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"well something's lost, but something's gained, in living every day" -joni

Sunday, May 09, 2004

Review of Rodriguez’s "The Republic of East LA"

When I first chose to read The Republic of East LA, Luis Rodriguez’s collection of short fiction stories, I didn’t realize what an appropriate selection I had made. You see, Luis Rodriguez and I are a lot alike. For both him and me, our hometowns are not just the setting, but also a main character in our work. In Rodriguez’s book, East Los Angeles, with its ghettos, housing projects, violence, and Latin immigrants, haunts each story, taking an active role and dictating the course of events and life of each character that lives there. I find myself doing the same to my characters, by having Brooklyn become not just where they are from, but who they are. And so, I began to feel a connection, perhaps a sort of empathy, for Rodriguez.
In each short story, it is clear Rodriguez has injected himself and his life, or the life of someone close to him, into the characters. Each short story depicts the life and experiences of a character living in one of LA’s ghettos and it is clear that Rodriguez can only be writing from what he has witnessed firsthand, from the realistic descriptions of the environment to the genuineness of his characters’ feelings and resilience to their neighborhood’s shortcomings. The stories seem so real that, as I was reading, I found myself forgetting they weren’t nonfiction. For example, in “Miss East LA,” Rodriguez tells the story of a young Latino man, living in a tiny apartment in East LA, with dreams of being a writer one day. He works his way up at a local newspaper by helping to solve the mystery of a murder he is reporting on. However, the magnificence of the piece is not in solving the crime, but in the Rodriguez’s ability to reflect himself upon the character and his hunger to write; “I wanted to carve out the words that swam in the bloodstream, to press a stunted pencil onto paper so lines break free like birds in flight...” Descriptions this affecting are made so moving because they are, what I think to be, Rodriguez’s thoughts and feelings too.
The intense poverty and dangers of the neighborhoods and the gangs are brought to life equally as well. Even more impressively, he takes on the voices of men, women, old and young so well that I forget who is writing. In “Las Chicas Chuecas,” Rodriguez tells the story of Noemi and her sister, Olivia, who is in a gang, and their drug-addicted mother. In just a few pages, Rodriguez weaves in and out of gang fights, rape, abortion, and drug abuse. And all the while, he never becomes philosophical or sappy, but he maintains a distance and objective role, letting the reader realize and feel on his own the pain and desperation of these characters and residents of East LA. Each story is just a continuation of the one before; it’s as if Rodriguez moves from one story and one character to another story and character living just next door and it gives the collection a sense unity.
In the final story, Rodriguez pulls all of the pieces together beautifully; he writes of Rosalba, a forty year old grandmother, living in what can only be described as a shack, with her grandchildren, daughter, and waste of life son in law. Yet Rosalba is strong and brash, the kind of woman you know would never take anyone’s crap for anything; feeling the need to get away one morning, she forces one of her granddaughters to go out with her. After they hop in the truck and drive away- in the intense Southern California heat that sets the mood for so many of Rodriguez’s stories- Rosalba decides to buy a watermelon. And then proceeds to dance along the sidewalk to a salsa beat playing on a radio, with the watermelon on her head, onlookers staring in amazement. The line “she danced for her people, wherever they were scattered, and for this country she would never quite comprehend” sums up the deep conflict that appears in each character in this book- the inability to fully understand America and the existing inequality and structural oppression already challenging the immigrants from the second they set foot in this country. Coupled with a language barrier and a loss of ties to their homeland, the Latino community in East LA cannot totally adjust and begin to move up the social ladder; it is clear that the system is working against them and throughout the book I found myself growing frustrated, but I am not sure with whom. It is heart breaking and Rodriguez succeeds in subtly but poignantly driving this point home. But the real masterpiece of the book is what can also seen in Rosalba’s story- her perseverance and ability to laugh and find joy even the desolation of it all that. It is this presence of human spirit and the ability to survive and move on and keep going that makes each and personal story unique but also one and the same.
Luis Rodriguez is bitter about his hometown; it haunts his work and his thoughts. But he also is in love with it. I have to say I can relate. In the endearing The Republic of East LA, this love affair becomes clearer with each story as he takes the reader on a jarring voyage into the heart of his impoverished and brutal world. It is his ability to do so using evocative language and descriptions as well as an appropriate between sensitivity and objectivity that makes Rodriguez such a fine writer. And so, he sets an example for all writers, but especially those who, like Rodriguez, give their hometowns a central role in their work, fiction or not. I highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to learn about this completely different culture but who also wants to enjoy themselves doing so.

