HerKind Has Been Retired, VIDAweb is Still the Hub!

HerKind has had an exciting run, but has now been retired. Don’t fret! VIDA activity is now all centered on one site: VIDAweb.org! There, we’re hard at work bringing you the most relevant, insightful, and evocative articles and updates. All your favorite past articles and essays will still be archived here, as well, but make sure to visit the new VIDA site for all of our up-to-date content!

If you’re interested in writing for VIDAweb, check out our new content and contact us at VIDAweb.org!

HerKind Has Been Retired, VIDAweb is Still the Hub!

Beyond the Ban to Name the Beast: A Conversation with CantoMundo Founders and Fellows

Sheryl Luna: What were some of the reasons the CantoMundo founders had for starting the organization? Does the banning of books by Chicano/a authors in Arizona affect CantoMundo’s goals and purpose in any way?



Norma E. Cantú: The reasons we felt that CM needed to exist are many: some are selfish (at least for me) as they speak to our individual need to come together with like-minded poets where we can speak our languages and do our work without being judged or silenced. In broader terms, we felt that it was high time that a Cave Canem kind of organization exist for Latina/o poets. Macondo is great, but it is not JUST poets; it includes other genres–fiction, essay, and even drama. The banning of our books in Arizona affects all of us who write.


Celeste Guzman Mendoza: The primary reason that I decided to become a co-founder was because I believed, and still believe, that Latino writers need a space where they can convene and be 100% themselves as writers and as gente, a space where they and their writing, no matter the style, could be accepted and supported unconditionally. I strongly believe that when we as writers have this center, this support, we create much stronger work, both in terms of its own emotional core and craft. The banning of books in Arizona only reaffirms why communities like CantoMundo are so important.


Deborah Paredez: I was invited by Pablo, Norma, Carmen, and Celeste after they had had a series of encounters wherein they wondered aloud, “Where is the Latina/o Cave Canem or Kundiman?” I answered the call because I believe that ideas of aesthetics and “professional success” are invariably racialized and gendered and that by creating this space for Latina/o poets, we could collectively identify and intervene in the prevailing (and troubling) assumptions that often undergird these issues in the poetry world.  I also was thrilled by the idea of being part of a community made up of the diverse array of Latina/o poets with whom I could learn so much and have some of the necessary hard conversations that can’t always be had in “mixed” company.

Luna: How do you feel CantoMundo can help Latina poets in particular, now and in the future?

Mendoza: Think I answered this in my reasoning for becoming a co-founder. I think I’ll add that when we feel supported we begin to feel more confident in our work and voice. We submit our writings to more contests, we enter our work into anthologies, we go out and look for opportunities…ultimately, the strength of the group helps us challenge ourselves. It is not the same for everyone but I do feel that for many of us it challenges us to improve every aspect of our “game” so to speak. We bring it in a way that is much stronger after we are in one another’s orbit.

Paredez: I think the particular challenges that female poets face in this historical moment (as opposed to even 25 years ago when I was just beginning my “adult” life as a poet) is the pervasive and insidious notion that we should be past or “post” any number of important aesthetic, generic, or theoretical categories: post-feminist, post-confessional, post-sincerity, post-race, post-narrative, post-language…post-nauseum.  This sort of teleological thinking is especially detrimental to women of color who are simultaneously (and systematically) excluded from publication venues or taxonomies of aesthetic value while being told that race/gender/etc. has nothing to do with the terms of their exclusion because we are all so over that.  CM provides a space to name this beast and encourages Latina poets to gather together to fashion the weapons to slay it.  We also insist on a feminist mode of engagement at our workshops: everyone is accountable and respectful and encouraged to examine the implications of the power dynamics in which we may be invested. Not a safe space—that is too facile—but a place of productive risk.  We are lucky that our co-founders include Norma Cantú and Carmen Tafolla who were instrumental participants in  Latina writers’ efforts as part of the second wave feminist movements.  This living historical memory insists we keep our eye on the long view rather than being distracted for too long by the mirage of post- anything except maybe the post office or the particular struggles a post-partum poet might face.

Cantú: CantoMundo can help Latina poets in three specific ways: 1.  networking so that the Latina poet doesn’t feel all alone—knowing that there are others out there supporting and believing in your work can be transformative. 2.  Offering a place to try out new work, to expose oneself to the scrutiny of other poets who will tell it like it is, who will be kind, but most of all will be HONEST about your work. And 3. By providing a space where we can leave our families and our daily demands behind and come and just be a POET.  In the future, I think CM can also grow and become an oasis for Latina poets who may be in a desert out there where there are no other Latinas writing—mostly here I am speaking of those of us in academia who may end up in geographical and cultural isolation.

Luna: What has CantoMundo already done to foster its mission?

Mendoza: I believe that the community of poets who have come and shared themselves and their work are benefitting greatly from one another in various ways, whether it is simply finding like-minded writers or being challenged to write differently, or helping one another get reading gigs, etc. I also feel that when we participate in the workshops themselves we delve deep and write from an emotional center that is very strong and shows in the work.

Cantú : The most important thing CM has done to foster its mission is to exist! Given the dire financial straits of the arts and arts organizations, we have been very lucky to have the funding from UT Austin to make the summer workshops happen. So, the workshops are number one—that is how most of our mission our goals are met.  I also think that having the readings and inviting major figures in Latino/a poetry as faculty and as readers has also been a fulfillment of our mission.

Paredez: Because we started out as a collective of founders, we are accustomed to the (often fraught) process of collaboration.  Each year, we’ve taken seriously the valuable feedback from our fellows and faculty to improve our ability to create an emotionally nurturing and creatively challenging space for Latina/o poets.  We work closely with our fiscal sponsors, The Center for Mexican American Studies and the Department of English at the University of Texas at Austin, to endeavor every year to keep costs down for fellows and to share with them the resources an institution like the university can provide. We are also really proud of the ways the fellows have taken ownership of CantoMundo by curating regional CantoMundo readings and events beyond the workshop space.

Luna: What do you envision for the future of CantoMundo?

Cantú: My own vision for CM focuses on a pivotal point: growth and maturity. As the organization continues to grow and mature, CM will become as well-known as Cave Canem or Kundiman. At five years old, we are probably still at the childhood level. We are not yet teenagers, but we have the energy and vision of youth. As CM ages, it will come into its own by developing the goals we have for the next 5, 10, and 20 years including publishing books, awarding prizes, and holding academic conferences on the subject of Latina/o poetry.

Mendoza: I envision CantoMundo continuing to be a space for Latina/o poets to convene and create community however we see fit at that time. My primary goal is for us to perfect as best we can the workshop experience. If we do other things like a publication or some other offshoot that will be exciting and new but our core is the workshop and supporting the fellows’ in their work.

Paredez: I envision CM taking part in cultivating a larger trend of Latina/o poets mentoring one another (imagine!) as more and more Latina/o poets achieve professional success and standing both within and beyond the traditional spaces within the poetry world.  Other goals and dreams include sponsoring a book prize and residencies and innovative outreach programming with Latina/o communities who’ve not yet had the opportunity to imagine themselves as poets.


Luna: What are some of the ways being a CantoMundo fellow has helped you as a poet?

