To Encounter Ocean Power
Every year, PEN America asks PEN members, supporters, and staff—writers and editors of all backgrounds and genres—to celebrate the freedom to read by reflecting on the banned books that matter most to them. This is our way of taking part in the American Library Association’s annual Banned Books Week, which brings together the entire book community in shared support of the freedom to seek and to express ideas, even those some consider unorthodox or unpopular. Check out this year’s Banned Books feature here.
This is to write about a banned book titled Ocean Power: Poems from the Desert, by Ofelia Zepeda. And this is of course to write into something beyond a single book by one author. This is about the land (this land) and the people the author comes from, the language(s) the author speaks, mother-tongues, mother histories and all those things connected to identity which any book, in one way or another, reinforces—for the writer and reader, both.
I’ve chosen Ofelia Zepeda’s book because it’s part of the required reading list in Tucson Unified School District’s former K – 12 Mexican American Studies’ curriculum (a.k.a. “ethnic” studies); a program that has been banned by law since 2012. According to the recent Huffington Post article, “Every Week is Banned Books Week for Chicanos,” the legislation AZ House Bill 2281 is justified by Arizona officials by “claiming it [Mexican American Studies] promoted the overthrow of the government.” As a result of the ban, “AZ officials were able to effectively challenge over 80 books in one swoop. Some were even carted out of classrooms and boxed during class time, in front of our youth.”
To say the least, I am enraged. I can’t shake the image of young students—the gears of their minds at work—as they watch and take account, assess what it means to pull books from shelves, set them into the shadows of boxes, and to shut the lids. I imagine the impact as they witness the act of carting something away. To cart—this implication of weight; even worse, dead weight.
I, too, am captive witness. I’m watching this happen in front of me. As if bound to a chair, I struggle in the ropes of legalese. Tangle up in state law. But as a writer, what I can do—to the best of my ability—is examine the function of a book. And find the slack or slipknot, that point which requires just a tug to loosen.
Look: Through content (subject matter) and the language through which it’s expressed, a writer can say something about a thing (!) or not say anything about it at all. Obviously. And as a reader, when I pick up this writer’s book, I will see something of myself in it or not see anything of myself at all. It’s a veritable mirror or an abysmal void.
And as I consider this space of recognition, I am compelled to double back. Look twice. I must confess that when I recognize something of myself in a book, it may not always be what I want to see. This, too, is possible.
I am wondering, so I cannot help but ask: Tucson Legislators—in your city with the university, with air-conditioned restaurants, with murals and colorful shops, with pavement and nightlife, what, in Ofelia Zepeda’s text, do you recognize? Do you, as I do, see something vital, at the core, of who you are? Do you want to? Do you see the people of this land whom Zepeda says are “called ‘the people of the cotton fields’ / because of the labor our families did. / For us there was no reservation, no Housing & Urban Development, no tribal / support. / We were a people segregated in row houses / all lined up along the roads of our labor.”
Do you see the families. Do you see the men and the children. Do you see the women, the cotton fields and trucks. The ditches. Do you see danger, do you feel it. Do you recognize loss, “as they walk toward the edge of the ditch.” Do you see how “their movement is dreamlike. They peer into the muddy water.” Do you hear them when “with a single vocal act they release from their depths a hard, deep, mournful wail.” Do you feel empathy or fear, when “this sound breaks the wave of bright summer light above the cotton fields.”
There’s no telling what we will see or not see in a book.
So I want to acknowledge the important and fertile space, wherein even if I do not see a reflection of myself in a book, it’s nonetheless possible to relish the poetic line, the language, the newness of experience. Through a book, I can, at my own pace, approach and encounter something, some one or some people, not to mention some place that I haven’t previously. I can feel something long forgotten; or conversely, twist and turn, and feel altogether revolutionized. I discover. I can empathize, then perhaps relate. I propose that this space is the entryway to a true(r) education.
Let’s not forget, this education—the space for it—comes from a source: the writer.
