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An Interview with Saraciea Fennell: Transcript

This is a rough transcript of an interview between Mignon Fogarty and Saraciea Fennell in November 2021. You can listen to the interview on the main page.

Mignon: Grammar Girl here. I'm Mignon Fogarty, and you can think of me as your friendly guide to the English language.

Today, I have a special treat: a conversation with author and editor Saraciea Fennell about her new book "Wild Tongues Can't Be Tamed." It's an anthology, and we talk about the book itself at the beginning, which is great, but I think you'll especially like the part on the particular challenges of editing an anthology.

Mignon: OK, Saraciea, welcome to the Grammar Girl podcast.

Saraciea: Thank you so much for having me.

Mignon: Yeah, I am excited to talk to you. My partners at Macmillan were just singing your praises about all these amazing things you're doing. So first, you have a book coming out soon called "Wild Tongues Can't Be Tamed." Just tell me about your book.

Saraciea: Yeah, absolutely. So it's a collection of 15 essays. I also have an essay in this wonderful anthology as well, representing 15 Latinx voices from the diaspora. So I tried to make sure that we had a wide range of diverse voices. So we have some Central American voices, which I'm really excited about because we tend to be not equally published as the rest of the Latinos that are currently writing right now. 

But the essays in this book tackle so many different things in response to the Latinx community. We're talking about mental health, immigration, anti-blackness, colourism, you know, being a transracial adoptee, foster care, just a little bit of everything. So I'm really excited for readers to read and connect with this. I'm hoping that some people will see their stories finally reflected and know that they aren't alone and in not feeling Latinx enough. There are a few writers in this collection who don't speak Spanish as their native language, so that's I know that's a big, big thing for a lot of us in the community. If we don't speak Spanish, we feel like, are we, you know, are we Latinx enough, or Latine enough? Do we really get to claim this identity? So it's a little bit of everything, and I'm really excited about it.

Mignon: That sounds wonderful. Backing up, how did you get the idea to pull this together? It sounds like a big project. And does it tie into your day job in publishing or is it like a completely separate thing?

Saraciea: No, it's, you know, it was completely separate thing. I think, as someone who, you know, I'm a black Honduran and also a black reader. And, I feel like there are always these ideas of what a Latinx person looks like, sounds like, the type of books that they read, the life that they lead. And I never really saw myself reflected in any of the stories, you know? 

And so I decided what does society sort of envision us as right? Like, what are these myths? What are these stereotypes? And how can I pull together diverse voices to sort of debunk and flip some of those things on its head? And I got to work with some amazing writers that I have admired, like Elizabeth Acevedo and Meg Medina. I mean, I grew up reading Meg Medina, and so it was just such a treat to get to edit these wonderful dynamic writers. But then there are new voices like Janel Martinez, who is another fellow Honduran Garifuna writer, and I wanted to make sure that I highlighted Central American voices and that I highlighted people that look like me because who would I be if I wasn't like bringing those voices to the table as well? Because it's something that I always felt that was lacking in, especially the YA space, but in general within books.

Saraciea: And so it was really, really neat for me to pull together different individuals who could write about some of the topics that I felt like were super relevant to the Latinx community. Like, for example, Lilliam Rivera, who's also from the Bronx. I'm from the Bronx, and she talks about her mental health struggles and dealing with alcoholism and suicide. And, you know, within the Latinx community, the suicide rates among Latinas is is really, really insane. The numbers are wild, and it's something that we don't really talk about. And so to have this wonderful author who is critically acclaimed, a bestselling writer, tell her truth is amazing because now there are going to be young people and adults who can read these, you know, read her essay and say, like, "Oh wow, this is something that I struggle with, or I know someone in my family that struggles with this." And so it can be used as a conversation starter. And then I think about Mark Oshiro's essay about being adopted and what that experience is like for them and how they did all of this research to connect, right, to connect and figure out what are my roots, and where do I come from, and their journey with learning Spanish and, you know, dealing with religion and all of these wonderful things.

