April 7, 2021 |

Our Conversation with Yohanca Delgado

pacific ocean

Yohanca Delgado holds an MFA in Creative Writing from American University, where she teaches undergraduate writing. She is an assistant fiction editor at Barrelhouse, and has been published in The Paris Review, One Story, and A Public Space, among other places. Her story “The Niece” appears in Story’s Spring 2019 issue.

INTERVIEWER

How did you begin writing?

YOHANCA DELGADO

I always struggle with that question. For me, writing is thinking, and I feel like I’ve been writing for as long as I’ve existed. But I only started writing fiction and creative nonfiction in 2015 and 2016. A switch flipped. I realized, Oh no, I haven’t been doing this and I really need to have been doing it. I felt so sure and also so upset that I hadn’t been doing it all along.

I was doing it all along in other ways, though. I was always writing excessive emails to people and finding jobs that allowed me to write. I just hadn’t found the right outlet for it. I didn’t know what I was looking for. Then suddenly the channel made itself clear to me, and I thought, “I’m late, but I’m going to do it.”

INTERVIEWER

Do you find that this feeling of lateness influences your work at all?

DELGADO

Oh, yeah. As a personality trait, I am very preoccupied with time. It’s not necessarily about being late in terms of age because you only get smarter with time, you only learn more. So I don’t worry as much about that, though of course there’s ageism in the industry. The lateness is about feeling that I should have started sooner. There’s so much to learn, and so much to read, and so much to write. I do feel that it makes my practice of writing more intense. I think about writing all the time. I want to do it all the time.

INTERVIEWER

You wrote a piece in The Believer called “Me Against the World” about how Tupac Shakur influenced your work. You wrote, “Telling my family about Tupac and translating into Spanish his significance, his talent—that was my first experience of storytelling, of mythmaking.” I love that. Can you tell me a bit more about this process of mythmaking and what that word means to you?

DELGADO

That’s a great question, and thank you. I think a lot of my writing is preoccupied with the idea of mythmaking. Several pieces of my fiction have been referred to, somewhere along the line, as a fable or a myth. I don’t know what it is about my writing that gets labeled that way, but I know that in terms of my sensibility and what I’m doing on the backend, I do have a preoccupation with finding origin stories and examining patterns of early storymaking. Lately, because I’ve been trying to write a novel, I’ve been thinking a lot about story structure. I’m interested in stories that call back to much, much older stories. I wrote a story about a ciguapa, for example, because I went looking specifically at a Dominican myth. I wanted to engage somehow with origin stories.

INTERVIEWER

That makes a lot of sense. Your work carries modern relevance to it, but also the weightiness and beauty of something older and ancient. A lot of your stories have a sense of otherworldliness, where the unreal becomes real. In the ciguapa story, your main character truly takes on a mythical form. What we think is impossible suddenly becomes possible. Can you tell me about the process of creating stories where you suspend or challenge the reader’s beliefs?

DELGADO

There’s two layers to that. On the writing end, there’s a decision to be made about how far into the fantastical and fabulous you’re going to go. I have to make that decision somewhere in the process, and figure out what question I’m trying to ask in the story or what I’m trying to achieve. From there, I figure out how to get the reader to buy into it.

Those two things happen at different stages in the writing process for me because I have to sell it to myself first, and then I have to figure it out on a craft level. If I’m going to bring the reader into this world that she doesn’t know, what can I do to make her feel comfortable there?

That is it’s own architecture and it’s own work. But in terms of deciding how fantastical something is going to be? I have stories that have no magic in them at all, like “The Niece.” (Story #4, spring 2019) That just felt natural to the story. I could see a scenario, though, where I write another version of that story and add surreal elements to it. It sounds cool to me. You’re never done.

INTERVIEWER

How do you come by your ideas, especially if, like you mentioned when talking about lateness, you’re thinking about writing so often?

DELGADO

There’s tension with feeling like I need to write all the time, and need to write good work consistently, and lots of it. Psychologically that pressure can be really hard. It can be hard to keep writing and catch up with your vision for yourself. I’m not naturally a particularly prolific or fast writer, either. It’s sort of a ridiculous quixotic quest, because there are only so many hours in the day, and there are only so many stories you can write.

One thing I’m very religious about is writing down ideas. It doesn’t have to be a story yet; it could be a story element. For example, I might know that I want to have a story with a rat in it. I will always be sure to write that down. I don’t devote a lot of time to looking at those things again. But I find that I keep writing the same things down, and they combine in my subconscious and help me generate new stories.

