Austin-based poet and short story writer ire’ne lara silva was born in and grew up in the Rio Grande Valley. She is the author of four poetry collections, two chapbooks, and a short story collection, flesh to bone, which won the Premio Aztlán. Her first two full-length poetry collections, furia (Mouthfeel Press, 2010) and Blood Sugar Canto (Saddle Road Press, 2016), were finalists for the International Latino Book Award in Poetry. CUICACALLI/House of Song (Saddle Road Press, 2019), her third collection, was a finalist for the Texas Institute of Letters Poetry Prize. Together with Dan Vera, silva co-edited the anthology IMANIMAN: Poets Writing on the Anzalduan Borderlands (Aunt Lute Books, 2017).
Silva is the recipient of a 2017 NALAC Fund for the Arts Grant, the final recipient of the Alfredo Cisneros del Moral Award, and was the Fiction Finalist for AROHO’s 2013 Gift of Freedom Award. Most recently, she was awarded the 2021 Texas Institute of Letters Shrake Award for Best Short Nonfiction. Silva is currently working on her first novel, Naci, and a second collection of short stories titled, the light of your body.
I’ve been following silva’s work since 2011, after reading “hunger hambre mayantli” in the fall 2011 issue of Yellow Medicine Review, a journal in which we had both been published. Since that day, she has become my favorite writer, as well as a treasured friend. Our ongoing conversation about writing served as the impetus for this interview, wherein we discuss poetry, point of view, publishing, the Chupacabra, and the significance of identifying ourselves.[Read ire’ne lara silva’s short story “Hibiscus Tacos” here. – Ed.]
The Rumpus: One of the things I love about your work is how it is solidly grounded in your identity. Tell us about you and how the earth grew you and your stories.
ire’ne lara silva: My parents were mostly Spanish-speaking truck drivers who followed the harvests in Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas. They were illiterate in both languages. I was born and raised in Texas with one parent strongly identifying as Spanish—even though that was many generations back—and the other parent very strongly identifying as Indigenous. It was very interesting in college, reading and learning about the conquest, to see how it was more than just history, to see how that played out in relationships and in different views of identity in my own home, with certain traits and certain ideas and certain emotions and certain ways of thinking being very clearly identified as Indigenous in opposition to a more Spanish or European—or even, in some ways, Mexican, American, or Texan—way of looking at things. I don’t know if it made more sense to me, or if I just felt closer to my mother’s identity. I always felt very connected to this land, the land of Texas, connected to here. I didn’t have a sense of other. It’s always very interesting for me in Latinx and Chicanx circles where there’s a very strong identification with the immigration story. I don’t have that.
To name what I am, I’d say I’m an Indigenous-identified Mexican American, Indigenous-identified Latinx. My mother would say we were “Mexicans from this side.” On census forms, I’ve answered, “detribalized Native.” I can’t point to being enrolled in a certain nation or even identify a nation because of coming from generations of very poor or working-class people. People who don’t have records. I try to make sense of these identities and movements—from daughter of a migrant truck driver to a college student to a writer—while being concerned with healing. A kind of healing that looks at people as more than just their physical or intellectual selves, as also their emotional, psychological, spiritual, and historical selves, and what that means in art—not in influencing what the art is, but calling the art into being in a way that acknowledges all of that.
Rumpus: You told me once that you sent the collection, flesh to bone, out for nine years getting rejections like, We like it, but we wouldn’t know how to market it, and Too experimental. Is it still like this? Is the publishing struggle still the same?
silva: I don’t think so. It was so difficult to get that first collection published or to even get those stories published by magazines. The nine stories I’ve written so far for this second collection have all already been accepted individually for publication. I don’t think it’s that I’m a better writer or that I’ve gotten better at pinpointing which magazine or journals to submit to. I sometimes wonder what shifts have taken place in readers’ desire to read things that are “different.” I also wonder about the fact that a lot of different journals have very young editors and readers who are still in college or are in MFA programs.
flesh to bone has been out now for eight years. How many of these young editors and readers have read my work in their classes? Has that given them some frame for understanding my stories they wouldn’t have had otherwise? Do some of them recognize my name and style of writing? Somewhere I read one of my favorite poets, e. e. cummings, had created his own audience, readers who would understand what he was writing. I love the idea that as a writer I’ve been investing in an audience of readers. I don’t think my stories are any less weird. I think they’re weirder and even harder to comprehend. I’m finding more and more willing reception to the work with small indie presses, and perhaps university presses. A lot more openness to my projects, my language, and my stories.
