Weekly Wire
Tucson Weekly Woman of Words

Author Sonia Sanchez builds bridges between life and literature.

By Mari Wadsworth

MARCH 2, 1998:  IF YOU AREN'T already familiar with Sonia Sanchez, once you've made her acquaintance you'll wonder how she managed to slip through the cracks of literary fame. The 63-year-old poet, activist and scholar has published 13 books since 1969's Homecoming, her first volume of poetry; and she's a decorated author--an NEA Fellow and winner of the International League for Peace and Freedom Award. She's currently a professor of English and women's studies at Temple University in New York.

Over the past three decades, Sanchez has been a constant, if not overwhelming, presence among American writers pushing the envelope of their craft: With impassioned, politicized prose-poems and experimental forays into restructuring grammar and written speech, she's created a living document of African American life--one that pulses with and rages against a dominant culture of social, racial and economic inequality, all the while maintaining a unique voice and a clear vision. With rare skill, she bends and reconstructs the English language to create a new American language, one that speaks the mind, heart and soul of some of this country's disenfranchised: the former slave, the rape victim, the teenage junkie, the suburban housewife, the AIDS sufferer, and even the articulate, university-educated black woman.

She's taken great care, both in her writing and her social activism, to explore what it means to be African American: She unflinchingly writes and speaks about what it sounds like, what it feels like, how it bleeds, what it endures, where it lives, who leads, and how it shapes the identities of a nation of people born into a society that didn't care about their language or their history; a nation afraid, even, of those who dared to find out, stand out and call for change.

Particularly in autobiographical works like the prose-poem collections Homegirls and Handgrenades (1984), and the more recent Wounded in the House of a Friend (1995) and Does Your House Have Lions? (published 1997; and re-released in paperback this year), Sanchez succeeds in creating art that's both complex and accessible. By simply recording details like urban ghettoes, drug addiction and teen pregnancy, marital infidelity, and a brother's death from AIDS, she asserts that these experiences are worthy of being told (an obvious, yet until recently often overlooked, fact). That she does so in a rhythm and language that's unique, that draws on the African languages of her ancestors, and reaches out to a contemporary audience not often spoken for in literary circles, goes a step beyond.

She elevates common experience to art, and in so doing takes voices marginalized for decades--even centuries--and celebrates them in humor, anguish, anger and joy. Her individuality as an African American speaks to the individuality of each and every one of us; of the hardships and inequities we all must overcome to grasp who we are and what we're capable of accomplishing, alone and as a people.

Sanchez is one writer whose art and work are intertwined: She visits Tucson this week as part of the national PEN Writers and Readers project, in its first year at Pima County Adult Education; it's a joint program of PCAE's Family Literacy Project and the Liberty Learning Center. Sanchez is the second author in the series, and will spend time in the classroom not only reading from and discussing her own work, but mentoring and helping students to focus on their own writing. At the end of the residency, each student is invited to read their own work, with Sanchez and the rest of the class as audience. It's a powerful program, which so far has thrilled program coordinators Kathy Budway and Jessica Dilworth.

"Literacy is more than being able to read," says Budway of PCAE's mission. "It's bigger...developing a love of reading and a connection with literature as something that's relevant to our students' lives." The PEN project is just one way to create a bridge between life and literature. "There are these wonderful authors out there who are (metaphorically) writing about our students," she says, citing Sanchez as one of them. The class, mostly adults from their 20s to 40s, prepared for the author's March 1 visit by reading Homegirls and Handgrenades, and watching a video documentary/biography on Sanchez borrowed from the PCC library.

Budway herself was won over by Sanchez' writing a few years ago, in a writing group which introduced a short story from Homegirls and Handgrenades. "It was incredible," she recalls. "We chose it for the class because the language and the stories are easy to relate to. The students have been very responsive. One said, 'I'm not so sure I get all of it, but I like it!' " I'll second that.

Weekly Wire Suggested Links

Page Back Last Issue Current Issue Next Issue Page Forward

Books: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11

Cover . News . Film . Music . Arts . Books . Comics

Weekly Wire    © 1995-99 DesertNet, LLC . Tucson Weekly . Info Booth . Powered by Dispatch