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Poem: Frijoles de la Olla by Melody Rose Serra

Frijoles de la olla 


Ceramic pot, the color of terracotta 
neatly placed on the counter 
Your workspace, like an artist’s studio
The kitchen where you find refuge from a long day’s work 
where your hands follow a sort of intuition 
No recipe to follow
But generations of love and friendship 


They say food brings people together 
Family, both by blood and chosen 
Gathered ‘round your table 
on a random Tuesday, with no special significance at all 


You start to sort through the beans
Somehow you can tell which are bruised 
and which will go in the pot
Like watching a basket maker choose which tree will make the most lovely basket 
What foresight 


The water runs as you rinse the beans
With tenderness, I hear you begin to hum to the tune of “si nos dejan”
The sound of the gas stove, like the strings coming in for the first time in a symphony
Soft, steady, gentle 


Beans go in
Water, broth
Onions
A fragrant blend of spices with no labels 
Watching your hands, dance-like movements 
A choreography you know so well
You lean over and tell me “Mija, el secreto to any delicious recipe is love.”

Behind the Scenes: Frijoles de la Olla by Melody Rose Serra

Lightly edited transcript is below

Teresa Douglas 0:10
Welcome listeners to Latinx lit audio mag. I’m your host Teresa Douglas. In today’s behind the scenes, we’re going to be talking to Melody Rose Serra, who is the author of the poem Frijoles De La Olla. Melody’s passion is teaching and empowering others by sharing what she has learned. She helped launch an arts and crafts program at a children’s hospital, and also taught at San Quentin State Prison. Melody hopes to inspire youth to explore and expand their creativity through web development, writing, and art. Welcome, Melody.

Melody Rose Serra 0:48
Thank you so much. Thank you for having me.

Teresa Douglas 0:52
I’m just so happy to have you here and to talk about your poem and talk about you because I just loved this poem when it came through. But before I get distracted and launch into that, we have to answer one of the most important questions. If you were sitting at my table, metaphorically here, and you came to visit, I would of course, offer you something to eat. And I would love to know what your favorite comfort food is.

Melody Rose Serra 1:22
That’s a great question. So I am a huge fan of food. So it’s really hard to choose. But if I had to choose I’d say either my Abuelas Frijoles or Lentejas. I think they’re just so comforting. We’ve had them at every get together every holiday or just during a random visit. And it’s just something that I really love. And I think I would be remiss to not mention my other Abuelas empanadas. So also another huge favorite.

Teresa Douglas 2:06
Oh, we can’t have abuela wars because that will never do. Can I ask about the empanadas? Were they savory, sweet or both?

Melody Rose Serra 2:17
So she would make both kinds savory and sweet. And every once in a while she would take a savory empanada and like put in some raisins in there. And I always loved that. And that’s something I still really enjoy, when you kind of blend those two flavors.

Teresa Douglas 2:36
Yeah, I don’t know what it is about raisins that remind me of Lent. But they really do. And I would get those special things from my Abuela too and honestly, I think the biggest ingredients and we’re gonna hint a little bit at your poem here, which talks about the secret ingredient is love. But I also think there’s magic in there somewhere. Because well, Abuela food is just like in a class all by itself.

Melody Rose Serra 3:04
Absolutely, I agree.

Teresa Douglas 3:07
So that’s wonderful. I would definitely have you over and try to find some empanadas, though unless we invited your Abuela or your other Abuela who makes frijoles, then of course, it wouldn’t taste quite the same. But I share a deep connection to food. It’s one of my chief distractions. Moving on a little bit to your poem, and to you. Can we start with you telling us just a little bit about when you started writing?

Melody Rose Serra 3:40
Of course. So I don’t really think I knew that I was writing poetry or stories when I was really little. But as I was learning English, around like five, six, I learned a lot of my English with my grandfather and my grandmother. And they, my grandfather loved to write words down, poems or songs or like silly little, love letters to my grandma and read them out loud in English. And that kind of inspired me to do the same. So I was just like, I was writing poetry in hindsight. I didn’t know it then but I was just writing like little observations or feelings. So it definitely started really young. And I’ve carried it with me until today and I’ve recently learned I also really love art. So I recently kind of started playing with bringing those two mediums together and creating like visual poems and I’m really enjoying that and exploring that right now.

Teresa Douglas 4:50
I have to say I wish you’re Abuelo put that tactic about leaving little love notes for his wife around the house. I think there’ll be a lot of marriages that can benefit from that. So any of you men listening or people listening who are married, maybe try that, that would be a great idea. Leave these notes and read them out loud to your beloved. So it seems like it worked well for him. Would you then call poetry your first love? Or do you say it’s more writing in general because you weren’t focused on just the definition between fiction or poetry?

Melody Rose Serra 5:34
Yeah, I would say it definitely was just writing in general and like playing with words and learning the language by writing and then reading out loud what you wrote. And so I definitely think there were some various genres that I was playing with. But poetry is the one that really stuck.

Teresa Douglas 5:58
And it’s such a lovely form. And I’d love to transition now into talking about the specific poem, because it’s hard to not talk about it, while we’re talking about what it is you enjoy about the form. So when we’re looking here at Frijoles de la Olla and some of the things that I really loved about this piece, in particular, is how, in just a few sort of strokes–I talk about this, like it’s painting, but even though it’s words, you’re painting with words. And, I see so many of these images, in just a minimum amount of words, but so vividly. Even the beginning, the color of terracotta, and that springs into your mind, and, talking about the artist’s studio and, talking here about finding with the fingers, those beans that are bruised. Which go to the pod and, considering your Abuela, as an artist, where she followed her intuition, so much so it was like watching somebody, I’m just gonna read this line, like watching a basket maker choose which tree will make the most lovely basket.” And I thought what a lovely description of something that is, like the sublime and the every day. There’s nothing, I would say, more basic than beans and cooking, and feeding somebody. It’s a basic need that we all have. And yet in this piece, just the way that you write it, and talk about it, and this person who is a master in this sphere, that is also a refuge for her and for others, because people don’t come on a random Tuesday, if they don’t want to be there when there’s no special significance. So I just loved that, about this piece, it felt sort of like a hug, especially by the end. We have the idea that she’s a master at these things. And yet, it’s also driven by love so I, would love to hear from you. The idea that maybe sparked this piece, and how you went about writing it down.

Melody Rose Serra 8:17
A few weeks ago, I was really craving my abuela’s frijoles. And I called her and told her I was going to make it based on what I remember her doing and just like asked her for some tips and was really excited. And then that very same day before I even started the process of making them I was already like thinking about this, like super vivid and intimate moment where I observed my Abuela and it wasn’t even just one moment. I saw her do this so many times. But for some reason, there was like a very specific vision that I was kind of playing in my head and I I sat down at my computer. Sometimes I write with pen and paper but in this case, it was on my computer and I just started writing this and it’s funny, it sounds a bit like a story like but I wrote it the day that I talked to my grandma and was planning to make the frijoles de la olla. I was just inspired by the, the things I was imagining and bringing myself back to those moments. And I really was also inspired by–there was a poet that I went to a reading for and he was talking about how poetry can really take on the role of a time capsule, and I found that language to really stick with me. I was like, Wow, that’s so powerful. And I felt like that was this poem for me. I wanted to capture a memory, a real story in my life and the feelings that came with it. And also, as you said, like all this love that was put into this, this what might seem simple moment, and how, because of that love, it’s transcended into something more that stays with me.

Teresa Douglas 10:43
And I really feel like one of the strengths of this piece is that you are as the child or the person in this moment, you’re both so very much present, in the fact that your feeling comes through. It’s that love, it’s that closeness and that intimacy, and yet you don’t really refer to yourself at all, on this page. It’s a wonderful example, I would say, of having that feeling there without coming out and saying, I really love to watch my Abuela do this, I really enjoyed the happy memory of being there. You show it through all these little, little details. And just again, coming back to this idea that family, both blood and chosen is gathered around the table, the idea that just hearing your Abuela, sort of hum a tune. And it’s this wonderfully, I don’t want to say vulnerable, but it’s like a trusted moment where somebody who is totally comfortable in her environment, she has the people that she wants in her home, and she’s allowing the family the privilege, in some ways, I’ll use that word, to just be there and see her in her refuge in this place where she is happy doing this thing. And it’s like even the idea here, toward the end, where you list the things as they go in: beans go in water, broth, onions, it’s just a very domestic in the best possible way, sort of description of what can be a loving moment. And I feel like we get to be close to your Abuela just in that moment. Even though we don’t necessarily know her name. We don’t know you and how you grew up, but we get to see that. And I love that idea of the time capsule. It’s like, we could all look at this poem again and 20 years and see that again, like almost as if we’re there. It’s just beautiful.

Melody Rose Serra 12:59
Thank you so much. That means a lot for you to say that.

Teresa Douglas 13:03
I gush, I’m sorry. You’re not allowed to talk on this podcast. It’s just gonna be me telling you about you and how wonderful you are. So this is lovely. And I love to hear that you just sort of sat down and wrote it. Did you feel once you did that, like did you start editing right away? Did you not edit at all? Because it came out whole? Did you let it sleep a little? How did that all work?

Melody Rose Serra 13:33
With this particular piece, I didn’t edit very much. Even the tune that I mentioned that my abuela was humming, and even that it just came naturally. I was like I can remember her singing to that tune Si nos de han, and that continues to be like a really important song in my family. Because it was a song that my grandparents used to sing to each other. So it just kind of all came and that’s definitely not the norm for me. I often like edit and get hung up on like words and pauses but with this I think it’s because I had this like really vivid image in my head. I was able to get it down and didn’t have to do too much. And, yeah, and I really enjoyed just putting it together. It was it’s, I think one of my favorite poems that I’ve written so far.

Teresa Douglas 14:47
It’s lovely when you get that gift from the universe where it all sort of pulls together in your mind and you can just write it down. That’s not going to happen every time. But it’s lovely when it does, and it comes out whole. It’s interesting to see real life coming together to help you write this, you had this thing you wanted to make you were talking to your Abuela and it just sort of all came together. Wow. Well, I love this. And I would say that you’re Abuela and Abuelo sound like amazing people to each other. I mean, they’re singing to each other and he’s writing notes. And it’s nice to get that intimate feel like, I feel like I would really like them had I ever met them. And that’s great, because I’m a stranger, but it’s one of the best sort of legacies that I think we can leave is to have these pieces about good moments or significant moments with our family that people can read and enjoy no matter when they see it now or 15 years from now or whatever it is. Wow, this is lovely. I do wonder because this poem is so nice. If there are other places where people can read about your work, if you have things that are going to come out, is there is there a website or social where people might keep tabs and see what else you come up with?

Melody Rose Serra 16:25
I do have a website and it’s Melody Serra.com. And on that site, I’ve started putting up the pieces that get published, the poems that get published. And then I’m also over at Twitter at Mel R Sarah. And I actually just started submitting work late last year, I was inspired by the young people I volunteer with to put my work out there and see what that feels like. And I’ve really enjoyed that. So I have some poetry that’s been published at a few places like wine cellar press and Gulf Stream magazine, and a few others and I also have some upcoming work that will be published later this year.

