Behind the Scenes: Interview with Selene Lacayo, author of Amalgam.

A full transcript of the interview is below:

LatinX Lit Interview Selene Lacayo


Teresa Douglas, Selene Lacayo

Teresa Douglas  00:10

Welcome listeners to this week’s behind the scenes episode where we’re going to talk to Selene Lacayo, author of Amalgam. Selene Lacayo is a writer and translator and living in the Greater Philadelphia area. She was the 2018 Judge’s choice runner up for the Writes Michigan short story contest. Her essays have been published by InCulture magazine, Americans resisting overseas, and the COVID-19 community stories of the Grand Rapids Public museum. Most recently, her short story Amalgam formed part of the Best Short Stories of Philadelphia, published in 2021. And her interview with Sylvia Miranda Garcia on her novel, Velvet Was the Night was featured in Electric Literature. She is currently working on a memoir centered around the themes of belonging, identity, and motherhood. Welcome Selene!

Selene Lacayo  01:05

Hi, Teresa, thank you so much for having me.

Teresa Douglas  01:08

Well, it’s lovely to have you on the show. And I have to say I told you this when I emailed but your piece made me hungry. Also a little homesick, I have to admit. So we’re going to just ask you a very important food related question. You talk so much about food in Amalgam. What is your favorite comfort food?

Selene Lacayo  01:30

Well, yes, I have two. It depends if I’m feeling with something of a sweet tooth, or if I want something salty, but if it’s a sweet tooth kind of craving, there’s nothing better than an empanada filled with Cajeta or like milk candy. I love love them with coffee on the side. That is something that I grew up eating and I love that and when I want something savory I gotta say that I definitely like tacos but not the ones that you would get anywhere. They have to be prepared in the right way so there’s some al Pastor with the pineapple on the top and the cilantro and the onion chopped just the right way with that salsa has avocado in it. That is that is my go to. Well you have you have good taste I have to say both of those sound wonderful. I am a pumpkin empanada fan. At the time of this recording we’re at the very end of September so it’s we’re getting into that fall season so I may have to make some of those myself. So, thank you. Thank you for bringing that memory back up for me. Well, food is important and it’s definitely an important part of your piece. But why don’t we focus a little bit more on you since this is a behind the scenes and ask you: How long have you been writing?  Well, I think that is a question that has not like particular date. I have been writing since I was in middle school. You know, I always had my notebook and my pen. I was that girl. But more seriously for the last 10 years after I had my children. I noticed how there was a gap in the type of stories about immigrants that are on the bookshelf. I wanted the happy, the hopeful that we have agency type of immigrant stories. So I started writing on that topic after I had my children about 10 years ago.

Teresa Douglas  03:38

Well that’s wonderful. It’s one of the things I really enjoyed about Amalgam it wasn’t just the I’m I’m a model minority I’m working my way through. It’s here Here I am living, here the things that I’m doing, I’m living in my life just doing the things that I do. And I think that really brings a nice humanity to the whole question of of immigration which in some circles just isn’t there. I love the way you talk just a little bit about folks that are they’re living with nine other men or their family is back in Mexico because they’re homesick for just visiting for a little while and working on English and working on finding just the right food that reminds you of home and and it’s such a strength of this piece and definitely something that we need to see a lot more of in the literature.

Selene Lacayo  04:34

Thank you Yes, I I feel homesick in very many different ways. And I think that oddly enough all of them can be healed with the right type of food.

Teresa Douglas  04:50

Food is love. I I live in Canada. I’m a native of California and some our neighbors at the time who moved in–this story has something to do with what you’re talking about–and they’re from Mexico City. And one of the things we very much bonded over, were the shared flavors that we experienced. Even though we were Mexicans from different parts of the continent, there were those overlaps. And that’s how our relationship developed into friendship, it was over those over those tacos, it was over the food, it was over the right type of hot chocolate, that’s different from the one that you normally get just in the States or in Canada. It’s those little bits that that make you feel like you belong. So I love that about this story.

Selene Lacayo  05:39

Thank you.

