BEB: The Burning of Women Instead of Paper

by sienna brancato

closely inspired by & quoted from “The Burning of Paper Instead of Children” by Adrienne Rich

You say, “the burning of a book arouses no sensation in me,”

And I say,

The books are all already burning.

I look at my bookshelf,

the titles staring back,

Memoirs of a Geisha

Wide Sargasso Sea

The Scarlet Letter

We Were Witches

The baffled woman.

Melancholic woman.

Burning woman,

Burned at the stake woman

Orange red sunset burning blood woman

Dripping woman

Menstrual sacrifice

Melting

I live through books,

I love through books,

Grew up on books

But what did I learn—

and did they teach me well?

***

Books burning,

cultural knowledge destroyed, stripped, leaving behind a people

desensitization to violence,

a constant state of flames,

numbness.

Language stripped from my family,

dissolved across an ocean,

pressure to speak English,

the oppressor’s language steals the dialect from my tongue

And now when I relearn it,

it does not roll easy,

perpetual discomfort

not fluent

feels foreign

unfamiliar

***

know your enemy

know your oppressor

I went to college and now I speak his language

And I have become dependent on

this signifier of authority

this qualifier of respect

But what does it mean to speak your mind in the oppressor’s tongue?

To contort your language to communicate with those

who do not wish to understand you?

***

But then my bookshelf is

confiscated

by my traitorous mouth

as I betray myself,

cowering under his scrutinizing eyes

convinced that he will scoff at, disparage, abandon,

the girl who speaks her mind.

The oppressor stole my tongue

and now I wear his language

respect me, respect me, respect me

I plead

please

but I

need to speak

my own Language now

***

The books have been stolen and I’m dreaming of her softness

often

Love and fear

white-hot fear

I want you and I’m scared

I don’t have the language to describe how I feel

when I think about running my fingers through your long curls,

placing my palms on your burning curves,

It’s a feeling I was never taught to codify,

never taught how to speak into existence

What may happen between us

has happened for centuries

we know it from literature

still it happens

beating hand

beating heart

dry mouth

wet teeth

and I discover a language free of oppression

Fissure and clot

Filling in the gaps

The swelling, the swelling, the burst

The refusal to contort our tongues into anything other than what frees us

tracing you with my hands

relief

***

But what privilege is there in knowing how to speak the oppressor’s language

and then refusing to use it?

Is it foolish? Or

exhausting? Or

empowering?

The ability to sacrifice,

the constant in-between,

the agency to choose your own tongue

***

How do you reconcile that something you love has been used as a tool to oppress and exclude?

Do I burn the texts?

Or do you burn the language?

How well he spoke today. He spoke well today. All the men spoke well today. His is the oppressor’s language. I spoke today. Did I speak today? Who did I speak to today and how? I did not speak in class today. The oppressor’s language stole my tongue. Sweat the palms of my hands. Bent my head. A language is a map of our failures. I am a writer but I cannot speak. It is hard to tell the truth. In America we have only the present tense. I am in danger. You are in danger. I know it hurts to burn. It hurts to burn. My hair is burning. My eyes are burning. My lips are burning. My tongue is burning. I am the fire. My flames consume.

Michele Dale