Natalia Figueroa Barroso

Uruguayan-Australian writer Natalia Figueroa Barroso talks with Puentes Review about family, writing in Spanglish and why she won't be happy until there is more Afro-Latinx and Indigenous Latinx representation on the screen.

Natalia’s short stories and poems have been shortlisted for several awards, including the 2015 Lane Cove Literary Award, the 2021 Newcastle Poetry Prize and the 2022 Palette Emerging Poet Prize. Her work has been featured in Meanjin, SBS Voices, Overland and many other places. Most recently, her non-fiction was published in the anthologies Sweatshop Women: Volume One, Racism: Stories on Fear, Hate & Bigotry and Between Two Worlds.

Natalia speaks with Gabriella Munoz about family, writing in two languages and Latin American representation in Australia.

Tell us about your family’s migration story.

My father immigrated to Australia in 1975. He was escaping the military dictatorship in Uruguay. My father was a political prisoner for two days and he got lucky because my grandfather was a general and had the intel to find him.

My mother migrated later, in 1977, her family fled the military dictatorship as well.  Once my tía counted 11 military tanks passing by their family home. Soon after they left. They wanted a better and safer life for their family.

My parents met here in Sydney and my sister and I were born in Sydney, but as soon as my parents heard the military coup had ended, we went back to Uruguay in 1986.

Did you always know you wanted to become a writer?

Although I was born here, my first language is Spanish. I didn’t hear English until I was nearly seven years old, when we migrated back to Australia.

I started writing in Spanish as a child in my ESL class. I was a selective mute for an entire year because I didn’t want to talk. As a child, I didn’t want to speak because I didn’t want to have an accent. I could see my other friends get bullied for not being able to pronounce English words properly and, so, I was just quiet, listening to people.

I ended up seeing a speech pathologist. And they were worried about me because I wasn’t speaking, but it was just me trying to master my new language.

I started writing diary entries mostly in Spanglish—that was as close to English as I got! From then on, I mix my languages. My first diaries were creative writing. I’ve got a poem about the colour red that I wrote when I was about eight years old.

What language means home to you?

Now, English is my primary language. Although, I sometimes feel very comfortable speaking in Spanish, but I’ll forget a word and say it English. And vice versa, when I’m speaking in English, I’ll introduce words in Spanish. But, when I can, I speak in both languages, especially when I’m talking with people from my community. Mi gente.

What’s your process for code-switching in your writing?

In my first draft, I just write without thinking too much, but then, as I edit—and I edit several times—I add words in Spanish. I read the text out loud and check if it has fluency. It has to sound authentic to me, particularly because many people in our community speak Spanglish.

Your writing is very visual. What visual artists have inspired your writing?

I have a Masters in Media Production and did film studies at university.

A teacher once said something that I now love. They said that studying film is like studying poetry because films capture feelings through each image and scene. When I write poetry, I think of visuals that represent the feeling I’m talking about.

I’m not sure if it was James Joyce or TS Eliot who used to do the objective correlative, which is a chain of images that evokes a feeling. That’s what I try to do with my writing, a ‘filmic poem’.

‘Writing is about something in you that needs to be said. It just comes out and then you send it away and hope someone likes it and connects with it. You just pray for the best.’

You are a mother of two, work full-time at ABC, co-edit a literary journal and publish new work constantly. What’s your writing routine?

I’ve had this passion for writing all my life. Before it has been like ‘not right now or perhaps next time’, but now I always make time for writing, even if it’s from midnight to 2 am. Sometimes I set my alarm an hour earlier to get up before everyone else and have time to write. I make an effort. I make time for writing even during my lunch break. My colleagues now tease me about it and say things like ‘aren’t you meant to be on a break?’ But, like I tell them, ‘if I don’t do it right now, when am I going to write?’

You have to love writing, because generally it’s a poorly paid industry—in particular the publishing industry. Screenwriting is better paid but it is so hard to get your foot in the door. Believe me, I’ve been trying for almost a decade now to get my chance to write for the screen.

Writing is about something in you that needs to be said. It just comes out and then you send it away and hope someone likes it and connects with it. You just pray for the best.

So far, what is the published piece you are proudest of?

The story that was selected for the SBS anthology Between Two Worlds (Hardie Grant, 2022). That story is important to me and it was difficult to write because it is a memoir piece about child abuse. I am a victim survivor.

