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Columns How Do I Write Amid Erasure?
Speaking of hijacking, we can subvert the oppressor’s literature.
This is Thank You for Asking, a column by Cinelle Barnes responding to writing questions asked at workshops, on panels, and in DMs.
As a nonfiction writing instructor and editor, a question I am often asked, by mainly Black, Indigenous, and other writers of color, is “How do I research and write my story if there is no record of it?” I always momentarily freeze in the grief that births the question and the grief that the question births each time it is asked. Whether it’s at a panel, workshop, or consultation, the fog that engulfs is the same color. I sit there, hand falling from chin to lap, in the achromatic gray: the halfway point between, as capitalism forces us to think in oppressive binaries, black and white. As if it’s that simple, knowing versus not knowing. There was, then there wasn’t. You have, you’re without. Binaries that are all cogs in the system of white supremacy and its business of erasure.
The most recent time I was asked this question was over Zoom, at an online workshop on writing about place and identity. A memoirist asked coyly, apologetically even, how they could employ the memoir and essay techniques I was teaching if they didn’t have access, logistical nor mental, to information that might be crucial in crafting a story— their story. I thanked them for asking the question; I knew it took courage. I said I’d return with an answer at our next class. At break, I cried.
Loss is not unfamiliar to me. I grew up in the Philippines, bracing myself under beds and doorframes through earthquakes that toppled cities and super typhoons that leveled towns. Floods took from my family. My father left. Fate wedged my childhood between a dictatorship and multiple coup attempts, altogether bookended by Spanish colonization and continued American imperialism in the Pacific. I was an immigrant adopted into the United States as a teen, who then became undocumented because family court rules and immigration rules, in fine print, did not align. I was without a form of identification, “without papers,” for eight years, which is to say, in Americanese, without an identity recognized by the government. They tell us, “You are nobody.”
What they should say is, “We took this information away from you to paralyze you.”
That’s why I cried. Though I had my (un)fair share of loss, the memoirist who asked the question was Black, trans, and recently houseless after a hospitalization. The erasure (a kind of violence) they experienced trumped mine. Not that grief was an Olympic sport, but I recognized how many more systems within systems oppressed them and how many more resources and privileges I had because I was an Asian, cisgender, freelance businessowner. I, at least, had enough recorded material to write two nonfiction books with. I have “invisible” disabilities, such as chronic regional pain and PTSD, that have maybe slowed but not stopped my storytelling. It was hard to write my books. I knew it would be harder for them.
I wasn’t coming to class the next week without a good, satisfying, ultimately helpful answer. I brainstormed and wrote down what I learned from journalism school, my MFA, editing, and digging through the relics of my past. To fairly answer the question, I had to call on others. I crowdsourced from writers, mostly memoirists and essayists, whose communities have had to tell stories amid threats and acts of protracted violence. Those who had the time and mental and emotional bandwidth returned my messages with generosity of heart and a generous helping of wisdom. I chose that word, “helping,” for its twin meanings: relief or assistance, and a plateful of nourishment.
I’ve compiled my and others’ ideas into this list that I don’t claim to be comprehensive but one that I hope would initiate more dialogue, encourage more knowledge sharing, manifest more abundance. And I am sharing them in this moment of backlash: a time when states are moving rather expeditiously to ban the teaching of critical race theory in schools. How incessant they are. But consider: How much more unstoppable are we?
A phrase I repeat to myself when I write, and a sentiment shared by Zapatistas, Dreamers, and a Greek poet who aimed the original couplet squarely at institutions who tried to erase him: “They tried to bury us; they didn’t know we were seeds.” I hope the following points become just that—grains from which your stories emerge.
Explore the wonder of fracture. When I asked award-winning essayist and memoirist Kiese Laymon how we can write from memory if memory is limited or fractured, he said to me:
So bits and pieces are way better for storytelling than knowing the whole. With bits and pieces, there are gaps we have to feel and fill, I think. So if the writer can take us with them, feeling the joy at whole pieces and the wonder of fracture, the writer has done right by their family and people.
