The Quilting of Cultures
ascension to a sanctuary from strangers where evil
could not follow on its caterpillar feet and where
her needs and her fears could be put away
like matching towels on a shelf.
by Judith Ortiz Cofer
As a young girl of 12 spending summers in Puerto Rico, Judith Ortiz would sit on the tile floor or grass pretending not to hear her grandmother's stories about strange village characters and hard lessons learned.
But she would listen, always, so closely she might forget for a moment her grandmother was braiding her hair. Eventually the young girl began to understand how stories might one day provide her with a way of resolving the awkwardness of living half of each year in two entirely different places.
These stories, Judith Ortiz Cofer wrote in an essay years later, "became a part of my subconscious as I grew up in two worlds, the tropical island and the cold city, and ... would later surface in my dreams and my poetry."
They are stories that UGA creative writing professor Cofer, through her novels, poems and essays, has learned to tell exquisitely well.
Not a prolific artist, not an assembly line: just six books in 20 years of writing, but each one a gem. It's hard to overestimate her importance in the field. Her first novel, The Line of the Sun (University of Georgia Press, 1989), was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.
A raft of awards has since followed. Among them are a citation from the writers' group PEN America for her 1991 memoir, Silent Dancing; an invitation to teach poetry at the Bread Loaf Writer's Conference in Vermont; the prestigious O. Henry Prize for her short story "Nada" in 1994; and a National Book Award nomination that same year for The Latin Deli.
"[She] may not yet be well known among the New York literati," Rita
Dove, former U.S. Poet Laureate, has written. "I am confident, however,
that her stock will rise quickly."
Scheherazade, the storytelling woman, had been woven into the center of the linen; each panel he uncovered revealed more characters and plots, and for years afterward Cofer thought about it.
"On my bed Scheherazade kept telling her stories, which I came to understand would never end - as I had once feared - since it was in my voice that she spoke to me, placing my dreams among hers, weaving them in," she writes in the short story "Not for Sale" from Silent Dancing.
Just so, Cofer's work is singular for the way it weaves different forms, voices and languages together to evoke at once the awkwardness of a girl's childhood, the pain of a family stranded between cultures and the sensuousness of the tropics. (Once, she writes of orange fruits "kissing up and down a vine.")
Silent Dancing is typical of this mixture of genres: In the memoir, Cofer alternates prose with poems to create an almost incantatory effect as she leaps between harsh reality and an almost dream-like world, between an enormous New Jersey apartment building filled with Puerto Ricans and the tiny island village where she was born.
"If there is a central theme in my work," Cofer said, "it is my ambivalence about assimilation - the going back and forth between these two cultures."
She has made this journey - "to cooler climes, to less passion and more logic," as one of her characters says - repeatedly. Born in the small town of Hormigueros, Cofer moved to New Jersey with her family at age 2 but returned to her grandparents' pueblo home each year when her father sailed overseas with the Navy. For the first 14 years of her life, during this annual migration, she absorbed the changing versions of her grandmother's folk tales and her grandfather's poems.
"My grandmother would begin telling stories, and we children would be in the other room straining to listen, and we were all ears because it sounded like gossip," said Cofer, speaking in an almost reverential whisper. "She would begin, as I've heard some people in the South do, with the words, 'Well, let me tell you what really happened,' a hint of mystery in her voice, the promise of revelation in the air.
"And we would be hooked. We would come in and sit down to listen to the stories. There, in its very simplest form, is my theory of storytelling: You involve a person in the ancient spell of the story, and once you have captivated that audience, they're yours for the duration."
Her own writing came later. The Line of the Sun won immediate praise, an "overnight" success on the surface of things. But the book took three-and- a-half years of working deliberately, writing two pages each morning during the hours before dawn, to finish. To integrate her two central desires - keeping a home and creating literature - Cofer had developed a private ritual of rising very early each morning to write before a day of raising her daughter, Tanya, and teaching. The writing separated but also bridged the worlds of mother and artist, and it still does.
