Interview with Pat Mora
Mermann-Jozwiak, Elisabeth, Sullivan, Nancy, MELUS
Pat Mora is a poet, essayist, and author of numerous children's books, most recently of The Night the Moon Fell (2000), a picture book that retells a Mayan myth, and of a memoir entitled House of Houses (1997), which chronicles her experiences of growing up on the Texas-Mexico border. Her writing has won many critical awards and prestigious fellowships, including a National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellowship and the Premio Aztlan Literature Award. She also received a Kellogg National Leadership Fellowship to study ways of preserving cultures. She is a native of El Paso and received her BA and MA in English from the University of Texas at El Paso, where she was an administrator and director of the Centennial Museum. As a consultant to the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, she worked on US-Mexico youth exchanges. Mora has taught English at all levels and has held a Distinguished Visiting Professorship at the University of New Mexico. She currently lives in the Northern Kentucky area and Santa Fe, New Mexico.
In this interview, conducted in March of 2001, Mora discusses her love of language, her on-going concern with literacy, her depictions of internal and external spaces, and her interest in constructing wholeness. As she explains in her collection of essays, Nepantla (1993), the poet is a modern-day curandera, or healer; as such she intervenes by building bridges, initiating dialogues, and fostering communication. This book contains one of the most provocative descriptions of the writer's task. Mora writes,
The Chicana writer seeks to heal cultural wounds of historical neglect by providing opportunities to remember the past, to share and ease bitterness, to describe what has been viewed as unworthy of description, to cure by incantations and rhythms, by listening with her entire being and responding. She then gathers the tales and myths, weaves them together, and, if lucky, casts spells. (131)
NS: Why did you become a writer, or when did you become aware that you could write?
PM: I've always joked that I became a writer when I saw the age of forty coming at me. There's a lot of truth to that. I had thought about writing, I would say, when I graduated from eighth grade. My parents gave me a typewriter, and they gave me this very pretty stationery. I clearly remember that they had a party for me, and after people left, I sat there and wrote all of this rhyming, religious poetry, which, when I thought back on it after writing Aunt Carmen's Book of Practical Saints, was an interesting circle.
I am not a good journal keeper unless I'm out of the country, but I would write myself notes when my children were little, and it's been of interest to me that the few scraps I kept are related to the genres that I write in. I would say, "this would make a good poem," or "this would make a good essay," or "this would make a good children's book." So I think the interest was there. The love of language is really the main reason that I am a writer. I love reading. It's one of the great forces that has shaped me. At a certain point I thought, "Gosh, my life is soon going to be half over, and I want writing to be part of it."
I used to love to cook. (I still do, but I don't cook as often.) So I put on the outside of the kitchen cabinet this quote from Cervantes, "By the Street of By and By you arrive at the House of Never," as a way to put pressure on myself so that I couldn't just keep saying, "Well, one day I'll do it." I began by taking tiny bits of time, by saying, "I will spend an hour on the weekend." It was also at a time in my life when I was going through a divorce. I think those two things came together.
EMJ: Apart from poetry, you've written a memoir and a collection of essays, Nepantla.
PM: With the essays I thought about whether they could be useful. Many of them were based on speeches, and I had just thought: "well, could they be useful if they were written down, either for people working with Latino students, people interested in youth"--the use is very important for me. …