Interview: Icess Fernandez Rojas

First of all, thank you so much for contributing your piece for this issue of Rabble Lit. I wanted to get right to the questions! In your story, both explicitly and implicitly, you talk about need. What was the motivation, or rather, why did you need to write this story?

Thanks for publishing this piece and giving it a home! The Bastard Need has been written, rewritten, revised for so long that I thought it would just be my beautiful, yet deformed child sitting in the corner forever. Well, the need to tell this story was the need to show the world about the complexities of being a Cantina woman. This story takes place on the East side of Houston on Market Street in the shadows of downtown Houston. Yes, in this large city where things are possible, there are people who live in the shadow of that possibility. It’s like they live on this treadmill running toward it and never reach it.

In its day, Market Street and that area was the hub of cantinas. There was one every block. It was heavily immigrant, heavily brown. It was a mix of industrial, residential, and commercial, thanks to Houston’s “zoning” laws. And among this scene were the women who pretend and needed to pretend so that can achieve their goal – sending money to family or getting ahead.

I identified with these women because we have a need so great we would be willing to sacrifice ourselves – mind, body, etc. Their stories are hardly told. These women exist. Out in the cold, in between breaths, as disposable afterthoughts. Societal norms may disregard them or even use them but I think they are beautiful and strong and complex. They are courageous and I needed to tell their story with all the beauty, pain, and grit it deserves.

 

 

You’ve had a 12 year-long career in journalism and communications that’s taken you across Texas, Kansas, and Louisiana, covering all sorts of events and people. How do you use that experience in your fiction? 

Great question. I used to think that my journalism and my fiction were different. That the skills of one didn’t translate to the other. In fact, it was news editors who made me believe that. It’s not true. The skills are complementary.

It’s helped me with observing the world. The question of “why” is so entrenched in human DNA that it’s entrenched in my fiction. Why do people act the way they do? Why do they think that way? Why did they shoot the person they loved the most? Why did they leave their family in the middle of the night? It’s the journalism part that keeps me asking and looking for the answer to the why. The fiction allows me to make it accessible to audiences.

 

How do your experiences with all of that influence your teaching philosophy? When your students leave your class, what is the biggest takeaway you want them to have? 

The biggest takeaway: I can absolutely do this thing and I know the first step to figuring it out. I want them to know that it is a process and processes take time and exposure. Most good things do.

How my experiences influence my teaching? LOADS!! I usually start out the first day telling them about the journalism part and then I tell them that I have written (and gotten paid) to write every single essay I’m teaching them. That usually gets their attention, that money can be made doing this gig. I mean, not a lot, but it’s viable and they can and will use these skills for their lives. Stories are about people and how they choose to live their lives. So, we tell stories.

 

Who have been your biggest writing influences, and how do they manifest themselves in your work? 

Oh, the list! The list is HUGE. First, it’s Gabo – Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Isabel Allende. I don’t know what it is about those two authors but I get them in such a way that it’s almost heartbeat close. Clarice Lispector because when I’m moody and question the reality of life, she’s my homegirl. Then it’s a matter of genre. I like to create a “playlist” of books or stories while I’m writing a project. So Junot Diaz will make it on a list. Walter Mosley, Raymond Chandler, and Chester Grimes will make it on the list when I’m working on my book, Audible is so helpful here. I’m currently reading Paula Hawkins’ latest. It’s a bit literary but also mysterious because, hello, it’s Girl on a Train… but with water…which is cool. I’m SO looking forward to Daniel Jose Older’s next book in the Shadowshappr series. Man, that book is the real deal, and I LOVE how he handles Afro-Latina identity in that. Just wowed me. So, I’ll probably read Ghost Girl in the Corner next. Exit West is on the list to be read too.

Then I love collection and anthologies because I like discovering new voices.

I’m also influenced by TV shows. Doctor Who, always, even when it’s not as good as it should be. Orphan Black, Greenleaf, Sherlock, Underground (which is making me mad for all the right reasons), Jane the Virgin (I LOVE novelas!)

 

When it comes to writing and personal politics, some writers’ Venn Diagrams have their circles far apart from each other. Other writers’ diagrams resemble one solid circle. Where would you say you stand? 

It’s a squiggle line with a question mark. Ha!

My friends say I’m an activist but I don’t think I do enough things to be considered an activist. My storytelling is my resistance, it’s my defiance, it’s my self-care. By telling the stories and poems I do about the characters I do, and getting them accepted to journals, it’s my contribution to the causes that I support.

 

Being an Afrolatina writer puts you in the position where you have to deal with not just the majority-white literary establishment looking at you as the other; but also having black creatives and Latino creatives BOTH pull Mean Girl-esque “you can’t sit with us” bullshit. How does a writer build bridges in this situation without stooping down to engage in “Oppression Olympics” with other minorities and without compromising their own identity? 

I don’t know if you can print this but FUCK THE ESTABLISHMENT. I don’t write for them. My stories are not for them. They don’t have the privilege of living in this skin. I do. So, I do what I want.

Okay, now that that’s out of my system (because trauma is real), I recognize that I live in the shadow of privilege – that there have been others who have come before me and smoothed out the path a bit for me. And I am smoothing the path for those who are coming after me.

