Erika L. Sánchez

2017 National Book Award Finalist and 2019 NEA Literature Fellow
Headshot of a woman

Photo by Adriana Díaz

Music Credit: “NY” composed and performed by Kosta T from the cd Soul Sand, used courtesy of the Free Music Archive.

(Music Up)

my dream was just to be a writer or to teach, to do both, and eventually I made that happen, but boy, it was really tough for a long time. Like things didn't start to coalesce for me until I was in my early thirties. So, yeah, I had some rough times and many, many different working environments and I often cried in bathrooms, which is why my memoir is titled "Crying in the Bathroom."

Jo Reed: That is writer and 2019 NEA Lit Fellow Erika L. Sánchez and this is Art Works, the weekly podcast produced by the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed.

It’s fair to say that 2017 was a banner year for writer Erika L. Sánchez. Her debut collection of poetry Lessons on Expulsion was published in July and received praise from many publications including the Washington Post and the New York Times. And things just kept getting better: in October her YA novel, I’m Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter was also published. The novel traces a pivotal year in the life of a teenager who, like Sánchez herself, is the daughter of Mexican immigrants living in Chicago where money is tight and generational and cultural tensions abound. To say the book was well-received is an understatement: I’m Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter was a finalist for the National Book Award…in fact, the book was nominated before it even hit the bookstores. Erika Sánchez remembers that moment.

Erika L. Sánchez: It was pretty surreal. I didn't even anticipate that coming whatsoever. I mean, it was such a surprise for me since it wasn't actually out and I didn't even know it was a possibility, so it was some of the best news I've ever gotten in my life, to be quite honest. And then waiting to hear if I made the short list, that was another few weeks of anticipation and I was extremely nervous. And, yeah, it was one of the, you know, best nights of my life.

Jo Reed: <laughs>

Erika L. Sánchez: To be quite honest. And I feel bad for everybody who can't actually celebrate this year in person. And so I am just so lucky that it happened when we didn't have a pandemic. <laughs>

Jo Reed: Right. Because you had a hell of a year that year. Your book of poetry came out and your YA novel and I was actually thinking about that as I was preparing for this. Like, wow, because you were just going around the country, you were going everywhere. And that just wouldn't be possible now.

Erika L. Sánchez: No. I’m just relieved that it came out that year and I was incredibly busy. I was all over the place. I felt like I didn't know where I was waking up half the time. And that was, like, a really special time for me, you know, getting to connect with people in real life. And yeah, it's just, it's surreal to have to resort to all of these other methods that don't feel organic at all. And I just really look forward to when this is over. This has been very hard for me just as a person who really likes to connect on a personal, genuine level.

Jo Reed: I bet, I bet. Yeah, it's hard for all of us.

Erika L. Sánchez: Yeah.

Jo Reed: This actually takes me straight into your YA novel which is about a 15-year-old girl and, the one thing I am so conscious of during this time is being so grateful that I am not 15.

Erika L. Sánchez: <laughs> Yeah.

Jo Reed: I would have lost my mind. It's very different when you're on shutdown but it's your own home and you can sort of make the life that you want to.

Erika L. Sánchez: Sure.

Jo Reed: As opposed to being 15 where you're totally being controlled by somebody else.

Erika L. Sánchez: Yeah, no, I feel the same way. <laughs> Completely.

Jo Reed: <laughs> Tell me why you decided to write a YA novel.

Erika L. Sánchez: Well, you know, at that age I had so many different challenges. I felt incredibly depressed but I didn't know that's what it was. I didn't know what to call it. And I felt very lonely and disconnected from everybody. And had I been in a lockdown during that time, I just don't know how I would have survived it because my home wasn't my haven. I felt very misunderstood. I felt, like, really scrutinized in my own house. And so, yeah, I thank God that I'm an adult and I could do whatever I want now, but oh, man, that was a tough age. And I felt like I needed to write the novel that I needed at that age and that I know other girls need as well because it's just really isolating and there's not a lot of literature that really represents the Mexican-American immigrant child experience.

Jo Reed: Can you just tell us a little bit about the plot of the book "I'm Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter?" which kind of sums it up, doesn't it?

