Sandra T.’s got the kind of uninhibited vibe that both draws you in out of sheer curiosity and keeps you around for the playful yet sharp wit she can serve. With a hard focus on calling out ableist, fat-shaming, misogynoir undertones in both pop culture and politics online, she’s outspoken while still being radically soft and sensitive in her personal writing. It’s exactly that that drew me to interview Sandra, having caught glimpses I had seen of her writing online, which were quick to be deleted, and which always made me curious to know more about her and her writing. Though we had been mutually friendly for almost a year, this interview was actually the first time I had a real conversation with Sandra on issues such as race, class, media, disabilities, the writing process and what lies ahead for her. Through it, I was able to see how passionate she is about these issues, how connected she is to her writing, and how she manages to put it all in perspective, even in her moments of doubt and fear. What follows is a short back and forth conversation had through email (how 2016 of us!) over the course of two weeks where we discussed sleeping as self-care, her sensitivity to others’ auras, her involvement with the lovely Art Hoe Collective and her new book, Dark Matter.
Mia Rodriguez: I know you first and foremost as a (science) fiction writer, back when you used to post excerpts of your work on tumblr. A big issue for you has always been the lack of writers of color in the genre, specifically. When I think of it, I can’t say I know of any sci-fi works written by black or brown authors, and let’s not even get started on black and brown representation in sci-fi films, shows or any other type of visual media. Why do you think it has been such a hard genre for writers of color to enter? What have been your experiences in trying to find your voice among in that space?
Sandra T.: Well I’m actually a horror writer, though I do sometimes dabble in science fiction, but not enough to essentially call myself a science fiction writer but yeah. I think the issue is mostly erasure because believe or not there are many, and I mean many, speculative fiction writers of color. However I didn’t know of this fact until I was in my late teens and I’ve been a spec fic fan since as far as I can remember. People of color have been in the genre for as far as the genre has been created. I think racism is the driving factor as to why they aren’t widely known. Though I consider myself a fiction writer I haven’t put myself in that space yet. I’m very involved in the art world which is dominated by visual artists and most of my writer friends are journalists, I’m really one of a kind in the space I’m in. I’m comfortable in the space I occupy though.
MR: I agree, I think the most damaging thing to young writers is having to wait until our late teens, sometimes into our 20s, to learn that there’s a lot of writers that look like us, that have the same experience as us. White writers have had the luxury of seeing themselves in almost all the material we’re exposed to in elementary, middle, high school and college. Writers of color don’t get that same luxury unless we dig for it. It’s that extra work that discourages a lot of us, it’s knowing that our work would be buried under white words that keeps us from intending writing as a profession. Do you have doubts and fears about writing as a viable job? Personally, how would you define success as a writer?
ST: I definitely have doubts about writing as a viable job. More so for me because I’m solely interested in self publishing so in order for me to sell I need a following which is quite difficult when your existence is something that is usually ignored because of racism/misogyny. I’m slowly gaining a following but it’s a long arduous process and I might not see success as a writer for a while. I think for me personally the two things I believe makes a writer successful are how one reacts to your work and how far your work reaches. Also of course how well your book sells comes into play as well, especially if this something you want to make a living in, but that factor is all contingent on how much you think is good for you. Others might want to be millionaires and be on the bestseller list, but for me personally I just want to be able live comfortably. I have that backbone to pursue my dreams, but there is the burden of poverty for me which is why I’m slowly transitioning into not providing work for free because I truly cannot afford to. It’s honestly really difficult dealing with being poor and wanting to pursue a profession that is often not a well compensating profession. I honestly cannot afford to not make money. It really sucks how much money is needed in order to live and this is an issue I deal with often, but I think the fact that I have my mom behind me and the support of friends it does make things a lot easier. Back to my first two points I think for most writers, knowing we’ve touched the heart of others is something that’s invaluable. Like not too long ago a girl read a piece of mine and was left speechless and all she could say to me was that my work was “duende” which meant my work left her in chills and this reaction gave me such a high I knew then that this is something I want to pursue.
MR: When it comes to building a following, I know you’ve mentioned to me recently, and I noticed actually, that you don’t post your works in progress on your blog anymore. When I asked why, you told me it was because you feared your work getting stolen or used without your permission. I have the same fear, so much so that I often have to create a disconnect between who I am and what I write, almost to protect myself from prying eyes knowing what I do and think. I also think that as writers of color, we’re more susceptible to having our work stolen, misinterpreted, misused, etc. Is that what keeps you from posting your work nowadays? What fears haunt you about sharing your work, even now?
