Thursday, November 13, 2014

John K. Walsh Residency Fellowship / Mentorship Essays

The John K. Walsh Residency Fellowship, named after Notre Dame alum (’61) and hispanista Jack Walsh (1939 -1990), is an annual Letras Latinas program that supports a Latino/a writer working on a first book. Specifically, the support is a one-month residency in July at the Anderson Center in Red Wing, MN.

The 2014 Fellow was poet Luisa Caycedo-Kimura. She agreed to take a few questions about her experience last summer.

LL:     Letras Latinas
LCK:  Luisa Caycedo-Kimura

LL: You just had the unique experience of doing back-to-back artist residencies: a one-week residency at the Ragdale Foundation in Lake Forest, IL, and your one-month John K. Walsh residency (curated by Letras Latinas) at the Anderson Center in Red Wing, MN.  Could you share with our readers what a residency at the Anderson Center and Ragdale have in common, how they differ?

LCK: At Ragdale, they have t-shirts that say “time + space.” I would add the word “peace” and say that is precisely what I found in both places. The Anderson Center and Ragdale both strive to create an environment that is conducive to producing creative work. In each place, I had a comfortable private room in a gorgeous historical mansion surrounded by extensive grounds. At Ragdale, there are manicured lawns, a sculpture garden, and acres of meadowland. The grounds at the Anderson Center consist mostly of lovely tree studded manicured lawns, a large sculpture garden, interesting buildings, a tree preserve, and a fitness trail. Both places have a pantry and refrigerator full of delicious healthy food available to the residents day and night, and a professional chef prepares dinners Monday through Friday. There are books and journals available for borrowing, art everywhere, and bicycles exclusively for residents’ use. Behind the grounds of the Anderson Center, there is one of the best bike paths I have seen, and if you have a car (or are a strong biker), the center of Red Wing and the bluffs are not far. Ragdale is within walking distance to Lake Forest’s town center.

Most importantly, my main responsibility was just to be a poet. At both places, I was able to slow down and notice the way the light hit the grounds and the architecture. While I was at Ragdale, the cottonwood pods were releasing their seeds, and I could observe as the wind made them dance through the air like fireflies. Twice, on walks through the meadows, I found myself surrounded by yellow butterflies. It’s as if I were Mauricio Babilonia in Gabriel García Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. At The Anderson Center, I saw a thirteen-stripe squirrel. I didn’t even know they existed! I also saw bald eagles and on the bike trail a beaver. There was so much art and nature to relax and inspire me.

At Ragdale, there were thirteen of us sharing three houses. That was probably one of the main differences between the two places. I was in the main house with five other writers. Each of the rooms is comfortable and unique, some have private balconies or decks, and each has a private bathroom. To make sure no one is disturbed while working, there are rules about how much noise one can make on the premises. At times you could almost hear the others breathe. Of course, if you are tired of the silence, you can go outdoors or to one of the kitchens and invariably find another resident or one of the employees. At the Anderson Center, there were only six of us at any one time living in the huge mansion. Since only two of us were writers and the other residents had their music or art studios away from the house, there was no need to have rules about noise. In fact, except for meal times or coffee breaks, the house was almost empty. Even when people were there, because of the design of the house and the small number of residents, I rarely heard anyone from my room or my favorite work and reading areas throughout the house.

 LL: I’m going to venture a guess that your one-month stay at the Anderson Center allowed you to develop something of a routine, both for writing, reading, and perhaps other activities?  Could give us a sense of how you spent your time?

LCK: Although I don’t consider myself a terribly structured person, I believe we all have a natural rhythm that allows us to be at our creative best. I like to write in my journal as close to the start of my day as possible, while I have a cup of coffee. I’m a huge advocate of early morning journaling. I’ve done it for years and find it extremely helpful. Beyond that, my preferred work rhythm isn’t always attainable in my everyday life. That was one of the major benefits of being in these residencies. I was able to follow my own rhythm. At the Anderson Center, my favorite place to journal was the upstairs sitting room. It’s a peaceful, sunny, spacious room with a comfortable loveseat, a wingback chair, and lots of poetry books. After journaling, I read before writing. I like to start writing by editing drafts, unless inspiration strikes at any time prior to that, in which case, one should never keep the muse waiting. My afternoons were somewhat less structured, but usually involved reading and writing away from my room and some sort of outdoor activity, such as biking, exploring the property and its surroundings, climbing the water tower, etc., or spending time with other residents. Tom Virgin, a print maker and five-time resident at the Anderson Center, had copies of books he had made and encouraged me to spend time in his studio perusing them. Other times, I would listen to Michael Tsalka (a seven-time resident at the center) play the piano. He was always happy to have an audience. Other times I would listen to his wife Angelica Minero Escobar, a musicologist and vocalist, practice her singing. The only externally imposed structure was dinner with the residents Monday through Friday. After a leisurely dinner, I usually went back to my room for writing, reading, and exercising. I brought a travel yoga mat that proved invaluable.