Teresa Douglas 17:22
Wonderful. And I think I can speak for everybody listening that we all look forward to reading those pieces and seeing what else you do. So thank you so much for coming on the show and giving us sort of the behind the scenes of this lovely piece and telling us more about your work.

Melody Rose Serra 17:42
Thank you so much. I really appreciate it.

Poem: Mouth Guard by Constance Mello

 

Full transcript is below.
Mouth Guard 
by Constance Mello
 
Eldest daughter of an only daughter 
My mother is the only one who calls my grandmother
I’m the interpreter between my family members
Answer calls like I’m a therapist  – “How are we doing this week?” 
 
My brother accused me of running away 
And I did – ran to the United States, like deep down
I always knew I would, someday, 
Watching reruns of Friends, unrolling my R’s
 
People tell me I don’t have an accent 
My jaw locks into place and I feel pride and sorrow
For the accent I ground out of myself 
Like the teeth I grind down into pebbles at night 
 
People can’t tell where I’m from 
but they know I’m not from here
“Maybe like, the east coast?”
Sure, I say, 
Sure
 
The lines between real and fake are blurry 
So I can be from Kansas, an imaginary location 
That I have never visited, but that feels generic 
Enough to match my fit, wide enough to fit me
 
I can be from states that people don’t know 
The capital of, like Iowa (Des Moines) 
But I learned all the capitals ahead of time 
In line at the John F. Kennedy border patrol 
 
“Maybe like, New England?” 
Sure, I say, 
Sure 

Behind the Scenes with Constance Mello, Author of Mouth Guard

Full transcript below

Teresa Douglas 0:10
Welcome listeners to the next behind the scenes episode with Latin X lit audio mag. I’m your host, Teresa Douglas. And today we’re interviewing Constance Mello she her. She’s a Brazilian scholar, writer and teacher. She graduated with a degree in cultural studies and Gender Studies from the Humboldt University of Berlin, Germany, and is currently pursuing a dual master’s degree in English and creative writing. Her writing has been published in the Illinois Art Review, Fearless, She Wrote, and The Ascent, and was a finalist in the Tucson Festival of Books literary awards. Welcome, Constance.

Constance Mello 0:48
Hi, Teresa. Thank you for having me today.

Teresa Douglas 0:51
Oh, it’s very nice to have you here. I’m going to ask you a very important question. Because you’re here in my metaphorical house. I would love to serve you your favorite comfort food, but I don’t know what that is. So I’m going to ask you what is your favorite comfort food?

Constance Mello 1:13
I am very excited about this question because I too center my life around food. And I thought a lot about this question. And because there are several different ways of answering it right, like is it a food for the winter? Is it the sort of thing you eat when you’re sad? But I thought about the like, overarching thing. And this is gonna sound like I planned this out because it’s for a Latinx lit mag kind of thing. But it’s rice and beans.

Teresa Douglas 1:51
The staples!

Constance Mello 1:52
Yeah, just like, like a nice plate of rice and beans. And in Brazil, they make it different. I mean, every country in Latin America makes their own version of rice and beans, I guess. But our rice and beans are just like, it’s very simple. Lots of onions, lots of garlic, a little bit of pepper. And we eat it with sauteed greens on the side like a collard greens type thing. And orange slices, which are said to help with digestion. I don’t really know how true that is. But it does kind of like add acidity to the dish. So yeah, that’s my comfort food.

Teresa Douglas 2:30
That sounds delicious. And I have actually heard that about citrus if it’s paired with spinach? Probably all greens. It helps bring out I forget what vitamin.

Constance Mello 2:40
Iron right?

Teresa Douglas 2:41
I think so. It’s one of those things I read a long time ago. So now listeners not only is this a literary podcast, we’re now a health podcast for you. Yes, make sure you put that citrus with your greens, and then your food is healthy, even if it’s you know, boiled in a lot of pork fat. You know the oranges just make it all go away. That’s our educated opinion. You’ve heard it here first. Well I would love to share rice and beans with you in your way. Because you’re right. There are lots of different ways that I mean, Mexicans, we have the red rice, other people have the yellow and the white. And it’s fun to try it all. I will say to anybody who wants to make me food. I will take whatever colored rice you have. So just just bring it, Constance and I are waiting.

Constance Mello 3:39
Yes.

Teresa Douglas 3:40
So thank you for sharing that. And now that we’ve done the most important thing, we’ll get to the second most important thing, which is you and your piece. I would like to start just by talking a little bit of why I liked it. Then we’ll get into some questions about you. I love the duality of this mouthguard like the title and the jaw locking, and just this whole idea of these things are so well connected, that when I read it, I thought Oh man, that interlocks in such a lovely way. And the piece is very, it has lots of images, but it’s so incredibly tightly written around that theme of guarding the mouth and what comes out of the mouth. The mother who calls the grandmother and what may be coming out of her mouth or not. I just I loved it. So that’s why I was so happy to see it in my email. And I’m glad that we get to talk about it today.

Constance Mello 4:47
Thank you so much. This was a very very personal piece for me to write. So finding a home for it, especially in this magazine specifically has been really special.

Teresa Douglas 4:57
I can’t wait to talk about this. So before we do because I have some definite questions about how you wrote it. Let’s start with you as a writer, how, how long have you been writing?

Constance Mello 5:09
Um, I think I’ve, it sounds so cheesy to say, but I think I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember, really. I was always very, like competitive in school. And so when they had us do little essays or creative writing exercises, I used to be very competitive, but like, I want to be the best at this, I wanted to have the best rhymes. And I was always very aware of myself when I was doing any kind of writing. And then, when I was about eight years old, I think I got into a big phase of writing my own songs, especially because I used to watch like High School Musical religiously. And I got into the phase of writing my own songs and my godmother who lives in Argentina, she was visiting me, and I showed her some of the songs and she was so inspired that she later sent me, by post this beautiful blue box that she made, that had like a little inscription on top, saying, Constance’s writings.

Teresa Douglas 6:15
Oh, yeah, that’s nice.

Constance Mello 6:18
Yeah. And she was like, please keep writing, I really want to support this about you. And then ever since then, that’s where I’ve kept journals, any kind of writing that I did, in there. And then when I got to my undergrad, I went a very, academic route. And so I forgot my creative writer side for a little bit. And rekindled with it a few years ago, which has led me to then pursue my MFA in creative writing. I’m very happy that I was able to rekindle this, this connection that I have to writing, not just in an academic way, but also in a creative way.

Teresa Douglas 7:02
Yeah, it seems like you went all in with the dual master’s degree, because that’s pretty intense to attempt two at once. And you’re getting sort of both sides of that with the English and the creative writing. Yeah, I don’t know when you sleep, but

Constance Mello 7:17
it’s, uh, yeah, I ended up like, I’m going to be studying for a lot longer than people usually do in their master’s. So it’s a three year program, which is why I’m able to do two degrees.

Teresa Douglas 7:30
That’s how you’re sleeping.

Unknown Speaker 7:31
Yeah. It can be really intense, especially because I obviously work at the same time. So yeah, it is intense. But I’m happy that I found a way to explore both my passions, both a more academic sense of the written word. And also the creative side of it.

Teresa Douglas 7:52
And, I didn’t say it earlier, but it’s just so lovely that some member of your family took you seriously enough, when you were eight, to give you that validation of your identity as a writer and, and it sounds like clearly, it’s something that you still carry with you. There’s this beautiful blue box that she made. And, having that is such a special thing, just to have someone who, who may not have mentored you, as in, write things this way, but mentored you in the way of saying, Yes, you are this writer, and you should continue with it. It’s such a beautiful thing.

Constance Mello 8:30
Yeah, it’s also like a great privilege, you know, to be heard, and to be taken seriously, even as an eight year old. I’m sure that whatever songs I was writing weren’t like high art or anything like that, but being encouraged and being considered a writer even so early, has been the main way in which I’ve maintained this connection with the creative side of me.

Teresa Douglas 8:53
So you sent in a poem, and you’re talking a little bit about how you write academically. Do you have a first love, is that poetry fiction nonfiction what? Or do you consider yourself a writer who does all of these things equally?

Constance Mello 9:07
Um, I wouldn’t say I do them all equally. I would say I’ve tried to do all of them equally, to varying degrees of success. I actually started off, like I said, writing songs, which I think are a variation on poetry. And for people who know me, like in real life, I tend to be like a very grounded, very practical person. And so when I say that I like to write poetry, a lot of people in my life tend to be surprised if they don’t know about that side of me. But I think it is one of the ways in which I can actually access that emotional side of myself without having to keep to constraints of form as much as with fiction or nonfiction.

Teresa Douglas 9:56
Yeah, and you do it so well. I mean, that leads sort of beautifully into talking about the piece that you sent in, Mouth Guard. I would love to hear a little bit of–you say this is very personal. Did you start with wanting to articulate the idea? Or? Actually I’m not going to constrain you. Tell me the process you used to write this piece?

Constance Mello 10:20
Yeah, um, I am always afraid of this question a little bit, because I feel like a lot of poets, they have a very, very structured process where they start with an idea. And then they work on these different sentences for a really long time. Whereas I’m a lot more of like, put everything down that I think about. Structure it some sort of way. And then I leave it for a couple of weeks, come back to it and make the adjustments that I see fit. Um, and in this case, it was actually because I was in one of my creative writing classes. It wasn’t even poetry. Actually, we were just talking about language in general. And I don’t know if I told you, I was born and grew up in Brazil. And I didn’t start learning English until I was 10 in school, and I didn’t move to the US until 2018. So it’s relatively recent, but most people that know me, they always say, Oh, you have like an American accent, like, I can’t really hear that you’re from somewhere else. And I describe to them how even as a young child like around 12, or 13, I used to watch these American television shows, especially sitcoms, like on reruns on television. And I used to practice this accent out loud, or I used to like, I used to read the Harry Potter books out loud to myself to try to get like a grasp on the language. And I don’t know exactly where this fixation of mine came from, of like nailing the accent. But it became quite an obsessive practice. To the point where now I look back, and I’m like, I kind of regret that I ground this accent out of myself.

Teresa Douglas 12:20
It’s an interesting thing to hear. Because I was actually just talking to somebody–a different writer earlier yesterday, about this idea of how when you move to a new country, and whether that’s the US or Canada or some other English speaking place, and that urge to fit in with either comes from you, or maybe the culture squashes you, or some other Interplay there. And just that, that idea of how American are you? Or how Canadian are you? Or how whatever you are? So it’s interesting to see that play out in somebody who was so young.

Constance Mello 13:05
I honestly, I wouldn’t really be able to tell you, if it came from within myself, or if it came from, like, outside pressures, like you’re describing. It was probably a mixture of both right? I go through this thing, and in the United States, where I’m very, like white passing, so no one would ever think I’m not from here because of that. And it’s a privilege I don’t take lightly. You know, I get to be invisible, in my ethnicity, I guess, which is helpful in a lot of situations, but can also be difficult from like a personal point of view of like, my connection with my identity and my connection with my nationality.

Teresa Douglas 13:51
I feel ya on that one.

