Notes from the Boondocks of the Nuyorican Imaginary, or Writing Outside the Circular Firing Squad

I’m displaced to the second power.  I’m Nuyorican and haven’t lived in New York city for decades.  In fact, I’ve been a Nuyorican living in Puerto Rico for most of that time.  Now, I find myself in the margins of puertorriqueñidad, living in the boondocks of the Puerto Rican imaginary.

Some would consider living outside of a Puerto Rican enclave crippling for a self-denoted Nuyorican writer.  I certainly think there’s value living and writing in New York, but I think it can also be detrimental and stifling.   New York is one of the most provincial places you can find.  (Think Steinberg’s New Yorker cover).  Writers of color can fall into little cliques, especially when it comes to our ethnic thing.  In the case of Nuyorican writers, we become too defensive about being Puerto Rican to the point of ignoring or downplaying critical problems that are homegrown and internal to our culture.  We become obsessed with fronting authenticity and lose the drive to be original and creative.  We put a tight circle around ourselves and write from that comfort zone.  We end up writing to other members of the circle and excluding others.  And the politics of such artistic tribalism can be brutal and self-serving—a circular firing squad.

Physical space need  not ground community in this digital age.  I have been fortunate to live and visit different places in the country and across the Atlantic.  All those places have shaped who I am and how I see the world and as a consequence it has shaped my artistic vision, my world view.  I’m a better person and writer for it.  So, I don’t specifically attempt to stay connected to the literary scene in New York City per se.  I prefer to stay connected to the city for its cultural value, to stay connected with friends and family and those writers whom I respect and admire.

The focus of my work now is not centered on Puerto Ricans living in New York.  I may choose to write on that, but it is not my north star.   I am searching for subject matter on Puerto Ricans that goes beyond any one limited scope, and that is fresh and different than what we have been reading lately.   In the case of my novel, The Accidental Native, no one has written on this return migration to the island in fictional form.  Puerto Rican writers in the island don’t seem to care much about that, and Puerto Ricans in New York seem intent on continuing to write about the New York experience, at times from a narrow, stifling perspective.

Being on the outside is actually advantageous.   I don’t worry about stepping on any toes.  I don’t belong to any particular writing clan.  I do not have to tolerate the divas and sycophants, the self-proclaimed literary gurus or the Ministry of Authentication that any such literary circle–anywhere and at anytime–will tend to germinate.  Quite liberating and stress free.  I visit the city occasionally to get myself recharged; the internet is great for keeping abreast of things.  I have an idea of what’s going on in these different scenes; not all of it I care for, some of it is exciting, some absolutely banal.  But because I don’t live there, I can’t directly engage with it all.  I don’t have immediate access to the Nuyorican Literati.

That distance allows me freedom to think and create outside that circle.  These days I am gravitating to historical material, like that story I’m developing about the Carlisle Indian School.  I have another idea about Puerto Ricans moving to Hawaii, still another about the sterilization program.  I’m always looking for ideas not necessarily Nuyorican in the prototypical sense.  When people think Nuyorican—if they do at all—they usually think “urban” and everything else that goes with that.  The collection I’m working on has ten stories that don’t deal with New York.

Perhaps, it is time that we redefine what is Nuyorican.   Perhaps it is time that “Nuyorican” morph into “Diasporican.”  It is certainly time to infuse new themes, images and ideas into the Nuyorican perspective of the urbanscape.  Aurora Levins Morales attempted to put together a collection of Otherican writers, those Puerto Rican writers living and writing outside of New York  City. Unfortunately, the collection never made it to print.  The working concept behind that anthology is still valid and promising.


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