Saraciea J. Fennell, Zakiya Jamal, and Cristina Arreola, WILD TONGUES CAN’T BE TAMED

Saraciea J. Fennell, Zakiya Jamal, and Cristina Arreola, WILD TONGUES CAN’T BE TAMED

Editor of the essay collection, Wild Tongues Can’t Be Tamed, Saraciea Fennell, and two of the anthology’s contributors, Zakiya Jamal and Cristina Arreola, join Zibby to discuss their individual stories and the ties that connect them all. Saraciea explains the importance of curating a collection of deeply personal pieces on the lived Latinx experience which is not often represented in traditional publishing. As Zakiya attests, Saraciea worked tirelessly through the pandemic to push the authors to be their most vulnerable and authentic selves and cultivate a collection designed to make so many people feel less alone.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, everybody, to “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” I’m so excited to be with all three of you here today to discuss Wild Tongues Can’t Be Tamed which is edited by Saraciea Fennell. Welcome.

Saraciea Fennell: Hi. Thank you so much for having me. I’m so excited to be here today.

Zibby: Yay! Three different amazing women here who wrote three phenomenal pieces. Saraciea also orchestrated this entire collection. Saraciea, why don’t you start and talk about not only why you decided to bring all these essays together, but also what your essay’s about and how you brought in all these lovely ladies.

Saraciea: Absolutely. The idea for this collection came together during the time of the 2016 election where there were just lots of commentary about what the Latinx community, also the black community and so many various other communities — it seemed like there were so many stereotypes and myths that were constantly being perpetuated. That was the starting point for me. Really, my entire life, I feel like, I haven’t seen the representation across the diaspora. There’s always one type of Latino or Latin or a Latinx person that is in the forefront. They never look like me. They never sound like me. They never come from a place that I come from. They’re usually not Central American. I started to think, who can I pull together to tackle some of these myths and stereotypes to subvert them? Who are also the voices that aren’t traditionally published but that I know personally, like these two wonderful ladies here, who have very specific experiences that I feel like lots of other people, adults and teens, have as well? We grew up not really necessarily feeling as connected as other people to their specific Latinx heritage.

I’m a black Honduran. My essay in Wild Tongues Can’t Be Tamed is called Half In, Half Out: Orbiting a World Full of People of Color. That title, for me, is very specific. I was born in Brooklyn. I grew up in the projects there. It was a very diverse neighborhood for me. All of the people that were already around me were people of color. It wasn’t until I ended up in foster care and I was placed in an affluent white family’s home that I really noticed, oh, there’s a larger world outside of my people-of-color bubble. Living with that wonderful couple really started to raise lots of questions. I was going to a school where it was predominately white students. Of course, questions on the playground are like, where are you from? Why is your hair like that? Why do you talk like that? It was just all these various different things that were being thrown at me. It got me to ask questions and figure out, where do I come from? That was my first experience with figuring out that I was different from other people in the world once I was removed from my environment.

Then when I landed in the Bronx, which is one of the most diverse boroughs in New York City and is very largely immigrant, Hispanic, Latinx based, folks just automatically assume — where are you from? My cousin is Puerto Rican and Honduran. At the time, she answered for me. She was like, “She’s the same thing as me, Puerto Rican and Honduran.” For the longest time, I went around telling people that. My mom’s like, “Actually, you’re not Puerto Rican. Her dad was Puerto Rican. You’re actually not Puerto Rican. You’re Honduran. You’re black. Here are all of the things.” I started to ask all of these wonderful questions and really started to feel more connected to my culture and my family. Even now, I find myself still asking questions about certain traditions or certain foods, certain practices. It’s really a life-learning experience for me. It didn’t just stop when I became an adult. I’m still constantly asking questions. For me, I wished that there was an anthology out like this when I was growing up, something that I could turn to and read, Wild Tongues Can’t Be Tamed, where it’s like, okay, here’s an essay about mental health in the Latinx community. Here’s an essay about alcoholism in the community. Here’s an essay about suicide ideation. Here’s an essay about not feeling Latinx enough. Here’s an essay about claiming Latinidad but not being able to speak Spanish. There’s literally everything in this collection. That was intentional. Even though people lump us together and will put us into the same bracket, we each have so many different experiences. I thought it was really important to showcase that.

