you look so happy
"What Joy" from Scar On/Scar Off
Purchase Scar On/Scar Off here.
Jennifer Maritza McCauley. Half black. Half Puerto Rican. All artist. Remember her name as she is destined to see her star continue to rise in the literary world. Her newest collection is a hybrid poetic memoir, alternating between poetry that is at times aggressive, at times tender, at all times honest and raw, and short stories that give us a glimpse at how race and gender have played an outsized role in her life, diminishing her humanity but never her spirit. McCauley inhabits the characters of her life like a great actor, capturing the tones and nuances of each narrator, educated and street, black and white and Latino. Her words capture a musicality born of pain and joy communing to expose humanity in all of its vast complexity.
The book is full of startling lines: "heyhey/be how I like you best./Not as you are, now, where I found you:/in a little room, dirty, lonely, and/vexed./that just ain't no fun,/blackgirl." "There are babies in our bodies. We look heavy but our eyes are light-stuffed." "but really, who could bear to hear an accurate future?" "I ain't gonna speak in/your cusses nor cursivos,/oye:/this talk/ain't school-taught." And touch on subjects as diverse as racism, sexism, activism, depression, violence, from the state and from individuals, being mixed-race, loneliness, sex, and on occasion, love, especially for her family, whose struggles she carries on her back with dignity and determination.
While the world tries to strip McCauley of her self-love, she refuses to do the same. Even at her angriest, she is concerned with her offender's humanity, understanding that human decency and kindness has been distorted by poverty, injustice, and misogyny. She does not excuse the people who harm her, but she does not turn them into monsters, having the wisdom to see the systemic oppression that guides so much human action. While she may be just one person against the world, she knows she has a voice, and with that voice, she cries into the void until the void cries back.
None of this would be possible if she wasn't a master at crafting language. Moving back and forth between English and Spanish, street slang and academic discourse, she perfectly inhabits the phrasing and weight of the language she uses. There is not a single errant or unnecessary word, she cuts her language down to its truest essence, creating phrases that are direct yet layered, complex yet clear and deliberate. She does more with a single phrase than most writers do with a paragraph. Her words are the manifestation of an artist at full command of her craft, and by the end, you will be begging her to give you more.
We were fortunate to sit down with Jennifer to discuss her book, her art, and her future.
Could you tell us about the style and hybrid nature of Scar On/Scar Off? Why did you choose this style for your book?
Sure! I consider myself a multi-genre writer, and I’m a fan of good books in every genre.
SCAR ON/SCAR OFF was conceived as a book that’s unified by multiplicity. If I move between voices, narratives and forms, I wanted that dissonance itself to speak to the complexity of loss, memory, love, race, gender, language and culture. I didn’t want readers to walk away from this book thinking, “Hm, well I guess the black American, or Latinx, or Pittsburgh or female experience is exactly like this,” because whatever “this,” is, it’s not that simple. Hybrid worked best to accommodate the clashes and nuances I wanted to explore in this book. I was also interested in resisting a strict chronological logic, and examining how jumps in time influence the reader’s experience of the speaker(s). What happens in the silences between poems and prose, what readers fill in for themselves, this interests me.
Genre-bending was liberating. I wrote this book while I was editing a novel and bouncing around Miami, Missouri, the Caribbean, North and Deep South, and it was exciting to write short things. I tapped into this freeing energy when I was writing; I came to the page without any expectations. The poem or short essay would be what it would be, I just had to write it.
What interest me about hybrid is how easily a genre-bending book can occupy so many spaces, identities, labels. I love how Jean Toomer, Gloria Anzaldua, Claudia Rankine, Jorge Luis Borges, Maggie Nelson, Julie Marie Wade, Denise Duhamel, Lyn Hejinian, Jorie Graham, Sonia Sanchez, Chris Campanioni, Louise Bennett, A. K. Ramanujan, Gabrielle Civil, and Okot p'Bitek and so many other writers I admire, have used hybrid to explore the in-betweenness of gender, love, culture, and technology. Hybrid also mimics my experience as a States-born Afro-Latina. Depending on where I am or what country I’m visiting, I’m black American one day, Puerto Rican the other, a negra another day, a woman, an American. And I really am all of those things. And all of the voices in this book reflect shades and corners of many communities and many kinds of people. So the hybrid form suited my interests in intersectional and intercultural identities, and how labels inform, fit, and defy.
The poems alternate between your black culture and your Puerto Rican culture, finding several connecting tissues between the two, in regards to political and economic struggle, state violence, and neglect from white society. How do your two cultures, and their many burdens and triumphs, affect you as a person and as an artist?
