Interviewed by Melinda Wilson
Rosebud Ben-Oni is a co-editor for HER KIND at VIDA: Women in the Literary Arts. Her debut book of poems, SOLECISM, will be published by Virtual Artists Collective in early 2013. Ben-Oni was a Rackham Merit Fellow at the University of Michigan where she earned a Master of the Fine Arts in Poetry, and a Horace Goldsmith Scholar at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem where she completed post-graduate research. A graduate of the 2010 Women’s Work Lab, she is a playwright at New Perspectives Theater. Her plays have been produced in New York City, Washington DC and Toronto. Her influences come from spaces that demand constant adaptation: U.S.-Mexican border town culture, both East and West Jerusalem and “7 Train Culture” of New York City.
Q: In his blurb of SOLECISM, Alexander Long notes that the poems “confront the darker side of multiculturalism.” How does your personal heritage influence your work?
A: My mother is Mexican, and my father is Jewish; though my mother’s people are now spread out along the U.S.-Mexican border, a large part of my childhood was spent in her parents’ and her brothers’ homes on the Gulf coast. My father’s history is more complicated; for many reasons, her family became his family, even when she converted to Judaism from Catholicism before my brother and I were born. That she converted was her own choice. My father’s father died before I was born, but apparently had rounded the world a few times with little more than his entrepreneurial spirit. He had spent a lot of time in China and the Philippines, and my father has always said that he sees a lot of his father in me—that vagabond, restless spirit. I was very close to my father’s mother who saw Judaism as more a private struggle than a communal performance of rituals.
As for my mother’s parents, they also raised my brother and me. My grandfather was a fisherman, and he was intent on my learning to swim so that I knew what it felt to have nothing solid beneath me. I was very young, maybe around 4, and getting knocked down by the breakers, that sting of the salt spewing, frightened me. He was near me, but not holding me, and told me over and over we had to swim past the breakers to get to the calmer part and then we could relax a bit. He told me to dive into the breakers. I remember thinking: you want me to dive into what is knocking me down? But eventually I did it and found another world entire. His fear and respect of the ocean made quite an impression on me, and I wrote about it later in a story called “As the Twig is Bent.”
I also inherited his love of parrots, especially the wild amazons that cross back and forth over the border. I remember he had some that he’d found wounded or sick, and nursed them back to health in these large, wire cages he kept outside his house. (And that house—how I loved that house—three rooms that once contained nine people: my
mother, her siblings and her parents.) I remember waking up in the mornings when we’d stayed with him, shortly after his wife, my grandmother, died, and running outside to see these brazen amazons kissing the caged amazons through the wires. It made me upset for some reason, and I’d start howling and chasing them away, and my grandfather, usually such a solemn, serious man, would start
cracking up as he made us breakfast.
My maternal grandmother’s people had settled a small farming settlement in Mexico called San Nicolas de la Garza—her maternal name is Garza—and she had some incredible stories about her own family. I feel very fortunate to have to the family I do—for instance, my uncle Rogelio Cisneros, who married my mother’s sister Olivia, has always had artistic inclinations, and the publisher agreed to use
one of his paintings for the cover of SOLECISM. Now there’s a love story—those two. But back to the painting—it’s a tribute to his she-wolf that passed away recently. He found her as a pup, and she was very small and sweet-looking in photos I saw but then of course she grew into an adult wolf and in the photos, she is looking at the camera with the same serious, forbidding eyes of wild wolves. They live in San Diego, and you can see from his house the flickering lights of Tijuana and he was telling me about her and how the neighbors were always on the verge of figuring out she was a wolf and then his stories about
working on the border—he was one of the first Mexican-Americans working for Border Patrol—and I began to wonder if there’s just something about living near borders that makes us want to dive into what otherwise would knock us down?
I think back to a synagogue we attended when living in San Antonio; I was the only girl in my Hebrew day school, and the only one with a mixed background, with a different accent. I lived in a different neighborhood than the other kids, most of who came from wealthy families, and this was a distinction that had importance even at a young age—borders were becoming more visible as they were closed.
