Episodes

Behind the Scenes with Tomas Moniz author of ‘The King of Aloe Vera’

A full transcript is below.

SPEAKERS

Teresa Douglas, Tomas Moniz

Teresa Douglas  00:10

Welcome listeners to this week’s behind the scenes episode with Latin X lit audio mag. I’m your host Teresa Douglas. And today we’re going to be talking to Tomas Moniz, the author of The King of Aloe Vera. Moniz’s debut novel, ‘Big Familia,’ was a finalist for the 2020 PEN/Hemingway, the LAMBDA, and the Foreward Indies Awards. He edited the popular Rad Dad and Rad Families anthologies. He’s a 2020 Artist Affiliate for Headlands Center for Arts. He has stuff on the internet but loves penpals: PO Box 3555, Berkeley CA 94703. He promises to write back. Welcome Tomas!

Tomas Moniz  00:54

Thank you so much for having me. And I appreciate you reading my PO box because I love letters.

Teresa Douglas  00:59

Oh, and we’re fully going to put that in the show notes so that any listener who takes you up on that offer can easily find it. So maybe we’ll have a whole flood of pen pals coming soon.

Tomas Moniz  01:10

That would be wonderful. I’ve got a few that, you know, I put it in my book as well at the end. And I would get these letters from random strangers who checked out my book from the library in Des Moines, Iowa and telling me what they thought was wonderful.

Teresa Douglas  01:22

That’s nice. Well, we are going to talk about this wonderful excerpt but before we do, we’re going to take an off topic question here for just a moment. Because it is sort of like you’re sitting in my metaphorical house, at my metaphorical table, and I would offer you, I guess it would have to be metaphorical food at this point. But if I were to offer you something to eat, I would love to know what you like. So what is your favorite comfort food?

Tomas Moniz  01:51

That’s a tricky question. It’s interesting. I thought about that when I looked over the pre notes. I would say immediately coffee, although that’s not a food, but coffee certainly makes me feel comfortable, relaxed, like I’m in a safe space. So you know that really resonates with me. But if I had to go with food, I’d have to do like, you know, some tortillas and eggs.

Teresa Douglas  02:14

That’s sounds like we would be having a nice brunch somewhere.

Teresa Douglas  02:17

There you go! That sounds nice.

Teresa Douglas  02:19

Have a coffee. Have your eggs and tortillas with a little salt on the side. Ah, so good.

Tomas Moniz  02:26

So now I do know what my comfort food is: brunch.

Teresa Douglas  02:30

It’s a whole thing, right? Because especially coffee is just the stuff of life. We’ll just throw it in there. Everybody needs their caffeine at any point in the day.

Teresa Douglas  02:41

So thank you, I would I would definitely want to serve you some coffee and make some tortillas with you. Sounds wonderful. Well, the king of Aloe Vera. So this, this is an excerpt that you sent. And it’s lovely because it was so interesting. It’s intriguing. And I’m getting ahead of myself. I get so excited when I get to talk to authors about their stories. Before we do that, let’s talk a little bit about you and your background. And I would love to know, how long have you been writing?

Tomas Moniz  02:41

Oh, yes.

Tomas Moniz  03:12

Um, that’s an interesting question as well. I think I’ve been writing, um, kind of as long as I can remember, I used to listen to albums, and they’d have like, they used to always put one instrumental song on an album. And for some reason I hated that there were no lyrics, I would be writing lyrics to the instrumental songs on any album, that were there, me and my brothers. But I think I took seriously writing in college. I was a real young parent at 20. And I think I also came into the kind of community of zines and kind of activism and so I noticed that there were a lot of self published DIY zines on every topic you could imagine. Except what I was really interested in which was like parenting, how to be a parent, how to raise my son in ways that I wasn’t raised. And so kind of the ethos of that community was like, well, I’ll just start one myself and so that really was the beginning of my writing career–creating the zine Rad Dad and asking other parents to write about what it was like to parent in non traditional or non mainstream ways.

Teresa Douglas  04:25

That’s amazing. And as someone who started a podcast I am 100% two thumbs up about starting something if you don’t see what you want out there. So way to go, way to go for that. And then I was just reading through your your excerpt here. Is fiction your first love? Do you write other things? Are there other secret loves of writing that you have? Tell me all about that.

Tomas Moniz  04:49

I love the process of writing multi genre–that’s what I like to think of myself, right multicultural multi genre. I mean, I started obviously with creative nonfiction essays like how, how do we parent? Right? How do I talk to my son about, drugs and the environment and things like that. And then, of course, my daughters. It was a decade long project. But I find myself, using flash fiction or prose poetry to, to kind of write about very particular moments or ideas or thoughts. And then I would use that as material to kind of generate longer prose pieces. So I find myself using the specific genres to build up to longer prose. And that’s really what I’m doing now is I’m, I’m finding a lot of pleasure in that difficult space of sitting down and working on something that I’m not gonna be able to finish in a day or a week, but something I’m gonna have to kind of meander through for the course of six months, eight months, a year. So that’s, both the pleasure and pain in the writing process.

Teresa Douglas  05:59

It’s an interesting thing that you say that, because it seems both sort of organized and intuitive, this idea of starting with something shorter, and then just sort of working your way to longer that’s like, the writer version of a couch to 5k, really.

Tomas Moniz  06:17

As someone who would never run, I would not know, but I get it.

Teresa Douglas  06:23

Listeners, if you’re thinking of writing a novel, this might work for you, if you’re getting a little stuck, you can do like Tomas does, and you could start smaller and shorter. And so sort of, it’s like running a marathon for the novel.

Tomas Moniz  06:37

And so it’s been really nice, if I’m stuck, bored, don’t know where to go in my longer pieces, I’ll just turn to, like playful stuff. Usually, my shorter stuff is kind of playful, funny, little dirty, you know, whatever. It’s just meant to be pleasurable in the writing, and also the reading of it. And that then inspires me to get back into my longer work, which is sometimes less pleasurable, because you’re kind of writing these longer scenes and stuff like that. So yeah, they really feed off of each other.

Teresa Douglas  07:11

It’s, like the potato chips of writing. You have these little flash pieces, just consume a little bit and then move back to the–what would that make the novel then? If short stories are potato chips…?

Tomas Moniz  07:23

Baked potato? I don’t know what metaphors to go to.

Teresa Douglas  07:28

And maybe I should stop thinking about food and–

Tomas Moniz  07:30

Yeah you’re making me hungry. There’s a scene in the excerpt, which I wrote as one of these little flash pieces that had nothing to do with the character or the idea. But once I wrote it, I realized, oh, this fits perfectly with the character trait I’m trying to work with, with the main character. So I put this random scene that I wrote for nothing into the book, and I think it works very well. And that’s the scene where, you know, he’s messing with the kid who’s pushing buttons in the elevator.

Teresa Douglas  08:05

This whole excerpt feels, I don’t know if saying gleeful is really the right adjective. You’re gonna hear rustling here, listeners, because I have the excerpt printed out. There’s just so many moments in here, where I just love Ray, first of all, because he’s such a personality, like a genuine human being. I could see this guy at the library, pushing the cart, I feel like I almost know him in the way that the details are coming out. He’s pushing the cart, he’s telling the kid to push all the buttons, nobody’s here; his multiple requests to get a proper broom. And deciding that he’s going to stick it to the man and the library establishment. I just love the way he thinks. And he’s going to do all these things. And just, it hints at that wider world of lived experience. I believe this guy has been on the earth for 70 years, because he has a lot of opinions. And he isn’t just this character that exists in this moment, without any depth. He has depth, I guess, is the better way to put it in. And there are so many points where I’m just laughing at him. And and I love that there’s ageism that gets thrown into here. And the way he deals with it. Again, I’m getting ahead of myself. Can we talk about how you decided on this idea? What’s the process? So first of all–there are many firsts, and you can take this in any order you like–is this novel done? Is this something you’re working on? Just tell me tell me all the details about your writing process.

Tomas Moniz  09:49

Right. Well, thank you for that. I love the description of gleeful because I do think that’s really what I wanted to capture, this joy and vulnerability. I was really trying to capture a character that survived. I think that was really important to me. When I was thinking about this project, like, what does it mean to survive, because a lot of my writing before this manuscript was focused on, people in their 30s and 40s, sometimes their 20s. And it was all this kind of like, angst in a certain way. And I kind of wanted to imagine that, because I’m getting older as well, like, what did we do, to continue to maintain ourselves to stay committed and involved? Because I think that’s also the struggle that Ray goes through, as you’re reading this book. Where does he belong? Where do elders belong in our society in general? It’s funny, because early on in my writing process, I’ve worked on children and really advocating that children need to be involved in all facets of our lives, for the most part. And I feel like, the same thing could be said, for our elders. Where do we welcome them in? And how do we kind of benefit from their presence in our everyday lives. So that’s the idea that I was trying to go for, but I wanted humor, I wanted a little bit of politics in it. The manuscript is done. And in fact, it’s out on submission with my agent. We’re hoping we’re that it will get published in the next year or so. We’ll see.

Teresa Douglas  11:25

Yeah, I would I just read this, and I told you in an email after I had read it, that Ray just intrigues me. The fact that he has a very definite date when he wants to tie up all his loose ends. We won’t reveal anything that needs to be revealed later. But I was hooked. Here he is, tying things up. And I love again, I love this idea that he hates, first ofdoes the coddling from the librarian, but he will use it if he has to. That was so poignant, because it’s something that many marginalized people have to contend with. There’s this box that people want to stuff you into and you’re, living your life, trying not to be in that box. And when’s the moment when you just kind of have to use it-.

