On November 27, 2011, Letras Latinas Blog published its first interview with ire’ne lara silva on the occasion of the publication of furia her first full-length book, a collection of poems. On December 7th days later, Harriet, the blog at the Poetry Foundation’s website, highlighted the interview. To be sure, author interviews have become a touchstone of what we do here at Letras Latinas Blog thanks, in large part, to Letras Latinas associates Lauro Vazquez, Lynda Letona and, most recently, Roberto Cruz. But we also welcome and relish the collaboration of friends who believe in our mission. Such a collaboration occurred on October 31, 2012, when Adela Najarro interviewed Juliana Aragón Fatula. For the record, we welcome more of these collaborations. But back to ire’ne. I lose track of the years, but I first had the pleasure of meeting her at Macondo (2006 or so), as well as time spent at CantoMundo. So it’s my pleasure to get out of the way and let you enjoy a stellar interview, conducted brilliantly by fellow Macondista and CantoMundista, Juan Luis Guzmán on the occasion of the publication of her new book, a collection of stories, flesh to bone. —fa
JLG: Juan Luis Guzmán
ils: ire’ne lara silva
JLG: ire’ne, I want to start with a line from one of the stories in the collection:
“Even when the flesh that had borne so much fell away, the bones remembered,” (74).
I was called out of my body in such a beautiful way when I read this line. For me, it conjured up ideas of ancestry and legacy, of pain and violence against the flesh, but also the idea of what remains, the things that endure. I wonder, what do your bones remember, and was writing this collection a way to bring these memories to light?
ils: These are the stories of bones, but not necessarily the stories of my bones. There is very little of flesh to bone that is auto-biographical in any strict sense. But these are stories I felt in my bones and in my flesh, and I needed to find a way to speak them with ink.
When I think of what bones remember, I don’t think of just one individual’s memories, but also the memories of ancestors—much the way new studies have shown that trauma can be passed down through generations. To tell the stories of bones is to take a stance against erasure and amnesia as well as an acknowledgment that we are more than just our physical bodies. We are also our spiritual bodies, our emotional bodies, our psychological bodies—we are all of them at once and our bones remember everything.
But bones are also the intersection of memory and imagination. Our flesh will fall away, but our bones could survive mostly intact for thousands and thousands of years. And so, our bones hurl us into the future too. They lend themselves to the task of imagination, to the tasks of dreaming and creating new possibilities for our survival, our lives, our healing.
For me, the stories in flesh to bone are all story problems with the same instruction: solve for survival, solve for re-creation. There are different characters, different situations, different settings, different obstacles—but the imperative is always to survive. Survival requires transformation—sometimes incremental, sometimes dramatic, sometimes internal, sometimes external. And in every instance, what is needed is remembering/learning/imagining from the depth of bone.
JLG: How do the stories in the collection inform the title, flesh to bone? Tell me a little about how this title was conceptualized.
ils: Actually, flesh to bone is the fourth title this collection had. At different times, the manuscript was titled after different stories: hunger/hambre/mayantli and then desembocada and then the ocean’s tongue. flesh to bone happened only months before the book’s publication. Joan Pinkvoss, my editor and publisher at Aunt Lute, felt that the ocean’s tongue wasn’t the best possible title for the book. And so I went looking through the manuscript for phrases that popped out at me. In one morning, I found 25 possibilities, rounded it down to 8, and sent them back to Joan Pinkvoss. We were looking for something more visceral that spoke to all of the stories. The original phrase is “flesh to bone to blood to power to spirit” from “la huesera, or, flesh to bone”. For me, what worked about this title is what also worked for the title of my first book, furia, both titles work as an invitation and a warning by speaking to what the book is. Hopefully, the titles attract the attention of the book’s intended readers and let them know a little about what they’re in for.
JLG: I know you as an accomplished poet, a fierce wielder of language, image, and voice. Have you always been writing fiction undercover? Is the change from poetry to fiction, crossing that genre-border, something you had to be deliberate or intentional about, or do you even acknowledge that shift in thinking as you write?
ils: Always, always, always! In fact, I started writing fiction first—when I was 8. Within a few years, I’d filled two small cloth-covered notebooks with illustrated short stories. I was probably 12 before I started trying to write rhyming but nonsensical poems. People know me as a poet though because I found my voice as a poet first—when I was in college. And well, I also found validation as a poet then too. It took me much longer to find my voice in prose and even longer before readers responded positively to the work. In my very first writing workshop experience, I remember the other participants seemingly infuriated by my story’s lack of explanation, its structure, and its unreliable narrator. The workshop instructor, however, was amazingly supportive and gave me an incredibly useful critique.
