LARB presents this exclusive excerpt from Graffiti, the inaugural anthology from artist collective POC United, published this week by Aunt Lute Books.
WHERE ARE YOUR WORDS welcome? Where do you have permission to scribble, scrawl, romanticize, speculate, brag, retaliate, and narrate your own stories, visions, and ideas? Where can you find your space where you are not being examined, criticized, politicized, exoticized, or fetishized? For writers of color, those spaces are few and far between. Marginalized in the mainstream, outnumbered in the classroom, we are constantly confronted with pervasive feelings of censorship and exceptionalism.
In this collection, the editors, Pallavi Dhawan, Devi S. Laskar, and Tamika Thompson, invited writers from diverse genres to throw their writing on the wall, to jump over the fence with their verse and stories and flow without recrimination or consciousness of the white gaze. They were invited to play — to see the blank wall before them and follow inspiration and artistic impulse.
This freedom is welcome and important. The audacity of erasing the pending disapproval, responses, inquisitions dares to centralize the writers in Graffiti in their own canon. Without the defensiveness or even the meta-awareness of the character, the beat, the message, without all the hampering shit that comes, even from within the self — well, the writer has wings. Toni Morrison said, “The point is not having the white critic sit on your shoulder and approve it.”
Graffiti shows us ourselves, whoever we are: through the stories of family tensions, challenges, and love; through the examination of what writers do and how they do it. The works also expose lives that move in unexpected ways, how identity and society intersect, rendering characters who don’t come from the cultural tropes we cling to — girls who live in mythologies, past and of their own creation, for instance, in Lin Y. Leong’s iridescent story, “The Girl and the Moth.” We find other girls who are surfing the complications of family, society, and love, and dare to redefine themselves in unexpected ways — like Faiza riding a skateboard in a sadar in Kirin Khan’s story, “In Public.”
Much happens in the streets in these stories: there is graffiti and there are characters who are as bold and present as words on the wall. From Suicide Jacq in Gary Dauphin’s urban fantasy story to Maytra, who finds the lost and disenfranchised on the graffitied walls of Seattle, in Laura Lucas’s “Nilscape.” The stories represent lives that can’t settle, that are filled with disruptions to the understanding of what’s real.
The different notes that are sounded through these writings include tracking the plot process as in the meta-essay “On Writing” by Sarah LaBrie, or understanding one’s role in “Stranded” by Pallavi Dhawan, or looking at the idea of addiction in “Loop” by L. Penelope. While these may sound like anyone’s narratives — growth, understanding, identity — they permit the reader to see a world that includes people of color in familiar scenarios in contexts that don’t jibe with template settings and triptych lives.
In “may we all refuse to die at the same time” by American Book Award winner Tongo Eisen-Martin, the poet says, “I’m writing poems for the rest of my life again,” emphasizing that the threat of artistic extinction, of human death, leads to a reckoning with forces. One of the forces pounding in the pavement of this book is “yes.” Rendering the body or autopsying language, both Devi S. Laskar in “grə-fē’tē” and Alycia Pirmohamed in “Letter to My Body” find the need for the positive in the dark — whether that is found in the streets or on the body.
Graffiti hits like a playlist of street grinds, jigsaw puzzles, fairy tales, and lyric dreams. The dimensions, the angles, the many perspectives, the linguistic complexity and blessed boldness let us know that these writers of color felt their privilege as artists. If only for this one project. Slashed on the wall of our literature, seeing it close in its moving colors and from afar in its searing declarations, Graffiti gives us just a taste of what writers of color do, unbound.
This is an excerpt from Graffiti, the inaugural anthology from artist collective POC United, edited by Tamika Thompson, Pallavi Dhawan, and Devi S. Laskar, and published on October 15 by Aunt Lute Books. There will be a launch event for Graffiti in Los Angeles at Skylight Books on October 19, with readings from Vickie Vértiz, Ramy El-Etreby, Pallavi Dhawan, Tamika Thompson, Kanika Punwani, and Gary Dauphin.
Elmaz Abinader is an Arab-American poet, memoirist, and performer. She is a professor of English at Mills College and the co-founder of the Voices of Our Nation Arts Foundation (VONA). She is the author of The Children of the Roojme: A Family’s Journey from Lebanon (W. W. Norton, 1991; University of Wisconsin Press, 1997). In 2000, she received the PEN Oakland/Josephine Miles Literary Award for her poetry collection In the Country of My Dreams… (Sufi Warrior Publishing, 1999).