Tag Archives: Authors

Artist Profile: Raina León

Name: Raina Juanita LeónRaina Leon 1

Hometown: Philadelphia, PA

Residence: Berkeley, CA

What is your earliest memory of writing?  I remember writing, really before I could write, criticism for a dance production my mother took me to see. She tells the story that it was an Alvin Ailey performance.  I remember giving the pieces letter grades, A through C, and telling my mother why the performance merited one review or another.  Considering that I had only ever watched dance performances on PBS before that, had just started dance lessons at 6, and definitely knew next to nothing about the craft, there’s something to be said about my perception of the value of my eye and regard. 

How did you become a writer?  Life made me a writer.  I instinctually was pushing back against institutional, systemic, and internalized oppressions from an early age.  Writing helped me to find my path within the insanity.

My mother is also a poet and brought all of the arts into my life at an early age.  If it was a choice between paying the light bill or for Scholastic books, she was paying for books, and she read all of my very sad poems and stories.  I wrote mostly stories as a child with very sad endings, nothing like the Scholastics books or Highlights stories.

My father made time to take us to the library and talk to us about what we were reading.

Life made me a writer but my parents; the librarians of elementary school and high school; Sr. Ave from West Catholic High; and countless other teachers and friends over the years who read and challenged and questioned and gave me more ideas and resources, they are the folks who helped me speak back to the calling that life gave me.

Tell us about your writing process.

I write generally between 10pm and 6am, and mostly during the summer or on long breaks.  As an educator, during the academic year, my creativity goes mostly into my work with students.  I teach evening classes, too, so I find that I need a few hours to shake loose of my teacherly commitments (this person needs clarification on this assignment; remind the students of this due date; etc).  Once I am home and after my husband has gone to bed, in the silence of a Berkeley night, I can get some writing done.  Even in the day, when I might have lots of time, my mind needs to decompress with court shows or walking the dog or something like that.  I can do academic tasks but rarely creative work.  Even if it means being sleep-deprived and cranky the next day, if I want to write something, it has to be at night, in anticipation of the dawn.

What are you working on now?

I’m working on a full-length manuscript, which has become my way of exploring blackness as an identity in and out of time; generational trauma; ecopoetics that is connected to mythologies, spiritualities and communities; explorations of the lyric; transnational and translanguaging work; and Afro-futurism with a contemporary lens of tragedy and the inevitability of trauma within the conspiracy of control by hegemonic powers.  You know, nothing too deep.  As I’m going into this next step with the work, I am really interested in African deities, diaspora studies, myth and history around blood, water, and crossroads, and an Afro-futurist eco-poetics.  I am also very interested in crafting the character of Elisha, an Afro-Latino immortal, husband to the god in this world I’ve created.  He’s this complex guy who, despite having been a slave and suffered firsthand being dehumanized in multiple horrific ways, manages to nurture hope and light, laughter and love.  He’s chosen for the gift of immortality, because his strength is built on an internal light that never dies.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?

I suffered deeply from writer’s block in late 2014/early 2015.  With the inundation (that continues) of images of Black peoples murdered and violated through state-sanctioned violence and the lack of justice for the perpetrators of that violence (those stories that we do get), I found myself unable to write, unable to push through the horrors.  I became paralyzed by fear and mourning.  What does one do when you are trying to convince yourself that your Afro-Latina life matters in a time when Black Lives Matter emerges as a movement because the world would say we don’t?  I didn’t want to leave my house, let alone write a word.  I still have moments when fear and anger rise suddenly within me.  It’s in those small moments like seeing a police car in my neighborhood and then seeing it on the highway on the way to work.  Writing, for a long while, took a backseat to paranoia and mourning, and I’ve been in mourning for the last four years already for other familial losses.  That familial sorrow extended into sorrow for the world, which was massive and overcame any joy.

Of course, this block that I suffered came after I had just entered into a MFA in Poetry program.  I was supposed to be writing things, and when I began in the program, I had written a great number of poems, all the time, widely experimental, but soon enough I found myself staring into dark when I wrote and the dark staring back, baring its bloodied teeth. The only thing I was good for was reading the work of others and discussing.  Very little writing was happening.

