Carolina Meurkens: on Generational Matriarchy, Being Biracial, and Losing Everything In a Fire

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On her career: I’m a creative entrepreneur, which is the word I’ve been using to describe the work I do as a writer, musician, community organizer, and educator. I’ve always found it difficult to follow a traditional career path. In college, I ended up majoring in Germanic Studies, minoring in Violin Performance, and completing an undergraduate Fellowship in Creative Writing. It’s been more than ½ year since I graduated and I’ve definitely felt pressure to find a “career” that fits into one word and one path. I want to keep working on my fiction and eventually get an MFA in Creative Writing. My ultimate “career” goal is cultivating a lifestyle that brings me joy and fulfillment and for now that’s working in the restaurant industry, freelancing as a writer and translator, teaching creative writing to middle schoolers, and managing an art collective. It’s been a year since my creative partner Laquavia and I founded An Indivisible Art Collective in Washington, D.C. It was an idea that originated in NYC with my friends Ciena and Kimber as a reaction to the 2016 election. Laquavia was interested in working with me in DC, because we both felt that the city lacked a space dedicated to bringing together socially conscious artists and arts educators who value community building, intercultural exchange, neighborhood equity, and raising the voices of marginalized POC, women, and queer identifying artists. So far we’ve put together six multimedia exhibitions and performances, while raising money for local non-profits. We’re working on opening our Community Arts Center by the end of the fall. It’ll be a space where we can continue to host our events, cultivate connections in the DC arts community, and offer workshops and music lessons to kids in the neighborhood. It’s scary to start something from scratch and commit to it. But it’s so important to find people who want to be part of your creative growth.

On her languages: I was born in NYC, but somehow Portuguese was my first language. My Brazilian grandmother (on my mother’s side) lived with us for the first year of my life. After she left, my mom hired a nanny who had just moved to New York from her hometown. Vera was like a second mother to me. My dad is German but my parents speak and understand each other’s languages. My dad lived in Rio after he studied Jazz at Berklee to learn Brazilian music and my mom studied German to go to grad school in Berlin. My sister and I are lazy and speak to them in English, but our conversations at home are a mix of all three. I picked up German along the way with yearly visits to my other grandmother in Hamburg. Despite being late in speaking English, Language Arts was my favorite subject in school. When we moved to New Jersey in 3rd grade, my homeroom teacher strongly advised my parents to place me in an ESL classroom. I remember feeling confused during the meetings with the school’s psychologist, who was also our next-door neighbor and knew that I had no problem speaking English. Because of my upbringing, I know that language is powerful. I’m close to my family that lives halfway across the world because I can communicate with them and better understand that aspect of my identity.

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On the current political climate: People compare Trump to Hitler and that’s such an obvious oversimplification. But I’m a history nerd and I think our country and humanity in general is where it is because we haven't learned from our past. Or most importantly, we don't question what we are not taught about history. I remember being in 11th grade and learning about the US involvement in the dictatorships in Latin America, a reality that my family lived through in Brazil. My world history teacher was committed to spending time on this unit even though it was a few days worth of lessons in the curriculum. This is just a small example of the way history is not taught in a comprehensive and constructive way. Of course, we can’t change the past, but if we don't learn about it and engage in conversations about it, we won’t be able to do better for future generations. I try my best to read authors who are committed to making the truth known. Noam Chomsky is one of my favorites. Definitely check out his book Defining Moments.

On losing everything in a fire: On May 20th, 2017 on the night before my last final of the spring semester, I woke up to my house in flames and had less than a minute to make it out. In the panic I didn’t take anything with me but my phone and contact lenses. I lost everything, except the things I had stored at my parents house in the city. I didn't know how to process the loss. On one hand I felt incredibly blessed to be alive. I was literally seconds away from losing my life and it made me appreciate that simple fact. But at the same time I was impatient to overcome the anxiety I had when sleeping or simply breathing. It triggered bad episodes of hypochondria that I still have sometimes. Overall I think the whole experience made me realize how little physical objects matter, even the irreplaceable ones.

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On balancing cultures: I spent every summer until I was 17 in Brazil and Germany, except the year my parents couldn’t afford to send us and I finally got my wish to go to summer camp. It’s not that I didn’t want to travel, but I wanted the experiences that my friends would talk about come September. My relationships with the two countries are super different. Sometimes I feel like my spirit is Brazilian and my mind is German. My first kiss, first sip of alcohol, and all those rights of passage happened in Brazil. During high school I started spending more time in Germany. I learned to read and write Portuguese through the late night MSM messages with my cousins and my summer crushes that continued into the fall. But I only had my dad and grandma to talk to in German and never developed those skills. I took classes at a language school in Berlin for three summers in high school and it’s still the most fun I’ve ever had. I made friends from all over the world and got a glance into the Berlin club scene. I studied German in college for my International Affairs major but ended up majoring in it after I couldn’t figure out what to declare. In my upper level seminars, we’d read everything from Kant to Kafka. As a writer, I try to incorporate both languages and cultures in the characters and worlds I create.

