Behind the Scenes: Gina Fuchs Talks About Elegy for My Grandmother’s Rice
Latinx Lit Interview Gina Fuchs_mixdown
Gina Fuchs, Teresa Douglas
Teresa Douglas 00:10
Welcome listeners to this week’s behind the scenes episode of Latinx. Lit audio mag. I’m your host Teresa Douglas, and today we’re going to be talking with Gina Fuchs, who is the author of Elegy For My Grandmother’s Rice. Gina is a graduate of the University of Maryland College Park at Maryland. She received her BA in Communication Studies and a minor in creative writing with a concentration in poetry. Gina’s poetry has appeared in the University of Maryland’s literary magazine Stylus, Northern University’s literary magazine, Polaris, as well as the online publication Palette Poetry. Her writing primarily explores the function of memory in our lives, how memories shape relationships, experience, the ways we view our families, and of course, the ways in which we pass down stories. Gina is a Puerto Rican New Yorker, aka Nuyorican who is still working on her Spanish. She loves coffee, ribs and the color yellow. Welcome, Gina.
Gina Fuchs 01:15
Hi, Teresa. I am so excited to chat today.
Teresa Douglas 01:20
Well, I’m glad to have you here. A question I’ve been asking people on this podcast is a food related question because truly, truly, as it shows in your piece, food is important. What is your favorite comfort food?
Gina Fuchs 01:35
That is a great question. I think I would have to say my favorite comfort food is ribs. Like barbecue spareribs. There’s just something to me really comforting about finger foods. And I have always loved ribs growing up. There’s just something so primal about sitting down and eating–
Teresa Douglas 01:58
Just biting to the bone!
Gina Fuchs 01:59
Yes! So yeah, I would say ribs.
Teresa Douglas 02:07
Lots of sauce? No sauce? We need we need all the details.
Gina Fuchs 02:10
I love sauce. I love a good like, very saucy rib. I like dry rub. But I think I prefer a saucy barbecue rib.
Teresa Douglas 02:21
Yeah, I’m not sure if that’s going to offend anybody in the South, where the ribs are almost a religion. But there you go. Shots fired. She says sauce people. It’s sauce.
Gina Fuchs 02:33
I’m given a dry rub, I’ll be very happy with the dry rub.
Teresa Douglas 02:38
There you go. So just very accepting of all rib methodologies. But really, it’s sauce, just so you know. So that is truly an important question. But we should probably talk about you since this is a behind the scenes about you. How long have you been writing?
Gina Fuchs 03:04
It is very funny that you ask this. I want to say like two weekends ago, I was home at my mom’s apartment. And my brother and I were going through boxes of old things. And I found some report cards that I had from elementary school. And I found this one from fourth grade which I don’t have in front of me. But my teacher had written like a note as part of I don’t know whatever you call it. But as part of her like review, at that point about how I had really taken an interest in poetry, which was just sweet to see. And it’s sort of the thing that I remember more than most things from elementary school, like I remember seeing fractions and being like, that’s never gonna stick. Yeah, that did not stick but we had a poetry unit in fourth grade and I was like, This is incredible and really became like attached to it then as a practice. Which of course at that age, it was like the writing was really bad, but I think she mentioned I was kind of good at rhyming.
Teresa Douglas 04:22
Hey, it’s important. to build that skill! Wow. It’s funny to hear when people come to it because of course, you can write and be successful no matter when you start, whether that’s 8 or 82. And it’s amazing to think of all the little triggers that get people interested in something. And for you, it was that teacher having a poetry unit and who even knew that was going to lead to you going to college and studying this stuff, right?
Gina Fuchs 04:54
Yeah, it is really weird how things work and it’s funny because it’s just like the least taught thing in school. I feel like there’s like some times a week dedicated to poetry.
Teresa Douglas 05:16
It’s a funny thing. You never know. I also got an MFA. And it was for fiction. But when I went, they had readings where you go, and you listen to people. And there were a lot of poets. And it just sort of struck me how economical and beautiful, even if it’s not always talking about beautiful subjects, how beautiful poetry is, and how just concentrated in its power it is to talk about anything you want to talk about.
Gina Fuchs 05:47
It’s so true. Yeah, I think that’s part of what like drew me to it. And to be honest, I can’t remember what we were reading when I was younger. But I think as I got older, it really was sort of, l mean, sometimes poetry is not brief, but in the places that it was brief, feeling so seen. Even in like pieces of work that weren’t specifically related to something that I’d gone through. I think as like a medium it has such a specific way of allowing readers to feel seen in moments that aren’t necessarily their own. That always super special.
Teresa Douglas 06:40
And it’s surprising. I am usually really bad about recalling names of authors that I’ve loved like I read something and two days later, it’s like “who was that person again?” but there was this particular poet that I read, it was Thomas Lux, and he was reading a piece about ice worms on an iceberg or something. It just kind of blew my mind that somebody would write it that. That just changed my idea of what’s possible in poetry, okay. And I can’t remember all the poem but I’m just like, wow, glaciers and worms, okay. But we should talk more about your work actually. So first off though, it sounds like poetry is definitely a first love. Do you stick with poetry exclusively? Do you write other things or is this just really where you you find your your heart leads you?
Gina Fuchs 07:41
I always come back to poetry. I think that’s the one medium that I can I’ll stick with, but I have taken some satire writing classes. So I do like like to dabble in comedy writing as a as a hobby.
Teresa Douglas 08:03
Yeah, it’s funny just a little while ago, I recorded an episode which will be out soon with somebody who teaches satire at The Second City and it it’s really fun just to see how your brain can work in different ways. And it’s almost like when you’re working out and you do weights one day and then you do some kind of cardio the next day it exercises different things and it’s fun when you can have something that makes you think in a different way. At least I think so.
Gina Fuchs 08:36
It’s so funny that you say that. I took my first Satire writing class at Second City so I’m really excited to listen to that episode. But it’s true. I feel like in my like poetry writing I have a hard time like making a joke but um I love satire.
Teresa Douglas 09:04
Yeah. Let’s let’s talk about your piece because it’s definitely not comedy or satire. We have this grief. We have memory. (If anyone’s hearing kind of rustling in the background, I’ve just pulled out my iPad so I can read through the piece.) When you’re talking about that rice it’s almost the safest thing to have grief over. And yet it’s not. I don’t know I’m not putting this right. But I The reason I love this piece. Let me get back to that. It’s because you’re already talking about about death and losing this perfect burnt rice caked into the soul of your pot and to me that is such a lovely visceral image. As someone who has burned the bottom of rice quite a few times and not actually meant to do that. I can almost feel that detail. Is that a detail that you came into this piece with? Maybe we can we can just have you walk us through how you started this piece? How you you came to the idea of it?
Gina Fuchs 10:27
Yeah. So I actually wrote this piece a few years ago, and have been just like, as one does workshopping it and workshopping it. And honestly, it’s quite a literal piece. And of course, I think all writers take some creative freedom. But most of this one is drawn from life. And I think with this specifically, I lost like, all of my grandparents at a really young age. And my grandmother, who this [poem] was sort of drawn from, my mom’s mom, was my third grandparent to pass away. I should have mentioned my grandmother’s Puerto Rican, my mother’s Puerto Rican. And so I think food was always a really big part of like, obviously going to my grandmother’s house, never denying eating her food. But I was like–it’s funny, and the thing I regret more than anything to this day–the world’s pickiest child. So like, of her rice and beans, and chicken and pork, and platanos I ate plain white. I was the one going over and eating and leaving her home with a huge plastic yellowing tubs of plain white rice.
Teresa Douglas 12:00
You know, we’re all like that. Nobody’s kids comes out and says, You know what, I need some more than habanero sauce.
