Sunday, August 23, 2015

Bomba: How Lilliam Rivera Busted Into the Literary World

Olga García Echeverría

I met Lilliam Rivera in a magical place, at Ghost Ranch in The Land of Enchantment, beneath blue cielos pregnant with plush clouds, where the spirit of Georgia O'Keeffe floated softly in the hot humid air, her color palettes and desertscapes alive and breathing all around us.

Ghost Ranch in The Land of Enchantment
Lilliam and I were both fellows at AROHO's 2013 Writing Retreat and we were surrounded not only by rocky wonders, dusty caminos, and burros that bite, but also by bomb-ass women writers from around the country.

Burros That Bite at Ghost Ranch

That was two years ago, and since then Lilliam has been busy getting her writing thing on in Los Angeles and beyond. Lilliam Rivera is proof that bomba Latina writers "no nacen, se hacen." They roll up their mangas, write their hearts out, and work like hell to burst into a literary mundo that is still (unfortunately) predominately male and white. But gatekeepers aren't keeping this Puertorriqueña out.
Originally from the Bronx, New York, Lilliam is a 2015 Clarion graduate and a 2013 PEN Center USA Emerging Voices Fellow. Her work has appeared in Tin House, Los Angeles Times, Bellevue Literary Review, Tahoma Literary Review, Los Angeles Review of Books, Latina, among others. Her young adult novel, My Shelf Life, is represented by Eddie Schneider of JABberwocky Literary Agency. Once a month she hosts the Los Angeles-based radio show Literary Soundtrack on Radio Sombra. Most recently she won a Pushcart Prize for her story “Death Defiant Bomba or What To Wear When Your Boo Gets Cancer“ which was originally published in Bellevue Literary Review.

This past month, I had the opportunity to ask Lilliam about her creative work and how she's been dropping literary bombas here and there, making her writing dreams come true. Like a true trooper, Lilliam did this interview with me via email during her fifth week of a six-week writing workshop for science fiction and fantasy writers, Clarion. She was reading and critiquing about 17 stories each week and still made time for La Bloga, so mil gracias Lilliam! We are so happy to have you join us.  

Bomb Latina Writer: Lilliam Rivera

When did you first start writing and why?

I knew I wanted to be a writer all my life. After graduating from college, I won a scholarship internship to work at Rolling Stone magazine and have been writing professionally since 1996 with my first editorial job at Latina magazine. I started writing fiction about eight years ago.

Was there a particular inspiration for delving into fiction?

This may sound dumb but 2008 was a significant year. That dumb vampire film Twilight was released as was Junot Diaz’s novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. I knew in my heart that I could write a better vampire story with a Latina protagonist and when Oscar Wao came out, I felt I owed it to myself to actually try. I wrote a pretty silly vampire novel, which is now hiding somewhere in a closet, but that was the beginning.

You have been actively participating in the literary arts for some time and in a variety of ways, from journalism to radio to fiction writing (for adults and YA). How do all of these distinct genres feed into each other for you?

To me, everything that I write is an extension of the themes I want to explore. Whether it’s radio or twitter, I am celebrating and advocating for writers and people doing creative work, especially people of color. When I love something (a short story, a novel, a piece of art) I want to share it with everyone.

Do you find yourself writing about particular themes across genres?

I am exploring themes (family, immigration, addiction) that are universal but seen through the eyes of the Latino experience. For novels, I tend to gravitate to young adult because I know I can capture that voice. With short stories, I write more literary stories but honestly I hate all those boxes. Literary, young adult, or Latino science fiction. I love all of it. I’m never torn because there is always something new to write about. There’s no difference to me because it’s all a body work.

You were a 2013 PEN Center USA Emerging Voices Fellow and also previously the program coordinator of the Emerging Voices Fellowship. Can you share a little about your experiences as a fellow and as a coordinator of the program?

I heard about the Emerging Voices Fellowship from the author and writing instructor Al Watt. The literary fellowship lasts for eight-months and you are paired with a professional author who becomes your mentor. You also receive a UCLA writing class, Master writing class, voice workshop, and hosted evenings with authors, editors, and agents. It was intense but the work I put in, with the guidance of my mentor Cecil Castellucci, led me to compete my young adult novel and from that I found an agent.

