Over the past few weeks Letras Latinas has had the honor and pleasure of meeting and welcoming Lynda Letona to the Institute for Latino Studies family at the campus of Notre Dame. Raised in Guatemala and California, Lynda Letona is a poetry candidate in Notre Dame’s M.F.A. program in creative writing. “I’m interested in hybrid forms of writing,” Linda writes in response to one of my questions (which Lynda graciously agreed to answer), “and I don’t feel I should be restrained by genre, but rather, content should dictate what form is best suited for a piece.” Lynda’s words remind me of my first year here at Notre Dame and of the encouraging support from the faculty who helped me do with my writing things I didn’t know I could do—like mixing genres. I can’t think of a better place for Lynda and consider myself lucky to be exposed to her own explorations in hybridity, form and genre.
Lauro Vazquez: In a previous interview you share a little about your experiences in high school, working a few hours short of full-time at a movie house while simultaneously taking AP classes and nonetheless excelling. Despite these barriers you have gone on to write a novel, “Fugitive Lovers,” which explores your mother’s immigrant experience, and now you embark on a new creative project. Could you share for the readers of Letras Latinas Blog how you came to poetry—the circumstances and experiences that drove you to say: this is what I want to do?
Lynda Letona: I always felt an attraction towards writing and the arts from being raised in a Presbyterian household in Guatemala. In the church, the bible was studied seriously and, as a child, I grew to love the narratives of this little yellow book my aunt bought me titled “Mi libro de historias biblicas” with impressive pictures of angry giants (angels punished by God for falling in love with women) and fathers blindfolding & about to stab their children to prove their obedience to God, but at the last minute sacrificing an adorable lamb instead. I also recall listening to the pastors and, on one or two occasions, some of the women delivering sermons interpreting a bible passage. Some of these sermons were an art form onto themselves and very animated. When I came to the U.S., my love for narrative transferred more widely to various forms of literature—it seemed an easy transition. I also got involved in the slam poetry scene, and my mentor, Jeffrey McDaniel, encouraged my poetry writing.
During high school I tried my best to get away from literature. My mother, who is a housekeeper to the entertainment Hollywood elite, didn’t want me to work at a job that required hard labor, like hers. She often expressed this wish for me to go into business and be a well-dressed woman who worked a nice office job and drove a nice car. I tried to please her and transferred to a Business Magnet High School after being enrolled in Performing Arts Magnet Schools. This “backfired” because there I met some of the best literature and arts teachers I had ever had. The school had really awesome projects like bringing published poets to class to conduct workshops and compile little anthologies from the student’s work, participating in national poetry slam competitions, offering improv. courses in theatre by awesome people like Michael Golding. Lynda McGee and Mr. Fogarty made the English courses so fun I found it impossible to pretend this was something I should get away from. It became clear to me by my senior year that I wanted to study in the field of the humanities, that I loved literature too much, so I gave up on the idea of being a well-dressed woman working a nice office job and driving a nice car, and told mom this is what I wanted to pursue. She understood and encouraged my choice. She did joke that she didn’t want to see me die of cold on some NY rooftop, but I told her I’d find a basement to write.
LV: You did a Masters in Creative Writing at the University of South Dakota, where you wrote “Fugitive Lovers” and you are also interested in theater. As a matter of fact, you received the Wayne S. and Esther M. Knutson Scholarship for achievement in playwriting. How do these genres influence your interest in poetry and what do you hope to gain—as a writer—from your time in Notre Dame’s M.F.A. program?
LL: My interest in theatre was sparked at church & religious retreats in Guatemala where we often did performances for the congregation or attendees, and I realized I had a natural flair for the dramatic. My first role was Moses (I was probably 8 or 9 years old when I played him). I had a hard time convincing the audience not to notice my throwing away of the rod and replacing it with a sock serpent I had hidden in my robe to depict that fabulous miracle. You learn from your mistakes and low-budget special effects. My interest in theatre sparked my interest in film and screenwriting. My mother, who worked for well-regarded screenwriters like Doug Richardson, introduced me to him. He and his wife, Karen, an awesome photographer, became close family friends and generous sponsors who contributed to my education. I think being around writers and visual artists definitely impacted me; I admired their craft and their endeavors. Taking theatre courses in Performing Arts Magnets and later in college also seemed a logical transition. I’m interested in hybrid forms of writing, and I don’t feel I should be restrained by genre, but rather, content should dictate what form is best suited for a piece. Sometimes a scene or dialogue may incorporate an element borrowing from two or three genres. The choice depends on what I’m trying to communicate—I usually find this out organically as I’m writing the piece. I think the creative writing faculty at Notre Dame is open to this exploration, and I see it in their writing as well. I think in addition to their expertise and talent, I have much to gain from this experimentation and openness.
LV: And finally is there a particular project, thesis, artistic-collaboration etc., which you hope to work on during your two years as an M.F.A. student? If so, could you talk about them here…
LL: The project I’m currently obsessing over is related to a volume of poetry I would like to write for my thesis project exploring the theme of space or utilizing space metaphors in the pieces. I have been conducting readings on astronomy and really getting interested in both scientific and science fiction writing and art. I think this is what has awakened my interest in post-humanist writing and shows like Battlestar Gallactica and Caprica, as well as films like Another Earth and The Tree of Life with futuristic or space themes. I’m also trying to finish final edits on my first novel, which I keep putting off because of trips to Guatemala, school applications, and school, although I am certain that the experience and knowledge I accumulated from such ventures will only inform my final revisions. I also hope to compile a non-fiction collection from pieces I began writing in Guatemala. This all sounds very ambitious and nice on the page, but finding the time to carry it out when you’re in grad school will certainly prove a challenge.