How much does language and cultural influence affect the unique visibility of core identity? You know, those surreptitious elements of ourselves we romance into the most endearing and particular parts of our self? Poet Rosebud Ben-Oni’s first creative stimulus was musical; “electricities and soporifics … something between sleep and meditation.” This exonerates her personal mosaic. Ben-Oni explains, “I grew up hearing English, Spanish, Modern Hebrew and Biblical Hebrew and each seemed impossible to claim as my own.” The explicative spread of perspective enumerates the weight of history and how this affects one’s own sense of self. The stipulative task, “[unpacks], all the misunderstandings, fears and questions that I still harbor from my youth.”
Ben-Oni’s work SOLECISM out from Virtual Artists’ Collective provokes perspective-painted-supple-threaded strokes; ones she describes as, “that wiring, went awry since birth”. Ben-Oni accepts the displacing diversity of this music. It is how the complications and alternative experience of different languages occurs, stating, “the only weight that exists after experience is her language— what else could she carry, in order to make her own? She takes another’s perception of her skin, her family, her way(s) of speaking, and responds. She had to begin there.” The act of reclaiming one’s own language and perspective is necessary to how we connect and encounter others. There are historical elements whose visibilities alight important aspects of our identity.
This is how we communicate and accept otherness. She continues, “I don’t know why we need one voice to identify a country [America] that’s multicultural and divided in so many ways. Rather than try to conform or copy, we should be open to ideas beyond singular definition.” A particular emphasis in this interview is how, what is “quintessentially American,” is a fabricated false construction, which many times becomes authoritative and leaves diversity out. HER KIND addresses how some use these strains to overt power over others in questionable positions of authority. She says, it “has been a wonderful experience in honoring the diversity of women’s voices,” just as we listen to and honor Ben-Oni’s own respective story.
Born to a Mexican mother and Jewish father, Rosebud Ben-Oni is a 2013 CantoMundo Fellow. A Leopold Schepp Scholar at New York University, she won the Seth Barkas Prize for Best Short Story and The Thomas Wolfe/Phi Beta Kappa Prize for Best Poetry Collection. She was a Rackham Merit Fellow at the University of Michigan where she earned her MFA in Poetry, and was a Horace Goldsmith Scholar at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. In 2010, her short story “A Way out of the Colonia” won the Editor’s Prize for Best Short Story in Camera Obscura: A Journal of Contemporary Literature and Photography. A graduate of the 2010 Women’s Work Lab at New Perspectives Theater, her plays have been produced in New York City, Washington DC and Toronto. Her work appears or is forthcoming in Arts & Letters, Bayou, B O D Y, Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, Lana Turner Journal and Puerto del Sol. Nominated twice for the Pushcart Prize, her debut book of poems SOLECISM was published by Virtual Artists Collective in March 2013. Rosebud is a co-editor for HER KIND (herkind.org) at VIDA: Women in Literary Arts (vidaweb.org). Find out more about her at 7TrainLove.org
1.) What were the first inspirations that made you desire to become a writer? Who are your favorite writers and how did they change over time?\
My first inspirations, I suppose, are a mosaic of electricities and soporifics inducing something between sleep and meditation. Hearing Max Janowski’s arrangement of Avinu Malkeinu for the first time. The chill of the synagogue on the morning of Yom Kippur. Reclusive, unproven beings like Bigfoot and the Yeti. The decadence of poinsettia red, whiskey on my grandfather’s breath as he sealed a kiss on my forehead and each cheek, Naomi Campbell in George Michael’s “Freedom.” I had so much desire as a child. At the same time I had this distrust of desire and languages. I grew up hearing English, Spanish, Modern Hebrew and Biblical Hebrew and each seemed impossible to claim as my own. I wanted to strip something bare one moment, and another I wanted to wrap the same thing in gossamer, make a secret, only to unwrap it again, slowly, hoping for some kind of metamorphosis. I turned to Edmond Jabes often; he was the first poet that inspired me to write. Every few years The Book of Questions changes for me. Its words weigh heavier now. I internalize further the frustrations, the skepticism, the faith in the blank page and the marks we make in word and action. And the weight of history that’s carried over in my faith and in my own experiences. My family also inspired me to write, although that was not the intention. My father is a riddle that unfolds into another riddle without an answer, and it takes some kind of woman to accept this My mother raised her brothers and sisters because her mother was ill; she didn’t have a childhood. I never gave much thought to their dynamic, my parents’ commitment to each other, when I was younger; coming from two different races and faiths, I only knew her family was from Mexico and his, mostly absent from our lives, was Jewish. I didn’t see until later that kind of love and history can be hard to explain to a child who they just want to look forward; only recently have I decided to reflect on the history we built together, and not together, as a family.
