Interview by Tess Liem
Tropico (Metatron 2017) is Marcela Huerta’s debut collection of poetry. Her book is a distinct exploration of elegy, memorial, political exile, and family history. Among other things, Tess Liem talked to Marcela about putting a first book together, dark humour and writing through grief.
Tess Liem: Would you talk about how you started writing Tropico?
Marcela Huerta: It was actually while I was in a book club that I had with Jay Ritchie and Alex Manley and my best friend Kate Ramsden when I started writing a few pieces. Earlier that year (this was last year that I started writing the book) in the summer I had gone to an event and this author, who had a similar background as my parents, said that she felt like she could only engage with writing that was coming post-dealing-with-your-emotions and your trauma, instead of being in the midst of it. And I disagree so heartily.
I’ve always been so interested in trauma and writing about trauma so I remember hearing that, feeling disillusioned and thinking, when will I ever write about this if I agree with her, I don’t know when that time will come. And in disagreeing with her, I started to write more. At the book club I mentioned wanting to be in a writing workshop that Jay had talked about and he very kindly emailed me about it. So I sent him some stuff. I had seven pieces that I had been working on and originally, I had wanted to do a book of essays but I think a lot of the writing I was doing at that time was coming from a place of grief and working through grief so that became more my focus.
TL: In Tropico there are prose poems and lineated poems and one way to read them is the prose as narrative or mini-short stories, while the verse is working through those stories, reflecting on events. The way the forms relate is more complicated than that, but in the verse, there’s more “I” speaking and lots of body. This dynamic between forms is a unique part of Tropico. I’m interested in how you see them working together.
MH: The prose pieces were the first pieces I wrote and those were kind of written at a time that I was very much trying to deal with grief, grief that was very delayed. When my dad passed away I was like, I’m doing fine. I just kept working and said, This is all OK. Then a year later I had a brutal winter of loneliness and missing him, so that kind of coincided with this writing. Then Jay just kept asking to see more and gently pushing me and it was definitely something that I needed. I finished 33 pages or something like that and then worked to making it longer over the next few months and slowly started experimenting more. I started working on more of the lineated poetry and the writing through feelings, writing through memories, and focusing less on the experience of collecting a history. Because for me it was so much about telling—or I guess asking—how do you tell these stories that are so dependent on oral histories when the people that are telling those stories are suffering, either suffering from PTSD or they just can’t engage with it anymore? You kind of collect those little bits and pieces over the course of your life and you just have to put together a story that’s mostly yours and may or may not be what actually happened. It’s more your reflection of how you see the people that matter to you.
TL: There is also the direct address, writing to “you,” which has all sorts of effects for thinking about memory and history. It also creates a distinct voice so I’m wondering how you think about this choice to write in second person?
MH: It comes from two places. The first book that I read as a teenager that really jump-started this kind of anger and made me want to write was Junot Diaz’s The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao; and in my high school, everything that we were studying–there was actually not a single writer of colour. So I remember reading that book and feeling so mad. Also, it was like it was speaking to me and I could really relate to the way Diaz uses the second person. Junot was the main person who, when I started writing, I was inspired by as a teenager.
In terms of this particular work, it felt so important to me because he [my father] is both there and not there. In that sense, the second person is like a letter and is also like a conversation and that felt like something that really needed to be in the book. Then the second person just kind of built itself into Tropico in a way that it became every piece in the book, except for the one that’s from my mom’s point of view about the earthquake (“Terremoto”). To me it felt like it was a necessary part of telling the story because so much of it is me trying to engage with my own grief and engage with a grief that is so ongoing with someone who is gone but for whom I still have a lot of questions.
Sometimes it also feels like it’s a confrontation. That’s also a big part of the book for me. Confronting all these concepts and ideas that I have about memory and my culture and my history, about my parents’ history. I feel like the second person does so much for that. It expresses so much gentleness, but also it can express so much anger and frustration.
TL: The use of the second person also seems particularly related to being second generation and how we hear, retell, and remember our parents’ stories.
