A Poet and How She Works
Family tragedy has fueled laureate JoAnn Balingit’s work. Sharing it has earned her success. But even at peace with the past, she still longs for yesterday.
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She was 12 years old when she first held the gun that later killed her mother and father.
It was the same shotgun her dad had used months before to kill a dog that had gone after the chickens the family raised in Lakeland, Florida. He wounded the animal, and it crawled off to die.
She was afraid.
Afraid the kick would knock her down.
Afraid that, while she held it, her siblings who waited their turns would notice she was wearing a bra for the first time—one of her mother’s old bras that had been left on her dresser without explanation.
She held her breath and squeezed the trigger.
“I remember hitting the can,” says Delaware poet laureate JoAnn Balingit, 53. “But the kickback hurt.”
Decades later, Balingit realized it was the same gun her father, a civil engineer 30 years older than her mother, used to kill her mother, then himself, on November 17, 1971.
Between the moments she squeezed the trigger and the time she began to write short stories and poetry about her family, Balingit had convinced herself she needed no one.
“I’ve always had to make my own way,” she says. “My pride in that autonomy was my only way to survive the stigma of my parents’ deaths. I had to convince myself that the tragedy had no effect on me, that it was a concussion, you know, no permanent damage. I don’t believe that anymore.”
Her features—a broad, caramel-colored face with dark, impassive eyes and straight black hair—reminded some of a Native American. It reminded others of someone Asian. Anything but American.
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