Culture Life

Why I am constantly drawn to lavender

I find that my most blissful moments remind me of the strong, calming scent of lavender. For one reason or another, I relate it to a lot of the more meaningful aspects of my life. To me, lavender is like a feeling; like the wind brushing up against your skin.

While I think that lavender is largely optimistic, I also find a certain sorrow that is comfortable, even humble, in its presence. I’ve come to appreciate it in every shape and form – the color, the flower, the scent. Its hard to place; not sweet or bitter, but rather musty. 

Lavender manages to incorporate itself into my life seemingly on a whim and in the most fleeting of moments. We have a peculiar relationship. I am stomach-knottingly anxious in the presence of many, especially when I first meet them. But, with some, I sense lavender, and I know that something great is about to happen. It is more of a feeling than anything else. Just talking to some people can be rejuvenating, and perhaps it is because our meeting reminds me of that warm, soft smell of a mid-spring day when the sun is bright and pure, and the entire day lies ahead.

Nowadays, when I am feeling an emotion that is simply beyond words, I say that I am overflowing with lavender. 

According to etymology, the English word “lavender” is derived from the Latin “lavare,” which translates to “to wash.” It is a necessary refinement – a cleanse. I am purified with every utterance of the word. 

Perhaps it’s not just me. In literature, lavender has been used significantly as a token of love. To me, it’s more like a notion of love at first sight. Shakespeare offers a bouquet of “hot lavender” in The Winter’s Tale. Cleopatra also roots lavender with love, as she is said to have used its sultry perfume to seduce both Julius Caesar and Mark Antony. Christians are also known to have used it as a repellent of evil. The plant is said to have been taken from the Garden of Eden and is sometimes found hanging in a cross shape above the doors of some Christian households as a means of protection. There are so many songs with the title lavender, my favorite being by The Beach Boys, and there have also been many poems written about it, too. Take, for example, this quote by an anonymous writer, “as rosemary is to the spirit, lavender is to the soul.” 

Lavender is swift, like a movement, carrying me in and out of perfectly imperfect moments. The vision of it is rather uplifting as well. It stands delicately tall among the rest, but it is not intimidating either. I adore its confrontation. In fact, I look forward to it. 

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How Toni Morrison brought life into a generation of Black writers

Since the announcement of Toni Morrison’s death, I’ve found it difficult to find the right prose to correctly eulogize one of America’s greatest writers. Her influence in the literary world is inescapable. She has made her mark in every Black writer work from the moment she published her lauded novel The Bluest Eye.

There is no writer I know that does not fear Morrison. Not as a person but as a writer – one that was unapologetic, ingenious, effervescent, bewitching and ever so cunning. Language became supple under her care, sentences were graceful, bountiful, and pulsing with veracity.

“We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.” – Toni Morrison

Morrison’s words were not written with white audiences in mind, a fact that she has always unapologetically expressed throughout her decades-long career. The African-American experience has always been the focal point of her work, bursting with the quintessence of her vivid imagination. In her works, Black people – both men and women – contained multitudes, personalities as rich and luscious as her words.

But Toni Morrison’s acclaim did not come as easily as it should have.

Despite being the first Black woman to win the Nobel Prize in literature, she came across hurdles where institutions failed to recognize her genius. In the 80s, over 40 Black writers – including Paule Marshall and Maya Angelou – signed a letter in protest in The New York Times Book Review asking that Morrison be recognized for her achievements.

Her novel, Beloved, would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize in fiction a year later in 1988 (but 30 years later and a Black woman has yet to win the Pulitzer Prize in fiction again). There was no need to request a seat at the table when she had created her own.

In Morrison’s mind, the glass ceiling did not exist for her. She knew her talent was far more exceptional than many of her contemporaries and she wasn’t afraid to shake the table. In the literary world, her novels shifted any negative notions people had about Black literature and its lasting legacy in the literary canon.

Morrison’s shift within the literary canon did not begin with her first novel though but as an editor at Random House. As a curator of the Black Arts Movement in the 70s, she helped edit and publish several Black writers and the biographies of Black figures like Gayl Jones, Angela Daivs, Muhammaed Ali, Toni Cade Bambara, and Henry Dumas.

Her work as an editor and as a Black woman writer fostered a generation of Black writers, thinkers, and scholars. Morrison – along with the work of Black women writers before her – had a hand in molding our minds and showing us the limitlessness of our imaginations.

In an interview with the Guardian in 2015, she spoke about writing for a Black audience and other white authors who don’t indulge in other narratives:

“I never asked Tolstoy to write for me, a little colored girl in Lorain, Ohio. I never asked [James] Joyce not to mention Catholicism or the world of Dublin. Never. And I don’t know why I should be asked to explain your life to you. We have splendid writers to do that, but I am not one of them.

It is that business of being universal, a word hopelessly stripped of meaning for me. Faulkner wrote what I suppose could be called regional literature and had it published all over the world. That’s what I wish to do. If I tried to write a universal novel, it would be water. Behind this question is the suggestion that to write for black people is somehow to diminish the writing. From my perspective, there are only black people. When I say ‘people,’ that’s what I mean.”

