The first time I met Javier Zamora was at CantoMundo in Austin, Texas where he was opinionated and open on issues surrounding the visibility of Latina/o poetry. Javier's work stands out to me as a distinct voice coming from El Salvador that explores the documents, narratives, and physical spaces of longing. We had this conversation on liminal spaces after exchanging some notes on how I was conceiving of liminality in Latina/o poetics for this series. You can read my introductory post, which discusses liminality, the liminoid, and liminoid phenomenon here. This conversation took place over the phone. Javier was in a park in New York City, and I was in a classroom in Salt Lake City. The following interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Natalie Scenters-Zapico: In your work are borders real or imaginary?
Javier Zamora: They are very real. Well, it works two ways. There’s the physical border and there’s also the imaginary border that we, as immigrants, take in which is where I think the liminal comes in.
NSZ: Say more about that. How does the liminal come in?
JZ: First, I’d never heard of this term until this summer. There’s this journalist-veteran who went to Iraq, David J Morris, and he wrote this book The Evil Hours and in it, he’s centering the liminal around the talk of trauma and how going to war has created/creates a liminal space in all veterans and journalists that come back, and the victims. Morris talks about how the temporal space gets fucked up and I think there’s this whole idea of rites of passage as well, right? And I think that for what I’m trying to do is to argue that immigrating here for, I don’t want to say all immigrants, but I’ll say most immigrants, is a rite of passage. And it certainly is for Salvadorans where at least twenty percent of our people have immigrated since the war. It has become a rite of passage to cross the border and in that way we have lost our home, our physical place, and we also lose our temporal idea of what that is. So I looked at it through that sense and in that way the border becomes imaginary.
NSZ: That’s interesting. So is existing or coming from a liminal space a blessing or a curse? Or, it just is?
JZ: I don’t think it’s a blessing or a curse, I think it just is. You know, shit happens and there were circumstances that brought my entire family here. I’ve heard comments before like, “Oh my God you’re so lucky you’re telling this story.” You know, I see it as a similar question to is it a blessing or a curse. Because no, I’d rather not have gone through this shit. I’d rather my country not be all fucked up and I’d still be in El Salvador.
NSZ: How do you get yourself into that space? Because sometimes when you’re creating it’s emotionally and mentally difficult right? Just to put yourself in that space.
JZ: Yeah! Well, one because of the trauma of my family and my own physical act of coming here as a young child. Which would be like I had a liminal experience when I was too young to—I mean I was nine years old. So different people process trauma differently. How I processed it was at first denial. Like many immigrants here they go through a phase where they want to deny where they came from. I didn’t even want to speak Spanish at some point. There was this whole denial and coping mechanism, which I think is why it’s hard for me to remember things now. And so when I started writing, and the reason why I majored in history, specifically Salvadoran history in college was to try to tap into that, and remind myself what my parents and what I lived through, what we went through, etc. And so, whenever I did that in college it took a big emotional toll and to this day I think it’s hard to write about shit like that. But specifically hard to put distance between the material, which is art, my own life, and my own sanity. To separate those three is a constant struggle. And I think that’s what it means to be in the liminal space, it’s not something I go looking for. So it’s not something that I’m blessed to have, or cursed to have, it just is.
NSZ: So with that in mind, in many ways what you’re saying is that it is experience that puts you or keeps you in that liminal space. You don’t put yourself in that space necessarily. So if we think about where the liminoid comes in, and the idea of creating something that’s liminoid phenomenon, which you can only really create if you’re apart from the dominant culture. A dominant culture which is also responsible for the trauma. Does being away from El Salvador help you to create liminoid phenomenon?
JZ: Definitely. Absolutely. That’s the thing about longing. You cannot long for something that you have and for me it’s a place. You can long for many things, like I could long for a milkshake right now, it doesn’t have to be a country. But in order for me to long for it I have to not have it. So certainly that puts a physical space between me and my country, and so my immigration status puts a physical space between me and that place and I think that is a distancing. So in craft, through draft after draft, it makes that distance even further. So that it isn’t my own life anymore, but more like clay that I’m shaping, or carving through. No, it’s more like wood. Like I am the wood but now I have to carve it into something different than its original reality and there’s a distance in that as well.
And also distance from my family, like me being in New York is different from when I’m in California and that allows me the freedom to write. And also the language barrier, like I can write about my grandpa in a different language and it gives me a distancing because he can’t speak English and he’s in another country, you know?
NSZ: So why…you obviously incorporate Spanish in your poems, because as we’ve talked about in the past that’s your first language, that’s how you think, that’s how you speak, etc.,—but why also write in English? Why both?
