To the Next Queer Indigenous Eliza So Fellowship Recipient

10/10/2019

Håfa Adai, Che’lu. Let’s talk story.

First off, some disclaimers: I’ll be taking all kinds of liberties in this missive, as I’m writing to myself as much as to you. I’ll make generalized assumptions, too, gently elbowing you in the ribs, and otherwise speaking in Indigiqueer code that will hopefully be met with your tight-lipped smile and near-imperceptible nods. Oh, and this. I’ll say straight away that writing this is part of the fellowship requirements, so you’ll be writing one of these yourself soon enough. Heh. You know what I mean.

So. It’s getting on toward the end of my stay here in Missoula, and there’s an early-season blizzard headed this way. I lived in Missoula years ago, while I was in the MFA program at the U. In a way, this has been a weird homecoming for me, though it does and doesn’t feel like home. Some friends are still here—the ones who haven’t moved off or died or disappeared. Of those, I’ve been able to spend time with a few, but you know old friends. Most have flaked, forgotten, or whatever else happens to friends who never leave the small town where you used to be friends, while you’ve moved away and had ten years of your own living in who knows how many other places. Anyway, the blizzard. The trees are still full of green leaves, and this snow is supposed to be a wet one, so there’s a strong prediction for the loss of power. I walked to the Food Farm (local grocery store) to get some candles and a pack of matches, coconut milk, bacon, and tortilla chips just in case.  All of this is to say if you’ve never spent time in Montana, or have never had a month-long residency in a house all to yourself, maybe be prepared for some familiar loneliness and some seasonal anomalies and other weird shit.

This is my second residency ever, because I’ve had a job since I was fourteen and have always had to work paycheck to paycheck, regardless of my profession, and I’ve had a few: waitress, public school teacher, cashier, retail manager, marketing director, visiting writer, bike mechanic. In school or out, I’ve worked full-time jobs while also trying to write books and make art. But this year I’ve had a little leeway with my bike mechanic job, and these two residencies have happened in quick succession. So I feel like a real winner, you know? Like, hey, I “won” two literary things, so maybe I’m on a roll. Maybe this is the beginning of something. Someone smart once told me that if you’re a writer or artist applying for fellowships and awards and prizes,  once institutions start giving you money, others follow suit. Like they jump on the bandwagon of literary politics and magnanimous capitalism or something. 

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Anyway, this is my first residency that’s been for a whole month, and it feels all the ways you might expect. The house is cute and small and as far as I have experienced, not haunted, with the exception of the refrigerator, which for some unknown reason has an alarm on it. It goes off when it feels like it, and the owners of the house have come to fix it, but it’s not fixed, so there’s that. If you don’t eat ice cream or TV dinners, you won’t need the freezer, so just turn it off, and that seems to fix it well enough. There are two doors and a locking bedroom door, and as far as any lone brown queer can feel safe, it pretty much feels safe here. There’s a deer family and some fat and dismissive cats that come to the porch, but that’s about it.

I traveled to Missoula from California with a checked bag—a huge hard-sided bike box that fits my disassembled bike plus all kinds of other stuff besides the bike, like a packraft and kayak paddle and life jacket and shoes and some tools and even a little weed, which means I also have a nice pocket knife I keep on the bedside table when I sleep, just in case. I haven’t slept well regardless, but there’s no schedule to keep, so I write in the morning, go for a bike ride up the river trail in the afternoon, and float back down on the packraft. (The river, as you know, carries us. Make your plans.) Then I cook and write some more or work on other fellowship applications (the bandwagon won’t wait) or look at bills I mean to pay but can’t or talk to my mom on the phone or do my daily lessons to relearn my native language or go out for groceries. Then I’ll watch some PBS special on TV until late. Until I can’t keep my eyes open anymore and have to fall asleep, with one eye open and one ear out for the deer or the cats or the fucking refrigerator alarm.

Speaking of PBS specials, there’s one I’ve been into called Country Music, and it’s really opened up a whole other way for me to deal with the grief I’ve been measuredly dealing with since my dad died last year. I only bring it up because it’s an unexpected outcome of having so much time to myself. You know grief. It slips in and out no matter how many doors you lock. I’ve got some Hank Williams songs in my head on repeat, and the nostalgia of my childhood and my dad walking the hardwood floors in hard-heeled boots and my somehow being back in a country-ass town like Missoula has really done a number on my heart, but in an achy-good way, you know? Because he was my dad, no matter how shitty and abusive at times, so it still hurts, but not in a straightforward kind of way. Not like the sting of a belt or nasty mean words. More like when a loose tooth socket itches. It hurts but it doesn’t. It’s a kind of hot sensation that foretells eventual healing. So maybe prepare, too, friend, to look for a salve for that loneliness I mentioned before. You’re a survivor, too, and an artist, after all. You’ll figure it out. 

