Marilyse Figueroa Interviews (and Reviews) Rios de la Luz
“It started with trauma. Nothing sci-fi about it. No heavenly attributions. Just straight up time travel through trauma.” This is one of my favorite lines from the title story of a provoking debut collection, The Pulse Between Dimensions and the Desert by Rios de la Luz. The narrator addresses me, her audience, without knowing how alike we are, or maybe she does. We are both queer women of color. We are both bilingual in English and Spanish. Perhaps the similarities stop there, since I don’t time travel; however, the story becomes relatable on more levels. Much of this collection explores a borderland, an inbetweenness, on the level of character, genre, language, and culture. Sci-fi, fantasy, myth, folktale, prose poetry, English, Spanish, Spanglish, geeklish could all be said in the same sentence when describing this seminal work. Not to be pigeonholed, de la Luz allows her work to speak to a broad audience of Xicana experiences: queer and cis Xicanas watching Dr. Who, playing 90s video games, surviving poverty in minimum wage jobs or as first generation college students; those in the closet, working sin papeles, praying to a robed saint on a votive candle, choosing a communion with mescaline and desert gods in order to rebirth.
In the vein of the narrator’s brazen address, I will admit my relationship with Pulse was not coincidental. The scorpions on the cover did not speak to me in a women’s book store under the section, “Chingona Reads.” Though it very well could have happened. My relationship with de la Luz and her cuentos started with a conversation on politics and identity. As both of us are feminist women of color at a majority Anglo university, I was fortunate to meet de la Luz at the University of Oklahoma and have conversations outside of academia about our lived experiences, which I could rarely negotiate in my literature classes. Then when we both graduated, de la Luz’s soon-to-be debut collection often came to me in readings and workshop exercises on Skype as we moved away from the Midwest. The following is a reflection of not only de la Luz’s work, but also how her identity allows the book to claim space for other diverse identities and writings in contemporary literature.
Front Porch: As the title of your collection and short story suggests, this collection ruminates on liminal spaces, or borders, such as the endless dimensions of time and the vast desert from which your stories arise. How has your movement between Los Angeles, California, El Paso, Texas, and Oklahoma affected your writing of time and liminal spaces in these stories?
Rios de la Luz: My mother moved from Los Angeles to El Paso two months after I was born. After moving to Texas, Los Angeles became a place of enchantment. It was the place where my great-grandmother, the matriarch and the pillar of the family, lived. It was the place where my mother and father met. It was the space in my head where a history of my family thrived. Moving from El Paso to Oklahoma was a big shift for me. It was in Oklahoma where I was first asked, “What are you?” or “Where are you really from?” and the first time I was called several slurs by different people. Being in primarily white spaces was very confusing for me. I had many experiences of being an outsider or an “other,” and I think this is relatable to anyone who has gone through adolescence. Being an outsider, for me, meant feeling as though I could not fit into white spaces because I was too “foreign,” but also feeling like I wasn’t “authentic” enough to claim my ethnic background because there we were as a family, in white spaces, being pulled away from the rest of the family and the traditions we participated in together. We weren’t Mexican enough to be Mexican and we weren’t American enough to be American. My family moved quite often, so I was able to teach myself adaptation. I write about characters that are able to adapt in any given situation, and quite often, it is for survival. Being brown in white spaces means learning how to adapt for our survival.
FP: In your title story, a woman’s trauma leads her to time travel between memories and her past lives. This trauma, however, does not only stem from one attack, but also from living in a violent environment which attacks her for being brown, Xicana, and bilingual. Can you talk about trauma in this story, and if it applies, in others in this collection?
RL: The trauma experienced by the main character in the title story is sexual abuse. I write about sexual abuse because it is part of my lived experience. I was abused from the age of six to eight, and this is something I am still writing out of me. I write about this specific trauma as a way to speak for the younger version of myself who could not defend herself. When trauma happens to us, some of us stay quiet. I did—I stayed quiet for a long time about my traumas. The same trauma does not apply to every character I write, but if part of their complexity does include something traumatic, I like to write instances where they are standing up for themselves.
FP: In Latino/a/x literature, homosexuals and non-gender conforming [people] are almost invisible from the genre. However, in your stories, many of your characters are queer, which from the intensity of the writing, I do not see as a thoughtless choice. For instance, in “Martian Matters,” you have a queer woman who is in the closet to her traditional Abuela; in “Church Bush” a girl is discovering her sexuality in a religious environment; as well as the many other connections between women in these stories which are made stronger through their bonding over queer identity. How do you perceive the appearance of queer identity working in your stories?
