Yesterday morning, The New Yorker published an essay penned by critically-acclaimed author Junot Díaz. This personal history, titled “The Silence: The Legacy of Childhood Trauma,” details Díaz’s being raped at the age of 8-years-old and how that horrific event almost destroyed his life.
He addresses the piece to an individual referred to as “X” — someone who approached the author during a book signing and asked if the sexual abuse alluded to in his books came from personal experience. Terrified of broaching the darkness of his past that had yet to escape him, Díaz avoided giving an answer and watched as X drifted away, “shoulders hunched.”
Of the harrowing encounter, Díaz writes:
“That violación. Not enough pages in the world to describe what it did to me. The whole planet could be my inkstand and it still wouldn’t be enough. That shit cracked the planet of me in half, threw me completely out of orbit, into the lightless regions of space where life is not possible. I can say, truly, que casi me destruyó.”
He outlines a childhood marred by bouts of depression, mood swings, emotional isolation, suicidal ideation, and the overbearing weight of shame. The shattering of his identity as a Dominican man.
Bravery isn’t a strong enough word for what is expressed in this essay — in reaching out to that individual fan who, like many of us, identifies with the boundless dimensions of the author’s work — Díaz offered readers a vulnerability in the beautiful and humane medium of language, giving hope to people who continue to suffer from such traumas.
It is an offering — it is a glimpse into the recovery process of someone who survived in darkness for so long.
The essay also illuminates the complex web of Díaz’s work, from his short stories in Drown and This is How You Lose Her, to his epic novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and his recently-published children’s book, Islandborn. Though it was the latter that profoundly influenced Díaz’s decision to finally recall his rape in such an open platform. In doing so, the age-old fear of being “found out” returned to him during a time when he was being questioned about his own childhood history more than ever before.
“Toni Morrison wrote, ‘Anything dead coming back to life hurts,’” writesDíaz. “In Spanish we say that when a child is born it is given the light. And that’s what it feels like to say the words, X—. Like I’m being given a second chance at the light.”
Díaz’s openness is a beacon for those who no longer believe healing is possible. The process might seem never-ending, but examining and channeling the pain into words–emboldening the universe as we speak — is the first step.
A few weeks ago, I finally got around to reading Helene Hanff’s 84, Charing Cross Road. (It doesn’t escape me that I’m always “getting around” to reading things, but here we are). It’s a slim text, comprised solely of Hanff’s correspondence with Frank Doel, chief buyer at the antiquarian bookshop Marks & Co., and other members of its staff.
Hanff–whose reading tastes were heavily influenced by writer and literary critic, Arthur Quiller-Couch–had a fondness for the Classics and non-fiction accounts. (Don’t get her started on the journals of Samuel Pepys!) She quickly found that Marks & Co. could cater to her tastes. But what starts as a simple request for a specific text turns into a decades long correspondence.
Frank Doel, ever the professional, did not initially reciprocate Hanff’s teasing, lighthearted letters. At the time, Englanders suffered from post-war food shortages that required rationing essential everyday items. Hanff took the time to send various foodstuffs, such as meat and eggs, which the staff of Marks & Co. greatly appreciated. The softened Doel then became a confidant of sorts to the eccentric Hanff.
It’s difficult not to feel a great kinship with Helene Hanff. Good readers gravitate towards each other from across time and space, and the world Hanff created for herself through literature and the written word is everything I aspire to in my little life. Her greatest passions about this translation or that, or the quality of various editions are often humorous, something that clearly amused Frank Doel and his colleagues.
The most striking aspect of 84, Charing Cross Road, though, is the intimacy and sense of close friendship that comes through in these letters. Not only did Hanff build herself a world through literature, she built relationships across the ocean through a mutual love and respect for words.
At times when things seem overwhelming, books like this are deeply comforting. To relate to another person’s obsessive reading habits is one of my greatest pleasures when reading memoirs or non-fiction accounts. Helene Hanff’s particular brand of wise-cracking humor and unbridled enthusiasm just makes it all the better.
Writers of Latinx origins have long contributed to the artistic fabric of the United States, irrevocably altering the framework by which we construct our literary canon. At the best of times, a writer of Latinx origins in the United States must contend with several questions of identity. These intersections—from race and language to the way you say our names—have informed the work of Latinx poets from generation to generation.
So many poets deserve to be recognized for their talents. This list is just a biased sampling of writers whose works have become canonical, or, in this age, viral. Each poet captures an essential element of what it means to exist in the liminal space between cultures, to have a view from society’s periphery.
