Me: You cover the sad plight of several individuals such as army veterans, children etc. Do you feel the empathy is something that comes naturally to a poet? What inspires you to write of the pain of such people?
Denise: There’s really no way to explain how and why I am moved by the plights of others which I’ve never experienced. Everyone sympathizes with others; it’s human nature. To really feel what others feel isn’t often a comfortable thing; to pass a stranger and feel their pain is, to put it mildly, disconcerting. However, to be flooded by their joys is indescribable and you feel really good about yourself that you can honestly and sincerely share their joy. (It’s part of what inspired my personal quote: “Take sincere joy in the success of others. Being happy for them will make you feel incredible about YOU!” ~D Denise Dianaty) Children, especially, are like mobile beacons of emotion; in fact, children seem to drown out adult emotions; I believe most people are capable of empathy toward children.
None of these comments really answer your question, do they? Permit me to offer this: Empathy, for me, is a rare, spiritual gift from God. God doesn’t bestow such gifts without a purpose for their use. I hope one of my gifts is empathy and that I am using it as He intends through my creative efforts.
Me: You wrote about the raising of the Confederate Flag in North Carolina, how has racism affected you as a person?
Denise: That’s a really difficult question. It actually hits quite close. See, my husband is an immigrant from the Middle East who sought political asylum in Germany. He couldn’t go home again to see his elderly father and family. He came to the US in the 80s, on a student visa, to Columbia, MO, where he knew a few people from his hometown. When I met him, he had his return ticket to Germany in his wallet. That was twenty-four years ago this month. Anyway, he’s faced a lot of bigotry and racism. I can’t tell you how many times someone I worked with, whom I was really buddies with, would drop me when they learned Hamid, my husband, is an Iranian American. It was hurtful and demeaning and frustrating.
Now, my husband speaks six languages, three of them fluently. He graduated from Lincoln University in Missouri on the National Dean’s List. He’s lived in three countries and traveled extensively throughout the Middle East, Europe, and the USA. No one ever bothers to find out any of that.
Once, while Hamid was in college, working as a pizza delivery driver, an order for food and a case of beer came in. He took the delivery to the house in question. Young children answered the door. Hamid took the money and handed them the pizzas and change, then explained he had to give the beer to grownups. One of the children scampered off somewhere in the back of the house with the change. Hamid said he could hear someone loudly saying to tell him they were there and it’s okay to let the kid bring in the beer. Naturally, Hamid again explained that he could only hand the beer to an adult.
A woman came down the hallway cussing a blue streak and berating Hamid with every foreign epithet she could think of, then snatched the case of beer from him.
Her parting shot, as she slammed the door in his face, was “Learn to speak English or go back to where you came from!” How do you comfort someone you love after such an experience.
There was an incident, not long after we opened the café we owned in Missouri. It was well past closing and my husband was trying to get the car out of the alley behind the building. Someone had parked in the entrance to the alley. Hamid was stuck in front of some guy’s car. He went up and down to the other small businesses along the block, politely asking if anyone knew whose car it was. The guy was in one of those businesses. The other patrons and employees of that business (who also parked in the alley and were frequently blocked in by patrons too inconsiderate to use the street parking) told the guy rather aggressively that the alley entrance was not for public parking under any circumstances. He followed my husband out of that business to his car. As he was getting into his car, he began berating my husband, with much profanity, as a nuisance foreigner.
Another time, right after 9/11, a sales rep for a commercial decor company came into our café. He walked up to the counter and said to my husband, “I won’t do business with you people after what you did to us in New York.” I will say, though, when other patrons along the street and other businesses heard about it, they leapt to his defense and tried to assuage his hurt.
Then, after hoping twelve years to have a child, we finally had a beautiful, compassionate, loving little boy, Graham Mehrzad (Gray). When he was around three years old, Gray and I were in the local mall one morning, and he and another beautiful, rambunctious little Arab boy were playing together. I often saw him and his mother in the mall play area. She spoke very little any English, but we always nodded and smiled at one another as we watched our two boys dash off to play together. She always sat in the corner as far from everyone as she could and worked on some kind of textile project, so I had little opportunity to converse with her. One morning, two other ladies, whom I’d seen there before and with whom I had conversed on more than one occasion were sitting near my position on the benches. One of them said to the other, over loud to my ears, “It’s a damn shame when you can’t even bring your kids to play without them having to play with sand niggers.”
It was like a punch in the gut. I almost died bringing that child into the world. Gray and that little Arab boy were two innocent souls, just happily playing with any and all the children who came to that place, that place that was supposed to be a safe space. It never occurred to them that they or the other children were somehow different, somehow not good enough. I felt sick, physically sick; I was trembling right to the core of my being. I couldn’t see straight and realized tears were streaming from my eyes and my own nails were cutting into the palms of my trembling fists. For the first time in my adult life, I was utterly dumbstruck.
Those other two mothers whispered to each other behind their hands while I tried to gather up Gray and our things. The little Arab boy’s mother got up and walked over to me. She placed a hand on my elbow and guided me to the bench across from the boys. I couldn’t tell her what I’d heard; I don’t think I’d have been able to make her understand, but I would never have laid that hurt upon her heart. I had my phone in my hand and she asked, “Bad call for you?” I just nodded. She patted my back and helped me neatly pack up our stuff and get Gray into his snowsuit. He didn’t want to leave while his little friend was still there to play. I know she wasn’t planning on leaving, but she gathered up her things and her little boy and walked with Gray and me to the mall entrance before indicating she was in the other direction. She kept asking, “You will be okay?” I don’t remember her name, or her little boy’s name. I’ll never forget her humanity. I’m glad she couldn’t understand those poisonous words.
That was the moment. That was when I realized my family would always be ethnically profiled. That was the moment I envisioned my beautiful, sensitive boy arriving to pick up his flame-haired young girlfriend (because boys marry someone like their mamas) and the girl’s father saying, “Get off my front step. No sand nigger is dating my daughter.” It didn’t happen; it’s what I envisioned happening to him because I’d known someone to whom just such an experience happened. That was when I decided my husband was right and that there was nothing in Missouri for us. At least there’s my family in North Carolina, where I’m from. For all the racial tensions in the South, I’d never heard or seen anyone act like those women over a couple of children at play.
Now, with the current rhetoric and hate speech from political leaders, I wonder… it haunts my dreams — nightmares… if I’ll be watching my husband and my son dragged off to internment camps… or… and my breath catches at the very notion… concentration camps.
I apologize. This answer rather got away from me.
Me: How have you represented such themes in your poetry?
Denise: As for how I’ve represented such themes, I can only respond with a question: If I’m given a voice or an opportunity to work and/or speak for peace and social justice, then… How can I not?