A Conversation with Esther Vincent Xueming

 SC: With poems covering such a range of topics, the sectioning of the collection helped contextualize my reading of the poems. As a fiction writer, I found that I continually sought out an ‘arc’ to follow along. I wonder if you could speak about the intention behind each distinct section of the collection? Do you see them building and telling a story, in a way?

EVXM: Thank you for this question! This particular editorial decision was something I grappled with for some time. You’re right to say that my poems cover a wide range of topics. They also traverse expanses of geography as well as landscapes of memory and time. When I embarked on this project, I wanted to produce something like Grace Nichols’ I Have Crossed An Ocean. I was also reading and inspired by Linda Gregg’s Sacraments of Desire, Joy Harjo’s She Had Some Horses, and Li-Young Lee’s The City in Which I Love You, all of which were sectioned meaningfully into four to five parts. My working manuscript comprised four sections, but my supervisor felt that four was too disparate and that three might be better in terms of the book’s coherence. Again, I am indebted to his guidance and from there, I started to think about the three sections. I knew I had to create a section for the dream poems, and decided to title each section after a poem within the section. Dream fruit held most of my dream and meditation poems, and poems evoking sleep and the subconscious. I wanted to open the collection with Dream fruit as a way of inviting the reader into my dreams and subconscious, into a mode of dream-like envisioning.  

 The second section About love, is truncated from the first poem in that section, which writes after Boland’s “Quarantine”. I had to think about how to arrange the poems in this particular section, as they ranged from romantic, familial love to love for the land and home in which one is born into and resides upon. I have to admit that this was the most tricky section but I am satisfied with how it has materialised. “Falcon” was the last poem to join the collection and I decided to include it in About love rather than Dream fruit even though it draws from a dream too as I found that the peregrine falcon’s migratory nature would serve as the connection between this section and the next, just as how the bird in the poem connected the speaker’s home to other places, bird to self.  

The final section Pilgrims contains my travel poems, or poems about ‘elsewheres’. One of the questions posed by this section is the mobile nature of home, and whether or not we can feel at home away from home. The poems in this section are seeking poems. They search for home and belonging, to place and to Earth. They recognise their status as outsider, as transient visitor, as pilgrim. Yet, they dwell in place and establish roots through routes. I wanted to end with a grounded sense of self, and chose stone, which across many cultures signify permanence in the face of rapid industrial and urban change. “Memory stone: In fragments” pays tribute to the various places I visited in Croatia, and traces the speaker’s memory that is held within each stone. The stones also symbolise time, and reminds readers that long after the human body perishes, the stones will remain, weathering to nature’s rhythm. I intended for the final lyric in this poem “6 Ensemble” to wrap up the section and collection. This ultimate lyric is concerned with “the history of home / away from home. Collected over time”, with memory recreating an “ensemble of remembered places” and an image of “sojourn”. The temporary nature of the “traveller’s sojourn” and “drifting” is also a commentary on our fleeting time on Earth, and the final image of the “undercurrents crash / beneath, waves breaking reef ashore” can be read in many ways.  

I would love to hear what readers think, but personally I find the sound of waves crashing and the image of the broken reef so powerful and evocative, as it returns the poem, the book and reader to Earth, to water, to the sea. In all honesty, the book would not have been possible without Earth. We are not possible without Earth.  

SC: This is a broad question, but I wonder if you could speak a little about your process when it comes to poetry? Do you generally begin with an image, a line, a subject, etc or does it depend on the piece? I’m thinking specifically of “The Blue Mountains;” I keep coming back to the image of that “leaking hose.” Imagery is so strong throughout this collection, but I was occasionally more swept away by the concept of the poem itself, as in “Montenegro in Two Scenes.” What comes first for you when drafting, and what do you work to hold onto as the poem evolves? 

EVXM: Every poem is different, and so my process differs for each poem. Typically, I draw from recurring memories or dreams or experiences. This could be in the form of an image, line or emotion. If I refer to “The Blue Mountains”, the poem happened because I was reading some news about the particularly bad bushfire season in Australia sometime in June 2019 through May 2020. Australia holds a special place in my heart because my family (we grew up working class) actually had to sell our apartment to downsize from a spacious (by local definition) four-room to a much smaller three-room flat just to afford this family vacation. I was twelve, on the cusp of adolescence, and this was our first family trip outside of Southeast Asia. This was a big deal for us and as a child, everything about the place was magical. In particular, I recall how my mother loved The Blue Mountains, which offered our family a welcome respite from the city. In turn, I resolved in my childish heart to retire there one day. The place represented for me some kind of memory of familial bliss and natural beauty, and so when I read news of the bushfires destroying the land, I felt a kindred sense of grief and sorrow.  

It’s interesting how we can feel kinships to places away from home, and feel at home away from home. As a child, I felt at home and at peace in The Blue Mountains, with its invigorating mountain air and wide expanse of space. This memory helped me to empathise with the place. I think the impetus for writing the poem came in the form of the image of the charred joey, published by The Times of India in one of its articles. Local news coverage reported the numbers of lives lost on a daily basis, human and more-than-human, and my heart somehow went out to the latter, who were dying by the millions. I began this poem in grief but ended on hope. The dead joey taught me that my poem could be “brimming, undefeated, full / of life… against the raging dark” of the fires and I am humbled each time I think about the lessons nature has taught me by just being.  

Ironically, I don’t try to hold on to anything but let the poem speak through me. I see myself more as a vessel, and the poem as the voice, message or journey that needs to take place through me. That’s why my poems begin, but I never know where they lead. Each poem surprises me as I write and when I revise my work. Sometimes, when writing a draft, I know it’s still raw and unfinished when the poem is clouded by negativity, anger or bitterness. It’s important to let these emotions through though, so that the poem can gain clarity and light. The revision process is important for me in finding my way and finding out what the poem really wants to say. It’s quite an intuitive process and I know a poem is ready when it teaches me something I never knew before.  

 You mentioned “Montenegro in two scenes”. My first draft was actually a collection four lyrics, of various places in Montenegro. My supervisor read it and said I was trying to do too much without enough depth, and so I let go of two other lyrics and decided to focus on two more poignant ones. I think this was a good decision because it allowed me to take my time to get to know Perast and Cetinje again. It also meant I had to focus on these places and what they taught me: the old man’s joy immortalising the young boatman who never returned home in the former, and the stray dog’s wisdom and lack of attachment in the latter.

SC: When it comes to ecopoetics as a genre, a characteristic attributed to it by James Englehardt is that “it is connected to the world in a way that implies responsibility.” This genre feels heavy in a way, as if it carries even more of a weight due to the present moment. In creating an entire collection within the genre of ecopoetics, how did that ‘responsibility’ manifest for you? Was it more beneficial to your craft to lean in, or was it necessary to put certain connotations aside in order to create more freely? 