For the last fifteen years, I’ve been writing both. I used to write both at the same time, but I’ve found in the last 8 years or so, that my concentration/focus is better if I work for extended periods on one genre at a time…lately, those periods last 9-12 months. I also tend to read poetry when I’m writing fiction and vice versa. At the moment I’m finalizing my next collection of poetry and then I’m going to plunge into two fiction projects, another short story collection and a novel.
JLG: Can you tell me a little about the process of writing this book, especially about the time spent crafting it into what it eventually became? It seems as if you have been carrying these stories with you for some time.
ils: flesh to bone and I have been travelling a very long road together. When I first held the book in my hand, I realized with a bit of shock that it had been twenty years since I’d first written one of the paragraphs in “thorn forest”….Seventeen since I’d written the first draft of “duermete” and nine years of sending out the complete manuscript.
There were years where I hardly wrote and years where I wrote and revised feverishly. There were years when I gathered up hope and ambition and pushed myself forward. And there were years I despaired that a book would ever materialize. I came close to giving up on writing or at least, on writing prose, many times. If not for my youngest brother, I would have torched everything I’d written in 2002. He’s been my greatest support and my most challenging editor. Neither this book nor I ever would have made the journey we’ve made without him.
And in the end, all of those things you hear turned out to be true—the book that is the best possible book it could have been. The many years of revising and feedback and then the final editors have left me with a book I will always be proud of. There were years and years of rejections and near-misses, but the book finally found its best home with Aunt Lute Press. I am astounded and humbled to have my work published by them.
These were the stories I needed to write, written in the way I needed to write them. More than that, these are the stories I needed to give.
JLG: How do myths and cuentos figure into the book?
ils: They’re everywhere. Some myths are more well-known—like la llorona and the Cucuy. Others are slightly more obscure or vary widely in different regions—like la huesera and las lechusas. These myths live in our bones—and I found so much there to work with when I wanted to write about history (the Conquest, Indigenous resistance, Mexican-American farmworkers), domestic violence, femicide in Juarez and elsewhere, as well as explorations into memory, identity, heartbreak, and ideas about family.
Some myths I created out of tiny fragments—for example, the story of the ocean’s tongue in that story was inspired by a superstition my mother had that warned that pregnant women shouldn’t go near the ocean because the ocean would become jealous.
What really fascinates me, however, is the task of creating new myths, perhaps in ways that build on figures that resonate with other mythic figures, such as the blue-skinned goddess in “desembocada” or in the way that certain characters or nature itself function as mythic figures.
I believe we have a fundamental need for myth. For stories that are larger than ourselves or our realities, for stories that speak to our culture(s), for stories that teach us something about life—to show us how wild and heart-breaking and beautiful it can be.
JLG: In so many of the stories, there are no boundaries, no clear borders between the world of the living and the dead, the benevolent and the evil, the child and the anciano, English and Spanish—even between the poetic and prose. Can you talk a little bit about the dualities we confront in these stories, and perhaps a little about your purpose in establishing them? Do you think there’s a tradition to this that belongs to the Latino experience?
ils: I don’t see very much room or space for necessary transformations when the world is a massive wall of tightly sewn pieces—where there are no openings, no seams, no unfinished edges. I’ve worked to abolish ideas about boundaries and borders and opposites in order to undo the seams of the world. Subverting expectations results in a release of energy and the birth of possibility. Otherwise, we’re locked into certain roles and narratives that don’t serve any transformative purpose. We end up with the same dominant narratives and characters (and stories) locked into the same old tired roles, the same limited outcomes.
In my mind, it isn’t a wholly Latino tradition—it is instead, part of a Native/Indigenous worldview and part of the Native/Indigenous foundation of what it means to be Latino. So much of the time, people approach Latino existence as a fraught thing caught between two opposites—the “American” culture and one’s Latino culture. In some ways, that can lock us into victim stories, immigrant stories, and/or assimilation stories. That focus on either/or and the pain of ‘between’ doesn’t lend itself into seeing everything as ‘one’ or seeing ourselves as whole beings. We are simultaneously all of our bodies (emotional, spiritual, physical, etc.) in a world that, at its truest essence, is one world. Oppressive systems have made us believe in borders and assigned societal roles and in un-crossable distances between different people(s).
