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Ten Questions for Jen Soriano

What inspired you to tell this story?

A lot of sleepless nights lying awake in pain! And Audre Lorde, whose book The Cancer Journals, was the first book that showed me a model of how to blend personal illness narrative with political analysis and purpose. In The Cancer Journals Audre Lorde wrote, “I had known the pain, and survived it. It only remained for me to give it voice, to share it for use, that the pain not be wasted.” I was thankfully not suffering from cancer, but I was living with invisible and debilitating chronic pain that seemed to demand a form of expression. So I took Lorde’s line as a mandate. How could I give voice to my pain and share it, so that it would not be wasted?

Also, I wrote this book to be my own witness and advocate for integrative health. I wanted to assemble a meaningful narrative about the chronic pain and mental health challenges I had experienced for most of my life, a deeper narrative than I ever got to share through doctor’s appointments or even psychotherapy. Writing Nervous allowed me to assemble fragments of diagnoses, small realizations from therapy, and insights from my own research into a larger health and wellness framework that incorporated not just my own lived experience, but ancestral history as well.

What did you edit out of this book?

A whole essay about the lack of mental health care I experienced while I was a college student in the 90s. It would have required a lot more investigative reporting to pass legal muster, and I decided to leave that for a possible future project on trauma-informed higher education.

How did you know you were done? What did you discover about yourself upon completion?

There were so many moments when I was done as in – I don’t think I can do this anymore! Writing personal narrative requires an enormous amount of emotional labor and at several points along the way I got so drained I wanted to give up. I had to draw on my best spiritual and artistic support people to revive and keep going. 

I knew I was actually finished with the whole manuscript after I read it out loud – twice – and every sentence read smoothly to me, and the concepts fit together like puzzle pieces. That’s not to say everything is resolved in the end. On the contrary, the essays I write are like mosaics with blank spaces and interruptions. But I worked to make sure that everything on the page was there for a reason, and that each component had a relationship to the rest of the fragments in a way that created useful meaning for myself and will hopefully do the same for readers.

Upon completion I discovered that much of the fear I had about sharing my personal story dissolved. I realized that the hardest part had been in the actual writing—which is to say, the excruciating reflection and digging for insight that is the process of writing personal essay and memoir—and that few critiques that come from the outside could be harsher than my own inner critic.

What was your agenting process like?

I spent about two years looking for an agent. I started querying a handful of agents as soon as I finished my MFA thesis, which was like a very first discovery draft. The only agent who replied said she couldn’t imagine a market for my book. That was rough. But I also knew it wasn’t true because I’ve always been clear on who my audience is and there are millions of us (BIPOC people who care about mental health). I worked on my manuscript without querying for another year, and when I queried again I reached out to about 65 agents. Six of them replied and three of them made offers. I was able to choose the one whose vision for the book most aligned with my own, and one who was willing to work with me on a book proposal that could sell.

What was the best money you ever spent as a writer?

Ummm…the inordinate amount of money I spend on candles? I light candles whenever I need to journey down into what I think of as that underground writing grotto where you can access deeper experience and insight than above ground everyday life allows. The flames help me feel accompanied in that process. Also I’m a fire sign and a pyro, so I burn through a lot of candles.

How many hours a day do you write? Break down your typical writing day.

I’m terrible at routine, which is why I work as a consultant for social justice organizations and campaigns – every day is different. As a working parent who wrote my book as my child grew from a baby to a nine-year-old, the only thing typical about my writing days was that I fit in writing whenever I could: tapping out ideas on my phone Scrivener app while on the bus or train, recording voice memos while preparing meals, writing in between meetings and after I put my kid to bed. Probably the most consistent times I would get writing done was in the middle of the night when I couldn’t sleep because of my chronic illness. Once I signed a contract and was lucky enough to receive an advance, I was able to focus on finishing the book. I set goals of six to ten hours of writing per week (that means time actually generating words or revising on the page) and then did research, interviews, reading as necessary around those core hours of writing.

What are your top three tips to help develop your writing muscle?

Read authors whom you admire, read as much as possible of what they write, and don’t be afraid to mimic or borrow their style as an exercise to help you develop your own.