I did work as a program coordinator for PEN Center USA close to two years and it was great being on the other side of the coin. Programming the Author Evenings was fun and I enjoyed helping new writers navigate the beginning of their writing journey. I also believe that whatever blessings you get, you have to give back.

You have a YA novel, My Shelf Life, that you completed and are currently working on publishing. Can you give us a synopsis?

It’s a contemporary young adult novel centered around Margo, a sheltered, self-involved Latina who is forced to work at her father’s failing supermarket in the South Bronx for the summer. The story is about family and addiction and the lies we all tell ourselves to fit in.

Can you share a little about the process of finding a literary agent and what it has meant for you?

When My Shelf Life was as ready as I could possibly get it, I started looking for agents. I hit up the authors I knew who had agents and asked their opinions and referrals. Surprisingly, I received an agent offer and in that same week, my short story “Death Defiant Bomba” was published in Bellevue Literary Review after receiving Honorable Mention in their yearly contest. Because of that, two agents reached out to me interested in representing me. This is after months of rejections and almost giving up on the novel. Who knows what is in store for My Shelf Life but it really is about continuing with the work.

Eddie Schneider of JaBberwocky Literary Agency is currently representing My Shelf Life. He’s sending the manuscript to publishing houses and I’m basically trying hard not to worry about it.

Finding a publisher, that's a whole other animal post the creation process, verdad?

It’s a waiting game and there are rejections The writing process is all about that. You create something, maybe spend years working on it, and then you want to share it with other people. You submit it and wait. Rejection. Submit it again. Rewrite. Submit it again. That’s what it feels like.

What else are you working on ahorita?

The goal this year is to finish a draft of my next young adult novel tentatively titled Dealing in Sueños. That novel is set in a secondary world where girl gangs rule the streets. Think Mad Max: Fury Road but with Latinas.

How do you maintain the ganas, momentum, and vision to keep your literary projects moving forward?

Ganas! I don’t know if I got that, I’m just crazy. I think I’m just determined to write. I’ve been saying this a lot in the past couple of weeks: I’m in it to win it. It’s probably just false bravado but I’m driven. I also surround myself with writers who feel the same way (Kima Jones, Jean Ho, Elizabeth Ross, Hilary Hattenbach…). They are navigating this journey with me.

Do you have a favorite time to write?

Will any free time do? I have a three year old and a ten year old so time is precious. But I live by the rule of dedicating two hours a day to writing, everyday. Those two hours can include writing something new or rewriting. It can be a short story or a novel. I don’t care. Sit down and write for two hours.

What are a couple of your writing essentials?

A light enough laptop that I can carry with me everywhere. I also carry a small notebook and pen with me at all times to jot down ideas.

Residencies and writing retreats? How important have these been to you in your writing career?

Well, for starters, I got to meet you at A Room of Her Own Retreat for Woman Writers!

That's true! We are AROHO sisters para siempre. That was a wonderful experience.

That was my first experience attending a retreat. I love being able to dedicate time and to be surrounded with different artists doing their thing. I’m always applying to grants and residencies. I received a substantial grant from the Elizabeth George Foundation. I also received a Leonard Pung Scholarship to attend Clarion. It’s important for a writer to toss your name out there because for the most part we are creating without seeing any money. As a mother of two, I don’t have the leisure of being able to afford a writing class. I have to figure out ways of supporting myself. It definitely takes time to fill out the extensive applications and essays but it’s worth it.

Radio Sombra is another creative project you are participating in. Can you tell us a little about your work on the radio?

Once a month I get to host a radio show called Literary Soundtrack on Radio Sombra. Radio Sombra is a community-run station based out of East Los Angeles in a galler/story space called Espacio 1839. One of the co-founders, Elisa Garcia is a fixture in the community. She ran Imix Bookstore for a long time and is a long advocate for literature. She asked me to join and I’ve been with them for a year. Literary Soundtrack features authors of color, their inspiration for their latest novel. Past guests have been Mat Johnson, Laila Lalami, Chris Abani, Willie Perdomo, and Ana Castillo, to name a few. It’s my chance to speak to writers that I respect and also champion debut authors that everyone should be talking about. You can tune in at

You just won a Pushcart Prize for you prose piece, “Death Defiant Bomba or What To Wear When Your Boo Gets Cancer.” Muchas felicidades! How are you feeling about this honor?

