Behind the Scenes with Constance Mello, Author of Mouth Guard
Teresa Douglas 0:10
Welcome listeners to the next behind the scenes episode with Latin X lit audio mag. I’m your host, Teresa Douglas. And today we’re interviewing Constance Mello she her. She’s a Brazilian scholar, writer and teacher. She graduated with a degree in cultural studies and Gender Studies from the Humboldt University of Berlin, Germany, and is currently pursuing a dual master’s degree in English and creative writing. Her writing has been published in the Illinois Art Review, Fearless, She Wrote, and The Ascent, and was a finalist in the Tucson Festival of Books literary awards. Welcome, Constance.
Constance Mello 0:48
Hi, Teresa. Thank you for having me today.
Teresa Douglas 0:51
Oh, it’s very nice to have you here. I’m going to ask you a very important question. Because you’re here in my metaphorical house. I would love to serve you your favorite comfort food, but I don’t know what that is. So I’m going to ask you what is your favorite comfort food?
Constance Mello 1:13
I am very excited about this question because I too center my life around food. And I thought a lot about this question. And because there are several different ways of answering it right, like is it a food for the winter? Is it the sort of thing you eat when you’re sad? But I thought about the like, overarching thing. And this is gonna sound like I planned this out because it’s for a Latinx lit mag kind of thing. But it’s rice and beans.
Teresa Douglas 1:51
Constance Mello 1:52
Yeah, just like, like a nice plate of rice and beans. And in Brazil, they make it different. I mean, every country in Latin America makes their own version of rice and beans, I guess. But our rice and beans are just like, it’s very simple. Lots of onions, lots of garlic, a little bit of pepper. And we eat it with sauteed greens on the side like a collard greens type thing. And orange slices, which are said to help with digestion. I don’t really know how true that is. But it does kind of like add acidity to the dish. So yeah, that’s my comfort food.
Teresa Douglas 2:30
That sounds delicious. And I have actually heard that about citrus if it’s paired with spinach? Probably all greens. It helps bring out I forget what vitamin.
Constance Mello 2:40
Teresa Douglas 2:41
I think so. It’s one of those things I read a long time ago. So now listeners not only is this a literary podcast, we’re now a health podcast for you. Yes, make sure you put that citrus with your greens, and then your food is healthy, even if it’s you know, boiled in a lot of pork fat. You know the oranges just make it all go away. That’s our educated opinion. You’ve heard it here first. Well I would love to share rice and beans with you in your way. Because you’re right. There are lots of different ways that I mean, Mexicans, we have the red rice, other people have the yellow and the white. And it’s fun to try it all. I will say to anybody who wants to make me food. I will take whatever colored rice you have. So just just bring it, Constance and I are waiting.
Constance Mello 3:39
Teresa Douglas 3:40
So thank you for sharing that. And now that we’ve done the most important thing, we’ll get to the second most important thing, which is you and your piece. I would like to start just by talking a little bit of why I liked it. Then we’ll get into some questions about you. I love the duality of this mouthguard like the title and the jaw locking, and just this whole idea of these things are so well connected, that when I read it, I thought Oh man, that interlocks in such a lovely way. And the piece is very, it has lots of images, but it’s so incredibly tightly written around that theme of guarding the mouth and what comes out of the mouth. The mother who calls the grandmother and what may be coming out of her mouth or not. I just I loved it. So that’s why I was so happy to see it in my email. And I’m glad that we get to talk about it today.
Constance Mello 4:47
Thank you so much. This was a very very personal piece for me to write. So finding a home for it, especially in this magazine specifically has been really special.
Teresa Douglas 4:57
I can’t wait to talk about this. So before we do because I have some definite questions about how you wrote it. Let’s start with you as a writer, how, how long have you been writing?
Constance Mello 5:09
Um, I think I’ve, it sounds so cheesy to say, but I think I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember, really. I was always very, like competitive in school. And so when they had us do little essays or creative writing exercises, I used to be very competitive, but like, I want to be the best at this, I wanted to have the best rhymes. And I was always very aware of myself when I was doing any kind of writing. And then, when I was about eight years old, I think I got into a big phase of writing my own songs, especially because I used to watch like High School Musical religiously. And I got into the phase of writing my own songs and my godmother who lives in Argentina, she was visiting me, and I showed her some of the songs and she was so inspired that she later sent me, by post this beautiful blue box that she made, that had like a little inscription on top, saying, Constance’s writings.
Teresa Douglas 6:15
Oh, yeah, that’s nice.
Constance Mello 6:18
Yeah. And she was like, please keep writing, I really want to support this about you. And then ever since then, that’s where I’ve kept journals, any kind of writing that I did, in there. And then when I got to my undergrad, I went a very, academic route. And so I forgot my creative writer side for a little bit. And rekindled with it a few years ago, which has led me to then pursue my MFA in creative writing. I’m very happy that I was able to rekindle this, this connection that I have to writing, not just in an academic way, but also in a creative way.
