My people come from what is often referred to by banks as LDC’s (least developed countries), little brown tropical countries, drenched with religious fanatics, stalks of sugar like magic wands picked for five cents an hour sold for 3.00 a box. My people come from generational recycled 40 oz. bottles of beer and shit and cigarettes smoked backwards (the lit end in your mouth), and cassava, and ube, pickled chicken fetus’, and piss, and mah jong, gambling (lots of gambling) and child sex workers, boys and girls. Untold numbers of pretty pretty boys. My people are light bulb eaters, bed-of-nail-walkers, fire-eaters, every day is a circus in their jungles, alive with naked intent. By the time we got here we would be happy at any swap meet, all of us hollowed out like empty mango shells. My people rested naked sandwiches on the arms of chairs, and always had an open saucer with half melted butter, a block of Velveeta cheese in the freezer, an open rice cooker. Every kitchen with brown and white diamond checkered floors lined with ants, and every top drawer with little boxes of broken chalk to try to fight the ants and roaches, my people have big rubber fly swatters, and eat with their teeth floating in glasses of water at the dinner table. My people live their lives tending to things. And if you told them the city was cruel with budget cuts they would scoff at you and your American budget cuts. They lived half their lives in city dumps. Here the trash bins behind restaurants are caged and locked to keep homeless out. “Why do they lock it up?” we ask. “So the homeless don’t eat the trash.” “Oh.”
But it still makes no sense. Is food-trash only for throwing away? My people drink coffee for dinner. Kills the appetite. Little empty bellies always round.
So that’s why the first time I saw someone stand at a podium, fist in air, microphone against mouth chanting “Si Se Puede! Si Se Puede! Si Se Puede!” And then there were claps that were slow to start with spaces in between like the clap that a kid makes when he’s teasing another kid. The clap of humiliation but it gained speed faster faster faster until the whole crowd was lifted up by this clap and my heart was catching up with the clap. I felt it clanging against my chest. I felt my nipples hard against my shirt. I felt my hands tight. I wasn’t a person I was part of this big giant super fast heartbeat. And everything in the vehicle formerly known as my body screamed “SIGN ME UP! SIGN ME UP MOTHERFUCKERS!” And so it began.
The day I was hired as a union organizer I was handed a small stapled booklet that read ‘Axioms for Organizers’. These axioms were slung in homes across the Coachella Valley as Fred Ross Jr. worked with Cesar Chavez on the farmworkers campaign and were eventually put into a little DIY booklet and handed to organizers on their first day. My favorite is every organizer is a social arsonist, you have to set the minds and hearts of your members on fire. In that same way I think of writers as social arsonists.
I’ve learned there are two reasons people read: 1) to escape and 2) to connect. I picture thousands of people reaching for books with their best intentions reaching for books and laying on benches, in beds, on couches, shoved against walls, curled on concrete all reading with one hope in mind; to connect to the antagonist and further their understanding of the human spirit. Even though it’s fun to use terms like social arsonist I think that I am now occupying one of the less sexy spaces. The spaces between. It’s what happens after you occupy Wall Street after the chanting and the microphone. It’s what happens while your quietly working on your first novel. It’s like going home after partying all week and thinking, Who turned out the lights?
My job today is to get new and occasional voters to commit to voting regularly in their local elections. No that’s not as fun as wearing a sign or pitching a tent or screaming into a bullhorn or getting arrested or doing anything facebook-status-change-worthy but it’s what I believe is necessary for real systemic change. I’ve read recently “Behind almost every great moment in history, there are heroic people doing really boring and frustrating things for a prolonged period of time.”
I would say the same is true for novels. That behind every great novel is a writer doing really boring and frustrating things for a prolonged period of time. To me the spaces between while writing the novel, whether it be the spaces between feedback or the spaces between a submission response, or the spaces between sitting before the page, can be desperate like being a teenager in foster care wishing keep me keep me keep me. It’s the novel afraid it will slip between your fingers, off of your hard drive, beside the others in the wastebasket on your desktop, tucked somewhere between law school and your afterschool tutoring volunteer gig. First the tugging at your brain and heart, then the shame then the daunting weight of guilt that turns the whole thing into an afterthought. That is the dull screeching around your heart when you are living in the spaces between. Come with me and brave them.