The Conversant republishes excerpts from HER KIND, a digital literary community powered by VIDA: Women in Literary Arts. An earlier version of this present conversation can be found here.
Sheryl Luna asked three questions to three Latina writers—Cynthia Cruz, Christine Granados and Carmen Giménez Smith—on the state of literature and the literary publishing scene for women who happen to be Latina. Their diverse answers are a testament to the fact that Latina writers cannot be pigeonholed into one monolithic, simplistic category. Latinas are writing and interacting with each other all over the country, and it is exciting. Varying aesthetic approaches are also evident. Overall, Latina presence in larger literary circles has, in Luna’s opinion, often been minimal due to a tendency of the mainstream to look to men as representative of minority voices.
Another issue that catalyzed Luna to ask these three specific questions is that Latina writing has frequently been tokenized, with one or two writers in the contemporary American spotlight. The questions, albeit brief, were meant to be open questions that allowed writers to explore what it means to be writing as a Latina in contemporary American literature.
Sheryl Luna: How do you feel about the state of the contemporary literature scene regarding publishing opportunities for Latina poets and writers, particularly in major traditional venues such as Poetry, New Yorker, Harper’s and The Paris Review? What if anything should be done about this issue by individual Latinas writing and/or publishing? How might our voices be heard by the larger literary communities writing today?
Cynthia Cruz: I do think Latina poets can have their work published in some of the larger, traditional venues but it’s certainly hard. Deborah Paradez, Emmy Perez, Desiree Alvarez and Carmen Gimenez Smith have all had poems published in Poetry. Carmen has also had her work published in the Boston Review and Carolina Ebeid has had her work published in the Kenyon Review. Ada Limon had been published in The New Yorker. The fact of the matter is that it’s difficult for anyone to have their work published in these venues. The only thing I know to do is to continue writing and continue sending out.
Early on, I realized that not having connections would make it difficult for me to have work published—but not impossible. I realized I needed to put poetry first, before everything else. My husband understands this. If the work is good enough, I do believe it will rise to the top. So our job is to work as hard as we possibly can at our craft. What happens when the poems arrive on the editor’s desk: that’s out of my control.
I think the best thing I can do to support other Latinas, aside from mentorship, is to try to publish my work in journals that will reach as many people as possible. This way other Latina writers will see that it is not impossible for someone with Cruz as a last name to have her work published in these journals.
Christine Granados: I don’t think the venues you mentioned offer Latinas any opportunities for publishing, except for an occasional woman of color whose ethnicity happens to be trending in America that year. Of course, I’m angry about it. However, I temper my anger when I remind myself that people are only human.
Traditionally, those institutions mentioned have had male editors and, well, those editors tend to publish, review and interview like-minded individuals. This means that men with similar geographical location, education level, social economic status and cultural sensibility will get their voices heard in those venues. The editors’ circle of influence, like mine, is limited. Going outside that circle requires a diligence that is difficult to maintain on a daily basis, especially if editors want to have a family and life outside of work.
Consequentially, someone like me from the heart of the Southwest, who was public-school educated and attended a local university, can’t break into those platforms. First off, I’m not physically in their space at parties, at lunches, or at readings. Secondly, my pedigree isn’t Princeton, Yale, or even, Iowa. It’s Texas State University and the University of Texas-El Paso. Add to that, my working-class background, and I’m being elbowed out by a more politically savvy and a more fortuitously situated writer. Finally, the cultural landscape I write about is foreign to East Coast editors.
Writers who live near the equator are at an inherent disadvantage in the literary world because our formative literary studies are skewed toward European and East Coast literature. The works of celebrated authors like Thomas Gray, Graham Greene and our beloved American, Jack Kerouac, reinforce negative views of the west and the color brown. These writers come from places filled with green and white, not brown. Is it any wonder that a person who grew up in an often cold and rain-soaked land would see the desert as a prison where the fragrance of a flower is wasted in the air, or worse, where people from the desert are seen as sexually charged, exotic? Think of all the positive connotations the colors white and green have in literature. Now think of the connotations the word brown has in literature. A person can see what women of color are up against from the get-go. This is happening even before writers put pen to paper. Editors from these journals, through no fault of their own, are predisposed to view the desert/Southwest as a dangerous, isolated and foreign land filled with people from a different culture—not Americans living in a vibrant, thriving and loving community. These are obstacles Chicanos must overcome in the larger literary world.