Tomas Moniz  12:22

Right?

Teresa Douglas  12:23

-just get something done. I mean, Ray just wants a broom, okay, and to organize books by color. And so maybe in our lives, those, those things we need to do are less or less fun (than Ray’s needs), but it’s absolutely something that a marginalized person would identify with. This idea of, well, the box is there. And you can’t get away from it all the way. So when do you use it? When is the greater good? It’s just beautiful. And so there was that, there’s the cigarette butt bandit and I love that. Ray has this was girl who lives near him. And he didn’t quite recognize her because she’s part of the unhomed community, and how he’s dealing with that and going to tell tell Alma there’s someone smoking in the non smoking zone. I love how lightly he he talks about that. I love the way that you are dealing with so many issues that are sort of up front. And in some ways, they’re unflinching, but yet told with humor, so we can get into this world and see it without, I guess getting overburdened? That’s probably not a great way to phrase it, but it’s deftly done.

Tomas Moniz  14:01

Right. I hear what you’re getting at, because I struggle with that. And it’s a fear of, I think, not just mine, but lots of writers–or artists I should say. How do we talk about something important without being overbearing, or didactic, right? We want to address these issues that we are all seeing on an everyday basis, experiencing in our families. But at the same time, we know that how we present the stories we tell, impacts how they are received. And so there’s that fine line, or that balancing act that we’re trying to make. I think I think I learned a lot of that early on talking about parenting because because I hated as a reader to read anyone who says this is how you should do it.

Tomas Moniz  14:51

Yeah. Also any time someone sounded like I’m a wonderful parent or I’m the you know. Even with Rad Dad I struggled with the name. It’s not about being a cool dad, it’s about being open to talking about the failures as parents, and what we can learn from them. And I think I learned that struggle there. And now, I feel like it’s benefited me as I’m trying to talk about issues in fiction, while at the same time trying to be humorous and creating characters that I love and that are irritating, right? That you can maybe watch them grow or fail.

Teresa Douglas  14:51

Right?

Teresa Douglas  15:28

And the fact that you’re walking that line, I believe, helps people see them because we’ve we’ve all had those experiences, where you’re walking past a homeless encampment, or you’re walking past something, and you don’t look, or you’re trying not to see because it hurts you to look at it in some ways. And we need to look at it. And because of the way you’re writing, it’s easier to see like the Cigarette Butt Bandit is a human being. And we’re going to see her I would imagine in the rest of the book. She’s interacting, she has her own agency, she has things that she’s doing, she’s her own person. And I loved how human everybody is in this. And how, again, I think that’s a very big portion of why we’re able to sort of engage with some of the issues that you’re you’re clearly bringing up here.

Tomas Moniz  16:31

You will definitely see more of her. She’s one of my favorite characters.

Teresa Douglas  16:36

Can we can we talk a little bit about–I think we’ve hit on some of it already, but just the sorts of impressions that you would love a reader, or in in this case, a podcast listener to be left with after they hear your story?

Tomas Moniz  16:52

That’s a good one. What I would like to have readers leave the story or the world or the character with is just the sense of vulnerability. And at the same time, this need to connect with other people. That’s really what I want, in this particular novel, to explore. How we create community now between not just a biological family, but the people on our street, the neighbors we have. A thread in the novel that doesn’t really come up in this excerpt is, what we leave behind, like legacy. Ray is struggling with what he has been left from parents, and at the same time, what he is going to be leaving behind. Themes I would love people to leave with is like vulnerability, community, and at the same time, kind of their sense of humor and playfulness, because Ray is meant to be kind of a funny character. And I wanted to try it.

Teresa Douglas  18:02

He is! I just love that he’s a whole person. He moves between being sort of grumpy, and not being grumpy and being sort of radical when he talks about the establishment and the fact that he’s not looking away from the homeless encampments. He knows the people there, so he’s a person who has some some moral fiber to him. That image just comes out very, very well. I know I want to see more of this story in its novel form, and I’m sure other people will as well. Do you have a place where people can follow you and see where your next things come out?

Tomas Moniz  18:46

Generally, I mean, yes, Twitter would be an easy one. I use that primarily for my writing work. I do have an Instagram and a Facebook and I balance that with my personal life. I have a brand new story out on catapult.com, which is a really great story about a rescue dog and friendship in the pandemic. With Ray actually, this is one of the few manuscripts that I didn’t really submit excerpts from. This is actually the very first time Ray’s been released into the wild.

Tomas Moniz  19:24

Awesome! I’m his first person to see him!

Tomas Moniz  19:26

Yeah, it really is. And so it’s been nice thinking about how he will be received because yeah, with other manuscripts I tend to put out excerpts here and there, you know, I write like we initially talked about–these like smaller stories that then get expanded into longer stories. But with Ray I kind of knew right away what I was doing, and that was a different kind of process with that story. So yeah, Twitter would be the best place I just have a brand new story out that I think I really like and hopefully Ray will be out as a complete book, you know, sometime next year.

Teresa Douglas  19:59

Awesome. And listeners, if you check the show notes, you’re going to see some links to some of these different things, including the catapult story. Check it out, because I think you’re going to enjoy them as much as this story. I love Ray. I just cannot wait to see him out in the wild in novel form and find out what happens to him, too. Thank you for coming Tomas to this podcast. I really enjoyed having you here.

Tomas Moniz  20:30

I appreciate you having me here as well. This is really a great experience to think about right in this context. So thank you.

Fiction: The King of Aloe Vera by Tomas Moniz

The King of Aloe Vera

An Excerpt by Tomas Moniz

 In which we meet the protagonist Reyes Miguel Calderón and learn of his appreciation for libraries, his fight against blindly following the Dewey decimal system and his run in with the cigarette butt bandit

Rey loves the Mission branch of the San Francisco Public Library on 24th and Bartlett and his only remaining weekly obligation: a volunteer shift in the kids section.

He appreciates the building’s architecture with its huge arched windows and art deco chandeliers in each of the four stories, the wood floors and eight foot tall industrial shelving crammed with books, the various community meeting rooms lined with posters of celebrities exhorting people to read, the gilded metal drop slots. Despite the security station hastily installed at the entrance, the library’s a welcoming place for everyone, information free and accessible, books and magazines and technology stations and newspapers from across the country (though he proudly continues to have a home delivery subscription to the SF Chronicle). Outside: grey stone and a massive ficus tree, the leaves from which Rey has a weekly battle sweeping away. Even the encampment of the homeless who crowd the opposite sidewalk, Rey doesn’t mind. He recognizes many of the residents from the numerous other encampments that line so many streets in this neighborhood including his own: Shotwell Street.

In fact, Rey can proudly name all the branches, and begins to: Anza, Bayview, Bernal… as he considers the cart of returned kids books to shelf, but is interrupted from his metal exercise by Alma, the branch manager, an irritatingly upbeat young woman with glasses, the frames thick and chunky and fashionable.

Alma says, Hello Rey. Please remember our conversation. Thank you and I appreciate you so much.

Rey mumbles, Yesyesyes but thinks: Does any kid ever search alphabetically for a book?

He wheels the cart back to the kids room: carpeted with a floor that undulates providing small hills and berms that children can climb on or roll down and lean against as parents read books out loud.

Rey over the past few weeks has been arranging the books by color. The joy that rushes through him when he tells a kid who ventures into the section: want a purple book? A green one? The child almost always laughs. The parents always either look bemused or act irritated.

Of course, Alma has patiently reprimanded him a few times not only for this choice of book organization but for others he’s attempted in the past as well: shelving by size, shelving in piles, shelving randomly to encourage surprise and cultivate acceptance, all ideas soundly rejected by the library establishment.

Rey knows Alma coddles him because he’s in his 70s and a volunteer at the branch for the past decade, and generally Rey would never lean into that coddling, but because it gives him a bit of autonomy he acts surprised and compliant.

I just thought that kids might like to learn their colors while also selecting a book.

That very well may be true, but Rey, they also need the consistency of being able to find a book in its proper location. You remember what that’s like.

I most certainly do, Rey says nodding yes exaggeratedly .

Alma then adds, And Rey, perhaps you can also remember that you have a few books overdue as well.

She pats his shoulder and arches her eyebrows.

Despite the chagrin Rey feels at the library’s lack of imagination, of vision, he cherishes his time here.

***

After begrudgingly shelving them all correctly, he rolls the empty cart back to the elevator, and in front of him is another reason he loves the library: kids. Waiting at the doors, pushing the down button over and over is a child wearing a Batman outfit. He holds a Batman doll. He’s radiant. The kid looks at Rey and whisks his cape around his face.

Rey says. I love your Spiderman outfit.

The kid looks at Rey like he’s foolish, but Rey smiles wide.

Rey struggles with this desire in him to show affection through teasing, to needle for attention, to set up contention as a way to connect. He blames his father. Sometimes his mother. It’s the final reason he loves the library, the countless hours spent in the San Leandro Main Library as a child, a refuge from his father when he was around and from his mother when she was angry.

Which was respectively infrequently and often.

The adult with the child intervenes saying, Are you Spiderman?

The child laughs like some wild thing.

They all enter the elevator.

The adult says to Batman, Can you push the number three for me?

The kid bounces like he’s waiting for more numbers to push, like he’s been told he can only push the numbers people request.

