Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Twelfth annual writer-in-residence program hosts Aurora Levins Morales

Historian explains the effects of the past on the present

Judith Gibson-Okunieff

Judith Gibson-Okunieff

By Bonnie Chen, Collegian Staff

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The University of Massachusetts history department hosted Aurora Levins Morales in their 12th annual UMass Amherst Writer-in-Residence Program. In her lecture, “Memory is Our Soil: Bringing History into the Commons,” Levins Morales discussed how the stories of “commons” contribute to the broader scope of history that can overall shape how we understand the present and future.

A Puerto Rican Ashkenazi Jewish feminist writer, poet and activist, Levins Morales was introduced by the history department’s graduate program director, Anna Taylor, who spoke very highly of not only the speaker but also her books.

“The telling of these stories, at the intersection of literature and history is a medicine not just for the writer but for the readers also,” Taylor said, “awakening them to the possibilities of being. Her broader aim, as she puts it, is to reshape our societies into sustainable humane communities.”

Levins Morales began her talk with an excerpt from her novel, “Remedios: Stories of Earth and Iron from the History of Puertorriqueñas,” about all the roles of women, acting as the backbone of Puerto Rico throughout history, ranging from the home to work and through society and politics.

She then asked and answered, “Why is the past important?”

Levins Morales called the past a gateway to explaining the events that occur in the present, that helps lay the framework for what might transpire in the future. When examining the stories of people in the past, it helps to contextualize certain aspects of today’s society; she noted how the stories of those first oppressed in history explain the repercussions that played out today.

According to Levins Morales, history needs to be socially accurate in order for society to learn from it and create a better, more evolved future.

“It [history] needs to embrace complexity and contradiction and multiple experiences of the same moment,” she said. “It has to start from the assumption that all human beings are participants in history and that when they are absent from the written record, we have to treat that absence itself as a story.”

Levins Morales referenced an example of small historical fact that ultimately shifted the landscape of history regarding the trade of ginger in the early 17th century. Women in the Caribbean traded ginger with English pirates that were eventually used to spice gingerbread eaten by working class people in London.

She used this connection to show the interconnectedness of individual stories that can ultimately shift certain views of history.

“So when I go to a community college with a lot of working class Puerto Rican students, and I say, ‘The stagehands on Shakespeare’s sets were eating Puerto Rican food,’ it shifts their relationship to canonical literature,” Levins Morales said. “It places them inside a story from which they’ve been told they don’t belong.”

History is inherently biased, according to Levins Morales, but it isn’t the role of individuals to remain objective. Rather, individuals should be accountable for their biases as they are what make up the stories of said individuals that ultimately contribute to history.

Callan Swaim-Fox a first-year student at Smith College, became a fan of Levins Morales after having read a piece by the speaker for her “Decolonizing U.S. Women’s History” class. During the question and answer portion, Swaim-Fox asked for advice as a younger activist, to which Levins Morales emphasized the importance of continuously asking questions and educating oneself about issues they’re passionate about.

“I continue to be inspired by her,” Swaim-Fox said. “When you’re a student, it’s also hard to be an activist. Although, that’s also very important to me. So I think the way that she offered ways to think really lets me open ideas about how I want to move forward with my activism within my school life.”

Bonnie Chen can be reached at [email protected]

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