Interview of Angela Cervantes
By Xánath Caraza
Angela Cervantes is an award-winning author whose debut book, Gaby, Lost and Found, was named Best Youth Chapter book by the International Latino Book Awards and a Bank Street College of Education’s Best Books of 2014. Angela’s second middle grade novel, Allie, First At Last, was released by Scholastic in Spring 2016 and received a starred-review from Kirkus and a International Latino Book Award nomination. She writes from her home in Kansas and is presently working on her third middle grade novel.
Xánath Caraza (XC): As a child, who first introduced you to reading? Who guided you through your first readings?
Angela Cervantes (AC): My parents guided me into reading. My mom read wonderful fairytales and fantasy books like The Hobbit and The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe to my siblings and I when we were children. Then as we grew up, we’d all read the same books. We were our own little sci-fi book club. My father, although I don’t specifically remember him reading to us, he brought home wonderful books to us. He’d have books about the Aztecs, Mayans and pile of books about famous Chicano/a activists and artists for us. My dad and mom understood the importance of reading and giving us lots of books during the summer, but they especially strived to find books for us that reflected our Mexican American heritage.
XC: How did you first become a poet/writer/novelist?
AC: I was probably around 8 or 9 when I started writing short stories and poems. My sister, Rio, and I used to make up silly limericks and see who could make the other one laugh the hardest. I didn’t see my first story published until I was in my 20’s when the local newspaper Kansas City Star published my short essay, Blond Abuela. It was about my grandma’s dyed blond hair. Later, my essay “Pork Chop Sandwich” was published in the Chicken Soup for the Latino Soul anthology. It’s a story about how my father’s “chicanismo” influenced me. The impact of seeing my work published was simply validation. At that point in my life, I had co-founded a Chicana poetry group in Kansas City and I was struggling with my own voice and the stories I wanted to tell. Having my work published by both of these sources confirmed that there was a route for my writing to take if I had the courage to see it through.
XC: Do you have any favorite poems/paragraphs by other authors? Or stanzas?
AC: There are a couple of verses and lines that have stayed with me all my life. When I was in high school, I read Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. I identified with Jane’s poverty and fiery spirit. There’s this line where Jane says, “I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will.”
After I read it, I wrote this quote down in my notebook as a daily affirmation to get me through high school. When I write characters like Gaby or Allie it’s natural for me to write them as strong personalities who despite external and internal struggles fight for their independence and happiness.
In addition, to Charlotte Bronte, there are several pieces I love from Cherríe Moraga, but there’s this particular line from her essay “La Güera” in the anthology, “This Bridge Called My Back,” which really woke me up when I was in college.
“…what is my responsibility to my roots-both white and brown, Spanish-speaking and English? I am a woman with a foot in both worlds; and I refuse the split.”
I love the idea of refusing to split her identity for the comfort of others. Having “a foot in both worlds” is powerful to me.
XC: What is a day of creative writing like for you?
AC: I write in a small room behind the kitchen in my house. It’s near food and it’s always toasty warm. It also has a nice window that I spend hours gazing out. Sometimes if I sit there and nothing is working for me, I will go outside for a walk, listen to some music, watch the clouds outside. I’ll do this until the voices come to me again. I write every day for about 5 to 6 hours. If the words are really churning, then I can sit there and write all day and night before I get restless.
XC: What project/s are you working on at the moment that you would like to share?
AC: Presently, I’m working on my third middle grade novel and conducting several school visits. School visits are one of the best parts of being an kid lit author.
XC: What’s at your writing desk?
AC: I have four photos on my desk and a piece of Lenca pottery that holds my collection of pens. The photos are of four different people that inspire me. Emiliano Zapata reminds me of my roots--where I come from and what’s worth fighting for. A photo of the artist Frida Kahlo reminds me to remain committed because she gave herself completely to her work. Langston Hughes because he was honest in his writing and Kurt Vonnegut because when it gets hard or too serious, he makes me sit back and laugh at the crap I’m writing. Finally, I have a piece of Lenca pottery that I brought home from Honduras. It’s beautiful and it reminds me to finish my work and not be lazy with my work.
XC: What advice do you have for other writers?
AC: Write the way you want to write. Don’t worry about other people’s writing process and what works for them. Find the method that allows you to create and write without your stomach aching and stick to that.