Teresa Douglas  05:41

Well, let’s let’s move on a little bit. This is a piece of fiction, even though it has some, as any good literature does has some reflections of real life. Is fiction, your first love? Do you write fiction only, do you dabble or write other things, or what?

Selene Lacayo  05:58

I love, love love fiction. But my first love is creative nonfiction. And that’s what my memoir comes into play. But I like fiction, because like you said, it has a little bit of reality. And then you can mix and match different experiences that have happened to you or that you have observed in others. And I like to write kidlit. Fiction allows me to bend the rules and write stories that my kids can actually understand. So I wanted Amalgam to be something that adults could read. But also that my children, my youngest is seven, could read and understand and feel like they get a piece of something in real life that has happened to them.

Teresa Douglas  06:47

Yeah, and I like the way the story is about families, even if the families aren’t necessarily all there. So we have Andres at the beginning, who is there and he enjoys his solitude, but also likes talking to Brenda. And we have other characters, again, who their families are very much a part of it, that the family that runs the restaurant is very much a part of that culture, and that community. And it’s, it’s just, to me very interrelated in the way that makes sense. If you grew up in a family that’s, that’s interrelated. Maybe you have, you know, five sisters or brothers, or maybe you don’t, but you have uncles and aunts and all these other people that you see, or hear about on a regular basis. So it’s a very big strength of this piece. 

Selene Lacayo  07:43

Yes, I think that, um, we all want community. And even though a lot of us enjoy time alone, we at the end of the day are people who live in a city or in a small town that interact with one another, and we crave that. And when better to realize that this past year, then we were at home with COVID, and not able to see many people, and then we all realize how social we actually are.

Teresa Douglas  08:12

Exactly. And let’s go ahead now and dive a little bit more into Amalgam. Can you just walk us through the process you took when you were writing this piece? Was it something that just sort of showed up in your mind? Did you have an idea of exactly what you wanted to do? Or did you begin with with one character? How did you write this piece?

Selene Lacayo  08:34

So like many of my ideas, they start floating around in my head for a little bit before I finally sit down and start writing them up. So with this one, driving through Philly, I have noticed a lot of the gentrification, which is a great thing, right? It brings a lot of new commerce into the communities and a lot of new type of customers into restaurants, for example, in this case, in South Philly, where there’s a lot of Mexican people eating at a restaurant, and now there’s people from all over, which is great, but it also then starts making it harder for the locals to eat at the restaurant that they love. So that was playing in my head. And then there’s a very famous chef in South Philly. Her name is Christina Martinez. And I got the idea of talking about a little bit of the art craft of making barbacoa, lamb barbacoa because of what she makes in her restaurant, which is precisely that and the love that she puts in her food. So I wanted to get something very Philadelphia, which was for South Philly barbacoa and talk about the gentrification. At the same time, I was always curious to explore in a story, the different ways that one can be an immigrant from the same country but in very different ways and situations. And that’s why I had the different characters. And that’s why all my characters start with the letter A, they have an A as the first letter in the alphabet because they are first generation immigrants in a way or another. And that’s how many people in the restaurant that the son and daughter of Anita and Arturo, already ‘B’ names because they are the ones who grew up here. And as you can see in the story, they’re more savvy, they know what they want, they know how to maneuver and make this restaurant a more successful restaurant and also keep the community fed. So I wanted to showcase that in the diversity of characters in there. 

Teresa Douglas  10:40

I love that I didn’t notice it. But it’s I think it works on a subliminal level. So that’s fun. And let’s just say there may have been folks who read this and get it right away. Maybe it’s just me. So that’s, that’s lovely. So it seems, then that you started this sort of conceptually then, here are the things that you wanted to accomplish. And these characters sort of came to be as as part of that conception. Would that be accurate to say?

Selene Lacayo  11:11

Yeah, that’s right. And I wrote each character. So I had like a big board, where I had all kinds of sticky notes, because I wanted to imagine each character and their story, even though it’s not written in the short story, they have a background, and I wanted to make sure that I knew their identity before I started writing. So now the way that I did it with the timestamps really helped me jump from one to the other, just as you would in a movie. And that’s what I wanted to get the reader to go from Andres, to Alfonso, and then from Alfonso quickly to Anita, and then a glimpse of Angelica, and then just have a little bit of all of the characters so that at the end, all of them were together, having already been introduced little by little in the story.

