The third installment of excerpts from the next three fabulous finalists: Elena Schwolsky
, and Jasmina Nogo
! Check back here often-- we'll be posting excerpts from three finalists each weekday, from now until the winner is announced on September 7th.
All my best,
PATCHWORK JOURNEY, BY ELENA SCHWOLSKY
In her own words:
chronicles the lives of HIV positive Cubans of different backgrounds: Marta, the widow of a war hero who wrote a letter to Fidel demanding dignity for AIDS patients; Cesar, a young gay man who shared the master bedroom in his mother’s Havana apartment with his lover; Jorge, who refused to enter the Sanitarium; and Roberto, one of Cuba’s inyectados
, a small group who injected themselves with the HIV virus in order to take advantage of the better standard of living in the Sanitarium. Together we began the sewing of the first Cuban AIDS quilt panel, which culminated in the ground-breaking 1997 display of Proyecto Memorias
(Project Memories), the Cuban AIDS Memorial Quilt Project, in the plaza of the national Capitol building in Havana. Woven through this personal narrative are vignettes of the comedy and hardship of daily life in Cuba, and my ongoing search for the meaning and impact of AIDS on my own life and world. At a time when the U.S. seems poised to end the decades old ban on travel to Cuba, Patchwork Journey
provides a nuanced picture of Cuba’s controversial response to AIDS, as well as an intimate view of daily life in Cuba not often found in the U.S. media or travel accounts.
Ten years since my last visit to Cuba, I find myself on the corner of 28th St. and 7th Avenue in Manhattan on a chilly fall evening in 2009 waiting for the Megabus to deliver my friend Cesar from Cuba via Boston.
“My hair is gray now, not red anymore.” I had told him when he called to arrange the trip, “and I’m gordita, bien gordita
.” I have stopped dying my hair since Cesar saw me last, and put on weight. Cesar was a young, handsome computer expert with boundless energy when we worked together at the AIDS Sanitarium in Havana and he shared his stories of being HIV positive in Cuba with me. What will he look like now?
A skim latte from the Starbucks across the street warms my hands as I scan each group of passengers disembarking from the double-decker budget buses that pull up continuously on the corner. Finally I spot him—his beard is gone, his hair sprinkled with gray and, like me, he is heavier. Cesar is studying for his PhD in epidemiology in Cuba and has been at Harvard for a month as part of a Rockefeller Foundation exchange program. He clasps me in a bear hug, then pulls back for a closer look.
“Mamashka!” he exclaims, using his pet name for me, “Let’s go to Times Square.”
Unmistakably the ebullient Cesar I remember, he doesn’t stop exclaiming and chattering as we walk up Broadway. There are neon lights and signs everywhere and he insists on posing for a photo in front of each large billboard we pass. “Where is the smoking Camel?” he shouts. I hardly ever come to this Disneyfied Times Square anymore, but Cesar is like a kid skipping down the street, digital camera in hand. “Where is the scrolling news ticker?” His mother was here before the revolution and she never forgot it. He wants a picture to show her. Un guajiro
in Times Square he calls himself-- a “hick”. But since I last saw him Cesar has traveled the globe as a representative of Cuba’s AIDS Prevention Group—Paris, Geneva, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Germany.
We take the R train to Brooklyn, to the century old brownstone I share with my boyfriend, my daughter Angelica and Camilo, my seven year old grandson. As I walk Cesar down the long hallway between the front door and the kitchen to rustle up a bite to eat, he pauses in front of my wall of family photos. My late husband Clarence is there, looking solemnly off into the distance next to one of the many trees on which we had tied yellow, black and green ribbons on the eve of Nelson Mandela’s release from prison in South Africa. It has been twenty years since Clarence died of AIDS in the ICU of a small Catholic hospital in New Jersey--twenty years!
Late that night Cesar and I sit side by side in front of my computer watching a video that he has brought me about Proyecto Memorias
, the Cuban AIDS Quilt project we started together. “We take the Quilt on a recorrida
around the island every few months now,” he tells me as the opening visuals appear and soft piano music swells in the background. “People are so impressed and moved by it.” The video charts this tour on a map of the island. At each little municipal park or plaza the opening ritual of unfolding each quilt block, lifting it high in the air, walking it in a full circle, and then laying it gently on the ground is repeated with a different group of volunteers. I am riveted by this evidence of the way in which our little project, which started with one quilt panel in the spring of 1996, has grown.
