Last year, I heard through the social media grapevine that the anthology Lisa Factora-Borchers had edited, Dear Sister: Letters from Survivors of Sexual Violence (AK Press, 2014), was going into a second printing. The collection consists of fifty letters from writers, activists, artists, and students who are survivors of sexual assault. Gloria Steinem praised Dear Sister, and Publishers Weekly hailed it for offering “comfort, solidarity, reassurance, [and] the possibility of healing.”
The Publishers Weekly review reminds me of Lisa herself—a Filipina-American writer, poet, and editorial director at Bitch Media committed to making the publishing and editing worlds more inclusive, equitable, and accessible for writers of color.
Lisa is a longtime contributor and editor at make/shift magazine and has also worked as a nonfiction editor with Literary Mama. Her publishing credits include The Rumpus, The Independent (UK), Refinery 29, The Feminist Wire, Mutha, and Bitch. She has contributed to the anthologies Verses Typhoon Yolanda: A Storm of Filipino Poets (Pawa Press, 2014) and Revolutionary Mothering: Love on the Frontlines (PM Press, 2016).
Lisa holds a BA in English from Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio; a joint master’s degree in Counseling Psychology and Pastoral Ministry from Boston College; and an MFA in Creative Writing from Columbia University. She has led group workshops, retreats, and forums on race, feminism, political consciousness, spirituality, transformative listening, and sustainable, everyday activism.
In this interview, Lisa talks about being a Catholic feminist, writing across genre, and pushing back against a singular narrative about New York.
The Rumpus: On your blog, you wrote that you’ve left New York more than once. Where are you now? Whatever that means to you.
Lisa Factora-Borchers: That is such a profound question. There’re so many ways to answer it. I have now based my writing and my residency in Columbus, Ohio. Where I am. That’s probably the easiest way to explain where I am.
Rumpus: And where are you right now as a writer?
Factora-Borchers: After I finished my MFA program, I went through an incredible amount of transition. I had a child during my MFA program; my family and I moved out of New York. My plan was to work immediately on my book project, but then the election happened and something tilted in my axis. I felt called to do something alongside my writing. I wanted to do something reminiscent of what Marge Piercy described in “To Be of Use.” I wanted to do something with my hands, in the world, and burn this volatile energy. I found a job that fit what I wanted to do and in January, I started as the new editorial director at Bitch Media. That level of leadership and editorial vision has both limited my time to write and sharpened my analysis.
I’ve never had such a public position before, and it’s a privilege to work in the capacity in which I do now. To shape conversations about feminism, media, and writing is a dream. All the while, my own writing has deepened because I’m doing so much reading and editing. I write quickly now, because I have to. I’ve learned to get over my perfectionism and write into the truth instead of being afraid that what I express isn’t good enough.
Rumpus: And, where are you right now as a mother who writes, or as a writer who is a mother, however you arrange that?
Factora-Borchers: You know, they’re two very consuming jobs. And I want to be careful in how I label that. You know, when people say job, it has a pejorative ring, like a burden, but it isn’t. They’re two very consuming callings that I feel. And for me, the writing is informed by the mothering, and the mothering is informed by the writing. I need them both.
Both my children are very young. I have a two-year-old and seven-year-old. Their dependency, needs, and their demands for time and presence—it’s not a joke! Parenting just brings you to the reactive level of living. It’s breathing, security, food, air, education. I mean, they’re the things that a child needs no matter what else is going on in my life. That’s what they need hour to hour.
And in addition to my amazing but consuming job as an editorial director, there is writing. And the type of writing that I want to do and I need to do is much more reflective, and it needs to be going constantly deeper and deeper and deeper into myself. And so [writing and parenting], in an ideal world, would complement each other, and they can. But the reality is, there’s a lot of time, at least right now, that they’re conflicting. There isn’t enough brainpower in a day for me to get through one or the other. So that leaves me as a writer sometimes feeling neglectful of my craft. And sometimes as a mother, that leaves me feeling neglectful as a mother.
I really try to surround myself with writers and mothers who remind me that that is an illusion. It’s a falsehood to constantly feel that you’re neglecting yourself, or you’re neglecting your children when all I’m trying to do is to cultivate my craft and cultivate my children. And doing it imperfectly is how you’re supposed to do it. It’s an extremely organic and frustrating process, but it’s also the one that I’m most proud of, I think.
Rumpus: What are some of the projects you’re working on?