INTERVIEWER

I just realized the other day that I do something similar. Certain lines of dialogue or images keep coming up over and over in my free writing, and that’s how I know that something important is there.

DELGADO

Exactly. And if you do your brain the favor of always writing that stuff down, even if you don’t return to it, your brain knows that you’re receiving it. It makes for a friendlier relationship with your subconscious.

INTERVIEWER

It gives your brain the time that it needs. In “The Niece,” timing is one of the main tensions that the main character experiences. He wants to go back in time, and yet feels ashamed of that desire. I was really struck by how your other characters respond to time and how they resist what burdens them. In your story about the cigaupa, the main character escapes to the forest in order to find her community.

In “The Blue Room,” Amada disappears into the hotel room to hide from her dangerous ex. In “The Niece,” Emely lives away from her husband and disappears from his sight as a way of taking control over their complicated past. Can you tell me a little bit about that connection between disappearance and invisibility as a form of resistance, if you see it there?

DELGADO

These female characters are given a story of their life. This is true of Emely, and the ciguapa, and my story from The Paris Review, “The Little Widow from the Capital.” These women are given a certain narrative, and this narrative is a cage in which they have to exist. I like to write strong women who hear these narratives and think, “No, I’m not going to do that.” It can work out in different ways. For the ciguapa it goes well, but for Amada in “The Blue Room” (Nightmare, co-written with Claire Wrenwood), it’s just jumping from one bad situation into another. Ultimately, though, her goal is to extricate herself from this cage of a narrative that is oppressive and holding her back from living her life. I’m interested in that. I’m not super invested in invisibility as a form of resistance because I don’t want any of these women to disappear. My thinking is just that if the narrative doesn’t serve them, they don’t have to stay in it.

INTERVIEWER

You wonderfully write strong women, especially as main characters and narrators, which is important and natural because strong women exist in the world. I notice that “The Niece” has a male main character, which is really interesting. Is there anything that initiated this shift in narrators or main characters?

DELGADO

I wasn’t thinking that I needed to represent men more. That’s not interesting to me at all. But I wanted to write a character that would pose a challenge for me. I wanted to take somebody that no one would feel sympathy for, and then try to find a way to be that character enough that a reader might understand him — which meant that I had to try to understand a character like that. It was really important to me that the character make a significant change or experience a significant transformation, and that’s what I set out to do in that story.

INTERVIEWER

What was it like to empathize with that kind of character? What was your process like?

DELGADO

It took at least a full year to get it right. I had conversations with Michael Nye about this story. He saw a draft of it that ended differently. This is what amazing editing can do for you. When you have a magazine editor who really wants the story to succeed and sees something good in it, but is able to see that it hasn’t become itself yet, it’s a really lovely process to be a part of. He read it and noticed that something wasn’t quite right.

What it really took was for me to cross over from a sensationalist position — “look at this creepy old man” — and confront why I was writing this story. I had to confront that I was doing it because in terms of emotional storytelling, I had set a challenge for myself. It became about facing that head on: how can I be this character in a way that allows me to write a convincing emotional transformation for him?

INTERVIEWER

It truly does feel like that. The details that you provide are so matter of fact and so insightful. You mentioned that stories can take years to really embody and to get to the heart of them, and now you’re working on a novel. How do you find that process to be different or similar?

DELGADO

It’s terrible, Sarah! [ Laughs ] I don’t recommend it. Obviously, I’m joking, but I do think it’s a difficult transition in terms of the form. You go from choosing your details very carefully and being super concise to being more meandering. You want a short story to be like an arrow, going from point A to point B in the fastest, most emotionally impactful way possible. With a novel, there’s a lot more description and plotlines. It is a slow roll for me. I’m working on it, but it’s hard and different.

INTERVIEWER

What inspired you to make that shift and start writing a novel?

DELGADO

I’m trying different genres. I’m also exploring screenwriting. I don’t think I’ll ever send out a poem, but I’m interested in writing poetry. This is part of that intensity I mentioned earlier, feeling like I have to try everything yesterday. I just want to be sure that I’m not turned off by something because it’s challenging, so I give it a real college try and then decide. I want to write a full novel to see if I can do it, and figure out if it’s a form I feel at home in. It’s like running a marathon to see if I can. I don’t know if I’ll be a super-marathoner or anything, but I’m just seeing if I can survive it.

INTERVIEWER

I love that. If you don’t mind me asking, what is the novel about? Though I understand if you can’t delve into it too much!