Without missing a beat, Rey says, Can you push the number ten for me.

Even though he’s going to the first floor and despite the fact that there are only four floors in the building.

The kid stops bouncing, staring at the four buttons, and makes this growl, something between frustration and delight.

The adult looks at Rey.

Rey smiles and says, No one else is here, just push them all.

***

Outside on his break, Rey notices once again a handful of cigarette butts lined up in a little design to the left of the entrance, clearly within the 100 foot No Smoking Zone. Every shift he sees that someone creates shapes and lines with discarded filters. He leans down to study the creation because the culprit clearly does it with forethought, even using half smoked cigarettes to create longer sides for the shape of a rectangle or maybe it’s a zero or perhaps an outline of a box. Rey can’t tell. He gets a slight sense of satisfaction at their failure.

He’s noticed similar cigarette butt designs adjacent to his very own stoop. Rey considers if this is a trend: smokers creating images with discarded filters? Regardless, Rey reads them like a taunt. Like who brazenly and cavaliery leaves them so carefully designed. Like obviously the person could have picked them up and removed them. But no: here they are.

He looks around. He eyeballs the sidewalk tents looking for someone with a guilty presence. He wonders if it’s personal.

He decides to take the elevator the four flights up to the staff room to get the so-called broom, with its cheap white plastic handle and green synthetic bristles, to sweep up the butts. The elevator door opens and a person stands ready to exit. Rey’s unsure whether they’re a man or woman because of the SF Giants hoodie pulled up over their head. That should have been the first warning of trouble: the SF Giants, Rey a lifelong Oakland A’s fan. But then he sees the cigarette dangling from the person’s lips.

Rey can’t prevent himself from reacting. In fact, he doesn’t really even try not to.

He says, You have to be kidding me.

The person says, Relax. It’s unlit.

And steps past him but pauses.

I know you. You’re Rey. You live on Shotwell. I do too.

I know everyone who lives there. I’ve never seen you.

The person removes the cigarette and looks directly at Rey and he does recognize her, no longer a sullen teenager sauntering up and down the sidewalks before and after school hours or hiding out on his stairs.

She says, Wow. Why are old men always so arrogant? I’ve basically lived my whole life on that street.

 I’m not arrogant, Rey says.

I hope I never get old. Looks like somebody might be…, and she proceeds to tap the side of her head making her eyes wide and round,…getting a little soft.

She then steps away from the entrance and fake inhales as the elevator door slides shut.

I have a perfectly effective memory, he raises his voice but she’s already gone.

In the staff room, he grips the broom, remembering the multiple requests he’s also filed for the library to acquire an actual broom like the one he once made, one with effective corn fiber bristles and a sturdy wood handle, but this too has been denied without response each time.

Nobody appreciates the wisdom of old men. It’s wisdom not arrogance.

And then it hits him. He puts two and two together. How could he have not immediately seen it: the line of cigarette butts in front of the library as well as right next to his stoop.

The young woman basically admitted her guilt: that she lives on his street.

Coincidence? He thinks not.

However, maybe she’s correct: his ability to deduce conclusions has faltered. The evidence was all right in front of him and he worried more about defending his memory rather than using his intellect.

He pictures his To Do list that he’s been compiling for over a year, aptly titled Loose Ends and Final Wishes, all the necessary things to accomplish before October 1st. Although it disturbs him to add to rather than subtract from the list, the possibility of catching the cigarette butt criminal in the act delights him: catch the bandit.

And just to be safe, Rey, after sweeping up the evidence, approaches Alma like a concerned patron to lodge a complaint about a young hooded woman smoking within the smoke free zone.

Creative Nonfiction: Feeling Trans by Keagan Wheat

A complete transcript is below

Feeling Trans

by Keagan Wheat

  1. I sit at our family table next to Gavin, a trans guy in the thinnest tank top I’ve ever seen. He pushes up his sunglasses.

    I’m going to the pool for sure today.

    It’s been far too long, Jay adds.

    I cave to following the group to the pool.

    I agreed even though swimming had become draining. It was no longer a choice to wear a one-piece suit. It no longer felt like something simple and fun to do. At my age, it was weird to want to retrieve toys from the bottoms of pools. The depth popping my ears and removing most sound. Diving to the bottom with the slight pressure almost hugging me, always appealed more than doing laps or play fighting.

    This pool with exclusively queer and trans people didn’t feel like I needed context to understand. I took my shirt off quickly and awkwardly, as if I were trying to change shirts without anyone seeing much. I didn’t have another shirt though. I stood with my shoulders turned in wearing only powder blue trunks and a tan binder.

    I’ve never played catch like the most stereotypical college-age guys at a beach before. But Oliver brought a nerf ball to the pool. I played catch with two other transmen forming a triangle. Gavin taught someone how to throw a spiral after complimenting mine.

    Later at this pool, I hang on the edge talking to Gill about Halberstam. I complain about the only essay I’ve read from Halberstam, while Gill delves into some of their questionable actions. I’ve never had this long of a discussion about a theorist outside of a class.

     I need to take off my binder though, an awkward safety interruption. I grab my towel walking toward the exit, but I’m held up by Aden. They meet me, with stepping in front of me, grabbing my shoulders in an easy sort of way. They look into my eyes, I can tell even through their sunglasses.

    I’m so glad you ended up getting into the pool, they smile with all the conviction of someone who knows what keeps me from the pool.

    I’ve never smiled so easily without feeling it coming. I’ve never felt like I deserved someone else’s pride or appreciation.

Creative Nonfiction: Behind the Scenes with Keagan Wheat, author of Feeling Trans

Teresa Douglas  00:10

Welcome, listeners to this week’s behind the scenes episode of Latin X lit audio mag. I’m your host Teresa Douglas. And today we’re going to be speaking with Keegan Weat, who is the author of ‘Feeling Trans.’ Keagan Wheat writes poetry focused on FTM identity and congenital heart disease. He is Mexican-American. His work appears in Anti-Heroin Chic, Houston Review of Books, The Acentos Review, The Bitchin’ Kitsch, and more. Living in Houston, Texas, he enjoys collecting odd dinosaur facts and listening to many hours of podcasts. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter at @KWheat09. Welcome, Keegan.

Keegan Wheat  00:49

Hi, thanks for having me on. I’m so excited to be on.

Teresa Douglas  00:54

I’m excited to have you here too. And before we actually talk about your very important piece, because obviously, this is what this entire podcast episode is about, I have a very important food related question for you. Super important. So we put it first so we get it in. You’re here in my metaphorical house, sitting at my metaphorical table. I would of course, love to feed you something that you enjoy eating. So what is your favorite comfort food?

Keegan Wheat  01:27

Oh, I think I have two really weirdly disparate answers. One of them is Kraft mac and cheese like microwave Kraft mac and cheese.

Teresa Douglas  01:39

Classic. Yeah.

Keegan Wheat  01:42

The other is how like, specifically the way that my grandma makes tortillas, because it is very simple. And it is just the best. They’re so soft. And they’re great. I could eat way too many of them in a row.

Teresa Douglas  02:01

That’s not a thing; too many tortillas isn’t a thing. Sorry to inform you about that. This is breaking news, people. Just so you know, I’m jealous. I live up here in Vancouver, Canada. And there aren’t many of our people here, I have to say. And the tortilla situation reflects this sad reality. So.

Keegan Wheat  02:28

Oh that is sad.

Teresa Douglas  02:30

Yes. So think of me next time you eat a delicious tortilla, and have one for me too. So thank you for sharing. And mac and cheese, let me just say that is like the childhood food a lot of people learn to make first. Like that’s when you felt grown up like I can make my own mac and cheese.

Keegan Wheat  02:50

Right? Like I can feed myself now.

Teresa Douglas  02:53

Exactly. It’s very empowering. You don’t understand that, like all of the stuff in there, is maybe not so good to live on. But you gotta have it for childhood reasons. That’s what I’m saying. Thank you for sharing your your favorite comfort food. So we should probably talk a little bit more about you now. Besides food. I would love to hear how long you’ve been writing?

Keegan Wheat  03:19

Um, well, the answer kind of depends. Because I initially started writing songs. And I started that probably maybe almost 10 years ago at this point. But I didn’t start writing like literary stuff until about five years ago, when I took my first Intro to creative writing class at UNH. And I had a really wonderful professor named Kate, Kate Weiss Orchid. And that’s kind of when I started writing literary and taking it seriously.

Teresa Douglas  04:14

Teachers are the best. I was just speaking with someone else about this. And that idea of people who give you that experience of learning, because there’s learning to write. And then there’s the experience of learning to write. And I am firmly convinced that one’s teachers or mentors or whoever it is that sort of gives you that oomph, that encouragement can can help. I know it did in my case, it made me feel more like a serious writer. Like oh, wait a minute, maybe there’s something to this. So thank you teachers. We’re probably going to say this on every episode, but thank you teachers, for for all that you do. That’s amazing. I have to ask then, if you start writing songs, did you ever write poetry?

Keegan Wheat  05:04

Um, no, actually, I don’t know why. And still, in my mind, they feel very separate. I haven’t written music in such a long time. Because it just feels like two different modes to me.

Teresa Douglas  05:25

Yeah.

Keegan Wheat  05:26

Yeah. I don’t know why I never was like, What about a poem? That was like, no, no. Here’s my guitar. I’m writing a song. Let’s go.

