Xánath Caraza is a poet, artist and author of short stories who, in the span of just a few years, published a poetry collection (Conjuro, Mammoth Publications, 2012), a chapbook (Corazón Pintado: Ekphrastic Poems, TL Press, 2012), a collection of short stories (Lo que trae la marea/ What the Tide Brings, Mouthfeel Press, 2013) and another poetry collection (Noche de Colibríes: Ekphrastic Poems, Pandora Lobo Estepario Productions, 2014).

It’s no wonder LatinoStories.com named her one of the “Top Ten ‘New’ Latino Authors to Watch (and Read)” last year.

To say Caraza is from Kansas City would be a misstatement. Born in Xalapa, in the Mexican state of Veracruz, she lived in Vermont for a time before moving to Kansas City, where she lectures in foreign languages and literature at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. She has also taught in Mexico, Brazil, China and Spain, and has traveled the world giving lectures, showcasing her works, and receiving recognition.

Caraza writes for La Bloga, and her column “US Latino Poets en español” appears in Periódico de Poesía, a monthly literary publication produced by the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México.

Conjuro, her first book-length collection of poetry, was a nominee at the International Book Awards in 2013 and received honorable mention at the International Latino Book Awards that same year. Her latest book, Lo que trae la marea/ What the Tide Brings, has just been nominated for an International Latino Book Award in two categories: “Best Popular Fiction Spanish or Bilingual,” and “Best Fiction Book Translation from Spanish to English.”

I was introduced to Caraza on Facebook through a mutual friend. I’d learned that she would be doing a reading in Pulaski Park on March 27 for the Chicago release of Noche de Colibríes, and I wanted to interview her ahead of time. Initially, our conversation was to be conducted via telephone, but when we hit a technological snafu during the recording, we were forced to improvise.

The following discussion was compiled from a Facebook chat lasting just under two hours.

 

Interviewer
First off, congratulations on being nominated for an International Latino Book Award. How does it feel to be nominated? This is your second time, right?

Caraza
Yes, it’s my second time. It is a humbling experience. I think that besides making me happy, it makes me think of it as a learning experience and, most importantly, as un buen ejemplo para otras Latinas/Latinos.

Interviewer
How so a learning experience?

Caraza
It’s important to see what we do right, what works positively in our lives and keep improving. I’m talking about our life as writers and role models para nuestra juventud latina. Be able to share those caminos para los demás and, at certain times, be able to change what doesn’t work, too. Life itself is a learning experience, and la vida como escritor aún más.

Interviewer
I was just going to ask if you thought writers, at least good ones, had a special disposition toward self-critique that most people don’t have. I think writers — all artists — have a knack for that kind of self-improvement.

Caraza
Pienso que somos seres que reflexionamos sobre todo lo que hacemos, and as creators, artists, writers, we need to develop the ability to see con claridad what we produce, to be honest enough to not just indulge in our creations, but see if they actually work and bring algo para la comunidad. Hay que tener los pies en la tierra, siempre.

Interviewer
I agree. What are the stories in Lo que trae la marea about?

Caraza
It’s a bilingual collection of short stories that challenges readers by inviting them to hear female points of view from the past, from contemporary times and from the periods of time that occur only in the pages of a book. The stories are about women, voces de mujeres, in history, in the present, en las páginas, en nuestra imaginación. They reflect el tiempo contemporáneo, histórico, político — historias de gente que emigra, que se va, y otras están sólo en las páginas de los libros.

Interviewer
Speaking of emigrando, how did a little girl from Xalapa get to be a celebrated writer in Kansas City? How old were you when you left Xalapa? What brought you to Kansas City?

Caraza
Uy, tantas preguntas al mismo tiempo. A ver. Llegué en 1997 a los Estados Unidos. I first went to Vermont and then came to the Midwest.

Now, I’ve always been a writer, desde siempre. I think that I became a more serious writer when I was a teenager. Tenía una columna en la sección cultural de un periódico en mi ciudad natal, and I used to publish every week. Publiqué desde ensayo, reseña, poemas, cuentos, you name it. That helped me understand que hay que llenar las páginas no matter what. Pero siempre he escrito. I think I wrote my first “poem” cuando tenía seis años.

Interviewer
That’s pretty young! What was it about?

Caraza
It was about the stars and la luna. I remember I wrote it with a pink marker. I gave it to mi tía. She promised to save it, but she lost it. And that’s fine. I wrote another one, many more.

Interviewer
Do you ever go back and read some of your early stuff? I know some writers find it difficult to look back on past work. I myself can’t bear to look at anything I’ve written older than a few years

Caraza
Always, siempre. Siempre reviso lo que he escrito. It may not be perfect, but it may be a great idea that, now, with more experience, I can fix or recreate. Many of the short stories en Lo que trae la marea were stories that I wrote many years ago, and when I sat down to put together the book, they were only buenas ideas. So I fixed them, pero eran mis ideas, and I was able to recreate them. I want to think beautifully, con más experiencia.

