Grisel Acosta: Black-Scholar-Poetess-Warrior Gives BSADA An Exclusive Interview
On her “Write to Right” blog, Grisel Y. Acosta, Ph.D. describes herself as “your newsland DJ” doing “cultural analysis, straight up and witty with no chaser.” As a black scholar and poet, Acosta “digs through the attics and basements of medialand, finds out what's goin' on, and delivers the real deal to ya with a dry smile.” Her research, her blog, and her poetry definitely do that and more.
Photo credit: Terrence Jennings
Dr. Grisel Y. Acosta is a fearless writer and scholar who hails from Chicago. Currently she is an assistant professor in the English Department of Bronx Community College-CUNY. She received her Ph.D. in English—Latino/a literature from the UT at San Antonio and has presented her work in London, England; Cartagena, Colombia; Catalonia, Spain; and throughout the United States. Her creative work is in In Full Color: A Collection of Stories by Women of Color, Love You Madly: Poems About Jazz, Nineteen Sixty Nine: An Ethnic Studies Journal, Voices de la Luna, MiPoesias, Pembroke Magazine, Private International Photo Review, ¡Tex! Magazine, the NAACP Image Award nominated Check the Rhyme, After Hours Magazine, The Reproductive Freedom Festival Anthology, NJTV.com’s Drug Addiction Crisis website, with forthcoming short fiction in Basta!: 100 Latinas Write on Violence Against Women, and poems in The American Studies Journal, The Paterson Review, and The Lauryn Hill Reader. Scholarly work and essays are in The Routledge Companion to Latino/a Literature, African American Women’s Language, The Handbook of Latinos and Education, Western American Literature, Diálogo, Salon, VIDA: Women in Literary Arts, The Kenyon Review, and English Kills Journal. She also performs her poetry at such venues as the Nuyorican Poet’s Café and the Bowery Poetry Club in New York City, as well as the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center in San Antonio and the Chicago Poetry Festival. Her scholarly work often explores Afro-Latina Caribbean literatures and race theory in relation to ecocriticism, and her poetry unapologetically expresses that space where the personal and political transect.
One of the ways you describe yourself is as a Black Latinx. Could you explain what this identity label means to you? How does that core identity factor contribute to your poetry and scholarship?
Erasing history is self-defeating act. . .I’d rather be made stronger by acknowledging myself completely.
It means many things to me. The first thing is that I am embracing the Black, African heritage that previous family members (grandparents, great-grandparents, and others) attempted to reject. That part of my family lineage is beautiful and made me what I am. I’ve often encountered Latinos/as who don’t understand why I embrace that part of me, given I’m a bit light-skinned. They’ve implied I should “pass” which I think is an offensive implication, but also impossible for me, not only because my phenotype is clearly Black but mainly because erasing history is self-defeating act and it only creates pain for everyone who lives under that illusion. I’d rather be made stronger by acknowledging myself completely.
2. Some of your poetry is of the science fiction variety. Why do you find science fiction an apt aesthetic for your work? Could you provide a sample?
I’ve always admired folks who can write stories that are speculative. My first memory of speculative fiction is listening to one of my grammar school teachers read A Wrinkle in Time the class. Later, I appreciated A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxyand, on television, Tom Baker’s DoctorWho. Still later, I became fascinated with the world of Dino De Laurentis’ Flash Gordon, 1984,and both the book and film versions of A Clockwork Orange. As I got older, I both read and watched and then finally became a huge of fan of Margaret Atwood and Octavia Butler. Even though I found my way to female sci-fi writers (I’m embarrassed to say I haven’t read Le Guin yet—please don’t be too critical), I still think there are far too few women who are acknowledged in the speculative fiction world, let alone sci-fi poetry or film. Nonetheless, the themes in science fiction—so many folks see this The X-Men in (mainly in the comics, less so in the films, I think), for example—they really are about understanding people who have significantly different experiences from our own, guarding against fascism, and cultivating curiosity. All of that is up my alley. I’ve often said that my greatest gift is my curiosity.
Within me, there are so many borders, so to speak, that all the lines criss-crossing end up becoming infinite space. . .I think science fiction is the only idea that is comfortable with someone like me. I could be a creature in a Butler novel.
