Interview of Sarah Rafael García
|Sarah Rafael Garcia|
Xánath Caraza (XC): Who is Sarah Rafael García?
Sarah Rafael García (SRG): Listed in order of preference:
Mentor, always first because if I’m not role modeling then what legacy will I leave as a human being?
Artivist second, because I don’t see how I can be an artist without being an activist.
Author, always last because the title is not a priority, it is really just based on perspective. Some days I’m an author other days I’m just a person writing in order to heal myself, and I can only hope it helps others too.
XC: As a child, who first introduced you to reading? Who guided you through your first readings?
SRG: My parents, they both contributed to my love for books. My father gifted books for my birthdays and Christmas; he inscribed them himself. My mother used the library as her nanny, we were dropped off to read books while she ran errands. Both parents encouraged us to carry books on trips and participate in the annual summer reading contests at the local library. Books taught me about a world outside of my life, they also helped me escape my world when I needed to as a kid or teen.
XC: How did you first become an artivist/writer/mentor? Where were your first poems written?
SRG: In 2004, I ran away from Corporate America and the “American Dream” to live in Beijing as an English teacher and write my first book for 18 months. At the time, I was stressed and disillusioned about many expectations in my life—becoming financially successful, getting married, having children and supporting my sisters and mother. I began writing 1988 after my father passed away, but never shared my work with anyone outside of my immediate family. I was waiting to retire (with tons a money) and spend beach vacations writing my childhood stories. Yeah I know, not realistic, but since I didn’t grow up with any mentors or support to be a writer that’s all I could imagine for myself, since I had to have a “real” career.
After having published a childhood memoir, Las Niñas, in 2008, I had a negative experience with a publisher but positive reviews from readers and writers like me—Mexican-Americans, Chicanas, Tejanas, and first-generation college students. This motivated me to find a way pass on my inspiration to youth. I founded Barrio Writers in 2009; guiding youth through the creative writing process has changed me personally and as a writer in many ways. It forced me to do what I was most scared of doing but yet I encouraged youth to do it every summer. There was a time when I was inviting youth to attend and participate in local open mics, then one of them turned to me and asked why I hadn’t presented my own work. So I had to role model, I began to write spoken word poems just to be able to get behind the mic with my youth. Honestly Barrio Writers made me a better writer and human being. The experience teaches me to confront my fears of not being accepted by the mainstream writing industry and my counterparts—male, white writers. It reminds me each year to challenge the notions of what is literary in white America. I still catch myself revising for workshop, doubting my use of Spanish when I get rejected and judging where to submit based on the ethnicity or gender of the editor. But slowly, I’m beginning to decolonize my writing. I no longer feel I need to italicize my Spanish, justify my history or pander to white readers. It made more diligent and proud of the various parts of my identity. Soy Xicana, I am womyn, el español es parte de mi cultura and my writing is too.
XC: What is a day of creative writing like for you?
SRG: I need routine and my own space. So, I have one designated area to write. I also need a window. I need to be able to glance away and see something I may have forgotten was there. After a few hours of writing, the real world just looks so magical, everything has meaning, old things become new and inspiring again. I tend to block of 4 hours of time to write. But when I can’t ride I at least read. I don’t allow myself to go a day without one of the practices. Even if it means I write an impromptu poem I share instantly or simply read for 10 minutes.
XC: When do you know when a text is ready to be read?
SRG: I’m super impatient, so I read or submit before I should most of the time. Then I go back and edit again. Through the years I’ve been less critical of myself and can share my work easily, but sometimes I don’t need anyone to read it to be content with the finished version. It just depends on whether I’m focusing on style or a personal narrative. I don’t need approval on stories I’m emotionally invested in, but I can always improve my style. As a mentor, I’ve learned I need to challenge other writers like I challenge myself. If I don’t challenge them, they won’t be ready to move on from rejection when they face it elsewhere, and then possibly find themselves hesitant to share their work in the future.
XC: Could you describe your activities as author and mentor?
SRG: All my work starts with some sort of collaboration—my writing, Barrio Writers, LibroMobile and SanTana’s Fairy Tales are all collaborative works. I started writing by journaling, with the occasional poem sneaking onto the page. Then I moved on to writing memories, which led me to deconstruct my identity as a first-generation college student, Chicana and woman of color—who never married nor has children. But, of course, that came after I completed a degree in Sociology. After my first book was published in 2008, I recognized I needed to learn more and wanted to offer more to my community. In 2009, I founded Barrio Writers. By leading writing workshops for youth, I broadened my writing interests as well as my style. I began to use more code-switching, experimental format as well as spoken word. Then in 2012, Barrio Writers led me to seek a M.F.A in Creative Writing. I had not written fiction until I submitted a writing sample for M.F.A. applications. Now, I write a lot of hybrid stories—a cross between fiction and non-fiction, contemporary narratives of women and my community. I select a gender role imposed on women or cultural community issue and find a way to tell a story through fiction—sometimes it’s like an ethnographic description, other times it transforms into a parallel world through the lens of magical realism.
