When did you migrate to Australia?
I arrived in 2005. My migration path started because I wanted to pursue a master’s degree in communications, which I did at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS). But, as soon as I arrived in Sydney, perhaps three months after that, I said, ‘There’s no way I’m going to leave this country and I’m going to do whatever it takes to stay here.’ I felt immediately comfortable here; it was like ‘I belong to Sydney and Sydney belongs to me.’
It was a weird feeling, but I knew I was in the right place and that I didn’t want to go back to Peru, which was something I didn’t expect because when I came to Australia I didn’t have any reference other than maybe the outback and the kangaroos.
I was very interested in my education and wanted to do a postgraduate degree in an English-speaking country. Australia ticked all the boxes.
Did you start writing when you arrived in Australia, or have you always written?
I define myself as a storyteller more than a writer. When I was 15 years old, I wanted to study journalism. In fact, I wanted to be a journalist since I was 4. I wanted to be the kind of journalist who brings justice to the world through their stories, and report crime and corruption. When I was older, I realised it was very hard to do, particularly in a country like Peru, where big enterprises and the government pay advertisements in the newspapers. So, I did a double major in journalism and audio-visual production.
My first real job was in the production area of soap operas, and I was happy in that industry because we were telling stories and impacting the life of people through the entertainment industry. Later I worked in the Peruvian version of the TV show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, and that’s where I started to see the power of entertainment to improve the education of people—or at least a different side of the entertainment industry.
Everything I did was always related to telling stories. I also did filmmaking, but at that time the Peruvian film industry was very small, the ratio was one movie a year which made it almost impossible to be successful, but I still had some non-paid experiences and wrote some scripts.
Before coming to Australia, I moved to the corporate side of communications in a non-for-profit education project for underprivileged public schools located throughout Peru. I still had to do some storytelling to promote the program, and pretty much that is what I’ve been doing for years.
When the pandemic started, it trigger my need to start telling my own stories. I’ve always been a big reader and through some networking sites for Latin American women, I started a book club called the Little Latina Book Club.
I realised then there were a lot of international students from Latin America stuck in Australia without any support system. I thought that books could help them—at @littlelatinafromoz we read one book per month and discuss it online.
I also decided to take formal creative writing classes. I was very lucky to get into a workshop with Raúl Tola, a Peruvian writer and journalist. That was two years ago, and that’s when I officially started writing my own stories. This weekly workshop is my favourite time of the week. All participants have become a family.
Tell us more about LAWA.
A year ago, probably around April 2021, I met another Latin American writer through a network of Latin American women, Gals en Australia. We got in touch, and she’s passionate about writing too. So, with Soraya Acosta, we decided to create LAWA, which is short for Latin American Writers in Australia.
Writing usually is a very lonely pursuit, but I think that it is necessary to do as part of a community because you get feedback, support and new ideas. There are so many benefits of having, like I do, a workshop. I thought that having a Latin American Writers Association in Australia would be beneficial.
Who can become part of the association?
Everyone that wants to write and connect with fellow writers. LAWA is not a formal association yet, it’s like a group. We’ve realised with our sessions that there is more need for women to tell their stories. They have a need to connect with their past experiences; their frustrations as a migrant are a very common topic.
Most women have shown an interest in telling their migration story as a as a way of therapy and I like to think LAWA is a safe space for them. There are a lot of women in the group, but everyone is welcome.
Do all LAWA members write in English, or do they code-switch? What type of support do you offer?
We have an Introduction to Creative Writing workshop, as we thought it was important to introduce the main topics that any writer should be familiarized with, such as point of view, style, types of narrators, world building. If people are going to start writing, they need to have a basic knowledge of all these technical concepts. After that, we do other sessions in which we still review some theory on a standalone topic, for example, show don’t tell or character development or unreliable narrator. We also do writing exercises and get some writing prompts. We’ve seen amazing work from talented people, and some have been published in different platforms in English and Spanish.
In the workshops, we also read short stories from different authors and then we analyse them to see what we liked and what we didn’t, but we also talk about the technical side of things. So, in short, we are trying to cover theoretical information, analysing well-known authors and criticising each other’s work with positive feedback.
Some workshops have been free, but we have started charging a fee because there’s many things involved in preparing the workshops. We spend a lot of time doing all the admin and developing each session. The fees allow us to pay things like Canva and Google Meet, which stopped being free during the pandemic. The fees also encourages the commitment of our participants.
We are an organisation promoting the work of Hispanics living overseas, so there are people who write exclusively in Spanish and others who write in both English and Spanish. We are a bilingual organisation, and it is an open space to write in English or Spanish.
Soraya, for example, writes primarily in English and she writes fantasy. I’m a more realistic author and write about my experiences as a migrant, mostly in Spanish.
What about your writing, will it be mainly in Spanish?
I write in Spanish because my workshop is in Spanish and most of my work from that workshop is in Spanish. I know that eventually I will write in English because I really want to participate in writing contests in Australia and around the world targeted at the CALD community, and those contests are mainly in English.
I definitely want to make that shift. I’m even considering studying a postgraduate degree in publishing and creative writing; every year, it’s on my to-do list and that would mean I will have to switch to writing in English. It also means I will have to stop doing my other workshop, which I love. I have really bonded with the people from the workshop, but I know it eventually will happen.
