ire’ne lara silva and Natalia Treviño will be the featured readers Thursday, December 12, 2019 from 7:15 – 9:00 p.m. at BookWoman (5501 N. Lamar #A-105, Austin, TX),
Born in Mexico, Natalia Treviño is the author of the chapbook, VirginX, which was a finalist for the open chapbook contest with Finishing Line press. A professor of English at Northwest Vista College in San Antonio, she was raised in a Spanish speaking household and learned English from Sesame Street’s Bert and Ernie. Her awards include the Alfredo Cisneros del Moral Award, the San Antonio Arts Foundation Literary Award, the Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg prize for Poetry, the Menada Literary Award at the Ditet E Naimit (Dee-tet EH Nah-ee-mit) Poetry Festival in Macedonia, and several others. Her first book, Lavando La Dirty Laundry, was a national and international awards finalist. Natalia’s poems appear in Bordersenses, Borderlands, The Taos Journal of Poetry and Art, and other journals and anthologies.
CH: It’s hard to believe it’s been five years since we’ve shared this space. So I’d like to start by asking your thoughts about your writing life during this interval. What pieces have remained constant? What has changed, or ebbed and flowed?
NT: I also cannot believe it has been five years. So much has happened—to both of us. Since the last time I came to share this space, I’ve lost a parent, my father. It’s been a very difficult time. My writing sort of halted as I felt very deflated even though I know my work with the Virgin was spiritual preparation for something big. I didn’t think it would be that big or that close, but I knew I was on the verge of a loss of some sort. I imagined it was the loss of my beloved Tia Licha who I write about in my first book. She’d been such an inspiration to me and was a living connection to my grandmother, her big sister. That could be the only explanation for so much miracle, so much direct and divine intervention as I was diving into my study of her.
The loss of my father was completely unexpected. I was had lunch with him in my home on that last day of his. I had just come home from a trip abroad to study and write about the Virgin. I am just now getting back on track with my work with her and with my other projects. Grief is most definitely best understood through creativity. It has been a reflective time. Thankfully, my poetry group meets consistently, which means I churned out several new poems since then, but they are all over the place, about teaching, about my cat, about the chasm that is in my consciousness now in the world without my father. It has been a challenge.
CH: I read on your website (http://www.nataliatrevino.com) that you are working on a new collection of poems about Mary, and it was lovely to be able to read one of the poems (“Between Wings”). And contemporaneous with the 2nd Thursday reading in December, BookWoman will be having its annual Virgin Day Celebration in honor of the Virgen de Guadalupe. Please tell us a little about how Mary resonates for you, and about the inspiration for this new project.
NT: Thank you for the kind words and the research, Cindy! And I’m thrilled the reading fits in with Virgin Day at BookWoman. It is such an honor to bring my poems about the Virgin to any audience because she is more than the mom of a really nice man who was crucified for being a really good guy, a spiritual coffee cup, waking people up about their inner lives and their socio-spiritual responsibilities. Among other things, Jesus told us we are all God’s children, all brothers and sisters, and he liked peace and humility, and a rule of law that was based on compromise and respect. He did not want us lusting after wealth or prizes or power. The realm within is what he was helping us to understand, but He also cared for the poor and for children, for marginalized people. Sadly, he’s been twisted into someone who represents the homophobic jerks who hoard wealth and funds illegal materialistic wars. He can’t be happy with his characterization and how he’s been pimped out by corrupt leaders because this claiming of him to justify war and pompous self-righteousness so contradicts the very simple sentences that he emphasized: live without sin. Sin is dicking over your friends, family, and community: dicking them is doing the same thing to God, and that’s not good. It is the worst form of self-harm.
The Virgin is a much bigger being than a saint or relative to Jesus, and not only because she was used to replace Tonantzin by the Catholics, and not only because she’s the symbol of Catholic purity, the Mother of Jesus, Blessed among women, but also because, like all women, she’s linked to us all genetically and is a reminder that yes, we actually are brothers and sisters. She is linked genetically to Mitochondrial Eve, the maternal ancestor to all living humans, and so are all of us.