Outside of writing the blog post, you’ll also be giving a public reading. You might also be asked to do a radio interview, but that’s up to you. I said yes because I’ve never been in a radio station before, and I was very curious. There’s a sound booth and lots of buttons and dials that you can’t touch but will absolutely want to. You might even want to sing into one of the expensive-looking mics that have the round screen on them to soften your p’s and t’s. It reinforces that feeling you’ve “won” something. You know what I mean. Some kind of hell yes, look at how I’m doing the thing! After all these years of hard work and struggle while working all these other jobs and shit! I’m doing it! That feeling.

As for the reading, I have to be honest. I had some real issues with the place I was first designated to read—a distillery in town that also hosts some public events. I scheduled the reading in my first week, so I could focus on work the rest of the time without obligation. 

So I arrive in town and unpack my clothes neatly and with a bit of giddiness, I hang them in the little wardrobe in the house and pick out my shirt and shoes for the reading and spend some time ironing the shirt. And I’m humming and wiggling a little and feeling pretty good about it all. And the fridge alarm hasn’t gone off yet, so I don’t even know that’s a thing, and I reach in and grab a beer and set about checking out the reading spot and on social media because I’ve never heard of it. And the beer is local and good and I nibble on some mochi snacks I brought with me and then I scroll scroll scroll and realize that this distillery is the kind of place that also hosts what they call “Tiki Week.” Which is, of course, a trainwreck of Pacific Islander cultural appropriation in every way, wherein they “dress up” the bar in a grass skirt and serve Mai Tai’s in kitschy tiki-faced mugs and encourage patrons to dream of vacationing on white-sand beaches and all the other exoticism-fueled American fantasy getaway tropes and because I’m actually, in fact, a Pacific Islander, it hits me in just the way it does. Right? Right? You know what I mean. I don’t have to tell you how it feels, so I’ll just give you a second to you shake your head and put your hand on my shoulder and take a meaningful deep breath from a distance. 

Did I read in that bar? Well of course not. I called the fellowship folks and one person, in particular, was appropriately horrified and was generally a great ally and said sorry about all this, Lehua, and then set up another place for me to read. Which was fine and turned out to be a really nice reading, where I showed up and did my thing, and frankly speaking, it was pretty fucking awesome. My approach to reading is reflective of my cultural values, honors my ancestors, and is enjoyable, fun, and engaging. And no, I haven’t heard a peep from that distillery, not even an, “Oops we didn’t realize, it wasn’t our intention, we never meant,” apology, but you already guessed that. 

And that I “won” feeling? Well. It took on a bit of the likeness of an itchy socket. But here comes the salve.

pacific islanders club

It turns out there’s now a Pacific Islanders Club on campus, established by a few students two years ago, and they were hosting their first potluck meeting of the year. So I showed up with flowers, looking for my people. And I found them. The first person I see when I walk into the place is wearing a “Håfa Adai” shirt, and the sight made me hiccup on a few hot tears. They held me up, just like the river, and I ate lumpia and shrimp pancit and Kalua pig and cabbage and coconut cassava cake, and they all knew how to pronounce my name, and just like that, I realized that the feeling of “winning” and the feeling of actually being seen are never to be conflated. Both light up the part of the brain that makes us feel joy, but only one persists in the heart and continues to hold us when we need to be held.

Since then, I’ve filled up a month with plenty more experiences that remind me to keep doing. Community finds us, if we keep serving it, if we keep working for it. I’ve been gifted with phone calls, emails, and texts, all from other Indigenous queers and allies who just want to let me know that they see me, see my work, and want to share love. None of that has to do with winning any kind of award. It has to do with celebrating our resilience and what we have yet to create. You know what I mean, Che’lu. You know what I mean. 

So enjoy your time, and if you’re finding yourself more than predictably lonely and in need of community, but you can’t quite find your way to the potluck, drop me a line, and I’ll put my hand on your shoulder from wherever I am, and we’ll talk story.

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Lehua M. Taitano (Guest Blogger)

Lehua M. Taitano is a queer, indigenous CHamoru writer and interdisciplinary artist from Yigu, Guåhan (Guam) and co-founder of Art 25. She is the author of two volumes of poetry—Inside Me an Island (WordTech Editions) and A Bell Made of Stones (TinFish Press). Her chapbook, appalachiapacific, won the 2010 Merriam-Frontier Award for short fiction. She has two recent chapbooks of poetry and visual art: Sonoma (Dropleaf Press) and Capacity (a Hawai’i Review e-chap). Taitano’s work investigates modern indigeneity, decolonization, and cultural identity in the context of diaspora.