KENNETH CLARKE: It is not a worship service, nor is it the typical academic lecture. Nothing against either one of those. It is a moment when words and music are interwoven to appeal to the aesthetic, the intellectual, and the spiritual. It is an experience where intellect and spirit interface with the pressing public and global issues of our time. It is a midday, mid-week break in the action of our busy lives and schedules, and from the stresses of our present reality, to gather, to reflect, to be inspired. It is what we bring to, and derive from, our shared time together. It is you. It is me. It is Sage Wednesdays.
Our speaker for this final segment of Sage Wednesdays is Helena Maria Viramontes, professor of English at Cornell. She will be introduced to us by her colleague, Professor Ken McClane, also of the Department of English momentarily. She will speak to us today in our final installment of our series on writers, Listening to the Muse Within, from the famed Scripted Language-- Writing is the Only Way I Know How to Pray.
Before Ken comes, we will be graced by music from our wonderful colleagues who are with us this afternoon.
[MUSIC - "DE COLORES"]
[SINGING IN SPANISH]
KENNETH MCCLANE: Hello. In Helena Viramontes's remarkable group, [SPANISH], we discover how she learned to read and write in a house rich with personal stories and large, wondrous personalities and few books. Reading in English, of course, was a complex undertaking for a Mexican immigrant family. English was both a symbol of possibility, and a symbol of one's marginal status. It both suggested what was open to Helena, and what was, sadly, foreclosed.
And yet, like Frederick Douglass, Helena became a master of the English language, writing stories and novels. I think of her remarkable book of stories, The Moths, and her stellar novels, Under the Feet of Jesus and Their Dogs Came with Them, considered rightfully by many of us among the best works of modern American fiction.
Her stories have been prolifically anthologized, and for good reason. She is a master of melding rich detail with uncompromising metaphoric and lyric intensity. Her fiction is often touted for its great generosity.
And that is Helena in a word-- big-hearted. In her classes, in her relationships with staff and faculty, and in her near-bottomless enthusiasm for human potentiality, Helena argues for our ineludable responsibility towards one another. As she recently said to me, "I refuse to believe that we can't become better." Indisputably, Helena never forgets how important reading, writing, and literature are to our lives. To our spiritual lives.
In her classes, students learn, of course, about the intricacies of narrative and versification. But more importantly, they learn about their responsibility to the world. As Helena Viramontes knows, good writing is an act of supreme munificence.
For the failure to view others with an eye towards charity is the failure, alas, to see oneself and the possibilities inherent in oneself. For we are all involved and interdependent, no matter how difficult our tanglings. And we all need, in our darkest hours, corroboration and love.
Indeed, love makes one a social activist, for love is incompatible with inhumanity. And as we accept love, we can pro-offer it. And if we do not do that, for what else are we here? For Helena, writing at bottom is a profoundly humanizing and ethical act.
Like all true social activists, Helena Viramontes time and time again is willing to risk everything-- job, ease, and even writing-- for what she believes is right. And thus, though she is the director of the creative writing program, she often works tirelessly teaching at Auburn Prison, driving 50 miles from Ithaca each way. Not for the inmates, but for herself, as she told me.
Like her fighting husband, Eloy Rodriguez, she will not be silent when anyone is diminished, ridiculed, or nullified. Be it when she was a migrant worker, organizing the dispossessed, or in the halls of academia, where she has raised her voice often against corporate irresponsibility, meanness, or simple idiocy. I know I have often been the benefactor of her courage.
We have few heroes in the world. Few people who, driven by an inextinguishable commitment to decency, stand courageously against intolerance, stupidity, and malevolence wherever they appear. If there is a wrong, I can guarantee that Helena will be there, quietly but forcefully mitigating, militating against it.
And yet she never seems overwrought. Tired at times, yes. But eternally rejuvenated with that seemingly unconquerable force which says yes to life.
Introductions are a time to say thanks. To celebrate those who have so mightily celebrated us. I am just sincerely thankful that she is in the world. Please welcome my great friend, hero, and national treasure, Helena Viramontes.
