American Friends Service Committee
Patrica Watson, Editor
Sara Burke, Assistant Editor
Pat Farren, Founding Editor
2161 Massachusetts Ave.
Peacework has been published monthly since 1972, intended to serve as a source of dependable information to those who strive for peace and justice and are committed to furthering the nonviolent social change necessary to achieve them. Rooted in Quaker values and informed by AFSC experience and initiatives, Peacework offers a forum for organizers, fostering coalition-building and teaching the methods and strategies that work in the global and local community. Peacework seeks to serve as an incubator for social transformation, introducing a younger generation to a deeper analysis of problems and issues, reminding and re-inspiring long-term activists, encouraging the generations to listen to each other, and creating space for the voices of the disenfranchised.
Views expressed are those of the authors, not necessarily of the AFSC.
POETRY, ESSAYS, MYSTERIES, PHOTOGRAPHY, THEATER, KIDS' BOOKS
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.
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,
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.