As the credits roll, Cesar fills me in on some other history that is not reflected in the video, except perhaps by the absence of any acknowledgement of my part in this project, which I am trying hard not to notice and feel bad about.
“They stopped us, you know, for about a year and a half,” he says, waving the DVD emphatically around in the air as he invokes the mysterious “they.” “We couldn’t display the quilt. They wanted to do away with the AIDS Prevention Group. Can you imagine after all our work? But we fought hard to keep it going.”
“Why do you think they stopped it?” I ask, remembering all of our discussions about whether we needed to get permission as we sewed the first panel on those humid, sticky days in Alberto’s house at the Sanitarium. And my confusion about how decisions were made and who “they” was.
“Tu sabes, Elenita.
You know, the whole “American” thing, someone decided they didn’t like it. That’s why we couldn’t put your name in the video. But I always start every display by saying an American nurse came to Cuba and helped us make our first AIDS quilt panel.” There are over 70 panels now, Cesar tells me, and, at least for the moment, they are back on the road again.
It’s late when we finally say goodnight, but I toss and turn for awhile, images of Clarence, of the kids I cared for, of my Cuban friends turning in my head, like a quilt block unfolded and lifted high in the air, turning and turning.
RAISING SIMONE AND NADIA, BY HONEYSMOKE
In her own words:
Raising Simone and Nadia
traces the experiences I have had as a black mother raising biracial daughters who look more like their white father. Before Simone is born, my husband and I believe she will look like me, and I am overwhelmed when she does not. White women ask me if Simone is mine, and black women shake their heads in disbelief. My grandmother calls Simone Caucasian and blames me for her skin color. At age 3, Simone reveals that I am black and she is white. Despite all of this, my husband and I decide to have a second child, Nadia. The book is a moving account of race relations and will inform readers and challenge them to rethink their feelings on this still hot-button issue. Despite diversity in the White House, and a growing acceptance of multiculturalism, the one-drop rule still applies in many quarters.
Simone snuggled up beside me and pointed to my face.
"Mommy," she said, "is a black girl."
How observant, I thought, for a 3-year-old to make such a distinction. "Yes," I said, "Mommy is a black girl."
"Simone," she continued, "is a white girl."
In all the time I had dreamed about being a mother and teaching my daughter about her African and European heritage, nothing had prepared me for a statement like this.
I demanded to know who had told her such a thing, but my question was met with silence.
"Well, you're a black girl," I said, knowing that I wasn't being any more accurate than she had been a few moments earlier.
Simone repeated her newfound knowledge to Ken and added, "Daddy is a white boy."
Ken told her she was neither white nor black. "You have the best of both worlds."
His explanation wasn't perfect, but it was certainly better than mine.
For a moment, my mind drifted back to our wedding day, when raising children seemed so far away, when we were just one of the 1.4 million interracial couples tying the knot. In the four decades since the U.S. Supreme Court struck down bans on interracial marriages, the numbers had climbed and totaled 4 percent of the nation's 59.5 million marriages.
That meant there were more families like mine addressing similar questions.
Back inside our Alabama home, I was uncomfortable. I felt as though someone were watching our every move. I knew, by the way Ken and I reacted, that our latest dilemma was significant. If we flubbed this one, the one we had known was coming, how could we possibly be counted on to find the right things to say about boys, drugs, choosing the best college or any of those other tough parenting subjects?
After talking with Francis Wardle, executive director for the Center for the Study of Biracial Children and a father of four biracial children, I realized I could no longer watch what was happening from afar.
Children between the ages of 3 and 5, he said, are becoming aware of their physical appearance and starting to make comparisons. Girls often do this before boys.
"She has two choices," he said. "She is either the same as you or the same as her father. There isn't a third option." At her age, race is an abstract concept and difficult to grasp.
She was not the only one having a tough time. I sent e-mails to my girlfriends, recounting the conversation. No one knew what to say. I relied on the one-drop rule. There was no way a black woman could deliver a white child. I am her mother, her black mother, the woman who carried her for nine months.
My grandmother, though, was sure I, her black granddaughter, had delivered a white child. A few months after Simone’s birth, I telephoned to see whether she had received a few photographs of Simone. Yes, she had, and she had something to say about them.
"You didn't do nothing for yourself," she said.
I knew immediately she was talking about race and skin tone. "Well, Mom was light-skinned," I said.
"Light-skinned? That child ain't light-skinned. She's Caucasian."
"Don't you think she has my eyes and nose?"
"Nah, she is the spitting image of Ken, like he went, 'puh,'" she said, making a spitting sound.
