Friday, May 1, 2009

Every Writer's Journey: Being Their Own American

By Maria Monica Abrenica

Immigrants in the United States come from all over the world. Their homes by birth vary and their experiences vary even more. While a majority of these experiences remain private and unknown to many, writers work to tell these stories.

Last Sunday, March 29, the Woodbridge Township Arts Council and Middlesex County College presented a festival of contemporary immigration writing. The event started at 2 p.m. and was held at the Barron Arts Center in Woodbridge. It was the last of the 3-day festival that began on Friday, March 27.

“My New Life, My New Poem,” was the catch phrase used for the event and it was a gathering that celebrated the experiences of 22 immigrants and their award-winning writing. Each writer got up on stage and read their poems. Their voices filled the room illuminated by sunlight going through the stained glass windows all around it. They each spoke with confidence before an audience of about forty people.

Guitarist Chris Marashlian and the Middle Eastern Ensemble played their music before the reading of poems began, during an intermission, and during the event’s closing. Zarouhi Otchy, a professional dance artist, also performed during the event.

Festival Director L.E. McCullough opened the ceremony by giving an introductory speech. He said “My New Life, My New Poem” was inspired by PoetsWednesday, which is a reading series that takes place at the Barron Arts Center every second Wednesday of the month. He added that this open reading at the Center started in 1978 and that it is one of the longest-running poetry series in the nation. "The idea was to extend this local activity into the national and ultimately global realm by gathering New Jersey-connected writers who write about what it means to be and become an American in the 21st century,” said McCullough.

He explained that the writers come from diverse backgrounds. They are of different ages, ethnicity, religion, and writing technique. They all have different experiences, but there is also something that ties them together. McCullough said that this is the fact that each one of them has been on a journey and that their writing has been an instrument to share that journey with the world.

Laura McCullough was the first writer who shared her poems. She began with “Lovely Men,” a poem from her most recent book, What Men Want. She mentioned how she was raised in an “all-boys family.” She grew up with five boys in her family. This, according to her, is the inspiration for the poem. She also read “2 Skulls, 6 Teeth, and 80 Other Bones,” a poem that she dedicates to her mother and her Italian grandmother. In her poem, “What We End Up With,” McCullough raised the subject of stereotypes and racism.

McCullough also talked about being a parent of two children she adopted from Taiwan. She described the transformation of each child, as well as their experiences in becoming a child in America.Laura McCullough is also the author of the poetry collections Speech Acts, The Dancing Bear, and Elephant Anger. Her writing has been published in The American Poetry Review, Gulf Coast, Crab Orchard, The Pedestal, Boulevard, Hotel Amerika, and many others. She received an award for prose and poetry from the NJ State Arts Council Fellowships and was also a Prairie Schooner Merit Scholar. She currently teaches at Brookdale Community College in Monmouth County.

“Whose land this is, is a question, but whose child this is, is not,” read McCullough from her poem, “Flags We Raised."

Maria Mazziotti Gillan followed McCullough’s reading. She has been empowering Italian-American writers through her work and has published nine poetry books. She founded Passaic County Community College’s Poetry Center and is the current Executive Director.

From her book, Italian Women in Black Dresses, Gillan read “Growing Up Italian.” She talked about her childhood and her early observation of physical differences from a young girl’s eyes.

“My aspiration then was to be pale and blond, and beautiful,” said Gillan.

She admitted that in her earlier years, she had been taught to hate her “dark, foreign self” due to the large anti-immigrant feeling in this country. She also read “Nothing Can Bring Back the Dead” from Things My Mother Told Me, a poem she dedicated to her mother who passed away nineteen years ago. “Daddy” was a poem to her father and in this poem, she described how she called him papa, but referred to him as his father or daddy when other people were listening. This was a manifestation of her shame then.

Today, Gillan honors her father’s hard work and her mother’s wisdom. She said that her writing seeks to celebrate the Italian-American self and that is her self. She encouraged everyone to acknowledge the diversity that people offer and that it should be embraced.

Writers Paul Sohar, Sheema Kalbasi, and Basil Rouskas also read their poems. Each one shared a different experience that showed how being an American could never be defined rigidly. Writing, in the words of L.E. McCullough, is “a journey we all take at some point in our life, whether we’ve immigrated to another country or never left our hometown.”

Maria Monica Abrenica is a junior at Rutgers University majoring in Journalism and Media Studies with a minor in Psychology. She transferred to Rutgers in 2008 from the University of the Philippines. She wants a career in investigative journalism and international relations.

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