A key moment in my childhood was when I was 9 and my brother was Bar Mitzvah (at the age of 13). We attended the day services for Yom Kippur. I remember being very hungry that afternoon from fasting on Yom Kippur; we’d eaten a light meal just before the sun went down and attending the evening service. It was the first time I’d attempted to fast. I remember tugging on my mother’s sleeve that I was hungry
and very thirsty. My father heard me, and asked me to step outside with him for a moment. It was bright and cold that day, and my father took of his jacket, and put it on my shoulders. His tallit, or prayer shawl, was very white, and I remember being blinded by it, and light-headed from the fasting. My father said to me, “If you are healthy and say you are going to fast, you either do it or you don’t. There is no midway.” At this point my mother had come out to see what was going on; she then said I was too young to fully fast. To that my
father shrugged, and said it was up to me, that either way it was my choice, but that’s where he stood. My mother went back inside, and my father followed her, saying for me to think about it before coming back in. I felt very strange, standing out there alone in the sunlight, looking at my own breath in the cold, with the weight of my father’s jacket around my shoulders.
Years later when I was living in Jerusalem and told that women could not pray aloud at The Kotel (The Wailing Wall) where the men and women are separated (yet another border), I thought of this moment. How I went back in the synagogue with my parents, with my first feeling of real shame. It is the same thing as when my grandfather
taught me to swim and the only girl studying Hebrew: dive into what’s knocking you down, the fear, the lightheadedness, the doubt: why I am doing this?
I remember the men at the Kotel shushing the women, some of whom ignored them and continued to pray louder, and I remember when the end of that Yom Kippur came and we went home to break our fast, my father and mother looking very tired and relieved and her
taking his hand while my brother and I trailed behind them and how different they seemed from the other parents, most of whom were talking and wishing each other well. No one was speaking to us—no one really ever did, and I was just starting to understand why. I remember feeling very strange watching my parents walk slowly through the crowd. We were being slighted, but my parents dove
right into the middle of it, my father’s jacket now around my mother’s
shoulders, his whispering something in her ear and her smiling as she turned her head to the side. I will always remember that.
Q: Many of your poems employ the second person. Can you speak a little bit about this choice?
A: I’m filled with a lot of doubt both as a writer and a person. I suppose I use second person to confront the doubt, the beliefs, the guilt of being an artist and not something that could readily support my family, and the many sides of my heritage. I’m not trying to make peace with anything. I have no red wagon of faith. The stuff that makes me up contains a lot of contradictions, and I’m not trying to fix
that either. I used to tag under the name matarose and that rebellious part of me still surfaces, still needs to be addressed and recognized. While I am still the child who reflects in the middle of storms, my family does things without speaking about them; they rebuild without the grieving of starting over. I was taught to move forward, constantly. I was taught to be an apex animal; with my genes, I’m definitely wired to be that sort of animal. But I grieve and I reflect, and not necessarily in that order. I have to pull the grief apart of when I’m writing, and address it, just as I do that little punk matarose, the Jew wandering the Old City at the wrong time of night by herself, the child reflecting in the hurricane, the girl trying to make a splint for a wild amazon’s wing, not being careful and getting nipped, whatever is, always charging toward a growling birthright. I’m at odds with it all, all these histories and direct experiences and fortunes. The “you” is my admission in all senses of the word.
Q: Your poems often illuminate the notion of cultural borders. In many ways, your work recalls for me that of Gloria Anzaldúa. Do you consider her an influence? What writers, theorists, philosophers, humans have impacted your creative work?
A: Anzaldúa woke me up to code-switching, and the importance of dialects contained within a single language. That, while I was studying the Canon as an undergrad at NYU and engaging in Standard English, I could also engage in subversive behaviors. It was actually reading Borderlands that inspired me to reimagine the conception of the Pachuco as The Tempest’s Caliban for a Shakespeare colloquium. My
professor was suspicious at first, as he didn’t know much about Anzaldúa, much less Pachucos. I wrote up a proposal explaining that rather than further assimilate to the Western value system, the Pachuco as Caliban (and Caliban as Pachuco) manipulates the traditional characteristics of a hero in order to engage in a world that otherwise denounces or ignores his individuality. My professor ended up approving it, I think, because I wore him out. I ended up writing a lyrical essay, some of it in Pachuco, using words such as ruca, for instance, which I learned as “girlfriend.” Anzaldúa wrote once that she lost her knowledge of Pachuco (also called Caló, it’s a dialect as much as it’s a subculture), and I’m finding the same for myself. For instance, growing up, we called toys monitos. I don’t think kids today on the border would have any idea what I mean by that. By the way, I got an A- on that essay.