"It has been this way because I have chosen not to isolate myself from those things that trigger my imagination," she said, "which are literature - being with literature, breathing it, teaching it - and also living in the real world, having a husband and child, working outdoors. I write out of a deep need for discovery. I know people in the sciences who speak of their work in similar terms, and we're not talking about some mystical power; it's the same process for anybody wishing to make a discovery."
Research feeds writing
"I was trained as a scholar," Cofer said, "and I don't want my writing to be inaccurate. I think it is the artist's, and especially my, duty to get it right because people know so little about what Puerto Rico is really like.
"For The Line of the Sun, I remember checking out more than 50 books on the politics, climate and so forth of Puerto Rico, so that every scene was created from what could have been true.
"If I didn't know whether a certain flower bloomed in June, I called up my mother in Puerto Rico and asked her, or checked out every book in the UGA library on the subject."
But she steadfastly refuses to be labeled a Latin American specialist. Early and frequently categorized as a "Nuyorican" - one of a new crop of Puerto Rican authors drawn to write mostly about the political and social conditions in their adopted homeland - Cofer was in fact influenced first and most deeply by the Milledgeville, Ga., writer Flannery O'Connor. It was later that she read the great Spanish and Latin American authors in translation.
Soon, she also was discovering the Eatonton, Ga., writer Alice Walker, an influence that taught her to draw on her unique cultural background to write from a place of strength and not weakness.
The essay "More Room," Cofer's most often anthologized piece (and a winner of the Pushcart Prize), demonstrates this ability. Drawn from another family story, it begins by describing her grandmother's home as a kind of chambered nautilus shell, a series of added-on rooms for successive children. The tale then pivots around a bold decision her grandmother feels she must make to gain personal freedom. Cofer wrote:
And so it was that Mama discovered
In her retelling of the story, Cofer limns aspects of Puerto Rican religion and culture without ever overtly stating them. Instead, as in her grandmother's own stories, this knowledge is woven into the fabric of narrative, a medium so personal the transfer appears effortless.
"In fact, I would argue that I am a political writer," Cofer
said. "It's just that the politics are embedded within the stories.
The political message should not overwhelm. If you shout, some minds
will be closed immediately to what you are saying. I don't write to change
the world, but I don't mind if my writing changes the reader."
"Not every person aspires to be a Bill Gates or a Donald Trump," Cofer said, eyes gliding away to glance out a window before forming such a direct thought. "As a writer, or a teacher of literature, or an editor, your rewards aren't always worldly. Instead, your payment may come in the pleasure of working with the best minds. And it is a reward."
And yet there may still be more worldly ones to come; Cofer's work is indisputably beginning to find a wider audience. The cable television network Home Box Office has optioned her story "Corazon's Cafe," and it now appears likely the story will be produced for cable television.
"A young producer there decided there had been enough movies about Puerto Ricans and drugs, guns and drive-by shootings," she said. "She found my book, and this story that had to do with personal goals and dreams. It is about a character who comes to realize her life has purpose and mission; it is about a barrio life which is not defined by gangs and crime, just as my life wasn't."
Increasingly called to travel - most recently to Germany for readings and to Spain by the Federica Garcia Lorca Foundation for readings and to contribute poetry - she makes a point of returning to the Georgia farm inherited from her husband's family outside Louisville, Ga., as quickly as possible. It is for these things that Judith Ortiz Cofer lives.
"It's a beautiful, beautiful place," said the poet of her farm.
Then she pauses, thinking not only of her Georgia home where she feels firmly rooted, or the emotional space in which she resides while writing a short story during the hour before daylight, but also of that Caribbean island where she was born and still returns twice each year to visit family.
"I feel, very deeply," she said, "that I have experienced the best of two worlds."
Paul Karr, a prize-winning journalist and poet and the author of two books, contributes regularly to Research Reporter as well as national magazines including Sierra and Sports Illustrated.
Editor's Note: Judith Ortiz Cofer's new book, The Year of Our Revolution, was published in October by Arte Publico Press, University of Houston. It's a collection of new and selected prose and poetry about the '60s.