Rumpus: In Cuicacalli/House of Song, my favorite poem is, “Walking the Chupacabra.” Can you talk about what you do with the Chupacabra as a figure in this poem?
silva: I never respond to prompts, but that actually was a prompt from Deborah Miranda about how she and her wife referred to one of their dogs as the Chupacabra because it was kind of skinny, kind of lanky-looking, a little bit awkward, and not quite symmetrical. They were calling the dog the Chupacabra, and at one point, one of them asked the other, “Are you going to walk the Chupacabra today?” Deborah wondered, “What does that mean—to walk the Chupacabra?” It caught my attention.
When we think of the Chupacabra, we think of it in terms of its goriness, in terms of its being a predator and attacking animals, possibly being a danger to humans. We live with so much, as BIPOC people, as Indigenous people, as people of color. We live with the threat of violence. It’s not apart from us. It’s not something that lives outside of our homes, outside of our neighborhoods. It’s not theoretical violence. There’s a very present violence on different levels. This exists intimately, in our homes and in our families, in partnerships. Oppression affects so many different parts of our lives—even our health. I read a study recently, and they have been able to see that being a person of color adds additional stress to your body and increases your chances of chronic illness.
What does it mean to live with that threat of violence when it’s in your neighborhood, when it sleeps in your house? You walk it; you attempt to take care of it. Hopefully, you never forget it’s a real threat. Because the moment you forget that sort of violence lives in your home, that’s when you are most vulnerable to attack. How do we live with that in a way that doesn’t shut us down, without living with it in either ignorance or denial? And, yet, we recognize there’s something a little—not just a little—weird about it. My favorite line in that poem is the one about how sometimes they find the Chupacabra on the ceiling, like they don’t know where it sleeps, and they don’t know what it eats either. We have to refuse to normalize the Chupacabras in our homes.
Rumpus: Your use of first- and second-person point of view is at once both intense and intimate. How do you make a decision about which PoV to use, either for a poem or a story?
silva: I’ve wanted to write about the deity Coatlicue’s origin story, or better said, her transformation story. So much focus is on her daughter, Coyolxauhqui, and on this idea of being cyclically broken. I want to know more about Coatlicue. How does a deity decide, when she loses her head, to transform the fountains of blood into two separate heads and go on existing? What does it mean to choose to survive? This gave me a frame to play with: what is and isn’t essential reality; what is or isn’t consensual reality.
I love first-person, because it lets you tell things you can’t get any other way. There’s just no way in third-person to tell a person’s truths, to let a person betray themselves, to share a part of themselves the way you can in first-person. I’ve always objected to the idea of the objective viewer because none of us live our lives that way. We’re very in it. I want first-person to be as valued as third-person tends to be in literature.
All writing is about strategic choices. You have to think, “What is the strategy behind this story? The strategy of this character? What’s going to allow me more space? What are helpful limitations?” That’s what ends up deciding what perspective I choose or what decisions I make about anything. Where does this story start? Why is this person this way? I’m always drawing from infinite choices to decide what strategy tears the story open, what offers up the story.
We have been trained and educated to see reality in a certain way. I think that’s why I’ve read so much Indigenous literature. The central flaw I see in a lot of well-known Latinx literature is that it’s so tied to “objective” reality. It keeps on not only reflecting realities of oppression, but reinforcing them. We end up seeing so many stories of victimization, characters that never get to transform, all of these tragic endings. Whatever possible transformative potential we see gets smashed because in this reality and in reinforcing this reality, that’s what happens to people. There’s no room to shift reality or the way we see it in a way that allows for the transformation of characters, of story, of possibility.
Rumpus: Your stories and poems are de-colonial, grounded in both mestiza and Indigenous/Nahua identity. You do this carefully, deliberately, almost ceremonially; your Nahuatl nearly an invocation. You use both mestiza and Indigenous archetypes—Coyotl, Chupacabra, La Llorona, and, finally, Malinche, as we get to one of my favorite stories in your collection, “Of the Green Grasses.”
You refuse to allow your characters to be trapped by materiality. If your character is a goddess, then she is unapologetically a goddess. If your character is a furry, colorful alien living in a woman’s body, then he is. How are you that brave?
silva: I have occasional moments of doubt, questioning, What the fuck is this? Am I right or wrong? I know there will be a future interviewer asking me about this story, and I have no idea what I’m going to tell them. I‘m excited about my writing right now because I do feel that this is the bravest I’ve ever been. There was no way for me to write these stories before because I wasn’t this brave before. It makes me really curious about what I might become in the future because the thought of being braver is just exciting and energizing.