I got into an online discussion with Teri Cross Davis about vampires, the hair of Black vampires, actually.  In some mythologies, a vampire has to be perfectly groomed upon being made, because that’s how they stay forever.  Sure, their hair may become lush and seductive, but the transformation builds on what is already there.   But what about slaves and those who became vampires while in that state?  They certainly weren’t going to be looking their best, stripped of their humanity.  Somehow Teri and I extended that Facebook conversation into a consideration of doing a collaborative piece, a crown of sonnets with an ancient woman vampire and her newly created male vampire.  Possibilities for plays on the Lilith myth, an homage to Octavia Butler.  Sonnets that shifted from Elizabethan iambic pentameter in the female voice to more experimental sonnets in the male voice.  It was all there.  Trying to get myself hyped up for the collaboration, I started imagining a world.  I didn’t want to work with the typical vampire myths so then I started thinking of elemental connection and causation of drought through the drinking of blood (a cosmic transference that allows both spirit through blood and body through water to persist over thousands of years), generational trauma and transference of memories, the possibilities that these “vampires” were really (nearly) immortals with the ability to have human children.  These immortals, in taking life, also drank souls and so carried and were influenced by those souls.  I started to think about how one would gift another with this immortality, what was the creation story of these people, and what was it like to be the human child and recipient of thousands of years of memory of an “immortal”, particularly one who has been marginalized, brutalized, dehumanized and still survived for the crime of being woman and of African descent.  I even had my partner create an algorithm to account for the population of immortals given certain scenarios.  Faced with the horrors of our reality I created characters who had dealt with worse, survived, and had something to teach through their lives.  I faced writer’s block through dissociation with reality and the revelation of a surreality, and in the oddest of ways, that is how I came back into encountering reality and writing about it head on as activism.  I had to create a world to enable me to encounter and deal with the world.

Which writers and teachers have most influenced you as a writer?

My mother was the first writer that I studied consciously wanting to understand what she had done.  One of her poems was published in an anthology, I believe it was called Generations, and I was fascinated by the idea that my mother had written something in a book.  I never thought about it until this interview, but that may have been the birth of me thinking that I could write books, too.

As for teachers, Mrs. Burgess, Mrs. Tulba, and Dr. Steven Herb were the greatest.  They were the librarians of my life.  Mrs. Burgess allowed a little girl of 7 or 8 to convince her that she could read the books the big kids read AND that she should be allowed to take out more than 2 books at a time.  She let me take out up to 8 at a time, and I devoured them within a week or two each time.  She maintained the connection with me and my brother.  She came to my grandmother’s wake and to my wedding, two of the most difficult and most revelatory times for me.

In high school, my locker in my first year was literally right next to the library, and I took it as a sign.  I ended up the editor-in-chief of the newspaper, that Mrs. Tulba supervised, and I worked in the library all the time.  I would sit outside the library in the morning until she arrived, return during lunch to do work, and then spend time there in the afternoons for newspaper or just to work on school.  The library was a refuge then.

In college, my first honors seminar was lead by Dr. Steven Herb; it focused on folklore and storytelling.  For years, that group of students met with him over lunch in State College, CA.  He put his whole self into the class, and we responded in turn.  I’m still good friends with many from that time.  Many of us even worked in the library on fellowships because of his influence.  One became a librarian.  He ran the Pennsylvania Center for the Book, which contacted me a few years ago to do a bio on me.  It’s actually one of the most complete biographies that has ever been done, mostly through research from the Center for the Book.

What books have had the biggest impact on your trajectory?

This is a trick question for me, because I’m discovering and rediscovering books all the time.

  • Wisteria by Kwame Dawes
  • The Fields of Praise by Marilyn Nelson
  • Alabanza:  New and Selected Poems by Martín Espada
  • Arcade by Erica Hunt with prints from Alison Saar
  • The new black by Evie Shockley
  • Black Swan by Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon

What’s your advice to aspiring writers?

I don’t have any tattoos, but if I did, I would have these:  the ankh on my left wrist and “defy, defy, defy” on my right wrist.  The ankh would remind me of the eternal quality of the soul, that one must be true to the higher purpose, seek justice, and connection as the world beyond is watching and waiting.  The words would remind me to persist.  I’ve had many times in my life as a writer when I did not write, because I believed a critic that I was not worthy, as woman, as scholar, as poet.  Eventually, that need to write for my own sanity would win; I would write, because I believe that my voice means something.  It doesn’t come easy.  And when I found that much of none of my work that blended English and Spanish was getting published, I founded (with Eliel Lucero) The Acentos Review for the many I knew like me who were facing the same walls.  If they can’t understand the majesty of our tongues, then why not create a place that honors what we do, see, feel, breathe, are?