There is a common factor in our shared genetic being, and all woman are the sacred portal to life through this ancestral communion with life, original human life. This is true especially for women, not only if we become mothers, to send that genetic message forward, but because we are from mothers, connected to the source no matter what our reproductive choices are. Being aware of our cosmic ancestry going back to Mitochondrial Eve is a portal to Life, and with the big L, I mean Spiritual Life: the awareness that we are all deeply connected to one another through one actual mother. How is the Virgin mixed in with this? That is the miracle. She is a once-human-body that has transcended humanity, as all of our ancestors have, and who I believe is aware of us and her own connection to the Spirit Mother-Father, what some will God, the Creator.
We all have the DNA from Mitochondrial Eve, and we would not be alive without it. This is passed only through the mother line. Our ancestral mother, the mother of all mothers lived 200,000 years ago according to a study from Rice University, and she’s alive in each of us, literally in our spit, semen, and eggs. She’s in our tear ducts! She’s in Mary’s DNA too, and the Creator Goddess (who else) built this system of people.
Our indigenous ancestors and family members already know this. The goddess, Mother of God, is the Origin of Life, and science says all life begins in the ocean, in water, which has almost the same rich saline solution as the salt in our first nest, the amniotic sac, which was at 2% saline. The ocean is 3%, but this is so interesting. Salt water is necessary for life, for birth, and somehow also necessary for all foods to grow so that plants, humans, and animals can survive. Fresh water is absolutely essential for all of these life forms too. How can we not pay attention to that when we talk about the Mother of God? She’s liquid. She’s in our many ducts, aware of us and calling for self-care and compassion for ourselves and for others. This is the message of the Son, right? The Santeria religion, which is a blend of Catholicism and West African Yoruba practices call have syncretized their water goddess Yemaya/ Yemoja with the Virgin as well.
Mary, La Virgen is, like all women, tapped into that enormous power, and represents that power so beautifully, as she’s the one who was chosen to be named the Mother of God, Queen of Heaven. It’s in our DNA to connect to one another to assemble as a group, and many can do it through the idea of a Mother Goddess. This is why she was accepted by the indigenous people of the land that is now called Mexico. They said, “Oh, that’s how you see HER? OK!” And we have the matachines devoted to her every December 8th, the day she appeared to Juan Diego.
The thing is that all mothers are linked like a constellation, or better yet, a power grid to this great source, and so are all of their children. I know this sounds wildly heretical, but it’s also exactly what John said in John 3: “Dear friends, now we are children of God, and we have not yet been shown what we will be in the future.” There is a lot of debate about whether this means we are automatically saved just because we are God’s kids. The line about the future evokes that question. The Second Coming is what most scholars say this future is about and yes, this is a factor in the Bible, judging those who lived in Christ— but to live in Christ meant be a good person. Believe that you must be a good person to reach spiritual feast and glory, and good means some basic things: do not hurt one another is number 1.
But who wrote the parts that said Jesus locks you out if you do this or that? Men. Men who wanted power. Jesus wanted us to love one another and His Mom. He wasn’t after power on Earth, was he? He was saying Heaven is for all of us if we are KIND to one another and look INWARD at our own sacred potential, sharing our material wealth with others so we can stop worrying about bread and begin worrying about our spiritual nourishment instead.
While dying on the cross, he looked at John; “Then he said to the disciple, ‘Behold, your mother!’” This is John 19. What a great son to know his mother so well, to see her real power and place in the world. I honor that.
Our Mother “es muy milagrosa,” my grandmother once told me. I see it now. My project is attempting to understand her better, and in so many traditions. There are over twenty two thousand Virgins who are all the same spirit, and each of those names, or identities are specific manifestations of her miracles. I understand there are many ways to access her, and I hope to understand this more by examining her representations created by humans in their inspired creative works. They looked to her miracles in their world, felt her resonance with all people as the Mother of God and all of us too, and found women around them who could represent her to model as her. They see her in their own mothers or lovers or muses. Looking at how artists adorn her and tell her story inspires me with a lifelong project of deepening my faith, taking in art, and tapping into the eternal thing I’ve always loved about literature: the complex, sometimes broken, but everlasting human spirit— in all of us!
