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You’ll Be Who You Are, Wherever You Are: An Interview with Jennifer Maritza McCauley

by Ivelisse Rodriguez, PhD


Editor's note: This interview is the 11th in a series that will focus on contemporary Puerto Rican authors. To read the previous interview with Kenyatta JP Garcia, click here

Jennifer Maritza McCauley teaches at the University of Missouri, where she is working on her PhD in creative writing. She currently holds staff positions at The Missouri Review (Contest Editor, Poetry Editor in Fall 2018) and Origins Literary Journal (Poetry Editor.) She has received awards from Best of the Net, the Academy of American Poets, and the Independent Publisher Book Awards, and fellowships from the National Endowment of the Arts, CantoMundo, and Kimbilio. Her writing appears in Pleiades, Columbia Journal, Passages North, Jabberwock Review, Puerto del Sol, and elsewhere. Her collection SCAR ON/SCAR OFF is available from Stalking Horse Press.

Ivelisse Rodriguez: SCAR ON/SCAR OFF is your first book—a hybrid text of poetry and prose, which explores the scarring of racism, femalehood, and identity. One aspect of identity that comes forth in your poem “When Trying to Return Home” is how identity is at times tied to location. “I was born / where my culture rarely bloomed—amongst Northern steel-dust and / dead skies….” This is in contrast to how the narrator feels in Miami, as if she belongs. Can you discuss the fluctuation of identity based on locale?  

Jennifer Maritza McCauley: From what I’ve seen, the code-switching and re-naming process is stitched into the POC experience in the U.S. This country is complex and vast, and every region has its own history, traditions, and culture. So it makes sense that our identities fluctuate and are defined by locale. I’ve noticed, in much of the work I gravitate toward and write, I’m looking for definitions of “home,” how we translate ourselves to ourselves and to others, and how we answer the question: where are you from? 

I’ve also been thinking about Zora Neale Hurston’s essay, “How It Feels to Be Colored Me.” Hurston grew up in all-black Eatonville, Florida, and when she moved, and entered non-black environments, she realized “I was not Zora of Orange County any more, I was now a little colored girl.” I had the opposite experience growing up outside of Pittsburgh, PA. I wasn’t just Jennifer, I was Jennifer the Black Kid. There were few Black-American or Latinx folks in my immediate area, but I went to Puerto Rico and St. Louis as a teenager and hung out in all-black spaces on my own. The culture clashes were a bit jarring. I moved to melting pots like Miami, D.C., and San Juan, PR as an adult and realized there were plenty of people like me. Blackness, then, became more complicated. My father is a Missouri-born African-American, and my mother is a mestiza Puerto Rican, born in Guayanilla and raised in Connecticut. In Miami and in San Juan, I was a negra in a place with many negras and mixed Latinx folks. Still, my mother’s culture had a new weight that I carried along with me. Being Puerto Rican meant something different in mainland U.S., where displaced PR communities try to find each other and preserve the culture of the island. On the island, where everyone is Puerto Rican, I was just seen as States-born or negra and judged by my proficiency with Spanish. I was excited to see all that blackness and Latinidad in these spaces, to hear my mother’s language in San Juan and Miami. I also had some dissonance; a one foot in everywhere, no feet in anywhere kind of experience. Tato Laviera’s Mixturao and AmeRícan were particularly influential for me. The idea of an Afro-Latino negotiating “…the commonwealth / stage of my life, not knowing / which ideology to select,” was a sentiment I related to, even if I didn’t have Laviera’s exact background.

My father says, “there’s no perfect spot. You’ll be who you are, wherever you are.” I think this is true. Whether we stay in one place our whole lives or move around, we are uniquely ourselves. We’re a composite of the places we’ve gone and the people we’ve met.

IR: In Awad Ibrahim’s “One Is Not Born Black,” he articulates how he is not seen as “black” in Africa; instead, he is seen as Sudanese or tall or as a basketball player, etc. So the way one is viewed racially is dependent upon who is doing the looking. In “Loriella Is Dead,” the narrator is told by Loriella that she was the “wrong kind of tawny / that I was too soft-voiced to be a real black girl….” Can you discuss these experiences of being labeled and evaluated by someone else’s gaze? Do you think it trumps the way one sees oneself?

JMM: Gloria Anzaldua says: “We perceive the version of reality that our culture communicates… living in more than one culture, we get multiple, often opposing messages. The coming together of two self-consistent but habitually incomparable frames of reference causes un choque, a cultural collision.”

I find the idea of the “choque” very apt. I’d posit hybrid identities are formed in the choque. In the choque, you are the identities “your culture communicates” and the version you define for yourself. We’ve been interpellated in the U.S. to see blackness, Latinidad, and womanhood, for example, as separate identities with distinct values, but they can obviously all occur and clash in one person. Often these identities have been defined, historically, by folks who aren’t us. That’s especially true for black people in the U.S.; our country has its history of the one-drop rule, so blackness is simple, if you have a drop of blackness, you’re black. People who embody many kinds of blackness, or deviate from cultural expectations in some way, are more difficult to define. On the personal side, from the moment I had any kind of self-awareness, I knew I was black. I can’t fully understand Ibrahim’s experience, but it makes sense to me. Hurston’s “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background,” hits home in this regard.