Gloria Amescua: My poetic world exploded—in a good way, of course. I worked for years in isolation and then in small groups. CantoMundo unlocked countless doors for myself and others. I have grown from the supportive environment and the wonderful workshops led by invited poets and fellows.  Not having gone through a formal creative writing program, I was unaware of the many blogs, writing residencies, conferences and many other resources available for writers. The postings in CantoMundo Charla and elsewhere are extremely valuable. Fellows in this network share leads to amazing poems, books, interviews, and poetry readings. As a result, I’m tuned in to the changing literary world. I am in constant learning mode, trying out different styles, subjects, and forms as I access the diverse poetry of my CantoMundo fellows and those poets they admire. More than ever, I am motivated to write, send out work for publication, enter contests and be involved in various networks of poets. The organization encourages lively interactive discussions about Latin@ poetics, which I value highly. CantoMundo really has been transformational. I treasure the intellectual stimulation of this community of learned people and their willingness to share from their abundance. One vital aspect is being able to experience the poetry of CantoMundo fellows. The diversity and honesty of their poetry has pushed me to dig even deeper and to challenge myself. My writing has definitely improved as a result, and I am working on my first manuscript.  I feel that I am in the midst of an intellectual, artistic and literary revolution in poetry. CantoMundo has definitely been the experience of a lifetime.

ire’ne lara silva: CantoMundo helped me to remember that I am a poet and that I would always be one–even if several years of writing prose had made me start to believe that there was very little poetry left in me. It introduced me to writers I have long admired–as Fellows and as Faculty–and to new poets that have changed how I see the work of making poems, how we approach language, and how we weave our histories and identities into our work. CantoMundo made me part of a loving and supportive community and created a space for lasting friendships and artistic collaborations.

Luna: How do you feel about CantoMundo’s fostering of Latina poets?

Amescua: Since I became a fellow in CantoMundo, my circle of supportive Latina poets has expanded exponentially from the local community. I am so honored to be part of a national network, which includes incredible Latina poets. I communicate through email or Facebook with several Latina poets and have reviewed their poems and/or manuscripts, and they have given me feedback as well. I discovered Hedgebrook’s Writing Residency for women through Amalia Leticia Ortiz, whom I met during the inaugural workshop. She not only encouraged and helped me with my application, but several other CantoMundo poets have also applied and been accepted as a result. This is just one example of support for one another. We promote each other’s works, interviews and readings. I was motivated to organize a Southwest Regional CantoMundo Poetry Reading for the community in San Antonio, Texas. We have had several regional readings across the U.S. in 2012-2013.  As I’m sure many others do, I share many of the ideas and information I get from CantoMundo. I especially do that with Mujeres Morenas, my local writing group of Latinas. CantoMundo and its network expands beyond the fellows, which is especially helpful to Latina poets. I’m thrilled with my fellow CantoMundistas for their publications and their awards. I can see the tremendous output of my fellow Latinas and am encouraged by their success, not only for myself but also for other Latina writers.

silva:  I think that the very structure of CantoMundo lends itself to women poets. Beginning with the four-day schedule (Thursday evening-Sunday morning) which is more likely to allow women with children, other caregiving responsibilities, multiple jobs, or with fewer economic resources to participate. The organizational emphasis on respectful exchange, ‘checking in one’s ego,’ giving everyone an equal opportunity to speak as well the community’s acceptance of personal stories, emotional openness, and speaking in varying registers (from academic to performative to familial) makes a space for women to speak ‘from the heart’ and without having to downplay their wisdom or intellect.

It’s interesting to me to see how CM’s insistence on gender parity also works to support Latina poets. For one, it introduces us to male poets that we might not ever have met as part of a life-changing, art-affirming, close-knit communal experience. As poets living our individual lives, what keeps us persistently writing and continually developing are the networks we create. The more multi-faceted and unique they are, the better. And the bonds built during CantoMundo– at the retreat and year-round–are indispensable, whether between women, between men, or between women and men.

Luna: What do you envision for the future of this organization?

silva: In my vision, CantoMundo is still growing and developing decades from now–bringing Latin@ poets together and creating opportunities for connection and dialogue. I wish for CantoMundo all of the things that will provide more publishing and networking opportunities for its Fellows: CM book publication prizes, grants, and a literary review; a website that promotes CM poets; and cross-country readings and reunions for current and graduated Fellows.

Amescua: The founders of CantoMundo had a magnificent vision for this organization, and they have seen their vision embodied in the five years since its founding through their hard work. They have devoted time, energy and love to support and serve Latin@ poets. The promise of CantoMundo as a community will multiply as more fellows graduate. I envision an increased network of CantoMundo fellows who continue to promote the work of Latin@s and are increasingly recognized for their poetry.  I would like to see an increased web presence, more opportunities for instruction and publications by our organization—anthologies, single works, or media versions of readings. This past year we had several regional readings, and I can see these expanding and evolving into more than just readings, perhaps involving workshops for local communities, so that the learning doesn’t just stay within the CantoMundo circle. CantoMundo is an amazing force. I feel fortunate to be a part of the outreach to the community, where we are all planting seeds beyond the CantoMundo fields. The harvest: Latin@ poets empowering themselves and each other


CantoMundo Founders

Norma E. Cantú currently serves as Professor of Latina/o Studies and English at the University of Missouri in Kansas City; she is Professor Emerita at the University of Texas at San Antonio. She received her PhD in English from the University of Nebraska in Lincoln and has taught at Texas A&M International University, the University of California, Santa Barbara,  and the University of Texas at San Antonio.

As editor of a book series, Rio Grande/Rio Bravo: Borderlands Culture and Tradition, at Texas A&M University Press, and Literatures of the Americas at Palgrave  she promotes the publication of research on borderlands culture. Author of the award-winning Canícula Snapshots of a Girlhood en la Frontera, and co-editor of Chicana Traditions: Continuity and Change (2002),Telling to Live: Latina Feminist Testimonios (2001) and Dancing Across Borders: Danzas y Bailes Mexicanos (2009) and of Inside the Latin@ Experience: A Latin@ Studies Reader (2010) and El Mundo Zurdo: Selected Works from the Meetings of the Society for the  Study of Gloria Anzaldúa 2007 & 2009 (2010),  she is currently working on a novel tentatively titled: Champú, or Hair Matters/Champú: Asuntos de pelos, and an ethnography of the Matachines de la Santa Cruz, a religious dance drama from Laredo, Texas. She is founder and Director of the Society for the Study of Gloria Anzaldúa and co-founder of the group of Latina/o poets, CantoMundo as well as a member of the Macondo Writers Workshop.

Deborah Paredez is the author of the poetry collection, This Side of Skin (2002) and the critical study, Selenidad: Selena, Latinos, and the Performance of Memory (2009). Her poems have appeared in Poetry, Callaloo, Crab Orchard Review, Mandorla, Palabra, Poet Lore and elsewhere. Her honors include an Alfredo Cisneros del Moral Foundation Award and residencies from the Vermont Studio Center and Hedgebrook. Paredez is the co-founder of CantoMundo, a national organization for Latina/o poets, and she is an associate professor of English at the University of Texas, Austin where she teaches in the New Writers School MFA program.

Celeste Guzman Mendoza is a Macondista, Hedgebrook resident, and co-founder of CantoMundo, a master writer’s workshop for Latina/o poets. Her poetry and essays have appeared in various anthologies published by Penguin, Calaca Press, Eakin Press and Wings Press. Her first, full-length poetry manuscript, Beneath the Halo, is due out in Spring 2013 by Wings Press. Her chapbook, Cande te estoy llamando, won the Poesia Tejana Prize in 1999. A performer and playwright, Mendoza’s plays have been produced in Austin and San Antonio. She is at work on a second poetry manuscript, and lives in Austin with her husband and three cats.