First off, it’s interesting that you highlighted “alternation” between two cultures. That’s something I was aiming for as a structural and thematic move---to shift between cultures, and to blend culture and language. My trajectory as an artist and as a person involved me moving through alternating spaces of whiteness, black American-ness and Latinidad. I grew up in the North, and during my childhood my cultural worlds were all separate; there was constant code-switching. I attended a primarily Caucasian school, went to black churches and hung out in the city on weekends; my Dad would take me South or to St. Louis; my mother would speak Spanish at home and sometimes she’d host Spanish-speaking exchange students. When I went to Puerto Rico in my early teens, it was a relief to find out I could be both black and Puerto Rican, and that “Puerto Rican” wasn’t just a race. There’s this conception in the States that Puerto Ricans mainly look mestiza, and that’s just not true. They’re white, black, mixed; most Puerto Ricans on the island are some mix of black, European, and Taino. It was also enlightening, as a teenager, to discover Afro-Latinidad isn’t just restricted to birthplace or phenotypical assignations. There are plenty of black Puerto Ricans in Puerto Rico that look like me, speak Spanish primarily and don’t identify with American culture. There are plenty of black Nuyoricans who identify as black Americans, but have two island-born negro parents. And I’ve met plenty of dark-skinned Puerto Ricans who occupy mixed spaces, who’ve gone back and forth between the States and PR, who speak “espanglish” or decide when to speak Spanish and English. My mother is mestiza, but my father is a Missouri-born black American, and his experiences and mine have been heavily influenced by the history of blackness in the States. I grew up with the States’ conception of blackness and Latinidad, as two “races” in opposition. As a teen, I saw that Latinidad and blackness aren’t always mutually exclusive.
The clear and harsh alternating between cultures started to ebb away when I left Pittsburgh, went to college, and started moving around more. I often occupied multiple identities at once. Sometimes I was just another black person. In Puerto Rico I was morena, negra, or American, in New York and DC I’ve been called Afro-Latina or Afro-Puerto Rican, in Louisiana and Tennessee I was Girl, in Miami folks would call me Dominican, Jamaican or Haitian, and when Miamians found out my mother was Puerto Rican they’d bring their own associations to that label. Still, for me, Puerto Rico is just as much a “culture” in its singularity and iterations, as it is a representation of my mother. PR culture and language are very important to my mother, and whatever is important to her is important to me. Because she’s my heart.
I will say, there’s this incredible loneliness when you feel like you don’t belong anywhere. There’s also a fantastic freedom in realizing you can be anything anywhere, or nothing at all. That you can find joy and love in plenty of communities. I think there’s a power in not knowing exactly who you are. You have to craft an identity for yourself. You decide who you’re going to be and how you’re going to get along.
In this book, the connections and disconnections between black, Latinx, and American culture, the resistance to stereotypes, the disparate voices, these are the spaces I live in as a person, and like to explore as a writer.
In the last poem of the book, you reflect on your family's connection to Rosa Parks, and you mention how the way the world views Rosa is, in many ways, the way you have viewed your father--by their achievements rather than their personhood. As an artist, how do you navigate your public persona and your private persona? Which do you ultimately want to be judged by?
This is a super thoughtful question, as all of these are. I think, for minorities, there’s a special sense of pride we have when we see folks that look like us succeed or take a stand. There’s that joke: every older black woman has a picture of Black Jesus, Martin Luther King and President Obama on her wall. I know Puerto Ricans have huge pride in their heroes. Whenever I go to PR, I see the faces of Héctor Lavoe, Willie Colón, Ismael Rivera, and Julia de Burgos graffitied on brick walls. This pride probably comes from your excitement that faces like yours are doing well. But it also might be because, whether it’s color, gender, sexuality, class or birthright, marginalized communities are intrinsically behind in the Western struggle for success. There’s this expectation that you must do everything right, go straight-up John Henry, to carve a real life for yourself. And when you do stand up for what you believe in, you jeopardize your job and safety, which can already be hard to come by. And since you know how callous the world can be, especially to displaced or marginalized communities who are tasked with defending their own existence, you don’t want to be in the same mob, pointing fingers. So this celebration of cultural heroes is about pride, joy, and preservation. A respect for the struggle and sacrifice.
I respect my father immensely. He grew up in segregated St. Louis, had a challenging life in many other ways, and became a highly successful nephrologist, who has saved more lives than he can probably count. I respect Rosa Parks, Obama, Martin Luther King, all of our “sacred” black heroes with all my heart. At the same time, I think excessive Saint-like veneration can come at the cost of de-humanization, which in its own way, is giving your hero limited honor. My father has done incredible things as a transplant researcher and doctor, but he’s also just an ethical, loving person who works his ass off, and has a lot on his plate. I respect him for balancing so many things and for persevering. When I was at the Rosa Parks museum at Troy, what struck me wasn’t just that Rosa sat down, and her history-making act triggered the Montgomery Boycott. It wasn’t just that she was a mild-mannered seamstress who’d had a long day, stayed in her seat, and accidentally became famous. She was more than that. What struck me, was that her choice to stay in her seat wasn’t just her defining moment, it was her turning point. Throughout her life, she’d been steadily frustrated with racial injustice and inequality. She was a black woman in the segregated South, she had to return to high school in her late teens after dropping out to take care of her mother. As a child, she was picked on for being black and almost threw a brick at a white kid because she was so frustrated but stopped herself. She married a self-educated activist and active member of the NAACP, and ended up becoming an NAACP branch secretary, and fought for voter rights. She got more and more “tired” of injustice, that tiredness wore on her brain. She said: “There is just so much hurt, disappointment and oppression one can take…. The line between reason and madness grows thinner.” That bus incident, which happened in her early forties, seemed to be the no turning back moment. She’d had enough. She was tired of being treated like she wasn’t human. She said: “I had been pushed around all my life and felt at this moment that I couldn’t take it anymore.” So this very human depiction of Rosa, which started to emerge when I went to Troy, and when I read her personal writings, really encouraged me. Her example was inspiring. Knowing more about her, even knowing she was related to my family, made me feel like it was OK to be human. To be frustrated, angry, get fed up. To stay put, and say I’m not moving until you see my (multi-faceted) humanity.