RL: When I write a queer character, it is like any other character, queerness is just one of the intersections of the character. I write queer characters because I am a queer woman and because I know so many wonderful queer folx. In media, particularly TV shows and movies, queer characters often have tragic endings or they end up dead because they are nothing more than props or a point to show how “inclusive” the writers are, and this is bullshit because queer folx deserve better representation.
FP: In “Church Bush,” I was reminded of what it was like to be a small child and not know you were queer. A young girl receives a note from a friend in Sunday school which says “I like you.” The friend is a girl. Both of these girls are going through puberty. When the girl tells her mother, she asks, “Do you like them back?” The main character says, “I tell her yes, but it’s a girl. Mom it’s a girl who likes me and I like them back.” de la Luz has the power to strike the tone to draw up my memories: In second grade, I was going through my mother’s mail when I saw the Victoria’s Secret catalogue. I looked at all the beautiful women, blushed past the lingerie, and then turned to the pages of clothes. Stunned by the models in baggy jeans and oversized sweatshirts, I began to cut out the pictures of the models and with ticky-tack, stuck them on the inside of my chester drawers. I would gaze upon the models with their shining hair and pouty lips and appreciate their beauty. This lasted for a week, maybe, until my older sibling opened the doors and discovered my yearbook of Victoria’s Secrets. “You’re gay!” she shouted at me. And without knowing what that meant, but knowing the tone of humiliation, I ripped down the women I had come to admire. I did not ask myself until I was 16 why I thought women were beautiful in a way my friends did not share. In de la Luz’s story, the mother replies after the confession, “Okay then. You both like each other. That’s very sweet. What do you want for lunch?” Later, when my mother would ask if my friend was a friend or a girlfriend, our conversation would be similar to this. No one cared about who I loved, it turned out. Only that I get on with it.
Writing an authentic voice of a child in literature can often be done wrong. However, the voice of children in your stories captures the innocence of childhood when confronted with conflict so authentically that it affords the child a true valid space on the page. Without making children a mouth-piece, for example, one can feel the resilience in the face of invisibility in “Crayons” in which a little girl cannot find the depth of color in her crayons for what she wants to depict—her skin and hair. What can a child’s voice offer to fiction? What was your process in accessing that voice?
RL: Children are the ultimate observers and absorbers. They are not passive, and they are not just background pieces on this planet. Kids have legitimate opinions and questions. I think we often underestimate how much they have to offer adults in terms of learning from one another. Accessing the voice felt like second nature to me because I often pull from my memories. I started by recalling memories in which I learned something difficult. How did those instances make me feel? How did I surpass the hurt or the anger? One of the particular memories was me at nine years old, listening to Jagged Little Pill by Alanis Morissette for the first time and something in my head clicking with understanding as to why she was angry and mournful. I connected with her lyrics in a way I had not connected to any other music prior to that.
FP: In the Front Porch Spotify playlist I made as a supplement to this review, our readers will find Alanis Morissette is faithfully represented, as well as Selena, Bat for Lashes, and other artists which came to mind as symbolic reviewers reflecting Pulse’s feeling and tone. From these reflections, there is the playfulness of analogue video games and 90s TV shows, such as the Power Rangers in “Marigold.” Although the story could have stayed with the beat of nostalgia, as soon as Esmai and her brother, Jesus, whisper about ghosts in the dark while clutching their favorite toys, the story begins to incorporate elements of the spirit world. Esmai will bury her Yellow Ranger as an offering to her deceased tía and wake to an otherworldly sign. In other stories such as “La Loba” and “La Reina” the spirit world is as much a character as her humans. This integration of sci-fi, social realism, and fantasy, or whatever you care to call it, culminates in reading a multidimensional reality quite like the lived experiences of present day Xicanas.
FP: Your work in this collection takes influences from comics, graphic novels, video games, spells, mythology, and religious icons. Incorporated into the fabric of your stories, they become their own culture. Can you talk about the cultural context of some of these and how you identify with these influences as a Xicana and Chapina living in the US?
RL: I started reading graphic novels about eight years ago, and they changed the way I looked at storytelling. Comics typically begin in a world where the strange is normalized. If you think about the implications of most superhero comics, it is all very bizarre. When you open up a superhero comic you are starting the story by accepting the weird elements of their worlds. Superhero comics often tell the story of someone who is an outsider and as far as cultural context, this is relatable to all people. This is one of the reasons I fell in love with comics. The stories of an outsider figuring out who they are and how to adapt in a world that is not accepting of them is necessary, and with comic books, these stories are very accessible. I enjoy the idea of building our own mythologies and continuing to tell fairy tales, so I often write about myths I heard about as a child (La Llorona being one of the main stories), and I create my own because it keeps my mind enchanted.
