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I FELT COMPELLED TO write regarding Jonetta Rose Barras’ “Literary Lockup” (10/28). I am driven by the same complaint I’ve heard people make before: “My words were taken out of context.” In this particular case, I believe my entire book, Laughing in the Dark, was taken out of context.
The first blatant error is in saying that I want to be considered a victim. Nothing is further from the truth. I write in the introduction that my book “is my ode to those young sisters, those children with womanish ways, who give it up before there is really anything to give;…I want them to know…that neither racism nor sexism can stop a determined mind, or a heart beating with love for the very body that carries it. It is a lesson for all people, regardless of race or sex; for anyone who has had to overcome a challenge.”
If Barras had said that in my young adult life, I suffered from low self-esteem, she would have been correct. I would have even bent to meet her halfway if she had said I considered myself a victim when I was a child, or perhaps until my early 20s. But the book is about taking responsibility for your life. Not ignoring racism, sexism, your hunger to hear a parent say, “I love you.” But about living with—or without—these things, about understanding that within us all is a God power that can overcome anything. To correct Barras, I was not a victim of my “stern, Marine lifer father,” but I was a prisoner of my lack of understanding, my refusal to accept the only kind of love he could give.
Anyone who reads my book will not find an affirmation that they “don’t have to bear any responsibility for your actions,” as critic David Nicholson said in his explanation of the appeal of the books you have labeled “victim literature.” What I hope they find is compassion, forgiveness, and encouragement. My compassion comes from the journey I have taken. Offering my story—in its brutally honest form—is my way of saying I am already forgiven and so are you: Believe it and get on with your life. And from my readings in bookstores, I know people are finding encouragement. They offer their personal testimonies to me, how my words have encouraged them to go back to school, to work through a troubled relationship with a father, to walk away from an abusive spouse.
To me, I wrote a book that goes beyond sex, gender, race, and all of the other restrictions and definitions we human beings place on ourselves. I know I do not exist in a vacuum, that my words can be misconstrued, my intentions misperceived. But that is why I am here, to explain.
At the end of my book I write: “We are born perfect,” I tell young students when I speak at schools. “We know this in the crib, but as we grow, we forget. Then life becomes our journey back to perfection, or at least back to the time of remembering.”
I wrote this book for those people who have forgotten.
Patrice Gaines, San Francisco, Calif.