Cristina is from Texas and has wonderful, rich connection with ghosts, which I’ll let her speak about. Then leaving home and going somewhere else and trying to navigate and figure that out, it’s almost a parallel to what I went through even though I was still in New York City. It’s like leaving Brooklyn and leaving my bubble and then going into this white family’s home and then going into the Bronx and being in this different environment where we’re constantly seeing things reflected back at us about our culture or about the community. Then we’re questioning, where do I fit in in there? Where’s my experience? I don’t see anyone who looks like me or who sounds like me. I’m not Honduran enough because I don’t know all of the traditions and all of the practices. It’s just various questions that I had for myself. As I find the answers, I’m trying to record those things so that I can pass them down to my son and any future kids that I have and other family members so that we know where our history comes from so we can define who we are. We can decide what parts of the Latinx culture we want to keep and the parts that we want to change. There are lots of things in the community that don’t sit right with me, the fact that we don’t talk about certain things like queerness or mental health. There are all of these things that’s very taboo that we can’t talk about in the community, but I want to break those stereotypes. I want to break those myths. I want people to know that it’s okay. Sometimes it’s okay for you to go up against the age-old family way. We don’t have to keep those secrets. We don’t have to feel shame if we want to seek therapy and something other than what is traditionally pushed at us.

Zibby: Wow, so much to say in response to that, first being your essay and the image of you sitting on the edge of that couch. What were you doing? Biting your nails or your skin? There’s some repetitive gesture you were making waiting for your mom to call, and the calls getting farther and farther apart and feeling like you’ve been set adrift in this family and latching onto the one friend who you finally found a connection with and then being uprooted again. Oh, my gosh, it’s amazing how much books in general, people’s stories, can make you feel. That essay, I just so felt it. I was so there with you. You lived through a lot of stuff. It’s just amazing. The whole thing was really fantastic. I wanted to say that. Per your point on diverse perspectives and queerness, the essay by Mark Oshiro, by the way, was amazing. I’ve started this habit. Maybe I shouldn’t even admit this. I read the books I’m reading now out loud to my kids because they inevitably fall asleep.

Saraciea: I love that.

Zibby: They got really into these essays, which is the problem, so then they weren’t falling asleep. There’s a seven-year-old kid. My daughter just turned eight. She’s like, “Oh, now he’s eight. Now he’s nine.” I loved his perspective and coming into his own and his identity in so many ways. Oh, my gosh, beautiful.

Saraciea: Absolutely. It’s a fantastic piece. I agree.

Zibby: It was a fantastic piece. Okay, so you guys have been quiet and patiently waiting your turn here. I feel terrible. Zakiya, your essay was also amazing. Tell everybody about you and your essay and everything else.

Zakiya Jamal: I’m Afro-Cuban. My grandma is from Cuba. When Saraciea asked me if I wanted to be in this anthology, I was like, “Yes, of course.” The essay I first wrote was about my grandma and her journey here and growing up in Cuba and then moving here. I loved that essay because I got to really sit down with her and talk about her experience. I learned a lot about her history. Saraciea, being the great editor that she is, was like, “This is great, but this is not you. This isn’t your voice. This isn’t your story.” I really appreciated it. Even her saying that to me, I had to sit with that. I was like, why did I feel like I couldn’t tell my own story for this essay? I felt like my grandma had a more authentic story because she was actually from Cuba and she speaks Spanish, so I’ll tell that story. I was really scared to write my own. I was like, people obviously don’t look at me or look at my name and think I’m Cuban. Do I have the kind of story that people are going to want to read in this Latinx anthology that’s all about being Latinx? From that idea of just feeling like I wasn’t enough, I started writing my essay, which is called Cuban Imposter Syndrome. It’s really about how I’ve struggled with this idea of not being Cuban enough. It starts with me being in high school. There’s this guy in my school who’s Cuban. He’s kind of shocked when I say I’m Cuban. That’s an experience I’ve had throughout my life, but really also coming into my own and figuring out what being Cuban means to me. It was very hard to write. Like I said, thankfully, Saraciea is a great editor. She pushed me through. I’m really happy with it. I think this is really the story that I needed to tell.

Zibby: I feel like this is just the beginning. I feel like you have a whole book in you. Saraciea, you got to get on that. These should all become books, right?

Saraciea: Yes. Definitely telling people, pull more, pull more.

Zibby: Exactly. The image of you on the schoolyard feeling completely unaccepted by someone who shared part of your heritage, all these things are so hurtful and alienating. How you even felt sort of dissociated from your name and even your last name and how all of that came to be, it’s all just very powerful. The way you write is truly beautiful. Not to keep talking about my kids, but we just finished watching Vivo. Have you seen this movie, Vivo, by Lin-Manuel Miranda?

Saraciea: Yes, I have. One of the main characters is from the Bronx, the girl. I forgot her name. The actress is from the Bronx, so I was very excited about it. Anyway, continue.

