The Body Horror of Being a Woman
Carribean Fragoza's domestic surrealist stories in "Eat the Mouth That Feeds You" are about Chicanas navigating the grotesque and the mundane
Speculative, surreal stories can be doorways to imagine both what is possible and the effects of trauma and change on the most vulnerable people. Speculative storytelling is expansive, incorporating horror, science fiction, and surrealism to help readers tackle what we are most unwilling to see, highlighting how systemic oppression can break open and create new realities.
In her collection, Eat the Mouth That Feeds You, author Carribean Fragoza immerses the reader in the experiences of Mexican and Chicana women who are navigating intergenerational relationships, abuse, and changing bodies. While each story stands alone, they also feel very cohesive, as if they are on the same looping timeline in which one person’s story dies to bloom another’s. Each story blends the horrific, the magical, and the ordinary so seamlessly that they reimagine our expectations of reality, asking you to confront the grotesque in the everyday violences of our own lives.
I had the opportunity to speak to Carribean Fragoza about the way that the book deals with experimentation, the body, and where she finds community with other Mexican American artists.
Leticia Urieta: Where did this book begin for you or what does the title of the book mean to you?
Carribean Fragoza: I wrote these stories over the course of many years, some of them as early as undergrad at UCLA. When I wrote “The Vicious Ladies” I really felt like I hit on something that I wanted to continue to push. That’s the story of the young woman who graduates from college and goes back to her neighborhood, not really by choice but she has to because she doesn’t really have any other job prospects. And then she has to join this party crew, and she just kind of gets sucked into this party crew in her neighborhood, but Samira, who’s the leader of the party crew, had this very strong voice that was not afraid to speak her truth, even if it made me uncomfortable. She was so clearly dedicated to protecting and holding and uplifting the girls and the women in her party crew that that became a lesson for me and a real point of departure for a lot of what I’ve written since.
Originally I thought the collection would be titled the “Vicious Ladies” and I always thought of it that way but then in conversation with my editor, Elaine Katzenberg, we thought it would be best to use that title, Eat The Mouth That Feeds You, because it touches on so many themes and ideas that are woven in throughout the entire book, mainly the intergenerational connection. I’m just transferring knowledge through bodies through storytelling across generations of women. There’s a sort of complexity to the title that people can sit with. There’s also the cringe quality that makes people uncomfortable. But I’m okay with people cringing through my stories. I think there’s a little pleasure for me to be honest, in grossing people out or making people uncomfortable with my depictions of death and decomposing bodies and bodies being consumed in different ways. As a fan of certain types of body horror in film, there’s a really great way to use that to depict the everyday horrors of the body, and especially of women’s bodies, from a menstruation cycle to a miscarriage.
LU: That was something I loved most about this book was how you write about the body. There are several stories in this collection that depict aging bodies, dying bodies, the bodies of women being consumed, and bodies in transformation. Why is that something that feels important to you as a storyteller?
CF: Most of my writing is very embodied, and I make it a point to do so. It’s the perspective that we don’t get to see very often in literature, how women’s bodies are depicted usually from an outsider perspective, usually from the male gaze. It felt really important and necessary for me to write it from a very embodied internal perspective, where the body is experienced, not just gazed upon. Having a female body is an experience that I don’t think gets talked about enough. I mean sure, we know about menstruation, but even that is so taboo still after all this time. I would love to read more writing from other women or women-identifying people and just understand more how other people experience their bodies. I have this one body and this is how I experience it, and I want to understand how my characters experience their bodies as well.
LU: I think one of the things that comes out in the stories is trauma’s effects on the body and how trauma could transform and change the body in grotesque ways, but also in kind of beautiful ways. One of the stories that I went back to is the “Mysterious Bodies.” A lot of these stories end with the destruction of the character in some way or even the destruction of the bodies as they were before. Do you feel like that’s one way to depict trauma’s effect on the body, even familial trauma?
CF: It’s very important to me to think about how trauma manifests itself in the body, even though we’re not always aware of it, even the trauma of previous generations. I’m also thinking about the life cycle of the body and the transformation of the body from birth to death, especially as a mother of an almost ten-year-old and a two-year-old. I have a two-year-old baby and I watch her grow every day and then I have this almost ten-year-old that’s about to start puberty or is already starting. And here I am, about to turn 40. Here the three of us are, our bodies being in different places.
