March 2019 – Poet, novelist and essayist Erika L. Sánchez read poems and answered questions about her craft at Drew University.
Most of the poems came from Sánchez’s debut collection Lessons on Expulsion, a finalist for the PEN American Open Book Award. Sánchez, a guest of the university’s Writers@Drew series, also read an unpublished poem, “Termination,” for the first time.
Sánchez, whose debut young adult novel I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter became a New York Times best seller and finalist for a National Book Award, also answered questions from students and professors. Here are the top five.
What’s your writing process?
“Writing is my entire life. So, every moment revolves around writing. I’m writing on airplanes. I write in coffee shops. I write in bed. I write notes to myself when I’m in the grocery store. I think about writing all the time. I also feel that writing is not just the act of writing, but it’s learning to see the world and engaging with the world and experiencing different kinds of art. So, if I’m stuck, maybe I’ll watch a movie, go for a run, listen to a song. I don’t have a set schedule or routine. And so for me, characters are born in my brain and I have to take care of them. It sounds kind of precious, but that’s really the way it is for me.”
How much of I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter is politically motivated?
“I feel like my existence is political, so I can’t escape it. I think we just live in a time in which these (immigration) issues are important. I wish that my novel wasn’t relevant. I wish we lived in a time where we didn’t have to worry about undocumented people being deported or being mistreated, but unfortunately that’s the reality that we live in right now. So, for me it was just the book that I needed to write regardless of the moment. … I think that when you write your truth, you don’t really consider, necessarily, what it means politically. You just write it because you have to—and that’s exactly what I did.”
What advice do you have for Latino writers who feel that their material is not relatable to the masses?
“Ignore that altogether. We’re human. We all have universal experiences. We all love. We all die. We all hurt. And so to tell someone that their story isn’t relevant or isn’t important, I just think that’s nonsense. Obviously, with the shift in the publishing industry, they’re starting to understand that we matter, that we buy things, that we read and that other people are interested in our story as well. Just the fact that the movie Roma did so well—it won several Oscars. Coco did phenomenally. I don’t listen to people who say that sort of thing because I don’t think it’s true.”
Are there writers you trust that give you honest feedback?
“Tomás (Morín, an assistant professor at Drew who co-directs the school’s Creative Writing Program) is someone I trust with my work. … One of my pieces of advice for young people is to find your people. It’s really important to build a community and find people that you respect and you trust with your words.”
How do you avoid falling into one writing pattern?
“I start reading more. I think we need to read more than what we actually write. That’s just my philosophy. I read tons of books and I don’t write tons of books. … Also, you need to have friends that call you out when you’re repeating yourself and you’re plagiarizing yourself, in a sense. Go watch a dance performance. Go to a play. Watch a movie. Just try to get out of your head and try to break that pattern. Because if you’re not surprised, the reader’s not surprised. You have to surprise yourself. And that has to be joyful.”
The event was sponsored by The Casement Fund, the English Department and the Women’s and Gender Studies Visiting Scholar Endowment.