On Identity, Discrimination, and Helping Others

Thursday, March 6th, 2014

I had an eye-opening couple of days at AWP, especially in regards to what it means to be a woman and a writer of color. It’s funny, because when I was much younger and growing up in Miami, I never felt the need to self-identify as any of the many things that described me: Latina, immigrant, hispanic, Peruvian, American, Peruvian-American, person of color, woman; these things were simply understood. I grew up in a beautiful bubble where identity is fluid and the fact that we all come from somewhere is a given. Labels helped inform; they did not define.

I don’t know if that had to do with location or inexperience or both. There are days when I’m grateful I didn’t know all I know now (like how underrepresented women writers of color are in the publishing world) before I tried to write and publish my first novel.

Sometimes I wonder, would I have been discouraged? I can’t tell you if I had to work any harder than any other first-time, white male writer; I can only tell you how hard I’ve worked.

But I can tell you that there are countless other women writers working just as hard to get their stories heard, and somehow, so few of us end up breaking through. At a panel that looked beyond gender to various types of identity—like race and sexual orientation—and the many challenges identity authors face today, author Roxane Gay discussed that there shouldn’t be only one: one LGBT author, one hispanic author, one black woman author, who makes it big and ends up representing the whole. And when there is one, then it’s that person’s job to create pipelines of opportunity for others.

This really stuck with me. I feel lucky to be part of the publishing community, to have a book coming out, to have written it blissfully unaware that things like my name or my novel’s setting might have presented obstacles along the way. And I am in no way saying I’ve “made it,” but I’m grateful for the success I’ve enjoyed thus far, and I’d wish it for any other writer who wants it badly and works for it even more.

I may not know exactly how to create pipelines of opportunity just yet, but I think sharing truths is a good place to start. Below are some of mine: some I tell myself, some I wish to tell other writers who’ve ever felt marginalized, some I simply wish to tell the world.

Know what you stand for. Know what you don’t. Do not allow others to misrepresent you.

You are not one identity or one story. You are a mixture of big and small experiences, some of which must be known for you to be completely understood, none of which solely define you. Which ones you share, how you want to be understood, what you write about: these choices are yours alone.

Just because you’ve never perceived being discriminated against doesn’t mean you haven’t experienced it.

Your not being discriminated against (or your perception of it) is only your reality. This does not make it the reality of others like you.

The fact that you overcame obstacles without realizing it does not mean those obstacles don’t exist. Look at how far you’ve come, but also look back. You’ve learned some things along the way. Use it to help others who are trying to forge a similar path.

When you acknowledge someone is coming from a different place than you, don’t let that cloud your vision of all the ways you’re the same.

What It’s All About

Friday, January 17th, 2014

I’ve had the hokey pokey song stuck in my head ever since I decided I wanted to write about this. (Sorry if it’s now in your head, too.)

I’ve had some very exciting moments these past couple of weeks. Last Thursday, while E and I were putting away the dishes after lunch, we heard a knock at our door. In the afternoons, it’s usually the UPS guy, and I opened the door thinking the facial lotion that I’d ordered a couple of weeks ago finally arrived. The UPS carrier had this small box resting at the top of his cart, and so I signed for the package and reached for it. But he said, “No, that one’s not yours. This one is.”

And well, it turned out to be this box:

Image 5.07.39 PM

(If you follow me on Twitter or FB, you might’ve already seen this picture of me opening my box of Advanced Copies of Chasing the Sun. You may also know that moments later, I was in tears. Seeing the words I’d previously only seen as a word doc transformed into a book—that’s a moment I won’t ever forget.)

I called my mom. I texted the photo to my sister. I flipped through the pages late every night. E installed another new bookshelf by my bed so my ARCs would have a nice place to rest (for now…some of them have already been sent off to new places).

Then a few nights ago, I met another writer at a happy hour. He asked me about my book and whether I was writing a new one. I told him that I had, and that it’s such a relief to be writing again, not because I feel I need to rush and crank out another one…but because I don’t want to forget the writing. Publishing has been exhilarating, but what am I doing this for, if not so I can always keep writing?

