Monthly Archives: May 2016

Artist Profile: ire’ne lara silva

irene lara silva pic 1I first met Tejana writer ire’ne lara silva in 2013 at the El Mundo Zurdo conference of the Society for the Study of Gloria Anzaldúa in San Antonio. She was selling copies of her award-winning short story collection flesh to bone. I bought a copy and never looked back. In the three years since, ire’ne has become a trusted friend and has continued to wow me (and everyone else) with her words.

ire’ne is the author of two chapbooks: ani’mal and INDíGENA. Her first poetry collection, furia (Mouthfeel, 2010), received an Honorable Mention for the 2011 International Latino Book Award in Poetry. Flesh to bone (Aunt Lute, 2013) received the 2013 Premio Aztlán, placed 2nd for the 2014 NACCS Tejas Foco Fiction Book Award, and was a finalist for ForeWard Review’s Book of the Year Award in Multicultural Fiction. Check out her website to read about all of her accomplishments!

Earlier this year, ire’ne published her second full-length collection of poetry, Blood Sugar Canto (Saddle Road, 2016), which “is a powerful hymn to life and to her own body by a ‘curandera-poet’ struggling to transmute the fear and despair of diabetes into healing. She sings of the syringes, the paraphernalia of this new world she must live in, its losses and griefs, its pain, and her memories of those in her family who have died of this disease.”

Recently, I sat down with ire’ne to talk about Blood Sugar Canto, Tejas, and her other cultural work.


Why Blood Sugar Canto? Why Now?

I’ve always followed Toni Morrison’s mandate. To write what I needed to read and could not find. I looked everywhere for poetry that could speak to my experiences integrating diabetes into my life. All I remember finding were a few scattered poems from Sherman Alexie. And so, I sat myself down to write. I’ve always turned to writing for what I’ve needed to discover, what I’ve needed to survive, what I’ve needed to learn.

I was drowning in fear from all sides—from Western medicine, from family experience, from my own experience as my body underwent changes. At first, Blood Sugar Canto (BSC) was simply going to document my experiences in as many ways as possible. But as time went on, what struck me was that there was no treating the body without treating the heart, no healing the body without healing the spirit, no healing without calling up strength and hope and beauty and self-worth. And so that was what the book became, a wide-ranging map of all the places I went and the roads I found to finding peace and empowerment and love for my body, my stubborn body set on surviving and growing stronger.

BSC - ireneWith Blood Sugar Canto, you enter the world of memoir/autobiography. How do you negotiate the boundaries between autobiography, fiction, and creative license?

Easily, I don’t. Poetry, for me, is always about the truth. Truth as true as I can tell it. The past as best as I can remember it. What I feel and what I felt as raw as I can possibly tell it. I write to discover truths I don’t even know I know.

I don’t take on personas or other people’s points of view in my poetry. I don’t imagine other people’s experiences or thoughts.

Sometimes I don’t think my poetry is very poetic. Because what I have to say is always more important than how I say it. I will rip out a beautiful line because an ugly awkward one tells the truth more honestly.

In poetry, and especially with this book, I’m not telling any stories I haven’t lived—discussing illness and healing from every vantage point I could think of—as a woman, a writer, a daughter, a sister, as a patient, a healer, a worker, a poor person, as Indigena, Mexican-American, Texan, and as a member of many communities.

The only way to exorcise the demons I needed to do away with (fear, shame, lack of self-worth) was to sit with these poems that way—no negotiating, no hiding—I had to tell myself the truth.

How has your relationship with diabetes changed since you began this work, since “april 23, 2008”?

I just passed the 8-year mark since April, 23, 2008, the day I was officially diagnosed as diabetic and put on insulin. I started work on BSC in early 2011. There was no way for me to write about it earlier because I just wasn’t ready. The first year was mostly shock, fear, and adjusting to a ton of physical changes and life changes. I also left my 10-year job with the State and my 4-year job with a literary non-profit, changed apartments 3 times, and found two new jobs. 2008 was a wallop of a year. The next two years I worked on stabilizing my life and getting my first book of poetry published. By then, I had a wealth of reflections and reactions to life with diabetes—and not just my own health but also my family’s. And as I worked on the book, it seemed that I was able to perceive more about diabetes outside myself—how it was affecting my communities of color and poor and working class communities, how diet and colonization and oppression all combined to affect our personal and familial and communal access to information and healthcare. The more I wrote, the more BSC became about something bigger than myself. The healing/canto poems were all a surprise to me. I discovered beauty and connection and empathy and all the many ways healing brings us to the importance of love.

How has writing and publishing Blood Sugar Canto aided in the emotional healing process?