Gina Fuchs 12:14
I mean, my little brother is like five years younger than me. And he was always just eating anything. It made me look so bad. They were always like, This food is really good. And I was like, No, but you guys don’t understand this plain white, it’s better. But I remember being, young and having the thought of, I don’t, I’m not going to have it. When my grandmother passes away, this is not going to be–my mom has tried to make the plain rice and I’ve had the option of white rice at a number of Puerto Rican restaurants. But it’s not the same. It’s like that hidden ingredient in what any grandmother cooks that they make it so you can’t recreate it. So I think that was sort of the moment for me, that was the catalyst of this piece. And she passed away when I was young. And I think the other thing that I was really reflecting on in this poem was the way that we memorialize people who we don’t remember very well. And I think, for me, that came up. I remember trying to remember her cooking, what I did eat of her cooking, and also just trying to hold on to that culture after she had passed, because my mother’s Puerto Rican, but my dad’s Irish, so there was definitely like a huge loss of culture after she passed away. And so I think that felt really complex for me, especially in that I was not eating all of the cuisine that I could have been eating.
Teresa Douglas 14:12
And it’s just there’s that point where you talk about a grandmother, as the receptacle of other people’s memories. And now by the end of the piece, you are the receptacle of those memories now, and whatever they are, if it’s that rice, if it’s the relationship, whatever it is. It’s an interesting and beautiful sort of embodiment, even though there’s grief in this poem. And also, I have to say, four bowls of rice for two people sounds like a normal amount of rice to me.
Gina Fuchs 14:53
But maybe not enough!
Teresa Douglas 14:55
Maybe not enough because you never know you could be extra hungry, especially if you’re not eating anything but the rice. So the other question I would have, because you talk about in your bio, that you’re you look at the way people pass down stories and memories, and this piece is very much about that. We don’t often get to tell the writer or excuse me, as writers tell their reader, here’s what I really hope that you take from this. And of course, they’ll take what they they take from it and we can’t stop that, and that’s good. But what would you like a listener of this piece to leave with?
Gina Fuchs 15:38
That’s an amazing question. I guess you’re kind of always wondering like, what they’ll take of your personal story. And like, how they’ll interpret that. But I think in terms of, like more broad message, I, I don’t know if I would want someone or if I would hope that someone walks away from this piece with like, any sort of answer, but maybe a question for themself. So like, my mom’s family was always very big. And it’s weird. Like, over the years, it’s kind of pared down to just like her sister and my cousins, and we lost our grandparents. And there’s also just so many people that I remember meeting as a child who I’m like, who were they? And where did they go? Where’s that man and his child? I had a great grandma who didn’t speak any English. And like, I don’t remember getting notice that she passed away. But I haven’t seen her in 10 years. I feel like there is also just familial trauma passed down. And that’s not something that we like to talk about as a family. And now someone, I guess, specifically my grandma passing away, and the way that we reflect on who she was, and what our entire familial unit is like, it’s very positive, even though it may not necessarily have been that way in reality. And so I guess I in growing up and continuing to write have been really curious about how I can delicately uncover what feels like more of a holistic truth about who my grandparents were, what my mom’s relationship to her mother was or like, without having such rose colored rose tinted glasses on.
Teresa Douglas 17:49
You are getting to a central question, because for those of us who have in living memory, or living familial memory, people who either have gone through traumatic events, or immigrated, which in itself can be a traumatic event, depending on when and where and how. There’s always the question of, how much truth do you give the next generation? How much can they bear? And what is your responsibility? As a person who’s supposed to transmit knowledge and family stories? What’s your responsibility for uncovering that trauma is, especially if it’s your trauma, because I wonder about this. I had a grandfather who passed 10 plus years ago, who never spoke really about his past. But because I had a school assignment in high school as a sophomore, to ask about his past, he gave it to me. And he ended up weeping while he was doing it. And even as a callow 13 year old, I decided that my teacher didn’t need that truth. And so I i shined it up a bit. I didn’t say anything untrue. But I removed his pain because he was a living person who had to deal with that. And I feel like that’s an interesting place to be in. To say, here, here’s what happened. But how much of it do I tell you? And how do I tell you? As storytellers, as people who, who try to find that truth, we’re even more responsible, in my mind for what we choose to do.
Gina Fuchs 19:53
Absolutely, and I feel like it’s I mean, as a 13 year old that’s such a big decision to me. And I think also just like such a, like a sweet for lack of a better word, decision on your part as a storyteller to navigate that in the way that felt the most dignifying.
Teresa Douglas 20:19
Yeah, I mean, I don’t know what I would have done as an adult, but that’s what I did as a kid.
Gina Fuchs 20:24
Yeah, and I think to that point, it’s not necessarily like nice that you get to carry that weight. But I think without understanding our own histories, whether they’re like, literally our own personal histories or familial histories, we don’t really have the opportunity to work through what is possibly being like passed down to us. So to that point, it feels important to me for people to be able to feel seen. Wanting to understand maybe that greater story about their family when the pieces aren’t always there. I don’t know that I’ll ever get all of the pieces that I’m trying to remember or dig up or understand and unpack. I hope other people with a cultural gap that they’re trying to fill can feel more seen.
Teresa Douglas 22:03
Yeah. It’s an experience. They’re not alone. That’s why we tell our stories. We’re not alone. They’re not alone. We share that moment even if it’s something that you know is there but you don’t have the information for.
Gina Fuchs 22:24
Absolutely. But I’m also like, I love my grandma. I’m like, mom don’t listen!
Teresa Douglas 22:34
But that’s the thing though. It’s when you don’t want your family or anybody who knows you to hear stuff, you know you’ve hit something right? I’m just gonna not tell anybody. It’s all good. Didn’t happen didn’t happen. For anybody who is not related to you that wants to hear more of your work, how would those people get in touch with you? Do you have a website or social handles that people who would like to read more from you can can find out that information?
Gina Fuchs 23:13
I have a and Instagram and a Twitter that I’m pretty active on. The Instagram is just at Gina by Gina. And the Twitter is just Geno’s opinion 24 7
Teresa Douglas 23:29
I love that. Don’t flip out people. It’s just an opinion.Don’t flip out. So thank you Gina, this has been so much fun to have you on the show and to learn more about you and this piece. I’m just very happy that that you came by.
Gina Fuchs 23:50
Thank you so much for having me and I am excited to hear the other episodes. I’m a big fan of the podcast so I’m excited to hear more.
Behind the Scenes: Carlos Greaves Talks about 10 Types of Vick’s VapoRub Your Abuela Keeps Around the House
Full transcript, with light editing for clarity.
Teresa Douglas, Carlos Greaves
Teresa Douglas 00:10
Welcome listeners to this week’s behind the scenes episode of Latinx Lit Audio Mag. Today we’re talking to Carlos Greaves, author of 10 types of Vicks VapoRub Your Aburella Keeps Around the House, which first appeared in Flexx. Carlos Greaves is an Afro Latino engineer, writer and filmmaker based in Boston. He teaches online satire writing at The Second City, and writes for Netflix’s ConTodos social channel. His writing has been featured in The New Yorker, and he’s a frequent contributor to the humor site, McSweeney’s. Welcome, Carlos.
Carlos Greaves 00:44
Thanks so much for having me.
Teresa Douglas 00:45
I’m thrilled to have you here. I have to tell you that one of the reasons your piece spoke to me so much is because I have been personally victimized by Vicks vapo rub. I have a distinct memory of being I don’t even know how old but having that stuff slathered onto my chest, wearing the footie polyester pajamas over it, just that feeling so, yes, yes, that stuff is in everybody’s household. I don’t know why.
Carlos Greaves 01:15
Teresa Douglas 01:15
I don’t know what, like, what is it? What is it about Vick’s, this just so, so important to Latin x community?
Carlos Greaves 01:24
Yeah, I don’t know. But I had the same experience growing up. And like, in particular, Vic’s like rubbed up under your nose, like, you know, burning your nostrils as you–
Teresa Douglas 01:40
Can never smell, again, at that point.
Carlos Greaves 01:43
Yeah, exactly. And yeah, it’s like such a universal thing. Like, we all grew up with that. And it was just this cure all. Anytime we were sick. It was slathered.
Teresa Douglas 01:55
Yeah. And you know, we’re here It saved us from death of evidently, you know, like it worked. Right?
Carlos Greaves 02:03
Exactly, exactly. So yeah, there’s something to it.
Teresa Douglas 02:06
I have to ask, did you have to take garlic pills? Because that was the other thing. These pills. They’re oily. They’re filled with, like essence of garlic. Did that happen to you?