Teresa Douglas  05:35

Yeah and it’s not to say that they’re exactly the same. It’s just I think sometimes people who write songs sometimes go to poetry. And that’s totally unscientific. I have absolutely no background to backup that kneejerk opinion of mine. But there you go. So listeners, I’m not scientific. So you’ve found that out, too. But that’s wonderful. So is nonfiction, then, your first love? Do you write other things? I mean, we love all our children, no matter what we write, but but do you write other things?

Keegan Wheat  06:10

Yeah, nonfiction was sort of my third writing related love. It started with songwriting. And then I went to poetry and wrote a bunch of poetry and love it still. It’s, I think, one of my favorite ways to write. But nonfiction has become a really like, interesting place, I think, for me to put a different spin on the things that I’m trying to say. Because I think poetry can be very wild in a way. And creative nonfiction feels like you can say things a little bit more directly without it feeling cliche or weird, I guess.

Teresa Douglas  07:01

It is a different form of writing. And I mean, big obvious, right? There’s poetry. And there’s fiction, and there’s nonfiction, so we have buckets. And they can cross over each other. But you’re right, there are things that because they’re your lived experience, or if you’re writing something autobiographical, for somebody else, there’s that idea that this happened. So here’s how it happened, which comes out more in nonfiction than it does in any other genre really, because poetry is so lyrical. You’re using image and you’re talking about different things. And then in nonfiction, you can be very understated in some of the best possible ways. And I thought, that’s one of the thing, just sort of to actually talk about your work, which is the entire reason I brought you on here–that was one of the things I saw as a great strength in the piece that you have, because it’s, I say understated, but it feels very spare. In the writing, there’s no, there are no wasted words, but you feel the emotions and see the actions, just so, so well. And before I start gushing about your piece–because that’s coming–before we do that, can you can walk us through how you decided to write about this and just sort of your process for writing it.

Keegan Wheat  08:39

I decided to write about this because I I mean, it’s a very clear experience. In the story, going to this pool, with literally only like queer and trans people was a wild and beautiful experience. I had never felt like so comfortable in a place that had so often been the cause of anxiety for me. So I had this really wonderful experience. And I thought that I could write about it in poetry, but it never felt right to be sort of lyrical about it. It felt like I was almost beating around the bush instead of just actually discussing it.

Keegan Wheat  09:32

So I tried my hand at nonfiction. And I really enjoyed it. I enjoyed how much I could put the people who made this experience wonderful into the piece, and them be themselves not an image or a lyric but like the actual people.

Teresa Douglas  09:55

Yeah. And that comes through so well especially at the end here. But when Aiden–you say “They meet me, with stepping in front of me, grabbing my shoulders in an easy sort of way, they look into my eyes, I can tell even though even through their sunglasses,” and there’s just this moment of absolute connection that comes through that moment. And how it says “They smile with all the conviction of someone who knows what keeps me from the pool.” And there’s so much–I hate to say buried because it’s not buried at all. It’s like, there’s just so much in those sentences, that’s coming through. And it’s a beautiful moment in there. And I love that this happens, especially toward the end of the piece, because we get all along this feeling of coming to the pool. But it’s that moment of connection when, especially toward the beginning. We in listeners, you’re hearing me shuffle pages, because I printed this out. I’m old school like that. And especially the beginning where there’s some some awkwardness, like taking, off your shirt. But you don’t have to be awkward. You’re surrounded by people who just accept you. And it’s just a lovely, lovely piece. And, I was gonna wait to gush, and I didn’t. So there we go. But going back to your process. You had this moment you wanted to write about, were you able to get it out in one go? Did you draft a lot? How did how did that look?

Keegan Wheat  12:06

I’m weirdly the type of person who doesn’t do a lot of drafts. Because I think I’m very interested in I guess overthinking sometimes. So I think about a piece for weeks. And then finally get it out. I think it’s one of the reasons why procrastinating actually works for me sometimes, because if I write it, it seems like I’m only writing this just now in four hours. But really, I’ve spent like two weeks considering my options and putting it together. So I think this was mostly in one go besides a couple tweaks here and there.

Teresa Douglas  12:56

Yeah, I feel like that thinking process is definitely part of the writing process. Because you’re drafting it, you’re thinking things through. That totally counts as writing. It was invisa-writing–I was gonna call it procrasta-writing, but that’s actually not writing, that’s when you clean every piece of your house or do some other thing, when you should be writing. It’s very important. So if I may ask, because, you know, we, we, as writers, we write things down, we send them off into the world. And then people look at them and react to them and have their own opinions about them. But if you could reach out to our listeners who have at this point, and you better listen to this piece people because none of this is going to make sense if you haven’t, but now that they’ve listened to your piece, what impression would you hope that they leave with after listening to your piece?

Keegan Wheat  13:55

I think the biggest impression I really want them to take away is that sometimes the simplest of things can make you feel like a whole person almost. Like you were talking about the ending of Aiden and looking me in the eye, just one single moment without even many words or a hug or anything like that. It’s this moment of like, like you said connection and really sort of opening the community to me and saying like, we are here for you and we are glad you are here. So I think I want people to take that away because it’s a great feeling.

Teresa Douglas  14:43

Yeah, and it’s empowering because you don’t have to be someone who who like prys off the door of a burning car and like rescues people. If you do that, you’re awesome, we’ll lay that out there–but ordinary people being decent in ordinary ways can have a profound impact.

Keegan Wheat  15:07

Yes.

Teresa Douglas  15:07

And that’s incredibly empowering because we all can be decent people. It’s in our choices. And we can do small things like just tell someone that you’re glad they’re there.

Keegan Wheat  15:22

Yeah, definitely.

Teresa Douglas  15:25

Well, this is lovely. I do need to ask because you do your writing things. And you’re getting them seen in other places. Is there somewhere where a listener could follow you if they’re interested in hearing more of your work?

Keegan Wheat  15:41

Yes. At K wheat oh nine is all of the socials like Instagram, Twitter. I really don’t use Facebook as much as I probably should. So Twitter is usually my most up to date place. And I post about all the things I get published or if I’m teaching a workshop or something.

Teresa Douglas  16:10

Well, you heard it listeners. That’s where you go, and I will type it in the show notes if you didn’t get that, but Keegan if you can spell out your handle, that would also help everybody.

Keegan Wheat  16:21

Yes. It’s the at sign. K w h e a t 09. It’s wheat just like the bread.

Teresa Douglas  16:35

Well, thank you so much for for coming to the show. I really enjoyed having you here.

Keegan Wheat  16:40

Thank you so much for having me. I am so glad that this piece found a home because I really love it. And I’m glad that oyu also–

Teresa Douglas  16:50

I love it too. We’re we’re just going to use that word. It’s okay. It’s not awkward. I love it too. Well, thank you so much.

Creative Nonfiction: Pyramid of the Sun by Aubrey Lozano-Cofield

Pyramid of The Sun 

By Aubrey Lozano-Cofield

It’s the summer of 2005, two years before Natalie’s death, when we travel south from Texas to our father’s home country of Mexico. This memory, for me, is important. It marks the last of many things. 

The only other family trips we’d taken up till then were to the Texas coast, about two hours from where we lived in San Antonio. We always stayed in a Red Roof Inn Motel, usually just for the weekend. If you know anything about Texas beaches, you know the water is burnt umber, and in the summer there’s no real relief when your feet go from scorching hot sand to water because the water is likely only slightly cooler than the sand and air. But still, in reflection, it sits fondly with me.  

This time we’re preparing for a 15-hour drive across the border, stopping along the way to stay with friends and family. Domanick, our brother, is the oldest, then it’s me, Natalie, and Sophia, the baby. Dad and mom sit in the front of our blue dodge van, a box television on the floor between them. Natalie and I aren’t even two years apart and we fight like it. We’re both debating who gets middle row because there’s more legroom and better access to the VHS player. “My knee hurts!” Natalie insists and so I digress, making my way to the back of the van with Domanick. I pull out my CD player and slide in Jewel’s new album Pieces of You. The same 8 songs play on repeat for hours as I zone in and out of daydreams, constructing my future through the optimistic lens of innocence.  

When Natalie was 2 my mom was swinging her in our backyard when the sun caught her eye just right, illuminating a faint grey dot on Natalie’s cornea. Natalie was diagnosed at 2 years old with retinoblastoma, cancer of the eye. That was 9 years before the trip. A prosthetic eye, routine checkups, and no cancer. Once cancer is a tangible reality, not just a St. Judes commercial, it doesn’t matter how far you are from it, every bump, every ache is unsettling. Especially for a mother. Natalie’s knee pain got progressively worse in the weeks leading up to the trip and I could sense my mom at war in her mind. 

There’s a clear shift when you cross the border from the US into Mexico. The country is alive, the streets crowded with people on foot, dogs without leashes, merchants selling Talavera pottery, and sarapes next to shoes you’d see in the states. We buy Canal chewing gum from the kid at the stoplight while his older brother washes our windshield. I can’t stop staring at all the people that look like me but also look nothing like me. A few kids tried hopping on the van and dad laughed at our initial shock. Dad is speaking his native language and it sounds like music the way he doesn’t get stuck on a word, the way he does when he speaks English. His Spanish is so smooth it rolls. Some buildings could use a good power wash, but the street food smells so good, like grilled onions and homemade corn tortillas. Mom is watching us from the rearview mirror, this isn’t where she was born but it’s part of us, and it’s part of her. 

