In Conversation with
Leslie Contreras Schwartz
Jasminne Mendez’s new multi-genre book, Nightblooming Jasmin(n)e: Personal Essays & Poems (Arte Publico Press, May 2018), examines the intersecting, layered stories of living with chronic illness as a Dominican American woman, while battling the heartbreak of infertility and near-deadly complications from lupus and scleroderma. Woven with historical poems about the 1937 Haitian massacre during Trujillo’s regime, essays about micro-aggressions as an Afro Latina female, and memoir hybrid explorations of self-discovery and family dynamics during her journey through illness, Mendez seeks to tell her story as a way to claim space. Mendez’s background as a performance poet and actress inform this multi-genre work, from which she recently won the COG Poetry Prize for her poems "Run, Irelia, Run," "Bounty," and "Return to Water," selected by Major Jackson. Mendez has been published both nationally and internationally and her first multi-genre memoir Island of Dreams (Floricanto Press, 2013) was awarded Best Young Adult Latino Focused Book by the International Latino Book Awards in 2015. She is the Co-Founder and Program Director of the Houston based Latino literary arts organization Tintero Projects and a co-host to the poetry and writing podcast series InkWell a collaboration between Tintero Projects and Inprint Houston.
Leslie Contreras Schwartz: The book is divided into sections with titles named for different types of jasmine flowers but also referring to changing identities experienced when confronted with the particularities of your chronic illness and its complications. What were some of the issues surrounding identity that you hoped to examine—particularly around asserting independence from family, adjusting to a new sort of life with illness, and accepting new ways of being?
Jasminne Mendez: I’ve always written from a place of intersectionality. My first book, Island of Dreams, was about how I have never felt at home anywhere given my Dominican-American military brat background. When I was diagnosed with auto-immune disease at 22, it added another layer of complexity to my already over complicated identity. With this book, my hope was to highlight how being a woman of color affected my perception, understanding and managing of my chronic illnesses. I learned a lot about epigenetics and generational trauma while writing this book. I realized that the diseases that had manifested themselves in my body, had a lot to do with the trauma I had inherited from my ancestors as well as the years of micro-aggressions, racism, and sexism that I faced as a woman of color in America. The journey of writing and organizing this book was my way of trying to make sense of all of that. When did the disease really begin? What triggered it? How did my other identities influence or affect the evolution and management of the disease? I also learned a lot about and personally experienced medical racism and sexism and I wanted to explore that in the book. While I’ve always lived on the margins, illness and disability seemed to push me out even further, but what I wanted to focus on with this book, was that it was still possible to have a full life with family, friends, goals, aspirations and hope. My goal in this book was not to examine the “why me” of illness, but rather to focus on the “what now?”
Illness taught me how to take better care of myself, how to put myself (my body and its needs-emotional, physical, mental and spiritual) first, and also how to ask for help. Illness isn’t a sign of weakness (as many people seem to believe); it’s a sign of having endured too much and the body trying to find a way to deal with it all.
LCS: Your family, and the changing dynamic of your relationship to both parents and your siblings, was an important part of the story in this book; a tender moment is when your entire family accompanies you to a support group meeting. Can you talk about unraveling the story of around you in the essays, particularly in seeing the people who held you up?
JM: As a Latina, family is a huge part of who I am and how I identify. My family has always been there for me (whether I like it or not) and for a while, when I first started writing the book, I tried to keep my family out of it, in other words, I tried to not write about them. (I tried REALLY hard!) But the deeper into the book I got, the more I realized that was impossible. I didn’t exist outside of them, and so much of how I handled and dealt with my illness was based on how involved they were with my care from the moment of diagnosis. My chronic illness isn’t just about me and grieving the loss of who I was and who I will never be, it’s also about my family and how they grieved the loss of the Jasminne they once knew. It took me a long time to finally understand that we were all grieving that loss and that we all had to do it in our time and in our own ways.
LCS: The poems in this book add music not accessible in prose, as well as startling images used to look at trauma and violence. How did you come to understanding your experience with chronic illness and how it connects or intersects with your exploration into the Haitian massacre, and the racism within Dominican and Latino culture?
