Mayra Santos-Febres is a poet, short story writer, novelist, essayist, professor, cultural director, creator of literary festivals, and, without a doubt, an essential figure in Puerto Rican and Caribbean culture. Among her prizes are the Guggenheim Fellowship, the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award long list, the Juan Rulfo International Radio Prize, and the Letras de Oro Prize, and she has been a finalist for the Rómulo Gallegos Prize. Her books include Anamú y Manigua (1990), Pez de vidrio (1994), Sirena Selena vestida de pena (2000), Cualquier miércoles soy tuya (2002), Nuestra Señora de la Noche (2008), Fe en disfraz (2009), La amante de Gardel (2015), Sobre piel y papel (2015), and Antes que llegue la luz (2021). In this interview we talk about her writing and her latest novel, as well as her struggle against racism and her initiatives in defense of Blackness.
Jotacé López: Could you tell us a little about the $700,000 grant you received from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to create an Afro-Diasporic and Racial Studies Program? What does the program consist of, and what are its goals?
Mayra Santos-Febres: To my surprise, Dr. Ferrao (dean of the Río Piedras campus of the University of Puerto Rico) supported me in developing a proposal to unveil more courses on the subject of racialization. But he told me there was no funding within the University of Puerto Rico to get these courses going. Without giving it much thought, I told him I would make a commitment to seek those funds. Dr. Maritza Stantich, from our English Department, tipped me off that the Mellon Foundation had visited the UPR’s Río Piedras campus, offering funding for the development of that sort of program. That was in 2018, a year after Hurricane Maria. I decided to contact the Mellon Foundation, since I had received a grant from the same foundation to complete my graduate studies. The planets aligned and I received the funding.
The Academic Diversification Project in Blackness and Racialization received said funding from the Mellon Foundation to support seventeen to twenty research and teaching professors at the University of Puerto Rico, to create courses focused on the study of Blackness. The project’s goal is to create courses specifically designed to deepen the study of Blackness and racialization in every department of the University of Puerto Rico at Río Piedras, allowing every bachelor’s student (who chooses to participate) to take courses from their respective departments that allow them to graduate with a minor in Blackness and Racialization.
JCL: How did you work together with Senator Ana Irma Rivera Lassen on the development of Law 24, creating the National Day for the Eradication of Racism and the Affirmation of Blackness, to be celebrated on March 21 of every year? What are the implications of this law?
MSF: I was the one who received the law on the part of civil society, and one of the people who wrote a memorial text in its defense before the Senate. Other figures in the anti-racist struggle were also involved in this process, like Gloriann Sacha Antonetty from Colectivo Ile, Dr. Mariluz Franco, and others. The law’s importance lies in its establishing that the government of Puerto Rico recognizes the existence of racism in our country. It also obliges all government agencies to establish programs for the eradication of racism and the affirmation of Blackness, especially during the week of March 21.
JCL: On a different topic, I’d like to talk a little about your most recent novel, Antes que llegue la luz. Hurricane Maria affected life in Puerto Rico on various levels, and Puerto Ricans lived through many scenarios and circumstances in the months that followed it. Could you tell us a little about the process of writing this novel?
MSF: Antes que llegue la luz was written using notes I took during the months after the hurricane, specifically from the end of September until the beginning of December. Like all of Puerto Rico, I didn’t have light in my house. Based on this personal and collective experience, I started putting together a plot that sought to be both personal and collective. I thought this would be the most honest and relevant way to write about the hurricane. Above all, I wanted to respond, with this highly hybrid work, to the command I was given by many people I met during those long, hard eight months we spent together as a people. Many people recognized me in the lines to get ice, gas, or food, and they would say to me, “Write, writer, write.” And I wrote so as not to go crazy, to wait for the light to come back, but I was also looking for a way to preserve the memory of our interconnected experiences. Fiction wasn’t working for me, it wasn’t up to the job of offering testimony and giving just recognition to the thousands of anonymous heroes who hit the streets to help others, often with no security themselves, also suffering the lack of light. It was a painful and beautiful moment. I wanted to gather all of that up. I hope I achieved it, at least partially.
JCL: Do you consider the novel a work of autofiction?