We made our way to a town called Tula, Hidalgo in central Mexico, where my father grew up. Tula is a small town with a river and scattered springs where my dad played as a kid. We came to explore the backdrop of my dad’s childhood stories and to see the Toltec ruins. 

A few days after arriving in Tula we drove an hour south to San Juan Teotihuacan, an ancient Mesoamerican city about 30 miles from Mexico City that houses one of the largest pyramids in the Western Hemisphere. 

My dad’s friend Mario came as a sort of guide. Mario is a wealthy hotel owner and met my dad when they both led similar lives. Now my dad has a small cottage home in Texas that his wife pays the mortgage on, and Mario has hotels and many homes throughout two countries, but they grew up together and their bond is like family. 

Our backyard was double the size of our small two-bedroom home where the six of us lived. The grass was green in our patch of South Texas, except for under the second-hand swing set missing a trapeze bar and one swing. Who cares though, we used the whole thing like monkey bars. 

My dad liked watering the grass, but only at night when the heat somewhat let down and you could inhale the air without suffocating. It was the thing he complained about the most, the darn South Texas heat. He missed Tula, where the temperatures stayed about 70 degrees year-round. 

When we first moved in, mom planted two rose bushes against the backyard porch. I remember my mom’s messy bun and the way she handled the plants carefully while Natalie and I ran around with gloves and plastic shovels. After years of renting houses and apartments (including the rat-infested one in Mexico that single-handedly sparked mom’s phobia of rats), she finally owned a home. It was small but in a good neighborhood. She liked the idea that we’d grow up in one house, in the same city as she did. 

Mom started working long hours shortly after she planted the roses and didn’t have time to maintain them anymore. The rose bushes eventually grew much taller than us, towering and resting wild against the small porch. We didn’t mind. They were the best hiding spots because no one wanted to search through the thorny stems. 

Our eternal backyard is useless without an imagination. 

That’s how we ran around. Imagining forests and secret passageways. Building tree houses from old boogie boards, and sticks from the neighbor’s tree that hung over our fence. The fence with a few pieces of board missing, where Bo, the next-door neighbor’s dog digs, and we play with his paws. 

In the same yard, we took mud baths, where the grass never grew again. On windy days we’d sway from one end of the yard to the other yelling “we’re back, we’re back on Windy Island!” Rain was the most magical. Rain was for playing, not for staying in. We’d lift our faces upward to catch the water in our mouths and the water became a part of us, something connecting us to the clouds, a cycle, something endless. 

We walked through the grounds passing first The Pyramid of The Moon. Mario pointed out the areas where bodies were buried. He told us that this is where our ancestors roamed. Behind my daydreams of what this city must have looked like, Natalie complained about her swelling knee. My mom’s eyes watered, and she looked at my dad, maybe we should stop. 

No, it’ll be ok, my dad said, I’ll carry her

The next day mom would convince dad to take her to a local doctor. The X-rays revealed a mass, and the mass would be confirmed malignant when we got back to the states. Cancer again. At the Teotihuacan ruins, we exist unaware, an innocence preserved, and I can’t get it out of my head, one side of a major shift. 

We reached the bottom of The Pyramid of The Sun, 248 uneven steps to the top. My dad insisted we make the trip up. He put Natalie on his back and the seven of us ascended. 

The incline was steep. The higher the steps the more narrow and uneven they became. About halfway up we had to crawl, using our hands and knees to grip each jagged corner. It’s so steep you were forced to submit to it, bowing as you humbly make your way up. Dad and Natalie reached the top last. Natalie hung on to my dad’s back like a little monkey, her eyes open and searching, but not scared. 

The wind blew harder at the top, 216 feet up. We looked out and below us. We all stood there. The six of us looked out at a city still standing, its inhabitants long gone, the blood of our ancestors within us. We existed on a pyramid that rose and stood through so much death, long before Natalie was born. Had we known this would be our last family trip with the complete crew of six, maybe we would’ve done something in reverence to the power of who were then, who we’d never be again. But that’s also the power of “lasts”, they’re better appreciated as a feeling you’ll never quite get back, when remembering is the only way there. 

Pairings, Part 3: So Funny It Hurts

 

Thanks for tuning in to Latinx Lit Audio Mag; I’m your host, Teresa Douglas. And Welcome to the third part of our three-part Perfect Pairings Episodes; these episodes are my way of pulling back the curtain, if you will, so you can hear these pieces the way I do—in groups that play off of each other.

This week’s theme is So Funny It hurts. Carlos Greaves’ 10 Types of Vicks Vapo Rub Your Abuela Keeps Around the House is straight comedy. Also, it’s a little healing because I thought my Abuela was the only one who put Vicks on you if she thought you looked a little off.

Abram Valdez’s piece, The Facilities are for Mourners Only, mixes humor with sadness to tell an ultimately hopeful story of a family healing while grieving.

The Latinx diaspora encompasses a multitude of cultures and histories, but we are united in the way we use joy and humor to dance our way through the many phases of life. These pieces are great examples of this. Enjoy!

 

This story originally appeared in Flexx Mag

10 Types of Vicks VapoRub Your Abuela Keeps Around the House

by Carlos Greaves

Vicks VapoRub is a staple of any Latin American household. Made by Procter and Gamble, it’s been around for 115 years, and your abuela has been using it for at least 90 of those years. Here are the 10 varieties of Vicks your abuela definitely keeps somewhere around the house.

  1. Regular Vicks

    This is your standard Vicks VapoRub. It cures most upper respiratory illnesses, and probably the lower respiratory illnesses too. Your abuela definitely has a jar of this variety. Probably two.

  2. Nose Vicks

    In addition to regular Vicks, your abuela has an extra jar of Vicks specifically for rubbing all up under your nose whenever you have a really bad cold even though the label clearly says not to do this. Your nostrils will feel like they’re on fire, and you’ll smell nothing but menthol for 4 days, but sure enough, your cold will disappear. Could it have just been your immune system doing its job? Maybe. Your abuela is convinced it was the Nose Vicks.

  3. “Por si acaso” Vicks

    This is the Vicks that your abuela rubs on you because, even though you’re not sick, you are looking a little pale, so it’s best to just rub some on for good measure. She will then tell you that you also need to get some sun. Or bathe in salt water. Probably both.

  4. “Sana sana colita de rana” Vicks

    This is the jar of Vicks your abuela keeps specifically for applying to bumps, bruises, and scrapes. You have no idea whether it’s safe to apply Vicks to an open wound, but it’s your abuela, so you don’t question it. And hey, you’ve survived up to this point, so it can’t be bad, right?

  5. Scented Candles Vicks

    Your abuela rubs this jar of Vicks on candles to make her entire house smell like Vicks. If you can barely survive in a house reeking of menthol, then the germs definitely won’t be able to, so the thinking goes. You don’t dare question this flawless logic. By the way, remember the open wound she put Vicks on earlier? It’s not looking too great.

  6. “Ese gato maldito” Vicks

    This is the Vicks your abuela uses to try to keep the cat from scratching the furniture. It is the only Vicks that doesn’t work, because even your abuela can’t stop a cat from doing what a cat wants to do.

  7. “Ese perro maldito” Vicks

    Unlike the Gato Maldito Vicks, this Vicks was highly effective in getting the dog to stop misbehaving. You don’t know what she did, or where she put that Vicks. All you know is that your dog does not misbehave around your abuela anymore. In fact, your dog looks like it’s seen some shit. Your abuela can be very scary sometimes.

  8. “Mal de ojo” Vicks

    This is the Vicks that protects you from mal de ojo. Duh.

  9. Curandera Vicks

    Statistically speaking, your abuela is the neighborhood curandera, or healer, so she keeps a jar of Vicks that’s specially suited for curing your neighbors’ various maladies. She infuses this Vicks with witch hazel aka agua maravilla, and it cures all manner of afflictions from hemorrhoids to a broken heart.

  10. Holy Vicks

    The Rolls-Royce of Vicks. This is the Vicks that your abuela somehow convinced the Pope to bless when she went to the Vatican, and It. Cures. Everything. But you better have cash on hand because your abuela isn’t about to give away her Holy Vicks for free. Also, your open wound got severely infected. Better pony up the dough.

 

The Facilities Are for Mourners Only

by Abram Valdez

Gloria marvelled at her mother Teresa’s courage at the precession of mourners but girded herself as Jesse Reina recalled a story of a recent bout with diarrhea. Two days after Gloria’s father Roberto passed, every tangled branch of the family tree and even the rotten pieces of family bark visited Teresa and Gloria. Many brought cards or flowers, and almost everyone paying their respects brought food with their condolences because grieving is easier when you don’t have to cook. But in the visits and plates—the tamales, the papas, the molé, the fried chicken—none of the bereaved brought a dish with a side-story about the runs.

“It was that diner in Hobbs,” Jesse said to his wife Victoria. “‘Fins & Hens.’ I think that was the name. I had this chicken fried steak meal, and I was doing good for a while, but then, oh baby, I had to get to a commode in Albuquerque. I sat on the toilet so long, my legs fell asleep.”

For Jesse, to go from “I was surprised to learn about Roberto’s stroke” to “I got familiar with the all the toilets and some bushes between New Mexico and Arizona” was paint by numbers, and he was in mid-masterpiece—a real Boboso Ross.

“I don’t mean to get gross, but I just couldn’t keep anything down inside.”

