Tuesday, March 29, 2022
By: Bram Stoker
Published by: W. Trimble
Publication Date: February 2022
Reviewed By: Risah Salazar
Review Date: March 29, 2022
In his superior's stead, an unassuming young lawyer from London, Tom Harker, was summoned by a powerful and complicated client in the Carpathians. The principal, Peter Hawkins, unfortunately could not make the trip in the mountains due to old age and health reasons. But that wasn't a problem since Harker was more than happy to go. During his travels, whenever the name of his client, Count Draculitz, would surface, the townspeople's faces would dim, and three or more signs of the cross would follow. Since Harker's not a fan of superstition, this did not make him doubt his journey. Despite almost everyone telling him not to go or postpone his visit to a later date, on he went with nothing but business in mind.
Upon reaching the Carpathians and the Count's abode, to say that he has experienced unexplainable things would be an understatement. Even the Count's countenance, when they finally meet, gives him the creeps. But still, being a man of the law and science, he disregarded all of these and proceeded with the purpose of why he was there. On the outside, the Count is intimidating, and Harker could see why the townspeople would be afraid, but he's actually polite and hospitable. After several conversations, it was revealed to him that what should have been a short trip would be turned into a longer stay. Count Draculitz has a lot of reasons, and of course, after some reassurance that this has already been communicated with Hawkins, Harker obliged.
However, as days go by, aside from the Count's questionable routine and his castle's eerie atmosphere, Harker experienced more and more horrific mysteries that he could not put aside anymore. He took it upon himself to go on an exploration of the castle that would make him realize the Count's true nature. He is not only there for paperwork but definitely for something else. He looks for a way out but there doesn't seem to be any. His only means of communication to the outside world, he would later realize, is also being manipulated by the Count. What other unearthly things will he discover here? But more importantly, will Harker get out of this nightmare?
Powers of Darkness' storytelling has an eloquent style. However, there comes a time when its articulation and attention to detail becomes overpowering. The theatricality is much appreciated until the reader realizes that things are taking so long to unfold. It's easy to get lost in the paragraphs, because most of the time, it's just lengthy descriptions and nothing really is happening. What makes this book even longer is the constant repetition of facts that have already been established before. Harker's thoughts such as the Count being repulsive - he can feel something’s off, but he can’t exactly explain why, the Count's adamant obsession for power, the way the mysterious lady makes Harker feel - all of these and more have been repeated more than thrice.
This is only an adaptation so it's a bit unclear who is to blame for the long texts, but every account could be dramatically shortened; the repetitive thoughts should stop. There are some racist quips, but these things have been explained and context was provided in the foreword, which was also quite long. Somehow, it can be enjoyable to read when, or if, the reader gets the hang of it.
Quill says: Powers of Darkness is suspenseful, just like how a Dracula story should be. But it is also so much more - it's weirder, darker, and well, longer. If this sounds right up your alley, then you should definitely give this version a try.
FQ: I am a strong believer that covers, and titles, are the first point of entry and vital to entice your audience into the novel. I was intrigued by both your cover and title and wonder if you could share what inspired you to decide on both.
JORDAN: I also believe that a cover is important, along with the title. Like with most things related to Cartwheels In The Dark, the cover and title came to me out of the blue and I knew exactly what it needed to be.
FQ: I enjoyed the layers you developed for both Kallie and Amy. You caught my eye in your bio noting you worked in social services. How helpful was this to draw from in developing Kallie’s character, in particular?
JORDAN: I feel that every experience we have in life affects us in some way or another. I'm sure what I've picked up along the way in life, came into play when developing the characters. Kallie needed to go through some things in life, but also to know that there is an inner strength that gets us through the hard times. I wish everyone were able to know this in their soul.
FQ: Another question relating to your bio. Are you native to Maine or elsewhere? I ask because Kallie’s adult life has her living in Vienna, Virginia which is vastly different from the beautiful woods of Maine. (I live approximately 20 minutes from Vienna, VA.)
JORDAN: I am a lifelong resident of Maine. I was born here and have remained here, although in different locations. I wanted Kallie to live a different life in her adult years than she had known in Maine. Vienna, Virginia seemed to me like just the place she could go and work on that life she always wanted for herself.