The mean girl thing. Well, it works in in the opposite direction too with people taking your spots and your spaces, spaces that you have and have been created for you. And sometimes it’s the people you don’t suspect. I call that stuff out and then I leave it to my Orishas to sort it. This identity is visceral and deep with it’s own trauma. You want it, you gotta get through the Orishas first, homey. That’s our legacy and inheritance.

So, in short, not all skin folk are kinfolk.

 

What is your writing process like? Does your process involve any sort of ritual, snacks, music, scents? 

Procrastination and lots of it! Lots of thinking, mulling it over, talking to myself about whether things will work. And then comes the bullying for time, which means I live at work a bit longer during the work week and get things done. Then comes the self-loathing and then the ice cream and food. Then I return to the page and say, hey that’s not bad, then I go back in and polish, remembering I have a love/hate relationship with revision. Then I print it out and my journo skills kick in. Grammar, diction, blah, blah. Then done for a bit. Come back in a month and tweak.

It’s not done until I start changing things back to the previous version.

 

What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever been given? 

It’s the same advice I give to other writers. There is two actually:

1) Write crap.

2) Writing is a verb.

 

What is the WORST piece of writing advice that’s out there that you feel people should stop paying attention to? 

You have to write every day in order to be a writer. Oh, and that writer’s block exists. Negative, son.

 

If you were given the opportunity to create a high school reading list for students across the state, what are 10 books you would absolutely include?

Why do you want to make me choose!!!! It would look a lot like the pieces I’ve picked for my college students.

1) Mine

2) Ana Castillo, So Far from God

3) Daniel Jose Older, Shadowshaper

4) Jasminne Mendez, Island of Dreams

5) Anything by James Baldwin

6) Dagoberto Gilb, Woodcuts of Women

7) Junot Diaz, This is How You Lose Her

8) Danielle Evans, Before You Suffocate Your Fool Self

9) Jamaica Kincaid, Autobiography of My Mother

10.) Monstress – because graphic novels!

 

The question of whether writers should pursue an MFA or not will never have a satisfactory resolution. Strong arguments could be made for either side, I believe. So I’ll phrase the question differently: What was your MFA experience like? And following that, if you could identify one thing that MFA programs should have as a standard, what would it be? 

I LOVED my MFA experience but I also didn’t have a traditional experience. I went to Goddard College, which has a low residency program on two campuses – one in Vermont at the college and one in Washington State. I went to the Washington State campus because, well, I like water and the campus is in Port Townsend, right on the water. Admittedly, there weren’t a lot of people of color among the students but among the faculty, that was a different story. My advisors were Armenian and Asian-American. Their perspective on my novel was so needed. Where I thought I was going too far with issues of race and ethnicity and color, they said I hadn’t gone far enough. They encouraged me to write that hard, ugly truth and told me that, frankly, my story was just as valid as anyone else’s. Goddard was an open campus for me. I mean, hello, the program director channeled his guides during a session. (He’s no longer there.) And he gave everyone a reading if they chose to. I remember a difficult semester where just about everyone on campus came to residency with some funkiness – death, family troubles, etc. In fact, I learned about the sudden death of a family friend on the WAY to residency. That was when I saw the amazingness of the Goddard community. Paul (the former director) had channeled his guides and they spoke to us. Everyone was just gentler and treated each other with more love than usual. And somehow, by the end of the residency, we were on our way to healing.  My entire Goddard experience was completely counter to every other PoC’s experience. So, when I read PoC’s essays on their MFA experience, I get sad because it could have truly been great and empowering. I want that for them and every PoC writer because that is what we need and deserve.

Despite all this, this is what I wished that my MFA program had taught me … how to do this writing life thing, essentially how to be an artist. Yes, we learned about the craft but so few of us will be 100 percent dedicated to this. So, I want to learn how to market myself, how to create a following, how to establish my writing swagger. That would have been GREAT!

 

Five years from now, where is Professor Fernandez, and what has she done in the 2017-2022 time frame? 

She finally finished that damn book. And it’s a series so there’s a couple of books and perhaps another series.

She has a house in Latin America because she won some sort of lottery or that book deal was a unique multimillion dollar thing.

She’s still teaching. For sure. Probably going on sabbatical to do some sort of cool research involving stories from an island local that involves drinks with umbrellas in them.

 

And finally, a more light-hearted question:  Cake or pie? 

Depends, is there coffee involved? And what kind of coffee?

Regular or Starbucks-esque without the fancy creamers and things – pie.

My mom’s café con leche – cake.

I don’t know why, just feels right.

 

 

 

12548960_1101630843204681_249650910977832214_nIcess Fernandez Rojas has been a journalist for 12 years and has published in USA Today, the Guardian, NBCNews.com, Huffington Post Latino Voices, and Latino Rebels. She has an MFA in creative writing, and teaches college students in Houston, TX.

 

 

6Hugo Esteban Rodriguez, Rabble’s Latinx Features Editor, is a Mexican-American writer, poet, essayist, and blogger living and working in Houston, Texas. He is a graduate of the University of Texas at Brownsville and the MFA program at the University of Texas at El Paso.

 

 

 

 

 

        Header Image: Creative Commons, Public Domain. Street art, Callejon de Hamel, Cuba.

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