In the chaotic and often overwhelming world of publishing, I like to think there’s a subtle looking out for each other that happens among women writers. Even if you don’t know each other extremely well, there’s a rope that binds us, a safety net, a hand up, a knotted protection spell that’s always in the works. Of course, that’s not always the case, but I’d like to think we work in service to words and in service to each other. Though, Erika L. Sánchez and I have only met once or twice, I have been watching her exceptional career rise to new heights for some time. First I was a fan of her poems in the 2017 release of Lessons on Expulsion, and then I became a fan of her young adult fiction with her book I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter which was both a National Book Award Finalist and a New York Times Bestseller. In the interview that follows, the two of us finally had the opportunity to exchange our thoughts about, not only the nitty gritty of the writing process, but also how one navigates the joys and challenges of a living a life wholeheartedly dedicated to words. —Ada
Ada Limón: Erika, it’s such a pleasure to get the chance to talk to you here. I’ve been watching you and reading you for some time now. You are a star! Your young adult novel I am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter is just a year old and still doing so well (deservedly!). You’re traveling a great deal and speaking and reading all over the country. I’m positive you and I have passed each other in various airports at some point or another. Because we’re friends on social media, I just saw a picture of you with Judy Blume. Oh the company you keep. This might be a strange question to begin with, but the caretaker in me wants to ask you, how are you holding up? All of this attention for the work is always welcome, but it isn’t always easy. You’ve become a real icon and leader for young Latinx writers—how are you juggling your public persona and your personal life?
Erika Sánchez: Thank you for your kind words. It’s been such a surreal experience. I’m very grateful for the attention my books have received. When you publish, you hope for the best, but you just never know how your work will do out in the world. Part of the reason I wrote these books was because young Latinx women are rarely allowed to tell their stories. I grew up reading almost exclusively white texts. Thank goodness for Sandra Cisneros. Reading The House on Mango Street in high school was the first time I ever really saw myself in a book. I felt so invisible for most of my life, that it’s sometimes hard to believe that people actually care about what I have to say now. I’ve participated in many events, talks, and readings in the last year and a half. The picture you reference was from the Chicago Public Library Foundation’s Carl Sandburg Literary Awards Dinner where I received the 21st Century Award. My entire family was there and I got to meet two of my heroes. It was such an amazing night. I feel a great deal of responsibility with this new visibility. I use the platform to speak out about immigration, sexual assault, mental health, and racism, and to encourage young women of color to pursue their passions. Sometimes this work is exhausting, but I’m really grateful that I get to do this. When I’m not teaching or traveling, I’m usually at home recharging. I spend a lot of time reading in bed with my cat. I’m an introvert by nature, so I need a lot of time alone after my events.
This current administration and the consequent xenophobia is completely horrifying, but I see a definite shift in the literary world. People of color and LGBTQ folks are publishing books and winning major prizes. I can hardly keep up , which I find so exciting. I just saw you on the cover for Poets & Writers! How amazing is that? I see The Carrying everywhere and it also deserves all the attention it’s gotten. It’s truly stunning. I feel really haunted by it. The way you write about the female body is so devastating that I had to put the book down at times. Though I love writing more than anything, I know that the process of it can be so emotionally taxing. There are times that I even feel it physically. There’s an essay I’ve been avoiding for this very reason. I’d also like to know how you take care of yourself. How do you write about grief and stay healthy? How do you find that balance? And is there any advice you can offer women writers who tackle these kinds of difficult issues?
AL: Thank you, Erika. I am so thrilled to see you getting the attention you and your writing deserves. It does my heart good. And the work you are doing is important on many levels so I’m glad to hear you are able to rest and recharge when you can. I agree that the act of writing is a physical thing. It can be healthy to purge dark things, but it can also excavate old and new suffering that needs to be attended to. The body can’t always keep up. While I was working on The Carrying, my body was hurting quite a bit, my vertigo was intense, and I had an overall feeling of sickness most of the time. I feel better now and no one is entirely sure why, but the body is a mystery. What’s interesting for me is that, regardless of how I’m feeling physically, I really do feel my best when I am writing, it’s a place to be free, to be in the body and the mind in a new way, to remember what being free looks like and feels like. The best advice I can offer anyone is to do the work, but also not to force it, not to drag it out kicking and screaming. Sometimes we sit down to write the hard stuff, to burn shit down, to light it up and make our words a bomb. Those explosions of rage and sorrow can be powerful, but we also have to remember to be tender and kind to ourselves. That we are allowed happiness too. A sense of peace. If we intend to own our suffering, we must also own our power, our peace.