CantoMundo Fellows

Gloria Amescua is an inaugural member of CantoMundo, a national Latino poetry community. Gloria has been published in a variety of journals, including several di-verse-city anthologies, Kweli Journal, Generations Literary Journal, Texas Poetry Calendar, Acentos Review, Lifting the Sky: Southwestern Haiku & Haiga, and Pilgrimage. A workshop presenter for youth and adults, Gloria is an alumna of Hedgebrook’s Writers-in-Residence program. She recently won first place in both the Austin International Poetry Festival Contest and the Austin Poetry Society Award.

ire’ne lara silva lives in Austin, and is the author of two chapbooks:  ani’mal and INDíGENA. Her first collection of poetry, furia, was published by Mouthfeel Press in 2010 and received an Honorable Mention for the 2011 International Latino Book Award in Poetry. Her first collection of short stories, flesh to bone, will be published by Aunt Lute Press in 2013. ire’ne is the Fiction Finalist for AROHO’s 2013 Gift of Freedom Award, the 2008 recipient of the Gloria Anzaldua Milagro Award, a Macondo Workshop member, and a CantoMundo Inaugural Fellow.  She and Moises S. L. Lara are currently co-coordinators for the Flor De Nopal Literary Festival.

Beyond the Ban to Name the Beast: A Conversation with CantoMundo Founders and Fellows

What Makes Books Dangerous?

by Jenn Monroe

This is the question I pose to students in my Banned Books course as their final exam. I ask because I know they are hungry to tell me why sexuality, race, religion, and politics fire people up, and what the attitudes toward censorship indicate about the interplay between these things.

We’ve been talking about this since day one, when I gave each student the list of the American Library Association’s Top 100 Banned/Challenged Books. They were not surprised to find many of their favorite authors—J.K. Rowling, Judy Blume, Kurt Vonnegut—or noted classics—The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Catcher in the Rye—but others totally shocked them: “Who would want to ban Captain Underpants?”

Literature has been suppressed since at least the advent of the printing press, and for one (or a combination) of four “reasons:” religious, political, sexual, or social. While few books in the U.S. are actually banned today, ALA statistics show many are challenged every year. The majority of these challenges are made to materials in schools or school libraries, by parents.

These figures do not seem to surprise my class. Collectively they express an understanding of a mother wanting to shield her own child, but they bristle at the idea of complete censorship. Some ask how banning can be possible with “free speech” protected by the First Amendment. What perplexes most, however, is why anyone would care about what they wanted to read.

As we begin to read, the answer takes shape. To examine literature suppressed on religious grounds we read Confucious, Kant, Darwin, Luther, Goethe, and Nawal El Saadawi’s The Hidden Face of Eve. Then we tackle those suppressed for political reasons: Machiavelli, Marx, and Dalton Trumbo’s, Johnny Got His Gun. Next, we move to those considered obscene: Go Ask Alice, Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, and Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. We end the semester with one text suppressed for “social” reasons: To Kill a Mockingbird.

Along the way we take up the “free speech” question considering cases from recent news and Nat Hentoff’s Free Speech for Me—But Not for Thee: How the American Left and Right Relentlessly Censor Each Other. At the end of his prologue Hentoff welcomes readers with this: “As you will see in the chapters ahead, censorship…remains the strongest drive in human nature, with sex a weak second.”  We also debate Stanley Fish’s There’s No Such Thing as Free Speech, and It’s a Good Thing Too. In his introduction he argues “…the First Amendment does not in and of itself…direct a politics but will display the political ‘spin’ of whatever group has its hand on the interpretative machinery…”

In the early days of book banning, religious leaders and monarchs alike maintained control of vast populations as long as they controlled the messages about God and country. It was in their best interest to ban, and burn, contradictory texts (and often their authors). Later, more democratic governments concerned about obscenity and controlling the spread of Communism, banned texts that promoted those ideas.

My students see the relationship between controlling messages and power, and agree this cannot be the reason why individuals work to remove books they deem dangerous. Eventually we decide people must feel threatened by texts that offer ideas counter to their own. This, however, confounds my students even more. Most say they have read materials they disagree with, yet they did not, and would never, try to ban them.

Thus another question arises: how does someone move from simply holding a different opinion about sex, religion, politics, race, gender, etc. to pushing for a ban on the materials that put forth another perspective? What is so scary about diverse ideas? What are they afraid will happen?

I am lucky. My students are all studying to become creative writers or visual artists, and most of them were allowed to read whatever books they found interesting. Few come from dogmatic backgrounds, and if they did, they have done enough individual exploration to come to my class with a wide-open mind.

Because of this, it is not easy for them to grasp that many people find the unfamiliar scary and often reject “the other” out of protection. One could assume, however, the more experience with people and ideas that are different, the less frightening they would become.

But are we naturally drawn toward those experiences?

I ask my students how often they read articles or listen to programs that offer ideas, beliefs, and opinions that differ from their own. Then I ask them to consider whether or not the messages that support their thinking offer facts to bolster their opinions or simply deny the validity of “other” ideas. Do they promote their position as “right” and others as “wrong?”

We take it further: what would happen if we chose to censor all other points of view? If we insulated ourselves only with messages and people who agree with us, closing ourselves off from opportunities to learn about alternate approaches. Would we ever overcome our fear of difference? Would we ever not feel the need to protect those we love?

From this perspective, a book that promotes a reality counter to our own is inherently dangerous. It is a direct threat to our core beliefs and suppressing it would appear the most effective way to keep it from doing any harm to our family and community.

My students understand, but they cannot accept how someone could ever be that afraid. I know their struggle is personal—they cannot see themselves taking that step—so I joke that if they want to be famous, they should write a book that will be banned. We laugh, but I silently wish none of them will ever need to.

Jenn Monroe’s Banned Books course syllabus

What Makes Books Dangerous?

Lady in the House: BK Loren

This month, Diamond J. Sharp of ZORA Magazine has provided us with questions for our Lady in The House feature. We have also asked each Lady in the House to provide a writing prompt for our readers. –The Editors.

Many artists have been exiled from their home countries. If you were exiled, what three literary figures would you take with you and why?

“Literary figures.” Well, this could mean writers or characters in stories. So if I were exiled, I’d want Scout Finch by my side. I think I could learn from her fierce sense of justice combined with her utter innocence.  I’d also like Lipshaw Morrissey, from Louise Erdrich’s novels with me, just because I like him so much. He’s quirky and wise in a way that would keep me grounded and not as fearful or alone as I might otherwise feel. It would either be Lipshaw or Thomas-Builds-The-Fire from “This is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona,” by Sherman Alexie. But the most important literary figures I would want with me are any number of my friends who are writers of the “lesser known” ilk (usually my favorite kind). If I have not met someone, no matter how “great” they seem on paper, I would not choose to take them with me anywhere over those I know and love. That’s why my first two choices are characters in novels. I know these fictional characters more than I know any ultra-famous writers of the past or present, even though they are fictional characters.

What does “womanhood” mean to you? Is it an inclusive or exclusive term?