JZ: English is sadly the language I know more of. I only know a fourth grade Spanish because that was the last grade that I studied in El Salvador. So I feel more comfortable creating in this language, as much as I want to deny it, because I hate that I know more English than Spanish but I do. I mean I have my college education in English and I started writing my last year of high school and then I went to college and I think that was also different and it came off easily, but I still code-switch, where I put Spanish because it’s still a part of me.
And another answer, the bullshit answer, would be that I want people here to understand me. But I don’t think that’s it. I didn’t start off writing in English because of that, I just did.
NSZ: I was thinking right now as you were talking how for my mom, I’ll never forget the day that she realized she had been living in the U.S. longer than she had lived anywhere else. And it was really difficult for her because it was this realization, not of belonging here but of really exiling yourself to being a foreigner no matter where you go forever.
JZ: Holy shit! I never really thought about that because I started writing when I was eighteen, and eighteen was the year that I had spent more time in this country than in my own…
NSZ: Yeah, for her it was sad because obviously she’s a foreigner here, she knows that, she’s reminded of that all the time, but also then the realization that she would now be a foreigner going home too.
JZ: Yeah, it’s a fucked up feeling. And, what! This is crazy! Juan Felipe Herrera is walking up the street!
NSZ: What? No way!
JZ: (Laughs) Yeah, there’s this Chancellor’s reading tonight.
NSZ: Oh to be in New York! So, let me ask you some questions about your work. In the poem, “The Shatter of Birds” there’s this idea of call and response. You write:
Hold it to your ear. I’m tired
of my children leaving. My love for you shatters windows
with birds. Javiercito, let your shadow return,
alone, or with sons, but soon. Call me mamá,
not Abuelita. All my children learned the names of seasons
from songs. Tonight, leaves fall.
So there’s always the presence of call and response even if that response is silence. So how is the act of calling a liminal act? Kind of this idea of to call from that which you came.
JZ: Well I think for me, there’s the literal calling—a phone call. It’s the only means through which I started communicating with my dad. Because he left when I was one. The first time I consciously heard his voice was over the phone. And when my mom left that’s how I communicated with my mom, through the phone and letters. And then when I came to this country I communicated with my grandparents through the call and response of letters and phone calls, so I think maybe that’s why I gravitate towards that. I don’t know. But for that poem in particular, that’s what it’s getting at. Because she’s tired of all her children leaving, because her first daughter, which is my mom left, and then her other two daughters followed. You know everybody has left her, and she’s still over there in my country, and what can you do but try to get a response out of that, even if it’s silence.
NSZ: Say more, what do you mean by that?
JZ: The material in my poems. I’ve maybe had a handful of conversations about it with my family because it’s hard for me and hard for them to talk about. Whenever I go visit my family, or just this summer we met up with one of our old neighbors who had just immigrated here, we grew up next door, and the last time they’d seen me I was nine and they were like, “Oh, pobrecito el niño.” Like they understood at the time what it meant for a nine year old to leave by himself with strangers across three countries. They themselves have done it, but as adults, “Pobrecito el niño,” and then they got quiet. Nothing has to be said after that. It doesn’t need a response because anybody that knows knows.
NSZ: And in that way, within the liminal act, which you exist in and it doesn’t go away, there’s this sense of remaining in this violent space which oftentimes can be too difficult to even speak of right?
NSZ: So I guess my next question is about this idea of renaming or redefining things, and what that means. For example, in “Leñero Means The Wood Is Burnt” we know what leña means but you begin with that definition because of the way you play with the word later in the poem. You do this also in “To Catch La Zumbadora” you define the snake in an almost encyclopedic way, but you also tell us ways to catch it. So how is renaming or redefining something a liminal act?
JZ: It’s like magic, you give it new life. You give it a new meaning and in that magic there’s transcendence. The crossing over from one…like childhood into adolescence, isn’t it? Like you’re changing things which have their own value and meaning, and you’re completely shaking that up and creating something new. And I think that’s not only in the liminal, but that’s what poetry can do. It doesn’t always do it, but it should or it could. No, I want to say that that’s what every poem should do.
NSZ: In your NEA interview you say that the personal is the political. How do you see your work as trying to re-invent the insurrection of superstructures? So how do you, in your work, question the dominant culture, but also question many of its dissenting voices.