Carlos Greaves 02:19
Oh, that’s funny. No, that, that I did not have to do thankfully. Yeah.
Teresa Douglas 02:26
I think I have Stockholm Syndrome on that one, because I used to hate garlic. And then sort of in late teens, I decided I loved it. And I think maybe there’s just an unhealthy there’s an unhealthy relationship there. So anyway, let’s let’s get off of the the traumatic personal stories. And before we talk a little bit more about your piece and about you. Let’s start with the most important question, which is a food related question. What is your favorite comfort food?
Carlos Greaves 03:02
I grew up in Texas. So I always loved Tex Mex cuisine. And, in particular, Chilie con queso, which is like a melted cheese with roasted tomatoes, and jalapenos and bell peppers. That was just like my number one favorite food growing up and still is and, it’s one of the hardest things about living in the northeast, that it’s just not really a thing here. So anytime I’m back home, it’s like immediately going to my favorite Tex Mex place and ordering that.
Teresa Douglas 03:36
Yeah, that’s just cheesy and spicy. I, I lived in New York for a little bit and even trying to recreate things. You can’t really find a healthy jalapeno. It’s kind of a problem.
Carlos Greaves 03:49
Yeah, it’s so true. I’ve tried multiple times to make it at home and it’s never quite come out, right.
Teresa Douglas 03:57
It’s got to happen back back where jalapenos grow strong and free. Which is Texas, and California where I’m from. So I feel you on that one. So we’ve talked a little bit how you’re from Texas. How long have you been writing? Have you been writing your whole life? Did you come to it a little later? What’s your deal?
Carlos Greaves 04:18
Yeah, growing up, it was always something I kind of casually enjoyed doing but never really thought too much about it. In college, I wrote for the school newspaper on the sports staff just purely for fun. And then senior year I took a class on filmmaking and totally fell in love with that process and started making some short films. And then after I graduated, I was working full time as an electrical engineer, but was doing some filmmaking on the side and that kind of morphed into doing more sketch comedy and actually performing live sketch comedy. And then I met a few people through that, and then eventually kind of started doing online humor and online satire. I kind of started getting my work out that way and have since had like a few pieces in McSweeney’s that have gotten a bit of traction and, quite a few in the New Yorker. And yeah, it’s just been kind of wild. It’s been, several years in the making, but it’s been so great seeing my work out there and people responding positively to it. So that’s been wonderful. But definitely not something I like, grew up thinking I would do.
Teresa Douglas 05:47
So you discoveredit in high school, which in some ways, is kind of what’s supposed to happen you, you know, we have this thing where you’re supposed to look at different things, try different experiences. And none of us know what we’re doing at that point anyway, and maybe luck into finding out then or, or even later. But just a question then, because you said you started with film. Have your films that you started with, that you started working on, were those also comedic?
Carlos Greaves 06:15
I actually have always kind of naturally gravitated towards humor. And yeah, I’ve even tried my hand at writing more dramatic work. And it just never, it never seems to come out right. And there’s just something about humor that, like, it’s, yeah, for me. It has to have some kind of funny angle for me to really be able to make it work. And I’m not quite sure why that is. But I think, yeah, it’s something I’ve always loved. I always loved comedies, and more so than horror drama. So maybe it’s partly because of that. It’s just kind of what I grew up watching. But yeah, I’ve been purely focused on humor.
Teresa Douglas 06:57
I find though, as someone who came to humor later, versus when I wrote other things, humor is hard. Like, we can’t even say, Oh, we do humor because it’s easier to do. Just being able to be funny, not just to yourself, but other people. And also to make a point. You were in McSweeney several times for different pieces, a lot of it reacting to cultural things. And it’s amazing to me that humor is a shared thing, but even writing it and sending it out into the universe, where someone else is going to hear it in whatever mental voice you know, wherever they are, and be able to say, you know what, that’s really funny, or he’s making a really good point there. It’s, a it’s a hard thing to do it. It can take an entire lifetime, to really hit your stride on that. I’ve enjoyed a lot of your pieces in McSweeney’s. There was the piece that you wrote about American Dirt–
Carlos Greaves 08:00
The piece was As a 28 Year Old Latino, I’m Shocked My New Novel Memoirs of a Middle Aged White Lady Has Been so Poorly Received.
Teresa Douglas 08:07
Yes! And I loved that piece so much. Because even just the title encapsulates the problem with something like American Dirt. It was a good piece. That was the one I have to say where I, I actually clicked into who you were, because I read your other stuff. But I thought this, I need to know who this guy is. Because he gets it.
Carlos Greaves 08:35
That was the first piece I’d gotten accepted by McSweeney’s. And yeah, just seeing the reaction to it was was unbelievable. But hat had been like, years in the making. I’d been writing, submitting to McSweeney’s off and on for about two years before I got that piece accepted. And that was my like 10th submission after nine rejections and not even including like probably 20 or 30 humor pieces that I started and didn’t even submit because I was like, Oh, this is not working. It’s not good enough. So yeah, it was definitely like a long slow and difficult process getting to that point of getting that first acceptance but yeah, it was just amazing to see the response to it, and then to like to have been able to get a few other things in has been great too.
Teresa Douglas 09:37
Yeah, let’s transition to 10 types of Vicks vapo rub that you’re Abruela keeps around the house. Can you walk us through how you wrote that piece? Did you start with a headline? Did you just have a concept in your head? How did that work out?
Carlos Greaves 09:55
I had originally pitched that to Flex with a couple other pitches, but when I pitched it initially, it was more of a satirical news headline that was something like, you know, abuela’s medicine cabinet, just a bunch of jars vaporub. There was that like, thing in my head about that like being such a ubiquitous, you know, cure all for any type of illness and malady and whatnot. And it was the editors who actually came back to me and were like, Well okay, what if it was more like, you know, 10 types of things, your abuela keeps around the house? And I was like, Okay, well there’s definitely something there and like, there’s something fun about the 10 different varieties and getting slowly build it out. And kind of play around with the concept and flesh it out a little bit more. So it was definitely a great note from them. And once I had that, I was kind of like, Okay, well, what are like, all of the different types of varieties I can think of, right? So there’s obviously the sort you rub up under your nose, because that’s something that we all grew up with. But then like, what if it extends even further? Like, what if it’s, you know, you put it on your bumps and scrapes and what if, you know, you use it to like, keep the cat off of the furniture.
Teresa Douglas 11:23
Or that poor dog. Wherever the vick’s went– we don’t need to know actually, where that vick’s went.
Carlos Greaves 11:29
Yeah, exactly. The dog does not mess with abuela anymore.
Teresa Douglas 11:36
And then the Pope! That, to me, is just so funny. This piece, it gets out there. I mean, you’ve had the cat, you’ve got the dog, but you could see theoretically, someone’s abuela who sees the pope, and is trying to get this thing blessed. Is it gonna really happen? Probably not. But maybe. Maybe it could happen? She might try?
Carlos Greaves 12:01
Yeah, well, that definitely felt like the logical conclusion of the piece. I was like, it has to escalate up to something like that. And then like who else but the pope that’s like the ultimate, you know? Yeah, the ultimate religious figure. And I think so many of us like have done the pilgrimage to Rome or know people who’ve done the pilgrimage to Rome and it’s like such a thing for Catholics. So that felt like the ultimate thing. It’s like well if you can get it blessed by the Pope, then that Vick’s will cure everything. That’s the Rolls Royce fix right there.
Teresa Douglas 12:38
And that’s a good moneymaker for abeula, who needs to supplement her retirement.
Carlos Greaves 12:45
Exactly. Well, if you’ve gone through the trouble of getting it blessed, you know, you might as well get something for it too.
Teresa Douglas 12:51
Exactly return on investment. It’s very important. Yeah. So is there and it’s funny to ask this about comedy in some ways, but we know that a lot of satire and comedy does have a point. Is there anything that you want, you want listeners who hear this an impression, you want them to be left with it at the end when they listen to your piece?
