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Author Spotlight: Carolina Rivera Escamilla

Buy: ...after... | World Stage Press | 2015 | ISBN: 9780985865931

Buy: En una Esquina de tu País, | Poetry Ambassadors Press | 2024 | ISBN: 978-1963261004

Buy: In a Corner of Your Country  | Bellucci, Palms & Carmichael Publishing, LLC | 2023 | ISBN: 9798985915327


 

How did you get into writing? Can you pinpoint a memory where it all began for you?


It wasn’t just memory that got me started. It is easier for me to share thoughts in a story.


One afternoon after school, when I was nine years old, my older sister and I were acting out a few of the scary stories our mother and father used to tell us just before bedtime. I began asking my sister how to spell out titles of stories, such as El Padre sin Cabeza (The Headless Priest) and La Carreta Chillona (The Screaming Wagon), only two of many horror folk tales. The titles’ phrasing comes directly from the traditionally spoken folklore my parents, aunts, and neighbors would tell all of us children. My sister and I wrote them out on the yellow-beige plywood wall that separated our bedroom from my parents’ and brothers’ sleeping spaces.


I was in third grade at that time and would have wanted to discuss at home what “writing” was about, because, even in those early days, written words had power and sometimes made me nervous. I was never going to write or speak in public. I had no confidence in my ability to read aloud nor to write on chalkboards. At home, though, playing with siblings, sounding words aloud or writing them was about having fun. We did not get in trouble for writing on our bedroom plywood wall, other than eventually having to paint over it, only to write on it again. 


In all six years of elementary school and into junior high education, writing or reading homework was not especially exciting to do at school, or at home. “Reading” or “writing” in school boiled down to basic grammar learning. It often required writing over and over las planas (writing lines) to improve calligraphy or vocabulary, which in a way I enjoyed at home, for it was like pretending to do something perfect on the lined pages of my copybook. I remember feeling good about writing lines at our table in our candle-illuminated common living space.  


In junior high, I remember reading national writers: Cuentos de Cipotes by Salvador Salazar Arrué/AKA, Salarrué (Kids’ Tales); a novel entitled Jaragua by Napoleon Rodriguez Ruíz; and the novel, Cenizas de Izalco, by Claribel Alegría & Darwin J. Flakoll (Ashes of Izalco); La Divina Comedia; El Cid, and poems by Alfredo Espino, and Rubén Dario, and a few other writers. 


Not until I got into high school did I read more complex writing. At first, as I entered El Centro Nacional De Artes, the only arts high school in El Salvador, where I studied drama, I felt discouraged about my abilities in writing or reading. During my high school years, I engaged substantially in literature, or better yet in fiction adapted for theater: El Principito (The Little Prince) by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry; La Gaviota (The Seagull) by Anton Chekov. I read Cien Años de Soledad (A Hundred Years of Solitude) by Gabriel Garcia Márquez; chapters of Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes; El Extranjero (The Stranger) by Albert Camus; and writings on aesthetics. I appreciated very much that theater professor Orlando Amilcar Flor encouraged me to read incredible books he lent me…books by Chekov, Gogol, and Pushkin and The Actor's Manual by Constantine Stanislavsky, all of which we studied intensely in the last year of high school in drama. Maestro Flor exposed us all to serious art in plays, poems, and songs. 


That’s when I started writing little monologues. It began in a journal of what I did in theater classes which I kept every day for three years of high school. It was nothing fancy or serious, just little thoughts and feelings stirred up in theater class discussions or by doing theater exercises or acquiring vocabulary I did not yet recognize or understand easily, especially in the Stanislavsky theater manual. 


Theater was the vehicle that got me into writing. Improvisation made me forget the fear of writing on a page, or even on public walls during necessary protests during the civil war raging in El Salvador. That era still impinges on my memory to this day, with memories of writing what was going on in my head, never just one memory at a time, as we might sometimes wish.


I connected seriously to the English language in the mid-1980s while in exile in Canada. As I was learning English, I was connecting its words in my mind in terms of theater; I was writing for acting. This worked for me both in Canada and eventually in Los Angeles, California, where I rejoined family also in exile in 1989. Throughout the early nineties, I wrote monologues and a play, some of them in poetic rhyme (I was reading a lot of poetry by Pablo Neruda and listening, to Violeta Parra and Silvio Rodriguez songs), and began performing my works in places wherever I could, in cafes, cultural centers, and churches. It was not easy to be both an actor and writer, an artist and refugee and to express myself in a place no one was asking to hear or see my work. No one was clamoring for a Salvadoran woman actor, writer, immigrant, and soon afterward, a mother to fit well into California’s 1990s.


In the early 1990s, I decided to attend community college to continue studying theater and film. To my surprise, it wasn’t easy to simply study theater. I was required to start from zero, taking all general classes to get into the arts. I think I had nearly three hundred units of university credit when I transferred to UCLA. I wrote essays in my English classes which my English 101/102 teachers told me were more like stories than essays. This kind of writing got me into UCLA, into the English department, and into English Literature, where I got into this thing called “the writing craft.”


