By Autumn Hayes
Also, nepantla. Then the typing stops, and she’s left staring at the latest Facebook message from her friend B, the only other woman of color in her poetry program. B is the one who helped her learn when to deal with and when to ignore questions like, “Why is hair such a big deal in this poem?” and “Why does the speaker use different diction all of a sudden?” B is responding to a piece that our protagonist has written about the Disney film Black Panther, an article in which – ruminating on a recent trip to Ghana – she has said, I am not from here [Ghana or America] . . . I’m from the ocean, from the in-between, and there is no “going back” someplace I’ve never been.
Also, nepantla. She knows one of these words. The other is a mystery, an assemblage of consonants she’s never seen stand quite so close together. It looks like a puzzle piece blinking in the middle of her computer screen. Fit me in, fit me in, fit me in, it blinks. And because she knows that this is an invitation – that B respects her intelligence enough to expect her to look up words she doesn’t understand – she immediately retypes the word in her internet search bar: N-E-P-A-N-T-L-A.
The results line up for inspection. She clicks and scrolls, clicks and scrolls. And then it feels like a thousand stout-winged wading birds – little blue herons, cranes with their flat gray heads – take off into the sky of her brain.
Say where you’re from again.
She’s become Cali Girl to her uncle, the one who always wanted to go to USC but blew his knees out. But is she? No one in her on-campus apartment building seems to think so. Say, where’re you from again? they ask, suppressing their shit-eating grins. It’s a game at this point. Just say where you’re from, they beg. They want to hear her say Tehhhk-sus, soft and long as if it has three or four syllables instead of two.
It’s not a harsh game, but just a reminder: she sounds strange. Hella strange. Clearly Southern. Enough so that another black woman – a woman from New York by way of the Caribbean – asks her, “So, are you a Southern belle, or what?”
You not from around here, huh?
She has been in rural Mississippi for five years. The frozen peas, wheat bread, and ground turkey she drove twenty miles to buy are forming an island inside the puddle growing on the conveyor belt as the cashier slowly surveys her for the fortieth time this year, taking her time with the coupons. She’s not from around here again, just as she wasn’t last week or last month or last year or the year before that.
She smiles her most innocent smile and says No, both hoping and ashamed that she manages to mirror the cashier’s surprise, pride, and contempt. She’s not from around here. Does she have to be, to buy frozen peas, ground turkey, and brown bread?
The cashiers never stop asking, not even when she moves back “home.”
What she know about anything? Never been married, ain’t got no kids … Why don’t you stop being so selfish and have some kids of your own?
She doesn’t know which one she wants to change first: them or herself.
I wish this essay talked more about the black family [sic] . . . I don’t see what the big deal is; B is whiter than me . . . I don’t look at J or A or B as “Hispanic” writers; if I didn’t know your last name, J, I’d think you were white. And you, too, A . . .
She never finishes the article she submitted for workshop in that class. She never submits it to the magazine that requested it. She freezes up every time anyone even appears to ask her to write about her blackness. (She never gets asked to write about her femaleness or her Southern-ness or her working-class background or.) What can they want, and what would it mean for her to deliver? She’s frozen up seventeen times while trying to write the article you’re reading right now.
She knows she isn’t “the.” She fears she isn’t even “a,” sometimes. Yet she knows she is, and she knows she is, somewhere deep down. So when she encounters the word “nepantla” – when she learns that it means crossroads, means both-at-the-same-time, means man and woman and death and life and serpent and bird – in short, when she finally reads some Anzaldúa that isn’t “How to Tame a Wild Tongue” – she knows that she’s finally found her tribe: the Alsos, the Toos, the (to borrow from Claudia Rankine) Yes-Ands.
Which, of course, means that this word offers her a new “me,” a new “I,” in addition to her “we.”
Nepantla. I still confuse the term with nopalito, the tough-yet-juicy, picked-smooth meat of the prickly pear plant, even though I know that nepantla is a Nahua or Aztec word for in-betweenness, for existing simultaneously in the middle of things and no-recognized-where at all, for inhabiting the liminal space between dualities. I suppose the confusion is productive, though, as there is a fruitful prickliness to both. Nepantla is the perfect word for (which is to say the perfect little cage in which to capture and safely examine before releasing into the wild) my existence as an African-American woman, a descendant of slaves minimized, exploited, or rejected in all the countries of my genesis. I know this not only from my travels – from hearing the touts in Ghana and Morocco slyly call me sister in that way only hungry strangers must – or from my experiences being darker-than-brown-paper-bag-skinned in the United States, but from my reading of Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/La Frontera. In his book, which my internet searches led me to finally read in its entirety, a lesbian, farmworking Chicana from South Texas asks, “Which collectivity does the daughter of the darkskinned mother listen to?” (78), and I – a heterosexual, dollar-store-working, black woman from East Texas – hear my life’s concerns stated as eloquently as possible. In this book, Anzaldúa describes the state and statue of Coatlicue, headless Aztec goddess of “life-in-death and death-in-life” (47) who “represents . . . something more than mere duality or a synthesis of duality” (46), and I grasp something that neither American patriarchy nor (long-coopted) African matriarchy has offered me, the thing without which both have rung hollow: wholeness. I see a legitimated space – for who can enter a land with no name? who can love, touch a person she can’t summon intimately? – where I can be Western and Eastern, accommodating and aggressive, mothering and independent, at the same time and according to my own needs as well as the situation’s demands. I see a space where I, now and tomorrow, can simply “be” instead of concerning myself with how to be “a” or “the.”
