Tell us about your poetry collection m/ /otherland.
Asiel: m/ /otherland (Reverena, 2021) is, in a way, a love letter to Mexico. It was written after spending 10 years in Australia without going back to Mexico and coming to terms not only with a lot of the violence that has happened in Mexico, but also with how much I have changed in that time.
Prior to moving to Australia I hadn’t really come to terms with my gender identity, my sexuality, or my queer identity. In a way the poems are a bridge reconciling these two worlds.
It’s about existing in this non-binary space and making connections in spaces that are often not seen as valid or connected. So, to me, it’s both a love letter to Mexico and a way of reconciling with myself and my homeland.
People can’t travel to Mexico because of COVID. How does the current social and political climate affect your relationship with Mexico?
I feel like I’m constantly trying to reach out for a home that is constantly yelling. Of course there’s a lot of violence is occurring in Mexico. I think that for a lot of migrants and even perhaps First Nation peoples here in Australia, because both are colonised countries, that relationship is always underpinned by grief.
If I had my way, if I had a magic wand, I would be able to go back to Mexico and share culture, family and all the beautiful places that we have. I would exist in a way that is not fearful, that’s not constantly [fearing] that confusing violence that can happen at random and particularly against LGBTQI+ people.
When I go back to Mexico I have to be relatively limited to the places that I visit; it is really just seeing friends and family, staying within the ‘safe zones’. This doesn’t allow me for the kind of exploration I would like to do. So, there’s always an underlying grief in that relationship. It’s bittersweet because my extended family is still there. And, of course, for a lot of Mexicans and Latin Americans extended families are just as close as immediate family. All of these things are very much a core part of me and are kind of held around grief.
Talking about grief and reconciliation, you mix Spanish and English in your poetry. What did you reconcile both languages?
Funnily enough, I didn’t start thinking about writing in Spanish. In a way it happen organically when I realised that language is a core part of my identity and I wanted to bring it to the forefront.
First and foremost these poems are very much grounded in Mexican contexts and Latin American roots. They similarly borrows from Latin American tropes, literary styles and waves. I wanted to highlight or expose some aspects, put some issues front and centre within the poetry collection. Even the first line of first poem is in Spanish.
‘My gender expression is at it’s very core is a celebration of all the strength and resilience that Mexican femininity in particular taught me.’Asiel Adán Sánchez
Tell me about the poem ‘Make-up Lessons’, which I assume talks about your mother …
‘Make-up Lessons’ was one of my favourite poems to write. It came from a conversation about gender identity with my mum. I kind of walked in with full make-up and heels and whatnot. And I thought, ‘I’m going to have to explain myself to my mum about what this means’, particularly because Mexican and Latin American cultures as a whole are very gendered and strict in its gender roles all the way down to to language. But mum, instead of asking for explanations or for any sort of anything, she brought up her her make-up kit and said: ‘Let’s pick out your colours.’ We kind of went from there, which is wonderful.
Make-up in particular has a special context in our family because it was a way of surviving. When my parents were very young and my father was studying a master’s degree and wasn’t able to work, my mum sold make-up t get us by. She used to be one of those Avon ladies—I think she was technically with Mary Kay, but it one of those global make-up companies. In a way, make-up was pretty much a survival tool.
For me, particularly as a Mexican person, I never saw myself reflected in masculinity. My gender expression is at it’s very core a celebration of all the strength and resilience that Mexican femininity in particular taught me, not only through my mum, but through my grandmother, my aunties and my cousins. I only resonated with that sort of feminine strength and feminine celebration.
And that’s what’s really exciting, particularly within the last five years, not only in poetry but also in the arts more widely, the Mexican LGBTQI+ communities are starting to explore ways in which we could represent ourselves, ways we’ve never seen before.
Fabián Cháirez’s paintings, for example, have that wonderful mix of traditional Mexican iconography with a queer twist—and he did the beautiful cover for m/ /otherland.
People outside Mexico sort of understand the paintings are queer, but the full symbolism is only understood through a Mexican lens. That’s kind of what I was attempting to achieve in this poem, with that constant ay mijo which is a very Mexican mum thing to say. People outside of Mexico might be able to understand it but its significance in exploring and expanding what femininity brings, even though it is still a gendered term, adds a new layer to that kind of symbolism.
Frida Kahlo seems to play an important role in your writing …
The first time I saw both my queerness and my culture connected was in Frida. She was the first big public figure that I engaged with.
Frida Kahlo is a worldwide recognised artist, and her symbolism is very unique and grounded in Mexican culture. That spoke to me as a poet and as someone who was trying to create something that wasn’t just purely within the realms of LGBTQI+ communities, but also connected and placed in a Mexican context.
