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Monday, March 01, 2010

Sandy Tseng, Tragedy and Art

We’ve all seen it before—the undeniable connection between tragedy and the creative process. I have never been good at humor, wit or rhyme, but take a tragic event—my own loss or someone else’s—and I feel thoroughly consumed by it, fueled by it, energized to write for days, even weeks or months.

When my husband joined a team of medical professionals from Denver to go to Haiti last month, I had never felt so unhelpful as I had watching them pack up 1500 lbs of medical supplies. There we were, working around the clock on a few hours of sleep to get the team ready to go, and I didn’t know enough about medicines and supplies to help pack their duffle bags. I did, however, appreciate learning two new drug names, Ketamine and Lidocaine—words that were sure to contribute to a poem eventually. Throughout the night, someone would mention the drugs again, and while I never noted the context, the musicality of those words echoed in me, rolled off my tongue. How many feet were in those words? I mouthed the syllables and counted the stresses on my fingers. Could the words be used in the same line? Ketamine. Lidocaine. That all depended.

I saw the medical team off at the airport at 6am on a Sunday morning, and it was a good hour to get started on my writing. Yes good luck, team--I’ll just be hanging out in Denver, writing. Let’s face it. There’s a reason someone doesn’t study medicine. I couldn’t assist in surgery even if someone gave me an instrument and told me exactly when to hand it to the surgeon.

But then something exciting happened after the team returned to Denver. The entire team of 11 medical professionals began talking enthusiastically about writing a book together. Each of them had an insatiable desire to express what they had experienced. Did they go as doctors and nurses and come back as writers? Were they driven, for the first time, by the inexorable energy that produced art?

Amidst the team’s talks of memoir writing, I can only begin to imagine the energy running through the Haitian artists at this time. I am sure that the energy in the Haitians is many times more inspiring and empowering than what we are experiencing. What we don’t see on CNN is the Haitians singing, dancing—celebrating art—in spite of tragedy.

And every one of them has a tragic story. The artist Joseph Sandral, whose banana bark collages my husband purchased in Haiti, lost his daughter during the earthquake. The artist Thamara, who made boxes and jewelry out of cow horn with her father, lost her husband whom she just married in mid-December. We receive these updates through Matthew 25 House (, where the team stayed, and where there was once an artisan shop featuring paintings, banana bark collage, jewelry, wood and metal sculptures by over 20 artists. Many of the artists continue to stop by the house, and they are able to receive some money for food because of the artwork that volunteers purchase while passing through. Despite the circumstances, the artists continue to endure, and they continue to produce art.

There is a power in art that has the ability to bring us through tragedy time and time again. Art is as essential to our survival as food and water. We require it as a form of self-expression. Art is an act of mourning, it’s an acknowledgment, and it brings healing. It is a rebuilding process. If it is possible, in the five days spent in Haiti, to make writers out of doctors and nurses—to inspire memoirs out of people who have never expressed an interest in writing—then the Haitians are indeed rebuilding themselves. This is their rebuilding process. They are building mansions in place of shacks, and they will rise in the spirit of their music and dancing. Many people are asking how this poverty stricken country can ever recover, but indeed they will rise out of the rubble. Out of the graves of their loved ones, they will rise.

Sandy Tseng

Sandy Tseng is the author of Sediment, published by Four Way Books in October 2009. Among her awards are The Nation's Discovery Award, the Louis Untermeyer Tuition Scholarship from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and the Vira I. Heinz Foundation scholarship. She has held residencies at the MacDowell Colony and Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. Currently a resident of Colorado, she teaches at Metropolitan State College of Denver.