The first novel I read of hers was The Bluest Eye in college. Anyone’s first exposure to Morrison is usually through school but, unfortunately, I was not exposed to her works until I went searching for her words on my own.

By then, I was struggling to figure out who I was as a writer. It’s simple – I wanted to write about Black people, I wanted our experiences to be apparent on the page in a way that wasn’t pandering or leaning on the aforementioned “white gaze”.

There are many Black artists who have created art that is seemingly created for us but with a different audience in mind. Using the same tools as your oppressors to tell stories is not progress, it does not dismantle the systems in place that keep us from moving forward.

“Black literature is taught as sociology, as tolerance, not as a serious, rigorous art form.” – Toni Morrison

Morrison’s refusal to cater to the default is one of the reasons why I write about Black women of differing personalities, backgrounds, and looks. She taught me about world-building and ushering in diverse worlds full of color, texture, and beauty. I have no other way to contend with my talent and training than to honor the Black women writers before me like her, who push me to aspire to their skill.

Toni Morrison died at the age of 88; double infinity – a symbol of how her legacy does not end with her life, it will persist, expand, and transcend. We should count ourselves blessed to have lived among her time.

As a Black woman writer, Morrison was the embodiment of Black excellence, a symbol of what it means to take up space in a world that won’t make space for you but having to shimmy your way through all the noise. She knew what kind of writer she was and as I grow and learn, I have learned what kind of writer I am as well.

We must never deny nor diminish the skill needed to create art for consumption. Black literature is not just the tools to teach but a piece of art to be admired and analyzed.

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I almost gave up on creative writing, but Twitter saved my passion

A good half of my life has been dedicated to reading books I’ve always dreamed of publishing novels one day. As early as 11, I began my attempts to write one. Because of this love for literature, I went on to taking Communication Arts in college. I went on to focus on the Writing track of the program. Through that, I got to practice creative writing through the track, but it wasn’t all for the better.

I wasn’t satisfied with my final grades in creative writing classes. For someone who aspired to become a published author, those average marks weren’t something that I could actually be proud of. It seemed as though the time constraint for doing literary outputs drained the creativity out of me.

In my third year, I took creative writing classes taught by a professor who was respected in the field, having won national awards that many writers dream of. It might have been inspiring to be a student of such a prominent teacher, but it was also one of the hardest semesters that I had to endure. Afterward, I actually started to believe that creative writing wasn’t for me.

The safest thing to say is that I’m comfortable with the so-called “traditional” way of teaching. The workload and pressure were already strenuous enough to even have to endure emotionally draining treatment.

Image description: Martin Freeman as John Watson in BBC's Sherlock, saying "That wasn't kind"
[Image description: Martin Freeman as John Watson in BBC’s Sherlock, saying “That wasn’t kind”] via
I took a leave of absence from school in the latter half of 2017. In the process of using the time in my hands productively, I found some literary magazines through Twitter. Literary magazines are, as the name suggests, publications solely dedicated to showcasing contemporary literature and art.

My first actual acceptance was from a poetry journal called Black Napkin Press, for an erasure poem that criticized the state-sanctioned Philippine War on Drugs.

It was a thrill seeing my name alongside some poets who already made a name for themselves in the literary community on Twitter. What’s more was that, upon reading my work, a former professor of mine messaged me to say that I should write more. That was when I became inspired to get to know more about the community and maybe get published once more.

Not only did I start writing again, but I also became more active in the community as a staff reader for some magazines. The job was primarily to read submissions and decide whether they should be accepted or not. Through these tasks, I was able to learn and develop my skills in both editing and writing.

Writing to get published isn’t the best motivation to keep you going, but it most definitely was enough to rekindle my love for the craft. The literary community that I found on Twitter, or at least the part of it that I managed to become a part of, has been nothing but supportive and welcoming. Fellow writers and editors soon became friends. What’s best is that I get to work on my pieces at my own pace.

There is a sort of discrimination of contemporary literature in the academy, which isn’t so surprising. People who have a degree in writing are often more likely to dismiss those who have no academic background in the field. As a student, I’ve often encountered professors who’d say that writers shouldn’t dare break the rules of traditional forms without having mastered them beforehand. Clearly, some amateur online writers in the Philippines are being given opportunities to have their work published in print. In their case, the appeal goes beyond tasteful deconstruction of proper structure and downgrades to mere relatability.

However, this is almost entirely different from the case of independent publishing in the literary community. The writers that I became acquainted with are nothing short of brilliant.

If it weren’t for Twitter, I wouldn’t have found such a supportive community that continues to fuel my passion. This revival of passion even drove me to found my own literary journal. Gaps remain in this new-found community. Writers and artists of color do not have enough platforms that are solely theirs, which was why earlier in 2018, I founded The Brown Orient, which exclusively showcases writers and artists from South, Southeast, Middle East, and Central Asia, as well as those in the diaspora.

Image description: The cast of Netflix's Sense8 in a group hug
[Image description: The cast of Netflix’s Sense8 in a group hug] via
This is the ideal learning experience: with people who give constructive criticism while also showing support in your craft. Published works may not always be compensated, but being a part of this literary community was the kind of inspiration that I needed to revive my passion for the craft, and I’m grateful.