Gloria tried to find a break in Jesse’s bathroom chronicles to aid Teresa. Her sainted mother who 48 hours removed from losing her husband of thirty years was trying to entertain someone she hadn’t talked to in 10 years. Jesse wasn’t familia familia, but he grew up in the same church that Teresa and Roberto attended for twenty years. They had known Jesse when he was messing his papers, so he was family, even if he was still having trouble with his bathroom business.

“I thought I was going to get dehydrated. I didn’t know where all that soupy stuff was coming from. So I would eat some crackers and drink Gatorade, and nombre! Back to the potty.”

“You okay, a’ma?” Gloria asked.

“Yes, mija,” Teresa replied and slightly rolled her eyes at Gloria before Jesse jumped right back into his story, certain everyone was on the edge of every toilet seat with him.

“It got so bad, I had to see a doctor in Colorado. He wanted to put me on an IV, but I didn’t want to ruin the trip, so I toughed it out. Just kinda squeezed, you know.”

Jesse came to this story by way of asking, “Did Roberto ever get a second opinion?”

Gloria relayed to him about a doctor in New Mexico that Roberto had been in contact with, and Jesse was off to the cuartito.

Outside of that, that brief mention about her dad and New Mexico, Gloria hadn’t had time to think about her father in any other way. She was at the hospital. Then, she was making arrangements. Then, the calls and the visitors. Insurance. Bereavement paperwork. What else was there after all of it? But every time she felt the walls squeezing in, her mother seemed to do something that she didn’t expect of a widow. The day after Roberto passed, Teresa took in a movie by herself—The Incredibles Part 2—and didn’t invite Gloria. Teresa skipped out on choosing a casket to try ramen for the first time with her prima Sandy. If Teresa was in mourning, Gloria couldn’t tell from the pair of Jordans she bought for herself. It wasn’t that there was an avoidance of grief as much as there was also grief. Still, Gloria could only marvel at Teresa’s ability to nod and smile at this ridiculous man.

“Twelve pounds! I lost twelve pounds! Had to buy new clothes for the trip back. Partly because of all the weight I lost, but also… I didn’t quite make it to the little boy’s room in Winslow, Arizona, if you get me. New shoes, too.”

The little boys room was the phrase that did it. Gloria was ready to lay into Jesse. She went over it in her head: What the hell is wrong with you? No one wants to hear about your leaky butthole. We’re in mourning, pendejo! Say ‘sorry for your loss’ and be on your way, guey.    

That’s when she saw Teresa digging her pinky fingernail into her thumb. At first, it looked like she was trying to stay awake, but Teresa drew blood. A small red spot started to reveal itself as if it was unraveling more than gushing. Jesse was elbows deep into a description about emptying the contents of his guts into four different states until the only thing he had left inside was a whistle, when Teresa put her bloody thumb to her nose.

“Oh, my,” she said, feigning an ache. “My nose! Mija, can you help me?”  She rubbed her thumb against her nose.

“Excuse me, Jesse, I…,” Teresa said. “Con permiso.”

Jesse and Victoria both stood. Teresa tilted her head back, waved Gloria over, and headed for her bedroom. She put her hands out like she was lost and relying on the walls to guide her away.

At the door to her room, she was quick to the cut. “Get that cochino out of the house.” She took a tissue to wipe her thumb clean. “And don’t let him use the bathroom.”

When Gloria returned to the living room, Victoria was still standing.

“Is your mom okay?” Victoria asked.

“Just a long day. I’m gonna let her rest.”

“Jesse had to excuse himself. Sorry about him. He talks too much. I think he’s nervous. He’s never had anyone he knows pass.”

Gloria and Victoria stood, looking for something to say to each other. What else was there to talk about? His foot fungus or hair plugs? As a part of Teresa’s church family, Gloria was certain they would see each other again at the service, but what to say in the now? That led her down the path of she could share with them in a few days. And that led to what would she share with everyone else at the service?

Then, Jesse appeared from the guest bathroom, and she was almost relieved to see him.

“We’ll be on our way. We want to let Teresa rest,” he said. “You, too. We just wanted to say we’re really sorry about your dad. He was such a sweet guy to us. Please, call us if you or your mom need anything.”

Jesse nodded and Victoria joined him by the door. As they exited, Jesse cupped Gloria’s hands between his. “Dios la bendiga.”

As Jesse and Victoria walked to their car, Gloria stood in the screen door and adjusted the door’s mourning wreath. For the past three days, the house felt like it was shaking, rumbling, like it was echoing the feeling of Gloria’s stomach jumping to her chest. But now it all seemed to be leaving with Jesse and Victoria. All Gloria could feel was a settling as she waved them away. She thought about going for a walk. Maybe buying a pair of Jordans, too. Gloria could feel her breath finally leaving her body like a promise freed from beneath a paperweight. So many things to do next, but the most important? She would rush to the bathroom to wash her hands. Of Jesse. Of her dad. Of all of it.

Pairings Part 2: Celestial Bodies, Celestial Motherhood

 

Welcome to Latinx Lit audio Mag. I’m your host, Teresa Douglas. Today is the second of our 3 story pairings episodes, where you get the opportunity to listen to two pieces that share commonalities. Last week’s episode was all about hidden history.

This week’s theme is celestial motherhood. Adrian Ernesto Cepeda’s poem Starry Starry Light is an Ode to his mother’s love of Van Gough’s famous painting. Nancy Zigler’s fictional story Museums in the Sky tackles space, grief, and healing from the loss of a mother.

These two stories were the ones, if I’m being perfectly honest, that sparked the idea of story pairings, because you get to listen to them the way I do. And it’s a little different experience listening to two pieces playing off of each other. I know you’re going to love them.

(Transition music)

 

Starry, Starry Light

by Adrian Ernesto Cepeda

“Every star may be a sun to someone.”

― Carl Sagan

 

Every time you would take

us to el mueso when mis

hermanos and I would run

off, muchas horas despues

we would find you with

headphone Walkman in

your ears escuchando

your favorite Don McLean

cancion, on repeat, standing

in front of the one piece

you would gaze, mirandolo

contemplating the palates

parado frente a la obra de

arte, in love con la noche

en el lienzo, the peaks

curling above el pueblo,

imaginando todos en la

cuidad dormiendo while

sus ojos focus amazed

at the glowing estrellas

amarillas beaming circulos

so many waves of azules

swimming en el cielo sky.

I wish haberte preguntado

what made this Van Gogh

piece su pintura favorita.

I imagine the colors like

Vincent’s brushstrokes

would instantly reflect

like olas in the sky and

ripple your secreto sadness

in waves. Instead of kneeling

in church, the museum became

one of your most devoted

sacred espacios, sus ojos

no longer watching Dios,

the only hymn you live

to oir, concentrating on

this starry night, with your

eyes gleaming, los colores

would sing to you— no

longer trieste listening

always picturing paradise,

focusing on your favorite masterpiece

seeing you, Don McLean

in your ears siempre serenading…

Mami’s eyes always resounding

with the brightest of blues

glimmering vida colors of delight.

 

(transition music)

 

Museums in the Sky

by Nancy Zigler

            My name is Cielo Salas, and I am writing to say that I am not sorry. You were a twenty-one-year-old philosophy major, and I was a twenty-seven-year-old grad school dropout. The professor had fallen ill, and the English department had let me sub in exchange for $3,333 dollars.

First day of teaching, you jotted down your phone number next to your name on my seating chart. The number also contained a series of threes. The letters were angular, confident. The mark of your pen almost ripped through the thin sheet before you.

I didn’t call right away, but I did begin to take each comma personally. You wrote about a town where it rained each day for six years. You wrote about a couple who existed in different dimensions of outer space. They kept falling in love over and over again until they woke up as each other. You wrote about how the universe was a hologram, and that we were all just shitty reflections of our invisible selves.

In Spanish, the word for deep space is espacio profundo. Isn’t that lovely?

My mom, Alma, named me Cielo so that I could feel limitless. Personally, I would have preferred she named me Black Hole or Aurora Borealis because I’ve always been drawn to the blankness of the night. She’s the one that liked space, not me, but since she’s been gone, all I’ve been looking for are signs and symbols that she did walk this earth alongside me.

**

It snowed winter to spring. I spent a lot of time not grading. Or not doing much of anything, if I’m being honest. Online, I found recordings of you from high school, back when you were a junior tennis all-star. I tried to decode the interviews, imagine what you ate for lunch that day. Repeating the words in my head: drop shot, tuna sandwich, number two fade. If we had been high school classmates, you would have been the hot guy who didn’t give me a second thought. I had flowered in later adulthood—like the universe had given us a chance to meet in the middle.

Boy, you could write the shit out of a sentence. Many of your pieces took place inside the same Moscow kitchen. Your characters smoked too much and never spoke in dialogue, then, the twist—how in the dusk, the velvet curtains painted the tile floors pink and it made you want to cry. I’d close my eyes to imagine the satiny wallpaper patterned with ostriches cracking out of gray shells.

By the time the snow had melted, I finally dialed your number. We went ice-skating in Schenley Park, and you made lazy figure eights as if you were born to do it.

“My parents were ice skaters,” you explained simply.

My mother is dead, I wanted to say. Instead, I cupped your hand in mine and we listened to the softness of snow falling off of cedars.

**

By the time the frost had melted off of crocuses, we finally had our movie moment in the laundry room of my apartment. Wedged in between two machines, I felt a darkness in me slowly spreading, rising and falling like a sine wave. A blurry phone number was written on the palm of your hand, the one you used to pull my hair back before it slipped through your fingers.