Constance Mello 13:54
And, yeah, and I was thinking about, like, all these situations where I meet new people, and they treat me one way. And because I’m white passing, because I don’t really have an accent. They can tell that I’m not from California, specifically, which is where I live right now. But they think I’m just from somewhere else in the United States, which is what I allude to in the poem. But then, when the reveal comes that I’m Brazilian, and that my native language is actually a different language, it kind of changes the way that people see me. And not always in a positive way.

Teresa Douglas 14:35
Yeah, and that can be tiring. It’s like okay, yeah, here we go again. And I say that as a Mexican whose last name is Douglas. Because I’m also very white passing and I’m in Canada. And there’s that idea where someone will sort of look at you and there’s that minute of ‘Wait a minute.’

Constance Mello 14:57
Yeah,

Teresa Douglas 14:58
-and where the question sometimes [comes] “What are you?” It’s like I’m human. That’s what I am. Anyway. So yes, it’s an interesting and very, because again, on one hand, we’re least likely to be the people that get targeted for police brutality.

Constance Mello 15:19
Yeah. That something that whenever I try to explain this situation, I really want to acknowledge that being white passing is a great privilege in the United States.

Teresa Douglas 15:34
Yep. It’s also a privilege in Canada. It’s something not to forget. It’s also hard. If you’re in the middle of a group that suddenly starts talking racist. And you’re like, Oh, this is the part I get to tell you I’m not white. And now we all have to deal with this. So all that aside, I thought you did a great job of putting that in this piece. This idea of, of not having the accent, and always from somewhere else, from wherever it is you happen to be in that moment, like the East Coast or Kansas. Sure, wherever, Yeah. And that, the idea of not, well, hiding, because you say your brother accuses you of running away, “and I did. I ran to the United States”. So there’s that running away. But you’re also always sort of, in this piece, alluding to the fact that you’re not quite from there, you’re from somewhere else and people can’t tell you where you’re from. And sort of glossing over it, because it is tiring, darn it, to do that all the time. And I love that that came out in three words. “Sure. I say, sure.”

Constance Mello 17:00
Yeah, that’s it.

Teresa Douglas 17:01
That was so well done. And, even this idea of, again, of running away and having run away, but not really escaping at the same time, like the mouth is guarded, it’s almost like being jailed in its own way. The mouth not rolling those Rs. And locked into place. Guards. So just hearing that feeling of captivity while also having run away, but not because you’re still connected to your family, which obviously, is something that’s there. We all have that connection, whether or not we’re in a position where we talk to the people we’re related to anymore, that connection is still there. And it’s just very, very lovely. To see this kind of a serious topic, also put together in a way where it’s in the larger context of, of being in a family and being away from family and in a country, but also being from nowhere, and I thought that was really well done.

Constance Mello 17:02
Thank you so much. I really appreciate that. Yeah, I have a super complicated relationship with my family as most people do. Because of living abroad. And, yeah, you really said it all in the sense of like, I belong here, I belong there, and in between and nowhere at the same time. And so, I think this poem was just kind of like a little Ode to myself almost. And this journey of belonging and not belonging, I guess. And, just to address something you were asking earlier about the process of writing this. When I was sitting in that class, and I said that I ground the accent out of myself, I thought about the fact that I wear like a mouthguard to sleep every night because I have TMJ. So like a problem with my jaw. And because I grind my teeth, I was thinking about, like, this motion of like, grinding something. It destroys, but it also makes something else out of it. So yeah, that’s kind of where that concept came from.

Teresa Douglas 19:38
And it’s such a vivid one, especially this grinding and unrolling. It’s like you said, it’s an act of destruction, also an act of creation. And it’s something that’s smoother once its ground, right, even smaller, so that ambivalence I thought was again, just such a superb choice to make whether or not it was intentional or unintentional at the time that you first wrote it. And I have to say, incidentally, I sometimes think that when we are asked about process that all of us are the ones that say, “I don’t know, man, I just made it up,” right? And then we have to come up with a better answer, because nobody wants to hear that. Wait a minute. You just made that up. I literally just made that up. That’s the definition of fiction? We made that up. But even when it’s nonfiction, in some ways, like that first draft, is something that just comes out of you. And I know that there are people that plan what they write. I just don’t believe that they don’t meticulously make stuff up. They just make their stuff up methodically. So you people that have a very practiced process that you can talk about, we’re on to you. Just so you know, and it’s okay.

Constance Mello 21:05
You’re just making it up like the rest of us.

Teresa Douglas 21:07
Yes! Well, this has been so so nice to have you here talking about this piece, because I feel like I am not going to be the only one that identifies personally, with this idea. Because even people that may be in the country that they were born in, speaking the language that they’ve always spoken, who are connected in a simple way to their family can also have that in between feeling in other ways. Especially in different countries where you’re trying to find your place, as a person of Latinx descent. I feel like it’s even in the specificity of this is something that a lot of people will identify with. So thank you for sharing that.

Constance Mello 22:00
Thank you for giving me the space to do so it’s really nice to be able to actually talk about the work that I’m putting out there.

Teresa Douglas 22:07
Well, you know, I’m sure other people are also going to want to see the other things you do because you’ve had writing in other places. Do you have a website or social media where folks can follow you and see what other work that you put out?

Constance Mello 22:21
Yeah, I think the best place to do that would be on Twitter at Constance underscore s e r.

Teresa Douglas 22:28
And listeners if you don’t have a pencil or you can’t remember that will be in the show notes. If your brain is like mine, where something goes in one ear and out the other. We’ll put that in. Thank you for coming and I’m so happy to have your work on the podcast.

Constance Mello 22:49
I am thrilled to have my work in this in this medium. Thank you so so much

Creative Nonfiction: Nopales by Melissa Nunez

This piece first appeared in Acentos Review

Nopales 

by Melissa Nunez

I often bring my children to Quinta Mazatlán—a private property turned birding center in McAllen, not far from our home. Within what the birding center has coined a Tamaulipan thorn forest, there are cacti everywhere you look. Just as one would expect in a subtropical climate, the plains that would be desert. An easy reminder to stay on the marked trails. At one time, cacti were an important source of nourishment for animals and humans alike. Native peoples like the Coahuiltecans pilgrimaged to harvest the newly sprouted flesh and summer fruit. They were found in abundance before the urbanization of South Texas, but you can still find them in some neighborhoods and gardens, growing most freely in local nature preserves like this one. 

            Standing sentry along the entrance to the park are prime examples of my favorite and the most prominent—the Texas prickly pear. The nopal. Rising from the earth in clustered paddles, at times lopsided and toppling, others almost regal. Animals such as the jack rabbit and opossum, even the coyote, consume body, fruit, or both. As we make our way through the park, we find a dried-out pad, vascular tissue exposed and intact, which resembles a tan, paddle shaped honeycomb. Or maybe more spongy bone. It brings to mind an exhibit I visited years ago of the human body dissected and exposed in myriad forms and fashions. Stripped to just the network of veins and arteries, the branches of the nervous system, in a human-shaped shell. 

***

            My grandmother used to eat nopal as a child; her aunt would cook with it frequently—when it was more common to find them in the monte near your home than in the supermarket. My grandmother continued the tradition, albeit less often. She would scrape the spines from the thick skin, trim the edges, and dice it, sauté it in combination with carne picada, the only meat they could afford, or eggs. Sometimes on their own. My mother didn’t really care for nopalitos and so she never fed them to me. I was disinherited of this ancient ingredient, along with much of the art of Mexican cooking. Comida casera, something we ate at church potlucks and restaurants. In the same way, the flow of the Spanish language was also absent from my tongue. It was my mother’s first language, but she was of the generation that had the Spanish scared out of her. Abandoned to the shame and silence of her elementary classroom. Forced to exchange the rolling r for the round sound of hesitancy, the hissy h for the incorrect hard stop of the English g of her own last name. Rangel. 

            I first tried it as a tea, savila con nopal. It produced a viscous liquid that tasted both floral and medicinal, which maybe was the point. Then as a candy, dried out in strips and coated in sugar and spice, chile y tamarindo. I finally decided to try them in purer form and purchased them from a local restaurant. They were the muted green of canned jalapeños or cooked bell pepper. They were presented in a corn tortilla, soft and mild, flavored of the red salsa they were cooked in. When I added refried beans to the second taco, I knew for sure. I would be eating more.

***

            There are many other varieties of cacti marked along the trails. The smaller ones low and dangerous. The horse crippler looks little more than an exposed head. Spines so thick they can pierce through shoe soles and hooves of domesticated animals. The twisted rib, resembling a barrel with rows of whiskered needles shifting incrementally clockwise over time. Then there are the larger ones that we sometimes must consciously avoid as they encroach on designated paths. The night-blooming cereus that is aptly nicknamed the barbed wire cactus. It wraps and weaves its slender frame among the trunks of trees, resembling discarded curls of metal when dried out. The Mexican organ or fence post cactus, deceptively smooth as a rind amid the rigid rows of thick white spines, which can be used as a living barrier. 

Amid all the danger, beauty beckons. I am, like the bees, lured to the resplendent costuming of spring. The yellow and orange blossoms of the nopal call to my nose and fingers, petals soft but inflexible, cradling the soapy smell of unripe melon. Red blooms of the same variety carrying a fresh floral scent. Musky purple petals perched on the short and slender fingers of the pitaya. Despite my warnings to my children to exercise caution, I get prickled along my abdomen by a spread of hair-like spines in my quest to discern each scent. Necessitating the removal of each irritating glochid with my fingers before being able to move comfortably.

***

            When my daughter was five years old, I transferred her from her traditional ballet class to ballet folklórico. When I was in high school, I was always mesmerized by the performances of our bailarinas. The dancers weren’t popular. Not like the athletes or the cheerleaders. They didn’t have the numbers or the prestige of band. But they were beautiful in their billowing bandera movements. They were shining sonrisas on heads held high. A beauty and pride I had never felt in my skin, in my bones. 

            My daughter didn’t know the language. I have not found it easy to raise bilingual children when I am not fluent in Spanish myself. Speaking in stops and starts, pausing to look up words before fading back to English in frustration. She wasn’t raised with the music, with its steady strumming strings and insistent brass. The sound of celebration I associate with quinceañeras and bodas. She didn’t know she was dancing to a song about a woman in a pink dress who had stolen a man’s heart. Who was beautiful like a flower, a butterfly. Caprichosa. A word that even after looking up evaded clean translation. Connotation can be more complex than cognates. 

            But she took to the outfit with ease. Brandishing her skirt with flourish. Sweeping the floor and the air with its folds. Her white-heeled feet quickly adopting the tapping rhythm. For performances her ruffled white shirt was tucked into the floor-length red skirt ribbon-edged with green. Designed to always dust the ground at the center and yet follow her hands out to shoulder height. More than semi-circle, a wide smile, luna creciente. Her hair was slicked back into a dancer’s bun and accented with a headband styled as a thick braided crown worn just past her hairline. The dark woven yarn was accented with three large lemon-lime flowers. The blooms of the barrel cactus at her right temple.

