Tag Archives: Creative Writing

Artist Profile: Kevin Ray Johnson

Name: Kevin Ray Johnson

Hometown: Brooklyn Park, Minnesota

Residence: Brooklyn, New York

On Writing…

What is your earliest memory of writing?

Okay I have to admit something from the start. I was never that great of a student but I always did well on papers and in English class. So I would say my earliest memories go as far back as the 4th or 5th grade. I loved when we would get creative type writing assignments.

How did you become a writer?

I became a writer when I was 19 and I wanted to write something that chronicled my life while living with diabetes and I started writing it while in school. That play was called Life Inside an Open Kaije (Kaije is pronounced like Cage) and something about that made me realize that this wasn’t a one shot deal this is something I want to do forever.

Tell us about your writing process.

I generally want to develop the arc of the story. The beginning, middle and end and when that is done it’s all about fleshing out the characters as much as possible. Making them real and relatable and someone you want to invest in. Revisions and being objective are essential for a writer you should never ever feel your job is done and you should never be above taking criticism.

Tell us about The Unpredictable Times and Reginald: From Baltimore to Billionaire.

The Unpredictable Times is a piece I have been working on for well over ten years. It originally started off as a 10 minute that I wrote called “The Next Day” my last year in college. I grew up in Minnesota and it’s a coming of age drama based on five friends from Champlin, Minnesota. They come back home to Champlin for the summer after graduating college to be met by unresolved issues from the past that will challenge their childhood friendships now as adults. To me, I wrote it because I wanted a coming of age piece that anyone no matter what generation (millennial, gen x etc) can relate to when it comes to letting go, forgiving and growing up. I wanted the situation to be relatable while at the same time being something I know so well which is Minnesota. When you grow up in MN it’s like no other place and you truly no matter where you go bring a little bit of the Midwest with you.

Reginald: from Baltimore to Billionaire is a piece based on the first African American Billionaire Reginald F. Lewis. I want to start by saying that I wake up every day feeling like the luckiest man alive that I am allowed to write this story. I was working with a wonderful NYC actress named Lora Nicolas. We were at her place one day working on lines and she brought up through a conversation that her uncle is Reginald F. Lewis. My jaw dropped. She responded with “Oh wow you know who he is?” ha yea I did. She knew that I was a writer and that’s when the original idea came to write a play about Reginald.

It follows the life of Reginald Lewis from the time he is 13 up until the time he signs the Beatrice Deal which made him become the first black billionaire. You see him go through college and get accepted into Harvard, meet his wonderful lovely wife Loida Nicolas (who I had the pleasure of having dinner with not too long ago and is truly such an amazing and beautiful human being) to his law firm, creating TLC (The Lewis Company) and the Beatrice Deal.

When I spoke to Loida I remember saying to her that this isn’t a piece that I want to be told this is a piece that NEEDS to be told. We live in a time where “reality stars” are claiming to want to Make America Great Again. I feel there is truly something inspiring about seeing a man that looks like Reginald live in a time like the 50s and 60s and him having the mindset that this isn’t gonna stop me. I’m gonna keep going no matter what. I have lost many nights of sleep because of this play (not a bad thing at all) because I just sit up and read it and think that this is something that could inspire a lot of people while educating them on who the first really was.

The first reading took place August of 2016 and it featured Isaiah Johnson (Who played mister in the revival of The Color Purple and who will be starring in the upcoming tour of Hamilton) as Reginald F. Lewis with Lora Nicolas playing her Aunt Loida Nicolas-Lewis. There was such an amazing visual that I tell Lora about all the time. She was sitting there in the reading and her Aunt was sitting right in front of her with her eyes closed just listening to the play. It was just such an amazing visual that I will remember for the rest of my writing career.

What else are you working on now?

I have several projects. One is a play cycle called “Before it Got Unpredictable: Short Plays by Kevin Ray Johnson” which features three short plays I wrote. It was performed last June and was headlined by Remy Zaken (Original Thea in Spring Awakening on Broadway) and featured an amazing cast.

I also am in the beginning process of working on a One-Act play called Obsolete Classified which is one of the heavier pieces I have worked on ever. I am someone who is very passionate about the discussion of mental health and that no one should be afraid to admit that they are not okay. Obsolete Classified follows someone who is wrongfully put in suicide watch at a hospital for 4 days and how those 4 days didn’t help them but only made it worse.

Also what I talked about earlier, The Next Day, will be performed at The New York Theater Festival and will featured an amazing cast of two up and coming actors in Michael Coale Grey and Megan Albracht. Show dates are March 7th, 11th and 12th at the Hudson Guild Theatre.

What books/plays have had the biggest impact on your trajectory?

