Find a story you want to tell, go out and tell it!

Speaking with Professor Martha Bátiz about creative writing, perseverance and doing what one loves to do

Foto: Archivo personal
Foto: Archivo personal

In the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at the University of Toronto, we are lucky to have excellent faculty members from all over the world. Each edition of Palabra & Voz will present you with a conversation with a professor from our tight-knit community, in order to give students the opportunity to learn about their instructors outside the classroom.

For our second edition, we interviewed Prof. Martha Bátiz – an award-winning Mexican-Canadian writer. She teaches Literary Translation at Glendon College at York University and and leads a Creative Writing in Spanish  workshop at the School of Continuing Studies at the University of Toronto. During the first semester of the 2014-2015 academic year, the students in the Department of Spanish & Portuguese had the opportunity to take part in the first-ever in Canada course in Creative Writing in Spanish for Undergraduates. 

We sincerely thank Prof. Martha Bátiz for taking the time to answer our questions and share her expertise with us. We congratulate her on the recent publication of Desde el norte: narrativa canadiense contemporánea and wish her luck with the upcoming projects this summer!

Interview conducted by Catriona Spaven-Donn and Joana Milcheva

Q: The creative writing class in Spanish that you offered at the University of Toronto in Fall 2014 was the first of its kind to be offered in Canada. How did this course come about?

M.B: I created this course originally for the School of Continuing Studies at U of T. When I first arrived in Canada back in 2003, I was yearning to continue my writing. I was used to participating in workshops in Mexico all the time, and I wasn’t able to find one Spanish that was serious enough for what I was used to before. I did not want to join a group that just would say, “What you wrote is really nice, well done!” – I wanted some structure, criticism, and for it to be more demanding.

I discovered that the School of Continuing Studies at UofT offered a certificate in creative writing in English. I thought it would be great to join, as a challenge for myself, and also as a way to improve my own language skills in English. Once I had completed all the courses and obtained the certificate, I became very familiar with what was required. I offered the university to do the exact same thing, but in Spanish. We would have an equivalent, but in another language just so people like me, who wanted to write in Spanish, could go there and do it. The university  was very receptive to this idea. [I did receive a positive response from York-Keele’s Spanish section when I pitched the idea for a creative writing in Spanish course, but I never followed up afterwards. Everything was going so smoothly in terms of submitting a formal proposal at the University of Toronto, that I stayed there. You can’t experiment at various places at the same time, so I concentrated all my energy there.] In 2009, we ran a course with nine or ten people, which was twice the amount I needed to offer the course, and it has been running and growing ever since – every year, twice a year.

In the beginning, I had to do a lot of lobbying and promotion because nobody knew this was happening. No one in the Hispanic community goes out of their way to get the course calendar of the School of Continuing Studies and if they do get it, they aren’t going to browse through it looking for a creative writing course in Spanish among one thousand other courses. I even had to go out and approach Hispanic media.

After having done this for five years, I finally went to the Department of Spanish and Portuguese and said, “Listen! This is working! It has been working for five years now and I was wondering if you would like to try it out, because students who are studying literature might also benefit from having the opportunity to create some literature of their own.” I already knew that some students had the itch for and the interest in writing in Spanish. I was very lucky because once [the members of the Department] saw that the course had been running at the School of Continuing Studies for five years already, they said, “OK, let’s give it a try and see if it works.” It was done in the same way – if enough people signed up, we would run the course.

And, boy, it was a very big group! Had I known this at the beginning, I would have asked for two groups. Our literary workshop works better when it’s smaller – at the School of Continuing Studies, I usually have between five and seven people. With a group that small, you can work a lot and really intensely. In a group of 23, it is very different.

I think, in the end, that it worked out well. I did my best to make sure that nobody would miss out on anything and that everybody would get a chance to present, to create and to do the exercises. That was really the story behind it

With the exception of a small university in British Columbia, this was the first time that an undergraduate course like this had been given in Canada at that level.

Q: Will it happen again?

M.B.: I hope so! I haven’t been informed, but I am crossing my fingers that they say we can try again – I am more than willing to do it. I loved doing it!

Q: We know that you teach Translation at York University. How is the Department of Spanish and Portuguese different from the department there?