"Grandma, don't you think she will have curly hair like mine?"
"What does her hair look like now?"
"It's straight," I said.
"There you go."
Strangers doubted Simone was my daughter; my grandmother chastised me for her complexion. I had been disappointed I had not received the pretty brown baby doll I had imagined. How could I survive assaults from all sides?
UNTITLED, BY JASMINA NOGO
In her own words:
I started my memoir about the war in Bosnia after traveling back for the first time since my family fled from the war in 1995. Being there again after nearly ten years, I found myself reliving the memories viscerally and physically. I'm passionate about my project because it tells a child's personal story of war in a way that doesn't occupy itself with the politics and economics that are characteristic of so many war stories. Upon my return to Bosnia, I was startled by how preoccupied people were with numbers, politics, parties and treaties and felt that the actual emotional stains of the war were being buried and ignored. My memoir is an important story that needs to be told because it shows the honest effects of war on a life, on a family, and on a little girl instead of resorting to cold facts that seem to detach us from the reality of war.
[0ur babysitter] Hema had the most electric and contagious laugh. She looked kind of like a horse because her teeth were large and her jaw seemed unhinged like a horse’s does when it’s chewing on hay. She was one of those people that could make an entire room erupt in flames of laughter just by laughing herself. Her small body quaked and her crooked, coffee-stained teeth protruded from her jaw. She laughed when my dad yelled at her for forgetting to clean the bathroom, she laughed when I fell down the stairs and got a black eye, she laughed when she was nervous, she laughed when she cried, she even laughed when she came home one day with a bullet through her left breast after she’d been shot while getting water for our family at the pump. I always wondered how she found humor in a life that was so lonely and sad.
She laughed the night my dad lurched for her across the dining room table and pulled her hair. She must have been scared and humiliated, she must have wanted to burst into tears and say she was sorry, but she just laughed at him when he accused her of stealing our money. In his outrage he reached across the table and threw his hand out as though he was about to hit her in the face, but he pulled her hair instead. That afternoon he had searched her room because we had been missing money and he found a box of bills under her bed. I didn’t understand what was happening. I watched in silence as my dad turned into a monster before my own eyes. He told her she had a week to leave our house and that he never wanted to see her again.
I slept with my mom that night, holding the cold part of her upper arm, pressing my head into her armpit. My dad snored on the other side with his back turned to us, his flat pillow lying on top instead of beneath his head. My mom cried silently, thinking I was asleep, and I felt her tears roll onto my cheek. She loved Hema even though she stole from us and even though she lied. She didn’t want to put her out on the streets of Sarajevo.
When our streets turned dangerous in 1992 and snipers lined up along the mountains, even my dad didn’t have the heart to throw Hema out. First we listened to shots being fired around the city and hoped it would die down within a few days. Days turned into weeks and as we obsessively watched the news every day, life got worse and worse. Supplies were getting cut off from the city, food was running out, businesses were shutting down, and people were fleeing from their homes. Soon the power went out and we couldn’t even watch the news. Hema stayed and hid with us in the cellar. My dad never spoke to her and he barely ever glanced her way.
She went out to get the water that day. It was one of those silent fall days when the trees were naked and seemed like they were dead and frozen in time and it was so intensely sunny that you could barely see where you were walking from the sun’s rays stabbing your eyes. There hadn’t been sniper fire in a few days so we weren’t in the basement. I was upstairs in my grandparent’s bedroom, the sunniest in the house, and I was watching the pigeons and the doves nesting above the window when I heard her come in. I never saw any blood. My grandmother cleaned her and wrapped her chest in rags by the time I went downstairs. She was sitting at the dining room table, paler than chalk, but it was like she was laughing at her pain. She’d been shot by a nearby sniper while she was standing in line for water and her left breast saved her life. The bullet went straight through her breast. Had it been centimeters off, it would have hit her heart and killed her.
She rested for a few days, locking herself in her room and making herself as invisible as she could. After she healed she tried to go unnoticed by slipping out only to drink water and to eat when she had to. One day I heard my dad yelling at my mom. She was defending Hema but he was furious. She’d been stealing powdered milk and food from us. Only Sabina and I drank the powdered milk formula because it was so scarce. My dad kept yelling and my mom just cried.
“She has to go,” Dad said.
“Where?” Mom pleaded.
“I don’t care, just not here,” he said.
“You know that war makes good people do bad things,” Mom said.
“I don’t care.” Dad was expressionless. “She has to go.”