***

            We move out of the shadows of the anacua and mesquite, the canopy of prickly ash and granjeno, arms arching over the gravel walkway and weaving together, to a more open trail. Here I find a plant that looks like a cross between flowering bush and cactus. Its green leaves, lobed and sharply pointed, jut out from all sides of the main stem which has small spikes to match. They lead up to cucumber-shaped seed pods that are covered in thorns, resemble the body of a cactus in miniature. The flowers are a brilliant yellow, and delicate. Share the shape of the nopal blossoms, but are more pliable, with petals like tissue paper. Their scent is delicious. Like sipping from an agua fresca de piña y melón. At first, I believe it to be the Mexican poppy. But upon consulting my plant guide, I find it is the golden prickly poppy. Distinguishable by the darker center of the flower. The two are very easily confused if not for the perception of a few degrees of intensity.

Behind the Scenes with Melissa Nunez, Author of Nopales

Full transcript below, lightly edited for clarity. And also, Otter can’t spell Nopales. Come on now.

Teresa Douglas 0:10
Welcome listeners to another episode of Latinx lit audio mag. I’m your host Teresa Douglas, and today we’re behind the scenes with Melissa Nunez. Melissa Nunez is a Latin@ writer and homeschooling mother of three from the Rio Grande Valley. Her essays and poetry have appeared in Sledgehammer Lit, Yellow Arrow Journal, Susurrus, and others. She is also a staff writer for Alebrijes Review. Her writing is inspired by observation of the natural world, the dynamics of relationships, and the question of belonging. You can follow her on Twitter @MelissaKNunez or visit her website www.melissknunez.com.

Melissa Nunez 0:59
Hi, Teresa. Thank you so much for having me.

Teresa Douglas 1:02
Well, it’s lovely to have you here. And as I tell folks when they are on my podcast, I would like you to picture yourself sitting at my kitchen table. And of course, I’m going to offer you some food to be polite. And I would love to know before we get started talking about your peace Nopales, what is your favourite comfort food?

Melissa Nunez 1:27
That’s a really good question. And I had fun thinking over all my favourites but I would have to say that it would be Menudo that’s been a recent favourite of mine especially like for weekend breakfasts. Then if I can I like to cheat and follow it up with like a dessert like pan dulces, some conchas, that to me is like perfect.

Teresa Douglas 1:49
That it’s one I feel you almost have to qualify as a health food because I’ve been told Menudo is the cure for hangovers and the common cold.

Melissa Nunez 2:00
Yes, it’s super hardy. It’s good for you. We can all qualify it that way.

Teresa Douglas 2:05
There you go. People who have not had it don’t know what they’re missing. You just have to eat it. It’s a special breakfast because you can’t always get it.

Melissa Nunez 2:15
I think that’s part of the appeal for me too. I’m like when I see it on a menu–I mean there are places I know have it and I go there for it. But a new place, if I see they have it. I’m like ooh, I wonder what their Menudo tastes like here. I have to order it.

Teresa Douglas 2:27
Yes, and people will do it a little bit differently. But okay, so do you put stuff in your Menudo? I’m vegetarian now and I don’t eat it but when I did, I had a lot of lemon in it. And I needed the onions and the cilantro.

Melissa Nunez 2:42
Yes I put a little bit of everything. I put just enough lemon or lime to lighten it up a little bit. I do the onion, I do a little bit of the serrano peppers or jalapenos that they’ll put on the side. And yes, I love cilantro. So yes, that’s going in as well.

Teresa Douglas 2:58
All right, well, I think we would enjoy eating this food together. Really it’s like the one thing I miss as a vegetarian. You just can’t have it like–hominy soup is good. But…

Melissa Nunez 3:10
Yeah, I’ve seen online and a couple of places I never got to try because when I saw it then the pandemic hit and I was like I’m not trying new places right now. But I saw a small place that was doing vegan Menudo for a while so that could be an option to try. We’ll have to look into that.

Teresa Douglas 3:26
So maybe the magic of Google will find me a recipe so I can do something. You’ve given me hope. That’s it, we can end this podcast people I have hope for a vegetarian Menudo. Seriously though, maybe we should stop talking about food (because I get so distracted by food) and talk about your piece, Nopales. And as we’re talking about it, I would actually love to say one of the things that I really loved–well, there are several things I really loved about this piece. But one of the things that I really loved was just the very, I would say meditative quality of it. It’s like a dream. Because there you are and you’re looking at all the cacti in this place. And you have these meditations of things that are happening and eating Nopales as a child or not eating it in your case. And reclaiming that history. And then helping like do that with your daughter and putting her in Ballet Folklorico. I love the image especially because I could see those dresses where you pick up the sides and yet it’s still brushing the ground and it was a lovely piece that just ended on such a nice note with these two poppies, and having that confusion of identity. And just the way you said, “the two are very easily confused, if not for the perception of a few degrees of intensity.” And I thought, Wow, what a lovely, sort of pictured ending that you’re left with, at the end of this piece. So it just was so deftly done.

Teresa Douglas 4:25
Thank you so much.

Teresa Douglas 5:27
I’m gushing, I’m sorry, I’m not even letting you talk. I’m sorry, you can’t talk on this podcast. (laughing)

Melissa Nunez 5:32
It’s great hearing you explain it that way, as I love what you picked up from it. I mean, lately, especially with the nature writing that I’ve been doing, I love those, strong images, using that imagery and giving it kind of like a, like a lyrical quality to it. That’s what I’m aiming for. So that’s perfect.

Teresa Douglas 5:52
Well I think you I think you hit it. There was there just so many lovely images in this. And I would love to hear you talk about the genesis of this piece and that first spark, and how you went about writing it?

Melissa Nunez 6:10
Okay, yeah, well, one thing that I really love doing with my family with my children is visiting, our local nature preserves our nature parks, and you know, getting some exercise time outside, looking around. And especially like, during these past couple years, when so many places were closed, that was something that we could still do, you know, a little more safely being outside. And this past spring, we were out at the parks, and I was able to see the Nopales that were in bloom. And it was just so beautiful. And it was something that kind of took me by surprise because I had never been really in an area where there were so many Nopales in the springtime before. So I was taking pictures, we ended up going to more nature parks and seeing the way they looked there. And just that image of those prickly pads and those bright blossoms, it just stayed with me. And that’s when I know, when they make such an impact. I’m like, Okay, I’m working on something, my brain has an idea. And then, at the same time, just perfect timing. It was Easter, and a local taqueria had a Lent menu. And they were featuring that taco de Nopalitos. And I was like, ‘What!’ this is a sign. I was like, I must try this taco. And it just led to, you know, conversations with my family, talking about the Nopales, cooking with them. And, you know, all of it just started coming together for me on the page. And yeah, I ended up with what we have here with the essay. And I love you know, writing that way when those things happen to make those connections.

Teresa Douglas 7:42
Yeah, and I feel like, especially for those of us who have had that experience of Nopal, whether you’ve eaten it or your family’s growing it, it, I have always experienced that as sort of a utilitarian thing. Like you get an apple from a grocery store. You don’t sit there and smell it and just think about it. And I kind of missed the fact that I’ve never reached in to smell the flowers. I mean, we hear about smelling the roses. We should smell the flowers on the cacti.

Melissa Nunez 8:15
Yes, definitely. And I did it you know, I wrote it there, down to getting the little spines in my stomach and everything. I was smelling all the flowers like yeah, just sometimes you do have to stop and smell the Nopales, right? Get a new experience out of it. I was like if I’m gonna write this, I want to know everything about this. I want to eat it. And I cooked it myself. I don’t know if I was super successful. I was the only one in the house that ended up eating it. But I was like, Hey, this is pretty good. I can try again. They didn’t come out as good as at the taqueria. But I was like, this is edible. I can do this. And yeah, so smelling it, tasting, cutting it and just looking at it, experiencing it.

Teresa Douglas 8:54
Yeah. And the dried-out pad. I love that because I could see that in my mind. And how it really does look like a honeycomb. So, so many good memories. And you know, what I did is I was so excited to talk about this piece I didn’t ask about you. So before we talk more about this piece, let’s ask about you. And how long have you been writing?

Melissa Nunez 9:16
Okay, thanks. I’ve loved reading since I was a child. And in school, I was kind of like the go-to person for helping friends and classmates with essays, papers, anything writing. And I remember my senior English teacher telling me ‘you are a writer.’ And I was like, Well, okay, yeah, I’m good at writing. I get good grades, but I didn’t really think much of it. And in college, I got my degree in English, and I started teaching but, I don’t know I kept coming back to her words. I started feeling like I wanted to go back to school. To explore the idea of being a writer. I decided to get an MFA. But even after graduating with that, I didn’t have full confidence in myself as a writer, I submitted to a few places. And when nothing came of that I kind of felt discouraged. And then I had my kids and they became like my main focus for a good while. And honestly, they still are, you know, a main focus of my life. But just these past several years again, I really felt that call, to write and have been making some time for myself to plan and organize. And just this past year, I started submitting more and got my first acceptance, my first publication. So I’ve just continued working from there. So I feel like I’ve always been a writer, but it’s been this past, couple of years that I became really serious and dedicated to doing something with it.

Teresa Douglas 10:43
So, is nonfiction, your first love? Or do you write other things?

Melissa Nunez 10:48
I actually started off the MFA program, thinking that I was going to be a fiction writer. Even though most of my writing was based on my personal life experiences, I thought, well, you know, a lot of writers do that, right? You get inspired by your real life, and you make it fiction. But I found that my experience in the workshops, I ended up spending most of my time defending the believability of characters and their actions and not discussing the actual craft of my work. I was nervous about labelling my writing nonfiction, about putting my life out there without that buffer of calling it fiction. But once I embraced that, I really never looked back. I love creative nonfiction. I love the freedom that it brought to my writing. And to myself as a person, I felt like I really grew in confidence and being able to put my work and myself out there. And then just this last year, I also started writing poetry. I have a few poems published, and I’m still actively writing poetry when that inspiration hits. But I would say my main thing, the core of my work is nonfiction essays, like Nopales.

Teresa Douglas 12:01
Yeah, it’s funny to me, that you can write about something that really happened and tried to lightly fictionalize it. And then people said, no way that could happen.

Melissa Nunez 12:13
It was so crazy to me. And I would be like, but wait, it really happened. And it’s like, well, you have to make us believe it. And I was like, Well, I don’t know. I mean, if I told you this, just face to face in person, not writing it on paper, I don’t know that you would doubt me. But I think it just was the push I needed to just get over the nerves I had, the fear of just owning all these words as mine. And I think it turned out for the best. I really love creative nonfiction, the essays, and so far, it’s gone really well. So I’ll call it a good thing.

Teresa Douglas 12:53
Yeah, because I read this piece, and I don’t see somebody who struggled with making things believable. I believe the entire thing. And not just because it came in as nonfiction. And I wonder, I don’t know, sometimes I think it’s hard for people to get out of what their particular experience is, and if their experience isn’t going into a thorn forest and seeing things. I’m not saying anybody accused this if not sounded realistic.

Melissa Nunez 13:27
Just as an example.

