Mirna Palacio Ornelas interviews published Latina poet, novelist and essayist
I found her on Twitter. Erika L. Sánchez and her work fell into my life and assuaged fears I’d had a hard time voicing. In her first poetry collection, Lessons on Expulsion, which is set to be published in July of 2017 by Graywolf Press, Sánchez takes on many complex, yet integral aspects of life as a Latina. The lyrical and musical shape of her pieces neatly envelop the sometimes insidious, often forcing us to lead sexual and emotional baggage that our cultures instill in us dead in the eye. We are also given room to grow and define ourselves thanks to the uncompromising and unapologetic nature of this collection. It doesn’t fully care what you think of it, and it won’t give up the space it so unabashedly occupies. Sánchez’ work presents and complicates issues that we have hushed about for far too long with intricate spellcasting. Her words, while more comforting, whirl you into a shimmering sense of security that eventually disintegrates to leave you holding hands with reality.
First of all, this cover. It’s stunning. How did this marriage happen?
I really loved the painting and as soon as I saw it I knew it had to be the cover of my book. A few years ago, I edited an edition of Ostrich Review, and the artwork we used for that was by Judithe Hernandez, this artist that painted that piece called “The Purification.” We had a number of the paintings on the website and I just really loved her work. I loved that she was Chicana, and I really wanted to have a female artist on my book.
It came together really neatly, didn’t it?
Yeah, and I really love the gaze of the woman in the painting. I think it’s very striking. There’s a lot of power in it. I also really like the antlers and the deer—there is a deer figure in the book itself, and it was something I really wanted to highlight because I think they are very beautiful creatures.
One of the really striking things that really caught me was that her white mask was stitched on, and there are tears at the top.
Yeah, I feel like that has multiple meanings as far as the idea of whiteness to cloak someone’s identity, or just people assimilating. I mean, those are kind of simplistic conclusions, but I like that it’s torn, that it looks a little bloody. And I like the way that she looks at the viewer. That defiance.
This is a little further out there, but you mentioned Edgar Allen Poe in one of your previous interviews, which I find really interesting because every other Latina that I have encountered in the English academic world—for the most part, all of our first literary loves were Edgar Allen Poe.
Really? That’s fascinating!
I thought that was a really interesting thread between all of us, so my question is, what do you think it is about Edgar Allen Poe that draws us?
That’s really fucking cool. Wow. Well for me, I think it was the musicality. I thought it was really fun to read out loud. I also really enjoyed theme of solitude, because I was a pretty solitary kid. The idea of divination and loneliness. Despair, unfortunately [chuckling]. I really connected to it at that time. There’s something very haunting about his lyricism to me. [pause and chuckles] I don’t really have any other good reasons.
It’s really interesting because we are also Chicanas, and maybe there’s something there.
I never thought about it. Well, I never even knew that other Chicanas loved his work, so that’s really interesting to me now. Now that I know that I will think about why. It’s really cool.
Back to the book, Lessons on Expulsion. How did this collection come about? I see that it was over a pretty long period of time.
Yeah, I knew that it would be. The earliest poem, I wrote it when I was 21. I was in college. The poem is called “To You on My Birthday”—it’s a love poem. That was the beginning of it. It went through many, many iterations. I went to grad school, and I had a thesis. Some of the poems ended up in the book, but [“To You on My Birthday”] transformed so much. It was called “Contraband,” and then it was called “Views.” I took a bunch of poems from throughout the years. It’s been a lot of painstaking work to put together, so it’s funny that someone can read it in one sitting but it took me a decade to complete it.
Why does the collection end on “Six Months after Contemplating Suicide”?
That’s a great question! I thought about this a lot. I forgot which poem it ended with originally, but for me that poem is really hopeful. And I think I wanted to leave the reader with a sense of hope that, you know, things can get better. There is light in the darkness. That’s why I chose that one. This piece is very important to me in many ways. A friend told me that one of her students carries it with her at all times. That’s amazing, that’s beautiful. That means a lot. Ultimately, it was because I wanted to end with hope.
There were a few things that really stood out to me as I was reading this collection and one of them is your uncompromising look at sex.
Oh, yes! [chuckles]
I don’t necessarily mean that you won’t shut up about it, but rather you say it without ever being ashamed of it in any of your pieces. And not in a single one did I feel ashamed of my sexuality as a woman.