EVXM: You refer here to Englehardt’s “The Language Habitat: an Ecopoetry Manifesto”, where Englehardt begins with the opening line “Ecopoetry is connection.”, and goes on to define ecopoetry’s entanglements with language, science, the non-human world, spirit, body, family, culture, society, ethics and lastly, play. I appreciate this way of thinking about ecopoetry as “responsibility”, an ethical framework through which literature engages politically with the world and our environment. In fact, one of the ways I might describe ecopoetry is as a form of eco-social activism. I like to think of Red Earth as my contribution to Earth, through poems that mourn and celebrate Earth, that seek communion with Others (places, people, cultures, more-than-human beings) while recognising our differences, that search for home at home and away from home to come to an enlarged, expanded, planetary vision of Earth as home and the self as at home on Earth. While the word “responsibility” might seem heavy, another way to look at it is through the eyes of love. We can also be responsible for a thing that we love. In this light, we can think of ecopoetry as poetry of loving attention to Earth, with an ongoing awareness of human-induced environmental damage to Earth and the fragility of ecosystems should we not act responsibly.  

For me, when I was working on the collection, I didn’t know as yet what its theme or genre would be. I was writing poems that were eco-conscious, I was writing poems about family, I was writing poems about places away from home, I was writing poems about home. I was writing poems motivated by awe, deep anger, love, grief, hope. To respond to your question more directly, I created freely under the guidance and advice of my MA supervisor, Boey Kim Cheng, who told me to write without concerning myself too much about the collection’s theme. I think this freedom enabled me to delve deep and reach out without limiting myself to any one topic, theme or genre, i.e. ecopoetics. However, it was clear that across my poems, there were similar concerns about the speaker’s place on Earth, and how the speaker related to Others and by proxy, the self. As I prepared my exegesis, my research and critical examination of my work naturally began to gain clarity in two areas: ecopoetry: place and the making of home, as well as ecofeminism. I have to thank Kim Cheng for directing me to specific poets and readings. Independently, I devoted much of my research to the study of women authors like Mary Oliver, Joy Harjo, Eavan Boland and Grace Nichols whose poetics spoke to me and influenced my work.  

As I mentioned earlier, I did not consciously set out to write a collection of ecopoetry. However, I found myself writing a collection of ecopoetry by engaging with issues close to my heart, in responding to places or news or policies or art or memories or objects or subjects that somehow had eco-social resonance. We live in time and in place, and so I was simply writing as someone conscious of her time and place on Earth.


Esther Vincent Xueming is the editor-in-chief and founder of The Tiger Moth Review, an independent eco journal of art and literature based in Singapore. She is co-editor of two poetry anthologies, Poetry Moves (Ethos Books, 2020) and Little Things (Ethos Books, 2013), and Making Kin, an ecofeminist anthology of personal essays by women writers in Singapore (Ethos Books). A literature educator by profession, she is passionate about the relationships between art, literature and the environment. Follow her on Twitter @EstherVincentXM. Her debut poetry collection, Red Earth, is available for purchase from Blue Cactus Press here in North America and Europe and here from our distributor in Asia and the rest of the world. In Singapore, you can get a copy of Red Earth
from any Kinokuniya store.

 

Tender Collections of a Shared Planet: A Review of Esther Vincent Xueming’s Red Earth

by Allen Means

When I was in elementary school, I was best friends with a little girl who loved trees. She loved them so much in fact, that she would cry when other children plucked leaves from their branches. She used to tell me that the roots of trees were their hands, buried deep in the earth. The way she described it was like their tree-ness was simply an accident of nature, and only by chance were they alive and quiet instead of alive and tumultuous (like us). At the time I didn’t understand it, especially when she would make me ask to take their flowers or lean against their trunks, but I knew I loved her kindness. I assumed I had to think of the trees like people in order to understand, imagining that the trees were once children who had pressed their fingers too far into beach sand, letting it climb up their forearms and elbows, and been fossilized just like that. Their roots and branches just limbs.  

In beginning to read Esther Vincent Xueming’s debut poetry collection, Red Earth, I could not help but imagine the speaker as my dear friend, someone with an incredible empathy and a powerful vision to share. Red Earth is an admirable account of our planet’s condition and a kind offering of hope and healing, seeking to transform not only our connection to the earth but our connections to one another.  

This collection of ecopoetry is sliced gently into three parts, Dream fruitAbout love, and Pilgrims, each dedicated to their own meditative lens, although more largely connected by a preoccupation with the vast and unknowable. In her poems, Esther Vincent Xueming embarks on a search for lost roots— familial, spiritual, and metaphysical— through reflections on family, memory, art, nature, and poetry.  

Various pieces in the collection include dedications from the poet to those (people, animals, places, poems) in her personal and artistic life, something that becomes noticeable as part of the foundation on which Red Earth was written, in its abundant practice of giving ode and acknowledgement to that which gives and inspires. These dedications come in a form that differs from poetry that often seeks to “capture a moment.” Because while Xueming has a gift for reflection and description of life’s intimate moments, these poems seem to contain no desire for ownership, but a desire to cherish and give.  

The poem, "Crossing" is a tribute, after William E. Stafford's "Travelling through the Dark," that provides a devastatingly gentle remembrance of a deer put to death. The lines "And though I never / knew her, I want to remember" express a dedication to preserving life, even of those we do not know. This collection of a memory is meant to affirm and honor a life lived and is followed by a section break and the beginning lines "Imaginary friend, let me resurrect / your broken body from the dirt and ash" (28). The speaker of these poems has a powerful sense of energy and vitality, finding and making connections to others through our shared life and shared soil. Xueming’s poems seek for a way to not only preserve, like the photograph in "Crossing," but re-document and "resurrect" the life that might otherwise be missed or forgotten. It is a deeply admirable feature of the poet in this collection, in her attempt to give and create space for that life, and provide us a mindful, loving look into what it means to reflect rather than capture or take.  

"The Blue Mountains" is another poem that gives us insight into that reflection of moment, in which the speaker recounts her past home in Australia and attempts to grapple with the news of its devastating wildfires.  

 

"Australia is burning, and the mountains of my memory 

are turning blue. I think how this poem 

 

could be a leaking hose running out of water 

to quench a dry and angry land. But I also think 

 

how it could be brimming, undefeated, full 

of life in its last breath before the raging dark." (57) 

 

There is a kindness in this reflection. In the sentiment that poetry, perhaps, may provide a testament to that which has existed or lived. And while a poem might work to amend or to advocate, it might also, in its simple extension of words, work to preserve memory of— to instill the respect and honor of attention, re-documenting the fullness of "life in its last breath."  