But truth be told, the new WIP has been a bit of a slow burn. I’ve been telling myself I need to take my time with it, that this is such a busy time, I shouldn’t worry that I haven’t made more progress. Part of that is true; part of that, if I’m being honest with myself, is procrastination.

So that night I couldn’t sleep. I finally gave up trying around 5 in the morning and got out of bed, grabbed a journal, and wrote. Not a new scene for the new book. Just about my characters. Their backstory. Their favorite memories, how they met. Pen to paper, eventually I started writing down questions, and then answering them, and by the time I was finished I’d figured out specific plot points for the rest of the book. I wrote past a mental block that’d been holding me back in this story. And my god, did it feel good.

Out of all the things that have happened lately, that early morning writing session is what I’m most excited about. Because writing rarely comes easy for me. Because a moment like this, and the promise that it’ll come again, even if I have no clue when, is what keeps me going.

::cue the music:: That’s what it’s all about.

 

Gifts to Consider this Giving Season

Monday, December 9th, 2013

When it comes to gifts, I’m very much in the “it’s the thought that counts” team. If I’m able, and if I know it’ll make someone smile, help someone, or make a difference somehow, I happily give of my time and money to support projects or causes I believe in.

But I’m often left wanting to do a little more. So I’m sharing these links with you, in hopes that, if you’re inspired, you’ll share or offer your support as well. Thanks for reading and helping me get the word out. Happy holidays!

letterheadAustin Bat Cave’s Dream Big Campaign: This year I started volunteering for an amazing organization called Austin Bat Cave. They provide free writing and tutoring programs for kids, and right now they’re raising funds to help publish their annual anthology of student work. Through Dec. 31, they’re accepting donations from $1 and up—any little bit helps. Click here to learn more about the program, to donate, or to help get the word out.

 

Screen Shot 2013-12-09 at 5.03.20 PMLe Boss the Rapping Racehorse: I guess you could say storytelling runs in the family. For years, my brother-in-law has been working on an animated show about a thoroughbred racehorse who dreams of becoming a rap star. It’s been called Mr. Ed meets the Boondocks, and I’m so proud of how he’s put all his heart into it. He has a Kickstarter campaign going until Dec. 21 to raise funds for the pilot episode. You can help by donating even a small amount or spreading the word.

 

SeeMeAfterClass_2ndEditionCover

A gift idea for the teachers in your life: At the first writer’s conference I ever went to in Miami in 2008, I met a smart, witty, no-BS high school English teacher who told me she’d written a book full of honest, hilarious, non-sugar-coated advice for new teachers (she’s also responsible for forming the first writing group I ever joined, for which I’m forever grateful). About a year later, Roxanna Elden had published her book, and See Me After Class was such a success that the second edition was published last month. Know any teachers who this book would make a great gift for? You can buy the book here or share it with friends.

 

Wrap a book for a good cause: One of my favorite things to do this time of year is spend a few hours at a bookstore, wrapping gifts for charity. You know the ones: you can usually find a table of volunteer wrappers at B&N or your local indie who’ll wrap your gifts for free (though donations are accepted). The way it works is that volunteers from all sorts of organizations take a shift. I’ll be at Bookpeople this year wrapping books for the Bess W. Scott Scholarship fund for young journalists. If you have a few hours to spare, check your local stores to find out which organizations are participating and how you can sign up, too.

Thanks for letting me share these links with you. Your turn: what are some causes, projects, etc. you’d like to draw attention to this time of year?

Fresh Ink: An Interview With Debut Novelist Nathan Filer

Tuesday, December 3rd, 2013

Fresh Ink is a monthly series of interviews with debut novelists that focuses on the journey to publication. Please join me in welcoming Nathan Filer, whose debut novel, Where the Moon Isn’t, was recently released in the US after being published in the UK earlier this year. It’s also being released in several foreign markets, and looking through Nathan’s website I was fascinated by all the different titles, artwork, and interpretations that can arise throughout the process. 

AuthorPhoto1-300x295 Length of time from book’s start to pub date: 10 Years

# of agents you queried before signing: 2

# of books written before this one: 0

# of revisions you went through: 7,400,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000

We’re lucky that there are so many great resources for writers to learn about publishing these days. That being said, what’s the one aspect of the process you never could have predicted?

