Witness

Hi, my name is Serena, and I have a story I’d like to share and a request to make of you. Tonight marks the anniversary of Hurricane Sandy — a natural disaster from which many people are still recovering. I remember them every single day, even when I try to forget. I remember them in solidarity with the other natural disasters that have affected people all over the world.

At the time of the Hurricane, I was living in Jersey City and had just moved there from California to start an MFA program at Rutgers-Newark. It was a frightening swirling thing of a night; I lost my home; I lost the security, peace, and even time, that had brought me to Jersey. I became depressed. Hope seemed to belong to a different me, a successful attorney (insert irony: a specialist in climate change and affordable housing) who was capable of helping people. I wasn’t even capable of helping myself.

A year later, I am surrounded by so much kindness and light in Brooklyn: from my family, the people in my MFA program, from writers and poets, and from my friends all over the world. As I moved from place to place seeking housing, so many of you kept in touch with me through FB, sent me cards, music mixes, clothing, e-mails, and talked to me on the phone or in person. Thank you. (Sorry, but I didn’t receive everything b/c the post was bad, so if I didn’t personally contact you to thank you that means I didn’t receive it!)

The thing I learned over this past year is that even when everything we think we have disappears, when everything we are is irrelevant, when we lose control, when we despair because we were never in control, we are left with only love. That is what I have to give and to receive today. I value my love, more than any skill I possess or action I can take. I give it freely and without reservation.

The catalyst to my journey as a writer, and the people that gave my battered spirit a home, was VONA. They are launching their fundraiser so we can read stories by us, by people of color, and in that humble process, change the world. Please consider donating the small amount of $5 on my behalf — link on the bottom. If 100 people do this — it will be $500. The story below was published in VONA’s March 2013 Newsletter.

Witness
by Serena W. Lin

The parked cars light up and cry, their tin husks filling up with water as the Hudson rises by the inches, pouring down the street from Liberty State Park in Jersey City until finally this river, full of plastic bags and silt, heavy with toxins and sewer shit, creeps through door jambs and into trunks, triggering alarms like a thief that doesn’t care because nobody will come out to turn their alarms off anymore. I walk out the front door and watch the water climb up the steps, the wind in my face, thrilling me, shaming me. One by one, the alarms all go off, up and down the block and around the bend and through the neighborhood, until late at night, the blaring midnight choir signals a loss I don’t yet understand.

(This sound would stay lodged inside of me and seize my imagination, even months later; it gave my fear a soundtrack and seemed more real to me than the fact of Hurricane Sandy, more real to me than the people who lost their homes, the ones who lost their lives.)

The story that fucks me up the most is one I hear on the radio almost two weeks after Sandy. It happens in the projects, central Rockaway in Queens, a few days after the Hurricane hit, and nobody’s got power there, or heat. The concrete is swallowing the light. They’re running out of water. This woman and her dad, they need to get some water. The staircase is slippery, and he falls when she turns around back to go get a flashlight. He hits his head and dies.

(I look his name up months later, Albert McSwain.)

I am in the first semester of my MFA program and all I can think is this is some fucked-up shit as I listen to students in my program whine to me about how they can’t finish their writing assignments, how their semester is ruined, how they are just so done with the semester: I want to slap them. When I hear my own voice complaining the loudest about how I am displaced and can’t find a home, I’m filled with a self-hatred so bleak that it looks back at me in the mirror and actually tells me to go home. Go back to California. Go back to being a community lawyer. Leave this writing dream behind because obviously it wasn’t meant to be.

Just after one of these crisis-induced vanity sessions, because it’s vanity when you start taking a natural disaster personally, I apply to VONA Miami. I’ve been to VONA twice before in the Bay. I write to Evelina, and, next thing I know, Elmaz lets me into her memoir workshop. You’d think I’d be grateful. Instead, I freak out and make excuses about why I shouldn’t go to VONA this year because I’m not writing memoir. Don’t they know this? I mean these folks were the ones who helped me understand that I deserve to write. I know myself: I’m all about fiction, where I get to disguise my emotional truths with made-up humans and other creatures. Sure, my characters are me, just not me-me. I write Elmaz an e-mail about how I can only write fiction, and she tells me it’s about telling my story, and she welcomes fiction. Darn it, Elmaz… I’m out of excuses. I move for the fifth time in five months, this time to Brooklyn, and I hop a plane to Miami the next day after I move.

My buck fifty about human nature: In my Hurricane experience, I got treated to the worst and best of human nature in a collapsed timeframe, as if the Hurricane were an every-human-emotion-in-two-minutes roller coaster that loops you upside down with your most basic baby instincts and then takes you to the top where Buddha and Allah hug in the clouds, right before it drops you to the end. You’re left empty with a case of the shakes. Stressors bring out all kinds of goodies: greed, racism, rage. Sure, there’s love, generosity, kindness in the mix too, but they’re obscured and swirled in with the craptastic. To make sense of it all, you’ve got to get off the damn roller coaster. You’ve got to go on the inner journey, as Patricia Powell once told me, and the only way to do that is to get your world in order. The only way to put your world in order is to find a way to be safe.

***
VONA-Miami gave me sanctuary. My roommate Angelyn couldn’t have been a more grounded person if she tried. Sitting in a room with Carlyle, Bahar, Rosanna, Annette, Kevin, Cindy, Tess, Emma, Anton, I found refuge in their personal stories, their courage. Elmaz was like that lifeguard who is so fucking experienced she doesn’t even need to get off her chair. She waits until you’re tired of drowning and then wades in after you with her packet of prompts, readings, and guidelines. You just know that every single page is crafted with love, with the ache of hard work and the sleepless nights that it takes to be a real organizer, and with the faith that she can bring forward writers of color out of a colonized world. As my fellow writers described their pains and their triumphs, they taught me. At the final reading, all the VONA folks scrambled my brain with intoxicating words. As I heard them reading, I thought to myself: I was saved from the flood so I could witness this. These folks took the other end of a hammer and pried away the nails that I used to board myself up. They kept at it until they opened the door to my heart.

For all of this, VONA, I am grateful.

***
Elmaz had us pick out a line from the faculty reading that meant something to us. How’s this for following instructions?

(Disclaimer: These are quotes as I heard them, not as they actually were read).

Chris Abani:
There is nothing gained from loss.
I was afraid my name would be obscured.

Elmaz Abinader:
My mother declared making me look neat was a lost cause.
The mannequins – they were beyond holiness.
It was all up to this heart and what it had to say.

M. Evelina Galang:
His fire is so strong. He doesn’t have to use his anger.
Even Jesus Christ can get his jaw broken.

Willie Perdomo:
Didn’t drop the secret
Then
No use dropping it now

Yes Poet
I dreamed you

All these songs,
And not one to go home with

Serena W. Lin a is a Truman Capote Fellow in fiction at the Rutgers-Newark creative writing program. She says VONA is a huge reason why she was granted the fellowship.

DONATE HERE:  http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/support-writers-of-colour-2013-14

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Person, Set to Music

The world set in a stone.

All I could draw forth was blood.

 

The world untwisted on a barstool.

We talked about race, then class.

 

I protested that I had the world in my pocket.

My friend, he gifted me a yo-yo version.

 

I set glass on the balance.

Why does my heart always outweigh?

 

I’m lost but for my honesty,

which is critically acclaimed

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