In the last section of the book, in a poem called, "Monsoon," the speaker recounts an experience during monsoon season, in which the speaker describes the relationship between the environment and the people who must both labor under its conditions. 

 

“The southerly winds have arrived, 

and with them, occasional showers and thunderstorms 

washing the afternoons down with the shingle of rain. 

They will stay for four months, returning again 

 

next June. Our plants rely on this gift of seasonal rain 

to survive. We try to care for them, inventing a way 

to collect the rain with a wooden pole and a small bucket, 

fourteen floors above the ground. In another place,…” (83) 

 

In this poem, the speaker spirals slowly from her account of the season into a recount of a specific memory, in which an unknown temple keeper offers her shelter from the wind and rain beneath his red-roofed temple (84). This sweet, touching narrative then plays out with a tinge of irony, in which the temple keeper kindly takes the speaker’s shoes and keeps them dry beneath a 'No Shoes' sign.  

In a book that so highlights a suffering environment at the hands of humanity, it is touching to see how Xueming approaches the world’s condition as one that is complex and multifaceted. In all its grappling with the vast and unknown, Red Earth still comforts with its attention to the sweet, humble moments of humanity where those that are connected to and by the earth can still find hope in the kindness of others.  

And although the poems in this collection still seek for roots, for peace, for belonging, for wholeness— they are grounded in moments that offer rather than take. “The Red Earth” provides and contains life, but the speaker documents, cherishes, and collects in an attempt to connect with the earth and give back. Like a dear friend who asks us to respect and honor, Esther Vincent Xueming's Red Earth is tender and thoughtful in its craft and attention, drawing connections between us through the inhale and exhale of an earth that is just as alive as we are.  

 


 

Allen Means (he/him) is a queer poet and writer from Boulder, Colorado, where he earned a degree in Creative Writing and Japanese. He currently resides in Miami, Florida, where he is pursuing an MFA in Poetry.

Singing Beyond Melismatic Existential Questions: A Review of Marlon Hacla’s “Melismas” (translated by Kristine Ong Muslim)

Many friends and folks I have found kinship with have confided in me that they never imagined themselves beyond the age of eighteen, so once they reached that milestone, the path onward seemed totally nebulous. It’s hard to know what is on the other side. Maybe it’s because we all formed an intimate relationship with loss at an early age, losing classmates and friends before we finished high school. The summer I turned eighteen, I became hyper-aware of my own mortality, and consequently felt burdened by that awareness. I knew I was on borrowed time and I felt the urgency to use it wisely—or maybe it would be more accurate to say that I felt the imperative to use this time the “right” way or suffer the consequences for eternity. Unlike my peers, who at the time were worried about what to do with the rest of their lives (e.g. college, career, etc.), I fast-forwarded to agonizing over the afterlife.

Raised Catholic and an active member of my local church community, I was startled by my first formal religion class at the Jesuit university I attended as an undergraduate. The course, titled Sacred Scripture, forced me to reckon with the reality that, regardless of believer status, no one knew with certainty what, exactly, awaits us after death. Rather than participating in campus life or joining friends for foggy bonfires at Ocean Beach, I agonized over the limitlessness of eternity, wholly consumed by utter unknowability of something so permanent and inevitable.

The same questions that my teenage-self obsessed over are explored (much more artfully and resonantly) in Marlon Hacla’s Melismas, translated to English from Filipino by Kristine Ong Muslim and illustrated by Tilde Acuña. The poetic speaker articulates the same existential questions that I circled around as a teenager, with significantly more maturity and finesse in old age than I was capable of at eighteen (and even now at twenty-five). Whereas I was (and still am) brimming with restless anxiety and existential angst, the speaker in Melismas embodies a more sober tone, not romantic, or even necessarily regretful. Though still in existential anguish, the speaker commemorates the mundane aspects of earthly life and leans into the ambiguity of their fate. Hacla writes into the unknown, shining a light into the void to expose its vastness and to illuminate all the speaker does not and cannot ever know.

Melismas is a book-length poem, resembling epic poetry in some ways (e.g. length, cyclical structure), though without an obvious narrative thread or discrete beginning or end. Rather, each moment in the poem exists contemporaneously with the others as the poetic speaker (who, unlike an epic hero, is almost invisible in a way that allows the reader to enter the poem as themself) experiences them all at once, circling back to the same obsessions and ruminating on the senselessness of existence—it is as though this piece is written in a spiraling train of thought.

Many poets will attempt to engage readers by posing a question and temporarily withholding the answer, inviting readers to participate in the poem by reflecting on their own inquiries. However, by the final page of Melismas, the speaker’s questions are left open-ended. This feels true to the spirit of the poem: these things remain unknowable.

In the earlier pages, the speaker encourages the reader to ruminate on these existential questions by nestling them within shorter stanzas. These moments are usually surrounded by blank space, which allows for the reader to have more “breathing space”:

 

                  [E]ven if you leave behind a list of what has been accomplished
                  by your love, as long as we are left to rot,
                  remarkable light of our life, then what’s the use? (33)

 
 

Yet toward the end of the poem, the existential questions begin to crop up. They occur back-to-back within verses that extend over several pages, leaving little room for pause or reflection, urgent and unrelenting:

 

                      For what is this all for, if not to spread
                      love, for lubricating the lips that eulogize
                      the futures we have longed for? For peace
                      of mind, for clarity of purpose. For delaying
                      the festivities. For our small victories. (101)
 

                                                      [...] But, how would you go about
                      possessing me? How would you marry my indecision
                      with your confusion? If you were the moon and I
                      the earth, how do you propose we become one body and not be
                      destroyed? How would you distract me
                      the moment I realize that we are falling
                      in a well, that we are just flecks in the eye of hell,
                     that we are tumbling down a pit piled high with daggers, spears, cutlasses? (119)

 
 
Within only a few pages (the pages alternate between the original untranslated Filipino text and the English translations), there is a sharp turn in the speaker’s mood.  The first excerpt suggests acceptance, the speaker assigning meaning to their fleeting existence, whereas the second selection encapsulates the speaker’s spiral into doubt and dread, requiring distraction from their individual insignificance. These two disparate passages exemplify the speaker’s temperament, their mood vacillating between wistfulness and despondence.