The Marriage of Bette and Boo and This is our Youth as well as Othello and I know its cliché but I learned so much as a writer from Romeo and Juliet.

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On Acting…

Tell us about your process of preparing for a new role.

I read the script and then I ask myself how I want to take on this role from talking, expressions, mannerisms, to even the way I stand, are they likeable or unlikeable, how do I relate, can I relate and so on. I am not someone who tries to completely go against the grain from what the writer was wanting to get across but I still want to make it my own. When it comes to musicals and if it’s a well known show I try not to listen to the soundtrack. I feel as actors the one thing we should always do is put 100 percent trust in our directors so if we are able to do that then the performance will show.

What is your dream role? What do you feel you would bring to it?

Oh wow. This is a tough one. Musicals I am gonna say Jake in Sideshow. Plays would definitely be Chad Deity in the Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity and for Shakespeare I would say Tybalt in Romeo and Juliet and Othello in Othello.

For all four roles, I feel I would bring being able to relate and understand them. All four characters (even Tybalt) you can feel sympathy for and even if you don’t agree with how they go about things there truly is a reason why they are and in their own mind they believe what they are doing is right. I find that fascinating as an artist.

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On a life in the theatre…

What have been the defining moments in your career as a theatre artist?

Making my Off Broadway debut in The Love Note in 2014, having the honor of playing the role of Dr. Madden/ Dr. Fine in Next to Normal on 4 different occasions, becoming a board member at Rise Above Performing Arts in Florida led by Jacob Ruscoe because being around kids who love theatre is always a gift in itself and most recently performing in Guys and Dolls at The Asolo Repertory Theatre because the entire time I truly didn’t feel worthy. Josh Rhodes is truly one of the greatest directors I truly feel in the entire world and working with him truly was a defining moment in my career.

Who has had the biggest impact on your journey so far? Do you have any mentors or heroes in the theatre?

My mother for her support and for believing in me.

Molly Donnelly, my voice teacher in college who truly was the only one I felt believed in me when even I didn’t believe in me.

Isaiah Johnson and Jessica Frances Dukes for being the epitome of what a black artist should be and two people I truly look up to on and off the stage.

A wonderful artist named Michael Kevin Callahan who was my dance captain for Guys and Dolls at Asolo Repertory Theatre. He truly deserves all the amazing things coming his way. One of the most talented dancers I have ever seen in my entire life and with all that I can truly say one of the kindest beautiful spirits I have ever encountered.

My fiancé Rachael for truly being my rock and making me see things from a different point of view. I truly don’t know what I would do without her.

What advice do you have for aspiring theatre artists?

Believe in yourself. If you don’t have confidence in yourself you are twice defeated in the race of life. With confidence you have won even before you started. We all get that little negative voice in our head. The sooner you have the strength to block it out the sooner you will become the best performer you can be. Stay in your lane and if things come faster to people around you than it does to you it doesn’t mean that you aren’t talented so don’t give up. Everyone I feel has the ability and capability to make it in this amazing business. The reason why people don’t is because they are not able to stick it out through the tough times especially when it comes to “not being cast” or “being overlooked.” Stick it out. You can do it.

Is there anything else we should know about you?

I am the biggest wrestling fan and probably Nirvana’s number one fan but lol that’s a story for another day.

***For more on Kevin Ray Johnson, see:

 

Artist Profile: Edward Vidaurre

Name: Edward Vidaurre

Hometown: East Los Angeles, CA

Residence: McAllen, TX

What is your earliest memory of writing?

High School. I would write love letters to girls and never give it to them. I loved words, I would write full pages from the dictionary and lyrics to favorite songs.

How did you become a writer?

I became a reader before I became a writer. I don’t remember reading a single book in school until my senior year. My English teacher was teaching Macbeth and I said something like, “No one in my hood talks like that, why should we even learn this?” The following day she gave me the book, Manchild in the Promised Land by Claude Brown. The book changed my life not only as a writer but it gave me that hope that there was life outside of the hood.

Tell us about your writing process.

It’s unpredictable. I write when I am alone mostly. Early in the morning or late at night when my wife and daughter are sleeping. I surround myself with books, so when I get sidetracked from writing I start to read.

What are you working on now?

I am editing my 5th manuscript and a chapbook. The manuscript I’ve titled Jazz Violence and the chapbook is tentatively Ramona and Rumi: a love story during oligarchy… It’s about a poet I named Rumi and his muse Ramona.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?

I never attended college or any type of university, I don’t hold back in my writing in fear that it may not be good enough. I write from the heart, inspired by what I read, see and feel. But when I have short moments of it I read or write haiku poems.