Take craft classes wherever you can: libraries sometimes offer free classes, writers organizations like Hugo House and Vermont Studio Center and Hedgebrook offer online classes.

Believe in the stories that are inside of you. They deserve space to live and breathe. Try freewriting for short intervals, 15 to 25 minutes at a time, where you let whatever words need to come out flow from your pen or your keyboard, without self-censorship or self-criticism. Some of my favorite lines of my book have come from freewrites like this.

What does literary success look like to you?

Having my work contribute to deeper connections among people and to structural change. Specifically, connecting with others who come from backgrounds of historical trauma and who live with mental illness and chronic pain, and having conversations that advance causes touched on in my book. These include: advocating for cradle to grave integrative mental health care, advancing reproductive justice and more equitable care for Black and IPOC infants and birthing parents, and promoting investment in paid family leave and early childhood development as a public health-scale investment in trauma support and prevention.

What other authors are you friends with, and how do they help you become a better writer?

There are too many to list so apologies to anyone I don’t name here! But I have to give a shoutout to my friend Aimee Suzara, a poet and mother who was one of my first examples of a professional writer and performer who blended activism and art. Also Donna Miscolta and Michelle Peñaloza, who were my first writer friends in Seattle and who welcomed me into the literary network of the city. Angela Garbes whose older daughter was in a nanny share with my child and who has been a publishing mentor for me. And then there is a very special group of people who are part of a writers group called Luna Moon: Adriana Rambay, Constance Collier-Mercado, Ro Alegria, Chekwube Danladi, and Shilpi Suneja, whose stunning debut novel House of Caravans was published last September. These human beings have supported me and my writing unconditionally, and their feedback and artistry are deeply embedded in Nervous.

Who are you writing for?

Honestly, I wrote this for a 17 year old version of me – I wish I had had a book like this to read at that age. But in a broader sense I wrote Nervous for anyone who has felt lost and alone, anyone struggling with physical and/or emotional pain, anyone trying to make sense of what they carry in their body that might feel larger than themselves. Hopefully Nervous can help these readers realize that there’s hope and they aren’t alone at all.

Jen Soriano (she/they) is a Filipinx writer and movement builder who has long worked at the intersection of grassroots organizing, narrative strategy, and art-driven social change. Jen has won the International Literary Award for Creative Nonfiction, the Fugue Prose Prize, and fellowships from Hugo House, Vermont Studio Center, Artist Trust, and the Jack Jones Literary Arts Retreat. Jen is also an independent scholar and performer, author of the chapbook “Making the Tongue Dry,” and co-editor of Closer to Liberation: A Pina/xy Activist Anthology. She received a BA in History and Science from Harvard and an MFA in fiction and nonfiction from the Rainier Writing Workshop. Jen is also a co-founder of the cultural democracy institutions, MediaJustice and ReFrame. Originally from a landlocked part of the Chicago area, Jen now lives with her family in Seattle, near the Duwamish River and the Salish Sea. Her debut book, Nervous: Essays on Heritage and Healing, is now available from Amistad/HarperCollins.

Shop Talk with Tia Hamilton of Urban Reads Bookstore

Tia Hamilton is the founder and owner of Urban Reads Bookstore, which uplifts Black and incarcerated authors. Urban Reads is based in Baltimore, Maryland. You can follow and support Urban Reads on Instagram.

Tell me about your journey to become a bookseller. Why did you open a bookstore? 

My magazine, it’s called The State vs. Us Magazine, it taps into the streets and prison and highlights high-profile cases. It talks about the corruption that goes on in the prison, police, and government. It highlights wrongful convictions and success stories of the formerly incarcerated, such as myself. So, I rolled it up in a dope situation, and it’s in the prisons; it’s the number-one source from prisons to the streets, and there’s no other magazine like it. I wanted a store presence. I went to Downtown Locker Room (DTLR), which is an apparel sneaker store where a lot of the gangsters go. I went to these locations with no success. So, I said, “Fuck it. Ya’ll want me in the game? I’m in the game.” But I wasn’t looking at the game as being a bookstore owner: I was just wanting to get in the game [to distribute the magazine]. Right? And it just turns into something different. I’m providing literacy to people who are in prison. When I started the magazine, I wanted the bookstore to put my magazine on the shelf and prison authors on the shelf. So, that’s what I’m doing. In 2019, I had the bookstore. 

