by Natalie Rose
“We can only try to represent girlhood in ways that are varied and recognizable.”
– Roxane Gay
I love reading fiction, but when I’m asked to write it, my stomach folds over on itself and crunches like a potato chip. But I’m in graduate school now, so let’s try writing fiction, I think. I’m taking a whole class dedicated to writing fiction.
I don’t like writing fiction.
I write nonfiction because I find few true depictions of American brown women that I can relate to. There is a sprinkling of fiction and nonfiction accounts from talented authors, but access and exposure to well-marketed texts detailing the lives of the largest minority group in the United States, my home, is mostly arid landscape.
The first time I saw myself in mainstream media was Josefina Lopez’s play-turned-film Real Women Have Curves. Ana, played by then-unknown America Ferrera, is a Mexican-American teen living in East Los Angeles. Ana’s mother and sister want her to skip college and join the ranks at the family’s textile factory. Ana, though devoted to her family, wants more, so she goes behind her mother’s back and applies to Columbia University. During summer days, Ana dutifully sweats away with her mom and sister at the factory. During summer nights, Ana explores her sexuality, learns about intimacy with her goofy, white-guy boyfriend and grows more comfortable with her generous curves. At one point, she strips down naked in the factory to combat the stifling heat, and coaxes her mother and sister to do the same.
In 2002, when the film came out, I was a Mexican-American girl with generous curves leaving her family for the first time, heading to New York for college. I was leaving behind a goofy, white-guy boyfriend. I too felt conflicted about leaving behind my tight-knit family. Seeing America’s Ana was like seeing my reflection mirrored back at me. America / Ana reached through the mirror, grabbed my shoulders and shook as hard as she could. “This is what it’s like to see yourself,” said imaginary America / Ana, “This is you.”
I am having dinner with my new boyfriend, now fiancé, and his uncle at a Mexican restaurant in Scottsdale. This woman in the corner keeps looking at me. She’s in her mid-fifties, but the skin of her face is pulled tight over her bones, and this is Scottsdale, so I can’t tell her real age. She’s blond, and she wears lots of Home Shopping Network-looking jewelry. She comes over.
“I think you’re beautiful,” she says, “What’s your nationality?”
“You know what I mean,” she says, as if I’m being silly, “Where are you from? Where are your mother and father from?”
“The United States,” I try to hide my irritation. Stretch face pouts. “Are you asking what my ethnic background is,” I offer.
“Oh yes, that thing!”
Yes. That thing.
From The Social Construction of Difference and Inequality: Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality, by Tracey E. Ore:
Ethnicity (n): having cultural traits such as language, religion, family customs, and food preferences
Nationality (n): national status; specifically: a legal relationship involving allegiance on the part of an individual and usually protection on the part of the state
I am American. My mother’s family is from Mexico. My mother’s father was first generation American, the only one of his siblings to be born in the U.S. My mother’s mother’s family has lived in Tucson since Arizona was Mexico. I am also half Lebanese. I am third generation on my Lebanese side. Both of my parents were born in the United States. We are American.
This is the part where I tell you a poignant story from my childhood. My fiancé says it’s too personal, so I will summarize. My family was rich, and then, very quickly, we were poor. My mom and I lived alone together after the divorce. My mom made a secretary’s salary, and we struggled. She worked until six o’clock every night, so I came home, did my homework, and made us dinner.
Sometimes I have malicious thoughts about Dora the Explorer. I did not grow up with Dora, but we share similarities. She, like me, is a latchkey kid. She, like me, had a terrible bowl haircut as a child. She, like me, was brought up identifying as Mexican-American, but she does not speak with an accent. She only knows a handful of words, but then again, I only know a few Spanish words. Differences between Dora’s inherent identity and mine are few, but one is paramount – I am not representation to millions of Americans what a whole minority sub-culture in the U.S. is about, and Dora is.
The New York Times puts out a list every week of the 20 top selling nonfiction books. Of those books, 16 are written by men. 5 are written by women. I am counting one book’s author, or authors, twice – Exceptional, by Dick Cheney and Liz Cheney. (The description reads, “The Former Vice President and his daughter chart their vision for a formidable future in America.”) 16 authors are of Caucasian descent. Four authors are of color. The only Hispanic author is listed as a contributor to a book written by a white author about women UFC fighting.
Bad Feminist is a book of essays by Roxane Gay detailing her reactions to everyday happenings and pop culture news, from Scrabble tournaments to HBO’s series Girls to Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines to Paula Deen slinging the N-word. Her arguments are strong like liquor – you feel them going down.
Reading Gay’s Bad Feminist was the first time I’d read a piece of nonfiction and thought, “This feels like me.” When the book came in the mail, I sat on the couch in my studio apartment in Los Angeles and swallowed it whole.
In her essay Girls, Girls, Girls, Gay talks about the lack of diversity in American depictions of girlhood. Gay narrows in on Lena Dunham’s new show on HBO, Girls, and takes issue with the entertainment industry and mainstream America who act as if the show is a catch-all for the modern girl experience. She writes, “While critics, in the lavish attention, have said [Lena Dunham’s show HBO Girls] is speaking to an entire general of girls, there are may of us who recognize that the show is only speaking to a narrow demographic within an generation.” She then offers an alternative to Dunham’s girlhood in New York City, a girlhood where the protagonist (Gay) runs off to Arizona to work as a sex line operator with coke and heroin-laced cohorts with names like ‘Bubbles’. Gay’s point is that girlhood is too individual a thing, as individual as a fingerprint, to be represented by one show, by one social group, by one race.
The book debuted at #13 on the New York Times bestseller’s list.
I write about food and memory because that is how I’ve been taught to connect with my backgrounds. When my Mexican and Lebanese families come together, we all cook. My Nana Cleo tells me stories of her girlhood living in Chandler, the daughter of a surly ranchero, and how desperately she wanted to run away from my Tata Henry and join the rodeo. Over red chile, my Dad tells me of how my ancestors came to Arizona because it looked like where they came from in Lebanon, a mining town called Baskinta. He tells me they immediately found work in the mines. Tamales and Ellis Island and tabbouli and 100-year-old-graves in Tucson decorated with Mexican sugar skulls and streamers are my heritage. I eat so I can truly listen, I listen so I can truly feed myself, so I can satisfy an urge to find a place for myself in this world.
Sometimes I write about my own memories from growing up. This is difficult for me. What is a memory? Is it truth? Yes. Is it the whole truth? No. Lines are blurred.
This is the part where I tell you a poignant story from my childhood. My fiancé says it’s too personal, so I will summarize. I have uncomfortable memories from childhood, memories of loss and abandonment and incidents with the law. While my mom, dad and brother were always with me, I am the only one in my family who remembers some of these events. My mom does not remember the cops showing up. My dad does not remember being so drunk. My brother doesn’t remember much of anything. Did I make things up? How can I write ‘nonfiction’ if the events I write about cannot be corroborated by the three other people present at the time? What do I write?
I write (mostly) nonfiction not because I am tired of reading about the Caucasian experience. I write nonfiction because I am just as interested in blowing open the landscape of the American experience as I am with keeping my familial story stoked in the fire. I choose to believe in a country, in a world, where we fight ignorance with experiences and racism with inclusion. Only with more voices – fiction, nonfiction, poetry, performances, music, interpretations, films, forums – can barriers be broken. Only with more voices can the “other” become “one another.”