By Nawal Qarooni
Erika L. Sánchez is the best-selling author of I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter. We connected this week to chat about her latest collection of honest and humorous essays gathered as an adult memoir titled Crying in the Bathroom, which comes out July 12th. The pieces range in topic from feminism to sex to mental health and are ultimately about finding oneself whole and healed through art, travel, and process. The daughter of Mexican immigrants, Erika was raised in Chicago in the 1990s and her storytelling prowess left my mouth agape in the very best way.
This book made me laugh and cry almost simultaneously. Have you always wanted to write a memoir? Is this the book you always dreamed of writing?
I never imagined that I would write something like this but having read so many memoirs by women, I felt inspired and emboldened to do so. It’s so rare for us to have really nuanced representation, so I wanted to do that through this book of essays that turned into a memoir, essentially.
This is written for brown women—for all women of color. I hope they feel seen by it and I hope they feel somewhat freer after reading it. Maybe they can identify with a part of my life, and perhaps see things differently. I really want to write the most honest thing that I can write—always. That’s my main goal, to write towards the truth, whether that’s in fiction, nonfiction or poetry. This is my literal truth this time. It was really difficult to write but I felt I had to write it because it was something I needed to heal within myself. And now I am sharing it with the world. It is a little daunting. But I feel really good about it. I can’t go beyond that; but I have to stand behind everything that I write.
How did the writing process go for this book? Did you envision writing about specific scenes from your life?
I don’t really write in a linear fashion. Even my novel was a patchwork process and I somehow made it into a coherent narrative. I wrote about things that I really cared about that were important to me. I wrote about my body because so much of my life I’ve been told—your body doesn’t belong to you; your vagina is disgusting—and I am just at the point of my life where I refuse to feel that way. I am so open about sexuality and anatomy because first of all, it’s not that serious and second of all, I am going to take control of how it is viewed. I am going to write the story of myself—and that is empowering in its own way. It developed into a collection. The order that I had come up with prior to submission came together in what I thought was a satisfying arc. It’s not traditional.
Brown women are denied our humanity in so many different ways. People don’t see us as full human beings sometimes. People don’t expect me to sound the way I do because they expect me to be cleaning or taking care of small children. It’s a shock that we can be Americanized, speak English, have complicated lines. I don’t think society as a whole really thinks about us. I think about us and what it means to be a brown woman in the United States right now, especially with the overturning of Roe V. Wade and other heinous things. And it is time for us to allow us to be flawed and nuanced. I hoped to do that in this book.
I love that there is cohesion between your poetry, fiction and nonfiction writing. Tell me about how your writing is connected, despite varying genres and target audience ages.
With this book I am speaking very much to the girls who read Mexican Daughter back when it came out, who are grown up and going to college and questioning what they want to do with their lives. It is such a ripe age—16, 17, 18—and I hope there’s a continuation of the themes through all my books. What I write about in Mexican Daughter spills over to this book. The trauma of being a brown girl. The trauma of our mothers that we have to carry. The poverty that we have to live in. It’s not a sequel but it’s a continuation.
This idea of being likable is something that I come against again and again. When Mexican Daughter came out, it did so well, but some people felt they couldn’t connect with her. That wasn’t a surprise to me because I knew she was a character who was deeply flawed. That was intentional. I feel like the same might happen with this memoir because people ask me things like, “How does it feel to expose yourself?” when “expose” doesn’t really feel like the right word because I explore these topics to heal. It is irrelevant to me if readers think I’m cool or want to have brunch with me. I care to write the most excellent book. It is interesting for women—the kinds of judgement we receive when we write about sex and abortion. I am so tired of having the idea of having to be pleasing to everyone at all times. It is not something that concerns me. If you accept me the way that I am, that’s great. If not, see you later. It’s very liberating to come to a place—I can’t make people like me. People are always shocked by how little I care but I encourage young women to embrace that. And that’s what I preach when I teach. I tell my female/woman students—they don’t have to be likable. Do what you want to do. Be who you are supposed to be. It is painful and uncomfortable. I have suffered greatly for it because I can’t just not be who I am. It feels like a more authentic life.
Erika L. Sánchez: Her debut poetry collection, Lessons on Expulsion, was published by Graywolf in July 2017, and was a finalist for the PEN America Open Book Award. Her debut young adult novel, I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter, published in October 2017 by Knopf Books for Young Readers, was a New York Times bestseller and a National Book Awards finalist. It is now is being made into a film directed by America Ferrera. Sánchez was a 2017-2019 Princeton Arts Fellow, a 2018 recipient of the 21st Century Award from the Chicago Public Library Foundation, and a 2019 recipient of the National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship.
Nawal Qarooni is an educator and writer who works in education spaces to support a holistic model of literacy instruction. She and her team of coaches at NQC Literacy work with teachers and school leaders to grow a love of reading and composition in ways that exalt the whole child, their cultural capital and their intrinsic curiosities. She is the proud daughter of immigrants, and mothering her four young kids shapes her understanding of teaching and learning. Nawal’s first book about family literacy with Heinemann is forthcoming in 2023. She is a graduate of University of Michigan and attended Syracuse University for her first master’s degree in journalism, and transitioned from newspaper reporting to education as a New York City Teaching Fellow.