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And So I Cry

And so I cry…


The VONA/Voices reading 2014 blew the roof off Berkeley City College. Our faculty, Chris Abani, Faith Adiele, Staceyann Chin, Junot DÍaz, Tananarive Due, M. Evelina Galang, Mat Johnson, Randall Kenan, Marjorie Liu, David Mura, Andrew X Pham, Willie Perdomo and Patricia Smith, compelled us with stories of love, disaster, birth, identity, confusion, war, hell and music. 

I read too, a poem, about Palestine and the apartheid wall that runs 708 Kilometers (439 miles) and is concrete, razor wire, broken glass and fence.” Climb Up and Over.” The poem was about my childhood and how as kids we roamed around our town without worrying about barriers; and it was about maps, and how maps show details of terrain with colors and shapes and lines and how walls have no place on maps, or in worlds. I chose this poem of all the ones in my book because of the tragedies in Palestine: the attacks and murders and injustice. All going on right now. As I was coming to the end of the poem I started to cry. I tried to push through the final lines, the audience encouraged me, comforted me. My voice cracked, I could feel my nose warm, my eyes burning and my throat blocked. The last three lines came out like a knife tore my esophagus.

I bowed, I left the stage, and I sulked. 

The writers who preceded me and followed me were funny, wise, romantic. Andrew X Pham’s motorcycle cut through Baja with brilliant descriptions of a reckless young ride, Faith Adiele imitated a sister-in-law screeching to her dadddddy, throwing the audience into fits of laughter. Mat Johnson, played with a girl’s identity, messed with the language of race. Patricia Smith followed the bodies of dead babies to their sorrowful families, Staceyann Chin, blew up a moment where a white woman took the chair from her table at a coffee shop. They kept their composure – didn’t crack—let the audience find the feelings in the work.

I cry a lot on stage. For over thirty years, I have told stories of my grandfather as a refugee, my grandmother fighting her way to the US, my mother losing babies, my humiliation as a child, about the 2006 invasion of Lebanon, about the second intifada, about the way the earth cracks when history is too abrasive. At some moment, once in a while, I melt, fall apart…no matter how familiar the script or how many times I have done it before.

I don’t mind the crying. Much. I tell writers in my workshops that there’s an honesty to going through the crying, to not be embarrassed. Our classes erupt often, especially when the writing becomes the way of discovering truth, rather  than knowing it.  Tissues make the rounds in the classes. You can see VONA/Voices teachers carrying boxes in their totes along with water and pens. 

I'm a classic crier—heartwarming commercials, romantic movies, injustice of all kind. I remember a story, last year, where a kindergarten kid was handcuffed and taken to jail for acting up—I saw his little wrists wrapped in metal. Ugh. Once in Trader Joe’s a woman who was mad at her son for touching something on the shelf in checkout, made him kneel down, until she was finished with her transaction. This boy was taller than me, wearing a basketball outfit, falling to his knees in front of everyone. He kept his head down, and his mother growled while he knelt beside her. My body wrapped tight and I cried.

Every time I am part of a group reading, I choose my works carefully – I want the poem or the story excerpt to resound with something the audience might be following or feeling. VONA/Voices is a community that shows solidarity with Palestine—rarely do I need to explain how occupation and walls are apartheid. So I chose this poem, at this time when we were seeing a boy burnt alive, another tortured by police and now 70 murdered in 48 hours. The poem felt right.

But I ended up wishing I was more like Staceyann, bold and fierce, cleverly mining a single scene for an explosion on white privilege, or like Faith, who rolled her eyes up and squealed in a princess squeal, making us laugh, hard. Despite the love and praise after the reading, the notes and the warmth, I said, “someday, I’ll write something funny.”

Fat chance.

