he hid in an abandoned house where he was discovered by Juan, a drug-dealer-turned-father-figure. Every time Chiron felt like he couldn’t stay at home, with a mother who was addicted to crack cocaine, he ran off to Juan’s house where he and his partner Teresa (Janelle Monaé!) took care of him. Juan took Chiron to the beach one time, where he taught him how to swim. In spite of the dynamics of their relationship — Juan, being the drug dealer, his mother, the crack cocaine addict — the scene of teaching the young one how to swim moved me beyond words. I turned to James Baldwin with a poem from Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems.

Lord,
when you send the rain,
think about it, please,
a little?
Do
not get carried away
by the sounds of falling water,
the marvelous light
on the falling water.
I
am beneath the water.
It falls with great force
and the light
Blinds
me to the light.

–James Baldwin, Untitled

moonlight-barry-jenkins-06telluride3-master675

Juan teaching a young Chiron how to swim (Moonlight, 2016)

Lastly, I turned to Danez Smith’s [insert] boy as I thought of Chiron’s relationship with his mother. It was a tumultuous relationship, punctuated by periods of respite with Teresa (Juan had passed at this time). When he was much older, he was able to reconcile with this mother and it was in these moments that I felt like he was finally at peace. She knew he was “soft,” she knew he was suffering but her own suffering was primary. I’ll never know how this feels — a black child and his mother in pain — but in Smith’s book, I found some answers.

1. smoke above the burning bush
2. nemesis of summer night
3. first son of soil
4. coal awaiting spark & wind
5. guilty until proven dead
6. oil heavy starlight
7. monster until proven ghost
8. gone
9. boy
10. phoenix who forgot to un-ash
11. god of shovels & black veils
12. what once passed for kindling
13. fireworks at dawn
14. brilliant, shadow colored coral
15. (I thought to leave this blank
but who am I to name us nothing?
16. prayer who learned to bite & sprint
17. a mother’s joy & clutched breath

–Danez Smith, Alternate Names for Black Boys 

moonlight-barry-jenkins-film-roundtable

Chiron, in Atlanta (Moonlight, 2016)

Go see this movie — now. And after the movie’s done, this blog post will be here for with its poems and Chiron’s story, memorialized.

“You’re the only man that’s ever touched me.” 

I’ll be thinking and dreaming of this for days.

Must-Read Books After Watching MOONLIGHT

Sunday Spotlight

Sunday Spotlight: 5 Queer Poets of Color You Need to Know

Poetry, Sunday Spotlight

There’s nothing like queer poets of color who can speak truth to power, paint the most intimate landscapes, reach the most vulnerable parts of us and simultaneously make us swoon / ache. The recent deaths of 49 queer Latinx and Black familia in Orlando cannot impair resilience — it will continue to light up the deepest tunnels where hatred and violence live, the way poetry illuminates and gives life to things we are often afraid to say.

In the face of racism, homophobia and xenophobia, here are five queer poets of color you need to know:

Denice Frohman is an award-winning poet and educator, whose work explores the intersections of race, gender, sexuality, and the “in-betweeness” that exists in us all. She is the 2013 Women of the World Poetry Slam Champion, 2014 CantoMundo Fellow, 2013 Hispanic Choice Award, and 2012 Leeway Transformation Award recipient. Her work has appeared in the Huffington Post and the forthcoming book, Jotas: An Anthology of Queer Latina Voices.

Saeed Jones received his MFA from Rutgers University – Newark and is a 2011 Pushcart Prize nominee. His work has appeared in publications like Hayden’s Ferry Review, StorySouth, Jubilat & The Collagist. He is a regular contributor to Ebony.com & Lambda Literary. His chapbook When the Only Light is Fire is available from Sibling Rivalry Press. He’s received fellowships from Queer / Arts / Mentorship as well as Cave Canem.

Nikky Finney was born by the sea in South Carolina and raised during the Civil Rights, Black Power, and Black Arts Movements. She began reading and writing poetry as a teenager growing up in the spectacle and human theatre of the deep South. At Talladega College she began to autodidactically explore the great intersections between art, history, politics, and culture. These same arenas of exploration are ongoing today in her writing, teaching and spirited belief in one-on-one activism. She is the author of four books of poetry, On Wings Made of Gauze, RICE, The World Is Round, and Head Off & Split, which won the National Book Award for Poetry in 2011.