JM: Wow, what a great question. One I’ve never actually been asked! Interestingly enough, I learned about the Haitian Massacre of 1937 while doing research for another collection of poems I was trying to work on while I kept this book on hold. I was researching the history of Dominican/Haitian relations when I learned about the massacre. The massacre is one of those pivotal events in the island’s history that is actually misconstrued and misrepresented in a lot of texts and histories. Many people believe that anti-Haitianism existed before the massacre, but the truth is, based on interviews and historical research, the massacre is what lead to more rampant anti-Haitianism. Dominicans and Haitians actually lived very peacefully along the border prior to the massacre. It was Trujillo’s anti-blackness/anti-Haitianism campaign that spearheaded these tragic events.
When I read about the brutal way in which Haitians were killed and brutalized with machetes during the massacre, it triggered a lot of emotions for me related to my own partial finger amputations. For one of my surgeries I was only partially sedated, so I was aware of what was happening to my finger during the procedure. It made me consider, if that experience was severely traumatic for me, what it must have been like for those Haitians (and some Dominicans) to be severed, while awake in such a brutal way. While I know that my experience is different from what they experienced in severity and harm, I felt like I could still empathize with the trauma and violence inflicted on all our black bodies and how we are expected to cope with the aftermath of such a loss.
Also, considering that I don’t know my own ancestral history beyond that of my grandparents, I wondered a lot (and still do), if any of my family witnessed or was a victim of the Haitian Massacre in some way. I know there are many reasons I feel connected and called to tell this history and I often wonder if it’s because some of the history lives inside me and was passed down in some way. I know, for example, that my maternal grandfather was about seven or eight when the massacre happened and he only lived 90 miles from the city in which it occurred. But my grandfather passed away when I was just a baby, so I’ll never get a chance to ask him if he saw anything or what he knows about it . . . and everyone else I’ve tried to ask about it on the island, refuses to talk about it. It’s one of those things that I’ll probably never know.
LCS: Another essential part of the book deals with living with infertility, and the negotiations, invisibility, and loss that all compound each other. Was there anything surprising to you in writing these sections, threads that you uncovered while writing about the experience?
JM: One of the earlier drafts of the book actually excludes the entire section on infertility. While I had written many of the essays already, I wasn’t intending on including them in this book. Originally, I had hoped to write a whole book on just my experience with infertility as a woman of color.
However, my infertility became such a big part of my illness journey as a whole, that I had to include it in this book. Much of what this book is about is silence and language. How women (and especially women of color) are silenced, how the language we have been given cannot adequately capture our pain, our experiences, or the trauma our bodies have endured. After living with infertility for many years, I realized that this was just another area of many women’s lives that isn’t talked about. It’s another thing we are expected to feel shame about. I hate that. I hate that so much of our humanity as women is supposed to be a source of shame and silence. I wanted to break that open, deny that silence, show the world that it’s ok to talk about all of these things. Just because our illnesses and our infertility are invisible, doesn’t mean we have to be; it doesn’t mean we have to silence ourselves and feel shame about it.
While dealing with my infertility, I learned that it’s also considered a disease, and that just because a woman does manage to get pregnant doesn’t mean she’s “cured.” Some women do find the cause of their infertility and doctors are able to “fix” it so that she can conceive on her own, but so many of us live with unexplained infertility. And our only options are invasive fertility treatments, treatments that many women of color can’t afford or don’t have access to. That was something I wanted to explore in these essays as well, but it was out of the scope of this book, unfortunately.
LCS: Many of the pieces, especially the poems, are tied to land, and the complications of inheriting an island—the jasmines rooted to land, the sugar cane—and how it also refers to the body, such as experiencing traumatic amputations, examining the massacre, or seeking healing through visits on the beach. How has the writing of this book, and your use of plants, crops and land, helped to drive meaning about the complexity of inheriting both trauma and joy? I am thinking of the poem, “After the Avalanche,” for example, where you write “I pull larimar & winter jasmine / from my flower bud fingertips,/ warm the blue & the yellow … harvest the green.”
JM: I don’t know if I every necessarily thought about it in those terms, but the crops, the land/water, and the plants that I’ve been drawn to when I write are usually those that are very specific to the island and to my Dominican culture and heritage. They are foods, plants, and places that bring me joy and make me feel like a part of a community. Having been born in the US, and never having lived in the DR, certain foods and music and plants were the only connection I had to the place my parents called home. Mangoes, merengue, palm trees and the beach were the kinds of things that were/are a source of joy for my parents and thus for me too. While my relationship to the island (the D.R.) continues to be a very complicated one, and one that I am still trying to figure out because I have learned its history and its continued problematic view and treatment of Haitians, I do have a certain kind of love for it and for its people/my people.