Rather than undertaking the impossible task of addressing these unanswerable questions, the speaker is invested in reflecting on the concepts of transience and the ephemerality of earthly existence:
 
 

                                                                        [...] We become
                     the dirt encrusting all things, and like the world’s ill-use
                     of your short-lived existence, a voice instills in air its lone register,
                     calm like how the chirping song of a lost
                     bannatiran is calm, echoing way past the limits
                    of our discoveries, going over all possible paths I imagine you would have taken
                    if only you had suspected how the end was already taking us all to task. (25)
 
 
In this passage, the speaker identifies with the dirt, acknowledging with humility their insignificance. Like the echoes of the bannatiran are beyond the limits of our discoveries, the answers to questions such as “What’s the use?” (33) and “What is this all for?” (101) are outside the scope of attainable knowledge. This again signifies the speaker’s acceptance of uncertainty, though only to an extent. Still, despite the years, the speaker considers their past actions, anticipating the moment in which they will be held accountable. Furthermore, the use of the word “already” implies a predetermined fate, unavoidable regardless of the speaker’s awareness of their own march toward the inevitable, as though no alternate course of action could have led anywhere but here.

Hacla unabashedly embraces doom and gloom, and yet, this epic poem strikes a delicate balance between existential anguish and active acceptance. Hacla’s words rouse some innate anxiety within us and targets our most vulnerable selves, tender human beings subjected to the unsympathetic will of fate. Much of our incessant asking after the meaning of it all is redundant, leading us to run in circles like headless chickens: “As our voices wane / in the wilderness, time is already / mocking us” (89). And yet, the speaker in Melismas hones in on the minutiae of everyday life with reverent attention, documenting the small victories alongside the lowest of humanity. Though this work is a speck of dust in the grand cosmos, it is an invaluable offering to the universe in its audacious declaration of feelings experienced, a record of things impermanent.

 


Paula Mirando (she/her) is a queer Filipina American writer from the Bay Area. She earned an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Miami, and her writing has been supported by the Kearny Street Workshop Interdisciplinary Writers Lab, Voices of Our Nations Arts Foundation, and Philippine American Writers and Artists. She is currently working on a collection of linked short stories.

Interview with Donna Miscolta, Author of Living Color: Angie Rubio Stories

SC:  Hi Donna, thank you so much for agreeing to be interviewed by Sinking City! We’re a huge fan of the book, and one of the most distinguishable features is how easily I fell into my own memories of elementary school while listening to Angie’s thoughts, points of view, and her own experiences. What I mean to say more broadly is that you don’t shy away from the embarrassing, and that is I think what makes Angie such a loveable character. My first question is, how did you envision Angie’s character before beginning to write? Did you create an outline beforehand, or was it more of something that come progressively through ideas that would sprout throughout the process?

DM: I’m so glad you found Angie to be a loveable character. She’s certainly dear to me, and I agree with you that it’s due in large part to the mortifying moments she suffers. I think many of us can relate to such moments. Who hasn’t at some time in their life shrunk in excruciating discomfort at some blunder or feeling of rejection or exclusion?

As someone who was herself a shy, awkward girl growing up, I could easily transfer these traits to a fictional character. I could endow her with the bafflement and hurt I felt. I could put her in situations that had been mortifying to me. But I could also give her attributes I didn’t have to allow her to engage more readily with a world that doesn’t seem to notice or accept her. She’s more actively reflective, and she’s more inclined to act, if tentatively so, with the result that her efforts often fall short of the mark.  And yet she does try again and again.

One of the earlier stories I wrote was about the slumber party and at first I focused on Angie’s outsiderliness, her inability to crack the code to acceptance to the group. But
as I developed the story more, the elements of race and racism inserted themselves because they are part of any story when the protagonist is a person of color. As I  wrote the other stories, that element was always present, though I tried to allow it to arise
from the story rather than impose it in the story. Often scenes grew from memories
of incidents from my own girlhood. It was fun and instructive for me to put Angie in circumstances that were similar to mine and to see how she responded to them in
ways I didn’t know how to back then.

I never created an outline of who Angie was as a way to develop her character. She emerged for me in the writing. What I did do as the number of stories grew was to summarize the plot of each in a document to see trends, repetition, and resonances as well as any contradictions or omissions. So maybe it was an outline not to develop the character and story but to analyze what I’d done and still needed to do.

SC: Who was the inspiration for Aunt Nelda? Was it someone from your own family or friend group? She seems to have such a big personality, and her character development towards the end is surprising, a bittersweet one for me.

DM: Nelda was a composite of women in my family, who ranged from the quiet to the loquacious, from the acquiescent to the intermittently assertive. The women in my family, those of my mother’s generation, did not have more than a high school education, married early, and started families when they were in their late teens or early twenties. When they ventured into the workforce, they worked retail or other service industry positions. These jobs gave them a sense of purpose and access to an income. They also gave them an escape from the household, though it didn’t mean an escape from those duties. It gave them a physical space to exist in other than the home.

Both Nelda and Delia, Angie’s mother, share this background of my mother’s generation. Of the two, Nelda was on the louder, sassier side of the spectrum. I wanted to contrast her with Delia who has the more traditional trajectory with a husband and children but who feels more hemmed in by her lack of options. Delia is the kind of woman who would never identify with the women’s liberation movement yet itches for a bigger life outside of her narrowly defined spaces. Nelda is a single parent and the absence of a Big Eddie for whom Little Eddie seems to have been named is a mystery to the Rubio children and an untouchable subject. She, too, has been hemmed in by traditional roles and by society’s view of single parents, but she’s willing to take bigger risks. She’s searching for an outlet for her creativity and finally finds it as a real estate agent. Her success allows her to move herself and Eddie to a different part of town and to indulge Eddie’s esoteric interests. It’s a situation that Angie envies. I, on the other hand, was very pleased with Nelda’s trajectory.

 SC: This may be more of an abstract question, but how did you decide what to include with regards to the information about Angie’s identity? From the beginning, we get mention that she moved from Hawaii, but not a lot about her Mexican identity; more broadly, we get her Hispanic upbringing, some regret over not being able to speak and even, for the most part, understand Spanish. We also get more explicit details about her community (school, neighborhood, etc.), focusing on the white-dominant culture, the lack of people of color in her school, etc.; is this something that Angie doesn’t think about as much, or is it intentionally subtle, almost serving as a background?

DM: This is an interesting question for me. I was mostly interested in how Angie was perceived by the world and how she in turn perceived her place in the world as a brown girl rather than as someone of a particular ethnic background. But it seems important to readers that characters be anchored in a specific identity if they are other than white.

As someone of mixed heritage, mining my own identity is a bit messy because in real life it’s something that seems to require an explanation full of provisos and caveats, so on the page I decided to simplify things as I’ve done in my previous books. Of my Filipino and Mexican background, I gave Angie the latter, which allowed me to specify certain details about her such as her inability to speak Spanish and the irony of her last name, which means blond.