So my advice to writers is 1) to seek justice in one’s work, because writing is political activism, too and 2) be defiant and create.

Raina Leon 2

4 Takeaways from Creative Writing Camp

Right out of undergrad I had a gig teaching middle school, however after teaching at the college level for the last seven years it feels like a lifetime ago. Before my experience with Writers in the Schools’ (WITS) Creative Writing Camp (CWC) the thought of teaching middle schoolers made me a bit nervous. And to tell the truth, I’m not even sure why. I really loved the year I taught middle school. I only left because I wanted to pursue my Ph.D. full-time.

Looking back, it was easily one of the most positive teaching experiences I’ve ever had and here are my four takeaways:

  1. 10 year olds can do as much as 13 year olds, if not more

When I first looked at the class roster and saw the age range I thought it would be difficult to teach 10 and 13 year olds at the same time. It wasn’t. In fact, while teaching I barely thought of age differences in the classroom. I looked at them all equally as writers and taught in the normal way I always teach. I spoke to them as if they were adults. Now, that doesn’t mean I didn’t get (really) goofy at times, dancing, singing, etc., but as my college students will attest, that’s how I teach. It’s just who I am.

  1. They were obsessed with the rules and with labels

On the third day, I went to begin my lesson based on Lupe Méndez’s “A Poem About My Name” when one particularly inquisitive young writer asked me:

Her: Are you an author?
Me: We are all authors! All of us in this room!
Her: No, but are you a published author?
Me: Yes, I’ve published a lot of things and so have some of you in this room. And we are going to publish an anthology at the end of camp!
Her: I know, but are you an author?
Me: Yes.

All of this is to say that I spent two weeks trying to inspire these kids to recognize that they can be writers and whatever else they want to be. The possibilities are endless.

As far as the rules, blame it on testing or the age, but one of the biggest struggles of camp was to empower our young writers to not worry so much about the rules. Many of them were overly concerned with structure and style, but we continually told them that this was an opportunity to hone their individual writing style and not worry about forcing rhyme schemes or a certain number of lines or syllables. My co-teacher and I worked to privilege the individual and help each of them reach a positive space with their creativity and writing.

  1. Having a co-teacher was transformative

One of the best parts about CWC is having a co-teacher in the room. And did I have a good one! I was lucky enough to be paired with Sarah Jerasa and, within a few days, our students were asking us if we had been friends for years. Nope. We met not even two weeks prior at Rice University during CWC orientation. That Sarah and I clicked on so many levels from the first minute is really a testament to WITS’ match.com-esque “formula” for pairing co-teachers.

I’m sure the fact that Sarah and I gelled so well aided in this, but not having to stretch myself thin across 21 students was a game-changer in every way. We were able to team teach nearly all of our lessons, jumping back-and-forth between the both of us every step of the process. We could give each writer personalized attention during “office hours” and writing workshops. For the anthology and end-of-camp celebration poems, many writers benefited from having both Sarah and I offer feedback. Not to mention, I learned tons from Sarah—new lessons, new methods, new jokes (there were a lot of laughs!). Simply put, Sarah inspired me to become a better educator.

  1. I wrote every day, but not what I expected to write

In May, I hit a writing plateau while finishing my book manuscript. I hoped that being around so much creative energy would help me to push through. For the most part it did. I wrote everyday (both at camp and when I got home), but not what I expected to write. Instead of a finished book manuscript, I now have a series of poems about my name, growing up in New Orleans, gumbo, my family, and other tidbits from my life so far. During our 15-20 minute free-writes to start the day throughout the second week, I journaled—something I hadn’t done in about 8 years. All of this is to say that prioritizing writing and making time to write everyday (however you define that) is an important step in my process as a writer. While each writer should find their own process, writing everyday works for me. It makes it a habit. On days when I don’t write, everything feels off-balanced. Moreover, I find that writing everyday helps me to push through writer’s block. When I prioritize my writing, I never have trouble putting words on the page. Admittedly, this involves learning what works best for you, creating an optimal writing environment, and being in control of things you can actually control.

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.

RIP Tato Laviera (1951-2013)

I wrote this poem a few weeks ago and my friend Sarah told me it was “very Tato Laviera” and suggested the title.

“If Tato Laviera Lived in Montrose”

To Tato

I’m reading Russian theory based on French theory in Spanish while thinking in English at a Mexican-American-run coffee shop empire with a Montmartre French feeling on a German-named avenue in a Texan neighborhood.