LL: The John K. Walsh Residency Fellowship is meant to assist a Latino/a writer working on a first book. Could you share with our readers what your first book project is, and how it’s coming along?

LCK: I’ve been working on a manuscript that focuses on some difficult topics –– loss, abuse, domestic violence, depression, and a general sense of not belonging. Some poems are set in Colombia, some in the United States. I’m close to finishing, though I believe there are still a few gaps that I need to fill to make it more cohesive. I’m certain that I would not be this far along with my book had it not been for the John K. Walsh Residency Fellowship.

LL: An integral part of this experience, I imagine, is being in community with other artists. Could you say something about what that was like, with a particular focus on your experience at the Anderson Center since you were there for one month?

LCK: Being a natural recluse, I have to admit I was a little apprehensive about living with a group of strangers and having dinner with them every night. It’s not that I’m shy or that I dislike people. I just tend to need a lot of alone time. Interestingly, the people I met hold my fondest memories of that summer. In both places, we bonded quickly. At the Anderson Center, of course, I had more time to get to know the other residents, and it felt as if we were a family — in a good way. In addition to Tom, Michael, and Angelica, whom I mentioned earlier, there was also Lisa Weider, a young visual artist from Austria, and two fiction MFA students from the University of Minnesota. The latter two, John Costello and Jonathan Escoffery, split the residency. Each was there for half a month. Often, I sat at the kitchen peninsula for conversation and coffee with Lisa or John. At the Anderson Center, every resident is required to do a small community service. I was asked to read at the Center’s summer arts festival, and I was touched that everyone in my little “family” stopped what they were doing (Tom and Lisa had open studios that same day) to attend the reading and lend their support. On weekends, although we didn’t need to, we would cook together and share a communal meal. Several times we even had visitors. They were writers that Tom, Michael, and Angelica had met in past residencies. One of those former residents was Jacob Saenz, the 2011 Letras Latinas Fellow! There is something so inspiring and motivating in sharing time with other creative people.

One Sunday, in a bit of a role reversal, we had our chef, Amy, her husband, and son, join us for a dinner that we prepared. In many ways, we considered Amy to be part of our group. At the end of the month, all of us July residents organized a “Meet the Artists” event at the barn, where we shared our work with the public. Robert Hedin, the director, and other members of the staff and board were there, as well as some of the permanent residents who rent artist space at the center. I can’t say enough about the people at both residencies. Everyone was warm and welcoming.

LL: It’s my understanding that these have been your first experiences (at Ragdale and the Anderson Center) with artist residencies. What advice would you give to a writer who has never done one of these residencies, and who is thinking about applying to do one? Is there anything you might do differently on your next residency, assuming you’d like to do another one, at some point?

LCK: The first thing I would tell someone considering whether or not to apply for one of these residencies is “Go for it!” Each place seemed like a bit of paradise. For those planning to do a residency, I would pass on two pieces of advice that I received. The first came from my husband, an artist. He said, “The first week may end up being a throw-away in terms of creative output. It will likely take you a while to unwind. Accept it. Don’t put undue pressure on yourself.” The second came from Regin Igloria, the Director of Artists-in-Residence at Ragdale. He told us to first catch up on our sleep. This was all sound advice. By giving myself permission to just enjoy the “free time,” I ended up having a productive, relaxing, and joy-filled first week.

In the future, I would like to see if I could do a residency with my husband. Prior to this summer, I didn’t know whether that would be possible or even desirable. But, in each of the residencies, there was a married couple. At Ragdale, the husband and wife were Eric Moe, a composer, and Barbara Weissberger, a visual artist. At the Anderson Center, it was Michael Tsalka and Angelica Minero Escobar. One reason I believe it worked well was because each individual had his or her own workspace. Aside from the possibility of doing a residency with my husband, I would consider packing fewer books. I spent so much time deciding which books to pack, and I barely even looked at them. Ragdale and the Anderson Center both have great selections of books and journals available to the residents.


