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What I’ve Learned: ‘Poetry Chose Me,’ Says Writer Erika L. Sánchez

This is part of our What I've Learned series by syndicated journalist and NBC Latino contributor Esther J. Cepeda.

Photo of Erica L. Sanchez
Photo of Erica L. Sanchez Robyn Lindemann / Photo credit: Robyn Lindemann

NAME: Erika L. Sánchez

AGE: 32

HERITAGE: Mexican-American

HOMETOWN: Cicero, Illinois

OCCUPATION/TITLE: Poet, Novelist, and Essayist

Erika L. Sánchez is a writer and poet living in Chicago. She is a 2015 winner of the prestigious Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellowships and was a winner of the 2013 "Discovery"/Boston Review Prize. A Fulbright Scholar, Sánchez has been a sex and love advice columnist for Cosmopolitan for Latinas and is a journalist whose work has been published in The Guardian, NBC News, Rolling Stone, Al Jazeera, Salon, BuzzFeed, Jezebel, Kirkus Reviews, and others. Her debut poetry collection, Lessons on Expulsion, is forthcoming from Graywolf in July 2017. Knopf Books for Young Readers will publish her debut Young Adult novel, Brown Girl Problems, in fall 2017.

How did you get into poetry?

I was a big reader when I was a kid and one time in 6th grade we had a lesson on poetry and learned about Edgar Allan Poe. Something about the language really intrigued me. I thought it was beautiful, so I started writing poetry. My teacher encouraged me, said I had talent and, though it sounds very romantic, poetry chose me. It's just something I always loved to do because of the way poetry gets to the essence of the human experience. I can't imagine my life without it.

How did you actually realize a career in poetry?

I got an MFA in Poetry from the University of New Mexico and, being the daughter of immigrants, it wasn't the most sound financial decision or career move. My parents were like, "What the --- are you doing?" So after I graduated, I had a really hard time in the working world. I couldn't find a job that was meaningful in any way. I had dull jobs just to pay the bills.

Then I started to write a blog and people started following. Small websites started to publish my work and then I clawed my way up to the larger outlets. That type of writing was my outlet to deal with my disappointing career. From there I started writing essays - I write a lot about sexuality and race and feminism and what it means to be a brown woman living in the United States, touching upon stuff that was and still is really important.

Your upcoming novel, "Brown Girl Problems," how did that come about?

Some producers started talking to me about possibly doing a movie or a book and asked for ideas for a novel or a screenplay. Nothing came of it but it planted a seed and I started to think about a novel. That was about 5 years ago and ever since then I've been working on it and it has gone through many different versions. I sold it and now I'm working on revisions.

Why did you choose to go the route of the Young Adult category?

I was always compelled to tell stories that were interesting and had beautiful language and were very carefully wrought and literary. A lot of Young Adult literature does that and it's so powerful - kids are sophisticated readers. Also I'm so excited to tell the story of a young brown woman coming of age.

What are some of the problems that brown girls and women are challenged with?

There are just so many layers it's hard to unpack it all in a neat way. For me being a brown woman in America, I feel we're breaking a lot of barriers - it's just not happening fast enough. Particularly when you look at the literary landscape, there aren't a lot of us who are considered authorities.

Junot Diaz, he's great - but where are the women? Why aren't we given the same kind of platform as men? I'm dedicating my life to breaking that barrier down.

There's also this element of racism…I feel we have to work so much harder to be taken seriously and be noticed. That's why I'm so hard on myself; I know how I will be perceived. I need to be the best or else no one will pay attention to me. That's extra pressure as a brown woman — you're not allowed to mess up or fail, you're judged differently.

What women authors do you get excited about?

Jeannine Capo Crucet who wrote "Make Your Home Among Strangers" and poet Natalie Scenters-Zapico who wrote "The Verging Cities." Cristina Henríquez who wrote "The Book of Unknown Americans" - that book was amazing, I love that book. I'm also very excited about the work of Jennifer Givhan, a poet with a forthcoming collection called "Landscape with Headless Mama" and fiction writer Jaquira Díaz.

The "Ghostbusters" reboot has been much in the news lately, highlighting discussions about what it means to be feminist in 2016 in America. What does it mean for you?

A lot of people make assumptions about feminism but they haven't read anything about feminists so you ask them what feminism is and they have no clue. To me it's common sense: equal rights, reproductive justice…being treated like a human being.

I feel like there's a really big shift underway, I know so many amazing women fighting for so many rights, and intersectionality is being talked about… it's a really great because [in the past] women of color have been left out of a lot of feminist movements.

But in this generation we're calling that out, challenging that, making ourselves part of the conversation and I think that's really important and exciting.

Your parents were a little worried that you chose a life of poetry and writing but it worked out beautifully for you. Some words of wisdom for others contemplating a life of art?

The world needs art. The world tries to tell us we don't need art but that's wrong. Art is what makes me feel most human and connected to other people. If you have something to say, you should say it at all costs - especially when you're growing up in an immigrant family without a lot of money.

That's really difficult but everybody needs to find a way to do it. I want people to know that if you have something really important to say - the world needs to hear it. It's just so important to let people know that they're capable, that success is possible and that there are people out there willing to help and support you.

It's important to me to succeed because I want other people to know that we belong in the mainstream and in the canon, so it's not just about me - it's about helping other women see what is possible for us.

Esther J. Cepeda is a Chicago-based journalist and a nationally syndicated columnist for The Washington Post Writers Group. Follow her on Twitter, @estherjcepeda

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