AN INTERVIEW WITH ANJANETTE DELGADO
Kayla Ziefle, a student in the creative writing program at the University of Central Missouri and an editorial intern for Pleiades: Literature in Context, interviews Anjanette Delgado, whose story “Lucky” appears in the Summer 2019 edition of Pleiades.
Anjanette Delgado is a Puerto Rican writer and journalist. She is the author of The Heartbreak Pill (Simon and Schuster, 2008), 2009 winner of the Latino International Book Award, and of The Clairvoyant of Calle Ocho (Kensington Publishing & Penguin Random House, 2014). Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous anthologies, as well as in The Kenyon Review, Pleiades, Vogue, CUNY’s Hostos, The Hong Kong Review, NPR, and others. A Bread Loaf Conference alumni, she won an Emmy Award for her writing in 1994, served as a judge for the Flannery O’Connor Short Fiction Award in 2015, and was a Peter Taylor Fellow in Fiction in 2016. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Florida International University and lives in Miami, Florida.
KZ: In your past work you have written about love and heartbreak and how often those two terms coincide. This theme is still seen in your new piece “Lucky” but is filled with more darkness and violence. What inspired this transition into something more intense?
AD: Ha! Here’s the answer in three words: I am older.
The longer version of that: I think writing means inhabiting the worlds you dare create. That often entails remembering, walking through your particular life-slums, and accepting how things were in order to write variations of what could be. Well, when I was younger, I wanted no part of any world that reminded me of my horrors. I was frail and I knew that living in some familiar darkness for weeks while I wrote would have broken me. But now that I am older, I am stronger, more resilient. I can allow myself to attempt worlds as ugly as the ones to which I never want to return and to purposely and morbidly imagine things I spent my entire life dreading. I can attempt to speak my darkness, rewrite some endings, can even afford to lose a few weak characters on the battlefield. So, what if they fall and bleed, and their souls are torn and ripped into strips on the street. It’s all right. I can deal with it, I think.
KZ: In your piece “Lucky,” women being taken advantage of or portrayed as weak seems to be a part of the main focus of the story. Women being portrayed as inferior to men is not an uncommon issue in today’s world. Do you feel strongly about this particular issue? And in what way did it enhance or aide in your writing process for this story?
AD: That’s an interesting take. I do not see the women in “Lucky” as weak or inferior in any way. Quite the contrary. They are stronger than most people I know. Stronger than me, for sure. They emerged from a decade of abduction with a notion of what it means to be human, with a conscience of what they are missing if they are to function in the world they were taken from. This is more than can be said of their captor, or of some of the well-meaning people they encounter after their release.
And though I do feel strongly that there are many worthy stories to be told about women with obvious power (if only in that it conforms to our traditional notions of it), it is not something I consciously think about, or aim for, when writing. I read like a death-wishing junkie on his last bender, and maybe because of that, I think my responsibility as a writer is, first, to the story, and then to the reader. As André Dubus III would say, “Am I showing what it’s like, what it’s really like?” Does it make sense in a larger context? Does it say what it came to say coherently and bravely and, if possible, with beauty? Later, if I am very lucky, somebody might write me to say they were inspired or empowered by something I wrote, and this will humble and make me ridiculously happy. But it is a by-product. My contract with my reader rests on the delivery of the best story I can possibly write at the time that I am writing. If it manages to do other things, then, as my daughters would say, “That’s so random, but, yeah, also super cool.”
KZ: Love and fear seem to be mingled together in this story and both seem to hold these girls together even after they are freed. Did you do a lot of research on the subject of captivity while writing this? Why was this subject one you felt the need to explore further?
AD: In another life, I developed an idea for a show called “Desaparecidos” (“The Missing”). Our production team produced 49 episodes of it, but the very first one that aired featured a girl called Gina De Jesus. She had disappeared years before somewhere between her school and her home.
We interviewed many mothers of missing children and teens for that show. Every one of them said they were sure their child was still alive, or at least that is what they said on camera. Often their eyes told a different story. You could tell when a mother knew in her heart that the opposite was true because her eyes were so much sadder, their posture, a mourning one. But not Gina’s mom. She told me she walked from her daughter’s school to her house every morning and every afternoon. Every time the school’s bell rang, there she was, looking. Every time school let out, there she was again, searching faces. For years.
Of course, I believed it when she told me her daughter was alive. I even argued with people on our team who felt I was being hopeful and romantic about the case. Years later, reading about a horrible man who had abducted three teens, there she was. Gina, rescued, the same face of the pictures I had edited and animated, and cropped and written on for weeks. I was very happy, but I also became hungry for the details we had not had when we worked on her episode and, though it stabbed me to pieces in the end, I read everything there was to read about the case until I felt as if I were in her head, in their head. As if I knew things that others didn’t, which wasn’t true, of course.
And, so, yes to both of your questions. Long before I wrote “Lucky,” I did do obscene amounts of research on captivity, on kidnapped children, on the families of kidnapped children. Later, I also did feel the need to say more about this story that turned out not to be about Gina, but about walking in the shoes of victims of abduction.