MSF: Perhaps. I really don’t mind what category is assigned to the text I managed to write in the wake of Maria. What amazes me is the fact that I was able to write it. I was blown away by the creative process as much as by the hurricane. I wanted to live up to my country, and to its unbelievable generosity and community solidarity.
JCL: From the publication of “Oso Blanco” to Antes que llegue la luz, how would you describe your evolution as a Caribbean writer?
MSF: I don’t know how to answer that question. I don’t tend to study myself as a writer, or to study or reread my own work once it’s written and published. If I do, something very strange happens to me: I start to read myself as if another person had written what I’m reading. The process of introspection and identification with the writing is consummated once the book comes into the public eye. After that, I wrap myself up in a new process of growth, pursuit, exploration, experimentation, research, and writing.
I have noticed a few things. One of them, which is inexplicable to me, is that I’m always driven by the same obsessions. I write so they can’t erase the memory and history of my people. That’s why, since before “Oso Blanco,” since my first book—the poetry collection Anamú y Manigua, published in 1991 when I was nineteen—I have written about history, about Adolfina Villanueva, Julia de Burgos (always Julia) Corretjer, and Pedro Albizu Campos, but also La Lupe, Hugo Margenat, Isabel la Negra Luberza, countless personalities who have been erased from the collective memory of the world and of Puerto Rico. I keep on and on broadening what writing exists around these figures. I include Gardel, but also Micaela Thone (who is a fictitious character), who allowed me to research and write about the history of forced sterilization and the development of the birth control pill, which emerged from experiments done on the bodies of poor Puerto Rican women, without their knowledge. My novel La amante de Gardel came out of that research. I keep on reading and researching and I start imitating the testimonies of emancipated slave women from the seventeenth and eighteenth century. Fe en disfraz comes out of that. I focus on studying the figure of Isabel La Negra Luberza, beyond the poem I wrote about her at nineteen, and Nuestra Señora de la Noche comes out.
What’s inexplicable to me is that this obsession with recovering lost stories is what pushes me to keep going, instead of any of the other thousand obsessions that give me direction in life, or the literary work of others. I think this has to do with the fact that my father was a history teacher and my mother was a Spanish teacher. It also has to do with the fact that I am an evidently Black Puerto Rican woman, and that one of the practices that has most guided anti-racist struggles in Puerto Rico, from Arturo Schomburg until today, is the recovery of erased memory and of the contributions of illustrious Black Puerto Ricans. In my own case, this is the most effective way I have found to affirm Blackness and combat racism, in Puerto Rico and in all of Latin America and the Caribbean and the United States. It’s a matter of insisting that we are fundamental for the existence of all peoples and all nations that now make up what we know as the Americas, Abya Yala, from north to south. That Blackness is universal and that its marginalizations, rebellions, struggles, and runaways are also a part of this World’s History.
JCL: In much of your work, bodies—along with their dynamics and their politics—are central. Why this urgency to tell the stories of bodies?
MSF: I am a woman and I am Black, and so I know that power operates by controlling bodies and resources. Nobody has to explain that to me. I am a descendant of people who were stripped away from their homelands and sold as products. I also consider myself part of a gender that was defined by its ability to be sold, to one customer or several—to produce cheap labor or offspring for the perpetuation of clans, kingdoms, or lineages. And I come from a nation that became a possession of another nation, whose history is linked entirely to displacement, forced sterilization, racialized poverty, and controlling bodies in order to expropriate lands, resources, and access to the production of technologies and knowledge. That is why it’s so urgent that I tell the stories of bodies.
JCL: You have organized literary festivals, created university programs, collaborated in the development of laws as well as writing workshops, and published books of essays, fiction, and poetry. What can we expect from you in the future?
MSF: I want to write more essays, I’m sure of that. I would like to publish a novel I was already able to finish thanks to the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Residency. And I think I have finally learned to write documentary screenplays. Those are things I’m looking forward to. But, especially, I want to keep helping other writers write profound, brilliant books. Above all, I would like to support the production of books of all genres that deal with the subjects of anti-racism and the affirmation of Blackness in the Caribbean and Latin America. I want to see a world full of Black writers, jincho writers, jabao writers, pardo writers, mulato writers, cholo writers, Afro-Indigenous writers, gender-disident writers, anti-racist writers of all colors and origins. I want other stories to be told, read, and valued. That is my dream. That will be my greatest undertaking.