I think a lot of it has to do with what we give ourselves permission to do, be, think, or feel. For writers and artists, a whole other level also slams down and says, Oh no! You can’t tell this kind of story. No one’s going to understand you. People are going to think you’re crazy! What other space even has part of the potential writing or art has, to help us give ourselves permission to be free? Where else can we be this free? Is there anywhere else? If there’s nowhere else, then freedom needs to be important to this place of writing, of art-making, especially if this is how I’m going to choose to spend my time, energy, space, and thinking.
That’s what writing has been for me: the space where I can be the freest. My characters and stories also deserve to be as unlimited, to be as much themselves as they can be. If writing is just another place where I’m going to be trapped or limited, why would I go there?
Rumpus: An author photo of you peering from greenery with red and white flowers reminds me of the fine line between the earth and plants, and plants and people, and people and spiritual beings in your writing, and how erotic, visceral, and real your spiritual beings seem. I prefer the term “Indigenous realism” to “magical realism,” but that’s not even right. How do you evoke this world on the page that is as fully fleshed as a painting?
silva: When I visited the University of Oklahoma with you, I loved Brett Burkhart’s discussion on mythical realism; the phrase completely resonated with me. That’s so much closer than magical realism. I hate how nihilistic Gabriel García Márquez‘s One Hundred Years of Solitude is, and how it lends itself to a superficial idea of what magical realism is capable of. It makes me crazy that García Márquez loved Juan Rulfo’s writing. I read somewhere that he’d actually memorized and could recite the entirety of Pedro Páramo. I wondered how he could have loved it so much, and still have written One Hundred Years of Solitude. Later, I read María Luisa Bombal and understood magical realism in another way. Not as a superficial, materialistic thing, but as psychologically and emotionally resonant. Too much of the time, people misunderstand magical realism as a random compilation of “magical” elements as if magical realism is things flying in or dead people coming around. That’s a very kitschy sort of way of looking at it.
I love the idea of mythical realism, of playing with what reality is. My story, “Border as Womb Emptied of Night and Swallows” just came out in Nepantla Familias: A Mexican-American Anthology of Literature on Families in Between Worlds. People seem so surprised the dead are as present as they are in the story. It’s so weird to me to have to ask people if they really think all their dead people are gone. All the memories, all the ways people have left their influence—all of that doesn’t just vanish when people die.
My mother has been gone now for nearly twenty years. That has not made her any less present. In my reality, in my life, it has not made her less present. Why would we think that would be true for anyone?
The issue with the word, mythology, is that people think that means that it’s just a story. A story without power, a story that’s no longer belief, a story that doesn’t shape our lives. Both Cuicacalli and my forthcoming collection the light of your body are not only about how myths have something to offer us, but also about how myths live inside us. How do they still shape who we are? How do they influence our lives? What are they speaking through us?
Perhaps that’s why, on my desk, I keep items that remind me how these things live in me, and how artistically they emerged for me. If we run them through my interpretation, what do they look like? Take the “Cipactli” poem in Cuicacalli. What if a deity was your best friend, and you were going on a road trip? What is your relationship like? It’s not about worshiping the deity but being influenced by them. You live and listen, and they live in you. What does that look like? That ended up being so much of the light of your body. It could be that those myths, those deities are the light of our bodies or that they keep our bodies lit or that they make our bodies light.
Rumpus: In your book, the light of your body, your portrayal of Coyotl was spot on. What do you do with a being who loves you and wants to eat you? Do the themes guide the stories, or do the stories guide the themes? Is it more complicated?
silva: It is much more complicated, because I have no idea what I’m doing. I have a little bit more of an idea of what I’m doing now than I did with the first set of stories. That was like trying to make a patchwork quilt without knowing what the patches were, what color they were, what the design was, or even knowing whether it was supposed to be a blanket at all. Now everything collides, and I trust the fallout of that collision. My story, “the seedling wife” was a surprise. That one came out of nowhere. Some of the other stories I germinated for a while, years and years, just waiting for the missing pieces to come along and make it happen. But “the seedling wife” was one of those that just showed up and said, “Here I am! Here’s a story!” Then it worked itself out on the page.
The title story, “the light of your body,” was actually based a lot on a story my brother told me or rather on a poem he wrote. It ended up entangling itself with themes about sexual violence and violence towards women, a very desperate need to pour some beauty out of an experience of violence. That’s not quite phrased right. But to acknowledge beauty might result, at last, from violence or despite violence. That also collides with all these ideas we have about healers. How often do people wounded in some way or another believe in false, ineffective healers, or even worse, healers who are actually harmful, taking money or energy and affecting people in many negative ways? How many healers are people who are hurt? What does it mean to be a healer or a spiritual being or figure, but wounded by history or experience? How does that strengthen or deform you? And where do we intervene to try to heal or to restore the ability to heal what has been hurt?
Photograph of ire’ne lara silva by Sergio A. Godoy.