Vanessa Mártir is an emerging writer fresh from Tin House’s winter workshop, where she spent time with Dorothy Allison and Lacy Johnson to shape her two memoirs.
In this interview — just as in her writing — Vanessa is candid about being unmothered and about her journey toward healing following her brother’s death from heart and liver failure after a 15-year struggle with heroin addiction. As she says, “I had to let grief kill me a little bit so it could give me life. I’m a woman on a journey, with a mission, and I am unstoppable.”
On Twitter, your handle is @Vanessa_LaLoba, “Vanessa The Wolf.” What does the wolf symbolize for you?
The wolf came to me in a dream as I was reading Clarissa Pinkola Estés’ Women Who Run With the Wolves. I felt personally connected to the wolf’s wild nature and the fact that they’ve been maligned and misunderstood for so long — nearly killed to extinction in the US. I remember watching a video, How Wolves Change Rivers, where the narrator says: “We all know that wolves kill various species of animals. Perhaps we’re slightly less aware that they give life to many others. The wolves, small in number, transformed not just the ecosystem of Yellowstone National Park, this huge area of land, but also its physical geography.”
In short, the wolves brought equilibrium back to the environment. The wolves ate the deer who, in turn, changed their behavior; the deer started avoiding parts of the park, so there are now less of them to feed on the willows…and thus there are more beaver colonies, thus the rivers and streams and the fish and animals that live in and around them are affected and so on. How is this connected to me as a woman? I think Dr. Estés said it best:
Healthy wolves and healthy women share certain psychic characteristics: keen sensing, playful spirit, and a heightened capacity for devotion. Wolves and women are relational by nature, inquiring, possessed of great endurance and strength.
Yet both have been hounded, harassed, and falsely imputed to be devouring and devious, overly aggressive, of less value than those who are their detractors. They have been the targets of those who would clean up the wilds as well as the wildish environment of the psyche, extincting the instinctual, and leaving no trace of it behind. The predation of wolves and women by those who misunderstand them is strikingly similar.
–Women Who Run With the Wolves
I have never been the “do as you’re told” kind of woman. I was never the “do as you’re told” girl. It’s why my mom told a friend a few years ago: “Vanessa was always big. Even when she was little, she was big.” She tried to beat that rebelliousness out of me. It didn’t work. At thirteen, I left everything I knew and loved to go to boarding school in Wellesley, Massachusetts. I’ve been on my own ever since. I was basically saving my own life.
This rebelliousness is probably the reason I was fired from so many corporate jobs in my 20s. It’s why so many of my relationships with men didn’t work out. And it’s probably why so many people have called me wild, atrevida, told me to calm down, relax, that I’m too loud and too boisterous and too this and too that. I am changing and evolving as I heal and dig into my joys and traumas, but I don’t see this wild side of me changing. This is the connection I have with wolves.
I think about what could happen to this world if we would stop trying to hamper women — their abilities and their voices. I think about what reintroducing wolves to Yellowstone did to the environs and how that is easily a metaphor for women and what can happen to the world if we embrace our wild nature.
You attended the winter Tin House nonfiction workshop. What has the experience meant to you?
Vanessa is writing an essay every week in 2016. Read the Relentless Files.
I wrote two blog essays about the experience for my Relentless Files essay series. I will say this: I want Dorothy Allison to be my grandma. Lacy Johnson (author of the memoir The Other Side) is phenomenal. She helped me face something huge in my work: that the memoirs I’m working on are about being unmothered.
She also showed me that a memoir must answer a question. It doesn’t matter if it’s answered. The quest for the answer is the journey that drives the memoir. The question I’m trying to answer in my work is: How do I live without my mother?
(Lacy Johnson) helped me face something huge in my work: that the memoirs I’m working on are about being unmothered. She also showed me that a memoir must answer a question. It doesn’t matter if it’s answered. The quest for the answer is the journey that drives the memoir. The question I’m trying to answer in my work is: how do I live without my mother?
As you can imagine, I’ve been reeling a bit since the workshop. I’ve returned to therapy to help me along the journey and now feel ready to go back into the book with that in mind. I’m no longer sure of many things but what I am sure about is pretty profound — I know why I’m writing this book and I know the question I’m attempting to answer, and that’s HUGE! I’m remembering my mentors David Mura and friend Junot Diaz who both told me that you have to become the writer who can finish the book. I finally think I’m that writer.