Other inspirations? Well, the first “serious” novel I read, at 12, was Yaakov Shabtai’s Past Continuous—in the original Hebrew, the novel is one paragraph, and its three main characters are testaments of various times and influences: the ghettos of a tumultuous past, the flings with European assimilation and the restless state of modern Israel. I recommend the novel to anyone who want to write; though
not as popular in the States as say, Amos Oz or David Grossman, Shabtai is well-known in Israel; there’s a street named after him in Tel Aviv.
The one person who greatly influenced me when I lived in Jerusalem is my friend Amoun Sleem, who runs an organization for the Dom (Gypsies). In early 2003, I was living as a post-graduate student doing research at the Hebrew University. It was hard to focus for me; there was so much uncertainty to the fate of Jerusalem because the U.S. was gearing up to enter Iraq—we were issued gas masks. I remember Amoun telling me to come straightaway to her house if an attack happened. It didn’t, but her home in the Old City became a refuge.
I don’t know how many days I walked up Lion’s Gate to stay with her and her family; I was so lost in those years, trying to figure out what poetry mattered at this moment, where I fit in.
There are so many others—Edmond Jabes’ The Book of Questions. Prince’s album Purple Rain. The paintings of Xul Solar. The films of Johnnie To. The music of Carlton Zeus, a Chicano hip-hop artist. I admire the work of journalist Liana Lopez who co-created and runs the Librotraficante Caravan campaign. Bob Teague, a playwright and director; he’s directed quite a few of my plays, and I’m developing my next play about the cartel’s impact on the U.S.-Mexican border. And the poetry and prose of Americo Paredes, Joanna Sitt, Peter Tieryas Liu, Marian Haddad, Lee Herrick, Ha Jin, Tim Hovarth, Eduardo C. Corral, Arisa White, Mitch E. Parker, Metta Sama. And Tara Betts with whom I had the pleasure of reading at an event this past summer; her poem “Switch” ran through my head whenever boys in my neighborhood gather outside in the summer and holla at me. Those vatos too—does anyone still use vato? That they holla even when trying to look tough while in line for Mr. Softee— that kind of
bite and sting impact my work as do my neighborhood and all the others along the 7 Train. I could write stories from what lies along the 7 for the rest of my life; I have no idea how I lived without it. There’s a certain family from Fuzhou I have to thank for that—I was quite a vagabond before, and finally found a home here.
Q: You are also a successful playwright and fiction writer. How do you determine in which genre you will work? In other words, what does each genre offer you that the others do not?
A: Fiction for me is very internal; writing a play is performance—it must live in the moment, as the audience can’t “flip back” while watching. Writing for the stage is as frustrating as it is enjoyable—you are limited by a given space, and yet that space offers many possibilities. Right now I’m working on a play and my first novel at the same time; this would otherwise be frustrating if the stories weren’t somehow related to each other. I can’t say one genre offers more than
the other anymore than I can say I’m a poet more than a playwright, etc. It depends on what I want to write. For the play about the cartels, it needs to be on the stage because it needs to be seen and heard in an immediate way. For instance, there is music in it because capos (drug king pins) like having songs written about them, and the other thought of having that as a performance thrilled me.
Q: I suppose this question is a bit of a follow-up to the last. Will you describe your writing process and the conditions in which you feel most compelled to write?
A: Most ideas just hold in my head. If I do fear that I’m going to lose them, I write them down on a small legal pad. I always carry one around, and over the years, I’ve accumulated many of these. But most just stick. For example, on a recent trip I came across a boat of shark finners. This upset me greatly. I had nightmares. I dreamt my maternal grandfather as one of the sharks being finned. I began to remember how much I loved him, how I wasn’t there when he died. I just completed some poems about my relationship to sharks and to him. My process begins with things I can’t stop thinking about. Sometimes, if I don’t get it out on the page, it haunts me.
Q: Will you discuss your development as a writer and your relationship to writing? When and how did you discover your relationship with the art?
A: Curiosity and doubt. For instance, it was common in my first Hebrew day school to learn Biblical Hebrew by sounding the letters out, with vowels. (Later, both in Modern and Biblical you learn to read without them). So you learn to read without understanding the meaning. You memorize prayers this way, and this is how you memorize your Torah portion, repeating each word until you can read without the vowels from the Torah itself.