FQ: Final question on your bio...what is your most memorable experience from your years working in property management?
JORDAN: I'd say my most memorable experience in my years of property management was being able to give a home to a family who had been homeless. There were many of them. To see the excitement and appreciation of something most of take for granted, made my job feel like something so much more than a paycheck. I am still in touch with some of these people who have done very well for themselves after being given a chance to start over.
FQ: Your characters are beautifully developed, and the dialogues are credible. There is notable color and uniqueness to each of them. If you had to select your favorite, who would it be and why?
JORDAN: I think Brandy is my favorite character because there's so much about her that we don't yet know. Her story in itself, I believe, needs to be told. Don't be surprised to see her story down the line.
FQ: Was there ever a time when you felt your pen slowing down? What is your formula to ramp the writing back up when this happens?
JORDAN: I can't honestly say I have ever known that feeling (yet) of my pen slowing down. The characters speak through my pen and sometimes I can't get the words on the paper fast enough. I do take a little break after writing the first rough draft to give my mind a break before the editing begins.
FQ: You captured my heart with your dedication to your Nana. I couldn’t help but sense a little bit of your Nana in Maddie’s character. Is this accurate?
JORDAN: Maddie's character is absolutely one hundred percent from my memories of my Nana. She was, and still is, my hero. Everything I know about reading/writing came from inspiration from her. I don't think she ever knew that but I do hope that she is able to see that now even though she has been gone since I was twelve years old. Her impact on me was huge and I am grateful.
FQ: I enjoyed the zingers of plot twists you infused in a few areas. Were these moments that wrote themselves or was it intentional?
JORDAN: The story just sort of writes itself. I have a basic idea to start and then it writes itself, it seems.
FQ: In line with my previous question, what is your process? Do you outline the entire body of work and then begin writing or do you open a blank screen and you’re off to the races and the writing simply takes you along with it?
JORDAN: I don't do outlines. I have a basic idea and nowhere in mind to start. My blank notebook and pen take me where the story needs to be. Once I start writing, I tend to have the mindset of whatever character I'm working on, and it just seems to take me where it needs to go.
FQ: I want to thank you again for your time today. You mentioned you are working on your next book. Are you able to give us a sneak preview?
JORDAN: The absolute rough draft of my next novel has been completed as of a few days ago. It will be months of editing, but the story is in place. I don't have a sneak peek ready but I can tell you that it is set in the depression/prohibition era and will focus on a character named August.
Monday, March 28, 2022
FQ: Can you describe your inspiration for the story behind Allie the Albino Squirrel?
McCOY: I hold Allie the Albino Squirrel (Allie) near and dear to my heart. I have worked as a children's ultrasound technologist for fourteen years. During this time, I've helped care for countless children, all of whom have their own story and have left their mark on my heart.
Allie is a representation of all the children I have helped care for throughout the years. Allie represents any child who feels different in any way. The child embarrassed by their glucose monitor, the beautiful girl with alopecia, the boy who can't play contact sports because of his kidney transplant...the list goes on.
I wanted to write a book that reminded ALL children that one quality does not define who we are. We are defined by all the qualities that live within our hearts. With that being said: parents, grandparents or whoever is reading Allie to a child, please take a moment to remind them what kind of “squirrel” they are.
It was also important to me that I make the main character, who was struggling with feeling different, white. I felt it allowed an opportunity for children to talk about inclusion and differences without exclusively placing the spotlight on a BIPOC character, as many books about diversity do.
FQ: You have previously written two books for adults. What prompted you to write a children’s book?
McCOY: I actually wrote Allie before I wrote Surviving McCoy and When Stars Align. However, being new to the publishing world, I wasn’t sure how to find an illustrator, so I decided to publish my other books first.
As I previously stated, I have many years of experience working with children and I have personally witnessed children going through many difficult situations. Early on in my medical career I knew that children held a special place in my heart and I wanted to find a way to give back to children in need. A portion of all proceeds from Allie will be donated to organizations who support children’s health and wellness as well as literacy. A few I have in mind are The Dragonfly Foundation and the Literacy Network of Greater Cincinnati. I’m still currently researching programs and plan on donating to as many as I possibly can.
FQ: Is the main character of Allie modeled after anyone in your real life?
