Sunday, August 31, 2014

The Cha Cha Files: a Chapina Interview With Maya Chinchilla!

book cover by Rio Yañez and Yolanda Lopez
Maya Chinchilla is a Central American/Guatemalan poet, performer, video artist, and educator.  She is a “bridge” the way that feminist and lesbian writer, Gloria Anzaldúa describes “bridge” in her book Borderlands/La Frontera. Anzaldúa writes: “Caminante, no hay puentes, se hace puentes al andar” ("Voyager, there are no bridges: one builds them as one walks").  In her newly released collection of poetry, The Cha Cha Files: A Chapina Poetica, each poem is a carefully crafted “bridge” the reader crosses, entering and journeying into and through a Central American/U.S. bildungsroman, a reflexive and powerful coming-of-age lyrical narrative.

La Bloga is very fortunate to have Maya with us today to talk about her work. 

Amelia Montes:  Welcome y Saludos, Maya!  First--tell us how you came to poetry.

Maya Chinchilla:  Poetry opened up my world in so many ways.  I could tell you so many stories about this, but one of the ways I first started writing poetry was as a form of poetic code in my adolescent diaries.  I think I secretly wanted someone to find them, so they would know the depths of my little kid, later teenage, angst, and heartbreak—my observations about how unjust the world, my parents, my sister, and of course, the kids at school were to me and others.  Some of those themes have shifted in attention and depth, but that need to connect is still there.  I am inspired by the musicality and play with language that poetry offers, and the push to use the space on a page, and sometimes the stage, carefully.

Maya reading: Brava Theater at "Our Mission, No Eviction" fundraiser, in
San Francisco. Photo by Jean Melesaine
My intention was to show up as a full poeta in ways I had never personally seen.  Although I identify with a whole host of writers and artists from different backgrounds, growing up, I didn’t see anything like me or know any other Guatemalan (hyphen) American queer writers telling stories like mine.  I am first and foremost writing for that little kid who played with gender and other expectations, who essentially had to fight her way out of a suffocating silence.  She is still here because of this creative work.

Also, I wanted the whole book to be a work of art that could travel beyond myself as an individual.  The cover is intentional as well; Rio Yañez and Yolanda Lopez collaborated to create the most beautiful reflection of the many parts of me, and the characters inside my head that I could have ever imagined.  If I could, I would have covered the whole inside of the book with illustrations too, but I might do that in another project. 

Amelia Montes:  As I read through your collection, I felt Gloria Anzaldúa’s work infused within your writing.  Her work in Borderlands/La Frontera is a call to all of us to arrive at la “conciencia de la mestiza”—“to be the bridge” and I feel that is exactly what you are doing here: giving us a perspective that we have not read.  You are breaking more assumptions and stereotypes of the Latina/Latino, as you say in “Baby Holds Half the Sky,” “I was born a bridge.” 

Maya Chinchilla:  Anzaldúa, along with many other women of color writers from her generation, have been important influences in my life, my work, and my teaching, and have especially pushed me to consider and reclaim the many languages we speak as well as the languages we are told not to speak.  The bridge is more than a burdensome metaphorical structure used to connect two places, but is a perspective and experience all unto itself.

As well as reading women of color writers for the first time as an undergrad, I studied poets like Martín Espada, José Antonio Burciaga, CherríeMoraga, Sandra Cisneros, Audre Lorde, June Jordan, Lorna Dee Cervantes, tatiana de la tierra, for example, and Latin American Poets like Giaconda Belli, Daisy Zamora, Otto Rene Castillo, Rubén Darío, Pablo Neruda, Roque Dalton, Claribel Alegría, Gabriela Mistral, to name a few.  Something about these poets, some I read in translation, most in both Spanish and English, split me open and gave me permission to write as a cultural translator of sorts, until I recognized the “in-between-ness hyphen life” as a unique position, as a  place of endless possibility.  

Amelia Montes:  I love how you say “in-between-ness hyphen life.”  I think you’ve just given more readers/writers permission to be more conscious of this “unique position place.”  And so you divided your collection into four sections. 

Maya Chinchilla:  Each section and poem can be read on its own, but experiencing the sections together is like reading a narrative. 

Amelia Montes:  Yes!  In Part I, “Solidarity Babies,” we arrive at a historical moment where children of 1980s Central American revolutionaries now have a voice and are using that voice to give us their perspective.

