Asiel Adan Sanchez featured photo

Asiel Adán Sánchez

Asiel Adan Sanchez is a non-binary poet based in Naarm (Melbourne). Born in Mexico, they write about identity, grief, race, gender and sexuality. Their first poetry collection is m/ /otherland.

Tell me about your poetry collection m/ /otherland.

Asiel: m/ /otherland (Reverena, 2021) is a poetry collection that, in a way, is a love letter to Mexico. It was written after spending 10 years in Australia without going back to visit 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 period.

Prior to moving to Australia, I hadn’t really come to terms with my gender identity, or my sexuality, or my queer identity. In a way, the poems are a bridge to reconciling the two worlds. It’s a lot 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.

How does the current social and political climate affect your relationship with Mexico, especially now that we can’t travel to Mexico because of COVID?

In a way, I feel like I’m constantly trying to reach out for a home that is constantly yelling. Of course, a lot of violence is occurring in Mexico. I think that for a lot of migrants and even perhaps First Nation peoples here living 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, share family and share all the beautiful places that we have; I would exist in a way that is not fearful, that’s not constantly a 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 of Mexico I would like to do. So, I think there’s always an underlying grief in that relationship. It’s bittersweet in the sense that 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 a bit of 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. I think, first and foremost, that these poems are very much grounded in those Mexican contexts and Latin American roots. It similarly borrows from  Latin America tropes and literary styles and waves. I wanted to highlight or expose some aspects, put some issues front and centre within the poetry collection. Even with the first line of first poem, which 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. The figure of the mother has such a prominent role in the Latin American tradition, what were you trying to achieve in that poem?

‘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 culture as a whole is very gendered and very 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 just brought up her her make-up kit and said, ‘let’s pick out your colours;’ and we kind of went from there, which is wonderful.

Make-up in particular has a special kind of context in our family as it was a way of surviving. When my parents were very young in Mexico and my father was studying a master’s degree and wasn’t able to work, we really got by by my mum’s selling make-up. She used to be one of those Avon ladies – I think she was technically with Mary Kay, but one of those global makeup 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 is a celebration of all the strength and resilience that Mexican femininity in particular taught me, not only through to my mum, but through my grandmother and through my aunties, and through my cousins. I only really 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, just have that wonderful mix of traditional Mexican iconography with a queer twist – and he did the beautiful cover for m/ /otherland.

For people outside of Mexico, they sort of understand that 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 here, 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.

The winner for the Loewe Poetry Prize for this year was announced recently, and they are also a Mexican queer, also a doctor, which is really beautiful. I think one of the things that I miss about being back in Mexico is that very specific connection to LGBTQI+ communities and Mexican communities.

Frida Kahlo seems to play an important role in your writing and there also seems to be a lot of influence from the visual arts …

Frida was the first time that I saw both my queerness and my culture connected. It 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 quite a lot 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, politics. All of those aspects spoke to me and made me realise that there is space for queerness within the Mexican culture, we just have to go out and look for it and perhaps not come across it with that Western kind of lens. We have to explore it from our own Mexican lens and create this space for communities there. Frida was a huge influence in that way.

The visual aspect of my poems is also grounded within the 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 elements across. 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 aspects of medicine: when I was doing my residence. A lot of night shifts happen in this teeny-tiny hospital out in Mildura, which is a small town in Victoria. Thankfully, there was a space from about 3am to 5am, where if you kept everything settled down and patients were well, you had a nice chunk of time to just be with yourself.

What writing in that context gave me was almost a sense of stillness and silence within a very chaotic, busy 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 that interaction with a lot of feelings around things. I think that helped me move those feelings over to poetry and put me into a bit more of a reflective state.

But 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, I think 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 teachers at high school that 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, not only in university and high school, there was also a sense that the space wasn’t for me. The typical kind of literature that we explore in those settings is very white, it’s that Western, English speaking kind of literature. I felt really removed from a lot of wonderful art and wonderful literature and poetry that happens in Latin America.

This particular poetry collection 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 and 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 and different perspective. That 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, and 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 asked me often ‘Where are you from?’ and try to guess. Filipino, I probably got the most; I also got Japanese quite a bit, which is a bit 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 both 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 about 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 just 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. I think 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 that she brings and the traditional beliefs and components of that culture. It’s an absolutely beautiful collection that I learned a lot about, 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.