Know your audience; your audience knows. As Kiese said, you can do right by your people. But do you know your people? In my classes, I lead writers in an exercise inspired by a passage in Matthew Salesses’s craft book, Craft in the Real World :
The real danger is not a single style, it’s a single audience. It is effectively a kind of colonization to assume that we all write for the same audience or that we should do so if we want our fiction to sell. When the workshop critiques a manuscript from the position of an unspecified, and therefore normative, reader—or when it similarly claims “universal” values as if values are not cultural—it makes [literature’s] greatest strength its greatest weakness. It demands from the imagination either conformity or exoticism. The result, for marginalized writers in particular, is work that is no longer its author’s. It is work that speaks, at best, to the workshop and, at worst, to no one at all.
I ask writers to list no more than six people with whom they are in conversation when they write. I have them list these names because, apart from many other reasons, it will help them answer the question Even without all the facts, will my audience understand the emotional truth of the story? The right people will be attuned to your nonverbal cues and will understand the subtext of what you write. On their own, they will bridge the gap and carry part of the load. You will not need to spell it out for them. It will be, as trauma research has proven, a kind of reciprocity that fosters connection and healing .
Expose policies that protect or propagate acts of erasure. Journalist and essayist Latria Graham has said in multiple panels that she documents not only what happened, but how a certain law allowed for it to happen. Covering disasters such as the Flint water crisis means uncovering details about racist rules, regulations, and practices. Latria has said that she’s most excited by what she has yet to discover and uncover. Which makes me think, how much has “Write what you know” been used against us?
Crop in and magnify. A work I love to teach in nonfiction courses is Joy Priest’s “I Feel Most Southern in the Hip-Hop of My Adolescence,” an essay I edited for the anthology A Measure of Belonging: Twenty-One Writers of Color on the New American South . I teach it because it’s a prime example of what it means to zoom into a tight space or setting, as opposed to writing up a wide-angle shot of a place. Instead of writing about the entirety of her city or the length of the street she grew up on, Joy chose to write about the car with which and in which she came of age. By magnifying the rather symbolic hand-me-down, talk-of-the-town Cutlass, versus giving us a panoramic view of the place, she emphasized what it meant to grow up female and Black in ’90s Louisville.
Let nature tell the story. The pressure of filling a page, let alone reaching a word count, can be daunting, if not paralyzing, for writers. How do you write 60,000+ words on a topic, event, or phenomenon that’s been intentionally, strategically obscured or buried? When scarcity and/or the scarcity mindset is used against us, we can turn to the (although also threatened) abundance of nature. Why? Because nature remembers. Trees talk. A wolf instinctively knows where its ancestor was killed. Minerals in the Amazon were once particles from a long-lost, once-upon-a-time forest home: the Sahara. When I didn’t have the “resources” to write about my experience of childhood abuse, I wrote a whole memoir chapter about ferns. The makahiya, specifically—a fern that folds when touched. We can set our stories in grass, earth, water—because they might very well be like our own.
Three sites within a place. In my classes on place and identity, one of the first things I teach is the idea that a story about a place can contain three spaces: story space (what happened), exploration space (how the narrator discovered what happened), and discovery space (how the writer is deconstructing what they know and reconstructing a fuller version of the truth). The first of the three, story space, is what I think we most worry about when we ask, “But what if we don’t have access to records and details?” The good news is that this aspect is but one of three, and you, the writer, get to say how much space to give it.
Look to institutions where your history is centered and celebrated. For my own work, I’ve looked to the Center for Babaylan Studies time and time again. Similarly, organizations such as Museum of Chinese in America , the Avery Research Center for African American History , the Schomburg Center for Research , the International African American Museum , the Latinx Research Center , and Northwestern’s Center for Native American and Indigenous Research , among others, offer dossiers, collections, and other forms of assistance to support your writing work.
Collaborate. I knew, putting together A Measure of Belonging , that we could only begin to tell the story of race and ethnicity within the parameters of the southeastern United States, in a year like 2020, if writers from diverse racial, ethnic, socioeconomic, educational, and familial backgrounds came together to write about the same topic. Perhaps your story can be told alongside someone else’s. Maybe, like stone and sword, they’ll sharpen each other. Or, like salt and sugar, coffee and chocolate, one brings out the other’s full flavor. Collaborative forms, anyhow, are not new to our ancestral literary and oral traditions.