I have never thought of this before. I’m not that into “hoods” that are tacked onto the ends of words as if that word can then become, or create, an institution. Womanhood. I don’t know what it means. I suppose, though, I do like the ‘hood I grew up in, a place that defined me, to some degree, early on, and a place that held me accountable to things in my past (in a good way). Aside from the word, “womanhood” itself (a word that reminds me of any number of 1960-70s pop songs. “Girl, You’re a Woman Now,” or something by Tammy Wynette or Billy Joel), there is a certain collective power that women share. In that sense, I think, yes, we are, by default, an inclusive group. I mean, on the most obvious level, we–as a collective group–give birth to males and females. That’s inclusive of pretty much everything that is born into the genus and species of Homo sapien, regardless of gender, etc.

But women, collectively, are oppressed, to one degree or another, in every culture I know of, and so, again, by default, we have to be inclusive. I mean, we have to code-switch to communicate clearly in a man’s world (lean in, gals!), but we are also excluded in very real ways. My partner and I were once on a panel, and someone in the audience asked her (a fantastic athlete) if she did anything “feminine.” Her reply: “Yes, I make 75 cents on the dollar.” So there you have it!  I know “excluded” and “exclusive” are two different things, but I have never found that much power in separatism in and of itself. By default, we’re very fluid in our inclusivity and exclusivity. This fluidity gives us a kind of power that far exceeds anything that a word (womanhood or anything else) can begin to embrace. And (though this is mildly off-topic), I do very much like what Virginia Woolf says in Three Guineas on the topic of war and women: “Therefore if you insist upon fighting to protect me, or ‘our’ country, let it be understood, soberly and rationally between us, that you are fighting to gratify a sex instinct which I cannot share; to procure benefits which I have not shared and probably will not share; but not to gratify my instincts, or to protect either myself or my country.

‘For,’ the outsider will say, ‘in fact, as a woman, I have no country. As a woman I want no country. As a woman my country is the whole world.’ But I digress.

If you had to ban a word, what would it be?

I don’t think bans of any kind work. They give power and attention to that which the ban seeks to disempower or defuse. A banned book is a powerful book. (But there are many kinds of powerful books.)  Instead of banning anything, any word (if I found it “offensive”), I’d work hard to change the cultural ideologies at the root of the word. Words, in and of themselves, are of course arbitrary grunts, when spoken, and arbitrary scribbles, when on a page. It’s culture that imbues them with meaning and power. So I would not waste time scratching the surface with a ban. I’d work daily to change the culture, which would, by default, change the nature of the word, and then the word would not have to be banned. Once anything is created, it can’t be uncreated, only redefined, reshaped.

Discuss your favorite banned novel. 

Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God is one of my many, many favorite banned novels. I like the cultural anthropology, folklore, and mythology she brings to it. I prefer to let her speak for herself. Here’s a beautiful passage that demonstrates the folklore/mythology aspects of this beautiful and important novel:

When God had made The Man, he made him out of stuff that sung all the time and glittered all over. Some angels got jealous and chopped him into millions of pieces, but still he glittered and hummed. So they beat him down to nothing but sparks but each little spark had a shine and a song. So they covered each one over with mud. And the lonesomeness in the sparks make them hunt for one another.

What line, in either a work of prose or poetry, inspired you to pursue writing?

I can’t begin to remember what line first inspired me. I have been writing in an intentional way since (earliest I can recall) second grade. But this line of poetry stays with me. I hear almost daily in my head. It inspires me to write every day:

“Eternity exists for us like a tongue for a deaf mute.” –Odysseus Elytis, “Axion Esti”

Creating a short writing prompt for our HER KIND readers, based on our October theme of BANNED:

Grapes. Wine. I love them both. Want to know how to make a good wine? Plant your vines in bad soil that has very little “nutritive value.” What happens then? The grapes struggle, and they develop thick skins. The skin is what a vintner wants in a grape. As writers, as women, we sometimes grow up on difficult ground. In other words, our roots are not as “nutritive” as they could be for what we want to become. The ground is not “inviting.” We are not generally expected to have a prominent voice. But of course, that’s utter bullshit. We do have prominent voices that shape our world as a whole. We have voices that shape our culture. So here’s the prompt: Write a few paragraphs about your own native soil, how it formed you, nurtured you, gave you a thick (or thin skin); write about how you made this ground luscious and intoxicating.

One last thought: Dionysus was the Greek God of wine. He was also bi-sexual in the very real sense of the word. (He was sometimes a woman, sometimes a man.). In other words, his gender was fluid. Somehow, this fluidity has everything to do with growing and thriving in theoretically “tough” soil. The fruit of the god of wine was mind-altering. It’s a powerful thing to recognize that no matter how nutritive our soil is or isn’t, our words can always become powerful, even mind-altering, and yes, pleasantly intoxicating. Imbibe!

Lady in the House: BK Loren


by Quinn White

I began in my car. Summer. I was under few obligations and had time for sunshine, music, current events and my friends’ discussions of current events. More rancor than usual rang through their talk of social issues. On days of court decisions and death, days which were every day, I witnessed diatribes, litanies, incantations. Less than a week would pass when photos of cats, babies, and ornately plated dinners buried these passions. I knew people remained upset. I believed their dissent belonged to a space sturdier than that provided by social media. I began in my car, in the strong July light, wondering if an anthology of protest poetry could provide such a space.

I asked around to gauge interest in the anthology and was greeted with enthusiasm and offers of support. Now we’re building an artifact of diverse voices of dissent. We’re placing our words before the world as a marker to say we believe, we don’t accept, we speak against the noise of a rolling feed of commercials for bigger sandwiches, of gavels over gavels over gunfire, gunfire and bombs we’ve heard through our various radios, heard so often that war is played in restaurants and people continue eating and chatting about car parts. We write against the silence the noise presses us to assume.

What do we write? Protest poetry is aimed against an authority’s wrongs. It is written in a rhetoric whose intent is to excite readers to action. Protest poetry is a genre of wild indignation. Yet it can mourn simple as a lily. Protest poems are loud. Yet they whisper rage. Some shout like spotlights in interrogation rooms. Some tear language, slice tongues to rip issues. Many ask why without posing questions. The moves of protest poems are varied, surprising.

Working on the anthology has expanded my concept of protest poetry in ways I didn’t anticipate. In Martín Espada’s poem, “The Soldiers in the Garden,” a dying Pablo Neruda is interrogated by a lieutenant and Neruda says “There is only one danger for you here: poetry.” The soldiers, contrite, leave through the garden. Espada writes, “For thirty years / we have been searching / for another incantation / to make the soldiers / vanish from the garden.” The Neruda in Espada’s poem does not shout. The soldiers apologize. The lanterns in the trees dissolve. The poem is a wish against occupation. A wish for words. It does not shout. Yet it protests.

A rowdier protest poem comes from 2300 B.C. The writer is Enheduanna. In A Book of Women Poets from Antiquity to Now (Schocken Books, 1980) Enheduanna’s work is described as “highly politicized.” Consider her poem, “Appeal to the Moongod Nanna-Suen to Throw Out Lugalanne, the New Conqueror of the City of Uruk”

O Suen, the usurper Lugalanne means nothing to me!
Tell An: “Have An release me!”
If you will only tell An
and An will release me.
This woman Inanna will carry off this young cock
Mountain and flood lie at her feet.
This woman is powerful as he.
She’ll make the city expel him.
Surely she will forget her rage against me.
Let me, Enheduanna, pray to her.
Like a sweet drunk let me cry freely for holy
Let me call to her!

Enheduanna’s poem shouts “NOW!” It demands the reader, specifically Inanna, to take action. Enheduanna writes in the midst of extreme circumstances. This is perhaps the earliest known protest poem.