Erika L. Sánchez: Yeah, it does. And so it surprises me when people are like, "Oh, she's so unlikable," or, "I can't stand this protagonist." And it's like, well, it kind of tells you right away that she's not going to be perfect and she might be a challenge.

Jo Reed: Yeah. <laughs>

Erika L. Sánchez: So she's 15-years-old. Her name is Julia. She lives on the South Side of Chicago in a not specified neighborhood but it's' very Mexican and working class. And she's grappling with, you know, being a teenager and also her sister dies right at the beginning of the book and so she is dealing with this loss and she is trying to figure out who she is and her parents don't understand her. She doesn't really understand them. And so she's on this quest to, like, learn more about her sister and in that process she learns a whole lot about herself and her family.

Jo Reed: Well, you know, we learn a few things about her immediately. Her sister dying unexpectedly. But we also learn she's an avid reader and writer and it's, you know, really the core of who she is. But what I really appreciated was that it's her own agency. She has a helpful teacher but he's peripheral. He's not the one who opened the world of writing to her, which often happens. You know, she's already in it and that is so rare.

Erika L. Sánchez: Yeah, I thought that was really important. I wanted her to have a lot of agency despite her limitations, right. She is up against a whole lot of boundaries and she breaks them often. And so I mean, that was pretty much who I was at that age and, you know, it's fiction and of course a lot of things are imagined, but you know, at that age of 15, I was just so in love with writing and literature and it was all I ever wanted to do with my life. And it's not something that we often see in books and media, like a young, poor Mexican girl wanting a life in art of some kind. It's not something that's actively encouraged a lot of the time and her teacher does, you know, encourage her in many ways, but she is also very, very self-motivated despite what the world may think of her plans.

Jo Reed: Yeah. And as you mentioned, she's first generation, the daughter of Mexican immigrants as you are. How does that inform her?

Erika L. Sánchez: Well, I mean, for a lot of Mexican-American young people there is this double life that you must live where, you know, you're immersed at home in a very traditional culture oftentimes, a culture that is in some ways in conflict with our American culture. And so it's really confusing and there is a lot of guilt also because, like, many-- for many of us, our parents are, like, working in factories, just like blue collar work and like really sacrificing a lot so that their children could be more comfortable than they would be in Mexico. And so there's just this sense of obligation that we often feel, but also a sense of for many of us rebellion that, you know, we don't really quite fit into those expectations that they have because we grew up in completely different environments, and so there's just there are a lot of conflicts there.

Jo Reed: What I always find really interesting is that in literature about the first generation, the kids often look at their parents as being so old-fashioned and traditional. It’s after they grow up a bit, they understand the huge step they took by moving to another country—the audacity of that move.

Erika L. Sánchez: Right, yeah. And I wanted to show that the character doesn't quite understand her parents in so many different ways. She's a self-centered 15-year-old girl and I think that's the age where you're very, very much obsessed with your own self and you can't really see outside of you. Her parents didn't understand her but she also didn't understand her parents who, yes, they uprooted their entire lives and moved to a completely different country and are living, like, very difficult circumstances. They have to work really hard. They don't speak the language well. Their daughter is very much Americanized and so how do they cope, you know, how do they react to that? And, you know, in the novel, the mother is extremely repressive and I think that's just her way of trying to protect her kid, not knowing that it's causing her a great deal of damage.

Jo Reed: Yeah. No, agreed. And, you know, there's that lack of privacy also that you have when you're 15 when privacy is so important. <laughs>

Erika L. Sánchez: Right. Yeah, we don't believe in that in a Mexican household. <laughs>

Jo Reed: But, I think it's also a hallmark of poverty. Because when you're poor there's no space to be private. Where are you going to be private?

Erika L. Sánchez: Right. You don't have often your own room. Like everyone's just kind of crowded together. Yeah, it's tough.

Jo Reed: Yeah. Chicago has a role in the book which I really appreciate. I like books that are tied to place. Tell me how Chicago factors into your book.