2.) Who have been the creative inspiration / mentor writers in your career?
Norma Cantu, one of the founders of CantoMundo, is a mentor for me; she reached out to me at a time when I was filled with doubt. She reminds me listen to those little grey areas between waking and consciousness when the spirit level is alive. I’ve been doing a lot of unpacking, all the misunderstandings, fears and questions that I still harbor from my youth; this was Norma Cantu’s advice to me at my first CantoMundo retreat this summer.
I like the work of a number of CantoMundo founders and poets including Eduardo C. Corral and Carolina Ebeid. Charles Simic, Gwendolyn Brooks and Orhan Pamuk were the poets I consumed in college; Pamuk’s “On Living” was a truth the instant I read it. Arisa White’s Hurrah’s Nest is incredible; it tells a story and moves beyond it at the same time, and her use of language is exciting. Metta Sama is both an inspiration and a guiding light. I really like Amy King’s work. Jared Harel is hilarious— I just discovered his work after reading with him here in New York. The Body Double is brilliant and I’m trying to read it as slow as possible because I don’t want it to end.
3.) How has your own work changed over time and why?
Yes. There’s more humor in the poems for my second collection. I think I’m also taking stronger ownership of biblical narratives, retranslating them into the narrative of being mixed, in the post-Benetton era. My first book SOLECISM already feels ages ago to me, and some of those poems were written in 2011 or 2012. It’s strange how a single year can bring so much insight; I got engaged this year, became a CantoMundo fellow, and did quite a bit of traveling with my fiancé Brian; we went to Hong Kong, China, Toronto and many places in the U.S. in less than a year’s time. I became part of his family. I spent one night in Hong Kong drinking sake with his mother and talking for hours; we both ended up tearful and happy and gripping each other’s hands. It was an electric night. It is an electric city. All of that makes me excited about the rest of my life. For the first 18 years of my life I had friends but felt very alone. I didn’t feel like I belonged anywhere. Only recently have I really opened up, and I’m so glad I met Brian and his family now, at a point in which I’d already tried to live in a place like Jerusalem and failed. That I’d addressed that failure myself, that it’s part of my identity to question things like, what is a Jew without practice?, to not have an answer, to present that to them candidly. These experiences affect my work. Sometimes these experiences are my work.
4.) Have you been influenced by different genres, and if so how?
Absolutely. I’m working on my first full-length play after success writing one acts, and I return often to August: Osage County; I had the good fortune of seeing it on Broadway a few years back, and was devastated by what I’d witnessed, the complete disintegration of a family in three acts. I read a lot of fiction and nonfiction as well; I’m reading Ha Jin’s A Free Life at the moment. I’ve just finished Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea. It left me breathless. The North Korean defectors she interviews for the book all faced incredible obstacles, especially in trying to assimilate to South Korean culture. It’s important to tell these stories, so that they are remembered, that these things really did happen in the 21st century.
5.) What are your plans for the future?
In the near future, complete the final revisions on a novel I’ve been writing for the last five years. It centers on the migrations of a young woman of mixed heritage and a man from Fuzhou, China who meet in New York City just they are both at the end of their respective rope. I’m fascinated by family dynamics, how they shift in place, time and cultural norms, and the novel explores how two very different people live in constant motion, always on the move, even when they are still. I’m also writing a play about the influence of the drug cartels on the U.S.-Mexican border. In the next 2 years or so, I’m planning to move Hong Kong for a while, and travel around Asia as much as possible with my soon-to-be husband. We’d be there now if it was possible.
6.) Who are promising women writers to look at in the future?
Tara Betts and Rachel McKibbens who are already off the charts; their performances will blow you away. I love the Belladonna Collective, which published both LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs’ TwERK and R. Erica Doyle’s Proxy. LaTasha’s book is a treat if you love languages and all its possibilities. As for Erica’s book, I need a cigarette after I read Proxy. It’s another one I can’t put down. And watch out for Kamilah Aisha Moon; she’s absolutely brilliant.
7.) If you were asked to create a flexible label of yourself as a writer, what would it be?
Labels are tricky when you’re mixed and dip into different genres. I am many things, a Chicana/Latina/Hispanic, bisexual, Jewish skeptic poet who also writes plays, fiction and nonfiction. I adore my neighborhood here in New York, and all the neighborhood along the 7 Train. I do my best writing whether I’m home in Sunnyside, or in Woodside, Jackson Heights, Flushing. I guess then you could say I’m 7 Train Love. Does that work?