It’s so strange because she’s so universal and so widespread in Mexico itself—her image in on pestles; she’s on the $500 peso bill—but not a lot of people realise the strong queer symbolism she embodies as well as, of course, her kind of femininity, Mexican traditions, disability and politics. All of these aspects spoke to me and made me realise there is space for queerness within the Mexican culture, we just have to go out and look for them and perhaps not come across them with a Western kind of lens. We have to explore it from our own Mexican lens and create space for communities. Frida was a huge influence in that way.
The visual aspect of my poems is also grounded within Mexican and Latin American narratives. Both narratives are very visual, we use a lot of bright, colourful dresses—and our art is vibrant, even music has its own kind of visual vibrancy. In a way, I was hoping to translate some of those. It was a very purposeful way of using visual language and putting it onto onto paper.
What has your medical practice taught you about poetry?
Funnily enough, I started writing poetry when I was probably going through one of the busiest times in my medical career: when I was doing my residence.
A had a lot of night shifts happen in this teeny-tiny hospital out in Mildura, a small town in Victoria. Thankfully, from about 3am to 5am, if you kept everything settled down and patients were well, you had a nice chunk of time to just be with yourself.
Writing in that context gave me a sense of stillness and silence within a very chaotic space. The other thing that writing in that particular context did was charging it with emotional heaviness. If you’re looking after patients, particularly in the middle of the night, when you might be literally the only person that’s looking after them, you leave those interaction with a lot of feelings. Poetry helped me move those feelings and put me into a bit more of a reflective state.
I’ve been very purposeful to not write about medicine, patients or my practice partly because I want to keep them completely separate. When you care for patients they need to tell their own stories and I don’t think we need a more medicalised lens, so I’ve tried to keep them separate. However, I think that the environment of working in medicine gives you a fertile ground for lots of exploration of emotional and reflective factors.
What does it mean to you to be Latinx living Australia?
I have to say it’s an absolute joy. The more I grow comfortable with my Mexican identity, the prouder I am of not only outwardly showing it, but also sharing it with other people.
For a long time, particularly when we first arrived in Australia, my background was a huge source of shame and stigma because I struggled with the English language.
I remember when we first arrived, I told the high school teachers I wanted to study medicine and they were like ‘okay, sure thing. Keep on trying’. There was this kind of sense that you probably wouldn’t be able to do it. Similarly, when I engaged with literature in high school and university there was also a sense that the space wasn’t for me. The kind of literature we explore in those settings is very white, it’s that Western kind of literature. I felt removed from a lot of the wonderful art, literature and poetry that happens in Latin America.
This particular poetry collection, m//otherland, was reconciling all of those elements and replacing that sense of shame with pride; particularly when back home there’s still so much violence and inequality. It’s hard to feel proud within that context.
When you come from a place like Mexico, where the violence is up front, you have to learn to love and to be proud, acknowledge what is fair. It gives you a very clear perspective. It also means that surviving in itself is a source of pride, there are so many ways, so many different barriers along the way that could have stopped us. I suppose this is a very roundabout way of saying that being Latinx is Australia brings a lot of joy. It’s taught me so much resilience, being able to love more, not only my country but my culture and everything that it brings in a profound way.
Do you think that in Australia Latin American communities are still been portrayed through the US television lens?
Australians don’t quite know how to code us. They’ve ask me often ‘Where are you from?’ and try to guess. Filipino, I probably get the most; I also get Japanese quite a bit, which is a strange, because I don’t look particularly Japanese. My sister, for example, often gets coded as Southeast Asian or Indian. Again, we look very different to those cultures and communities. I think this shows that Australians don’t quite know what to do with Latin Americans.
I don’t think Australia necessarily considers the Latin American community at all as a part of Australian culture and Australian identity. Despite the fact there are so many of us—from the first wave of migration that happened probably in late 1980s and 1990s from places like Chile, but more recently from places like Colombia and Mexico.
This for me was a huge contrast to the United States. We lived in the United States for two or three years before moving to Australia. In there you are very strongly racially Mexican and the type of racism that you get is just so top shelf—people would just tell you ‘you can’t do it because you are Mexican.’ It was such a huge contrast how we were treated in the States and how we are treated in Australia, which still has an aspect of racism, but it’s more of those microaggressions of like ‘Oh, where are you from? Because you clearly not from here’.
What are you reading now?
I finished reading Natalie Diaz’s Post-Colonial Love Poem. It’s absolutely beautiful. One of the things that excites me about poetry and writing poetry is that over the last 10 years queer and trans writers of colour have really taken the stage front and centre. Once writers like Ocean Voung came into the scene, we realised that there’s so much beautiful poetry that needs to be expanded upon and read.
Diaz is a First Nations poet from from the United States and has this incredibly beautiful way of expressing not only the grief of existing as someone in the United States, but also celebrating the culture she brings and the traditional beliefs and components of that culture. It’s an absolutely beautiful collection. I learned a lot reading it, including a writer’s perspective on how to express some of those emotions more coherently and how to construct a robust collection. I very strongly recommend it.