Carlos Greaves 13:15
Yeah, it’s funny, I’ve written a lot of like, much more hard hitting pieces, like, the American Dirt piece, and a lot of like, more biting satire. And this one, I would kind of want this to just be more of like, a fun read and something that, if you grew up with this experience, you’ll feel the nostalgia and just have a good laugh about. If you didn’t grow up with that, hopefully it’s just kind of like a fun little glimpse into our world.
Teresa Douglas 13:53
I was so seen in that moment. Ugh that Vick’s, I hated that stuff. I did not keep the cycle going with my kids. Because the trauma stops. It stops with me. There is no baby rub, no Vicks rub under anybody’s noses over here.
Carlos Greaves 14:12
Yeah, I feel like you know, our generation has to stop the cycle to stop the trauma.
Teresa Douglas 14:17
Yeah, exactly. Stop the cycle. Well, this has been so fun. So if others want to look at your work, they want to catch up with you and see the things that you’re writing or classes that you’re teaching. How can they keep in touch with you and see what’s coming up next?
Carlos Greaves 14:35
So my website, which is Carlos Greaves.com, has a good overview of my writing and teaching and so forth. And I do have a workshop coming up on October 23. I’m teaching a workshop for writing workshops dot com, and it’s focused on writing topical satire around the holidays. So you know, the whole holiday season coming up. If there’s a holiday that you absolutely love or absolutely hate, and you’ve always wanted to write about it, this will kind of walk through how to approach writing satire about specific holidays, and also how to incorporate current events and news and pop culture into writing about the holidays. So if you’re interested in that, definitely check it out. The website for that is writing workshops.com. And if you look at the upcoming classes and scroll down, you’ll see my workshop there.
Teresa Douglas 15:35
Well, listeners if you don’t have a pen handy, all of this is going to be in the show notes. So you can click on the links there, if you want to sign up for the class, or if you just want to see more of Carlos work. Well, thank you so much for coming, Carlos. This has been a true pleasure.
10 Types of Vicks VapoRub Your Abuela Keeps Around the House
by Carlos Greaves. This piece first appeared in Flexx.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
“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?
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.
“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.
“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.
“Mal de ojo” Vicks This is the Vicks that protects you from mal de ojo. Duh.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
This piece first appeared in The Best Short Stories of Philadelphia published in 2021
The solitude was something that Andrés liked most about his job at the parking garage. Is not that he wasn’t grateful to have a place to live but sharing a two-bedroom apartment with nine other men never allowed time for his thoughts to grow. He liked the quiet nights watching over the security screens from his post as the night watch for the parking garage on Fridays and Saturdays. Best of all, he didn’t have to say much to anyone. His English, though it had improved since his arrival almost two years prior, he felt was nothing to be proud of yet. He spent some of the lonesome evening hours trying to learn the language from a set of books and CDs that some of the other guys he lived with had used to learn it. One of them was now working at a call center. That’s what Andrés wanted to do, so he was studying during his evening job, on the bus on his way to work in construction during the week, and every time he found himself with some time on his hands–like at the laundromat.
It was Sunday and Andrés still had one hour and 45 minutes before his shift was done and he could head to his favorite place in all of Philly: Albert Street Tacos y Desayunos. Sunday breakfast was the only meal a week that Andrés allowed himself to splurge on by eating menudo or barbacoa de borrego instead of the ramen noodle in a Styrofoam cup that kept him fed during most of the week. He loved the feeling of belonging that surrounded him and some of his roommates that would meet him there. He didn’t feel unwanted at Anita’s restaurant. The best part was that he got to see Brenda, Anita’s daughter who was always quick to smile and never minded when Andrés used any of the English phrases he had just learned when talking to her.
The alarm clock resonated through the Southside row home. It really meant nothing more than the announcement that Sunday had officially started, for everyone in the family had been up for a while. Anita had left already headed to the restaurant with her camioneta full of pots of barbacoa de borrego that she finished shredding the night before. It was a labor of love: the selection of the best lambs, their placement in the cooking pits, then the careful shredding of the meat making sure that the fat and the meat cuts would be evenly distributed among the large pots. Early Sunday morning, Anita’s family would help her place them into the truck that would take them to her restaurant. Anita would start the fogones to warm everything up while her comadres made tortillas and finished the menudo and the assortment of salsas before the customers started lining up.
Anita had been living in Philly for a few decades now, but had only managed to open her humble restaurant five years ago when she and her husband looked at their savings and decided to take a leap of faith and follow at least one of the many dreams that they had brought with them across the border. What started as a breakfast place offering chilaquiles, quesadillas, and egg-and-chorizo tacos, evolved into a proper taqueria during the week and breakfast place on the weekends with an extended menu and the added art of authentic lamb barbecue.
Anita wanted a place for all Mexican workers to have a warm and properly cooked Mexican meal. Every time she passed a lawn service crew, a construction site or saw a paisana boarding a bus to head to a job cleaning offices or houses, she thought about her first years in the US. The isolation and homesickness she experienced at every moment of the day was only made better by the warmth and love she enjoyed while preparing and eating a meal with her family. She wanted her restaurant to be that place for all Mexicans in Philly looking for a taste of home.
She had been lucky to open her restaurant in a neighborhood where young people with college degrees and a sense of culinary adventure lived. Soon after expanding her humble restaurant to a bigger venue with a menu that included breakfast foods on the weekends, the locals started to frequent it –even the mayor had come and dined with them. She was so proud to have a picture with her displayed on the wall.
Her children, who were now 18 and 21 had been born in Philly. They pushed her to start a Facebook page and accounts in other social media platforms. Their online presence seemed to be the biggest reason for the latest boom they were enjoying. Now, all weekend long, there were big lines of people trying to eat her food –imagine that! Anita felt proud of the success of the family restaurant but was troubled by the idea of turning customers away. Most of the time, the people who couldn’t get a taco de barbacoa or the expected menudo bowl were her regular customers, the Mexicans for whom she opened the place and for whom she cooked with such love. This made her feel as though she was taken away their safe place while depriving them of a taste of home.
The conflict inside her had been spreading to the rest of the family. They were all happy about the tremendous success but felt that something needed to be done to cater to their community while inviting the rest of Philly to share in their culture through food. Anita had not come up with a solution yet. She realized she might have to turn customers away again the coming Sunday.
The sound of the rubble under new jogging sneakers was one of Alfonso’s pleasures. He didn’t have much time for running when he was driving to and from the office and to and from his children’s activities, so he dedicated time to his hobby on the weekends. He was especially happy this Sunday because his family had gifted him a new pair of running shoes.
He liked running at the college track by his house because it brought back memories of his student-athlete days in Monterrey, Mexico. They seemed so distant now that he had been living in Philly for seven years after his American company relocated him and his family to the States. It was an opportunity of a lifetime as far as new adventures go, but it had been hard on his wife, Alicia, who had not been able to make many friends since the move. He felt guilty for leaving their extended family back in Mexico and watching his wife lose her cheerfulness. Therefore, he was sure to get them plane tickets every spring break so that they could spend a couple of weeks visiting Mexico. This year, though, he was set to travel to close a big deal for his company so he couldn’t accompany Alicia and the boys. He was a bit homesick for Mexico but more than anything, he was missing his family, which was how he found himself at the track so early on a Sunday morning.
Tired and more relaxed after running 10 miles, Alfonso thought it would be good for his soul to have a proper Mexican breakfast. After a shower, he headed to Albert Street Tacos y Desayunos. He liked going there, where he could be the Poncho of his Mexican childhood instead of the Al that people at work in the company that brought him to Philly started calling him when they deemed Alfonso “too hard to remember.”
When the Uber driver pulled up, the line at Albert Street Mexican breakfast place was already holding at least 25 people. Angélica was a bit mad at Robert who had overslept making them late for breakfast. “Who would have thought that a little spot far away from the Center City scene would be so popular?” Robert ventured to say closing the car door after him. But he knew full well that good Mexican food, especially the authentic kind, always had a loyal clientele mixed with an enthusiastic following of foodies in search of the best brunch in town. Besides, Angélica had been talking it up saying that it was the closest thing to her grandma’s barbacoa tacos that she had tried since she came to college in Philly –and had warned him of the giant lines if they didn’t arrive early enough. He knew he had messed up.
