Erika L. Sánchez on Borders, Bodies, and Writing Her Parents’ Stories
The Lessons on Expulsions Poet in Conversation with Safiya Sinclair
Erika L. Sánchez speaks my language. She reads her womanhood as a text that can be deciphered and, in Lessons on Expulsion, dives into the wreck with an unfaltering gaze, equally piercing and tender. Here, the body is heavy with summer’s fecundity, sorrow skulks the blank space of sticky days, and the heat between lovers unpeels from the pages. All is painfully past and breathlessly present. Here the tongue divides across countries, across centuries and continents, but in this painful forking Sánchez also finds the source of her immense power. Herself behind herself, concealed.
For her, beauty and violence are two sides of the same coin. She fingers the wounds of her disappeared history, offering her throat to the voiceless and unseen. Sánchez’s gorgeous lyric, striking and unflinching imagery, and singular voice illuminate each page. In Lessons on Expulsion, the painterly eye, as with the florid womb, holds worlds, whole universes, lost history, disappeared names, and forgotten language. But what has been lost is resurrected by Sánchez’s solemn incantation, her fever-dream pinning you long after you close the book.
I spoke with Erika about her spectacular debut collection.
Safiya Sinclair: There is a marked dichotomy in Lessons on Expulsion between the sacred and profane, between the visceral and the virtuous, between the violent and vulnerable. How intentional was your poetic examination of these boundaries, exploring where the sacred and profane blur and clash in the book?
Erika L. Sánchez: I never really thought about the work in that way. I’ve always been fascinated with ambiguity, the in-betweenness of things. Now that I reflect on this, I realize I try to understand the full range of the human experience through my work. I’m Buddhist, and part of the philosophy is that all people are capable of reaching Buddhahood. I wholeheartedly believe that everyone has the potential to be good, so I’m fascinated by the circumstances that cause people to abandon their humanity and inflict violence upon themselves, others, and the environment.
Another Buddhist concept relevant to the collection is “changing poison into medicine.” By virtue of being human, we’re going to suffer—that’s inevitable—but the most important question is what are we going to do with that suffering. How are we going to respond to the terrible things that happen to us? How can we find meaning and beauty in it? Can we transform it?
SS: So the present here is a deep mourning—a loss of language, a culture that widens the divide between you and history, you and your country, you and your family. “With your hybrid mouth, your split tongue.” How did you embody or embrace this mourning?
ELS: There’s a line by Gloria Anzaldúa: “this is her home / this thin edge of barb wire,” which encapsulates my reality as the daughter of Mexican immigrants. It’s a common story, the feeling of dislocation. We don’t belong to either culture. As I’ve grown older, instead of feeling resentful and frustrated, I’ve learned to make a home of this place. I have an accent in both languages, for instance, and that’s ok. However, I do mourn the inevitable loss of my Mexican culture. No matter how much I want to cling to certain aspects of it, my children will not experience it as I did. I suppose the book is both a way to explore the liminal space I’ve occupied and a way to preserve this very specific American experience. In a sense, I had to leave home to have perspective and better understand it. I also very much lament what the drug wars have done to Mexico. It has changed the landscape, instilled fear, and destroyed populations. It’s completely transformed since I was a child. Back then our hometown in Mexico felt like an idyllic place. Now people are afraid to be out after dark.
SS: I love the unapologetic way you write about the body—about female sexuality, desire, guilt, and the shadow of patriarchal shame around these themes. How vital was tackling these issues in the poems, especially as a woman of color?
ELS: Thank you. That is actually one of the many things I loved about your collection as well. “Center of the World” is one of my favorite poems of all time, and most recently the poem “Hymen Elegy” in Granta kicked me in the heart. I think we have similar experiences. I grew up feeling great shame about my body. I believe this internalized misogyny comes from many places. The virgin-whore dichotomy, for example, is deeply rooted in Latin American culture as a result of colonialism. This is not to say it was a heyday for women before the conquest—most indigenous civilizations also subjugated women—but Catholicism brought its own brand of patriarchy. The veneration of the virgen de Guadalupe really facilitated the hatred of women as sexual beings.
