The Rumpus Mini Interview Project: Carribean Fragoza
A young narrator silently watches her mother chop up nearly everything around her. A recent college graduate returns to her working-class neighborhood, cares for her terminally ill mother, joins a local gang, and hosts Noz (nitrous oxide) parties. A young daughter eats her mother’s flesh to remember where she came from. An obscene mylar balloon gets stuck in a tree, starting a war between neighboring tribes. Carribean Fragoza’s recently released Eat the Mouth that Feeds You (City Lights Books, 2021) is a fantastically delicious collection of short stories, all of which nearly defy description. While the settings and plots are truly unique, their power to evoke emotions, in even the most seasoned reader, is remarkable. Using a fresh, gothic lens, Fragoza writes of the inescapably strange world of body and soul, never flinching once. Her characters, mostly women, find themselves in frightening places, with no way out, only to discover that mobility and empowerment lie within themselves. Fragoza touches eternal themes and uses such dexterous and hypnotic language, she is able to permeate the heart of any reader.
The daughter of Mexican immigrants, Carribean Fragoza grew up in El Monte, California, not far from the place she and her husband, Romeo Guzmán (“my partner in crime, and in many things”) have made their home. Together, they edited the anthology East of East (Rutgers University Press, 2020), a collection of essays which detail El Monte’s history. Guzmán and Fragoza are also the co-editors of Boom California, a journal of UC Press, which they currently run, and they’ve collaborated on Tropics of Meta, a historiography for the masses. As a writer, Fragoza is multifaceted. She has published fiction, nonfiction, and poetry in many magazines, including BOMB, Huizache, and Entropy. Eat the Mouth That Feeds You is her debut single-author publication.
I spoke with Carribean Fragoza via Zoom on a windy autumn morning. We discussed the process of finding the specific nerve of a story, the challenges of writing with interiority, and the deep questions she continues to contemplate in her prose.
The Rumpus: Congratulations on Eat the Mouth That Feeds You! The cover is striking, and the perfect illustration of the vulnerability and power found in these stories. How did you choose it?
Carribean Fragoza: Choosing the cover was a process, kind of a great one, with my editor, Elaine Katzenberger. We had just chosen the title, Eat the Mouth That Feeds You, and it was time to choose a cover. Elaine told me to start thinking about what would be an ideal cover for me. I’ve always admired the images from Graciela Iturbide, the Mexican photographer. I thought, Wouldn’t it be great to have any image from Graciela Iturbide on the cover? Her images speak to me so much. It turned out that Elaine had a connection, and we were able to get this photograph for the cover. The image of this girl, with that expression on her face, is striking and direct. Her gaze has such an intensity—it isn’t completely legible—one that makes the viewer feel something. It departs from the expectation we may have of what a girl’s gaze is supposed to be: infused with love and sweetness, maybe. This girl has a whole different kind of gaze. I think it speaks to my stories, because it can be read in different ways. It was a dream come true to get this photograph.
Rumpus: The early reviews of your book describe it as Latinx Gothic or Chicanx Gothic. What do you think of this description?
Fragoza: I was surprised to hear it called that, at first. I’m glad to partake in the renewed interest, or maybe even the new interest in Latinx literature, but I didn’t write with that label in mind. The description might help invite readers of gothic literature, or encourage new readers of Latinx literature to enter the work in a different way.
Rumpus: How did you put this collection together?
Fragoza: It was a long process! It took around twenty years, because I didn’t know that I was working on a collection. I had these stories—I had been writing them over the years—and they were collected on my computer. I didn’t realize they belonged together, or that they were in dialogue with each other, but with the help and encouragement of dear friends and mentors, I began to see the stories as one single body of work. That’s how it all came together.
I see now, in retrospect, that I was really attempting to speak with the voices of these different girls and women, but also from a very interior place as a writer. Interior in the emotional sense, yes, but also physically. I really committed myself to speaking from deep in the body, from a very interior place. I always try to locate stories deep inside myself, physically and emotionally. This interiority came from a place, deep within my relationships with family members and community.