Saraciea: And but then also, you know, coming out and saying, like, I'm queer and like, this is who I am, and this is how I fit within the community and just embracing their identity. And I'm like, "Yes, this is empowering." This is what, you know, people from the community who don't necessarily get these stories. We might get them in fiction here and there, but it's just something extremely powerful about it being nonfiction because you kind of know like, wow, these are real-life people who have experienced these things that I'm currently experiencing, or I know someone who's currently experiencing these things. And so I really hope that people who read the book, whether you're a teenager an adult an educator, that you'll read it and be able to give it to someone and say, like, "Hey, let's use this as a conversation starter to talk about whatever the thing is that needs to be spoken about."

Mignon: That sounds great, and I will tag these authors when I post about this on social, and I'll put links to their...them in the transcript, which you'll find on our website. So the names have been coming in really fast, but you can find them if you want them, and they're obviously there in the book too.

I want to talk to you a little bit about the craft of putting together an anthology. I mean, that strikes me as something that would have its own special challenges and would be very different from editing and, you know, bringing another book to market. So tell me, tell me about, you know, what it takes to put together an anthology?

Saraciea: Yeah, wow. So there's a lot of moving parts. I think, you know, this was a huge learning experience for me because it's my first anthology. You know, as you mentioned, I work in book publishing, so I kind of have an idea of what the timeline of the publication of a book is supposed to look like. But in regards to editing 14 other individuals, it's like, OK, you have all of these moving deadlines. So some of the writers were right on time and could meet those deadlines. Others were a little squishy and life got in the way. It was also a lot of us writing during the global pandemic, so we wanted I wanted to make sure that everyone's mental health and self-care was their number one priority. And so it was very, very interesting to get to work with all of these voices.

One of the things that I really, really enjoyed was sort of talking to the writers to figure out what is the right story from your life that, you know, you should be writing about in this essay and how it's all going to fit together in the larger collection. And so, you know, getting to video chat or talk on the on the phone and just talk through lots of different things was really amazing. I think it was also very humbling for me because I thought, you know these New York Times award-winning bestselling writers, they're going to like not have any worries and say, like, here you go, Saraciea, you all done like, you know, I got this in the bag, but it really showed me that it doesn't matter how far you are in your career, like, we all have that thing where we get stuck or we really value other people's opinions about our writing and our craft. And so I really, really loved seeing that I could work with people who have been publishing for years the same way that I was working with newer voices. So I really enjoyed that. I was kind of surprised about that part of the process.

The other thing I really, really enjoyed was working with my two amazing editors, Sara and Caroline at Flatiron. They're just super amazing and just having them go in and sort of edit behind me and sort of call out things and they were like, "Oh, you know, Saraciea I agree with you, I love this. I love your edit here. And then for other things saying like, "Hey, what about this?" And so they were able to ask me questions, and we could have a little bit of a back and forth before I went back to the contributors to say, like, "OK, here's here's your editorial letter, and here are the things that we would like you to revise or recast." So it was a very special experience. Probably a little bit longer than traditional, having just one writer working with an editor. So that process took a little bit of getting used to. But it was it was so great. I'm going to cherish it forever.

Mignon: Yeah, no multiple rounds, if you can have the luxury of having multiple layers of editing, more than one person looking at a piece, it always makes it better. I'm so happy when I'm able to do that myself. I'm sure that your writers really appreciated that.

Saraciea: Yeah, absolutely.

I'm curious. So did you put specific thought into the order that the essays would go in the anthology to create sort of an experience, something almost like a, you know, an album used to be put together, a music album, to create a feeling? Did you do that for the essays?

Saraciea: Yeah. You know, in a sense, I sort of wanted to take readers on an arc of the various different voices. And so, you know, starting with someone like ... Well, you have my introduction, and I sort of frame the the anthology a little bit. 

And then you we start with Mark Oshiro's essay, and it's sort of like these beats, these lyrical beats in a sense, of taking you through their entire life up until their age of when they wrote the essay. They had a birthday, so not the same age, but it was just amazing to see that because you kind of have a glimpse of like, here's where I was at nine years old here, or here's where I was at 12, and like 21. And like, here's here's the pattern of my life, and that's sort of the same arc that I wanted to to sort of set for the book. It's like, here are the folks that, you know, we're not Latine enough, and then we're going to talk about like colorism and anti-blackness and immigration. And so there are these different arcs that I wanted to make sure sort of landed almost like a rainbow in the book, so to so to speak where you start here. 