Factora-Borchers: My primary project is my next book, which was my thesis at Columbia. When I finished there, it was a collection of essays on US Catholicism and contemporary feminism. Now I’m turning it into a single-arc memoir about my experience of being a Catholic feminist. I always get raised eyebrows when I mention the focus of my book. A lot of surprise. A lot of “how is that even possible?” kinds of questions. That usually comes from what people superficially know of both camps. Most people think of rigidity and conservatism with the Church, and with feminism, people think about reproductive health and US-centric white suffragettes or second wave feminists.
Rumpus: Do you have a title for it yet?
Factora-Borchers: I do not have a title for that yet. And I probably should, shouldn’t I? It’d be great if I did.
Rumpus: I also read on your website that you’ve been writing since you were eight years old, and your mom gave you a journal when you left New York to go to Ohio. Is that when you began to identify as a writer, at eight, or did that come much later?
Factora-Borchers: I think it was honestly in that moment that my mom gave me a journal. I was really young, but I struggled really deeply with that move. All of my siblings did. I’m the youngest of four. We were so attached to our home and our community that we had in New Jersey. And when my mom gave me that journal, it just felt so natural. And I remember looking at it, and it was the first time someone had given me something that said diary on it, and it had a little lock on it. And I just felt, “Finally. Someone’s given me something to do with all the things inside me.”
I don’t know if, to put a label on it, that’s when I identified as a writer. But it was the most natural gift that I ever received from anyone. Because it felt like she had given me something that I had been looking for for a long time. It was decades later when I realized that [writing] was more than just a hobby or beyond something I do in my spare time.
Rumpus: How did having New York at your roots, followed by a move to Ohio, shape you as a writer?
Factora-Borchers: Place is sacred. It’s a reflective point for me as a writer. Beyond Ohio and New York, there are a lot of places that I’ve lived. I’ve lived in Seattle, I’ve lived in Boston. And in each place, I’ve learned a lot about myself, about how to raise a family, how to be a mother, how to be a life partner. And all of that has been a part of cultivating who I am as a writer.
I am deeply influenced by the differences between rural and urban areas. And that they both have their benefits and their misgivings. And it’s taken a long time to really appreciate those differences and not to idealize one or the other.
One of the benefits of being somewhat—I think nomadic is a strong term—but as someone who has moved from place to place as an adult, I’ve grown to be proud that I can be in multiple places, adapt, and find home and build home wherever I am, under any circumstances. I’ve drawn that out as a strength, and it’s something that I try to teach my children that no matter what the conditions of life are, you always have to be able to find your home, and to create home and relationships and a connection to places and people, wherever that is, because control is an illusion. You might have to move for a job, or you might have to move for a partner, or you might have to move for whatever reason. One of the biggest realizations in my MFA program was how sacred the concept of place is to me. It is the grounding of all things: where.
When I look back, I don’t think there’s one place that’s shaped me more or less. Each place that I’m in shapes me based on what it’s revealed to me. In Ohio, I’ve lived in the three major cities—Cincinnati, Columbus, and Cleveland. A lot of people collapse Ohio into this Midwestern swing state, kind of known for its middle of the road-ness because it represents both rural and urban. But some parts of Ohio are diverse places depending on the region. My experience in Cincinnati was so different than living in Cleveland. And I’ve been living in Columbus for about ten months and that’s been so different, too.
So in the different cities, even within the same state, my writing definitely fluctuates with place and how I’m relating, or not relating, to the community. Sometimes it’s dissonance, sometimes it’s connection, and my writing, to me, will always reflect how I am disjointed or in harmony with place.
Rumpus: In one of your posts in the series you did last year on leaving New York, you really didn’t mince words. You talked about these writers, the “fame addicts,” who don’t know any narrative of New York other than their own. You address their condescension and tell them to “close their lips.” I love that, by the way.
Factora-Borchers: Thank you. I remember the mood I was in when I wrote that. When I was very young, I lived in New Jersey and New York was just another place. It was an incredible place, but it was normalized as just another place because my family was there; it was another place to call home. It was only as I was growing up later on in Ohio that New York became this kind of mystical place of fantasy and intrigue, associated with success and the American dream and making it big and the Frank Sinatra song.