The dryer beeped. Wrapped in a hot fleece blanket, we exited the laundry room like two children on Christmas Eve. As we made it to the third floor, the lights flickered on: one, two, three, four. My door was unlocked, the windows wide open to let in the mystery and magic of Pittsburgh at midnight.

You took in my studio apartment thoughtfully, green eyes darting corner to corner, where I had color-coded all my things into artful nests on the floor with gaping holes in between.

“What, you moved in like, yesterday?”

“I’m still figuring out the feng shui.”

“It feels so temporary.”

You tilted my chin towards your face and counted my freckles. My curandera told me I got them from staring too hard at the moon after my mother died. Your hands on my face were the most intimate I had ever known. They traced over the grease burns on my wrists, which I got from working the fryer at Taco Bell in high school.

“Hey, have you eaten?” you asked.

“I haven’t gone grocery shopping. Since I moved in.”

You slid next to me on the floor, in a nest where everything was purple. “Well, tonight you are very lucky,” you said. “You’re having one perfect plum.”

You held the invisible fruit up to the naked bulb of my living room. We both admired it and you whispered stories of its deliciousness into my ear. I drifted off to sleep against the black nest, mostly made up of the contents of my heart.

Before you left, you looked out the window and into the empty parking lot across the street. There was a single star in the sky. I remembered that my mom had once said that the space station belonged in a museum of dreams that should not exist. I wondered if you had a beyond place too.

**

I’m on a train to Pittsburgh. Tree shadows carve rivets in my mother’s face, one with wide and familiar green eyes. An old ache consumes me.

We talk about what heaven looks like. She tells me that she doesn’t know. I’m alarmed until she says that it’s better not to know everything. She sounds wise, and I marvel at what I do not know. We talk about surrealism, space-time, the stargazing gene in corn snakes.

As the sky fades to black, I realize that we are the only ones here, the sky a mess of red planets.

This phantasm ages with me. In sleep, it’s the only place I don’t feel suspended in time.

**

In my class, we repeated the word rhododendron over and over, as if we could glimpse the word before it took off, like a swan in flight. After, we tried a few more: strumpet, sunchoke, synesthesia. I had forty more minutes to fill. So, we took turns reading Andre Breton’s poems out loud.

“Madam.” You paused to look at me hard. “A pair of silk stockings.”

I didn’t hear the tail end of the poem.

Did you know that Venetia Burney, an eleven-year old, gave Pluto its name? After the Roman god of the underworld, with the peculiar talent of making himself invisible.

I ended class early and my students filed out of the classroom. You didn’t wait for them to leave as you stood over me, gripping the sides of my podium in a way that felt familiar. Rogue planets are not attached to any star.

“You teach us about writing,” you said, opening the door as if to leave. “What about living your truth?”

My truth was that I was actually a reluctant astrophysicist moonlighting as a writing teacher. My mother had died the year I was supposed to defend my thesis, so I said no thanks and dropped out of school. Then I crawled into myself and never came out.

You gave me your stories. I gave you your grades. You gave me your coat. I gave you my hand. Gemini. Pisces. Moscow. Texas.

I’ve beat my brains out over it: how did our stars align? What did we have to offer each other other than refuge? We were two meteors shining past each other, lighting the other’s path.

**

A renowned physicist once told me that most life events are due to chance. People thread the stories of their lives together because life is not nothing.

Once, when I was about your age, I tried to understand string theory by holding my pen up to the light. A dot, a line, a cube. I reached this nirvana—dimensions begged to be understood. I knew the fourth dimension would bite me in the ass one day, the spin that becomes more than a sum of its parts.

**

My last week of teaching, I got drunk with a saxophone player with kind eyes. After I grasped his collar and told him about your intonations in the words silk stockings, I ended up alone in a jazz club downtown. Gathering my purse, I began to head east, towards a bench that was not a bus stop. Murphy’s law, I stumbled headfirst into you.

You snapped my keys out of my hand and said a quick goodbye to the redhead from our class. After I got into your car, you sped down the icy freeway with animal grace. I could make out your fine lines drawn against the night. We drove through a tunnel carved through a mountain. Your car was littered with gym socks, beef jerky, and R&B cassette tapes. The music blasted through the speakers.

“I’m from Philly,” you said.

“I can tell.”

“Everybody knows about us.”

“Yes.” I said.

“How do you know?”

“Their stories have a lot of May-Decembers.”

“Are we in trouble?”

“I’ll deal with the dean later,” I said, not mentioning that I had put in my notice of resignation that morning. I wouldn’t get the last $333 dollars, we had agreed.

“Did you like my story?” You smiled, the lights of the tunnel whirring past, making your pupils seem deeper.

“I liked the scene with the herring in a fur coat,” I said. “What, in Russia all you ate were little salads?”

“If you live in Russia you better like mayonnaise,” you said. “And never-ending winter.”

“Like Narnia,” I said.

We came out the other end holding our breaths. If you know Pittsburgh, you’ll know the tunnel—when you’re submerged in the belly of the beast and then the skyline knocks you out cold. That night, it was one for the books.

You felt indestructible to me in that moment, among your mess and faded R&B.

Beyond the skyline and city limits was your home. I had imagined you above something ordinary like living in an apartment. I was dying to see your kitchen. Once you unlocked the door and we went inside, I was sobered by the mattress on the floor, a grease-speckled window, peeling red walls.

“You look about 1000 years old,” you said.

You looked so young.

“And you’re a Halley’s comet,” I said, leaning into your chest. You came into my life like a prayer. A blip later, and you’d be gone.

In that dim apartment, it dawned on me that my life was unspectacular. In my museum of dreams, the ghost of my mother followed me close. That black hole October when she died blew me right open like a kite and ended with a lifetime of me waiting for the train to come.

**

I ran into you many many years later, beneath a bridge with a highway rattling above us. The story that we told ourselves about each other a bold blot on the horizon. What came to me at that moment was the last story of yours that I ever read. You said to the woman with no food at her apartment: “inevitably, your skin was my autobiography.”

You were older now. Perhaps you never knew me, yet you traced the grease mark on my wrist before saying goodbye, and I felt a pang in my heart. The ice had melted, and spring had arrived.

“Godammit,” I said into the wind, thumbing my mittens against the railing. “We never could see each other clearly.”

The train passed overhead, and you were already gone. I have a fourth dimension, I wanted to shout after you. It’s pure as light, as sound, as song. Maybe I’ll write that on my gravestone. Grief, love, relative spacetime—it’s not linear. Back then, I had nothing to offer you except my sadness.

And maybe I am sorry. We write so that we can be seen, and because life is not nothing. That morning, the sun rose before a brilliant purple sky. I noticed when you turned away that your eyes were blue. I went to put flowers on my mother’s grave and buy a couch, a telescope, a tiny salad.

When I finally made it home, I frantically looked for my book on Andre Breton. Page 3.

“Madam,” I whispered. “A pair of silk stockings.”

I turned the page.

“Is not a leap into the void.”

 

 

 

Pairings, Part 1: Hidden Histories

Welcome to Latinx lit Audio Mag. I’m your host, Teresa Douglas. And today, we’re going to do something a little bit different. Normally on the mag we feature one story per episode. But I discovered in the course of producing these episodes that certain themes started recurring. Love, Death. Family. Grandparents.

It sounds like the Latinx version of The Princess Bride. Chases! Escapes! True Love! But the only way for you, dear listener, to really hear these themes is if you get to listen to these stories the way I do—in groups. Or pairings, if you will. So for the next three episodes I will bring you two pieces that share commonalities.

This week we’re going to listen to two stories that share the theme of hidden history. In Julieta Corpus’ otherworldly poem The Midwife, we travel back to Mexico in the 60’s, when midwives were an integral part of village life. In Camila Santos’ fictional short story It’s Just Dancing, we enter the world of the Taxi Dancer, a person paid to dance with you at a club.

Ready? Let’s begin.

Poetry: ‘Identity Height Chart’ by Angela Acosta

Identity Height Chart

By Anglea Acosta

She didn’t know there were words

for all the peoples she descended from,

always took care to fill out the scantron sheet

to select the right (white) demographic bubbles,

not like when she accidentally picked “multiracial”,

facing an examination not of numbers

but of the teacher’s questions.

 

She just wants to be herself,

to look like herself and her ancestors

in the mirror: dark hair and light skin,

practicing the Spanish pronunciation

of her apellido, a name brought over countries

and generations that she said in English

for the first twenty years of her life.

 

Everyone has names for

everything that she is not.

Cuban, South Asian, Pakistani,

Middle Eastern, Jewish, half-Japanese,

dissecting her features, her identity because her presence

makes them feel confused.

 

She didn’t grow tall,

she grew into herself,

no longer stating percentages like a venn diagram

when they just want her to say the word “Mexican”.

She doesn’t want a hyphen, she wants multitudes,

she doesn’t want to waver between spaces

in ways all the questioners don’t have to.

 

She just wants to create a home

miles from the places her family came from,

to stop answering questions from people

believing in single stories and American myths.

She just wants to finally know,

she’s reached the top of the height chart,

a proud Latina woman.