What was your path to becoming so passionate about literature and about literacy?

Well, I was nothing but a drug dealer and gangbanger who ended up in the streets, but I was also a smart hustler. I had education. My mother was highly educated. My mother’s never been in trouble, never been in jail. She was educated and didn’t educate. So, I went out to the streets to see if I could get it. I went [to prison] for nine months. It will be 18 years in 2024 since I’ve been home, but in the meantime, I had cousins and family members and homeboys going back and forth to prison. I was able to see the disconnect. I was the one bringing drugs in the system for them to do what they got to do to sell. And I saw all of that disconnect and hunger from these different people. And I always knew something was crazy and wrong. But I couldn’t put my finger on it. 

With your focus on formerly incarcerated people or incarcerated people, and the culture around book bans, how does that influence the way that you select what books go in your store, or which authors have events at your bookstore, and how you advocate for your community?  

Well, the slogan for my store is “The Hub for the Black Author.” My store carries nothing but Black authors, and if it’s a white author in there, then we need to read that. And that’s how I pinpoint who I need in my store. This is for us. This is my love language to Black people. We got to understand that we must read. If we are able to get [kids] to read at a young age, they’re less likely to be in prison. So, it’s important that I instill this literacy. I even do book donations. At book signings, every book that people buy, they can buy one to donate back to the prison. 

That’s how I met author Shanita Hubbard, because I did that at her book signing, and she loved it. And that’s how we got to the Ride Beyond Program [helping incarcerated Black women].

I love it! If Urban Reads is your love letter to Black people, how has the community responded to that love letter? 

Oh, they love it. They love it. I get a lot of people that support me, though white and Black. 

And what challenges have you faced?

It just taints it sometimes, when I’m standing firm in what I believe in: Everything Black with me. And you’re not about to get me to do nothing different. Sometimes that intimidates certain people. And that’s fine. I’m not here to assimilate. I’m here to educate. So if that education intimidates you, you got more learning to do, you got more conversations that need to be had. So, my space is a safe space for those conversations, for those group conversations that we can have, putting that uncomfortable truth on the frontline. I’m okay with that because I’m prepared for the conversation. It’s just that my white counterparts, some of them aren’t. And some of them are mad at me. Some of them do put negative comments out about me.

Have you found a supportive community from other Black booksellers or from booksellers of color, whether they’re in Baltimore or just the broader community, across the country? 

I got this Black wall in my store with pictures of our ancestors and famous quotes on the wall. People have come from as far as the West Coast (California), the South (Alabama), East Coast, (Boston), to see this wall, and to be on this wall, and to get their famous picture. Because what I do with my customers, I take pictures [of them and] their purchases. I put them on the wall. And I started that craze going on. So, everybody says, “Yo, I want a picture!” 

What I also do is, I take that picture and I put it on Instagram, and I tag those authors. It could be Nikole Hannah-Jones, it could be Michelle Obama, it could be Jada Pinkett-Smith, Tabitha Brown. All of these people have reposted my pictures, have posted me on their page, have done all of this stuff. When I went on Michelle Obama’s page, I said, “Girl, it only took you three years, but I’ll take it!” Those are the things that I do for my customers to show them 1) They are appreciated, and 2) To show these authors where their support is coming from.

Is there a book that lives in your head rent-free? Is there something you commonly recommend for people to start with?

It depends on their reading level. I’m going back and forth with these racists on TikTok right now. I’m like, “There’s a history book with your name on it. Send me your address. I’ll send you a book.” We got Assata Shakur. We got the 1619 Project. Bet on Black by Ebony Williams. We got Angela Davis’s biography. Walter Mosley is good. My magazine, The State vs. Us. There’s a lot of history in my magazine. And when you read it, you’re going to be learning a lot. People think they can’t learn from felons. The smartest person and the hardest-working person you’re going to find comes from prison. People need to give us a chance. 

What are you looking forward to with Urban Reads?