Teresa Douglas 13:30
As an example. Truth is stranger than fiction, and a lot messier, often. Well, this is gorgeous, and I’m trying to think of the other thing that I was going to ask you about. I love again, just going back to these images, and this idea of reclaiming history, that you didn’t get a vote on whether or not you had [this knowledge] in your home. So just this idea of how fragile sometimes culture is for people, because if someone’s mother didn’t like Nopalitos, and so you don’t get them, then you are disinherited, as you say, of this thing. And, and coming back to it, coming again to Ballet Folklorico for your daughter. That to me was such a hopeful part of this piece. That even though you beautifully convey the idea of trying to figure out identity and even your daughter not having the language and trying to convey it when you’re not fluent in Spanish, which I feel that so hard right now, as someone who is in a similar situation, but how hopeful it is that you find other ways to convey the culture, convey the feeling of what it is to be Latina, or Latin X or whatever the identifier someone might have. And it’s, it’s amazing. And even using, like, I’m going to say this wrong, I’m going to try to edit it out if it doesn’t work. Caprichosa. Was that right?

Melissa Nunez 15:23
Caprichosa with an ‘i’, but yeah, that’s good.

Teresa Douglas 15:28
It’s a beautiful image. And word. And I don’t know, just something about this beautifully conveys the struggle and the hope and the connections, despite perhaps not feeling all of those connections in our past. So I thought that was wonderful. And I wonder, how much of that did you explicitly include in your piece? And how much do you feel just sort of showed up on the page?

Melissa Nunez 16:03
That’s a really good question. I would have to say that. I feel like when I write a lot of it, it starts off intuitive, like maybe subconscious. And then as I’m going through, I’m like, Oh, I see why that ended up there. You know, sometimes something will trigger a memory or a connection. And you might not fully understand until you go back and look at it again. So I feel like some of it was intentional. And then some of it, I went back and found, you know, the connection that I was like, Okay, nice. That’s why I liked that. So yes, I love all the comments that you had about identity. I mean, that’s the biggest fuel for this piece. I feel is that, in history, it’s a very strong theme for all Latinx Latino people. A lot of us went through experiences our parents did, or our ancestors did, right, that maybe erased part of our culture. And then, you know, moving forward, each generation has to deal with it in their own way. And I know I remember being so surprised hearing my mom’s experience with Spanish because she does speak Spanish, but it’s not the same. My grandparents as well, did speak Spanish, but they spoke English to us, we spoke mostly English and hearing the why made me sad. I did feel left out not having that Spanish, not being fluent, but they were like, we didn’t want you to have the problems we had in school, right? Like, we didn’t want you to struggle academically or feel left out. And they didn’t know what was going to come later that it was going to actually be the opposite for me. And I felt left out for not knowing Spanish and so here for my kids now, the choices that I’m making, they’re gonna end up having to hash those out however that comes. But I’m hoping to find that balance where they know who I am, they know what I have and don’t have and the Spanish I have I share with them. And we’re working from there. I know it’s not perfect, but yes, as much as I can try to connect them to the things that I wish that I had that I wish I was connected to, like the ballet Folklorico. My kids like Menudo, so two out of three, so I feel like that’s pretty good. And then yeah, it’s just such a beautiful thing, culture tying into your culture, finding those connections, however strong they are, I mean, we can always make them stronger. And then like the ending the poppies. Yes, I actually found them at a nature park. And they were not too far from the Nopales and seeing the flower. Like I took the pictures and they’re like, almost identical flowers there are just those small differences. And I was like, Wow, that’s so interesting. This plant looks like a cactus, but it’s not. And then, when I couldn’t identify, yeah, it was just a perfect metaphor. I thought, right? Like I’m like, I always have trouble like, am I Mexican American am I white, am I just American like, what? How do I present myself to the world because I’m always struggling with it, right? And feeling like that inauthenticity sometimes of one side or the other. And I felt like man, that flower is just, it’s the perfect ending, you know? So it just worked out there on the page like that.

Teresa Douglas 19:17
It’s so poignant because you’re right, so many of us, because the generations that came before had to work so hard to be seen if you’re in the United States as American or if you’re in Canada is Canadian, that there was almost no room to let people also be Mexican or Salvadorian or Brazilian or whatever it is. And because that’s also in my family, like my late grandfather would tell you that he was American. He was born in California. He just happened to speak Spanish at home. And in my day, I think “You’re Mexican, right? Your family. Your heritage is from there.” And really, in the end, it feels like what we do is just give the next generation the tools so that they can choose what they identify with. Almost. I mean, you can’t learn to like something if it’s not presented to you.

Melissa Nunez 20:18
Yeah, I like that.

Teresa Douglas 20:20
So I didn’t know what we would have therapy here.

Melissa Nunez 20:23
I like that language giving them the tools because yes, I felt like generations before we didn’t have it, right? And some of it was survival and different things like that. And now it’s like you said, like, here’s everything that we have. And you can use it to help, like, build your identity, the tools to do that. That’s great.

Teresa Douglas 20:42
There you go. I mean, I feel like in my own case, if my kids can at least like spicy foods. That’s one thing because I mean, come on, salsa, man.

Melissa Nunez 20:52
That’s another one that you can look up. I looked up some salsa recipes, and my kids helped me make it and we’re, we’re working on that, to that spice. You have to you have to have some.

Teresa Douglas 21:04
Yeah, I felt I felt like I made it when my son likes spicier food than me, like okay. All right, we passed that down, I can move on to the next thing. Well, this has been so nice. I know that you say you write many things. Oh, I was gonna ask you one other thing, because you are a staff writer at Alebrijes. Do you feel that having that position and being there has helped you in your writing?

Melissa Nunez 21:31
I feel like when I found Alebrijes Review, it was just you know, perfect timing. I was like midway through my super productive submitting year getting some acceptances and becoming involved with that magazine. It’s a newer indie lit mag for Latino writers Latin X writers. And the editor is just so supportive. And he’s creating a community with our staff writers to support each other and promote our writing and our culture. And so I do think it’s been an inspiration, just when I was accepted to be a staff writer, it inspired two pieces, one of them has already been published at the magazine. And so yes, I think that it was just a great opportunity. And I’m so appreciative that I was able to have it and to watch Alebrijes grow because we’re going to continue growing. So yes, that’s another lit mag to check out there on Twitter, Alebrijes review, and also, Alebrijesreview.com.

Teresa Douglas 22:32
So listeners, if you like writing from Latinx, folks, and I don’t know why you would be here if you don’t, you should check them out. Because there are some pretty awesome writers there. You know, this has been wonderful. And speaking of writers and wonderful work, if folks want to follow you and see what you publish and what’s coming out next. I know we said the beginning but do you want to go ahead and say again, where folks can follow you on social media and on your website?

Melissa Nunez 23:05
Sure, yes. Thanks. I’m on Twitter. And you can follow me at Melissa K Nunez. And I also have my website that I’m working on Melissa K Nunez dot com And both of those places I share and post my publications.

Teresa Douglas 23:22
A wonderful thank you again for coming. It was so nice to have you on the show.

Melissa Nunez 23:26
Thank you so much. Yes, this was super fun.

Behind the Scenes with Ruth Hernandez, author of Camila and the Freckled Boy

Teresa Douglas 0:10
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 behind the scenes with Ruth Hernandez who wrote Camilla and the Freckled Boy. Ruth Hernandez is an Emmy winning sound editor for film and television, a screenwriting instructor and an avid soccer fan. She wrote this story after she returned from the World Cup in Brazil. Her parents are Colombian. Welcome, Ruth.

Ruth Hernandez 0:40
Thanks. Thanks for having me. Nice to meet you, Teresa.

Teresa Douglas 0:43
I have a confession. I liked Camila so much in this story, that from the point after I read it, I’ve had to stop myself from calling you Camila. I’ve tried to write emails to Camilla and somehow her name didn’t come up. And I was like, yeah, that’s not the name of the person I’m interviewing. So you wrote a great character. Because I think she’s alive. Though. I should not be writing to almost 11 year old children. That would be a problem. But before before we talk about Camilla, I have to ask you a very, very important question. Because we are metaphorically speaking, sitting at my kitchen table. I’ve invited you in for this chat. Of course, I would serve you some food. And I need to know what is your favorite comfort food.

Ruth Hernandez 1:35
It’s got to be my mom’s arroz con pollo, chicken and rice. And it’s something that I’ve tried to make many times, but it never tastes the same. It’s possible that it’s because she makes it in a pressure cooker. And I am completely petrified of that thing. I always think it’s gonna blow up. But definitely it has to be her arroz con pollo.

Teresa Douglas 1:58
I am glad you’re not the only person who’s been intimidated about setting off pressure cookers, because I was convinced that I would just explode them in my house.

Ruth Hernandez 2:11
Once that whistle starts going, man, it’s dangerous there.

Teresa Douglas 2:15
It’s gonna get real and you’re gonna forget about it and boom.

Ruth Hernandez 2:18
Right, exactly.

Teresa Douglas 2:19
This is why we’re writers because we think of these things. And of course, no food is like what our family makes, because they make it one part real ingredients in one part magic. We would have to then invite your mother over, I see, if we are going to serve that. So that’s good to know. Well, we’ll have her over next time.

Ruth Hernandez 2:42
Oh, can I give a little shout out to her? She turns 90 today. Paulina.

Teresa Douglas 2:46
Yay Paulina!

Ruth Hernandez 2:49
Paulina is 90 today.

Teresa Douglas 2:51
Amazing. Paulina, I hear that I should ask you for food. So make a note for that. Anyway. So now I’ve invited her over and invited her to cook for us. I’m sure that would that goes over well. I get distracted by food. Let’s let’s move away from food. And let’s let’s talk a little bit about Camilla and about you and your process for writing. So let’s let’s just start, actually, from the beginning. How long have you been writing?

Ruth Hernandez 3:23
I’ve been writing since I was little since I learned to write. I liked doing little stories. I’m a screenwriter by training. I went to film school. So that’s really, that was my first outlet. But I started writing prose probably a good 10 years ago. I became very serious about writing prose. I have an anthology of short stories unpublished. And I have a novel in me that is slowly rearing its head. But yeah, fiction is definitely one of my first loves. For sure.

Teresa Douglas 4:02
Well, let me ask you because I took a short film editing course at one point. And it was interesting to see the differences in telling the story because there’s so much of that visual element that’s right there in front of you that you don’t have to describe. Would you say that coming from a screenwriting background change the way or or affect the way you approach writing stories?

Ruth Hernandez 4:40
Absolutely, absolutely. Screenwriting is basically shorthand for prose writing. You don’t have the real estate to dive in, you don’t have the chance to to describe what someone’s thinking. Everything’s visual. You can only really write what you see. So Initially, when I was writing prose, that was one of my problems, everything was just a visual description, but I wouldn’t get into my characters minds. And that’s what I love so much about prose, you can just go in there and tell the reader exactly what a character’s thinking and it’s expected and the possibilities are infinite. And you can really create real characters that way. Versus screenwriting, it’s very difficult to do that in an hour and a half of just visual scenes. When it happens. It’s magic. But it’s difficult, it’s difficult to get the depth that you do in prose.

Teresa Douglas 5:45
I think, though, all of us as writers we have different things that we do well, and other things we have to work on. Because writing is hard. Otherwise, everybody would do it. And there’d be all kinds of things out there. But I feel that with that screenwriting background, and having that firm sort of foundation of what’s going on in the real world, is also a strength because there are some folks who will be so deep in what their character is thinking that the character doesn’t do anything.