And I have two very different women – two Chicanas from different eras and different backgrounds – to thank for that.
In his seminal 1989 essay, “Literacy, Discourse, and Linguistics: Introduction,” linguist James Paul Gee defines Discourses as “ways of being in the world” (6)—combinations of ways of speaking, seeing, moving, thinking, believing, and being—and argues that true literacy only occurs through learning secondary Discourses, or ways of speaking, thinking, and being that differ from, and thus allow critique of, those learned in childhood (9). I couldn’t agree more, as my experience researching nepantlisim attests. Before gaining language for liminality as a complete noun – a person, place, thing, and idea all at once - I felt torn to pieces, like Echo of Greek mythology: rent by others’ caprices, unable to speak, capable only of repeating or contradicting what someone had proclaimed before me. We (African Americans) come from kings and queens. Let a man be a man. If you work hard enough, anything is possible. But I felt impossible. What was I, if I did not fully believe or disbelieve the words coming out of my own mouth? Was I as invisible, as erased, as an echo? Couldn’t all these truisms be both false and valid at the same time? Couldn’t I refute them, concede them, and do something more, too? Wasn’t it possible that the “side” I needed to take was shifting territory that started in, or at least close to, the middle?
Learning to understand nepantla and Coatlicue showed me that the answer to these questions is yes. There is a space of inclusiveness and a way of inhabiting it, and these have always existed. People have known of them – had names for them – since the Aztecs, if not earlier, and knowing this gives me a sense of peace, curiosity, and connectedness unparalleled in any other part of my life. While inhabiting these spaces is a process of continual discovery – some discoveries painful, as my newfound literacy exposes my own potential complicity in sexism within my church, colorism and resentment against those lighter than me, and species-centric ravaging of the planet – the simple ability to see the world around me more fully and clearly is exhilarating, life-affirming, and thoroughly worthwhile.
For, as Gee further theorizes, primary Discourses, or those learned in home communities during the formative years, “no matter whose they are, can never really be liberating” (10). It is not enough for me to know and be proud of my African heritage, of my enslaved ancestors’ determination to succeed and survive, if that knowledge doesn’t teach me how to thrive, not simply survive, without dominating others. It is not enough for me to critique the practices of those who’ve enslaved Africans of women, either, unless those critiques teach me how to avoid being an enslaver, too. Competing perspectives, new language, new concepts: these are all necessary not only for literacy, but for freedom to build something new and freeing. In the university setting, this “something new” may mean a new engineering and architecture for our buildings, less damaging to the earth and to our psyches, or a new architecture and engineering for interacting with other living beings, Anzaldúa’s new “way of life” in which we stand “on both shores at once” with “a tolerance for contradictions . . . for ambiguity” (78-9).
However, neither will be possible without diversity. Without human beings of all walks of life – all skin tones, sexualities, body types and abilities, beliefs, nationalities, ages, and classes – sharing language and the concepts that those words represent, it is all too likely that we, students and teachers, will remain torn and scattered, stranded on what we perceive as opposing shores, “shouting questions, challenging” each other (Anzaldúa 78) in the same old ways when we could also be answering and adding to our common life. Unless we come together in the flesh and teach each other our words, our ideas, our forms, our body language, our Discourses, we will continue to see our complete selves as impossible and each other as theoretical problems to be solved for zero – “immigration problems,” “Negro problems” – instead of parts of the same whole.
And this is something I learned from a white man, two Chicanas (one lesbian, one straight), a scholarly article, a book of essays and poetry, and a Facebook message. Imagine what my students can teach me and each other, in all their blind, bipolar, autistic, dysgraphic, Chinese, Puerto Rican, Nigerian, Venezuelan, Cajun, bisexual, middle-class, farm kid, tweeting, Snapchatting, Tolkien-reading, atheist, fundamentalist, Papiamento-speaking glory. Imagine what we may make with and of each other once we learn the words for our common ground.
Nepantla. It is a word that, by its very existence, reminds me I am not alone and therefore have hope and resources to lean on. It is a word that gives me a theoretical (which is to say non-nuclear) means to research, understand, and contribute to my world and our history, our present, our future through my poetry, prose, and teaching. It is a word and a way of approaching the world that I might never have encountered had not B – Bonnie Cisneros, the Chicana mother, poet, essayist, tailor, DJ, jewelry-maker, and friend who helped me survive graduate school – read my article and sent me on a journey that is still unfolding, still leading me to question and re-form my ways of seeing, speaking, believing, and being. In short, it is a word that has made me more literate than I had previously imagined I could be, and only diversity on campus – access to someone like Bonnie, thoroughly versed in her culture/Discourse enough to see the connections between her words and mine and to share them – could have led to it. Not a token text in a book chosen and assigned by distant editors or curriculum-makers, but a real-life person seeing real-life – and real-time – connections between her flesh and mine, her struggles and desires and mine, her world and mine. That is the kind of diversity that leads to literacy, to being able to read and speak to the world in a way that transforms and enlivens it. My hope is that this is what diversity on campus looks like, and continues to look like, at Texas State.
About the Author
Autumn Hayes is an educator, freelance writer, and poet; her poetry, articles, and short fiction have appeared in The Washington Spectator, Storm Cellar, The Seattle Review, African American Review, Teachers & Writers Magazine, and the micro-fiction anthology 140 and Counting, among others. She is currently a Senior Lecturer in the Department of English and serves as one of the Assistant Directors of the Texas State University Writing Center.