And when I returned to New York [as an adult], I reflected on New York as a Filipino American. The Filipino diaspora was a huge part of understanding my ability as a person to find home in multiple places, including New York. New York was always this place I considered home because my paternal grandmother was there. I have memories of being with her and my father’s side and his relatives. It was a place that held my ethnic groups and young memories of realizing what a Filipino community was. There was always a strong population of Filipinos there, particularly in Queens.
Understanding that part of my identity as a Filipino American was a sacred part of being in New York again. That was something Ohio couldn’t fulfill for me, just by representation and demographics. And so, when people, particularly writers, only speak of New York in terms of ambition and a kind of capitalism, driven by the lights of New York—I think that narrative is just old and overdone and somewhat superficial. It’s true, but it’s only one part of New York.
New York is the city that both my parents came to when they left the Philippines. It was the place from my childhood where I could see and discover and play and just be. So when I wrote that post, I was a little annoyed at that popularized, singular narrative of the magic of New York. It’s not just a place of careerism and the overcoming the odds. It’s also a place of migration and immigration and diaspora.
Rumpus: Speaking of identity, when did you first identify as a feminist?
Factora-Borchers: I think it began, actually, with my faith. Which is, for a lot of people who are Catholic, an oxymoron. They see Catholicism and feminism as different, as radically oppositional. But my experience of Catholicism has always been deeply rooted in concepts of justice, concepts of human dignity. And that was the cornerstone for my thoughts later on, in college and beyond, around what does it mean that I’m a woman? What does it mean that I’m a woman of color in this country? What does it mean that I am a woman of color in white-dominated spaces?
And the more that the vocabulary [of feminism] came to me, the more my writing started taking on much more hard-cut definitions around feminism. Feminism was a place where I could push back against the areas of Catholicism that I began to question and eventually not agree with. And through my writing, I was able to connect with other writers across other faiths and across other ideologies, who are using writing in a similar way, to make sense of uncharted territory. Others who are experiencing the world and find it messy and complicated and painful and want to write something that makes sense of all that.
I wrote about what I found most contentious and most troubling. And it just happened to be issues relating to women, gender, and sexuality. I was always most compelled and fascinated and intrigued by narratives and personal stories, particularly with women. And that’s just where it took me and that’s where it is still taking me.
In some ways, I think “feminist writer” is limiting now. The word “feminism” is being exploited [such that] anything that relates to women is labeled “feminist.” I’m more careful with the word. I’m more clear on what my politics are, and I want my writing to reflect that. Feminism has always been an enormous part of my faith. I’ve always experienced both though not in harmony. But that disjointedness [is] an area that I’m really compelled to stay in and to keep writing into.
Rumpus: So if time, money, or childcare were not factors, what would you be writing about?
Factora-Borchers: The exact same things! [Laughs] I have some circles of privilege in my life where I am able to depend on my partner to help raise and support our family, and our relationship is one that’s incredibly supportive of my art, so I focus on the things that I’m most intrigued and fascinated by and obsessed with. This would be my project if I had $10 in the bank account or $10 million in the bank account.
Life is too short as a writer to write about things that don’t hold me. And my writing isn’t very good when I try to pretend that I’m into something that I’m not. That’s not to say that I haven’t written short pieces that I use just for the hustle of being a writer. Sometimes you need to get paid and need to pay the bills and feed your kids. But my privilege extends that I am able to write what I most want to write, this story about Catholicism and feminism. That would be would be my next book no matter what.
Rumpus: Let’s talk about Dear Sister and how it came about. And it’s in its second printing?
Rumpus: So what’s that journey been like?
Factora-Borchers: Oh my goodness! It’s been an amazing journey. It’s been a long journey. I don’t think I’ve ever talked to anybody, particularly women-identified individuals, who didn’t grow up in some way with an awareness that whatever you do, when it pertains to your sexuality, it might lead to becoming a person who was assaulted or harassed or abused or raped. That in some way, sexual violence has always been on your radar. And that was my experience, not as a survivor of sexual assault, but there are survivors of many things. There are survivors of harassment, verbal abuse, emotional abuse, and various forms of control and domination.
After college, I was working as a medical and legal advocate for survivors of sexual violence and rape and incest. And there was one particular case where I was in the hospital with a survivor, and it was after their rape examination kit had been conducted. It was an extremely frustrating and painful experience to witness, again. And I just remember handing her the folder, and it had all the 1-800 numbers and pamphlets, and I was so pissed off. I was done. I was so finished with handing out folders. And I remember thinking, Is this the best we can fucking do? Just handing out fucking folders? Is this the best I can give this person after surviving what she’s just survived? A folder? I wish there was something that could give her, to just get her through tonight. And that was in 2001.
