The Wardrobe’s Best Dressed: Defacing the Monument by Susan Briante

This selection, chosen by Guest Curator Elizabeth Vignali, is from Defacing the Monument by Susan Briante, released by Noemi Press in 2020. 


In the fifth-floor apartment that serves as a migrant women and children’s shelter in Nogales, Sonora: an 18-year-old girl who wants to see her father, a woman from Central America who left under death threat, a mother who fled an abusive relationship and now needs to make more money to support her children and grandchildren, and an 80-year-old who wants to cross into Nogales, AZ, for the eighth time so she can sell paletas from a pushcart.

A nun prods them into telling their stories to us: four women and one man visiting from a creative writing program at a state university just an hour north of them through an initiative that aims to use literary and documentary arts to diversify the stories about and expand dialogue on issues related to the border.15

The eldest woman stands raising her hand as if testifying or praying. She says when the first President Bush came into office, he tried to make life hard for migrants. But we rose up, she explains, and stopped him. She says as soon as she can, she will go back to the popsicle factory, to her boss. She tells us her boss’s name and address, says her boss will give her a card to help her stay

as soon as she can get back.

And the woman who fled her country under death threat says: “We want peace.” Decades of US policies and interventions in Central America that favor business interests over the majority of the population, that export gang members and failed anti-gang policies, must feel like a long, dirty war.

“Do you feel better when you tell these stories?” one of us asks. And the woman does not answer, just keeps telling her story.

“We are teaching them to make earrings,” the nun explains as she brings us into another room and shows us beaded jewelry: row upon row, each piece a little memorial to every woman who has come through the shelter.

What did the nun tell them about our presence or what we might be able to do for them? Were they told we could help? Were they told we could help before the end of their two-week stay at the woman’s shelter after which they would have to find their way north or back from where they came? Were they told some faulty equation of voice and change, some scrawl of hope like the flight of sparrows, stalling and diving without knowing whose house they alight upon?

What did we think we could do? Every summer for the past three I have gone to Nogales, Mexico, with students from the University of Arizona’s MFA in Creative Writing Southwest Field Studies in Writing Program to witness and write about migration and environment issues unique to southern Arizona. And each summer, as we bear witness to conditions migrants face, we wonder: How can we amplify voices without turning other people’s stories into commodities, without re-affirming the faulty myth of “giving voice”? We do not want to reduce the struggles of the migrants we meet to mere human-interest stories. We know that writing will not be enough.

The change necessary to improve the migrant women’s lives feels utterly available and beyond any single transaction.

“We will work hard,” the women tell us. “Do you have bracelets?” we eventually ask.

15 Since the summer of 2017, I have codirected the University of Arizona’s MFA in Creative Writing Southwest Field Studies in Writing Program. The program sends MFA students to write and research in residency for two weeks on the US-Mexico border. As part of the program, the students also offer creative writing workshops to marginalized youth and partner with community based social justice and environmental organizations. As of this writing, the program is on hiatus because of a lack of funding.

Susan Briante is the author most recently of Defacing the Monument, a series of essays on immigration, archives, aesthetics and the state, winner of the Poetry Foundation’s Pegasus Award for Poetry Criticism in 2021. In a starred review, Publisher’s Weekly calls the collection “a superb examination of the ethical issues facing artists who tell others’ stories” and a “dazzlingly inventive and searching text.” Briante is also the author of three books of poetry:  Pioneers in the Study of Motion, Utopia Minus, and The Market Wonders.

Elizabeth Vignali is the author of the poetry collection House of the Silverfish (Unsolicited Press 2021) and three chapbooks, the most recent of which is Endangered [Animal] (Floating Bridge Press 2019). Her work has appeared in Willow Springs, Poetry Northwest, Cincinnati Review, Mid-American Review, Tinderbox, The Literary Review, and elsewhere. She lives in the Pacific Northwest on the land of the Noxwsʼáʔaq and Xwlemi peoples, where she works as an optician, produces the Bellingham Kitchen Session reading series, and serves as poetry editor of Sweet Tree Review.


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