On your About page, you mention that the Ubuntu philosophy permeates your work. What is it about Ubuntu that speaks to you?
I learned about this philosophy from my mentor and friend Chris Abani. In his TED talk “On Humanity” he says: “Ubuntu comes out of a philosophy that says, the only way for me to be human is for you to reflect my humanity back at me. There is no way for us to be human without other people.”
During her talk about writing about your life, Dorothy Allison said: “I am a ruthless motherfucker. I steal from the people I love.” She also insisted that you have to be just as ruthless with yourself. People who write about their lives run the risk of martyring themselves and not really looking at themselves, their faults, and their rot, in the same mirror they hold up to the world. This is what I think about when I think about the Ubuntu philosophy. I think that I too am flawed and beautiful, like the rest of the world. I keep that in mind when I’m writing about the people I love or have loved, and those who have hurt me. I especially think about this when I write about my mother.
It’s in the writing that I was able to finally see her as a woman who has suffered in unimaginable ways, and it’s this suffering that made her bitter and cruel and unable to love me. There have been times in my life when I’ve also let my pain harden me. I can’t see that in my mother (or anyone, for that matter) without seeing that in myself…thus, Ubuntu.
Which writers have had the greatest influence on you as a writer?
Vanessa’s literary influences:
- Chris Abani
- Elmaz Abinader
- Staceyann Chin
- Junot Diaz
- Mat Johnson
- David Mura
- Dr. Clarissa Estés
- Audre Lorde
- bell hooks
- Esmeralda Santiago
- Edwidge Danticat
- Patricia Smith
- Lidia Yuknavitch
I’m a voracious reader. In my junior year of boarding school, one of my professors gave me How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents by Julia Alvarez. It was the first time I’d read anything by someone who looked like me and whose characters I could connect with on another level. They too spoke Spanish and struggled with their identities as Latinas/brown girls in the white world of boarding school. This book put me on the path to becoming a writer, because for the first time I thought, “Hey, maybe I can be a writer too.”
You write thoughtfully of poverty, addiction, abuse, and the toll these forces have taken on you and your family — topics that many people would choose to attempt to forget. Why do you write?
I wrote a short essay for the March/April 2015 edition of Poets & Writers in which I cover why I write:
I write to take back my power. Every time I write, I take back my power in small and large ways, and I give voice to that little girl I was who felt unloved and unworthy. Every time I write, I am reminded that I matter and my stories matter. I can push back on those people that told me that my writing wasn’t writing, that my voice didn’t matter, because I’m a woman of color who grew up in poverty in Bushwick, Brooklyn when it was a pile of rubble. I can push back on those who looked down on my brother because of his addiction and his pain. Through writing I can show them that the addicts people give a wide berth to are human beings who have been through something so devastating, they turned to drugs to numb themselves and escape.
It’s why I return to the page over and over. We’re made to feel powerless in so many ways. The page reminds me that there are ways I can fight back. There are ways I can make myself heard. Writing is my way.
—Shaken baby syndrome by Vanessa Mártir
You lost your brother, Juan Carlos, to addiction. What have your learned from grief?
I’ve learned so very much, some of which I’m still unpacking and will probably be unpacking for a very long time. I’ve learned that most people don’t know how to deal with grief or the grieving. I’ve learned that this country has no rituals around death and grief and that’s a huge problem. I’ve learned that grief can be devastatingly isolating.
In her essay “Heroin/e,” Cheryl Strayed writes: “It is perhaps the greatest misperception of the death of a loved one: that it will end there, that death itself will be the largest blow. No one told me that in the wake of that grief other grief’s would ensue.” My brother’s death sent me reeling into a darkness I’m still climbing out of. I didn’t know that that grief would uncover numerous griefs that I’d been carrying for my entire life, especially the grief of being unmothered. That mother wound has permeated every relationship I’ve had. It was my brother’s death that made me realize I had to heal or I would be haunted by this for the rest of my life. I’m currently on that journey…
Grief can teach you so much, but you have to let it. I pulled up a chair and sat in my grief. I knew that it had the ability to destroy me and I couldn’t allow that. I had a daughter to raise and this life to live. This life that I’ve created for myself, which isn’t without its flaws but is still quite beautiful and fulfilling. In order to see that though, I had to let grief kill me a little bit so it could give me life. I’m a new woman now as a result. I’m a woman on a journey, with a mission, and I am unstoppable.