Behind the Scenes: Angela Acosta Discusses ‘Identity Height Chart’

The transcript of the episode is below

 

Teresa Douglas 0:10
Welcome listeners to this week’s behind the scenes of Latinx lit audio mag. I’m your host Teresa Douglas, and today we’re going to be talking with Angela Acosta. Angela is an emerging bilingual Mexican-American poet and scholar. She won the 2015 Rhina P. Espaillat Award from Westchester University and her work has appeared in Panochazine, Pluma, MacroMicroCosm, and Eye to the Telescope. She is currently completing her Ph.D. in Iberian Studies at The Ohio State University and resides in Columbus, Ohio. Welcome, Angela.

Angela Acosta 0:52
Hello, hola, I’m really glad to be here.

Teresa Douglas 0:55
I’m glad to have you. And I will tell you we start this podcast not talking about your work, which is very important, but asking about another very important topic around food. And I would love to hear since you are in my metaphorical house, we are sitting at my metaphorical table. And I would of course, love to offer you something to eat that you enjoy. And I would love to know what is your favorite comfort food?

Angela Acosta 1:23
That’s a great question. I don’t think I would ask this of you if I were actually at your house. But I do enjoy a nice warm bowl of udon noodle soup. I’ve been in the cold weather for so many years. It’s a nice treat.

Teresa Douglas 1:36
I love that. We had another guest who also loved ramen soup. And it’s just these noodle dishes. They’re so comforting. I don’t understand why it is. It’s just wonderful. We would definitely eat Udon because I keep that in my pantry. So you’d be sitting there, you’d probably help me cook it, it would be all very cozy. So thank you for sharing that. Food is such a nice way to to get to know people.

Angela Acosta 2:05
For sure.

Teresa Douglas 2:07
I just I loved this poem. Listeners, I know you enjoyed this as much as me. And if you didn’t, it’s because you haven’t listened to it. So please pause and go listen to that right now. Because the rest of this is going to make a lot more sense if you’ve done that. I love the way this poem sort of grows, especially since we’re talking about a height chart. I cannot wait to talk about it. But before we do, I would like to talk about you a bit and find out how long you’ve been writing?

Angela Acosta 2:50
I have been writing poetry, at least actively considering myself a poet, since I was around 14 or 15. But I’ve done a little bit of poetry writing before that. I wrote a lot in high school at that time, and found it a really important way of expressing myself and figuring out certain, you know, language use and identity. And I didn’t write too much during the later years of college and early years of graduate school, and I really only gotten back to writing poetry earnestly in the past year.

Teresa Douglas 3:22
Mm hmm. It’s amazing. It just feels like this is in your bones when I read this. I loved all of the things you packed in here. And I’m getting ahead of myself again. Let’s talk a little bit more about you. It sounds like poetry is one of your first loves. Is it your only writing love? Or do you have other mediums other things that you like to write in?

Angela Acosta 3:57
Yeah, I think poetry is my favorite in the sense that it’s something that I can just kind of pick up and do and don’t feel like I’m fussing over it too much, or that I’m really working with the writing. I’m able to just take an idea that I have and turn it into a poem relatively quickly. Most of the other writing I’m doing now is academic writing. So I’m working on my dissertation. I’m writing academic articles, presenting things to the public. But in terms of creative writing, I’ve also done a little bit of flash fiction and then creative nonfiction related to my research.

Teresa Douglas 4:29
So flash fiction does feel like it’s almost at that crossroads of fiction and poetry, or prose and poetry, I should say because it’s flash, just very lyrical, a lot of image, a lot of things that crossover. My husband finished his PhD just about six months ago and those papers are a whole nother level of writing that’s kind of crazy to me–to see the density that comes in there. So yes, I can see how this is quite different from that. Can we walk through your process of writing Identity Height Chart? Did you come up with the idea first? Was there a central image? Walk me through that process.

Angela Acosta 5:22
Yeah, that’s a really great question because it’s something you can think about with every poem. But for this one in particular, it actually is very different than how I usually write because what I did was, I had found some old poems that I’d sort of started and kind of meandered a little bit from early years of college when I was writing a lot and involved a little bit in a spoken word poetry group on campus. So I had some ideas in the air already from a few years ago. But since that time my sense of self has changed. I’ve matured over the years, and the way that I write has changed as well. So I kind of took those bare bones ideas, and turned them into the stanzas. And the identity height chart, the main metaphor of the piece, kind of came to me because in the house that my parents are now living, there was a height chart that somebody left, and I thought it was quite funny, because the children were a lot taller than I am. I’m five feet with shoes on, I like to say, so that the children were a lot taller than me. And I think that image popped in my mind, in thinking about growth, and how we see ourselves and physically, you know, not growing too tall, but thinking about how I’m growing in other ways.

Teresa Douglas 6:37
Yeah, and that central image is, to me, a fabulous one for thinking about, at the end, being a proud Latina woman. And whatever physical height we may or might not have, just reaching that point, when you feel settled in your sense of self, because it feels like in so many places, as you say, in your poem here, where “she just wants to be herself. And everyone has names for things that she’s not.” And she, you know, does that it says “no longer stating percentages, like a Venn diagram, when they just want to hear her say the word Mexican.” So this idea all the way through that there are these forces that are trying to get us to take up less space, to justify our existence. One of the things I thought about in that first stanza where you say, “facing an examination, not of numbers, but other teachers questions.” And this question of why do we have to justify the space that we take up, and that ambivalence that we see in so many places. If you’re not completely white looking, blond hair, blue eyes, like the stereotype, and you’re not stereotypically dark skinned, or identify as black, then you’re in this place where it seems like everybody wants you to justify the fact that you’re a member of the bipoc community, or justify what [identity] you write down. And I thought that was so well done, to talk about that, and put in this idea of having to scatter yourself almost and again, take up less space. So that was so well done in this.

Angela Acosta 8:36
Thank you. Yeah, I will say that, when you said the idea of the forces that shape us, I think that’s really poignant. And thinking about childhood and how these, you know, certain anecdotes came about in my own thinking of the poem, because a lot of times as a child, you don’t always know how to best identify yourself. And I remember when I was little, I always made sure to, like, memorize all the countries that my ancestors came from, as if anyone would ask me that, but in reality, they just kind of want to size you up and see what’s different about you. And then the tension when you might not say the word that they’re thinking or what they’re expecting.

Teresa Douglas 9:16
And it’s a crazy thing, where you think, okay, how much of an answer are you really looking for here? And the idea that in so many places, the people who are Mexican also have, of course, other things. We have indigenous ancestors, we have ancestors from all over. And this idea that even some of those indigenous peoples, we may not know the names of those folks because of colonialism. And the idea that you could, in some ways could feel less than because you don’t have names for what you are you only have names for what you aren’t. And that is such a powerful thing to talk about, this idea of, of trying to take up the space that is yours that comes to you from your people, from your own living in the world. And, I love that again, at the end, she’s reached the top of the height chart, a proud Latina woman. And that is such a mic drop moment, right there. I almost just put my fist in the air is like, yeah. Because it’s what we want, right? We want to be able to grow into ourselves.

Angela Acosta 10:38
And do it on our own terms.

Teresa Douglas 10:40
Exactly. And not have that moment where someone says, here’s the height that you should reach. And that’s where you need to be. One of the things I wanted to ask you too, is often we don’t get to tell people what impression we want our piece to have, what impression we want them to be left with. And it’s fine that people bring their own history and their own ideas, as they’re reading this and come to their own conclusions. But this is your moment, right now. If you could talk to listeners and tell them how you want them to think about this piece and impression that you want them to leave with? What would that be?

Angela Acosta 11:30
Yeah, I don’t think there was anything in particular as I was writing that I really wanted to, like have as a central message in terms of what people think or process with this piece. But I think what I was looking for was that question of labels and how they really shaped my own upbringing, understanding of my identity, especially during those college years, at a time when you’re in a very diverse environment. Oftentimes, even if you’re at a predominantly white institution, and you get a lot of questions asked about your background, or when you meet new people. And these labels really shape us over time, whether or not we really believe in them. And I think what’s been helpful for me is just to kind of understand myself, like I said, on my own terms, and see where I fit and really feeling like I can take charge of that. So I think that’s the idea of growth, and in growing into one’s identity, which isn’t always growing into a particular label, or cultural identity, but just like feeling like you, you are yourself without all of this outside intervention was what I was going for.

Teresa Douglas 12:33
And it’s so wonderful, because there are so many places that make people feel, in some ways not enough. And this poem really empowers the reader to say you are enough. Whatever you are, and as you say, whatever space you inhabit, whatever names you may put on, that’s for you to put those names on, and not a label that you need to fit in like a piece of clothing that just isn’t quite right. So thank you for that. It was a shot of, good feeling. I know that there’ll be other people who want to read the things that you write, do you have social media handles, or a website or anywhere where someone could read your pieces as they come out?

Angela Acosta 13:27
Yeah, I do use Instagram. I’m at aaperiquito. But I don’t have an author website yet, just because I’m focused on my academic work and just have the academic website which I may have sent you. But my work is out and floating around the internet and other creative publications in a variety of forms. So I’ve published in the journals you mentioned in my bio, and a lot of those are available online.

Teresa Douglas 13:57
Wonderful. And could you spell again, the Instagram handle ?

Angela Acosta 14:06
Yeah, it’s and it’s all lowercase. It’s a a p e r i q u i to

Teresa Douglas 14:15
So listeners if you didn’t catch that, or you share my inability to listen very well, I will have that in the show notes. So you could just go ahead and click over, and follow what Angele’s doing. Well, thank you so much for coming to the podcast, and sharing your work.

Angela Acosta 14:38
Thank you for having me. It’s been a pleasure to be in this space with you and to share my work