Writing was difficult, but very necessary. I conquered my fear. I discovered truths I needed to hear—that I still need to hear. Every time I read from BSC, I relearn something essential. Publishing it has been a gift—not just to see the book realized but to be able to share it. Part of my desire to get this book out into as many hands as possible is because I meant this book to begin discussions…on healing, on illness, on the individual and the community, on love and the end of fear, on the piercing fragility and tremendous strength of our bodies.

Readers and audience members have shared such touching and personal stories with me. They’ve asked me questions I don’t think they’ve ever felt able to share with anyone else. What a tremendous gift it is—I wrote because I felt alone. If I can ease any share of that aloneness away from others, then what I went through to write these poems is a price well paid. And that heals me. That makes me stronger. It makes me more able to live my life and strengthen my hope that illness is not all we are.

Does Tejas, specifically Austin, influence your writing?

Tejas is everything. Austin, I’m not sure. In some ways, Austin is too new to me to be directly involved in my writing. I’ve lived here 18 years, but my ancestors didn’t come from here and I have no childhood memories of this place. As a writer though, Austin’s been good to me—I’ve been a member of many writing communities, organized a ton of events here, and have had the space/freedom to explore the kinds of writing I’ve wanted to do.

As for Tejas—it’s in everything I write. In some ways, it’s all I write about. The borderlands I carry within me no matter where I am. The land I’m from—the land my ancestors are from. The roads that I grew upon. My parents were fieldworkers and migrant truck drivers. Every year, we drove and lived and worked in South Texas, in the Corpus Christi area, in the Panhandle and back again. I knew how to draw Texas and how to read a map of Texas before I ever read a book. I’ve lived all but 3 years of my life here. While I’ve been tempted to live in D.C., Chicago, and Albuquerque, I know nothing would ever feel like home the way Texas does. The history, the cultures, the landscapes of Texas inspire me and come up, again and again, in my work.

What else are you working on?irene lara silva 2

A second collection of short stories, tentatively titled, “Songs from the Burning Woman.” I am still discovering what they’re about. They seem to be working on issues like grief and sexuality, art and the body, history and healing the wounds of the conquest. They keep shapeshifting on me, so from one day to the next, I don’t know what new themes and connections are going to appear. But it’s exciting to work on new stories. Fiction is a fascinating way of re-organizing the world, of affirming or ignoring the world’s “rules.” I’m always curious about the idea of ‘liminality’ in art, in time, in relationships between people.

After that collection, I’ll be diving into the novel I’ve been wanting to write for the last ten years.

Other projects are going to take the back burner for a little while. I’m feeling an overwhelming desire right now to concentrate on the writing.

What else should we know about you?

This is something I talk about a lot recently because I think it needs to be said as often as possible. I don’t believe there is any one way to be a writer. There is no one “writer’s life.”

I’m not an academic. I don’t have an MFA. I work two jobs and am a caregiver. I don’t have lots of time or resources or energy for that matter. I can’t travel at will or go to residencies. I don’t have a dedicated writing space. I never spent months in Europe or time travelling in Mexico. I’m not beautiful or glamorous or young. I can’t afford to take time off from work, nor can I afford a job that doesn’t provide healthcare. I live with a chronic illness.

But none of that keeps me from writing. None of those things make me any less of a writer. To be honest, juggling all of that with writing is not easy. Sometimes it’s painfully slow. I wish all the time that I could give more of my day, my concentration, my energy to my writing. I give what I can, and books get written. What I want to tell everyone is that it may be difficult, but it’s possible. Your life doesn’t have to look any specific way. You don’t have to look a certain way. What’s important is your desire to create and your drive to put words on the page and then to get them out to the world.

***For More on ire’ne lara silva, see:


ire’ne lara silva is the author of furia (poetry, Mouthfeel Press, 2010) which received an Honorable Mention for the 2011 International Latino Book Award and flesh to bone (short stories, Aunt Lute Books, 2013) which won the 2013 Premio Aztlan, placed 2nd for the 2014 NACCS Tejas Foco Award for Fiction, and was a finalist for Foreward Review’s Book of the Year Award in Multicultural Fiction. Her most recent collection of poetry, blood sugar canto, was published by Saddle Road Press in January 2016.

ire’ne is the recipient of the 2014 Alfredo Cisneros del Moral Award, the Fiction Finalist for AROHO’s 2013 Gift of Freedom Award, and the 2008 recipient of the Gloria Anzaldua Milagro Award, as well as a Macondo Workshop member and CantoMundo Inaugural Fellow. She and Moises S. L. Lara are currently co-coordinators for the Flor De Nopal Literary Festival.

Does Carnegie Vanguard’s HOLY DAY go too far for high school theatre?

