By L.G. Parker
Some poets scream, others approach the microphone with a fierce control that sits you down and reminds you of your magic and your wounds. Afro-Mexicana poet Ariana Brown is the latter. With five years of experience as a poetry mentor and workshop leader, Brown has a commitment not only to her own page, but to studying and teaching the written word. In 2014, she was a member of the University of Texas-Austin’s nationally competing poetry slam team, Spitshine Slam, which she co-founded in 2011. Spitshine ranked first overall at the College Unions Poetry Slam International (CUPSI) in 2014. This past March, Brown returned to the competition with Spitshine and was awarded Best Poem of the competition for her poem “Invocation.”
I was in the audience and deeply moved by the poem’s haunting poem. It stayed on my mind throughout and beyond the evening, and I was fortunate enough to be able to interview her about “Invocation” and her work at large.
L.G Parker: In “Invocation,” being biracial pops up again & again as you say “you were asked questions about your dead father and your hair,” “you greeted a new ancestor in the mirror today,” and “which negotiations did you lose today?” How does your biraciality factor into your work?
Ariana Brown: I’ve actually always claimed both my lineages openly. As someone who is visibly Black and grew up in a predominantly Mexican-American family and city, denying any part of myself is not something I’ve ever been comfortable doing. I grew up around bilingual Spanish-English speakers in San Antonio, Texas who were very proud of their Mexican ancestry. At the same time, anti-Blackness is extremely prevalent in the Mexican community, as Mexico (like the rest of Central America) has a very small Black population compared to countries like Puerto Rico or Brazil. There is a lack of understanding there. The first time I was called the ‘n’ word was in daycare. – I was five years old. The following year, the principal at my elementary school told my mother my hair was ‘outlandish’ and distracting to other students in class.
PARKER: You shared with me that you had Angel Nafis’ voice in the back of your head “encouraging [you] to be holy” as you wrote “Invocation”. Nafis has a particular cadence and liveliness both on the page and stage. What is the relationship between your writing and sound?
BROWN: Nafis has a poem, titled “Ode to Shea Butter”, I believe, that was an early jumping point for “Invocation”. She often speaks about Blackness in reverent, celebratory tones, something that has always filled me up with joy. I didn’t grow up speaking AAVE, and while I learned to codeswitch eventually, I still feel more comfortable in Spanglish. It was very important to me to include the word “chongo” in the poem, “Invocation” – the Spanish word for “hair tie”/”ponytail”. Nafis’ work encouraged me to go back for 6-year-old me who sat in her first grade class as my Latinx classmates threw pencils and erasers into my hair and laughed because I couldn’t feel it. I spent a lot of time in mirrors as a kid, wishing my hair straight. I always felt so visible and impossible – Nafis’ work is so unapologetically black, it makes me return for my girl self and release her from that trauma in a way that is gentle, forgiving, and holy. I think all black girls deserve that.
PARKER: “Invocation” deals a lot with ancestry in a sort of ghastly sense. The repetition of the word “of” seems to point towards a separation of self from some past thing or person, which also connects one to ancestry. This vibe matches well with the title of your upcoming six-week workshop, “Demons, Diaspora, & Magic.” Aside from six new poems, what can interests expect to get from this? What types of work and questions might writers be challenged to ask themselves?
BROWN: I’ve been dealing a lot with the history of Mexico’s conquest, a project that really led me to creating this course. “Demons, Diaspora, & Magic” really asks students to engage with at least one type of history – whether personal or cultural or both – and to tell that story from beginning to end. At the moment, I’m interested in the telling (and retelling) of legends and crafting origin stories. I took a class on Mexican American Indigenous Heritage last semester at UT, where my professor began the class with the Aztec migration myth – how they appeared first in the American Southwest and slowly moved south to Mexico. She told us that there are several different versions of the story, how different indigenous groups in Mexico claim Aztec lineage because of the stops the Aztecs made along the way. She then invited us to question which of the versions was the true one. I think, for anybody whose history involves colonization, coming to a place where one can say, what if there isn’t one true version of how it happened? What if there are many truths? And how can I begin to excavate or create these histories in a way that is useful for me, as a person who has survived the violence of colonization?
PARKER: So then does your excavation of whether or not there are many truths involve a sort of biomythography? Not necessarily imagining something better, but filling in what cannot be known? And what role does language, poetry more specifically, play for you as you excavate and create these histories?
BROWN: I hadn’t thought of it before, but I suppose I am working on a biomythography. The only difference, I think, is that I believe these things can be known. My faith/medicine is curanderismo, a type of folk healing that was produced in Mexico post-conquest, with indigenous, Spanish, and African roots. A lot of the healing reminds the body of its ancestral connections to the earth and its history. In that sense, I’m not making up stories about my ancestors. I’m going into the body to excavate what is already there. Poetry is the most useful tool I can think of for this project because for me, it rests entirely on emotional intelligence. Its capacity for surrealism makes it interesting, but its ability to hold emotion makes it important.
PARKER: As I think about your commentary about excavating and creating a history after colonization, without regard to its ongoing forces, I’m reminded of something James Baldwin said in an essay about language. He said, “It goes without saying, then, that language is also a political instrument, means, and proof of power. It is the most vivid and crucial key to identify: It reveals the private identity, and connects one with, or divorces one from, the larger, public, or communal identity.” In conversation with Baldwin’s sentiments, when you write and perform your work, who are you speaking to? What languages do you “create” or call upon to create a sort of re-storying of the past you are working through in your poetry?
BROWN: I grew up around English and Spanish, but I don’t speak any indigenous languages. (I am not sure what my indigenous Mexican ancestors spoke, though since my grandparents are from the border states, it’s probably an Uto-Aztecan language). After four and a half years of Spanish classes, I’m nearly fluent. My grandparents grew up in the 1950s in Texas, when it was against the law to speak Spanish in public school. As an act of survival, they began to assimilate by speaking English to my mother and tios. Though all the adults in my mother’s family are bilingual, they are most comfortable with English. Since I’m working with Aztec history at the moment, I’m learning some basic Náhuatl, which is full of discoveries for me.
Spanglish is where I am most myself. I regard Mexican Spanish and its methods, flexibilities, and slang highly – a language that transformed itself over after conquest, much like its people. Now that I have a circle of close black friends, we codeswitch into AAVE, of course – on any given day, I speak all the languages and their varieties. I give thanks especially to the coworkers and bus drivers who speak wholly in Spanish to me – those interactions are always the most meaningful. When I speak Spanglish, I feel very free; I am loud and outrageous, full of intent. In Spanish, I am more careful, second-guessing, and slow. In English I am comfortable; in AAVE, I am older, wiser.
When I enter my poems, the audience is always my ancestors and myself. I feel like I never saw myself represented; and we all know how much power there is in representation. I just wrote a poem about my love for avocados (from the Náhuatl word ahuacatl, and the Spanish aguacate) which incorporates English, Spanish, Náhuatl and AAVE and I’m so excited about the possibilities that offers.
This interview has been condensed for reading purposes.
For more information on Ariana Brown’s work, including purchasing her chapbooks, please visit http://www.arianabrown.com/.