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

Richard Wright, Luis J. Rodriguez, Cohen, Lorca to name a few. I love the poetry of Robert Bly, Anne Sexton, but the one who I really give credit the most to is The BUK, Charles Bukowski, a bad motherfucker who gave no shits and just wrote. Let’s not forget the beat generation either, especially Ginsberg.

What books have had the biggest impact on your trajectory?

Love is a Dog from Hell by Bukowski, Lorca in New York, Book of Longing by Leonard Cohen. I’ve been inspired by some C.S. Lewis, Brian Allen Carr, and recently, Juan Felipe Herrera and Francisco X. Alarcon

What’s your advice to aspiring writers?chicano-blood-tranfusion

Read other authors. Go back to books you started and never finished and finish them, keep a journal, workshop with peers, submit your writings and celebrate the rejections. Be your toughest critic. Edit, Edit, Edit!

***For more on Edward Vidaurre, see:

Artist Profile: Denice Frohman

Name: Denice Frohman

Hometown: New York City

What is your earliest memory of writing?

In high school I had a special notebook where I wrote raps and jokes. Those were the two artistic forms of expression where I thought I could really be myself. At that time, I thought poetry sounded a particular way and nothing like me, so I steered clear of that until college.

How did you become a writer?

That’s a tough question because I think “becoming” a writer is something I’m constantly doing in a sense. Paying attention to my voice and how it evolves and develops feels like a supernatural thing to me. But to answer your question in a more straightforward way, I really stumbled into it. I didn’t know a world of writing and performance existed for me until college, but once I was introduced to writers that were speaking in a language that was familiar to me everything was a flood. I wrote frantically, filling up notepads, and finding a new thirst for understanding myself and the world around me.

Tell us about your writing process.

I feel like this is something I’m constantly developing a new understanding of: the “what works for me” question. And truthful it changes. I do know I’ve always liked writing very late at night. and I think it has to do with my subconscious taking over. In terms of writing the poem itself, often times the first line of a poem ends up somewhere in the middle of whatever I end up with, so that I’m really filling out what’s missing in the beginning and end. However, if I have a strong first line that captures some kind of unnamable feeling I have, then that’s always a good sign that the writing will flow a lot easier. I hate the feeling that I’m forcing something. It also means that I write way more poems than I end up finishing and I’m okay with that, because I think these freewrites (which I always save) lead me to the poems I really need to be writing.

What are you working on now?

My first manuscript of poetry.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?

I have and it’s quiet frustrating, but it’s always less about the writing itself and more about what I have going on elsewhere in my brain.

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

Nikki Giovanni, Gloria Anzaldúa, Sandra Cisneros, Audre Lorde, and my students.

What books have had the biggest impact on your trajectory?

  • The Selected Poems of Nikki Giovanni
  • Their Eyes Were Watching God
  • Sister Outsider
  • La Frontera/Borderlands

What’s your advice to aspiring writers?

Tell your version of the truth. Write authentically. There are so many reasons to be silent, often times I look into those rooms for what I need to say. Worry less about “how good it is” and more about whether you’re writing honestly. Chances are the more you write about the things you care about, the more the audience will respond to that.

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***For more on Denice Frohman, see:

Artist Profile: Malcolm Friend

Name: Malcolm Friendmalcolm-friend-2

Hometown: Seattle, Washington

Residence: Pittsburgh, PA

What is your earliest memory of writing?

This isn’t a memory of writing, exactly, but I remember that when I was really young (it was either pre-school or early elementary), my older sister had a goldfish. I used to draw pictures to place behind its fishbowl and as I drew them I would be coming up with stories behind them—almost like a movie or maybe even a TV episode since they always seemed to revolve around the same characters. In terms of my first memory of actually writing down some of those stories, it has to be third grade. We had journals we were required to write in and I would always write stories in them, fictions where my friends and classmates were the main characters.

How did you become a writer?

My mom likes to tell this story where I was first learning how to write and I kept bugging her to teach me some letter or spelling and I told her “I have to know because I’m gonna be a writer when I grow up.” While I have no idea whether or not that story is real (I take her word for it most times; sometimes I think it’s a sort of origin myth), I do know that I “became” a writer fairly early in life and really do have to go back to those early journaling experiences. There was a certain joy they brought to writing and also a certain ritual. There was a specific time of day every day that we were supposed be writing. When I switched schools in fifth grade, journaling was still a requirement, where we had to produce a certain number of pages per week for homework in Language Arts. All of that got me into the ritual of writing and the practice of setting time aside to write. By the time I was in seventh grade I had fashioned myself a writer and knew that’s what I wanted to be.

Tell us about your writing process.