So I want to consider the source of Ocean Power’s poems: Ofelia Zepeda, a poet who is Tohono O’odham—who comes from people indigenous to the Tucson area. What people could be more knowledgeable about, rooted in, or relevant to the history, growth and present-day concerns of Tucson?
Mind you, when I say “indigenous to Tucson,” I am referring to the people who have lived in the desert, that land, before it was the city of Tucson, before it was the state of Arizona, before it was the United States. These are the people, the O’odham, who still live there. The name Tucson, itself, is derived from the O’odham word Cuk Son, meaning “[at the] base of the black [hill].” The O’odham come from and live in the Sonoran Desert, in both “Mexico” and the “United States.” I ask: Tucson Legislators—are they Mexican? Are they American? This is the something, the heart: they are Tohono O’odham.
What you may also like to know about Ofelia Zepeda, the source, is that she is, in fact, an educator. Zepeda is a Professor of Linguistics and American Indian Studies at the University of Arizona. She is director of the American Indian Language Development Institute (AILDI) and wrote the book of grammar for the Tohono O’odham language, A Tohono O’odham Grammar. She is co-founder/editor of the publication series, Sun Tracks, for the University of Arizona Press—that has, since 1971, published Native authors such as Simon Ortiz, Luci Tapahonso, Joy Harjo, Heid Erdrich, Sherwin Bitsui, Santee Frazier, dg okpik and many, many others.
Through the seeds of Ofelia Zepeda’s life-long work, the voices of countless students, writers, and speakers of Native languages have flourished.
Aside from her professional achievements, I wish to share something about Ofelia Zepeda as a person. I first met her when I worked at the Indigenous Language Institute (ILI) in Santa Fe, NM, ten to fifteen years ago. She was an ILI board member, then. I remember her long, salt-and-pepper hair, worn back, away from her face—clipped in a single barrette or in a braid. I can still picture her loose, cotton button-up shirts. If she wore jewelry or makeup, I can’t remember. Meaning, any adornment was not worn to grab attention. Her serene face—I could stare it all day, but didn’t, so I stare at it in my memory. But more than anything, I remember her presence. Quiet, with something to say—which she always did say, in a steady, respectful manner. Gently. She was, like her poems, both reserved and forthright. Plain spoken and real. Frighteningly deep, like the ocean. Like Ocean Power.
Just as I watched and learned from her presence, I continue to find similar lessons in her poems. Zepeda teaches me about encounters, how to relate, how to speak and sometimes, when not to. I refer to poems like “Under the Sea”—because as the adage goes, the thing a poem is about is never really the thing. And so, I look at the ocean and see something closer to me than “just” the ocean:
If you go into the water
make sure that you smile.
If you turn your back on the ocean
say “excuse me.”
If you happen to have desert flowers in hand,
put them on the ocean waves and let them ride to sea.
If you leave the ocean water
make sure you are grateful for being safe.
If you are so inclined
you may create a poem.
If you are so inclined you may
dream a song.
If you are so inclined and you feel ready,
you may ask for something from the ocean.
If you are so inclined you may not discuss this with anyone
except the power of the ocean.
Yet I realize there are many scenarios for a new encounter. Ofelia Zepeda is aware of this too. In the poem “Ocean Power,” Zepeda writes about two Tohono O’odham men who are deported from the United States to Mexico, and en route, they near the ocean’s shoreline. Zepeda’s lines couldn’t be more timely, under the circumstances of Tucson’s ban: “Men who had never seen the ocean / it was hard not to have the fear that sits in the pit of the stomach. ”
Something(s) I recognize, under these circumstances.
If only we could, collectively, push through the momentary, as Zepeda describes in “The South Corner”: “My body is in line. / It is at its darkest point, but only for a short time. […] a brief window of opportunity. / Opportunity for sadness, loneliness, falling out of love and other states / associated with the lack of light. / But before the opportunity can be taken, the shadows turn. / The light becomes stronger, pulling me toward it.” But the trouble is, in order to see the arrival of light, one must exercise patience—the kind of patience, I would suggest, required to read and finish a book.
Who is reading the book?
