Sing The Truth! is a new Kweli initiative. In this go-round, our former summer intern Criss Han Moon talked to Kweli contributor Ariana Brown about her poetry and process.
KWELI: Your poem grapples with imperial capacity language: “learning first / to pronounce each / syllable with the intent / of a conquistador…” and furthermore, the postcolonial implications of English as the “...final / conquest, never mistaken / for indigenous, never pain…” Do you think we can decolonize English? Is that why you use both Spanish and English?
ARIANA BROWN: I’m not sure if anything can truly be decolonized. Homi Bhabha writes that it is impossible to go back to the before – before colonization, conquest, slavery, etc. – and because of this, it is imperative that instead, we, as citizens of a colonized world, go beyond. In other words, my speaking Spanish is just as much of a colonial remnant as my speaking English. Now, the exact type of Spanish that I speak – Tex-Mex working class Spanish – that can be a kind of resistance, an example of going beyond. It would be ludicrous of me to try and learn a language that hasn’t been colonized, because it’s impractical. Everyone in my family speaks English and Spanish – these are the conditions. This is what colonialism left me with. These are the pieces I have to work with. The question then becomes, how do I make them my own?
KWELI: Junot Diaz says that “returning to a language is like returning to an old relationship—it often requires more courage than striking up a new one.” Your poem is serendipitously titled “volver, volver”; what do you think of Diaz’s words, in light of your complicated relationship with Spanish and with English?
ARIANA BROWN: I’m an introvert, a third generation Mexican-American, a black girl. My relationship with Spanish is a constantly heartbreaking one. When I return to my mother tongue, I return as a child, as one who expects to be familiar. There is always everything at stake. That requires immense courage – not the same kind of courage as a non-English speaker surviving in the States, not even close – but a kind of courage, nonetheless. I have to be willing to fail, over and over and over again, at something that I love.
KWELI: During “Art and Social Justice,” at the Ambassador Theater, Toni Morrison reminded the audience that artists “are the ones that sing the truth.” “[D]ictators and people in office and people who want to control and deceive know exactly the people who will disturb their plans." What does singing truth mean to you, specifically, as an emerging artist?
ARIANA BROWN: It means, being aware of who and what I am conjuring in my work. Singing is a spiritual act. Any type of art is. As an artist, as a performer and writer, I am responsible for the spirits I call into a room or onto a page. Singing truth means focusing on the emotional, mental, and spiritual health of my audience. The spirits I conjure are there first and foremost to protect and support the people I am writing for, second to disturb our oppressors. That is the truth of my work.
KWELI: Memory—to remember, to forget, to honor--as well as what and whom, seem to be the focal interest of your poem. (I.e. “...& all I want / is permission to love/ the gaps in my lineage…”) What do you want people to remember when they finish your poem? What does memory have to do with your relationship with your identity?
ARIANA BROWN: I want people to remember themselves. Alice Walker writes, “To acknowledge our ancestors means we are aware that we did not make ourselves.” I often refer to my mother, grandmother, and ancestors as people who survived the unsurvivable. This makes my existence a miraculous one. Every child of a diaspora, every marginalized person has survived a global project which intended to kill them. I want people to remember that they are not, and have never been, alone. Everyone who knows me knows I talk to my ancestors all the time. I see and feel them everywhere because I remember to look for them, and in so doing, I remember myself.
To speak to that, I just released an online poetry chapbook entitled, “Three-Headed Serpent,” about my family’s relationship to curanderismo, traditional Mexican folk healing. I wanted to know how my grandmother’s and mother’s journeys informed their relationship to gender, faith, indigeneity, and survival. Once I interviewed both of them, I realized that some of my own ways of being are the same as my mother’s and grandmother’s, they just manifest differently, but they’re all rooted in the same sense of intuition, acute awareness of what we have endured. Being able to name the similarities, recall unspoken rituals, and connect with the matriarchs in my family was a way of affirming the way I exist, and the way my descendants will exist.
I think, as writers of color, we have a tendency to focus on what has been lost – and rightfully so: we have survived so much destruction. However, many pieces of history persist, often without our knowledge. The way my grandmother prays and shakes off demons is different than the way I do, but it is the same force moving through us which pushes us to pray, to be aware of a demon, to love ourselves enough to remove it. These things have not been lost, they have just adapted, like all members of nature do. It is our responsibility to learn how to find and name these processes which continue to live without our permission.
KWELI: Toni Cade Bambara spoke to “the wholesale and unacknowledged appropriation of cultural items—such as music, language, style, posture . . .” in her essay Language and the Writer. As a Spanish speaker, how do you feel about the appropriation of your language, culture, music, style? Can poetry be a tool for reclamation, against cultural appropriation?
ARIANA BROWN: One of my favorite lines from For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf is: “stealin my shit from me/ dont make it yrs/ makes it stolen.” I don’t know if I have ever considered poetry a way to reclaim things that have been appropriated. Mostly because whatever has been appropriated still belongs to the people it was taken from. I don’t know if there is a solution for cultural appropriation, when the thief has no conscience. Poetry, for me, is a way to grieve & remember our losses, but it is also a place to get crunk. I’ve been working on poems that are confrontational, poems that flex. I like to walk into a poem thinking, Watch me do what I do, and do it better than you could ever imagine.
And, neta, I exist in the Spanish-speaking world as a black woman, first. The cultural appropriation that I view most frequently is appropriation of American blackness. Usually when I see it happen, my first thought is: My ancestors are not here for this. I be rolling my eyes a lot, but at the end of the day, I know the creators are the holiest people, and the thief will have their day.
KWELI: Share your thoughts on the unfortunate common notion among immigrant POC that the validity of POC identity is wrapped up in language fluency.
ARIANA BROWN: I think it’s wack and alienating and it’s not a useful strategy for coalition building. Some of us are more fluent than others, and that is okay. No one can remove you from your ancestors. I would still be Mexican even if I didn’t speak a word of Spanish.
KWELI: Can you share a few craft tips for writers of color interested in writing poetry?
ARIANA BROWN: What got me into poetry was watching old clips of speeches by James Baldwin and Malcolm X. I was amazed at how language, and performance, could be a tool to mobilize and move people. I would advise new poets to consider what they want their poems to do – tell a story, make someone feel a certain way, envision a new and better world – and be intentional. Consider each line of the poem and ask, What work is this doing? And always, always ask, What am I capable of?
Ariana Brown is an Afromexicana poet from San Antonio, Texas, with a B.A. in African Diaspora Studies and Mexican American Studies from UT Austin. She is the recipient of an Academy of American Poets Prize and a 2014 collegiate national poetry slam champion. An alum of Brave New Voices, Ariana's work has been featured in PBS, Huffington Post, Blavity, For Harriet, and Remezcla. Ariana, who has been dubbed a "part-time curandera," has performed across the U.S. at venues such as the San Antonio Guadalupe Theater, University of California - Santa Cruz, Tucson Poetry Festival, and the San Francisco Opera Theatre. When she is not onstage, she is probably eating an avocado, listening to the Kumbia Kings, or validating black girl rage in all its miraculous forms. Her work is published in Huizache, Rattle, Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review and ¡Manteca!: An Anthology of Afro-Latin@ Poets from Arte Público Press. She is currently earning an MFA in Poetry at the University of Pittsburgh. Learn more about Ariana at www.arianabrown.com.