McCOY: Going back to Question 1, no, Allie is not modeled off one person but is a representation of all the children I have helped care for throughout the years. Allie represents any child who feels different in any way. I truly believe everyone can relate to Allie in one way or another.
FQ: Some of the illustrations appear to include real photographs along with the drawings from your illustrator. What made you decide to go this route with the illustrations?
McCOY: Yes, some illustrations do include real photographs. From day one, I knew I wanted to incorporate real photographs in my book. Since Allie is a representation of children, I thought that using real life photos would help children connect to Allie, and make her seem more relatable.
FQ: What are your plans for authoring future books, and will they be for adults or children?
McCOY: I am in the process of rewriting and publishing When Stars Align through Atmosphere Press. We hope to have it released just in time for romance novel lovers to binge read this summer. However, after that, my main focus is going to be on children’s books.
Allie is the first of the Waverly Wood Series. Allie's friend, Bree, has her own story as well as a frog, Frederick, who hasn't been introduced yet. All characters have their own life lesson to share with children. Ghazal has already agreed to team up with me as my illustrator for these books. We have a wonderful relationship and I consider myself lucky to work with such a talented woman. Our goal is to provide fresh, whimsical illustrations.
I also have another children's book in the works, but I'm not ready to release those details just yet!
FQ: How did you come to the decision that your main character, Allie, would be a squirrel?
McCOY: The first home I bought was on a corner, up the street from a creek. Working in the hospital most days, I’d wake up before sunrise. Every morning when I’d look out my back window, it was like a scene from Snow White: deer grazing, squirrels, chipmunks. It seemed that my backyard was where all the wildlife would congregate.
One year, there was a family of albino squirrels that lived in our neighborhood. My oldest daughter, Ellie, was around seven years old at the time, and we’d keep an eye out for the albino squirrels. I began telling her tales of the albino squirrel family and one night, Allie was created.
FQ: The message behind the story of Allie is a critical one for children to learn. Is this something that you have personally dealt with in your life?
McCOY: I honestly believe that to some degree, everyone can relate to Allie. For me, it was my height. I’m very petite, a towering 4’8’’ tall. Growing up, it was far too easy to make comments about my size. “How’s the weather down there?” “Has anyone seen Emily” (when I’m standing right in front of them)? In grade school, I stopped growing. I was referred to our local children’s hospital where I was found to be healthy, just short. I was given the option of using growth hormones. Even though I was young, I remember being frustrated by this. No one asked me if I liked being short or not; everyone just assumed I wanted to be taller but I didn’t. I declined and I’m still 4’8’’.
I grew up being told I was loved the way I was inside and out. I want all children to feel that kind of self-love and empowerment when they read Allie.
FQ: Your biography states that you have worked as an ultrasound technologist for many years. What led you to begin authoring books?
McCOY: I have always been a writer at heart. I started writing poems in fourth grade. In high school I was a part of the Miami University writing team. I envisioned studying creative writing and working for a publishing firm. However, I had my first daughter at the age of nineteen, and I didn’t have time to be a starving artist, so I studied medical imaging instead. But that didn’t deter me from following my dreams.
During this time, I was a single parent and fortunate enough to have extremely supportive parents that allowed Ellie and I to live with them while I attended college. By 2009, I graduated college and Ellie and I were able to move out of my parent’s house. After Ellie would go to bed, I would spend hours writing what would eventually become my three published works.
After many years of sending query letter after query letter and no interest in my work, I decided to self-publish. In November 2017, I published a family dramedy, Surviving McCoy, that would go on to win a self-publishing book award. In 2018, I published the romance novel When Stars Align.
In 2019, I was able to attend the American Library Association Conference in Washington, D.C. to claim my award for Surviving McCoy. This award was the turning point in my career; it gave me the validation I had been seeking and I felt my work was finally being viewed as a "real author’s" work.
In March of 2021, Atmosphere Press picked up Allie the Albino Squirrel. Now, here we are a year later and Allie is making her debut in the world and I couldn't be more proud of her message.
FQ: How did you make the connection with your illustrator?