XC: Could you comment on your life as a cultural activist?
SRG: I’m a first-generation born in the U.S.A. Mexican-American/Chicana. Culture is vital to my writing, not only because I find myself battling to keep Spanish as my own language in and out of the workshop experience but also in future publications and part of my personal identity. I choose to fight to create visibility for my culture in all aspects of my life, my goal is to offer counter-narratives to negative stereotypes, media headlines and hold folks accountable when they do not include my culture or writers of color. It isn’t just about the lack of diversity or establishing equity; it’s about cultivating acceptance for all cultures, genders and races. I have addressed these issues through writing and community building, from confronting my MFA experience to book festivals and other types of literary spaces to establishing positive safe spaces for writers of color and youth. If our youth don’t see themselves as role-models on the page, how will they develop into role-models and mentors off the page?
XC: What project/s are you working on at the moment that you would like to share?
SRG: Oh! I have too many, something I don’t advise at all for any artist. But let’s just concentrate on sharing my writing projects today—I focus on contemporary female narratives, which include identity, gender and cultural themes. Currently, I am seeking to publish a travel memoir that shares my adventures as a Xicana crossing, literal and figurative, borders. Along with this, I also wrote a collection of feminist short stories as my MFA thesis. The short stories are inspired by news headlines or a quote that typecast female narratives. I use magical realism and play with point of view to deconstruct the role and stereotypes of women in our society.
As part of my artist in residence, I’m working on a special project from March 2016-2017. SanTana’s Fairy Tales is an oral history, storytelling project, which integrates community-based narratives to create contemporary fairy tales and fables that represent the history and stories of Mexican/Mexican-American residents of Santa Ana (inspired by the Grimms’ Fairy Tales).
The forthcoming exhibit at Grand Central Art Center in Santa Ana, California will present a multi-media installation, curated in collaboration with local visual, musical, and performance artists. The exhibit will showcase bilingual, single-story zines, a fully illustrated published book, an ebook, a large format classical book, graphic art by Sol Art Radio‘s Carla Zarate, an “open book” performance, along with composed music by Viento Callejero‘s Gloria Estrada, who is supported by local singer/songwriter Ruby Castellanos and members of the Pacific Symphony. The entire collection will be translated by poet Julieta Corpus and published by Raspa Press. The ebook will be produced by Digitus Indie Publishers.
SanTana’s Fairy Tales is supported in part by The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, through a grant supporting the Artist-in-Residence initiative at Grand Central Art Center. The exhibit is scheduled for March 2017, with a live performance on April 1, 2017.
Through Santana’s Fairy Tales, I hope to give back to the community, which instilled culture, pride and perseverance in my daily life as an artist. I returned to Santa Ana not as a writer, but as a storyteller/artivist who invokes real stories from real community members in order to offer a counter-narrative for the stereotypes and media headlines that feature Mexicans/Mexican-Americans from Santa Ana, California. By using multi-media, I want to initiate a literary discussion and preserve local culture through revitalization in the form of art versus the recent change Santa Ana faces through the influx of gentrification.
XC: What advice do you have for other writers/poets?
SRG: As writers who have to challenge stereotypes daily, I advise youth (as well as new older writers of color) to be their own mentors and rise above the microaggressions and dismissals from any part of society that seems to be an obstacle to reaching life goals—as so many have done before them. I tell all writers to push through, to write in any shape or form they desire, to adapt critical-thinking in daily life, to share their culture whether it be based on race or just your love for a particular type of music, to speak assertively, “Your voice is your weapon!” Don’t just be the bigger person, role model to those younger and older than you. I also remind all writers to find their support in their community. And if they can’t find it, then create it—begin your own community to empower others like you.
Sarah Rafael García is a writer, community educator and traveler. Since publishing Las Niñas, she founded Barrio Writers and LibroMobile. Her writing has appeared in LATINO Magazine, Contrapuntos III, Outrage: A Protest Anthology For Injustice in a Post 9/11 World, La Tolteca Zine, The Acentos Review, among others. Sarah Rafael is currently a Macondo Fellow, the Editor for the annual Barrio Writers anthology and Co-editor of pariahs writing from outside the margins anthology.
Most recently, Sarah Rafael’s essay “My MFA Experience” was published in As/Us Journal Issue 6 and she was awarded for Santana’s Fairy Tales, which is supported in part by The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, through a grant supporting the Artist-in-Residence initiative at Grand Central Art Center in Santa Ana, California