HELENA VIRAMONTES: What a beautiful way to begin this, with Ken introducing me, and also with-- what a great song, De Colores.
I'd like to begin this offering to you by providing two quote. The first one. "My only regret is not being able to confide in you all that I still bear under-developed within me," unquote. Simone [? Veil. ?] The second one. "My aim is not to be consistent with my previous statements on any given question, but to be consistent with truth as it may present itself to me at any given moment. The result has been that I have grown from truth to truth." Mahatma Gandhi.
A few years ago, during the dark years of the Bush administration, professor of modern literature and former English department chair, Molly Hite, instituted a new course called Great Cornell Novels. Her idea was to teach the "great" writings of Cornell students and faculty past and present. On the list were such illuminaries as Kurt Vonnegut, Toni Morrison, Vladimir Nabokov.
I was both secretly pleased but outwardly humbled when she included my novel, Under the Feet of Jesus, on her syllabus. Thus without reservation, I accepted an invitation to speak with her students. I never arrive in these situations with preconceived notions of delivering enlightenment, especially when it comes to my own work. In fact, I entertain a running assumption that unless told otherwise, I carry more away with me than what I may leave behind.
Thus my intuition told me to go into the classroom and have a conversation with the students, rather than conduct prolonged commentaries on the novel. I have come to realize that the longer the spoke, the larger the tire.
I was also eager to enter into a dialogue out of an insatiable curiosity with what Raymond Carver called "news from another world." For it strikes me that as I grow older each year, the students continue to remain the same age.
As I do in most of my presentations, I introduced myself, giving a thumbnail history of myself, my family, followed by a description of the geohistory of my beloved east Los Angeles community. Through my fiction, I have discovered that the development of my identity as a Mexican-American woman-- a Chicana-- was deeply rooted in historical moments and in my geographical location, which allowed me to stand firmly within the realms of reality, but reach far into the universe of possibilities.
I told them I also considered myself fortunate to have lived through the decades of the '60s and '70s. These years were crucial in fermenting the nation's cultural shifts by inquiry and/or collective rebellion and forced us, wilfully or non-wilfully, to reassess our American and ethnic cultural myths and get real. To get real, a term often used during these particular decades, meant to be honest, to face the truth. The implication being that we had not until then been truthful.
Unless you consciously chose not to, it was impossible not to be engaged in consciousness raising as ways of organized political movements pushed forward with urgency, speed, and commitment. The anti-war marches of the Vietnam era loomed large against the backdrop of the community's grassroot efforts for better education. Some movements, like the Chicano movements, were offsprings of the civil rights movement, while others, like the women's equality campaigns, were organized precisely because of the benign neglect of these larger movements.
Large or small, these activisms always involved alternative education. This consciousness raising was held between the covers of a book, in the halls of academia, in an abandoned school house, someone's living room, in the agricultural fields, or in a church. At the core of these movements, which ignited the minds and hearts of millions of young people, was the unmistakable belief in social justice.
In 1971, at 17, I entered Immaculate Heart College, a four-year liberal arts college, and immediately joined the United Farm Workers support coalition. It was a natural fit. During the summers of my youth, my father packed us all in his Ford truck. And we were driven to Easton, a city outside of Fresno, California, where we picked grapes under a brutal sun.
I knew firsthand the inhumane work, the child labor, the lack of toilets, the lack of shade and water under devastating heat. It was precisely these personal experiences that would later inform the material for Under the Feet of Jesus.
Likewise, whenever I stood in front of the Safeway markets, passing out leaflets explaining the great boycott and the working conditions of the farm working community, or whenever I volunteered in a clothes or medical drive for the UFW, I firmly believed I was transforming the world for people very much like my family. And so my first political act at 17 was driven by a profound sense of familial love. It was through this love that I began to believe that, however small my actions were, they represented at least some meaningful effort against the darkness of social injustice.
And once that belief settled in me, I felt powerful. I am not referring to the power that induces fear, but the power of no longer fearing. Of being unafraid to love grandly and fiercely. Love inspired me to pull up my sleeves and stuff envelopes, sing triumphs, or weep frustration, speak up, however clumsily, and above all, dare to admit that this heart of mine had the capacity to love infinitely without limitation.