I examine the crying thing. The audience must think I am so moved, I can’t control myself. There is sympathy and empathy. I am feeling the poem—but, these scenes are familiar to me—they are not new, not shocking, not earth-rattling—this disproportionate unbearable move to obliteration is and has been going on. So what is it? That each time I read “Climb Up and Over,: I am grieving? No. Because once I sit in my seat, I'm fine and enjoying the other readers.

 What makes me cry is trying to get someone to believe me. To get the level of seriousness, to understand the horror. Perhaps I don’t trust my words enough. And so the push come from inside me. Using all the power in my body, shooting from my feet to my head—heat, anger, sorrow, shock—I can’t name them or transfer them outward—they bottle up and erupt, just as I'm trying to punctuate the moment. What can’t be released quivers, high seismic activity.

I can say: A woman I know has a house where the wall curves—it’s the view outside of her windows on all but one side—the wall 25 feet high  keeps the sun from coming into her kitchen.  Entire families have been murdered. A Palestinian woman came home to her house and settlers occupied it and threw her out –she got arrested.

Nothing I can write is compelling enough, convincing enough, at least that what I'm thinking since I come home to newsfeed that shows children’s blood splattered bodies and their stuffed toys nearby also covered in blood.

 I cry because I can’t write the fullness of these things,  my poems and stories feel weak, a half-effort, a pea in a  bucket. When I read, I go back to the inspiration that created poems like “Climb Up and Over.” Returning to the first time seeing the wall, the immenseness of it, the ugliness of it, the way it tortures the Palestinians and the landscape…

And so I cry… and live with that as part of my story, my presence and the small whisper to the sky that is left to see.




Climb Up and Over



Our garden bordered an alley which crossed into a hayfield and stretched to the hillside

Our yard had lilacs that surrounded a pond filled with sweat peas and crested by vines

Our porch led to a street that lined the road running from our house all the way to West Virginia

and we walked from one house to Neff woods from another to the waterfall across a bridge


The coalmining corner of Pennsylvania with all its faults let cows chew from this neighbor

to the next and children crossed yards that were not theirs to get to school and sit on the steps

of someone’s porch without asking and we didn’t know that this was belonging


This was Pennsylvania and not Abu Dis where a wall was erected right down main street

keeping the kids away from the school they’ve been going to their whole lives-- so what

do they do? they wonder, like the farmers of Azzoun whose vegetable fields, olive trees


are out of reach, who stare at the twenty five feet of stone and wire, guarding them

from their own food as a security measure that forces a four-kilometer walk to get in a gate

that gives them twenty minutes to slip over to the other side for bushels of barley


to take home, if it’s still there or if you live in Ana'ta district in East Jerusalem, it’s probably

not---some things had to move to make room for the wall and without your home

everyone is more secure. The landscape is sliced and lands are carved and contained.


I have studied maps--the blue waters and the green mountains, yellow countries

and red ones all meant something to the cartographers and I followed them,

a puzzle of colors explained in the legend in the corner that said this was the earth:


Lakes, mountains, cliffs, buttes, highways, hiking trails, one way streets, capitols, borders

mileage counters, oceans, river snaking through states and countries, ranges peaking

across the Urals, frozen tundra, pampas, veldt, thickly populated cities, railroad tracks


I run my finger along each symbol, each road designation, each color, each touchstone

How do you mark a barrier? Make it part of a landscape? What is the symbol of restraint?

What is the color of confinement, disruption, loss and separation? Of sorrow? How do you

hold that pen, diagram the atlas, sketch the captivity? Do no draw the wall

of the Great March to liberation, just mark a slow death to the earth that inhabits

it and the people who make it home.


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Reader Comments (2)

Thank you for your honesty, courage and tears. Climb Up and Over is a brilliant poem, telling the truth so many people are unwilling but need to hear.

July 11, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJanis Astor del Valle

I was in the audience at that reading. And I've written posts on my own blog about wishing I had more of the open fire of Staceyann Chin. Thank you for the heart in this post (and for VONA, of course).

July 11, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterlisa

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