Jennifer Maritza McCauley


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Q: Where do you currently live/reside?: I currently live in Columbia, Missouri.

Q: How do you self-identify?:  I’m half-African-American and half-Puerto Rican. My father is African-American, my mother is Puerto Rican.

Affiliations:(Organizations, schools, residencies etc): I’m a doctoral student and teacher at University of Missouri. I’m also a Canto Mundo, Kimbilio, and NEA Literature fellow, Contest Editor at The Missouri Review and Poetry Editor at Origins Literary Journal. I received my MFA from Florida International University and BA from University of Pittsburgh.



Q: Can you tell us a little bit about what inspired the poem above?

This piece was written for Aspasiology’s tribute to the incredible Raquel Salas Rivera. I was inspired by their poem “suprasegmentacionalidades,” which includes the line “you are so much more than your translation.” The line prompted me to think about how our identities are “translated.” I ended up writing about a question I’d get all the time when I lived in Miami: “where are you from?” I realized this was a weighty question with complicated answers. In the melting pot of South Florida, being half-Puerto Rican had certain assignations; in Western PA I was just black and different. There are so many “translations” of one person, depending on who is doing the translating. I wanted to examine displacements and disconnections in this piece, and how our idea of selfhood is malleable.

Q: How did you get your writing/performing start?

I’ve always been a bibliophile, because of my mother. She’s a big reader and passed that love for books on to me. When I was young, I used to write songs and poems and read fiction and non-fiction. My high school English teacher, Joe Aires, introduced me to professional creative writing and mentored me, and I majored in English Writing at the University of Pittsburgh, was at UTA for Lynn Emmanuel, and at the suggestion of my professor Geeta Kothari, went for my MFA. I completed my Master’s in creative writing at Florida International University, and am currently working on my PhD in creative writing at the University of Missouri.

Q: How would you describe your writing style? 

Big ol’ bowl of sancocho. Soft and hard and punchy and dense and thin. All that thrown together.

Q: How does your identity shape or influence your work, writing process, or writing life?

This is a great and huge question (for me.) The answer might be I don’t know, yet.

When I started out as a writer, I usually focused on capturing black-American experiences because I felt I wasn’t “allowed” to write about Latinidad, that I wasn’t “Latina enough.” Even though my mother is Puerto Rican, she spoke Spanish to me as a kid, and she cares deeply about her culture. As a young girl, I was told by other children I wasn’t “really Latina” because I was black, and nobody in my mother’s immediate family looked black, so I assumed Latinx culture was vastly separate. My mom was also honest with me about anti-blackness in Latinx culture, and I just wasn’t sure how I fit into the Latinx narrative. When I went to San Juan as a teenager, and saw images of Ismael Rivera, La Lupe and Celia Cruz, met Afro-Latinas, and learned about diasporic history in PR, I realized that blackness and Latinidad weren’t always mutually exclusive. I moved to Miami and spent time in PR again, and those distinctions weren’t as marked to me anymore. It made more sense when I said, in those environments: my father is African-American and my mother is Latina. Folks understood what I was talking about. As I mature as a writer, I’ve found some of the topics I shied away from (race, intersectionality, the female body, family history) are the topics I want to confront openly. Numerous intersections are where I live as a person, and whether I’m writing fiction, poetry or hybrid works, I want to create characters who resist, confront, or embrace fragmented selves.

Q: Can you tell us about a time you think your identity (Afro-Latinidad/Afro-Caribbeanness) helped or hindered your writing or writing career?

Being a writer of any background is difficult, that’s a given. The writing life is constantly evaluating and re-evaluating your work, your audience, and the shifting world around you. I think the re-evaluation process is a great thing, and it also sucks big time.