Fast forward about seven or eight years of my just sitting on that idea, and one of my friends, Alexis Pauline Gumbs—she’s a writer and activist, this amazing poet—she emailed me with a message saying that someone in her community had just been raped and asked, “Could you write her a letter? You know, just letting her know that she is supported?” And I thought, that would be such a beautiful gesture, from a stranger, to get that letter. And then I thought, wouldn’t it be amazing if there was a book of letters that we could give survivors from survivors who had been through their healing process, something to pass something on?
Fast forward, several years later, and after calls for submission and the balancing act of finding a publisher and getting the manuscript where it needed to be, Dear Sister came out.
And I’m so proud of the contributors who worked with me in that process. It was an arduous journey. But it was one of the most emotional and powerful things that I could do as an editor, and it’s probably the thing I’m most proud of. I’ll always be proud of that project.
Rumpus: And now that it’s gone into a second printing, have you started thinking about what’s next with that project?
Factora-Borchers: I think in both the best and worst way Dear Sister is always going to be with me. There’s never going to be a time in my life when no one is recovering from being raped. I will never not be thinking about survivors and how I can better advocate or make space for their stories. I’d like to someday add a curriculum to it so readers can better utilize it in communities and with their families. I get messages from people who have repaired relationships using the book or have traveled the world with the anthology in their backpack. To visualize the book having a role in that kind of movement and healing is the greatest reward as an editor.
I had this donation request come in from the Central California Women’s Facility for a group of women who are incarcerated, some for life, who were doing a healing circle. After they received the books for their healing circle, they sent a card and someone had written, “Thank you for making us feel human.” It’s been months since that note came in the mail, and it still makes and breaks my heart.
Rumpus: Do you have a preferred genre?
Factora-Borchers: I try to remind myself not to be constrained by genre. I don’t know what happened in writing. I feel like in the Internet and the publication worlds, people want to know what is it that you write. Do you just write fiction, and what kind of fiction? As if your writing has to follow this particular linear, knowable, concrete category. And I’ve really been trying to push back against that by also saying I do write poetry, though I’m [not yet] comfortable saying it’s a genre that I’m publishing in. There have been really small poems that I’ve published.
I’d love to see writers be vocal about [the fact] that they write across genre. That might reveal certain strengths and certain weaknesses, but that’s part of being an artist. You’re not supposed to be great at every single genre. We’re all dominant with one hand, but it’s not like the other is completely limp, you know? It has mobility, too. And with practice it gets stronger and more artistic as well. I would love to see that more, writers just [writing] across genre, not worrying so much about excelling and branding in just one thing. I know publishing has other ideas in mind for branding, but I would love to see more resistance against that.
Rumpus: Is there anything that you feel like, “I can’t write about that”? Or, “I shouldn’t write about that”?
Factora-Borchers: I think every writer struggles with writing about their family, their family of origin. Most writers I know have struggled with the balance of privacy and art and revelation. What makes a story universal is how specific you can name a struggle. And sometimes writing about specific pain and memory and family, sets off alarm bells for a lot of writers. I’ve struggled with that too. I don’t have some deep dark secret that would make my family story a bestseller or something. It’s not juicy; it’s not something that’s going to be on the Hallmark channel or Lifetime or something like that. But when you’re trying to write about something personal that involves your family, people say, “You just need to be brave!” I hear that, I know that. But there’s still something. I have a deep respect for privacy for my family members, and I would like to write more openly about them, but I know it would not be their preference to have details of their lives for public consumption.
And I respect that. I just have a deep reverence for people who are not on Facebook, who don’t tell the world on Instagram how cute their dogs are or what their kids look like or their new glasses. Every little thing is for consumption. And I’m part of that, too. But I have a pretty uncrossable line if I have a sense that someone does not want to be written about or in the public eye.
Rumpus: Have you run into the challenge of how much do you write about mothering because of concerns about your children’s privacy?