In addition, we have put up our own roadblocks by folkloricizing too much of our literature and cheerleading so many of our writers rather than critiquing. To be fair, cheerleading is a national trend right now because of the precarious financial place the book industry is in during this technological revolution. However, intellectually it’s a dead end.
What I do feel good about is that there is a solution or counter-statement to those male-dominated East Coast establishments through informative statistical information like “The VIDA Count,” and journals like Huizache Magazine, Palabra Magazine, The Acentos Review and Vandal. The information from VIDA brings to light bias in the system, and these magazines, with Latina editors, are offering opportunities to the larger and unknown literary community. Visit their websites and join in the conversation.
Carmen Giménez Smith: So many exciting Latina writers are publishing widely these days, and I think that will continue to be true. In terms of how we make our voices heard, I think Latina artists should continue working to be larger actors in the world of publishing. I hope more Latinas start small presses, magazines like Elena Minor’s Palabra, Nayelly Barrio’s Ostrich Review and the Acentos Review. I’d like to see more Latinas reviewing books, like the prolific and brilliant Rigoberto Gonzalez does.
SL: Given the current trajectory of small-press publications and literary magazines, and the many various styles and communities out there, how would you describe the work you are currently doing as a Latina?
CG: Shrewd. I mean that glibly and seriously. It’s shrewd in that it’s not the stereotypical Mexican crossing the border, or mother cooking up pots of beans, that the Chicano literary canon has been steeping itself in for the past 40 years. I am hoping to write honest stories like my literary heroes—Alice Walker, Tillie Olsen and Estela Portillo Trambley. These women, from working-class homes, have written praiseworthy stories about flawed people raising families in America. Like them, I am trying to write candidly about where I come from. I love the desert Southwest, and it’s painful to read and watch movies that don’t do the place justice. Often writers take the easy road and go with the obvious: clichéd and simple when it comes to the people, place and environment of the Southwest and Latino community.
CGS: My most recent work as a poet deals with my feminism, and that identity is inextricably tied to my identity as a Latina. As a publisher, I am co-curating a book series called Akrilika, which will put out books of poetry by Latino/a authors residing in the U.S.
CC: When I sit down to write a poem, I never know what I am going to write about. As a result, the subject matter of my poems tends to be drawn from whatever obsessions I am being haunted by when I sit down to write. Each of my books circles a different obsession. Ruin was made while grappling with the myth of childhood; The Glimmering Room was my attempt at ventriloquism as well as writing about gender, drag, poverty, war and drug abuse. When I was working on my third collection, Wunderkammer (forthcoming from Four Way Books, 2014) I was thinking about clutter, collecting, archiving and how these relate to trauma and memory. Being half-German, I was, of course, thinking of German artists who have worked with these issues: Dieter Roth, Hanne Darboven and Gerard Richter, and I was also thinking of W.G. Sebald, Aby Warburg and of course, Walter Benjamin. These poems are cluttered and claustrophobic, enacting the subject. Working on my fourth book, How the End Begins (forthcoming Four Way Books, 2016) I was thinking of belief. I had been thorough a series of traumatic events. I was grieving: I was brought to a new bottom where I was hit with a new understanding of faith, a new understanding of God. Things had come full circle. Having said all of this, I have to say, too, that subject matter is becoming less and less important to me the longer I write. I am more interested now in sound and music and in how this relays information, how the sound of a word, or the sound of one word next to another word, sounds and what this/these sounds communicate. The work I am doing now is reflective of this and the poems I am making, as a result, are taking much much longer to create. I liken the work I am doing now with beadwork. I choose a beautiful bead and then try in vain to find another that will create, along with the first, the sound I am after. Again, it isn’t about conveying meaning through the meaning inherent in the word(s). It’s about conveying meaning through the sound of the word(s). This is taking me much much longer. In the past year, I’ve completed, maybe, four poems I am happy with.
SL: There is often a great deal of talk about building communities of Latino/a poets that can offer a united front against the marginalization of our voices. Organizations such as Canto Mundo are combating this situation. Do you feel Latina poets and writers, in particular, need to forge their own separate alliances and opportunities? In other words, is there a sense of Latino male masculinity that sometimes marginalizes Latinas within the Latino community, as well as the larger poetry and fiction communities in this country? Why or why not? How do you think Latinas can negotiate the current landscape as individuals and as a collective? What, if anything, needs to be done?
