Glossary of a Latina Writer in the USA
(Para leer esta historia en español, haz clic aquí.)
An obscene hue had spread across the Iowa City sky. A deep, howling blue. It quickly gained shapes and shades that I had never seen before, not even in pictures or films. From Java House, I messaged my sisters on WhatsApp. It was my first tornado alert and I supposed it was one of those things that you tell your family just in case—although I didn’t want to think about what “just in case” could be. Everyone around me kept drinking their lattes and matcha green tea, most of them absorbed by their laptops and cellphones. A few of them were chatting. The piercing sound of the alarm outside didn’t seem to bother them. As if a tornado was just another academic prerequisite or a picturesque moment in the life of a student in the Midwest.
The storm never manifested itself. I never knew if it changed paths or if it vanished or if there was ever any real danger. The retweeted images of a disturbing sky were the only proof that I had not made up this moment, one that I supposed would be filed in the archive of failed disaster predictions. Just a brief scare one week into having begun my first semester of the MFA in Spanish Creative Writing at the University of Iowa. An August afternoon in which I could not yet imagine the turbulence that lay ahead.
My writing journey, beyond informal workshops or blogging, began to take shape in a small Southern nook —in a “city” of 30,000 inhabitants in EastTennessee. Part of the cultural regions of Appalachia and the Bible Belt, Morristown has a complicated relationship with its Latino population. It depends on them to work in their factories and to handle physically demanding farm work. A place that has as many Mexican restaurants as Baptist churches, yet in any of its parks, one sees a city divided in two. As if there were a law separating the population into two groups according to skin color and prohibiting any type of interaction beyond the mundane. It reminds me of the premise of the novel The City and the City by the British author China Miéville, in which two communities with different languages, ethnic backgrounds, and customs are forced to coexist in the same geographic space, as if “the others” did not exist.
From this absurd and fantastical place (believe me, it could give Macondo a run for its money), on a porch that offered me a countryside view of trees and hills, squirrels running along power lines, dreamy late afternoons, stories and characters that had been drowned out for years by the noise of big cities burst out.
While working on a manuscript that would become my first book of short stories, I became interested in publishing texts in US-based literary journals. Suddenly, I realized that there weren’t enough options for those of us living in the land of Uncle Sam who wrote in Spanish. I also found that of the few available options, the majority were academic journals and almost always preferred the work of established Latin American authors—many of them based in Latin America. Here is where I came across one of the big questions that would guide me going forward: where were all the opportunities for us Spanish-language writers that lived in the US?
I didn’t wait for someone else to explain this to me. I got to work and started learning about the particulars of the world of Spanish-language literature in the United States. Through my research, I found that almost all of the calls-for-pitches were aimed at emerging writers of Mexican, Central American, and Caribbean descent. My Facebook friends grew to include writers and editors from these communities—the reason being clear: a question of numbers. But beyond that, I figured out that there were other writers like me, South American transplants scattered across the US that also demanded a space for their literary expression.
Even though I had never seen Field of Dreams, I was familiar with the film’s most famous line: “If you build it, they will come.” In that spirit, the idea to create a call-for-submissions for an anthology of work by South American writers living in the United States came to be. It was either that or continue waiting for someone else to do it and patience has never been one of my virtues. So without knowing much about the world of Spanish-language publishing in this country, I decided to throw a message with the call-for-submissions into the uncertain waters of Facebook and Twitter. I held my breath with every click as if it were a shot in the dark: a distant star sending signals, hoping to make contact.
I built it and they came. Two editions of the anthology Del Sur al Norte were published and in 2018, it won a prize at the International Latino Book Awards. Throughout the call-for-submissions and putting together the book, I was able to connect with South American writers scattered across several states that also had publications supporting the work of emerging authors who live in the US and write in Spanish. Such as Surburbano and Nagari, a pair of online magazines based in Miami; ViceVersa in New York, and El Beisman in Chicago. Over the years, I have worked with each of these publications, especially ViceVersa, which has published my writing on several occasions under a section called “Crónicas Urbanas.”
Similar to the writing I once considered ‘crónicas personales’—the term ‘nonfiction’ is relatively new in the Latin American context—I landed in a world that offered new possibilities for my writing: creative nonfiction and the personal essay. The majority of writing in this genre, at least the writing I had been exposed to, was written in English. Maybe that’s why my first personal essay was published in my second language. I wrote that story as if confronting a pool of freezing water, one part of me at a time Afraid to submerge myself completely.