On being biracial: I grew up on the Upper West and East Side in Manhattan and spent four years living in Montclair, New Jersey. All of these places are liberal but also very white. In college I learned what the word microgression meant and it explained so much about my experience growing up as a biracial, multi-national kid. I’m biracial with many “white” passing features. On one hand it definitely affords me privilege and my experience as a light skinned black woman is radically different than that of a dark skinned black woman. I was called an oreo a lot and didn't feel like I fully fit in with either black or white kids. For a while I didn’t see myself as black, mostly because my Brazilian family doesn't outwardly identify as much. I had a recent conversation with an aunt about how on my grandparents’ birth certificates, my grandmother is registered as Parda (mixed/multiracial) and my grandfather as Negro. It's weird how all post-colonial societies have a unique and problematic way of categorizing race. In Brazil, it is more about your approximation to whiteness and bends with flexibility on the physical representations of your race. I grew up being called Morena, which is one of the more desired titles for a brown girl in Brazil. But back home in the U.S, I knew that the world saw me as black. It’s difficult to unlearn anti-blackness and as someone who’s interested in both the practical and philosophical implications of colonialism, I try to check myself whenever I say or do things that attempt to hide that part of my identity.

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On microaggressions: I don’t know if I’ve experienced discrimination because of my race but I’ve definitely experienced microaggressions. A guy I had a crush on in college told my friend that he thought I was cool, but “didn’t fuck black girls.” Meanwhile, my friends would tell me that they didn’t have sex with black people because they didn’t find them sexually attractive. I had one friend who told me she thought “black vaginas were funny looking.” It was hard to be around that and not have the language to express myself. A lot of it comes from ignorance. Now I surround myself with people from various backgrounds and make sure I have enough friends of color, especially women. It’s important to have people who you feel comfortable talking to about these experiences, without having to apologize or minimize your reactions. I’ve been dating more men of color too. Not that I am for just dating people who look like you, but I was really tired of being constantly exoticized and I’ve found that it happens less with men of color.

On relationships: I’ve never had a boyfriend in the traditional sense of the word. The longest and most intense relationship I’ve had was with a man twice my age. It was unexpected, beautiful, and really difficult to end. Although I knew we were in total different places and it wasn't meant to be long term, I felt like I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to know this person and experience the extent of what he made me feel. You could say I was naive, but I learned a lot about myself and my philosophy on love. I don’t think something has to be forever for it to be a worthwhile and meaningful relationship. Even though we’re not in each others’ lives in an active way, I do feel lucky to know that someone out in the world wishes me nothing but the best. I’m a romantic to my core. I definitely want a long-term partner, someone who will inspire me to be the best version of myself, but right now I’m cool with dating around and working on the relationship I have with myself.

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On traditional femininity: Traditional femininity to me is rigid and antiquated. In Brazilian culture, the rules and expectations of being a woman are intense. Compared to a lot of the women in my family, I’m more rebellious in the way I act, dress, do my hair, and date. They definitely ascribe to the traditional rules of dating, like not making the first move or having sex too early. They don't leave the house without make up or permed hair. Femininity for a NYC teenage girl looks different from that. I feel like there was a lot of pressure to be a “cool girl” in high school: a girl who smokes weed and has casual sex but looks like an Insta model and laughs at the perfect volume. Both of those versions are exhausting.

On high school: I loved high school for a lot of reasons. LaGuardia is a really special place. The sheer talent in that building is mind-blowing and I won’t ever be in an environment like that again. My high school best friends are still around and they know me in a way that no one else will. I was more shy and unsure of myself, but with my close friends I had the same personality I do now.  I cared about fitting in but never went too much out of my way to be “popular.” But high school was also toxic in the way girls competed with each other. We were all trying to get attention from the same few boys, who frankly didn't deserve it.

On sexualization: I went from being a chubby 12 year old girl to a 5’9’’ 13 year old woman. I definitely noticed the difference in the way men would look and speak to me. About that time, I remember being followed home by a guy on the crosstown bus who kept trying to talk to me. I didn't know how to shut him down and felt paralyzed. I remember looking around to hint to someone that I was really scared, but to them I looked like a 20 something year old ignoring a dude’s advances. Catcalling is disgusting and I still find myself in uncomfortable encounters in public, but I’d like to think that I’ve gotten better at ignoring them or shutting them down.

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On generational matriarchy: I grew up in a family of matriarchs and they are all my role models. My mother is the oldest of six sisters and one brother. Her mother grew up as a “criada”, which basically meant that she was raised by a family and worked for them. She didn’t get the opportunity to get an education but she raised seven kids with her wits and incredible work ethic. We consider them our second family, but there’s a lot of trauma behind that story that isn’t talked. It’s a cycle that has affected my aunts, my mother, as well as my sister and I. There’s this pressure to keep up with appearances, to be successful, to marry the right person, to look and act like the perfect woman. I’m farther away from it because I grew up in the US, but it’s still a part of my story. My mom grew up determined to leave that environment. She left home at 20 and unmarried, which in her culture was unheard of. She taught me so much about perseverance, strength, and love. Despite having left Brazil over 30 years ago, she still sends money home every month and makes sure everyone is taken care of. I think I get lot of my spiritually from my mother. She taught me the concept of thoughts manifesting reality and the importance of having faith. I know I am where I am today because of the sacrifices she made and her ability to keep moving forward. My German grandmother is also one of my role models. She is the definition of a bad-ass modern woman. She worked in fashion in her 20s and on cruise ships in her 30s. She was on the first commercial ship out of Germany after the war and went to Havana, New Orleans, and New York. She wore pant suits before it was socially acceptable. We have a really close and open relationship. She’s 97 but we talk like we’re the same age. When I was going through my heartbreak, she told me about her first one and all her past loves. I get my free- spirited nature and romanticism from her.

On her favorite books: The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Americanah, Dreaming in Cuban, This Is How You Lose Her, Swing Time, One Hundred Years of Solitude, Letters to a Young Poet.

On advice for future women: Surround yourself with women who inspire you and men who lift you up, not tear you down. Listen to your intuition. It’s our biggest weapon and the way we’ve survived for generations.

Follow Carolina: @carolinameurkens