Do you find the process of writing freeing? Or does it feel like incredibly hard work at times? I’d love to hear more about your writing process and how you shift between both your poems and your prose?
ES: Writing is what makes me feel the most connected to the world. It’s an act of survival, because if I don’t do it, I literally feel like I’m going to die. That’s not exaggeration. It’s freeing in the sense that I’m able to take suffering and transform it into something beautiful. That’s the goal, at least. Though I do love the act of writing, it is definitely work. As I mentioned before, it’s physically taxing. Sometimes I get short of breath and can’t sit still. I feel the grief in my body. I pace a lot and talk to myself. When I wrote the bulk of my novel, I was recovering from one of the worst depressions of my life and working an incredibly stressful full-time job as a public relations strategist. I’d write all day for work then work on my novel all evening. Whenever I had a free moment, I wrote. I felt possessed by it. It really helped me heal. Poetry is very different for me. It requires much more time and silence. There are poems that take me years to finish. They usually come in pieces. I began the earliest poem in Lessons on Expulsion when I was a senior in college, so it was about a decade of work.
Sometimes I wish I were the kind of writer who wakes up at 5 a.m. every day and gets to work, but I don’t operate that way at all. I’m not a morning person and I’m pretty unstructured. Writing is the center of my life so it informs everything I do. I think about it always—when I’m running, cooking, shopping for groceries, or performing any mundane task. That’s why I carry a notebook and pen with me at all times. You never know when inspiration is going to strike. I write in bed, on airplanes, at the coffeeshop. I’m also constantly reading, which, of course, is central to the process. I just finished A Dream Called Home by Reyna Grande and it blew me away.
There is so much quiet yet searing beauty throughout your collection. You take what might be considered mundane and make it sing. There’s a description of a dead animal that made me gasp. That’s what I love most about Emily Dickinson. She found so much wonder and never even left her bedroom. I kept wondering about your influences in this book. Who were your spirit guides? Who do we see in The Carrying? This is your fifth collection, so how have your literary models evolved?
AL: Oh Erika, I feel the same, I wish I was as disciplined as some folks to write at certain times of day or for a certain number of hours, or to plunge deeply into something even when life is calling on you. I tend to be similar in my work, there are long moments of silence and then suddenly I am writing more than I ever have without realizing it. The Carrying does have quite a lot of dead animals in it doesn’t it? I laugh that the all my poor poetry animals are always dying or already dead in my poems. Except my dog, my dog will always live forever no matter what reality tries to tell me.
Let’s see, who is in my book? I think there is a great deal of Lucille Clifton in my book, that way she could be straight forward and searing at the same time. I think also of Maggie Nelson‘s The Argonauts and her honesty and courage in that book. Of course Lucille Clifton and Marie Howe were my teachers so their influence is with me. When I’m really writing, it’s often hard for me read poetry, I tend to read novels and non-fiction because I’m such a mimic, if I read a great deal of poetry, I’ll try to copy it! My biggest influence might have been Natalie Diaz since she and I were writing poems back and forth during this time (four of mine are in the book).
I know that I still suffer a great deal from self doubt. There are mornings that I get up and think everything I’ve written is horrible. I usually can claw myself back into a place where I acknowledge the good work that I’ve done (and sometimes I really love my own poems!), but you are who you are regardless of success. Do you think success has changed you in any way; do you think it has changed your writing?
ES: I think hating your work is part of being a writer, unfortunately. I have those days, too. I expect a lot from myself, and if I don’t meet my standards or expectations, I can be quite brutal. Then there are times in which I can appreciate what I’ve created, and that is such a gift. Sometimes I look at my books and think to myself, I made these! And it blows my mind that strangers all over the country are reading them.
