by Thomas Leal
“Being a poet is like being a window. With colors, pieces of light and shadow flowing through it from both sides. It is ever-changing, collecting reflections of light and space. I cannot afford to be a fragile window.”
– Natalia Treviño
It began in Mexico City for Natalia Treviño. She moved to San Antonio at age four and has lived here ever since. At fifteen-years-old, she became a naturalized U. S. Citizen, and then eight years later she graduated from The University of Texas at San Antonio with a Masters of Arts in English. Treviño, a mother herself, takes after her own mother who has influenced her to be a great writer and proud Mexican woman. Her mother told her to chase her dreams, and Natalia did that. To thank her mother, she has dedicated her writing career to her.
Her poetry collection Lavando La Dirty Laundry (2014) received positive reviews from writers such as Sandra Cisneros, who states, “It is a book that is a remove from other Texas writers in its capacity to encompass the globe, as Chicana poetry should in the new millennium. I feel very privileged to be allowed to give this book its blessing.”
Treviño is not only just a poet, but also a non-fiction writer and fiction writer. Her non-fiction works include her essay’s “The Naturalization” as well as “And Crown Our Good.” Her mesmerizing fiction excerpt Two Blessings allows the reader to get a strong sense of the people, nature, and beauty of Mexico due to it’s colorful imagery. “Two Blessings” can be found on the Platte Valley Review and in her upcoming novel Drinking the Bee Water. Treviño has been the recipient of numerous awards that include 2004 Wendy Barker Creative Writing Award and the 2012 Artists Foundation of San Antonio Literary Prize, just to name a few. Now Treviño has the great opportunity to share her knowledge of writing as an assistant professor of English at Northwest Vista College.
Much of her work deals with the obstacles of a young Mexican child adapting to society, at the same time appreciating the rich culture she holds dear to her heart. I had the pleasure of interviewing Treviño via email to get her thoughts on her writing, culture, and what inspires her.
Thomas Leal: It is clear that your mother plays a huge part in your work. Is there anything special she might have told you as a child that stuck with you till this day?
Natalia Treviño: I am so glad it is clear that my mother plays a huge part in my work. In fact, my next book of poetry is fueled by my feelings for my mother and a recognition of what she has taught me. She not only plays a huge role in my work, but she also plays a huge role in my life. I have yet to write all I want to about her, and while it is a daunting and amazing task for any writer to put into words all of the complex emotions and stories about our parents, I know that she is a very deep and rich nutrient-filled well from which I will draw for my entire life as a writer and as a woman, and so I am delighted to begin here with you, with this question to talk a little about her influence on me.
My mother is an extremely disciplined person, who does not give in to wavering emotional indulgences, like me. She grew up in Mexico, the daughter of a mechanic and a stay-at-home mom, who was practically a professional baker. My mom was also the second eldest of five children, the only girl. She did not continue school after she completed eighth grade because her father did not see the point. She always told me she was not good at school anyway, hurling insults at her own intelligence frequently. Her four brothers, who all went to college to become either engineers or accountants, needed their clothes mended and ironed and their food prepared, and in the fifties in Mexico, of course, a girl’s great accomplishment would be to become a homemaker.
As I grew up, my mom did something extraordinary. She did not allow me to do chores. She kept me away from the kitchen. She kept me away from knives, from learning how to use the washing machine. She told me that school would be the only way I would not “end up like her.” She kept me from gaining those domestic skills because she simply did not want to see her daughter doing them as she did. It was a simple plan, but it did not work.
As a mom, I am in charge of our home and can get easily lost in a really great kitchen re-organization project. When I was in high school, I told her how this amazing writer won a Pulitzer Prize, and she literally said, “Well, you can do that too.” I was fifteen. Mom was always impressed with my grades, interested in my classes, and really believed I could do anything. She loved that I did well in school. She still thinks I can reach the highest levels. It is so amazing to think that she has no doubts in me.
Now that I am a mother and I realize the impact of her on me, I have to return her gifts by giving them to my son who wants to be a musical artist. I have to tell him, “you can do this,” even though the cautious parent in me wants to say, “please be an accountant!” And rather than keep him out of the kitchen, I have required him to make us meals and have his fair share of domestic chores. I don’t want him to feel daunted by the prospect of cooking a meal from scratch or using a large cleaning appliance.
TL: Which one of your pieces is your favorite? Which one was your favorite to write?
NT: I have heard many authors say that their current project is their favorite, and I cannot agree more. Because the creative process requires a kind of full body, spirit, and mind immersion, it is hard to separate from the current immersion and favor a past project with a romantic lens. I have never considered a favorite, but I can say this. Each of the works I have done, my essays, my poems, and my stories all have been hard for me and painful too. This is because I want to dig well into my consciousness, and the little black squiggly lines that appear on the page only seem to do the job. I can barely do anything right on my own, and often need help to see a final draft through. And so it is hard to say “that was a favorite” when I remember getting battered up with it. I guess it is like birth, and if you were to ask a mom, which birthing experience, or child is your favorite, well, first, a mom might say, “go ahead and kill me before you take any one of them away from me, the children, the miscarriages, or the births.” I think she would feel immediately defensive by considering that one has the role of favorite in her life. I only have one child, and so I am imagining this. And so I think it would be impossible to see one child or book as a favorite, but I could perhaps say one was easier than the other, cried less, hurt less, but by no means does that mean it can be a favorite.