But then like, there's a nice spectrum of, OK, this is what it's like to be a black Cuban, but this is what it's like to be a Cuban. And, you know, and like, talk about different issues that, you know, that Cuban person dealt with versus another person who is dealing with like anti-Blackness and not feeling Latinx enough within the community. And so you you almost have these two sides of the coin to look at like, "Oh, this is this is very interesting." 

And then also, I believe the last couple of essays are sort of like telling the reader like, you know, I have a claim on my identity, I am telling you that this is this is the type of Latinx  person that I am, you know, whether it's reclaiming my agency or, you know, cherishing the gifts that my grandparents have given me or, you know, coming coming to an understanding that like Haiti is technically a Latin American country, and I can have, you know, the ability to identify as a Latinx person, but instead I'm going to identify as Haitian. And so that's, you know, Ibi Zoboi's essay, you know, just sort of grappling with the history of, like, terms and words and how they fluctuate within the community. Like, you know, in the '90s, most people identified as Hispanic and then like, you, you have the 2000s where people started saying like "Latino," "Latina," and then it became "Latinx" to be a more inclusive term.

Saraciea And even right now, we're going through another shift in in language where people are like, "OK, it's Latine" or, you know, like, I don't I don't want to use "Latinx," I want to use "Latine." And then you have other people that are like, "You know what? I'm not going to use the catchall term. I'm going to identify as a black Honduran or black Dominican or, you know, just Cuban" and kind of giving that self identity there.

So I feel like in the beginning, it's like I'm discovering who I am right in the anthology when you're reading these essays, and then you have like, OK, now let's get into the community and then towards the second ... second half of the anthology, it's like, "OK, we know who we are," and like this, this is how we want to be seen and represented.

So I hope readers enjoy that arc, and I hope it came over the way I did. But it's been fascinating to hear from reviewers and things like that. So please let me know your thoughts. All of you wonderful listeners out there. If you pick up the book and read it, please tweet me, message me on Instagram. I'm always happy to chat.

Mignon: That sounds great. And you know, it's so interesting getting to the words because listeners have asked me why I haven't done something on the word "Latinx," and every every time I look at it, I start, and then I think one, I am not the person to do this. I'm not qualified. And second, even when I talked to people who are, they disagree, and it feels like it's very much in flux—the language in that area now. And I just have been wanting to to wait until I felt like I had something definitive or credible to say. Or, you know, it's very it's, it's, stress to me ... it's very complicated.

Saraciea So yes, it totally it really is. It really is. A few people even ask me there like, you have 15 voices for the Latinx, and I said, yes, that's why I also put "diaspora" because I wanted to make sure that people knew, you know, it's not just that one, because I feel like everyone has one vision in their head of what, like I said, what a Latinx person is. But once you add "diaspora" next to it, it's like, "Oh, OK, I've got to make sure I walk into this book with an open mind because it's not just only going to be that one type of story."

Mignon: So a real Grammar Girl nerdy question I have for you when you're editing an anthology is do you try to enforce a style across all the essays like, say, you have a British writer and an American writer, and one puts periods inside a closing quotation and the other one puts them outside a closing quotation. When you're editing, do you try to sort of normalize all that, or do you just let people do sort of whatever they want in terms of those kind of nit-picky styles?

Saraciea Oh, that's such a fantastic question. I think with all of these essays, what actually came up was some of the Spanish dialect. But but definitely there were some maybe punctuation things and some language things. So I wanted to make sure that each writer's voice was their own, and I didn't change it too much. But there were a few things where I'm like, OK, we kind of kind of make this ... we have to make this like, you know, in style for the entire book. And so I did a little bit of that. 

But of course, the proofreaders and the copy editors were really the whizzes behind that. So shout-out to the folks that worked on this book, and they they honestly asked a lot of a lot of the same questions that I did, especially when it came to the Spanish. And that's something that's very wonderful about our community, but also can be very frustrating because, you know, a Dominican word could mean something to that community. But once, you know, once you translate it to like a Honduran word and you're like, "Well, that's kind of an issue." So it's like making sure that we were trying to use words or have the writers use words that would translate across all of the dialects, but also, like, allowing them to to keep that very, like, specific Dominican or Honduran-ness to it. It was very interesting and very challenging.

Mignon: So I can imagine, do you have an example?