Looking to the twenty first century, I see in Mazen Maarouf’s “S.O.S,” a speaker who does not shout, but says, “My voice / Is plain bread / I dream / of distributing it / among my exhausted enemies..” Empathy belongs to protest. Even as the poem later mentions violence: “a dog’s throat / whose soft barking / was run over by a tricycle.” “S.O.S” hurts. Yet what does it protest? In order to enter the political realm of a protest poem, one needs context, knowledge of the author and his or her circumstances. However, the best protest poems shake their readers with and without such context. From B.C. to A.D., the strongest protest poems share an ambidexterity.

Due to such shifts in manner and content, composing a definition of protest poetry is difficult. I searched for the right words and decided on wound and exhibit. In “Passport,” Mahmoud Darwish writes “my wound was an exhibit.” But if I stuck with wound and exhibit, I wondered how protest poetry would be represented as different from confessional poetry? The difference, I concluded, is that the protest poem inspires its readers to action against a wound. On purpose. The poem asks, however obliquely, for change. The poem needs its audience. Urgently. So three words belong to a definition of the protest poem: wound, exhibit, and call. The wounds are often political. The exhibits take many forms. The calls belong to different voices, different pitches, and different volumes.

I began in my car. I was listening to Stevie Wonder. Maybe the song was “Sir Duke” or “Higher Ground.” I don’t like telling this story. I wish I had a dramatic event to recount, that a comet’s tail set my house on fire and I believed then that I would die and that I must do something with my life. But, no. I was thinking of music. How albums protest. A book should exist, I thought, a mixed tape or a playlist of poems that make cases, a book that ensures voices are not forgotten among reels of donut innovation and purring squirrels*.

In her introduction to the anthology Against Forgetting: Twentieth Century Poetry of Witness, Carolyn Forché writes that “monstrous acts have come to seem almost normal. It becomes easier to forget than to remember, and this forgetfulness becomes our defense against remembering—a rejection of unnecessary sentimentality, a hardheaded acceptance of ‘reality.’ […] These poems will not permit us diseased complacency. They come to us with claims that have yet to be filled, as attempts to mark us as they have themselves been marked.” The protest poem injures with its injuries. It is not the sound of marching. It is not, as Forché puts it, “an aerial attack […] One has to read or listen, one has to be willing to accept the trauma.”

For a long time, I did not read, listen, or write much about social issues. I felt helpless, small, and travesty was du jour. While working on the anthology, I wondered how I traveled here, how I became involved with protest poetry. I remember now. How simple. I began by listening.

*no offense is meant to donut innovation or purring squirrels.


Lady in the House: Robin Ford

Elizabeth Alexander ends her poem “Haircut” with “I am a flygirl with a new hair cut in New York City in a mural that is dying every day.” Have you ever had a haircut that granted you some revelation?

It’s taken me a while, but I’ve learned that I have the kind of head (big) that requires a certain amount of hair. I’ll never be able to rock Halle Berry’s pixie or do a buzz cut the way India.Arie did. I’m envious of those with cute small round heads, but that’s the head I was born with, so what can you do?

Back in the eighties and early nineties, I tried tons of different styles. I hadn’t found my own identity yet, so I copied everyone else’s – the severe Grace Jones from “A View to A Kill” (bad idea!!!), New Wave’s short cut with long floppy bangs (although I didn’t have the guts to dye the bangs blue or purple), and just about every iteration of Janet Jackson: from the big 80s hair of Control to the loose curls on the cover of Janet.

It wasn’t until recently that I actually walked out of a salon with a cut I loved– as in didn’t have to do anything to it to make it look like I wanted. It just worked. And it worked the next day, and the next, and even after I shampooed it. I was going home to California for a visit, and I wanted a new look. I had been growing my hair out so the stylist had a lot to work with, and I finally understood what a good cut can do. When I walked out of the SoHo salon that day, I was definitely feeling it – I was fierce, I was New York City – “California, look upon me and tremble at my awesome NewYorkness!”


Is hair a performance?

It depends. There was a time when my hair was as much a performance as the fifty-something shoes I had. It was all a very specific style designed to say, “Don’t you wish you were this cool?” What it actually said is something I don’t want to think about. I had blond stripes at the temple, one time I shaved lines in the sideburn area. Nothing too crazy, nothing I couldn’t wear to work, but just enough to be unique.

You have to be brave to fully commit to performing hair. A green Mohawk is performance, dreads on white people used to be performance; anything that shouts out, “look at me!” is performance. Willow Smith has performance hair. She wrote a song about it, then cut it all off! I admire that kind of bravery.

Now that I’m older, I don’t feel it’s necessary to have performing hair. I’m happy to have my hair sit quietly in the audience and watch the others perform.


What is your “hair politic?”  

You are not your hair.  There is no such thing as “good” or “bad” hair – there is hair and then there is bald. It’s your hair do what you want with it – don’t let anyone else tell you otherwise.


In her song “I Am Not My Hair,” India Arie discusses a journey through hair, race, perception and personal identity. How is your hair linked to your own identity?

As much as I wish it wasn’t so, I’d be very unhappy if I lost my hair. I’d love to be confident and daring enough to just shave it all off, but I’m not. And if I lost it due to sickness, I’d be very upset.

Other black women have always told me that I have “good” hair, which simply means it’s not as kinky as theirs. But I was taught that just like skin, everyone’s hair is unique – not better or worse just different, so I don’t take it to heart. My hair is what it is:  a combination of my mom and dad’s.

When I was young, my hair was a pain in the neck as far as I was concerned. I had very long hair that reached my waist at one point. It would take my mother hours to do it, first washing it in the kitchen sink, then combing it out (this was the worst part), then setting it and finally I’d have to sit under the dryer for at least an hour. So I didn’t know what was “good” about that. After it was styled though it didn’t look much different from the other little girls in my school, so I never gave it a second thought. It wasn’t until I was a little older that I realized the importance women put on hair, particularly black women.

I can clearly remember my great aunt in Tennessee telling me to never cut my hair because it was so beautiful and long, and that the Bible says that, “a woman’s hair is her crowning glory.” Of course I cut it shortly after that. It was just too much to deal with. I kept it relatively long until my sophomore year of college, when I just couldn’t take the upkeep any longer. That was when I got the Grace Jones look. Since then, it’s been long and short and in between.  I know that some women have been envious of the way my naturally curly hair, and think I must not be fully black, which annoys me, but I know who I am.

I’ve never thought of my hair as political. I wear it the way that I feel is most flattering and easiest for me. I’m glad that we’ve evolved so that black women don’t have to straighten their hair for it to be acceptable. There are still some old-school ladies hanging onto the idea that natural hair is messy or dirty or something, but that’s their hangup— don’t put your issues on me.

I’ve been blessed with strong hair that grows quickly and that I have finally learned to manage – that’s all that’s important to me.


If you could create a writing form or technique based on your favorite hairstyle, what would it be?” 

The “Afro Puff:” A slightly controlled form of non-fiction that encourages the writer to use their natural language and style. It would allow the writer to use their authentic voice while utilize more formal strategies when desired. Plus, Afro Puff is fun to say.

Lady in the House: Robin Ford

A Care Package for Tiana

by Dr. Yaba Blay

DSC_5848 a TEXTPhoto Credit: Sabriya Simon

Black women’s hair has made the news again. In the same week that Sheryl Underwood, comedian and co-host of The Talk (CBS) referred to “afro hair” as “curly, nappy, beaded…nasty,” a 7-year-old girl in Tulsa, Oklahoma was sent home from her African-Amerian led charter school because according to school officials and school policy, her dreadlocks are “unacceptable.”

