Johanny Vazquez Paz sat in her quiet classroom at Harold Washington College shortly after reading at the Miami Book Festival, where audience members, including Richard Blanco and Joyce Carol Oates, came to hear Paz read from her latest collection, “Ofrezco mi corazón como una diana,” or “I Offer My Heart As a Target” (Akashic Books, 2019). The book was chosen by Rigoberto Gonzalez as the 2018 National Poetry Series Paz Poetry Prize winner. This collection is part of Paz’s growing body of work, which includes four previous books.
Paz’s name may be familiar from her hosting of the Guild Complex’s Palabra Pura series, which featured Latino poets from across the country. She coedited the earlier anthology “Between the Heart and the Land / Entre el corazón y la tierra: Latina Poets in the Midwest.” We talked about the painful origins of her new award-winning book, ties to homeland, duende, artist Gamaliel Ramirez, and the powerful women who inspired her.
Please talk a little bit about how the book came together.
It’s a funny story. The book is not funny. It’s a depressing book. Last May, I remember it was at the end of the semester. I was in Facebook, and you know they have these advertisements, because they know what you like, and I saw this Paz Poetry Prize advertisement, and Paz is the last name of my mother. All Spanish-speaking countries use both last names.
Yes, you take your mother and your father’s surnames.
Exactly. Vazquez is my father’s last name, and Paz is my mother’s last name. That’s the name I was born with, because back home you use both last names, and that’s my writer’s name. Then I clicked to look at the information. I couldn’t believe there was this contest for writers who write in the United States that write in Spanish and live in the United States and this is for me! The name of the award is Paz because of Octavio Paz.
I used to joke and tell my friends, “I have a Mexican uncle named Octavio.” After awhile, they’d say “Octavio Paz is your uncle?!” No, because in Puerto Rico, supposedly all the Pazs are related. Vazquez is a common last name, but Paz? There are not that many, and they could be “de la Paz” but just Paz? There are not that many. So, I’m like, “Oh my god, I have to do that.” Fortunately, they allowed some poems that have been previously published in magazines or something like that, not in a book. I have to do this because the due date was in two weeks. I already had some poems. I didn’t have a manuscript. I got this big feeling that I had to do this, then I realized that the contest is not every year. It’s every other year, so I needed to do it this year because I didn’t want to wait. And to top it all off, I was going to Spain when the semester was over. So, that’s why so many of the poems are on things going on in recent years. The first poem is about the killing of the women of Juarez.
Yes. You wrote it to Elina Chauvet, creator of the Red Shoes (Zapatos Rojos) project.
Yes, she came to DePaul, and they invited me to an event with her. I started writing that poem, but never finished it. I had to deal with the shoes and she really inspired me, and I found a great ending for the poem. That event was about violence, sexual harassment, and things like that that have been going on—the topic of #MeToo, the violence against students in Parkland, and things like that. The event was supposed to be for survivors of violence. When I got the information with the list of participants, there were poets and women who were going to talk about their experiences. I thought, “I’m in the wrong group.”
Why is that?
I grew up in a house where there was a secret. I knew something was going on with my father, but I was always afraid to ask what happened because my mother would get sad and cry. My parents were divorced, but there was this big secret regarding my father. Then when I was eleven or twelve years old, there was a problem. I don’t know what happened. My aunt sat with us and said “After your mother went through all that with your father…” My mother looked at her and said, “They don’t know.” I’m the youngest of four daughters, so I was twelve years old. None of us knew. At that moment, I found out my father had mental health problems, and he tried to kill my mother when she was pregnant with me. He stabbed her like seven times in the stomach. My aunts said you were a miracle. The doctor said you were a miracle. The priest said you were a miracle. Everybody thinks you were a miracle because of how she was stabbed.