That said, as someone who has a Cuban parent, a Colombian parent, was born in Chicago, is multi-racial, loves both punk and house music, loves both opera and country music, is completely and utterly urban but fully appreciates the art of rural life and farming, it seems to me that sci-fi is the only space where a weirdo like me would feel comfortable. When I lived in Texas, we often used border theory to analyze the lives and literature of the Latinx population, and I completely understand the idea of living in a third space that is a blending of the two sides, that becomes its own thing. However, within me, there are so many borders, so to speak, that all the lines criss-crossing end up becoming infinite space, if we think in geometrical terms. I never think of sides at all because I have so many parts, it is impossible to think of the separations, like a gemstone with so many facets that the surface ends up becoming smooth and cylindrical, a circle where the separations cannot be seen. I think science fiction is the only idea that is comfortable with someone like me. I could be a creature in a Butler novel.
3. How do you see your work and art philosophy relating to the Black Speculative Art’s movement? Or would you describe your work and art philosophy as something different?
I’m not yet sure how my work fits in the Black Speculative Arts movement. I think someone else might have to take a look at that. Right now, I can only say that the works created by folks associated with the movement—folks like Sun Ra, Basquiat, Afrika Bambaataa, even Toni Morrison—are artists who are in my home, who inform my life. My first kiss was from a breakdancer who had just finished kickin’ it to Bambaataa’s “Planet Rock” in the basement of my church. It was my best friend’s birthday party.
I’m still the only person I know who regularly reminds folks of the Spanish in Basquiat’s art; he was ½ Puerto Rican. The diversity in the Caribbean is very sci-fi. If you look at the islands from overhead, the Caribbean Sea looks like a creature with a semi-permeable membrane. We let so many influences in, which is why we love to mix things together in our food and music, and ourselves. Basquiat’s work is like that. And then there’s space, the universe, the sun and stars. Brown and Black folks have always looked up and worshipped that which gives us life and guides us. Like Sun Ra said, with song, “Space Is the Place.” These are the ideas I grew up with and still look to again and again.
4. How do you see your scholarship and your poetry informing each other?
It hasn’t been a pleasant relationship. I resent the way scholarship is traditionally written, which is why I much prefer essay writing and creative writing. The tone of scholarship, the tone of scholarly gatherings, they remind me of the tone the Vogons take in The Hitchhiker's Guide. I guess there are some academic poetry readings that are Vogonic, too, if you think about it. Things are changing a little bit, but as someone who grew up in artistic communities where the vibe was really to learn and have fun and to be welcoming, it is physically painful for me to be in the scholarly world where sometimes folks don’t have much of a sense of humor. So, I often find myself compartmentalizing those two worlds. The scholarship is what I have to do in order to progress as a professor; essay writing and creative writing are what I do to enjoy my life. However, what I’ve found recently is that the essay writing and creative writing are informing what scholarly projects I take on. I’m currently writing an article for CUNY’s Colloquium for the Study of Latina/o Theory and Culture, and it is about Latinx outsiders. The paper focuses on real-life and fictional Latinas who purposefully marginalize themselves, via the punk and hipster movements, beyond their Latinx marginalization. What this ends up doing is establishing them as intellectuals. I wrote about this concept in a poem first, then in an essay for VIDA: Women in Literary Arts. This progression is a dynamic I’m happy with, so maybe the relationship between scholarship and creative writing is getting better.
5. In your author’s biography on Poets & Writers website, you mention that you are “greatly influenced by growing up in Logan Square, the punk and house movements in the 1980s, my Cuban and Colombian background, and social justice in education.” Could you expand on those influences a bit more?
Logan Square is the neighborhood that I grew up in. The Chicago ‘hood is on the Northwest Side and it has been nearly completely gentrified. When I grew up there, it was a mix of Cubans, Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, Polish, Irish and a few African Americans. The architecture there is stunning and there are many mansions on Logan Square Boulevard. The neighborhood was friendly, beautiful, and there was always something to do. It had its own great restaurants and people happily mingled. The diversity there was special. Since then, over 50,000 Latinx families have been displaced due to gentrification. I’m writing about it in an account called First Spanish. I want to capture the brief moment when Logan Square was a Latinx barrio. As a kid, I often sat in the center square, sketching this or that, and dreaming of buying up all the property so that I could keep this place as special as it was to me. Unfortunately, someone else with money got to it first, and their idea of special is different from mine.
I was Logan Square’s first Latinx punk in the 1980s. I was the only one in the neighborhood with spiked hair, traveling all over the city to see bands like The Exploited and Naked Raygun.