Maya Chinchilla:  One of the driving forces behind (especially) my early work was to tell stories from the perspective of a second generation Central American in the U.S., who was hungry for her own history and reflection that is not mediated by one-dimensional stereotypes.  I decided I needed to write myself in where we are often left out.  There are definitely autobiographical elements to this work that provide the grounding for these stories, but there are parts that are also about imagining oneself into being when no one is hearing or seeing you and you want to be seen. Because if you aren't taken into consideration, then someone else will be making decisions on your behalf.  It is absolutely imperative that U.S. Central Americans tell their own stories as many have already started to do.  Everyone wants to romanticize parts of our culture such as the pyramids, the revolution, the colonial cities.  They romanticize the Mayas as if they are only in the past, but many of us are hybrid beings consuming pop culture, and repurposing it with all our conflicts, contradictions, and cultural baggage. 

The picture with the group is taken in my childhood living room in Long Beach, California.  My mom is in the center back with glasses.  I am up front holding the white cat and my dad is left front.  The people in the picture are members of a  Guatemalan solidarity organization of which my parents were members.  
Amelia Montes:  In reading this last poem from Part I, “Central American-American,” the lines “am I a CENTRAL American?  Where is the center of America?” are so powerful given this particular moment in history where so many young children are fleeing Central America and now find themselves in detention centers on this side of the border. 

Maya Chinchilla:  As of late, there have been moments that I have screamed at the television or computer screen:  “We’ve been trying to tell you about this ‘crisis’ since the 80’s!  We are here because you were there.  You caused this.  You exported military and government resources and your 'gang problem' and your drug war exploited our colonial history . . .” We are all implicated in this.  We can’t just send this problem away.  Our immigration policies need to take into consideration our humanity and the ways U.S. policies have directly affected people’s ability to live peacefully. People don’t just want to come here.  They would stay where they are if that were possible.  They want to live decent and productive lives without fear of repression, violence, and hunger. 

Seeing those pictures of the young children curled up on bare mattresses placed next to each other on the floor, behind gates, and bars, in over-crowded detention centers, as if they are criminals for surviving their harrowing journeys—it tears me apart.  It’s about survival.  Pure and simple.
No one put them on trains or sent them on this journey as if what lay across multiple borders was some sort of easier lifestyle.  Some of these kids made that choice on their own.  Many of them are without parents because they have been victims of violence, or their parents made the journey to the U.S. earlier for similar reasons.  

They leave because there is no other way.  In their faces and their stories, I see my friends and family members who came to the U.S. previously; thinkers, workers, teachers, business people, family members, who are now integral to helping make this country run.  Militarizing the border, incarcerating and deporting people does nothing to solve the problem.  It does not help to reduce the amount of people searching for a better life, reduce the suffering, nor does it contribute to our collective healing.  No one is looking for a savior.  You should share our outrage and encourage stories that don’t treat Central Americans as victims, but as canaries in the mine, story-tellers with wisdom that reveal something about all our humanity. 

That particular poem, for me, was written many years ago when I was looking for a cultural movement to call my own that was specific, and didn’t just assume that I fit under some umbrella generic version of Latino-ness that erased all these tensions and concerns I felt.  It’s so strange to hear people talk about your people as if you’re a ghost or a problem to be fixed.  Ask us.  I’m sure we have lots of suggestions. 

Amelia Montes:  Your words here are so powerful and important, Maya.  They connect with what you wrote in Part II regarding “the unicorn.”  You write:  “What if I tell you that I am usually the only one of my kind.”  The unicorn is a universal myth spanning the Greeks, the Middle Eastern civilizations (Indus Valley Civilization) and Asia too.  But you bring it home to what is happening now.

Maya Chinchilla:  The Central American unicorn is a metaphor for that feeling you get when you are seen as who you truly are with all your parts intact.  Not just as a daughter or student, or teacher or queer, woman, or immigrant, or Guatemalan, or poet; fragmented –only allowed to exist one piece at a time.

I could also describe it like this.  I am a Voltron of the worlds I walk between.  My right arm is a Queer fierce femme red lion.  My left arm is second-generation Guatemalan green lion, still coming to grips with its struggle.  My right leg is a blue lion that negotiates space with the Chicanos/Chicanas/Latin@s in my world. Lastly, my left leg is a yellow lion who pours her heart into a "Hello Kitty" diary while listening to The Smiths.  When you know what they are like individually, and when they are complete, they hang in the imagination like a protective nahual. 