I’ve been writing since I was a kid, and I struggled for many years before I got any significant recognition, so it’s been a long journey. I’m so grateful for all the attention my work has received because there were times I seriously doubted myself and my life choices. I didn’t have many role models. I didn’t know any professional women as I was growing up. I do think success has helped my confidence. I’ve always been very outspoken, but knowing that people actually care about what I think now makes me bolder. Might as well use whatever influence I have to try to dismantle systems of oppression. I’m tired of misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, racism, and classism—essentially, hatred in all of its forms. We are constantly faced with hate crimes now. This presidency has given people permission to act upon their ignorance and fear, and it’s truly terrifying. I’m not entirely sure what to do, but I know I won’t shut up about it.
Also, I’ve spent a lot of my life either poor or broke, so it’s such a relief to have financial stability. I can buy myself things without falling into a spiral of guilt now. I live the way I want, and I know what a gift that is, particularly as a woman of color. The women who came before me weren’t even allowed to read or write. They weren’t permitted to move freely or live alone. They were expected to get married and be cared for by their husbands. I have traveled all over and I live by myself. “A room of one’s own,” as Virginia Woolf encouraged. Though I would eventually like a partner, I have really appreciated the time I’ve had to myself.
You also live a life centered on literature. You travel quite a bit and are very prolific. What has your writing provided for you, especially as a woman?
AL: Isn’t it wildly lucky that we can have a life centered around our writing? I feel grateful about it every day. When I was a kid, I could never really imagine a “dream job.” I mean, I thought about jobs, but nothing sounded like what I really wanted to do, which was to stay home and write and read and think of things and then go out and talk to people about the things that I had written. I assumed a job like that didn’t really exist. How could it? Because my mother was an artist, and my stepfather was a writer, I had a model of a creative life. But they also both waited tables. I always assumed if you wanted to be a creative person then you also had to wait tables, or have some other job that took the majority of your time (and energy). Or you worked in education like my father. Who was amazing and inspiring as an elementary school principal and as an administrator of instruction, but had very little time to write, play the guitar, very little time to himself.
It wasn’t until 2010 when I became a full-time writer. I worked for magazines for 12 years before that. And even “full-time writer” is somewhat of a misnomer. I travel and teach and speak at universities. Like you, I’m on the road a lot, but when I’m home, I’m fully home and my time is very much my own. I am still amazed that I make my living through my creative work. I’m also to the point now where I am able to say no to things. I think, as women, we are convinced or guilted into thinking that we should give our time, dedicate our time, donate our time. We get guilted and shamed into saying yes to waving our speaking fees or yes to writing work that doesn’t pay. I’ve just now started giving myself permission to say no. It feels powerful, marvelous, like taking all my clothes off and running through a field, saying no is a party, it’s like magical weapon, a tool I never thought I’d have access to. This way, I get to say a big fat enthusiastic YES to my writing.
Speaking of, I have one last question for you and then I’ll let you get back to your busy life and your exceptional writing. It’s been such a pleasure talking to you and spending time with you here on the page. Before we go, is there any advice you’d like to offer to a writer who is starting out?
ES: As an admirer of your work, it’s been so great getting to know you better. Advice for the youngsters… That’s a great question, one I get asked a lot. I always tell them that they should only pursue a career in writing if they absolutely love it. You have to take great pleasure in both reading and writing for it to be worth it. (Personally, it never felt like a choice to me. I believed it was the only thing that would ever make me happy.) It’s just such a hard career that I really wouldn’t pursue it otherwise. (Of course, you can always “write on the side” of whatever else you’re doing.) Also, make friends with rejection. Not everyone is going to like your work, and that’s ok. You can’t please the entire world. No matter what you do, there will be people who don’t agree with what you’re doing. I’ve been rejected so many times, but I kept going because I truly believed in my work.
I also like what you said about saying no. I totally agree. We’re often expected to work for free. I did when I was younger, but those days are over. I volunteer my time or resources for worthy causes when I think it’s necessary, but I still need to make a living and my time is valuable. I worked really hard to get to this point and no one is going to make me feel guilty about being compensated for my labor.
Lastly, I think it’s so important to build community. You have to support other writers. The act of writing can be lonely, but then spending time with my fellow weirdos makes it all worth it. I’m grateful to have met so many incredible people doing this work. This is the life I’ve always wanted.
AL: Thank you for your generosity, Erika. What a perfect place to end: on a living a life that we have always wanted. Now, let’s go write.