In celebration of International Women’s Day, our blog editors, Joanna Cleary and Maria Prudente, interviewed poet and novelist Jenn Givhan for the Inklette blog. Read on to know more about the women writers who inspire her, writing about motherhood and lots more!
Maria Prudente: In your collection, Landscape with Headless Mama, you include the experiences of what you call “different mother-entities”. What compelled you to write about women through the collective experience and difference in motherhood?
Jenn Givhan: When I first tried having a baby, I experienced infertility and loss. Though I felt like a mother and mothered the unborns of my heart and imagination, I could not bring a living child into this world. At the time I was working on my Master’s degree in literature, focusing specifically on Latinx views and portrayals of motherhood, searching for mothers outside of the narrow definitions of birthmother that Western society put upon the lexicon, and found that in many other cultures (Latin American/Mexican, for instance) much of the mothering work is shared by tías, hermanas, abuelas, primas (i.e., female relatives) and I was taken, for instance, with Laura Esquivel’s novel Like Water for Chocolate and the role of Nacha, the abuela figure, the magical cook, an indigenous woman who is the primary caregiver of Tita as she grows up, and then later, adult Tita as the wet nurse of her sister’s baby, who becomes a Nacha-like figure to the girl, raising her in the kitchen. As I searched through the literature and began forming my own poetics, I asked questions of motherhood such as is the infertile woman the fertile woman’s doppelganger? Does she represent a fear of being without value in patriarchal society? This all helped me develop a poetics of motherhood outside of the patriarchy in my first collection and beyond, and I’m currently working on a lyric-hybrid memoir Quinceañera with Baby Fever that further delves into my experiences as a Latina growing up on the Mexicali border, examining the cultural stigmas toward childbearing and mothering in the Latina community filtered through my own experiences with teenage sexuality, contraceptives, abortion clinics, miscarriages, and violent relationships with machismo boys/men.
MP: How does your identity as a Mexican-American women influence how and what you write?
JG: My identity as a Mexican-American woman is embedded in everything I write—even when I don’t explicitly examine my cultural heritage or reference it in my work—because it is linked to my worldview, my deepest belief system, how I view the world and myself. As I discussed before, my work tends to examine mothers at the center, all the variations and possibilities for what mother means, and my own Mexican-American mother is at the heart of this. Everything I write grapples with the complexities inherent in straddling cultures, roles, expectations. Where mainstream U.S. culture would ask me why on earth, for instance, I’d try having a baby while still a college student, why I’d adopt a baby in grad school, my Mexican family never once questioned my deep desire to be a mother, even so young. Now, I’m examining the changing perspectives in my culture and re-evaluating the expectations I felt so crucial, and I’m showing my daughter all the myriad choices she has—she’s eight years old, and we’re already planning for Harvard, which is where she says she will attend college, and which we’re visiting this summer after a book expo for my first novel. I love the Mexican-American woman role model I can be for her—she sees that I’m a mother, yes, but that’s just one aspect of who I am and the possibilities she can hold for herself, if she so desires. She is growing up to know her own strength, and that’s the most powerful aspect of our Latina badassery I can pass onto her.
“Alongside these forebears, I strive to weave together a multilayered song of endurance, survival, and, ultimately, celebration sung by the many women of color working together in the resistance.”
Joanna Cleary: Trinity Sight, your debut novel about a woman’s journey through a dystopian New Mexico, combines indigenous oral-historical traditions with modern apocalyptic fiction. What inspired you to do that?
JG: I started out writing a story about a woman in New Mexico who loses her family and is on her own, and must find her own strength if she hopes to reunite with them, and perhaps more importantly, to see who she always was, with or without her family. The core of this story, then, is very close to my own heart, and speaks to my own greatest fear(s). Because my own family is from New Mexico on my great-grandmother’s side, and has roots to the Puebloan peoples, the stories that I was researching as I was reclaiming my own family history became enmeshed in protagonist’s search for strength and resilience. I didn’t necessarily set out to write a “post-apocalyptic” book, but the stories of the ancients here in the Southwest lend themselves to the cycles of destruction and rebirth that the indigenous peoples here have long known of and recorded in their sacred stories. I’m so grateful that my own inner journey connected with the ancients’—and that I’ve been able to glean a different perspective on dystopian fiction from a Latinx/indigenous perspective, centering us in our lands.
MP and JC: Which women writers have influenced you the most?
JG: My work follows the tradition of lucille clifton, who writes, “we have always loved us” and “come celebrate with me/that everyday/something has tried to kill me/and failed,” and Audre Lorde, who writes, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” My work follows my forebears Sandra Cisneros, Rosario Castellanos, Sor Juana Inéz de la Cruz, Toni Morrison, and Ana Castillo, and through paths tread clearer by contemporary poets Lisa D. Chavez, Natalie Diaz, Natasha Trethewey, Patricia Smith, and Margo Tamez. Alongside these forebears, I strive to weave together a multilayered song of endurance, survival, and, ultimately, celebration sung by the many women of color working together in the resistance.
MP and JC: What do you think is the most important message to share with emerging women writers?
JG: Believe in yourselves, beauties. Believe in yourselves so strong and resilient, so neverending, that no one, no one, can knock you down longer than it takes you to brush yourselves off and stand up, stronger, taller, braver than before, and to put your whole heart out there again and again and again. People will try to keep you down. And you will fall sometimes. And it will hurt. I wish I could say it won’t, but it will. You might not publish your first poem or story or even your tenth. You might have to send your book a hundred places. All the while you are putting your entire heart out for the world to see, keep learning. Keep growing. Keep shining. Stay open. When doors shut in your face, knock harder, knock louder. Knock the effing doors down. Climb up the fire escapes. Never, ever give up. Keep studying. Keep transforming. Keep shutting down the patriarchy. Shut that shit down every single time. And this all starts here: believe. In yourselves, in your truths, in your worth. As I believe in you. Together, we will change this whole world. ❤
JENN GIVHAN, a National Endowment for the Arts and PEN/Rosenthal Emerging Voices fellow, is a Mexican-American writer and activist from the Southwestern desert. She is the author of four full-length collections: Landscape with Headless Mama (2015 Pleiades Editors’ Prize), Protection Spell (2016 Miller Williams Poetry Prize Series edited by Billy Collins), Girl with Death Mask (2017 Blue Light Books Prize chosen by Ross Gay), and Rosa’s Einstein (Camino Del Sol Poetry Series, forthcoming 2019), and the chapbooks: Lifeline (Glass Poetry Press) and The Daughter’s Curse (Yellow Flag Press). Her novels, Trinity Sight and Jubilee, are forthcoming from Blackstone Press. Her honors include the Frost Place Latinx Scholarship, a National Latinx Writers’ Conference Scholarship, the Lascaux Review Poetry Prize, Phoebe Journal’s Greg Grummer Poetry Prize chosen by Monica Youn, the Pinch Poetry Prize chosen by Ada Limón, the Joy Harjo Poetry Prize 2nd place chosen by Patricia Spears Jones, and fifteen Pushcart nominations. Her work has appeared in Best of the Net, Best New Poets, Poetry Daily, Verse Daily, Ploughshares, POETRY, TriQuarterly, Boston Review, AGNI, Crazyhorse, Witness, Southern Humanities Review, Missouri Review, and The Kenyon Review, among many others. Givhan holds a Master’s degree in English from California State University Fullerton and an MFA from Warren Wilson College, and she can be found discussing feminist motherhood at jennifergivhan.com as well as Facebook & Twitter @JennGivhan.