I will say that that took a lifetime of work and therapy and writing and contemplation and mistakes. [laughs] it took a long time for me to talk about it in such a frank way. I think we’re conditioned to believe it’s something sinful and dirty, and I think a lot of us were raised that way—thinking of sex as cochinadas, something that is immoral. And I refuse to accept that. I won’t accept that because it’s the most natural thing in the world. So, something that’s so incredibly important and natural and innate—why do we attach so much stigma to it? And why are we not allowed to ENJOY the act. Why are we not seen as active participants? I’ve been writing a lot about this, about how women are conditioned, especially in our culture, to see sex as an act to be endured—something that men want that we just put up with. Why does that have to be? You know, that’s not the reality of it. I mean, this is ridiculous to me. And I think sex is a very powerful act. In many ways, it can be an act of communion with another person. It can be a spiritual experience, it can be transcendent—if it’s good [chuckles]. I mean, because sometimes it’s not! But I really think it’s important to be able to speak honestly about desire, especially female desire.
I totally agree, and this ties with one of the poems: “Hija de la Chingada.”
Oh yeah! [chuckles]
Holy cow, that took me back to some things.
Oh really? Good! Well. Sorry! [laughs]
No, no. Like I said, it’s so nice to identify with a piece of literature.
In this poem, we have five parts. This poem goes against everything you’ve just said, right? You want to see sex as empowerment, you refuse to see it as anything else because then that falls into what’s been imposed on us. But here in “Hija de la Chingada,” you’re putting on display everything that we’ve had to go through, and I say “we” as women, as Latinas very specifically because of this poem.
Yeah. That poem was pretty painful to write, as you can imagine. For me, it didn’t just take from my own experience. I actually, some of the images were from things that I heard from other Latinas. Things that they experienced growing up. I feel like that’s just something that we share, unfortunately, all too often—that sense of shame, being told that, you know, we are not entitled to pleasure in many ways, not necessarily directly, but our culture teaching us that we are either virgins or whores. And that’s truly unfair. I mean, what if we don’t want to be either one. I think that’s really damaging to young girls, and that’s part of the reason that I wrote it. I was working through my own residual shame as an adult, and that poem was at a really important point in my life where I was just really, I think, able to see my life in another way and defy that idea.
And at the end of the piece, it’s empowered, but it still has that hesitance.
Yeah! Yeah, so even when you’re an empowered woman, like I feel very liberated and feminist in so many different ways, there’s still traces of that shit that don’t quite go away. That’s something that, for me, is an ongoing process. I wanted to be honest about what that looks like. I didn’t want to say, “And then everything was fine. I love sex [laughs] because I’m a feminist.” That’s not really accurate. You can be a feminist and still feel fucked up about certain things and the complicated feelings about sex and desire.
And that directly leads to another piece: “Orchid.” You’re showing all these different faces of the same thing, which is honestly astonishing because you’re going about in such a different way. In this piece, we get more of that sexuality with the sex workers, but never are they really objectified. Never are they lesser beings for their job.
Yeah! That was important for me. I don’t judge sex work. I mean, it’s a job. People do what they need to do to survive. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of stigma attached to sex work in our culture, and that’s something that I think is really unfortunate. Women, again, are seen for something that men also participate in, which to me is ridiculous. But the reason I write so much about sex work is because I grew up in a neighborhood where there were sex workers on my corner. There’s a motel, and a lot of women who sold sex—they would just stand in front of the motel and men would pick them up. I saw this all as a child, and I didn’t understand. I just knew something strange was happening, I didn’t know what. Now as an adult, I look back on it and I wonder about those women. What did they have to go through? Who were they? What lead them to this place in their lives? Because it was not glamorous work, that’s for sure. I mean, they were on the street and they looked, often, abused. And so I just think a lot about that. And I know that there are some sex workers that choose to work in that field and it’s a very empowered choice, and that’s great, but these are not the women I grew up seeing. So, I wanted to, not necessarily honor that experience, but portray it in a way that was genuine and compassionate.
That ending, the “splintered.” Holy shit.
Right, it’s a dangerous job. It’s pretty brutal, if you’re the kind of sex worker who doesn’t have a space of your won or when men control these women like pimps, that’s a really horrific experience a lot of the time, so it’s a very complex issue. There are many forms of sex work. When I was in Amsterdam and I saw those sex workers there, I was like “Oh, wow.” I mean, they looked glamorous! They have a union, and they have healthcare, and all these other things that is very different from the women that I saw growing up.
I promise we’ll stop talking about sex here in a second.
It’s really interesting considering the public talks and forums you do about sexuality, so it all makes a lot of sense. It’s very cohesive with you as a person, at least from what I can see, but it’s also doing a lot of work that still needs to be done. For us, and for women in general, and for kids who aren’t getting the sex education that they necessarily need.
Right. No, sex education is pretty pathetic, unfortunately.
Alright, so this last sexy one.
