ire’ne lara silva is the author of two poetry collections, furia (Mouthfeel Press, 2010) and Blood Sugar Canto (Saddle Road Press, 2016), which were both finalists for the International Latino Book Award in Poetry, an e-chapbook, Enduring Azucares, (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2015), as well as a short story collection, flesh to bone (Aunt Lute Books, 2013) which won the Premio Aztlán. She and poet Dan Vera are also the co-editors of Imaniman: Poets Writing in the Anzaldúan Borderlands (Aunt Lute Books, 2017), a collection of poetry and essays. ire’ne is the recipient of a 2017 NALAC Fund for the Arts Grant, the final recipient of the Alfredo Cisneros del Moral Award, the Fiction Finalist for AROHO’s 2013 Gift of Freedom Award, and the 2008 recipient of the Gloria Anzaldúa Milagro Award. ire’ne is currently working on her first novel, Naci. Her latest collection of poetry, CUICACALLI/House of Song, was published by Saddle Road in April 2019. Website: irenelarasilva.wordpress.com.
Ire’ne Lara Silva is a prolific writer whose work often explores what is commonly referred to as the herida abierta, or the open wound that is the U.S./Mexican borderlands and the work of healing that Chicanx, migrants, refugees, and Indigenous peoples still struggle to undertake in a country that continues to harm them.
We spoke recently about her latest poetry collection, Cuicacalli: House of Song. Our conversation centered around what healing can look like for these communities and how art is just a first step in opening up conversations towards understanding, healing, and growth.
Leticia Urieta: Where do you think this collection is in the trajectory of your poetic development?
Ire’ne Lara Silva: I don’t know that I think of it as a trajectory– as any kind of a straight line. It’s more like I’ve been writing in a circle, gathering certain themes. Some people might look at Furia and say, “Oh, this one is about grief and rage,” and Blood Sugar Canto is about diabetes and community and family, and Cuicacalli is about history and indigeneity and Chicanx/Tejanx identity, but I think that there are places where my books overlap. There’s always a concern about social justice, there’s always a concern about history, there’s always a concern about community, so I think that I’m exploring the same themes in different directions, and in more detail.
LU: As you talk about these different concepts that you have explored in prior work, like indigeneity, violence, but also the historical context of culture, how do you think this collection is reflecting your current obsessions or discussions?
ILS: These are issues that are at the forefront of my mind and my awareness, like issues of the border, of Mexican American education in high schools and colleges across Texas and the U.S., the border wall, the current administration’s policies towards immigrants and people of color and towards Native nations. But at the same time, it isn’t so much that these are new concerns, but ongoing concerns for me. I started writing about these themes in college 26 years ago, and it just feels like Cuicacalli has so far been my best articulation of these issues. So far, this is the best balance of rage and love—Cuicacalli taps more into the love that inspires rage; the rage that you feel is inspired by the love that you have for community. It’s important because you see how injustice towards those you love inspires rage. Even though there is anger and rage in these poems, you will hopefully see and feel the desire for love, the desire for justice, the desire for healing and wholeness.
LU: I think that is an important way to articulate that difference.
ILS: And there is no possible way that I could have done that 26 years ago. I wasn’t in a place where I could understand that, much less articulate it.
LU: Why do you think that is?
ILS: The difference in age, but also the difference in experience. I’ve had 26 years to think and write about these themes and to find my way to the language I needed.
LU: I think that you are talking about progression here too—not that progression is necessarily linear, but that there is way that you progress in your understanding of these ideas. I was curious to know how that played out in the book because you have these four different sections (A Hundred Hands Deep, What Else Do We Burn, The Soul Speaks a Language of Light, and Cuicacalli). What you do think is the progression of the collection across the four different sections?
