Cruel Fiction by Wendy Trevino
Commune Editions, 2018
128 pages / Commune
As I write this nearly 500 migrant children remain trapped in cages in US custody, separated from their parents. They’re there because people in power within the state apparatus claim that their families crossed the border illegally. But what is a border? “A border,” Wendy Trevino writes in her new book “like race, is a cruel fiction / Maintained by constant policing, violence.” When I crossed the border from San Diego to Tijuana earlier this summer I didn’t see a border, I saw violence. I saw people with guns determining who could and couldn’t go into certain areas due to criteria largely based on nationality, race, and class. Trevino believes that borders and the classifications which allow certain people to cross them while criminalizing others who cross or attempt to cross don’t just occur naturally. They’re created through a cruelly fictional worldview that sees hierarchical relationships as inevitable and desirable. And they’re created through violence. “It takes / Time,” Trevino writes
lots of people’s time, to organize
The world this way. & violence. It takes more
Violence. Violence no one can confuse for
Anything but violence. So much violence
Changes relationships, births a people
They can reason with. These people are not
Us. They underestimate the violence.
I think Trevino is speaking of three different groups here. The first group, the people who “organize / The world this way” are the ruling class: capitalists and cops and politicians who protect them. The violence of the ruling class intimidates and “births a people / They can reason with.” This second group, birthed from the third, consists of normal everyday non-activists. They’re people who are content enough with the status quo to not demand or work towards meaningful change. Trevino includes herself and her readers in the third group, an “Us” that won’t reason with the ruling class and their protectors, an Us that fights back.
Trevino knows she’s speaking to that Us. There’s a reason Cruel Fiction is published by Commune Editions, a communist press. It speaks to the far left. Trevino is trying to figure out what that Us is, and, to a greater extent, what that Us needs and where that Us stands. She’s providing context for the far left’s rage to work within because, as she writes, quoting Joshua Clover, what “rage most needs is context. / Otherwise it destroys you.”
Who are the people who will fight? What does that fighting look like? What is the context of that fighting? Over and over Trevino explores these questions in Cruel Fiction. Since Trevino is an activist as well as a writer, her voice isn’t removed. The first section of the book, 128-131, references the dates 1/28/12 to 1/31/12, when about three hundred activists, including Trevino and myself, were kidnapped by the Oakland Police Department during the Occupy Movement and incarcerated in the Santa Rita jail. The first poem of that section, “from Santa Rita,” is a list of 98 remembrances from that time. It’s an important historical document. There’s nothing flashy or exciting about the language. It’s simple and mundane, not trying to get in the way of itself. She’s not trying to entertain or manipulate the reader. She just wants to tell you what she remembers. It’s mostly horrific (“I met 2 people with serious illnesses who were denied medication,”) at times tender (“I saw 2 women volunteer to stay inside longer to make sure 2 more women wouldn’t be left alone in their respective tanks,”) at times exciting (“I saw ‘OCCUPY’ scratched into the wall of a tank,”) and occasionally funny (“I heard 1 woman admit she was waiting to be released to take a ‘victory poop.’”)
Her poem “Summer 2016” reminds me of “from Santa Rita” in that it gives context to leftist rage and fighting by listing out observations about what’s happening. Trevino starts out the poem by writing “It’s 11:30 in San Francisco. Britain has voted / To leave the EU.” Then we’re taken through a litany of politically charged events where the ravages of a capitalist world based on hierarchy are in full display. The tone and the way the events are tied together is conversational. It feels loose. It doesn’t feel like a poem. She references Tamir Rice, the Pulse gay night club shooting, a gorilla getting killed in a Zoo in the Rio Grande Valley, Traditional Worker Party members stabbing anti-racists in Sacramento, and two activists who were murdered after exposing the contamination of Flint’s water supply. But the poem also talks a lot about fighting back. She speaks of activists chasing Trump supporters out of a rally in San Jose, militia men who deliver bottled water to Flint, and teachers blocking highways in Oaxaca. Then she concludes the poem with these lines:
Thinking I will call this ’11:30’ because that’s the time
I started writing one night a month ago & it’s
Something I’ll come back to—more like a workday
Than a ray of light through a cloud. I guess that’s
What feels different—like highways full of people
There’s no way around & barricades & teenagers setting
Cop cars on fire. It’s inevitable. Maybe we’ll see each other.
I think she emphasizes the dailiness and almost ordinariness of anti-fascist action here. The writing of the poem is mirrored with fighting back. It can be exciting but it’s not exceptional and that’s not a bad thing. We do it every day. We’ll keep doing it.