Don’t come to Carnegie Vanguard High School’s UIL One-Act Play (OAP) production of Holy Day by Andrew Bovell expecting laughs. This isn’t Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Over the River and Through the Woods, or The 39 Steps. If you want to see something familiar, perhaps The Caucasian Chalk Circle for the umpteenth time, then I am sure there will be a production around the corner. There are three productions of The Caucasian Chalk Circle alone next week at Texas’s UIL One-Act Play Competition in Austin where Carnegie Vanguard will compete for the 6A State Championship with its highly original production of Holy Day.

If you are looking for professional-grade theatre that is brave, raw, and real, then Holy Day will deliver. Holy Day received its world premiere in 2001 at the State Theatre Company in South Australia. Since then, the play has received few productions, making this a powerfully fresh choice for a Texas high school theatre competition. In 2014, Carnegie Vanguard won the 5A UIL OAP state competition with When the Rain Stops Falling, another Andrew Bovell title.

Holy Day begins with two men and a mute boy entering a traveler’s inn. The minister’s wife appears—her husband has died, the church has burned to the ground, and her baby has been stolen, supposedly by Aboriginal peoples. The remaining 40 minute cutting (per UIL OAP rules) entangles greed and survival between the four leading players: the inn-keeper Nora, the drunken nomad Goundry, the minister’s wife Elizabeth, and the Aboriginal woman Linda. All four actors deliver performances unlike anything I’ve ever seen on a high school stage. Indeed, as the performances in Holy Day demonstrate, to call Carnegie Vanguard “high school theatre,” which often comes with a connotation of “amateur,” would be to undermine it.

Holy Day explores colonialism, brutality, deceit, murder, and racism on the 19th century Australian frontier, on the borderlands of white and black, of frontier life and indigenous life. While Carnegie Vanguard’s production design is beautiful, with professional-looking projections on a jagged-edged tableau, this is indeed a story about the ugly side of life on the frontier and the realities of colonialism.

Aside from the gorgeous projections, Holy Day features a soundscape of rain, thunder, and didgeridoos. The bare set—save a tree and a table—is filled with a shadowy vastness, a metaphor for the harsh expanse of the Australian outback and the secrets that lie in the shadows of Carnegie Vanguard’s powerful Holy Day. As the projections show, life on the frontier is in a constant state of motion that involves violent collisions amidst a world of heightened naturalism. The vast darkness allows the spectator to focus on Bovell’s words and the explosive performances that give them life. Each character is nuanced and flawed in some way. No one is left unscathed.

As an Australian Gothic play, Holy Day often shows the ugly side of humanity by rendering a frighteningly real look at the effects of colonialism in Australia. The play offers a glimpse into the atrocities of colonialism against the Aboriginal population in Australia where, much like in the United States, European settlers pushed indigenous peoples off their lands and, in many cases, murdered them. As Holy Day shows, children were taken by settlers to be raised as Christians, only to become the servants to white settlers and the victims of physical abuse. As in the United States, these histories are not taught across the curriculum in Australia, making Holy Day a bold choice for Carnegie Vanguard to start a dialogue through theater.

Yet, as anyone who has been following Carnegie Vanguard’s road to the UIL OAP State Finals has observed, the dialogue has instead centered on unfounded complaints from opposing schools that the production is “offensive.” People are asking “What is too far for high school theatre?” and “How edgy should high school theatre be?” In fact, many of the people weighing in against Holy Day have admittedly not seen this production nor read the play script. I’m looking at you, Todd Starnes, who penned an opinion piece, “School play depicts rape, filthy language and public urination,” for Fox News. Simply put, if you haven’t seen or read the play then you have no right to be offended.

Would classics such as Carousel not go “too far” if they were directed with a heavy hand to foreground the domestic violence inflicted on Julie Jordan? Could this not be potentially traumatizing to an audience member who has experienced domestic violence? Is it acceptable to sing racist lyrics in West Side Story while your high school’s students of color are experiencing overt and subtle racism on a daily basis. Examples such as these are innumerable.

Let me break Holy Day down from my perspective of having seen the production three times.

Some have complained about the language in the play. Yes, Holy Day includes a few profanities—“bitch,” “shit,” and “bastard”—but this language is used to accurately capture the historical moment that Holy Day portrays. Sure, these words might be offensive to some in 2016, but have you walked down the halls of a high school in the last 20 years? Have you seen a high school play outside of the bubble you live in? Have you seen a PG-13 movie recently? Have you read a John Green young adult novel recently?