ILS: I think that I started with the basic idea of the four directions and wanting that kind of symmetry and groundedness. The easy answer is to say what actually happened, that I completely left it in my brother’s hands to figure out what order everything would go in. I told him, “There’s four sections, I want them to have these titles, Cuicacalli will be the last poem, do whatever you want with the rest,” and he then gave me back the manuscript in a completely new order. I felt that he understood what I was trying to do in that even though it is a poetry manuscript, you still want, not necessarily a story or narrative, but a sense of development and of transformation. And even though the title poem is a longer poem, and is mostly historical, I felt like the progression of the poems that came before helped build up to that poem;by that poem the reader and I have an understanding of what song is, have an understanding of what bones are, have an understanding of what history is, what sacredness is—all of these ideas have been laid out for them. At the same time, it can be very easy for us to think that the progression of something has to be very logically laid out. I don’t agree; I think that with poetry, it will almost never look like a logical progression. It will seem chaotic or random, but every poem becomes a necessary part of the experience. Even though this collection is about history and indigeneity, I felt the quieter, more personal poems about love or relationships or self or transformation or peace, were integral to the journey from first poem to last poem.
LU: The collection explores that song in different forms is inextricable from healing, especially present in the title poem, “Cuicacalli.” Why did this feel important to emphasize, especially at the end?
ILS: I think I have always been writing about song. When I was writing Blood Sugar Canto, I spoke about chronic illness as disharmonious notes in the body, how life could be made into song, and the ways in which we have access to healing but deny ourselves. We don’t reach out for what is within our reach. When you look at the ways that we understand healing in Latinx/Chicanx culture, that healing is actually rooted in Indigenous practice. The identification with Indigeneity, the experience of it, the history of it, that is what allows us to connect to healing. But when we deny our indigeneity, we deny ourselves access, entry, and connection. For a long time, I thought this book was going to be titled The Scatterer of Ashes because I wanted to look at what it meant to attempt to heal from the Conquest. I was researching something else when I came across the word Cuicacalli. I had heard it before, but I hadn’t understood that it meant “house of song.” I wondered what a house of song would look like. If you think of song as a solid thing, a place, a refuge, a home, what would go into building that house? After more researching, I saw that in Aztec/Nahuatl culture, a Cuicacalli was where they sent young Aztec boys to train to be warriors. That’s something Western culture would never associate– song with strength. Lately I’ve been very invested in contemplating strength. As people of color, women of color, queer people of color, it can seem inevitable to only identify with the wounds in history and in our lives. To identify with brokenness, violence, or pain. I keep thinking about what it would mean to instead focus on strength, on endurance, on survival—not in a way where we ignore history or the current political situation or the current suffering of people–but in such a way that we speak to, of, and with strength.
LU: That is a very interesting way to reframe control; not that you have control over what happens to you, but that you have a control of how you choose to go about healing.
ILS: I think it’s important to stay passionate, to not give in to apathy or despair. And that might be easy to say those things, but how do we do that? How do we resist apathy and despair? What would that sound like? How do we live that? That was what I kept coming back to in this collection. We look at everything that conquest has taken away, what oppression has taken away or what we’ve lost, but we also find a way to claim our strength. A student asked me recently, “How is it that we can continue to go on when we’ve had so many failures?” I asked her, “How can we despair when we have survived so long, in so many ways?” It goes back to what you said about reframing. The truth is that we’ve continued to survive and thrive and make art.
LU: There are a lot of references to Mexican American and Indigenous origins in the book and how younger generations still struggle to understand their identity in a nation state that has historically wanted them dead or out of the way. You address this struggle in “warning for the young wanting to heal generations past.” Do you feel some responsibility to guide younger Chicanx peoples who are attempting to navigate healing and belonging?
ILS: With every book after my first, I realized that through my writing, I want to help start conversations because there are so many things in life that are never sufficiently addressed. Either because it’s an issue that people don’t want to talk about, or they don’t know how to talk about it. I don’t know it’s so much about guiding as it is about trying to find starting places for discussion. I think about what readers of any age bring to a story or poem, how the poem may or may not reflect what they already know, and what it might possibly offer up for contemplation? You always hope that your work is deeper than one reading, that a reader will sit with the poet and together, create a new poem.
