When the queen of salsa, Celia Cruz, was informed, while performing in Colombia, that a few Venezuelan newspapers had pronounced her dead, she laughed. She laughed first, she worried about her family hearing the news second, and thirdly, she told a friend in Venezuela to buy up some of those newspapers. “Buy them up,” she said, “Buy them up so I can see what that’s like, being dead.”
When I told a friend this story, she said, “See? Nothing new beneath the sun. Fake news”
“From the very beginning of the world, that’s history, right? The conquerors writing it, right? And that’s the news we read?” ROME RISES, EUROPE IS PURGED, AMERICA IS CONQUERED. BARBARIANS LUCKY TO BE CIVILIZED! SHREWS THRILLED TO BE TAMED! And if you didn’t want to be invaded, maybe you shouldn’t have dressed quite so provocatively.
“Fake news. What are you gonna do about it?”
I grew up listening to Celia Cruz, and not just Celia, Totó la Momposina, Joe Arroyo, Escalona, Tito Puente, Ruben Blades, Juan Luis Guerra, Willie Colon and Gloria Estefan. Drums from Africa, gaitas from the American tropic, guitars and accordions from Spain, and voices from the descendants of all the ‘conquest’ left behind.
“What are you gonna do about it?”
“I want to tell you, my brothers, a little piece of our history, of black history,” says Joe Arroyo, at the top what may be his most famous song. “This is how it goes,” as a piano tune begins swell and the drums and trumpets follow. “During the 1600s, when the tyrant was in charge, in the streets of Cartagena,” narrating, to a salsa beat, the story of the arrival of a slave ship carrying “an African marriage, slaves of a Spaniard,” while bare hands strike bare leather and trumpets, when suddenly, “the Spaniard struck the wife.” Hips, and feet, and the syncopated beat of African, European and indigenous influences melting like wax atop an open flame. And “it was there that the handsome black man made himself known.” And he said, “No le pegue a mi negra.” Do not strike my woman, Joe Arroyo sings, and the chorus echoes back, “Do not strike the woman,” and all us sang along too, “Do not strike the woman, do not strike her.” No le pegue.
Because the conquerors may write their official version of history despite it—they always have, and will—but the conquered sing their versions too.
So, when Celina Nader found herself caught between family, violence and memory, she wrote it down like a logbook and a dream. When Lotus Zhou watched her family become, once more, entangled in a web of filial piety and toxic pretense, she wrote it down in close and careful strokes. Lovingly tracing the character of her father and country, even both express disappointment in her love of writing, and her gender. When Dian Parker saw her brother, she knew him instantly, “Even from across the street,” she “could see the darkness around his eyes, the haunted scrutiny darting from person to person, the incessant scraping of his thumb across his middle finger.” And she wrote every detail she knew, and the ghost map of those she didn’t. Because, even as people began to stare and, “avoid his side of the street,” she knew that they did not know him instantly, or even at all. And when Pamela Johnson Parker saw her breasts, “or rather the cage of ribs where breasts were and would be again,” become scars shaped like, “the Phoenician symbols,” she angled her words around the shape that was and would be again, to capture—like a prism to the light—all the secret hues of quiet losses.
Because when Celia heard she was dead, she laughed. Then she asked her friend to keep copies to see what it was like, and then she went back on stage, and she sang.
Lina Maria Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas
As one year morphs into the next, my news feeds abound with taking stock – what’s in, what’s not, what was the best of what we do, what fell flat, who won, who lost in the race to get ahead, to be safe, to protect what we love. It’s a funny thing, this gathering that we do, the way we mark the year, the starts and stops of it, as if we’ve taken our cue from tree rings and the seasons, this need to note time and record what we’ve seen, what we’ve taken in, what’s been left behind.
But it’s this kind of gathering together that I’m most interested in, and the attempt to make meaning of the disparate pieces of our lives that seems most endearing to me. All of these end-of-the-year lists and resolutions and rankings function together like an essay written in real time. As if in our collecting and the placing of one moment beside another, we might make sense of it – that if we can mark down where we’ve been and what we’ve done, that something singing might rise above the collective chatter, and tell us where to go next, even if it is just a lone note left ringing, sounding an alarm, a resolution.
This issue’s collection of nonfiction is essayistic in the truest sense of the word. They are attempts to gather, to place one moment beside another and to try to stitch some semblance of meaning between them. Celina Nader gathers and wonders about violence and beauty in her life in Syria, writing, “I wake to sunshine and fresh drinking water rippling out of the tap; my people rise to bombs in place of birdsong. Why them and not me? Why is my breathing so easy?” And, as if written in response to that question, Pamela Johnson Parker’s essay Elemental on the gaining, losing and regaining of her breasts through surgery wonders that, “I never loved the earth, until I thought I might not see it. I never loved the air and never thought about it, never worried about breathing, until I showed the scars to my lover,” while Dian Parker in Slush Pile considers life with her schizophrenic brother, and the paradox of mental illness that brings her to realize that, “I always thought he had an advantage over me − ready to liquefy while I stayed solid, grounded, and too much in the world. In a world gone mad.”
It’s through this gathering, piling up, tunneling through and peering into, that disconnected moments sometimes cozy up alongside one another and click into place, just as Lotus Zhou’s meditation on gender and family in Spectator lands on the thing she is most trying to grasp hold of. “While not listening to my father, I finally decide how to feel about it.” Which, in the end, seems right, seems like all any of us can do with these moments and days, the months and years that pile up behind us as we go; we can, at least, know what we feel about it, even if it is a multitude.