CH: I understand you are teaching at Northwest Vista College in San Antonio. How do your students surprise you? How does teaching inform your own work?
NT: My students are so much smarter than they think they are. Once I build an atmosphere of trust, they tell me what they know. If they do not trust me, they will stay shy and not reveal their knowledge to me. If they do not trust me, they will never tell me what they need and what they don’t really know, and so with trust-building, we begin, and I also use trust move them forward with so much excitement.
They already receive a mass of information. They read all day long, not textbooks, but yes Twitter feeds and status updates. They are reading, communicating, connecting, making meaning, making new words, working out what ethos they will follow, working out who they will believe. My job is to show they how they can do it on a different scale, an academic one, so they can be degreed.
Why do most of them want a degree? It is not to discover mysticism or realism or humanism or even Chicano power. Most want to move along on the socioeconomic ladder that they feel is holding them back. I know I did when I was their age. How would I own a home one day? How could I be wealthy? I wanted to hoard and save like my father did, so I could one day take great vacations, travel, and of course, own a swimming pool. My students want these things too. They think things will bring them happiness and they have lost their faith in teachers. What surprises me is when they do trust me because I work on this every semester. Being in their lives is sacred work.
They are all multi-lingual and mostly bicultural like me. Most community college students are nepantleros, between two worlds: culturally. Once we talk about this idea of Gloria Anzaldua’s, they know we are being real and that they can be free to share their world in the classroom.
What surprises me most is when they trust me with their story, when they volunteer to share a personal worry or story. One of my students lost his father this year. He announced this during our Dia de los Muertos event. It has been less than two weeks. I started getting teary and shakey as I responded to him, but thankfully we were all talking about our dead, and we had a positive, communal Die de los Muertos altar that they had voluntarily built in front of us, a ceremonial space which made it beautiful. He added a picture of his dad to it. He wanted us to all know it had just happened the week before. I am doing the most important work I can do, helping my students gain confidence to share their voice. Their voice is their super-power.
CH: You have many roles in life: professor, writer, mother. How are you creating balance? How do you make time for your own writing amid the demands and commitments of work and family?
NT: This is always a struggle. It’s midnight as I type this interview and I need to be at work tomorrow at 9 a.m. There is a ton of grading waiting for me on my desk. It’s 4 a.m. when I do my best prose writing —sometimes on a Sunday morning when an idea wakes me up— or a hot flash!. Sometimes I tell my husband, “Don’t talk to me until I come out of our room” or “Don’t talk to me until Sunday.” He is fantastic and extremely generous about these requests. He understands how important it is to me to have time to write. I would not be the writer I am if it were not for his generosity and faith in my work, which has been there from the beginning. We met writing letters to one another. He is a writer too, but he is so selfless that he makes the space for me to create what I want to create. He will make dinner, clean up, and even give me alone time to write when we have a short vacation or a weekend together.
It’s just the two of us now, and we are learning it together since my son has always been a part of the package. I am in a new stage of motherhood now, which kind of feels like a break up, but not the angry kind, the I know you need to go kind. It’s nature. He’s moved out. He’s 21. It is so hard to miss him as much as I do, but it is also a wonderful time in our relationship as we are honest with each other and support each other as artists.
He’s a musician, rapper, and college student. I can fall asleep without knowing where he is finally. It used to keep me awake! I don’t have ulcers from worry, but I do send regular texts telling him to quit smoking. Mexican moms hang on tight, too tight. I’m trying to resist making him dread his oppressive Mexican mother who is a ball of worry and doubt and fear. Yes, I have all that, but the other day I sang the 12 Days of Christmas to him in full opera style at dinner. He and my husband loved me enough to let me do this. I need singing lessons. We have fun, and I can enjoy a glass of wine with him now as I tread into this new space of motherhood that is about encouraging and guidance and not rules and mandates.
I find that through attention to my body, which has been so generous with me so far, that I am able to balance and remember why I am here. I am running three times a week and dedicated to walking long distances with my best friend at work every day. I am taking care of health in numerous ways, not forgetting about my body as often as I used to. These active measures punctuate my week and my life now. My exercise routine is a keystone habit reminding me each day of my priorities: goals, work, family, not in that order.
