Zibby Owens: Welcome, Rio. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Rio Cortez: Hi. Thanks so much for having me, Zibby.

Zibby: It’s my pleasure. I loved this children’s book, The ABCs of Black History, not that it’s even just for children. It’s just really an awesome book. I should call it this illustrated work, picture book. How about that? Illustrated picture book.

Rio: That’s very generous of you.

Zibby: I know you’re this Pushcart-nominated poet. Now you’ve written this book. By the way, we have to talk about your essay about your pregnancy. Just put that in the backburner because I was obsessed with that essay. Tell me first about this book and how it came to be, The ABCs of Black History.

Rio: Like you mentioned, I mostly write poetry, and for adults. This book is also a poem. It’s a long poem. It’s told in rhyming verse. It came to be through a conversation with my editor, Traci Todd who’s at Workman, about what’s missing in the children’s book world. I started writing this when I was pregnant with my daughter who’s now two years old. We worked on it collaboratively. Now it’s in the world. It was mostly because I was interested in presenting more lesser-known figures in black history to younger children. I feel like when I encountered black history as a kid or in elementary school, I clung to every little crumb. I grew up in Utah. I feel like perhaps those crumbs were even fewer or smaller. I just wanted to provide better morsels for young readers. That’s what this book is.

Zibby: Tell me a little bit about growing up in Utah and what was the black community was like there. Tell me about that.

Rio: Small. The black community was small. I think it always has been. Growing up in Utah was great in some ways. It’s a beautiful place. I grew up in Salt Lake City. My family is all still in Salt Lake City. They’ve been there for a really — well, my mom’s side. My mom is black American. My father’s Puerto Rican from New York City. My mother’s side’s been in Salt Lake since reconstruction. They went after the abolition of slavery. They were enslaved in Louisiana. They traveled west by coach and train. They are part of the first black settlers in the state of Utah. They’ve been there for a really long time, but it didn’t make growing up there black any easier for me, unfortunately. I feel like there are just generations of my family who have been really some of the only black students in schools there and in their communities and neighborhoods. It was an interesting place to grow up. It’s informed a lot of my poetry. Probably some early interesting black history, trying to figure out why we were there were some of my earliest questions.

Zibby: That’s amazing that your family knows, that you have all the details of that piece of history and that you’ve retained that over all the generations. Do you have artifacts or anything else from that time?

Rio: Yeah, a little. My family isn’t of the Mormon faith, but you might know that the Mormon church is really good at genealogy. To our benefit, there’s just a lot of recordkeeping in the state of Utah and really good historical records. Yes, one relative of mine, who is my great-grandfather, was a famous black Mormon, a singular conversion in our family. His story through the church and their bookkeeping has really made it easy for us to know a lot more about our family. He testified to the Mormon faith. He traveled on behalf of the church. He wrote a pamphlet called The Negro Pioneer in which he even names the family that owned our family in Louisiana. I feel really lucky in a way to have so much access to our family’s history. I think a lot of black Americans aren’t able to access that.

Zibby: Wow. That feels like another book to me in there. I feel like you need to maybe pine those archives a little for some more stories. That’s really powerful. You don’t often hear about that in anybody’s family, frankly, but just how people got there. I’m always so interested, how did you end up in Salt Lake City? How did your New York, Puerto Rican father fall into this family? How did they meet?

Rio: That’s a longer story. My dad grew up in the Lower East Side. He was in the Lower East Side and he got into a little bit of trouble and ended up going west. He ended up in Utah. He met my mother. They’ve been together for thirty years. It’s lovely. His family is a little bit more — it’s very different. He’s Afro Puerto Rican. I still have a lot of relatives in New York City. It made it a little nicer living here for so long.

Zibby: I’m in New York City too. One of these days we can meet up. Sorry, I didn’t intend to delve into your family business, but I’m so interested in hearing all of that and how everybody came to be.

Rio: No, not at all.