My writing process starts before there’s any actual writing done. I’ll spend days, sometimes weeks, just repeating a line (in my head and out loud) that I’m obsessed with but don’t know how to place a full poem around. I’ll do this on the bus, in between classes, between grading papers, as much as I need to until I get another line or two that I think I can base the poem around.

Once I actually start writing, it pretty much always starts with music. I grew up in a household where music was frequently present. My dad puts on music whenever there’s nothing on TV and my mom plays music sometimes when she cooks and pretty much always whenever she decides it’s a cleaning day in the house, especially around the holidays. I got used to working with music in the background, to moving with a beat in my head. Plus growing up with three siblings I just got used to noise being in the house and kind of need it to work. If what I’m writing is related to a specific artist or song (as it frequently is), I’ll listen to that artist or song on repeat while I’m writing. Otherwise I put on reggaetón, because the beats are so repetitive and it allows me to stay within sort of the same space mentally.

As I’m writing I’m also saying everything out loud (or wording it, depending on whether or not other people are in the room). That way if anything sounds kind of funky, I can just scrap it immediately or change it into something similar that sounds better, or even switch up the order of the poem to where the different grouping of words sounds better. I keep up with this until I have a draft of poem that I feel satisfied with, sometimes meaning I feel the poem is done or just needs minor edits, others meaning I’m ready to share them with other people and get feedback on them, and then some others that the poem itself isn’t going anywhere but I feel I’ve gained something from the writing process and from writing that poem in particular.

What are you working on now?

I’m currently working on my thesis at the University of Pittsburgh, which will hopefully turn into my first manuscript. The work is really drawing off of my experiences growing up in a mixed cultural household (my mom being African American, my dad Puerto Rican), and how different influences (friends, family, pop culture, literature) affect how you interact with or claim a cultural heritage. In it I’m also interested in looking at different iterations of blackness across the diaspora as both of my parents are part of the African diaspora and, regardless of what heritage or heritages I claim, my body is read as such—as black—in many spaces around the world.

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Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?

Absolutely. There are good days for writing, when everything is running smoothly and there are bad days, when every line I write comes with difficulty and feels like the worst thing I’ve ever written. Usually I take it to mean I’m too much wrapped up in myself and not open to letting the poem take me anywhere. At that point I usually find some household chore that needs to be done (do the dishes, cook dinner, etc.) in order to pull myself out of my head for a little while until I’m ready to get back into that writing space.

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

In terms of writers, I absolutely have to name Langston Hughes first. Hughes was the first poet I read and enjoyed and a good deal of my early poetry was me trying to imitate Hughes—the first form I learned was Blues and the Blues poem. And then I also have to writers like Rita Dove, Kevin Young, and Martin Espada, who gave me contemporary examples of things I wanted to write about.

In terms of teachers I have to give a shout out to Mark Jarman, Rick Hilles, and Beth Bachmann, who were all teachers of mine in college. I point to Jarman because it was during his poetry workshop as a junior in college that I realized I wanted to seriously be a poet (I had originally come into college wanting to be a fiction writer). He was also the person who turned me onto Espada, lending me his copies of both Imagine the Angels of Bread and City of Coughing and Dead Radiators. I point out Hilles and Bachmann because they believed in me and worked with me my senior year of college. I highlight this because it showed me the importance of teaching to writing, and what having people in your corner can do for a young writer. And along those lines I also have to highlight Yona Harvey here at Pitt. As my first graduate workshop teacher, she really whipped me into shape and helped get my poems. But she did it in such a nurturing way that I never felt like I couldn’t write and I could tell that it was out of care. She was also the first Black writing instructor I had ever had and that was a big for me. Her presence alone was an affirmation to my place in an MFA program but also her comments on some of my work, pointing out that certain things reminded her of experiences she was familiar with, affirmed me as a writer.

What books have had the biggest impact on your trajectory?

The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes– I first learned to write poetry by reading it and Hughes was a big part of that, really what made me want to continue writing poetry. During my junior year of college I checked out a copy from the Seattle Public Library and just kept renewing it, hoping no one would place a hold on it and that I’d have to take it back.

Thomas and Beulah by Rita Dove- This wasn’t the first book by Dove that I read but it’s probably the one that sticks with me the most. Thomas and Beulah got me thinking much more so about how poetry can serve as something to document history and in particular to document family history.

La Carreta Made a U-turn by Tato Laviera- This book was big for me because going into my junior year of college I had never read a Puerto Rican author before. I mentioned Jarman turning me onto Martin Espada, and that made me want more. The Vanderbilt library had copies of all of Laviera’s poetry collections, and I dug in, completely caught by Laviera’s attention to Afrolatinidad and the connection between different populations in the African diaspora. Laviera was the first Afro-Latinx poet I read and made me feel for the first time that I didn’t have to choose between being Black or Puerto Rican because I could be both.