Family is first, work is second, writing is third except for when it is first, and family does understand that sometimes writing is first.
CH: In a section labeled, “finding purpose,” your website has an intriguing discussion of the term mutualism. along with the statement, “Mutualism describes the relationship between my writing and my life.” How did you come to your understanding of mutualism? How has adopting this concept made a difference in how you approach your own work, and working with others?
NT: I love the wisdom in the physical world. If a tree creates and gives me oxygen, I want some of that wisdom so I can survive like a tree does, giving something written to the world in return for its favors of light and air, Earth and water. I am happy to be a place for nests, a place that provides shelter for my students, friends, and loved ones, and perhaps also provide good fruit for my readers, if I am lucky enough to be that kind of tree. This can happen when I receive the gift of consciousness, calm, reasoning, and love, so can put forth more branches and perhaps be close to winged creatures that inspire me. My student just posted this wonderful line in his research paper where Chelley Seibert, a 25-year police veteran giving a TED talk, quotes Jana Stansfield saying, “I cannot do all the good that the world needs, but the world needs all the good that I can do” (“Behind The Badge”). Yep.
CH: Tell us a little about your novel-in-progress, Drinking the Bee Water.
Oh, that is the marathon for me! I was so fortunate to have it accepted with the press of my dreams a few years ago, and then my agent advised me to pull it because she did not approve of the contract. It was the bravest thing I have ever done because I have been working on this novel for a long time and this was my desired press, the press that changed my life and introduced me to Chicano letters. The truth is the novel was not done, and pulling it was a good idea in the long run. I am reworking it after others have read it and said, “Hey, this is not done yet. Try this. Work on that.” Ok. I always tell my students to sacrifice the words for the work. The work is not done, and I am so excited about how it is going now, which is a sacrifice of words, a lot of them, thousands of them that need to be unstitched, reconsidered. Luckily, I have many new words inside of me, and I have some new possibilities for publication, but I have to see it through, which gets back to the work/life balance thing. The story about this woman, Berta, is too important to muck up.
CH: When we last spoke, Lavando La Dirty Laundry had just come out, and you were focusing on its launch and promotion in the world. Looking back, were there any surprises along the way? Was there anything you would have done differently?
NT: I am so pleased with how it went. Who can complain about a dream come true? My first book of poetry. I would gladly revise it now because I have grown as a writer, and some of the poems could use some nurturing and pruning, and this is also true for VirginX. My Macondo network helped me immensely with this book, and I have limited time to travel and promote it.
The next book will get more attention on this front. The more you plan before the book release the better the launch will go. I had no idea how to get the word out, and so I said yes to everything and everyone. There is no small audience, only a small performer. This is what a former music professor friend used to say. And with each encounter I have in sharing this book with others, I notice it has its own life, how it resonates with certain people who are navigating nepantla, the world in between cultures, languages, between heritage shame versus heritage pride.
CH: What are you reading now?
Research papers. HAHA! Yes, I do read a lot of student work, revisions, revisions, and reflections and drafts. But for my own work, at the moment I am reading ire’ne lara silva’s Cuicacalli (Saddle Road Press 2019) and an early copy of Wendy Barker’s Gloss (Saint Julian Press, out in January 2020). These are my two favorite poets, and it is an honor to also call them my friends. They are a huge factor in the mutualism idea I mention in my website. They are great trees who bear important fruit and nutrients for me. I can honestly say that they have had a deep influence on my work.
In fiction, I am reading Dirty Love by Andre Dubus III, who I met at Gemini Ink last summer, and this book, which is so out of my normal reading range, it is shedding light on all kinds of things, showing me something lyrical in the structure of a contemporary short story collection about how dirty love can get. I recently finished another book about love called Love by Hanne Ørstavik and translated by Martin Aitken from Norwegian (Archipelago Books, February 2018). It is about the limits of motherhood, a very powerful book gifted to me by my amazing friend, Gregg Barrios. It haunts me, but this is a good thing.