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In the dark back room of a Pittsburgh bar, Penelope Grand, from Brooklyn, toasts with the company of her own loneliness, while remembering her father Ralph.

For reasons that are kept between the pages of her book, she returns to the neighborhood that saw her grow up. But it is no longer the same. 

Time has done its job, gentrification has taken over the place and her absent mother, Mirella, comes back for reconciliation.

Penelope is forced to embark on a process to find herself and her ‘right’ place in a completely new Bed-Stuy. While trying, at the same time, to heal the wounds with her mother and her separated family.

Her story is not a simple one of fantasy trapped between the pages of Halsey Street, it is part of a reality that makes us feel like Penelope, lost in our own lives.

“Losing the sense of belonging in the neighborhood is all the more traumatic and complicated when that sense of belonging was precarious, to begin with,” said Dr. Belkis Gonzalez, professor at LaGuardia’s English Department and chair of the department’s Latinx Literature Committee. She, then, introduced Naima Coster, the mind behind Penelope’s story, as the keynote speaker of the 4th annual Symposium on Latinx Culture.

The event, organized by the Latinx Literature Committee and sponsored by the College Association, took place on April 8th in room E-242. Throughout the day, several panels were presented to highlight the different representations of Latin culture in NYC. Topics varied from stories of Cubans in New York and Latinx presence in literature and Wikipedia, to community based art and photographic projects that addressed resistance, empowerment, displacement and resilience. As well as, attendees have the opportunity to meet and listen Naima Coster, talk with her and get a signed copy of her novel.

Ms. Coster, author of Halsey Street, is an alumna of Prep for Prep, a New York City leadership program for gifted students. She holds a BA in English and African American Studies, an MFA in Fiction and an MA in English and Creative Writing from Yale, Columbia University and Fordham University, respectively. Also, she has written many stories and essays for The New York Times, Catapult, The Rumpus, The Paris Review Daily, among others, receiving different literary awards such as a Pushcart Prize nomination and being a finalist for the 2018 Kirkus Prize for fiction.

During her inspiring speech, Ms. Coster talked about how writing Halsey Street allowed her to draw on some of her own experiences. She addressed how external and large forces such as gentrification, racism, gender, class hierarchy, and even familiar bounds can affect people’s self-acceptance and empowerment.

“I wanted to write this book because I knew that for many of us, certainly for anyone who grew up poor or working class, as a person of color, Latinx, as an immigrant or child of immigrants, LGBTQ or any other way marginalized our intimate lives, our thoughts, our relationships, the way we see ourselves are always shaped powerfully by politics in the larger world,” said Ms. Coster.

She said that her writing is a way of “claiming power” in her life. It is a passion to create her own version of reality, with feelings and anecdotes, in which characters do not have to be perfect to touch readers’ hearts.

“Good literature lays bare how messy people can be, how imperfect, how we fail and make mistakes, but also how we love, how we think, how we triumph and try again. When I look at the characters in my fiction, I see people facing problems, external, internal. But, they’re not defective,” mentioned Ms. Coster.

When Ms. Coster was a girl, she lived in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. Like her novel’s main character, Penelope, she witnessed a gentrification process that turned her neighborhood from a pointless place where she used to play in the streets, to a highly valuable place with renowned restaurants and shops. Ms. Coster admitted having objected and felt “anger, indignation, fear, and concern.”

“I objected because I already knew what it felt like as an individual to be put down, to have my sense of worth diminished,” said Ms. Coster, who also proposed gentrification as a “good metaphor for the struggle to hold on to a sense of worthiness and power in the face of degradation diminishment.”

Being a girl and then a woman, put Ms. Coster in a position where she had to “meet expectations.” She mentioned that she had learned that her best quality was to be “tranquila, quiet and calm.” And she also faced those ideas about the female body, in which “moving further and further from thinness every day was a problem.”

Likewise, her different stages of life –as a half- Dominican girl; as a scholar at a private school; as a college student at Yale; and as a professional writer– made her accept the misconception and the pressure of goodness.

“A good girl, a good student, a good daughter, a good colleague, a good public speaker, whatever it may be. And there’s nothing inherently wrong with goodness. The problem, for me, emerges when we begin to think of goodness as an ideal that meant to suggest someone is not already good enough,” expressed Ms. Coster. “I thought I had to be perfect or at least very good to be accepted.”

At 12, she was granted a private scholarship to study in Manhattan. But, in a way, she did not feel that she “automatically belonged,” just because she knew “it was not as good to be from Brooklyn as it was to be from Manhattan.”

Those feelings of not being “good enough” led her to avoid any mistake that may have made people consider her as not worthy, but it also led her to realize that “failure is a sign that you’re taking risks, you’re pushing yourself, you’re doing something hard, you’re choosing to be brave.”

Ms. Coster admitted that writing became a “healing” path in which she feels “free” to shape her life without meeting someone else’s expectations. And she hopes her writing will also help many readers with their lives.

Just like Penelope left her childhood butterfly clip and her collection of rings and bracelets before she moved to Pittsburgh, Ms. Coster left LaGuardians with three tips to close her remarks. As first, Ms. Coster invited us “to work without the promise of an external reward,” since the feeling of accomplishment and confidence in ourselves is more valuable than any physical reward. Second, Ms. Coster recommended that we surround ourselves with positive people. She said that “mentors are very helpful, the professors, supervisors at work, older people in your family or community, but so are our peers, people who are trying to do the same thing and will push you to achieve at higher levels.”

And third, but not least, she encouraged us to focus on what we have decided to do, on what makes us feel empowered. “Whenever it gives you that charge, that strong sense of yourself, of possibility, it’s worth listening to and nurturing,” said Ms. Coster.

“The world needs us all to be powerful and to find our lives,” she added, bringing back the lonely essence of Penelope, sitting on the floor together with the silence of the night, and reading over and over again the words that Mirella, her mother, wrote to her: “You needed to go and find your life. Have you found it?”