More locations. More locations to put out this literature and this word. I want prison illiteracy, that rate, to go down, due to me helping that number go down. I have two locations: My main location, which has My Mama’s Vegan Cafe—that I’m a co-owner of—inside. And my other location is in Lexington market, downtown Baltimore. And everywhere my location goes, My Mama’s Vegan Cafe is going to go with us. 

Black and Brown bookstores owners do the important work of curating, amplifying, and preserving the rich throughline of stories that feed us. They are vital members of our local and global communities. Where there is a movement, there are books. But who captures the stories of the booksellers themselves? In this column, SHOP TALK, profiling booksellers, Dara Mathis turns the lens onto Black and Brown bookstores around the world, honoring the journeys that bring them to our neighborhoods.

Sydney Valerio | Mama’s Writing

Mama’s Writing is Raising Mothers’ monthly interview series, curated by Starr Davis.

What recent writing accomplishment(s) are you most proud of? Was this accomplishment shared and supported by your children?

There are several key writing accomplishments I secured [last] year for which I am very grateful. First one: I became a writer for Race The Bronx which is a running company that creates races in Bronx parks. I wrote articles and interviews I conducted with runners in our community. Second one: I studied with Mitchell Jackson at the Kenyon Review Workshop in Ohio [last] summer. I engaged with new writers–BOOM, BOOM, BAPS–and returned to my writing practice after a bit of a hiatus. Third one: I launched a Substack account in November after running my second marathon of the season. All of these accomplishments were supported by my college-aged daughters. Whenever I shared the updates they simply replied: Mom, this is so you!

Tell about a time mom-guilt emerged (or emerges) in the midst of your writing process.

Mom guilt emerged when I was in my early years of motherhood. I was establishing a career as a high school English teacher, attempting to make time to write, and balancing being fully present for my two daughters. Sitting still to write for a moment felt like I wasn’t fulfilling my motherly duties. My writing voice was overtaken by academic writing or writing curriculum.

If you could go back and give yourself advice before becoming a mom, what would it be?

Sydney, you got this! Fill those journal pages. Carry those small notebooks. See the world in order to realize that you are ultimately your home.

What topics, artistic channels, or forms have become present that were not there before in your writing since becoming a parent?

There is an urgency now to write about my health journey which wasn’t present before becoming a parent. Running as a person who has chronic anemia or who is navigating a cancer scare has surfaced in my writing since becoming a parent. I didn’t find a writing community until more than a decade of being a mother. The local NYC writing community certainly provided artistic channels I have leaned on and helped build in recent years.

Do you ever find yourself dealing with censorship as a mom-writer? 

I haven’t had to censor myself as a mom-writer. I take risks in my writing and show up as my authentic self. I am a creative non-fiction writer. As such, I center on emotional truths and perspective. My daughters have attended my readings. I know that how they perceive my writing at this stage in life will shift as they mature. The more acquainted they become with my work the more they will understand the socio-cultural history of our backgrounds.

How has parenting bolstered or inhibited your creativity?

Parenting is a motivating force to write but it also prohibits me from having the time to do it. I am a single parent and am the first generation. I work several jobs to afford to live in The Bronx and to support my daughters. The role of mother keeps me busy even while I have bursts of empty nest mode when they are away at college. Parenting means I maintain two lives other than my own. It keeps me busy with survival mode tasks. All the while writing beckons me to make it one of those top tasks. I have found ways to have doses of writing make their way onto the page or a screen. The reality is though that parenting comes first until my daughters are set and out of college.

Was there a noticeable shift in your writing before and after parenthood? If yes, how so? 

Parenthood provided me with the urgency to write poetry and stories. I became a mother at 19. I have always written since I remember learning how to read and write. However, motherhood compelled me to turn to blank pages from the moment I learned I was pregnant.

How has the internet influenced you as both a writer and parent?

The internet provides access to resources and community. It also is a distraction and presents nudges now and then of how I should do more because I am capable of doing more writing. As a parent, the internet doesn’t play a huge role. I entered motherhood before social media existed on the scale that it does today. As a parent, I chose to shield my daughters from it for the most part. We are very media conscious and may send each other funny videos now and then but at the end of the day we steer away from the internet when it comes to our relationships.

How have other mother figures you have encountered in your community influenced your parenting? Your writing?