I like my full-time job as senior communication and engagement officer for the New South Wales Department of Education. So, I write for a living, but it’s a different type of writing.
For me, writing connects you with your soul and that connection is different in Spanish than in English. In my case, it is connecting directly with the emotional pain or frustration that sometimes comes from that place that makes you write. So, I guess that I would lose a bit if I start writing in English, but I would also gain more precision because I believe English is a more precise language. You could even be funnier in English, I think. You know, you can have more punch lines and that kind of things.
You published a book with the writers from your workshop. Tell us more about the anthology.
It’s 25 short stories from 25 Peruvians around the world, with a wide range of topics. I’m also one of four editors of the book. When we were planning the book, I wanted to have some sort of topic, but not everyone agreed. At the end, I think it was a good call from our professor, Raúl, to say ‘No, let’s do it without a topic so there are no restrictions’. So, there were no guidelines. It was just us writing a book together, choosing our best story.
I wrote a story called ‘The day I discovered the olive colour’. It’s about how I discovered that I was not white like they told me in my country, like my father told me—which had a meaning, and it impacted my identity.
I was desperate to get out of Peru at a very young age. It was a burden being who I was and being the daughter of my father, of my mother; to be linked to every member of my extended family. You know, the kind of thing that happens in South America and other Latin American countries: you carry the burden of all your family on your shoulders. So, I wanted to set free of all that, but when someone in this country told me that I wasn’t white, but that I had olive-skin colour, it was a shock. My brain had a short-circuit because I couldn’t assimilate that ‘I was not white’, which now I think is hilarious, but back then I was very confused.
My story is about that journey of me wanting to understand my identity in a very different country and setting free from my past. It was an experiment and a way of telling people in a funny way how difficult the migration process is because you are resigning to a part of your core identity. It’s very hard for us migrants—you feel guilt and feel like a traitor to your family and country. And probably this is just in your head because possibly your family is not seeing that, but you feel that way because you are somewhere different to where you were supposed to be.
What does it mean to you to be Latinx in Australia?
There are more Latin Americans now than when I arrived. When I arrived, we were seen as more exotic because we are a minority in terms of migration. Maybe I’m wrong, but I think that in Australia, in general, we are considered exotic and culturally attractive because we are perceived as being fun and colourful. I also think that in general Australians have a positive attitude towards Latin America. That is not to say it has been easy.
Although I’ve never had any issues, except when I lost jobs because of the global financial crisis because then employers preferred to hire an Australian over a Latin American, or any other migrant. But in general, I’ve never felt not welcome in this country.
I have had a couple of instances at work that made me feel a bit discriminated, but nothing that I couldn’t handle. Sometimes when English is not your first language and, because we have an accent, people assume you don’t understand everything or that they write better than you, but when you point out their grammar and spelling mistakes in their emails, they are surprised. I write in Spanish and most definitely at some point I will make a spelling mistake; nobody’s perfect all the time.
Talking about bad experiences at work and in writing, do you think that there will be a point where people in general are more accepting of multilingual writers and editors?
Unfortunately, especially because not everyone in Australia is open to other cultures and understands how difficult it is to be fluent in a different language, there will always be a stigma. Nevertheless, there are many associations in Australia that are trying to assist emerging authors from culturally diverse backgrounds in their writing and that is a great thing. So I am positive that with time migrants will get better opportunities.
Tell us about contemporary Peruvian authors. Who should we be reading now and which books are your reading now?
Even though I don’t necessarily agree with his political views, I always suggest Mario Vargas Llosa, our Nobel Prize winner. Any of his books will give you a glimpse of Peruvian realism and society.
A good way to start with Vargas Llosa would be Confesiones de una niña mala (The Bad Girl, 2008). Not his typical book, but it’s fun to read. It is a struggling love story around different parts of the world.
One of my favourite authors now is Renato Cisneros. He has been translated into English and his most popular book is called La distancia que nos separa (The Distance Between Us, Charco Press). It’s a sort of memoir about his relationship with his father, who used to be a controversial political figure from Peru in the time of the dictatorship. How Cisneros decided to bring the distance between them a little closer with his novel is quite an interesting journey.
I recently travelled to Lima and got a copy of Jeremias Gamboa’s Animales luminosos (2021), I don’t think the book has an English translation yet, but it’s about him being a migrant in the States and trying to be a writer. It’s quite interesting. He has a group of migrant friends and through them we see what it was like to be a migrant in the States in the early 1990s and 2000s.
I’m also about to read Gabriela Wiener’s Hueco Retrato, like the pre-Hispanic pottery that represented indigenous faces in a realist way. It’s Weiner’s family history, an immigration story that talks about race and racism.
How can people join the Little Latinas Book Club or LAWA?
Little Latinas and LAWA are in social media, both are in Instagram.
@littlelatinafromoz is free, people just need to express they want to be part of it and join the chat, because there’s were we put the information about the monthly readings and sessions.
For LAWA, they can follow us in different social media channels, Facebook and Instagram and benefit from our free content and events. We are about to start promoting new paid courses for 2022 soon. We are also planning to launch an online platform to publish our member’s work because we want to give them exposure. This year we will start doing Instagram lives with published authors in English and Spanish and interviewing them to talk about their journey and craft as authors.