MH: And a lot of the story and the history of my parents has been told to me not by them because often they’re incapable of doing that. So you get this––I would have my sister tell me a story, and to me, [writing Tropico] was kind of like trying to confirm with them, this is a thing that happened to you, is it not?
TL: And processing family stories, having them re-told to you, asking for confirmation, all of these aspects of recounting your family history, as you get older, they can change how you remember those stories.
MH: Memory is such a troubling and difficult thing to engage with. I wanted to play with how you can take these family stories and they can be completely shattered in a second by someone telling you, oh that happened to your cousin, it didn’t happen to your sister, and all of a sudden, all those images are gone. They’re suddenly no longer a part of an image of yourself and of the family life that you’ve created.
I tried to engage with that a lot with the pieces that were from secondhand knowledge, so for example, “The Man Without A Face,” the one on the plane, I remember my dad telling me about his plane ride from Chile and he completely left out the fact that his daughter was on the plane with him. I remember having this conversation with my [half] sister about it and she explained all of that to me, about her experience, which was that her mom had died and she had been with our grandmother because our dad had been in hiding and then all of a sudden they told her she was going to Canada and they were all going and that she was going to go first with my dad but nobody really explained that to her. She hadn’t seen him in several months and then she was just right next to him. To me this was such a revelation. When I heard this story, in such a completely different way, is when I realized he could only engage with one part of his experience, he could suddenly not be a father. He was a man who was leaving his entire life behind. He didn’t even remember her being there.
TL: This relates to a striking image at the end of “There is still time to ask questions,” a piece I kept returning to. You write, “I can’t really imagine much from these photos they’re so badly taken.” For me, this became an emblematic image for the book. Memories become a kind of act of imagination because what you have is so damaged and hard to see.
MH: Exactly, it’s so blurry and there were so many things like that where I had had a version of the story and I had related to it so much and that had been my story. You know when you’re a kid and you’re like, my mom did this and my dad did this, and then to all of a sudden have those things shifted and to see the humanity in my parents more, see their flaws.
TL: I wanted to ask about laughing and humour too. In “El Chacotero,” which starts, “Here is one of your funny stories,” and also in the poem before it, “Sad,” in which you talk about your mother, and laughing so that people know that it’s a joke. Would you talk about humour in Tropico?
MH: Engaging with my parents and the cultural jokiness that is very emblematic of Chileans, at least the ones in my life, is really interesting to me because I spent most of my childhood and most of my young adulthood wanting to be a comedy screenwriter. I remember I used to feel like I was so funny and it just–since my dad passed away–I remember I had this moment in my life where I was on the bus (he had had cancer and was in remission) and I was on the bus back from Toronto and I found out that he was going into palliative care and that was the moment where I felt like, well I am no longer funny.
I still watch so many comedies, I still read comedy and yet, it made me reflect on my own parents in this way that I never had to before, where for the first time I really felt what they were masking, and nothing was funny anymore. Everything that used to be, like everything that I would get some semblance of dark humour out of, it was suddenly so brutal and painful. I feel like I’ve always also–I have this from my mom, where I really try to make people comfortable through humour, and you know you spend so much time trying to make male bosses comfortable, teachers comfortable, and I didn’t want to feel like that anymore. It took a lot of my lightness away. But I feel like that lightness has been replaced with a more honest lightness, more of an engagement with how I’m really feeling and there can still be humour in that.
TL: Well it’s really well done, especially in “El Chacotero” because it opens with “Here is one of your funny stories,” and it ends with weeping, or rather weeping and laughter, and that’s ok.
ML: And it is really interesting to see, as an adult, these stories, and all of the pain that those stories are masking, and to break through it and see what’s underneath, especially with “El Chacotero.” As an adult I find it so difficult to reflect on my dad’s childhood because it was abusive and the only stories that he could tell about his childhood were these ridiculous stories that were so strange and so funny because he couldn’t go beyond that. Because if he did, it revealed too much pain. Every once in a while, you see a crack in that and you see, in the history that your parents have, or that people that you love have, you kind of see that slip, and you realize there’s so much more underneath there that you’re not able to bring to the surface.
This interview was originally published in the digital edition of Vallum Issue 15:1 “Memory and Loss.”