Factora-Borchers: I have thought about it, and I’m very cognizant when I’m writing about my children that I’m telling a story about my life and my experiences, a life that includes them. I’m not trying to narrate their lives for them. Like right now, I’m working on an essay about the decision to raise my children Catholic even though very few of the issues that I agree with Church on would lead me down that path. The things that I believe around sexuality and gender are in absolute opposition to what the Church advocates for. So, how can I make the decision to baptize my daughter and bring her to church? So I write about my decision to do that. And I tried to imagine thirty years from now, her reading it, and if I am in any way harming or circumventing her path as an individual. And I don’t have a definitive answer, but I just know that those are the questions I have for myself.
But I’m also not going to write about my path as a mother and not write about my children. I don’t know how to do that. It’s a balance, but I think that with a series of questions that I consistently rate my work with, I have a pretty high standard to make sure that I’m not doing harm or trying to be a voiceover for their lives or something. And if they want to grow up and be writers and write about me as their mother, I’m all for that, too.
Rumpus: Thinking back to our AWP panel this year, “What Writers of Color Want White Editors to Know”—have you had a white editor ask you to write about something based on your ethnic and cultural roots, and you pushed back on it? Or was there a narrative you wanted to put forth, and the editor was against it?
Factora-Borchers: I think for the most part, I have been pretty fortunate to work with very supportive editors. That being said, my terminology, when I talk about issues of race, is pretty strong. And I don’t mince words when I use phrases like white supremacy or white domination. I capitalize if I’m referring to the African-American community, or the Black community. I capitalize B for Black, and B for Brown. A very strong part of my politics is capitalization and reflecting in grammar how I choose to represent my thoughts on the page.
So the pushback that I’ve received are around those small but really significant tidbits, those markers. To uncapitalize the B for black, uncapitalized B for brown, and why are you capitalizing this anyway? It’s just a color. And I just make a note of it and won’t write with them again. I won’t work with that particular editor again, because I’ve had times where I’ve been asked to rewrite it and I will not uncapitalize, I will not put in small caps, or lower case.
And I know how that sounds, like, what difference does it make? To me, it’s a big difference. To the Black women that I’ve worked with, it’s important to them. It’s important to me. And I think as writers, it isn’t just about capitalization or lower case. It’s incredibly political, and they’re incredibly important to have.
Rumpus: Who are your writing heroes? Any genre.
Factora-Borchers: Barbara Jane Reyes, Ninotchka Rosca, Evelina Galang. These are all Filipino writers and heroes of mine. There’s so many. I love Roxane Gay, oh my gosh. I love everything she writes. Whether it’s in print, or on a blog, or in a tweet. Anything that woman writes, I eat it up like it’s dessert. [Laughs] Alexis Pauline Gumbs, Vanessa Mártir, Daisy Hernandez. bell hooks. Michelle Alexander. Gloria Anzaldúa. Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza. She’s a feminist theologian.
Rumpus: That reminds me. Was your reconciliation of Catholicism and feminism through some of these writers, or was it something you learned from your mother or your grandmothers?
Factora-Borchers: I don’t know if it’s a full reconciliation. I think there’s a small battle that’s simply part of my life, a perpetual agitation, and every year, I come a little bit closer to a manageable friction. I don’t think that there’s An Answer, or something that’s going to be delivered to me, or something that I’m ever going to attain. It comes, honestly, just from reading the lives and works of radical women of color. June Jordan, for example, or Audre Lorde. The women who have infused spirituality into their feminist, such that feminism and feminist action is their spiritual practice. It doesn’t have to be a Catholic voice per se, but anyone who recognizes that there’s something larger and there’s something else, the spiritual realm. Any writer who’s able to infuse that into their writing has helped me.
In particular, This Bridge Called My Back was an enormous book for me in my twenties. And it wasn’t so much that it laid this clear pathway —this is how you reconcile being a Catholic, and this is how you reconcile being a feminist at the same time. It was just these painful years of trying to understand that I could not choose between the two, that in some way [neither] of them was completely fulfilling. I needed both of them, I needed to braid them together in my own way. I don’t know if that’s reconciliation as much as it was that I had to make my own way and not be embarrassed or ashamed that I am different. I had to learn to be withstanding, you know, while being demonized.
There are tons of Catholics who think I’m, you know, Satan’s daughter or something. People have told me I’m unfit to speak about theology, or if I deviate in any way from Catholic theology, or any teaching on gender or sexuality, I’m not a real Catholic. It took a long time to undo that kind of harm and to just have faith in my own feminism. And it’s something I still work on.
There are writers across race, cultures, and time who have affirmed my Filipino culture, affirmed my faith, and they’ve affirmed my feminism. Those are my heroes.