I always lean on the women in my community for assurance and support. I have a pair of friends whose children are of similar age to my own. We are all first generation and lean on each other to support the ways we continue traditions, change cycles, and hold each other accountable. My writing hasn’t been influenced by other mother figures in direct ways but when I think of it, the writers in my local community who are also mothers do inspire one another and share resources with one another. There is an unspoken understanding that we all need a nudge from time to time to take the time to write.

How do you balance motherhood/parenting and finding the space to write?

I balance motherhood/parenting and finding space to write with a mindset that heavily leans on having grace for myself in the times I do and don’t write. I understand there are times of the year that become more busy than others. I also create visual timelines and vision boards for where I am and want to be as a writer. It’s all about patience and trusting the timing of life.

Who are your writer-mama heroes?

My writer-mama heroes are all mothers who write. The ones whose names and work I know and those who I don’t know, yet. It is heroic for each of us to create the time and space for our voices. Thank you for doing so for mine.

Sydney Valerio is a creative non-fiction mixed-genre writer, performer, and marathoner. She daylights as an educator & moonlights as a creative. In 2016 she wrote and performed “Matters” a one-woman show at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe. Her poetry is in several anthologies including the BreakBeat Poets Vol. 4: Latinext. She is a 2020 Volcanista and a 2023 Kenyon Review Alumna. A 2019 BRIO Award-winning poet and a NYSEC 2022 Educator of Excellence, Sydney is a graduate of the MFA in Creative Writing program at CCNY. She is the project manager for the CCNY MFA Archives as Muse: a Harlem Storytelling project and the creator of the creative digital archive project: Perspective Matters-NYC Kid Who’s Now a NYC Adult.

Raising Mothers Member Drive

Dear Readers,

In 2012, when I was pregnant with my first child, I knew I wanted to create a space where we centered the narratives of parents. Not in the ways we were used to seeing online. I wasn’t interested in the daily documentation of life, of sharing the stories of children without their consent, of selling “stuff” to fill—the parts of you you felt you lost, the parts of you you think you should be, the parts of you left in utter confusion.

I didn’t want to take advantage, which unfortunately is central to so much of new parenthood. You have to buy this and this and this and that otherwise you’re not, something. No. Having children actually deepened my curiosity of what makes us, us. Something I’d been drawn to from a young age, listening to the stories my grandmother shared. Listening to the spaces between those stories. Wishing I had more time with her, with a more mature mind to ask her about those spaces.

I wanted to make a room for those stories from all of us. Parenting can feel like writing a lot of the time. It can be isolating. Only you know what’s happening inside your body, inside your mind. There’s a lot to process in a short amount of time, while each day stands as its own eternity. Then we come from under the fog. We reach for our neighbor, our friend. We remember that we belong to a community. We don’t have to be alone. Some of us are more fortunate than others in that regard. Some of us find our people in this revelatory phase of life online. We meet our people.

As Raising Mothers grew, I became more confident in allowing other parts of myself to come forward. Everything I do centers Blackness, as that is my lived experience. In that, I take the responsibility to center the silenced. Raising Mothers will always be for everyone, but we are speaking to the Global Majority. We are sharing our narratives, divorced from the white gaze, divorced from the centering of patriarchy. We’re more expansive than when we began.

As Raising Mothers moves into its ninth year of existence, we want to encourage everyone to support our work by becoming a member. Share this drive with your friends and family. Raising Mothers is a small outfit of volunteer staff and has been since the start. A lot of work goes into building this indie magazine and cultivating this community.

Our goal this year is to be able to pay all contributors honoraria. We do not receive grant funding or have a private investor. We’re 100% reader-funded. In the future, that may change, but we never want to rely on ads to generate revenue.

Membership funds allow us to:

Pay all of our writers and eventually pay them more.

Partner with organizations who align with our values

Keep our archives alive and un-paywalled

Keep submissions free.

Most importantly, to remain independent!

Membership is a sliding scale from $5-$50 per month, and if you sign up for annual membership, you save 8%.

Our goal for the next 5 months is to increase our membership by AT LEAST 100 MEMBERS each month. That can be as simple as our first 100 people convincing 5 friends to become members.