From the energy of these convictions, almighty hope arrived like morning light, generous enough to give shape and form to everything. Practicing love, fearlessness, and imagination proved that I could conduct myself in a way that would contribute to a collective good. As I continued preaching the importance of the great boycott, I glowed with the light of youthful idealism and commitment.
Interestingly enough, belief in one's activism and actually having a transforming effect on a society were two very different matters. I had a notion that if I explained the importance of the boycott and the impact it would have in improving farmworking life, then good and decent people would respond affirmatively.
But this wasn't the way the narrative played out. People remained good and decent, but continued buying grapes. The UFW boycott continued year after year without success.
Finally, Cesar Chavez decided on a new strategy when he realized that most people were incapable of caring for the farmworking community. They failed to see the imprints of farm workers on the vegetables and fruits they ate every day. They didn't see a direct connection until UFW brought to the center stage the issue of pesticides. Suddenly, consumers' health was at stake, and the two constituencies began to share a deep and concerned connection.
I shared this and other thoughts with Professor Hite's students. We bantered our Q&A until I was struck silent by one student's comment. Close to the end of the period, a student told me how refreshing it was to hear of my optimism, and how original for him to see that I truly believed in the power of one more.
I thanked him, and then immediately asked how he felt, what he believed in. He looked at me and said, quietly, shamefully, I think I feel so overwhelmed by all that is happening in the world that it's better not to think about things.
I was caught off-guard by his sad, almost helpless tone, but was not surprised. Because I, too, had lately begun to succumb to a sense of powerlessness over my destiny. That of the nation, of the Earth. Remember, these were the worst of the Bush administration years, and newspapers boldly headlined global doom.
I had started to respond to my own worries with a "whatever," or, "so what?" Rather than ask, "what if?" My world was so fast-paced, it was almost impossible for me to stop and think clearly. It was not that I was uncaring, but to acknowledge such enormous suffering terrorized me.
That night, while I lay awake, I thought about my role as a writer, and what I needed to do to get back that faith that had become so much a part of my fiction. For you see, without it, there was no reason for me to continue writing.
I came into literacy around the kitchen table in the house where I grew up. My large extended familia talked and laughed in low voices late at night, so as not to wake the rest of the household. Poignant exchanges of loneliness over a cup of coffee, plots for future over a card game, intrigues of loves lost or won over a few beers. I heard grown men sobbing their drunken stories, women laughing at their delightful secrecy, and the stories of my relatives who had crossed the border and stayed with us until enough money was saved.
I was in the next room, in a communal bed with my younger siblings, in drowsy wakefulness, listening, feeling as if the darkness erased all sin. I listened with the same fascination I'd know waiting outside a confessional booth for my turn. Whatever sense of guilt I felt about eavesdropping quickly evaporated into a dual sensation of cozy security and intense scrutiny.
Security in listening to the voices of adults that, by day, were rushed, unpredictable, exhausted, and hellish; but by night, relaxed into open murmurs that expanded in the gratitude brought by an evening breeze. And in the scrutiny I knew instinctively, somehow I would learn something significant if I pay close attention. I fought sleep, no matter how tired.
The only other time I felt this instinct to pay close attention was at the public library. Public solely in the sense that the books belonged to everyone, and since I was a part of the everyone equation, the books all belonged to me. There I sat, reading quietly in the public domain, among a diversity of people, including the homeless.
Much later, I would come to understand why reading was both a subversive act and imperative for my survival. But back then, because I was raised in a bookless home, books took on an aura of sacrament.
This sacredness had begun to develop once we acquired a set of World Book encyclopedias that my father bought on credit in 1965. They were uniformally elegant, squeezed together on the top of the buffet table in the living room, because they looked so majestically beautiful. Like the lush, purple velvet used to drape the statues of the Holy Family during Lent.
Unfortunately, we younger ones were not allowed. We younger ones were not only prohibited from entering the living room, but as my father bought the book set on credit, we were harshly instructed not to touch the volumes. Of course, I was willing to take a chance and immediately beehived to the books, picking out my volumes. Then rushing to the bathroom, which had a good functioning door lock.
