Time Traveling for a Treat of Representation: An Interview with Anel I. Flores
Jun 24 ● BY Linda R. Vázquez
In this interview conducted by Linda R. Vázquez, writer Anel I. Flores discusses the philosophical aspects of living in spaces in which people are limited to operate only through the concreteness of labels. The interview questions were influenced by Vázquez’s own coming of age as a queer Chicana writer, and inspired by Flores’s deliverance of an empirical vision transcending the seemingly mundane aspects of Mexican Americans. Flores’s semi-autographical coming of age novel, centering on a young Chicana lesbian, deals with such topics as straying from parental expectations and discovering religion’s callous hand in human desires.
Anel I. Flores is a writer, a visual artist, an educator, and an activist, as well as a recipient of the Mentorship and Leadership Initiative Award from the National Performance Network. Empanada: A Lesbian Story en Probaditas is her first novel, and she is currently working on her second, Tiempo Olvidado. Flores, a native Texan, is a member of Sandra Cisneros’ Macondo Writer’s Workshop.
Linda R. Vázquez: To get it out the way, I’m going to start by asking the questions that my editors expect and probably want me to ask. You’re a minority within a minority within a minority: Mexican American, queer, and a writer. Do you feel that belonging to different marginalized identities is at the top of the list of the things that influence or shape your writing? That because they are so tied to your reality, they’re organically reflected on the page during your process? This is something that a lot of privileged writers/artists have trouble understanding —“Why make art political?” they frequently ask. Or do you usually have an idea, before you sit down to write, about what you think you want your readers to experience, because there is such a lack of representation of these groups in the literary world? In other words, do you feel that your desire to write your first novel, Empanada: A Lesbian Story en Probaditas, emerged out of wanting to give this urgent representation and space to young queer Latinxs like yourself, or was it less of an intentional project for you?
Anel I. Flores: When I started writing, I wrote because it was a safe place for me to exist as an LGBT woman—a questioning [person] thinking about gender and how I lived in my body. That was just the beginning; but after that, going to grad school and continuing to be a writer really just evolved into knowing that there weren’t and still aren’t any books on the shelf—there are no LGBT books, queer books, there still aren’t books by queer women of color. There aren’t stories or tales that tell our experiences, in comparison with mainstream literature and mainstream books that are available for easy consumption or that are accessible. We don’t have that kind of writing. I definitely still write from a place of urgency. I do know I have the privilege of having been able to go to grad school, having an education, having a supportive LGBT community, and I write with that support system in mind. I create with a support system around me that gives me the strength to be a writer, and I definitely write the stories that I know. Saying that, “I chose to write politically” isn’t truly where I’m coming from or what I’m doing, but the act of me writing these stories as a queer, brown, gender non-binary person—just the act of me writing it, the act of me publishing it, the act of me disseminating it into the community for free or at low cost or sharing those stories in general—is political. My existence is political, because it goes against what the conservative right wants for the country, people, and community. Just the pure act of being a queer person and a Chicana author who loves expressing herself through her body and expressing herself through her body is a political act. Putting down these words —because I know that literature is timeless, it spreads—creates history; definitely I’m writing politically. I don’t sit down and think, “Let me write something political;” I sit down and think, “What is the story that needs to be told? What do I need to tell, something that I know about my own queer body? What can I put on the page so that somebody else can have the access and then the understanding of this story?” And it might not be a Chicanx who reads it, or a queer person who reads it, or a POC, but it might be a person who is able to gather understanding [through reading the story] about being a person from these groups. It gives people a sense of the world, and the agency to exist.