LU: One thing that I thought was interesting was that, while you have touched on similar ideas before, this is the first collection where I’ve seen you more actively incorporate Nahuatl concepts and words. I wondered what it was like to be vulnerable in that way, using language that you are not necessarily accustomed to using, and why it felt vital to incorporate those words into this collection.
ILS: There have been appearances of it before in other works, but in this collection, it’s a little more extensive. Part of that, I think, was the reach for language and concepts that I found I needed but didn’t have. There were words that were already familiar, like the names of deities. I remember watching the Telemundo station in South Texas and seeing the statue of Coatlicue. Some images have been with me my entire life. In the essay that ends this book, I was thinking about how we heal our wounds, and also, how do we keep from being wounded? It seemed to me that it would save so much energy if we could keep from being wounded. I reached out to David Bowles, poet and writer extraordinaire, for a phrase that expressed this idea. We couldn’t come up with Spanish or Nahuatl terms that didn’t mean something like a limpia, or a cleansing. Finally, he said, “There’s this one really weird phrase I have in mind, ‘nomiccama nomiccanacayo,’ that basically means, ‘I am spiritually protected.’” I asked, “Well, what’s wrong with that? That sounds perfect.” He said, “Well, if you literally translate it, it means ‘dead hands, dead flesh.’” I asked him to explain how these meanings were related. That’s when he said that the underlying meaning is that one is protected by the hands and flesh of one’s departed loved ones, which is not a concept that we could find in English or Spanish. We had to go to the Nahuatl to find a term that to me was perfect. It so perfectly captured my experience in crisis. Two years ago when my brother came close to dying, the only prayer that consoled me was that our mother’s hands were holding us. Those words, that image was what got me through the three months he was in the hospital.
LU: How do you feel artists who are Mexican American or Chicanx and who have been separated from their indigeneity should go about writing about these concepts in respectful ways?
ILS: Some of us do know what our native ancestry is, some of us do have family connections, but there are many more of us that don’t. My father, who considered himself very Spanish, would talk about his grandmother, “pura india” he’d say and then tell us that she’d been kept separate from the family. That they kept her in a little house like a “criatura” even though she lived to be 115 years old and should have been the family matriarch. For a long time, I just thought this was something specific to the psychology and violence of my family but later learned that this wasn’t uncommon in South Texas among Mexican/American/Indigenous families. It naturally follows that part of the rationale for this separation was to keep the Native/Indigenous family members from influencing children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. As the descendants of these separations, we end up with so much shame because we lost connection and knowledge. We forget that it was taken. That in the same way many Latinx parents have refused to teach their children to speak Spanish because U.S. society shamed them for their accents or deemed them less intelligent, so many Latinx families tried to eradicate their Indigenous roots given the historical and ongoing violence in the U.S. directed against the peoples of its many Native nations.
I keep returning to the idea that we can reclaim what was taken. We may be many times dispossessed, but in the same way that it would be a lie for us to deny the Mexican in us, it would also be a lie to deny the Indigenous in us. It’s true that this isn’t an easy space to occupy–as so few of our spaces are easy to occupy. But how else do we begin to tell our truth as Mexican/American/Chicanx/Indigenous people? To varying degrees, we know what we feel, we have absorbed Indigenous practices and history through our very skin, our families, our culture, even our languages (Spanish/English/Tex-Mex) are influenced by tongues indigenous to the Americas. Since Movimiento times, Chicanx identity has rooted itself in a connection to the Nahuatl and Mayan languages. This has sometimes led to conflict about what is appropriation, what is appreciation, and what is reclamation. In some ways, it’s another way of being ‘sin papeles.’ We don’t have documentation for our indigeneity. What we have is the truth of our ancestry, the truth of our history, and everything that has and has not survived the last 500+ years. It’s part of the question I ask in one of the poems–”What does it mean to be born of a cataclysm?” Part of the answer is that a cataclysm results in fragments and shards and incomplete stories. It leaves us in a difficult inbetween place. And how do we interact with Native writers in the U.S.? They are registered through the U.S. government and recognized as Native. We are not. What is that space between being Indigenous and being Native? How can we be respectful of our difference while still claiming each other as community? For those of us who are Latinx, who are here in the U.S., how do we claim community with Native/Indigenous peoples elsewhere in the Americas? With people who are (im)migrant refugees? There have been times in which people have used these differences to separate us. So where do we find and privilege the connections instead of the differences? I think we can begin by committing to awareness and a willingness to engage in discussions of all of these questions.