KZ: You chose to write this piece in first person, starting almost every sentence with “we.” Why did you decide to write this story from that angle?
AD: I had been struggling with the story for over a year when I had the good fortune to receive a Peter Taylor Fellowship in Fiction and attend the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop. There, I caught my second lucky break when I was assigned to Nancy Zafris’s workshop because, in addition to being an incredible writer and human being, she is also a gifted teacher. One of her exercises that year, was to begin a story with an opening line supplied by her, and to then write it from the point of view of first-person-plural. My phrase was something along the lines of “we were the lucky ones,” and first-person-plural struck me as the voice of manifestos, of denunciation and the oppressed, of passion speaking for a collective with a singular common purpose. So, I knew, the moment I heard Nancy explain what we had to do, that this was the voice and point of view my girls (the ones in the story) had been waiting for.
KZ: The girls in this story are stripped of their voice and the control over their body. Their bodies were subjected to their captor, but after their rescue, it seems that their bodies had been given over to the crowds and the police. This feeling of powerlessness coincides with the recent legislature in Alabama that outlaws’ abortions, even in the case of rape. Does “Lucky” speak for the women who have been made to feel that they do not control their own bodies?
AD: I think it does. In “Lucky,” the bodies and then the voices of the girl/women are co-opted and coerced, not once, but twice. First, by their captor, who silences them by taking control of their bodies. Later, a similar process is followed by well-meaning people who first turn their bodies over to the authorities for medical and legal reasons, and then co-opt their voices, attempting to “help” with what they themselves need, not with what the girls do.
So, though there is little about reproductive rights in the story, the effects of systemic oppression it suggests are the same: other people not in your body are deciding how you are to exist, behave, and what you will believe. When our bodies are controlled by others, we lack the most basic agency over our lives. We become, in essence, subhuman. I think that when this happens, in whatever way it does, what follows is our weakening, with time, we forget how to speak up. It’s as if we had never had a voice.
KZ: Some of your written work centers around Latina women battling with everyday limitations that society has put in place- whether that be about gender or ethnicity. Becoming a writer is a hard-enough profession to follow in today’s world without throwing all these so-called limitations into the mix. What advice would you give to young women who are working to make their name in the writing world as you once did?
AD: I tell my Latino and Latina students, those who are just starting out, the same things I tell my white and male students. Not because I think the struggles are the same —I do not —but because I think they will be better empowered if they start off treating themselves as equal. That means reading and writing and working very hard before you focus on the other writing battles of publishing and marketing and the issues therein. Once they/we have done that, we can, and should, speak up when necessary, and, in so doing, be all the more effective against systemic inequalities because we will now what we are talking about and because our words will have credibility.
My Latina writer friends and colleagues have overcome so much. Broken homes, lack of documented status, repeated violence, loss, extreme poverty, drug addiction, and all kinds of the more subtle, but just as hurtful, kind of discrimination. But they have also put in the work to be great. I think of Jaquira Díaz, Amina Gautier, Jennifer Maritza McCauley, Kali Fajardo-Anstine, Ivelisse Rodríguez, Natalie Scenters Zapico, Sandy Barron, Reyna Grande. Look, also, at some of our long-revered literary wonders: Isabel Allende, Esmeralda Santiago, Sandra Cisneros and Julia Alvarez. They have not always had it easy. They still work hard at the craft and they are still grateful that they are able to do their work. Their success stories do not erase the fact that there are (still) too few people of color attending some of the best writing conferences in the country (from where many careers emerge). Or that women are not largely published and promoted and are paid less than their male counterparts. I am just saying, don’t start with anger. Do the work first. Do it anyway. Send it out again and again. Do not self-censor to fit in. Write like the devil, and then speak up for those whose voice is not yet as strong as yours.
KZ: How does your writing engage with Latinx LQBTQIA individuals and women who disagree with the traditional cultural and linguistic conducts regarding gender?
AD: In my life, I believe in every human being’s right to live in the truth of who they know themselves to be. I also support every person’s choice to be open, or not, about their sexual orientation and private life. When people ask me to refer to them a certain way, say by using the pronouns that best suit their self-vision, I feel it is my duty to support them in this, even when it is difficult for me to, say, refer to a physiologically-singular human being as “they.” But it is only difficult because I have spent years learning the grammatical rules of English and trying to follow them. Whenever I find it hard to be as observant of this as I would like, I try to remember that it is harder for human beings to go through life feeling unseen, or rejected, or negated. And then I try harder to support my own belief that love is love is love, and that we should all be able to live our life as we see fit, provided we don’t hurt others in doing so.
In my writing, I may have to go back and rewrite these things, because though my values are always present, I do not yet have a habit of focusing on them or even on the important grammatical logistics of the world I (but not always the characters) live in. I think of the story and what it needs, and rewrites will always be in order.
Kayla Ziefle is a student in the creative writing program at the University of Central Missouri, an intern for Pleiades Press and managing/poetry editor of Arcade Magazine.