Vázquez: In young queer culture, I’ve noticed that a lot of my peers are very uncomfortable with the term “lesbian.” It’s not a label I hear much anymore, though I hear female identifying folx use “gay” with ease, or “queer.” My parents, funnily enough, are tortilleros (and have been for fifty years!). The poor translation that they would disapprove of being: a tortilla manufacturer. The one they would prefer: a culinary artist of delicious flat, round, soft disks found at any of our DFW locations! Growing up I used the term “tortillera” to label myself in its actual literal meaning, and when I found out its slang meaning, “lesbian,” I was rushed with a wave of joy at the irony, and now I sometimes use it (comically) to refer to my orientation as well. From reading Empanada, I realized that not everybody experiences these terms positively. Paloma, your protagonist, actually has this term used against her by people in her neighborhood. One of my anxieties is the impact that “identity politics” (and I absolutely hate that term) labels have on my work. I’ve heard some of my friends say things like, “I won’t label myself until cisgender and hetero white people do the same thing.” When we talk about these things, there are anxieties from these writers that publishers can be predatory in the way that they seek these marginalized works and writers, and in the way that it can have the potential to give a reader a reason to purchase or pass by a book. You use the label “lesbiana” throughout the novel— is there a particular reason you gravitated toward this term and decided to leave it in Spanish? Do you feel comfortable with labels in the context of the publishing world?
Flores: I’ve been told time and time again for the last twenty years that I shouldn’t use labels, that I should just be a writer, that by just saying “my work is a novel by an author” that I’m giving my work access to more shelves, and I think that’s a complete myth. It’s a white way of thinking. I know I have very vivid memories of me going to library and looking in the catalog and looking for the word “lesbian,” or “transgender,” “gay,” “queer,” or “butch.” I never found that information in those libraries or bookstores. When I finally did find it, it was half a shelf for what was labeled “Latino Literature,” and it was half a space. With LGBT books the section was just as small. Those books were always kept as self-help books, “how can we heal” kind of titles. And even today, while I can google these particular books, I still have to buy them on Amazon, and I don’t want that. I want to go to the library and have that tangible experience. I want to read about my life, about lesbians in the world, what we’ve done. This is why I use those labels. I really could care less about what the publishing houses think. I will always use the words “butch” and “lesbiana.” I’m not ready to get rid of these terms. I felt strength in those identities when I found them. It’s similar to being able to say, “I’m Jewish, I’m Salvadoreña.” It’s things to be proud of: I am a lesbiana, I am a Chicana, I am a butch, I can be all of these things. Maybe tomorrow I won’t be that, but I love the terms. Even if I publish a book and didn’t use labels, because of homophobia, people will still assume the book is about me. With Empanada, people are always asking me if it’s autobiographical. They assume that because there’s a queer character, and I’m queer, it must be about me. I say, “No! I’m a writer! That’s the homophobia!” People assume a queer writer can only write about their own life. If a cisgender straight person writes a book and there’s a queer character in it, nobody ever asks that cis white person those things. Nobody assumes those things. I’m not doing this for anyone but those in my community who wants to find themselves.
Vázquez: Moving onto the more fun stuff. Empanada is written in prose poetry, and it’s divided into three sections: “Food,” “Religion,” and “Sex.” How did you make these complex, beautiful, and non-traditional stylistic choices? Was this the structure you had in mind from the beginning? For example, the section “Religion” opens and ends with prose poems about the way Paloma observes her mother move through the world of religion and the things that usually come with this, especially the rigid expectations and the guilt that comes with deviating from them. In terms of structuring the section, did you write the shorter sections and then organize them within the three larger sections, or did you have the three large sections tell you how smaller sections needed to be written?