Reggaeton, edited by Wayne Marshall, Deborah Pacini Hernandez, and Raquel Rivera- This is a recent add to the list and the only scholarly/critical text, but I turned to this book last year while working on a project about Puerto Rican national music and what claiming reggaetón as Puerto Rican means. Going through the book and seeing how much a part of the African diaspora reggaetón is (having ties to Jamaican dancehall and hip hop in the States, being tied to Afro-Panamanian reggae en español, growing in San Juan neighborhoods populated by poor Afro-Puerto Ricans and Dominicans, etc.), reggaetón became something that I started writing not just through but about.

What’s your advice to aspiring writers?

First, read. A lot. I first learned how to write poetry by trying to imitate the writers I loved to read. And I’m not saying “just reproduce what’s already been done because that’s the only way to write,” but rather that there are things to learn from other writers. Some writers will teach you imagery, some will teach you form, somehow to turn a phrase—and good writers will take lessons and techniques from the writers they enjoy reading and turn them into tools for their own benefit.

The second piece of advice is to find a writing family. And there are a number of ways to do this, whether through school clubs, classes, or even outside workshops. It’s just that there’s this idea that writing is something solitary and I think that’s only half-true. Absolutely you need time by yourself, away from distractions, in order to reflect and write. But you really get better by opening that up to the world; by both opening yourself to critique through sharing your work and by surrounding yourself with other writers who push you to stay on top of your game with their own work.

***For more on Malcolm Friend, see:malcolm-friend-1

 

Artist Profile: Hugo Esteban Rodríguez

Name: Hugo Esteban Rodríguez Castañeda

Hometown: Heroica Matamoros, Tamaulipas, Mexico; and Brownsville, Texas, U.S.A. To clarify, I was born and raised in Matamoros but came to adulthood in Brownsville, so I’m both from Mexico and the Rio Grande Valley.

Residence: Houston, Texas.

What is your earliest memory of writing? I want to say writing bad fan-fiction when I was 12, but I also have vague memories of the year before, being in the fifth grade and writing my own “school newspaper” and reporting on elementary school drama.

How did you become a writer?

I grew up surrounded by books and learned to love them because of my father and grandfather. It was only a natural jump to go from seeing how much books could do for people to wanting to evoke that same kind of feeling myself. I think the best way I can explain this is when I was reading the Harry Potter series as a kid, I felt actual regret that I couldn’t go to Hogwarts. I’ve always been enthralled by superheroes and supervillains, so I believe that being able to create those emotions with just your words is as close as I’ll get to actual superpowers. Plus, if videogames have taught me anything, it’s that getting bombarded with heavy doses of radiation isn’t exactly healthy.

Tell us about your writing process.

It’s a two-part process given that I am both a poet and a writer. For my poetry, I write out my poems in a journal I carry with me most of the time. Then I let them sit there for a week, then once the week passes, I take a look at the poem again and type it up. If I like it, I’ll save it in a ‘holding’ folder on my computer, then revisit it in a week and if it is good enough, I add it to my collection. If it at any point in the process I don’t like it, I’ll salvage what I can and then I start over.

For my fiction, I have a much more simpler approach. I just channel the inner voice that goes, “Wow! Wouldn’t it be cool if…” and write stories on that without placing limits on how weird, boring, or strange something is. I have a piece out that’s based on a time-traveling swimming pool. I have another that’s an ode to alienation featuring a man that is also a car, and I recently wrote a story about skin cells in a mattress. Hell, sometimes I’ll just stack up two poems together and make a story out of it.

What are you working on now?

A lot! My main focus right now is seeking representation for my first manuscript, a collection of short stories with the common theme of mental illness. My other projects include writing more flash fiction in the hopes of creating a second short story collection. I’m also planning on finishing the edits to my poetry manuscript. And ALSO I just added a vlog component to my website, so I’ve been pretty busy outside my day job.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?

There are two kinds of writers: Those who have struggled with writer’s block; and damn liars.

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

I’m blessed that every teacher I’ve had has influenced me in one way or another. But I’d like to take some time to honor them. In elementary school, my teacher Ms. Diaz really emphasized the importance of reading and writing. In high school, Mrs. Saenz really reinforced the importance of having discipline, which is absolutely instrumental for any writer. In college, Azenett Cornejo was the program coordinator for the student newspaper where I worked throughout my undergraduate career. There’s a lot of lessons I learned from her that I still employ in my day-to-day life as both a writer and as a grown adult, but if there’s one trait she nurtured in me, was the importance of having an eye for detail and thinking on my feet. Finally, in my MFA program, I had the privilege and opportunity of learning under the tutelage of established poets and writers. If I’m picking two, I’m picking Sasha Pimentel and Daniel Chacón. Professor Pimentel taught me to love poetry, and Professor Chacón, was instrumental in placing me on the short story track I’m in.

