Lessons on Expulsion: Poems

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Ada Limón and Erika Sánchez Discuss Self-Care and a Life of Words

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 LimĂłn: 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.

A Year in Reading: Crystal Hana Kim

It’s easy to feel defeated these days. It takes more effort and conscious positivity to focus on the future, on the historic firsts. We elected a record number of women to the House this year, including 29-year-old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib became the first Muslim women in Congress, while Sharice Davids and Deb Haaland became the first Native American Congresswomen. Florida elected their first openly lesbian mayor. There’s so much more. On a personal note, I teach high school students from across the United States. They all inspire me, but my female students in particular give me hope. From New York City to Detroit to Sioux Falls, they are canvassing, organizing community meetings and protests, creating change. I am flooded with strength as I look to the future.

So, in gazing forward while reflecting back on 2018, I want to highlight the women writers I’ve fallen in love with this year. I’ve read 35 books so far, and though some were written by men, we as a society need to #readmorewomen.

In poetry, Natalie Diaz’s When My Brother Was an Aztec and Erika L. Sánchez’s Lessons on Expulsion both consider addiction, family life, dreams, myth, and cultural history. These powerful poems dismantled and surprised me. Emily Jungmin Yoon’s debut collection, A Cruelty Special to Our Species, is stunning. Written in the voices of Korean “comfort women,” Yoon’s poems about sexual violence, gender, and oppression are brutal, incisive, and necessary.

My first novel was published in August, and with publication came an eventful book tour, which I’m profoundly grateful for. At the same time, book publication also brought the fear that I was speaking about myself, my writing process, and my novel too much. I found refuge in novels written by the wonderful writers I was lucky enough to do events with. I was drawn into the strange and magical What Should Be Wild by Julia Fine. In this dark, feminist novel a girl named Maisie has the power to kill and resurrect with her touch. I read What We Were Promised by Lucy Tan, The Incendiaries by R.O. Kwon, Number One Chinese Restaurant by Lillian Li, Fruit of the Drunken Tree by Ingrid Rojas Contreras, A River of Stars by Vanessa Hua, and The Golden State by Lydia Kiesling in a packed, whirlwind of knock-out debut fiction. I loved Naima Coster’s Halsey Street, which alternates between Penelope, a young woman who returns to a gentrified Brooklyn to care for her ailing father, and Mirella, Penelope’s estranged mother in the Dominican Republic. In Aja Gabel’s The Ensemble, four friends navigate their entwined careers, love lives, successes, and failures as a string quartet. Gabel’s descriptions of music, music-making, and auditory pleasure were absolutely beautiful.

Elsewhere in fiction, I read Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea for the first time. What took me so long? I want to devour everything she’s written, and I want more books that reimagine our literary canon. I finished Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing while on a weekend break from book tour. It made me want to return to my writing desk immediately. Ward is a literary genius, and I will read everything she writes. In more recent fiction, Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong and You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine by Alexandra Kleeman both made me reconsider the body, food, consumption, and our desire to belong.

In nonfiction, Nicole Chung’s memoir All You Can Ever Know about the adopted author’s decision to find her biological family moved me with its honest portrayal of the fears we have about belonging, identity, and motherhood. I read Bluets by Maggie Nelson on a beach, staring at the blue of the ocean, the sky. One of my dearest girlfriends gifted me Kayleen Schaefer’s Text Me When You Get Home: The Evolution and Triumph of Modern Female Friendships, which reinvigorated me to reach out to all of my female friends, to strengthen those relationships even in adulthood.

I want to end with Deborah Eisenberg’s short story collection Your Duck Is My Duck because she is one of our best living writers. Her fiction precisely illuminates what it feels like to be alive, to wade through our world in its natural beauty and manmade devastation. Her writing is political and true, intimate and expansive.

I hope to read more in these last weeks before 2019 arrives. I’ve just started Hala Alyan’s Salt Houses. Toni Morrison’s Paradise awaits, as does Jenny Xie’s Eye Level. Diana Khoi Nguyen’s Ghost Of is on backorder at my local bookstore. There is so much more to read and so much more to hope for, and I am grateful.

More from A Year in Reading 2018

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