At the heart of everything, we are one—with ourselves, with nature, with the people around us. My intent was to at least begin to show what that might look/feel like. It is a richness in our lives to have dualities and multiple identities and border/frontera consciousness.
JLG: Physical landscapes and the elements play an important role in these stories, establishing location, mood, and tone, and, in many stories, nature is used as an entry point into the surreal. In many ways, nature is as much a character as the protagonists are. How does the natural world find its place into your work and is it important to the stories?
ils: It’s not that nature found its way into my stories. It’s that everything is nature. Everything comes from nature and everything happens in nature. We only think we live in cities and on asphalt and in cement buildings—but there’s not a day where the wind and the sun and the earth don’t touch us in some way. Asphalt may remove us from touching the earth itself, but it’s always underneath everything. We’re discomfited by uncomfortable weather because we have the illusion that Nature is a separate thing.
I come from a large family with many siblings, but I grew up with a certain kind of isolation. We moved constantly, often to rural places where we had no neighbors and were surrounded by fields. Our only constant home, in South Texas, was on a caliche road and miles away from any of the nearby towns. We watched fields grow, we saw different landscapes, we saw many different kinds of sky—at day and at night. I spent hours and hours with the sky and with the earth. Spent years with the wind. Watched things go in to the earth, and watched life emerge from the earth. Stories started for me all the time and everywhere. I don’t know how Nature can not be part of a story. How my characters relate to the earth is as important as how they relate to each other.
JLG: During the weeks I spent with your book, I listened to a radio program about cartography that made me think about your collection as a series of maps. So many roads connect between characters; there are bridges and mountains and canyons, oceans and streams that run through and alongside each of the stories. It’s believed that maps have the personality of the person who drew them, that they reveal something deeper about both person and place. What do these “maps” reveal about you?
ils: I love this question! I was recently thinking about maps myself—quite literally, maps. My parents were illiterate migrant truck drivers. They were both born U.S. citizens but schools in South Texas didn’t encourage education for Mexican Americans in the 1940’s. Neither one of them completed more than a couple fragmented years of elementary education. They followed the harvest seasons and transported grains and vegetables from the field to the processing plants. Annually, we made a circuit around Texas and into Oklahoma and New Mexico. Before every trip, we studied the maps and everyone who was driving was drilled on which highways would be taken, which towns we’d stop in, what farm roads would have to be followed to reach the fields ready for harvest. My parents memorized everything by numbers. I picked up reading at a very young age and was pulled into the map-reading because they wanted me to read the names of things (towns, rivers, etc.). I think I read maps before I read books.
So there’s that—maps are how I know how to look at the world. How to describe it. How to explain the relationship between one place and another, one memory and another.
I spent a great deal of my childhood on the road, watching the sun rise, watching the stars above, watching the sky pass by. I saw thousands and thousands of miles of road pass by—felt that passage in my body as the trucks thundered towards the next destination. And that time on the road was powerful dreaming-time.
So it wasn’t enough for my stories about transformation to just say, “Here, look, this is transformation.” No, they had to show how it was done, step by step, moment to moment. At the same time, the stories are very different—much the way different roads can be taken to the same destination. And of course, different destinations require different roads and new destinations require new roads.
What does this reveal about me—I see everything as part of a map. Stories, memories, emotions, people. Everything’s connected.
ire’ne lara silva lives in Austin, TX, and is the author of two chapbooks: ani’mal and INDíGENA. Her first collection of poetry, furia (Mouthfeel Press, 2010) received an Honorable Mention for the 2011 International Latino Book Award in Poetry. Her first short story collection, flesh to bone (Aunt Lute Books, 2013) was recently published. ire’ne is the Fiction Finalist for AROHO’s 2013 Gift of Freedom Award, the 2008 recipient of the Gloria Anzaldua Milagro Award, a Macondo Workshop member, and a CantoMundo Inaugural Fellow. She and Moises S. L. Lara are currently co-coordinators for the Flor De Nopal Literary Festival.
Juan Luis Guzmán earned an MFA from CSU, Fresno. A member of the Macondo Writers’ Workshop and a fellow of CantoMundo, his work has most recently appeared in Huizache, Pilgrimage, and [PANK]. He teaches writing at Fresno City College.