JZ: Well, I don’t know who it was, but I think Toni Morrison said to write the book you want to read. I’ve always wanted to read a Salvadoran voice in this country. And when I was in high school, you know, William Archila, who is a dope Salvi poet with two published books, hadn’t published a book yet. These voices are coming but at the time when I set out to write poetry there was no Salvadoran immigrant writing poetry in English. There are translations and Claribel Alegría, etc. But not the Salvadoran immigrant experiences out of the civil war written by a Salvadoran. In fact, the immigrant narrative is dominated by Mexicans. And soon, we will hear more about the Guatemalan and Honduran experiences, etc. Some poets that are already providing those voices are Maya Chinchilla and Sheila Maldonado.
And so, I am questioning: 1. What it means to be brown in this country under the white hegemonic rule, you know? And hopefully I do that through my work and that’s what I mean about the personal being the political. I am a brown male and growing up I hated Shakespeare, I hated every old white poet they make us read. 2. I’m also questioning what it means to be Salvadoran. I know my poetry can, maybe come off as nationalistic, but hopefully it doesn’t. I also question the idea of a nation-state, and I think that’s a played out concept that people still cling on to because if we didn’t have nation-states there wouldn’t be a need for borders or for wars to be happening. As one of my European history professors said (where the idea of countries originated), to have a nation-state, first you need the legal use of violence. 3. I want to address the Central American hatred coming from Mexicans. This is very important and something I haven’t seen, Latinos, Chicanos, whatever, haven’t really addressed until recently. Every year, I don’t know the exact figures, but I know around 10,000 people have died crossing the desert. And every year the number of Central Americans that are killed crossing through Mexico is twice that number. So just think about that, and that is something that hadn’t made the news previously and now it’s beginning to. Who do you think are in the mass graves around Ayotnizapa? So I also question the notion of what it means to perpetuate the brown on brown crime in Mexico. I question Mexicans. So those are the big things I try to address, and also my own masculinity. And the weakness of men that I’ve seen, particularly my dad and my grandpa taking out their insecurities and their inability to cope with war on the women around them. So that’s also important in my work. So there’s the political, there’s the social, there’s gender. I think about the intersectionality between all those things and hopefully more. But of course, I can explain and explain, but I hope the writing does that talking and begins discussions around these issues.
NSZ: Well and what it is to come from a culture of violence. What it is grow up as a child in that space, with that fear, or where that’s normalized.
JZ: Yeah…but I also question that notion of “a culture of violence” because even now in all the articles/news about El Salvador, they reduce my country to that notion of the a “culture of violence.” You know that idea that, “Oh well, that country is always like that so what can you expect?” So I would also question that.
NSZ: So, I’m just curious, there’s this way in which violence can then become fetish right? It can become this thing that is thrown around in reckless ways and there’s then a lot of sensationalism with regard to how immigration is treated in news coverage in this country and in Mexico for that matter. And then what that does mentally for creating this perpetual state of liminality, in which people are violently held in that space by the fetish.
JZ: Yeah, and what you just brought to mind is this movie Sicario, right?
NSZ: Oh, yes.
JZ: Specifically for you, I just read an article that the mayor of Cd. Juárez wants to sue the writers for perpetuating the violence through a movie and benefitting from it. This sensationalism that you’re talking about. And I think it’s the same shit with El Salvador, but I think where it gets even more obvious and fucked up is when others speak for us. So I doubt this movie is written by someone from Cd. Juárez, it was probably written by a white person so I doubt that when—I’m not saying that no Salvadoran can sensationalize and fetishize their own country—but I hope that I don’t. I do think that it’s easier for somebody, not for example, from Cd. Juárez to sensationalize what happened there and what is happening now.
NSZ: Yeah, I mean I would agree with that. You know, it’s interesting the space that El Paso-Juárez has come to occupy in the American psyche through pop culture. It has come to represent everything bad that white people should be afraid of, right? Like this idea of don’t let the violence spill over, keep it back, and what that means and what that looks like. And definitely with Sicario, I’ll admit that I haven’t seen it—
JZ: Yeah, I haven’t seen it either.
NSZ: Which is really on purpose. I do feel like there’s a problem with that. I also feel like there’s a problem with that across the board, with people speaking for our liminality in an attempt to own or co-opt it in this way that’s not only violent, but also really damaging to physical places. I would even argue that a lot of that damage in speaking for other people and sensationalizing or fetishizing damages the very land because those spaces all of a sudden don’t matter.