One of Todd Starnes’ chief complaints is the depiction of sex and rape in Holy Day, which I will add, never happen on-stage. Yes, we hear the screams of both characters once they are off-stage, but we never see it (many of the complaints have made it sound like these rape scenes occur on-stage). Of course, rape and sexual violence are difficult topics, but if we can’t be having these conversations in theatre then where can we have them? Is theatre not supposed to be a place to have difficult conversations and get people talking? We do a disservice to our students to ignore the topic of rape. As nearly every statistic reveals, 1-in-4 women in college are the victim of rape or sexual assault. The numbers are staggering by any standard. Sexual assault is very real and, like it or not, a lived reality of high school aged-students, both male and female.

Others are upset that a character in Holy Day urinates and that another female character washes her private parts. The fact that I saw this production 3 times and neither of these things ever stood out to me is significant. The reason is simple; Holy Day is not a play about either of these things. They are quick glimpses that add nuances to each character. Even so, since when is urinating away from the audience upstage offensive? People have been saying that the actor “drops his pants.” Yes, he drops his pants and is wearing long johns. Do I need to recount every high school play I have seen with a boy in long johns or a girl in a slip?

So, does Holy Day go too far? Is it too edgy? My answer is a resounding “no.”

The play met the community standards. The principal approved it. Houston ISD approved it and issued a statement supporting the production. The Carnegie Vanguard parents have unwaveringly supported the show. The contest managers and adjudicators of six rounds advanced the play to the next round, often in the first place slot. Not to mention that there have been copious amounts of warnings before all rounds of UIL OAP competition. There were printed warnings in the program and on the doors. And, at nearly every round, the contest manager issued a warning before the play, reminding the audience that the play was approved by the principal. In all instances, warnings reiterated that the plays competing met their community standards and may not be acceptable for all audiences.

So what is the problem? The fact that complaints have nearly entirely come from parents associated with opposing schools whose work was not to Carnegie Vanguard’s level is revealing. Rather than publically speak against the bold work of these students, why not make a vow to improve your own work? Help your students hone their craft during the summer. Find opportunities for self-growth. Make the best use of your professional development funds. Don’t have professional development funds? Fundraise and make it happen. Pick an exciting and new play that showcases your cast’s talents. Be bold with your design. Be creative. Don’t use projections for the sake of simply using projections. Make sure your play’s cutting is dramaturgically sound.

I urge anyone who can to see Carnegie Vanguard’s Holy Day—Friday, May 20 in Houston and Wednesday, May 25 in Austin. It isn’t often you can see high school professional theatre like this.


Carnegie Vanguard will be performing Holy Day at the world-renowned Fringe Festival in Edinburgh, Scotland this August. Please go here to donate to this life-changing opportunity for these students!

Holy Day 2

 

 

“The Stories of Us” by Jelisa Jay Robinson

Stories of Us 2

Somewhere around the middle of Jelisa Jay Robinson’s The Stories of Us at Teatro Vivo in Austin, it hit me. I couldn’t recall seeing a play that so boldly tackled Blackness, Latinidad, and Afro-Latinidad. Sure, I’ve seen plays with Afro-Latin@ characters and lots of Latin@ plays, but nothing quite like The Stories of Us. Black. Brown. Neither. Both. The Stories of Us offers a rich and nuanced view of life in the contemporary United States. These are stories that need to be told all across the nation, from Los Angeles to New York and everywhere in between. Produce this play!

The Stories of Us began as The Untold Stories while Robinson was still an undergrad Theatre and Latin American Studies major at the University of Texas at Austin. The play was later selected for Teatro Vivo’s Austin New Latino Play Festival in 2015 and received a full production this April-May under the direction of Florinda Bryant. The play is a series of vignettes that explores the intersections between Blackness and Latinidad and how this complex relationship continues to influence these (sometimes) overlapping communities today.

Besides “The Wobble” and knockout performances from Stacye Markey and Krysta Gonzales (who I finally got to meet!), what struck me the most about the play was Robinson’s writing. This girl has got it! She is doing important work to update the narrative on multicultural identity in 2016. As The Stories of Us demonstrates, we need to be having conversations about Afro-Latinidad. We need to understand the nuances of being Black in America, being “black enough,” having that “good hair,” being Latin@, speaking Spanish, having light skin, being racialized, passing, and using certain language (the play includes a poignant vignette about using the “n” word). Yet, why in 2016 are these conversations so few and far between in theatre, especially  in Latin@ theatre? Why isn’t there more Afro-Latinidad on stage?

Aside from the play itself, perhaps my favorite part of seeing The Stories of Us was witnessing a young artist find success by telling her stories, her truths. Robinson is living her dream and it’s beautiful to witness! I first met Robinson earlier this year and, through a combination of happenings, she has quickly become an important part of my writing community in Houston. My tribe—Jasminne Mendez, Icess Fernandez Rojas, Lupe Méndez, Josh Inocéncio, and, now thankfully, Jelisa Jay Robinson.

Stories of Us