From Where Do You Speak?
My bones ache when I drive nine hours to Illinois for graduate school to study English. I am the first person in my family to go to graduate school or even graduate from a university. My parents can only stay long enough to unload my boxes since they have to work the next day. I am left standing in a tiny studio on the seventh floor of an apartment building in Evanston and even I cannot hear my own breathing with the El train rattling down below. I begin to shed my childhood. Knowing no one, I start my first semester.
At the beginning of each class, we respond to the professor’s inquiry of us: Tell us a little about yourself. But what is it really that they want to know? We move through Postcolonialism and Judith Butler and grief in Shakespeare. I am asked to read a passage in class and am met with a chorus of correction after I pronounce “Edward Said” wrong.
I could say I have not heard of this so-and-so author or read this essential theoretical Feminist essay. I could say all of these things, but shame often makes silence easier. I think all along the professors should have asked us, From where do you speak? I think all along I could answer that. I could tell them what I know about distance.
My parents ask me what I am studying and I cannot tell if they know what I speak of when I speak of objective correlatives and Antigone. I am told the “hot topics” in academia and someone will often say something like, Everyone’s doing trauma theory these days. I tell my parents I want to come home. I feel unwelcome. I am Latina and black. Someone in my class asks me if I think I got in because of this. Because this is “one of the top schools in the country” everyone keeps telling me. I carry this with me through the winter.
The air is the coldest I have ever felt but still, I walk every Tuesday to my evening writing class in an old stone house the university converted into a classroom. There is always a thick layer of snow that coats the ground. During the second week of class, the instructor tells everyone to put their coats on. “Just go outside and observe and write,” she says. We gather our things reluctantly and head out the front door into the dark and cold to begin our observations.
Lake Michigan is as black as the night sky and so eerily threatening with jagged pieces of ice pushing up against the shore. A few classmates stay huddled near the doorway. Some wander down the alley. I walk to the backyard. From the backyard, you can see the stained glass window above the kitchen on that side of the house. I stay on the sidewalk and stand underneath a streetlight. I look around. In my journal, I scribble “footprints in the snow.”
Footprints. I cannot stop looking at them. There they are and I am so fascinated because these footprints make their way over the layer of snow that covers the backyard. A pattern of deep indentations. Even though the sidewalk has been shoveled and clear for weeks. Perhaps it was a choice, but I cannot imagine how one would choose to step into a snow that encases shoes and feet and shins in what is cold and wet. Was the decision to walk through deep snow made out of necessity? These footprints continue on through the backyard, and though I cannot see where they end, I imagine they go on and on.
How much comfort there is in this moment, in imagining another out in the world, one who has left behind these footprints like little maps. How much reverence there is in this sign that another has been here before me.
A few good words with Mercedes
BVS: In this essay, you speak about what we often call “imposter syndrome”—the feeling that so many graduate students experience (especially students of color), in imagining like you have somehow slipped into a space for which you are unprepared, in which any slip might expose you. How did writing this essay contribute to healing from the shame? In what ways are you feeling and finding your space in academia?
ML: “From Where Do You Speak?” began as I was preparing to teach college freshmen composition for the first time. It really forced me to reflect on the past nine years, all of which I had spent as a student in college. I kept thinking, What kind of teacher do I want to be? I knew from my own experiences, as a queer, first-generation student of color, how easy it is for those from marginalized backgrounds to internalize feelings of “not good enough,” especially within academic spaces. So, it became important for me to create a classroom that validated students’ experiences and voices. I also remember being really fixated on Beverly J. Moss’ notion that you can’t separate literacy from culture, which made so much sense to me as both a student and an instructor. It seems like what I was trying to do was create the classroom that I needed as an undergraduate student.
Now in my second year of teaching, my students are sometimes shocked when I ask them to write personal narratives or autoethnographies in their First-Year English classes, which only suggests to me how much we learn from academia to leave our identities at the door. “From Where Do You Speak?” is actually an excerpt from the first autoethnographic essay I wrote in graduate school. It was a validating experience because it was the first time I was able to incorporate my intersecting identities within my academic writing. I had never thought to locate myself in my own academic research. Now I think, how can I not?
BVS: I was so moved by the last line of the essay, “How much reverence there is in this sign that another has been here before me.” What literary figures/teachers/friends have felt like guides through the phantom snow? Who’s leading you?
ML: That winter, I remember I was reading Gwendolyn Brooks’ Maud Martha and it’s become a kind of go-to for me because it always softens and strengthens my spirit. It’s so beautiful. I have some amazing fellow graduate students and friends who are willing to listen to my insecurities and who are vulnerable enough to share their own. I once asked a friend if she’d sit with me as I sent out an email I’d been dreading, which seemed so silly, and she said “of course” like it was no big deal. Friends like that. Sometimes it’s been a matter of self-love and being my own guide, too. Going to therapy. Reciting positive affirmations in the car. I’ve done a fair share of power poses in bathroom stalls before presentations. I’ve also realized that having a space outside of the university is invaluable. I’m fortunate enough to have met other black artists here in Kansas and we’ve formed a really supportive and inspiring collective. I think of my mom who wrote “Mercedes” and “Northwestern University” on the chalkboard in my room and drew an arrow when I didn’t think I’d get in. I also remember that after I left Chicago and started school at the University of Kansas, a faculty member sent me an email asking how my first week of classes went. In a space and state of mind where it’s easy to feel isolated, little things like that were enough to carry me through. I’m realizing that this list could go on for so long! Because when I’ve found those “guides” who support me, even if it’s in the smallest of ways, I tend to hold on.
BVS:If you had to design a class around the last three books you read, what would the class be called? [Mine would be called “An Autobiography of Ghosts: Knowing Yourself Through Your Ancestors” because I read Aracelis Girmay’s, Black Maria, Vanessa Angélica Villareal’s, Beast Meridian and Tyehimba Jess’, Olio.]
ML: One of my scholarly areas is looking at narrative responses to trauma and since I’m currently in exam preparation, I’ve been reading a lot! I recently read Layli Long Soldier’s Whereas, S.L. Wisenberg’s Holocaust Girls, and re-read Ta-Nehesi Coates’ Between the World and ME. If I were lucky enough to design a class around these books, I would probably call it “Transgenerational Trauma and the Transference of Memory.”
Mercedes Lucero is the author of the chapbook, In the Garden of Broken Things (Flutter Press 2016) and winner of the Langston Hughes Creative Writing Award for Poetry. Her writing has appeared in The Pinch, Heavy Feather Review, and Curbside Splendor among others. Her first book, Stereometry, which explores loss, grief, and self-care in the form of a math textbook, is forthcoming from Another New Calligraphy. You can find her at www.mercedeslucero.com.
Her author photo was taken by Jeffrey McKey.