Look to your ancestral storytelling traditions. This is of particular importance to writers who have, as their connections to a longed-for culture, parental figures or parents who were abusive, harmful, or absent (mentally, emotionally, or physically). I’ll put it simply: It’s yours.
Folklore is magic . . . and more. We’ve been taught by our English-speaking, United States–born and –educated teachers that folklore is the storytelling tradition of the fantastical, the paranormal. In other words, other . Folklore, by definition, is really just any means by which a people or a place tell the story of their history and lives. Folklore can be written by regulars at an open mic, cooks and chefs of a certain cuisine, amateur wrestlers flexing muscle and breaking bone to tell the frustrating story of hardship in their mining town. What stories are your people telling, and how? Perhaps the magic is magic. I do love a good Filipino mermaid story. But quite possibly, the magic is as mundane as the gathering of grandmothers making quilts out of their grandsons’ and sons’ old T-shirts. This is a true story, one I hope to write one day. I don’t know all the details of my husband’s childhood, and neither does he. But his grandmother has made many a quilt to tell many a story, and while there are gaps in our knowledge, she’s sewn together pieces that make quite a beautiful—and useful—whole.
The mind forgets to protect itself. If you’ve been in therapy for trauma, like I have, then you might have learned that a good deal of healing has to do with the reunion of emotional memory and narrative memory. Few remember the crash and many only remember waking up at the hospital. This is the brain’s wiring: to shut down before it hits overdrive. The narrative details are locked away where they are out of reach and can’t overwhelm. The trouble comes when the emotional impact continues to float around the body and the psyche, traveling away from its phantom source and hijacking your morning commute, your date, your work. In writing my memoir, I realized that the more I wrote, the more I remembered. The more I acknowledged the emotions and their hijacking maneuvers, the more details presented themselves, teetering toward me just when I was ready to let them in, sit them down next to the emotions, and tell them neither of them gets to do the driving now.
Speaking of hijacking, we can subvert the oppressor’s literature. One of my all-time favorite works of Filipino American literature is Aimee Suzara’s Souvenir . It is about as meta as meta gets. One part immigrant-family memoir in verse, another part rearrangement and reimagining of passages from pseudoscientific documents archived for the carnivalesque, imperialist, racist 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, Suzara takes the oppressor’s words (eg. descriptions of Filipino “living exhibits” as “active and enterprising,” “ferocious,” and “vindictive”), spins them around, and feeds them right back to the very people who created them.
Turn to other art forms, like music. In a teaser to his first documentary, the musician Questlove said, “We are capturing lightning in a bottle . . . This isn’t just a cool concert. This is giving people back their memories.” He was referring to found footage of the Harlem Cultural Festival of 1969, a celebration of Black history, culture, music, and fashion. Similar to what Questlove calls “lightning in a bottle” are passages from my memoir in which I recreate the sensorial and elating experience of listening to music in my brother’s car. If you haven’t already, write about the songs that make you come alive. Write yourself back into moments when you fell in love with a beat or lyric, or when rhapsody and reciprocity glued you to another human being, for better or worse. Kiese gives this writing prompt often: Write about a song that brings you joy.
What if joy was the missing piece? I burnt out after writing my second book. It took hitting a wall to realize that I could write literary nonfiction that was joyful, playful, sunny. I was hard-set on writing about the pain of trauma, racism, sexism, and poverty because I thought that’s what it meant to change the world and my life through political art and personal narrative. I’m glad I read Audre Lorde not long after my burnout. She said, as I’ve echoed in a recent essay , joy and self-care are resistance too . And guess what? I abound in joy. There’s no shortage of material or inner reserves there.
If the past is out of view, look to the future . Lastly, if the past escapes you or it’s worth your health and well-being to escape it (It is.), you can write about the future, to the future, or to your future self. Who says daydreams and wishes aren’t nonfiction? Our hopes are often the truest, most essential things about us. If you write a book in the shape of your next self, I will hope to hold it. I will look at it with kind eyes and see it for its contours, its contents. And with you, we’ll step out of the gray fog and into the vibrance of your hues. I’ll turn to you and ask if having written feels good and does you good. And I’m inclined to say that despite what you don’t know and what’s been taken, you’ll answer, “Sure thing.” It sure does.