Ocean Vuong is the author of Night Sky With Exit Wounds (2016), winner of the 2016 Whiting Award. A Ruth Lilly fellow from the Poetry Foundation, Ocean has received honors and awards from Poets House, the Elizabeth George Foundation, the Civitella Ranieri Foundation, the Saltonstall Foundation for the Arts, the Academy of American Poets, and a Pushcart Prize. His poetry and fiction have been featured in Kenyon Review, The Nation, New Republic, The New Yorker, The New York Times, Poetry, and the American Poetry Review, which awarded him the Stanley Kunitz Prize for Younger Poets.

Danez Smith is the recipient of a 2014 Ruth Lilly & Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellowship from Poetry Magazine & The Poetry Foundation. He is also the recipient of fellowships from the McKnight Foundation, Cave Canem, VONA, & elsewhere. Danez is the author of [insert] Boy (YesYes Books, 2014) & the chapbook hands on ya knees (Penmanship books, 2013). Danez is the winner of the 2014 Reading Series Contest sponsored by The Paris-American & was featured in The Academy of American Poets’ Emerging Poets Series by Patricia Smith.

This Pride season — in memory of the 49 queer Latinx and Black lives lost, in memory of the lost lives of Black transwomen, in memory of Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson — we vow to fight against cultures of violence and systems of oppression. May their souls keep on dancing, may they rest in power.

Happy Pride!

Awe at the undeniable fact that I will forever be the son of a fiercely beautiful woman. Awe at knowing just how exquisitely she prepared me to live and write my way into this world. And yes, her absence hurts, but her presence – and I feel it more and more each day – her presence moves me forward. (Saeed Jones)

 

Every time Mother’s Day comes around, I always think of the poet Saeed Jones. His essay Infinite Ache: My First Mother’s Day Without Her comes to mind right away, after I read it for the first time a few years ago. Maybe it’s the way that Saeed wrote about his mother, or his grief, or the beauty of what she had imparted upon him, or the familiarity of nam-myoho-renge-kyo (the Nichiren Buddhist chant) but her being and his  writing had left an indelible mark in my memory.

In his poem “Mercy” from Prelude to Bruise, he writes:

Her ghost slips into the room wearing nothing but the memory / of a song…

 

I’m also reminded of Ayana Mathis’s book The Twelve Tribes of Hattiea book I read three years ago. After reading the book, I remember taking a nap and waking up thinking of Hattie, finding it impossible not to. The book unfolds with the lives of Hattie’s twelve tribes, or children, as I try to make sense of her hardness and her husband August’s softness. I remember Lafayette, steely and inaccessible, Franklin, whose narrative left me at odds with what I knew as the irrationality of war.

…Hattie wanted to give her babies names that weren’t already chiseled on a headstone in the family plots in Georgia, so she gave them names of promise and of hope, reaching-forward names, not looking-back ones. (Ayana Mathis) 

 

Recently, I read Tracy K. Smith’s memoir Ordinary Light wherein I was introduced to the incredibly intimate and tender relationship of a daughter with her mother. In a previous post about the memoir, I wrote about how Tracy’s writing opened up a new language for me, one I haven’t had the opportunity to create with my own mother.

I was calm and safe beside her, right at home. I didn’t think to call it beauty but beside her, I felt what the presence of beauty makes a person feel. (Tracy K. Smith)

I am grateful to these writers for their strength and their will to write their personal experiences and stories, no matter how harrowing or joyful, about mothers. My own relationship with my mama is a work in progress, a bond that I used to despise for a multitude of reasons when I was younger. As I get older though, I’m able to see her in a different light — who she is as a person, and who she was as a young mother then.

While the work of Saeed, Ayana and Tracy have touched something in me that is equal parts painful and healing, I am aware of my experience only as an immigrant daughter, kind of assimilated and openly queer. I revere Black motherhood, of which I have no direct experience but aware of the mottled heartbreak it comes with, in struggle and in relation to living in the U.S.

tumblr_m3o2omthib1rtxuhto1_1280

I cannot fully know and I cannot fathom the well of pain felt by the mothers of Oscar Grant, Eric Garner, Alex Nieto, Trayvon Martin, but I can surmise the depth of anger against institutions of state that have violently taken the lives of their sons.

What I do know is that it is the same institutions that have kept mother and child separate, an all too familiar scene at airports in the Philippines. The separation of the family is not an uncommon theme, as mothers leave their children in their home countries to care for children and families in the First World as recounted in this New Yorker article.

