July-August 2000

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Streetfeet, American-ness, and Danger

Laughing in the Kitchen, Short Stories, Poems, Essays, and Memoirs, by The Streetfeet Women, Blanca E. Bonilla, Elena Harap, Mary Millner McCullough, Li Min Mo, Aura Luz Sanchez; Talking Stone Press, Boston, 1998; 225 pp.; $15 plus shipping and handling, from Terri Zeiter, 37 Kimball Hill, Putney, VT 05634

The Streetfeet Women are five Boston artists who meet regularly to write and perform their work. On July 12, 1994, the authors of this book gathered around Mary McCullough's dining room table to talk about how they came together as writers, using questions from writing coach Marjorie Agos'n. The following is an excerpt from the conversation that ensued.
group of women
Mary McCullogh, Blanca Bonilla, Aura Luz Sanchez, Elena Harap Dodd, Li Min Mo

Elena: Streetfeet came out of my friendship with Angela Cook. We got hired by the city of Boston to do outdoor theatre workshops with kids. Out on the street, we were creating a "civic culture." It reflected my immigrant background, where people come with a rich heritage and want to create something that wasn't there already -- like Streetfeet,[a made-up game] when five kids chose to be Cinderella's fairy godmother. We just changed the story and she had five godmothers.

Later we talked about taking a performance to the 1985 Decade for Women Conference in Nairobi. We gathered a group and named it the Streetfeet Women's Touring Company. After the conference, this nucleus of women continued to meet. The interest of the group in things that are close to me, such as trying to help my mother have a good life in her last years, led me to writing that rang true. I was once told that if you are very public, there's always the opposite in you, very private, and it's that balance that keeps you healthy and integrated.

Li Min: Elena and I did Streetfeet theatre workshops with kids in Boston after I had spent a couple of years in theatre training. I taught ESL in Chinatown. I started getting storytelling jobs. The minute I dealt with stories, I had to deal with writing. "Don't make me write -- it's torture!" I would scribble it so I couldn't read it, and I'd have to scribble it again.

If Streetfeet didn't like my first pieces, they would say, "Bring your second stuff over." There was a lot of generosity in the group, allowing me a period of hibernation -- producing poetry and stories, not sending work anywhere, slowly cultivating my self-esteem.

I've been a performer since I was three. Writing has helped me. With performing, I always felt, "Oh, I don't look good today, my dress is ugly..." But writing is so simple; it speaks, once it's finished.

Blanca: Streetfeet kind of rescued me, remember? I had just separated from Ramon's father. Elena called me up, she said you needed a Latino person. I wanted to do theatre. Streetfeet gave me a space that I felt comfortable in. Many times I would question myself, "Oh, I should be having fun with the young girls" -- but I stayed with the group. We have a vision of women in society and we take energy from each other. We try to plant that seed in our own communities so that things will be different when our girls grow up -- or when the girls of our girls grow up.

In Latino women's groups I feel good because I identify with them, I can understand where they come from. And over here I also feel good. It's like changing TV channels, being in the middle of two worlds, two different cultures. Sometimes you need more from one channel than from another.

Aura: Before I met you all, I never had contact with people who thought of themselves as performers or writers. I was practicing law. Streetfeet opened a way of writing not in isolation, brought it out of the closet. Our performance coach helped; she said, "You know, I just heard you yelling at your son, and you don't use that tiny, tinny voice when you yell at your son." It was some kind of an epiphany because she was tapping into the real me, that was not self-conscious, that was out there yelling at Seth, as opposed to a different me that is more protective. As a child I was extremely shy -- I would dig into my mother's skirt and try to hide. Writing is a way that I can say anything, do anything.

In some way we are creative anthropologists, saying who we are in a culture that's changing and multi-faceted, that is -- for me -- between being Puerto Rican and American, married to a Jew, and having gone to a Catholic school that was 99% Irish. We grow up with the notion that everything has to be linear and goal-oriented. Many lives don't go that way, certainly not for women. We do have to spend time taking care of our mothers or our husbands or at home with our kids. I don't see it as "We're out of the mainstream." That experience becomes the material this group is so comfortable tapping into. Streetfeet is like this crucible or this petri dish: anything could come out of it!

Mary: Sometimes voices come to me demanding that their stories be told. Once I name a story after a woman, she tells me what her story is. I would like to leave a legacy for my family, all those who struggled so hard. For me as a colored person in America -- and I like that term because it lends itself to all the various mixtures -- it's important. I want to validate their courage by writing about the lives of women, children, and men.

There are two questions we want to deal with now: What is your American-ness? And in what part of your writing do you find a sense of danger?

Li Min: I'm writing in English, but not classical, perfect English. The fact that all I have is broken English speaks everything about what America meant for me. Chinese, Hispanics, all the people I grew up with in New York, had just broken-up English. When I went to Africa I said, I am an American woman and I do not want to be any other kind of woman. I realized that here I have the freedom to create an American persona.

Aura: For many years I accentuated the fact that I'm a minority, a Puerto Rican. When I lived in Peru, I was struck by how American my thinking is. We fall into the trap of defining white, Anglo society as mainstream. I'd like to redefine America to be what we are, and not buy into something that makes us comfortable because we can then be different and have something to be angry at.

Mary: I was angry that someone would dare ask me this question. I've always felt on the outside of whatever this "American" thing is. But I value the idea of America, of democracy. When someone wants to see me as the "other," I laugh to myself now and think, "You know, what you're trying to do doesn't belong."

I want to say something about American-ness and language: Americans don't speak standard English. That's a myth. The language we're taught in school is the language of the marketplace, and we learn it to move in the marketplace. But in mid-life and growing older, you start thinking, "Oh. That's not real." Americans speak the way we speak -- now, yesterday, and tomorrow.

Li Min: Where do you find a sense of danger? Spirituality. My mother, a super-educated woman, said "People who are uneducated worship gods, they light incense. We're not one of them." I shut up that part of me. Later I began to get in touch with it. In the Chinese community, onehalf will say, "She's wacko," and the other says, "We believe in all the ghosts and spirits we worship!"

When you name a story and the story possesses you, a lot of writers would call that the Muse. Religious people for centuries have been calling it the creative dark power that has a shamanic origin, and it is a posession.

Mary: I am being possessed by whatever this is, and that's dangerous.

Li Min: Yes, it's dangerous and exciting.

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