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A Slave to the Essayistic Impulse: An Interview with Angela Morales

“The job of the essayist, like any storyteller,” writes Angela Morales in the introduction to her debut essay collection The Girls in My Town, “is to chase a rabbit down a rabbit hole and see where it goes.” It’s apt, I think, to liken Morales’s collection to Alice lost in Wonderland. Her essays have a subtle power, catching you at first with vivid storytelling—with a memory, an image, an anecdote—then slowly pulling you out into a greater realm where she’s suddenly examining expansive, existential questions and what it means to live a life. Each essay in this collection is a twist in the road of Morales’s existence; she covers topics like her Latino heritage, family, motherhood, teaching, and, perhaps the glue that holds it all together, place—in this case, the Central Valley of California. The themes vacillate between power and vulnerability—what it means to be a child in a world of predators; what it means to be a Latina trapped in a particular socioeconomic stratum; and what it means to be a woman who transcends societal restraints and cultural expectations. Despite its expansiveness, the collection is surprisingly cohesive, and it’s a thrill to tag along as a reader, glimpsing inside Morales’s world.

The Girls in My Town was chosen by Cheryl Strayed for the 2014 River Teeth Literary Nonfiction Book Prize. Morales’s writing has appeared in over a dozen literary journals, been anthologized in The Best American Essays, and won her the San Francisco Foundation’s James Phelan prize for a nonfiction manuscript-in-progress. She lives in Pasadena, California and teaches composition and creative writing at Glendale Community College.

It was a joy having the following exchange with Morales about process, trusting the writerly instinct, and how teaching influences the practice of writing.

Can you talk a little bit about how The Girls in My Town came to be? How many years in the making was it? At what point did you go from having some essays to knowing it was a collection—a book?

About four years ago I was sitting in my office late one night with hundreds of papers to grade, when, suddenly, I had a bit of a breakdown—maybe some people would call it an existential crisis! For too many years I’d been denying myself the time to write and devoting all of my time to teaching. It suddenly struck me hard that much of my mental energy was being spent on helping other people to become better writers, when my own writing had been neglected and ignored.

I decided that night that I would set aside a couple hours each day for writing—to telling whatever stories needed to be told. I did not begin with any particular plan for a book or even with specific essay ideas. I started with “Riding in the Dark,” an essay about observations I had made in the early morning hours while riding my bike. I wrote that essay because I felt that I had something to say and I wanted to share it. Soon after I finished that essay, much to my delight, it was accepted for publication, and I took that as a sign from the universe that I should press onward (I’m big on “signs”). After that, I wrote the essays that seemed most pressing in my mind—ideas that were like little orphaned children pulling at my sleeve. I now realize that I was writing what many people call “linked” essays. One essay would spark an idea to the next—or one essay would contain a passage within it that seemed to deserve more of the spotlight.

After I’d published about ten essays in literary journals, I wondered if I might have a collection. I printed them all out and placed them on the floor side by side. I started to notice some common themes and I saw that there was indeed a continuum, of sorts—albeit a subtle one. I think of these essays now as a kaleidoscope-portrait of a family, of a girl finding her voice. I am now very happy that I let the writing follow a natural progression without me trying to control it too much. This allowed me to write in different styles, in different forms, without placing restrictions on myself as far as what the essays were supposed to accomplish.

Did you consider writing the book as a memoir rather than a collection of essays?

Before I wrote this collection, I actually wrote a memoir that I had worked on for many years as a part of my master’s thesis. That manuscript went through endless revisions, was looked at by several editors, critiqued by an agent, and rejected by a few university presses. Honestly, I got so tired of it, I couldn’t bear to look at it anymore, so I put it in a drawer, and there it sits, collecting dust.

This time around, I wanted to write essays that could stand alone, that didn’t have the cumbersome feel of a longer work. I did think about trying to unify the essays into a memoir at one point, but that only gave me terrible flashbacks of my first manuscript, and I did not want to start dismantling what I had worked so hard to create. I was afraid that I would squeeze all the blood out of it. I wanted to keep the integrity of each chapter and embrace the essay form.

Do you think you’ll return to that memoir, or have you moved on from it?

On the one hand, I may try to resurrect some of those essays, since I think that they still have worthwhile subjects. In some ways, I like the “rawness” of that writing and how I was fully focused on the pure story. On the other hand, I’ve often heard that writers have that one, first book that they have to fail at writing before another book can be written. Also, I have so many new, exciting ideas for essays and short stories that I’m reluctant to go backwards lest I lose my current momentum.