I was frustrated growing up because I saw scantily clad women on Spanish language television while simultaneously being told that sex and anything related to it was sinful. I didn’t understand why we had to live in these binaries. Adding to this, women of color in American culture are often perceived as hyper-sexual. For black women this can be traced back to slavery. And if you google image search “Latina . . . ” well, you can imagine what you find. We are constantly objectified. Sex is the most natural thing in the world, and yet we have so many hang ups about it. It was important to me to confront this form of oppression. It has taken my entire adult life to undo this damage and I’m hoping that my work can help other women wrestle with these issues. We are too often told that we’re not allowed to desire when it’s simply a part of being human.
SS: So much of Lessons on Expulsion beautifully bears witness and pays tribute to people who are often overlooked in poetry and literature at large—the poor, the disenfranchised, the disappeared. Where does lyric poetry and the journalistic eye intersect for you? How do they inform each other in the process?
ELS: I write a lot about violence—physical, emotional, economic, psychic, racial, the list goes on. I’ve witnessed and researched many forms of oppression, and the consequent indignation I feel is manifested in all of my writing. Some believe cruelty is human nature, but I sincerely believe we can do better. I use writing not only to document suffering, but also to imagine other possibilities. One thing I’ve learned from living with depression is finding meaning in pain. I’m always asking myself, where is the hope? I care about the stories that are not being told, and I dedicate my life to making them known.
At the same time, however, I know that as an individual, there is only so much I can do, and I have a responsibility to share the platform I’ve been given. I’ve been inspired by my mentor Rigoberto González who is always promoting the work of emerging writers. He is a great model. I also think a lot about Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TedTalk, “The Danger of a Single Story.” We need more storytellers. The publishing world is changing, but not fast enough. I have many privileges now. I’m teaching at an ivy league school and my work has been reviewed in several distinguished outlets. Perhaps I’m idealistic, but I want to use whatever influence I have to make the world better.
“I use writing not only to document suffering, but also to imagine other possibilities.”
SS: I found the lushness of your imagery, sweepingly beautiful and intoxicating. It was so painterly! Who are some of your artistic influences, and what other Latinx writers and painters inspire you?
ELS: Thank you! I love, love, love visual art. I was obsessed with the Art Institute when I was a kid and spent many afternoons there. I was enamored with Picasso, Salvador Dalí, Georgia O’Keefe, and Artemesia Gentileschi, to name a few. When I got a Fulbright to Madrid after college, I pretty much lost my mind over the art I was exposed to. (The Prado and the Reina Sofía were walking distance from my apartment.) I’m fascinated by Goya, particularly The Black Paintings, which include Saturn Devouring His Son, referenced in my poem “Letter from New York.” The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch really knocks me out everytime I look at it. While in Europe, I got to see other favorites, such as Olympia by Manet and basically all paintings by Gaugin and Van Gogh. I’ve also been influenced by Ana Mendieta, Nan Goldin, and Kiki Smith. The image I used for my cover is a painting by Chicana artist Judithe Herandez, who is amazing. I’m very much drawn to work that explores womanhood and the human body.
As far as Latinx writers go, my mentors Eduardo Corral and Rigoberto González have been inspirational to me. I also admire the work of Natalie Scenters-Zapico, Javier Zamora, and Marcelo Hernandez Castillo. There is an increasing visibility of Latinx writers right now, which I find very exciting.
SS: These poems startle and excite me with their visceral honesty, how the body is unabashedly examined and dissected for the reader. It also struck me that so much of the body’s desires here burn towards doubt and towards death. How do you approach such a flame on the page? Was there any difficulty in mapping the complex interior of these desires?
ELS: When I taught in a summer writing program last year, I told my students that I wanted them to see the class as an invitation to vulnerability. That’s what I want my poems to be. For me, poetry is a place where I can dwell in my truth, no matter how ugly or unflattering it may be. I think it’s obvious when a writer is relying on ego and being inauthentic. I never noticed this tension between desire and death before you pointed it out, however. Thank you for that. Now as I reflect on this I realize that as a woman, particularly as a brown woman, I’ve been conditioned to believe my hopes and desires are not valid. People often believe we only exist to serve others, so it makes sense that there is trepidation in the act of wanting. That feeling is where the last line of “Saudade” comes from “who gave me / permission be this person to drag / my misfortune on this leash made of gold.” I’ve never been given permission to be who I am. I had to fight for it.
SS: A lot of the book is a living travelogue—places the speaker has lived, places her body has encountered another. Speak more about this complication of the body as a pockmarked map, how the world’s history and geography is experienced through the body, through poetry?