I survived! You know, they didn’t think either of us would survive, but my mother always wanted to keep that from everybody. In my previous book, you can tell certain things had to do with that, but up to this point, it’s hard for me to talk about that because my mother didn’t want anyone to know. She wanted us to be treated equal. She didn’t want people to be “Oh, that’s the daughter of the man who…” because it was in the news. Because of the secret, I looked through my mother’s things, and I found a newspaper clipping. He turned himself in to the police after he did that. She didn’t want us to have that cloud. When my son was little and he did something, I said, “Oh, that kid is crazy.” And she said, “Don’t say that!” because she was always afraid since my father was schizophrenic and supposedly it’s inherited, it could happen to one of us. So, the second poem “The Daughter of Violence” is the first poem where I talk about what happened.
That poem stood out aside from the book’s title “I Offer My Heart As a Target.” There’s all this wounding, whether it’s someone wounding another person or someone wounding themselves, and how do you carry that hurt and heal.
Exactly. I never thought of myself as a survivor or a victim. Then in the last few years, other things happened. The stories of sexual harassment, of the violence, of the killings, and I realized that’s me every time I see a story in the newspaper. I think “That could have been my mother…” It just sort of hit me in the face. I think that’s why some people don’t understand why when you’re sexually harassed you don’t say anything, and then twenty years later you’re talking about it. It’s hard to process and realize “Oh my god, I went through all those things, too.”
When I was reading about Bill Cosby, that happened to me once. A guy gave me a pill. Things like that, and I’ve been through sexual harassment so many times that you think this is normal. Men are like that. You just have to say no. All the times that I felt uncomfortable, all the times that I was a little girl in my Catholic school uniform. I walked by and men were masturbating in a car. It happened to me for a whole week once. I lived up on a hill and the school was on the same street, and it was a busy avenue, so how did I stop that? I had to get up an hour earlier and leave early. So many times. I was on a bus once when I was very young, and I felt something here [touches her shoulder] and then I turned and I had a penis there.
I’ve heard of that happening. Other women have told me similar stories. It’s shocking to think one, that happened, but two, if it happens and you have no place where you can tell that story, where do you put it? I think people bury it and put it away, then something brings it back.
For me, I realize. If I see a man sitting in a car, I cross the street still to this day. Those things don’t happen that much now. I guess that’s the good thing about getting older because it happened to me when I was young and in my Catholic school uniform. And with #MeToo, all those stories… Almost every job I’ve had, something has happened. So, I said I’m finally going to write about this. I wrote a bunch of new poems in two weeks. I always have poems that I never finish or I don’t like, and I worked and worked them. I kept telling my husband, “I don’t think I’m gonna make it.” Something inside of me said, “You have to do it.” You have to send this to the Paz because it has the last name that is my mother’s, but I don’t want to show that book to my mom.
Why is that?
I think she would not like that I told her story. In my previous book “Sagrada Familia,” it seems to me that we always pretended certain things. You always pretend to be a happy family or you pretend to have more money than what you have. You see, my mother was here with me until the other day, and just to go to Walgreens, she puts on makeup and dresses nice. Ma, in Chicago, nobody cares. Nobody looks at you, but in Puerto Rico, they do. In Puerto Rico, you can find people you know in different places, and she always wants to look presentable. She is from a big family with little sisters who all had husbands who were successful as attorneys, and things like that, and she felt bad because…
Of what happened?
That, and she didn’t have a husband, and the husband she had was loco. Because of that, my mother became a businesswoman, and financially, I could tell that we were doing better every year when I was growing up. When I was little, we got a repossessed home that she fixed. She bought a condominium. All by herself, she did that. Still, I think as someone from her time, that’s not good enough. What’s good enough is to say “I have a husband that is this and that…”
Yes, that was the expectation. Also, if you work hard for so long, relaxation probably doesn’t seem normal. You’re used to being presentable all the time, and presenting a certain way.
Yes. We have had so many bad things that have happened in the last few years. My husband was ill. We both had surgery in the same year, so there was the poem about the scar, and then the hurricane in Puerto Rico. My mother lost everything. She had to come to live with me. I had a sister who passed away in her thirties, a long time ago. When I won this, is it a reward after all the bad things? I didn’t know that the worst was gonna come after winning, which is when my older sister got cancer and passed away in May.
I’m sorry to hear that.