At first glance, the essays in this collection seem to be about different topics. For example, “Nine Days of Ruth” is about your grandmother’s death (and life), and “The Girls in My Town” examines the high rate of teen pregnancy in California’s Central Valley. Yet, throughout the book, connections reveal themselves. Though separated by nearly 100 years, the teen moms in the 21st century who are your students and neighbors might not be all that different from your grandmother Ruth, who married at 16 and had her first baby in an immigrant camp in El Monte, California. How intentional was it in writing these essays to highlight such patterns? Is that something you intended to reveal from the start, or did the connections emerge as you wrote?

Without a doubt, the connections and themes in the book revealed themselves along the way. The beautiful thing about essays is that you can start with a question or a puzzle or an image, and as you write, connections begin to emerge, answers appear, and often you are surprised by the finished piece of writing, since it might be nothing like what you’d thought you were writing. This was especially true in “Nine Days of Ruth.” I knew I wanted to write about my grandmother’s death, but what I hadn’t realized was that I was actually writing about her life—the meaning of her life, and the meaning of a life in general.

In the end, when I put all the essays side by side, I began to see some common themes. Maybe, as writers, though, we are basically asking the same question but in different forms, from different perspectives: What is the meaning of this life, this experience?

Yes, I agree! I always feel like that’s where my personal essays eventually go—what is the meaning of this life, this experience? As a writer, do you find that question inexhaustible? Or, how do you keep writing the stories without feeling overwhelmed that you’re always moving into this existential realm, onto this huge, unanswerable question?

I am too dumb to ever make these big, existential connection ahead of time! I am a slave to the essayistic impulse, so, like a faithful donkey, I carry the load of the story wherever the narrative seems to want to go, and I do this without questioning the destination or wondering where I’ll end up. I am also so distracted by the story and the writing itself—the way the words line up, the scenery, the memories, the narrator’s persona—that I forget to wonder about where I’m headed. Instead, I just try to enjoy the ride. In the end, if I end up with an essay that an editor whom I trust tells me is worthwhile, then I feel that I’ve done my job.

How do you think you escaped the patterns that so many Latinas in your region of California don’t? How did you become the writer and professor? How come you had your first baby as a financially secure 31-year-old and not like the 14-year-old you shared a delivery room with at the hospital, as explained in “The Girls in My Town?”

For the most part, my family had enough money from my parents’ appliance store so that we lived comfortably. I never had to worry about where my next meal was coming from or whether or not the rent would be paid. Having those basic securities gives a kid enormous freedom to read, to play, to be creative, to concentrate in school. I always had a “room of my own”—a place where I could shut the door, sit at a desk, concentrate. I have so many students now who struggle with these basic needs. They fight for space, for stability, for support. I can totally understand those girls who marry young or have babies at a young age. I think it’s natural to want a purpose, to hope for stability, to take your chances and to look for instant gratification.  This promise of “love conquers all” is everywhere we look. I don’t want to speak for anyone but myself, but from what many of my students have told me, they had babies young because they wanted to love someone, and they wanted to their babies to look up to them, to admire and to respect them.

Also, I had strong female role models who were voracious readers—my grandma Ruth, my mother, my aunts, all of them very intellectual and well-educated in spite of never having attended college. I was always stealing books from their bookshelves. My mother taught me that being smart was cool and that women should be able to take care of themselves.

So many of your essays are about youth, vulnerability (particularly that of females and children), and culture. The one essay that really stood apart for me was “Bloodyfeathers, RIP.” As a first-year-writing professor I could really relate to this story—I think all instructors have their own Bloodyfeathers who continue to haunt them. How did you see this essay as thematically linked with the rest of the book? How do you see it belonging among the more autobiographical essays?

Bloodyfeathers, my former student and ex-con, was the first real challenge I faced as a teacher. Years later, I realized that I thought about him quite a bit because I was trying to figure out what I’d learned from him and, also, what he might have learned from me. I think the theme there, again, is trying to understand why certain ghosts come back to haunt us. Also, another theme might be trying to find compassion for people who are disenfranchised in some way and hard to love. In this case, writing is at the center of the discussion. I think that writing allowed Bloodyfeathers to find common ground with other people and to know that his experience was important.