One route led to the mythic land of MFAs in creative writing. It sounded great: an academic program where they taught you how to write. However, as soon as I started to do research, things got more complicated. In order to stand out among hundreds of applicants, it was recommended to have followed a certain trajectory: work published in literary magazines or anthologies, printed works. That is, everything I had in Spanish that I didn’t have in English. Moreover, there was the subject of writing samples, supposedly the most important requirement for the MFA application. It was clear that the voice and style of my writing were more defined and forceful in my native tongue. Lastly, the letters of recommendation. The writers and editors who could help me with this requirement weren’t familiar with my writing in English.
Only three U.S. universities offered MFAs in creative writing in Spanish: New York University, the University of Iowa, and the University of Texas-El Paso (this last program is bilingual). All far from Tennessee. Two years into marriage—having settled in a place that finally felt like my own after wandering between Guayaquil, Boca Raton, Madrid, and Quito throughout my 20s—spending long periods without my husband, having to learn the pace of a new place, and returning to the stressful life of a graduate student, seemed more than overwhelming.
There was also a fundamental question bouncing around in my head: if you had to be a writer to apply for a writing program, what was the point of getting an MFA? I held on to that apparent contradiction for a couple of years and that’s how I was able to put off the idea of applying. But as I started to gain more experience and publications, I arrived at the conclusion that if my intention was to devote myself to being a writer in this country, eventually it would require a degree to validate my experience and ability. In other words, I didn’t need the MFA to be a writer. I needed it to be able to access opportunities and experiences that would allow my career to advance. Such as grants, conferences, and the right credentials to offer my own writing workshops.
Of the three MFA programs in Spanish, I preferred the one at the University of Iowa. NYU was never an option. First, because of the exorbitant cost of the city and secondly, because I knew that the soul of my writing wouldn’t find its voice in all that noise. I also thought that since a lot of writers idealize New York City—just like writers from another time did with Paris —it would be the most competitive program (months later, one of my writing contacts in Chicago told me that NYU was actually the least competitive of the three). El Paso was not an option either because of the distance with respect to Tennessee. The fact that I would have to move to Iowa for an extended amount of time was already going to be a sacrifice for my husband and me.
It’s not that I picked the MFA at Iowa by process of elimination. The above-mentioned reasons were very important, but in any case, the scales were tipped in favor of Iowa City. Designated by UNESCO as a City of Literature, it houses the legendary Writer’s Workshop—one of the most prestigious writing programs in the world. Flannery O’Connor, Sandra Cisneros, Raymond Carver, and Wallace Stenger, to name a few of the great authors who have passed through it. Furthermore, some lauded contemporary authors of Hispanic heritage have emerged from this program—such as Carmen María Machado and Justin Torres. Iowa City had the potential, therefore, to be my own version of Paris in the 1920s.
I found plenty of information on the experiences of writers who had graduated from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop . The good and the bad. With regard to the Spanish-language program, a Google search only offered the perspective of the program director , articles and interviews in which the MFA was portrayed as an advocate of the Spanish language in the United States. In one of them, for example, I read that the creation of the program was owed to the “recognition of another linguistic reality and the need to foster its creation in Spanish,” and that, in integrating into the MFA service initiatives for the local Latino communities, “the writer isn’t in an ivory tower, but part of the world.” All that sounded wonderful, the final push I needed. With the next click, I started my application.
I learned that, in the context of the US publishing industry, only Anglo-Americans have the privilege of identifying themselves as “writers”—without the need of hyphens or adjectives attached to the word. . The rest of us—those who can trace our roots to Latin America, Africa, or Asia—are denied this option and we all fall under the label of writers of color.
Through Facebook, I started to learn how writers who identify with this label organize their own writing workshops and literary events. VONA (Voices of Our Nation, co-founded by Junot Díaz) and Macondo (a project that began in Sandra Cisneros’ kitchen) are among the most well-known. From the beginning, it was difficult for me to see myself as part of this collective : beyond my aversion toward labels, I realized that I didn’t share the same background or same experiences that unite these authors. I worried about “cultural appropriation”—another term that I picked up along the way—and taking advantage of my “color” and infiltrating a community that I wasn’t sure I belonged to.
In an article for Suburbano Magazine in which they interview various Latin American authors and editors in the United States, the Argentine writer Fernando Olszanski claims that rather than a boom in Spanish-language writing in recent years, what we’re seeing now is the need to satisfy readers who demand “stories that represent them and reflect their experiences.” Olszanski, like other authors who write and publish in Chicago, categorizes Spanish-language literature in the United States as the ‘Literatura del Desarraigo.’ In Massachusetts, the Venezuelan writer and scholar Naida Saavedra has coined the term ‘New Latino Boom’ to describe this literary movement, which she defines as “the phenomenon, the growing trend of literature written and published in Spanish in the United States during the first two decades of the 21st century.” Based on what I’ve read and the presentations I’ve seen about these two terms, Literatura de Desarraigo refers to works that explore themes of immigration and assimilation to a new culture from the perspective of Latin American characters, while the New Latin Boom includes any type of subject matter, characters, or setting.