Yes. So, it’s even a bigger tragedy to my family. I don’t have anything to complain about in the sense that I’m alive. I’m fairly healthy. No one is one-hundred-percent healthy at this age. I have a job. I have a nice place. I have a husband, but I don’t know, my family is such a tragedy with all these deaths and the violence. I don’t know the whole story. I wish I could go to a doctor that could give me a file on my father. But my mother, it’s still hard for her to talk about it. My mother never talked bad about my father. We used to go and see him. My grandfather would pick us up. My grandfather on my father’s side wrote poetry. I write poetry because of my grandfather.
Who is your grandfather? Can we find his stuff?
No. I do have his poems, but no, no one famous. I didn’t like to go to those visits because it was boring. My father would hardly talk to us, but there was a poetry book and I grabbed it. He saw me reading. My grandfather said, “If you like that, you can take it.” I still have that book, and the author dedicated the book to my grandfather. That’s how everything started for me with poetry, but my mother wouldn’t go with us to visit our father. She never talked bad about him. I think she understood that he was ill. When he died, we went to the funeral, and I made her tell me a few things. But my older sister, the one who just passed away, she remembered things. You see, I don’t. I never lived with my father, not one day.
They say the baby of the family ends up having a different version of the family’s history than the oldest child.
Exactly, but my sister remembered that he would lock her in the house, all the windows and the doors. The neighbors would help her escape out of the house. To this day, my mother doesn’t want anyone to know about this, but I got to the point where I was thinking I’m not a real writer if I don’t write about this. I think I was ready for my mother to pass away to start talking about it, to not offend her. It really inspired me to write a lot of things about pain and abuse. The poem that’s the title of the book does that. Instead of making me feel good about myself being a miracle, it made me wonder why did you save me? I’m nothing special. Why? Then I liked to read Freud, and I think I went through the phase of trying to save men. You know, I would like the guy who was doing drugs or whatever, and try to save him as if I was trying to save my father.
You realize and dig a little deeper, and realize I’m trying to fix this thing that’s not my job to fix.
They say that sometimes you look for the father figure, and sometimes that father figure was someone with problems, because I couldn’t save my father. The second part of the book is about immigration. For me, it’s been very painful to move from my homeland and the people I love. The only thing about Chicago is you can write little sad poems because of the weather or whatever. That’s the one thing I’m grateful for about Chicago. All my books, I wrote them here.
It’s a good climate to write in because you don’t want to go outside and play. You want to have a nice hot cup of something to drink. You can wrap up in your big sweater at the desk and just write.
I know. That’s why I was saying that. Chicago, I like the cultural things. I went to school in Terre Haute, Indiana.
Chicago is so interesting because it still has all these neighborhoods. You describe Humboldt Park in one poem.
“The City That I Love.” In my first book, I have a Humboldt Park poem with the phrase “that we build ourselves an island” to feel like you belong.
You leave one island that’s always been home, and then how do you deal with that? It’s not emotional exile. It’s exile from a physical space.
What’s happening with Trump and all that… It truly makes us feel that they don’t want us here. With the hurricane, he said bad things about Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans. No matter what, no matter how much I study, how much I do. Are they always gonna look at me like that? Like I’m a second-class citizen. We don’t want you here. Lately, we feel as much, and I’m Puerto Rican. Imagine if I was Mexican. We’re building a wall because we don’t want you here.
When I think of stories of immigration in American literature, it’s a recurring theme that comes back again and again. It doesn’t matter if it’s a white ethnic group, black people during the Great Migration, Latino people from different countries and communities, or any other group, because Mexico is a part of the larger North American continent, and usually they are stories about people who move to change their condition. What is more human and American than that?
A lot of them are moving away from violence.
They’re not all Mexicans either. At the beginning of the year, my oldest sister got cancer for the third time. When she was young, her uterus was removed.
She had a hysterectomy.
Yes, and she had colon cancer, then pancreatic cancer. I spent the whole summer in Puerto Rico. I not only feel that my sister died, but Puerto Rico died for me too.
It’s a different place when your people are gone.