Sunday, May 02, 2004

I am choosing to respond to Cruz's "Mountains in the North: Hispanic Writing in the USA." I find the way he views poetry and writing as a way to keep the Hispanic tradition alive fascinating, although I'm not completely sure I agree with him. He writes about how the Hispanics are "battling off Anglo culture" and not assimilating, and I'm not sure how accurate he is, especially after reading Luis Rodriguez's "The Republic of East LA," which is a collection of short stories about Latinos in the Los Angeles ghetto trying to survive and build lives in this country. Yet, I do agree with him that we, as Americans, dismiss many aspects of other cultures because we use stereotypes and clump various nationalities together- as Cruz points out, we group all Latinos together, and yet there are actually many different cultures in the label "Latin." Thus, he has the right idea in his view that only by exposing more writers from every culture can we paint a "full picture" of the Americas. As a culture, I have to agree with Cruz- we Americans look for the quick fix, the easy way out, the obvious answer. And, in doing so, we miss a lot, a lot of cultural beauty and uniqueness and its tragic, really. So, in that respect, I found this piece moving, a call to action.
What i really fell in love with, though, was the way in which he describes the importance of poetry as a stronghold and defense against a society that is fixated on television and technology and all things aesthetic. "Computer screens have everybody dizzy, seeing dots in the air. Food preservatives are destroying taste buds...it is the job of writers to perceive and explain the truth." To put it simply, this is true. I have always found the perceptive people, those who are "with," who overanalyze and question everything and wonder and have constantly racing minds, the ones who suffer mentally and never settle, those who cannot find peace except in each other and with their pens, to be the most interesting. And these are often the writers, the ones to put it all into words on a page so that those who are less aware can be educated about what they have been missing out on. It is the job of the poet and the writer to paint the picture that most Americans cannot see, to find what is wrong with these aspects of society and bring the audience face to face with what is often the sad reality and truths of the world we live in. It's a dirty job but someone has to do it. And the writers of the world are the most able; they are the heroes.

Saturday, May 01, 2004

after a long day of summer internship interviews in the city, its paper magazine for this girl. i couldn't be happier. go buy a copy of it for yourself (and for me). whats weird, tho, is that as i traipsed through new york city, in search of a magazine internship, in search of my summer, i realized its so soon- summer. another year is going and will be soon be gone. i'm beginning to realize and understand what adults feel like when they say "it goes by so fast" or "the next thing i knew, i was old." and it scares me. sometimes i want the world to stop for just a second or atleast until i can pause and breathe and think, this is it. this is college. these will be the good ol' days. and they're going so fast. i want to know what happens to me and what my life will be like and where and with who i'll end up with. but its kind of nice not having any clue and just being, just taking it in from all around and trying to figure it all out, trying to keep my head above water and not over-analyzing everything that happens but then indulging myself and doing it anyways. because my college experience consists 25% of things actually happening and 75% of talking to friends about it all. its luxurious and i never want it to end.

Sunday, April 25, 2004

As a writer, I am constantly struggling with the aspects of my writing which need improvement or create dissonance in my poetry. Of Pound's three major modes for intensification of language, I definitely have the most difficulty with melopoeia. I find it hard to create rhythm and "musicality" in my work, namely poetry; it is just something that doesn't come naturally...the spacing and punctuations and pentameters and beats and all those lyrical aspects of it all. I think I'm getting better, though, and I hope this week's assignment - the once dreaded (by me) sonnet- shows that.
As for the strengths, it's hard to say because I don't want it to sound like I'm tooting my own horn when maybe someone reading this who has read my writing will disagree and be like, "what is she talking about? she doesn't write descriptions well!" But anyways, back to the point...I think my strength is phanopoeia, or creating images. I love describing things, people, places, events, tragedies, ordinary days. Definitely people the most, though. I think it is amazing how some writers can create characters and conjure up these images of people just by describing their features or mannerisms or facial expressions. And while I know I have a ways to go to be "great" at creating imagery, I think it is one of my strong points, or atleast an aspect that comes more naturally to me than musicality. I find it be easiest when I'm describing something or someone I know or have experienced...the descriptions of it all flood my memory and make their way through my fingertips and onto the computer screen or lined paper; it is like I am reliving what is or once was and that makes it easier and more real. For example, I could describe what I think surfing would be like, but the imagery wouldn't be as moving as if I were describing what it is like to ride the subway during rush hour or walk down Stewart Avenue at night. And I think I'm good at it. But i could definitely be better; a writer can always improve on even her greatest strength.