The pain and beauty come from a place in the heart of somewhere else—of lands left behind. These voices are here to tell us what’s been lost, what’s been found, and what’s been created.
1. Miguel Piñero
Puerto Rican poet and playwright, Miguel Piñero, was a leading member of the Nuyorican literary movement and founder of the Nuyorican Poets Café—an influential forum in Alphabet City known as a haven for music, poetry, theater, and comedy.
Piñero migrated from Puerto Rico to Manhattan in 1950. Enmeshed in poverty and abandoned by his father, Piñero began stealing food for his family. Eventually, he was incarcerated at Sing Sing Correctional Facility where he got the inspiration for his groundbreaking play, Short Eyes. The influential producer and director, Joseph Papp, was so impressed by the play that he moved the production to Broadway—the first play written by a Puerto Rican to make it there.
Though he is best known for his plays and screenwriting, Piñero’s poetry is essential to the mid-century Puerto Rican experience in the United States. At a time when thousands of people were leaving the island for the mainland in search of better opportunities, artists like Piñero accurately depicted the pain of inescapable poverty and institutional racism, set to the beat of an unforgiving city.
So here I am, look at me
I stand proud as you can see
pleased to be from the Lower East
a street fighting man
a problem of this land
I am the Philosopher of the Criminal Mind
a dweller of prison time
a cancer of Rockefeller’s ghettocide
this concrete tomb is my home
to belong to survive you gotta be strong
you can’t be shy less without request
someone will scatter your ashes thru
the Lower East Side.
– excerpt from “A Lower East Side Poem”
2. Sandra Cisneros
Sandra Cisneros is, perhaps, the most recognizable figure of Chicana literature in the United States, best known for her 1984 novel, The House on Mango Street. Other notable works include Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories and Loose Woman: Poems.
While growing up in the Humboldt Park section of Chicago, Cisneros felt isolated from the rest of her family and found solace in writing. As she began training in her craft, she realized her particular intersection of race, class, and gender granted her a perspective that her classmates did not have. Her work focuses on navigating the mixing of cultures that characterized her experiences as an adolescent in Chicago, as well as being a woman in male-dominated environments.
Okay, we didn’t work, and all
memories to tell you the truth aren’t good.
But sometimes there were good times.
Love was good. I loved your crooked sleep
beside me and never dreamed afraid.
There should be stars for great wars
like ours. There ought to be awards
and plenty of champagne for the survivors.
After all the years of degradations,
the several holidays of failure,
there should be something
to commemorate the pain.
– excerpt from “One Last Poem for Richard”
3. Lorna Dee Cervantes
Lorna Dee Cervantes is considered one of the greatest Chicana poets of all time by her contemporaries and has contributed some of the strongest pieces of poetry to the canon of American literature. Born in San Francisco in 1954, Cervantes grew up in a household where English was strictly enforced so that she would not encounter racism in the outside world. This relationship with language and culture shaped her future work. A self-described Chicana, feminist, and political writer, Cervantes’ poems explore themes of identity, language, and womanhood in great depth.
Once I wasn’t always so plain.
I was strewn feathers on a cross
of dune, an expanse of ocean
at my feet, garlands of gulls.
Sirens and gulls. They couldn’t tame you.
You know as well as they: to be
a dove is to bear the falcon
at your breast, your nights, your seas.
My fear is simple, heart-faced
above a flare of etchings, a lineage
in letters, my sudden stare. It’s you.
It’s you! sang the heart upon its mantel
pelvis. Blush of my breath, catch
of my see—beautiful bird—It’s you.
– excerpt from “Love of My Flesh, Living Death”
4. Victor Hernández Cruz
Like Piñero, Victor Hernández Cruz is an influential figure in the Nuyorican school of poets, having grown up in the Spanish Harlem section of Manhattan. In 1981, Life magazine lauded him as one of the greatest American poets to ever write. He was the first Hispanic poet to receive such recognition.