FP: The enchantment is evident in the complex narratives, voices, and especially the complexity of the writing, such as in “Sweet Gum.” The distinct voice of a woman at the end of a four-year relationship says she will carry on, however, the imagery of a sweet gum tree invading the woman’s bedroom makes the narrative complex and uncontrollable to conventionality: “The sweet gum’s branches are growing fast”; “The sweet gum grazes my cheek. A twing initially tickles. Then, with all its might, it settles into my bicep”; “I regret not erasing you completely out of my memory” (91). This use of imagery adds to the depth of pain in the story in a way only poets get away with, and now de la Luz.
All of your pieces have distinct, complex, and strong female voices. As the voices of children were authentic, so were the lives and experiences of these women authentically represented in these stories. Could you talk about how you crafted their voices and how you think of “voice” as a craft term?
RL: I think “voice” is something that comes from practice and from the gut. There is no one out there who can tell a story the way you tell a story because all of our lived experiences differ. I think this is beautiful. When I write a character, I think about what they are like as a person. For Pulse, I thought about the women in my family. How do they tell their stories? Could I tell you about my grandma in a way that would do her story justice, if the answer was no, then I restarted what I was writing. If the answer was yes, I continued their stories.
FP: Writing a collection of pieces comes with a different set of goals and objectives than say a novel or chapbook. Can you talk about the writing process that went into composing this collection, such as how you approached it and organized it?
RL: The approach of this collection came from my time constraint. I knew I wanted all the voices in the stories to be brown women, so I wrote out characters after specific family members. I am much slower at producing work—it takes me weeks to finish a story, sometimes months. At the time, I was working forty-plus hours, so I had to make sure I set time aside to let myself be creative. I forced myself off of social media, and I sat and wrote for two hours per night even if I was exhausted and even if what I had just written wasn’t my best work. I knew there were certain elements to incorporate into my stories, so I experimented with them. I love giving myself short writing exercises or asking my close friends to send me writing prompts and several ideas came from those prompts.
FP: Would you describe this collection as something which lived inside you for a long time or something new which kept coming at you with new versions of itself until the project felt finished?
RL: Some of the stories lived within me since childhood. Some of them were completely new and came to me from writing prompts or watching specific films to get myself into the mood from which I wanted to tell the story.
FP: As a writer who published through a small press, could you tell us about your experience, the expectations you went in with, and how you or the press has brought your book to its readers?
RL: My experience working with a small press has been wonderful. Constance Ann Fitzgerald is the founder of Ladybox Books, and she is very easy to work with and communicate with. My expectations were realistic. I am new to the literary community, and having a career as a writer is a long game. Publishing through a small press means that my words are out there, floating in Amazon limbo, and this makes me happy. As far as gaining readership, word of mouth has worked very well for me. I have a lot of supportive friends and family who talk about my book, and I am very thankful for their enthusiasm. Live readings have been very helpful as well; I am getting more comfortable performing my work. I pretend I am the character in the story, and this gets attention from people who are not familiar with my work. It is really fun performing, and I enjoy getting into character.
FP: As the editor of Ellx blog, where you showcase Latinx visual artists and writers, do you think a collaboration with graphic novels or other mediums is in the future for your work?
RL: Yes, definitely. Comic books hold a dear place in my heart, and one of my personal goals is to write a graphic novel.
FP: To close, if you would like, please tell us about any readings you will be doing this year, new work we can expect to see from you, and the ways to purchase your work.
RL: I am currently working on zines for the spring and summer. Zines keep me productive and help me stay creative. I am going to be a guest blogger for Weird Sister, a feminist and pop culture website. I am really excited to work with their team for these next four to six months. I will have two stories published in anthologies, one story in States of Terror (Ayahuasca Publishing) and another story in Eternal Frankenstein (Word Horde) in October of this year. It was a lot of fun writing horror elements into my stories for both of these stories. I am going to be reading in Portland, OR for the Unchaste Reading Series on November 16th, 2016. The Pulse between Dimensions and the Desert can be purchased via Pioneers Press (pioneerspress.com) or from Amazon.
Rios de la Luz is a queer xicana/chapina living in Oregon. She is brown and proud. She is in love with her bruja/activist communities in LA, San Antonio, and El Paso. She is the author of The Pulse Between Dimensions and The Desert (Ladybox Books, 2015). Her work has been featured in Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Entropy, The Fem Lit Magazine, World Literature Today, and St. Sucia.