What books have had the biggest impact on your trajectory?

  • Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States
  • JK Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
  • William King’s Trollslayer (from the Gotrek and Felix series)
  • Stephen King’s On Writing
  • Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front
  • Benjamin Alire Saenz’s Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club

What’s your advice to aspiring writers?

There’s a lot of hard work involved in this field. There’s going to be some nights you’re going to pass out at your desk. There’s going to be times when you forget to eat. This field is going to take your blood, sweat, tears and time and…it’s going to be worth it. You are going to come up with something that’s going to make people feel and it is such a rewarding feeling when you see that. Another thing I’d advice is take on day jobs if you have to. There’s no shame in wanting to be gainfully employed while you work on a writing career. Some people glorify the “starving” part of “starving artist” and it’s a bit nonsensical. You don’t have to be homeless or unemployed to have the kind of hustle, hunger, and chip on shoulder necessary to thrive in this field.

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***For more on Hugo Esteban Rodríguez, see:

Artist Profile: Sarah Rafael García

Name: Sarah Rafael Garcíasarah-rafael-garcia

Hometown: Born in Brownsville, Texas and raised in Santa Ana, California, I claim both.

Residence: Austin, Texas and Santa Ana, California: one a residence with my life partner as he completes his PhD at UT at Austin and currently an artist in residence at Grand Central Art Center in Santa Ana.

What is your earliest memory of writing?

I started writing after the unexpected death of my father in 1988, I was thirteen. A bereavement social worker, at the hospital where my father passed away, handed me my first journal and advice to use writing as a source of consolation.

How did you become a writer?

In 2004, I ran away from Corporate America and the “American Dream” to live in Beijing as an English teacher and write my first book for 18 months. At the time, I was stressed and disillusioned about many expectations in my life—becoming financially successful, getting married, having children and supporting my sisters and mother. I have been writing since 1988 but never shared my work with anyone outside of my immediate family. I was waiting to retire (with tons a money) and spend beach vacations writing my childhood stories. Yeah I know, not realistic, but since I didn’t grow up with any mentors or support to be a writer that’s all I could imagine for myself, since I had to have a “real” career.

Tell us about your writing process.

I started writing by journaling, with the occasional poem sneaking onto the page. Then I moved on to writing memories, which led me to deconstruct my identity as a first generation college student, Chicana and woman of color—who never married nor has children. But of course that came after I completed a degree in Sociology. After my first book was published in 2008, I recognized I needed to learn more and wanted to offer more to my community. In 2009, I founded Barrio Writers. By leading writing workshops for youth, I broadened my writing interests as well as my style. I began to use more code-switching, experimental format as well as spoken word. Then in 2012, Barrio Writers led me to seek a M.F.A in Creative Writing. I had not written fiction until I submitted a writing sample for M.F.A. applications. Now, I write a lot of hybrid stories—a cross between fiction and non-fiction, contemporary narratives of women and my community. I select a gender role imposed on women or cultural community issue and find a way to tell a story through fiction—sometimes it’s like an ethnographic description, other times it transforms into a parallel world through the lens of magical realism. As far as the process, once I’ve done research into the theme and written 2-3 pages into a story, I become a weaver. I write, go back to the beginning and edit, write 2-4 more pages, maybe do some more research (read literature, look up relevant stuff), go back to the beginning and edit, and the cycle continues until I get to the ending. It’s a love-hate relationship, I love how it all turns out in the end, but some days I lose my patience with editing from the beginning over and over again. I’ve learned to see it as weaving—something that needs to be done to hold it all together, to create details at a micro level but eventually create a pattern only visible at a macro level. I would have laughed aloud and walked back into my 10×10 corporate America cubicle if I was told this had to be my writing process back in 2004. But here I am…

What are you working on now?  

I focus on contemporary female narratives, which include identity, gender and cultural themes. Currently, I am seeking to publish a travel memoir that shares my adventures as a Xicana crossing, literal and figurative, borders. Along with this, I also wrote a collection of feminist short stories as my MFA thesis. The short stories are inspired by news headlines or a quote that typecast female narratives. I use magical realism and play with point of view to deconstruct the role and stereotypes of women in our society.

As part of my artist in residence, I’m working on a special project from March 2016-2017. SanTana’s Fairy Tales is an oral history, storytelling project, which integrates community-based narratives to create contemporary fairy tales and fables that represent the history and stories of Mexican/Mexican-American residents of Santa Ana (inspired by the Grimms’ Fairy Tales).

