Thursday, May 29, 2008

Demetria Martínez: Walking the Walk


La Bloga readers were encouraged to buy and be moved by Demetria's phenomenal book, Confessions of A Berlitz Tape Chicana. The reasons why are here. Social activist, journalist, esayist and port, we were lucky to catch up with her recently, and this is our conversation.....

Your life is very much bound up in social action. How would you describe to role of the writer,
of the poet as it relates to the body politic?

Poets are citizens first, lucky enough to be literate, and therefore part of a global elite. That brings with it a special responsibility, and that is to help bring forth voices that are silenced. Our gift--the imagination-- allows us, if we choose, to write out of a place of empathy for those who are suffer--often as a result of our nation's own policies (NAFTA for example) and those of massive corporations.

We are also compelled to imagine a world that is healed, made whole. What would that look like? I think the poet Martin Espada is a good model of poet as prophet--denouncing evil, and proclaiming a new vision. Personally, I draw great energy from my work on behalf of women immigrants, great energy from activists who carry on despite it all. And so they appear in my work--I'm writing a collection of short stories about three women activists living in Albuquerque. We need to draw close to such visionaries--the activists, the community organizers--or our work can grow stale.

Obviously what happened to me 20 years ago solidified my commitment to immigrant issues: I was charged with conspiracy to transport Salvadoran refugees into the U.S.--and faced a possible 25 years in prison. In fact, I was accompanying church workers who were transporting refugees as part of the Sanctuary Movement---I did this as a reporter. I was acquitted on First Amendment grounds. The whole affair gave me the opportunity to speak around the country--not only about reporters' rights, but about the U.S. subsidizing of El Salvador's death squads. So a blessing emerged from the pain and fear.

Speaking of body...Your work also seems to return to female presence. Who are sources of inspiration for you? How do you feel being a woman informs your work.

Grace Paley, the great short story writer who passed away last year, is my role model. She wrote about the every day lives of women. And she was an activist. Some writers teach one how to write. But, if you're lucky, you will encounter that person who teaches you not only how to write but how to live. Grace was one of those people.

In 'Confessions' you're very opposed to the 'romance' people people associate with mental illness, especially your own bipolar issue. Can you talk about that external projection of others, about your own response to it.

It's important to tell the brutal truth about bipolar disorder. Manic states very quickly turn into irritability, anger, paranoia and worse. The great American novel that you started to write on a napkin at a coffee house is illegible; when you regain your wits, you're lucky if you can remember what the great idea was all about. Harmony and balance make production possible--and for the long haul. The only side effect I've had from my medicine is mental health. It feels great to be alive, to write, to be involved in the world.

How do you feel your own spirituality today is reconciled with the Catholicism of your youth?

I center myself every day,, sometimes several times a day, with prayer, something as simple as a Hail Mary. And I recently attending a novena, a praying of the rosary, that my parish held for peace and disarmament. It's important as a writer and an activist to learn to cultivate silence. Catholicism gives me the tools for that. Obviously I disagree with many of the church doctrines (women priests, gay rights, etc). But that will change.

What 's been on your plate recently in terms of your writing?

I've finished my first children's book, co-authored with a friend, Rosalee Montoya-Read. What a joy it was to collaborate! Writing is so solitary. And I continue work on a collection of short stories, the working title of which is What Saves Us.

Where would you like to see yourself ten years from now?

I'd like to become a terrific gardener (I've just started my first one recently). I'd like to learn more about traditional remedios. And soup, I love making soup but there is much room for improvement. Somewhere in there I'd like to write a novella, and a book of poetry in Spanish.

Tell us something not in the official bio.

I missed my calling as a doctor. My poor friends are always getting diagnosed (even if they feel fine) and offered unsolicited advice on how to improve their health. Chile cures colds and flu. In Boston once, I couldn't get any chile and I felt a cold coming on. So I ordered a bowl of clam chowder, a large side of Jalapenos and tabasco sauce. I mixed it all together and I was well in twelve hours.

Lisa Alvarado

No comments: