Shared lives of Poetry

root - Posted on 15 June 2002

"Voices of Our Own - Mothers, Daughters, and Elders of
the Tenderloin Tell Their Stories"

by Connie Lu

I am seated at a round table with pale purple
tablecloth and enjoying the festive trio of Mexican
musicians playing their guitars and maracas, as I rub
my hands to replenish the warmth that the angry wind
had taken with its every exhaling gust. The entire
room brightens softly, as the sun peaks through the
heavy clouds to shine its rays through the glass
skylight at the top of the pointed church ceiling.
The murmurs of surrounding conversations are heard
without the recognition of specific words. But, my
ears then draw my attention to the familiar sound of a
Chinese conversation at a nearby table, which sparks a
curiosity for the poems that I was about to hear and
experience at this book reading.

"Voices of Our Own - Mothers, Daughters, and Elders of
the Tenderloin Tell Their Stories" by Nancy Deutsch is
comprised of a collection of works by an eclectic
group of women from various walks of life, who have
shared their life stories with each other, but are now
able to share their beautiful words with many more
through this new book. The writers themselves span a
wide age range of 7 years old to 77. They have the
combined ability to speak a total of 11 different

Several poems are recited, but I am especially moved
by Jean Hui Shih's piece, which is read from Jean's
oral history. She nervously begins reciting with a
shy Chinese accent and I suddenly recall my own
memories of sweating and stuttering through dreaded
oral reports in school. Her piece is both a
recollection of her past, as well as a reflection of
her inner strength. Growing up in a family consisting
of one sister and four brothers within a society that
favors boys over girls was far from easy.
Then in 1984, she immigrated to America and was
determined to give up anything to give her daughter
the life that Jean was never allowed to have due to
the importance of carrying the family's name through
the boy, and not the girl. A few more lines are read,
as she continues to paint an image of her love for her
daughter with each carefully chosen word. Her
sacrificial love is shown again, when she sells the
few pieces of jewelry she had out of a relentless
desire to give her daughter a successful life full of
opportunities and joy.

After hearing Jean's piece, my heart is touched by the
incomparable love between a mother and her daughter,
as my gratitude for my own parents is renewed after
realizing how easily I would take them for granted in
countless instances. I am also reminded of the
hardship my parents endured in coming to America with
a small amount of money, in addition to the language
barrier they faced. They have come such a long way in
overcoming many challenges so that my brother and I
could have what we have today, a loving family.

I continue to listen to a few more poems. Then the
guest speaker is introduced. Her name is Dolores
Huerta, Cofounder of the United Farm Workers, who
endorsed Nancy's book and inspired her to work towards
social justice. I could sense the effect her
presence was about to have upon the room as she begins
to speak. Her words are a source of encouragement and
motivation to me. I write down her simple, yet
powerful phrase that she concludes with, "Women must
learn to speak loud and proud".

Nancy then proceeds to the next set of poems.
However, this time the poems are not recited. Nancy
explains how the writers were given the title of the
poem which was, "Every Girl Should BeÖ" and asked to
write a poem based upon this title. Coincidentally,
all the women had overlapping ideas and words such as
sweet, nice, quiet, and skinny, despite the fact that
they had come from completely different countries and

At that moment, I found myself sharing this same idea
of being and living up to the expectations of others
upon the characteristics of a woman. I don't remember
being told to act a certain way, but perhaps it was my
reaction to fitting into the ideal mold that society
places women in, instead of defining my own identity.
But at the same time, this feeling brought great
comfort and reassurance to me, knowing that these
women truly understood my struggles.

A few of the women felt reluctant to read their poems
because they do not feel comfortable in front of an
audience with its several pairs of daunting eyes
focused upon them. I could feel their hearts beating
nervously on stage. Every passing minute would feel
as if it had been several hours since the first line
of the poem was read. However, I have great
admiration and respect for these soft-spoken women,
knowing that it is difficult for them to speak
publicly because I have yet to overcome this fear as

As much as some of these women disliked being on
stage, Nancy asks all the women to stand in front of
the audience as this event comes to an end. These
women may appear timid and weak due to their fear of
being on stage, but their true inner strength and
courage is spoken even louder by the words they write.
I recognize the women as they stand together because
their faces are familiar now. Some have gray hair,
others have a head of braids. There are almond-shaped
eyes, as well as eyes of other colorful skin. Each
face is a reminder and symbol to me of each woman's

To order books Directly you can go their website:

Voices of Our Own, upcoming events:

Thursday, April 11, 7:30 p.m.
Reading/signing with Nancy Deutsch and women
from Tenderloin; Barnes and Noble @ Jack London Square, Oakland

Sunday, May 5, 2 p.m.
Reading/signing with Nancy Deutsch and women/girls from Tenderloin;
SF Public library, Main branch.


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