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Surfacing

I love this picture!

Fishhooks in a box on a pier in Essaouira, Morocco I took years ago. It makes an appearance in my hybrid novel in progress Surfacing which I started in graduate school (Paul Hoover as advisor). Surfacing and other recent literary work is at the intersection of climate fiction (cli-fi) and “what if’ near-future responses of communities of color written through the speculative lens of environmental justice. 

Prompted by a grant application requesting the main influences of my work as an artist, I set down keystrokes focused on my literary work presented below (including the visual work I struck out.)

The dystopian world-making of Octavia E. Butler demonstrated to critical acclaim the strong, bold voice of a woman of color addressing subjects such as the environment, race, gender, sexuality, and religion. 

Jean Toomer’s 1923 hybrid novel Cane operates with the interwoven structure of narrative prose, poetry, and character dialog from a play. Toomer was a novelist, poet, and playwright; Cane was lauded for its literary experimentation addressing African American life and culture.

The poetry section of Surfacing is directly inspired by Derek Walcott’s epic poem Omeros. Walcott used the form terza rima in his eight-thousand line poem while Surfacing is loosely using the form ottava rima

My prior literary work has been heavily influenced by the prose poems of Harryette Mullen, often described as having an Indirect style, absurd, reveling in language word-play, though steeped in political discourse, addressing topics of violence, misogyny, and racism.

Though the remnants of my post-graduate career in sculpture are thread bare, and have been transposed onto the page, Eva Hesse’s use of rope, string, and wire and organic shapes was a major influence on my three-dimensional hanging jute work wrapped with steel wool.

Visual Art: Martin Puryear, Jud Fine, Eva Hesse

 

Sister Soldier Speaks! (aka My Boot, Their Mask, Their Gun, My Chance)

Black soldier maybe in copter

Several years ago I submitted an individual artist’s cultural equity grant proposal to the San Francisco Arts Commission requesting support for a book length series of prose poems and monologues exploring the service contributions and treatment of African American women in the U.S. military. The manuscript as I proposed it would address a historical time span ranging from the Civil War to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I attended the funding meeting which was open to the public. Until recently I viewed my attendance as a mistake. “This project will be both a celebration and artistic exploration of gender equity and women’s health in the context of military service,” a line from my proposal was read aloud by a panelist. “What are they trying to do? recruit young girls into the military,” an African American female poet snapped back. What came next was an energized debate about race and gender and the military – which was frankly entirely the point of the manuscript. As the artist, I was not allowed to respond. I left the room deflated until I received written notice that my grant was funded. The final recommendation was a vote to support the project by the review panel.

The Women’s Army Corps (WAC) was the women’s branch of the United States Army.  The WAC converted to active duty status on July 1, 1943, though it was originally created as the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) on May 15, 1942.  It wasn’t until 1967 during the Vietnam War that the military lifted its 2% total force ceiling cap for women, followed by the introduction of the all-volunteer force in 1973.  In 1971, there were 421 African American female officers and 4,236 in the enlisted ranks, which at that time represented 3.3% and 14.4% of all women in the armed forces respectively. By 1981, there were 2,400 African American female officers and 43,973 in the enlisted ranks representing 10.3% and 27.4% respectively. In a Department of Defense report entitled “Black Americans in Defense of Our Nation” rapid growth of African American women in the military from 1971 to 1981 was attributed to the elimination of the ceiling cap for women, the opening of most occupational specialties previously limited to men, and the implementation of affirmative action plans. But in the 21st century with the gender cap long gone, African American women continue to enlist at higher rates than white or Hispanic women at a time when the active component of the military is down (2.2 million in 1974 vs. 1.9 million in 2016).

Though understudied, the data shows black women have been and continue to be a rich source of military recruit renewal. The reason for this sweet spot?  Perhaps African American women are the perfect military target: job training right out of high school, guaranteed paycheck and housing, health and dental benefits, the chance for 100% college tuition assistance (i.e., the nation’s largest equal opportunity employer – right?)

Memories kindling the desire to write a poetic response to a wedge subject for some is rooted in a personal path not chosen. I did not serve. I respect women for whatever personal motivation they chose the military: perhaps as an intermediate step, a long term profession, or a mission to volunteer for risk to make a difference (dear opportunity – stitch the boys up, send them back out). I remember watching a military infomercial during the bicentennial summer of ’76; I was a citizen-delegate at the American Legion Auxiliary’s California Girl State citizenship training program. My love of the ocean and desire to do something meaningful swelled as I envisioned saving lives on the Pacific coast in the Coast Guard. I often wonder how my military career would have played out if I had enlisted. My Boot, Their Mask, Their Gun, My Chance in part is my attempt to retrace steps, a re-imagining now as an African American transgender male. If conscription were reinstated and I was twenty one, would I conscientiously object? If I was in the military under Trump’s command, would I keep my mouth shut, shave my beard, perhaps be forced to wear a damn dress?

I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God.

I remember when my cousin Leslie told me our cousin Fee-Fee was raped while deployed.  What?  At the time I didn’t even know Fee-Fee was a service member. I remember outrage. Oh, and her only sibling Nickie was in a freak accident, something fell on her leg, military doctors botched the surgery, now in a wheelchair permanently. Oh my god wtf. I didn’t know how or what form it would take then, but I remember wanting to do something. My Boot, Their Mask, Their Gun, My Chance is my something.

This collection attempts to give voice to the diverse African American female military experience, invisible warriors in plain sight, in part addressing the lack of Veterans Administration healthcare reform, military sexual assault interventions, and advocacy for homeless and unsheltered African American female veterans.

As I traveled to veterans’ conferences, research libraries, conducted phone interviews, and replayed oral “her-stories”, I heard valor, I heard guilt (I didn’t die, my friends did), I heard pride, I heard tenacity. But it is the daily struggles of my disabled female Gulf War veteran cousins that have inspired me most. My Boot, Their Mask, Their Gun, My Chance is a collage of African American female vet voices, the known and the unknown, dead and alive. (photo credit Women in Military Service of America)

 

Sister Soldier commissioned piece, by Aja Couchois Duncan  

http://ajacouchoisduncan.blogspot.com/2013/02/sister-soldier.html