Meanwhile inside, Beto and Brenda were struggling to convince Anita to take a little risk by buying into their idea. It came to them when they had gone to a beer hall the night before. They had met a group of their friends there for some grub after work. The place was a big warehouse with long wooden tables. Every single spot was used as people sat with strangers at these tables. The whole idea was to enjoy the company of strangers while still hanging out with your friends. They thought this concept could totally be implemented at Albert Street Tacos y Desayunos, but their mom was not so sure that people who didn’t speak the same language would agree to such an arrangement.
“Ma, you just have to listen to us. Por favor, let’s try it today, and if it is a mess, I will take full responsibility for it. Lo prometo,” insisted Brenda who was the youngest and since she was still in high school, the child who spent most of her time at the family restaurant.
“M’ija pero ya está la gente ahí afuera esperando. It’s too late for us to be rearranging tables right now, just look at the line!”
“Precisely because I’m looking at the line, I can tell you that we can do this. Look: ahí está Andrés y sus cuates. I’m sure they’ll be glad to help us out and I will explain what’s going on to the people in line. We’ll put a quick sign on the window too and add a message on social media. No hay problema!” Beto was very affirming as his dad Arturo came to inquire why they had not opened the doors yet.
“OK pues, está bien. But if we have angry customers, you two will be dealing with them!” Anita lifted up her hands and headed to the kitchen to inform the staff.
“I have an announcement to make. Atención por favor,” Brenda started addressing the crowd outsidealternating between English and Spanish so everyone could understand. “First of all, thank you for your patience, please help yourselves to some coffee on the house. We are overwhelmed by the numbers of great folks showing up every weekend to try our family’s recipes and be a part of our community. We don’t like turning anyone away, so we came up with a solution. I hope you are open to it,” Brenda continued explaining their plan of putting tables together to make long dining areas where even the lonely could eat in company of others.
People in line didn’t seem to mind and as expected, the regulars, including Andrés, volunteered to help configuring the restaurant while the rest of the customers waited patiently nursing their coffees outside. Angélica was very excited to be in the line at that moment and started tweeting the action: Mexicans and non-Mexicans are coming together to eat in a family style setting by joining their tables and creating three very long ones. Extra chairs materialized and now the public is helping with the set up #LOVEPhilly.
The line started moving in large groups. The newcomers heard from people in line that today everyone was invited to break bread, or in this case, tortillas, with whomever happened to sit at their table. Alfonso was happy to hear that, being that he was there without his family today. Organically, people in line and at the tables who were bilingual took the role of interpreters.
“Hi I’m Robert and this by my side is my girlfriend Angélica. I noticed you spoke English and since Angélica is busy explaining what menudo is to the people to her right, I wonder if you could tell me if I should go with the chilaquiles verdes or rojos?” Robert dove right into getting to know the people around him.
“I’m Alfonso, or Poncho, and sure! I’ll help you. So, your girlfriend is Mexican, huh? I say you go for the chilaquiles divorciados. They are called divorced because half will have green tomatillo sauce and the other red tomato one. You’ll get to try both, and your lady will be so impressed that you knew to order them that way. ¿Y qué, te está enseñando español?”
“Sólo hablo un poquito.” Said Robert shyly. “But I’m going to be completely immersed in the culture for at least six months. When the semester ends in a few weeks, Angélica has to return to Mexico and she invited me to meet the family and all that. We’ve been dating for a few years, but I haven’t made it down there to meet the extended family. We are here today because she wants me to get a sense of what her grandma’s cooking is like. I’m so looking forward to being with Angélica in her own element. She’s been in mine for a while now, you know?”
“I get it and good for you, hermano! I’m sure you are going to have a terrific experience. Just make sure to always say yes to the food from la abuela, eh!” Alfonso advised concluding the exchange with a wink.
The plates arrived steaming and fragrant filling customers-turned-friends’ eyes with colors and their watering mouths with great expectations. Andrés was so excited to have been able to help Brenda –and Anita—with the new set up that he lost his inhibition and readied himself to help those new to the restaurant choosing what to eat. “Hey, mira, I really like the barbacoa. You can’t go wrong with that. If you like tacos, then you have to taste los tacos de borrego de Anita. Really, that is what I’m eating. They make me feel close to my family. They taste like Mexico!” Andrés said it with such conviction that many around him placed the same order.
Anita couldn’t believe it. The social experiment that her children had imposed on her was turning out to be a success. “I don’t know how you’re having people agreeing to sit elbow-to-elbow with complete strangers. ¿Y oyes eso? I hear a lot of Spanglish and laughter going on!” she was talking to Beto from the host desk as he managed the influx of people with ease.
“Ma people are usually open to new ideas. Besides, esto es lo que hacemos los jóvenes. The newer generations are open to this family style. I told you about the brewery, but I had seen it in other places before. Now, if you could only let me install some software and apps that would help us do some crowd control…” Beto started again with the idea of modernizing the restaurant a little bit. After all, he was learning just that in his hospitality courses on campus.
Anita sighed and said: “Una cosa a la vez, Beto. This is not a race, let’s try new things little by little.” Then she rushed back into the kitchen to tell her comadres the great compliments the food and restaurant atmosphere were getting from many different customers. “I’m glad I listened to you m’ijos!” She called back before the kitchen door closed behind her.
It was time for Anita’s family to sit together at the table and enjoy a meal after the first successful family style dining at Albert Street Tacos y Desayunos. They all were very satisfied with the large numbers they were able to service. They still had to turn some people away, but it was not the large numbers of the previous weeks. If there was ever a place to bring an amalgam of different people together to share a table and form a community, Philly was the right one.
Episode Seven: Behind the Scenes of ‘It’s Just Dancing’ with Camila Santos
Teresa Douglas 00:10
Welcome to LatinX Audio Lit Mag. I’m your host, Teresa Douglas. This week’s episode we’re getting a behind the scenes peek at ‘It’s Just Dancing’ by Camila Santos. Camila Santos is a Brazilian writer living in New York since 2004. She was named a Center for Fiction Emerging writer fellow in 2020. Her work has appeared or is upcoming in Newtown Literary, Columbia Journal, Minola Review and the New York Times. Her work in Portuguese can be found in Ruido Manifesto and is forthcoming and Coletânea de Poesia – Mulherio das Letras, Estados Unidos. She is currently working on her first novel, and a collection of short stories. Welcome Camila.
Camila Santos 00:59
Thank you so much for having me, Teresa. I’m so excited about this podcast.
Teresa Douglas 01:04
I’m really excited for you to be here. And as one Latin x person to another we have to start with the most important question, hard hitting question in this entire podcast. And that is what is your favorite comfort food?
Camila Santos 01:23
Um, I have so many. I love this Brazilian desert called Brigadeiro. It’s basically like a chocolate dulce de leche. I think that’s the closest I can describe it. It’s basically condensed milk, cocoa powder, butter, and then you stir it in the stovetop, and it’s the first thing every Brazilian learns how to cook. I think like every eight year old child knows how to make this thing.
Teresa Douglas 01:53
Well, you had me a chocolate dulce de leche. I mean, come on. It’s so good. Well, I didn’t realize it was gonna make people hungry on this podcast but there you go. It’s important. We talk about sharing stories. Often we share them when we share food. And so it’s it’s nice to let our listeners hear if we were sitting at your kitchen table, and you needed to serve some comfort food. That’s what you would serve us.
Camila Santos 02:21
Teresa Douglas 02:24
We should probably actually talk about writing because that’s why I asked you here. Food is very important though. So before we get into your piece, and some of the reasons I loved it and asking you some questions about it. Let’s give the listeners just a little bit about you. How long have you been writing?
Camila Santos 02:44
Um, since my 20s I I wrote some really horrible love poems as a teenager–
Teresa Douglas 02:53
Camila Santos 02:54
I’m not sure if that counts. I do wish I had them though. But they they’re lost. Yeah, so since my 20s.
Teresa Douglas 03:06
That’s fun. And so is fiction your first love or do you write other things? You sent us fiction but do you dabble in other other forms?
Camila Santos 03:18
Yeah, I mean fiction is my first and true love. And I have written some other things. I’ve written some book reviews and personal essays. Most recently, this is very exciting for me. I have gone back to poetry but in Portugues.