Erika L. Sánchez: Yeah, I love Chicago. I grew up in Cicero which is, like, right on the border of Chicago and I would walk a block and I was in the city. It was very much a Chicago experience and I was always trying to escape my home <laughs> in some way,--

Jo Reed: <laughs>

Erika L. Sánchez: By wandering through the city, discovering new places and trying to find people who were like me. And so, and I spent a lot of time just, like, alone, you know, going to the museums and pondering on the CTA and things like that. And so I wanted kind of to show, to celebrate that, like, part of my upbringing. I loved doing those kinds of things and I feel, like, really lucky that I had access to so many different places. Like the Art Institute, it's a world renowned institution and I got to go and just, like, spend afternoons there just because I felt like it. And like a lot of people don't have that opportunity, so I'm very grateful for that. And I just, I have a lot of affection for the city; even though it's very challenging at times, it has a great deal of problems, but in general, it's a city that has given me a lot and I wanted to just really highlight that. And I was very much also inspired by "Catcher in the Rye," which is probably obvious to a lot of people, <laughs> but--

Jo Reed: Yeah. <laughs>

Erika L. Sánchez: That sort of sense of the wanderlust of just, like, like not really having a plan and but just wanting to find new things and feel excited and seen and I don't know, a part of something bigger.

Jo Reed: Yeah, yeah. We learn, as you mentioned, in the course of the book that Julia has mental health challenges, that she's depressed. And at the end of the book you provide resources for people who have similar challenges. And I think this has perhaps a kind of cultural shading to it as well, it's still such a source of shame.

Erika L. Sánchez: Yeah, it really is and it's unfortunate that we have the stigma because it's an illness that no one chooses to have, you know. And so it's still very silly to me to think that people judge others for struggling in this way. and I'm trying to break that down and I'm hoping that the book, you know, really opens a lot of doors for people to get help because I didn't really have a lot of resources when I was growing up and it was really hard and I felt lonely. And so Latina teens have the highest suicide rates of their peers and so that's something that is often ignored or just like, I don't know, dismissed? I'm not sure. It's kind of mind boggling to me because it's such a serious problem and no one really talks about it, so I felt like it was my duty to bring it up and to, you know, examine it and to put it in the world and make it a conversation.

Jo Reed: Well, you do a lot with secrets in that book. It really is a book of secrets. Some of them generated by cultural expectations. But you develop this through the generations. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Erika L. Sánchez: Yeah. I was trying to address, like, the cultural trauma or the generational trauma that a lot of us carry that we don't often talk about. There's so much that we don't often know about the people who came before us that you know, we in some ways carry those consequences for them. And so I wanted to unpack that, that what happens in previous generations still affects who we are now, you know. And, you know, I think often about slavery and how it's always relevant because it's something that was so horrific and it lasted for so long that, like, we can't forget about it and that's why Toni Morrison wrote relentlessly about it. And so I wanted to do something similar in which I approached these forms of oppression that have been happening for generations and here is a 15-year-old girl in Chicago who is somehow dealing with those repercussions as well. And so, like, how do we cope with that as a people.

Jo Reed: Yeah. Inherited trauma.

Erika L. Sánchez: Yes.

Jo Reed: Your book of poetry, "Lessons on Expulsion," came out the same year as the novel. I'm just so curious how getting two different manuscripts in two different genres ready for publication at the same time. What was that like?

Erika L. Sánchez: Yeah, that was totally unexpected. I had been working on the manuscript for about ten years, something like that, and I mean, I was rejected time and time again. <laughs> It was just an onslaught. And so I didn't know when it was going to happen. And I'm actually glad that it took so long, to be quite honest, because I feel like it was the best possible book that I could have published at that time. And it was just a crazy coincidence that both books were accepted. And it was pretty nerve wracking in some ways, but really exciting mostly. The editing process for both books, it was pretty painless because I had such great editors and I've been blessed with that in my career, where the editorial process has been really enriching rather than demoralizing. I feel like the editors that I've had just really understood how to make the book better and I don't have much of an ego when it comes to that, like, revisions. I also want to make the book the best it possibly could be and if that means, you know, changing or cutting or what have you, then I will. I'm not very precious about that. I just want it to be excellent and so. It was mostly excitement, honestly, and once they were out in the world it was just like a barrage of responsibilities. I had to just go to so many different places and just talk about my work and it was a dream come true in many ways, but it was also incredibly exhausting, so. It's just so different now that we can't actually go anywhere. <laughs> Just, like, wait, what? Like, <laughs> how did this happen?

