Tell is about your new book Flight Risk?
Flight Risk tells the story of Isabel Morales, a successful Chicago sculptor married to a wealthy doctor. Their life looks picture-perfect, but it’s only a veneer, and when her mother dies in prison back in rural Appalachia, that veneer begins to crack, revealing a brutal past Isabel has kept hidden from everyone for years. When she returns to the home she once fled, she confronts the violence and pain of her childhood and finds new ways to love and to fight.
Where did the idea for the book come from?
The first fragments that came to me when I began freewriting in a kind of dream state were letters from an imprisoned mother to her estranged adult daughter. They fascinated me, and I didn’t really know what the project would become, but I just kept jotting things down, and eventually Isabel’s story developed, and the plot became clearer and clearer to me. Some of the themes the novel engages are how we can confront the fossil-fuel extraction industry, how we can make good fertility decisions during an era of climate catastrophe, and how we can love across serious differences of race, class, and culture. Flight Risk is also very much about the power of art to help us envision new possibilities for ourselves and the world, and it examines the cultural role artists play and the challenges they face when they’re not part of the male-dominated whitestream art world.
In the book, the protagonist Isabel Morales hosts a dinner party. One of the guests mentions her sculptures because they are looking for ‘outsider artists’ for a show. This leads to a conversation about class and ‘culturally authentic’ work. At one point Isabel says: ‘My whole education insisted that your stories were my stories. That Greek and Roman and European and English and white American narratives were the only ones that mattered. The only ones at all, really […] So I feel no compunction about stealing them now.’ Can you tell us more about this conversation?
I’m glad you asked. In that particular scene, Isabel has riffed (in one of her sculptures) on the classical Greek myth of the Minotaur, the monster at the centre of the labyrinth. She has twisted it to suit her own purpose, and a white antiques dealer takes her to task for not drawing on a Latinx myth instead. I’ve noticed in various fields of artistic production—literature included—that various white gatekeepers (editors, gallerists, critics, professors, and so on) seem to want artists of colour to produce work that purveys exoticized racial and ethnic stereotypes for the pleasure, consumption, and ease of comprehension of a non-Hispanic white audience, yet minoritized artists of my generation and before were saturated throughout our formal educations with dominant-culture representations of white superiority. While sometimes we do want to draw on images from our own cultures, at other times we want to intervene in that dominant tradition and tweak or subvert it to make it mean new things or to illuminate its many violences. I’m glad that university education is changing, in terms of the tremendous cultural diversity of the texts we now teach, but it hasn’t yet changed enough.
Thinking about How Winter Began and some of the women who inhabit the stories as well as Nola and now Isabel, they are beautiful, smart, complex Latina women, going through some pretty harrowing situations. What inspires you to keep writing about these characters?
I love this question, because it makes me wonder if white men or women authors are asked, What inspires you to keep writing about white people? I doubt it, because whiteness is still so often assumed as the invisible norm, the default.
In the case of all my work, I keep writing about beautiful, smart, complex Latinas because they fascinate me, and there keep being more stories to tell about them. In fact, there are probably endless stories to tell about them, so I’ll just keep showing up and staying open. I write about lots of other kinds of characters, too, but Latinas are who I know best, and I find us endlessly intriguing.
What does being Latina in the US mean to you and how do you think the influence of US media representation affects how the Latino/a/x diaspora is perceived in other countries?
I’m not really sure how the influence of US media representation affects the perception of the Latinx diaspora in other countries; I would assume it’s influential, but I don’t know to what extent or in what specific ways. Being Latina in the U.S. means so many different things to me. As Latinas, we often have to confront these distorting stereotypes that other people hold; they view us through those filters and ignore pects of us that differ from those images. In media representations, we’re often depicted as submissive maids, hot-tamale sexpots, or beatific, selfless mothers—in any case, as silent bodies that exist for the pleasure or service of others. That gets really tiresome. I’m interested in complicating that story with my fiction and nonfiction.
You’ve written essay, memoir, short fiction, crime fiction and scholarly work. How do you bend genres and navigate between them? Are there any lines between genres you don’t cross?
It’s true: my pen is very promiscuous—or maybe it just loves crossing borders. Although I write literary and film criticism, I haven’t written journalism. However, the protagonist in my two New Orleans thrillers is a reporter, Nola Céspedes, because I think journalists and environmental activists are incredibly heroic. I’ve had a couple of poems published but I generally don’t try to write poetry, and while I trained as a literary scholar for my master’s and Ph.D., fiction and creative nonfiction are definitely my core genres now, and I’ve written about the differences between them and how I think about navigating among those. When I write film criticism, I try to make the language as rich, imagistic, and arresting as when I write fiction or creative nonfiction, and no matter what I write, I draft by hand and read aloud when I revise. Rhythm and sonic effects are very important to me, no matter the genre. I love using the pop-culture genre of crime fiction as a way of engaging serious political issues and interrogating concepts of justice.
What are some lessons that you have learned in your journey as a writer that could be helpful to other Latino/a/x writers starting their process?
Never give up. If you love it, do it. And keep doing it. Be kind to yourself when your work fails to receive recognition, and be kind to yourself when you can’t produce as much as you wish you could, due to the material circumstances of your life. Control what you can, which is always and only the quality of the work itself. You cannot control what the publishing world does with it, so don’t take the response of editors or critics as a referendum on the quality of your work. It’s not. Read voraciously and eclectically, according to your taste. Stimulate yourself with other art forms and by spending as much time as you can in nature. Love people very hard. Life’s short.
Next year, it’ll be ten years since the publication of your essay collection Island of Bones. If you had the opportunity to revise it and publish a 10th anniversary edition, what would you add or remove?
I generally like to keep moving forward, so I think the only thing I would correct would be the assertion that my family moved from Cuba to Key West in the 1860s because they were economic migrants. I have since learned that’s not true. They were political refugees, because they formed part of the anticolonial Cuban insurgency against Spain, and Key West was the rebel base where Cuban fighters went to regroup after battles. The role of Key West during this era of US history is almost completely unknown today, and my concept of belonging has shifted because I participated in a month-long National Endowment for the Humanities research institute on the topic of Cuban communities in Tampa and Key West in the late 19th century, which both illuminated my own family’s history and prompted me to begin writing about the period.
What are you reading now?
Katie Kitamura’s novel Intimacies—she’s brilliant at evoking a feeling of dread—and the brand-new collection from Seven Stories Press of Che Guevara’s correspondence, I Embrace You with All My Revolutionary Fervor: Letters, 1947-1967. It’s fascinating: Guevara’s voice is so multifaceted yet consistent—truly complex. I’m also rereading US modernist Margery Latimer’s 1928 novel We Are Incredible for an upcoming episode of the podcast Lost Ladies of Lit, so I can talk about it with the hosts. Latimer was an avant-garde leftist-feminist who wrote two quite brilliant novels and two collections of shattering short stories between 1928 and 1932—critics compared her to Katherine Mansfield—and she was also the anti-racist white wife of Harlem Renaissance writer Jean Toomer, as well as a close friend of artist Georgia O’Keeffe, but she died in childbirth in 1932, and her reputation has been largely lost. I’m very interested in her.
What are you working on at the moment?
I’m writing a short story for the podcast Fantastic Stories, which was a dream assignment, because I love to travel, and I’m finishing up the edits on my next book, a novel of espionage and intrigue set among the Cuban rebels in Key West in 1886. I haven’t written book-length historical fiction before—only that one short story in How Winter Began, ‘Independence Day’—so I’m pretty excited about it! The title will probably be One Brilliant Flame, and it’s due out in January 2023.