Teresa Douglas 03:37
Camila Santos 03:38
Yeah, so I’m starting to write in Portuguese again and it came out as poetry so it’s really great.
Teresa Douglas 03:45
Yeah, is Portuguese a first language for you?
Camila Santos 03:50
Yes, it is.
Teresa Douglas 03:53
I asked because I had this ambition–I came to Spanish fluency more as an adult–and I had this idea that I would write in Spanish and that hasn’t happened as well yet because it’s not my it’s not one of my first languages. I’m impressed by anybody who can write in a language that is not their own because I fail so miserably at doing that although maybe if I try 13 year old love poems, I might be okay.
Camila Santos 04:25
You can use Spanish in your writing in English as well. Right?
Teresa Douglas 04:29
Yeah, I mean that that’s easier for me because I I grew up around it. I love, love the sound of of reading other people’s work when they have that fluent brain in more than one language. Well, I’m going to get over my jealousy right now. We will talk a little bit about your piece ‘It’s Just Dancing.’ I will tell our listeners that I love that the title is actually part of the conversation. So we’re dropped in the middle of the protagonist who’s trying to persuade her boyfriend, her lover, that he needs to tell this little white lie for her, just for the time that her family is there. And you’re dropped in the middle of this. And, one of the things I loved about this story was that you get so much of the wider world in it. Even though it’s this intimate conversation with these two people, you can see that there’s the protagonist who’s trying to protect her family from themselves and their assumptions. That what she’s doing is, is this terrible thing. But there’s also the idea that she wants to present her own life and her independence in this really good light. So how did how did you come up with a story? Did it just show up in your brain one day? Did you sit down and plan it out? how did how did that begin?
Camila Santos 06:01
Yeah, um, well, first of all, thank you. I’m really glad that you enjoyed the story. The idea that sparked it, it was actually a lived experience. About 10 years ago, I was out with some friends. And we decided to go out dancing, and we ended up in one of these dollar dance halls. But this was down in the south in the Florida Alabama border. And it took me a while to realize that the dances were paid, because we were all like, dancing in our own little group. And so what really struck me was that it, it was just like any other club or you know, place like dance hall, I don’t know how to call it. But when I did realize, like, what was going on, I did realize that there were a lot more men than women there. And then I went to the bathroom, and I started chatting with some of the women who worked at the club, the dancers and then they just told me a little bit about what it was like to work there. They were coming from Atlanta in a van, that the club would provide, and then they would spend the weekend there. And then they go back home with like, $2,000 for dancing the entire weekend. Yes. So I was like, Whoa, okay, maybe I should work here!
Teresa Douglas 07:39
Yeah. How do we get in on this?
Camila Santos 07:41
Yeah exactly I was like, wow. And they, you know, I couldn’t they couldn’t really talk for a long time. Because like, if they’re talking to me, they’re not dancing, right? So it was a pretty brief conversation. But I just never really forgot it. And then, fast forward a few more years, I came across this article about dollar dance clubs in New York City. They’re also called Baile bars. And there are a lot of them in the neighbourhood in the borough that I live in New York, I live in Queens. And so when I was reading the article, I was like, oh, I’ve, I think I’ve been to a place like this. And then I also happened to be working on a project in which I was writing monologues that were based on interviews with Brazilian women living in Queens. And one of these women that I was interviewing, she kept coming back to the theme of dancing, like dancing was really important to her. And she also, in addition to talking a lot about dancing, she also had this really deep sense of obligation to her family back in Brazil. So what sparked it was I just remember imagining, like, what if, because I had just read the article, you know, so that, that memory of having been to that dollar dance club was very fresh for me. So I remember imagining, like, what if this woman that I’m talking to like, What if she worked for one of these, one of these places and was very ashamed about it, and had a very conservative family with these preconceived ideas of what’s proper and what’s not proper? And, like, how far would she go to preserve this image of herself to them? So all of that was the initial spark and then once I started writing it, it kind of came to me pretty quickly, which is not something that happens very often with my writing. And then I think I, I wrote maybe two drafts and showed it to a friend who’s a playwright. And she helped me clean it up a bit and that was it.
Teresa Douglas 10:01
Yeah, and it’s it’s a lovely story because I had heard of the dollar dance type things, but mostly because of old music, where someone said they paid for every dance or whatever. And I had no idea that that still happened at all.
Camila Santos 10:18
Yeah, it’s actually something that in the beginning of last century, they were called taxi dancers. And here in New York, there were these these big halls with with taxi dancers. And they were immigrant women, too, who were of Eastern European descent. And then, I mean, I didn’t do a lot of research into this, but I do know that then it just kind of stopped. And then it resurfaced in the Latin community. In the Latinx community.
Teresa Douglas 10:50
Fascinating. And I love that you’re talking about something that not too many. I mean, maybe everybody but me knows this, I shouldn’t be arrogant. So if the rest of you knew about this, you were very more educated than I am. You’re amazing. But for me, and anybody else, it’s nice to have heard a little bit more about, about something that sounds inherently female, and perhaps also more people who are immigrants. And so therefore, maybe isn’t talked about a ton. It’s just a lived experience, doing something just to earn some money. Yeah, I mean, we all have to eat. You worked in a lot of nice detail about the idea of what you have to deal with, sometimes these folks that might get drunk, or do a little bit more than dance. And you leave it on such a lovely, sort of heart squeezing moment where she wants to get her cosmetology degree, and have a salon, so she has plans and ambitions. It isn’t just dancing, it’s a hope and a dream. It’s a path to something else. So it’s lovely. And I guess the question I have then just hearing, especially with the context, and the research that you did, is there a specific impression that you want the reader to come away with, or some knowledge you want them to have? After they listen to you read the piece?
Camila Santos 12:27
Yeah, I’m really, really interested in writing about these, like in-between spaces that characters might occupy. So with this particular piece, with this particular character, it’s in her job. So she’s dancing for money, but she’s not stripping. She’s giving this illusion that she’s available, but she’s not too available, because, in fact, she’s not available at all. And I think that a lot of my characters, they find themselves and in between, you know, these spaces, so in between their native Portuguese, and their newly acquired English language, they’re longing to go to Brazil, but they can’t, or they won’t go back. And for this particular character, she’s still a little stuck in fulfilling her family’s expectations, even though she also has a very strong vision for herself for her future self, right? She ends with that vision. And I think that’s what I’d like people to think about when they hear the piece. It’s the tension between her own vision for herself, what she thinks are her family’s expectations and how she’s navigating that.
Teresa Douglas 13:52
And how she hasn’t quite, she has that feeling of where she wants to go. But she hasn’t quite given up on those expectations, either. She knows what they are and she values them to some extent. Because she’s feeling that tension. It’s just a beautifully played out piece for that.
Camila Santos 14:13
Teresa Douglas 14:15
Well, I do know that you have some things that have been out and are forthcoming. if folks want to just keep an eye on that and read some more of your work, do you have any social media or website or handles that folks can go to so that they can see when you publish more things?
Camila Santos 14:35
Yes, my Instagram is @Camilawrites. So that’s my first name and then writes as in writing and my website is Camila m Santos dot com.
Teresa Douglas 14:49
That’s very nice. Listeners. I will put that in the show notes with a little link so that it makes it very easy for you to go there. Well, thank you very much, Camilla for coming on the show today and giving us a little more about ‘It’s Just Dancing.’
Camila Santos 15:03
Thank you. It’s been such a pleasure speaking to you, Theresa.
Episode Six: (Fiction) It’s Just Dancing by Camila Santos
It’s Just Dancing
You know that. I know that. But they’ll never understand. Ok? So you have to help me. You just have to. They’ll ask a million questions. My mom won’t let me speak, even after I explain that I’m all covered up. That I dance in jeans and a t-shirt. My dad, he’ll be trying to calm my mom down, who by then, will be in tears. Not just regular tears—loud tears, hysterical tears. She’ll be all like: you left your family, you left your school, you left your friends, your country. For what? For this? To dance with strange men? And my dad, he’ll have an arm around her shoulders. He won’t make a peep. He’ll just push his glasses up his nose, pat my mother’s hand. But I know he won’t be able to look at me. Not in the eye. Ever again.