I was reaching inside of myself, but I didn’t know what I was making, or what the finished product would be. It was more of an exercise that I wanted to do over and over again—a way of reaching.
Rumpus: The titular story, “Eat the Mouth That Feeds You,” was a deep dive into that interiority. You have woven the themes of mothers and daughters throughout the collection, and this story goes emotionally and bodily to the mother-daughter relationship. It speaks to a deep desire to know our mothers and daughters, a knowability that transcends emotion, the body, everything. Is this why you chose it as the titular story for this book?
Fragoza: It wasn’t originally the title of the book, actually. The original title was Vicious Ladies, because of that story. In conversation with my editor, we decided that Eat the Mouth That Feeds You was the better title, because it casts the entire collection in a different light. This title suggests a different intimacy being asked of the readers entering the collection.
“Eat the Mouth That Feeds You” is a very intimate story. I wrote it shortly after the death of both my great-grandmother and grandmother, and I had recently found out I was pregnant with my first child. I was definitely looking to my ancestors, my grandmother’s generation, and the generation before her. I was looking at myself, and my new body, bearing the new generation I’d be bringing forward. It was a very intense place to be! I wrote this story in one sitting, and it was a very natural process. It felt like a story that was inside of me for a long time, and I was bringing it forward for that time.
Rumpus: The first line of this story is, “My daughter for lack of memory eats me.” It’s a surreal tale of a mother and daughter, who dance around the subject of being known. What inspired this?
Fragoza: I wrote this story right after my grandmother passed away, and my great-grandmother not long before that. I had so many questions about their lives, their deaths, and what they meant to me, or what they meant to my relationship with my own mother.
I think I was asking the question: Is it ever a kind of violence to extract the stories of our families, even if we think these stories belong to us? Is asking for the story a kind of violence? Sometimes it felt that way when I was asking these difficult questions of my mother. This is still a very dense question for me.
On one hand, we want to know where we come from, and why we are the way we are, and why our relationships, especially with our families and our loved ones are the way they are. Then, on the other hand, sometimes the truths of our past, or our family’s past, are so difficult and painful, the memories are too hard to share. Is it best to leave some stories untouched, and not cause more harm?
These are open-ended questions for me, and I felt like that story was trying to approach it in a specific way, which was to eat the body. The process of eating the body was a way of knowing, or trying to know.
Rumpus: In all of these stories, you do a deep dive into the psyches of these characters. What is your process for approaching this type of fiction?
Fragoza: I usually start with a pen and paper, because that’s where I feel like I can touch some kind of raw nerve in the storytelling. Once I find it, I can follow that raw nerve and see where that leads me. Every story has an exposed nerve, a place of entry, that I can usually feel if I am writing by hand.
Rumpus: Each of the stories in this book speaks to the mobility and the empowerment of the characters, especially women. They seem to contemplate boundaries, even self-inflicted ones. Many women want to leave places that hold them prisoner. How do you decide which challenges your characters will face? What’s involved in finding the raw nerve of the story?
Fragoza: I think the word that jumps out is mobility. In the stories, there is the physical mobility of women, and what that looks like, but there’s also social mobility. There are expectations of women—some of us were raised to abide by these—like the importance of home, or the expectations for the woman to be the caretaker of home and family. In some ways, this really limits mobility. It defines how we move and where we move. A woman is contained in her body; her body is contained within a house, and where she is allowed to go is determined by the needs of her home.
The bicycle in the story, “The Vicious Ladies” is part of this conversation about mobility. There’s a vehicle, and then questions: Where are you going to take this vehicle? Where are you going to take yourself? Are you going to go somewhere else and just replicate what you already know? Or are you going to find an entirely different way of living your life and moving through it? That’s the real challenge for my characters. These are questions for anyone who’s interested in challenging patriarchy, or reinventing how we live our lives outside of established norms.
It’s a huge endeavor, a huge project to come up with new roles, not just to break the old ones. We need to ask, What comes next? I think that’s the big question in “Vicious Ladies.” What now? What next? If I’m not going to be this, and I’m not going to be that, then what am I going to be? These are big, open-ended questions. What will be the new rules? What are new roles that we’re going to invent? We need to make up new kinds of rules if we want to live new kinds of lives.