Saraciea There were actually a few examples for Janel Martinez's essay, so she mentioned some Garifuna terms, which is an indigenous language spoken in some Central American countries, mostly Honduras, Guatemala, and Belize as well, and in St. Vincent, and there are all of these different spellings. And so I kind of had to consult with her and say, like, "OK, I know that you spelled it this way, but I think it's this way." And so we kind of went back and forth of like, OK, which which one do we want to use? Because I have to go back to the Flatiron team and sort of say, like, this is the one we keep instead, and here's why.

So so that was one. Another one was for Kahlil Haywood's essay. There were different fruits that he mentioned in his essay. And you know, for me, I was like, "Wait, are you sure this is the term?" Because this is what it means in this dialect. And so it was just very interesting going back and forth and him saying, like, "No, this is definitely the term," and I was like, "OK, just wanted to make sure because I have one type of fruit in my mind that you're using this word for," but he showed me a picture, and I'm like, OK, this makes sense.

Mignon: I have to ask, was it? Was it mangoes?

Saraciea: No, it wasn't mangoes. It was. I'm blanking on it now, but you know, I'll try and find it and send it to you. It was very interesting. I was like, I don't think this is right.

Mignon: Oh, just because some people call, like, the fruit that I would put in smoothies, mangoes, and other people called green peppers mangoes. So it just reminded me of that.

Saraciea So interesting. Yeah. So stuff like that was really fun and fascinating to, like, go through that process of figuring out how do we make sure this is the right thing?

Mignon: That's really interesting and not not the problem I would have expected you to have. So that's fascinating. So the book again, is called "Wild Tongues Can't Be Tamed." You're doing other fascinating things too, and I want to talk about them just a tiny bit because I mean, just looking at everything you do, I admire your energy, and I think, like, "Man, I couldn't do that." So you put on the Bronx book, you like founded the Bronx Book Festival from what I've read. And yeah, that's amazing. And this is kind of embarrassing to admit, but I've never been to a book festival. I can't remember there ever having been one where I live. And so I imagine how wonderful it might be. I love books, but I'd love to hear what actually goes on at a book festival.

Saraciea Yeah, absolutely. And so you kind of mention a little bit of my inspiration for why I decided to bring one to the Bronx. Working in publishing, I've gotten to travel all across the U.S. and attend these fabulous book festivals. And then here in New York, I attended my first one at the age of 21. I went and, you know, went on over to Brooklyn and attended that, that festival, and it just blew my mind and it got me thinking, like, why don't I have something like this in my home borough? And so that was sort of me doing research over the years to figure out how can I make a wonderful dynamic festival in the Bronx and bring authors here?

And so what most folks don't know is the Bronx is largely self-published authors. And so I wanted to sort of tap into the publishing industry and say, like, "Hey, let's bring some traditionally published authors here to the Bronx," like, you know, we have them touring everywhere else in New York, you know, but they kind of just hop over the Bronx. You know, though, they'll go and like do events in Westchester or Connecticut, but kind of skip over us on their way, going up north. And so it's just been so fabulous. We just celebrated our fourth year this past June, and in 2022 it's we're going to have our fifth annual festival, which is I'm so happy about. I can't believe that I'll be, you know, planning the fifth year, but it's been phenomenal to to host wonderful writers who actually have been from the, either lived in the Bronx, gone to school in the Bronx, or worked in the Bronx.

Saraciea: Like, you know, Miss Sonia Manzano and the U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. And it's just been phenomenal. We posted Jason Reynolds and like the list goes on and on and on, but it's been such a treat to show my community that like, OK, we may feel like publishing has neglected us, but at least we have this wonderful event where now traditionally published writers who have toured all around us are finally coming to visit and hang with us in the borough. And, you know, a lot of publishing houses have really gotten involved and participated in the festival and have been sending authors our way. So I think it's just growing very, very nicely. I'm super excited about it. I'm so happy to do things like this for the community. It's also really important to me that young people especially see themselves reflected in the writers that come into the borough. So our lineup is always very diverse, and I feel like so many people are now like, "Oh, I want to work in publishing" or I want, you know, "I want to write a book," or "I want to be an illustrator." And it's so great to see that again. I feel like it's just sparked something within the community, and my new tagline for the festival has been "Join the Literary Revolution." And so I feel like it's going to continue on, and we'll just grow from here.

