16 Puerto Rican Women and Non-Binary Writers Telling New Stories
Dr. Ivelisse Rodriguez, author of Love War Stories, on the writers who are changing the topography of Puerto Rican literature
I n 1916, Bernardo Vega boards a ship in San Juan, Puerto Rico to come to New York City — this journey, this life as a Puerto Rican in the pioneer phase of migration, where on average 2,000 Puerto Ricans were migrating to the continental U.S., is chronicled in the Memoirs of Bernardo Vega.
In 1993, Esmeralda Santiago published When I Was Puerto Rican, an endearing memoir about a young girl’s life in Puerto Rico and her eventual migration to the U.S. Between Vega and Santiago, there are other canonical Puerto Rican texts published — what connects them all are ideas of migration, identity, belonging, and facing racism in the continental U.S.
As of 2013, approximately 5 million Puerto Ricans reside in the mainland U.S. and these 16 non-binary and women writers are adding new narratives to the history of Puerto Rican writing. Their fiction, essays, and poetry focuses on blackness and slavery, queerness, the sexual and romantic lives of women, racial passing, and African-based religions, and so much more. These are the writers to watch to see how they change the topography of Puerto Rican literature.
15 Views of Miami by Jaquira Díaz
In the 1970s, Nicholasa Mohr captured Puerto Rican girlhood, and today the Southern Review has said “Jaquira Díaz illuminates the beauty and brutality of being a teenager.” She captures this in essays like “Girls, Monsters” about the awakening of sexual desire and the sexual threat all women experience and in “My Mother and Mercy” where Diaz recounts her estranged relationship with her mother and Mercy, her grandmother. She has also written about the Baby Lollipops murder case, belonging, and suicide. Diaz has been a fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing and the Kenyon Review. Her work appears in Rolling Stone, The Guardian, and The Los Angeles Review of Books, among other publications. Her memoir Ordinary Girls and a novel are forthcoming from Algonquin Books.
Lo Terciario / The Tertiary by Raquel Salas Rivera
Raquel Salas Rivera, the 2018–19 Poet Laureate of Philadelphia, is the writer of Caneca de anhelos turbios, oropel/tinsel,and tierra intermitente, along with five chapbooks. Their latest book, lo terciario/the tertiary, utilizes a “decolonial queer critique and reconsideration of Marx” to respond to the PROMESA bill (Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act) regarding the Puerto Rican debt crisis. Their poem “landscape of old san juan” illustrates another of Salas Rivera’s themes: colonialism. “In the center of your chest there is a treasure / if you move the flower pots you’ll find/ your enemy curled up like a snake / he is the gravedigger / that keeps throwing dirt / in the pan.”
Now We Will Be Happy by Amina Gautier
Dr. Amina Lolita Gautier is the winner of the 2018 PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in the Short Story. Dr. Gautier has published over 100 stories in literary journals and has three award-winning short story collections: At-Risk and The Loss of All Lost Things. The third book, Now We Will Be Happy, won the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Fiction and highlights the lives of Afro-Puerto Ricans, those born on the mainland, and those who migrate to the US. The stories in the book cross “boundaries of comfort, culture, language, race, and tradition in unexpected ways, these characters struggle valiantly and doggedly to reconcile their fantasies of happiness with the realities of their existence.”
Stay With Me by Sandra Rodriguez Barron
Sandra Rodriguez Barron is the award-winning author of The Heiress of Water, a Borders Original Voices selection. The novel is about Monica Winters Borrero, a physical therapist who was raised in El Salvador until the death of her mother. In order to aid a comatose patient, Monica returns to El Salvador in search of a therapeutic treatment her mother had been researching. There, Monica will confront the past and the difficult relationship she had with her mother. Her second novel, Stay with Me, is about the life-long relationship between five kids who were abandoned in Puerto Rico and who forged their own family.