The Unicorn is that feeling of recognition that is illusive if you are not reflected in the media and culture as a full and complex human being.  If your eye is tuned to it, you can see it despite the non-believers.  Seeing someone who is similar to you, and who just gets it, it is the sweetest feeling because the heaviness and loneliness lifts in that moment. 

Maya Chinchilla, photo by Rio Yañez
Amelia Montes:  I see in your description and in this section, there is much “play” – a kind of wondrous creation of identity. The poem, “Guatemala Place of Trees” is one such piece. 

Maya Chinchilla:  Chapines are all about that play with language.  We have this dry playful humor that comes out even in the darkest of moments.  In my family, someone is always playing with you.  Some of these poems reflect that play.

This is one of those poems that couldn’t exist in sentences traveling across the page.  It’s a list of possibilities, messages, taunts, and reminders that slice the page in half forcing you to look at all its parts.

Amelia Montes:  Yes, and the poem “Chapina Dictionary,” links up as well.  The use of the letter “X!”

Maya Chinchilla:  Again, more playfulness.  I am fascinated with the “X” as a political statement or as a reclaiming, but also the sounds of words, the fear or absence of the “X” in the English language and the embrace in Spanish and Indigenous languages.  In this poem, there is desire to explain, but in that Guatemalan way of playing with language where there are several levels, where you’re not sure if you’re in on the joke and another story emerges.  This poem is inspired by so many things, in particular, my study of Spanish from the bilingual yet English speaker experience.

Maya Chinchilla, photo by Rio Yañez
I first learned the alphabet in Spanish.  The “Ch,” the “LL,” and the “ñ” are letters you sing in the alphabet with their own sections. I have had to spell out my own last name for people in both languages; I have had to correct the pronunciation in English (Chinchilla, like tortilla . . .) almost every day of my life.  I am intimately aware of the possibilities of using "Ch," or "C," "H," to spell my name.  Also, sounds.  The sounds of some of these words and the ways we use them in different regions of Latin America has always fascinated me.  Some of the words are favorite words, some are words that I collected polling some friends one night online . . . many of them are specifically words and slang used in Central America.  Others are the ones that stick to you, having shared space with other Spanish speakers and infiltrators. 

Amelia Montes:  In Part III, you are respectfully honoring the elder mujeres (“Homegirls and Dedications”) while also proudly voicing a queer epistemology.  It’s a powerful section.  The lines in “Jota Poetics,” are key to this section: 
Broken Tongues Speak
Jotas into harmony
full of living theory
and supported creativity

Maya Chinchilla:  Yes to all of this.  Again, more reflecting and more imagining what our language of self looks like.  Raw, burning, wild, wanting to be desired, with all the edges and necessary tenderness. 

Amelia Montes: There is also disappointment in love or the experiences of the highs and lows of relationships.

Maya Chinchilla:  Love is integral to my transformation.  I have learned the most in those intimate spaces where theories fall away and you have to figure out how you really show up in the world.  Intimate relationships and their successes and failures show you exactly who you are.  There’s no running away from yourself when you show up for love and when you fail miserably.  Damn, sometimes my most dramatic stories come out with an unexpected humor and honesty in their hyperbole when I think I meant to write something else.  There’s no hiding here, and yet there are versions of myself here that are able to show up differently than I did in real life.  In the end, it’s about letting it go with a wink, a nod and a desire to channel that ferocity into the kind of transformative love that doesn’t need so much as it just is.

Amelia Montes:  In Part IV, “Cha Cha Files,” you come back to bridging Latinidad, to breathing.  It begins with “Wanted,” and having the space to breathe one’s truth, ending with “Nuestras Utopias:” “I wish I didn’t lose my breath when I need to speak my truth.”  Here, readers reach the writer’s maturity—a place of working through equilibrium. 

Maya Chinchilla: Yes, I intended for this work to embrace multiple arcs or grow like a tree with branches.  I like to read books in a nonlinear fashion, so I think you could pick any page and go on a different journey.  I also thought about this work with this particular spine from beginning to end as if witnessing snapshots of the main character’s journey.  In the editing process, I tried several versions and orders.  Another version closed the book, like a bookend, returning to the beginning.  I chose instead to leave the end with a sense of questioning, looking towards the future, and with "defiant vulnerability." 