ST: That fear of my work being stolen kind of comes with the territory of being an artist. Is it right? Hell no, but it’s not something that was the deal breaker of me not posting my WIPs (work in progress). The biggest reason for me was I ironically am very self conscious about my work and I’m very sensitive to how it’s perceived. And it did not help that I was receiving no feedback on my work not even criticism so I started to feel that “wow my work isn’t even worth negativity.” Honestly I might start posting WIPs again, but not anytime soon.
MR: You often talk about suffering from writer’s block often on your blog. I can definitely relate to the feeling of guilt that comes with knowing (or feeling) that you should be writing but just can’t produce anything. What do you do to combat it, to quell the voice in your head that pesters you about it? Or do you embrace it as part of the process?
ST: I’m autistic and therefore deal with cognitive disabilities/executive dysfunction which causes me to have issues with forming ideas and sometimes even words which is main factor in why I deal with writer’s block. So I quite literally have a block that sometimes inhibits me from writing. Honestly the best way I deal with it is by sleeping. That might sound weird but through sleeping my mind is able to rest and rejuvenate itself and it’s how I’m able to get over it. Also it’s okay to not write all the time, you can overwork your brain that way and for neuroatypical people that is the worst thing to do. Mental health comes first.
MR: Sleeping was the last answer I thought I was going to get! But I think you’re right: sometimes people forget that our bodies aren’t meant to be machines and with writing often being either so creative and fantastical or personal and truth-seeking, it’s important for us to remember that we all need to find what works for us, what keeps us coming back. For me, the relief you talk about is the feeling I get when I speak my words, like verbalizing my demons and emotions, and when I write, I feel like I’m digging into even deeper subconscious truths that I’m sometimes afraid of acknowledging. I’m interested in your thoughts of writing as a release. When you release your words, do you have an intention to share with others and find common ground, or do you release purely for yourself? Is writing for you a way to connect with others or to reconnect with yourself? At times, it is both or neither for you?
ST: For me writing as a release is for both myself and others because not only does writing provide me with release, reading does as well. I read all the time and it’s something that can even calm my anxiety. I hope to provide something like that to others with the way my favorite authors provide it to me. Same as release, I use my writing to connect with others as well as myself. Through writing I discover ways in which my mind’s works and how to better cope with how the world affects me. I realize I’m very sensitive to my surroundings and can often get subdued with other people’s emotions/auras so writing is a way for me to get my mind back as well a form of relief from how fast-paced my mind can get.
MR: Speaking of your writing process, I’m interested in knowing what that looks like for you. Do you listen to music? Do you isolate yourself? Does it happen across a series of days or even weeks or does it come all at once? Do you feel drained or revitalized through writing? Is it a source of pain or healing for you?
ST: For me because of my cognitive disabilities it ranges from doing all at once to a long process that can take weeks. Sometimes I’ll just write one word. I don’t listen to music when I write, matter of fact I like complete silence when I write. I can get easily distracted so I write on my phone as well. I do most of my social stuff on the computer so I’m able to focus more on my phone. I feel a sense of relief when I write. Like I finally accomplished something, even if it’s just a sentence. Because I know writing can be a difficult process for me. I wouldn’t say writing is a source of healing in a sense that I use it to vent, but it does provide me with relief because my mind is so overloaded with stories/thoughts that when I get them down on paper (figuratively lol) I’m able to breathe. I have so many unfinished stories because of this.
MR: I agree! Sometimes when I read a really great piece, I feel understood, moved, pushed to dig deeper, a sense of belonging and acceptance so much that I’m like “wow, I hope my writing can do that for someone, I hope I can get that same feeling across.” It’s such a selfless kind of gratification we get from our writing, it seems. This actually brings me to my next question: while we were in the process of doing this interview you released a book called “Dark Matter.” Can you tell us more about how it came about? How did you know you were ready to release your work? How did you choose what made the cut and what didn’t? How did it feel to revisit your work and anthologize it, in a way?
ST: The book was a sort of accident. I found a couple of my old poems and I thought “these are pretty good” and that thought produced curiosity, a curiosity of seeing if I could actually self publish this in a book. I already had an account with createspace and one thing led into another and I published it. There are four poems I had posted on my old writing blog which were a series I titled “dark matter” and I felt that the old poems I wrote fit with those very well, so I took all the poems I wrote on that old blog, the old poems I wrote when I was teen and very recent poems and compiled them. The only poems that I didn’t include were my more positive poems that didn’t fit the dark theme. It was interesting revisiting my old poems because I lacked so much confidence in my talent that at the time I thought what I wrote was utter rubbish, but looking at them now I saw the potential. I didn’t edit them and mainly because I wanted to showcase me in my rawest form. I was at my most vulnerable when I wrote those poems and I wanted to relay that vulnerability to everyone else. I wanted to say “here I am. This is me, truly me.”