When I first heard this story (sans the video), I, like so many others, became angry. But when I watched the news story, and saw little Tiana in tears, head hung low, I became saddened. Had I not seen the story come to life in that way, I would have likely kept my focus on the school, its administrators, and its offensive, anti-Black policy. But seeing that precious little brown girl break down and cry in front of news cameras, seemingly a day or so at least after the incident occurred, I became instantly focused on her. And her spirit. And her self-reflection. And I wanted to do something for her.

Here is that something. A care package of sorts. A digital book of photos and messages from 111 women and girls from all over the country and all over the world, all of whom wear their hair in locs, all of whom want Tiana to know that she and her hair are PERFECT.

Of course, I will send this care package to Tiana’s father and ask that he give it to her on our behalf, but I’m also going to send it to administrators at Deborah Brown Community School, as well as administrators at Langston University, a historically Black university under which the school is chartered.

I also ask that you share this with your networks because as much as this is for Tiana, it is not just about Tiana. Tiana’s story is the one that made the news. Our girls are under attack everywhere. I want them all to know that they have an army of sisters, cousins, aunties, Mamas, GrandMamas, and elders all over the world who support them and at the drop of a dime (or a news story) will have their back.

UPDATE: So many women and girls have reached out to me since I shared the care package asking to be included. For now, the care package is all wrapped up. We’ll see what the Universe has in store for this project, but in the meantime, PLEASE share your photos and messages of love with the growing Facebook community We Love Tiana & her Hair. 

Our girls need constant affirmation. They need to know that even though there are people in this world that would have us believe that our natural hair is “ugly” and “nasty,” that it is they who have a problem – not our girls. Not us.

As I did back in December, as I do almost every day, I’m calling on EVERYONE to join me in “singing a Black girl’s song,” not only for Tiana, but for all the little girls who could benefit from the affirmation of their beauty and their value. An intimate weaving of past and present, memory and contemporary, their stories are our stories. Perhaps if they know that we truly understand, they can be encouraged to see themselves through our eyes; perhaps they will soon be able to see themselves for what they are – Pretty Brown Girls.

Not matter her hair texture, length, color, or style, please, in some way, tell a little Black girl that she is beautiful today. And every day.

A Care Package for Tiana

My Personal Haircut

by Lynne Schmidt

I’m seven years old and naked in the shower. To my right is the typical things you’d find: shampoo, conditioner, soap. But there is also a pink single razor staring back at me. My sisters are both old enough to shave, and they ask my mother for new razors when theirs rust. Two years behind my older sister, I haven’t begun the rite of passage.

I know two things at this moment: I’m a girl, and because I’m a girl, I’m supposed to shave. But…what exactly am I supposed to shave? I look down at my prepubescent body. My leg hair is fairly stubby, but mostly invisible thanks to the blond hairs. I look to my arms, which kind of resemble a hairy monster. It’s like my body is telling me what’s right. For the next six months, I shave my arms because that’s what girls do.

Later, I was informed women shave their legs, so I left my arms alone and began doing what girls actually do. It wasn’t until late into middle school when my formerly blond pubic and armpit hair began to darken. I knew to shave my armpits, but no one ever said anything about my crotch hairs, so I left them alone.

Adventures and sexual escapes in high school never told me otherwise. Plus, I figured that if a guy had his hand down my pants, perhaps that should be the last thing to worry about. Adventures and sexual escapades in college would have guys tell me, “No one will ever go down on you if you have pubes,” yet their advice was wrong. The few guys who did give me oral sex never complained about my pubic hair cut, or lack thereof.

As a sophomore, I dated a timid yet beautiful blue eyed, dark haired boy. He’d never had a girlfriend before. As his hands began to dive into my pants, and mine into his, he stopped short. “Does my hair bother you?”

My hand stopped moving. I chuckled, surprised by the question. “No. Does mine bother you?”


And like that, we continued along.

After feminists raved about The Vagina Monologues, I dragged a different significant other to a show. In the audience, I listened to a woman recount another woman’s story. Her husband was cheating, because “if she’d shaved down there, I’d find her more attractive.” Their couple’s therapist suggested shaving the wife, together. They did, and she bled. She recounted pieces of herself falling into her hands. It hurt her, but they continued despite when the razor would slip and injure her private area more.

In the end, she was shaved.

In the end, her husband still cheated.

Sitting in the audience as I heard this story, I made a promise to myself that I would never shave anything for a guy.

Still, when my body would be explored, and underwear would be moved to the side, my little black hairs would get caught, and tug, and hurt. So I began to experiment with my hair style, eventually settling on a “landing strip” and barely (but still there if I’m lazy) there under area. I didn’t look or feel like the seven year old girl lost and confused in the shower. Instead, I felt like the twenty-something-emerging-woman taking control of what I wanted my body to look like.

Adventures post-college would have guys hovering above me, mid thrust asking, “So, next time we do this, can you trim up a little bit?”

“Sure,” I’d answer, but I would remember The Vagina Monologues. I’d remember the promise I’d made to myself. If he’s still able to get off, my pubic hair should not be a big deal.

I have met and been with guys who have told me with and without clothes on I’m beautiful. I have been with guys who have manscaped themselves, and guys who’ve been hairy. I have been in unhealthy relationships where my significant other and I emotionally destroyed each other, and I have been in healthy relationships where we’ve pushed each other to do great things with our writing, our careers, our lives.

In the years since my pubic hair has grown in, I’ve had a lot of time to reflect on whether or not I want to keep them there. I’ve continued to shave my legs, and my armpits, and from time to time chop my head-hair very short. I make these decisions. I decide if and when I want to shave or cut anything.

In the end, after I’ve had several men disparage me from keeping my little black hairs on my otherwise blond body, I’ve determined that it’s no one else’s decision to make but my own. If I am with a man who prefers me to look like an eleven year old girl, chances are I don’t actually want to be with him. If I’m with a man who truly values me, not just my body, he’ll accept all of my bodily hair styles, not try to push me into a hair cut I’m not comfortable with.

Unless, you know, he’s willing to get all of his hair waxed.

My Personal Haircut

Lady in the House: Laura McCollough

Elizabeth Alexander ends her poem “Haircut” with “I am a flygirl with a new hair cut in New York City in a mural that is dying every day.” Have you ever had a haircut that granted you some revelation?

A few years ago when I moved to a new town, I was advised to use a local salon. “They really know curly hair,” I was told. It cost me a couple hundred bucks.   This poem, “Beauty Salon Love,” appears in my newest book, Rigger Death & Hoist Another, came out of that visit.

Beauty Salon Love

He says, Oh, I understand your hair; you need

and rattles off a litany that includes

coconut oil infusion

after, of course, a clarifying shampoo,

and talks curl shape and cuticle health

and color, Oh, we’ll talk color next time;

your red is so good, we don’t need to go there yet,

but when we do, you’re in the right hands,

and I admit, I started to weep,

not a lot, but yes, like when you’ve finally made love

rather than had sex,

the whole sweep of your future

opening both out to that future

and back to the dream

you had as a little girl of being rescued

and loved for ever and ever and ever

and suddenly I could make love to my new hair-guy,

but instead buy close to two hundred dollars worth of products,

everything he says will transform me,

and I nod as he takes my money,

would kiss him if he let me,

and then go home to my husband,

and tell him, I like the new salon,

but in our bedroom I hide the bag

with the shampoo, curl activator, and everything else

I will rub in my palms,

apply to my head, every day until I can go back,

spend a little more,

hoping the husband won’t find it,

knowing he will,

knowing he’ll forgive me my desperation,

this lapse in judgment,

and he’ll say, you always look beautiful to me,

and I’ll smile with gratitude,

and won’t tell him

how that’s just not enough.