And I can explain that it’s just dancing. Salsa, bachata, forró. In fact, depending on the night, I might dance all of those styles. You know how it is: I go to the club and sit at the bar with the other girls. Then, one of the guys will ask me to dance. And we’ll dance. Just like in any other club. Except that when the song’s over, I get two dollars. I’ll dance an entire set for fifteen. And for fifty dollars, I’ll dance the entire hour. And that’s basically it. Didn’t my parents meet at a party? I mean, I’m sure they danced too. When I lived back in Brazil, I’d go out dancing with my friends all the time, we’d stay out all night long. When it comes down to it, what’s the difference? I know my job bothers you a little, but of course it does ‘cause you’re my boyfriend. But my parents? They wouldn’t ever even try to understand.
So can’t you just back me up on this one, amor? They’ll be here in a week. That’s plenty of time to convince your manager at the restaurant. She only needs to pretend that I work there too. It won’t be that hard. I’m there all the time. The entire staff knows me already. Don’t look so upset, it’s just a little white lie. Because once my parents start with the questions, it’ll never stop. And I’ll just have to tell them everything. That yes, it’s just dancing, but once a month, on theme nights, I gotta wear a stupid costume. How every once in a while, one of the men will drink too much and grab my ass. And some of them don’t pay the two bucks they owe me when the song is over and I gotta call the club’s bouncer. And how some of them smell bad. Or leer. And then, there are the nice ones, the regulars. The ones who blow all their hard-earned money on those dances. They even tip us. And a part of me feels terrible. Just terrible. But I gotta earn my money too, so I smile and thank them and even say that I’ll see them next week.
My parents will be here for ten days, love. That’s it. Then, they go back to Brazil. And I still have two thousand dollars to go. Just another few more months of dancing, and then I’ll be able to quit. And go to beauty school. I’ll get my cosmetology degree. On the first vacation break, we’ll take a trip to visit my family. I’ll show you the house I grew up in, my brothers will take you surfing, we’ll drink beers with our feet in the sand. Believe me, you’ll understand when you meet them. You’ll get why I’m asking you to do this for me. Just picture it: one day, I’ll have my own salon, you’ll have your coffee shop. We’ll look back at our time in the city. And I promise you amor, every time you take me out dancing, we’ll laugh about all of this.
Episode Five: Interview with Nancy Zigler, author of ‘Museums in the Sky.’
Teresa Douglas 00:09
Welcome to Latin x audio. I’m your host, Teresa Douglas. In today’s episode, we’re going to get a behind-the-scenes look at Museums in the Sky by Nancy Ziegler. Nancy was born the Year of the Dragon. [sings] Deep in the heart of Texas.[Stops singing] I just had to say it that way. Her favourite things include her son, Houston skies, glitter, avocado, Pluto, pizza, angora bunnies, and magic. You can find more of her work at ascentosreview.com. Welcome, Nancy.
Nancy Zigler 00:41
Thanks, Teresa. Thanks for having me.
Teresa Douglas 00:44
It’s nice to have you here. And I have to say, Museums in the Sky, I told you this, but the listeners don’t know. I read it and it was so beautiful, it almost just hurt me a little bit. It was just it’s such a lovely piece. So so sad and beautiful. And I feel like one of the best examples of in some ways what it means to be Latinx–we tend to find beauty in the pain, beauty in other things to not just pain. But anyway, I read it and it just it knocked my socks off. So thank you for submitting it. One of the other things I wanted to talk about now that I’ve I’ve said all of that, is to give our listeners a little bit more about you, the person who wrote this lovely piece. Can you tell our listeners just a little bit extra about yourself, for example, how long you’ve been writing?
Nancy Zigler 01:38
Yeah, thank you so much. And I really appreciate your shout-out to my piece. It’s one that I hold very close to my heart. And I do tend to put a lot of myself and my experiences, especially as a Latin American woman in my writing. And so I really appreciate you being able to see me, even though we’re, you know, some distance apart. And so that really meant so much to me. So I appreciate that. And I’m so happy to tell you a little bit more about myself because I’m a little bit of a mover, so I’m all over the place. Yeah, so I am actually originally from North Texas, a small suburb called Dallas. Sorry, I messed that up. I’m from a small suburb of Dallas called McKinney. And I am currently 33 years old. So I like threes right now. I currently live in North Hampton, Massachusetts. I have a three-and-a-half-year-old son. And I’ve been married to my husband Jake for five years. I originally began writing when I was a sophomore in college. And so I had to do the math. So that’s 14 to 15 years to get us to today. And so yeah, that’s a little bit more about me.
Teresa Douglas 02:55
Well, nice. So I know you say you started writing in college, was it? Did you start with fiction? Were you dabbling in poetry? Was it nonfiction? Just what sorts of things do you like to write?
Nancy Zigler 03:08
Yeah, thanks so much for asking. So when I started writing, I actually always loved writing, even when I was in high school, my whole senior year, I had a fantastic teacher that allowed me to only read Sandra Cisneros. So that’s all I did. And it was great. I was definitely always a reader first before I was a writer. And I remember that I started really just getting excited about writing when I was in high school, but I did so much better in my math and science, AP exams and all of that, that I was like, Oh, I guess, you know, I guess my work isn’t meant to be. So I kind of let it go when I started college. But I felt so lost. And I felt so adrift. I was at a big state school called Texas A&M, and it’s a research institution. And it was there that I met Angie Cruz, who’s also a writer whose book Dominicana came out not too long ago. And she literally gave me this magic that I was able to carry throughout college. As you know, I studied chemistry and I also have a degree in finance, which just gave me this little kind of sparkle of hope that one day, I could kind of afford to do the things that I wanted for me and not for everybody else. And so in her class, I mostly focused on fiction. But I was so green–like not a joke, when I applied for my MFA, I don’t even think I knew what nonfiction was. I was like, Oh, I love reading fiction. So that’s what I’m writing. I realized all this journaling I was doing and all of the stories that I wrote really came from a place of nonfiction and so I’ve been trying to lean into that a little bit more. But yeah, it’s funny just to think back. I tend to actually be more prolific in nonfiction though fiction is very, very close to my heart.
Teresa Douglas 04:53
Yeah, it’s funny though, especially when you’re thinking about creative nonfiction which uses a lot of the same sort of techniques. I mean, you’re letting people see the dialogue and descriptions, it can feel like you’re writing fiction, even if the things are true.
Nancy Zigler 05:09
Definitely. And I found that to be so helpful, I actually really appreciate that my thesis, my master’s degree was on the fiction track because I definitely feel that it helped me develop more of those techniques that I apply now towards my nonfiction writing. Overall, I’m a happy customer.
Teresa Douglas 05:27
Yeah, it’s good to have the tools because then you know how to use them. And then you can do what you want. So let’s talk a little bit about Museums in the Sky, you had said that you drafted this quite a bit. Do you normally do that many drafts, you had said something around 40? Is that regular for you? Is that part of your process? Or was this piece a little bit different?
Nancy Zigler 05:55
Yeah, this please, this piece was so so hard. And so I began writing it six years ago when I included it in the collection of stories that I wrote for my master’s thesis on my MFA. I wrote a short story collection and this was a piece that was included in there. I typically do not write that many drafts, I do tend to have more of an elongated process, I’m more of the type of person that I make a big mess and then I clean it up as I go along, I don’t get it right the first time. And this piece just really really mattered to me and it was so hard because I have faced so much rejection in the light of this piece. So I did submit it several times other versions of it, and I would receive really hard feedback mostly from people that weren’t bipoc folks and so it really kind of stung a little bit when I was reading some of their editorial comments. But you know, I don’t tend to have a lot of confidence in general but I really believed in this piece and just something in me something kind of like that I didn’t even know I had just told me to keep writing because this is striking a chord for you so it may for other readers and so I kept going.
