Vanessa K. Valdés is the Assistant Professor of Spanish and Portuguese at The City College of New York – CUNY. In the latest contribution to our Academic Inspiration series, Vanessa discusses how Edwidge Danticat’s ‘Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work’ reminds us of the power of the word, of art in general, and its potential to affect the audience. She also shares some must-reads on ethnicity, cities, and migration.
My love and passion for reading began with my parents, who filled our New York apartment with books and encyclopaedias. While memories of my mother being idle for long enough to read during my childhood are scarce, my father would spend his quiet moments reading tomes about the U.S. Civil War (any U.S. war really) or Robert Ludlum, the presidents of this country, history, biography, autobiography. I once picked up a book of his and turned the pages, mimicking his actions: I thought it was a game, flipping paper back and forth. The marks on the page meant nothing – it was the weight of the object that was important – maybe if I could flip the pages and balance the book in one hand, I’d win.
Soon after I learned to read, and the love affair began: the eagerness to get to the library (my local branch, the school one, the majestic lions on 42nd Street guarding the treasures inside and the equally impressive lending library across the avenue); to order from Scholastic or Weekly Reader; to run to the school’s book fair. And later, to learn that authors sometimes go on book tours and one could hear them speak about their craft, that you could meet these people who create seemingly from thin air. While I questioned and agonized over possible career choices (after passing through the obligatory options for first generation college students of (im)migrant backgrounds of doctor and lawyer), never did I doubt that I would earn an undergraduate degree in English: Chaucer, Shakespeare, Donne, and Milton, and later, Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, and Toni Morrison.
And in my last year of my stay in college, I was introduced to Piri Thomas, Down These Mean Streets (1967), and my life was changed forever. Here was the New York of my father’s time, his Spanish Harlem. Here were questions about race and ethnicity: here was my family, and the families of people who I knew, who looked like me, who also had relatives of different skin tones, from all different backgrounds, who spoke different languages in the house. Parents from the island, children born in the city. Here was the conflict of proclaiming pride in one’s heritage and the heartbreak at being denied entrance to that community: here I was. And with that, I vowed to help share this literature, this corpus of American Literature that continues to be marginalized within the academy, to introduce it to students like myself, woefully ignorant about their own histories, their own cultures. Years later, I would read Dahlma Llanos-Figueroa’s Daughters of the Stone (2009) and have a similar experience, for here was my mother and her family, humble people who stayed in Puerto Rico for hundreds of years, living, surviving, working, until employment opportunities brought them to New York as well.
While a student in an increasingly isolating graduate program, where failure seemed to accompany my every step to and from campus, I read bell hooks, Remembered Rapture (2000) – and it allowed me to reclaim the magic of words. This collection of essays, more than any of her others, gave me permission to revel in the beauty of language, in the pleasures of writing, at a time when I struggled to develop a critical voice, and yet filled journals with hopes, dreams, aspirations, secret desires that I only dared to share in the safe space of the page. Ntozake Shange’s Sassafras, Cypress, and Indigo (1982) would fortify this love: poems and love spells, songs and dance, as the “slaves who were ourselves” looked on, guided and encouraged each reader to continue their journey.
Whereas I looked to the written word for encouragement, reassurance, inspiration, or simple support, there were also those pieces that challenged, enraged, provoked, and demanded more. Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (1982) dared me to honour my singular voice, to question and interrogate that which I take for granted. From “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power” to “Poetry Is Not a Luxury” to “The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism,” Lorde articulates an embodied experience in all of its glorious multiplicities, honouring each and every aspect of herself. Junot Diaz’s Drown (1996) gives voice to the emotional lives of boys and men in my neighbourhood that I had left behind with my advanced schooling. It was the first narrative against which I had a visceral reaction of disgust for the misogyny I thought I read, and yet there remains truth and honesty and pain in the protagonist’s voice that somehow pierced my aversion. Finally, Edwidge Danticat’s Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work (2011) reminds us all of the power of the word, of art in general, and its potential to affect the audience. It prompts me once again to remember that I am a writer, and to honour and privilege that identity, along with the many others I hold.
Vanessa K. Valdés is the Assistant Professor of Spanish and Portuguese at The City College of New York-CUNY. She is the editor of The Future Is Now: A New Look at African Diaspora Studies (Cambridge Scholars Publishing 2012) and Let Spirit Speak! Cultural Journeys through the African Diaspora (SUNY Press 2012). Read more reviews by Vanessa.