My Roar is Relentless
by Vanessa Mártir
It was about a year ago that a pendejo who I don’t really know and have no idea how he got on my FB friends list (as a matter of fact, I don’t even remember said pendejo’s name) responded to a status where I posed the question: what makes a writer? His response was a condescending diatribe, that in order to be a great writer, I was going to have to get over the things that I write about—my grief, my childhood, my being unmothered, the stories that haunt me. He mentioned that though some of what I wrote had made him cry, I had milked it enough.
He insisted that I’d never be a great writer until I got over it, that all great writers have done that. He said I owe this to my readers.
I thought of all the writers I admire, my mentors, the stories they write.
I thought about Chris Abani’s words that first day in workshop in 2010: “You write to take back your power, Vanessa.” I thought about his quote I have up over my desk: “Write from the wound.”
I thought about the intense conversations I’ve had with writer familia, over glasses of bourbon, the chain-smoking and pounding on chests and wooden tables as we dissect our work and that of others.
I thought about how we all write to understand and process and heal and say something.
I thought of Patricia Smith and Elmaz Abinader and Cynthia Oka and David Mura and Staceyann Chin and Mat Johnson and Roxane Gay.
And, finally, I told this dude to shut the fuck up, that he had no idea what he was talking about. Then I proceeded to unfriend and block him.
It was days later, as I was banging away at my keyboard, still seething and processing that I wrote it: “Doesn’t this mothafucka know who I am? I am relentless…” It was there, in the pushing back, in those fuck-that-and-fuck-you moments that I realized that while I was beating myself up over not working on A Dim Capacity for Wings, I had been writing another memoir, and the name of it was Relentless.
When I went to VONA in 2013, I thought A Dim Capacity for Wings was done, but then my brother died on the first day of my residency and his death flipped the book in a way I’m still grappling with. In the greatest grief of my life, I threw myself onto the page, because I didn’t know what else to do with this perpetual feeling of dying. I knew I wanted to be well but I didn’t know how to get there, so I did what I knew: I started chronicling my grief over losing my brother and all the other griefs that grief uncovered.
It is perhaps the greatest misperception of the death of a loved one: that it will end there, that death itself will be the largest blow. No one told me that in the wake of that grief other grief’s would ensue. – Cheryl Strayed, “Heroin/e”
Relentless chronicles my journey through grief, what I learned about love and the world, and how by letting grief kill me, it gave me life, and I became the womyn my brother always said I was—Relentless.
One day, during the last few weeks of my brother’s life, before we got word that he wasn’t going to make it, we were sitting on the window ledge in his room in Weill Cornell Medical Center on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. We were looking out at the rushing waters of the East River. It was mid-spring and the past few days had been especially rainy so the river was swollen and the current was extra tumultuous. The waves rolled in a rhythm that mirrored my heart. I was already aware on some level that my brother was dying and I think he was too. When I looked over at him, he was staring at me.
“You know there’s always been something about you.” He smiled a toothless smile. His top row of teeth was removed the year before and his dentures sat in a tray on the table next to his bed. I’d find out after he died that he had been using crystal meth for the past two years and I immediately knew that was why his teeth had deteriorated so quickly.
“Even when you were little,” he gestured with his hands to show how little I once was, “when you said you were gonna do something, you always did it. There was no stopping you, sis.” He looked out at the roiling water and across to Roosevelt Island. “It’s why you’ve done so much with your life.” When he turned to look at me, his eyes were moist. “It’s who you are.”
When I think of what roar means to me, I think of the way I live my life and how I write and teach and mother. I think of how many times people told me I shouldn’t or couldn’t or wouldn’t. I think of that professor at Columbia University who told me “this isn’t writing” when he handed back a piece I’d written about the neighborhood crackhead Theresa, and how he didn’t have the cojones to look at me when he said it. I think about how that broke me for so long until I took back my power. I think about the many times I’ve taken my power back, in my writing and in my life. Like when I left my daughter’s father and how I knew that the journey to finishing my first book became a journey to leaving him when he told me, “What you think? You think you’re gonna be a writer? You ain’t gonna be shit.” And I think about my mother and how she couldn’t love me because she was so broken, and how at thirteen I left everything and everyone I knew and loved to save my own life. It’s her voice I hear in my head when I’m most afraid and helpless: “Who the fuck do you think you are?”
These days I know how to roar back: “I am Vanessa Martir, carajo! And I am relentless.”
Vanessa Mártir is a NYC-based writer, educator, and mama. She is currently completing her memoir, Relentless, and chronicles her journey on her blog. A five-time VONA/Voices fellow, Vanessa now serves as the organization’s workshop director and newsletter editor. Her essays have appeared in The Butter; Poets & Writers Magazine; Kweli Journal; and the VONA/Voices Anthology, Dismantle, among others. In 2011, Mártir created the Writing Our Lives Workshop, through which she’s led hundreds of writers through the process of writing personal essay.
She has penned two novels, Woman’s Cry (Augustus Publishing, 2007) and The Right Play (unpublished); and she co-wrote Do Something!: A Handbook for Young Activists (Workman Publishing, 2010).