I’d say my identity both helped and hindered, in different ways. The Western canon has been limited for a long time and has often cast POC, disabled and LGBTQ writers to the margins. When I lived in DC, I had a teacher who told me to focus on British Literature courses because African-American Literature and “Women’s Lit” were “gut classes” for football players and bad students. That was twelve years ago. I’m increasingly inspired now, because I see a focus on intersectionality in pedagogy, a diversifying of the canon and I feel we’re moving in the right direction publishing-wise. But there are still obstacles and systemic discrimination in our academic institutions and publishing that have been internalized for many writers and will take a while to completely overturn. Every writer, in any genre, is going to inject themselves in our work; we “write our obsessions.” But as a POC, you are frequently told that the topics of your life are a passing trend, you’re playing the victim if you confront racism, you should only write about racism, you have to write about your identity, you should only write about “relatable topics,” you should never write about trauma, you should only write about that, you’re not being subversive enough, you’re being too subversive, you have to be an ethnographer for your culture(s), you have to fit into or resist the style of writers in your race/gender. It goes on, and on. It’s difficult for a writer of any background to find a fit, or who’s going to connect with our work. For writers of color, and writers from the LGBTQ and disabled community, there are many built-in complications when you say I’m from this background, and I’m going to write whatever the hell I want. So universal and specific obstacles.

On the other hand, I’ve been ridiculously blessed to find love and encouragement from so many people. I’m happy to live in a time where I can find genuine support systems, where professors will elevate diverse work, where I can find enthusiastic friends and students, where I can go to fellowships like Canto or Kimbilio, where I have mentors and peers who put the extra time into building up our writing communities. My parents didn’t have these things; their parents certainly didn’t have these things. If I wasn’t who I am, I wouldn’t have found these spaces (like this one!) and found folks who are willing to chat about difficult topics and are producing such amazing work. So on the upside, being who I am led me to awesome people and places; I’m always overwhelmed with gratitude for that. I’m going to remain hopeful.

Q: Tell me about your new book SCAR ON/SCAR OFF:

SCAR ON/SCAR OFF is a poetry-prose collection. The book includes lyric essays and poems that examine the joys, frustrations, challenges and fears of African-American/Latinx/women at this delicate moment in history. The book makes use of multiple voices, stories, and speakers, and plays around with chronology. In many pieces I draw from my personal experiences, but the collection is meant to be mosaic.

Q: What else are you working on or what future projects do you have in mind?

I’m editing a historical novel set in the Reconstruction Era, and a short story collection. I’m also working on another hybrid project styled like SCAR ON/SCAR OFF.

Q: What have been some of the highlights/defining moments of your writing/performing career?

Professionally, it would be things like getting into my MFA and PhD program, receiving exciting fellowships, signing with my wonderful agent Amanda Jain, and having this book published by Stalking Horse under James Reich. Personally, it’s every time my Mami and Dad say they’re happy for me. When my mom said, “I’m moved you are writing about my culture,” that touched me. Having my mother’s support is an immense accomplishment to me.

Q: Who are some of your biggest influences and/or mentors?

Influences: Toni Morrison, Nikki Giovanni, James Baldwin, Sonia Sanchez, Claude McKay, Nancy Morejon, Franz Kafka, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Piri Thomas, Mary Oliver, Pablo Neruda, Haruki Murakami, Junot Diaz.

Mentor-Influences: My mother Sonia, my father Jerry, my brother Timothy. Also: Joe Aires, Lynn Emanuel, Geeta Kothari, Lynne Barrett, Debra Dean, Denise Duhamel, Julie Marie Wade, Monica A. Hand, Naira Kuzmich. Anand Prahlad, Trudy Lewis, Speer Morgan.

Q: What’s the one piece of advice you would give new writers/performers?

Read! Read widely, and outside of your genre. Read work by folks you’ve never heard of, read work that friends recommend to you, read writers who don’t write like you. Read old books, read new books. Read about the history of your favorite genres. Not only will you have a greater breadth of knowledge but you’ll also get a better sense of how you sound on the page; you won’t be mimicking some other writer you really love. And don’t be afraid to write about what matters to you. Keep writing.

Q: Who/what are you reading now?

Barbara Smith’s The Truth That Never Hurts.  Victor Hernandez Cruz’s Beneath the Spanish. American Marriage by Tayari Jones. Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet.

Q: What’s your favorite platano dish/recipe?

Pasteles. Pasteles de yuca. Pasteles de arroz. Pasteles!

Q: What else should we know about you?

I’m a weird-ass nerd. If there’s a nerd-thing, I probably like it. I stayed in a comic book store until it closed yesterday, and they had to kick me, kindly, outta the building.

Fun Fact 1:  I used to ghost-edit indie rap songs. Long story.

Fun Fact 2: I’m obsessed with Swedish Fish. Shorter story.

For More Info and Work:

Blog: https://jennifermaritzamccauley.wordpress.com

Twitter: @BibliophileMari