In any case, the most important thing for me about these literary trends was realizing that I could anchor my writing to a specific group and a specific context. My identity was solidifying around a sense of “Latinidad”—a Latino/a person that lives in the United States—and I stopped searching for myself in the labels of ‘Ecuadorian writer’ or ‘Latin American writer.’ In my Twitter and Instagram posts, I started using the hashtag #latinawriter.
I had taken writing courses and workshops before arriving in Iowa. In Guayaquil and remotely through Mexican writing centers. Also, some flash fiction workshops in English. I knew that the critique I received during these experiences had been “cushioned”—the main priority was to protect the fragile ego of emerging writers. So I prepared myself and embraced even the more honest and informed feedback I anticipated to receive in Iowa.
The last name Adams, acquired through marriage, resulted in my work being the first piece to receive feedback in a short-story workshop. The professor wrote to me a few weeks before starting my first semester in the MFA program to let me know that I would have to bring copies of my story to give out during the first class. I was surprised —I had assumed that during the first couple of weeks we would have assigned readings, that we would talk about the elements of writing, and most importantly, learn about the methodology of the workshops. But that wasn’t the case at all.
All they told me was that on the day of the workshop, while the rest of the class discussed my work, I wouldn’t be allowed to talk. I assumed as much. I had read about this method, which had first been popularized by the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. A writer distributes copies of their story to the rest of the group a few days before the workshop. Then everybody reads the material and writes a one-page response, in addition to marking up the manuscript with corrections and suggestions that range from basic style to deeper criticism concerning things like point of view, character development, dialogue, etc. On the day of the workshop, the author being workshopped has to stay completely silent while the rest of the workshop shares critiques and suggestions prepared in advance. Afterwards, the author has the option of asking the group questions and responding to any concerns that might arise.
You can read a lot about and even try to prepare yourself for such an intense experience. Receiving feedback is always difficult, especially when it deals with something so precious and delicate as a piece of creative writing that comes from ourselves. Nevertheless, nothing prepared me for what I went through that first time. From my silent corner, I felt a furious swarming beehive aimed at my story. The venom of their words leapt off the page as it painfully reached my seat. When they let me speak, I could barely mutter some silly response. The buzzing sensation of the workshop echoed in my ears for weeks.
I now know that it wasn’t an isolated incident. I’ve read several articles in English where they evoke similar experiences in MFA workshops. African-American writer Brandon Taylor remembers it like this: “The first time I workshopped a story at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop was a wholly violent experience, the aftershocks of which still pulse through my life.”
Something that helped me process and get over that experience was seeing it as a lesson—it taught me about things that I should anticipate and be mindful of when I have the opportunity to hold my own workshops. And although submitting my writing to be “workshopped” continues to be an intense process, it’s no longer a traumatic event.
Since then, there has only been one workshop session that affected me more than it should have, but when I left Phillips Hall (the building where the majority of MFA classes and workshops are held), on an afternoon where the winter cold was unyielding and the night sky had eclipsed Iowa City, I refused to take that negative energy with me. I crossed the street, went into one of the pubs that circle the university, and gave myself permission to feel sorry for myself for the duration of one pint of an IPA. I got up from the bar, wrapped myself in the heaviest coat I’ve ever had and let the night embrace me.
In his article “MFA vs. POC” for The New Yorker, Junot Díaz speaks out against what he considers an excessive whiteness in academic writing programs. He refers to, in a nutshell, to the lack of diversity among students and faculty, as well as the rejection and a lack of understanding of creative writing that addresses racial and cultural issues. Díaz isn’t the first to bring this conflict to light. Before applying to the MFA program, when searching through Facebook and Twitter, I found some articles in which other writers of color shared similar opinions about their own experiences in these programs. Nevertheless, it didn’t occur to me that this topic could be relevant to me. In my almost decade-long immersion in the US, I had forgotten that privilege is not something just reserved for Anglo-Americans and I assumed that in a Spanish-language MFA, I wouldn’t have to deal with those kinds of issues.
The image of the Spanish MFA program in Iowa that had been forming in my mind included a community of immigrant writers with similar goals to mine—writers who were eager to promote or support the reading and writing of Spanish in Hispanic communities around the country. The fall from grace was devastating since I found myself in a program that, in my opinion, gives priority to international writers. Yes, the writing in Spanish, but from Latin American and Peninsular contexts—with a literary gaze from and focused on those regions. The list of assigned readings proves my point: poetry and fiction from Latin American and Spanish writers written and published in their respective countries. We even read fiction and poetry in English by Anglo-American writers. But nothing from US Latino authors. Not in English, nor in Spanish.