No, they’re still trying to recuperate from the hurricane. I got to see. I think that killed her. Pancreatic cancer is hard to survive, but I know the stories, and at least they last two or three years. Within months, she was a skeleton. It was horrible. I always thought when I retire, I’m gonna go back, but now I don’t know. Right now, I think it’s going to take me awhile. My other sister died in New York and it took me at least fifteen years to go to New York after she died. I used to feel like New York killed her.
Which says a lot. Is it the stress? The environment? What is it doing to people?
She had a stroke in her thirties.
That’s very young to die of a stroke.
Yes, she was not ill, and she was almost a vegetarian. She didn’t have any illnesses. All these stories…
When you sit down to write and put together a manuscript, you start to see what was on your mind at the time when you made it. Right? People see a book and the cover and say “That’s so wonderful. You have a book out.” They have no idea what went into this.
Exactly, this process of bringing pain out. Even your heart is a target.
You rip everything out and put it on paper. Here it is. I was thinking about the artwork from Gamaliel Ramirez on the cover. So much of his work looks like innards or something ripped from the body…
That’s another death that I went through because he was a good friend of ours. He was living in Puerto Rico. My husband and I would always go and see him. My husband and Gamaliel shared the same birthday, and they always celebrated together. He died the year before my sister on the same day. Can you believe that? And my sister died the day after her birthday, which is May 19. The previous year I was in Spain, and I told you I was going to Spain for a vacation when the semester was over. We were there, and we found out that he died.
That was recent.
That was last year. I’ve been worried. My mother is in her eighties. I was always worried that my mother was going to pass away soon, so I’ve been saying to my husband I have to go every Christmas thinking this might be the last Christmas that she would be here. It’s a big tragedy for my family because we lost the only sister in Puerto Rico who was taking care of my mother. My mother has been saying that she wants to die in her place. We had to take her out and bring her to the United States because now there is no one. My other sister lives in Tampa, and I live in Chicago. When someone young dies like that, you’re like when is my turn. That’s the first poem in the book.
Now, that you say that, you quote Lorca and Poe in the beginning of the book. It had me thinking about duende. Some don’t understand. They should read Lorca’s “In Search of Duende.” Can you talk about what duende is for you in this book?
Do you mean the muses?
When I think of duende, I always think of being close to the dark, grief and loss, but somehow wending a way through with a level of fervor, grace or style.
Since I started writing, I feel like my life was hanging by a thread because of my story. The writing helped me to express that. My family had a secret so that I’m close to the dark. A lot of friends of mine that are not writers ask “Why don’t you write happy poems?” I am a person who comes to work and is married, and the other is the poet, and the poet is always sad because she cannot be a poet twenty-four hours. I’m a part-time poet because I have to go home, cook and grade exams and papers. The poet telling me, “Stop doing that! Take care of me!” and I can’t because I could be really sleepy, because if I get the muse, I cannot even sleep.
The poet realizes that there is some victory in being able to tell the story.
Yes. For me, most of the poems are sad. When I read Rigoberto Gonzalez’s introduction, he was more positive than I thought someone who reads the book would be. There’s one part I couldn’t believe, read it.
“She has lived to tell her tale.”
Imagine I went to Catholic school. All this God and things they put in my head. And Rigoberto is telling me that I lived to tell the tale.
The joyous part is you get to tell some truth that people need to confront. It’s not just sad.
I don’t think so. Even at the end of the poem, I say it’s a miracle that we survived. Sometimes, in poetry, you are trying to find people that feel like you. I see young people every day probably who are hiding things because you don’t go around telling your problems to people. When you are young, you feel like your life is horrible. You’re very egocentric, but then you read something and you realize there are other people who feel more pain than me. What am I complaining about? We are the same on some level, on the emotional level. All the feelings we have. When you find a novel or a poem, you are connected. The first novel that I read when I was young was “Nada” by Carmen Laforet. All the families are messed up. In a way, it gives you hope. I started describing things and writing a novel in my head and thinking about how it’s better when you write sad stories. I’m always interested in people who are weird and different. Two normal people are boring for a story.