The forthcoming exhibit at Grand Central Art Center in Santa Ana, California will present a multi-media installation, curated in collaboration with local visual, musical, and performance artists. The exhibit will showcase bilingual, single-story zines, a fully illustrated published book, an ebook, a large format classical book, graphic art by Sol Art Radio‘s Carla Zarate, an “open book” performance, along with composed music by Viento Callejero‘s Gloria Estrada, who is supported by local singer/songwriter Ruby Castellanos and members of the Pacific Symphony. The entire collection will be translated by poet Julieta Corpus and published by Raspa Press. The ebook will be produced by Digitus Indie Publishers.

SanTana’s Fairy Tales is supported in part by The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, through a grant supporting the Artist-in-Residence initiative at Grand Central Art Center. The exhibit is scheduled for March 2017.

Through Santana’s Fairy Tales, I hope to give back to the community, which instilled culture, pride and perseverance in my daily life as an artist. I returned to Santa Ana not as a writer, but as a storyteller/artivist who invokes real stories from real community members in order to offer a counter-narrative for the stereotypes and media headlines that feature Mexicans/Mexican-Americans from Santa Ana, California. By using multi-media, I want to initiate a literary discussion and preserve local culture through revitalization in the form of art versus the recent change Santa Ana faces through the influx of gentrification.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?

Yes, and I’m not a big fan of folks who say it doesn’t exist. I think it does for some of us. There are many complex situations in life that keep some of us from creating. Although I recognize I’m in a privileged position as an artist in residence, my journey and sacrifices are not so easily forgotten, nor is my cost of living. Sometimes I can’t write because I’m trying to budget my money for next month and also my time to do community work. Other times, I’m busy chasing deadlines and I forget that I haven’t seen or spoken to my loved ones in weeks. Then there are those days that I question everything, I question if I’d be happier if I didn’t have to worry how I was going to pay bills next month or where I’m going to live next year. I question if I should go back to a “real” job and get rid of some of these tedious tasks of choosing between healthy food verses cheap food or a new pair of comfortable shoes, since I walk and commute via bike because it’s cheaper than maintaining a car. I question if having no health insurance is actually sane or humane. I question if I’m “academic” enough to land a job as an adjunct professor (even though the pay sucks), because I haven’t yet and I’m 42 years old. Then I’m told I don’t have enough experience on a campus, but folks admire that I’ve maintained Barrio Writers for the last eight years with little to no budget on various campuses in Texas and Southern California. So yes, in these moments I can’t write, all of such thoughts block my process—and they come often. Some days I have to convince myself to just breathe rather than write.

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

I can’t say I have a go-to list of writers, because I’m a big fan of contemporary writers. So those who influence me change on a daily bases—most recently I’ve been enjoying poetry by Macondista Ching-In Chen and Juan Felipe Herrera’s latest collection. For fiction, I‘m currently dissecting Emma Donoghue and Etgar Keret. If I have to resort to those who made me feel like I wanted be like them or just escape this world by flipping a few pages, it all started with Judy Blume and Louisa May Alcott. Then as for the maestra/os, I admire Gabo, Allende, Esquivel, and Castillo. For descriptions, wit and male narratives, I bury my nose in works by Joe Jimenez, Junot Diaz, and Dagoberto Gilb. But at my bedside I have Texas Poet Laureate Laurie Ann Guerrero, Leslie Marmon Silko and Toni Morrison—and tomorrow I will add more to each section.

What books have had the biggest impact on your trajectory?

Top 5 List + 1:

  1. All by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (Gabo)
  2. Aphrodite by Isabel Allende
  3. Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
  4. Law of Love by Laura Esquivel
  5. Flesh to Bone by ire’ne lara silva

Plus 1, the latest read: The Woman Who Gave Birth To Rabbits by Emma Donoghue

What’s your advice to aspiring writers?

As writers who have to challenge stereotypes daily, I advise youth (as well as new older writers of color) to be their own mentors and rise above the microaggressions and dismissals from any part of society that seems to be an obstacle to reaching life goals—as so many have done before them. I tell all writers to push through, to write in any shape or form they desire, to adapt critical-thinking in daily life, to share their culture whether it be based on race or just your love for a particular type of music, to speak assertively, “Your voice is your weapon!” Don’t just be the bigger person, role model to those younger and older than you. I also remind all writers to find their support in their community. And if they can’t find it, then create it—begin your own community to empower others like you.

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Artist Profile: Icess Fernandez Rojas

Name:  Icess Fernandez RojasIcess Fernandez Pic 1

Hometown:  Houston, TX – baby!