There in privacy, I was left alone to read about shoelaces; where the pancreas was located; where the order of the brilliant, varied, colored planets bobbing like loose cork against the black expand became the solar system; what the combinations of colors made maroon; how airplanes stayed in the air; why important people were important; and so on.
In my naivete, it did not take long for me to form a belief that any worldly question or curiosity that caught my eclectic wonder could be researched in the volumes of the encyclopedias. This belief was just about the best that God had to offer me at the time.
Around the same time, my oldest sister, Mary Ann, bought the most stunning Bible imaginable. With her fiance stationed in Vietnam, Mary Ann found solace on those sleepless nights reading the Bible she kept in her underwear drawer right next to her deep blue jar of Noxzema.
The Bible was as thick as a school dictionary, and its cover had the texture of melted marshmallows. Its glossy pages were gold-trimmed and its weight announced a solemn reverence. This, too, was out of bounds. That is, until Mary Ann left for work. Then I'd open her drawer, lift out the Bible, and read.
Though the angels were gauzy, blond, blue-eyed, and looking nothing like us, I enjoyed reading the various parables. And lest I get caught, immediately returned the Bible to its rightful place. At night, I'd entertain my younger sisters and brother by retelling the parables, learning fast to stay close to the essence of the story, but taking liberties anyway since I had to keep a captive audience.
I came to understand that the Bible, the encyclopedias, and the tales heard at night through the bedroom door, told in tones of secrecy and gravity, formed my profound belief that stories offered me lessons in life. A gift of illuminating insight, practical knowledge of the ways to conduct oneself in a world as incomprehensible as adult behavior.
I realize now that, unconsciously, the encyclopedia symbolized all the information in the world. And the Bible, with its voice of God-like authority and other worldliness, led me to believe that stories carried a supernatural significance of which faith would have to play an integral part.
But where was my faith now? The rhetoric of hatred and the chaotic politic mixing with mass ultra-patriotism after the 9/11 tragedy reduced language to essentialist notions. We were asked to forgo meaning, bury possibilities, and see the world in the most restricted and oppositional ways.
More so, our former leaders had corrupted language in ways that were unforgivable, and the speak that permeated the Bush years no longer contained even a shred of authentic moral currency. For example, according to Andrew Sullivan, writing in the Sunday Times of London, the Bush administration's description of torture as quote, "enhanced interrogation," unquote, was exactly the same terminology that was used by the Gestapo of Nazi Germany.
As a writer of conscience, I had to return to faith. And I did so as I began to see faith in the written world as a political act of resistance against the corruption of language, which was for me a corruption of humanity. When we dehumanize language, we dehumanize ourselves. And it makes it easier to act inhumanely.
If you believe that those you act upon violently are not human, why the murder of Dr. George Tiller and the gay university student Matthew Shepard, and the massive sweeps and deportation of "illegal aliens," the shooting rampages in schools and in immigration classrooms and on military bases. When language is used to create remoteness between us, the lack of mirrored recognition of mutual suffering fractures whatever reflections we might share.
On the other hand, to practice empathy and the welfare of others reveals heartfelt efforts to establish these connections. This action alone makes us bigger and better human beings. Indeed, it was too overwhelming to join activism against such dehumanizing language without taking the most important first step. I began with myself once again.
I worked on the recognition of what Gandhi described as, quote, "the better side of human nature, in order to enter men's hearts," unquote. Rather than allow all that was wrong in human action, I began to seek to remember our better half.
This calmed me down, and allowed me to be in a place that Toni Morrison described as, quote, "being in the company of your own mind," unquote. To relieve and release tension, to acknowledge, firstly, that I am suffering, and then to acknowledge that I see your suffering, too.
How can I hate someone when I can imagine the loneliness in which they are eclipsed? Or when someone is cruel and wants to do violence to me, I cannot fully be driven to hate them when I imagine them as a son or a daughter of a mother, or as a person who has been injured. Ancient philosopher Philo of Alexandria wrote, "Be kind to others, for everyone is fighting a great battle," unquote.
