One of the many reasons I am publishing these interviews is to give proper credit to those people in our communities who are doing amazing work and have impacted my life one way or another, the everyday hero who is not known by many. One of those people is Vanessa Martir. I first met Vanessa in the Spring of 2013 at my first reading with The New York City Latina Writers Group. She is someone who lets her presence be known when she walks into a room, especially as a writer. That day she shared her journey and the importance of respecting your craft and working relentlessly at it.
After that first encounter, I kept running into her in the writing scene and finally, in the Spring of 2017, I became one of her students at the Writing Our Lives workshop. Vanessa has helped me tremendously in my writing. By working with her I found my voice on the page and I let go of the shame others made me feel because of my accent, as she always reminds me “You carry Venezuela on your back and that’s who you are, punto!”. She also challenged me to read books I otherwise wouldn’t pick up to read and to enjoy those books as a reader but also as a writer. After three workshops with her, my work has been published in numerous publications, I became a VONA alum in the Summer of 2017, created a book-writing club with a group of former members of her class (The Musa) and I have not stopped writing and submitting.
These series of interviews would not be complete without discussing with her the writer’s journey, her own and the importance of documenting our stories.
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WA: Who is Vanessa Mártir, Where were you born?
VM: That’s a big question. I’m many things: a queer woman, a mother, a writer, an educator, a sister, a daughter, a friend. I was born in NYC, raised in Bushwick, Brooklyn before gentrification, when the neighborhood was littered with abandoned buildings and rubble and garbage strewn lots, before and during the crack epidemic that destroyed so many of our people and communities. The foundation of my social activism was built there: in Bushwick.
I’m also a scholarship kid via the A Better Chance (ABC) Program that gave me the chance to attend a prestigious school in Wellesley, MA. I’ve also attended an Ivy League University. I am all these things too while holding on to and honoring my roots as an Afro-Indígena, Boricua-Hondureña, raised in the hood.
I’m a social activist. I am loud and quiet, an ambivert who loves community and fam, but also needs her solitude.
I’m a brooder, a creative. I love hard and bite back. Fierce and unfuckwithable, I am strong but not invincible. I contain multitudes.
WA: When did you claim yourself a writer? Why do you feel it takes time to claim it?
VM: It took me a long time to claim myself a writer, though I know now I became a writer in the plum tree of my backyard in Bushwick. It was up in those branches that I started telling myself stories. I left Bushwick at 13 to attend boarding school, and in eleventh grade, my professor gave me How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents by Julia Alvarez and my world has never been the same. This was the first book I’d read by a Latinx writer, and I could relate to her characters and their struggles in white America because I was living them. For the first time, I thought: “Maybe I can be a writer.”
I started eating up books by Latinx writers and writers of color, hunting them down, however, I could. This was before the internet was really accessible so I asked teachers and dug into library shelves. When I went to college at Columbia University, I took every Latino literature and culture class I could, and in my junior year, I joined the fight for ethnic studies because I wanted to study the immigration experience. I wanted to know myself.
But that elite education coupled with the working class immigrant mindset instilled in me by my Honduran mother made me wary of pursuing the arts. How could I pursue a writing life? I needed a job, a salary, health insurance. So I did what was expected of me–I entered corporate America.
I was miserable for a long time. I wrote on my free time. I was published here and there, but I was still running away from the call. I was still referring myself a writer out of the side of my mouth.
It was when I was pregnant with daughter in 2004 that starting writing again in earnest. I filled five journals during those nine months. And I knew I couldn’t go back to corporate America. I know what misery does to a family. There’s a reason why I left everything I knew and loved at 13 to make my way out in the world… So, I set it up so I’d get fired (because my boss was Satan) and I wrote my first book, Woman’s Cry. That’s what it took to call myself a writer and believe it. I never looked back.
WA: Describe your writing process and what is your favorite place to write.