My editor, Winnie Dunn, always says writing that’s going to be published shouldn’t be therapeutic, that should be for your diary. This story was very hard for me to write, because I questioned whether I was using it as therapy and whether I should send it out. But I took the risk and send it out because I had used enough literally techniques and was certain it was more than therapy.

I didn’t tell Winnie I had sent it [to the SBS competition] until I got selected. When she read it, she said this is one of my best pieces. I’m glad I sent it. If it wasn’t for Winnie’s editorial voice, which always floats around in my mind, I wouldn’t have been able to write this piece. All her teachings mark my writing, whether she edits them or not.

You are part of the Sweatshop Literary Movement. How has this helped your career?

They have helped me immensely. If it wasn’t for them, I would never have been published, but once you get your first credit, it makes it a bit easier to get the next one.

Winnie has an eye for detail. She doesn’t influence your writing or change your work but asks the right questions, and that opens doors for you to dig further—or go somewhere else. Winnie is an excellent editor, and she’s been of immense help. If I have a question, she’ll know the answer. Once I asked her if we had to spell out numerals and she explained that from one to nine you spell them out and then from 10 and above you use numerals. It’s a silly question, but most of the time editors won’t read your work if they see all these errors, so having someone who can help with those little things and the bigger picture is great.

‘Representation is growing, but it’s still needs to progress more. Until we see more Afro-Latinx and Indigenous Latinx representation on the screen, I will not be happy.’

You talk about your family with such beauty in your writing. Do you tell them in advance you’ll be writing about them?

I talk with them first and I send them a draft. For example, a piece that I wrote for SBS Voices, How the Lockdown in South-West Sydney is impacting my family, featured my tía; I sent the story out to her first and asked if it was okay. She said it was fine. She was happy for those things to come out.

I always get consent when I’m writing. Obviously, some of my characters are a mixture of my relatives and people I know and who everyone knows in the community. I’ve been sending it to my mamá and my tía to make sure I’m not crossing the line on anything.

I always get their feedback and value it very much.

Do you think Latin American representation has been increasing in Australia?

Yes, there has been change. Before, the only Latinx representation I could see in Australia was on Sesame Street and that’s not even an Australian show. Now we have some more representation in the Stan original show Bump and, I have recently found out, because I’m working at ABC, that we have The PM’s Daughter, a show aimed at children that has an Australian prime minister with Chilean Heritage.

Representation is growing, but it’s still needs to progress more. Until we see more Afro-Latinx and Indigenous Latinx representation on the screen, I will not be happy. We’re not all white-passing Latinx, so that is really where we need to go to next. This and having Latinx creatives behind the scenes because there are a lot of non-Latinx people writing our stories. Do you know how much a scriptwriter gets per script? A minimum of $10,000 per half an hour of television! That’s the AWG rate for a children’s screenwriter as of 2022. Our stories are of value.

How do you practice self-care when you are writing?

Whenever I receive a rejection letter—and we emerging writers get many—I allow myself time to grieve before I rewrite the piece or decide to move it to trash. And, of course, I celebrate every publication as if it were my last because only today’s a certainty.

Any advice you have for emerging writers?

Write every day, even if you’re just editing yesterday’s paragraph—that’s still writing. Read even if it’s a paragraph a day. Ensure you edit several times before you send out your work. And don’t worry if you get 100 rejections, keep writing, editing and sending because one day you might get lucky, and someone might like it and publish it. Take constructive criticism. I know it can hurt, but take it. Don’t defend your work, there’s some truth to what they say. Listen.

What books do you recommend to Puentes readers?

The last beautiful book that I read was Carmen Maria Machados’ In the Dreamhouse (Graywolf Press, 2020). It was exceptional. She wrote it in the second person to her past self and it was amazing. Genre-breaking. I devoured it; read it twice. Writing like that is something I aspire to. I’m currently reading Home Is Not a Country by Safia Elhillo (Penguin Random House, 2022) which is so beautiful and poetic, yet written so simply.

What writing projects are you working on at the moment?

I’m writing my manuscript, but there’s no book deal [yet]. I started writing it because Mohammed from Sweatshop told me he thought I was ready to give it a go. I also have an upcoming essay in Overland, which I’m really proud of. It explores the Uruguayan identity and its whitewashed history.