In My Own Words: Celia Alvarez
I wrote Shapeshifting out of anger. I had been avoiding admitting to myself that I had failed as a writer and as an academic for years, and had taught and taught and taught composition and literature without ever looking at my own writing and why I was not writing anymore. I could tell my students what was wrong with their writing and how to fix it or what was great about other writers, but I couldn’t write myself, just could not do it. My inability to complete the doctoral program in literature I had been in for near a decade had divested me of my academic identity, and my inability to come to terms with my creative writing had left me essentially and literally blank. I did not know who I was anymore.
I began the journey towards Shapeshifting backwards. I opened up the files and looked for poetry I had written in my early twenties. To my surprise, it wasn’t as bad as I remembered. I started sending it out. I started writing again. I wrote what I wanted—I read what I wanted. I began to realize that what had kept me from writing for so long was the notion of what I was “supposed to be” writing. I was supposed to be writing prose, for one thing, because that is what I had been told I wrote best. I was supposed to be writing about being Hispanic in Miami, because that’s what I am. Well, I didn’t want to be either of these things anymore, a fiction writer or an immigrant. I was bored with these identities. I had been for a while. I wanted freedom. I still want it.
I wrote poems about being a child in no place special with a mother whose fears transcend culture and ethnicity. I wrote poems about my favorite uncle and itinerant farm workers and my grandparents in Cuba (because I felt like it) and about being old, which I felt though I wasn’t—am not—and about Frances Lucy Wightman and abused wives which I wasn’t/am not/have never been (my poor husband), about Hialeah and Castro and Sylvia Plath and my anger at all of these. I wrote persona poems, I suppose, but the worst kind, the kind that a stranger might think true. I wrote free verse and traditional verse and made up my own verse. I wrote most of the poems in the collection in three months and called it Shapeshifting because I couldn’t call it anything else. I felt possessed and liberated, and at once.
Only after the collection had been picked up did I realize I was doing something quite political. It is impossible for “a woman of color” to write without negotiating that identity. You can embrace it, shape it, or reject it, but you must deal with it. I had dreamed as a little girl about being a writer because it had seemed the perfect way to be all things at once. I retained this naïve association between writing and imagination well into adulthood. I could never accept the boundaries that my identity as a Cuban immigrant threatened to place on that imagination. It’s not that I reject the Caribbean, although my Caribbean cannot be my parents’. My Caribbean is Miami, where I have spent all my life, and it does indeed include mangoes and black beans and Cuban coffee, but it also includes Wal-Marts and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and reruns of The Brady Bunch, and I demand my right to write about all of these. I happen not to like salsa music, and I refuse to pretend to in order to fit someone else’s idea of what it means to be a Cuban woman. Sometimes, I get sick of Miami, and have to leave it for a little while, return to it homesick and lovesick, able to write about it once more.
I have been told that I lack a distinctive voice, and I like that. I don’t have a voice, I have voices. Having been (almost) an academic, I am aware of the danger of laying claims to universals, how they often don’t include people like me, immigrants, Hispanics, women. But I don’t think that a true multicultural literacy is about being content with only what we know, unable to make the empathic leap into another’s soul, saying this is mine and only mine and you can’t understand, you can only look (maybe even pity). Neither do I think that my work is capable of “expanding” or even “redefining” someone’s notion of what it is to be a human being, of complementing—or, worse yet, supplementing—some other, unmarked way of being. Screw that. I am ashamed, in fact, of things that I have published that I now see as flaunting my “strangeness” for others to consume like a trip to Disney World. I wish I could take some of it back.
Shapeshifting was about rejecting all of that, about refusing to be pinned down. The reaction I’m going for when I write is recognition, not disassociation. Not I wonder what it must be like to feel like that but I know what it is to feel like that. If I stop believing this is possible, I can’t write anything that matters to me. And everything matters to me. The woman in pink Goody’s rollers sitting at the bus stop in 90° weather who could very well be my aunt. The kid slipping on the ice in Juneau who thought, nah, I can make it to the store, just like I did, in a warmer place, a different time. I know him, too, and he knows me; I write for him.