I wrote “Eat the Mouth That Feeds You” when I first learned that I was pregnant with my first child and shortly before that, my grandmother and my great-grandmother passed away. So I was in this really interesting place between producing future generations and letting go of my predecessors, and trying to locate myself within that, within the family, but also historically. What does it mean to be of my generation, and what are my contributions? I’m giving my body physically to this new little baby. And every time I nurse I’m literally letting her feed off of me. But then also, as a writer what do I contribute to conversations, to actions to change in the world? To be honest, I don’t always know how writing these stories impacts anything, but I think I see something when I get to have conversations like with you or others who feel impacted or touched by the stories.
LU: For several of the characters in the book, such as the narrator of “Eat The Mouth That Feeds You,” or “Me Muero,” there is an acceptance of death, or being consumed. Do you think that there is power there?
CF: I’m trying to think about how the body experiences violence in being consumed, but then also how we navigate that to find some empowerment. I think in all of my stories I’m trying to find a way to empower the characters. I can’t speak for everybody but so many of us find ourselves in and across multiple generations, in situations that are very difficult, and we still live in a patriarchal capitalist, white supremacist society. And we are still in the position that we’re in within those structures, and we’re constantly trying to navigate that and find our places of power. And sometimes it’s in our bodies, sometimes it’s in spirituality. Sometimes it’s in ancestral knowledge. Sometimes it’s in our own family histories. And so I think for each of us, empowerment looks different, and I was trying to find that in each of the lives of my characters and in their narratives, despite whatever their situation is whether they’re a low-level employee somewhere, taking the abuse or shit from their boss, or whether they’re a mom, like an immigrant mother, just trying to have a daughter and live in the United States. I asked, what does it mean to live in these positions, and how can we create openings within our situations to find our place of power within that.
My interest in looking at history in general and our particular familial past is to find the lessons. And sometimes the lesson can be a way to move forward, to not repeat certain situations that our mothers or grandmothers were in, but sometimes the lesson is maybe you don’t move forward, maybe you don’t get to be in a better place than your grandmother or your mother. There’s one particular story where the character is talking about how she feels like she ended up in a place where her grandmother was. Instead of doing better than the previous generation, she got knocked back to a place of poverty and abuse, similar to what her grandmother might have experienced. We learn the lessons and we do hope and expect to “move forward” or progress but maybe that’s not really real for some of us. Then what do you do with those lessons?
LU: Who do you consider your literary ancestors or community members?
CF: One of my influences is vampire literature, like Interview with a Vampire. As a young person back in middle school, I remember reading vampire novels and writing as if I were a vampire, and how that really nourished my writerly self. It really freaked people out, mainly my teachers, because they were thinking, “oh, Carribean is not well.” Anne Rice was a part of the lineage of Gothic Literature that I gravitated towards and Shirley Jackson as well. When I read her story, “The Lottery,” something changed in my mind. I started thinking more about how maybe unconsciously I’ve been influenced in these profound ways by the genre. I hope that newer writers can find their place in this genre as well.
I have to mention Helena Viramontes who I read and immediately loved. Currently, I also feel really connected to Sesshu Foster, who wrote Atomik Aztex, because he and I are both from East LA and he and I have this vision of revising or rethinking history and thinking towards the future.
LU: Could you talk more about your work as an editor and community organizer? What kinds of spaces are you creating with publication and the arts collective?
CF: With the publication of Vicious Ladies Magazine, I wanted to create a safe space for women or nonbinary writers and cultural critics of color to write in their own unique voices that is not policed by the white gaze. I often struggled to get my stories heard and read as a journalist, and so I hope to create opportunities for mentorship and for new writers to get their stories out there in whatever voice they choose to use. They can sound this hood as they want. They can use poetry to write about an art installation. I want this to be a space of experimentation.
My husband’s a historian and we collect oral histories, we’re building an archive, and we wrote a whole book about the history of my hometown. We started the South El Monte Art Posse (SEMAP), a multi-disciplinary arts collective, which is 10 years old this year. This community has really shaped how I see our stories, and I want to always shout out to El Monte writers like Salvador Plascencia, Michael Jaime-Becerra, Toni Margarita Plummer (Kirkpatrick), and other writers I am in community with like Myriam Gurba. This community and these stories are a way of belonging to a place through these little stories and through connections to small, seemingly insignificant objects and narratives in this archive. So I’m very invested in uncovering new histories, but also in thinking about the future and what we want the future to look like and how does my writing contribute to the future that I want to see not just for myself, because I’ll be gone before you know it, but for all of our future generations, like my kin, my daughters, but also all the new young writers and artists out there.