The John K. Walsh Residency Fellowship 
also recognizes the indelible role mentors 
play in the lives of Latino/a writers.

To this end, we have created 
The John K. Walsh Mentorship Essays,
a collaboration with the online component 
of Origins, a new literary journal.

To learn more and read the inaugural essay 
in what will be a quarterly series, 

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Reyna Grande at Notre Dame: a Letras Latinas exclusive

Reyna Grande 

Today, Reyna Grande was a special guest in an anthropology course titled, "Mexican Immigration: South Bend Case Study" taught by Professor Karen Richman. In collaboration with Letras Latinas, Richman had adopted Grande's memoir for the course. The students had insightful questions for the author of The Distance Between Us, and the session and dialogue between students and writer could not have been more substantive. Earlier that morning, Letras Latinas Associate and MFA candidate (poet), Ae Hee Lee conducted an oral history video interview with Grande. Stay tuned for that. 

And last night, Grande dined with Notre Dame sophomore and Letras Latinas Associate, Amanda Castañeda, who had spent the last several weeks reading The Distance Between Us, and Grande's first novel Across a Hundred Miles in order to draft some questions. Here is the result:

An interview with Reyna Grande

conducted by 
Amanda Castañeda 
(class of ’17, ND)


AC: Amanda Castañeda
RG: Reyna Grande

[about the memoir]:

AC: I noticed throughout your memoir, The Distance Between Us, that along with your immediate family, there were numerous other outside family members that had a strong presence in your life such as Tia Emperatriz and Abuelita Chinta. Coming from a Mexican family, I understand how important this large family dynamic and interdependence is. Can you comment on how the importance of family affected your perspective while writing The Distance Between Us, and how you wanted to portray the people in your life? 

RG: Writing memoir is a difficult thing because you do worry about what your family is going to say or not say about what you write. I found myself struggling with that question through the four years I spent writing the memoir. The one I worried the most about was my father.  I didn’t want to hurt his feelings by writing about some really horrible things he did, but I wanted to write the truth and to be honest with the writing. My father passed away while I was still working on the memoir and when that happened it allowed me to finish writing the book without worrying about what my father was going to say—but I was actually more careful about the way I wrote about my father. My father’s death helped me to really look at him in a different way. It made me determined to write about my father as a human being, with flaws and virtues, with all of his complexities. This is why in the memoir my father is neither villain nor hero. He is my father. And I loved him because he made me who I am.

AC: You mentioned at one point the differences between your step-mother, Mila, and your actual mother, and noted how Mila seemed to be taking advantage of the opportunity she was given in the U.S., while your mother was content with simply being in the U.S. and 'making ends meet'. Do you think the differences between Mila and your mother could reflect a broader situation in the U.S., namely the different paths that immigrants take upon arriving in the U.S.? 

RG: This is a great question. Yes, I think that these two examples could reflect the different paths that immigrants take when arriving in the U.S. I know people like my mother who have come here and haven’t really done much with the opportunities they’ve found in the U.S. My mother for example, to this day, still hasn’t taken advantage of the fact that she is a U.S. citizen. For the past few years she’s been making a living by recycling cardboard, cans and bottles.  She is barely making enough to pay her rent, but for the past 30 years that she’s been in the U.S. she never did anything to improve her work opportunities. But there are many immigrants like my stepmother, and many other people I know, who have really done their best to improve their lives and not replicate the life they had in their native countries. They have truly come here to better themselves and they have done everything they can, especially going to school to learn a trade and learn English, to ensure a brighter future for themselves.

AC:  Throughout the memoir you bring up the cost of "El Otro Lado" and how this opportunity of a lifetime severely damaged your relationship with your parents. At the end, you say that the pain, sorrow, and loss were all worth it. Do you think that this is true for most families? Can these relationships be slowly built up again or do you think most families stay separated?

RG: I think that the answer to this question comes down to what immigrants do with their lives once they get here.  I was severely scarred by my parents’ decision to leave me behind in Mexico. That separation really affected my relationship with my parents. To this day I still deal with the trauma and the emotional wounds of that experience. When I got to the U.S., I was angry, hurt, and resentful to some extent, but I was able to go above those feelings and really appreciate the opportunities that I now had in this country, so I focused on that and tried to better myself and not dwell on the past. I know other child immigrants who have gone through a similar experience and they let their emotions control them. They let their hurt, anger, and resentment take over their lives and they become bitter and self-destructive. Instead of making good choices to better themselves, they end up doing things that are damaging to themselves and their families. So it really comes down to the choices that you make to be able to say whether it was worth it or not. 