Jo Reed: <laughs> Yeah.

Erika L. Sánchez: What a shift.

Jo Reed: What a shift. Well, some of the poems share some of the themes we see in the novel like defying norms and cultural roles. And both look at people on borders. I would like you to talk about the significance of borders in your work.

Erika L. Sánchez: Sure. So as a child for me borders were something that were very real, tangible, physical. Because my parents immigrated in the late seventies, when they crossed the border with the help of a coyote, it was a story that I was quite familiar with and it was something that I heard about very, very frequently and not just their story but the stories of other people in our family and our community. So I very much understood that borders meant that certain people weren't allowed in our country and I just felt like that was such an injustice to deny people the right to be in a place. And so growing up it was something that I thought often about and then as I grew older, there were so many other iterations of borders in my life just as a young woman of color, like what I was allowed to do, what I was not allowed to do. And so I became in many ways very defiant when it came to boundaries and borders and so I continue to be, you know, very, very rebellious when it comes to limitations. And so, you know, I write about borders and their many iterations in all of my writing and I like to explore, like, a lot of in between places and so that's another way that I like to examine borders is, like, what does it mean to be on a border, to live in a space that isn't really one place or the other.

Jo Reed: You know, I'm curious about the way you approach your poetry and is it different than your approach to fiction?

Erika L. Sánchez: Yeah, it totally is in many ways. And so poetry for me is my first love and it was something that I knew that I wanted to do as soon as I discovered it. And, you know, as a young girl from a working class environment it just didn't make any sense <laughs> to anyone that that's something that I would pursue. And still looking back on it, it doesn't make sense. But it was--


Erika L. Sánchez: It was something that I truly, truly loved and it allowed me to explore, like, really mysterious places within myself. And really, like, find a voice that I felt I didn't have anywhere else. And so that was really important for me and my love of poetry is what makes my prose possible. I think the fact that I pay so much attention to detail, to image, the rhythm and things like that, like that's the reason that I think my prose has done well is because these things all very much matter to me. So, it's something that is like the foundation for everything that I do in my work, you know. And so poetry is often something that requires a lot of silence and contemplation and time and it's something that I never, ever rush. And so, you know, my poetry collection took ten years to write and then this next one will probably take ten years to write. <laughs>

Jo Reed: <laughs>

Erika L. Sánchez: And I'm totally okay with that. I'm just slower when it comes to poetry because I care so much about every single word. And I want every single poem to be excellent. And for me, that just takes a long time. And you know, my prose takes a long time as well, it's just a different process. This next book that I've been working on, it's been five years of work. It probably won't come out until Spring of 2022. So that's also going to take a long time, but it's not the same kind of, like, patience that I have with poetry. The poetry is just, I don't know, there's something very mystical about it.

Jo Reed: I'm wondering what animates poetry for you. Is it a sound? Is it an image?

Erika L. Sánchez: It's both oftentimes. Like, I hear a word and I'm like, "Ooh, what's that? Why is that conjuring feelings? You know, I don't really understand." And, you know, or I'll see something in the world that really strikes me and I feel like haunted by it and then I have to write about it at some point. And sometimes it takes me years to really return to that image but it's something that I can't seem to forget. And it has to somehow manifest itself in a poem. And so, yeah, it's something very special to me and I just really love it. It brings me a lot of joy and I'm so glad that I started writing poetry before anything else.

Jo Reed: You write in Spanish in both your fiction and poetry without translating it.

Erika L. Sánchez: Yeah. <laughs>

Jo Reed: And obviously, that's a choice. Walk us through that.

