Visiting author Jasminne Mendez explores identity and language through writing
The most recent visitor from the Fall 2023 Hallie Ford Literary Series was author Jasminne Mendez, a multi-talented Dominican-American artist celebrated for her contributions to poetry, prose and translation. Mendez is judging the poetry portion of the annual Mark and Melody Teppola Prizes for Creative Writing at Willamette University this year. During her visit Mendez shared her insights through reading and commentary on a few of her works, giving the audience a glimpse into her life and the themes that inspire her creativity.
An award-winning author, Mendez's first poetry collection, "City Without Altar," won the 2022 Texas Institute of Letters Best Book of Poetry Award. Her debut middle-grade novel and most recent publication "Aniana del Mar Jumps In" received glowing reviews in March of this year. She's also made a mark in translation, working with New York Times Best Selling authors like Amanda Gorman, Nikole Hannah-Jones and Calribel Ortega. An alum of the University of Houston, Mendez serves as the program director for literary arts non-profit Tintero Projects, and calls Houston, Texas her home and workplace.
During Mendez’s visit, she read excerpts from both poetry collections and published books. She led with a poem about the experience of being Dominican while living in Texas where Spanish speakers typically speak Mexican Spanish. She has lived in Texas for 25 years and said, “I code-switch a lot while living in Texas, not just in English but also in Spanish.” This code-switching can be seen in her readings of her work — for each character she has a different voice that aligns with their background. Her ability to seamlessly code-switch is a testament to her linguistic versatility, a skill that reflects the complex identity she holds.
Growing up, Mendez grappled with being told that because she was Dominican she could not also be Black. This self-identity was deeply rooted in historical events, particularly the Haitian Genocide, where Haitian and Dominican identities were forcibly separated — she explained that she was told Haitian people were Black, so she couldn’t be Black as a Dominican woman due to society’s desire to keep the two ethnicities in distinct and separate categories. In her work "City Without Altar," Mendez delves into the horrors of the genocide, using her writing to confront the injustices of the past. The title of the book refers to the lack of memorial or “altar” for the victims of the Haitian Genocide.
Reading an excerpt from this powerful book, Mendez connected this event of violent racism to her own experiences of medical racism. She shared a story about when doctors, influenced by racial biases, were willing to amputate the tips of her fingers without full sedation on the grounds that there was a low chance she could be pregnant. This shocking experience highlights the systemic issues embedded in the healthcare system and mirrors the historical racial prejudices she uncovers in her work.
The next reading Mendez did was from her latest book, "Aniana del Mar Jumps In," where she tackles the theme of chronic illness, drawing from her own experiences. The story revolves around a girl's desire to swim despite her illness and her mother's reluctance due to water-related trauma. This book, inspired by Mendez’s mother and the movie Moana, tells a story of regaining one’s bodily autonomy. Its first draft was written in just four months over the pandemic and is her latest book to be published.
Mendez’s last reading was a recitation of one of her own poems. She sang pieces of the poem, truly performing rather than just reading it. The poem was about returning to the Dominican Republic for the first time at 19 years old, and it led to a discussion about language supremacy.
Emphasizing that there's no single correct way to speak a language, Mendez expresses that it's essential for Spanish speakers to embrace linguistic diversity, rather than deeming others' Spanish wrong due to differences. She illustrated this point by sharing her experience of taking her five-year-old daughter to the Dominican Republic, where her child naturally adopted a Dominican accent.
Closing out by speaking about the hope she sees for positive change, Mendez shared that small yet significant transformations, such as people wearing their natural hair in public, mean that, “We’re no longer trying to whiten our hair. It’s a step toward accepting our Blackness.” In response to an audience member's question about identifiers, she encouraged people to choose the labels that personally resonate with them.
The presence of Jasminne Mendez and similar authors at Willamette University serve as a reminder of the power of literature in exploring identity, confronting historical injustices and promoting inclusivity. Her artistry and insights continue to enrich the literary world and challenge readers to question societal norms, embracing the diverse and multifaceted identities that define us all.