Like many aspiring authors I would daydream about being published, but these daydreams never considered the details – simply that I’d have a book on the shelves.

So pretty much every aspect of publishing has come as a surprise to me.

One thing I never thought about – though it seems obvious now – is quite how many people work behind the scenes to create a book. From copy-editors and editors to designers and marketing teams to legal teams, publicists, foreign rights, literary scouts, the list goes on and on. That shift from the intensely personal (at times, even lonely) process of writing the novel to working in a team was a strange experience. It was a part of letting go.

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Your novel was originally published in the UK as The Shock of the Fall, yet it’s being published in the US under its original title, Where the Moon Isn’t. Can you tell me a bit about what went into these decisions? 

It’s been fascinating for me to see how differently the UK and US publishers have interpreted the novel, not just in the differing titles but in the whole package – I have them side-by-side on a bookshelf at home and they look like totally different works.

I really like that though, and I hope it says something about the broad appeal of this story that it can be approached so differently.

As for how the decision was made, I’m not actually the person to tell you. That was another surprise about the world of publishing – how many of the decisions are made by people other than the author.

As the author, do you connect in different ways to each title? If so, how?

Well, they aren’t the only two titles. In Italy, for example, it’s Chiedi alla Luna which translates as Ask the Moon. And there are others too. Broadly, there are the ‘moon’ themed titles and the ‘fall’ themed titles.

I’m waiting for the Fall of the Moon to complete the set.

But to answer your question. Nope, I don’t connect to the titles all that differently. For me the interesting bit is between the covers.

I have to ask—what was it like to have your first novel acquired in an 11-way auction? (more…)

On Letting Go of My Writing and My Voice

Wednesday, November 20th, 2013

With Chasing the Sun exactly six months away from publication (wow, did I really just write that?) I’d be lying if I said I don’t have the occasional moment when I’m suddenly excited/terrified/overwhelmed at the thought that it’ll be out there. That people will actually read it.

I wonder a lot about how it’ll be perceived. Not so much about whether or not people will like it, but whether or not it’ll be understood. Will the story be interpreted in the ways I hope?

A couple of days ago, I was reading Nina Badzin’s blog (one I read, time and time again, because Nina has a way of smacking you across the face with pure wisdom when you’re least expecting it). She shared 5 life lessons she’s learned in 3 years of blogging. Number 4 left me waving my hands in the air, shouting, Yes. This. I totally get this:

#4. YOU CANNOT CONTROL HOW PEOPLE PERCEIVE YOU.  ALSO . . . LET IT GO.

And it got me thinking about my voice. Literally. You know, the one I use when I talk and words come out.

Because every once in a while, when I’m working on article or a freelance assignment, I have to record my interviews. And then later I play them back to transcribe them.

A lot of cringing ensues. Every time I hear my voice, I think: Is that really what I sound like? The voice in the recording sounds nothing like what I hear in my head.

It’s widely acknowledged that this happens to nearly all of us, but since I’ve never known why, I of course googled it. It’s fascinating. It turns out, everyday sounds we hear like lawn mowers, dogs snoring, the sounds of keyboards being pressed maniacally (i.e. what I’m currently hearing) become sounds when they strike our ear drums and cause vibrations in our inner ear that are sent to the brain as signals for interpretation.

But when we speak, our inner ear doesn’t only catch the vibrations in sound waves moving through the air; it catches vibrations in our actual vocal cords as well.

Here is the better scientific explanation: “…your inner ear is stimulated both by internal vibrations in your bones and by the sound coming out of your mouth and traveling through the air and into the ears.” The article further describes that the combination of vibrations coming from two different paths is what causes us to hear our voices differently than the rest of the world hears it.

So yeah, really: we cannot control how people hear us. And it’s the same with our writing. That translation from the mind to the page—we’re so close to it we’ll never perceive it the way others do. Everyone who reads it will be in their own heads, with their own experiences and emotions informing what will ultimately reverberate and resonate in the mind.

What can we really do about it? We can either speak our minds and let it go. Or we can keep our mouths shut and tuck our stories away, safe and alone.

You can own the story, but you can’t own the interpretation. And thank god for that, because that’s how communication and discussion and listening and discovery happens. The world would be such a boring place without it.

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