VM: This too is a huge question. I always think of Daniel José Older’s essay “Writing Begins with Forgiveness” when I think about the writing process. I have made writing a part of my life. I write anywhere and everywhere, but I find there’s something about writing on the train that opens something up for me. I also love writing in nature, in the woods, under a tree. I have a writing room now, so I love writing there, and on my deck, and on the corner of my couch. I’ve worked on training myself to write anywhere. Inspiration is great, but you have to grab the reins back and show up, so I do. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. I show up anyway.
WA: You are always talking about the importance of telling our stories, what is the responsibility of the writer? Do writers have a collective purpose?
VM: I think a writer’s responsibility is to her work, to her stories, her authentic voice. As for a purpose, I think that’s very individual, but I’ve found that when I ask writers why they write, their answer usually sums up to this: they write to take their power back. I know I do.
WA: What role identity plays in a writer’s life, how important it is in your opinion
VM: I can’t speak for anyone but myself here. I know that for me, identifying as a woman of color, as Afro-Indígena, as a woman from the hood, daughter of immigrants, has helped me in writing my stories. It’s helped me determine how I approach the story; for whom I’m writing the story, that is, who is my intended audience. It’s also helped me examine why I write the stories I write, what’s important to me culturally, what do I want to honor as a writer of color, as a woman, as a second generation Latinx woman. There are so many layers to our identities and knowing what they are can help a writer understand themselves and their work better.
WA: What is the most daring thing you’ve ever put into words?
VM: I am really vulnerable in my work. I work to break silences that no longer serve or protect me if they ever did in the first place. I think the most daring thing I’ve written is about being unmothered, what happened to my mother that she couldn’t and still can’t mother me.
I have an essay coming out in Roxane Gay’s anthology Not that Bad that is probably the most vulnerable thing I’ve ever written, which says a lot because if you know my work, you know I do a lot of shadow work. This essay is about my own experiences with incest and sexual assault, and ties into what I know about my mother’s story. It took me seven years to write that essay, and I’m still terrified to have it out in the world, but it was time, and I’m honored that it found a home in that anthology.
WA: Writers often times have dealt with censorship, how you deal with it? Is it acceptable?
VM: This is a timely question. I just had to pull an essay from a magazine in Australia because the edits the editor in chief made felt like silencing. The magazine reached out to me to write for them. They follow my work and wanted my voice, my stories. So I submitted an essay about how my mother rejected my relationship with my butch partner. I included some of my mother’s story because it’s necessary to understanding why I am unmothered and why I had to (and could) walk away from her. The editor in chief determined that for legal reasons, much of what I’d written about abuse and rape, could not be published. I’ve worked so long to dismantle and reject a silence around these very issues, both in my family and society as a whole, so I couldn’t in good conscience accept these edits. It was an extremely triggering situation, but I know withdrawing the essay was the right decision. This is about my integrity, and that’s something I’m not willing to compromise.
In other words, you have to determine what you will accept when it comes to censorship, and it’s important to understand and come to terms with your motivations. Only you can make this decision.
WA: In this age of social media frenzy, Where is the line between observation and surveillance?
VM: Observation as I understand it is the act of observing and being observed while surveillance is a close observation of a person or group with suspicion at its core and/or motivation.
I’m wary of social media though I am in all up in it, as a writer and documenter of my life. I’ve found a lot of love and solidarity online but have also found some real ugliness. People who watch you to wish for your failure, to harass you, to come for you at every chance they get. The internet has given the biggest cowards cojones the size of a bull’s. It can be disillusioning and upsetting. I try to take breaks, to protect myself as best I can from those kinds of people, but as someone who writes online, it’s hard to escape it.
I talked to a friend recently who has gotten some really ugly shit thrown at her via social media. It’s hard to deal with that and remind yourself that you are loved, your work is important and necessary. When I’m feeling most distraught by it, I turn to folks who love and care for me. They hold up a mirror I believe in and trust. They keep me accountable and on my toes. I know they will be loving and tender with me. I know they will remind me of what and who is important.
WA: A lot of times being a writer is often discouraged by those around us, how you deal with this and your advice to those emerging writers experiencing this.
