(Trigger warning: violence, blood)
I do not usually give away my poetry for free, because my poetry has value and I think there is a value in poetry-publishing venues that pay. Today, because it is Indigenous People’s Day, because the United States has off for a day celebrating Christopher Columbus and it is also my birthday (and I am a hobbit, who gives presents on my birthday), I am making a small exception.
I wrote “Columbus” over a year ago. I wrote it in a state of blind, panicked angry. When you write about yourself and you are a marginalized person, sometimes people use details of your life or your family history for things you did not intend when you shared them. My family history is complex; a story of assimilation and imperialism and resistance, of refugees and forced migrations, of fake names and fake papers, and it does not lend itself to easy stories about What It Means To Be American, or what it means to be anything else. It offers no answers about anything, except to say that perhaps surviving a rigged game is hard, and you make hard compromises. But sometimes people looking for stories that satisfy their own inner narratives “discover” us, repurpose our lives, our families, our traditions, for their own needs. This has happened to me a few times, most painfully in spaces where I am the only brown person, being asked to educate white people. The healers in my family become magical witches; our syncretic religious traditions validate ideas about the “evolutions” of religion; my family’s hard choices with passing and assimilation become part of a dozen narratives I do not choose about what I “really” am and how racism “really works”. I am reinterpreted, over and over again, my ancestors and their cultures are reinterpreted, to support narratives about me, about us, that do not involve us. We are objects to be interpreted; we are not experts on our own lives and experiences, and our own words only matter if they can be quoted out of context for validity.
Among constant questions about whether “diversity” is necessary, if it is necessary for non-majority people to talk about themselves or if we should be glad to be spoken for; do not think you can speak for me. I can, and will, speak for myself.
I am still awake when the thief holds a scalpel to my heart
and looks for the choice parts to cut out for her plate.
“Do not take my grandmother from me,” I say,
but she clamps my tongue down and will not hear me.
She pores over my secrets like a jeweler, looking for the biggest stone,
a war-trophy for her conquest of the country I have loved.
Will she take the dead who came before me, who lay in my ribs in uneven rows?
Will she take the words of my grandfather’s drunken mumbled humming?
She has already taken my father laboring in the kitchen under the secret weight of history
for the soup course and side dish of the next dinner party.
The pain is worse than I had imagined: she cuts out my whole heart, all my family
and slices it piecemeal, throwing the remnants back at me.
She only wants what looks good on paper; early deaths and women unhappily married.
She does not care about the details; she cannot even spell the city we came from
or the saints to whom we silently prayed.
She takes my tongue, too, to learn to speak the words only I should know.
“I only want to borrow it,” she says, butchering the language of those who love me.
She leaves me broken-ribbed and wordless, her blood-stained mouth singing my grandfather’s song.
The fragments of my family lie in ribbons around me, when I claw my chest closed.
My mouth will take years to patch together into a familiar shape.
The slivers left of my ancestral tongue can yet form words among the blood
and though I am swallowing myself to speak, I whisper every name that was not taken from me.
The dead, already rising up before me, will return to claim their fragmented bones
and I will call my heart back to me, piece by bloody piece.
I will not go quiet into the unmarked grave still incomplete.