Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Telling Stories: An ESL Teacher and Recreation Therapist Write Back

Here is the Story of Itzel
Karen Hausdoerffer

Here are my students, learning English. Here is Lidia, 65 years old, from Santiago, Mexico, half an hour from the sea. Here is Julio, prep-cook at Club Med, wants to read T.S. Eliot in English. Here is Itzel, Indigenous Cora, mother of three. When she found her husband in bed with her niece, she kicked him out of the house and stayed in the U.S. Eduardo is not here; he heard a rumor that la migra was in town.

My co-teacher says, “Americans are so ignorant, and our students have incredible lives. You’re a writer—why don’t you tell their stories?”

And yet here am I, beginning another novel, with a white, middle-class, American protagonist. I have been told, “If we can’t empathize outside our own culture, even in fiction, there is no hope for human understanding.”

So why not write Itzel’s story? My first temptation is to make her a symbol of subaltern strength, this single, twenty-six-year-old woman struggling for her children against an ugly world. That would be a factual story. But a true story is never so easy. There is another piece that I would need to tell. When Itzel found her husband naked with her niece, she blamed thirteen-year-old Juliana for everything. “Men are weak,” she told me in Spanish. “We can’t expect any better of them. But Juliana was like a sister to me.” A sister pulled out of school at age twelve, sent from her home, entrusted with three preschoolers, paid only in food and lodging.

How do I tell that part of the story, embellished with detail, metaphor, epiphany? It’s an important story, and Itzel, with her two jobs and three children, does not have the time or resources to write it. But I ask myself so many questions before beginning: is there a difference between empathy and presumption? Can I trust my own motives as a writer? Could this be misread as racist? How can we judge Itzel, from a culture so different from ours? How can we not judge her, in a story about statutory rape? Is this whole endeavor invading my student’s privacy? My questions paralyze me, and I return to my white protagonist.

Eduardo is mistaken about the migra; they haven’t come to Gunnison all year. But his neighbors swear they saw the vans just this morning. Perhaps then, fear drives what stories we believe, what stories we tell, what stories we can’t bring ourselves to tell. Here is my remaining question, after all the rest grow quiet: which fears do I combat, and which fears do I let guide me?

Karen Hausdoerffer lives and writes in Gunnison, Colorado, one of the coldest towns in the country. She teaches English as a Second Language to adults, and to families with small children. She also teaches writing and Spanish at Western State College.


Nursing Home Stories
Mary MacGowan

I work full time at a nursing home. My title is Recreation Therapist, which means I plan and implement activities that are fun and stimulating for the residents on my unit – all of whom are at the end of life. Most people say that they couldn’t imagine doing my job, but for some reason I don’t mind it, which is probably why I do it. I’m paid crap for it, but I find my day relaxing, the benefits good and, best of all, I’ve had some awesome poems come out of it. In fact, I’ve begun a series based on nursing home experiences. The challenge is avoiding over-sentimentality, but so far I feel good about them.

My nursing home poems are often funny. I mean, come on. . . .There’s Libby, who gets angry at me as resident chorus director. She yells at me that everyone is whispering – but, of course, she is the one who is deaf. And there’s Basya, who eats a red bead and refuses to spit it out, and then eats apple pie while miraculously keeping the bead in her mouth, and then, finally, sweetly spits the bead into my hand while looking at me and tsk-tsk-ing like I am the crazy one. These images counteract the sadder ones, like a young man, Barry, who died while I sang for him – he was so thin his body was folded and folded until he was as thin as an origami peace crane.

Mary MacGowan's bio:

“Regardless of how busy I am, I write poems at the average couple’s lovemaking rate: 1-2 per week. I do this not through sheer force of will but mostly out of curiosity: What will I write next? And how close will I come to saying it right?”


No comments: