In college, I took a class organized by a friend called “Women of Color in the United States.” One assignment was to read excerpts from Loving in the War Years. It was then that I found the words I needed as a Chicana to describe the world around me. In this sense, Swallows began after reading that book. When it first came out (and even today), Cherríe’s writing broke through so many social, cultural, and literary barriers. Cherríe has said that she started to write to save her life; writing from the silences in my own life has also saved me, and the poems in this book come from that place.
Swallows provides a very intimate portrait of your family, at times blurring the lines between fiction and non-fiction. How did you negotiate sharing your families’ personal stories with the world?
In poetry as in other writing, the truth is always blurred. In this book there are poems where little girls fly over the Sears Tower, which of course, hasn’t happened (yet, although we see how Hello Kitty went to space, so just give it a couple of years).
Memory is a tricky thing, and I don’t pretend that everything in this collection is factual, and I worked really hard so that it is also not confessional (no one wants to read your journal). What I will say is true, is that my family shaped who I am, their choices were both hard to watch and necessary to help me (and my brothers) become who we are. Did we lose a lot of pets? Yes. Did I have a fat, ex-boyfriend? Yes. Did it all happen the way I wrote it? No, but it’s based on what I felt, even if it didn’t happen.
While this story is about a Mexican-American family it seems to tells us a lot about families in general. Particularly the tension between love and conflict and the very fragility of the family unity. Can you talk a little about the role of the family in Swallows?
I was lucky enough to read a few poems from the collection at Skylight Books this past week. I read “Pets” which is also a video poem you can see here. After reading it I told the audience that this poem is not just about my family because I dare someone to tell me there are no “putas” in their pasts. That poem is about my father’s affair with a woman that lasted a lifetime. What family doesn’t have secrets or boundaries that were not crossed? We’re all family in that sense.
Again, my family shaped me; their choices were hard to watch, yet necessary. What are we if not a product of our families, our lineage, and our ancestors? My mother and her sisters are all artists. They embroider, they’re carpenters. I’m just continuing the tradition.
Some of the most present characters in Swallows are those that are physically absent. What is it like to live with these “phantom” like characters?
My sister Victoria who died before I was born is my Tocaya. Since my name is a shortened version of my sister’s name, I am another version of her. We still celebrate her birthday every year. My family sets up a Christmas tree in December and we take flowers to her grave every chance we get. She’s not really gone; she lives on in who I am and the choices I make.
As for the other ghosts (grandparents, former pets, other women), they’re like fossils that give us fuel to keep our cars going. That may be a crappy analogy, but it’s true. The fact that my brothers and I grew up without grandparents means there missing link to our past that is filled with story. We imagine who they were, how they sounded, and we get all this from the stories our parents tells us. Writing this book is really just an adaptation of those stories we heard growing up. It’s an urban Chicano folk tale told in poems.
Has your family read Swallows? How did they respond to being in print?
My brothers have read excerpts, and I hope they read the whole thing. The younger one came to the reading at Skylight last week and he really liked what I read. There are some stories that are for me to tell, and that’s what’s in this book. My extended family doesn’t read poetry (and I haven’t told them about the book), and my parents don’t either, so for now, I’m “safe.” I’m wrestling with the things that are not for me to tell in the creative memoir I’m writing about high school in 90s LA.
To Purchase Swallows click here.