I think about struggles of mothers living abroad, the strength needed to withstand a foreign culture and the backbreaking work of minimum wage; the loneliness of an empty apartment after a day’s work buoyed by the promise of coming home one day; the daily misgivings of being undocumented, of being invisible and small in the face of the dollar; of the heartbreaking passage of time, of physical distance, of the increasing emotional distance, of being away.

Still, I see it — the smiles in spite of the callousness, joy in their eyes in spite of grief. I guess there will never be enough words, but always, an infinite ache.

md-i-get-it-from-my-mama

* * *

The featured image in this blog post, as well as the last two images are from Mamasday.org, a project of Forward Together, a multiracial organization for social change. Send a virtual Mama’s Day card using one of their beautiful creations!

Sunday Spotlight: Mama

Sunday Spotlight

Sunday Spotlight: A Personal Cartography with the Work of Junot Díaz

Sunday Spotlight

This was the order of how I first fell in love with the works of Junot Díaz: The title This is How You Lose Her spoke to me as I dealt with my own grief, after the end of a four-year relationship. The last story in the book healed me, with its honesty and the courage of facing your own pain heart-on.

You ask everybody you know: How long does it usually take to get over it?
There are many formulas. One for every year you dated. Two years for every year you dated. It’s just a matter of willpower: The day you decide it’s over, it’s over. You never get over it. (from The Cheater’s Guide to Love, This is How You Lose Her)

I looked for Drown next. And there, nestled in the annex of Green Apple Books was an old copy, its yellowing pages looking golden. I settled into a story called Boyfriend one evening, drawn to the perspective of an outsider looking in the story of a couple breaking up. Wanting to cross lines, to be there for someone else’s heartbreak, to hold another person’s pain in the hopes of dealing with my own. I had a similar experience when I read one of Saeed Jones’s poem Blue Prelude later on, from his collection Prelude to Bruise.

tumblr_msnjxjldqb1shz3gto1_r1_1280

Art by Kate Gavino (Last Night’s Reading)

And then there came The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, a historical fiction of epic proportions about love and war in the Dominican Republic. This is where I got my introduction to the horrors of Trujillo and history, the wars we try to win every day within ourselves, the complexity and pain of family.

You don’t know what it’s like to grow up with a mother who never said a positive thing in her life, not about her children or the world, who was always suspicious, always tearing you down and splitting your dreams straight down the seams. When my first pen pal, Tomoko, stopped writing me after three letters she was the one who laughed: You think someone’s going to lose life writing to you? Of course I cried; I was eight and I had already planned that Tomoko and her family would adopt me. My mother of course saw clean into the marrow of those dreams, and laughed. I wouldn’t write to you either, she said. She was that kind of mother: who makes you doubt yourself, who would wipe you out if you let her. But I’m not going to pretend either. For a long time I let her say what she wanted about me, and what was worse, for a long time I believed her. (from The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao)

Díaz’s work has stayed with me ever since. Some time ago, he and Toni Morrison engaged in conversation at the New York Public Library on race and writing, which is worth watching repeatedly.

And then I came upon another gem, an Asymptote interview of Díaz. He delves into the complexity of language, the intersection of history and literature, an perhaps more importantly for me — how one can fully live inside a novel for days, for weeks.

As compensation for how difficult life was for this young immigrant in Central New Jersey in the seventies, I buried myself in literary worlds. I was reading voraciously by the time I was seven. A more omnivorous reader, I don’t know if that would’ve been possible. I would read all the biographies of famous Americans. Books on the Rockies. Books on how to build a campsite. I would read everything by Arthur Conan Doyle. I read the edited children’s editions of Edgar Allen Poe. I just tore through everything that my little elementary school library had. I fell in love with books that transported me far away from my world, which for me was very stressful. The library for me represented—or was—what the World Wide Web must mean to people of later generations. In many ways it was a plane, a passport, a lens, wisdom, and experience. (from An Interview with Junot Díaz)

tumblr_nmyce2egqt1shz3gto1_1280

Art by Kate Gavino (Last Night’s Reading)

I know I’ve been drawn to Díaz repeatedly because there are so many parallels to his experience and mine. Immigrant, wanting to get a grasp of history of self. Writer, wanting to get a grasp of language. Reader, holding on to words for survival.