McCOY: I Instagram-stalked her! No, in all seriousness, Atmosphere Press gave me a list of very talented illustrators, but when I told Nick Courtright, CEO of Atmosphere Press, that I wanted an illustrator that would draw animals a little differently than what we’re used to seeing, he gave me Ghazal’s name.
So, naturally, I looked her up. Her Instagram account was very impressive and full of posts of drawings on top of photos. I had already determined that I wanted to do this for Allie and I knew instantly that I wanted to work with her. I told her I wanted a unique squirrel and she delivered. I love her take on the squirrel’s tails! I consider myself very lucky to work with her.
FQ: Do you foresee any future books with Allie as the main character?
McCOY: All the characters of Waverly Woods have their own message that are just as important as Allie’s. Before writing more Allie books, I want to focus on getting Frederick and Bree’s books published. With that being said, after their publications, I can definitely see myself writing more stories featuring Allie. I mean, really, what’s not to love about Allie?
Thank you so much for taking the time to interview me!
By: Karla Jordan
Publication Date: December 2021
Reviewed by: Diane Lunsford
Review Date: March 27, 2022
Karla Jordan’s debut novel, Cartwheels in the Dark, is entertaining and has a nice balance of surprise and credible dialogue throughout the read.
Kallie Douglas wasn’t always Kallie Douglas. Her given name was Kahlua Jansen and at the tender age of ten, her worst day would eventually become her best. Native to Somerfield, Maine, Kallie vowed the only way she would ever see that Godforsaken town ever again was the next day after never. She met her forever partner, Cam, in college and post-graduation, they married and settled into happily ever after in Vienna, Virginia.
Given her horrific beginnings with a set of alcoholic and abusive parents, it’s no wonder Kallie would become a renowned philanthropist in greater Washington D.C. where she focused her cause on providing for children in need. Cam was equally successful in the creation of what ultimately became a nationally recognized advertising agency. However, when Kallie receives the tragic news her beloved caretaker, Maddie Warren, recently succumbed to her battle with breast cancer, she realizes she must return to Somerfield to take care of her final affairs and estate.
During the flight to Maine, Kallie has plenty of time to think about that day so many years ago when Maddie Warren rescued her. Barely ten years old and Connie Jansen, Kallie’s biological mother, decided she had one too many children. Tossed on a park bench in the heart of the small town, Connie Jansen instructs Kallie not to move no matter what. The last thing Kallie remembers of her mother was to watch the family car grow smaller and smaller until it disappeared over the distant horizon. Kallie shook the thought from her mind as the flight attendant announced their imminent arrival to Maine. What Kallie couldn’t possibly know is she was about to embark on greater challenges beyond finalizing the affairs of her dearly departed Maddie Warren.
Congratulations to Karla Jordan for the release of her debut novel. There are a few nuggets of gold in the scenes she paints across the pages. One line that stands out for me in the early pages is: "...In the winter, icy air would dance around bare feet brave enough to land on the planks..." The author is referring to Kallie’s poor beginnings. This is a wonderful example of showing one’s audience versus telling them how to assess the environment they are in and the fact it doesn’t take a lot of words to paint an incredible scene in the reader’s mind is a credit to the author's skill. There are also a few twists and turns that capture the reader’s attention and will keep you guessing. However, I would caution Ms. Jordan to not get too wordy when setting up a scene. One scene that stands out where this occurred was when character Kallie meets Maine State Trooper Adam Wentworth. Their first encounter was on the freeway when Kallie pulled over to have a mini meltdown. Officer Wentworth did a wellness stop and later that evening, they run into each other again at the local diner. They end up sharing a table to have a burger and fries. The description of how incredibly great the burgers are covered nearly two full pages and the impact could have been made with far fewer words like the single sentence I referenced above. Overall, the story is engaging. However, I would also caution Ms. Jordan to have a more discerning editor’s eye. There are several grammatical errors, and the formatting is off (double-spaced and the font pitch appears large).
Quill says: Cartwheels in the Dark is a journey back in time full of unexpected outcomes.
For more information on Cartwheels in the Dark, please visit the author's website at: www.karlajordan-author.com
Sunday, March 27, 2022
FQ: First of all, congratulations on your debut novel that is both groundbreaking and entertaining. Aurilena is quite a vivid character, free-spirited and courageous. Can we expect to see more of her in any other upcoming novels?