“Lessons on Expulsion,” the titular poem. One of the things that really stood out, and it shows up through other pieces in this collection, is that there’s a lot of, not comparison nor equating, but connecting of food and consumption and ingestion, to sex and the body.
Well you know, I never really thought about that [laughs]. It’s interesting that you saw that. “Lessons on Expulsion,” that was born from my fascination with different forms of abortion throughout history. I, as a feminist, I am very concerned about reproductive justice and rights, and being in control of our own bodies—I think that’s really important. I went down this rabbit hole of research about the ways in which women used to terminate pregnancies throughout the world and history. That’s what it was born from, but I never consciously made the connection between consumption of food and the consumption that is sex. That’s really fascinating. I’m going to have to think about that! [laughs]
It also appears in your first “Self Portrait” poem, because there is more than one. The question about the food specifically is, do you think that might also be a cultural thing? Because we, as Latinas, are very about food for the most part. Not necessarily constantly eating, but it’s pretty important to our lives, I would say.
Yeah! I mean, it was for me growing up. It was a sense of comfort. We were poor, but we were always well-fed. It was very important in my family as a source of nourishment. I guess for me, I think perhaps subconsciously what I was doing was trying to show the interconnectedness of things. Ultimately, our bodies are temporary, like food is temporary—we’re going to end up like dirt in the ground, you know? I like to be conscious of that. I think it’s important. I think it’s all connected. Also, I love food and I think about it all the time and it seems like it’s manifested like that. I think I’m going to try to keep seeing my work in that light. Maybe it’s showing that I have an unhealthy obsession with food, but I think about it ALL THE TIME. It just makes sense.
I also want to talk about “Amá”. And this is partially because this is the first time I see this word used in this kind of media, which goes back to the representation I was so excitedly mentioned when we started, but it’s also because this is one of the pieces that highlights this connection we, as Latinas, have with our mothers.
I think we often have very complicated relationships with our mothers, from what I can gather from all the Latinas that I know. When I was growing up and I would watch TV and there were shows about mothers and daughters that were essentially friends, I was like, “What the fuck is this?”
I didn’t know that people—is that how people interact with their moms? That was not my experience at all. For me, my relationship with my mother was pretty fraught with all sorts of things. She was very old-school Mexican, grew up in the middle of nowhere and had a very different idea of the world. That’s something that I could not understand at the time. When I was young, I was very rebellious and Americanized. I lacked compassion for my mother, I will say that. And she didn’t understand me, so we just kind of butted heads. I think my novel is mostly about that, mother-daughter relationships and the troubles that we experience. That poem, I wrote that one in college. That’s one of the poems that is—it has been revised. Again, I think we often have very complex feelings towards our mothers, like there is a sense of guilt a lot of the time. I still feel guilty that my life is so much easier than hers, in the way that I determine—I do what I want. My mom never had those choices, and it’s kind of incredible at the same time. I feel guilty, but at the same time it’s amazing that she’s sacrificed so much and I’ve been able to reap the benefits of that. For a long time, she didn’t understand me, but now she’s really proud and very happy about my career and who I am. But it took a lot of work and many years of conflict, I think part of the reason I wanted to write that poem was as a way to honor mothers, because even when we are overwhelmed by all the different conflict that we experience with our mothers, like in terms of being part of a different generation, a different culture, there’s a gratitude that we have for the sacrifices that they made for us to have the opportunities that they never got to have.
I totally agree with all of that, especially now that I’m going through Gilmore Girls.
Oh my god, I wrote an essay about that!
I know! How are they friends? How do they talk about their feelings? That’s weird. [laughs]
One last poem: “Juarez.”
Ah, yes. I wrote that when I was in grad school, and being in the desert, kind of stirred up a lot of images and feelings for me. I had been following that news story for a long time, the women being murdered. It’s something that I care very deeply about. There are people that are doing amazing work to try to figure out how to protect women, but in general the world doesn’t care. It’s not something that is really discussed in mainstream media and that was something that really bothered me. Like, what do we have to look like in order to matter? If these women were blonde with blue eyes, wouldn’t there be international outcries? I’d imagine. But because these women are poor and brown, no one gives a shit. It’s really exasperating to me. It was a combination of things. As a woman, I think a lot about violence on the female body and where it comes from. It just haunts me. It’s something that perpetually haunts me.
There’s also something about the desensitizing of the culture. They see it every day.
Right. I think that’s part of survival also, to disconnect in some ways. We are bombarded with images of violence and death constantly. There comes a point where you have to just disengage for you to just be able to able to watch. Unfortunately, that’s probably part of what’s happening.
Well, women, we’re going to have to do something. We will survive.
Yes, we will. We always do.