Erika L. Sánchez: Sure. I think at this point in our society, in our culture, it's no longer necessary to translate something as ubiquitous as Spanish. And I mean, every author who is bilingual has that choice whether to accommodate to those who don't know the language or not. And so for me, I thought it was important not to call attention to itself because in the novel she's very much bilingual and she thinks in both languages and she speaks in both languages and I wanted to show the fluidity of that without, like, making it jarring and, like, being self-conscious about it. And I don't italicize also for that reason, because it's just like, that's who she is. And within context it's pretty easy to understand I believe and I make it so that it's not completely foreign and I think, you know, with context clues people could figure it out. Also everyone has access to the internet now so whatever you don't know you can just Google. So I feel very adamant about that. It's no longer necessary to offer, like, a glossary at the end or anything like that; like we don't really need that. and I just, I felt like it was true to who she was.

Jo Reed: That's just what I was going to say. It really helps you understand how her mind is operating in two languages

Erika L. Sánchez: Right. That's how a lot of us think, and I think we need to be able to express that without feeling any sort of shame.

Jo Reed: Now tell me about some of the day jobs you had before you were able to support yourself as a writer.

Erika L. Sánchez: Oh, God. <laughs> Ooh, boy. I struggled a lot throughout my twenties. I had so many different jobs I waitressed a little bit. I worked in various, like, offices. I had a few, like, white collar jobs I would call them where I had to for one job do marketing for this terrible company and print estimating which sounds as boring as it is.

Jo Reed: <laughs>

Erika L. Sánchez: And then I was in PR for a bit and I was in a nonprofit and I just did anything to just pay my bills because there was no other choice. Meanwhile, my dream was just to be a writer or to teach, to do both, and eventually I made that happen, but boy, it was really tough for a long time. Like things didn't start to coalesce for me until I was in my early thirties. So, yeah, I had some rough times and many, many different working environments and I often cried in bathrooms, which is why my memoir is titled "Crying in the Bathroom."


Jo Reed: It's a great title.

Erika L. Sánchez: Thank you. <laughs>

Jo Reed: You also got an NEA Lit Fellowship. What did that enable you to do?

Erika L. Sánchez: Oh, man, that was such a blessing. I was so grateful or that. It just really made me feel validated in many ways and it just made my life easier to have that sort of income and not have to worry so much about my <laughs> survival. And it's something that every artist dreams of is to just focus on the art and not have to, like, worry about bills all the time. And so it just gave me much more freedom. I was able to go to Mexico and you know, visit my family and do some research there about, like, previous generations and really get a lot of information for my memoir. And so that was really exciting. Just the space to be able to write without, like, just, you know, having all of these other concerns is just such a privilege. And so I'm very happy that it allowed me to do that. And, you know, I've been so lucky throughout my career. I had the Princeton Arts Fellowship as well and some other fellowships. And just the fact that, you know, I've been given this, like, these economic advantages has just been, it's just been so important as a person who grew up poor. And it's something thatis hard to even explain to people from my community, like, I get paid to write. You know, like, that's kind of mind boggling for some. It still surprises me, honestly.

Jo Reed: <laughs> Well, I was just curious, what's changed for you since the great success of both your books?

Erika L. Sánchez: I just, I feel like I don't have to worry about a lot of things that I often did before. <laughs> Like, I was always just scrambling and trying to make a living and trying to make art at the same time. All I wanted to do was be a writer. And so now that my life is centered on writing and literature and teaching, it's just, it's very, very rich. It's something that I really value. I feel that my life is to write stories and to teach people and that's, like, everything I've ever wanted. And so, yeah, I just feel very lucky. And I am, you know, 36-years-old. I am having a child for the first time.

Jo Reed: Congratulations.

Erika L. Sánchez: Thank you. Yeah, I'm due in December. And so I'm really excited about that. I'm newly married. I'm very happy. The only thing that really concerns me is the rest of the world. <laughs>

Jo Reed: <laughs> Well, what are your writing practices?