In which everything goes backwards
in time and motion
Palm trees shrink back into the ground
Mangos become seeds
and reappear in the eyes of Indian
The years go back
cement becomes wood
Panama hats are seen upon skeletons
walking the plazas
Of once again wooden benches
The past starts to happen again
I see Columbus’s three boats
going backwards on the sea
Crossing the Atlantic back to the
ports of Spain Cadiz Dos Palos Huelva
Where the sailors disembark
and go back to their towns
To their homes
They become adolescents again
become children infants
they re-enter the wombs of their mothers
till they become glances
Clutching a pound of bread
through a busy plaza
that becomes the taste
of the sound of church bells
– excerpt from El Poema de lo Reverso
5. Rigoberto González
Born in California and raised in Michoacán, Mexico, Rigoberto González’s troubled early life informs much of his work, particularly his memoir, Butterfly Boy: Memories of a Chicano Mariposa. His training with writers such as Lorna Dee Cervantes, Gary Soto, and Francisco Xavier Alarcon honed his poetry into something fierce and beautiful. He is known for his efforts to assist marginalized artists in getting platforms for their work, and, in 2009, was named one of the 25 most influential LGBT Latinos in the country.
I am not your mother, I will not be moved
by the grief or gratitude of men
who weep like orphans at my door.
I am not a church. I do not answer
prayers but I never turn them down.
Come in and kneel or sit or stand,
the burden of your weight won’t lessen
no matter the length of your admission.
Tell me anything you want, I have to listen
but don’t expect me to respond
when you tell me you have lost your job
or that your wife has found another love
or that your children took their laughter
to another town. You feel alone and empty?
Color me surprised! I didn’t notice they were gone.
– excerpt from “Casa”
6. Aracelis Girmay
Aracelis Girmay‘s work has influenced countless writers, including Junot Díaz who pointed to her collection Kingdon Animalia as a life-changing piece of literature. In 2011, it was named a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry. She was also a winner of the prestigious Whiting Award for Poetry in 2015.
I want to sleep. I do not want to sleep. See,
one day, not today, not now, we will be gone
from this earth where we know the gladiolas.
My brother, this noise,
some love [you] I loved
with all my brain, & breath,
will be gone; I’ve been told, today, to consider this
as I ride the long tracks out & dream so good
I see a plant in the window of the house
my brother shares with his love, their shoes. & there
he is, asleep in bed
with this same woman whose long skin
covers all of her bones, in a city called Oakland,
& their dreams hang above them
a little like a chandelier, & their teeth
flash in the night, oh, body.
Oh, body, be held now by whom you love.
Whole years will be spent, underneath these impossible stars,
when dirt’s the only animal who will sleep with you
& touch you with
– excerpt from “Kingdom Animalia”
7. Daniel Borzutsky
Daniel Borzutsky has garnered critical acclaim for his collection The Performance of Becoming Human, which won the 2016 National Book Award. As the son of Chilean immigrants, his work joins ranks with other Latino writers who explore the pain of diaspora, exploitation of migrant workers, and the politics of immigration.
I love you, she said, as she smacked her child’s head.
I love you for your holes, she said,
not just the holes in your shoes and socks, but the
gaping holes in your personality.
When she asked me if I was uncomfortable,
I told her I wasn’t.
I really was uncomfortable.
What I neglected to say
was that I enjoy being uncomfortable.
Two old friends meet in a café to discuss
mutual funds and stock options. Thus begins a
story that ends with one man slicing off the
other’s neck, and stuffing his mouth with love poems
to Young Werther.
Life is too short to be genuine,
he said, as he stared into her deep
brown eyes. It was the most genuine thing
he’s said all day.
– excerpt from “The Ecstasy of Capitulation”
8. Elizabeth Acevedo
Elizabeth Acevedo is an Afro-Dominican poet best known for her stage presence at renowned venues such as The Lincoln Center, Madison Square Garden, and the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. She was a National Slam Champion and the 2016 Women of the World Poetry Slam representative for Washington, D.C. Her collections include Beastgirl & Other Origin Myths and the forthcoming novel, The Poet X. Her work specifically explores Dominican culture, the Dominican diaspora, and the experience of being Afro-Dominican.
9. Melissa Lozada-Olivo
Melissa Lozada-Olivo is a nationally recognized spoken word poet whose work has been heavily featured on Button Poetry. Her debut collection, Peluda, explores the body’s imperfections, writing, “our bodies have always made love to shame.” Known primarily for her stage performances, videos of her have received widespread acclaim.
10. Denice Frohman
Denice Frohman is an award-winning poet and performer whose work “explores the nuances of race/ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and the ‘in-betweeness’ that exists in us all.” Her exploration of this intersectionality has garnered her recognition from various outlets. As an educator, she also spends time working with young people to develop their abilities with the craft, most notably The Philly Youth Poetry Movement.