Teresa Douglas 7:02
Yeah, it seems like you went all in with the dual master’s degree, because that’s pretty intense to attempt two at once. And you’re getting sort of both sides of that with the English and the creative writing. Yeah, I don’t know when you sleep, but
Constance Mello 7:17
it’s, uh, yeah, I ended up like, I’m going to be studying for a lot longer than people usually do in their master’s. So it’s a three year program, which is why I’m able to do two degrees.
Teresa Douglas 7:30
That’s how you’re sleeping.
Unknown Speaker 7:31
Yeah. It can be really intense, especially because I obviously work at the same time. So yeah, it is intense. But I’m happy that I found a way to explore both my passions, both a more academic sense of the written word. And also the creative side of it.
Teresa Douglas 7:52
And, I didn’t say it earlier, but it’s just so lovely that some member of your family took you seriously enough, when you were eight, to give you that validation of your identity as a writer and, and it sounds like clearly, it’s something that you still carry with you. There’s this beautiful blue box that she made. And, having that is such a special thing, just to have someone who, who may not have mentored you, as in, write things this way, but mentored you in the way of saying, Yes, you are this writer, and you should continue with it. It’s such a beautiful thing.
Constance Mello 8:30
Yeah, it’s also like a great privilege, you know, to be heard, and to be taken seriously, even as an eight year old. I’m sure that whatever songs I was writing weren’t like high art or anything like that, but being encouraged and being considered a writer even so early, has been the main way in which I’ve maintained this connection with the creative side of me.
Teresa Douglas 8:53
So you sent in a poem, and you’re talking a little bit about how you write academically. Do you have a first love, is that poetry fiction nonfiction what? Or do you consider yourself a writer who does all of these things equally?
Constance Mello 9:07
Um, I wouldn’t say I do them all equally. I would say I’ve tried to do all of them equally, to varying degrees of success. I actually started off, like I said, writing songs, which I think are a variation on poetry. And for people who know me, like in real life, I tend to be like a very grounded, very practical person. And so when I say that I like to write poetry, a lot of people in my life tend to be surprised if they don’t know about that side of me. But I think it is one of the ways in which I can actually access that emotional side of myself without having to keep to constraints of form as much as with fiction or nonfiction.
Teresa Douglas 9:56
Yeah, and you do it so well. I mean, that leads sort of beautifully into talking about the piece that you sent in, Mouth Guard. I would love to hear a little bit of–you say this is very personal. Did you start with wanting to articulate the idea? Or? Actually I’m not going to constrain you. Tell me the process you used to write this piece?
Constance Mello 10:20
Yeah, um, I am always afraid of this question a little bit, because I feel like a lot of poets, they have a very, very structured process where they start with an idea. And then they work on these different sentences for a really long time. Whereas I’m a lot more of like, put everything down that I think about. Structure it some sort of way. And then I leave it for a couple of weeks, come back to it and make the adjustments that I see fit. Um, and in this case, it was actually because I was in one of my creative writing classes. It wasn’t even poetry. Actually, we were just talking about language in general. And I don’t know if I told you, I was born and grew up in Brazil. And I didn’t start learning English until I was 10 in school, and I didn’t move to the US until 2018. So it’s relatively recent, but most people that know me, they always say, Oh, you have like an American accent, like, I can’t really hear that you’re from somewhere else. And I describe to them how even as a young child like around 12, or 13, I used to watch these American television shows, especially sitcoms, like on reruns on television. And I used to practice this accent out loud, or I used to like, I used to read the Harry Potter books out loud to myself to try to get like a grasp on the language. And I don’t know exactly where this fixation of mine came from, of like nailing the accent. But it became quite an obsessive practice. To the point where now I look back, and I’m like, I kind of regret that I ground this accent out of myself.
Teresa Douglas 12:20
It’s an interesting thing to hear. Because I was actually just talking to somebody–a different writer earlier yesterday, about this idea of how when you move to a new country, and whether that’s the US or Canada or some other English speaking place, and that urge to fit in with either comes from you, or maybe the culture squashes you, or some other Interplay there. And just that, that idea of how American are you? Or how Canadian are you? Or how whatever you are? So it’s interesting to see that play out in somebody who was so young.
Constance Mello 13:05
I honestly, I wouldn’t really be able to tell you, if it came from within myself, or if it came from, like, outside pressures, like you’re describing. It was probably a mixture of both right? I go through this thing, and in the United States, where I’m very, like white passing, so no one would ever think I’m not from here because of that. And it’s a privilege I don’t take lightly. You know, I get to be invisible, in my ethnicity, I guess, which is helpful in a lot of situations, but can also be difficult from like a personal point of view of like, my connection with my identity and my connection with my nationality.
Teresa Douglas 13:51
I feel ya on that one.
Constance Mello 13:54
And, yeah, and I was thinking about, like, all these situations where I meet new people, and they treat me one way. And because I’m white passing, because I don’t really have an accent. They can tell that I’m not from California, specifically, which is where I live right now. But they think I’m just from somewhere else in the United States, which is what I allude to in the poem. But then, when the reveal comes that I’m Brazilian, and that my native language is actually a different language, it kind of changes the way that people see me. And not always in a positive way.