Mignon: Nice. And if I'm a person who's thinking about going to a book festival for the first time, what ... give me a quick snapshot of what my day might be like at that festival?

Saraciea: Oh man. So you definitely want to come with a tote bag because you're going to be collecting books. So the fun thing is you get to shop books, you get to get free swag, and you get to listen, sit in on panels and listen to wonderful writers talk about their books. And so you might be listening to a fan favorite of yours and then you might discover a new voice. And some people will come have, like, a signing line and you can go up to them and meet them. They'll answer your questions. Of course, time permitting, most panels last about 45 minutes. Sometimes they go over to an hour, but I would definitely say bring a tote bag, an empty one, so that you can fill it with books. Definitely come with questions for all of the panelists. Be prepared to have a water bottle with you because you're definitely going to be thirsty. And at most book festivals, there's usually a little pop up tents for food and, like, desserts and things like that, so definitely have funds for you to nab on stuff. If you're short on funds, you can bring bring your lunch with you and just camp out. It's just so great to, like, be around bookish people, so I feel like you'll definitely network and connect with people. I always feel like when I go to these events, I'm like, I don't know anyone. But then by the end of the day, I'm like, I've just been following these three people and we, we sort of like hopped around to the same panels. And so now we're friends.

Mignon: Sounds great. So the last thing that I wanted to talk about that also sounds really interesting that you're doing is is you're planning a crowdfunding project to get a bookstore into the Bronx. So tell me how that's going to work.

Saraciea: Yes, yes. So I'm sure many people have read that the Bronx doesn't have many bookstores, and we've, you know, we have the wonderful Lit Bar, which has been doing amazing work, and they're sort of like a general interest bookstore. So the difference with mine is it's mostly going to be geared towards children. So I'm really excited to have a children's in-general interest bookstore coming to the Bronx. It's going to be a little experiential. You think like lots of artwork. Really fun. We want your kids to come and hang out in the space. I'm just super excited about it. Of course, crowdfunding is very nerve wracking, but the community actually helped crowdfund the Bronx Book Festival, and so I know that they will show up, and that they will help bring this project to life. I am hoping that we'll be able to open something in 2022. Maybe 2023, depending on how the world goes, we all know COVID has been very interesting over the last year and a half at this point, so fingers crossed we'll see. But I'm so excited to welcome another children's bookstore into New York City.

Mignon: That's fabulous. So, so many interesting things going on. But I want to make sure as we wrap up that people remember the thing that's happening now, in November, is that your book is coming out. It's called "Wild Tongues Can't Be Tamed" and thank you so much for being here with us today. Where's the best place for people to find you online if they want more information besides my show notes?

Saraciea Of course, you can find me online across platforms at SJFennell. So that's f-e-n-n-e-l-l. I'm on Instagram, Twitter, and the new fun favorite TikTok. And I am on Facebook as well, but I don't really post there too much, but you can go ahead and follow me there as well. And if you're not on any social media, but you would like to drop me a line, you can always visit my website, sereciafennell.com, and I do check my messages and I just wanted to quickly say thank you so much for having me on the show. I've been a big fan. I also subscribe to the newsletter, so this has been a real treat for me.

Mignon: Thank you. It's been so nice to meet you, Saraciea. Thanks for being on. I'll make sure that I follow you. I'm already following you actually online, but not every single one of those places. I'm going to go find you on TikTok, and that's all. Thanks so much for being here.

Saraciea Of course. Take care. Bye.

Mignon: I’m Mignon Fogarty, better known as Grammar Girl. You can find transcript of this interview at my website, QuickAndDirtyTips.com.

I'll be back next week with a regular show, tentatively about words from World War II in honor of Veteran's Day in the United States.

Thanks to my audio engineer, Nathan Semes, and my editor, Adam Cecil. Our operations and editorial manager is Michelle Margulis, and our assistant manager is Emily Miller. Our marketing and publicity assistant is Davina Tomlin. 

That’s all. Thanks for listening.

AUTHORS MENTIONED INCLUDE Elizabeth Acevedo, Meg Medina, Janel Martinez, Lilliam Rivera, Mark Oshiro, Ibi Zoboi, and Kahlil Haywood.