Unfinished Portrait: Poems by Luivette Resto
Luivette Resto tackles issues of identity, womanhood, motherhood, and romance. “No sucios for me! / No sucios for me! / No sucios for me!” one of the girls in her poems implores. Resto is the author of two books of poetry, Unfinished Portrait, a finalist for the Paterson Poetry Prize, and Ascension. She is also a CantoMundo Fellow. While in her poetry she reaches back to connect with Puerto Rican poets like Julia de Burgos and Pedro Pietri and contends with similar themes, she approaches these timeless issues with a present-day eye so that “women find a sense of freedom to embrace all of the nuances and complexities of feminism and mujerismo.”
Women of Resistance: Poems for a New Feminism edited by Danielle Barnhart & Iris Mahan, featuring Denice Frohman
Denice Frohman’s work “focuses on identity, social change, disrupting notions of power, and celebrating the parts of ourselves deemed unworthy.” For example, in “A queer girl’s ode to the piraguero,” she writes, “Oh, Piraguero! My first lover. / The only man I ever wanted / anything from. I sprinted half blocks for you, got off / the bus two stops early, took the long way home / just to see: your rainbow umbrella.” Her poem “Dear Straight People” went viral with over 2 million views. She is one of the “Top 20 Emerging LGBT Leaders” according to the Philadelphia Gay Newspaper. She is also a CantoMundo Fellow, a Women of the World Poetry Slam Champion, and the recipient of many other accolades.
A Decent Woman by Eleanor Parker Sapia
Eleanor Parker Sapia is the author of the award-winning, historical novel A Decent Woman, which is set in the late 1800s in Ponce, Puerto Rico and tells the story of the life-long friendship between midwife Ana and her friend Serafina. A class and racial division opens up between Ana and Serafina when Serafina marries into the upper echelons of Ponce society, and Ana remains in their impoverished neighborhood. Ana’s livelihood is jeopardized by the changing view that women should deliver in hospitals rather than at home with a midwife. This novel captures Ponce in a time of great advancement and exposes how all these shifts affect the lives of women.
Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture edited by Roxane Gay, featuring Vanessa Mártir
Vanessa Mártir is an essayist who was most recently published in the New York Times bestseller Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture, edited by Roxane Gay, as well as in Bitch Magazine, Smokelong Quarterly, and the VONA/Voices Anthology Dismantle. Martír is the creator of the Writing Our Lives Workshop. She has written about growing up in Bushwick with two mothers in the 1980s, writers of color, motherhood, grief, and other topics. She is currently completing her memoir, A Dim Capacity for Wings.
Kingdom of Women by Rosalie Morales Kearns
Rosalie Morales Kearns, a writer of Puerto Rican and Pennsylvania Dutch descent, is the founder of the feminist publishing house Shade Mountain Press. Her novel Kingdom of Women is about Averil Parnell, a female Roman Catholic priest who has to decide what advice she is going to offer to a group of vigilante women who go after murderers, rapists, and child abusers. Virgins and Tricksters is Morales Kearns’ magic-realist short story collection. The Small Press Book Review raved:“It’s not that the stories are comfortable — these worlds of virgins, tricksters, wives, daughters — are fraught with complication and searching. Nor do they lack surprise: by blending precise realism with wild magic, Kearns subverts our expectations in subtle yet astounding ways.”
Scar on/Scar Off by Jennifer Maritza McCauley
Jennifer Maritza McCauley is a 2018 National Endowment of the Arts Fellowship winner and an Academy of American Poets Award recipient. Her first book is Scar On/Scar Off, a cross-genre poetry and prose text. The theme of scarring runs through the book — the scarring from being a woman, from having dual ethnic identities, and from dealing with racism. She is the Contest Editor at The Missouri Review. Her work has been selected as a “Short Story of the Day” by The Seattle Review of Books and a “Poem of the Week” by Split this Rock. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Review, Puerto del Sol, The Feminist Wire, among other outlets. She has finished a historical novel set during the Reconstruction era.