BASTILLE: Thank you. She deserves most of the credit. She took over my head as I wrote. She did things I wasn’t expecting. I had a feel for her in my head, so of course her actions had to honor that, but that seemed to happen naturally.
I am planning a follow up to the novel tentatively titled Maoch’s Realm. Or maybe Journey to Gath. I haven’t decided which yet.
FQ: Aside from the ordinary reading for entertainment, what else do you hope readers take away from this novel?
BASTILLE: Many might argue we already live in a dystopian existence, maybe not as extreme as the one portrayed in MagicLand, but bad enough. The novel is designed to remind readers, especially younger readers, that humanity has experienced existential threats before and survived them. Can you imagine what World War 2 would have been like if covered by social media? The despair would have resulted in unbearable Twitter feeds.
I’m hoping I can help readers keep in mind that the reason that generation got through that awful period in history is that even so-called ordinary people are capable of extreme acts of heroism.
The bad people we see are a tiny sample of humans, most of whom are good. But the bad people walk with a very large footprint and can do incredible damage. At the end of the day, though, they are no match for the rest of us. I tried to convey that philosophy in MagicLand.
FQ: MagicLand: A Novel is certainly a pedal-to-the-metal novel that successfully blends in biotech, romance and magic. Did you have to do any research before writing this book to determine how the three features would fit in?
BASTILLE: Not really. But I’ve always been well versed in current events and history. I’m also well-grounded in previous works of the science fiction genre, especially older stuff. I confess to having not read a lot of 21st century science fiction, though.
Anyway, the genesis of the idea came to me after reading Ray Kurzweil’s The Singularity is Now in which he posits that humans will be bioengineered into a new species with deep augmentations. Two thoughts sprang to mind. One, what if some people don’t want that? What if, in fact, they turn the opposite way and embrace magic or some other form of spirituality, or both? Sort of the whole Luddite thing on steroids. And what if the magic they embraced became central to who they are?
Second was, one day I saw a supplement for anti-aging called NAD, which is said to have some demonstrably scientific evidence of being effective. I’d love to take it. But I can’t justify the monthly cost. If that is the case now, how much more will the augmentations Kurzweil speaks of cost? Who pays for these things? Obviously, the way our society is currently structured, only the wealthiest will be able to afford the real slick stuff. I foresee a lot of conflict if that happens. In MagicLand, the conflict doesn’t end well for the majority. They’re left behind, and then much worse.
FQ: What inspired you to give readers the personal history of Hilkiah, the High Priest in the prologue, and not any other character?
BASTILLE: I wanted to tell his childhood story but I honestly couldn’t think of a way to fit it in, but then the idea of putting it in the prolog as to how he learned the hard way not to try to control everything sort of came in a flash. And I thought of it as a nice way to grab the reader.
FQ: The story is written in the third person narrative and in a dystopian world. Was there a particular reason for your choice?
BASTILLE: I felt like third person was the best way to handle the romance angle on this. I wanted to give the two protagonists equal time, and I wanted the reader to be able to get inside both their heads. Especially because at the beginning, they’re on opposing sides and have a confrontational relationship.
FQ: Do you intend to continue writing books of this genre or will you consider exploring other genres as well?
BASTILLE: My next novel, Restive Souls, is quite different, although it does contain a lot of magical realism. It takes place in an alternative universe in which the British win the Revolutionary War and emancipate the slaves in 1778. So it, too, is speculative fiction, but a very different kind.
FQ: In the novel, was there any favorite section you enjoyed writing most?
BASTILLE: That one is easy. I won’t say too much because it’s a spoiler, but the climactic scene where Aurilena and Belex confront the villain was fun to write because I didn’t plan it at all. Aurilena took charge of that scene, and when it was over, I was like, what just happened? What the hell did she just do? That’s crazy. I definitely did not outline that. I also wasn’t expecting Belex to go after Sherealla when he saw her after Belex and Aurilena kissed. It was a surprise for me, and it became a turning point in the novel that I had to make adjustments for in my original plot lines.
Another favorite part of mine was a very minor scene where Belex adjusts a man’s eyeglasses and points out that the man, too, is augmented. I wasn’t expecting Belex to do that, which was why I liked it, I think.
