Seven questions with Martha Bátiz

'Writing this book was hard. Some stories made me cry even before I began writing them simply because of the research I had to do.'

Martha Bátiz is an award-winning writer, editor and translator. She was named by Latinos Magazine as one of the Top Ten Most Successful Mexicans in Canada in 2014, and by the Hispanic-Canadian Congress and the Hispanic-Canadian Business Alliance as one of the Ten Most Influential Hispanic-Canadians in 2015. She founded the Creative Writing in Spanish program for the School of Continuing Studies at the University of Toronto.

Her latest book No stars in the sky (House of Anansi, 2022) is a short story collection about Latin American women and their struggles to survive despite increased gender and domestic violence, illegal incarceration and migration.

1. Do you remember the first poem or short story you wrote? What inspired you to do it? Tell us about it and how it inspired you to keep on writing.

Yes, I remember the first story I ever wrote. It was an assignment for acting school, where we had a literature class. We were asked to write a short story, and I crafted one based on my grandparents’ journey in 1945 from war-ravaged Poland to Venezuela, where they raised my mother.

This short story inspired me to continue writing because my classmates liked it very much and my teacher was very enthusiastic. He said I was born to be a writer and should try to publish it.

I never published that story but published others after that and even landed a weekly column in Mexico’s newspaper Uno más uno. Then I was invited to collaborate in various journals and magazines.

Had I not written that story in drama school, my life could have been very different,. I’m grateful it happened. It showed me how much I loved writing; I spent the entire night working on that first piece and didn’t mind at all. I still write all night long and enjoy it.

2. You write in English and Spanish. Does language influence the theme and genre of the pieces you write in each language?

Language influences how much information I add to a story. For a Mexican audience, for example, there are things I don’t need to clarify. They go without saying, people know and understand them.

For an English-speaking audience, depending on the theme, I need to add background information. I still feel more at ease writing in Spanish, of course, but English is more and more my language and I can comfortably switch between both and self-translate, which is something I do often.

3. What inspired ‘Ultimate triumph’ (Puentes Review, issue 2)?

A prompt created by Ecuadorian writer extraordinaire María Fernanda Ampuero for the Mundial de Escritura, a truly fun challenge I love to take part in.

El Mundial de Escritura was created in Argentina. It invites writers to get together in teams and write a minimum of 3000 characters every day for two weeks following a specific prompt that is revealed every morning.

‘Ultimate triumph’ almost wrote itself. I think it’s one of the most fun and interesting pieces I have written during the Mundial—and I have taken part in all its editions except the first one.

4. Racial and domestic violence and the disappearance of people in Mexico and Argentina are part of your latest short story collection, No stars in the sky. How did you practice self-care as a writer while you were working on this book.

Writing this book was hard. Some stories made me cry even before I began writing them simply because of the research I had to do, especially ‘The other side,’ which is based on the plight of child migrants in the Mexico-US border, and ‘Broken,’ based on Mexico’s madres buscadoras who, with no one’s help and sometimes even in frank opposition to the local authorities, ceaselessly search for their missing children. Their stories break my heart, make me sick, and make me want to scream.

I practice self-care by booking a massage every once in a while (something I missed a lot during the pandemic), and spending time with my loved ones. I find nothing beats a peaceful evening at home with my husband and children, talking, watching TV, or simply hanging out in the kitchen. Hearing their voices and their laughter is my best medicine. They give me strength to carry on, as clichéd as it sounds. It’s true for me.

5. What advice would you give to bilingual Latin American emerging writers?

Read as much as you can. Find voices you admire and follow in their footsteps to find your own voice. Reading is such an essential part of writing: read in English, read in Spanish, read in Spanglish, and then see what language and style fit you.

Don’t censor yourselves. Don’t expect to write masterpieces the first time around; have a lot of patience and endurance. One receives tons of rejections before a piece of writing is accepted. It’s part of the game, and it’s okay. Don’t let that get to you. Keep trying. Never give up, but be compassionate with yourself. That middle ground is the hardest, but once you are there, things become easier because you push but don’t abuse yourself. And that is very important.

6. What’s your favourite(s) under-appreciated Latin American novel?

I have several books I adore, but few I can call my favourite(s). Having said that, I am a huge fan of Luis López Nieves’ ‘Seva’, a short story based on a fictitious Puerto Rican town that defends the island from the US takeover. Few people have read it and I get a kick out of it every time I recommend it to someone, because it’s a lot of fun. It is, of course, not truly under-appreciated, because López Nieves is very well-known in Puerto Rico.

I love María Luisa Bombal’s ‘La amortajada,’ a haunting read. Los recuerdos del porvenir by Elena Garro also ranks high amongst my favourite books.

The novel that I read once a year is Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo, because I use it for my teaching and because every time I re-read it, I find something new that catches my attention.

7. What new projects are you working on?

I am working on my first novel. I wrote a novella several years ago, Boca de lobo (which is available in Spanish on Audible, and in English and French translations), but because of time constraints I had not attempted a longer piece.

I stuck to short stories because I can write them in one sitting and then edit them whenever I have time. A novel requires a lot of concentration and continuous attention, two things I usually lack because of my busy lifestyle. So, this is a new experience for me. When I have time, I do what I must do, then revise and binge-write again. I wish I could simply sit down and work on the novel all day long, every day, but bills need to be paid and as a housewife, part-time professor, and mother of three, I cannot afford that luxury; I simply do the best I can. I have a deadline to submit my manuscript, so I’m trying to be very organised and diligent. We’ll see how it turns out.

Click here to read ‘Ultimate triumph’.