Saturday May 2nd, 2015
Artwork by Luz Orozco (2015, Visual Arts).
My mother was sixteen when she saw her face for the first time. The communist regime had slowly stripped down China’s identity: poetry disappeared first. then the art. then the fiction. then the God. then my grandfather’s last name. and when it seemed like there was nothing left the red scarved men could claim, they took away the mirrors too.
When I can’t sleep, I’ll stare at the white plaster ceiling of my dorm, trying to picture my mother’s sixteen year old reflection like an illusion. Perhaps she stared at the small mole on her top lip, the way one eye has a double eyelid and the other doesn’t. She counted her bottom eyelashes, poking at the mirror. Maybe she wondered whether this was all she really was, this face that was just her prison.
Years later, after she had settled in America and stopped marveling at blonde hair and coke, we would wake up to find the mirrors on our walls taped up, all the American fiction and “shit” thrown into a black plastic bag.
So by the time I was eight, I could tell you about the fibonacci sequence or recite the seven kingdoms of life. But I couldn’t tell you a single play written by Shakespeare. Sometimes I think this was my mother’s form of comfort - that her American home could still be connected to the one in Nanjing. But I know that it was her form of resentment, revenge for her blessed children who could own everything she could not.
Ironically, I’m now a poet myself ~ perhaps out of rebellion, but more so because I understand why the arts matter after growing up in a home deprived of it. Words, art, dance, music, theater, film ~ they have the power to give a voice & expression to cultures, peoples, experiences that have previously been deprived of it, arts can make the world a better place for the creator and the world around them.
There’s a beautiful story I heard at YoungArts this year - of a time Duke Ellington traveled to Egypt to perform his music. As he performed, members of warring factions sat beside each other, sometimes laughing with euphoria, sometimes crying from unknown burdens. But that’s why it’s beautiful ~ that art reminds us of the humanity within each other, the people we hate & the people we don’t know & the people we love ~ it’s hard to hate someone when you are sitting next to them, touched by the same art being displayed.
So I think back to all the books & art that was ripped, burned, banned & there’s nothing I can feel but silence. As artists in a world that’s becoming increasingly robotic and pixelated, it’s often easy to be discouraged - whether it’s the pressure from goodnatured friends & family to drop our passions for a safer track or the way our schools are slowly crossing off the arts curriculum one by one - sometimes, the path of an artist feels like crossing a fallen tree.
So a couple weeks ago, I flew back home from YoungArts on a six hour plane ride in JetBlue’s economy - squished between a woman with long, black nails talking loudly to her husband in row 16 & the piece of plastic holding me from the atmosphere & sky. As I followed harsh LED airport lights & the sound of wheels scrapping bland tiles, I rehearsed the way I’d tell my mom what I had been trying to say for years & years, trying to be honest & vulnerable the way that my writing has demanded from me each time I put pen to paper:
I love to write mom & I know you’re scared for me
but this is how I feel meaningful, how I feel alive.
So as I roll to the giant steel machines & thudding luggage & automatic sliding doors at the end of the baggage claim, I’m slightly tempted to run to the girl’s restroom and live there forever as I see my mom’s face. & All I can do is try to explain how miraculous it is that with twenty six letters, a couple notes or a couple tubes of paint ~ we can express every emotion & idea & beauty & soul ever known ~ and by the time I’m done letting the words stream out, eyes glued to her feet, I finally notice that she’s both smiling & crying. From her bag, she pulls out an old wrinkled photo, it’s sepia & glossy ~ a young girl, maybe seventeen, with a braided buns has a violin against her shoulder & a red scarf against her neck. She’s facing the camera, smiling bright & standing tall and proud ~ there’s small mole above her top lip, how her left eye has the single eyelid and the other doesn’t & I think that’s when I understand, that she knows I’ve been hiding Sylvia Plath & Danez Smith & Chimamanda Adichie under my mattress since I was eleven.
& maybe, just maybe, she’s wanted me to do this all along too.
I don’t really know how to blog, but this is a love letter to all the artists out there who grew up with classrooms without poetry & paint, young artists seeking validation in a world that constantly sends them messages of disdain, to all the people who get shivers when they hear music & see sculptures ~
artists like you make the world go round.
By Carissa Chen, 2015 YoungArts Winner in Writing.
For more information about YoungArts and joining our program, visit youngarts.org