Ruth Hernandez 6:18
Yeah. It’s action versus interior conflict. Absolutely. Yeah. So if you can find the balance between the two, I think you’re you’re doing really well.

Teresa Douglas 6:32
Yeah, that’s the secret sauce. And I have to say, just with that information, it’s amazing to me how well you nailed Camila’s voice. Because I have a son that just turned 11 and a daughter that’s halfway to 13. And I heard this kid’s voice. I’m like, yep. Yep. That’s, that’s the age right there. I can tell it’s something you’ve worked on. I feel like you really nailed that voice. And sometimes, I shouldn’t say sometimes, often, if we had to work on something, and we focus on it, that becomes a strength because it isn’t just something you’re doing, unintentionally. You put that effort, that energy to learn it and then you shine. So I loved that about this piece. Let’s talk about this too, because you say that you started this piece after attending the World Cup. Can you just walk us through your process? Like how did you come up with the idea and how did you go about writing it?

Ruth Hernandez 7:49
Well, basically, luckily I did get to go in 2014 with my cousin, Catalina. Both avid avid fans. And our games all took place in Rififi in the town where the story takes place. And it’s in the northeast of Brazil. It’s a small town with a lot of history, but very small compared to the huge cities that we know in Brazil, Rio and Sao Paulo. And the government had built this beautiful stadium specifically for the World Cup. But you had to take a train from Rififi to the middle of nowhere to Pernambuco. And these trains went through several towns. And in one of our games that previous night they had torrential rains, and these little towns were flooded. And I remember seeing a little boy walking while treading through the street completely flooded. The water came up to his chest. He was clutching a paper box above his head. And he was just walking. I don’t know where he was walking to, just trying to save the contents of the box. And of course, the train zoomed by. But that image stayed with me. To this day, it’s such a powerful image. So we get to the game. Everyone in the train is just joyous. Everybody’s wearing their national colours, everybody’s singing, taking photos. And we get to the train station and we see these kids and there are gates separating kids from the people that are coming in and out of the train station. And these kids were just reaching through the gates for anything we were willing to give them for flags or bandanas or shirts or anything and it was all in fun. They were all yelling and laughing. And I would look at these kids and wonder my God what is their life like? Are they gonna go back to the flooded town? Is that what lay for them after, you know, leaving this train station, and something, something hit me. I came back and I wanted to write a travel essay, I thought this is such a serious subject. People should know what’s going on over there. Here’s this, beautiful festival of color, sports and money. And we have these people really struggling in the middle of all this. So I really thought I could do a travel essay. But then, you know, I thought what the hell do I know about Brazil and its people and its history and the struggles they’re going through. So I thought, you know, coming up with Camilla, with a child who’s going through this would be a good compromise. And I could sort of impose what I would think her life was like, in her character. And her thoughts and her dreams.

Teresa Douglas 11:00
Yeah, and I feel like you did that really well. I have the piece open on my computer here. Camila has a boyfriend who is a secret boyfriend, it isn’t until she turns 11 that she gets to say, and then it’s just that kid voice. They’re gonna get married, they’re gonna move to the city. They’re gonna have one kid, of course, because kids are hard. And she just has this unrolling idea of what her life is going to be like, which is very fantastical. And also, she has that deeper understanding of the difference between her and Mattheus, who has a better life. And that, to me, was was a poignant moment without really wallowing in it. Because we’ve all gone through experiences, however small, that really mattered to us and were very serious. But you don’t generally think that your whole life is terrible. This person is just thinking about her worries. And the things that she has to think about which are different from a child from a more affluent place or affluent neighborhood. And she’s wrestling with that idea of class consciousness and her pride, in who she is and what she’s willing to accept. And that was the thing that really caught my eye on this piece.

Ruth Hernandez 12:36
Yeah, I think you nailed the heart of Camilla, I think her pride is really what sets her apart and gives her her point of view. She’s willing to go along with this game with, you know, the fun, but she’s hurting. And she knows that there are those who have in the form of the tourists or even her boyfriend and the have nots. And she considers herself a have not, and yet she wishes she weren’t. She knows maybe out there, there’s something better for her. And she’s just, she’s so young. She just doesn’t know yet. How to get past that point.

Teresa Douglas 13:21
But she knows she doesn’t want a handout.

Ruth Hernandez 13:24
Exactly. Yeah.

Teresa Douglas 13:26
It’s interesting to me, I like that she can’t articulate what the problem is here. Because I don’t feel like all 11-year-olds are going to be able to give you a nice rounded discussion about capitalism.

Ruth Hernandez 13:48
Right. Exactly. Yeah.

Teresa Douglas 13:50
And that’s just the way it is. And it’s nice to see, to catch her in this moment of time. She’s almost there. She knows that some adults mind where she’s from.

Ruth Hernandez 14:03
Yeah, yeah. And that’s a really hard realization to learn. When you’re a child, you don’t you feel like those prejudices exist, or perhaps you’ve been lucky enough not to feel them. But there comes a time when you’re a teenager. I think that’s when you start to realize what your place is, and what the rules are. And I think that’s where she finds herself at this point. She’s learning what the world is really like.

Teresa Douglas 14:37
Yeah. And she’s she’s trying to figure it out. Like she hasn’t given up. There are some issues like her dad and her mom don’t really get on. They’re not the world’s best couple. And it doesn’t seem like she’s trying to have a perfect life or anything. She just wants something better.

Ruth Hernandez 15:02
Yes, she has dreams. And she’s holding on to them. Whatever it takes she’s holding on to them. Yeah.

Teresa Douglas 15:11
So I think I think we’ve covered this. But I need to ask this question because maybe there’s more. Is there a specific impression then that you want a reader to come away with after reading this piece?

Ruth Hernandez 15:27
Well, I know the impression that I got after my trip was I really didn’t know how much poverty there was in surrounding areas of Pernambuco. I mean, this is dire, dire poverty. These are little towns made of shacks. I know they’re in this country, too, in the US. And somehow we become isolated from that, especially, you know, I live in New York, where I don’t see that. I am fortunate enough that I live in a town where we do see homelessness, but not in that magnitude. And a piece like this perhaps can remind some of us that, yeah, this is out there. And we need to have compassion and be generous to those who have less.

Teresa Douglas 16:24
Yeah. And I feel like you hit on that because it’s not every day that we have our places flooded, and we have to relocate. And there are dead bloated dogs hanging out. It helps your sense of proportion to know there are those issues happening. And if we’re having a bad day, because our latte wasn’t warm enough?

Ruth Hernandez 16:45
Yeah, you’re right. It’s all relative. It’s all relative. Can I share an anecdote with you, it just happened recently. To me. I was in the hospital three weeks ago with a kidney stone. And yeah, that is a silly little thing, but painful. But I was in the emergency room waiting for hours and hours on end, because of COVID. I went to a very large hospital. They’re understaffed. I mean, it was a disaster. So I waited nine hours for a CAT scan. So of course, I’m feeling sorry for myself. And I’m walking around trying to stretch my legs. And I walked by, and this is the emergency room where they had these little cubby holes. They’re not rooms, they’re just, they’re separated by curtains. And here I am feeling sorry for myself. And I walked by, and this little boy is on a bed, he’s propped up. 1000 cables are coming out of him like these chains. And his family’s by him, of course, in tears, very quiet. And I realized, Oh, my goodness, what in the world am I complaining about you know, here’s this kid. He’s fighting for his life. His family is in terrible pain watching him. And so, you know, it’s all relative if we just keep our eyes open. That’s really what I try to do with my stories, just show what’s out there and perhaps open somebody’s eyes and say, Hey, things can be bad. I have had a pretty good run. Maybe I can do something about someone.

Teresa Douglas 18:24
Yeah, you’re not living in a slum. You’re not dying.

Ruth Hernandez 18:27
Exactly. Exactly.

Teresa Douglas 18:29
And we all need those reminders here and there. I thought this was a great way to bring that out. And I do love this voice. I love that slice of life. Because I have never been to a World Cup. I didn’t even–I’m going to go ahead and admit that I didn’t even pay attention to soccer until I moved out of the US and into Canada. It’s a little more on the news. It’s a lovely, lovely sport to watch. I get tired just watching people run across the field. But it was nice to get to delve more deeply into this.

Ruth Hernandez 19:17
Yeah, the games definitely are gorgeous. I mean, you see people from all over the world and their country colors and they’re just all having a grand old time. The sad part is, that some people have sold their houses. But when you don’t think about that, everything’s good.

Teresa Douglas 19:38
Nobody, nobody put a gun to their head and said sell your house.

Ruth Hernandez 19:42
Exactly. Exactly. It was all volunteer. Yeah.

Teresa Douglas 19:46
Maybe they’re gonna simplify their life and live somewhere they want.

Ruth Hernandez 19:50
On the beach.

Teresa Douglas 19:51
Exactly. Now I want to go to the beach. This has been lovely. Thank you so much for coming on the show and for sharing Camila with us and I promise if I email you I will definitely not call you by her name.

Ruth Hernandez 20:08
Well, thank you so much for your interest in this story I hope it reaches people and they like it.

Teresa Douglas 20:15
Absolutely. Listeners, if you haven’t read the piece yet I don’t know why you’re listening to this right now but please, please go listen to the piece. It’s a lovely, lovely story and you’re really going to enjoy it. So once again, thank you so much for coming on the show, Ruth.

Ruth Hernandez 20:33
Thank you, Teresa. It was a pleasure.

Fiction: Camila and the Freckled Boy by Ruth Hernandez

Ruth Hernandez is an Emmy-winning sound editor for film and television, a screenwriting instructor and an avid soccer fan. She wrote this story when she returned from the World Cup in Brazil. Her parents are Colombian.
A full transcript of the episode is below.

Camila and the Freckled Boy

by Ruth Hernandez

Camila laughed as she watched the reaction of the unsuspecting tourists to the fanatical screams of her friends.

They had gathered at the hallway pass of the Estação Cosme e Damião, the holy twins Train station, where the World Cup Visitors wearing proudly their country colors, would go through a turnstile to get to the train that would take them back to their fancy hotels in Recife. Some of her friends shouted “lenço! lenço!” (Scarf! Scarf!) Camila could hear her twin sister Vitoria’s loud shouts at the other end screaming “bandeira” (Flag!) and could see her long and thin brown arms stretching to the foreigners in hopes of a gift. Camila felt a tinge of embarrassment for her sister but wasn’t she there too to see if she could get anything? Something different to do, she reconciled.

Germany had just beaten the United States in the first round at Arena Pernambuco, but according to her boyfriend Matheus, the Americans had managed to move on to the second round only thanks to the Portuguese. He was only repeating comments he had heard at his father’s bar, but she thought he was the smartest boy in their school, Escola Santa Monica, and believed everything he said was right. They hadn’t told anyone they were boyfriend and girlfriend yet. They would when she turned eleven in a few days.