Another source of disillusion was finding out that some of the people in my workshops were working on writing projects isolated from the current social context, most of them projects that revolved around the “I” And it’s not that I’m opposed to the “I” in writing —the personal essay is exactly that—but there’s an important difference between egocentricity and introspection. As Joan Didion put it, “If you want to write about yourself, you have to give them something.
Of course, I support the freedom of literary expression, but living in a country where there is a discourse of hate toward my mother tongue, it’s difficult not to think about the societal responsibility that we have as writers. I question, for example, that in a program where its candidates write in Spanish inside the US, there’s no encouragement towards the development of initiatives that look to make a positive impact on society. In this respect, I share the vision of essayist Scott Russell Sanders—a writer who incidentally was born in Tennessee and raised in the Midwest—who in his book Secrets of the Universe suggests: “If we are to survive, we [writers] must look outward from the charmed circle of our own words, to the stupendous theatre where our tiny, brief play goes on.”
I would like to clarify that this isn’t something exclusive to the Spanish-language program at Iowa. Sandra Cisneros, a writer who is part of the list of prestigious writers that have gone through the Writers’ Workshop, evokes a similar impression in the introduction of one of her most acclaimed works: “At Iowa, we never talked about serving others with our writing. It was all about serving ourselves.”
Despite the freezing winter, icy streets and sidewalks covered for months in dirty snow, having to walk to class at the risk of falling or catching the flu, Iowa City and I started getting along better during my second semester of the MFA program. Along with figuring out how things work at the university and where the best coffee spots were, I learned some fundamental aspects about writing programs that helped me to adjust my expectations.
First, the possibility of focusing on a writing project for two years and having dedicated readers week after week that, to some degree, provide the keys to my growth and improvement as a writer, undoubtedly represents an extraordinary opportunity. Second, a certain level of skepticism and critique when it comes to the institutionalization of artistic creation is important. Every organization is prone to make mistakes—the writing community and MFA programs are not the exception. You don’t have to keep quiet: irreverence is essential and necessary in the arts.
Third, in order to survive the workshops, it’s important not to take everything so seriously. One must learn to filter through what’s useful and what’s not, and to focus on the positive, even in the case of negative opinions. That’s what Venezuelan writer Adalber Salas Hernández, who had the experience of the Spanish-language MFA at New York University, suggests: “...not every recommendation is good, not every comment is worthwhile. Good faith isn’t always universally shared in the classroom. But even that is needed, in my opinion, in the creative process . These circumstances, generally considered negative, are essential: they teach you how to ignore bad comments, to avoid bad criticism as if dodging a bullet. The writing sharpens in this interaction.”
This glossary is organic—the learning process isn’t over—but a clearer perception and more grounded expectations should make for a less turbulent second year in the MFA. Claiming my place among a dynamic community of writers who don’t give up, who continue creating spaces—as well as an ample basement where I can stay during tornado alerts—will translate to a safer and friendlier environment, where I can keep working on two manuscripts. I also predict a more positive atmosphere in my workshops and whatever experiences lay ahead. The Iowa City sky isn’t as scary and I’m certain that the situations I will face, despite not being ideal, will be brighter than the ones I went through during my first year.
The forecast is encouraging not just for me, but also for Spanish-language writing in the United States. In September of this year, the first edition of the FILNYC took place at the Instituto Cervantes and in October, the Third Feria Latinx del Libro will be held in Chicago. These events are meant to present and promote works in Spanish that have been written and published in this country. This is confirmation that we are moving away from what many believe sparked this movement, the famous anthology Se habla español: Voces latinas en USA (Alfaguara, 2000), a work that according to scholar Javier Campos was conceived as “an imagined vision of the US by some writers who haven’t necessarily spent a long time in the United States or who have never been there.” That isn’t the case for the works that were presented at the FILNYC, or the ones that will be discussed during the book fair in Chicago. They will be joined by what I envision will be a fundamental work for the inclusion of Spanish-language writing made in the USA within the field of US Latinx Literature: a compilation of essays in which Naida Saavedra documents the history and the current state of this “Spanish-language literary phenomenon that is taking place inside the United States.”
New Latino Boom, Literatura del Desarraigo, U.S. Latinx Literature in Spanish—the perfect label doesn’t exist and finding one shouldn’t be the priority. What is important is to continue creating and sharing spaces where ideas, intersections, and critical thinking can be generated. Where dialogue is encouraged and borders are transgressed. Literature in Spanish written in the United States evolves constantly—no label can restrain it.