ELS: I have always wanted to see the world, ever since I was a kid, and I’m incredibly lucky to be able to move so freely. This isn’t common where I come from. In my travels I started thinking about what my body means in different spaces, the ways in which I’m othered and objectified, but also how I’m able to blend in and be an observer or voyeur. My racial ambiguity is definitely a privilege in most instances. I’m Latinx with relatively light skin, so I know I am treated very differently than if I were black. I think it’s important for both non-black and white Latinos to remember this. We don’t experience oppression in the same ways.
I also think of the history that I’ve inherited through my body. The conquest of the Americas was incredibly brutal and, of course, included sexual violence. Some scientific studies have found that trauma can be passed down through generations, which I find fascinating. I come from a long line of disenfranchised people. My grandmothers were poor and had very little agency. I try to honor their experiences through my writing.
SS: As a Mexican-American poet, and the daughter of immigrants, how important is tracing the ancestral wound through poetry, as the discrimination immigrants face in America continues to intensify?
ELS: We’re living in scary times. That is not to say that everything was great prior to the election; there were mass deportations during the Obama administration. However, Trump has given people permission to vocalize and act on their hate. My parents were fortunate enough to get amnesty under Reagan, and they eventually become citizens. That’s almost inconceivable now. I write so much about borders because they’ve defined my life in many ways. As a child I heard dangerous border crossing experiences and witnessed adults worry over their papers. Undocumented immigrants live in perpetual fear of being separated from their families. I think it’s important to document these experiences in any way I can. I really resent that we have to be humanized through art, but I think it’s necessary. I’m hoping that through my poetry collection and my novel, readers can learn to empathize with people from my community.
SS: The way you tackle the cultural and linguistic separation of young Mexican-Americans from their parents really struck me here—the fact that some children of immigrants have enough time to experience ennui. How do you make sense of this nomadic placelessness, the desire to travel the world, this strange new privilege?
ELS: When my depression got particularly severe in high school, my parents were understandably perplexed. I had food and shelter; what else could I need? At that age they had long dropped out of school to help support their families, and here I was sad and angry because I felt misunderstood. I’ve discussed this with other writers who are children of immigrants. It is a very strange existence at times. Both of my parents worked in factories when I was growing up. I hope I’ve internalized some of their work ethic, but the work I do is completely different. I don’t have to punch in a clock or lift heavy objects. This was not the case for most of my life, but I live very comfortably at the moment. I just moved to New Jersey for my fellowship. and I’m spending most of my days promoting my books, completing a collection of essays, traveling, and working on a creative project. I have the luxury to sit and wonder about the ineffable. I’m truly lucky and sometimes I do feel guilty about it. But at the same time, this kind of life allows me to write my parents’ stories.
SS: Tell me more about the title “Lessons on Expulsion,” and its importance to the arc of the poems, how it references both the internal actions of the body as well as the external forces causing the body’s unbelonging. Was this always the title?
ELS: I’ve always been very passionate about reproductive rights. The poem began when I got into a rabbit hole of research on abortion practices throughout history. Women will stop at nothing to have control over their own bodies. It’s astounding that we’re still fighting for this very basic human right. Much of the collection deals with women fighting for bodily autonomy, but “expulsion” has other meanings too. It refers to deportations, the feeling of alienation, and even catharsis, which culminates in the last poem “Six Months After Contemplating Suicide.” The collection had several titles, all of which felt off. It wasn’t until I wrote this poem that I knew I had found the right one.
SS: As a multigenre writer, what is your typical writing process like? Is it easy to make a switch between poetry and prose?
ELS: My process really makes no sense. I don’t have a regimen, a schedule, or a word count minimum.
SS: Basically, writing consumes my whole life. If I’m not reading or writing, I’m definitely thinking about it. While I’m writing, I often pace and listen to Philip Glass. I can’t sit still for very long. Switching genres can be difficult for me at times. When I was writing my novel, it was all I did. Completing it felt like an emergency. I’m surprised I’ve been mostly working on essays this past year, and I didn’t write any poetry during that time. I finally wrote a poem a few weeks ago because it was begging to come out. I see writing as something magical and I think it’s important to listen to what is trying to manifest at the moment. I don’t believe in churning stuff out, which is why it took me over a decade to complete the poetry collection and about four years to complete the novel. Also, I love revision.