FQ: The naming of places and people in the book is incredibly imaginative. What was the motivation behind the creativity?
BASTILLE: Thanks! I’ve always enjoyed coming up with creative names in my writing. Aurilena actually started out as Arilean, but I didn’t think readers would know how to pronounce it. And I liked Lena for short as something her friends and relatives could use.
A lot of the naming is intentionally Biblical. Gath was the name of the place Goliath came from in the Biblical David and Goliath story. Hilkiah was a high priest in the Old Testament who found a lost copy of the Book of the Law in King Solomon’s time. Maoch was a Gath king. Fans of the J.R.R. Tolkien books will recognize the name Moria, which was a great subterranean dwarf city responsible for the mining and production of a great and magical metal. MagicLand has a number of easter eggs. For example, one of the strata mentioned regarding the collective makes an obligatory ode to William Gibson’s Neuromancer. I won’t say what that is, because that defeats the fun of easter eggs.
And the name stoven.net, well, that was just silly. It was an allegory to how inaccurate information can become over time.
FQ: How were you able to determine the red herrings to give readers and at what point in the book?
BASTILLE: The red herrings were mostly accidental. When I write, the characters take over. Sometimes it seems as if I don’t even have any control over them, like when Belex adjusts the man’s eyeglasses. I’m just reporting on their activities. I wasn’t expecting their kiss to have so much significance. There were a few instances of these, “wait, I wasn’t expecting this to happen!” moments as I was writing. The discovery that the two make in the library was planned from the beginning, but that wasn’t really a red herring moment. Most of the surprises were as much a surprise to me as it will be to my readers.
FQ: I noticed the dialogues in the book were natural and deftly crafted. Did you at any point wrestle with how much concentration you gave to these dialogues while writing the plot?
BASTILLE: I think dialog is a very important element to any book. It needs to sound realistic. I didn’t want to try to imagine any kind of new dialect or word choice people 2,000 years from now might be using. Doing something like that would have just gotten in the way of the story.
History tells us that language will be very different than ours 2,000 years from now. So I decided to just mimic the kind of dialogue we use in our society today, without the F bombs. The narrative voice in MagicLand really operates as a translator when it comes to dialog. I purposely chose euphemisms you’d hear today, rather than try to get cute and make up my own.
As for what they were actually saying, it’s like plot twists for me. I don’t plan it out. What they say just sort of pours out of my fingertips as I write. I don’t give it much thought.
FQ: Have you traveled to or created/maintained any personal ties with Puerto Rico; if so, how does that affect your current thinking about the many issues you address in your poetic works?
RIVERA: While my older brother and I were born in NYC, and when I was age 6 moved to Los Angeles, I have always lived in a Puerto Rican atmosphere. As depicted in the memoir piece Z is for Zapatazo, my fondest memories since childhood were everyday things as well as frequent gatherings with our Puerto Rican extended family and friends. The food, music, dancing, passions, sometimes-hilarious Spanglish, the deep ethno-Catholic connections, and above all the stories of Puerto Rico – from my mom and stepdad, grandparents, uncles, aunts and friends who were born and grew up there – were thoroughly ingrained in me.
I have had three main visits to Puerto Rico that left lasting impact. One was a marvelous month long stay with the family during my middle school years. Another was a stay around the time my maternal grandmother was nearing her passing and I was working on a three-week study abroad course in Puerto Rico, followed by the course itself. Also, as part of my doctoral studies I did extensive work on the history of Christianity on the island with a focus on Pentecostalism in NYC and Puerto Rico. I worked with numerous denominations in both places, stayed with and interviewed Puerto Rican faith leaders – men and women – and came to see a side of my heritage that few know.
Finally, although Latin American countries have been plagued by the racism that are the legacy of colonial slavery and the casta system, growing up, my Puerto Rican interracial family was to me a beautiful thing. “Negrito” and “negrita” were terms of endearment. But I was shocked and hurt to discover that what was normal and beautiful in my family of a white mother, mestizo father, black stepfather and mixed-race siblings was taboo and hated in the U.S., and for some still is. This impacted my understanding of human relations, justice, social policy, and above all religion. For despite their much-vaunted claims of ultimate truth, when it comes to race, religions have had a mixed history at best. Many of my poems and prose pieces come directly from the difficulties but also the beauty of living in those spaces.