Interviewer
Reminds me of how Whitman spent the rest of his life revising and adding to Leaves of Grass.

Caraza
Sí, Whitman, adding and revising, todo el tiempo. It’s important to validate our previous work, and fix it.

Interviewer
Do you edit and revise ad infinitum?

Caraza
Yes, I do.

Interviewer
That’s interesting.

Caraza
Revising and editing are key to a great job. Maybe not ad infinitum, but a great deal.

Interviewer
Sure, but I think a lot of artists would drive themselves insane constantly revising. Artists are notorious for being perfectionists and very self-critical.

Caraza
I think you’re right, but you need to know when to stop. If not, the piece will never see the world, and in order for a piece of art or poem or short story to be finished, the other, the public, needs to see it. Then you can fix it more.

Interviewer
Xalapa is, of course, a city founded by Nahuatl speaking people. You’ve said that you don’t speak the language fluently, but that its sounds and rhythms permeate much of your work. A lot of your poems especially are an influx of English, Spanish and Nahuatl. What about the language and its history pulls you?

Caraza
Somos el resultado de nuestras circunstancias, and language is one of our circunstancias, cómo no reflejarlo en lo que escribo. I have to, especially porque soy escritora. Words are my tools, las herramientas de trabajo. This is who I am — Spanish, inglés, nahúatl and some African languages lost in my memory.

Interviewer
You do speak a lot of African-ness, especially for a mexicana. That’s still a bit controversial, isn’t it?

Caraza
Not really.

Interviewer
I know people — even Latinos — still ask me if I’m black or Puerto Rican.

Caraza
Lo africano en la cultura mexicana se ha estudiado desde los ’70s. We call it la tercera raíz, and by la primera raíz we mean lo indígena, la segunda, lo español, y la tercera, lo africano.

I’m from Veracruz, el caribe mexicano, and everything that came from Europe and Africa entered por Veracruz. I must have African blood somewhere in me. Tenemos muchas palabras que vienen de lenguas africanas en Veracruz — comida, costumbres, ritmos. Pero está todo mezclado. We may not recognize it as africano, but it is there, and people are becoming more and more aware of it. We, writers, need to talk about it, celebrate it.

Interviewer
I agree, but don’t you think esa mezcla is still a touchy subject among everyday Mexicans and other Latin Americans? Has anyone ever criticized you for “Africanizing” el pueblo mexicano?

Caraza
Yes, hay resistencia, por la historia de la opresión intenalizada. Pero that will change, and I want to think that I am helping with that change. We need to inform people and be proud of who we are. We need to understand our history. If we do, change will come. Despacio, but it will be here. And yes, it’s a touchy theme, very complex, and muy importante.

Interviewer
You’ve been writing your whole life, yet it seems as though your work is being recognized and commended from all over in the past few years. What changed?

Caraza
People are starting to know my work. I write for La Bloga, too, and that helps a great deal. I write another column, “U.S. Latino Poets en español,” and people are paying attention. Pienso que eso ha contribuido.

Interviewer
What’s your writing schedule and process like now that you’re getting recognition for your work and your schedule is filling up with other things?

Caraza
Trato de escribir todos los días. Me levanto temprano y escribo o me preparo para escribir, either leyendo or revising or writing las columnas. But I make time for my “writing,” no importa qué. And siempre estoy tomando notas and writing in between classes, meetings — siempre escribiendo o leyendo o revisando.

Interviewer
You have to feed the demon.

Caraza
Exactamente. El demonio demanda maná y ambrosía.

Interviewer
Who were the authors and poets you admired as younger reader, and who are you into these days?

Caraza
People always ask me that, pero siempre contesto con honestidad y digo, it really depends. Depende en lo que esté trabajando. Por supuesto, hay autores que están ahí: Sor Juana, Carmen Boullosa, Alberto Ruy Sánchez, Paz, Cortázar, Duras, Beauvoir. Pero depende.

Ahora estoy leyendo dos libros de poesía que voy a reseñar, y otro para una de mis columnas. Y hace poco terminé de releer la poesía de Octavio Paz, porque estaba trabajando en algo de él.

Interviewer
It’s the anniversary of his birth on the 31st.

Caraza
It’s coming, y va a haber varias celebraciones.

Interviewer
People name Paz and Cortázar in tandem so many times, you’d think they were conjoined.

Caraza
Por lo innovador de su trabajo en su momento.

Interviewer
What made them so great at what they did?

Caraza
Paz, además de ser un poeta maravilloso, era un poeta experimental. Su poesía es maravillosa en términos de estructura. Tiene poesía concreta, increíble. Por otro lado, fue un gran ensayista, un investigador. Su libro Las trampas de la fe es uno de los que más me gusta. Paz contribuyó, también, a explicar quiénes somos como mexicanos.

Cortázar, otro genio, fue innovador en su narrativa. Rayuela es un clásico, pero sus cuentos tienen que ser leídos. Hay que leerlo, estudiarlo y entender la estructura de sus cuentos. Cortázar creía que los lectores debemos de ser activos. Es decir, buscar entre las líneas, leer más allá de los caracteres, conectar las ideas. A mí me encanta eso.