Flores: Empanada was just an amazing process for me that took many years. After writing the full collection, which was initially a lot more pages than what you see in it, I started to organize it. I put all these different pages on the wall. I found that that helped me come up with different ideas in terms or order, structure, bigger picture questions; would I structure it chronologically, flashback, flash-forward? I started to think, “Okay, what is the purpose of this book? Why did I write this book? How can I make the structure truly reflect the experiences of Paloma?” I realized that Paloma really was experiencing and trying to live through these three things. How food and its consumption controlled her body and her sensuality, how it spoke to her as a lesbian. She ate food to silence herself, and she ate food to also awaken passions and to relate to her family as well; I saw how huge it was for her, in terms of how she expressed herself. Religion was telling of how she experienced emotions. It was connected to how she felt guilt, loss—this fear of being punished and a feeling of being erased. This is a major thing for a lot of LGBT folks. Seriously, Paloma is human! She’s full of desire, so of course sex is another component to how she experiences the world and expresses her desires as a woman. Those three themes felt like the most powerful ones in her life. By separating them, I wasn’t only separating the actual text; I was also highlighting the three different parts of who Paloma is and how she shapes her lesbian identity based on her interactions with family and food and desire and faith, and how these things are going to live in her body as a lesbiana. I organized this at the end; I did not know I would be doing it this way at the beginning, I just wrote and wrote, and toward the end it came together.
Vázquez: In the beginning, there are a lot of coming of age motifs. But toward the last section, “Sex,” the work evolves into this very postmodern-ly self-aware world that explores incredibly adult things. When you started working on Empanada, what audience did you envision as your “ideal reader?”
Flores: When I started Empanada, I envisioned my ideal reader as being a young person searching for their body and their sensuality. I imagined my reader to be questioning what was happening in their body—why certain types of kisses felt electric, why certain types of food awoke their spirit, why certain types of religious practices made them feel guilty. I wanted the reader to explore these things and heal through them. I didn’t have an age group in mind. I mean, I was reading de Beauvoir at sixteen. I don’t feel like young people shouldn’t have accessibility to certain “incredibly adult or sexy” things. These are parts of their lives. I’ve signed copies [of Empanada] for middle-schoolers. In fact, I’ve had parents buy the book after they’ve read it and given it to their high-schoolers. Kids are looking for their identities, and sex is real! It’s going to happen for almost everybody. I didn’t think it was “incredibly adult;” it was incredibly real. Everybody feels sensuality; everybody feels desire, so my audience is anyone of all ages. I had a ninety-year-old straight woman approach me after a reading and tell me, “I don’t know if I want to have sex or eat after that.”
Vázquez: Being a writer is a strange profession. There’s a lot of uncertainty that comes with it, and usually people who don’t come from privileged backgrounds struggle to accept this uncertainty (whether it be financial uncertainty, or the uncertainty of whether your work/art is doing what you want it to be doing). What is your relationship with your writing process like now, and what advice would you give to other writers from marginalized communities, especially when it comes to dealing with “impostor syndrome?”
Flores: Find a mentor. Find one who has experienced a lot of the things you’ve experienced. And also find a mentor who has come from a place of privilege, right? You want to see both sides. You need mentors around you that have your back and can also discuss strategies on how to write, how to make money with that writing. There are ways to talk to an editor about how to get advances or get paid. I put a lot of effort into it. Impostor syndrome is the enemy! Oh my god, it’s what they want us to feel. They want us to think we’re imposters so that it slows down our success and silences our voices. A lot of the time I have to talk to myself and remind myself, “Get that out of your head! That’s not true.” I have to remember what I have accomplished. And sometimes, you know, I write down all the things I’ve done. I revisit my CV or my bio and remind myself, “Hey I’ve worked my ass off.” Working with imposter syndrome isn’t easy; it’s definitely a process and it doesn’t go away—it hasn’t for me, at least. That voice is part of me. I have many different parts of me; there’s the part, the side of me, that is an impostor, and there’s also confident me who is a confident writer. For me, it’s being able to develop a relationship with all the parts of me. I don’t let the impostor part take front and center; I keep it way in the back, but every now and then when she tries to creep up, the confident me looks and says, “Hey, you need to step back.” I have to cultivate relationships with myself and these parts of me, and my memory, my lineage, my history, they’re certainly parts of my personality that get triggered. Again, it’s about having a relationship with that trigger and being able to walk away from it. It’s important that we have self-compassion and confidence, and that we show our communities our strength that our stories need to be told in order for us to survive and continue to thrive. Our stories have a lot to teach us. They make us stronger.