This one compassion and acknowledgement becomes mercy. A suspension of my suffering because I am no longer obsessed with my own hurt, but connect to the injuries of others.
Vietnamese Buddhist monk, poet, scholar, and human rights activist, Thich Nhat Hahn, writes in his book, Calming the Fearful Mind-- A Zen Response to Terrorism. This is his quote. "If you don't have the qualities of stability, peace, and freedom inside of you, then no matter what you do, you cannot help the world. It is not about doing something. It's about being something. Being peace, being hope, being solid. Every action will come out of that, because peace, civility, and freedom always seek a way to express themselves in action."
To achieve these qualities, Hahn describes the exercise of mindfulness as a practice of calming ourselves down. Mindfulness is living with the awareness of what you are presently doing. It is a lifelong experience of experimentation.
If I remind myself to breathe deeply, I am being mindful of the air I inhale, the scent that it brings. If I remind myself that I am walking, I am mindful of the muscles of my feet, the crush of fallen leaves on the moistened earth under them, the movement of a mobile body. All that is mindful arrives with a renewed sense and awareness that inflates a larger loving significance to animal, human, and plant life, and webs my connection to it all. At once I realized that I belong to something larger, some mysterious creative force of life that William Blake identified as God.
As I become aware of my senses and pay attention, another hidden reality reveals itself. A truer one that pushes out all that is trivial, and allows me to begin to understand basic humane connections. By this, by looking deeply into myself, I can begin to attach a deeper meaning to the little details that make up who we are.
Once we are calm, once we can imaginatively create mutual investments, it is much more difficult to pull the trigger, let a bomb drop. Mindfulness also settles into a rational state, making one a better listener, and caring enough to become a better listener.
When I tell something to someone-- when I describe something I like about what they do in a writing workshop, for example-- surely I am not telling them everything of what I think. But in describing something positive, I am giving them access to something that they may, at the moment, not have seen, but in the future will remember.
In other words, I challenge my student writers to imagine and push beyond what they can achieve. To imagine otherwise. Not to see things as they necessarily are. But to imagine what can get better, giving them an awareness of the fictional dimensions of their personalities.
The person before me is not simply who he or she seems to be, but infinitely something more. Something beyond what we could ever know. I have begun to think compassionately by not confining that person or myself to a predetermined plot or narrative. But by accepting the fact that we are all rough drafts of ourselves, and need to commit ourselves to writing a more compassionate narrative, a more fulfilling script of our lives.
Being compassionate leaves the possibilities for certain-- excuse me-- leaves the possibility for creation infinite, unconstrained, untethered to predefined imperatives. For me, compassion is fiction. The ability to bestow fiction on others, to give others the possibility of fictionalizing themselves.
Our lives are not set in stone, not fixed, static, dead. It is a living testament that if we write every day, we are simply being. We are entering a conversation about imagining a better draft, a better self.
In conclusion, I'll leave you with one more thought. One more challenge to your compassionate, fertile imaginations. Take any wrongdoing, any social injustice, any war, and be mindful. Feel deeply for those who have died, and for those who have been murdered, and for those who continue to survive. Multiply the feeling a thousandfold, to own the daily sorrowful howls of the innocent men, women, and children dying here in the US and around the world.
If you do as I ask, as I do every day as a practice, then you may find the capacity to live your life as a revision, where all things are possible. Thank you.
Am I supposed to do Q&A? [INAUDIBLE]
KENNETH CLARKE: We want to give you an opportunity now to ask any questions of Professor Viramontes about her presentation. Please feel free to engage her at this time.
SPEAKER 1: Yes. What you just spoke, is that an essay that you had? [INAUDIBLE]
HELENA VIRAMONTES: Yes, it was an essay that I'd been-- well, I've been working on these ideas and thinking about them. Because I'm a very instinctual writer, and when I come up with a sentence, like "writing is the only way I know how to pray," what is it that I mean exactly? When I talk about revisions and revising ourselves, what is it that I mean exactly?
And so these are questions that I try to find language for, because once you find language for them, then they become a thought. And once you have a thought, then it can become possible for it to be an action. So yeah, it's different ideas.