At 9, I had become very curious, though, to understand what the words of prayers meant, from where they came. My teacher, a woman from a small town in Israel, told me at first: “They are from God.” And I looked at her sideways, and then she ended up telling me that she was an atheist, and that much of Israel itself was secular and wasn’t
religious at all. This blew my mind at the time. I asked her what she believed in, and she said she didn’t know. Over the years I went to go school, she told me about the wars in the Middle East, and her army service. She gave me a book of Darwish poems to read, and I remember it being such a thing, that she waited until the end of a class to give it to me, as if she’d worried what would happen if someone found it on her or me. It reminded of when a Chicano friend gave me George Washington Gomez to read to understand the “other” history of the border and the Texas Rangers whom were otherwise lauded in my American history books at school. I started keeping a journal filed with nothing but questions. Which history is right? To which do I belong? How did I have a Right to Return (to Israel) even though I wasn’t born there? Did I have that right if I was mixed?
I grew into an awkward teen questioning her relationship to God and to histories in which she half-belonged. I became very sullen; I talked back and cut school though I held my grades in check because I knew that was my ticket out. I got teased for being Jewish, for being mixed, for being light-skinned, for being skinny when the other girls developed early, for having family on the border and not being
from the “real” Mexico (as if border towns are only places one passes through). Though they meant well, some of my friends in high school kept trying to convert me to Christianity. I suppose it’s all these moments combined that I discovered that I wanted to write—in the asking of questions, in my daily frustrations with finding my place, the need to carve my own space out, the need to dive into opposition.
Q: In addition to all your creative writing, you are also co-editor of VIDA’s HER KIND blog with writer Arisa White. What got you involved in VIDA?
A: I remember first reading Cate Marvin’s “Due Date vs. Deadline” on VIDA’s website, and being moved by the honesty of the piece. Later, I believe it was you, Melinda, whom solicited me for a piece; I ended up writing “On Writing Quimera and Other Fears” based on my experiences developing a play with New Perspective’s Women’s
Work Project. Then came the idea for HER KIND, which Cate Marvin proposed to my co-editor Arisa White and I, and we ran with it. We fashioned HER KIND as a forum to create lively conversation about issues that are often dismissed or overlooked by the mainstream media. We want to include as many different voices as possible. We’ve had some fantastic writers like Roxane Gay, Melissa Chadburn, Kate Durbin, Adriana Páramo, just to name a few. It’s been a blessing working with the women of VIDA and Arisa in particular.
Q: What’s next?
A: Finishing up my second book of poems Somewhere in the Darkness, We Broke Even. The line is taken from the Kenny Rogers’s song “The Gambler.” The poems deal with my relationship to sharks, the Gulf, and an illness that I’ve faced this past year. Also in the works are the border town play called Midnight in Matamoros and the novel The Imitation of Crying which focuses on the relationship of a
man from Fuzhou and a Jewish women of mixed race—both turn out to not be whom they first seemed.
Q: What is your relationship with rejection like? How have you combatted any setbacks in publishing?
A: I could wallpaper the entire length of one 7 Train with my rejections. I’ve had editors email me: “these poems made it to the final round, and we’re going to pass, but please send more soon.” To me, that is a love letter. I had one agent interested in the novel I’m working on now; she rightly saw I needed more time, and that I
had a lot of work to do. She’s been patient with me, and hopefully I’ll have something to show her by the end of the year. In all candor, I’ve been moved by the editors and agents who’ve written to me in depth; as an editor now, I realize how precious time is, and just how much a personalized rejection means.
Q: What advice would you give aspiring poets, playwrights or fiction writers?
A: Be willing to accept advice; over time, you’ll figure out what to take and what to leave. Try not to fuss too much with image. Don’t try to be someone else’s image of success. Apply for every grant you can. Research publications before submitting to them. Read as much as you can. Read things that you might not otherwise agree with.
Don’t run from your doubts; confront them.
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About the Interviewer: Melinda Wilson is Managing Editor of Coldfront Magazine and VIDA: Women in the Literary Arts. Her poems have appeared in or are forthcoming from Arsenic Lobster, Verse Daily, Diner, Burnside Review and Rattapallax among others. Her chapbook Amplexus is available from Dancing Girl Press.