Teresa Douglas  12:01

So are these characters going to show up again, in a further story?

Selene Lacayo  12:05

I don’t know. I haven’t thought about a sequel, if you will, or something for one of them, or each of them individually? I don’t know. But that’s not to say that they’re not because their life stories are there somewhere in one of my drawers. 

Teresa Douglas  12:21

So they live on paper somewhere.

Selene Lacayo  12:26

That’s right. 

Teresa Douglas  12:29

We talked about this a little bit. But is there a specific impression that when someone by the way, this story, especially with the way you organized it with the timestamps is really fun to listen to. Because you’re not lost at any point. But once the reader listens to your story, is there a specific impression that you would like them to leave with, or a piece of knowledge that they may not have had before?

Selene Lacayo  12:57

Yes, I think that when we say immigrant, there’s always this bad baggage of the stereotype of Oh poor person who came here not knowing anything about the world. But it’s not that way. It may be that when you first arrive to a new country, you don’t know the rules of that particular place you’re in. But that doesn’t mean that you didn’t have a life before. And I wanted to show that in my piece, I wanted to show that these people that for Mexicans or immigrants in a different way in this country, they have a history and they have agency, they have dreams and goals, and they just need a little bit of space to grow in each of them have a different way to do it. And I want all of them to be recognized and be valid. Just because you’re an immigrant doesn’t mean that you don’t have any value. And you are just here to extend your hand and say, I need, you’re here to give what you have, and grow with that. So that’s what my piece is about. And of course, the food in the center of it all is because we all need that little bit of comfort, to continue to grow to feel like we are hugged, by our roots, by our ethnicity by our histories together. And sometimes like in the case of Andres, who can only afford to have Mexican food once a week. Well, that is a little push that he needs to continue going the rest of the week.

Teresa Douglas  14:30

And it’s an important distinction to say and the metaphor of this food and how it’s a hug, but it’s also a hand for for people, even in the neighborhood who may not be Mexican, to experience a piece of home for many people. And to have that very to me a hopeful story because all of these people with all of their histories are at the end literally mixing together with people they may not share a language with but they share that love of the food.

Selene Lacayo  15:09

Right. Right. I wanted to show that also for example the character Angelica who has a boyfriend who’s clearly from that area of Philly, that he’s open. That he wants to try that food because he’s gonna travel now to her country to be the foreigner himself and he’s ready for that and I see that over and over again and people don’t talk about this mix of like yes there’s a lot of people who come into the US but there’s a lot of us people that go somewhere else and have that experience

Teresa Douglas  15:40

Yeah and it’s the food that at least in this case that the carries them through and is again a transmission of culture because  toward the end he gets that advice that if Abuella offers him food say Yes. Don’t say no because that that’s gonna be a problem. It’s a fun moment. It’s like the next generation is getting taught around the table as many of us did different stories and different lessons. It’s an amazing in such a short period of time to have that much history and those assumptions sort of brought forward again in a very, very hopeful way. Well, this this has been fun. I guess the other question I had for you is obviously I enjoyed this piece. I know our listeners are really going to enjoy it if they haven’t had a chance to listen to it yet. And if you haven’t listened to it listeners, you need to do that. It’s a wonderful piece. But if people want to keep up with you and your writing, is there a place that they can go where they can catch up on all of that?

Selene Lacayo  16:50

Yes, I think that the best place is my website because that also has my social media handles but it is my name and last name so SeleneLacay dot com and you can find me on Twitter and on Instagram again at Selene Lacayo for one of them and Lacayo Selene in the other.

Teresa Douglas  17:10

Well easy then they can find you as long as they have your name.

Selene Lacayo  17:13

That’s right.

Teresa Douglas  17:15

Well thank you so much for coming by. We really enjoyed hearing a little bit more about you and a little bit more about this piece.

Selene Lacayo  17:22

Thank you so much, Teresa for reading me and for having me. I like talking about food with you.

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