Tag Archives: writing

Speaking in Tongues

The Girl on the Couch

Anzaldúa, G. (2009). Speaking in tongues: A letter to third world women writers. In Anzaldua, G. & Keating, A. (Eds.), The Gloria Anzaldúa Reader (39-48). Durham: Duke University Press.

This  epistolary essay (written in the form of letters), was drafted beginning in 1979 and published in This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color (1981).

What is Sacred:

How do I begin to talk about what is sacred? In Hawaiian thinking, the word for future is ka wā mahope, or the time behind, after. It is a very different concept than the western idea of one’s future being brightly shining ahead. The difference is in who leads and who follows. In Hawaiian thinking, those of us in the present are following our ancestors who are in front of us and we are leading our grandchildren or the generations behind us. With that lens firmly rooted, then I feel like what is sacred about this essay/letter is that Anzaldúa reaches back into the future to pull me forward. I feel like she is writing specifically to me. She has heard my frustration as I try to write with my authentic voice in a seemingly hostile academic environment and she assures me that she has always been in front of me waiting, patient and naked. When I am frustrated and on the edge of compromise, she says:

My dear hermanas, the dangers we face as women writers of color are not the same as those of white women, though we have many in common. We don’t have as much to lose — we never had any privileges. (39)

I do believe that the audacity to take time from surviving to write is a huge limitation to me. As part of my tenure process I have to write and publish, and yet there is so much to do in creating a program for my students where cultural humility and teaching through culture will actually engage hundreds and thousands of children so that work comes first. Growing and sustaining our pathways to grow our own educators comes first.  It definitely comes before my writing. Anzaldúa quotes Luisah Teish who is addressing a group of mostly white feminist writers about the Third World women’s experiences:

If you are not caught in the maze that [we] are in, it’s very difficult to explain to you the hours in the day we do not have. And the hours that we do not have are hours that are translated into survival skills and money. And when one of those hours is taken away it means an hour that we don’t have to lie back and stare at the ceiling or an hour that we don’t have to talk to a friend. For me it’s a loaf of bread.  (29)

So what is her solution to me, not a Third World woman, but a struggler nonetheless? These are just highlighted snippets, but I tagged this post with the word “enough” because these little pearls have to be enough of a reminder for me that when I am beating myself up or feeling like I have nothing worthwhile to contribute, it is enough.

• Forget the room of one’s own – write in the kitchen, lock yourself up in the bathroom. Write on the bus or the welfare line, on the job or during meals, between sleeping or waking. (31)

• It’s too easy, blaming it all on the white man or white feminists or society or our parents. What we say and what we do ultimately come back to us, so let us own our responsibility, place it in our own hands and carry it with dignity and strength. No on’s going to do my shitwork, I pick up after myself. (32)

• It’s not on paper that you create but in your innards, in the gut and out of living tissue. (33)

• The meaning and worth of my writing is measured by how much I put myself on the line and how much nakedness I achieve. (33)

• I say mujer mágica, empty yourself. Shock yourself into new ways of perceiving the world, shock your readers into the same. Stop the chatter inside their heads (34)

• If you are going to spit in the eye of the world, make sure your back is to the wind. (34)

• Throw away abstraction and the academic learning, the rules, the map and compass. Feel your way without blinders. To touch more people, the personal realities and the social must be evoked — not through rhetoric but through blood and pus and sweat. (34)

Finally, because that last page of the essay is so so rich, the paragraph leading up to my favorite line so tight and heavy and naked, I have to share it, but I set the last part of the paragraph on my own. It is not written like this in the original, but if I have not listened to Anzaldúa by this point, she leaves with one last pearl for me in case I did not hear her all the other times:

Write with your eyes like painters, with your ears like musicians, with your feet like dancers. You are the truthsayer with quill and torch. Write with your tongues of fire. Don’t let the pen banish you from yourself. Don’t let the ink coagulate in your pens. Don’t let the censor snuff out the spark, nor the gags muffle your voice.

Put your shit on the paper. (34)

The best part of all, after all the “can you hear me now?!” rhetoric, is that it ends quietly and simply,




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Kōkua Aku Kōkua Mai

girl and dog

When I am up against deadlines, I find that I constantly learn something about myself as a worker, as a researcher, as a writer, as a person. I was re-reading a Peter Elbow article to prepare for a writing workshop with my student teachers when I came upon one section in Writing Without Teachers where he talks about his process of writing for 45 minutes straight, putting it aside, and the next day writing again. It is a way to let the center of gravity of what you are trying to say bubble up on its own. I decided to try writing for 45 minutes on my article and just see what I was grappling with. Like he said, it was definitely a stream of consciousness mishmash of mostly questions that would hopefully lead me to some kind of direction.

However, instead of sitting on it, I decided at 10:30 at night to send it to a few critical friends who I knew were fast skimmers. What I asked them for was just to point out something poignant, something that piqued their interest as feedback for me and a little more direction from people who had no idea what I was trying to say or not say.

The results this morning were fabulous. The perspectives were different, but I have confirmation of my own thinking and I am challenged to go where I really did not want to go… but now I have to go based on my feedback. I will need to add this to my repertoire of writing process tricks. I will call it kōkua aku, kōkua mai and the trick is really to have handy a few critical friends who are willing to enter into this mutualistic relationship with me.

In Hawaiian, kōkua is to assist. The aku and mai are directional markers, so aku is away from the speaker and mai is toward the speaker. It is a mutualistic relationship because when help is asked for, give it, and when help is needed, ask. It forces me to set ego and vulnerability aside, but also to jump when the same is asked of me. If that is how the world always worked, we would have a really great world.

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