We began our conversation with Sandra Cisneros drawing our own personal maps of the United States. Drawing jump-started our conversation about latinidad, place, writing, privilege, power, and activism. In the end we journeyed together in conversation remembering and thinking through how we work and continue to work as Latina/o creatives and scholars. Also in attendance: Angie Cruz, Clarissa A. León, Armando García, Adriana E. Ramírez, Elizabeth Rodriguez Fielder, Tanya Shirazi and Angela Velez.
Angie Cruz: One of the reasons we started Aster(ix) was in response to the question, who is publishing women writers of color? Through my work with the journal I’ve realized how many writers of color, even the more established writers, are having a difficult time placing their work, especially when the work is not performing their identity politics. But also we have found that women of color don’t always submit their work. They need to be solicited.
Sandra Cisneros: I don’t send my poems out unless someone asks me.
AC: Me neither, and this is true for many women writers I know. So then people are like, what happened to her? Is she publishing? That’s one of the reasons we started Aster(ix). To find each other. To put our works in conversation with each other.
SC: We had a women of color journal and it created a place for Cherrie Moraga, Ana Castillo, me, and others: Third Women Press. It published us. It didn’t get support from the university because Norma Alarcon didn’t want it to be controlled by them. But that’s how we found each other. And it’s really important.
AC: I was really inspired by that conversation we had many years ago, when we spent a day together in Torino. You said one of your inspirations to found Macondo was your commitment to push writers to make their very best work.
SC: The reason I also created it was because I thought that we needed those networks. So many of the Macondistas continue to edit each other and connect. They don’t feel necessarily that they have to keep supporting Macondo because they have their own community. But there’s younger people coming up. It needs to continue. We still need that network, that zócalo where to meet.
AC: A lot of writers that I know, especially those that are sending their work out, feel if their work doesn’t legibly appear to be Latino/a—it has a more difficult time getting placed. What do you think?
Adriana E. Ramírez: I think it’s less so in nonfiction
AC: But what Latino/a in nonfiction that is published isn’t writing about a Latin-American/ latino/a problem?
AER: It depends on who you are. If a Latino/a historian is writing about the history of the Apache, I don’t think that’s necessarily performing your identity. I think it’s a unique perspective of a historical thing. I can’t divorce myself from who I am. I look in the mirror and see the nopal and everything. You are who you are. Even the way I use language, the aphorisms that pop up. Even “Cero a la izquierda,” doesn’t even sound right in English. “Zeros to the left”?
AC: I do think the dearth of Latina writers getting published each year makes creating spaces such as Macondo and Aster(ix) an urgent matter, even if neither of our activist efforts are by no means exclusively Latino/a. What I also realized is how many writers, because they are activists, mothers, etc., don’t have the time and space to write. I think we desperately need writing residencies, where we’re asked to do nothing but our creative work.
SC: But don’t you think too that some part of not making the time to write is also that we make ourselves too available? Regarding activism, I think when we rescue, it’s because we’re rescuing some part of ourselves too. That’s what a therapist would tell you. You’re rescuing, but you’re rescuing yourself too. Where you don’t feel you do enough, or you feel guilty because of your success or whatever it is. That’s why I started the foundation. I felt guilty there wasn’t more success for others.
AC: But, Sandra, if you hadn’t started Macondo, who was going to do it?
SC: I also did it because unless I invited them, I couldn’t get the writers I wanted to see to come to San Antonio. I needed my oxygen supply and my water supply.
AC: But you also changed so many people’s lives because of Macondo. Like VONA Voices, and Cave Canem. Like Toi Derricotte who put a lot of energy into Cave Canem. If she wouldn’t have done it, who would’ve done it? So there’s always that thought too. Not that we should be doing this work forever.
SC: Oh, I think we should do it, and then we should pass the baton. You don’t have to do it your whole life or you don’t have to do it for ten years. I think you can do it for as long as you can do it and once it had a good run somebody else can start something else. I often wonder if we make ourselves too available as women. We have to stop. I did two foundations, and I gave fifty fold. I don’t have to feel like I’m a bad person now.
AC: Do any of you feel a pressure to be activists or give back? If so how?
Tanya Shirazi: I worked in educational outreach for eleven years before I finally decided to fully invest in my creative writing pursuit. I went to grad school in counseling. It was hard to leave those altruistic career spaces—I made close connections with first-generation Latinx undergrads. They are my second family. When I decided to pursue an MFA and leave I felt selfish. In my heart though, I knew it was time to nurture the creative part of me that I had ignored for so long. Sometimes we have to find a balance in how much we give to other people as well as to our craft.
SC: When Ursula K. Leguin turned 60, she went into sanctuary. She calls it sanctuary. She says I can’t. I’m in sanctuary. And that’s what you’ve got to say, ‘I’m in sanctuary.’ When I come out of sanctuary, you can approach me, but don’t tell them when you’re coming out of sanctuary. Never come out of sanctuary. You know, just go into sanctuary and say, ‘Not now, I’m in sanctuary.’
AC: I love it. That’s what I’m going to call it, my sanctuary. It’s like what I used to tell my family when I moved back into my old neighborhood to get out of family commitments; I would say, ‘Estoy estudiando.’ ‘Oh! Estudiando, esta bien!’ ‘Estudiando’ was like the magical word. If I was studying, everyone left me alone.
SC: Yeah, que bueno to have that kind privacy.
Angela Velez: In my house, the only door that locked was the bathroom door.
AC: Yeah, me too. I grew up that way. No privacy.
AV: No one bothered me there — I would just run the bath tub for 30 minutes and lock myself in and read my book. It was the only privacy I could have.
SC: A lot of houses don’t have doors.
AV: And I shared a room anyway, so a door is a privilege.
SC: When I was in middle school we moved to a house where I had the only bedroom with a door in the whole house but I couldn’t close the door because I had a big piece of furniture. The room was really tiny, like only a twin bed could fit in it and a dresser and a little corridor this wide – to get to the bed and open the door. But the furniture was longer than the room and the door couldn’t close because of the furniture. I had a door, but I couldn’t close it. It had to stay open like this much.
AC: So, I have a question. Some of my writer friends have told me I have to go into ‘sanctuary’ so I can finish my books. They say I am doing too much. So it makes me wonder what do you think is the role of the writer? The responsibility to her community?
SC: You do what you can and then you have to pass the baton on to the people you helped.
AC: So, it should be cyclical.
SC: Yes, yes. You already did your work. You say, I helped you, now you got to pay it back.
AC: What do you think about the new generation of writers?
SC: I don’t know the new generation. Who do you mean?
AC: Like, the younger writers. What do you think?
SC: I don’t know. I don’t know them. I mean, I can’t make generalizations. I just know I like the work that I see coming up. I only know the books that come to my attention, the Macondistas or the people in the Southwest. No sé. You tell me.
AC: Well, do you feel that technology has shifted community building, do you think it’s strengthened it?
SC: I’m very technologically backwards, so I don’t know.
AC: But you’re active on Instagram.
SC: That’s only because my friend Macarena got me to do it. I like taking pictures so it works really well for me. I can’t even type with two thumbs. I type with one index finger. My friends said that we’re going to start evolving and having smaller and smaller thumbs.
To read the entire conversation check out our new issue, FALL 2017: Dirty Laundry Issue.