Erika L. Sànchez — who grew up just west of Chicago city limits in Cicero, IL — is having the kind of year poets and writers dream of. In July, her first poetry collection Lessons on Expulsion was published by Graywolf Press. “Though the subjects of her first collection range from the Tepehuán Revolt to narcotrafficking, Sánchez’s poetic lens stays fixed on the immigrant experience,” wrote Chicago magazine. And then her debut novel I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter was shortlisted for the National Book Award prior to its release in October. It’s a coming-of-age story about the daughter of Mexican immigrants in Chicago, not unlike Sánchez herself.
Sànchez’s success is certainly well deserved, and I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter is a poignant novel with enough humor and heart to make it difficult to put down. I recently had the opportunity to chat with Sànchez over the phone to talk about Chicago, her writing process, and her successful year.
Rachel León: I really enjoyed I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter. Where’d you get the idea for the novel?
Erika L. Sànchez: I guess it came from many different places, but I drew upon my experiences as a teenager to begin the novel. It’s very much fiction, but I wanted to write about what it’s like to be a Mexican-American girl growing up in Chicago. It was a very different novel when I first began it. It was three different narratives interwoven and I decided just to keep Julia, the daughter, because I thought it would be stronger and more interesting if it was focused on the teenage protagonist so that’s how it developed.
Rachel León: You’re also a poet and you published Lessons on Expulsion earlier this year. What has it been like to publish two books back-to-back, in two different genres?
Erika L. Sànchez: Exhilarating but also really exhausting. I’ve been writing since I was a kid, so I’ve been waiting for this for most of my life. I worked on both books for a long time and it was a crazy coincidence that they were both accepted at the same time. It’s been really incredible to tour with both books and have people connect with the books and share with me how they feel about the novel or the poetry collection. It’s been really exciting, not something that I ever imagined. I never thought this would happen back-to-back, but it’s been really great so far.
Rachel León: How is your writing process different when you’re writing poetry versus fiction?
Erika L. Sànchez: It’s incredibly different. Poetry for me requires a lot of stillness and silence and patience. My book took about ten years to write. For me a poem asks me to be written, rather than me writing the poem. I know that sounds strange, but I feel like with poetry I have to wait for it to come at times. With prose I feel like I can be more intentional. I can plot and outline and plan it in a way that I cannot with poetry. Poetry is much more mysterious, in a sense. Both require an excruciating amount of attention to detail. My poetry I agonized over commas and sentence structure. With my novel I actually printed out my first draft and rewrote it sentence by sentence. I’m a pretty obsessive writer.
Rachel León: I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter was shortlisted for the National Book Award prior to the book’s publication. As a debut novelist, has the success surrounding the novel been an added pressure?
Erika L. Sànchez: It was a complete shock. We all hope for the best for our books, but my book wasn’t even out so it didn’t even cross my mind. It was a really wonderful surprise. As far as pressure, I don’t really feel pressure. I think it’s really great for the visibility of the book. I’m really aware that not everyone is going to like the book. Some people really love it, some people really don’t, and I’ve come to terms with that, that it’s not for everyone. I suppose there is a little bit of fear knowing the book is out in the world and doesn’t belong to me anymore, in a sense. There’s something surreal about that because I lived with the book by myself for so long and now it’s out and people are reading it and reviewing it and that’s kind of a strange feeling.
Erika L. Sànchez: I can’t seem to quit Chicago—I was just there two days ago and I’m going back for the Chicago Humanities Festival on Sunday. I’ve been back a few times. Chicago is a really beautiful city in many ways, aesthetically and culturally, but also really dysfunctional and I think that’s always present in my work. I write a lot about the city, it figures prominently in the novel, of course. It’s often a forgotten city in terms of Mexican-Americans. I feel like a lot of books are about Mexicans along the border or along the coast, but there’s not a lot about Latinos in the Midwest and I hope this book changes that landscape for us. I miss Chicago deeply on many levels, but I’m really enjoying teaching here in Princeton. It’s an amazing opportunity. And Chicago is always going to be there, no matter what. It’s a really supportive city, which is something I’m really grateful for. The love I’ve gotten for my books is really incredible.
Rachel León: What’s next for you?
Erika L. Sànchez: Yeah, there’s a lot of stuff going on. I’m here teaching at Princeton, of course. I’m also finishing my book of essays that is almost completed, and I’m working on a project I can’t really talk about publicly yet, but it’s very exciting. Also, I’m hoping the novel becomes a movie. There have been inquiries about that. And I’m always working on my poetry. I’ve been a little distracted with the promotion of my books, but I want to have the space and silence to work on my poems.
FICTION – YOUNG ADULT
I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter
By Erika L. Sànchez
Knopf Books for Young Readers
Published October 17, 2017
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Rachel León is a writer, editor, and social worker. She serves as Daily Editor for Chicago Review of Books and Fiction Editor for Arcturus. Her work has appeared in Electric Literature, Los Angeles Review of Books, the Ploughshares blog, Fiction Writers Review, The Rupture, Necessary Fiction, Split Lip Magazine, and elsewhere.