The “curly hair expert” really was great at making me feel fawned over, but he cut my hair in the standard way he cut every woman’s hair, and in a few days, the stepped layers he’d done made my hair look a bit like a Lego stack. This had cost, to me, a huge amount of money, the first time I had paid so much, and now I was certain it would be the last.

I began stopping curly haired strangers in the street to ask them about their hair. Women were always willing to talk about their hair, the products they use, where they get cuts.

One day, a woman sighed, looked around each shoulder as if someone might be listening in, and leaned toward me. “Listen. This is crazy, I know,” she peered at me over hipster Warby Parker frames, “I go to this place over in Eatontown.” She put a hand to her chest in an, “I swear to god gesture. “Ten bucks.”

“Seriously?” I asked, thinking, Holy Grail.

“Seriously,” she said, pulling a card from her shoulder bag, then holding it out, so I could read the name of a “fast food” hair joint. She mugged a face. “I know. I know. Don’t judge it. It’s dirty. No frills, but ask for Linda.”

I took the card. The following week, I had an appointment with Linda, who turned out to be very heavy, who wore a cut off Harley Davidson T-shirt with the neck ripped low to expose sweaty cleavage and a bosom not bolstered by a bra, and who smelled like an ash tray and disinfectant. The cut cost ten bucks, and I gave her ten in tip. The cut was great, too, just right, not fancy, but a disciplined, careful, and loving cut, so my curls layered gently and with bounce. I’ve gone to her ever since. She never blows it dry. She doesn’t use fancy product. We talk about her chopper, her divorce, her kids, her health, my health, my kids, my marriage, my writing. Sometimes politics, money, the culture, her fears for her kids, my fears for my kids; kids, kids, kids. We like each other. We understand the fears.

Recently, I called for an appointment, and they told me she was gone. Gone where, I wanted to know. Don’t know, they said. I’d been going to her for four years.  I haven’t gotten a shaping since. My ends are getting stringy and splitting. I guess I could start talking to strangers again.


Is hair a performance? 

Three things have happened recently to collude in me growing my red, kinky, curly hair long:

1. I realized that I cut my hair whenever it gets to the length my mother cut my hair when I was a kid. Back then, there were no “hair products,” and my mom had straight hair and no idea what to do with my mess of red frizz. She begged me to comb it every night to get the knots out, then, “Do a hundred brush strokes to make it shiny.” That just turned my hair into a straw broom. My hair can’t take a comb or a brush, but it would be years before I had black friends to show me how to use a pick, to turn me on to Cream of Nature conditioner to soothe the cuticle of my hair shafts, so it could curl instead of kink, and so my mother is to be forgiven for losing her patience one day, standing me in the bathtub, and with her sewing shears, cutting my hair straight across just below my chin.

It took me well into adulthood to understand that some voice echoes in my head from that day, “Your hair is a rat’s nest! If you can’t keep the knots out, it’s coming off!” sending me into a panic for a hair cut came from that childhood event. Now that I know this, I am working against the sense of chaos on top of my head.

2. My hair cutter is gone (and I do need a new one, but I won’t pay for the salon-spa pampering bit of show-biz nonsense).

3. I met a curly haired women at a conference with tresses to her shoulder blades and made a pact with her: I will see you in a year, and except for shaping and trimming to keep the cuticle from splitting (split ends are real and get worse if not trimmed—the shafts shatter from the bottom up!), I won’t cut it.

So I am letting it grow. And yes, I can see that it is a performance. I am constantly asked about my hair. People comment on the color, the texture, the wildness of it. It is bright. It is bold. It is a defining element of my physicality. Growing it now is a statement of authority and ownership of self. But my head of wild red hair seems to elicit all kinds of reactions.  Just this week, I was in Atlantic City for a few days. Here are some comments I was on the receiving end of:

From a man on the boardwalk: “I love that red hair!” Pause, as I passed, then, cheekily, “Are you a real redhead?” (I have been getting asked this one since ninth grade, when the boys in science class selected a representative to ask me this, the actual query, of course, being about what was behind my skirt, and the boys, perhaps–I’d like to recall it this way– as embarrassed by my silence as I was inside my silence.)

From a woman in a store, but to her companion: “Oh, I just love redheads; they are so cute!”

From a man I had just met in a lobby as we exchanged friendly conversation: “Wow, you have some amazing hair.”

From a child at a public pool: “Can I touch your hair? Is it like wool?”

From a friend, during a gathering, “God, I felt like somebody’s redheaded step-child.” They were discussing someway they had been treated poorly.

When being introduced to read from my new book, my hair was mentioned multiple times: “Dazzling.” “Wild.” “Fiery.”

In a thrift store, from the clerk: “Is that really your hair color?”

But I am being disingenuous.  My hair communicates, and people respond. This is not a bad thing. I don’t even really mind, though I used to and though I am still astonished. I choose how to respond, or not. Sure I let the kid touch my hair. I thanked the man who commented in the lobby. I said nothing to the stranger snorting and chuckling behind me on the boardwalk. I rolled my eyes at the woman referring to me as “cute” (I am a grown up, and nothing about me is cute anymore). I explain gently that “redheaded step-child” is a fraught phrase on many, many levels. And I always say I was born a redhead, yes, which is true while also allowing me not to launch into an explanation of beginning to go gray and now using a plant-based henna to cover the gray, staying as close to my original color as possible, and yes, I have kids pics to prove it.

Which means I am performing something with my hair, because I could just shave it (I have several times done so over my adult life) or not henna and watch it dull (which happens to red hair) and then go gray. So what is the performance?

There is a billion dollar industry out there dedicated to hair. A New York Times article reported not long ago that curly haired women buy hair product more than any other hair demographic. I will buy almost any jarred or tubed thing if it promises to soften my cuticle and make it bouncy and shiny. For a long time, I desperately wanted straight hair. The performance I wanted was simple: make me beautiful, average, regular, skinny, and popular, normal and desirable.  Once a year for many years I would freak out and spend a hundred bucks on a hair straightener and some products, invariably burning my hair (or my neck) and spending hours only to have it look like a witch’s wig.

“What’s wrong?” I begged my husband once. ‘Please, please, tell me the truth.”

He sighed, and I could see him working up the courage to go against the good man code of telling your woman she looks beautiful no matter what (One marker of maturing relationship is about honoring truth not illusion). He said, “When you straighten your hair, it is stiff. It doesn’t move.”

Bingo. That was it. Hair needs to preform with gentle movement, too, to be sexy, alluring, touchable.  Now my desire for my hair to perform is shifting. I own this red, damn it. I suffered as a child with it, withstood the mean bullying comments about my nasty hair for years and then lived in stunned shame as that turned into intrusive sexual comments from men and boys when I was an adolescent (Oh, I have stories! When I was sixteen, a man pulled up next to me in a car and held a rose out the window to me. “I can’t resist a redhead wearing white,” he said. “What a vision you are.” Or recently,  “Every man remembers his first redhead in the back of his car,” a poet told me.   Yeah, dude, I have been hearing about that one for a long, long time.) Redheads are sexy. Redheads have a temper. Redheads are hot. Redheads are magical. Today, my red crazy curls say, I am in the room, and you can’t render me invisible nor make me feel ugly.