MR: Highlighting the work of black and brown artists has been a very important core value behind Art Hoe Collective, which you’re a part of. Can you tell more about what it meant to you to find a safe space in a collective for you work? How did you get involved and how have the members influenced you and vice versa?
ST: Mars asked me one day if I wanted to be a part of an art collective that would be curating art online and I thought it was a pretty cool idea and I said yes immediately. Art hoe has provided me with opportunities I would have never otherwise gotten on my own. I’m writing columns for publications as well as made some true friends along the way that accept me for who I am. Too often writers, especially writers of color, get ignored as artists. We’re not taken seriously, but they’ve made space for me as a fat black disabled woman to able to be an artist and this is what I appreciate about them. They’ve also taught me to be less stubborn and how to work with others. I’m so used to doing everything on my own it took some time getting used to working with others but I think I lucked out working with them cause they are a cool bunch. I think my influence manifested in how they’re more open and how do I say this? They’re more aware of those like me and try their best to be as inclusive as possible.
MR: I’m a part of two collectives and yes! Learning how to work with others after years of working alone has been such an experience. I think as writers, because our work is so solitary by nature, it can really be a shift for us to work with entire collectives, illustrators, editors, other artists, etc. But there’s something really exciting and relieving about knowing you have a group to support you and your work, like coming into a creative family. I think one of the biggest fears in joining a team is being tokenized or seen as the voice of an entire culture, community, race, ethnicity, etc. As our collectives become more and more mainstream and (white) media begins to take notice of our work, do you ever worry about how they could be using our voices, our aesthetic, our creativity in a tokenized way? As a way to pat themselves on the back and say, “see? we do feature black and brown work on our site?”
ST: This was like this for us in the beginning. Publications would censor most of what we had to say and made us seem like a one-dimensional group and through those experiences we’ve grown a thicker skin and make sure what we have to say is what’s being told. It’s not easy given the fact that we’re entering a space so influenced by white supremacy, but we try our best. We also try our best to make it less about us and more about the artists we feature because essentially it’s about them and we stress that fact all the time and we try to make their voices as well not get censored to be palatable to the white gaze.
MR: A journalist I once interviewed gave me some great advice when I asked her a similar question about being tokenized by white media, she told me that as long as we knew that our work was coming from a place of truth, true experiences, true analysis, true criticism, etc., white media might use us as a way to “diversify” their image, but we could (and should) also use them and their platforms as a way to expose these truths. Moving forward, in the future, do you see yourself more so wanting to bring the issues we’ve lived and breathed as people of color to the attention of mainstream media, or do you see yourself dedicating your time to mostly developing and carving our safe spaces within our own communities to facilitate healing? (This is a question I don’t have an answer to myself, tbh)
ST: Most definitely the second option. I could see why those would strive for the first option because mainstream influence is so insidious and powerful, but I’m most interested in the well being my people. I’m interested in the art my people make. I’m interested in healing my people and moving us forward at our pace, in our own space. Am I totally apprehensive of dealing with the mainstream? definitely not but it’s not my main focus, not at all. The mainstream is doing fine. My people aren’t. Also I think it’s very important that people of color have their own space in which they can thrive because it shows that we are enough without white supremacy and I think this is why whiteness does what it can to shut that down before it happens.
MR: You’re very outspoken about your disability, your body, your race, and your financial struggles as a young, black creative living in NYC. All of these conditions inform and affect your work, but also your day-to-day life and yet the intersectional politics of some people often neglect these issues. What do you think we, as a community, have to do to combat this? Can we do it through our work and art?
ST: I think it’s being more aware, always having us in mind. Fat black girls, disabled black girls, fat disabled black girls, we’re always forgotten in the midst of things and I think people just need to be more aware that we exist. And take the time out to truly listen to what we have to say and give us the space to say it. It’s all about being inclusive, make that character in your story fat, disabled, or both. You’re doing a shoot? maybe the model can be fat, disabled or both. It’s all about being mindful, knowing we’re out there waiting to be represented.
MR: Representation is huge, essential at this point in the game. People cannot afford to say that they didn’t “know” or didn’t “realize” they lacked diversity in their stories, movies, writers, staff, etc. I think the laziest excuse has to be that they don’t know where to find “us,” and it’s like…..we’re out here! We’re all around. You’re just choosing to look past us, to ignore our existence, to pass us up for a thin, cis, white body that’s easier to digest.
ST: I talked about this on my Instagram with regards to clothing companies. I feel like at this point in 2016, there should be absolutely no excuse as to why we’re not represented other than you just simply hate us. It’s just that simple, you do not care about our existence, we don’t matter to you, that is basically what this tells us. And I think this is why collective like ours, Sula, La Liga, etc is so important because instead of waiting for those to carve out a space for us we’re making our own space.
Words by Mia Rodriguez. Illustration by Catherine Morton-Abuah.