Matheus was at the train station too, screaming, reaching, laughing. Camila watched him with pride. He was the best-looking boy she knew and had the smile of a movie star. He’d already managed to get six bandanas: four American and two German. He would later wash them and sell them for four Reais each. Most mothers stayed in the back rows, making sure no adult would try anything funny with one of their kids, but some adult women elbowed their way to the front row, pushing against the gates in hopes of catching the eye of someone who could possibly get them out of Caramagibe. Much to Camila’s shame, her mother Sabine was against the gate, waving shamelessly at the good-looking men who donned their country’s colors. She’d been a beautiful woman once but her drinking and smoking had aged her. She whistled at a group of young Americans who could have been College students. One gave her his American Flag bandana and placed it around her neck. Camila cringed as Sabine reached out to kiss him, but his friends pulled him away, their train was arriving.

Camila looked up to the sky. It was a menacing grey. If this rain persisted, fairly soon her part of town would be flooded again. They’d have to move in with their Aunt Thais in Fortaleza and miss school until the water subsided. Last year they were away for two months. She almost had to repeat the third grade. She did not want to be left behind this year. There were many cute girls in their class and Matheus was a big flirt. He said she was the only girl for him but she knew how boys were.

She watched her friends reaching towards the tourists but wondered, for what? What good is a bandana or a flag when the water reaches your waist? When all your clothes are ruined? When your father’s motorcycle is flooded? When the town becomes a ghost town and the dogs die of starvation? Her mother would never let her feed any of the town dogs but she would sneak out now and then and give them a little bit of her dinner. In the last flood she found many of their bloated bodies half-buried in the mud.  She remembered shedding tears for them and for herself. Why can’t these tourists give them anything practical?

Matheus did not live in the low part of town. He never had these problems and told her again and again that it did not matter to him where she lived. But she often wondered about that. Adults mind very much. Perhaps when he grew up he would also mind. She would have to wait and see.

In three minutes the next batch of train riders would come around the turnstiles, with more bandanas and flags and scarves. Most would smile at the Brazilian welcoming party. Camila heard one man say, “I feel like a Beatle!” She knew he was referring to the British musical group that Matheus liked so much. Someday she and Matheus would leave this town and go to London where they would attend the university, get married, work together in an office wearing nice clothes, buy a car and an apartment and have children, well, maybe only one since it was so expensive to raise children. At least that’s what her mother complained of every day.

A family of Americans approached the turnstile, a father, a mother, a boy, and a girl. They all wore the same clothes, the U.S. futbol team red, white and blue jersey, khaki shorts, and muddy white sneakers. The girl looked to be about Camila’s age. Her hair was the color of wheat, rod straight, shiny, and beautiful. The boy had crazy carrot red hair and was covered in freckles just like his mom. The dad had a huge beer belly that protruded underneath his jersey. Camila giggled at their matching outfits and would rather die than be seen with her own family like that, not that they would ever attend an event together. Her father could not stand her mother for more than the ten minutes he sat at the dinner table, after which he would go to Matheus’ father’s bar and not return home until the early hours of the morning. Camila let her mind wander as flashes of color and chants passed by when she realized that the freckled boy, the one with the crazy red hair stood in front of her. He held out something.

His mother stood a few feet behind her precious son. Her nonexistent brows gave her an alien air but the frowning lines in her forehead told Camila all she needed to know. This made her feel cheap and ashamed. The mother shouted something to her son. All she understood was his name, John, like the Beatle. He was holding out his Nintendo DS. Some of the richer kids in school had them. She knew they were worth a lot of money. Everyone around Camila began to shout “Dar-me! Dar-me!” (Give it to me!) and reached out to grab it but the boy pulled back far enough so that no one could.

His sister rolled her eyes and sighed with impatience as she pulled on his arm but the freckled boy stood in front of Camila, motionless. Matheus pushed his way to Camila’s side and reached out for the DS too, even though he already had one at home. She saw Matheus with new, disappointed eyes. She knew he was there for fun but still… 

The freckled boy pulled back again waiting for Camila’s response. Now, all eyes were on her. She felt her cheeks flush. She heard her own mother shout “Levá-lo, estúpida!” (Take it, stupid!) but her arms would not move, her body would not respond. Every cell in her body wanted her to run, to run as far as her long thin legs would take her, to Recife, to Rio, to London, to the moon. But she was stuck, frozen, glued to the now wet and slippery sidewalk surrounded by her friends. The rain felt good on her warm skin. The freckled boy and his family ran onto their platform to seek shelter.

“Why didn’t you take it?” Asked Matheus while he opened his umbrella.

“I don’t know,” Camila said wondering the same thing. 

Behind the Scenes: with Victoria Buitron, writer of 1 Star Review for the Cordless Electric Chainsaw

The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Teresa Douglas 0:10
Welcome listeners to another behind-the-scenes episode of Latinx Lit Audio Mag. I’m your host Teresa Douglas. Today we’re going to do a behind-the-scenes interview with Victoria Buitron and her piece One Star Review for the Cordless Electric Chainsaw. Victoria Buitron is a writer and translator who hails from Ecuador, and resides in Connecticut. She received an MFA in creative writing from Fairfield University. She writes about the intersection of identity and place, family history, and the moments her hippocampus refuses to forget. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Lost Balloon, Xray Lit mag, Revolute lit, Bending Genres and other literary magazines. Her debut memoir in essays, A Body Across Two Hemispheres, is the 2021 Fairfield Book Prize winner and will be available in spring 2022. By Woodhall press. Welcome, Victoria.

Victoria Buitron 1:10
Thank you so much for having me, Teresa.

Teresa Douglas 1:13
It’s so much fun having you here. And I will just say to listeners that if you haven’t listened to this piece, and you’re listening to this behind the scenes, I’m not sure what you’re doing here. But please, go listen to the piece, it’s so funny. There are some places in it, of course, that are endearing, with a marital–Well, I’m getting ahead of myself. But the point is, this is a wonderful piece. Especially, I have to tell you, Victoria, that the ending got me every time. I was just listening again to the recording, and I was laughing because it’s such a wonderful way to end this piece. But before we get into that, we have to start with the question that I ask everybody, because this podcast is you and I talking like we’re at my kitchen table. And if you were at my kitchen table, I would of course offer you something to eat. Which makes me wonder, what is your favorite comfort food?

Victoria Buitron 2:14
My favorite comfort food, the first thing that comes to mind, is ramen. I associate ramen with so much comfort and warmth. And it’s something that you can have any time of the year. And I love it so much. So that is definitely my comfort food. It’s also the food that I always have to celebrate things when I don’t want to splurge. I’m like oh, that’s what I’m gonna go eat, especially some spicy miso ramen. I love it.

Teresa Douglas 2:57
Oh, I love ramen. It is also my daughter’s favorite food. It’s her comfort food. There’s something about those noodles, that that just fix everything, in some ways. Yes. If we were sitting at my kitchen table, we would probably get up from my kitchen table and go have ramen. So that’s great. That’s amazing.

Victoria Buitron 3:23
And also, thank you so much for your comment about my piece and the ending.

Teresa Douglas 3:28
Well, it’s it just the cherry on top of the sundae, even though the ending was at the bottom of the piece. So I’m not sure how that works literally speaking, but I think you understand. So I gotta ask, just before we talk about that piece, how long have you been writing?

Victoria Buitron 3:47
Well, I’ve been writing since I was a kid, right? Because that’s when they force you to write. And I wrote for fun a lot for basically, my adolescence and my young adult years. And when I say for fun, I kind of felt during that time that I wasn’t ready to submit my work out there, to submit it to lit mags so I just said you know, I’m going to write for myself. I’m going to kind of hone my craft. And I wrote a lot but I kept it inside my journals inside of my computer. And it really wasn’t until around 2016 2017. I got my bachelor’s in 2015. And about a year two years later, I started thinking about whether I wanted to get an MFA, which felt like a very selfish decision, or whether I wanted to do something practical. So I think that a lot of people go through that like Oh, should I do what I really really want or should I do something, thinking about how much money I’m going to be able to make from this in a year to three years after I graduate.

Teresa Douglas 5:03
As someone who also got an MFA, I feel that. It’s not like you get an MFA, and you’re going to sign with a company and make $100,000 a year. That’s not what happened.

Victoria Buitron 5:14
Exactly. And I kind of knew that, in the year or two before I applied to the MFA. And then it was just like, I feel like I have this memoir in me that I really want to focus on. And, I want to do that in a program because I really don’t know how to do it by myself. I have essays here and there. I’ve worked on things over the years. But I really don’t know where to go from here. So that’s why I applied to the MFA. And it was one of the best things that I’ve ever done in my life. And yeah, that’s when it all started. I started working with professors and workshop leaders during that time, and it was a Colombian writer, her name is Adriana Paramo, who was the first person that said, this piece that you wrote is ready, you should send it out. And when she said that, I was like, Wait, isn’t it too soon? Like, are you sure I’m ready? Like I wasn’t really. So I actually had to have other people kind of believe in me and push me. And then I was like, Okay, I’ll submit. Right? Because you submit not just your work, but it’s kind of like you submit who you are into these words, whether they’re fiction or nonfiction. So that’s when I really started to send out my work, back in 2018. I was initially just an essay, memoir writer, and it hasn’t been until 2021, which just past that I began working on fiction. So this is a fiction piece, of course, this review of the chainsaw. So I would say I’ve been working about a year and a half really focused on fiction and flash fiction, and kind of like getting into a little bit of satire and all that. But I would consider myself primarily and essayist, and nonfiction writer.

Teresa Douglas 7:27
So that that brings an interesting question, because there’s that whole idea in some circles, you should stick to one thing and specialize. Do you do you feel that there are tie ins between writing more a memoir essay and writing fiction or satire in your work?

Victoria Buitron 7:49
I love to write a little bit of everything. And that is not something I would have said two years ago, to be honest. Up until 2020, I really thought that I would never venture into fiction or into poetry. But in 2020, and 2021, I had a lot of time on my hands, like many other people around the world. And I said, Why don’t I try something different? Something that I wouldn’t say that I was afraid to do. But I’ve kind of was never like, Oh, let me try. Because I was like, Oh, how can people make things up? So you just think about a world or you think about a scene and you just lie on the page? Like I just couldn’t, my brain couldn’t comprehend it. Because I was like, No, I read about things that happen to me, and in my life. So you know, it’s already there. It already existed. I’m just putting it on the page. So it was very difficult, in a sense to go from that nonfiction mindset, to this fiction mindset of making a different, you know, making people living that are not living and breathing, but they are living and breathing on the page. So I started off really with flash fiction, because it was a way to get my feet wet, I would say. So yes, I’m going from there. It’s a lot of fun. I always tell people that. If you write and you like to write, the best thing that you can do is have fun. And that’s what I’m doing right now. I’m just having fun.

Teresa Douglas 9:26
And we need some fun. There should be some fun at this time. And yes, and I really feel like it’s nice to sort of in some ways escape into fiction, even though fiction can be very serious. But of course, it can deal with heavy things. But to make things up is in some ways an escape even if you’re going to still be talking about different subject matters that are heavy. One star review is not heavy at all. But it’s superbly crafted. It’s one of the things–in fact, let’s talk about One Star Review. Can we just talk a little bit about how you wrote this, just walk us through your process on how you came up with it?

