Bodega by Su Hwang is Lyricality’s 4 counties, 1 book selection for 2020, was chosen to help central Minnesota readers share our stories, listen to each others’ stories, and think about how our own stories may be in conversation with this Minnesota poet’s.
“Bodega is a Spanish word that has several meanings,” Su Hwang writes, “but its primary definition is ‘warehouse or cellar.’ In NYC, the word has come to describe a world within a world: a corner mini-mart that serves the community within a several-block radius. Like all good things, however, bodegas are now an endangered species…this one word holds so much power, meaning––and memories. BODEGA uses the metaphor of this urban, communal space to interrogate issues of race, identity, im/migration, and marginalization within marginalized communities from the lens of a coming-of-age story.”
Alison Hendley is a pastor, spiritual director, and an immigrant from Great Britain, living in Stearns County, MN, asked to read Bodega and choose a poem to reflect on for Lyricality. She selected “Face | Off,” a condensed, lyrical look at a latchkeytime in the poet’s childhood, when the family lived in “a split-level house nestled in a cul-de-sac.” The poem illuminates the pressures of being different. The poet remembers herself as child, attempting to use black marker and a curling iron to make a doll over into something that resembles her, inadvertently destroying her Barbie.
Coming into conversation with this poem, Alison unearths buried trauma, reminding her of traumatic experiences in her own childhood. In doing this, she reveals the healing, connecting power of poetry. Writing, a poet mines human experience and brings to light what might otherwise remain unspoken, in this case, the traumatic effects of marginalization on a child living under the expectations of assimilation. Reading–by connecting to the heartfelt words of a skilled poet–we can be reminded of our own stories. When a poet’s voice speaks to what lies hidden in us, we can experience a kind of kinship, the possibility of a deepening mutual understanding. And when we open our hearts to understand and empathize with others’ stories, we can find a path into individual and collective healing on the path toward “liberty and justice for all.”~~Tracy Rittmueller, Director, Lyricality
In Conversation with “Face | Off,” by Su Hwang
Oh, the ache of wanting to be someone different, to inhabit a different body, a different home, to find someone or something that understands you, looks like you, knows you. I relate to the image of the young girl longing for a doll that she recognized, or for a body that looked like the perfectly proportioned Barbie doll. The poet tells of the desire to “inhabit whiteness without retribution,” the secret shame of being who she was with her “slit eyes.” This is the call from the outer world to assimilate, to stop being the odd one out, to keep her true self hidden in the basement while, to the world around her, she blended in.
My own face | off, another story, with kindred experiences of shame, secrecy, and a need for belonging, but with different details. In a home where abuse was a daily occurrence, the dread of footsteps outside my room at night, the hands and pulling back the blankets, the bodies crashing into my small frame… these became my secret shame. The longing grew that I could be like others, living a life where love and kindness were common. My hair was not the problem, but my solution was no less violent than the curling iron turned out to be. At 9 years old I, too, had the right solution. I knew what I had to do to get help, to get seen, to become like all the other girls in my class. I stood at the top of the staircase, knowing that if I threw myself down, broke an arm, a leg, hit my head on the heater sticking out at the bottom, if I got taken to hospital with some injury to my small body…. any injury would do…. then someone would see what really hurt, the invisible scars, the ones on parts I could not speak about.
And so I jumped. Flung myself down those 16 stairs, the ones that I had counted so often as someone came up them, praying they would bypass my room that night. Those 16 stairs were my curling iron, my escape, my way to change what I saw, what the world saw. The act supposed to bring eventual comfort. But, as I flew down those 16 stairs, I felt hands carrying me, placing me gently on the bottom step, laying me down, unharmed.
And the same way Su Hang describes at the beginning of the last stanza of “Face | Off,” “without pomp or ballyhoo,” I buried that girl, who could might have been able to get help, deep within the recesses of my body. My first and only plan had not worked. Not a bruise to show. I buried that girl who wished she could be seen, who longed for someone to know the pain, who ached for someone to save her. I buried her without even a pinecone to mark where she lay. And I went on with ‘life’.
The resilience of children astounds me. Su Hwang with her barbie doll, just buried, not a second thought. She carries on with her life, still nothing or no one to look like her, still walking through the world wondering where she belonged. Me, without a scar or bruise, continued to survive, living the days one by one for years to come.
Eventually, those of us who are lucky, come across someone who says, “I see you. I recognize you. Tell me your story.” Then the healing can begin, with words spilling out like lava, released at long last, from that place deep within. Before this we (hopefully, but not always) survive however we can. Eyes and hearts open in a desire to find some who may be like us, our broken edges rubbing together, shards of truth splintering the other. We look to uncover some truth, but with each shovelful we can bury something else.
Those of us who persist, flinging dirt here and there, stumble at last upon someone who sees all of us, beyond the hard exterior, beyond the slanting eyes, someone who sees our hearts and our brokenness and offers to sit beside us. Then healing can begin. Hope can shine through the cracks in the veneer of, “I’m alright,” and expose the smell of burning plastic, the sound of 16 stairs being climbed in the dark of the night. In this community of 2, words spoken and honored and held; feelings felt for the first time, seen and loved. In this community of 2, the one who sees and the one who is seen, the shame of who I am begins to be removed, uncovered, cleaned up, loved. And often, as healing happens, the community of 2 grows, more are allowed to see the truth, the beauty, the scars and the wholeness, to hear the pain and bear witness with love.
The true miracle occurs when that grown girl can see themselves in this love, when the face, and the dark, straight hair can be seen as beautiful, when the scars and the creases can be offered to the world as an example of healing, when the pain is transformed into a gift that is given back to the world, when the one who longed to be seen can turn and see the next little child who feels the cloak of invisibility has fallen upon them. This Barbie, uncovered. Those stairs, no longer a threat. That grave, a place of honor. This life, a blessing. This community, one where I belong, where everyone belongs, a place of belonging.
Alison Hendley is a trained and experienced spiritual director offering one on one direction and supervision. She is a healer, called to work with those who have lived through childhood trauma, and has a deep love for nature, often bringing God’s creation intentionally into a session. She has trained in Eco Therapy and how the body can support healing. Alison is the pastor of Clearwater United Methodist Church in Minnesota, and a professed monastic member of St. Brigid of Kildare Monastery.
Join the Bodega on October 28, 2020 at 7pm
“An Evening With Su Hwang”
Register for this free event: https://us02web.zoom.us/…/tZYod… cosponsored by Great River Regional Library.
After registering, you will receive a confirmation email containing information about joining the Zoom meeting.
“Read Poetry Central Minnesota 2020: Join the Bodega” is made possible by the voters of Minnesota through a grant from the Central MN Arts Board, thanks to a legislative appropriation from the arts and cultural heritage fund.”