M.B.: [We are privileged in the GTA to have so many options to pursue a BA in Spanish: downtown there are Ryerson and U of T, midtown there’s Glendon, and then up north there’s York-Keele. There’s no excuse not to learn Spanish if you really want to. The difference is that U of T offers graduate degrees, and therefore it allows for students to deepen their knowledge a lot more than the other places. Having said that, I firmly believe that the profs at all these departments have in common a very strong academic background, and that they live for what they teach and do, which makes it very attractive to study and work there.

I love teaching at U of T, I loved being a student there, and I love Glendon, too, because it has this translation area which is quite unique and growing so much right now. It’s very exciting and I feel privileged to be able to be part of both institutions, even if only as a sessional professor.]

Q: You have mentioned working with renowned Mexican writers at literary talleres at the National Autonomous University of Mexico  (UNAM). What was this experience  like and how has  it  helped you as a writer?

M.B: I started writing by accident – I think you need to know this. If you would have asked me when I was a teenager, “Do you ever want to be a writer?” my answer would have been “No, are you kidding me?” When I started writing, it was more out of a necessity: my first boyfriend broke my heart, so I wanted to go out and kill him. Instead of  doing that, I started writing stories about killing him! (C.S-D & J.M laugh) I need to be honest with you because that explains how I arrived to the writing workshops.

While in Mexico, I didn’t have much information about workshops, but I knew that if you got a scholarship, it would include workshops with renowned writers. When I was doing this project, which ended up being my first book called A todos los voy a matar (C.S-D & J.M laugh), I applied for a scholarship [for beginner writers in the Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes. I was 21 years old and I had only written two stories by then, so I submitted them as a sample of my work. If they had asked me for more samples, I wouldn’t have had anything else to give them. To my surprise, I was awarded this scholarship, and that’s how I met a very famous Mexican writer called Daniel Sada.

Daniel Sada, who passed away two years ago, is still a very respected Mexican writer [he passed away two years ago]. His style was very baroque – he used to write counting the syllables. He has a whole  novel in endecasílabos and a whole novel in versos alejandrinos… He was my first mentor when I had no experience writing and he shaped a lot of what I did and still do to this day. The workshops were conducted once a week, and every week we had to bring something. In comparison, what we did at U of T was very  mild! He was very strict, though not as strict as some other mentors I had later on…He was the one who started training me in terms of how you create a character and how you have to mind your language and be careful with the verb tenses – things that I didn’t do consciously…

After that, I decided I had really enjoyed the scholarship experience and I decided: ‘Okay, I already had this one, so what’s next?’ I started looking things up and I found there was this place called El Centro Mexicano de Escritores. That was a long shot because even though it was a place that awarded scholarships to beginner writers, people who had already proven their talent and ability came out of there – for example, Carlos Fuentes wrote La región más transparente there, and Juan Rulfo had also been a mentor and writer  there. So really, the most important  Mexican writers have been there either as mentors or as people who have been awarded this scholarship. But I decided, ‘if I try and I don’t get it that’s fine, and if I get it, it would be great.’ I submitted my application and, to my surprise, I got selected for that too. That’s when my writing started getting really serious, because in this place nothing was a game anymore.

The professors there were Carlos Montemayor, who was a Mexican novelist, short story writer, poet and also a defender of human rights (especially indigenous rights in Mexico), and poet Alí Chumacero. They worked in tandem as mentors. Carlos Montemayor was really harsh. If we had to bring something every two weeks, it had to be really good, and if it wasn’t, he would let you know in not a very kind way. He would be the one who would tear your text apart, throw it in the garbage bin. I arrived with a stomach ache every single time that we were going to go over my stories because I never knew what I was going toget. I think only twice that year I got a big heads up from Carlos Montemayor saying, “Wow, this character is alive, the story is great.” It was also a big lesson in what a writer’s job really is, because when you’re a writer you fall in love with what you are writing and you usually think that it’s great and that everyone should understand it and be moved by it…

I wrote a lot during that time; you were not allowed to bring a rewrite, everything had to be new. It was very tough, but I think it also shaped my resilience and the intention within myself to prove that I could do it, that I was not joking about it and that this really meant something to me. It didn’t matter how many times I failed, I was going to keep at it.

When that scholarship was over, I tried for the last one that was available for people my age. I was already 24 by then. I went and applied for the Beca de jóvenes creadores del FONCA del Fondo nacional para la cultura de las artes (Scholarship for Young Writers of the National Fund for Culture and Arts)– and I got in for that one as well. My friends started calling me “la niña de las becas” (“the scholarship girl”). It was really a lucky beginning for me as someone who was learning to write.