Thank you! I haven’t really had the time to process winning a Pushcart Prize because it just happened and I’ve been writing science fiction and magical realism short stories in this six-week workshop. I didn’t have time to let it sink in but It’s awesome.

I’m really happy that the piece was nominated. It’s another sign that I’m on the right path. But it also means I still got to sit down in front of that blank screen and write something new.

We are excited to be able to share an excerpt with our Bloga readers, but before we do, what inspired "Death Defiant Bomba"?

It’s a personal story told in second-person that tries to capture the many times I’ve had to go to the hospital to advocate for my husband (he’s had cancer and was born with a heart defect with two heart surgeries). It was painful to write and a little scary but usually that’s probably where you find the good stuff.

I wrote the story at the start of writing short stories and I needed a structure so I used bomba, which is a traditional song and dance performance from Puerto Rico. My brother Hector performs in Los Angeles with a group called Atabey and helped me understand it. The story was meant to be a submission for this contest in Bellevue Literary Review. (Contests are great ways to force you to follow a deadline.)
Lilliam, thank you so much for your time, your insights, and for the inspiration. Adelante, and we look forward to your upcoming novel!

Portrait of a Red Lamp as Prelude to a Red Excerpt

Excerpt from "Death Defiant Bomba or What to Wear When Your Boo Gets Cancer"
     If the doctor’s appointment is early, at 9 a.m., pull out the red sheath dress, the one that you bought on sale at Nordstrom with the famous but unpronounceable designer label. The red will wake the receptionist up like a motherfucker and cause her to send you hate for daring to outshine her that morning. The receptionist will think you’re tacky, loud, too much. In the bloodshot color, the doctor will notice that you wore the equivalent of a flag and think you’re stately and in charge. You’ll wear red, definitely red.
     If the doctor’s appointment is later, say at 3 p.m., then the only color you should wear is …red. Late in the afternoon the receptionist has not had time to eat the Snickers bar hidden in the drawer right next to some Orbit chewing gum, flavor piña colada, and the small box of “just-in-case” feminine napkins. The receptionist will be hungry and crabby from arguing with the old man with Alzheimer’s who keeps forgetting that his appointment is not today but was last week. She can’t curse at the old man but she’s on the verge. When she sees the red dress, she’ll think how presumptuous you are for wearing it like a drag queen, like a telenovela star, like a Nuestra Belleza Latina of the Month. But she’ll remember you and that’s all that matters.
     You’ll wear five-inch black pumps because they make that annoying noise that alerts everyone everywhere in the whole wide world that you’re arriving. What you really want to wear are your red high-top Nikes, the ones that makes you feel like you’re rolling back in the day with your crew of girls. You want to wear them with your baggy track jacket and a sports bra, tummy baring, all defiant. With your hair pulled up in a tight-ass ponytail and large gold hoop earrings dangling from your ears. This is what you wore when you first saw him, when he was playing handball, smacking that spaldeen like he owned it, like it was his bitch. Toma. If only you could reach for that outfit in your closet like an old friend, but no, you can’t go back. You will wear your red, expensive-looking sheath dress and black pumps. You’ll tuck in your nameplate necklace underneath the dress so that you can have some sort of protection.
     Your makeup will be subtle because you’re not going to El Coyote with your girlfriends to toast someone’s bullshit promotion, engagement, divorce, wedding. No, your makeup will be almost drab except for the lips. The lips are going to be making a lot of moves and there’s no question they have to be painted. At first, you’ll make the rookie mistake of going for lip gloss like some fourteen-year-old Lolita trying to lure some papi in the corner. No. That won’t do for today. Instead, you’ll grab the orange-red lipstick. So what if it clashes with your red dress. You don’t care. This is war. You’re going to double up on the red.
To read Lilliam Rivera's entire piece:


Anonymous said...

Gracias, Olga. It's great to hear about another rising, literary star. Will watch for her new book. - RudyG

Olga Garcia Echeverria said...

Thanks for your comment, Rudy. I think Lilliam's definitely a writer to keep an eye on!