Zibby: It’s possible Nicole Byer’s from the Bronx. I don’t know. Actually, it was written by Quiara Alegría who also wrote a really great book about her Latinx heritage. For your next anthology, you should tap into her. All to say, this whole story takes place in Cuba, but they call it koo-ba. When I was reading my kids this story, I was like, “I have a whole story for you about koo-ba,” and so they were excited about that too. It’s been all very timely. You should definitely go watch Vivo. It has some great songs and really captures how amazing a place, and the culture and the vibrant colors and all of it as only an animated show can do. Okay, Cristina.

Cristina Arreola: I’m Cristina. I’m Mexican American. I knew when Saraciea approached me about writing an essay that I wanted to write about two things. I knew I wanted to write about El Paso because it’s just such an incredible, mystical, mystifying place. I never see it reflected in literature, or just very, very infrequently, especially from people who actually are from there and were raised there. I knew I wanted to write about ghosts. The essay started very different than how it ended up. I had a similar experience where Saraciea really, really pushed me to go deeper and to search for those really tough emotions at the center of the story. Our phenomenal Flatiron editors, Caroline and Sarah, also were so instrumental in pushing me to get this place. The essay is about a lot of things. It’s about being Latina. It’s about grief. It’s about ghosts.

A lot of is about how, through my grief over losing my mother, I came to a better understanding of who I was. I think a lot of it had to do with me coming to an understanding about my identity and my cultural place in the world and finding that community. It’s always tough when you have these big, miraculous life moments because of something really terrible happening. I’m a big Cheryl Strayed fan. She always says that your sorrow is your superpower. I think that that is the thing that has really been true in my life. I really wanted to reflect that in a way that felt true to who I am and where I come from. I know that the ghosts, it’s not something that everyone gets. I just grew up believing in ghosts. It wasn’t a supernatural thing. It was just a thing. We were always talking about ghosts. My dad was talking about seeing ghosts and trying to erase that fear from the experience. I think part of me coming to terms with my Latina identity was also coming to terms with letting go of that fear and just embracing the unknown, embracing things that are messy, embracing ambiguity. That’s what I was trying to get at at my essay. I feel like there’s a lot more that I could say there.

Zibby: I feel like anyone who’s had an experience with a medium can attest, there’s almost — well, I shouldn’t say that. I was going to say it’s undeniable that there’s something else out there, but I’m not going to say that. I’m just going to say I’m not surprised. I was very hanging on every word because I do feel some people have this gift of this connection that the rest of us don’t necessarily have. It’s really magical. I totally believe it. I believe that you believe it. I believe it happens to you. Reading about it was really interesting. For Cheryl Strayed’s quote, another author I had on quoted someone else who now I can’t even remember who that is, but the saying is, God never wastes a pain, which I love because it gives everything this sense of purpose, religion notwithstanding, just the idea of it. There was a reason. Somehow, you’re not going to waste it. You’re going to turn it into something beautiful, or you don’t have to or whatever, but there was some sort of logic to it, which I find comforting when it seems completely the opposite most of the time. Did any of the authors know each other? Were you the party planner extraordinaire here, Saraciea? Did you introduce everybody? Is it mostly in email? I feel like you’re establishing this whole community now.

Saraciea: Pre-pandemic, I figured it would be really cool, that I could probably meet up with some people and chat through things. Of course, we were all writing through COVID, which was a very, very challenging time. I just want to commend all of the contributors for even having the mental capacity to dig into — for some of them, it was traumatic — to dig into some traumatic memories, to write about them on paper during a global pandemic. I’m just floored that we were even able to finish the anthology and really bring the collection together. I personally had actually met every single writer at least once except for Jasminne Mendez. I’ve never met her in person, but she came highly recommended by Angie Cruz. I was already following her on social media. The Flatiron editors were also really big fans of her work. I read some of her other essays. I was like, she’s perfect. Everyone else, I had definitely had a connection with and just felt like, they’re the right person to write this particular thing. My process was to give each of the contributors the same parameters. I want to talk about this. I want to talk about stereotypes. I want us to talk about colorism, anti-blackness. Whatever it is in the community, I want us to talk about it. I don’t want you to bite your tongue. I want you to tell your truth. They each were able to come up with their own pitches to figure out what they wanted to write.

