An Enriching of Cultures at the International Writers Conference in New York
By Marivir R. Montebon
New York City — It was a gathering of New York’s finest and feistiest writers who artfully articulated the personal and political realities of diaspora. Leaving one’s country of birth and establishing one’s heart and soul in a second home called America was no easy feat, more than 30 writers, journalists, and poets from different countries agreed.
In the complex scheme of things, the immigrant writer had to deal with nostalgia and put up the skill of adjusting to a new world. But first there was language, the English language that needed mastery.
Gina Apostol, Filipino novelist and writer of award-winning ‘The Gun Dealer’s Daughter’, made an undisguised punch at the opening plenary of the 2nd annual International Writers Conference by characterizing English as the language that breaks and binds.
“The post-colonial Filipino’s dilemma is to have learned to speak the language of the magician who has defined us, has already betrayed us, and made us un-whole,” the Literature teacher at Fieldston School in Riverdale said.
However, the Filipino may be best understood through English as well. Apostol said that “as an immigrant, the language that has violated me and lives in me, has put me in an interesting bind.”
“It is interesting that while a history of violence lies in my use of the English language, it is with a marked sense of pleasure that I play with the language of English. Whenever I read my novels to an audience, I encounter the question, why do you write in English? And the corollary question, wow, you speak English so well, how come?
Apostol said that these common questions make it very clear that most Americans do not know their own history. “The imperial history of America is a blind spot in both American and Filipino history classes. The teaching of English was part of the articles of war that prosecuted the Filipino-American war. English is a language of aggression and capitulation, of delusion, collusion, expediency, obscenity. I had to pay five centavos in school whenever I failed to speak in English.”
The strict use of the English language in the American soldier-ran public schools in the Philippines have molded the post-colonial Filipino to think and speak in English.
Apostol’s candid words articulated an immigrant’s deep feelings of fear and detachment, of being alienated, and eventually being forced to resurrect from uncertainty and establish a new life with the continued mindfulness of one’s roots. The writer shares this feeling with everyone else in the diaspora.
On the other hand, Jamaica-born writer and poet Colin Channer said that Jamaica, for its part, is developing an oral tradition in song because of the lack of literacy, as well as paper and pen.
“We are celebrating the creativity, passion, and courage of writers who cross borders in their quest for justice and a fruitful life,” said Tim Sheard, chairperson of the National Writers Union-New York chapter, who organized the conference. It was the biggest gathering of writers, poets, journalists, and artists of diverse nationalities in New York, thus far.
Russian-born poet Larissa Shmailo remarked that she felt at home in the conference. “The strongest part for me in the conference was I felt at home with our diversity – Russian, Filipino, Jamaican, Afghani, and everyone else. We had so many but common concerns. I enjoyed the expression of our ideas and our manner of communicating our reality to publishers and our audience. I love it.”
Four workshops were created in the conference: The Language of Migration, moderated by Gina Apostol, Writing as Activism, moderated by award-winning transnational Filipino feminist Ninotchka Rosca, who earlier moderated the main plenary of writing across borders, Journalists Crossing Borders, moderated by immigration lawyer Lindsay Curcio, and Finding Success in a New World, moderated by broadcast and feature journalist Italian-born Tiziana Rinaldi.
Sheard said that the conference was a worthy enterprise, “Sharing our stories and our writing, it makes me proud to be a writer, a New Yorker, and a union advocate.”
As Ninotchka Rosca puts it, “the discourse was profound and fascinating and the intellection brilliant.”
In between the workshops, there was young TV and stage actress and writer, Andrea Rachel Parker, who shared a part of her book Monologue: Hushpuppies, the Unspoken, Said. Parker did a monologue on the stereotyped Black woman who struggled to stand bravely to raise her children.
Held on May 18, 2014, at the University Settlement in lower Manhattan, the conference was concluded with nostalgic poems for the love of the Philippines, Ireland, Russia, and Afghanistan.
Mahnaz Rezai, the Dari Mentor of the Afghan Women Writing Project, read her poem, My Wild Imagination and her essay Stand Up for Your Rights: An Action Call to Women. A writer and filmmaker by profession and will begin her graduate studies in Art and Design in Corcoran College in fall, Mahnaz noted that to change the world, one has to change the self first, and then the home.
Her essay reads: Justice can’t be achieved if we don’t have equality and equality cannot be reached if we don’t go after it, and act upon righteousness.
We won’t achieve equality if we don’t become a force for it ourselves. Our life’s goal should be to live equal.
Moderator Larissa Shmailo closed the poetry reading by quoting the great Russian poet Alexander Pushkin, “poets need listeners as drugs need vodka.” Everyone laughed satisfyingly at that, applauded for each other and was already looking forward to the next conference.