When something is a part of you, it is hard to choose a favorite, like I cannot choose a favorite limb if you asked me to. I like them all! I earned what I write with a lot of work, re-work, and what I have sometimes called plastic surgery, removing the words that do the least amount of work, and accentuating the ones that do the most. What a mean boss I am. I cut and slice pieces off all of the time, like hair or nails that need to go. I will say that my poem, “Graft Draft” is one I keep choosing to read at performances and readings. This is because I can see people are moved by it, and I do want to move the heart with my readings and my work. It is accessible. It hurts to feel the contents of that poem again, but it seems to make people connect. I hope this is not a non-answer.
TL: How do you get started with writing a story? Also, how do you get inspired for it?
NT: I have to start with silence, with listening to total silence, which is almost impossible to hear because I lead a busy and frenetic life, and the words in my head are always quite loud. But at least I can hear them better when there is little to no noise in my writing space, so I need to be deliberate in my life in order to write. I also need to be alone. I cannot do this in a coffee shop. I wish I could.
I am not sure when I will begin my next fiction or non-fiction project, but here is how it will likely go. I will have set time aside to be alone to write, a whole afternoon, day or weekend. I will start journaling, letting my inner voice come out with all of its anxieties, concerns, and hopes. I let go of design, genre, or goal, but, unless I am working to a prompt or an earlier experience with powerful wonder, I will just let the “inner cat” wander around, examine, stop, run, and this cat will find something interesting, and that will stop me. And then a new page will begin. Berta’s story, for example, stopped me for years! Thankfully, I took some breaks to do some poetry and non-fiction while working on her story because it was so overwhelming.
When I “stop,” what I mean is that I will feel a swirl of wonder go through my whole nervous system. It is not in my feet or legs, but like an electric shimmer in my belly, spine, and mind, and then I know I can trust it, follow it, not guide it. It is really important to me to let go of control in an early stage of writing and to allow all icky things I would normally censor out appear in full scale without fear or shame, terribly bad handwriting notwithstanding.
It is not hard for me to be inspired because of my spirituality, which keeps growing exponentially as I get older! I have learned that reason for awe exists in all moments, even in the moment when I discovered that I have macular degeneration, which leads to inevitable blindness. I have so much to learn from that diagnosis, so much to do before it takes me.
Inspiration is like its root word, inspire, to breathe, and so it is pervasive in my life, hard to control even. My husband keeps telling me there are only twenty four hours in a day because I keep pushing at all hours of the day and night to do just one more thing. To me inspiration is as sacred as breath. I cannot tell you how or why I breathe, but I can tell that I am breathing, and it is the same knowing when there is inspiration. I can tell when I am inspired, and that it comes from another place, and that it wants to kick me into action and broadcast a message clearly.
TL: One of my favorites from your work is “Two Blessings” because the imagery is done really well. When you write a new piece, do you focus on the imagery the most or does it just come naturally?
NT: I am so thrilled you like that piece from my forthcoming novel, Drinking the Bee Water. And thank you for the kind words. Tweaking language so that it forms imagery is not easy on the first or second try, especially if you want it to be done succinctly, or made to mirror natural thought in prose. Keeping the novel moving and not stopping to look at the significance of each leaf or strand of hair was not, and is not easy, precisely because I am enthralled by poetry and the chance to write poetry. But that can make a novel dense and inaccessible. I do not want that. This story is too important to me to wear an audience out with too much dense language.
The images in that chapter are taken from a magically stunning and beautiful village in Mexico. Thankfully, it is similar to many villages I have loved visiting on many bus and road trips in Mexico. When I wrote that scene, I had to go to my memories and record, record everything strange and wonderful that I remember smelling, tasting, hearing and seeing. Then I had to cut. It is as if I had been asked to describe an amazing painting by Chagall. It exists in full translucent color as a wealth of texture, beauty, and layering. It is an ensemble of extraordinary movement; it evokes sound and all of the struggle of the human soul. How can any writing about it be bereft of those very images that the painting depicted or suggested? I want more people to see the beauty in that painting, and I want them to understand it as a context for the human spirit that lives and breathes in such a place
TL: How much did it mean to you to have writers like Sandra Cisneros praise your work?
NT: Apart from being a great privilege, having such praise is a huge responsibility. I have to deliver. When Sandra called me in 2004 to tell me I won the Alfredo Cisneros de Moral Award for Emerging Writers, I was shocked by her words, as if a bolt of electricity I did not expect rammed through my whole body. I actually had a miscarriage just days later. It could have been from the shock, and it could have been from something else, but the two events, side by side, really sealed my fate. My son was six at the time. I never had another child. I decided that books had to become his siblings and my future children.