I’m also thinking it helps you build empathy. If you see someone is different from you, you want to understand them better.
That’s, for me, the problem with the world. Some people want other people to be like them. The same race, the same nationality, the same religious belief. If you believe in God, or The Creation, or like I like to call it, La Creación, the feminine, you have to believe that God wanted everyone to be different. Even if you’re brothers and sisters, you look different. I love when people are different from me.
If we were all the same, it would be so utterly boring.
I know. That’s why so many people are racist. “You speak another language…” That’s another thing that I suffer here. I think if I stay quiet, if I keep quiet, nobody can tell I’m Latina.
That’s another kind of passing, yes.
That’s what I’ve been through in the United States. When I came from Puerto Rico to Indiana University in Terre Haute, I opened my mouth, and I had the accent which was worse than the accent that I have now, plus I was in Indiana, they would look at me like I’m an alien. A lot of people couldn’t deal with it. If you want everybody to be like you, you’re not realizing that The Creation didn’t want that.
I keep thinking people should be better listeners. When I hear someone with a different accent than me, I want to pay attention so I understand them better. To turn off completely is unfortunate. It’s like someone who refuses to read a book because it’s not about them.
To this day, I don’t like to talk too much because of things that have happened to me.
Linguistically, people discriminate based on how you sound.
People think you’re not intelligent.
Even though you’re a college professor.
I know two languages. You only know one. Do you think that makes me smarter than you? They treated me like that. Like the doctor that talks to my husband and is taking care of me, instead of explaining things to me, he’s looking at my husband.
That’s paternalistic, like your husband is your caretaker.
Yeah. He grew up in Chicago, and you can tell English is his first language. You can tell people are surprised that I know certain things.
I was excited to see that there were women I wasn’t familiar with that you mentioned in the book—Angelamaría Dávila, Gloria Fuertes, and Vanessa Droz because they’re notable writers in Spanish-speaking cultures. Could you talk about these women?
Vanessa Droz is from Puerto Rico and she’s from what I know. Gloria Fuertes is one of the most famous poets from Spain. Last year, they had a big celebration of her in Spain. Throughout literature, women were kind of ignored. Now, they’ve been discovering some of them. Angelamaría Dávila was a poet from Puerto Rico. She died young. She was one of those performance poets. She was a black woman with big hair. All my generation of Puerto Rican poets, from the island, she’s better known in Puerto Rico, we love her. She liberated us. She had bad words in the poems. Poetry was mostly sonnets. She broke with a lot of that.
When I hear about poets from Puerto Rico, I always hear about Julia de Burgos, but they don’t talk about more contemporary poets. Or when I first heard about your work it was in the anthology “Between the Heart and the Land.” That’s a huge gap between de Burgos and that anthology.
Well, I’m surprised that you know Julia de Burgos even. Puerto Rico, we’re a colony. That’s the problem. Some Latin American countries, and some Spanish-speaking countries, think, “Oh, they’re U.S.A.” and then the U.S.A. thinks, “Oh, they’re Latinos or Hispanics.” Unless there’s some sort of course on Caribbean literature specifically, we’re not included. When I went to graduate school at UIC, there were two semesters of Latin American Literature. There were no Puerto Rican writers included. Most of the countries have an embassy or a consulate that promotes culture, we don’t have that.
What’s one thing that you want readers to glean from this book?
The biggest message that I have is about violence against women and abuse. The thing that has hurt the most with #MeToo and all the violence is that people still blame the woman. So many cases that I read, and you can read comments to the newspaper now. It tears me apart. Always blaming the woman, blaming someone, instead of asking what are we doing to our young people? Why are guns so easy for them? Why are people not getting help for mental health?
“I Offer My Heart As a Target”
By Johanny Vazquez Paz
Akashic Books, 96 pages
Tara Betts is the author of “Break the Habit” and “Arc & Hue.” Her interviews and features have appeared in publications such as Hello Giggles, Mosaic Magazine, NYLON, The Source, Sixty Inches from Center, and Poetry magazine. She also hosts author chats at the Seminary Co-Op bookstores in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood.