Friday, October 21, 2011

Remembering Piri Thomas

b y   A N D R E W    C O L A R U S S O

On Monday, October 17th, Piri Thomas, acclaimed author of "Down These Mean Streets", passed away. What can I say about a man whose written works and spoken word gave voice to the complex thoughts of millions of Afro-Latinos from the diaspora? A voice that has survived several generations, since the publication of his landmark novel in 1967. Had it not been for "Down These Means Streets", perhaps there could have been no present semblance of an Afro-Latino cultural movement. His works of fiction and poetry assert, as Avital Ronell notes in her introduction to Valerie Solanas' "Scum Manifesto", the grito/escrito. In this inscribing cry many from the Puerto Rican diaspora and, since its publication, the Afro-Latino diaspora, have found and traced their literary and historical origins.

I was in High School when I first read "Down These Mean Streets". I'd asked my mother if she'd take me to Barnes and Noble on 7th to pick it up. If I remember correctly, we purchased Piri's novel and Ilan Stavans "The Hispanic Condition". Both of these books I loaned to friends--they were never returned. This I took as a testament to the social necessity and quality of each as works of art and historical significance. In any case, when I started reading it I couldn't put it down. So much of my filial history became clear and present. I understood, finally, what my grandmother was speaking of when she'd mention the "MarineTiger"--which I thought, before reading DTMS, was one word. Not only was the story significant to my understanding of self in the diaspora, but it is also incredibly well-written. That is to say, as a writer I enjoy the encounter with stylistic novelty and craft in poetry and fiction--but nothing beats a good story. Piri Thomas was my William Faulkner before I was to encounter Faulkner.  

Thomas was notably generous and a true educator, in the root sense of the word. His novel and his poetics would draw out an unrepresented population and help give voice to the growing and unheard diaspora. Now, brother Piri has returned his body to the flow of all life. Consider that some of his good energy and truth will permeate your spirit--whether you know it or not. Thank you Piri. En paz descanse hermano

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