Then I met with folks either virtually or we communicated through email just to talk about which ones I felt really moved me and felt like it would be in conversation with some of the other essays in the anthology, and then like Zakiya and Cristina said, having that back-and-forth to say, this is wonderful, but I think you got to make it a little bit more personal. I need you to dig a little bit deeper. I think what’s really special about this collection is, these are lived experiences. It’s not fictional stories. There’s nothing right now out there for young people that particularly is tackling something in this way. We have a ton of fictional stories. I love fiction, but there’s just something about knowing, oh, this is memoir. There’s an actual Afro-Cuban in the world who experienced this thing that I am currently experiencing. Here’s someone from El Paso who also has a connection to ghosts, and so I don’t feel like I have to have shame in hiding that or feeling othered by it. Instead, Cristina had the courage to embrace it, I can find the courage to embrace it. It’s just a different connection when it’s nonfiction. I deeply encouraged all of the writers to make sure that it was personal to them because it’s what we were all hoping for when we were younger, to see these experiences so that we know, okay, I am enough just the way I am whether I speak Spanish or Portuguese or I don’t. I think about Natasha Diaz’s poem and how most people from Brazil are really sexualized or are told they’re sassy. Sassiness is also a Latinx stereotype as well. They’re like, oh, you’re sassy. We may joke in the community, yeah, I’m sassy, I’m fierce, but it can be dangerous when other people outside of the community are classifying us with these terms and identifiers. Her poem, I was just like, yes, let them know. Don’t call me exotic. Don’t call me this. It was so deeply personal.

I think that was really special for me because I got to take a peek into everyone’s life and to learn a little bit more about their own experiences. In a way, it sort of validated my own with my own struggles of feeling — like I said, I’m orbiting a world full of people of color, but I can still feel disconnected sometimes. Reading and editing these wonderful essays just made me feel like my place in the world was a little more cemented. That’s exactly what I want other people to feel when they read this book. Even if you’re not from the community, I want them to think. Like you said, you were reading to your children and they were like, oh, wait, Mark Oshiro had this experience at eight or nine. That’s great. I want them to think about those things because they’re living that right now. I’m sure they’re going to school or they have friends that are asking them, why are you wearing your hair that way? Why did your mom make this for lunch? These things just come up. It’s so wonderful when we can arm young people with the tools to answer these things so they’re not dumbfounded like me where I’m like, “I don’t know. What am I? Where am I from? I don’t know,” and waiting for my cousin to answer and then looking to her. She just seemed to have all the answers for me. I was like, my prima, she’s saying I’m this. Then that’s what I am. She’s right. I hope that people read this and they start to really come in to embrace who they are and to also know that it’s okay for you to feel disconnected. It’s okay for you to still be figuring it out. I’m still figuring it out.

Zibby: I think what you set out to do, you’ve totally accomplished. I am a huge essay lover. I actually produced two of my own anthologies also during COVID. This one is coming out soon, Moms Don’t Have Time to Have Kids. This is more about time-starved, busy people. It’s not about identity so much as what’s on our plates. There’s lots of different identities represented in the book, and in the first book. That idea of bringing together different people’s experiences around a certain theme I think is super important as we all struggle with how to make our way through the world. There’s nothing more powerful. You could say something about the Latinx community in general, but when you get an inside peek into the lives of a few people, it changes everything. There is no descriptor that could possibly even try to describe an entire community of any kind. As you were talking, I was thinking to myself, it would be so neat if I could get all the contributors from my two anthologies and then all of your contributors and then — I interviewed Glory Edim. She wrote Well-Read Black Girl. She had all her contributors. I’ve had two other anthology authors that I can think of. Anyway, I feel like we need to have an anthology party where we have everybody mix and talk.

Saraciea: I love that.

Zibby: Right? Everybody’s stories are so interesting. They’re all right out there. Everybody just connects on this level that’s so much more important than everything else when you hear their story.

Saraciea: Absolutely, I would love that.

Zibby: I’m going to do it.

Saraciea: Please, let’s do it post-COVID so we can mingle in person.

Zibby: I’m sort of wondering, is there a post-COVID at this point? Yeah, I’m thinking vaccinated party. I’m not kidding. I like to bring people together.

Saraciea: Please. I will be there. Vaccinated party, here we come.

Zibby: There we go. Amazing. Thank you, guys, for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” Thank you for being so open, and both of you, Cristina and Zakiya, for rewriting your essays and really digging deeper than you originally felt comfortable doing because the result was really great and memorable and poignant and just really wonderful. Thank you for helping me with my kids’ bedtime night after night. That’s a great thing about essays. You can read one a night. You’re not trapped in a book with never-ending whatever. I loved it. I’m so happy this book exists. I’m glad I read it and that I met all of you. Thank you. It was awesome.

Saraciea: Yay! Thank you so much for having me.

Cristina: Thank you so much.

Zibby: Take care. I’ll send out a Paperless Post. I’m not even kidding. I will coordinate with you at some point. Maybe in 2022, we’ll have a party.

Saraciea: Sounds good to me.

Zibby: Excellent. Take care. Bye. It was so nice to meet you.

Everyone: Thank you. Bye.

Saraciea J. Fennell, Zakiya Jamal, and Cristina Arreola, WILD TONGUES CAN’T BE TAMED

WILD TONGUES CAN’T BE TAMED edited by Saraciea J. Fennell

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