SPEAKER 1: But is it something in print?
HELENA VIRAMONTES: Pardon?
SPEAKER 1: Do you have essays you've written that are on this subject?
HELENA VIRAMONTES: You know, it's so interesting. I'm working on a collection of essays that actually started off very-- they're sort of explaining my background. And I get to a decade where I try to analyse why I'm doing the things that I'm doing. But these last few essays beginning 2000.
I guess it's because I've become older, too, and more honest with myself, and trying to really think about things that are very important to me. So I think they're ambitious in the sense only of trying to find the language.
Really, if I remember my first visit to Cornell, Reeve Parker picked me up. This was close to 16 years ago. And the first thing I asked Reeve Parker to do is-- I had just gotten a call right before I came here that I had just gotten offered a three-book contract. And so I flew over here, and I asked her, can we come to Sage Chapel? Because I got to give thanks.
Thanks! Remember? It was very accommodating. I was risking whether I was going to say something not right. But Reeve was very accommodating. Yes, we sat here quietly for a little while. Yes?
SPEAKER 2: What do you conceive of as your unique contribution [INAUDIBLE]
HELENA VIRAMONTES: What do I-- well, I guess the only thing that I can think-- for me. The only thing that I can say is that I'm beginning to understand how these simple mechanisms of just being more attentive, more of what James [INAUDIBLE] called being noticers.
And this is what we do in writing. We become more alert. We become more observant. But [INAUDIBLE] and observant. [INAUDIBLE] Because it's a good practice.
And just by those little practices, you can begin to actually understand what it would be like to be compassionate. And my god, we need a lot more of that. I mean, I even tried to [INAUDIBLE] too, because your first instinct when somebody opposes you and imposes you in an ugly, violent way, your first instinct is to fear. Then your instinct is to fight back. Fight in a way that is not productive.
But if I don't fear, if I'm coming from a place of thinking, why are you so angry? What is it about you? [INAUDIBLE] person understand who that person is, and in the process, I'm understanding that person. Which is what we do [INAUDIBLE] And so I guess the practice of writing is a religious practice.
So that's my contribution. But more than anything else, I try to make sense of things to myself first. Because if it's the last thing-- writing is [INAUDIBLE] And so these type of things are good. But writing's the only way I can offer you something. Yes, here.
SPEAKER 3: I guess what I'm about to say is [INAUDIBLE] And I see his hands at work. Sometimes [INAUDIBLE] when I think back [INAUDIBLE] about two months ago.
HELENA VIRAMONTES: Oh, thank you.
SPEAKER 3: I found things in it that I hadn't seen before. [INAUDIBLE] things. [INAUDIBLE] That's a [INAUDIBLE]
HELENA VIRAMONTES: Well, I mean, hands. I mean, we have these hands. How could we refuse to help somebody, or to care for somebody? It's basic humanity. But we thank you. Yes, OK. I know you've been wanting to ask [INAUDIBLE]
SPEAKER 4: [INAUDIBLE]
HELENA VIRAMONTES: You know what's so hard for me? Going back to try to find language that will [INAUDIBLE] This is, again, the act of a writer. And what I try to do and [INAUDIBLE] there was a couple of things I didn't do. One of them is I didn't create a villain. I didn't create somebody that the [INAUDIBLE] I didn't.
Really, truly, what my aim was-- because I still believe in basic human decency. I do. I think we're wonderful people. I think we really have the capability to be wonderful. And we've shown it time and time and time again. And I think that this is what I wanted to show people.
Look it. We're human beings like you. We love. We love. We lust. We laugh. We fight. We suffer. And we're like you. We're like you. This is our world.
And so that was my primary goal. Just to humanize this particular family precisely for that feeling that you feel. I mean, you're from Turkey, right? And you feel close to that. You know, that's the greatest compliment that we can have as writers.
Thank you. It worked! Thank you. Thank you.