Having Sandra’s support has been an enormous gift in my life, and the only way I can cope with the impossible logic of this gift is to do it justice. The only way I know to do that is to share her wisdom and generosity with others. I share what I have learned from her with my community college students, with my readers, and with any potential mentee who may come around. I share it with my writer friends. I do this because if I have had this access to such beauty, wisdom, and clarity of thought, then anyone who has access to me should receive it too. This is also true of my great fortune to have the wisdom and friendship of Carmen Tafolla, Wendy Barker, and Levi Romero who are such important writers and who have helped shape me. Recently, I won an award judged by Luis Alberto Urrea. I almost let that go to my head because he is my writing hero.
But by sharing what I have learned from these writers, I can offer their light to others. When I benefit, others need to as well, or I will feel slimy. When Sandra agreed to blurb my books of poems, I was truly surprised because I absolutely know how incredibly taxed she is as a writer of her stature and as a creative and terribly generous person. I already have received so much from her through Macondo. I was ready for a “no, would love to, cannot at this time, best wishes” sort of reply, but when I learned she said yes, I was amazed, and when I saw what she wrote, I wept.
She believes writers must help one another, and she wants us to do the same for others! Her mission through her organizations is driven by a deep well of gratitude she feels and she has shown me that generosity is the medicine for pain. This is a major message to carry into the world. I want to be worthy of it.
TL: What kind of advice would you give for young writers who are uncomfortable embracing their culture in their writing?
NT: That is a major emotional and intellectual hurdle for young writers who often feel that their culture is not valued, valuable, or interesting, and even worse, a little embarrassing, and who in reality feel invisible in an anglicized culture. I tell my students what Sandra Cisneros told me, “What is taboo to you is writer’s gold,” and so not only do we need to embrace it, but we need to learn everything we can about it. Your readers will connect to one thing in your writing, your vulnerability, and not just your jumping plot or pretty sentences. What we feel is taboo is usually what makes us feel vulnerable. And so it is to be embraced. It is “writer’s gold” because it is the liminal space in which a reader and a writer connect emotionally and intellectually.
Young writers in every culture are the new branches full of leaves that cover the great living tree that is their heritage, and it is our human gift to have the ability to be a branch with a consciousness —and with a neck, so we can turn around not only see, but appreciate the tree from which we came. Sometimes it is a scrawny and diseased tree, but that is our human condition. We are screwed up and ever hopeful, yet we must try to survive on this limb. Because this tree goes back through many untold and fascinating stories about the human spirit, it is nothing less than an honor to have the ability to give voice to those stories.
Also, I have seen students from many cultures become transformed when they read a work by an author from their culture in my college classes. Suddenly, their world is part of the “sanctioned” academic texts they are examining and, tacitly, being required to value. Their worlds become more valid and real when they encounter voices like their own. When this happens in an environment which normally erases them, it is magical. When they witness intimate facets of their language and their world on the page, they experience a rush of feeling, much like I did when I first encountered Pat Mora’s poetry in her book, Chants. It was a feeling of great recognition, a feeling of being welcomed home.
I want young writers to welcome young readers home because the words, details, and values from our cultures offer them floatation devices in a sea of invisibility, self-denial, shame, and gives them something to hold, to provide hope, and to connect them to their ancestors, their parents, and their pasts.
These literary life-savers will solve the racial divide in our country because they fill the human spirit with a sense of value, which is a great need in us all, and which has been erased when they only study one culture and ethnicity.
Born in Mexico City and raised in San Antonio, Texas, Natalia Treviño was raised in Spanish by her parents while Bert and Ernie gave her English lessons on the side. Treviño is an Associate Professor of English at Northwest Vista College and a member of the Macondo Foundation, a writer’s workshop aimed at encouraging non-violent social change. She graduated from UTSA’s graduate English and The University of Nebraska’s MFA in Creative Writing programs. Her poetry has won the Alfredo Moral de Cisneros Award for Emerging Writers from Sandra Cisneros, the Wendy Barker Creative Writing Award, the 2008 Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Prize, and the San Antonio Artists Foundation Literary Award. Natalia’s fiction has appeared in Curbstone Press’s Mirrors Beneath the Earth and The Platte Valley Review. Nonfiction essays are included in the Wising Up Anthologies, Shifting Balance Sheets: Women’s Stories of Naturalized Citizens and Complex Allegiances: Constellations of Immigration. She is currently finishing her novel, La Cruzada. Often working the community programs to increase young adult literacy, she has taught classes at women’s and children’s shelters as well as teen detention centers. Having experienced a bi-national and bicultural life, she hopes to raise understanding between people divided by arbitrary borders. She lives with her husband, Stewart and son, Stuart just outside of San Antonio, Texas.