Rumpus: As a writer, you’ve had a solid, non-fiction career. You’ve been a senior writer at Tropics of Meta, you edited East of East, and you’ve written fairly academic, creative nonfiction. Your first venture into fiction is incredibly complex—it’s like a tornado of fiction—and lyrical. How do you move from nonfiction to fiction, as a writer?
Fragoza: I don’t know what to call it, but there are definitely two things operating. First, the nonfiction is more methodical and structured and has certain expectations. Then, there’s the fiction, which, for me, comes from a very emotional place. It comes from a place where words cannot function the way they do on the other side. Words behave differently in fiction. There are different landscapes in fiction and nonfiction.
I work on my [nonfiction] projects, with deadlines, and my assignments in a notebook also. I leave room for notes in the margins. If there is a strong voice that comes to me, or an image that is very strong, one that pierces through the other work I’m doing, I write it down. I have to honor it, by putting it down on the page. There are rules and demands of being a functional person in the world, and then there’s everything else. There is the spiritual, the things we can’t describe or name. There’s the emotional, which I often return to. I want to continue to expand the place for writing fiction. I want to give it more and more space. So, there’s multiple realities that I’m living at the same time. There’s the functional person that’s trying to make a living, complete assignments, and do the stuff I need to get done. Then there’s the other person, like this one, who lives in another dimension.
Rumpus: The stories reflect spiritual and emotional themes, in unexpected ways. “Tortillas Burning,” begins: “When you’ve got nothing else, you’ll always have at least a tortilla to get you through.” This woman in this story needs to leave an abusive relationship, but has to find strength to do it. What’s the significance of that line? Of the tortilla?
Fragoza: The tortilla, at its most fundamental level, made of corn, is a foundational food item for Mexico and Mesoamerica. It directly connects us to our ancestors. Just listening to my mother’s stories—she grew up as one of many children, and knew what it was like to be poor and to be hungry—she would often tell me that, at least, they would always have tortillas. Tortillas with chili. It isn’t much, but it’s something to fill the belly. I wanted to start the story in that way, because the character is about to walk away from her whole life, her role as a wife, and from her home, but at least she knows that she can start again. As a basic food item, the tortilla represented that.
Rumpus: The theme of the new generation making decisions about who they are, and what’s theirs, shows up in “New Fire Songs.” A prank with a mylar balloon starts a war between neighbors, which turns them into warring tribes. There’s indigenous language, phrasing and syntax, all nodding to the values and order that have been forgotten. It’s about power, isn’t it?
Fragoza: Yes. I wrote this story when I was living in the Central Valley in California. I got to witness hierarchical relationships between the owners of the farms and the farm workers. There’s a large indigenous population amongst these farm workers. Because of the drought in California, there were huge fights over water. This war going on wasn’t an abstract or conceptual war—it wasn’t about democracy, or liberty or freedom, or any lofty thing—it was about water. Something so elemental was where the power was.
During the Trump administration, there were wars against people of color, especially undocumented immigrants. We saw it playing out in the Central Valley, and it felt like people were going into hiding. There was a terror that could be felt. I started thinking: Where would people hide? Where can a whole community hide? I started imagining a community that was hiding in abandoned farmland, or an abandoned grove, like in the story.
Rumpus: I know you and your husband are editors, and always working on projects together, and then you have children. When do you find time to write?
Fragoza: We have to be very strategic, as you can imagine, we have to schedule everything.
We have to literally carve out time, and designate it for writing. When I have writing projects that are mine, not something that we share, or when he has his projects, we have to agree: “I’m going to take this block of time and work on my project. You are going to take this block of time and produce yours.”
A lot of these stories came out of notes in the margins, and then I’d sit down for just a couple of minutes and add to that note in the margin, until it grows and it grows. At some point, I have to make a decision: Am I going to develop this or not? If I do, it’s important that I get my husband on board, so we can agree to carve out this time to work. That’s what we’ve been doing lately, and it’s working for us. It’s important to be intentional.
Photograph of Carribean Fragoza by Aura C. Guzman-Fragoza.