8.) The opening poems of your book, Solecism, have shifting collocative values that displace cultural affects of worth and tradition. We read about “the jellyfish outlining beer bottles,” moving to “shells gather like cemetery flowers,” and “the ashes / fed to our mothers in molasses”. The enchanting myth entangles us with mermaids “accessible as the savage / wants some howling / girl against a narcotic wire.” This archetype is addressed further as it juxtaposes the poem, “The Mixed Child with Pale Skin”. Here we read, “always too sexy–‐off–‐the–‐shoulder / even in suits— your mentor interrupts: // writing this makes you rather juvenile. She tells you race / is no longer taboo.” The self-beliefs placed upon her here are invisible as the weight they assume in language. Why is it so important for her to write and in what ways do you see her addressing these archetypes? Is she successful?
I don’t think she’s worried about being successful; her mixed heritage, that wiring, went awry since birth. The composite of her experiences is unruly. She tries for understanding, but knows that she has to tell her narratives in the most real way, and each time as they occur (red) and exist within her. The only weight that exists after experience is her language— what else could she carry, in order to make her own? She takes another’s perception of her skin, her family, her way(s) of speaking, and responds. She had to begin there. This is a lot of frustration in those poems, at the different hierarchies of literature, social class, even love; this is both a response to and an exorcism of those places that aren’t as static as they seem. In SOLECISM, she is just beginning to see that.
9.) The term Sal Si Puedes translates to leave if you can and is often ascribed to colonias and other neighborhoods found in the US and other parts of Latin America. We converse with this neighborhood. In, “Over the river from Sal S. Puedes,” we unwind musical lines, “swarms of mosquitos and matted beds / of water,” between “hyacinth and hydrilla.” And then fiercely, “The Reply of Sal Si Puedes,” who is fierce; “I’m not a foreshadow of the divine. / Quit photographing my children … I am not in your worldly terms. // Your first word was remembered. / I was born a muerto. / You— / Have yet to let me finish a sentence.” There is a tendency to romanticize tradition in a manner that assumes an othering gaze. Feminism breaks open the argument and allows the othered to have voice. Alternatively, ascribing the word “Feminism,” also boxes in the opening of this cross-cultural communication because it is largely misunderstood. Do you think that this is changing? Why or why not is it significant to attribute Feminism to this change? Do you see the world globally listening to more of her sentence?
When I wrote these poems, I was thinking of my own experiences as much as those of my mother and her sisters, as they related them to me. In college I remember a professor telling me that writers like Gloria Anzaldúa and Americo Paredes were “supplemental” and not necessary to understand the Western Canon, much less American Literature. That they were “regional” writers and wrote in specific dialects that did not accurately reflect the American experience at all. I also remember this same professor saying he had “read books about Mexico” and then citing D. H. Lawrence’s The Plumed Serpent and Malcolm Lowery’s Under the Volcano. He could not see the problem with that thinking. I wrote those poems in response to that thinking, and certain things I had seen happen to the women in my mother’s family, things that I escaped perhaps because I was different. You know, my mother and sisters would not call themselves “Feminists;” my mother always brought up the point that Mexican-American women were largely left out of the Feminist Movement in the 1970s. I think now there’s more awareness when one invalidates another’s experience as not “quintessentially American.” I don’t know why we need one voice to identify a country that’s multicultural and divided in so many ways. Rather than try to conform or copy, we should be open to ideas beyond singular definition.
10.) I would also like you to take some time to describe how your work and how you identify yourselves in the world affects the work that you do for VIDA. How do you see the literary community changing to include more voices for women and how and why is this so vital? What in your point of view needs to happen in our larger cultural communities to continue to address these topics and promote change?
Working with VIDA: Women in Literary Arts really opened up my eyes to gender disparity in publishing, especially for women of color. I’ve gained invaluable experience working with VIDA, and I realize now that my experiences with gender and race date back to when I was in college at NYU. I remember taking a Literature of India class back in 2000, and my professor, an American woman, opening the class with Orwell, Kipling and Forster. She couldn’t understand why a particular classmate of mine, who was Indian-American and female, was outraged that the class began from a colonialist perspective. Where was, for instance, the Urdu poetry? The professor replied that the student was “cherry-picking.” They argued all semester. During our last class, the professor had the “final word” stating that she believed she was right, that she had no regrets about the way she had taught the class. My classmate raised her hand, but we were out of time. I remember the tension walking out of the room, of seeing this young woman fuming in the elevator next to me, of being silenced. That left quite an impression of me. Women silencing other women. The questionable use of authority. I wished I had said something, but I was young in many ways. Now, as much as I concrete on my own work, I want to create numerous spaces for honest conversation and as fairly as possible—VIDA (and Cate Marvin particularly) gave Arisa White and I the space to do this as editors. It has been a wonderful experience in honoring the diversity of women’s voices.