When you do write about your students, it’s always with compassion. It’s clear that you’re learning from them as they learn from you. A lot of writers who teach tend to feel their students suck life out of them (and perhaps you hint at this in your answer to my first question—you realized you were giving so much and not leaving time for yourself to write). But it also seems there’s something that’s continually enriching about teaching. I’m wondering if you could speak a little more to how teaching in general enriches your writing.

I daydream, sometimes, about living the life of a full-time writer. I imagine that I’d live in a farmhouse somewhere in rural Iowa. All day long I’d sit in my cozy attic with a view of my apple orchard, my horses, and my cow. All day long, I would sit around in my socks and pajamas, sipping tea and spinning out novel after novel, and such would be my beautiful life! By now I’d have published a whole stack of award-winning books.

Instead, I’ve been teaching writing and literature at a community college for the past eighteen years. During that time, I’ve been enlightened, exhausted, frustrated, and ultimately, inspired by my students. Teaching keeps me in touch with the world. It keeps me humble. It reminds me that my struggles are small compared with those of my students, such as my students who recently escaped from Syria, or the veterans suffering from PTSD after multiple tours in Afghanistan. And then there’s the work itself: How lucky I’ve been to each day promote the value of good writing and to each morning be able to expound upon gorgeous texts like Brian Doyle’s “Joyas Voladoras” and the intricacies of novels such as James Agee’s A Death in the Family or Toni Morrison’s Beloved. Without a doubt, my students have taught me about perseverance, patience, and empathy, all of which enriches everything I write.

Now I’ve reached a point in my life, however, where I’m ready to cut back on the teaching load and retreat into some quiet place where I can reflect upon all these years, all these moments, all these personalities. That will be my challenge for the next few years!

Some of your essays are fairly straightforward narratives; others are much more lyrical. How do you decide what form an essay will take? Was it ever a concern when you were making this book (either for yourself, or with an editor) that the essays take on different forms?

As far as form, I always begin with a rough idea and as I write subsequent drafts, the essay begins to have a life of its own. It begins to thrash around and push against the edges of the page. Sometimes a story just wants to be a story, but the more I write and re-write, the more I begin to see the layers of history or connections to other disciplines like literature, art, or science, and I try to follow these little trails as they open up before me. It’s at this point that I try to let myself get crazy and allow myself risk sounding like a complete idiot. I also want to take my chances that the essay will be a complete failure. I’m trying to get past the idea that my writing will ever be perfect. I’ve found that for me, the worst possible punishment I can give myself is to begin writing with a strict outline and to be enslaved by any particular form.  For me, the most exciting part about writing are the surprises. The twists and turns of an unrestrained essay can be such a joy to behold.

The book was published as the winner of the River Teeth Nonfiction Prize, selected by Cheryl Strayed and then published by the University of New Mexico Press. UNM Press gave me complete freedom to arrange the essays in any way I saw fit and did not place any limitations on the content. I strongly feel that, for this reason, I was able to maintain the integrity of the work as I’d originally envisioned it. That freedom has been a wonderful gift.

Can you explain a specific moment from the book where you followed a trail and ended up in surprising terrain?

In the essay “The Girls in My Town” I began writing with the idea that I wanted to explore the reasons for the high teen pregnancy rate in California’s Central Valley—particularly Merced County, where I lived and worked at the time. I began by describing the town itself and some of my students, but then the essay spun off into different directions. I felt compelled to talk about the story of “La Llorona” the story many of us Latinos hear growing up—a story about a mother who murders her children. Then I started thinking about actual crimes, such as the teenage girl who drowned her baby. After that I started wondering what resources are available to pregnant teens, and whether or not such resources perhaps make having a baby seem too easy, especially to a young girl who has not been supported in her education and who may not have grown up in a stable family. Finally, I started thinking about the birth of my daughter and what it means to be a mother in today’s society—in any society.

So in the end, the essay was a meditation on all these issues. I didn’t know if anyone would be willing to publish it in that form, so when I got an email from Willard Spiegelman, editor of The Southwest Review saying that he found the essay to be “riveting” and that he’d like to publish it, I began to trust the process of letting go and writing from instinct.

What are you working on now?

I am working on a second collection of essays, most of which are still finding their form and thematic connections—essays on topics such as The Night Stalker and traveling solo at age 18.  I’m also working on a few short stories, which is quite exciting, since I have not yet published any fiction and have no clue whether or not I can actually write fiction. Finally, on the back burner, I’m doing research for a young adult novel set in Cuzco during the final years of the Inca Empire.

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