LU: Yes, especially when certain peoples’ stories have been historically erased. I was also thinking of what conversations this book starts. How do you feel you will continue to explore these concepts or ideas in current work or future work?
ILS: Right now I am working on two novels and a short story collection, and there are definite linkages. The novel that I am almost done with has to do with a Mexican/American/Indigenous intersex person living on the border during my lifespan, during the ‘70s to now and dealing with issues of identity and sexuality, but also with issues related to the wall, with migrant refugees, with violence, and the attempt to find reconciliation. With poetry, I write about whatever is closest to me, about my own personal experience. With fiction, I’m experimenting, and I recently came to the conclusion that novels for me are a way to try to re-imagine what the world could be. The short story collection moves in and out of many of the themes in Cuicacalli— there’s a lot of discussion of Nahuatl deities, what it means to be survivors of the conquest 500 plus years later, and what it means in our lives to be capable of creating art and how that transforms our stories. That’s why when I think of progression in my work, I don’t know that it’s linear. It’s more of a spiraling and repeating thing, trying to see the same themes from different angles, through different lens.
LU: Do you ever feel that you will ever be done with discussion of the conquest, of the original wound?
ILS: No. There will always be some connection to it. The Conquest is the Cataclysm. The historical moment that’s still screaming, the defining moment that splintered us–not only from each other but on our own land. The second novel I’m working on is the retelling of a fairytale and brings in an undocumented immigrant and talks about how suffering and grief affects our stories. I also have the idea to write an apocalyptic novel. So I don’t see myself moving away from these ideas. They are the earth I have to work with.
LU: I think that’s valid. As long as these are wounds that continue to harm us, we will continue to engage with the discussion of how to not be harmed, how to not be wounded.
ILS: And as you were saying, we’ll continue working with how to reframe and reinterpret our narratives. The way I see it, there is a profound misunderstanding about how and why writing is healing. I don’t think that just writing something down or writing a truth will set you free or heal you. It’s not letting it out that is healing, it’s reworking and revising and reinterpreting what is written that is healing. The work that I put into revision and reinterpretation and shaping reshaping a piece is something I believe transfers to the reader. That is where I think the healing is. I believe that this is actually how you change your life, your community, or even the world, in this working and reworking.
LU: Which is why you didn’t have the same relationship to these ideas 26 years ago, right? That reworking is very important. I’ve heard a lot of writers say that they are writing what they would want their younger selves to read, or for their younger selves that needed this work.
ILS: I don’t know that I am writing books for my younger self. I think that I might be writing books for my future self. Not only because I have to write these books to learn what I need to learn in order to write the future books, but because future me will appreciate these works more than even I can right now. With every writer, there’s writing that’s larger than we are, that knows more than we know. I think perhaps the future self knows what we’re reaching for.
LU: What books would you recommend to youth who are trying to discover or explore their identities?
ILS: There are the foundational works that I always go back to. I always go back to Juan Rulfo, I always go back to Toni Morrison, I always go back to Leslie Marmon Silko and Jeanette Winterson. Those are my touchstones. I always go back to history. In college, what drew me away from being an engineer was the anthology This Bridge Called My Back edited by Cherrie Moraga and Gloria Anzaldua and a book by David Montejano titled, Anglo Mexican Relations in South Texas. These books tore me away from being an engineer and pushed me into the humanities and wanting to pursue art more than anything else.
LU: Maybe that’s what you needed then and what others might need now.