Teresa Douglas 14:35
Yeah, and that can be tiring. It’s like okay, yeah, here we go again. And I say that as a Mexican whose last name is Douglas. Because I’m also very white passing and I’m in Canada. And there’s that idea where someone will sort of look at you and there’s that minute of ‘Wait a minute.’
Constance Mello 14:57
Teresa Douglas 14:58
-and where the question sometimes [comes] “What are you?” It’s like I’m human. That’s what I am. Anyway. So yes, it’s an interesting and very, because again, on one hand, we’re least likely to be the people that get targeted for police brutality.
Constance Mello 15:19
Yeah. That something that whenever I try to explain this situation, I really want to acknowledge that being white passing is a great privilege in the United States.
Teresa Douglas 15:34
Yep. It’s also a privilege in Canada. It’s something not to forget. It’s also hard. If you’re in the middle of a group that suddenly starts talking racist. And you’re like, Oh, this is the part I get to tell you I’m not white. And now we all have to deal with this. So all that aside, I thought you did a great job of putting that in this piece. This idea of, of not having the accent, and always from somewhere else, from wherever it is you happen to be in that moment, like the East Coast or Kansas. Sure, wherever, Yeah. And that, the idea of not, well, hiding, because you say your brother accuses you of running away, “and I did. I ran to the United States”. So there’s that running away. But you’re also always sort of, in this piece, alluding to the fact that you’re not quite from there, you’re from somewhere else and people can’t tell you where you’re from. And sort of glossing over it, because it is tiring, darn it, to do that all the time. And I love that that came out in three words. “Sure. I say, sure.”
Constance Mello 17:00
Yeah, that’s it.
Teresa Douglas 17:01
That was so well done. And, even this idea of, again, of running away and having run away, but not really escaping at the same time, like the mouth is guarded, it’s almost like being jailed in its own way. The mouth not rolling those Rs. And locked into place. Guards. So just hearing that feeling of captivity while also having run away, but not because you’re still connected to your family, which obviously, is something that’s there. We all have that connection, whether or not we’re in a position where we talk to the people we’re related to anymore, that connection is still there. And it’s just very, very lovely. To see this kind of a serious topic, also put together in a way where it’s in the larger context of, of being in a family and being away from family and in a country, but also being from nowhere, and I thought that was really well done.
Constance Mello 17:02
Thank you so much. I really appreciate that. Yeah, I have a super complicated relationship with my family as most people do. Because of living abroad. And, yeah, you really said it all in the sense of like, I belong here, I belong there, and in between and nowhere at the same time. And so, I think this poem was just kind of like a little Ode to myself almost. And this journey of belonging and not belonging, I guess. And, just to address something you were asking earlier about the process of writing this. When I was sitting in that class, and I said that I ground the accent out of myself, I thought about the fact that I wear like a mouthguard to sleep every night because I have TMJ. So like a problem with my jaw. And because I grind my teeth, I was thinking about, like, this motion of like, grinding something. It destroys, but it also makes something else out of it. So yeah, that’s kind of where that concept came from.
Teresa Douglas 19:38
And it’s such a vivid one, especially this grinding and unrolling. It’s like you said, it’s an act of destruction, also an act of creation. And it’s something that’s smoother once its ground, right, even smaller, so that ambivalence I thought was again, just such a superb choice to make whether or not it was intentional or unintentional at the time that you first wrote it. And I have to say, incidentally, I sometimes think that when we are asked about process that all of us are the ones that say, “I don’t know, man, I just made it up,” right? And then we have to come up with a better answer, because nobody wants to hear that. Wait a minute. You just made that up. I literally just made that up. That’s the definition of fiction? We made that up. But even when it’s nonfiction, in some ways, like that first draft, is something that just comes out of you. And I know that there are people that plan what they write. I just don’t believe that they don’t meticulously make stuff up. They just make their stuff up methodically. So you people that have a very practiced process that you can talk about, we’re on to you. Just so you know, and it’s okay.
Constance Mello 21:05
You’re just making it up like the rest of us.
Teresa Douglas 21:07
Yes! Well, this has been so so nice to have you here talking about this piece, because I feel like I am not going to be the only one that identifies personally, with this idea. Because even people that may be in the country that they were born in, speaking the language that they’ve always spoken, who are connected in a simple way to their family can also have that in between feeling in other ways. Especially in different countries where you’re trying to find your place, as a person of Latinx descent. I feel like it’s even in the specificity of this is something that a lot of people will identify with. So thank you for sharing that.
Constance Mello 22:00
Thank you for giving me the space to do so it’s really nice to be able to actually talk about the work that I’m putting out there.
Teresa Douglas 22:07
Well, you know, I’m sure other people are also going to want to see the other things you do because you’ve had writing in other places. Do you have a website or social media where folks can follow you and see what other work that you put out?
Constance Mello 22:21
Yeah, I think the best place to do that would be on Twitter at Constance underscore s e r.
Teresa Douglas 22:28
And listeners if you don’t have a pencil or you can’t remember that will be in the show notes. If your brain is like mine, where something goes in one ear and out the other. We’ll put that in. Thank you for coming and I’m so happy to have your work on the podcast.
Constance Mello 22:49
I am thrilled to have my work in this in this medium. Thank you so so much