Zibby: Thank you for all of that. In this book, my favorite page was the diaspora page. I don’t know why. I’m showing this for people listening, you can watch on YouTube or whatever, just how far everybody traveled and all the bigger spots for the community in the United States even. PS, there is no Utah on this map. I don’t know. I think you need to go back. Even just seeing how far everybody traveled and just all the amazing accomplishments like all the sports, rockstars, and the musicians, from Jesse Owens, Gabby Douglas, and the queens. I love that you included Michelle Obama in there. That was a nice touch. The organizers, newspapers, holidays, really awesome. How did you end up collaborating with Lauren Semmer, your illustrator?

Rio: Through email back and forth. We actually have never met in person, which is probably the story of a lot of author/illustrators, but I don’t know. I wrote the manuscript. Then she would do a draft of illustrations. Then between our mutual editor, we would make changes through text and image. We might say, “Actually, I don’t think you need to say this. It can be shown.” It was all through email. She’s really wonderful and talented. This is her debut also, so it’s exciting.

Zibby: That’s amazing. Tell me about your book of poetry which now I have to go back and read. I’m sorry that I haven’t.

Rio: It’s a very limited press edition. It’s from Highlight Books out of Miami, so it’s not easy to grab at your local bookstore. It’s a lot of poetry about Utah, to put it quite simply. It’s not just about Utah. It’s also about longing and racial identity and finding yourself in worlds that aren’t meant for you. That’s a little bit about my adult poetry.

Zibby: How did you become a writer to begin with? When did you start writing poetry and books? When did you know that was your calling?

Rio: I wrote when I was really young. I feel lucky that way too. I think poetry really found me when I was in the third grade. It kind of saved my life. Poetry has been there through every up and down in my life. It’s actually how I met my partner. We’re both part of a black poetry fellowship called Cave Canem. We met there. To be honest with you, in the third grade, the John Singleton movie, Poetic Justice, came out. It just spoke to my little broody heart. It was the first time I encountered poetry. I didn’t grow up in a household with people who read poetry. I don’t think a lot of people do, but some lucky ones. Poetry found me through film, which is kind of funny. It just stayed with me my whole life. I ended up studying poetry at Sarah Lawrence and at NYU. I was lucky enough to do that too. It never left after that John Singleton movie.

Zibby: Wow. You should do a party where you screen the movie to debut your book or something. You could do a Facebook watch party of the movie. That would be fun.

Rio: That’s brilliant. There’s some scenes, I feel like, that we could definitely watch together.

Zibby: All right, send me the invite because I haven’t seen that movie. I would love to. That would be a really cool way to promote a book. I also want to talk about your essay, which was so beautiful, in Mother magazine about being a black mother, but it could’ve been any kind of mother. It was about how as soon as you become pregnant, you basically become a receptacle for everybody’s story. You’re not necessarily prepared for that. Then you become sort of the story keeper. You even referenced the security guard in your building and her episiotomy and just how much detail people would share with you as soon as they saw your belly. Tell me a little bit about that.

Rio: When I was pregnant, it was such a new experience to me. That was really fascinating also. I’ve had a woman’s body my whole life. Everybody goes through the experience of being born, but it felt like I had no information whatsoever about being pregnant. It felt like I was cramming for an exam that was imminent. It felt like over my life I should have known about the birth experience. For me, it felt illicit and really quiet. You see a woman — I think I talk about this — on Instagram or something. She’s pregnant. Then seven days later, she’s holding a baby in a hospital bed. It all seems just so perfect. I think that’s part of what I was experiencing as a pregnant woman. Women want to tell these stories. It doesn’t feel like there’s a really welcome place for them in the world to talk about the details of their birth and labor. It’s monumental and lifechanging. To not really have an outlet for those conversations is just suffocating. When I was pregnant, it felt like an invitation to say to me, “Oh, my god, I went through this and this and this,” and so many intimate details of women that I had worked with or seen every single day and now knew part of their medical history, which was so interesting. I think part of that gives you a little anxiety as a pregnant woman also, especially for a first-time mother like I was not knowing and not ever being able to know what your birth story will look like or your labor story will look like.