What interests me as a writer is the distance and negotiation between the public and personal. It’s difficult, I’d think, to have a public image that isn’t informed by the personal. Often, what you hide is just as telling as what you reveal. As a young woman, I was a generally private person because I was always afraid someone might hurt me with my own feelings. I didn’t like my name, as I discussed in “There is Also Rosa,” because folks assumed I was a Scottish white girl if they saw my name on paper. I always had to explain my culture. I was walking around with a slave master’s last name at a school where nobody looked like me, and I had to explain my mother’s culture if folks asked why she looked so different from me, my Dad, and my brother. As I got older, I just stopped caring about those things. I realized, depending on the situation, it’s important to put the personal out there. If you’re kind and treat people as well as you can, there are times when sharing yourself can really make a difference, make people feel less alone. That’s what books did for me, that’s what finding more about Rosa did, that’s what people who have shared their lives with me have done for me. Their stories became my stories and I felt more motivated to go forward.
But to directly answer your question, I don’t know, now, if there’s a difference between the public and personal, in my artistry or my life. For me, the public and personal are contextual; I see the public and personal as all sides of the same person; there’s not always a conscious shift. None of those sides are disingenuous—if I’m happily bouncing about, or if I’m crying on someone’s shoulder, or teaching a class, or really upset, or talking about books, these are all real sides of the same person. I do that in my writing too, if a story or situation or thought necessitates a certain genre, whether it’s fiction, non-fiction or poetry, that genre will suit the idea. When it comes to personal and private as two separate identities, in my life, I don’t know if I can fairly differentiate between the two.
As for your last question, man that’s a tough one. How would I like to be judged? This is just what I believe, but I like to think we’re all here to impact someone’s life or the lives of many someones over and again. We don’t need to know how or what we did, and sometimes we’re going to fail, and that’s okay. I hope as an artist, I would be judged by whether or not I’ve made some, even miniscule impact on someone’s life after they engage with my work. Even if that means thinking about something they never thought about before. As a human being, I think the goal would be a little more straightforward---who is hurting and how can I, within my means and knowledge, help who is hurting? If there’s something I should be doing, and clearly need to do, for someone else, and I’m not, then I’d judge myself for that. And I fail over and again, try to do better. The endless journey!
The book has an interesting relationship to sexuality, with your narrator keenly aware of their sexuality and desires, yet that innate sexuality is tainted by the way the world treats female sexuality. There are at times anger at the world for devaluing and perverting what should be a beautiful, joyous part of ourselves. Could you talk about the approach and messages you convey concerning sexuality throughout the text?
In We Should All Be Feminists, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says: “I have chosen to no longer be apologetic for my femaleness and my femininity….I want to be respected in all of my femaleness because I deserve to be.” I wanted to explore the fearlessness of female-ness, broadly, in this book. The demand for “femaleness” to be seen and respected. This is also why I used the collective “we” in several pieces. While the “we” might directly refer to a specific group of women in my prose/poems, I’m also forcing the reader, regardless of gender, to live in the minds of different kinds of women. They are “we.” I wanted readers to get a taste of how some women act when they are loved or abused, how their adolescence is formed or damaged, how they are celebrated, how they celebrate themselves, how they lust and love, how they grapple with double-standards, how they are no longer “apologetic for their femaleness.” As a woman, I push against plenty of gender stereotypes and expectations on a daily basis. Additionally, for many black and Latina women, our view of sexuality is obfuscated by racist stereotypes that tell us our bodies mean less, but should be sexualized more. They tell us black girls are superhumanly strong, hyper sexual or Mammies. Latinas are sexpots, tricky, loose. This is all so our cultures and bodies can be owned, reduced. Thus, we’re living with a constant awareness of sexual stereotypes, which is incredibly damaging to our views of sexuality and race. I’m obviously all for owning personhood and sexuality, regardless of stereotypes.
Ultimately, I wanted this book to include universal reclamations of “femaleness and femininity” as Adichie says. I wanted to examine and reassert self-ownership.
Are you working on anything new? Do you have any events lined up?
I’m editing long-form fiction, and writing poems and short essays. I’m also in my third-year at Mizzou’s Ph.D. program in literature and creative writing, and doing work for literary journals.
As of now, I’ll be reading at a few local venues, I’ll be on two panels at AWP, and I’m open to scheduling other events. Folks can check out my website for more info.