VM: It’s hard when people you know and trust turn their backs on you because they don’t like something you wrote or they can’t handle your shine, or feel somehow challenged or insecure around you. This has happened to me a few times. I’ve had people in my family turn on me. That shit is hard. It’s important to honor your feelings. Sweeping them under the rug or pretending that you are unfazed won’t help you heal. It will show up somewhere else–how you show up for people you love, your relationships, your ability to trust, etc.
While I encourage you to let yourself grieve and feel the disappointment and loss, I also encourage you to remind yourself of why you are a writer and what made you start writing. Remind yourself of why periodically. Why you started and why you continue to write. This will give you courage and strength when it gets hard.
As Anne Lamott wrote: “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”
I try not to write out of a place of resentment, though I know sometimes I have to write through it to really get to the story. That’s where revision comes in. I’m not trying to vilify anyone in my work. I’m trying to make sense of the things that I’ve experienced and endured, and how it is I became this woman who writes to break down silences. So, while Anne Lamott’s words are true, it’s not easy. Not one bit.
WA: Which writers have influenced your work?
VM: There are so many but I’ll give you a few: reading Julia Alvarez when I was a teenager made me believe for the first time that maybe I could be a writer too. Since then, I’ve been influenced by Roxane Gay, Jaquira Díaz, Junot Díaz, Chris Abani, Cherrie Moraga, Gloria Anzaldúa, Sandra Cisneros, Cheryl Strayed, Lidia Yuknavitch, Elmaz Abinader, Sofia Quintero, Linda Nieves Powell, Mat Johnson, Lizz Huerta, Glendaliz Camacho, Bell hooks, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, and the list goes on and on and on…
WA: When did you discover you were also an educator?
VM: I discovered this after I wrote my first book. I started working with children doing literacy work and I really enjoyed it. Later I was asked to facilitate a fiction writing workshop with emerging writers and that solidified it for me: I wanted to teach and I was also good at it. I still am.
WA: You are the creator of Writing Our Lives which has helped many writers to propel their craft, how did you come up with the concept?
VM: I created a video recently to answer this very question. You can find it here.
In 2009, I attended my first VONA/Voices workshop. I walked out of there knowing I wanted to help bring our stories in the world. Stories by marginalized writers like me who didn’t see themselves in the American canon, in the books they read in school or the ones that made bestseller and must-read lists. Writing Our Lives is my way of helping to bring our stories into the world.
There was so much going on in the country and in my life when I created the class. I quit my full-time editing job and threw myself heart first into writing and teaching. The climate of the country was contentious, to say the least—Prop 8 had just been ratified, anti-immigration legislation was sweeping the nation and the Texas Textbook wars were gathering steam.
The present climate continues to fuel my belief that it’s time we write our stories, that we write them in our voices and that we do so unapologetically. The massacre in Orlando, the Black Lives Matter Movement, the murder of so many young black and brown women and men by police, the reality that Trump is in the White House…all this has served to convince me even more that: we need, the world needs our stories.
I’ve been enamored with all things autobiographical since I was a kid. I ate up the Laura Ingall’s Wilder Little House on the Prairie books (which I know now are very problematic but was too young to know that then), reading the series at least three or four times, but it was reading St. Augustine’s Confessions in my first year at Columbia that really grabbed me up and didn’t let go. Known as the first memoir in history (which is questionable but that’s a conversation for a later time), that book started this personal writing obsession that has made me search out and read thousands of memoirs and essays, that I’ve used to create this class: the Writing Our Lives Workshop, which I’ve reinvented several dozen times, and built upon on the journey.
My homegirl and fellow Bushwick veteran asked me recently what’s different about my approach to this work. My response is relevant here: While I do teach craft, technique, and structure, etc., I think what stands in the way of most writers I’ve encountered in my teaching, is not technique but shame, and the emotional willingness and ability to navigate all that this kind of excavation will bring up. Much of this requires that we unlearn what we’ve been told about ourselves.
We’ve been told both directly and subliminally that our stories don’t matter. We’re taught this when the bulk of the authors we read in school are white men, and the history we learn is white and Western. It takes deliberate work to unlearn this.