You’re ingesting all of these other people’s stories and applying them to yourself and seeing yourself in those situations and wondering how you would cope. There’s a little bit of that. It’s also gratitude that I felt because I felt like I was getting closer to all these women around me and that we had this thread between us that connected us. Again, on the other hand, it made me feel like they shouldn’t be so silenced. There shouldn’t be so much silence around the process of labor and delivery and childbirth and fertility and all of these issues. Those stories are coming more and more, but still between women. They should really be between everybody. That’s sort of what I was thinking about when I wrote that essay. I think it started because I went to a fundraising gala. I found myself six months postpartum sitting next to a pregnant woman. I was doing the exact — I couldn’t stop myself from just addressing her pregnancy and my experience. I was like, wow, it really is, it’s just a thing. I was asking her all these questions. I was telling her about my c-section. I’m like, this woman doesn’t need to know all of this about me, but here I am never out of the house and had a newborn. I just was unloading on her and thinking about what drives that impulse.

Zibby: Was it the gala for the Schomburg Center?

Rio: It was called Black Girl Magic Gala. It was organized by Mahogany Browne. They do really great work in the urban word community and young poets and stuff like that. That’s what it was for. It was really lovely. It was my first time out of the house. I had no idea what it was going to be like. I was without my child. I was just bothering strangers.

Zibby: Not bothering. I’m sure it was super helpful to her. I think that happens to everybody. It was such a relatable story because all of a sudden, you’re like, wait, what? This all happens to everyone woman who has a baby? Are you kidding me? There’s so many. Everybody has their own particular journey. The medical stuff alone — I have four kids. I won’t even get into all that, but I can share a lot of stories with you too. I remember being pregnant with my twins. They said you had to have some sort of course on childbirth, which is so ridiculous. I couldn’t leave the house. I was on bedrest. Someone came over and was telling me about all the options for childbirth. I was like, where is option C? I don’t like options A or B. No, no, no. No thanks. I can’t turn this around. They’ve got to come out somehow. Anyway, it was a nightmare.

Rio: People say this all the time. Another mother said this to me. She was like, “The only way out is through.” I thought that the entire way through my pregnancy. It said a lot, but it never resonated with me more. Things are going to be inevitable one way or the other. I would just think that to myself all the time.

Zibby: If it’s not already taken, that’s another great book title by the way, the only way out is through. I feel like that could also refer to this year.

Rio: No kidding.

Zibby: You just have to keep going. How has the pandemic been for you, Rio? Lovely time inside? What has this year done to you and your writing and your life and your baby and all the rest? Not a baby anymore.

Rio: She’s active. It’s just been odd. We spent five months in Utah which I never thought I’d be able to do. That, in a way, was kind of a beautiful thing that came from it. I feel really far away from our family, but at the same time, it’s felt necessary for us to live in New York for career stuff and my husband’s career and also for my sanity in some ways. It gave us this opportunity to be in Utah and not have those feelings of missing out, like the FOMO that I would sometimes feel. We got to be there in a really quiet way and be around my family. It’s also been really hard. Now we’re back in New York. We’re in Harlem. We are both working from home. We have a two-year-old who I feel like we’re just sitting in front of screens all day long which is not what I would like to be doing. It feels like we’re really surviving, just getting through the day trying to do the things that we need to do. Then with this book coming out, it’s been one of those — I keep calling it, it’s like a year of horrors and delights. Some things have been just truly horrible. Then other things have been truly delightful. This book being published in the midst of 2020 is one of those delightful things. We’re just getting by. I don’t know what it’s been like for you.