That last scholarship was very hard because I was the only woman in a group of all males – very misogynistic males who were also writing short stories. They wanted to conduct all of the meetings in a run-down cantina where, of course, whenever I showed up, all the drunk guys around wanted to slap my bum and do the kind of thing that men do to women in Mexico (especially when they are drunk and you are in a place like that), so I had a lot of issues with them that way. But it also made me stronger. I had to put my foot down and convince them that what I was trying to do mattered, regardless of them thinking that women should stay home and never write. The only one who ever got away with it, in their opinion, was Virginia Woolf.

By the end of that year I had become utterly shameless and I already had a book ready because I had written so much. Out of a pile of many dozens of stories, I picked twelve that I thought had a future and I went back to [Daniel Sada’s workshop] to start working on them again. It was really a long process. When I finally got to my first book, many years had gone by and I had reworked those stories endlessly – not one draft or two drafts, but five or six drafts each. By the time it was done, I was very happy with the results. Daniel wrote the prologue for the book and I launched it in Mexico, before I got married and moved to the United States.

That’s basically the story of how I was formed as a writer. I was very lucky because of these scholarships, but also because the people who were mentoring me were so demanding, so good at their craft, so utterly focused on having everything come out the best that it could be [However] my experience when I arrived in Canada [was difficult]. I didn’t fit in any of the workshops I found because everyone was writing stuff and all they wanted was a place to showcase their things and receive praise. I was used to showing my things and being beaten up (laughter). I actually like that, you know, I think you learn more that way. So I went to U of T and I liked it because I got beaten up in English, which was a new experience for me. People were very nice and open to my wanting to write in a language that was not my own. Everything evolved so that this workshop that we’re having now in Spanish came to be… but it was a long way to get here.

Q: Aside from academia, what other opportunities and/or benefits does the Canadian literary scene offer to you personally as a writer? In this regard, what do you think are the biggest differences between Mexico and Canada?

M.B.: I think the landscape is improving greatly because there are more Spanish-speaking people now than there were when I arrived twelve years ago. For one, there is more Hispanic media and it is starting to have more visibility. Take into consideration a magazine called Latinos that you can find in the subway sometimes, which was unheard of when I arrived here. You would never find anything Spanish unless you went to the taco joints, right? (laughs) The community is growing. Its presence is growing and, of course, its need for written material in its own language is also growing.

There are a lot of Hispanic-Canadian writers. There are some anthologies being made – not so much here in Toronto, I think most of the people who actually do that work are in Ottawa and in Montreal. I know there are large groups of Chilean writers who are in the Ottawa and Montreal areas, working actively to build a community of Hispanic-Canadian writers. I think that’s very important because there is a big diaspora of Mexican-American and Hispanic-American people in the United States whose voices are starting to be heard. The Chicano literature, and the Mexican-American literature are important. I mean, look at Junot Díaz. That’s exactly what he does and he has been incredibly successful; his books are amazing. I think we are ‘in diapers’ here that way – our writing community is much smaller than the one in the U.S., just because in the U.S. there are a lot more people. But we’re slowly opening up new venues and new publications.

Now, in terms of differences between what life is in Mexico for a writer here, I think it’s unfair to compare because a writer in Mexico, Spanish is the native language. And, of course, it’s hard to get publication spaces [here]. When I was there, I had a weekly column in a newspaper that I sustained for nine years and there were other magazines that asked me to collaborate. Here, of course, you have less options and what you write isn’t going to necessarily stay in the margins because the mainstream is in English or in French, right? Spanish – I don’t think we are even close to the third-strongest language here in Canada. I think Hindi or Urdu and Mandarin or Cantonese are way stronger, for example, in terms of numbers and readership. But I think that, since it’s here that we have chosen to live and to build our careers, it is our duty – it is the duty of every person who speaks Spanish and who wishes to write to strengthen the writing community here; to do whatever they can to bring attention to it and to add with efforts and quality work, just to make everybody aware that we exist and that we have something to say.

Once you do that in Spanish, there is always the option of translation. Then you can go and seek publication spaces in journals or magazines or newspapers in English, but for that you have to have something that’s really good quality in Spanish first. So, I think it’s an evolving process that I feel privileged to witness.

Q: Do you think that you would now define yourself as a Mexican-Canadian writer, after having transitioned to the environment here?