Residence:  North Shore

What is your earliest memory of writing? 

The womb, as I was writing my grievances for the tiny room of which I was assigned. I’ve been giving my mom headaches ever since. Ha! It’s part of my charm, she says.

How did you become a writer?

That’s a really hard question. I wrote short stories and things in school and as a hobby (it is no longer a hobby). I always knew I’d write books but I believe that I began learning some of the fundamentals of writing as a journalist. It’s a great training ground for the nitty gritty like writing to a length or word count, writing on deadline, keeping the reader in mind, asking questions of characters (sources). However, I think what launched my writing ahead, really solidified it in my head and brought me closer to my path was getting the MFA. My program was set up with the writer’s life in mind which is perfect. Writers write and they read and they do that with full-time jobs. That’s amazing. There was none of the romantic notion in my program and they very much taught me that this is a writing life not just a thing I do.

Tell us about your writing process.

Procrastination. HA! I’m a fiction writer so it starts with a character and their voice in my head. That sounds crazy but that’s how it happens. And because I write in the long form, there’s always a danger of my short stories becoming my next novel project. I have a couple like that now, so I work really hard at the short form to keep my character to short form while I finish longer forms. I’m working on my first book in a mystery series now which really should have been done a while ago but that’s another conversation for another day. That has been on my front burner for awhile. However, sometimes I need a break so I’ll do something else for a bit – short stories, a poem (written badly but written) or creative non-fiction, which is fascinating me at the moment. What’s interesting though is my revision process, THAT is a process. And one I’m learning to appreciate each time I do it.

What are you working on now?

JENNIE MANNING! I feel like I’m always working on her because I am. Even though there’s a version of the book that I would say is complete, she’s not done. Because it’s the first in a series, there are decisions I have to make with tone and character background and motivation I need to feel comfortable with so it’s taking longer. However, she’s coming along swimmingly. This is the book I’ve wanted to write since I was 13 and it has Houston as the setting. It’s important to me that Houston is portrayed not only as a character (it’s written in noir) but also that we see the real deal. I have seen books set in Houston that take place in River Oaks or other places of affluence. That’s not the Houston I know. Houston is wonderful but hot and grimy. It’s rock hard but has pockets of southern traditions. Houston is business and society. There are rules and regulations in Houston that make it function – a code. That’s the world of Detective Jennie Manning.

On the non-writing, yet writing related front, I’m working on turning my writing into a business by teaching classes. I’m teaching a fiction writing class that I am so loving. I’m developing a non-fiction class that focuses on publishing and a blogging course.

Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?

Writer’s block doesn’t exist! That’s the wonderful part about being a reporter for so many years, you don’t have that luxury. When there’s a deadline, you turn something in. You made that happen!  In grad school, my fellow writers were kind shocked at how I could get so many pages written while they were “blocked.”  Literally it’s that deadline on the calendar. Stuff just has to be done.

I also try to read as much as I can and try new techniques with my writing so if something isn’t working, I try one of those. Or a writing prompt. Or I Netflix. Yes, Netflixing is part of the process.

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

My 8th grade English teacher was the first one who said that maybe I should pursue this writing thing. I laughed and said, yeah, but I wanna make money. HA!!! Then my senior AP teacher, Mrs. Landry was amazing and tough. She taught me to read deeper and to not take things at face value. She also taught me to come correct. DO NOT go in Mrs. Landry’s class without being prepared…unless you want to die.

And then later on, the writers come in – Garcia Marquez is my dude, my teacher. Isabel Allende is magical. Clarice Lispector is my spirit animal, Junot Diaz is the realest dude, he’s air. Edwidge Danticat is life; Cristina Garcia taught me that it was possible to be nostalgic for an island that I hadn’t visited; Ana Menendez taught me you could be a journalist and still write amazing prose; Carolina Garcia-Aguilera who’s Lupe Solano series inspired the world of Jennie Manning; Walter Mosley who taught me it was possible to write noir AND be a person of color; Raymond Chandler, like why aren’t more people reading his books! I don’t understand. That dude is a genius, no debate.

What books have had the biggest impact on your trajectory?

The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao – gave me air. Dreaming in Cuban, The Hour of the Star, Chronicle of a Death Foretold, Devil in a Blue Dress. Old school: The Babysitter’s Club series, The Box Car Children, Encyclopedia Brown, Whispers From the Dark (Joan L Nixon, yo from that H-town!) Judy Blume anything. Where the Wild Things Are.

What’s your advice to aspiring writers? Write poorly. Write absolute crap. That’s how you get to the good stuff. Read and write. That’s all you have to do.