Victoria Buitron 10:11
Sure. So this is a very interesting process for this specific piece. I wouldn’t say that this is what I do all the time. Definitely not. But I took–some time in April or May 2021– something called a hermit crab workshop. So hermit crab is another way if people have heard this, for the first time ever, I’ll just give a little summary. Hermit crab is a different way to say that you get this weird, different kind of compartment to tell a story. So it can be a list, it can be a prescription, it can be a manual, and you use that to tell a specific story. So I took this hermit crab workshop with Sheryl Papas. And in it, the prompt was a generative prompt. It said, write a review about something, about anything, and tell a story about someone through that. And so that was the prompt and I didn’t know at that moment, what to pick, and you have only like, I don’t know, like 15 or 20 minutes, because obviously, these are generative prompts, and they’re timed. And then if you feel fine you can share them with other people in the workshop. And I just came up with like, what’s the weirdest thing someone can use for review? Like, who was going to review like a mower or whatever. And then I was like, Oh, a chainsaw? That sounds so interesting. So I wrote something really quickly in that moment, like I said, many months ago, and we shared it, we talked about it, I got some feedback at that moment. And that I let it sleep for months, I would say about six, seven months. And then I looked at it again, having forgotten about it. And I was like, Oh, this is interesting. There’s something here and then I kept editing, editing it. So I let it sleep for a long time, which is what I usually recommend you do with all your work in general. And yes, then I kept on editing it. And I was like, oh, what I want? What are the visuals that I want to show the reader? How can I say something interesting in a different way? How can people relate to this person that’s doing the review? And how can I end with a bang?

Teresa Douglas 12:48
Yeah, it’s amazing what having a constraint can do for a story because this idea, because I’d heard of Hermit crab, but I hadn’t actually used it. So this was a lovely, a lovely introduction to that. But having that small space, can in some ways get us out of ruts, really, so that you’re thinking about something different. And if we want to plug the the hermit crab workshop–this is something you said Cheryl Papa’s does. So it sounds like you would not give the workshop a one star review at all?

Victoria Buitron 13:22
No, she’s great. If you look, go to her website, her name is Cheryl Papas. She holds these workshops often. They get full pretty quickly, let me tell you, but yes, I’ve gotten a few drafts from there. And I still have drafts in my computer. And I love going back to them after some months and say, Oh, this is what I think about this. Now how can I change it? And like I said earlier, for me writing, a lot of it is about having fun. And I had fun when I wrote it and had fun when I edited as well.

Teresa Douglas 14:00
So do you think you had more fun editing it because you let it sleep for a while? I know there are some people who let things sleep for a little bit. And there are others that edit and edit right away. Why do you personally think that letting things sleep is good for your writing?

Victoria Buitron 14:16
That’s a great question. Um, I would say that sometimes you write something because it was a generative prompt. I’d never thought about giving a review to chainsaw in my life. And all of a sudden, this story about a woman and her marriage, and her husband comes out to through this weird form. And so in this particular case, I think that I let it sleep because there were just so many other things going on in my life. But I think it’s always a good idea just to go back to something that you wrote a month ago. Three months ago, or a year ago, maybe. And then, once time has passed, sometimes in that timeframe, when you go back to it, it’s like, okay, I know where this is going. I didn’t know it then but I’ve now decided where I want it to go to. And I think that that’s why I like letting my work sleep. Not all the time. But I would say most of the time, because when I go back to it, it’s like looking at it with a different pair of eyes. They’re still yours. But time has passed. And it’s kind of like you’ve changed as well. And then you decide, this is what I want to do with this particular piece.

Teresa Douglas 15:42
Yeah, and it’s a wonderful technique. And I should say, for anybody who doesn’t know what a generative workshop is, that’s where you show up to a place, whether online or in person, or whatever. And the idea is just to write stuff down. So you’re not trying to make things perfect, you’re trying to make things. And so you’ll have that draft. And the idea is that you do several of these in a short period of time, so that you can leave and then later on you can work on something without looking at that blank page. You have a thing. And speaking of having a thing, I’m going to be rustling here because I have One Star Review on a paper here in front of me. Let’s talk a little bit about that. Because you have some lovely, lovely images, from the Paisley pink and luminous yellow of the flowers on the little free library. There’s the cherry red bridge, and some wonderful sounds like the gulp of the river swallowing the first chainsaw whole. And just in fact, that whole idea of the chainsaw on the river, hot yoga class, parked on the cherry-colored bridge, there just so many senses there. I feel like when you read that, you can just see this woman. It’s funny because it’s almost committing a crime, right? Instead of throwing a body in the river. You’re throwing a chainsaw in the river, well, not you, but the person is, just to save their sanity. And, I just love this idea of this woman, long-suffering hearing this chainsaw and like I’m just so tired of the sound of this chainsaw! Can we just not hear this anymore. It’s so so well done. Because you start with that, that idea of oh, this is interesting, chainsaw review. And then she’s killing the chainsaw, but the chainsaw multiplies and we have Chase the chainsaw that comes and then suddenly, we have all of these names for the chainsaws. And who knows where it’s going to end. I even love this idea of a Winnie the Pooh mask. Like it’s such a unique idea to think of this large man wearing a–and this is all in my mind, of course–this big burly guy wearing this wooden Winnie the Pooh mask that he made out of wood. It’s just it’s so lovely. And then ending on that suburban Chainsaw Massacre. Oh my gosh, I just, I still laugh. It’s just so nice. There’s just so much going on in that story. And, I love it because the problem isn’t that her marriage is ending. It’s that her sanity can’t take this chainsaw anymore. It’s developing a personality and a name. And it’s just like, you get so much in such a short story. Such a little flash, it’s really a wonderful example of flash fiction at its finest. Really.

Victoria Buitron 18:55
Thank you so much. I really appreciate it. And I really appreciate the analysis as well.

Teresa Douglas 19:01
It’s just lovely. And I guess the question I ask folks, and you’ve talked about this a little bit, but is there an impression you would hope that the reader takes when they’re listening to the story? Because we often or I should say nearly always, we send our things out. And people read them or they interact with them without us. But here’s your moment. If you could tell someone what you were hoping for, if you could give them a hint of what you would hope they take from it, what would that be?

Victoria Buitron 19:39
What I would hope that someone takes away from this piece is that they would remember someone that they love, but also something annoying that they did. And what I mean by that is that you know the thing about flash like that you have to tell this bigger story within such a short time. And I would like them to read it and think I exactly know how this woman feels. Even though I don’t know her. I’ve been through that, or I’ve been through something similar. And being in a relationship, sometimes in people having these quirks, or something that they focus on, or something that they obsess over. And you as the spouse, or as their lover have to kind of either accept it, or say no, and whether you have to act or not. And in this particular case, this woman, instead of being honest, and going to her husband and saying, Hey, I have a problem with this, can we solve that? Or can we come to this type of agreement, she doesn’t go that route, right? She’s like, I’m just gonna try and end this my own way, without having any problems or telling him anything. And I do feel like sometimes we’ll do that, or like, you know, what, I’m not going to make a big deal about this. I’m going to solve this in my own way. But in this particular case, it’s just so funny, because it’s a chainsaw. And you know, so yes, that’s what I do want people to identify with this woman in a certain way.

Teresa Douglas 21:24
Yeah. And it’s a funny thing, because you can say, point of view character, throwing your problems in the river, is not really going to solve them. He can buy more chainsaws. And yet, even in our own lives, we might do that. Like you say, I’m just gonna ignore that. And I’m sure it’ll go away. Or we’ll just tell them we lost it. Like, I like that whole idea of Oh, yeah, I was going for firewood and it broke. It magically fell into the river hat’s however many miles away. But we all do that. Right. We do something like it. The thing I would love to end on, you have a book coming out, which is amazing.

Victoria Buitron 22:13
Yes, I do. Thank you.

Teresa Douglas 22:16
Where can people hear the second that comes out? If they want to grab it? Do you have social media do you have? Where can they find you and find your work?

Victoria Buitron 22:27
Sure. So if you go to my website, which is my name, Victoria Buitron dot com, you’ll be able to find information about the book there. It’s my debut memoir, it’s called The Body Across Two Hemispheres. And you can also go to Wood Hall press; the book is already available for pre order. So if you prefer to buy it directly from the press, you can do that you can buy from a bookshop, which is a great way to support indie presses and books in bookstores as well. And obviously, through Barnes and Noble and Amazon and all the other stores, you can preorder it, and it will come out in March. I’m very excited. Thank you so much. This was, like I said, a few moments ago, I wanted to write about my life a few years ago. The goal was always to write a book. The other goal is not just to write it, but to publish it.

Teresa Douglas 23:29
And both are happening, like you wrote it, and now it’s coming out.

Victoria Buitron 23:33
Exactly. So it just feels like a dream. It still feels like I’m dreaming a little bit. So I’m very excited. And thank you so much for the support.

Teresa Douglas 23:43
And what you didn’t say and I’m going to just plug a little bit for readers is that if you buy it on pre order, that helps out because then that means they should probably print more. So I will even push that. If this memoir sounds even the tiniest bit interesting, you should just preorder it and then you will have the book. And that will help get even more works by people of color out in the popular masses. So please, please go out and look at that and do that. Well, Victoria, this has been lovely. It has been so nice to have you here on podcast. It’s been wonderful to read your work, and I’m looking forward to seeing what you do next.

Victoria Buitron 24:28
Thank you so much for having me. This was a wonderful interview. I’m so glad that you enjoyed my review about the chainsaw. And I’m astounded by the support. Thank you so much.

Flash Fiction: 1 Star Review for the Cordless electric Chainsaw by Victoria Buitron

Transcript:

1-Star Review for the Cordless Electric Chainsaw

by Victoria Buitron

My husband would give it five stars, but I can only give it a one because it has swallowed my life like a Florida sinkhole.  It was fine at first, when he built the Little Free Library for me in the front of our house. We painted it patterns of Paisley pink and luminescent yellow, so even during the winter—when there’s a foot of snow—I can think of spring. But he’s been using it for everything now. Cutting wood, building a climbing wall, making Winnie the Pooh wooden masks that my daughter begs him to wear while he reads her a book before bed, jolting the crows away from the sunflowers with the vroom. The other day I heard him humming and then calling the thing in his hand Chase the Chainsaw. Whatever project our son asks him to do, he’ll use the chainsaw to cut and slash and destroy and rebirth. Because it’s faster, he says. I’m tired. I actually threw the last chainsaw into the river, after hot yoga class, parked on the cherry-colored bridge. A splash like the river had gulped it. I lied and told him that it fell and broke when I went to grab some firewood. I thought maybe he’d use the old saw, sweat until his arm became sore and his muscles flexed, but the next day he went to get another one. This one is called Casey the Chainsaw. I have another death for him lined up. If there’s a Chad the Chainsaw, I’m charging his credit card with noise-canceling ear muffs and purchasing acoustic foam panels to enact as a sound barrier around our bedroom—so I am only privy to his  final creations—because I love what he makes, but not how he makes them, and please, damnit, if someone knows how to annihilate these cordless Lucifer-sent technological contraptions without it looking too obvious, please email me at suburbanchainsawmassacre@gmail.com.