In my own experience, forces of socialization and assimilation resulted in a very Americanized household from its décor to the food on the table. My mother cooked Mexican dishes only once in a while and my father cooked Filipino food for special occasions. Rice was on the table every day. Otherwise, our table looked much the same as the families on TV – meat, potatoes, and vegetable, with Wonder Bread in the bread box. While there was never forgetting that we were brown, it didn’t occur to us constantly that we were Filipino and Mexican. Somehow, we imagined that the TV
shows we watched and magazines we read that reflected white America mirrored our existence as well. I wrote this consciousness to a similar degree into the characters in Living Color.

There are often contradictory expectations at work by the dominant culture that immigrants and children of immigrants adopt mainstream ways but also conform to its perceptions of them as different or other, and I think color is the reason. I don’t think I necessarily convey this in the book, but I think it’s at the root of its emphasis on color over a specific ethnic or racial identity.

SC: When you were in the process of writing each scene, did you have the idea of writing them in chronological order, or did they just come to in more fragmented forms (I’m especially interested in how writing shorter, yet vivid scenes work as a poet myself).

DM: Well, first, let me say that I think poets make great scene writers since they’re so practiced at concision and timing. They understand white space. I tend to have to strip away a lot of writing to get to the essential and to trust the unsaid. In terms of chronology, I at first was writing stories at random points in time, until I realized the obvious structure that was presenting itself. Once I had filled in all the early years of Angie’s grade-by-grade education, I wrote all the subsequent chapters in chronological order. In terms of scenes in each story, those didn’t always flow in order. There were a number of stories where I did quite a bit of rearranging to find the sequence that functioned best dramatically.

Michael Cunningham says that a fully realized character paired with another character will make a story happen. I have to remind myself of that because often when I begin a scene my character will be alone in reflection or doing something by herself. Sometimes I have let such a scene stand as the opening to a story as long as too much time doesn’t elapse before another character enters the scene to make something happen, to get the story moving, to make it vivid.

SC: The dialogue in Living Color is an element that has stayed with me for quite some bit. There is humor, cleverness, and a concise way in which you especially achieve t movement through dialogue, i.e: Where is God? God is everywhere., or when Eva tells Angie, “Being brown is hereditary. Being a Brownie is not”. Were these remarks / jokes ones you took time to craft, or did they come naturally to you / along the lines of things that you had heard of before?

Because I’ve always been shy and therefore quiet, I became a listener and an observer. I paid attention to how things were said and by whom and with what response. And if the exact words didn’t stay with me, the feelings around them did. And that’s what’s important when creating scene and dialog –  capturing and conveying a feeling or sensation.

My ear absorbed the speech and delivery of the people around me. I have an older sister who read a lot and threw around her large vocabulary when we were growing up, some-times sounding like a British pedagogue. On the other hand, my mother and her sisters, who were not educated beyond high school, lacked polish and precision in their speech, often confusing words such as genetic and generic, which could make for some comic phrasing. Cruelly, we distorted our faces with mock frowns or stifled laughter at their nonsequiturs, malapropisms, and mispronunciations.

Sometimes, when I’m writing, immersed in the scene and the characters and what they each are striving for, one of these stored memories will conveniently unlock itself from the vault and find itself on the page. Other times, it’s a more deliberate process and it might occur in the editing as I snip away at the fat to leave intact the most relevant words and phrases, which is when space opens up for some perfect waiting-in-the-wings darling to slide in.

Another thing I find helpful is a lecture on dialogue by Pam Houston I attended several years ago, which you can find on YouTube. Houston describes dialogue as “a game of tennis between two not very good players,” each with her own agenda fighting for control of the scene. I think that when humor is part of the fight, well, all the better.


Donna Miscolta’s most recent book is Living Color: Angie Rubio Stories from Jaded Ibis Press in 2020. Her story collection Hola and Goodbye, winner of the Doris Bakwin Award for Writing by a Woman, was published by Carolina Wren Press in 2016. It won an Independent Publishers award for Best Regional Fiction and an International Latino Book Award for Best Latino Focused Fiction. She’s also the author of the novel When the de la Cruz Family Danced, published in 2011 by Signal 8 Press. Recent stories and essays have appeared in McSweeney’s, Atticus Review, Los Angeles Review, and the anthology Alone Together: Love, Grief, and Comfort in the Time of Covid-19.

On Peace and Provocation-A Review of Donna Miscolta’s “Living Color: Angie Rubio Stories”

by Amanda LaMadrid

We’ve come a long way from the days in which children were to be ‘seen and not heard.’ Though the independence and value of childhood is more celebrated in today’s age, many young people, particularly those on the margins of their communities, grapple with the decision to choose peace or provocation – to stay invisible or to disrupt the still water. In Donna Miscolta’s short story collection, “Living Color: Angie Rubio Stories,” Angie Rubio, a smart Mexican-American girl growing up in the ‘60s and ‘70s, searches for her place and for herself during a period of civil unrest not unlike the one we find ourselves in today.

We first meet Angie in kindergarten, and stick with her for over a decade of her life in thirteen chronological short stories that do the work of framing small, character-defining moments in the context of the civil rights era and the Cold War. The collection shines when Angie’s actions and reactions, and those of the people around her, are used to tell a larger story of being young and brown in ‘60s and ‘70s America.

Angie understands her position in the world early on in her life. In the story “Monster,” the elementary-aged protagonist finds a new playmate in her white neighbor, Susie Wren. As the only brown girl in the room, Angie is wary of a game proposed by Susie called ‘Prettiest Girl’ before she even knows the rules. Susie goes on to establish that she, of course, will play the titular ‘prettiest girl in the world,’ and that Lou Ann, their other playmate, will be the ‘handsome prince’ who saves her. Resigned before she asks the question on her mind, Angie nevertheless prompts Susie – “saves you from what?” – to which Susie replies, “the ugly monster,” a role reserved for Angie.

In Susie’s games, Angie is always relegated to roles such as mailman, grave robber, burglar, wicked stepmother, etc., often playing the antagonist to her paler counterparts. Angie’s response to the casual racism is to attend school in her prettiest dress in an effort to feel like the princess for a change, and then finally to cut Susie out and tell her ‘no’ when she asks Angie to come play. It’s an early example of Angie’s burgeoning but strong sense of self, which will persist and come to define key moments in her life in which she will refuse to compromise who she is in order to accommodate the norms of the ‘popular.’ Angie stands up for herself, and though she will come a long way in accepting and understanding that she doesn’t need to emulate ‘Miss America’ to be celebrated, she knows from a young age that she doesn’t have to take what the world is dishing out to her.

That defiant but quiet confidence grows bolder as Angie navigates high school, where she truly comes into her own. Prior to her entry into that “unfun funhouse,” she has already promised herself in the story “Class Play” that she will someday “narrate her own story.” As she begins freshman year in “Extracurricular Activities,” she is excited to “solve the problem of her and her invisibleness.” As a Mexican-American girl in a big family, displaced several times growing up due to her father’s position in the Navy, Angie often feels overlooked and invisible. It’s a current running through this collection of her experiences, and one that persists regardless of where she is. In Hawaii, she looks more like the invisible Hawaiians than her non-native schoolmates. In California, she learns quickly that appearance matters more than talent.