It afforded me independence. Other Latina girls were kept at home, ignorant, their parents fearful that they’d get pregnant. I had one friend like that. I visited her and she was always so bored and anxious to hear my stories of going to shows. Being a punk also kept gangbangers away, not that I ever saw them as much of a threat. They always seemed so malnourished and awkward. I knew they were just poor. Punk gave me a bigger perspective. I learned the specifics behind Reagan’s administration, what our foreign policies were, and how political action works best when you have a sense of humor. It was an exciting education that made me wonder why these topics weren’t in the classroom.
House music, created in Chicago by many DJs I grew up alongside, was the opposite of punk in a lot of ways, but similar in that it was an underground music. Many clubs that young people went to in Chicago had one room for house and one room for punk and rock. The best ones mixed it all up in the same room. House music kept me happy and healthy. I was troubled by a lot of things as a kid, but dancing allowed me to find my spirituality and escape from my troubles. And I had a very healthy heart! I danced for hours and hours several times a week. My mother, with her old school ways, was worried about her daughter going to the South Side to dance all night, but when she saw how sincere I was about needing to do it, she gave the okay. In the end, the scene was a group of artists discovering themselves. All the people I grew up with have become either local or international artists. It was fun and magical and I still think that education should be that way.
What I mean by “that way” is that I grew up around kids who planned social events around art. They took a warehouse and planned art shows, created their own music, invented dance moves, created fashion shows, and so much more. Everyone was learning by creating. They learned math and science in the process because they were building things, managing businesses, and designing works of art and interior spaces. These are high school kids who did this. I think project-based education is the most exciting for kids because they have a lot of energy. I also think the ideas for the projects have to come from them. Furthermore, diversity is key. Kids
I grew up around kids who planned social events around art. They took a warehouse and planned art shows, created their own music, invented dance moves, created fashion shows, and so much more. Everyone was learning by creating.
Judith Ortíz Cofer
Jorge Luis Borges
I’ve mentioned a bunch of writers already, but some others include Junot Díaz. I can’t wait to read his upcoming book, which is supposed to be in the speculative fiction realm. Judith Ortíz Cofer, who just passed away, was an incredible short fiction writer, or perhaps she was doing hybrid before we used that term. Her work was so honest and vulnerable. I’m currently reading Tama Janowitz’s memoir, which mirrors my own life a little bit in that it covers taking care of her elderly mother (I’m caring for my elderly parents, one of whom has Alzheimer’s). I’ve also been reading Jorge Luis Borges’ The Book of Imaginary Beings, which is fascinating. Each entry is like an encyclopedia entry, with a description of a different imaginary being. Some are humorous, others are terrifying. Borges, to me, is not only a short fiction master, but a sci-fi master. I never get tired of reading his work. This particular text is informing a collection of poems I’m writing about the language that my father, who has Alzheimer’s, invents. In his delirium, he comes up with phrases and words that never existed before, so I’ve been writing poems based on those phrases and words. I think each poem will be like a different entry in an encyclopedia of invented language. That might be the title!
7. What are some of your current projects and goals as a writer and a scholar?
First Spanish and—let’s just name it now—The Encyclopedia of Invented Language (I may still change it) are the projects I’ve currently been working on. I also mentioned the article on Latinx outsiders. Also, I have a conference (NeMLA) where I will present on teaching flash fiction to students in the Bronx.
8. Is there anything else you would like to add?
About the sample works: “The Aliens” was a dream, every aspect of it. “The Colony” is clearly influenced by Margaret Atwood, but also by the idea of surrogate motherhood in Hollywood (which is quite hidden), and the idea of using women’s bodies, in general. “Water Craters” has a similar narrative voice as “The Aliens,” as if someone were recounting an old tale to children. It came from a time when I was both teaching a science fiction class and I was suffering from chronic hives as a reaction to tumors I didn’t know I had. The hives were aggravated when I bathed. I’ve since had surgery and I’m perfectly fine, so no need to worry.
Take a look at Grisel Acosta's latest Sci-Fi Poetry
(previously published in Pembroke Magazine)
The aliens came in
as a vapor.
They were ancient beings,
some say immortal,
but others still insist
they never existed at all.
This is because
they are so small.
They floated through the universe,
hitching rides on comet tails
to pick up speed, if necessary.
Little viral microbes,
for most living things to notice.
They traveled long and far,
to each new environment.
And this is how
they came to be
Some of them were
in our upper atmosphere,
where they lingered for a long, long time.
A few would come down,
with rains and wind,
but they could easily find each other.
Their perception connection
was very strong.