What is your “hair politic?” 

I have probably already given a sense of politics, though not directly. There are politics of black hair that are more discussed, but red certainly has its issues, and frankly, women are identified by their hair in very profound ways.

Here’s a story: For some reason, with the birth or arrival of each of my four sons, I cut my hair quite short, nearly crew length. The last time I did this, I’d been a full time professor a few years. I noticed my students responded to me differently with my hair shorn, and I had the worst student ratings that semester! I was also regularly asked if I am a lesbian, a question that deserves no answer, in my view, as my sexuality is no one’s business, but answering or not answering is fraught because one wishes to be politically and socially responsible. One of my older sons gave me an answer: he came up behind me one day after I’d cut it when we adopted his youngest brother, and said, “Mom, you look like a lesbian.” When I turned around, I realized our hair was about the same length and cut, so I exclaimed without thought, “So do you!”  He never mentioned it again.

But your question was not about politics, but a hair politic, an art or craft of hair, and for that I have a few cunning little points nearing a manifesto for curly red hair:

  1. Leave-in conditioner is your lifeline.
  2. Do not over wash.
  3. Lock in curl with a brief blow dry with defuser, and then finish with hair dry.
  4. Use orchid clips to keep it out of your face. (I love when people give me an orchid as a gift. I steal the clips.)
  5. Rock your red. Henna to cover gray; don’t dye it. They never get red right, and it fades. And most dyes have carcinogenic.
  6. Honor Miss Frizzle from the Magic School Bus as a hero. Talk about Lucille Ball’s beauty, not just her comedy. Admit Bette Midler is a gorgeous diva and so was Queen Boadicea.
  7. Red heads should breed; we are an endangered species. And no, coloring doesn’t count. It’s genetic.
  8. When it comes to your genes, know the deal: Red heads need more anesthetic, but often need less pain killers, two very different things. If you are a “real” redhead, meaning by genes, or if there are red heads in your family, make sure to bring this up with your doctors. I have the stories to prove it anecdotally, but the science is there and easy to Google.


In her song “I Am Not My Hair,” India Arie discusses a journey through hair, race, perception and personal identity. How is your hair linked to your own identity?

OMG, how is it not? I think many women of all races and ethnicities would say that hair is inextricably linked to the way a woman is perceived by others, but of course, the real question is how we link it to ourselves. Most of my life, I have had a real love hate relationship with my hair. As a child, I was ashamed of my unruly mess of frizz, bright as a copper penny. Until I was 18, I tried to flatten it in every way possible, and even slept with a book under my pillow and tried to never move my head. Lost cause.

Once in college, I was offered a part in a musical, but conditioned upon my dying my hair dark. I wouldn’t do it.  I hated my hair, but it was me! What would I be without it? WHO would I be??

A few years ago, I was helping someone I loved die in hospice. It was a grueling several months and the stress was enormous. One day, my husband pointed out that my hair was falling out at the top of my head in front. I ran to the mirror. He was right, but I had been so absorbed in the family issues that I hadn’t noticed.

I stood in front of the mirror, my hand in my hair, seeing how it was thinning, my scalp shining through. The family member who was dying was also a redhead, and she’d lost all her hair months before. Suddenly, the grief, the impending loss, my own mortality, my sense of my physical self in the world came bursting into my consciousness, and I disassembled into tears. We lost her not long after, and the healing began, and my hair filled back in. Since then, I have loved my hair, and I am letting it grow. My hair isn’t me, but it is emblematic of living life now and larger, while we can, loving as we go. My hair says, I am here, world; until the dying, I am alive.

That’s how I see my hair right now. Maybe someday I will be dying and lose it all, and that will be okay because it is not what makes me—or anyone—beautiful; being is what makes you beautiful, but owning my age, owning my hair, my big butt, whatever it is that makes me physically represented in the world, that’s where I am at now.


If you could create a writing form or technique based on your favorite hairstyle, what would it be? 

Write it all now, edit later. That’s what orchid clips are for.

Lady in the House: Laura McCollough

Not Now . . . I’m Having a No Hair Day

by Christine Clifford

Twenty years ago, when I was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of forty, my biggest fear wasn’t about dying: it was about losing my hair. I don’t know why it was so important to me, but at the time, I was a busy executive; I had young children and it just seemed so . . . visible.

It fell out with a vengeance; and I wore my wigs and my hats for one year, four months and twelve days. But who was counting?

Fortunately for me, my kids were only ten and eight at the time. So when my older son, Tim, approached me and said that all the neighborhood kids wanted to draw on my newly bald head, I happily complied.

My mother had died of breast cancer at the age of 42, but I always knew if I ever had to lose those particular assets of mine, I always had my best asset: long, thick, curly luxurious brown hair. My friends all kept saying things like, “Christine, don’t worry about it. When your hair grows back, it will grow in thicker, curlier, and more beautiful than ever.”

I don’t know about any of you who may have been through this experience, but when my hair grew back, I looked something like a cross between Andy Warhol and Lyle Lovett. It came back all gray. It was absolutely stick straight. But I have to tell you, it felt wonderful to be able to say, “I’m having a bad hair day, instead of a no hair day.”

And what cancer and my bald head did for me twenty years ago was to reiterate one of those life lessons we all learned as children: beauty is only skin deep. It’s what’s inside that matters. So now, here, I find myself twenty years later, and breast cancer has come back into my life again. This time, I had to have double mastectomies as opposed to the lumpectomy I had in 1994, and reconstruction is a topic I could write on for hours, if not days. But once again, I am bald.

It’s funny, though, actually. I’m treasuring each tiny little eyebrow or eyelash that still clings to my body. Shaving my legs? Wouldn’t even think of it! After all, it’s hair! It’s amazing how different you look without it, and yet, it is far, far easier! Getting ready in the morning has become a ten-minute ritual instead of an hour ordeal.

I’m reminded of a book I read when I faced this baldness the first time around. The super model of my era was Cindy Crawford, and she wrote a book titled Cindy Crawford’s Basic Face. As I read through the book, Cindy talked about how even one tiny little eyebrow could make all the difference. I figured if she’d just give it to me, I’d plant it on my head!

I’m reminded of an awkward situation that played out in my life many years ago. The year I was diagnosed with cancer, my husband and I decided to take a break from my treatments and the cold Minnesota winter. We flew to Scottsdale, Arizona, where there was a professional golf tournament going on: The Tradition on the Senior PGA Tour. We bought tickets, and we were standing on the third tee, watching my three idols in golf tee off: Jack Nicklaus, Raymond Floyd, and Tom Weiskopf. A gust of wind came up and blew my hat (and my hair!) right off my head and into the middle of the fairway. The gallery went silent. My golf idols stared at me as my hair was in their flight path. I took a deep breath, slipped under the ropes, wandered into the middle of the course, grabbed my hat and my hair, and turned to the golfers. “Gentlemen,” I offered, “the wind is blowing left to right.”

They said the laughter could be heard all the way back to the clubhouse, and I realized that once again, laughter is the best medicine. Don’t forget to laugh!

I’ll get through my treatments, and reconstruction. My long-term prognosis is excellent. And I know, too, that one day, I shall have hair again.

Not Now . . . I’m Having a No Hair Day