Even within her family, Angie often feels like an afterthought, as her parents work to provide for the children, and are often concerned with the little ones, so that Angie and her older sister, Eva (a brilliant character in her own right) begin to make their own paths. Her mother neglects to pass on her Spanish to her children, leading to a conflict in Angie that remains latent but palpable – she is not American enough to fit in with her peers, but she can hardly speak her parents’ native language. Against the backdrop of a charged political landscape, Angie’s quiet search for identity in the face of the world’s apparent indifference leads her to understand the importance of telling her own story. Shy, scrawny, quiet, and brown, she often feels like a fly on the wall in her own life, which leads to a rich interiority from Angie, and which serves as the beating heart of the collection. During her high school years, when Angie’s observations, wit, and needle-sharp commentary move from her brain to the page, it’s immensely rewarding.

Miscolta’s steady prose and keen interest in Angie as the main player in a world just as realized, alive, and colorful as she is make for a unique reading experience that nevertheless feels like coming home. “Living Color” is historical fiction, but through the lens of being a girl in the civil rights era, the age of the hippies, in a ‘nightly news in living color’ America, an America that has enough in common with today’s to make Angie’s burgeoning power feel not only relevant but urgent. When editor Judy scornfully tells Angie, who has proposed a column on social issues in the school newspaper, that “All the important stuff happened in the ‘60s,” Angie’s maturity and intelligence are apparent. She is simultaneously ahead of her time and exactly where she is supposed to be, and “Living Color” is at its best when it leans into this portrayal of Angie as an artist, a progressive, and herald who still feels and doesn’t shy away from a desire to find her niche in a tempestuous America.

The stories really sparkle during Angie’s time in high school, as she finds her strength and power as a writer and decides she’d rather be seen and heard than invisible. Understanding at this point that there is no peace in staying silent, she makes a pact with herself to be “bold” and “provocative” at this stage in her life, and the reader, cognizant of every moment leading up to this well-earned progression, roots for her to “go, fight, [and] win.”


Amanda Lamadrid is an MFA candidate at the University of Miami with a B.A. in English – Creative Writing from the University of South Florida, where she completed a creative non-fiction thesis on her family’s journey from Cuba to the U.S. She writes both fiction and creative non-fiction, with an interest in hybrid work. She is an alum of VONA/Voices and is currently at work on fiction novel with historical elements.

The Speaker Disrupts

A Review of José Olivarez’s Citizen Illegal.

By Maria Esquinca, Poetry Editor.

Jose Olivarez’s debut poetry collection Citizen Illegal is a powerful celebration of what it means to be a first generation Mexican American. His collection is expansive, covering topics including assimilation, body image, and depression. Each poem is full of keen observation, humor, and wit. His lyric-narratives don’t hold back from commenting on class, race, sexism, and the hypocrisy of white liberalism, “colleges are not looking for undocumented diversity.”

Citizen Illegal. by José Olivarez. Paperback, $11.20, Haymarket Books.

In the title poem “(Citizen) (Illegal),” Olivarez attaches the parenthesized words “citizen” and “illegal” to the three characters in the poem: the dad, the mother, and boy, highlighting their immigration status:

Mexican woman (illegal) and Mexican man (illegal)
have a Mexican (illegal)-American (citizen).
Is the baby more Mexican or American?

Olivarez creates a visual juxtaposition between something very sterile and abstract—immigration status—beside real people. It is uncomfortable and effective. In contrast to our legal system—which defines people on the basis of their legality, rather than their humanity—Olivarez does not let readers forget the status of the characters. By also making the characters nameless, he further exemplifies the dehumanization of immigrants through U.S. policies.

From the very first question Olivarez poses, it is apparent that these labels could never accurately describe the breadth of immigrant identities—a move he constantly makes throughout this collection. In “Mexican American Disambiguation,” the speaker disrupts what it means to be Mexican:

my parents are Mexican who are not

to be confused with Mexicans still living

in México. those Mexicans call themselves

Mexicanos.

His poems break down the various layers of identity, in the process redefining and rejecting stereotypical labels.

A striking element within Olivarez’s book is his humor. His matter-of-fact voice is full of witty observation, with narratives that often point out class and racism in a non-didactic way. In “I Walk Into Every Room & Yell Where the Mexicans At,” the speaker finds himself at a party talking to a liberal white woman. The speaker finds himself having a conversation in which he must hurdle through  thinly veiled microaggressions. The woman feels compelled to tell the speaker “she voted for hillary & wishes bernie won the nomination,” yet also tells him  “how lucky he is.” She doesn’t meet too many Mexicans in this part of New York. Olivarez fearlessly slices through plain observation and inserts his own critique, “the white/ woman means lucky to be here and not in México.” Through the  interloping of observation and cunning commentary Olivarez breaks open his poems past the point of neutrality, he offers his readers sarcastic descriptions that break open the hypocrisy of the scenario: A self-proclaimed liberal who votes for Bernie, yet is oblivious to all the Mexicans around her. Olivarez then, uses the poem as a place of assertion that rebels against erasure. He acknowledges the imprints his people have made in the U.S.: “i know we exist because of what we make.” Often, reading these poems is like reading a sculptor at work, shaving off the obvious hypocrisies and ironies people of color navigate while the “good white woman waits for me to thank her.”

Olivarez also evokes humor through his “Mexican Heaven” series of poems. (In total, Olivarez has eight, one stanza, “Mexican Heaven” poems scattered throughout the book.) These short poems reimagine a Mexican Heaven through various scenarios and descriptions:

all of the Mexicans sneak into heaven.

St. Peter has their name on the list,

but the Mexicans haven’t trusted a list

since Ronald Reagan was president.

Peppered throughout the book are also moments of self-deprecating confessions, intimacy, and love; “put some vaporub on my dad’s/diabetic toes and watch the sugar evaporate.” His narrative voice is unapologetically honest.

Citizen Illegal is a compelling collection. As someone who is also Mexican American, reading Olivarez’s book felt like I was reading someone who understood me. Olivarez describes what it’s like to feel like you belong neither here nor there, ni de aquí, ni de allá, but to live in that liminal, in-between space, familiar to children of immigrants—not fully American, not fully Mexican, but a beautiful blend of the two. His poems acknowledge the complicated feelings attached to Latinx identity: guilt for not being Mexican enough, for speaking “broken Spanish,” for not being a “good Mexican son,” pride for your culture, confusion about belonging, etc. But he provides a collection that envelops all of those feelings without admonishing oneself, but rather accepting that our identities are complex.