Erika L. Sánchez: Well, it varies. And I don't have, like, a specific schedule routine. I know a lot of writers do and hats off to them, but I'm not, like, wired in that way. And so for me, the writing, it comes in spurts, so it just depends on what I'm working on and my teaching load, my household responsibilities, et cetera. And so for me, writing is always like the center of, like, who I am. And it, you know, even if I'm not actually writing, I'm reading a ton and I think that's, like, the most important piece of being a writer is to be a reader. <laughs> And so that's, that's what I care about and I, you know, I write notes to myself. Sometime I have, like, a just a jolt of inspiration and I'll, like, crank something out; other times it takes me months and weeks, whatever. Right now I'm revising my memoir and so I just cranked out one essay, I revised it, this weekend and it felt amazing and I was like, "Oh, wow. I really got that done." And, yeah, it just changes. It depends on, like, where I'm at in my life. If I'm traveling a lot also; it's hard for me to write when I'm traveling.

Jo Reed: Does teaching impact your writing?

Erika L. Sánchez: It does. It just takes up a lot of my energy and so I enjoy it very much, not so much online, I will say, but I enjoy being in a classroom and talking to students and really engaging with them when it comes to literature. And it's something that brings me a lot of joy but it's also something that I put a lot of effort into and it does take up a lot of my resources, <laughs> you know. And so it depends. Like, if my teaching responsibilities are really intense one quarter then, you know, I may not write as much; but, you know, it'll come.

Jo Reed: And has the pandemic affected your writing practices or your reading?

Erika L. Sánchez: You know, I think I've been reading more just because I don't have <laughs> anywhere to go. And I don't have to travel and you know, it's given me a lot of, like, space to just be at home and with my thoughts and, you know, express myself in different ways. So I think it's been pretty fruitful for the most part. I mean, psychologically it's been pretty challenging in many ways but, you know, I've been actually painting and drawing and doing different kinds of, like, visual art and cooking and so I've been very, very creative just to kind of cope with the circumstances. And I think that has really helped my writing as well. Art is just, like, really critical for me, like, in every form.

Jo Reed: And what are you working on now? What can we expect?

Erika L. Sánchez: Well, the memoir, the revision is going to be probably a lengthy process. Hopefully not, but I mean, the fact that I'm having a baby in December is going to really change the way that I work, so.


Jo Reed: You think?


Erika L. Sánchez: Yeah, a little bit. And so, I'm hoping that I could finish a lot of it before she gets here but I might not. And so yeah, it's going to be a challenge.

Jo Reed: So you're working on a baby.

Erika L. Sánchez: I'm working on a baby and I'm working on a book, so, I was hoping to give birth to both of them at the same time but it doesn't seem likely.

Jo Reed: Well, Erika, really, thank you for giving me your time.

Erika L. Sánchez: I really appreciate your questions.

Jo Reed: I appreciate your work and I appreciated your answers. Thank you.

Erika L. Sánchez: Thank you.

Jo Reed: That was writer and 2019 NEA Lit Fellow Erika L. Sánchez. She’s the author of a collection of poetry Lessons on Expulsion and the YA novel and 2017 National Book Award Finalist I’m Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter. You can find out when she’s up to at ErikaLSá You’ve been listening to Art Works, produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Don’t forget to subscribe to Art Works and please leave us a rating on Apple because it helps people to find us. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I’m Josephine Reed. Stay safe, stay kind, and thanks for listening.

Poet, novelist and essayist Erika L. Sánchez may have been a National Book Award Finalist, a 2017-2019 Princeton Arts Fellow,  a 2019 NEA Literature Fellow and currently the Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz Chair in the Latin American and Latino Studies Department at DePaul University, but she takes nothing for granted. Growing up in Chicago the child of Mexican immigrant factory workers, she understood early on that not everyone was able to realize their lives’ goals.  Erika, often feeling like the odd kid out, found new worlds through books and herself through writing.  And she was determined to make a place for herself in that world. After a long period of struggle, in 2017 Erika L. Sánchez had the year writers dream of: her debut collection of poetry Lessons on Expulsion was published to glowing reviews as was her YA novel I’m Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter which became a finalist for the National Book Award. In this podcast, Erika talks about her traditional upbringing, her rebellion and her longing to see herself represented in literature (I’m Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter was the book she wanted to read when she was 15) and the joy she finds in her first love—poetry.