SPEAKER 5: Oh, I wanted to ask you this. Something that I [INAUDIBLE] And I think that [INAUDIBLE] sharing your full self around me [INAUDIBLE]
HELENA VIRAMONTES: Well, you know, we all have the capacity to be spiritual. But there is a difference between that and religion. But I was raised a Catholic. So [INAUDIBLE] But my mother was raised a Mormon. So she was iffy on the Catholic side.
But at the same time, the mysticism-- even being in spaces like this, they have a sense of profundity to them, and gravity of being there. Going to a church was something-- I mean, that's why when I came, I wanted to come to a space and sit quietly and give thanks. Though it's important for me to come to spaces like this. But there is.
I think we're all very similar. I mean, when you think about it, here we are in this world. I was just listening to Obama, who was at the Great Wall, and he was so taken by this Great Wall and the sweep of history, as he put it. He said, it makes us realize how small a time we have here on Earth. And when you really think about that, things become more significant for you. The things that you do, you want to do.
Or the things that you stress over-- are they really that stressful? Are they really that important? And you'll see that those trivialities go to the wayside. And then you can become who you want to be for that short time on this earth. Yes.
SPEAKER 6: What do [INAUDIBLE] the importance to what [INAUDIBLE] very hurtful, obnoxious [INAUDIBLE] And I guess people would say that it's freedom of expression, but it seems that [INAUDIBLE]
HELENA VIRAMONTES: Yeah. You're right to make--
SPEAKER 6: [INAUDIBLE] And then how do we deal with this?
HELENA VIRAMONTES: No, I think that's true. The lines are very fine. There's very obnoxious language. But there's also language that can be incredibly [INAUDIBLE]
When you're physically feeling that violence, it's not a [INAUDIBLE] It's a violation. But the line is thin. The line is thin. That's why I'm trying to find ways-- and again, I'm beginning with myself-- how to come in these miracles.
Because let me tell you, periodically I get scared over Sarah Palin. I get scared of her. And you know why I do? Because she's got such a huge following. It's sort of a following that makes me realize that a lot of people like her think like her.
And so but then I have to step back and find out why it is. What is it about-- deconstruct that fear. So doing that, I got to find new language for it. But I see what you mean. I see what you mean. [INAUDIBLE]
SPEAKER 6: I find [INAUDIBLE] stop breathing [INAUDIBLE]
HELENA VIRAMONTES: Which is what I did. Which is exactly what I did, and it's exactly what you should be doing. I mean, you really have to-- it's a hard practice!
But so is childbirth. Yeah, that's painful, but wow, what comes after it! There's got to be--
HELENA VIRAMONTES: And in this world, what else are we-- if not to grow as better people? Not to experience that growth. What else?
SPEAKER 6: [INAUDIBLE]
HELENA VIRAMONTES: Yeah! Which includes the suffering and includes the pain. And that's just [INAUDIBLE]
KENNETH CLARKE: Please take a [INAUDIBLE]
KENNETH MCCLANE: I'd like to answer. But this seems to me that the hardest thing for any human being to do is to realize that that person right across from you is as complicated as you are. And that's actually what Chekhov was trying to say to us, right?
And I think in that process, your language by nature has to be more generous. Because most of us have not always measured up. And once you realize that, then you have to be generous, or else you're just an abomination. You're abominable.
I mean, it seems to me the whole way of the world is for all of us to become more loving, however painful or difficult that is.
HELENA VIRAMONTES: Beautiful. Thank you.
KENNETH CLARKE: Thank you.
SPEAKER 7: And then our selected songs that we are singing today. We sang De Colores, which is a celebrated song by the United Farm Workers. And this song is by [INAUDIBLE] who is a Chilean activist and a great poet and singer/songwriter, called [SPANISH].
[SINGING IN SPANISH]
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Helena Viramontes is the author of "Their Dogs Came with Them," a novel, and two previous works of fiction, "The Moths and Other Stories" and "Under the Feet of Jesus," a novel. Named a USA Ford Fellow in 2007 by United States Artists, she is also the recipient of the John Dos Passos Prize for Literature, a Sundance Institute Fellowship, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship and the Luis Leal Award.
Viramontes, a professor of creative writing in the Department of English at Cornell, spoke at Sage Chapel on Nov. 11, 2009.