I was accepted into creative writing seminars that explored writing short stories and novels, with all this happening in English, a language I was continuously acquiring. I found myself in a nest of learning techniques to tell my stories, to portray characters I had met throughout my childhood, stories from where I belong. Ironically and sometimes ambivalently, I was writing them in English, a language I always associate with imperialism. 


However, after having read the short stories of Jamaica Kinkaid (Girl), Toni Morrison, Doris Lessing, Alice Walker, Flannery O’Connor, and James Joyce, to name a few, I kept saying to myself, “I can do my stories, to write them like these writers.” While at UCLA, I submitted a story to the University of Texas, Austin to the literary arts journal Analecta24. Out of hundreds of student submissions, only a few were selected, and my story was one of those stories. That was the moment I felt I was a writer. With reader reactions to my story, I understood finally the power of putting a story on public “paper.”



How did your relationship with your family influence your writing? 


Above any academic learning, I thank my parents, aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters, my whole extended family, and even the neighbors where I grew up because they were first in teaching me to tell stories, even though the craft of writing eventually came academically.  


I kept constant contact with older family members, especially my parents when I first wrote short stories. I benefited, not only as a child from their everyday stories, but even when I was writing, I would ask my parents for details and to correct me for errors in information within a story. I would talk to them long distance from exile to ask a lot of questions about dates, and place names, and to run possible character names by them. They were proud I could write and that I cared so much about being culturally authentic whether the characters’ names I was writing could exist in reality or not. I was writing about a world we knew together then. They did not control any story I was inventing. My parents and aunts always gave more than I asked for, as though they knew intuitively how to weave fiction into reality and vice versa. I am very grateful for that, for their intense love that fills my head with stories and history with pieces from their childhood dreams and community life. When I read my stories to my parents, sisters, and brothers, they listened to the details. In the end, my parents would say things like, "Ah, you are a shaman or bruja of the past. You heal our past with your art, and you transform it into a future.” I think I influenced my mother, too, as she started writing and drawing, and after she passed, then my father followed my mother’s example and started drawing his stories as well. They and their generation are nearly gone now, and yet ever present in their influence on me to be authentically truthful in my literary fictions. I stay connected to and still consult with all my family whether close by, here in the US, or very far away in Latin America or Europe. I also rely on readers and writers for feedback in both English and Spanish, for which I am very grateful as well.



Is there a connection to your past in your books?


Like many authors, my first book drew from childhood memory, but as crafted fiction, not memoir. I created art from characters and circumstances, some of whom surrounded me in varying degrees in childhood or adolescence. And since I was an outsider in exile, away from my country, parents, friends, and family, in writing short stories for the first book ... after …, I built a house of stories, an art piece related to all the political wars that displace communities and create refugees around the world. 


Books are places, like houses in which to find nurture. Of course, a house holds information from past circumstances and experiences, but when I wrote this first book, ...after..., I went into it in my own shamanic way.  ...after... was a continuity of connection with the womb, with the spirit of the world of these stories, to a community, to nature, to sounds inside the familiar circumstances of my characters. I felt that way when I wrote my first book, and at the same time, I enjoyed learning and exploring the craft of short story writing. 


With my poetry book, “In a Corner of Your Country,” the structure, images, and metaphors are differently, constructively, and consciously connected to a theme, related to displacement, exile, immigration, to children, and to women, even though these genres can be differentiated.  In poetry, I incanted words that relate facts, not all from my personal past, not specifically to anything that happened to me but to fictionalized others who feel a little as though they could be relatives, neighbors, or friends. During the years I was writing these poems, I collected many emotions, but especially frustrated ones, sometimes mine, but mostly others’, to set the discussion about a past, a present, and a future happening in my head while I wrote, but always connected to the mixed community in which I live now. 

  

Some of these poems I wrote specifically for theater performance, and I performed them, sometimes alone, and sometimes with others. Some poems were commissioned for specific events for an art museum, for galleries, and for universities. The book of short stories flowed easily as one world, whereas the book of poems played within my mind for a while. I thought of them viscerally, as film or theater, visually and carnally embodied, quite spontaneously.  When I write a poem, I usually read it aloud and act it out with movement and dance to feel its touch on my skin. I guess if there is a connection to the past, it would go through the first art I studied, in shades of theatricality that simply show up. In it, I might touch a past, which is where we all start.



Did another art form influence this work? Painting, music, dancing, etc.

 

As previously mentioned, both theater and dance movement influence me as a writer, just as my writing is directed toward these art forms. These influences stem directly from studying theater in high school in El Salvador. Without that background, I do not know whether I would have become a writer or would call myself an artist today. In the early 1990s, some months after moving from Canada to Los Angeles, my entire interest focused on writing theatrical monologues (and finding other writers’ poems or stories) to turn them into theatrical collages accompanied by music, dance, and simple body movement and expression. I would write words and create sounds to fit them, by recording street, nature, and human sounds, and incorporating them into theater and dance, sometimes on my own or in collaboration with other artists. 