Monday, April 19, 2004

I was born on September 15, 1984 in New York, New York. Ten years earlier, Nixon resigned, Ford was sworn in, and Nixon was pardoned. India announced it had an A-bomb and the OPEC embargo ended. Between 74 and 84, the world changed in preparation for me. In '75, oil prices rose 10%, Saigon fell to Northern Vietnam and the unemployment rate was at its highest since 1941. In '77, amidst inflation and the signing of the Panama Canal Zone Treaty, my parents started dating. It was the Summer of Sam and thats how they always can remember when they began dating- the summer when young couples in new york were the targets of a mass murderer. And, as any great love story would have it, Son of Sam was arrested and Jay proposed to Edith that following April, April of '78, the same year China invaded Vietnam and the same year Margaret Thatcher became the first female British Prime Minister. In 1980 John Lennon was shot and killed and Reagan was elected President, much to my parents' dismay, as well as to the dismay of Mount St. Helens, which erupted that year as well. In 1981 Reagan was shot and the first testtube baby was born, Princess Diana married Prince Charles and the world watched. A year later the first artificial heart was implanted and then in 1983 the US had a record defecit. But that didn't deter Reagan, who announced his plans for Star Wars and future space exploration. Also that year, my brother Marc was born. But my parents were completely satisfied with him I guess, and so 14 months later I came along.
Thats the weird thing with history though, here I am recounting all these events that seem so intangible and distant. Like words on paper. I know they happened, but I can't feel them or remember them so it's almost as if they didn't. But the weird thing is, they did, and affected my life in the process. Had it not been for the federal economy's deficits, maybe my father would have had a better job after college and he would've never met the man who would later set him up with my mom on a blind date. Every event that happens affects a life, if not dozens or millions. If a pothole in the street is left uncovered and a man falls, his life will be changed. He may brake his leg, but maybe his future wife will be the nurse who tends to him. All because some construction worker didn't do his job. I guess its like that with history, every single event that has happened has changed the world, and, if not the entire world, someone's world. maybe thats why we study history- its the story of me and you and, if its not one of us, its the guy sitting next to us.

Thursday, April 15, 2004

jecca hutcheson is, in a word, excellent. i just got back from goldwin smith, from the english dept's lounge reading series. and jecca's fiction piece, entitled "free love in the reagan years" was definitely breathtaking. first, let me just say that the atmosphere of room 258 was extremely relaxing, with the late afternoon, or rather early evening, sun streaming in through the mostly closed blinds, with the rows of solid green and floral armchairs as well as some folding chairs, with the array of sandwiches and fruit and vegetables and smirnoff ice and beer (!?) and cookies. the people there were mostly older, perhaps grad students, but it wasn't too crowded- the perfect size audience, maybe like between 20 and 30 people, enough to fill the seats with some later arrivers standing in the back.
when jecca stood up to read, i liked her immediately. she was plainly pretty with a smile that made me trust her and believe in her as a writer immediately. and then she began to share her story of this young woman, sugar, who visits her mother to convince her to try and move to portland with her. we later find out that her mother has skin cancer, but the story makes a point of never focusing on this issue or of making it the tragedy of the piece, which was refreshing. sugar's mother is a hippie who lives in a commune, in a yert and, as the piece waves back and forth between the present and past, it is clear that sugar's attitude towards her mother is just as full of disdain as it is with love. we are told about bastille day 1983 and her mother's lover, el tigre, whose real name i can't remember but sounds jewish and very average, and the commune they live in, with families living in tents and huts. sugar wants to go to school but her mother is firmly against it and i get the impression that sugar is much more mature as an eleven year old than her mom ever will be. her mom is very much a "free spirit," and she assures sugar that el tigre is just "passing through," so it is not suprising when he leaves town, stealing 600 dollars and her mother's silver tea set. however, the climax of the piece is not this robbery, as sugar takes it in stride, as if it were expected (which it was). the climax instead is el tigre forcing sugar to get rid of a wasp nest outside her mother's window that distracts him while he has sex with her mother. he tells this to sugar as though it is perfectly natural to share this with an eleven year old about her mother. and she does it, never getting stung, although el tigre and her mother's friend are and develop welts. there is a sense of irony about and throughout the whole story and this is just another one of those moments. there is a feeling that anything can happen and does happen, and thus there are no surprises. it is the way sugar handles it all in passing that is both admirable and shocking.
but the tone is not one of anger, but more one of biting sarcasm and bemusement at sugar's anything but mainstream childhood and her revolution-loving, reagan-hating mother. and this is conveyed magnificently through hutcheson's tone and expressions while reading the piece. "free love in the reagan years" is not a story about sugar's resentment at her childhood and at her mother, which it very well could have been. instead, it is an understated look at a daughter's love for her unconventional parent. it is not overdone or sappy, but simple and unique and touching and funny. cheers to jecca hutcheson, an author whose work i will now be on the look out for. :O)

