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Monica Hand

Monica Hand is the author of The DiVida Poems (Alice James Books, 2018) and me and Nina (Alice James Books, 2012), winner of the 2010 Kinereth Gensler Award. After a thirty-two-year career with the U.S. Postal Service, she received an MA in poetry and translation from Drew University in 2011. In 2012 she moved to Columbia, Missouri, to pursue a PhD at the University of Missouri. Hand received a fellowship from Cave Canem and served as a founding member of the poetry collective Poets for Ayiti. She passed away on December 15, 2016, in Columbia, Missouri.

Blurbs

"DiVida: divided; DiVida: of life." The imaginary character who carries the name and sings her life is both DiVida and Sapphire, who sometimes replies to her musings, as one voice speaking for a universe of black women. Like syncopated masks, the voices of Hand's book offer a new sense of double-consciousness. Her untimely death at the zenith of her career lends the last few poems, which anticipate death, a special fullness and poignancy."

– Marilyn Nelson

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DiVida

The Love of an Old Friend: Remembering Monica Hand

03/05/19

“Who are you?” Monica Hand asked me, the first time we finally got the nerve to speak to each other. Columbia, Missouri is small, and the literary community is tiny. As an undergrad, I’d go to poetry readings, open mics, and author craft talks. I was just as much of a book nerd as anyone else attending those events, but I was ignored in those places. Too young and maybe too black to be taken seriously by the older white crowds. I was shy, awkward, and sometimes too eager to run home to my fast-food leftovers to stick around and mingle with crowds that would rather look me up and down with their noses upturned than chat with me.

“Who are you?” she asked. “You’re everywhere.”

“Yeah, I see you all the time too,” I said. “I’m an English major.”

“And I teach here.”

Our conversation was brief, but since then, if we saw each other at literary events, we would exchange simple head nods or smiles in acknowledgement of each other. She saw me and I saw her: black women navigating white spaces to participate in the thing we loved—literature.

To be a black woman in America is to be the owner of many masks. I wear a diluted mask when I’m in places where I’m the minority: at work, shopping downtown, at literary events, and the like. It’s the mask I wear when I’m hyper aware of the space I take up. The mask I wear in order to survive. A mask Hand spotted from across the room and chose to approach with warmth.

About a year or so after our official introduction, Hand passed away. Her death was abrupt, causing Columbia to, at least for a while, pause and lament our friend, our teacher, our pair of fingers snapping for us at open mics. Things eventually picked up again, as life after another’s death tends to do, and I went back to my craft talks and author readings. Only then, without her familiar face smiling, or nodding, or simply affirming my presence there.

Hand gave us a final gift: just one week before she passed, she signed the contract for her second poetry collection DiVida to be published by Alice James Books. In DiVida, Hand addresses the idea of navigating white society. An idea we both knew all too well in Columbia and an idea every Person of Color must come to terms with in America. Hand explores this navigation as it relates specifically to black women with the help of two characters: DiVida, who wants to assimilate into white society; and her subconscious Sapphire, who doesn’t want to sacrifice her true self to appease others. Hand states that housing these multiple personas, these multiple masks, “masks the madhouse.” To be able to break oneself apart, to bend, mold, flex, and sometimes even break oneself into different masks to simply survive in a world that has only one view of you can cause craziness.

Sapphire attempts to save DiVida from this madness. Early in the collection, in “DiVida becomes Captain of the Lacrosse Team,” DiVida refuses to deny herself the love of Lacrosse, even if she may be the only black person on the team. Sapphire asks “Why you wanna play with people who want to slave you?” Throughout the book, Sapphire continues to argue that black women shouldn’t bounce between masks and be their full, unapologetic selves at all times, regardless of how uncomfortable it will make white society. In DiVida, we explore DiVida and Sapphire’s opposing positions and Hand forces us to grapple with the space that exists between the two.

With every move DiVida makes, Sapphire is in her ear, criticizing DiVida when she censors herself to tackle everything from getting pulled over by a police officer to chatting at a work event. Hand creates Sapphire’s warnings with a cadence that feels like they’re coming from the love of an old friend. These warnings serve as reprimands to DiVida for even wanting to survive a life amongst those who, she feels, want nothing to do with her. Sapphire speaks like an elder who has seen this play out in the lives of other black women before and she attempts to end the cycle here, with DiVida, on the page.

At times, DiVida’s voice wavers and cracks under both society’s and Sapphire’s pressure: in “DiVida submits to her Duende” we see DiVida reach a breaking point. Tired of succumbing to society, she allows herself to escape:

“she let loose the boogeyman / unchained the monkey on her back / Sapphire sucker-punches her in the gut / just to be sure / there is blood / there are tears…”

Hand captures the internal struggle of black womanhood in America through DiVida and Sapphire’s ongoing conflict. She leaves her readers to ask how much of DiVida’s actions are performative and just her being her true self. She then forcers us as readers to question our performative and actual selves—our unique masks—as we navigate our own spaces in society.

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