A better world begins with a better story for Mark Gonzales. The acclaimed poet, teacher, and writer has traveled the globe's five continents over the years witnessing the trauma of displacement and the human spirit of survival that defies against all odds. These experiences are folded into the pages of his new book In Times of Terror, Wage Beauty. Gonzales finely crafts prose that reads like a manifesto for the wounded warriors of the world. An elder in the making, he subversively sculpts ideas that ask us to consider anew what we thought we knew about power, language, values and healing on both an individual level as well as a collective one inherited through generations.
Gonzales recently returned to Riverside City College where he attended as a non-traditional student in his late 20s. The campus brought him back, this time as a closing keynote, to talk with youth from different community colleges about leadership. He expanded on the thoughts of his new book with the Weekly before taking the stage.
OC Weekly (Gabriel San Román): How did this book project come about? I always thought you'd hit us with poetry first being a Def Poet and all, but 'In Times of Terror, Wage Beauty' comes with insightful prose.
Gonzales: The book project came about from 10 years of my own personal journey, which I see as part of a larger journey of people, not only within our society but across societies and cultures on the planet. It's people who are just engaging questions: Why are we here? What is my purpose? Where do I belong? What do I contribute to? What do I benefit from? For me, when you mentioned a book of poetry, what's always interesting is that people refer to stages as the first part of conversation, but whether it's poetry or stories, to me those are just the doorways into larger conversations with our emotions, memories and our possibilities.
The book came out of that desire to take the conversations I was having here and in other parts of the world and to begin mapping out the echoes in way that's accessible to people that I loved. I know people that are really brilliant thinkers but they write in a language that is foreign to a lot of communities and is also very bland. For me, I couldn't think of a better form than to combine visual design, typography and prose to put together a set of ideas and offer it up.
Terror is a very powerful word and so too is beauty. When I read the title of your book it brought the late Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral to mind who defined beauty as "the shadow of God on the universe." How do you define beauty and what does it mean to wage it?
We are living in a time that comes out of the greatest century of displacement that the human species has ever seen. There was more forced migration and complete replanting and uprooting of cultures from one part of a region that they had been in for tens of thousands of years that informed their identity, practices, beliefs into a complete differently planet within a hundred years, then I feel most of our species had seen within the previous 50,000 years. And we are the children who grew up on the tail end of that displacement.
Every human wants to feel beautiful, valued and a sense of belonging. Those of us who grow up in an area that tells us we are not beautiful or we don't belong, there's a lot of psychological violence that occurs with that. How do we begin to tell a story of self-affirmation, self-love and self-respect in our own mind and with one another that reminds of that and that reminds us that we are a reflection in the echo of the sacred? Part about being beautiful is increasing beauty across the world. It is to take the beauty that we innately are and scale it up. It is to dismantle the things that would tell a human being that they don't have value in their life or that they are not beautiful as they are.
That's what it means to me to wage beauty: to increase radical compassion, intergenerational forgiveness, fierce vulnerability, to advance the best parts of the human spirit on an individual level until it becomes infused into a structural one.
This book comes on the heels of you putting out these thoughts through social media, a new form of communication in the 21st century. When community has been destroyed and displaced, the digital connections these new platforms offer is where lonely, isolated people often go. What is the potential of meeting them there on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram?
I look at the world through a lens of trauma and growth, not just on a personal level but on a collective, cumulative one across generations, continents and centuries. When I hear you saying that there's a lot of lonely, isolated people, and I know that by design humans are first and foremost social creatures, that if we are isolated it harms us physiologically and psychologically, what I hear is that people are being wounded. People are looking for a way to deal with that wound. We can deal with it in certain ways. We can try to cope or we can try to heal. That's how I look at social media.
You have a whole bunch of people seeking connection but what is the value of that connection. Is it just a surface connection? What is the quality of the relationships that you're seeking? Are you just seeking to be seen, which is important actually for someone who has never felt that they've ever been seen. But maybe their understanding of being seen just means somebody wrote them today and that's better than yesterday.
I think what people are hungry for at this current moment is a way to increase the quality of those communications not only in digital space but how we use the digital to translate back into the analog.
We've become very visual beings. How does the art of Think Disrupt help tell your stories?
About two years ago, a Somali entrepreneur Hodan Ibrahim had formed a new media company called Think Disrupt. They were in their first round of looking at product development and ideas. They were really taken by digital media and visuals that could be represented in the digital space. Think Disrupt reached out to me. I was doing a journalism capacity development training that we designed for the UN and when we came back from that, we literally laid out three or four different prototypes visual directions we could go in. One of the ones was solid black background, hand drawn typography with images that reflect a key principle. We really thought about Khalil Gibran's 'The Prophet,' which if when people think about it's a series of chapters on a theme that opens up with a visual to one to three pages of reflections on that theme and the visual ties into it.
When you look at Khalil Gibran, Rumi or Hafiz, you have to ask: why do the words of someone who live 100, 500 or 800 years ago still resonate? Technology has evolved but the human heart hasn't received an upgrade in about 80,000 years. If that's the case what would Gibran or Rumi say in an era where 500 million tweets are sent every day? That's what began the dialogue. That's where we really want to speak about the human heart and condition in these specific times we live in, with these questions that have existed for thousands of years. Now what format does it take that also helps us reach as many people as we feel can engage as possible. That's what began the visual design aspect of it.
There's a heavy emphasis on trauma and a genetic inheritance that includes political terror. Do you think that is an overvalued and overlooked aspect of liberation politics? And what are some of the other political undercurrents that run through the book?
The political undercurrent actually begins with the conversations we tell ourselves and the loop tape in our brain before we go to bed at night and how does that affect our health, our relationship with ourselves and others as well as the belief in our possibility. If we feel that those stories that have been downloaded into our brain are not of benefit of us, then how do we identify multiple things simultaneously? Who programmed those stories and what is the mechanism through which they are being downloaded? How do we move from a download to an upload space, i.e. agency. It's not just about telling stories, it's what is the quality and the content. And that's just step one. It's actually the prelude to all possibilities. If we don't prime the human heart in order to engage new ideas, then literally we're just lecturing and yelling at people.
When I think of politics, I think of the way structures and societies advance a system of values. The political undercurrents of the book are to really shift the conversation from politics to values. Let's look at the societies we live in and if we value family, children, the ecosystem, are our actions reflecting that value? If not, we are out of balance so how do we recalibrate our actions personally and structurally in order to start advancing them? That can't happen unless first we have a conversation about what are our values.
This book is a compilation of many years of experience. But you have a new experience, that of being a first-time father. You're on a different platform in your journey. What has it taught you so far?
If we go with the title 'In Times of Terror,' lots of people have fears with their children growing up in the world. That's normal and natural to feel scared and protective about your little ones and loved ones. How I contribute to my daughter's growth knowing she is a social creature as human beings are and will be is not to shelter or suffocate, it's actually to transform the world into a safe a space as possible for her to explore, to laugh, to live and love in. That's how I contribute to her, not by saying 'no one will harm you because I'm going to lock you in a closet for the next 25 years of your life,' it's 'people aren't going to harm you because I'm going to engage the world to try to make it as healthy as possible so that way all children can play with you.'
That's what it means on this journey.