Zibby: I feel the same way. I think I just posted or put in my newsletter something about this year is all about joys and sorrows, highs and low. It feels so extreme to me, the depths. It’s like a sine curve, instead of just going along, it’s suddenly huge ups, huge downs. I’m just eager to be closer to that middle line. I have whiplash from this roller coaster ride of this year. I’m just getting a little seasick, if you will, a little motion sickness from the whole thing. I’m ready for normal life in so many ways to come back. I recently read this article in The New York Times about toddlers and the pandemic. My kids are older. I have now, ages six through thirteen, but how so many toddlers and infants aren’t getting that socialization that they would have otherwise. There was some toddler in the article who saw a person on the street and they’re like, “Uh, oh, people,” and they ran away. Parents are now so worried about the long-term damage. The good news from that article at least — I should reference the author, but I can’t remember who it was — was that actually makes kids more resilient to have gone through a period of time like this similar to kids in the Depression and other periods of time where there’s immense disruption and everything. The good news is there won’t be long-term damage. At least, that’s what they want us to believe.

Rio: We don’t know other children. We don’t have a lot of people in our community with children that are our daughter’s age. Kids on the street, when we’re walking to the car and she’ll try to talk with them, it’s really heartbreaking. It’s hard to watch. I’m like, I know that you want to — you’d be such a good friend at this age. She’s so chatty and curious. She just spends all her time with the two of us.

Zibby: Oh, I should say — wait, caveat to my summary of the article. It also said you have to be part of a loving family. The strength of the bonds of the family that’s isolated together is the protective factor for the kids. It’s not just that they’ll be fine. It’s that as long as they’re with loving parents. Because of that age, the relationship with the parents is more important. As long as you’re loving and all that stuff, which I can already tell that you are, your kid will be fine.

Rio: That’s great news. I’m so glad.

Zibby: That’s my download from the paper. Are you working on anything now? Tell me about your work now.

Rio: I’m finishing a collection of poetry that has been long on the backburner which I’m about done with. Then I have one picture book manuscript that I’m chipping away at. It’s very near a first draft. Those are what I’m working on. Hopefully, I’ll be able to finish the adult poetry first and get that into the world and then see where the second picture book manuscript goes. I think a lot about writing a little bit about my family also like you were saying. That’s just longer-term things. It’s hard to be focused and creative when you’re working full time and obviously when you are a parent and balancing all these hats. I know that there’s some really great examples of writers and mothers who have done it before me, so I look to them all the time. Those are things that I’m interested in finishing up, some projects that I’m working on.

Zibby: If you have any interest in adding more to your plate, I’m doing these anthologies. I have one coming out in February and one coming out in November. If you have any interest in contributing a poem to the anthology about — there are different themes. I could talk to you about it after. It’d be really neat. I don’t have any poems yet for the second collection. Let me know.

Rio: Yeah, for sure.

Zibby: Awesome. Excellent. Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Rio: I suspected you were going to ask that because I’ve listened to your podcast.

Zibby: Aw, thank you. That means you listened to the end of a podcast. That’s even better. Thank you.

Rio: I do. Everybody’s always saying be true to yourself. I think that’s because that’s really good advice. I think I heard Morgan Jerkins recommend writing what you’re afraid of. That’s pretty good advice too. I also think, be patient with yourself. I would suggest, too, as a writer, don’t put pressure on yourself. Try not to compare yourself to other people. Find joy in your writing where you can. I would say that.

Zibby: Love it.

Rio: It’s not super practical advice, though I think it’s really good for your self-care.

Zibby: It’s great life advice too, which is great. Everybody can use some life advice. Rio, thank you. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” and talking about your experience. Now I really want to read the book you’re going to write about growing up in Utah and your family’s history. I can totally see that whole thing as a picture book, PS, so get to work on that. I’ll follow up about the poem. Have a great day. Thanks so much.

Rio: You too. Thanks so much for having me, Zibby. It was lovely.

Zibby: My pleasure. Take care.

Rio: Take care.

Zibby: Buh-bye.