By Roberta Nin Feliz
This past weekend, I attended a scholarship reception at which I was honored for an essay I wrote. After I received my award, someone began to read parts of my essay aloud. Although they did not name me explicitly, they revealed identifying information that only applied to me. They read personal details that I did not think anyone else would read, and finished off with how my heart-breaking story should encourage people to donate to the scholarship fund. I left the reception shortly after.
My senior year of high-school, I entered a writing competition for New York City public schools. The top prize was $10,000 and as a first-generation, low-income student, I figured I could use the extra money to pay for other expenses when I got to Penn. I wrote a piece about the relationship women in my family have with men, anti-Blackness, and the stagnant and stubborn inter-generational trauma that followed them. Writing has always been a way for me to deal with my own personal and inter-generational trauma. But, I was always hesitant to really investigate that trauma because in the process, I knew I would have to speak about deeply personal family secrets.
When I got the news that I won the scholarship a few months later, I remember being immobilized with anxiety about all that I had exposed about my family becoming public information. When I would later hear the scholarship organizers quote deeply sentimental parts of my piece or praise it for being extremely honest and “raw,” I would cringe and just pray that they would move on from the topic. The awards culminated into a final show where the writing was performed either by the winners or by hired actors. I chose to perform my own piece because I thought it would lessen the guilt and anxiety I felt about having the piece published. However, throughout the entire process of preparing for the final show, I just remember feeling extremely vulnerable and not in a good way.
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with writers choosing to reveal deeply personal and intimate things in their lives. Some of the best writing often comes from writers laying it all out on the table. Just this week, Junot Díaz wrote a riveting article detailing his own experience with sexual assault. Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings has without a doubt spurred necessary conversations and healing in the Black community. However, in my case, I don’t think that I was ready to share those intimate details of my life. I remember being hesitant to accept the scholarship, but ultimately deciding to because I needed the money. I don’t think that I would have decided to publish the piece if I didn’t.
My experience with writing makes me wonder about all the other times Black writers have divulged intimacies of their lives because they knew it would sell or because they needed some cash. I realize now that it took over two years for me to heal from the trauma that I put out for the world to see when I was just 17-years-old, and how my willingness to be vulnerable in my writing is in part fueled by my necessity for money. The incident this past weekend reminded me of how people aren’t always respectful of this vulnerability. This insensitivity can reopen old wounds, or wounds that you never ever really let heal. I’m sure that in the future I’ll continue to write about my own personal experiences.
That being said, economic pressures often negatively force people out of their comfort zone when it comes to writing about their trauma. I hope I can get to a place where my personal writing is used to help others who may resonate with it to cope with their own trauma. Even so, my past experiences make me question how monetary necessities complicate the courage it takes to write about difficult topics and personal trauma.