Name: Raina Juanita León
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.