Fish Out of Agua: My Life On Neither Side of the (Subway) Tracks by Michele Carlo
Michele Carlo’s Fish Out Of Agua: My Life on Neither Side of the (Subway) Tracks is a memoir about growing up as a redheaded, freckle-faced Puerto Rican in the Bronx during the 1970s. Throughout her youth, Carlo had to contend with being seen as white and not Puerto Rican. The memoir also chronicle’s her mother’s mental illness, the secrets that her family keeps, and how she comes into her own and becomes the artist she had always wanted to be. Carlo is also a performer who has appeared across the US, including The Moth’s GrandSlam and MainStage storytelling shows in NYC. Her current project is a radio show on Radio Free Brooklyn, where she interviews artists, activists, and educators.
The Clairvoyant of Calle Ocho by Anjanette Delgado
Anjanette Delgado is an award-winning novelist, speaker, and journalist who has written or produced for media outlets, such as NBC, CNN, NPR, Univision, HBO, Telemundo, and Vogue Magazine’s LatAm and Mexico divisions, among others. Her award-winning romance novel The Heartbreak Pill is about scientist Erika Luna who sets out to create a pill to undo heartbreak. Her latest novel, The Clairvoyant of Calle Ocho, is about Mariela Estevez whose clairvoyance kicks in when her lover is found murdered. Delgado is “fascinated with heartbreak, the different ways in which it occurs, and the consequences it brings.”
Homenaje a las guerreras/Homage to the Warrior Women by Peggy Robles-Alvarado
Peggy Robles-Alvarado is a writer and editor of several projects. She is the author of Conversations With My Skin, which is about the transformation of a pregnant and abused 15-year old who learns to define herself, and Homenaje a las guerreras/Homage to the Warrior Women, which pays tribute to women who “carry several lifetimes and dimensions within one frame and [who] learn how to properly balance them.” She is also the editor of The Abuela Stories Project, an anthology of writing and photography by women that is meant to challenge the notion of abuelas and their stories as inconsequential. Her latest book Mujeres, The Magic, The Movement and The Muse is an anthology “inspired by Taino, Lukumi and Palo traditions where women make connections to their muses through body and spirit.”
Daughters of the Stone by Dahlma Llanos-Figueroa
Dahlma Llanos-Figueroa’s debut novel is Daughters of the Stone. Author Cristina Garcia enthuses, “Rejoice! Here is a novel you’ve never read before: the story of a long line of extraordinary Afro-Puerto Rican women silenced by history…Dahlma Llanos-Figueroa rescues them from oblivion.” Llanos-Figueroa’s novel follows the lives of five generation of women starting from Africa, moving to Puerto Rico, and ending in New York City. The novel was shortlisted for the 2010 PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction. Daughters of the Stone is the first novel in a series of five, and Llanos-Figueroa has completed her second novel, A Woman of Endurance, and is now working on her third novel.
Outside the Bones by Lyn Di Lorio
Dr. Lyn Di Lorio is a professor and was a consultant on Puerto Rican cultural matters for Sonia Sotomayor’s memoir, My Beloved World. In her book, Outside the Bones, protagonist Fina Mata unwittingly unleashes a powerful Palo spirit when she attempts to make her neighbor Chico fall in love with her. Outside the Bones is the first English language novel about Palo Monte, an Afro-Caribbean religion that stems from the Bantu-speaking people and their Caribbean descendants.
The Education of Margot Sanchez by Lilliam Rivera
For decades, young readers of color did not find themselves in the literature they read. But now, representation of Latinxs in young adult literature is on the rise. A recent book to fill this niche is Lilliam Rivera’s The Education of Margot Sanchez, which tells the story of Margot who is caught between her Puerto Rican world and the world of her prep school. Rivera was named a “2017 Face to Watch” by the Los Angeles Times.
Her next book, Dealing in Dreams, is forthcoming in March 2019; it’s a futuristic story about girl gangs and the leader’s desire to get off the streets and move up in the world.
About the Author
Born in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, Ivelisse Rodriguez earned a PhD in English and creative writing from the University of Illinois at Chicago and an MFA from Emerson College. She has published fiction in All about Skin: Short Fiction by Women of Color, the Boston Review, the Bilingual Review, and others. She was a senior fiction editor at Kweli, a Kimbilio fellow, and a VONA/Voices alum.