All the way back: A Conversation with Sara Borjas

Sara Borjas is a Xicanx pocha and a Fresno poet. Her debut collection of poetry, Heart Like a Window, Mouth Like a Cliff was published by Noemi Press in 2019. Sara is a 2017 CantoMundo Fellow, the recipient of the 2014 Blue Mesa Poetry Prize and a three-time Pushcart Prize nominee. She lives in Los Angeles but stays rooted in Fresno.


Abigail McFee: First of all, congratulations on your debut collection—I think the word “daring” genuinely applies here. While reading, I felt your willingness to stare directly into the eyes of what disgusts you and then write from that stance. Other times, I was taken by the capacious tenderness you have towards your subjects, whether your hometown of Fresno or your family members. Which is more difficult, writing from disgust or tenderness? Are those feelings separate?

Sara Borjas: Writing from tenderness is more difficult for me. I love my family, so when I have to be tender it’s usually because I’ve had to accept something I cannot change, about them or about us, and I’ve realized that. So I have to find a way to love what we are, what we will be despite my wants. When I’m still feeling disdain or disgust, whether it be towards others or myself, I feel a desperate kind of energy that still pleads for change. Writing these poems, I’ve learned to recognize and understand the difference. When I was younger, I attended drug and alcohol classes and they posted the serenity prayer on the wall where we met. I used to think it was weak to “accept the things we cannot change,” but now I know it’s the hardest. As a Latinx woman, a lot of my self-worth is tied up in being strong, unshakeable, and resolute. But the colonial habit of commodifying myself based on what I can do, change, and always for others, is exhausting, and has nothing to do with my worth, or my family’s. Where I’m tender is where I have accepted myself and others, and it’s not weak.

AM: In one of the series of poems titled “Ars Poetica,” you write, “a daughter must find her mother’s first house.” Why was that act of homegoing important in your first collection?

SB: I have to perceive my parents as whole, complex beings—not people, but beings—with whole lives if I truly want to understand how or why they’ve raised us the way they did, and that’s why I had to go to my mother’s first breath, which is, as Cherrie Moraga says, how we come to and leave this earth. I think I tend to be manipulative and I think poems can be tools of manipulation, propaganda even. But this means they can also be sites of revolt, especially against our own assumptions. I had to trace my desires through my parents, and through their childhoods, through their upbringing, which shaped mine. I don’t think we can truly heal, or begin to try to apologize, if we don’t go all the way back. And oftentimes, as colonized people, we learn how much of this we never, ever asked for.

AM: You’ve openly called these poems autobiographical, so I hope you won’t mind me referring to the speaker as “you.” In one poem, your father tells you, “Not / everyone is ready to / talk about things like / you are”—the implication being that you as speaker, daughter, and poet are willing to go to those dark places others avoid. I didn’t get the sense that you were shying away from what might be difficult for family members to read. But I’m equally struck by the way Shane McCrae describes your authorial empathy in his blurb, as “an imagination informed by love.” Why is it important to talk about what others won’t, or can’t? What are the pleasures and difficulties of going to those places others don’t want to go?

SB: It is important to talk about what others won’t for two reasons. First, there are particular paths, most of which we did not consciously choose, that force us into who we are; and second, we can’t critique silence. This is what Major Jackson writes in his essay, “Big & Black: A Mystifying Silence,” about white writers either not choosing to write consciously about race or pretending like their choice to not write “about race” is not a commentary on race already. It’s the same with our colonized pasts, traditions, ideas about gender and propriety, love and the commodification of it—our “not talking” is a very noisy, two-faced conversation that reveals the quiet as complicity, if we are willing to say so.

