AWP2019: Out of Our Time: Writing Dissent in Creative Nonfiction

Panel Participants: Kisha Lewellyn Schlege (moderator), Catina Bacote, LaTanya McQueen, Stephanie Elizondo Griest, L.M. Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas

AWP19ThumbnailDescription: As destructive language is increasingly normalized at large, writers who engage in forms of dissent are asking how we might broaden and complicate our understanding of dissent. Interpreting dissent broadly, panelists discuss the forms that dissent takes in creative nonfiction, from the lyric to longform. Panelists have written extensively on US borders, incarceration, race, and queer identity, each expanding on Adrienne Rich’s twenty-year-old question: How do we write out of our time?


The panelists begin the conversation with quoting Adrienne Rich’s twenty year question, ‘How do we write out of our time?’ Rich poses that out of a country that hopes to eviscerate her language, the words she speaks, she continues to use this as material in spite of all that is against her. How does one write dissent and why? The panelists divulge how their different backgrounds have influenced much of what they currently write and how they deal with proximity, timeliness, and the forms it takes. The panelists do not read from their work, however they open it to questions they asked of themselves.

Audience question: How do you go about even writing about dissenting public discourse when it feels like you’ve been socially constructed to not do that and how does this complicate writing about dissent?

L.M. Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas: I have a talent for rage – I can stay angry for a very long time, that’s very helpful. Dissent is burning bridges. I present myself wholly naked. I think as a woman – i’m an immigrant, I’m not a us citizen I’m not allowed to have an opinion. It’s hard to be a woman in this time. Do I cross this bridge? How many tiny bridges do I need to go over? Is this clever, is this strategic At what point do you fight the machine? I don’t know the answer to this. We just have that doubt and dissent. I want people to have doubt that thing before you is a person, and it might be just slightly harder to kill that.

Catina Bacote: I will never apologize for my anger. If you’re not angry, you’re not paying attention. The things are writing are painful. I think that there’s a real danger in silence. This might hurt me or this might burn a bridge. In 1987, my grandfather was breaking up a fight between his son and he got shot. My family never talked about my grandfather and I grew up believing something else. Ask those questions. There’s that silence, the pain and grief and shame. A lot of people saw it. The silence of hostility – the wider society when we think about the 1980s drug violence. At the time, there was silence about things that were happening but there were lots of sound bites. Crackheads, crack babies. I cannot let that stay uncontested. I cannot let this be the story people tell. It’s not all that I am (rage). I write how to resist out of love. I am writing about places I love and people I love. I’m still writing about it from love.

Stephanie Elizondo Griest: For more than a hundred years, my family worked at a big ass ranch and there was a lot of cowboys. We were cowboys. We lived in a row of yellow brick houses. The ranch took care of my family. A whole century my family lived like this, only because my mom married a navy gringo. A single helicopter could do what my family could do. All my mother’s brothers and sisters were fired. When we left the ranch, my tios and tias went to work for chemical gas refineries surrounding Corpus Christie and others got jobs at Walmart. No one said anything bad about this ranch. One of my tios had been a cowboys, the whole lineage. It was so humiliating. My uncle, this very poster boy like cowboy, killed himself.  Because I look different (no appearance of Mexican/Tejano traits), I haven’t received any fallout. Which means, I’m privileged. Privilege allows you to move in spheres that others cannot and you’ve got to seize that.

Audience Question: What about being the dissent of our own communities?

Stephanie Elizondo Griest: When I was doing research, teenage girls were growing tumors, boys were without ears – it was a cancer cluster. I felt weird about writing this. Without these gas refineries, we couldn’t live in Corpus Christi. Out of respect for these people, I did not write about it. And then I grew a cancerous tumor. A random act of violence. How random is that violence, really? Many people I’d grown up with had cancer. All I can say is the tumor is coming for us all. When I think about unraveling that dirty laundry, I think about those that I knew who also got cancer. Your silence will not protect you.

L.M. Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas: I think about the paradox of proximity. I want you to picture your most valuable possession. For my students, it’s their phones. And, okay, so you have your phone and it doesn’t have protection but you see a child drowning and the only way to save them is to get rid of your phone. Realistically, you will save the child. Most people know, that you can buy more mosquito nets to save child. Why don’t you save those children? Why do you buy the phone instead of mosquito nets? It’s easier to save the child because you are closer … but it’s not easier to buy mosquito nets because you are not close to those children. Who do you want to be in that situation?

This, writing about dissent, is the way that I jump into the water and lose all of it.

Catina Bacote: I’m writing to understand what’s happening. I’m writing from that place to understand the choices people make under those constraints. Is it private? When I think about crime, the writers who talk about the origins of violence, I’m writing about things that people did that was horrible. I feel like I’m throwing [insert name of anyone powerful or close] under the bus. I try to be inclusive and talk to everyone that appears in my writing. They are really difficult. All these things that I’ve done and continue to do. There was a wave that came over us and took a lot of us during the drug epidemic and I want all of those stories, all of those stories are important.

LaTanya McQueen: I think in terms of family, too. What do we if we have family members that are terrible and did terrible things, how do we process these people, what do we owe to them. I was trying to process my mother and see what she went through, like the abuse she enacted towards me. But, she’s also gone so she can’t speak to it. But there’s also my end.

Audience question: What do we do to create this creative nonfiction?

Stephanie Elizondo Griest: My thinking has evolved through these different projects, long, long, long projects – living with the book. I was trained in college to be a journalist. A style of writing in creative nonfiction – testimony to the idea of documentation that acts as a collective witness. Make people your co-conspirators.

L.M. Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas: I recently filed for a green card and am hopeful but conflicted. I cannot go to a protest. I cannot get deported. Our countries aren’t our countries, they are rarely made of dirt but more flesh. The value of a person is not equivalent to the infrastructure to these people and you do not get to tell that to the people. I recently started a project where I was translating poetry everyday. It took a lot of time. I lost time, I didn’t work on my books, I didn’t get published. Be more honest, people might be willing to lose this time. But poetry hides dissent and it is undeniably human. That is the reality of it.

Audience Question: How do you negotiate your ego?

L.M. Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas: Despite everything, this vision will be good – an ego burst. Dissent is rhetorical, it’s selfless. It begs for a moment of non-ego. I made mistakes with my project – a hundred repetitions. But how do you negotiate your own ego? We are not being elected to speak for these communities. How do we check ourselves? What are the mechanisms of ego and art and how do we check ourselves? What have I made what has it done?  We have no idea. Our ignorance is part of the trajectory.

Catina Bacote: Speaks about grandfather’s death and – I had to face my own fascination. The tenacity, the nerve, the resourcefulness, fascinated me. And at the same time that that’s how i felt. I just put all of my truth, how i feel, into the work.

Stephanie Elizondo Griest: Buddhism helps. All is suffering, all is grace is another Buddhism. The challenge that has been put to me is to view cancer as grace. That was so impossible but it is ultimately what led me to separation of the cancer….how can I feel gratitude towards this?


Margarita Cruz is a MFA candidate from Northern Arizona University. She serves as poetry editor for Thin Air Magazine.


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