FQ: Does positing and writing about oppression and the ways it might be overthrown or reformed give you a sense of hope?
RIVERA: I’m an historian. Racial thinking, policies, and nativism are key themes in our history, as are denial and resistance that they are key themes in our history. Clearly the American saga is not just about its blunders and brutalities. There is good and lots of it. But one cannot ignore the near genocide of native populations, the trail of broken treaties, slavery, Jim Crow, and strawman versions of Critical Race Theory today. The Chinese Exclusion Act. WWII Japanese internment camps, with nothing remotely equivalent for Germans, even though we were fighting Nazi Germany, not just imperial Japan. Listen to the racism in the titles of these U.S. policies: The Greaser Act; Operation Wetback. Closer to our time, anti-Muslim hatred post-911, anti-immigrant nativism, racist anti-Asian scapegoating following COVID-19. Several Asian-American friends and colleagues told me they stopped going to get gasoline or groceries alone.
But I do foster hope, for without it, no one will find a reason to do anything. My poems like “Heaven is Other People,” “Sachem” and others indicate such messages of hope.
I know, for example, that had I been born just a few decades earlier in the U.S. than I was, the chances would have been slim that a brown Puerto Rican kid with not a single higher education or professional gene in the family line would go on to earn a Ph.D., be hired at a predominantly white university, rise to the rank of Associate Professor of History and then VP for DE&I.
I experienced my share of racial discrimination along the way, such as the time I was invited to a gathering and a tall white man put his hand on my shoulder, pushed down and said, “Bow to the superior race.” My first response was to laugh. It seemed ludicrous. What was this, Mississippi Burning? Had to be a joke. It wasn’t. Perhaps mine was an expression of flight mode, but it may have saved my life. He and others were the white friends of the white friend who had invited me, and it only then occurred to my friend that a world that was perfectly safe and normal for him was dangerous for those like me. He apologized for his ignorance and got me out of there.
Moreover, a faith-based, by far predominantly white university in the Midwest hired me despite the feelings of some that I was an affirmative action hire. While I experienced my share of frustrations and tears around diversity and more than once nearly quit, I must in fairness add that several white colleagues and friends supported me and stood up to be counted in those times when the air for persons of color became perilously thin in that community.
I hold on to hope. But as someone with long-lived personal and professional experience, I have no illusions that equality, justice and equity for historically devalued groups will be an ongoing struggle. Pretty much all the poems in Chapter 2: Duck and Cover reflect this, as well as in Chapter 3: Vatos, and a few others throughout the book.
FQ: What single piece of advice would you give to a person preparing to read your work with no previous knowledge of your poetic philosophy?
RIVERA: I advise my readers to be open to the fact that what I write in Z is for Zapatazo may not be about them or an America they have come to know and love, but it does encompass the reality of many. I hope they can see that while at times I may critique America (and certainly not all my poems in Z are about that), it is only because I too love it, and readily concede that most alternatives to the American experiment have not ended well.
But we must improve. I therefore reject the notion I’ve heard some on the far right say, that when children complete their public school education, they want them to believe that the worst day in the U.S. is better than the best day of any other country. Not only is this patently untrue, but such indoctrination will not create the results imagined.
Above all, I hope that I have written in compelling ways about compelling stories of real human experiences “in the spaces between what America says it is and what it is” and that we must none of us grow cynical or weary of contributing to “the grand, unfinished experiment.”
FQ: There are smatterings of and tributes to other poets and classical works throughout your collection – is there one poet or writer in particular who inspired your wish to create poetry?
RIVERA: I cannot think of one poet or writer that inspired my wish to create poetry. While I loved to read, my earliest poetical influences are musical, that is to say aural. If I had to mention one of the many musical influences that will surely date me, it would be the Beatles’ John Lennon. Junot Diaz said that growing up he wanted to be the Dominican H.R.R. Tolkien. Personally, I do not think of Tolkien when I read Junot Diaz. But he did win a Pulitzer. I suppose that’s some consolation. In terms of creative genius and a somewhat rebellious streak, I wanted to be the Puerto Rican John Lennon. You asked.