For me, this has meant leading people I love like my mom and dad out of the fantasy of their lives. This means willfully recognizing the reality of our colonization, assimilation, and deep desire to belong somewhere as internalized tools of oppression as well as one of our most human desires. This means destroying a type of faith my father has put on repeat in his heart so he could survive. This means telling my mother she was right when she wanted and asked for more even though she ultimately settled for what someone gave her. If we know our worth, then we are dangerous because we won’t be content with scraps anymore. White America knows this but has relied on our ignorance for too long. Malcolm X says in a speech often referred to as “democracy is hypocrisy”—“who made you so dumb? Who took your name? Where did your name go?” This is why it’s important to go where no one is comfortable going—to the source and origin of how we all got here, either in our own lifetimes or across generations. Right now, I strongly believe that I have to tell these stories—so I can inhabit an identity that isn’t also a tool of forgetting. We can’t pretend what happened didn’t happen, or erase our histories so we can be who we wish we were. We have to look through all of it so we can have preserve the dignity of who we are, who we will be.

AM: I’ve never read a poem quite like “We Are Too Big for This House.” It defies what you later reference as “traditional, Eurocentric form.” The poem literally overflows its own boundaries, spilling into the margins, where the reader finds factual footnotes and incredibly potent, intimate asides that deepen and complicate the body of the poem. How did you create that form, and what is its relationship to the content of the poem?

SB: I’m glad to know that this piece, which I wrote as an essay actually, is being considered so deeply. I worked on it for so long! I had been working on this essay for months but could never get it to click into place. J. Michael Martinez, one of my incredible editors for this collection, started sending me examples of illustrated texts and marginalia and I was inspired by them. I changed the vignettes, which implied a linear and a directional sense, into text boxes that I could puzzle, that denied order and direct correlation to how the speaker or her parents created and exercised their ideas and values. The form employs the space of the page to provide different levels of textual analysis and becomes a meta space where the book comments on itself, a kind of self-consciousness of itself as text, as a produced thing whose “narrative” is transient and interpretative. As a POC, I think it could also reflect the double consciousness of being a POC: the always present self-awareness of the epistemological racial difference. Shout out to editors like J. Michael Martinez. 

AM: What did the process of writing these poems make you pay closer attention to, in yourself and in others?

SB: It made me pay attention to desire. Which is something we’ve all been taught to deny in the face of duty, loyalty, being a good “American,” “Chicana,” or “woman.” I’ve had to look more closely at the gendered denial I inherited and make every effort, each day, to want it all.

AM: The collection deals with openings: windows, doors, and mouths. There are some gorgeous images I can’t get over—how your mom “open[s] her throat like a rusty silo for rain” and “my body / with a bright hole in my chest, / another body falling into it.” Did you think of openings, as a motif, in the context of women in particular?

SB: Actually, I did. I thought of voids—deep rooms and space we make in ourselves for others and how, often, our worth as women is based on how big and open that space is. If it’s small, we’re bitches or manipulative. But if it’s big, we are good, loving, and belong. I’m like, there’s only room for one in this body and it’s me.

AM: These poems don’t simply represent; they actively create. Within your collection, words have the power to rename and reclaim, even to recreate people: “I like to dream people up / the way I want them,” you write. Through words, the poet exercises control over other people: “I don’t let my mom / be drunk in poems.” In other moments, though, you represent words as ineffective, or as a burden. This tension between power and helplessness is also found in the way you write about the body. Your mother’s weight is something that can rock the couch but also anchors her to it. What do you see as the relationship between words and the body?

SB: Unfortunately, stories have overwritten our bodies. I believe writers can reveal us, though. But I don’t think it comes from just writing more words, it comes from critiquing the words we already have and defuncting them to make a clearness out of our bodies before we put what we want on them.

AM: What is the house?

SB: The house is the limitations imagined on women of color’s bodies. The house is white. The house is burning.



Abigail McFee

Abigail McFee is a poet and Nebraska transplant living in Somerville, Massachusetts. She was selected by Rachel Jamison Webster as first runner-up for the Spoon River Poetry Review Editors' Prize and named winner of the High Shelf Press Ekphrastic Challenge. Her current project asks how the interiority of human beings (particularly women) can be understood through landscapes. You can find her on Twitter @abigail_mcfee.

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