DELGADO

[ Laughs ] It does feel very vulnerable. I have multiple novel ideas and things that I’m thinking about expanding into novels. One of them is the ciguapa’s short story. I’m thinking of writing a novel that’s set in that space. Possibly with the same main character as a narrator. She’s such a voicey, fun character to write.

I feel like most short stories could be novels, if you really sat with them. I feel that way about mine. I feel like I could really engage with Samanta from “The Rat” (One Story, Issue #270) and have a lot of fun writing about her. But the ciguapa story carries so much that matters to me in terms of Caribbean history and monster theory, which I’m really interested in. So many things exist in the world of that story that make me feel like it can really grow.

INTERVIEWER

Oh, I’m not familiar with monster theory. Can you tell me a bit more about that?

DELGADO

It’s fascinating. I’m also a novice in this field, but I’ve been learning that in the United States, monster theory is taught as a subgenre of American studies. It’s the study of the cultural and sociological imaginative forces that create our monsters. Essentially, what we’re afraid of shapes the monsters we create and consume in pop culture. I’m really interested in learning more.

INTERVIEWER

When you were writing the ciguapa piece, did you already know about monster theory?

DELGADO

I didn’t! There’s this wonderful writer, Chloe N. Clark, who teaches an online class called Monster Theory, and I happened to hear about it from a friend. I signed up for it and realized that there was so much to learn and think about in that context. I already had the ciguapa story… but what if? What if I wrote more? It inspired me to think more about the ways in which the ciguapa ties into cultural and history. There’s so much richness there.

INTERVIEWER

It’s a myth, but the story becomes real over and over again. As you’ve been working on this novel recently, how has the coronavirus influenced your process or writing in any way?

DELGADO

In terms of my actual writing process, I’ve had to accept that no matter how much you want it, sometimes you can’t just force yourself to write a ton. You have to accept the limitations of your subconscious.

There’s so much collective stress and trauma. My whole family got COVID in April of 2020 and I thought it couldn’t get any worse than that. You toggle between really scary moments with your circle of friends and family and a pandemic. Thankfully my family was okay, but I’m very aware of the fact that many peoples’ families weren’t. It’s a lot of toggling between the personal distress of having a loved one with COVID and the broader headlines — half a million pandemic deaths, police brutality, skyrocketing hate crimes, children languishing in detention centers, the list goes on and on — there is so much collective grief that we have not been able to fully process. As a writer, you want to bear witness and be present in the world, and know what’s happening. That’s your instinct. But there’s also a part of your writer-self that just shrivels up and can’t really write when you’re inundating yourself with information that is deeply upsetting.

I think I have to make peace with that tension and learn how to hold it, and just give my subconscious the grace of just being willing to accept any ideas that come, always writing them down, always being attentive to them, and making space in the day for them. And making it clear to your inner-writer — the part of you that needs that space and time to write — to make space when you can and respect it when it’s just not coming.

Showing yourself grace is what it comes down to. I’ve had to learn that. I always tell myself that I need to try harder and do more, but sometimes that stress doesn’t produce good work.

INTERVIEWER

I’ve also been thinking a lot about giving grace to oneself and to the people in your life. Just like your experience empathizing with the main character in “The Niece,” have you been finding that this sense of grace shapes the kinds of characters that you write, or your insight into those characters?

DELGADO

It’s interesting that you bring up that parallel. I feel like a big part of my ethic as a writer is to feel the deepest possible empathy and love for the character that I’m writing. Otherwise, there’s no point. I’ve always strived to do that. I think in quarantine I had to do that for myself. You spend a lot of time alone. Suddenly you have all this time to be with your thoughts and they can’t all be productive hours.

INTERVIEWER

It can be good but scary.

DELGADO

Exactly. I’ve had to learn to extend some of the grace I strive to give my characters to myself as a writer.

INTERVIEWER

That’s beautiful. I’m very touched by that. It’s a hard thing to do.

DELGADO

I think we should all do it for ourselves. The world is hard enough.

INTERVIEWER

I think you’re right. So, what’s next for you, Yohanca?

DELGADO

I’m thrilled and grateful to be part of the new Wallace Stegner Fellows cohort. This opportunity to focus on my writing among such talented, motivated writers is a dream come true. I’ll be completing my short story collection and writing that novel!

 

Sarah Hume is a senior at Denison University, where she studies International Studies and Narrative Journalism. Read Yohanca’s story “The Niece” here, which first appeared in our spring 2019 issue. Photo courtesy of sswj; view more of their work on Flickr.