Some would say it was
others would, again, refuse to believe it.
When enough of them gathered
within our skies,
they decided to learn about us,
and this is when
the problem began.
For we humans couldn’t see
even though we breathed them
into our bodies,
just like we might breathe in
any random vapor.
No one understood
worked through time
to create drugs
to attack the symptoms.
Soon, many efficient ones
to anyone with money
to pay for them.
The injections were very popular.
They kept humans looking young
Folks were able to
the aliens were able to
mutate at will.
They were wise and strong,
thus able to live in almost any environment,
even one of attack.
So with each injection,
a new set of symptoms
kept cropping up.
Humans went mad
for the next set of injections,
anything to keep the alien symptoms
They would inject and inject,
until there were no satisfactory injections left,
and the ailing humans would
completely ravaged by their weak bodies.
But there was one girl
who felt differently.
On the evening when she inhaled
she thought she heard them speak
in her sleep.
She heard them say they were there
to help her.
When she went to the government-mandated doctor
her poverty allowed,
with the first sign of symptoms,
she refused the injection.
The doctor insisted,
“The virus must be attacked, killed!”
She said that it couldn’t be killed
and perhaps if it weren’t attacked,
then it wouldn’t counterattack
The doctor called her insane.
She left and confined herself to a room.
News channels heard of
her theory and attempted to
interview her and debate the issue.
Her state of illness was carefully watched
around the world.
She began with digestive sickness
She patiently drank water
with trembling lips.
Then the aliens challenged her
circulatory system and she
became very cold.
Her arteries, veins, capillaries
became filled with dead
white blood cells,
which seeped out of her skin
and crystallized into a beautiful, yellow
that would build, layer upon layer,
like amber lace made of glass.
She would take warm water
and painfully dissolve the shell,
slowly, every hour, without rest.
Some humans died during this stage,
falling asleep and becoming petrified
in a cast of topaz.
The aliens would multiply fiercely
in the dead body
and then escape through the nose or mouth
they had entered,
and then find new hosts.
But the girl remained strong.
She allowed the aliens
to seize each organ,
find its weakness,
and then move on to the next.
She coughed, moaned and cried out,
even though her voice gave.
The ordeal took her
after which she emerged
Her body became their home.
The aliens had made her flesh
She was now immune
to what killed so many weaker souls.
She began to find others
who had accepted the aliens
into their bodies.
They all opened a center
where the sick could come
and have help in becoming immune.
The pharmaceutical companies
and the Medical Association
attempted to shut down the center,
but found they could not
when it was proven that no one
or technical medical advice.
the aliens killed off all who attacked them
and made those who didn’t
closer to being
We are in a half circle
Legs bent, backs down on beds
Pushing out babies that belong to others
They plan the cycle
Precisely, births happen on time
We are in a half circle
Food and supplements
Sit at our doors, waiting for ingestion
Our mouths take in the nutrition
The creatures grow
Squirming in our bellies, absorbing
Food and supplements
Touching is not allowed
When they are big and leave our wombs
The owners come and take them
Homes are provided for us
All surrogates live near each other but
Touching is not allowed
The sun sets on the colony
Then the cries begin
Every evening the new set is born
The clockwork cycle chimes
Life is given, then taken
The sun sets on the colony
We are in a half circle
water conforms to the shape of its container
changes properties depending on the temperature
it is a malleable being
but humans could only perceive those limited metamorphoses
when pollution became too unbearable
leaking hairspray cans, dirty diapers, old cottage cheese,
cigarette filters, and hazmat from batteries,
fluorescent bulbs, and local refineries,
all floating in our lakes and seas
something about the concentration of oxygen
its absorption through H2O was altered
this gas we live on can, too, be toxic at high levels
at first there were just a few more cases of aquagenic pruritis
an allergy to water
soon, more and more people were in the ER with swollen necks
bloated bodies collapsing in anaphalactic shock
some tried to survive without bathing—the stench!
others hoarded fruits in order to hydrate that way
produce became scarce, only for the wealthy and well-protected
people with land
eventually, however, even the fruit water became poison
we withered, became dry, brittle little beings
incapable of procreation
move to the springs, the mountains! it was said
where no pollutants had ever touched the water
mothers ran there, when they couldn’t bear
giving their babies milk tainted with Water Poison
but the water in our blood, saliva,
sweat mixed with the spring
the once pristine pools became forbidden
we turned our lifesource sick just by touching it
our final, thick-with-salt tears burned
craters into our crumbling skin