FQ: Do you envision the possibility of elimination of racial and other divides that you so aptly probe in your poetic works?
RIVERA: I do envision this and I will continue to address this theme in hopefully compelling ways that reach deep within our common humanity and the highest principles of what we claim to believe, politically, religiously, philosophically. For all the polarization currently ascendant in the U.S., and I have not seen it this polarized since the 1960s, things have gotten better since the days of chattel slavery and Jim Crow. How to eliminate racial and other divides is complex, not always obvious, nor the purview of one party or group. I find it almost funny, if it wasn’t so tragic, how often one group thinks that the way to bring polarized groups together is to listen only to them.
FQ: The prose piece about your stint as a vato is quite enthralling; have you considered a longer work based around that story, those characters?
RIVERA: Yes, I have. In fact, the reader may notice in “Vatos,” that near the beginning when Homeboy and I are violently accosted by two police officers, one of which punches me so hard in the face that I nearly pass out, I mention that “a thunderous bang in my ears, and adrenalin, I think, caused me to snap to and my legs were possessed with the speed force.” I also mention that when we ran and got away, the cops did not follow, which just does not happen. Question. What was the thunderous bang and why did the cops not follow? This makes for more story with these and other characters.
FQ: Is the core of your philosophy best elucidated in Heaven Is Other People?
As a long-time educator, I have come to realize a problem: we Christians can be very hard to reach for change. I’ll phrase the challenge this way: “I’ve found ‘the Truth, the Way, and the Life.’ What can you possibly show me now?”
One mistake is in thinking that because one believes they have found THE universal Truth that transcends all cultures (in this case, Jesus Christ), that we too, Christians, transcend those things. No. Getting “religion,” any religion, does not bless us with intercultural competency, nor inoculate us from prejudice or the psychological power of propaganda and conspiracy theories. What part of the U.S. or the world you were born and raised, what branch of faith you’re in, where you go for news and information, your age, gender, culture, ethnicity, education, socio-economic status, political party, are but a few of the factors that significantly impact the kind of Christian (or other religion) one becomes.
In short, it is impossible for anyone to only be a Christian (or other faith). Being a Christian may, in the Christian’s mind, be the most important thing about them. But it can never be the only thing about them. Take politics. As an historian I cannot think of a time in the history of what is now the U.S. when there weren’t Christians who so marry their Christianity to politics, that to critique one is to offend the other.
The poem “Heaven is Other People” is both a vision of heaven and a warning that many Christians who believe they’re going there, don’t really want what it’s going to be like – based on the global scope of God’s redemption constantly repeated throughout the Bible, as well as glimpses of a vastly multicultural, multilingual heaven in the Book of Revelation. Hence the poem’s refrain: “This will be hard.” For example, if you hate certain immigrants now, what makes you think you’ll love them then? Or has your faith become so narrow that you can’t imagine people different from you being there at all? I have news for you:
There will be no deportation
of undeserving immigrants,
In the Shalom Seminar I created for new employees of Bethel University where I worked for nearly 24 years, near the end I would say:
I cannot prove empirically a single Christian doctrine that I consider core to the faith. I cannot prove that Jesus was God, born of a virgin, that his death on the cross was an atonement for the sins of a world, that he rose from the dead. (Side note: yes, I’ve read the apologetic literature. I am an historian of Christianity, after all.) I cannot even prove empirically that there is a God at all. What I can do is prove that I believe these things, and the only way I can do that is by the good with which I treat others who are different from me. That is all of my religion the world can see.
FQ: Do you have plans for more writing of a similar nature?
Yes. I continue to write poetry with similar themes, though it is certainly not the only poetry I write. As mentioned earlier, in "Vatos," I have imbedded elements that almost beg expansion. Because of my historical background, I have also been doing research and taking notes for a novel set during European conquests of the Americas around the 17th century. I have much research for another novel set in the late 19th – early 20th centuries, when Western optimism for progress was so high that the motto of the great missionary conference at Edinburgh in 1910 was “To convert the world in this generation.” Just a few years later in 1914, the self-proclaimed advanced Christian nations were embroiled in mutually fratricidal war the likes of which the world had never seen. That is a saga worth telling in the form of historical fiction.