The second section of Cruel Fiction is called “Popular Culture and Cruel Work.” Most of the poems in this section reference celebrities. I think it’s an interest in ordinariness and dailiness that causes Trevino to write about popular culture. In one poem she plays with a quote from poet Uyen Hua and writes:
What if popular culture is no more
Than me being interested in your
Being interested in these things that
You’re interested in my being
Interested in—except you & me
Are interchangeable & so many
We live in a world where we hear about celebrities almost everyday, whether we want to or not. When we talk about celebrities we talk about the people whose experiences we share and who effect us all. So being interested in pop culture can also mean being interested in each other. I think it’s intelligent and effective that Cruel Fiction, a book that aims to speak to leftist activists who come from differing backgrounds, talks about popular culture. It’s common ground.
The funniest pop culture poem might be one Trevino tweeted to Kanye West. She opens the poem by writing:
The question is what celebrity will
Come out next in support of antifa?
Maybe the Kanye who looked straight into
The camera during a live benefit
Concert for the victims of Hurricane
Katrina on NBC & said ‘George
Bush doesn’t care about Black people’ to
8.5 million viewers will come back.
I empathize with Trevino’s longing for celebrities to vocally support the struggles of the people against their oppressors. There’s something a little bit embarrassing about admitting that. It might be cooler to just not care. Celebrities are given too much attention and economically they’re often part of the ruling class. And yet, it’s possible that if more celebrities came out in support of antifa, offering support would become normalized among the general public and that could make antifa tactics more effective. It’s a strangely courageous rallying cry.
Throughout many parts of Cruel Fiction, Trevino references her background as a Chicanx woman growing up in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, in Harlingen, a town right next to the US-Mexico border. The last section, a series of thirty connected sonnets called “Brazilian is not a Race,” explores this in the most depth. It deals with the questions: Who am I? And who are the people I grew up around? But to answer these questions she has to deal with even bigger questions: What is race? What is nationality? What is class? When dealing with questions that vast it would be easy to float around in space without saying anything definite. But Trevino’s purpose is specific. In a New Inquiry interview between Trevino and writer, poet, and professor Chris Chen, they claim that the poem’s main argument is “that a radical new Chicanx politics means forging an identity based on shared political struggle, not myths of racial homogeneity.”
In “Brazilian is Not a Race” Trevino says that “race is relational” since “people are racialized in / Relation to other people who have / Power.” Even though many people from the Rio Grande Valley are Mexican, to claim that all these people are the same race ignores how power effects them differently. In the sixth sonnet, which I’m quoting in its entirety, we see how power effects Becky, a Black Mexican, differently than all the other characters in the poem:
Our friend Becky has blocked out her memories
Of our elementary where, according
To my childhood friend, she never
Felt welcome. “Because Becky was Black,” he
Said. I asked him if she thought of herself
As Black, if he had asked her about it.
He said he had & that she had thought to
Herself for a second before saying
“Yeah.” Mexican is not a race either.
Even when Rob Wilson would get angry
& call my childhood friend Messcan
Even when he told me he liked me but
Couldn’t date Mexicans, Mexican was
Not a race—not even in the 80s.
Trevino pushes against racially homogenized views of Mexicaness here by acknowledging Blackness in Mexico and Mexicans and confronting the way people tend to forget or not even see Black Mexicans. It’s important that Becky had to think for a second before affirming her Blackness. Mexicans aren’t all the same, Trevino insists. Some have power over others due to their skin color, background and/or class. Sonnets towards the middle of the series criticize the influential writer Jose Vasconcelos’s idea of a “cosmic race” where all Mexicans will become one light skinned people by pointing out that his utopian view necessities the erasure of the indigenous and Black Mexicans. Her fourteenth sonnet claims that people can be part of the same country and even share a culture with those they want to eliminate, while
…all involved might enjoy
Dancing to “La Bamba” & not even
Know it was originally a song
Sung by African slaves in Veracruz.
Why don’t most people know that “La Bamba” was a song sung by slaves in Mexico? Why were people denied medication in Santa Rita jail after they were arrested at a Occupy Oakland protest? What celebrity will support antifa next? How does the violence the state uses to maintain borders change people? How are Britain’s plans to leave the EU, the killing of Tamir Rice, and armed militia men delivering bottled water to Flint residents related? The poems in Cruel Fiction have me asking questions. Sometimes they’re complex. Sometimes they’re simple. Sometimes they’re sad. Sometimes they’re funny. What connects them all is that they encourage me, and me as an activists and not necessarily as a poet, to question the cruel fiction of a government that insists on basing itself on hierarchical thinking and exploitation. Trevino’s new book helps leftist activists explore the context for our rage so our rage doesn’t destroy us, but helps us fight back.
Zack Haber is a writer and a poet who lives in West Oakland. His recent poetry appears in The Elephants, DataBleed Zine and Armed Cell. His recent non-fiction can be found on his website, noopposite.com. Quiet Lightning and Tiny Splendor published his chapbook, if you want to be one of them playing in the streets…, in 2014. He’s worked for the Oakland Unified School District since 2011.