Some of the earlier voices were more declarative with an urgency to define oneself with an expectation that if you didn’t get it, then you needed to do more work, not me.  The urgency is still there, but by the end, she is more comfortable with her complexity and uncertainty, and there is a peace and an openness to other possibilities or worlds.  I am embracing all parts of myself and believe that my/our survival depends on our creativity and ability to imagine alternative futures.  That brooding angsty girl is still there, but she’s not as hard on herself because she knows she sees the world for what it is.  This attention is a skill she needs to manage instead of just absorbing it all in the hopes of minimizing the impact of the world’s ills on others.  Now she’s letting that go in preparation for what is next.

Amelia Montes:  In addition to The Cha Cha Files, what other Latina writing would you suggest we read?

Maya Chinchilla:  There are too many.  I will be here all night so I will just name a few.  Anything from Kórima Press.  I am so in love with my Press-mates.  They are all so amazing and inspiring.  I’m going to take this opportunity to mention some names that are some of my favorites right now, and are probably not on a list of the usual suspects:  Vickie Vertíz, Rachel McKibbins, Sara Campos, Meliza Bañales, Alice Bag, Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo, Lorena Duarte, Sandra GarciaRivera, Lizz Huerta, Ramona Gonzalez, Nancy Aide Gonzalez, and MelissaLozano. 

I also constantly think about the women I know that, in my mind, will always be writers but stopped writing because they had another gift to offer the world or something else took priority.  I think any one of them could still be writers, but for whatever reason, aren’t able to do it.  These are the women who motivate me to write as well.  When I feel doubt, I remind myself that any one of them could be writing, but often women are expected to take care of others or are just handling so many things that make it not possible. 

Amelia Montes:  Important words about women and writing, Maya!  Thank you so much for being with La Bloga today. Is there something I haven’t asked, that you would like to share with La Bloga readers? 

Maya Chinchilla:  This book really is a dream.  I am thankful to those that coaxed me to complete the work I have spent my life cultivating.  I am grateful to the many storytellers I have met on this path and feel a sense of peace that this work is now doing what it is supposed to do, and I can now release it as an offering for the ones who were meant to read and connect with it.  Hopefully, it raises some questions, offers some comfort, makes you smile, pushes you to write your own versions, and provides some clues that we were, we are, here. 

Maya Chinchilla, photo by Rio Yañez
BIO Maya Chinchilla
Born and raised in Long Beach, California, by a mixed class, mixed race, immigrant activist extended family, Maya currently lives and loves in the Bay Area.  Her work has been published in anthologies and journals including: Mujeres de Maíz, Sinister Wisdom, Americas y Latinas: A Stanford Journal of Latin American Studies, Cipactli Journal, and The Lunada Literary Anthology.  She is quoted (and misquoted) in essays, presentations, and books on U.S. Central American poetics; Chicana/Latina literature; and identity, gender, and sexuality. Maya is a founding member of the performance group Las Manas, a former artist-in-residence at Galeria de La Raza in San Francisco, California/ and La Peña Cultural Center in Berkeley, California; and is a VONA Voices and Dos Brujas alum.  She is also the co-editor of Desde El Epicentro: An Anthology of Central American Poetry and Art.  She holds an MFA in English and Creative writing from Mills College and is a lecturer at San Francisco State University.  Maya is currently touring her first book, The Cha Cha Files: A Chapina Poética across the country.

Check Maya Chinchilla's websites for touring details:


Olga Garcia Echeverria said...

Great feature and interview, Amelia. Enjoyed it. Best wishes to Maya and The Cha Cha Files!

Anonymous said...

Your metaphor of the unicorn really speaks to me. Congrats on the new book!

Minal Hajratwala said...

What a great interview, unicorn! I love this part: "It is absolutely imperative that U.S. Central Americans tell their own stories as many have already started to do. Everyone wants to romanticize parts of our culture such as the pyramids, the revolution, the colonial cities. They romanticize the Mayas as if they are only in the past, but many of us are hybrid beings consuming pop culture, and repurposing it with all our conflicts, contradictions, and cultural baggage."