I’m not afraid to walk with them on this journey, to help them navigate it, to share what has helped me, and to encourage them to keep digging while also taking intentional steps in caring for themselves while they’re doing this work. As Roxane Gay once said: “Writing can’t be everything.” It’s a part of the work we do to grow and heal, but it’s not the entirety of the journey. It can’t be.
WA: When did you launch it?
VM: I launched it in the spring of 2011.
WA: Why is it important to you personally to do this?
VM: Because I believe with my entire heart and body that our stories matter, and it’s time we write them. I also know it’s not easy to excavate your life for stories. I think it’s my calling to help writers in their journey to do so.
WA: How does it feels to help so many writers find their voice?
VM: It’s a responsibility that I take very seriously, and I am honored that so many writers have trusted me in their journey. I confess that I have some issues accepting praise, and that is rooted in my own upbringing and trauma. I’m working on opening myself up to this and receiving it with humility and pride.
WA: Writers read, you constantly encourage your students to read. What are you currently reading?
VM: I read essays daily. Personal, memoir and craft essays. I have a subscription The Sun which I am always digging into, along with Poets & Writers. I just bought the 2017 Best American Essays and am digging into that while also reading Jesmyn Ward’s Men We Reaped, Alice Anderson’s Some Bright Morning, I’ll Fly Away, Roxane Gay’s Difficult Women, and Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties. I also have Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes Women who Run with the Wolves at my bedside and on my desk, and I pick it up periodically to read excerpts whenever it calls to me. I’ve been doing this for years. That book is like a bible to me.
WA: Do you consider writing a healing process? Why?
VM: Writing for me has been an enormous part of my healing journey. I write to take back my power and try to make sense of and reconcile the things I’ve been through. I also stress that it is only part of healing, which I consider a journey, not a destination. Therapy has also been an enormous part of my journey as has been self-care like hikes in nature, working out, brooding, etc.
WA: How would you like to be remembered?
VM: That’s a heavy question…I guess I’d like to be remembered as someone who loves her daughter immensely and mothers her in resistance to how I was mothered. A woman who is relentless in her work and approach to life, who loved with her entire self, who doesn’t take shit, is unfuckwithable and strong, willing to check herself and learn. A woman who did what she could to help writers write their own stories. A woman who broke cycles.
WA: What’s next for Vanessa?
VM: I’m bringing Writing Our Lives online starting in November. I have two classes coming up: Writing Fiction from Real Life, a three-part generative class, starting on November 8th; and Reclaiming Your Voice, also a three-part generative class, starting December 6th.
I’m also in the midst of creating a multi-genre class called “Writing the Mother Wound”, as so much of my journey has been to write about my own mother wound and seek out the work of writers who have done the same, through various genres. I’ve been working towards creating this class for some time now. I’ll be offering it in the spring in person in NYC and online. More information will be posted on my website in December.
I’m also expanding my teaching by teaching with reputable organizations like Sackett Street Writers in Brooklyn, and in the spring I’m joining the Grub Street faculty in Boston.
I’m in the midst of completing my memoir A Dim Capacity for Wings while also working on editing an anthology by and for unmothered women, and an anthology of writing by folks who’ve taken my Writing Our Lives classes. All this while I continue to submit and publish essays and short stories. I am relentless after all. 🙂
Vanessa Mártir is a NYC based writer, educator, and mama. She is currently completing her memoir, A Dim Capacity for Wings, and chronicles the journey at vanessamartir.blog. A five-time VONA/Voices and two-time Tin House fellow, Vanessa’s work has appeared in The Butter, SmokeLong Quarterly, Kweli Journal, As/Us Journal and the VONA/Voices Anthology, Dismantle, among others. She has essays forthcoming in Not That Bad, edited by Roxane Gay, and Connections: An Integrated Reader and Rhetoric for College Writing, edited by Kerry Beckford and Donald Jones. Vanessa is the founder of the #52essays2017 challenge, and creator of the Writing Our Lives Workshop, which she teaches in NYC and online. You can find out more about Vanessa on her website at vanessamartir.com, on her author page on Facebook, and on Twitter @Vanessa_LaLoba.