AC: I was born and reared in California, but up until high school I spent most of my vacations in Mexico, where my mother's side of the family still lives. Having seen it my whole life, I understand the pressure to do well in the U.S. and report to family in Mexico that life is perfect in America. Do you believe that this constant pressure widens the gap between both countries, making it feel as though you have to choose which side to be on?

RG: I think that immigrants themselves contribute to the romantic idea of the U.S. that people back in Mexico have. Most immigrants, when they go back to visit their families, don’t talk much about the difficulties of living in the U.S. Instead, they only talk about the good things. I think in part they don’t want their families to see how much of a struggle it is to make a life here in the U.S. My mother for example, when she goes back to Mexico, she puts out this image that she is successful and has money and that her life is great in the U.S. But the reality is the complete opposite. 

I don’t think that the pressures that immigrants face in the U.S. widens the gap between families, nor does it mean you have to choose between one country or the other.  But I do think that by prolonging the idea that life is perfect in the U.S. creates a false reality for those that are left behind. For instance, my mother pretends that her life is perfect in the U.S. so that her siblings don’t worry about her, and also because I think to a certain extent she is ashamed to admit that she didn’t get very far in “the land of opportunities.”  But this has led my aunt and my uncles back home to romanticize life in the U.S. and think that the money my mother sends to them every month is easily earned, where in fact, it is not.

AC: If you could indulge me for a minute, I was very interested in your relationship with Abuelita Chinta. At one point you mentioned that she would go "without food and make sure [you] were fed first." I feel that your Abuelita Chinta and my mother are extremely similar because my mother has always looked to provide for my brother and me first. Could you talk a little bit more about her and why she was an important figure in your life?

RG: My Abuelita Chinta is very dear to my heart. She was an amazing grandmother, very generous, kind, and loving. I wish I had taken the time to get to know her more once I became an adult. I only went to Mexico a few times before she died a sudden death. She was stung by a scorpion and died two days later. I got to my hometown a few hours after she’d died, so I didn’t even get to say goodbye.  I remember one time when I was 22 I asked her about her life and she told me that when she was young she’d been in love with a young man but her father didn’t approve. She ended up running away with this young man and her father and brother went to look for her and dragged her back home. She was forced into marrying a man that was much older than her. That was my grandfather. This story she told me made me very sad because I think my grandmother should have been allowed to marry the man she loved. Despite that, my grandmother was a good wife to my grandfather and eventually, she was a wonderful grandmother to me and my siblings. I don’t think she ever got over that young man she’d loved.

AC: The memoir ends when you move into your apartment at UC Santa Cruz. For those of us yearning to learn more about you, can you talk about an important event that has happened since you moved to Santa Cruz, and how this experience impacted your life?

RG: I can’t choose one thing that has impacted me the most, but I am happy to say that I have continued to work hard on my education and my writing. In 2006 when my first book came out it was an amazing feeling knowing that I had done it—I had become a published author and made my dream come true. In terms of my personal life, I am very happy being married. I found an amazing man to spend my life with. Being a mom is hard for me, but I love my children dearly and I want to give them a loving and stable family life to make up for the one I didn’t have when I was growing up. I have created the family I wanted to have when I was a child.

[about the novel]:

AC: Along with faith, sin and penitence also appear to be recurring concepts throughout the book. Juana's life is engulfed by the sin that her mother commits as well as the sins Juana believes she has committed herself. They spend their lives seeking forgiveness from their demons and being chastised by the village or themselves. Why did you decide to make sin and redemption such a huge part of their lives?

RG: I don’t know if I ‘decided’ to do that—the story emerged and became what it became.  When I was writing Across a Hundred Mountains, I was actually writing a memoir, but it became a very challenging book to write on many levels, so I turned it into a novel. As soon as I made the switch from nonfiction to fiction, I ended up getting rid of the brother and sister (me and Carlos) and only kept the oldest daughter (Mago). Juana’s character was inspired by my sister. From that point on, everything started to change, the mother in the book was based on my own mother until the second draft of the story, when I replaced that mother with Lupe. The father was based on a romanticized version of my father (the one I fantasized about). And then, when I had the father disappear and never return, I was exploring my deepest fear that I had as a child—“What if my father never returns? What would happen to me?”  Across a Hundred Mountains was an exploration of my fears and what I imagined my life might have been like if my father had never returned. I didn’t set out to write a book about sin and redemption. I set out to write a book that explored my deepest fear.