Sunday, April 11, 2004

Brooklyn. I never really like i fit in there until i came to cornell. growing up there, iused to hate it, i didn't feel like i fit in- not with the people, definitely not with the stereotype. the part i'm from - the Gravesend/Sheepshead Bay/Bensonhurst Area (think above ground subway tracks, think saturday night fever, think nail salons and delis and pizzerias on every block)- is very VERY different from ithaca. i felt on the outside of many different cultures - the italian (what one might affectionately call "guido") culture, the russian and ukranian world of Brighton Beach, the hispanic/black street (and somewhat intimidatingly cool) culture. so when my parents told me they were considering moving to Long Island when i was 10, i was ecstatic. i wanted a house, a yard, friends down the street, i wanted Growing Pains to be my reality. but we didn't move. i had always hated my parents for that.
And then i came here and people made comments about my thick accent. thick accent?! (it has faded A LOT since freshman year, but trust me, it comes back as soon as i talk to friends from home and when i go home over the summer) and a lot of people i met here were from the burbs, and were very preppy, very...different from the people i grew up around and next door to. and suddenly, i was going home during breaks and feeling very at home. i began to love telling people i was from brooklyn, it became a guilty pleasure, just being able to not say i was from a more generic suburb. i became a brooklyn snob (i am going to put on some notorious big right now, excuse me a sec as i get into brooklyn pride mode...), it felt so right to be from the borough of b-to-the-rooklyn, home of nathans hot dogs and hot pink pedicures, of little odessa and bed stuy.
Ok, so as far as history in concerned, brooklyn has a long one. in 1646, the Village of Breuckelen was granted charter by the Dutch West India company and in 1834 the town became a city. as was the case in most of the US, the native americans lived there before the white settlers. revolutionary war battles were fought in brooklyn, especially in and around the neighborhoods of park slope and brooklyn heights. life was lost at the expense of freedom, men died, men lived. brooklyn took it all in stride. and there are statues and street names to honor the great ones. but i never felt like statues or historic buildings, not the political nor military histories, that have impacted me. i pass fort hamilton all the time on the belt parkway, and the cannons and architecture and all are fascinating, but they have not changed my experience. its the people, the cultural history, the way different neighborhoods have become alternate universes, miniature countries in the world of brooklyn. the influx of russian immigrants in the early 90s that slowly got rid of a lot of the local italian stores and restaurants, the blocks and then streets and then whole neighborhoods that slowly but surely became foreign to me. signs and store fronts in unfamiliar letters, an unfamiliar language. thats the kind of stuff that has made brooklyn BROOKLYN.
the personal histories, the families made, the families torn apart, the births, deaths, immigrations, beautifications, business successes and failures. not just my family's, but the lives and actions of every family in my neighborhood, in my borough, have impacted my life in one way or another. and that has made me who i am today. a brooklyn girl through and through. and it has come out more here in ithaca as i have let it define a part of me and become a part of my identity, as it always should have. and sometimes a bit of the accent slips out in class or in conversation. and i will always have a thing for rap music and guys wearing wifebeaters. and i will defend brooklyn pizza to any challenger as the only kind to eat. and i will miss the subway and buses more than anyone can know. because you know what they say- you can take the girl out of brooklyn, but you can't take the brooklyn out of the girl.

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