Citizen Illegal, then, strikes a delicate balance between reclaiming existence and admitting a sense of dislocation. I appreciate the book’s unrelenting refusal to be silenced, now more than ever these poems provide a powerful voice that needs to be heard.

A Conversation with Alexandra Lytton Regalado

By Maria Esquinca
Image via Alexandra Lytton Regalado.

Alexandra Lytton Regalado’s debut poetry collection Matria (Black Lawrence Press, $15.95) is on ode to El Salvador, maternity, and womanhood. Regalado sets up her book like a deck of Lotería cards, beginning with “El Chandelier” and ending with “La Virgen.” But this is not a Mexican Lotería card: Regalado creates her own Loteria board using El Salvador as characters, and illustrates the daily realities faced by Salvadorans: “Ours is not El Apache, La Pera, El Catrín. For Salvadorans, all days are Lotería.”

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When it comes to the violence in El Salvador, Regalado doesn’t shy away from its portrayal.  In “La Quinceañera,” Regalado recounts how a fifteen-year-old girl was drowned by members of the MS-13 gang:

fifteen days of rain, like the years of her life, swallowed
docks, swelled mountainsides, unearthed bodies.

In “La Calavera,” the speaker and her son find themselves in the middle of gunfire after leaving a country club:

Our car at a standstill, front row
I see the man with the gun
crossing the street— and by man
I mean a 15-yrear-old boy, tattooed
skull and face.

But, in Matria Regalado doesn’t just dwell on the violence; the women in Matria are central to countering stereotypical notions of El Salvador. Everyday women such as la enfermera and la pupusera offer the readers moments of strength and tenderness. In “La Sandia,” Regalado depicts the laborious pain of motherhood:

And then,
when the pains of labor came
like a machete to a watermelon,
splayed,
I was sent searing
into my gender.

Regalado’s version of motherhood is corporal and visceral. The sacrifice that motherhood demands bleed across the pages of Matria. It’s a continuous thread that runs throughout her book. The speaker constantly motions to the women in her life: they, in turn, become central to the survival and existence of the self.

Image via Small Press Distributors.

The book is titled Matria; could you talk a little about the title of the book?

So Matria, to me, means motherland. I felt like it was important to have a title related to women and in particular to mothers because it actually is part biographical. My mother is Salvadoran and my dad is American. So, my motherland is El Salvador—where I was born, where my mom is from. But for my childhood, I lived in what would be my patria, my fatherland. I thought that it was important because of the idea of a nation, a country, what we define as home, not necessarily defined by borders but really by the space where you can grow and develop and explore.

 

I’m also curious about the cover art of the book; what was your reason for selecting an image of a woman of color?

I felt like it was important to have the cover of the indigenous woman. The photograph is by Luis Gonzales Palma, and he is a Guatemalan photographer. But he is most renowned or recognized for his portraits. He uses a very traditional method. If you see the photos in person, every hair, every wrinkle, every single aspect of the face is very visible, and so I think that, especially the way the woman looks out at the reader with a sort of challenging, questioning look, but also, she is very at peace and comfortable with herself. Not in an angry way, she is just sort of like ‘This is who I am, and this is my face and I’m looking at you.’ Not really with judgement, just standing her ground. That is the feeling that I got from it. And that portrait is part of a series that Luis Gonzales Palma made of different Lotería images. I decided to focus on this woman and that somehow she would be the one ushering people in at the gate, or somehow ushering people in and out of my book.

 

One of my favorite poems within the book is “Salvadoran Road Bingo.” I saw it as an entryway into your book, because you also set up the rules of the game. You also have all these different images of El Salvador like el borracho, the fireater, the hen and her pollitos, and then you also have the points, which is also interesting, but they’re also sarcastic. How did you get this idea, to set up your book through the Lotería, especially in contrast from Mexican Lotería?

It was important for that reason, because El Salvador always has this… it’s never happy with itself. We don’t have a true, strong, national identity. We don’t even use the Salvadoran currency anymore. We use an American dollar. A lot of our advertising is in English. A lot of the advertisements that you see on billboards show fair skinned, light eyed, blonde, [people]. They market them specifically so that it would be like ‘this is somebody who is white, and blonde, and with blue eyes, this is what they would use, so you should aspire to have these products to be like these people.’ So, there’s that sense of ‘what is ours?’ and truly ‘what do we define ourselves as?’

I have a lot of friends that come and visit from out of the country that have never been to Central America. They’ll say stuff to me like, ‘Why are there men with shotguns standing outside of a pharmacy? Do they really make so much money that they need to be protecting every store?’ Part of it is like, well, that’s part of the things that we see, que pasan por desapercibidos. We just assume that’s part of landscape. We are not even shocked by it anymore.

On the weekends, we go out of the city as much as we can. On these trips, I started to create this list of things, iconic kinds of things that we would pass on the side of the road, and so we started playing this game with my husband, where we would say, ‘The first one to spot the guy without a shirt on gets a prize.’ And the prize would be a piece of chocolate or something like that. And so, on my phone, I started writing down all these different things we would see on the side of the road as we were driving. I was also taking photos for my Instagram project “Through the Bulletproof Glass,” too.

I started to see things that would repeat over and over. That was a poem, that was, as you say, the steps into the collection. But I wrote it at the end because I felt like I had already internalized the rules and the structure of the book, but I needed to lay down how to play that game, for the reader. And that’s how I set it up, and the point system is something that I felt made a reference to the way that Salvadorans try to find the humor in a situation. That’s part of our survival process. It’s true and that’s the way that we work, so I just felt that that was part of the rules. That it had to have a point system as well.

 

There’s also brutality and the violence that is going on in your country in your book. One of the hardest poems for me to read was “La Quinceañera,” which is the poem where the girl drowns. Why was it important for you to also talk about this reality of El Salvador, and did you ever worry that an American audience might read that and kind of misjudge your country?

I understand what you’re saying and it’s a debate I had. For example, in the very last poem “Ode to La Matria” there’s a line there that says “I’ve had the privilege of pretending but not without consequence.” So, there’s a sense of empathy of where I try to put myself in the place of a mother, for example, who is desperately trying to find her daughter, knowing pretty much that her daughter is dead.

