Blooming in the Pursuit of Wellness

Jasminne Méndez, Night-Blooming Jasmin(n)e: Personal Essays and Poetry (Houston: Arte Público, 2018); 227 pages; ISBN 978-1558858619 (paperback)

• October 2019

Striking a rich balance between essay and poetry, Jasminne Méndez’s Night-Blooming Jasmin(n)e is an exploratory rumination on health, hope, and heritage. The reader embarks on a pathos-driven journey with the author as she battles lupus and scleroderma, a chronic autoimmune rheumatic disease. Méndez does not conceal her experiences from the audience, instead opting for transparency regarding her initial denial to her eventual acceptance. She structures her trajectory in five parts, and each infuses poetry alongside prose to heighten emotional senses through deeper, more symbolic reflection. Despite her turmoil, warmth shines throughout; a positive attitude, a loving husband, a well-intentioned family, and humorous anecdotes offset sentiments of loneliness and disillusionment.

Although Night-Blooming Jasmin(n)e first engages the reader through the lens of the author’s health concerns, the essays reveal how Méndez negotiates adulthood, womanhood, and latinidad within a patriarchal framework. These negotiations develop at micro and macro levels, from proper text-message etiquette during courtship to navigating her father’s struggles with her increasing independence. Indeed, his eagerness to help her may be goodhearted, but his more traditionalist notions of fatherhood lead to conflictual actions, such as looming over her at the pharmacy (35), questioning her choice in doctors (49), and expressing frustration at her decision to leave her job to pursue a career in writing (37).  Nevertheless, the men in this narrative are not categorically overbearing. On the contrary, the author’s husband, Lupe, and her doctor are the epitome of compassion as Méndez navigates the challenges put before her during this period of her life. 

At the crux of Méndez’s work is how (self-)love can subvert power constructs that are imposed on her. She expounds on this dynamic masterfully when positioning herself as a patient in opposition to the medical establishment. Méndez likens the experience of illness to that of colonialism, when she conveys concerns at being at the mercy of doctors (specifically men) exerting their knowledge and technologies on her body through constant probes and exams. The use of specialized terminology and medications alongside the uncertainties of health insurance keep the patient dependent on the medical field as the latter increasingly relinquishes control of the author’s body to the former. She reclaims her autonomy and argues that this is a turning point for her well-being:  

I don’t give full credit to modern medicine for my slow but steady recovery. I believe it had more to do with the fact that I had finally said, “No.” No to being controlled by men in white coats. No to following rules that let foreign objects penetrate my sacred spaces. No to being an object to be studied, to be colonized, to be worked on. I was more than just the sum of my broken parts for them to decide how to mend. I had finally decided to save myself. (117)

This demonstration of agency positions the text within a postcolonial framework that rejects the imposition of hegemony onto the bodies of women of color.    

Another notable intersection between Méndez’s illness and her identity as an Afro-Latina woman of Dominican descent is when she parallels the amputation of her fingertip to the Rafael Trujillo–led Parsley Massacre of 1937. Also known as el Corte, this massacre of approximately thirty thousand Haitian and Haitian-Dominican workers and families living in the border region still torments Haitian-Dominican relations today. The author powerfully compares the Dominican Republic’s anti-Haitianism to a disease that continues to move through the nation’s metaphorical body, much like scleroderma does hers. Méndez clarifies that while the amputation prevented gangrene from spreading, she is unable to find a similar rationale to justify Trujillo’s atrocities. Stylistically, the author unsettles the reader by moving seamlessly between the parallels, blurring two events that are grounded in pain and loss. She compares herself with those Haitians who were victims of Trujillo’s xenophobia because, like them, she could not escape the knife:

Awake enough to feel the coolness of the metal table along my spine, I tried not to shiver for fear the doctor would miss his mark. The sweat glistened on their black bodies beneath the moonlight as they dodged and ducked the blades of bigotry swinging away at them. . . . Awake enough to know that when it was over, we would no longer be whole. We would always be broken. (157–58)

Melancholy and frustration may drive large portions of this text, but humor and happiness abound. For instance, one passage includes a deftly detailed retelling of a hospital scene in which the author’s underwear becomes tangled with the IV tube while she uses the restroom, forcing her to “step over the tubes and spin around three times and unhook the IV bag” just to free herself (129). In a concluding essay, Méndez narrates a reversal of roles, in which she goes from the person in need of assistance to the person providing it. Herein she helps a stranger with a medical emergency to procure an ambulance (217). These moments add to the memoir’s variety and evince that Méndez’s growth and outlook continue to change. For the author, illness can be disillusioning, but it can also be amusing and helpful.  

Whereas prose carries the narrative, Méndez employs poetry to disrupt traditional memoir and offer obvious extensions of relevant episodes, though more lyrical and experimental in nature. She often plays with font size and space, blends Spanish and English, crosses out some words and writes others vertically for unsettling effects that parallel certain themes. “Avalanche I” is a free-verse poem that uses wintery imagery to delineate some symptoms of scleroderma, such as cold fingers and poor circulation:

Snow slab breaks between my knuckles
Snowflakes flurry through blocked veins
Glaciers graze against crumbling finger slopes
Ice pummels down a mountain bone of flesh. (59)

These poems do more than just bookend moments in her life; they provide unencumbered forms for the author to articulate her profound ponderings without the structural confines of prose. This is the case with “First Trimester,” which expresses the joy and anticipation of motherhood alongside the sadness of a miscarriage:

First my womb swarmed grey a cackle of bleeding cicadas—until
I dug one out & buried it to make room for you.
. . .
First I built an altar for the name I would not give you & then
I lit a candle for when I carried it in my womb. (75)

Motherhood remains a fleeting and haunting theme throughout Méndez’s work, though she finds resolution by focusing on what she has and not what she lacks. Indeed, her acceptance is one of the great takeaways from this work; as the author reconciles her health, family, and identity, she is able to draw on them as sources of wondrous creative inspiration. The poem “(W)Hole” might best affirm her acceptance:

What is the skin anyway, but . . .
. . .
a fishnet catching sunlight, dirt & slurs,
a canvas of fissured scars wrinkled with laughter. (185)

To focus on the bad requires little effort, but Méndez’s ability to pair it with the beautiful is what marks this work’s complexities, tensions, and ultimately, significance.  

Night-Blooming Jasmin(n)e would be a welcome addition to undergraduate and graduate courses that focus on Latina identities, the body, and Afro-Latina interactions with an imposing medical system. Accordingly, perhaps its greatest value would be to practitioners in the medical field who could gain valuable insight into their patients’ struggles for wellness. 

 

Daniel Arbino is the librarian for US Latina/o studies at the University of Texas at Austin’s Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection. He specializes in Caribbean and US Latinx literature, with a focus on critical race theory.

 

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