Teresa Douglas 07:04
Yeah and I for one I’m glad you did and I know our readers will be. The language in here is beautiful (you’re going to hear some rustling listeners as I move through the 10 pages of the piece that I’m holding.) And there are pieces of it like at–when you’re speaking with the character of the love interest. And there’s this one section where it says “your characters smoke too much and never spoken dialogue. Then the twist when the dusk the velvet curtains painted the tile floors pink and it made you want to cry” and I could feel that. I felt I could see the ostriches on the crackling out of the gray shells of the wallpaper and it was just so lovely. And there’s so much about this piece. I mean Cielo first of all is so ethereal and yet… the pieces so grounded in these textural details of peeling red paint and the–and I’m getting ahead of myself but anyway they’re just some lovely pieces and you keep bringing back this idea of the universe and looking for signs. And there’s the recurrent like black hole that happens where Cielo says she wishes she’d been named black hole and then there’s the black hole of the mother’s death and then there’s again reference to that toward the end “the 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.” And I think anybody who has suffered loss even if it isn’t as profound as this character has had can identify with that idea of waiting, of waiting for signs, of waiting for things and it’s just so tightly tied together and anyway so this is lovely just the imagery in it was exactly the sort of thing that it matters every single piece of this piece matters to itself and you couldn’t take it out without really shortchanging the whole thing so yeah it’s an amazing piece just very dreamy and I’m gushing and I just don’t know how to stop myself from gushing right now but it’s gorgeous.
Nancy Zigler 09:21
Thank you for your close read of that and I again I just really appreciate that you got it. Like you said, I tinkered down, you know, to the very sentence and then the word level and then things just kept exiting and then entering the piece again. And yeah, it’s something that just hit really close to home for me because I wanted to write about gray space because so much of our world is in black and white right now. I wanted to write about vulnerability and also about a Latina narrator who was much more than just her ethnic background and that is much more than just her name. So as a kind of personal detail, I used to work for NASA, that was one of my first jobs outside of college. So I have a very soft spot for anything space. So that’s where a lot of those details came from. I was just collecting them, and I wanted to use them one day, so they were just kind of in my back pocket. And I also am a university educator, right now I work and I teach at Smith College. And I’m always stunned by this whole heart that students have. And it’s hard to express, like, in real words, so I’ll try. But oftentimes, when I enter a classroom, I know that there’s, you know, this power dynamic between teacher and student. But I also know that I feel very much the most vulnerable person in the room, especially in a space that feels very white oftentimes. And so that’s something that I wanted to kind of play with in this piece. And as another kind of aside, I love this piece by Vladimir Nabokov, Signs and Symbols. And so that’s something that I was also kind of playing with is like, what does it mean to have these things that don’t necessarily correlate, but you really, really want them to, in the kind of dream space of grief and love, which to me, when it’s tied together, it makes the other so much more profound.
Teresa Douglas 11:18
It is profound, and it’s fraught, I mean, at the ending, when they meet each other, again, this idea that she had nothing to offer, but her sadness at that time. But that now she has this other space, and maybe it’s okay, that they’re, they were just meteors passing by each other. And it’s, truly a vulnerable thing. And as we think right now, about some of the social reckonings that have been going on, and what that power dynamic is, like, in universities in specific, it feels like a very timely piece for right now.
Nancy Zigler 11:54
Yeah, it’s something that I’ve been digging really deeply into lots of narratives, mostly nonfiction, about the university space, and really trying to carve my place out there. But yes, it’s definitely something that feels very omnipresent in the classroom, especially now when all I see are little eyes in the audience, you know, behind, their masks. Just trying to forge those connections really, really matters to me. And so I’m, you know, this is a work of fiction. But I do I really just appreciate this whole-heartedness of people that are younger than I in the classroom because they’ve given me so much hope. And so I definitely wanted to kind of close off the piece with a little bit of a note of hope, as if there’s, there’s something beyond all of this. And now we’re entering the springtime of the narrator’s life, and she’s able to open her eyes and actually notice things that are dislocated if that makes sense.
Teresa Douglas 12:51
Yeah, and I like that not only is she hopeful at the end, but even from the beginning, she’s not sorry, right. And grief, we shouldn’t have to apologize for grief. She had this period. And it was part of her life. And there are other things now that she also sees, so I really did appreciate that. That ending and the question I had is–you talked a little bit about that–but what other feelings, if any, or thoughts do you want the reader to come away with after having listened to this piece?
Nancy Zigler 13:32
I feel as a Mexican American woman, I’m always apologizing, like, I just enter a room and I’m like, sorry, sorry, sorry, I exist. I just don’t want people to apologize anymore. And it’s something that I noticed now that I’m a little older, I’m like, why do I still do that? Is this the child in me? Is this the 11 year old, that still feels very out of place, everywhere I go? And I also, I, I love the Latin American canon. I host a book club in western Massachusetts, and I’m trying to dig a little deeper. Oftentimes, I really do feel like especially when I was younger, and growing up, I didn’t see any narrator’s that had this deep tie to space and astronomy and STEM and all that. And so I I’m really drawn to the poetics and the beauty of science teaching you about poetry, and poetry teaching you about the technicalities of the universe in life. And so I just hate these like harsh divides that we see within the Academy, where it seems unrealistic for a scientist to be a dreamer, or for you know, a poet to have like this razor sharp precision, but they exist and those are the people that are able to change the world. In my opinion, like when I worked at NASA, it was definitely the dreamers that got us into space, and they’re the ones that are going to get us into Mars. And so I really admire that and I just want to show people especially younger writers that are starting out, you know, that also includes myself, because I haven’t been published very often. But I just said that it’s possible. And just like, I think this imagination will create waves and will create social change. And those are the types of ways that we need to be thinking in order to get out of this kind of conundrum that like our life and our environment. And the racial reckoning we’re going through, we’re going to need that imagination to get through all of this. And, it’s a long time coming. So there’s a lot to process. And I just want to encourage other writers that feel kind of othered to find their space, especially you know, so many out there are so intelligent and have so much to give, but just have this fear of holding back. And this is a piece where I didn’t hold back. And I typically do, I tend to write very kind of like on the cusp of something, but here I just kind of like, dove straight in and I don’t regret it. Like, I feel like whenever I introduced this piece I’m always like, like having to defend it. But I really love it. And I was telling my husband, I was like, I just love this piece so much. And he was like, “Can I read it?” and I was like, ooh… my husband’s also a writer and a wonderful supporter. So I’m just excited to get it out there and to have others just kind of be able to find their space as well.
Teresa Douglas 16:24
Well said, and I will say as also a writer, my husband sometimes doesn’t read things until after they’re published, he has to read them with the strangers. Because you know, the piece is vulnerable, where you say, I’m not sure my family should read this.
Nancy Zigler 16:41
Like my therapist wants to read it. There are lots of individuals that are asking a lot of questions, but I’m okay with that. Because, again, this piece, I worked so hard on it, and I’m just so glad to see it. And you know what’s so interesting is that I actually wrote it in a way that, I wanted to read it out loud. And I was always the MFA [student] that refused to read at our readings because I was too shy, but I was like, No, I’m gonna write this in a way that’s meant to have the poetics of needing to be read out loud to access that extra kind of dimension to it. And so I’m just so proud and excited that you found me we found each other and we’re here.
Teresa Douglas 17:20
Well, listeners, you’re in for a treat. If you haven’t listened to the recording of Museums in the Sky yet, you should go do that right now. Because it’s a treat. And thank you. Thank you so much again, Nancy, for stopping by, you know, on the internet, and chatting with us about this piece. Thank you. Oh, and before I forget, how can our listeners find you if they want to see what you’re writing next, or catch up on all the Nancy gossip?
Nancy Zigler 17:55
Yeah, so I’ve got lots of Nancy gossip. So I post on estapluma.com, where I’m working on my current writing project, which is writing a letter to my three and a half year old son every day. And so you’ll see those posts. Yeah, you’ll see those posts on my website. And I also manage a book club called sobremesa, which is a group of powerful Latin American folks that come together to read only Latin American women. And so that’s been really special to me to be a part of that group and shepherd the effort. And so you’ll find that information on my website as well as how to join the book discussions.
Teresa Douglas 18:34
And for those listeners who are not close to a pen, pencil or other writing device, his websites will be listed in the show notes. Once again, thanks for coming, Nancy.
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.