first lesson." Liz shares the inspiration behind her piece, craft choices and POV, her literary influences, and so much more.
Liz Ramirez recently completed an M.A. in English at Texas A&M University, where she now works full-time as a project manager in Technology Services. Her poem “et tu,” published in Volume IV of OyeDrum Magazine, was nominated for the 2021 Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net. “first lesson” is taken from her master’s capstone project, “Latinish: Mixed Identity in Three Essays,” where she writes about family, racial hybridity, and liminality in Mexican identity. Find her on Twitter and Instagram @trapezoidette.
Interview by Angela Miyuki Mackintosh
WOW: Welcome, Liz! Congratulations on winning second place in the Q4 2022 Creative Nonfiction Contest. I love your essay, "first lesson" and all of our judges thought it was well written and powerful. What inspired you to write this piece?
Liz: Thank you, and thanks to everyone at WoW for this opportunity. I'd been searching for a way to articulate this experience of the first time that I felt that social judgment of racialization for a really long time, and once I learned what the flash form was, and the way it’s supposed to zoom in and amplify a single moment, it fit perfectly. More than almost any other moment in my life, that memory most clearly demanded a specific form in writing. It began with this central metaphor in my head, that ended up in one of the last sentences of the piece, this image of a judge on the bench who passes down these social evaluations in that split-second moment of imposed gaze. Something I learned in grad school through Stephanie Fetta’s work on racialization is that what transpires in those glances that “other” and isolate you is actually shame, and the gaze is the primary vehicle of that shame.
WOW: Your ending has got to be my favorite part, and I can totally see that metaphor. I never thought of "othering" as shame, but Fetta is so right! Wow, I'm going to have to drill that down in my own work. I love that you wrote the piece in second person. Was this how you wrote it initially or did the POV change in later drafts? Why was second person necessary to this piece?
Liz: I did write it in second person initially; I do a lot of writing like that, and I think that it was necessary for me in “first lesson” because this piece represents a kind of talking back through the years to myself and remembering that self who knew what it was like to feel free of this social judgment. As I got older, I felt more and more constrained by those instant on-sight evaluations that place you in those categories that impose marginalization, and I wanted to make those more visible through my writing, because so often I think we let them go without saying.
WOW: It takes courage to not let it go and shine a light on it, and I love that you wrote it to your younger self. I also found the use of "you" put the reader in the narrator's shoes, feeling the weight of her marginalization as well. Your bio says "first lesson" is part of your master’s capstone project, which explores mixed identity in three essays. What did you learn about yourself or your writing process from crafting these essays?
Liz: Well, the first thing I learned is how very difficult it is to write in a pandemic! During lockdown in 2020, I was spending a lot of time alone in my apartment, attending grad school remotely, zoning out in Zoom meetings, and procrastinating my assignments. With all that free time, I ended up opening Ancestry.com, and fell down a rabbit hole with everything I found (and didn’t find) there. My mother is white, and my searches for her family turned up thousands of records going back generations, some dating back to the 1600s. By contrast, my search for my father’s family, immigrants from Mexico, hit a dead end with my paternal grandfather Sotero; I couldn’t even find where he was buried, because I don’t know what year he died. I was so struck by that contrast, and confronted for the first time with what it actually means identity-wise to be half-white, mixed. Whiteness always seemed to be metaphorically empty and neutral, giving the illusion of subtracting from ethnicity rather than adding anything of its own; I could never imagine myself as connected to or descending from my white ancestors. The experience of actually finding out who they were, what their names were, what their handwriting looked like, where they lived–it really hammered home that I really am just as much a product of my mother’s heritage as my father’s, and got me thinking about the nature of hybridity and my own racial identity. This was the place of reflection from which that series of essays sprang.
WOW: That contrast is stark, and I can relate being a hapa, mixed. That absence of your father's heritage and the realization of claiming your mother's heritage as your own is a great subject for your series. I'd love to read it sometime! You also write poetry, and your poem, "et tu," was published in OyeDrum Magazine, which they nominated for a 2021 Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net - congratulations! I always admire writers who craft both poetry and prose. Currently, who are your biggest influences or favorite authors in poetry and creative nonfiction?
The biggest writing influence in my adult life by far has been Carmen María Machado and her memoir In the Dream House. I read this for the first time in grad school in 2019 and absolutely fell in love with it for its lyricality, inventive form, and second-person perspective, where the author writes back to her past self to talk through the end of a painful relationship. More than anything else, though, it was how she wrote about something that was incredibly difficult to write about, to the extent that it felt almost unspeakable when it happened to me: the way that the fact of abuse or mistreatment from a person who is marginalized in the same way as you feels like a betrayal, and like a confirmation of everything bad the mainstream establishment says about your group. This was heavily on my mind when I wrote “et tu,” which is about the same thing: how admitting the way I was treated in my first same-sex relationship when I was nineteen felt like it would affirm every bad thing my mother and my friends have ever believed about LGBTQ people. I let that keep me silent about it for years.
WOW: Machado's In the Dream House is one of my favorites as well! That line about your mother and friends in your poem is unforgettable, and your ending with the turtle is such a brilliant metaphor to close the piece with. What are you working on right now?
Liz: Right now, in addition to fiddling around with some flashes I wrote in a workshop by the wonderful Kathy Fish, I’m preparing for NaNoWriMo in a few days (this will be my first time participating since I was a teenager), and trying to put together a writing sample for MFA application season this fall. And I’m still editing the series of essays “first lesson” came from, in the hopes that some of the short vignettes will soon be ready to send out.
WOW: Small literary world! WOW just interviewed Kathy Fish, and she's an amazing flash teacher. I'm also participating in NaNoWriMo this year, and I can't wait. It's so much fun. What's your favorite piece of writing advice or a tip you'd like to share with our readers/writers?
Liz: Don’t underestimate writing, journaling, and talking to yourself as tools for healing and self-integration. Write in the second person. Journal in the second person. Write your to-do list like it’s for a child you take care of and love dearly. Reread your old journals, and write letters to the person you were then; write letters and save them for your future self. I did this when I was fourteen, and a couple of years ago when I turned twenty-four, I got to open the letter I’d saved for myself ten years prior. It was a sweet, poignant reminder of the idealist that I was at fourteen, and a vital connecting thread to just how strongly I already knew who I was and what I wanted back then; I just wanted to write and for people to read it, and I’ve made it further than I ever actually imagined I would.
WOW: Aw, I feel that way when I read my old diaries. Your writing has touched all of our hearts, Liz! You've definitely made it, and thank you for those fantastic tips. They're some of the most creative we've gotten! I simply love writing in second person, and wish you much success in your writing career. We can't wait to see what you write next. I'll be cheering you on during NaNo!
Angela Miyuki Mackintosh is a writer and editor at WOW! Women on Writing. Like Liz, she also loves to write in second person. Her essay about a childhood friendship, sobriety and grief, written in second person, "Happy Sobriety Birthday" was published by Eastern Iowa Review. Her most recent CNF piece written in second person, "Waiting for the End," a hybrid collage written during the height of the pandemic, published in Permafrost Magazine, September 2022.