I live in northern Arizona, on the Navajo Nation, so I am familiar with Arizona’s conservative state government and Republican leadership. In 2012, when Tucson’s ban on Mexican American Studies was passed, I sadly admit that I didn’t take it as seriously as I should have—I thought, surely, legislation like this, in this country and this century, will be quickly repealed.
But it’s been two years.
I am pacing the floor, pulling my hair. I think of light; I’m immersed in the lack of it. In another poem, “Kitchen Sink,” Zepeda writes, “In the summer there is a sense of urgency as the shadow gets longer and begins to slant / as the sunlight starts to edge out of the sink / I pretend the sunlight is going down the drain. / The light cannot be stopped by the plug in the drain. / It seeps down around the inner seal where water cannot go.” I’m sick to my stomach as I watch and wonder, Where is the light going?
In this urgency, I am moved to be plain spoken and real: There is nothing in Ocean Power or any of the other 80-plus books included in Tucson Unified School District’s ban on Mexican American Studies that incites me to “overthrow the government.” But it is the ban, itself, that shoves me in a corner, bullies and pushes me to call for an end—and it comes from my depths with “a hard, deep, mournful wail.”
My only encouragement right now is the knowledge that despite any legislative ban, the Indigenous people of this land persist; have always and will continue to. Through them, stories and their original languages remain.
Maybe this is where I see myself in all of this; the space through which I can enter and stand in solidarity with the protest against Tucson’s ban. It’s where I twist and turn; where I can relate. I am Oglala Lakota—my family is from another region of the United States, much further north, a full two-day drive from Tucson. But Lakota people know something about bans too—in every sense. A book ban is relatively subtle, when considering the long list of physically, psychologically, spiritually and emotionally damaging bans Lakota people (and all Native people) have endured—and continue to endure. Despite it all, we live; and we do so in the fullest and most courageous sense of alive.
A ban is a form of censorship, that is, essentially, a way to put something out of view e.g. carting away the boxes. It makes something disappear or invisible to plain sight. As a Lakota, I know about this too. So I think about one of my aunties who recently said to me, matter-of-factly, “I don’t consider myself American. I’m Lakota.” I’m sharing this here, knowing how this statement could be read—feelings it may provoke. Anyone who values the word “American,” who embraces it as part of their identity, may bristle at my auntie’s declaration. Like, How could she?! But I’ll help in the interpretation: this sort of statement comes from a sense of self, from a language and history, much older than “America.” Lakota people, like the O’odham, live on the land they come from. There was no “immigration,” no “new world.” My auntie’s declaration communicates what it is to retain a sense of self, to remain whole throughout the changing terms, treaties, laws, bans, boundaries, policies, boarding schools, churches, charities, pities, abuses and apologies. Through it all, there is one thing Auntie can say for sure, with stability and dignity, in a very old way—older than America: “I am Lakota.”
I don’t suggest that my auntie’s statement reflects the views of all Native people. Some Native people are highly patriotic. Likewise, there are those who embrace the dual citizenship of their tribal nations as well as the United States. And certainly, I would not dare assume that my auntie’s thoughts reflect Ofelia Zepeda’s perspective. But I share it to make the point that, even in America, it’s okay to see things this way. I share it to say, it’s okay that there are many who still identify themselves in a language, as a people who are older than America, who nonetheless come from “America.” It is okay to understand oneself this way, I would argue, as an Indigenous person. And it’s okay for others to acknowledge this too. Much the way it’s okay to remember that Tucson comes from the O’odham term, Cuk Son. And to remember that Cuk Son refers to the black hill, the volcanic rock in the Tucson area. And to remember that, at one time, the desert was the floor of an ocean. And it’s okay to honor the power of that ocean.
If interested in other works by Ofelia Zepeda, see Jewed ‘I-hoi/ Earth Movements, a bilingual collection that includes a CD (Kore Press) and Where Clouds are Formed (The University of Arizona Press). Or read this article “Poetry on the Rocks”—regarding Zepeda’s poems inscribed on boulders in Tucson, as odes to the desert.