JZ: And those people tend to be white. I mean white people are the ones who tend to do that. And that’s another thing that I also question because in El Salvador, I’ll be honest everyone looks up to America and everybody wants to be white. Not everybody, I take that back, but most people because that’s what you see in the media and that’s what you grow up thinking. So that’s how colonialism works in our current time and day, the beauty standards, you know we could go down the list. But also talking about violence, it is also important for me to address that violence because in a country of six million people, this year’s murder rate is projected to be 92.0/100,000 or close to one murder an hour. Just last month 911 people were murdered in one month, talk about ironic numbers. You can read more about these numbers here. And if you were to do the math, and put it into American standards, if the population of El Salvador were to be three hundred million, our murder rate would be the equivalent to 144 people murdered everyday. If those were the numbers in this country, everybody in the world would be doing something about it. So in a way it’s also important to address that violence, to address those numbers. But numbers don’t get anybody to care because the bodies that are dying are brown, they’re not white and that is an issue.
NSZ: Well and then what better way to address it than through the personal right?
NSZ: And what a daunting task that is.
JZ: But it’s also the saddest because if you take nowadays, the world that we live in, not to be overly pessimistic but today if you take the image of one person. You know I don’t even want to say it, but why are people all of a sudden “caring” about Syria? Because of that image. It was something personal that people could relate to. If you look at the numbers the Syrian bloodshed has been happening for years, and that is the fucked up world we live in now. In El Salvador people have been dying, people have been going through this for years and it wasn’t until the “surge” of immigrant children who came here did people care. That’s bullshit. That shit has been happening since ’98, you know? ’99, since probably even before. I mean I came here when I was nine in 1999. This shit has been happening, but it takes hopefully a personal narrative to do that.
NSZ: Well and not to get even darker on you…
NSZ: …but I worry that then it becomes this thing of, going back to the idea of fetish, of creating almost humanitarian warfare. In which you have all these private corporations that are trying to do this as a way to ease the minds of rich white people into thinking that they are doing the right thing, and the good thing based on this personal narratives that they’ve encountered. And what that does as far as abstracting the personal. And what does that do? What does that mean?
JZ: Yeah, it’s the white savior syndrome. It’s like when you go to Starbucks and now you get a personal thing about where the coffee comes from like, “José is picking the shade-grown organic coffee in Santa Ana…” you know, shit like that. It has become profitable, and the other thing is that even if you write a complete story people are not going to care. They have these images of these kids in Syria, what the fuck is being done? Nothing is being done. All we have is the Russian government trying to kill more people. So yeah, there’s the low-point of our conversation.
NSZ: We really have hit a low point. But, let’s finish with one last question though: Is immigration an act of exile into a permanent state of liminality?
JZ: Yeah, absolutely. It is because even when immigrants return, I see that in my aunt, you’ve seen what’s on the other side. You’ve tasted the apple. So you’ve been to this country, and in my aunt’s case she 1. Didn’t feel safe, 2. Couldn’t get a job, 3. She didn’t have the privileges that she had here, like as simple as having running water. She had to pump her own water again. Then she’s stuck in the looking north again. Looking at what she had, and looking at when immigrants return they are stuck in this in-between where the here and now doesn’t exist. It’s the elsewhere, which is really just another word for the liminal, the between space.
NSZ: Is there freedom in that as a writer?
JZ: Being in the elsewhere?
JZ: There’s freedom to question. The thing about Latino…and in El Salvador, like I see it…this journalist, Oscar Martinez, who wrote The Beast, which is a great book, you know that’s an example of somebody brown, an Salvadoran, not someone who’s white or from someplace else, telling our story right? And he runs the first online newspaper in Latin America which is El Faro, which is the only progressive newspaper in my country. And because of what he says he fears for his life and now lives probably in Mexico City. Read more about this over at The New Yorker.
So there’s that freedom of being not in my country to speak. You know, it is no coincidence that you rarely see a Salvadoran poem about what’s happening in El Salvador. Miroslava Rosales is one of the few poets I’ve seen who address the gangs and questions the government. But it’s a dangerous thing to do in El Salvador. So there is that real freedom of speech that means not being in a country that’s fucked up, and the freedom to question the there and the here because you’ve got nothing else to do but question.
Javier Zamora was born in La Herradura, El Salvador in 1990. At the age of nine he migrated to the United States. Zamora is a Breadloaf and Yaddo scholarship recipient and holds fellowships from CantoMundo, Colgate University, and the National Endowment for the Arts. His poems appear or are forthcoming in Best New Poets, Narrative, Ploughshares, POETRY, The Kenyon Review, and elsewhere. He is also a member of the Our Parent’s Bones Campaign, you can learn more about it here.
(Ed note: this interview is part of a series by Natalie Scenters-Zapico. You can find all Natalie's interviews with Latina/o poets here. sdh)