Interviewer
Does it worry you how little kids read these days? (Mind the syntax.)

Caraza
Por supuesto, pero eso lo he escuchado siempre. Creo que lo podemos cambiar. Puede ser que soy una optimista sin remedio, pero I want to believe that we can make people, children, fall in love con los libros.

Interviewer
I’m sure we can, too, but I’m not so sure how. Videos are much more immediate and easier, and kids’ brains become atrophied.

Caraza
Exacto. Yo creo que como maestra hago mi revolución sin manos todos los días. I want to think that I can positively influence at least one person each day, or plant a seed para el futuro, que alguien recuerde algo y diga, “I better go and find a book para leer” Una persona a la vez.

Interviewer
I went to a discussion with Junot Díaz where he said, in so many words, that he wasn’t too worried about the lack of readership these days because reading had always been a minority activity anyway. I can see his point.

Caraza
Hay razón en eso.

Interviewer
I’m the son of immigrants, and I doubt they read 10 books before they were my age.

Caraza
Sí, es cierto.

Interviewer
Now, here we are, writing. My ancestors would laugh if they could see me.

Caraza
Beautiful. Por eso digo que somos el producto de nuestra circunstancia. And that idea it’s not mine, but love it. Somos el producto de nuestras circunstancias para bien o para mal. This is who we are, con ventajas o desventajas. We may or may not be able to change it.

Interviewer
People like me, whose first language is Spanish, but who has now lost the ability to speak it fluently after growing up in the suburbs.

Caraza
Sí, and your parents cambiaron las circunstancias para ti, para mejorarlas. Y siempre hay un precio — en este caso el idioma — que pagamos. Pero así es. Cambiamos, evolucionamos, same as our parents did. Es la vida. Ellos hicieron que ahora estemos aquí, escribiendo, y hablando de literatura. Qué bueno, ¿no?

Interviewer
Do you think Spanish is part of latinidad? Do Latinos in the United States need to learn Spanish to retain their latinidad?

Caraza
Sí y no. Language is sólo un aspecto.

Interviewer
There’s an army of Latino kids growing up in this country who will be English dominant, and who will even have trouble with Spanish, as I do.

Caraza
Sure. Es que definir qué es ser latino es complejo. Venimos de tantos países y estamos en diferentes lugares en los Estados Unidos. Nos influenciamos con diferentes aspectos regionales, y la lengua es sólo uno de ellos — la cultura de la casa, de la tía, de la abuela, lo que nos cocinaban, la música que oíamos se nos queda, aunque no entendamos del todo.

Lo mismo me pasó a mí con el nahúatl y la cultura de mi mamá. La perdí, y no. Ahí está, en pedazos, y me agarro a ella como puedo. La celebro y escribo de ella. And yes, I’m not fluent in Nahuatl, pero lo celebro.

Interviewer
Our values form our identity.

Caraza
También, claro.

Interviewer
You talk about being politically-minded and socially aware. Does that mean you have views on the current state of your birth country? Or Venezuela?

Caraza
Of course, but that’ll be another interview.

Interviewer
So what’s next for you, Xánath? What can we expect this year?

Caraza
I have an upcoming book of poetry for the fall, Silabas de viento/Syllables of Wind, and I’m working on a second short story collection and a couple of poetry projects. I received la Beca Nebrija para creadores de 2014 por el Instituto Franklin in Spain, and the project I’ll be working on for that writers’ residency is my second short story collection. I need to finish that book.

Interviewer
Sounds like a dream, to be writing in Spain.

Caraza
Yes, it sounds algo así.

Interviewer
Any ambiguous feelings toward earning a residence in Spain — I mean, as someone who writes about pre-Columbian peoples?

Caraza
It happened to me the first time I visited Spain. I had an ambiguous feeling, but I learned that, nos guste o no, tenemos mucho de España también. It was incredible to see how much we have from them.

Interviewer
We are our circumstances, and Spanish rule is a major part of that.

Caraza
We were a colony of Spain. That meant that we had to speak Spanish, among other things.

Interviewer
Right, and they took a lot from being conquered by the Muslims. It’s all a wonderful mixture.

Caraza
Yes, of course. My favorite part of Spain is the south.

Interviewer
Sevilla?

Caraza
Granada, la capital mundial de la poesía, la tierra de Lorca. Andalucía en general, and Sevilla también. Pero Granada, la capital mundial de la poesía, con toda su influencia musulmana.

Interviewer
The poetry gods will be whispering in your ear.

Caraza
I hope so, and goddesses, too.

 

Xánath Caraza will be appearing at the House of Two Urns in West Town on March 27, where she will read from her latest collection of poetry, Noche de Colibríes: Ekphrastic Poems (Pandora Lobo Estepario Productions, 2014).

[Photo: Lara Medina]

Share this! (You know you want to.)

Got something to say? Say it loud!