I’ll tell you the way that poem happened. We have a house on the lake and we go there every weekend, and when we went we showed up on a Saturday. There was that yellow police ribbon tied up, two doors down, all along the shore. There were reporters, and police. So we started talking to some of the locals. As it turned out there was a young girl who had left the countryside to go in the second largest city, or the third largest city of El Salvador. As it turns out she had gotten mixed up with the gangs over there, and had panicked, or decided that she no longer wanted to be a part of that and went back to her house. And when she went back to her house they came looking for her. And so they, they drowned her, and they had located her body that same morning. So, it was very difficult because here I am in a very comfortable place of privilege, you know going to my weekend house, and not being able to go sit at the dock because they had been combing the shore looking for this fifteen year old’s body. My son was 13 at the time, my eldest, and so it was really difficult. It was really difficult to imagine that, to see that. That’s [the] one place for me that symbolizes peace and tranquility and like a sense of home, where I go to disconnect. Even in a place that you consider safe, and quiet, and calm, and peaceful, the violence was already coming into areas like that. Where before we had only grown up with the idea, the fear, the myths and the legends. There was a monster called El Tabudo, that was supposed to pull you down into the lake. Now we couldn’t be afraid of myths and legends because there were actually, real monsters to contend with.

 

I’m also thinking about Donald Trump and his rhetoric around Central America.

It’s like, well, I’m writing it, yes, it is true, and is it known? Of course. I think that’s what El Salvador is known the most for, for its violence. Even during the Civil War—historically, the area has been a violent area. We are a violent people. The Pipil, and the Mayas, and everyone that passed through that corridor. Everybody was vying for territory and power, and it’s a difficult space to talk about. I did make a conscious decision when I was writing the book that I needed to counter that with other moments. So, there are other poems like the one called “La Mano,” that are more about love, protection, and discovery. I didn’t want to linger in this morbid fascination of the rubberneckers, or the amarillismo. I wrote about it because I thought it was important. I wasn’t doing it to take advantage of a situation or anything like that.

 

Why was it important for you to write about El Salvador, and about your country? 

Because it was my way of figuring out my place in El Salvador, or how I connect to El Salvador. Where do I fit in? What am I contributing to it? At the time that I started writing this book was when I moved back, and I was recently married. And afterwards when I became a mother, I did not have my own mother with me. My mom stayed in the US, and I needed to talk to other women to kind of get the lay of the land, like practical advice, and to be close to women, to have that sense of community. And, they were the ones that became my guides as how to navigate motherhood, and just the day to day life of El Salvador.

 

That kinds of leads to my next question. I noticed most of your poems are lala—they’re feminine poems. There’s only one masculine poem, which is El Chandelier. How did that happen?

I made a conscious choice that I was going to do a Salvadoran feminine Lotería because I wanted all of the symbols, or icons, or everything to relate to women. So, the first woman, “El Chandelier,” talks about the difference between the articles. The use of el y la in Spanish, and how you can claim certain words to a different gender, in a way. That is not something you do in English. I thought it was curious how when they became plural, certain words switch to feminine again, and I thought they were really important and relevant words.

 

Another poem that I really like is “This is Grace He Says” I just thought it was a very beautiful and a tender, intimate poem, because you talk about your son, and compare him to fireworks. It’s just so beautiful. That’s something we constantly see mentioned: motherhood, children, and Chabelita, too, so again the importance of being a mother, or motherhood in your book.

Well, there’s that idea of caring for people, and also caring about yourself. There’s a balance between the two things, and as women I think we have to constantly negotiate that balance, right? I thought it was funny that those kinds of things, where my husband would say, “Let’s catch this ball of sand perfectly in our hand without having it shattered,”—that requires a lot of balance. So, there’s things you want for yourself to find that peace, to find those moments that are going to help you recover whatever it is. There is a moment where you have to fill your own tank with whatever it is, so that you can continue giving.

In the poem you mentioned, I didn’t know that I was pregnant. And there were a lot of moments of tenderness that I needed to explore because I felt there’s a negotiation, and a process, that as women we have. Are we doing enough? Am I allowed to relax now? Am I allowed to enjoy myself? And so in one of the last images in that poem, I try to find that moment of restoration in nature. I’m diving, looking at a sea turtle, not knowing that I’m pregnant, and that life is inside of me. And yet I’m looking outside for something else, for something that’s going to restore me.

In another poem, “La Madre,” I’m on a jet ski with my husband looking for the nesting grounds, so happy and so relieved because I’m able to be away from my son for a little while. I left him sleeping in a hammock, and I was able to go and look for what I needed. So, there’s this idea of how much of what we do is for ourselves, and how much is enough that we’re doing for others. And there’s a lot of that back and forth, like the nurse, the enfermera, she works for a living as nurse and then she sees this young girl who has a baby, and she’s kind of caring for it, and the same time judging, ‘This girl is not doing enough.’ And I’m watching from a distance. So, there’s a lot of that back and forth of carrying, and who cares for us, who will save us, who are we going to save. Those kinds of questions. There’s a lot of negotiating in that kind of respect.

 

What would be your advice for young women who want to write but they might not see women writers reflected in their community? Or in the books they’re reading? Or they might not have someone that’s encouraging them to keep writing? What would be your advice for young women?

I think you need to fight like tooth and nail to find that strength inside of yourself to really carve out that time for your writing. No one is going to be cheerleading and pushing you along, especially after school. I think that you have to learn what your routine is, and what your style of writing is, and what your strengths and your weaknesses are. You have to find accountability, like a system of a checklist where you’re sure that production is happening, and you’re sure there is something that is going to be outside of yourself checking up on you, driving you forward.

Create alliances with writers who you have things in common with, or someone you feel particularly understands your work. You have to be relentless in your submissions, almost to the point where you doubt yourself like ‘am I crazy? Is this even good?’ Part of the reason I included all the semifinalists and finalists prizes in the back of my book was not because I was bragging, it was because I wanted to say, ‘Look, man, it took me ten years to get this manuscript published.’ I got probably triple or quadruple the rejections that are not listed there, and so the times I got an answer back saying ‘Hey, you’re a finalist,’ or ‘Hey, you’re a semifinalist,’ I was like, ‘Okay, I’m not that crazy. I have to keep going.’

Some advice I was given is ‘touch it every day,’ so even if it’s a line, even if it’s a scribble in the margin in a book you. I adapted that idea to myself, because I know that I have a hard time transitioning in and out of the work. So, I’ll have one day a week where I don’t have meetings. I don’t go to the office. I stay in my pajamas all day long if I want to. I don’t pick up kids. I basically tell everybody in my family, ‘Today, if you need something, ask your dad, ask someone else, I’m in my writing.’ So I know I have that entire day, and that I can put music on, and I’ll produce something.

What it comes down to is that I think that you have to find a routine that works for you. There’s a moment where I’m planting, planting, planting, seeding, seeding, seeding, fertilizing, fertilizing, fertilizing, and then the harvest. You really get to know yourself as a person, and you get to know what works for you. Once you have that figured out, it’s really big hurdle that you pass.

 

This interview was edited for length and clarity.