More and more it occurred to me that writing became a necessity then and now to tell stories that were/are absent in our communities and for me. So, by writing fiction, poetry, and plays, I discovered that I served as a vessel to drink from or a vehicle for sharing our experiences bilingually and altogether as refugees, outcasts, (im- or em-) migrants, displaced persons, deportees, expatriates, all of us migratory birds living in exile. Some stories from ...after... I have adapted into multidisciplinary theatrical performances. 

 

Writing for me starts in a rather solitary space since solitude plays a role in the process of any writer. Because I come from within a group of twelve siblings and my parents’ close relations, I was around people all the time. Like people, I saw that words dance and perform together. This is my heart as a writer and actor. I remember in the early 1990s having met a highly skilled Mexican actor, who was looking for another actor to do bilingual clowning for birthday parties or other celebrations in homes, salons, and cultural centers. I told him, “That's me!” Although my English was good, for me acting was challenging to mold my English into performance.  Clown-acting in English has parallels in the Spanish-speaking worlds.. So, I took theater classes and speech classes in English. At the exact time I was clowning in one kind of performance, I started writing stories to perform and came to understand that the audience in the future will be more humane, bilingual, and multicultural, I hope.



What are some key themes present in your books?


...after... (World Stage Press, 2015) is a book of short stories that unfolds in the context of families within a community before and during the civil war in El Salvador. In some stories, the theme of coming-of-age is present, as well as themes of human existence and survival in civil war, under repression, in friendship, and family relationships among mothers, daughters, fathers, siblings. As a book of short stories, each story carries its own narrator. Because the reader encounters a commonality among these characters, s/he may have the illusion of reading a single novel made up of interrelated stories. Yet each story stands complete and alone. Each narrator goes through an existential moment whereby each one questions everything within their circumstances in a single story. As an example, in the short story, "Alma About Four-Thirty in the Afternoon," the narrator Dalia’s circumstances unfold existentially among friends, family, and community in the actual setting of the civil war in El Salvador. 

In a Corner of Your Country (Bellucci, Palms & Carmichael. LLC Press, 2023), a book of poems intentionally written for and actualized as theatrical performances, creates an entirely different literary experience. Thematically, most of my protagonists in poetry, but not all, tend to be children and women. The word corner becomes both a metaphor and symbol for dealing with angles…angles out of which I, as a poet, see the past in and from the corners of my present situation. In these poems, I explore feeling space and time and the burden of memory in the neither-here-nor-there, as they relate to displacement, exile, and emigration, with women and children as protagonists. The version in Spanish, En una Esquina de tu País, (Poetry Ambassadors Press, 2024).



Do you have any advice for new and emerging writers? Is there anything you wish you knew?

 

New writers, please read a wide variety of authors, especially in the genre you write. Write every day if you can, every single day to be more precise. Make a schedule that you can keep, and do not let anyone break that schedule.. For those who need to work 8 hours a day, scheduling is important. In my case, in the beginning, I was very spontaneous when I wrote. I had a notebook that I carried with me, so I jotted things down when I was working, walking, or cooking, because I had so many ideas or characters in my head. I had to write them down right away. Otherwise, they would escape. Although not every writer keeps or follows a schedule, find whatever works for you. The idea is to write, write, read and read….

 

Now with cellphones, you can record or speak your ideas or take a photo to create an image that helps in your writing. If you want a literary career, but do not have it, I recommend taking creative writing classes, writing craft workshops, joining writing groups so you are networking with other writers and hearing about potential publishers. Attend other authors’ readings, especially of writers who inspire you to write more. However, remember that people in academia will not make you a writer; they can only teach you or train you writing craft and techniques. Be a good observer and listener in your circumstances.  

 

Do public readings of your writing, if you are willing to share it. Also, look for submission opportunities and follow their guidelines closely. Build your own writing platform. Get your own writer's website and be active on social media to build an audience, but don't let that make you forget to keep writing. I wish someone had told me this a long time ago. Had I known this part when the Internet came into existence, I would have begun that work years before I did. No one else can do that for you. Also, I got into the platforming experience after I had already long behaved as a cultural activist and cultural organizer to create and boost a community of artists/writers and thereby an audience. Plan to be alone for hours because writing requires isolation... I wish I had gotten more involved much earlier in how publishing is changing and how it works at this moment. 



 


Carolina Rivera Escamilla is a writer, actress, and documentarian based in Los Angeles, California. Born in El Salvador, she studied theater arts, and earned her Bachelor of Arts degree in English Literature from the University of California, Los Angeles, along with studies in Spanish Literature. She went into exile to Canada in the 1980s. She is a Pen America Emerging Voices Fellow. Her first book of short stories, titled ...after..., was published in 2015 (Worlds Stage Press). Her first book of poetry, In a Corner of Your Country, was published in 2023 (Bellucci, Palms & Carmichael. LLC Press). The Spanish version, En una Esquina de tu País, was published in March 2024 by Poetry Ambassador Press.  She is also the director, screenwriter, and producer of the documentary "Manlio Argueta: Poets, and Volcanoes". Her publications include Collateral Damage, Women Who Write About War Anthology, (University of Virginia Press), Migrant Anthology, Somewhere We Are Human, (Harper Collins Press), The Bomb Literary Magazine, Altadena Poetry Review Anthology, (Golden Foothills Press), among many others.

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