CC: I think it is true that Latinas are marginalized in the same way I think female writers in general, in the U.S., are marginalized. What can we do about this? I think, again, that each of us could, to the extent that we can, make writing the most important thing in our lives, but also, I think we can help one another by mentoring other writers. In order to be mentored, though, one has to be open; one must to be willing to accept help. Sometimes I think we’re all so scarred from our experiences, when we finally come together, we can’t let our guard down. This is imperative. We have to let our guards down. We have to be willing to be vulnerable.
CG: I can only speak to the Chicano community, because I don’t know the Puerto Rican, Cuban or Central American writing community that well. I also don’t know about Latinos marginalizing Latinas because I haven’t had that experience. Chicanos have been helpful and encouraging to me as a writer every step of the way. Overall, I have had a good experience within our literary community. The bad experience I have had is an ideological one. What does worry me and keep me up at night is that many of our people (writers, reviewers, critics, bloggers, literature lovers, males and females) banalize our literature. What I mean is that we, as critics and scholars, are cheerleaders of any and all Chicano writing. Gone are the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, when it was exciting just to see one of us in print. Back then, it didn’t matter how clichéd the topic or crudely constructed the prose or poetry was; we championed it because families back their own. However, it’s time for us to grow up and become strong individuals. We need to call out trite and tired Chicano literature. Many of our people wrongly believe that negative feedback stifles creativity, but we’re tougher than we think. We cannot expect to grow intellectually without critique. Someone once wrote that “critical analysis forces us to look at concepts because we want to improve them and in this way comfortable associations get left behind.” I couldn’t agree more. With criticism, the all-knowing, nurturing, tortilla-making females and gang-banging, abusing, hard-drinking macho males in many of our stories will get rounded out or abandoned altogether for a more accurate representation of our community. We must debate these ideas, instilled in us through our Eurocentric schooling, in order to unleash the potential of our community.
I think all writers need to forge alliances and opportunities, because there are so few of us to begin with, and we’re all competing for the same readers. There is an even smaller percentage of people who are into Chicano literature. The more we can help one another the better. Debate and critique are a part of the equation to help, which is where I differ from other Chicanos. When we can critique one another openly, and don’t blacklist, blackball, or backbite those who do find weakness in a piece of writing, we will have grown intellectually, and we will see a more diverse sampling of Chicano stories than what is currently in favor.
CGS: Attending CantoMundo was a deeply gratifying and transformative experience for me as both a poet and as a Latina. I felt that my circle of support and connection widened significantly and I was also thrilled that I could be a resource to my colleagues. Organizations like CantoMundo, Kundiman and Cave Canem aren’t so much separate alliances, as they are occasions to connect with writers who share some common history. These groups are aesthetically polymorphous, which means poets get to hear and see the gorgeous range of contemporary poetry. The conversations about how to negotiate the challenges of being a writer of color are also invaluable, and I think they should be ongoing.
Sheryl Luna’s first collection, Pity the Drowned Horses, received the Andres Montoya Poetry Prize. It was a finalist for the National Poetry Series and the Colorado Book Award. Her second collection, Seven, was published by 3: A Taos Press in 2013.
Cynthia Cruz’s poems have been published in the New Yorker, Paris Review, Boston Review, American Poetry Review, Kenyon Review and others. Her first collection of poems, Ruin, was published by Alice James Book and her second collection, The Glimmering Room, was published by Four Way Books in the fall of 2012. She has received fellowships from Yaddo and the MacDowell Colony as well as a Hodder Fellowship from Princeton University. Her third collection of poems, Wunderkammer, is forthcoming from Four Way Books in 2014. She teaches at Sarah Lawrence College and lives in Brooklyn, New York.
Christine Granados was born and grew up in El Paso, Texas. She has been a Spur Award finalist and winner of the 2006 Alfredo Cisneros del Moral Foundation Award from the Macondo Foundation. Christine’s fiction and nonfiction has appeared in the Evergreen Review, Callaloo, NPR’s Latino USA, Texas Monthly, Texas Observer, El Andar and others. It has been anthologized in several college textbooks and anthologies, including NewBorder: Contemporary Voices from the Texas/Mexico Border; The Story and Its Writer: An Introduction to Short Fiction; and Texas: A Case Study, Literary El Paso and Camino del Sol: Fifteen Years of Latina and Latino Writing. Granados received a BA in journalism from UT El Paso and an MFA in creative writing from Texas State University. Before joining the faculty at the University of Houston-Victoria, Granados taught at Texas A&M University. Editor at Moderna and Hispanic magazines for several years, she worked as journalist for the El Paso Times, Austin American-Statesman, Rockdale Reporter and People Magazine.