Sincerely, Sherisa de Groot
Founder, Raising Mothers

Ten Questions for Jessamine Chan

What inspired you to tell this story?

I began writing The School for Good Mothers in February 2014. At that time, I was heading into my late thirties and constantly ruminating about whether or not my partner and I should have a child. The biological clock pressure was intense, as was my ambivalence. The other source of inspiration was a New Yorker article by the journalist Rachel Aviv, “Where Is Your Mother?,” which appeared in the magazine late 2013. That mother’s heartbreaking story made me start thinking about the injustices of the family court system and planted a kernel of rage in my mind. 

What did you edit out of this book?

If you can believe it, the book I sold to my publisher was actually bleeker. Some scenes of death and violence were edited out. I also worked with my editor, Dawn Davis, to streamline the lessons. We cut about 35 pages in total.

Chan signing books at Women and Children’s First Bookstore.

How did you know you were done? What did you discover about yourself upon completion?

Most of my professional experience has been as an editor and I could tinker with individual sentences forever, so I consider something done when I have to turn in approval on final copy edits. I worked on these edits in 2020, so my memories of that time are a bit fuzzy, but I was surprised that it was hard to let go. I’d devoted my life to this book for so many years, so it was a strange transition to no longer spend all my time in Frida’s head.

What was your agenting process like?

I was in touch with a few agents over the years for my short stories, but I waited until I had a full novel manuscript ready before I queried agents in June 2019. I sent query letters to 13 agents, some via blind queries, some via introductions from friends who were represented by those agents. I wound up receiving five offers. My agent, Meredith Kaffel Simonoff, had the clearest, heart and soul vision for the book and was the best match in terms of literary sensibilities. For the past four years, she’s been my agent/editor/therapist/sister/friend/mom. I can’t believe there was ever a time before Meredith in my writing life.

Signed copy at Pilsen Community Books

What was the best money you ever spent as a writer?

While I have purchased some nice gifts for myself in the past two years, the most necessary spending was on childcare. This book only got done because I had the resources to pay for childcare.  

How many hours a day do you write? Break down your typical writing day.

I sometimes go long periods without writing, so I’m not one of those writers who can tell you about a daily practice. When I am writing, I typically write in the morning and try not to spend too much time online before doing so. The number of hours varies greatly. I always write longhand, so writing is a continual process of rewriting as I type up drafts, write on those drafts, start cutting in MS Word, rewrite some more, cut some more. 

Chan at the Center for Fiction First Novel Fete and Awards Gala. L: Chan posing with book. R: Chan posing with finalists at the Fete.

What are your top three tips to help develop your writing muscle?

1. Read widely. 2. Try writing longhand. 3. Embrace the messy first draft. 

What does literary success look like to you?

The past year and a half have far exceeded my wildest dreams of what publishing my first book would be like. Going forward, I hope to carve out space to play and dream again and get back to the feeling of being able to write whatever I want.  

Chan at P&T Knitwear. L: In conversation with Jia Tolentino. R: Chan posing with Dawn Davis

What other authors are you friends with, and how do they help you become a better writer?

When I was in my twenties, my greatest dream was to be part of a writing community, so to be friends with so many writers now, in my forties, is incredible. To give you a sense of my friend group, my daughter thinks the only job people have is “book writer.” My closest writer pals are Diane Cook and Hilary Leichter (check out their books!), who are old pals from the Columbia MFA program and our post-MFA writing group. They are a huge part of my life and our constant conversation helps me stay excited about writing and creating a life as an artist. We also talk about nitty-gritty business matters and the hustle and remind each other to rest and take care of ourselves.

Translated editions of The School for Good Mothers.

Who are you writing for?

While I’m of course speaking ultimately to readers (and extremely grateful to now have readers!), in my writing practice, when it’s just me with my notebook, I’m writing only for myself. I have to pretend like no one is ever going to read it in order to get my ideas down on the page.

Jessamine Chan is the author of The School for Good Mothers, which was a New York Times bestseller, a Read with Jenna/TODAY Show Book Club pick, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle John Leonard Prize and the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize, longlisted for the PEN/Hemingway Award and the Carnegie Medal, and one of Barack Obama’s Favorite Books of 2022. She lives in Chicago with her family.