My parents told me I was African-American at the earliest stage of my development. Blackness was as close to me as my name, and still is. My parents prepped me for the realities of being both black and American early on. Latinidad was also part of my childhood; my mother would speak Spanish, teach me Héctor Lavoe and Ismael Rivera songs, make arroz con habichuelas and asopao, and talk about her culture all the time when I was a kid, and how she missed it. But I was taught the black-American experience first and experienced it directly. I was also proud of and inspired by black America’s many achievements. Years later, I was told I was Afro-Latina by welcoming Latinx folks, and after seeing myself represented in black Puerto Rican culture, I started to accept Afro-Latinidad as another reality. Defining myself as black first, but also as Latina, was its own process. I love my blackness. I love Puerto Rican culture and the island’s resilient and rich history. Latinidad is also important to me because it’s important to my mother. I appreciated the nuanced beauty of Puerto Rico more and more after I visited the island in my teens, returned many times as an adult, took classes at UPR-RP, and became invested in connecting with Puerto Rico. I met plenty of Afro-Puerto Ricans on the island, and plenty of other folks in the U.S., who like me, had some mix of black-American and Latinx heritage. My understanding of identity, then, was based on some combination of accepting who society said I was, my parents’ history, and who I wanted to be.

The poem you mentioned, “Loriella is Dead,” attempts to, among other things, set up the relationship between two black women whose blackness has bonded them, separated, and defined them. Loriella wrestles with internalized stereotypes when she says the speaker can’t be “really” black because she doesn’t talk or act a certain way. The speaker argues that black girls suffer in similar ways. I didn’t want the reader to think Loriella or the speaker was “wrong,” but rather, this is a snapshot of how black girls classify and define themselves and each other. The speaker and Loriella are sort of mirror images of one other, representations of the love and systemically-induced trauma present in many black-American female relationships. SCAR ON/SCAR OFF is partially about asserting identity, complicating stereotypes, and showcasing universal instances of love, loss, hurt and celebration.

To answer your last question, I think identity is defined by the location, culture and individual. You can decide for yourself how and to what degree society’s definition of you will overrule your own. Still, while we know race is a construct, we can’t pretend cultural definitions don’t exist or have real-world importance. We can honor our ancestral history and still be ourselves. I’d say our experiences with cultural collisions and our recognition of ascribed and assigned identities all shape how we define ourselves.  

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IR: In “We Are Always at Somebody’s Party,” you write, “They are speaking, again. I watch them choke down oceans, gnaw on fat slabs / of countries. I watch their mouths grow until they are too-huge and too-dark. / I wonder if these mouths will be large enough to devour me someday.” Here, and in other texts in your book, you illustrate the violence of language. Can discuss the ways in which language damages the self? 

JMM: In SCAR ON/SCAR OFF, I wanted to capture the beauty, power, uselessness and damaging effects of language. From my experience, language can feel worthless when it’s not connecting and can hurt deeply when it negates your personhood. Language can also uplift and empower. I wanted these conflicts to be represented in this book, and I wanted to show how language can hurt and heal POC communities. In some poems, language fails to save a life, in others it communicates joy and justice. In “We Are Always at Somebody’s Party,” I tried to examine how language can silence and blot out a person’s existence. That we can get so caught up in our ideas of people, we forget to hear them.

Language has high stakes, especially at this politically fraught time and for POC, LGBTQ+, women, immigrant, disabled communities, and intersections of these identities. Our identities have been deemed “controversial” topics. When we write, we are writing for our lives, giving form and defense to our experiences. Damaging language has been hurled our way: empty platitudes, dismissals and insults that have harmful histories and still sting. So language can be violent, for sure. I’d say language is a sword that should be wielded wisely, but we shouldn’t ditch the sword. Like Audre Lorde says, “what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood.”

IR: You have worked in various capacities with numerous literary journals, such as The Missouri ReviewGulf Stream, and Origins. In terms of Latinx literature, can you talk about the amount of work you have come across by Latinxs and some trends you have seen in their work? 

JMM: A consistent trend is that we want and need more Latinx voices. There’s been a concentrated effort at the journals I’ve worked for to find, publish, and promote Latinx voices, but there still aren’t enough. We need intersectional Latinx voices and a multiplicity of Latinx artistic styles represented in the literary world. We, as gatekeepers, need to continue to find Latinx writers and let them know we’re here because that’s our responsibility. And we would love if Latinx voices sought us out too, because we’re looking for them. 

IR: You recently won a National Endowment of the Arts Fellowship in prose (Congratulations!!!). With the fellowship, what project will you be working on next? 

JMM: Thank you! I appreciate it! I hope to use the grant for travel and research as I work on another hybrid book and a novel. The NEA is a wonderful organization, and I’m honored to receive the fellowship.

Born in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, Ivelisse Rodriguez grew up in Holyoke, Massachusetts. She earned a B.A. in English from Columbia University, an M.F.A. in creative writing from Emerson College, and a Ph.D. in English-creative writing from the University of Illinois at Chicago. Her short story collection, Love War Stories, is forthcoming from The Feminist Press in summer 2018. The Belindas, a fiction chapbook, is forthcoming from Tammy in summer 2017. She is the senior fiction editor at Kweli, a Kimbilio fellow, and a VONA/Voices alum. She is currently working on the novel The Last Salsa Singer about 70s era salsa musicians in Puerto Rico. To learn more about Ivelisse visit: http://www.ivelisserodriguez.com.

© Ivelisse Rodriguez. Published by permission in Centro Voices 10 July 2018.
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