Since being asked to reflect on Columbia’s lack of diversity, I have sat down multiple times to recall my own experiences being the only queer Latinx during my run in the poetry department, much less in much of the department’s history, but did not feel like any of the beginnings I came up with created an entryway to what I wanted to say. It isn’t like me to cause a spectacle, but perhaps that’s the response this may illicit.
My instinct is to tell you: Columbia doesn’t care about queerness (at least not any that strays beyond gay cis-males), Columbia doesn’t want to address white supremacy (or much of any urgent politic they can’t safely brand as ‘Historical Poetry’) (historical as in: not currently happening, ‘please don’t make me address my whiteness when I read your poetry about the diaspora’) and Columbia doesn’t care about sentimentality (god forbid I write a poem about my mom that has the word ‘soul’ in it). I don’t find sonnets written after white pop culture from the 80s to be groundbreaking, much less interesting. I don’t care about Instagram accounts of erasure poems created by some dental assistant who gentrified Wicker Park. What the poetry department favors is not what I am: queer, Chicana and bored by inaccessible intellectualism.
The horror stories you hear floating around in thinkpeices and articles about being a marginalized person in a creative writing program were not only true for me while a student at Columbia, but the memories are tally-marks of times I endured microaggressions and silencing on a weekly basis. Although by the end of my four years of undergrad, having to be around the neo-liberal elitism of specific faculty became unbearable and being paraded as a pawn to sell the program at Admitted Student Day completely lifted the veil that my professors could be anything but untouchable, my experiences certainly didn’t stunt my love and obsession with writing, or convinced me to believe that my writing would be impossible to understand by my readers. If there is anything I learned in my isolation at Columbia, it is that my poetry is not unknowable when it is written liberated from assimilation by being bilingual in nature.
My poetry does not isolate the reader when I choose not only to write in Spanish, but to never use Italics to other my own culture. I will never forget when a graduate student in one of my craft seminars refused to read my poem aloud because of the Spanish, and I sat there struck by my own loneliness. Yes I have heard it, “The Spanish just drives me out of the poem,” and “Maybe you can add a glossary?” Usually in workshop I’ll scribble down the feedback I get from my classmates, because they are truly wonderful, insightful and sensitive writers and I’m grateful for the community we built with each other. But it was out of resistance to assimilate and my freedom to call bullshit that each time I heard one of those critiques or something similar, I would put down my pen and choose not to follow. Some may call this laziness or ignorance, but I will never accommodate racist infrastructures found even in the poetry community, because for once in a white readers’ life, they might feel ‘left out.’
Isolation is being the only queer Latinx woman in the room. Isolation is looking at the words you wrote floating on the page doubting their power, because if the poem never leaves the room filled with mostly white folks, who will the poem save? The answer is you. The answer was me. The answer is all of the marginalized, otherwise invisible or silenced voices enduring that white or male or straight gaze upon our writing in any workshop which takes place in academic or non-academic spaces. To interrupt white male dominated spaces by the language and narratives of my history, which is otherwise being violently fought to be erased, I am demanding space, I am elbowing my way into workshops so that the trauma of my family may not go unheard.
While any workshop I took at Columbia wasn’t a healing environment, they helped me build the maps that would lead me to my other community-based healing. But bet if another white woman refuses to read my writing because of my language, pues no mames.
Vanessa Borjon is a xicana writer, educator and trauma-informed youth facilitator living in Chicago. She hopes to release a chapbook soon and can be visited at koko-moga.tumblr.com