AC:  The structure of the novel is also very interesting. In most novels, we see the character slowly develop until we see the final product at the very end. In this novel, from the beginning we see a child struggling to survive and the woman she eventually becomes, and the contrast is so different it seems like two different people. Why did you decide to structure the novel like this? Is it a reflection of the drastic changes one undertakes upon moving to El Otro Lado?

RG: Once I decided I was going to write a novel and not a memoir, I approached the story using a traditional plot line, and it was going to be only young Juana’s story. I wrote all of Juana’s chapters first, but the more I spent time with her and really immersed myself in her story, the more I found myself wanting to know more about her. I started to wonder what Juana’s life was like once she became an adult, and how everything that happened to her as a young girl had affected the kind of woman she grew up to be. She became so real to me, and eventually I knew that I was going to have to write about her adult years as well. However, I didn’t want to do a traditional structure anymore because I didn’t want to cover all of Juana’s life from when she’s 11 to 32, so I ended up going back and forth between her past and her present and I found a way to make those two storylines come together at the end.

In terms of her identity changing once she gets to the U.S., I was definitely exploring the situation that most immigrants find themselves in once they arrive. I have a friend who was undocumented and was using a borrowed social security number to work. At home her name was Rosa, and at work her name was Gladys. She had two identities, just like my character.  I found myself in a similar situation too when I arrived in the U.S. In Mexico my name was Reyna Grande Rodriguez. When I got to the U.S. they made me take away my second last name and from that moment on I became Reyna Grande. It took me a while to get used to that!

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Self-interview as Letras Latinas update (aka The Pivot)

LETRAS LATINAS has made a pivot.

What do you mean?

Notice, for example, that this year we did not announce a 2014/2015 season, as we have done in years past. Last year’s “season” bordered on insane for its sheer number of events: 17! 

Are you not doing anymore events?

Far from it. But we’re being far more restrained in our reach. Our focus will continue to be Washington, D.C., though perhaps with less frequency 
(A private literary salon for Laurie Ann Guerrero on May 1; 
Tim Z. Hernández at the Library of Congress on May 6, for example)
and events on campus.

So what’s the pivot?

Our students. That’s the lens we see things through now while asking the question: Will it enrich our students?

But yesterday (October 28, 2014), you seemed to hint coyly at some big splash a year from now, that would involve, let’s see: Rosa Alcalá, Carmen Giménez Smith, Roberto Tejada, and Rodrigo Toscano…..What was that all about?

Our students.

How so?

The graduate MFA poetry workshop will be adopting Angels of the Americlypse, and so we’re inviting Rosa, Carmen, Roberto, and Roberto to come to campus for two full days of activities—mostly to benefit our students. That will be Letras Latinas’ big ticket item that term.

And so what’s with the photograph up above of that dude smirking in front of what appears to be some colorful window display?

Oh, that’s Paul.


Well, the students in my Latino/a Poetry Now class so enjoyed Dan Vera’s visit on September 10 that I decided to ask Paul Martínez Pompa, who’s just in Chicago, if he’d be willing to come for a night in order to visit my class. I’ve been teaching his work (from The Wind Shifts and from his Andrés Montoya Poetry Prize-winning My Kill Adore Him) and I thought it’d be cool for them to meet and ask Paul questions about his work.


It was great. He arrived last night. I put him up on campus for a night, and this morning he was our special guest. My students had each drafted some questions, and so we had a nice extended  Q & A punctuated with Paul reading a poem at regular intervals.

Then I took Paul to lunch, and we were joined by Letras Latinas Associate and MFA candidate  Ae He Lee, who confided in me afterwards how enriching it was to talk poetry with Paul over a meal.

Anything else?

Not really, except: if you look at that window display Paul’s standing in front of, you’ll notice, just to the left of him, and underneath the Speaking Wiri Wiri poster for Dan Vera’s reading, two gems from our small press publishing past?

Small Press Publishing Past?

Momotombo Press. Two titles: Paul’s Pepper Spray (Introduction by the new Poet Laureate of Los Angeles Luis J. Rodriguez), and beside it Brenda Cárdenas’ From the Tongues of Brick and Stone (Introduction by Maurice Kilwein Guevara). 

Paul got all nostalgic on me when he saw his Momotombo chapbook…

Anything else?

Just our students. That’s the pivot.