M.B.: I do see myself as a Mexican-Canadian writer because I have been here for twelve years, and I left Mexico fifteen years ago. I go back and, in many ways, I am a tourist in my own land, The culture has changed without me, it has evolved. It’s different than the way it was when I was growing up there. I understand a lot of the world now from a Canadian perspective. There are things that in Mexico are normal that I now find horrible because I have been living here and I know that things can be different. Someone who hasn’t lived abroad or who doesn’t have the chance to travel, they don’t know there’s another reality or another possibility…When you learn that, it’s hard to conform to the way you were before, or the way that things are handled somewhere else. Because, of course, I would like for Mexico to improve in so many ways. It’s frustrating for me to see that it’s not happening as fast as I would like for it to happen. So, yes. I totally identify myself as a Mexican-Canadian writer and as a Hispanic-Canadian writer and that’s who I’ve become. I didn’t set out to be that, it wasn’t my goal, but that’s who I am.

Q: You have also explored writing in English. In a linguistic and/or literary sense, which language provides you with more options? Is there a specific genre you attach to a language?

M.B.: No, I think in terms of genre both short stories and novels or novelas work perfectly, both in English and in Spanish. I think novels have an advantage now because that’s what is getting published more often. Publishing short stories and short story collections has been really hard for a while now. Some people say that, had Julio Cortázar lived nowadays, he would have a really hard time publishing because…short story collections  don’t sell as well as novels. So that’s a challenge in any language, not just in English or in Spanish.

Writing in English for me is very hard. It takes a long time. I have to use my dictionary for almost every line. It’s not something that comes organically or easily. I do it because I don’t want to stay at the margins forever. I want to slowly sneak into the literary world here and if I have to do it by writing in English, I will die trying, you know? The one thing I learned when I was doing all those workshops in Mexico is that, no matter how many times you fail, you just get back in the saddle and keep going. That’s what I intend to do and that’s what I have been doing. I think both languages, English and Spanish, are very rich. You can build amazing things if you know the language well enough and if you are humble enough to go to the dictionary with questions, to not believe that you have all the answers already. I think for me writing in English is also a less stressing experience, even though it’s hard, because if I write something in English and it sucks, it’s okay because it’s in English, right? In Spanish I am much more demanding of myself because that’s my craft and that’s my mother language. When I’m writing in Spanish everything has to be the way I was taught it should be – every sentence the exact length it’s supposed to be. In English I don’t have that because, hey, what the hell do I know? I’m experimenting, right?

Q: As you mentioned, your writing evolved naturally, through a process of catharsis. What would you response be to the idea of a ‘right time’ to start writing?

M.B.: I think there isn’t one. I think the amazing thing about writing is that anyone can really get to it at any point in their lives, provided they have a story to tell. I think most people have a story to tell. It’s more [about] how you aregoing to tell that story so it’s interesting and appealing to other people, right? Other than yourself or your immediate family…In terms of writing, all you need is an open mind, an open heart, an open notebook and a pen. I don’t think it gets any easier than that (laughing). The thing is, to be a writer – you need to really be willing to listen to what others have to say and to what others have to teach you. You have to leave your ego outside the room at the very beginning because otherwise you are never going to really be open enough to explore new ways, new possibilities – to take risks that won’t necessarily bring you to failure. If you are afraid of failing, then you will never take that extra leap. You don’t know where that extra leap is going to take you, and it’s a pity if you never find out. I’m all for leaping and falling down, scraping your knees and getting up again. I think that writing is the perfect discipline to allow someone to do that, provided they don’t mind not being perfect all the time – you can’t [be].

Q: What are some of your favourite books and authors?

M.B.: Ah, that’s a hard question because there are a lot of writers and books that I love. I think you have to read in the language that you want to write in. So, when I am about to embark on writing something in English, I read stuff in English. And when I am writing in Spanish I read stuff in Spanish, just to strengthen my vocabulary and my syntax and refresh my memory – to have that language there, alive, for me, at my disposal. Having said that, back then when I started I was absolutely crazy over – and I still am crazy over – Joyce Carol Oates, the American writer, who is very prolific. I am her biggest fan. I love her stories and the more violent they are, the more I love them…When I discovered her, I immediately felt like she was writing for me.

I also love Toni Morrison. She is also an American writer and her book Beloved is definitely my favourite. I think if I ever could ever have a dream come true, it would be to write one line as beautifully as all of that book is written. It’s fantastic – a fantastic story, a fantastic book, fantastic characters. It’s a book that has stayed with me for decades. I read it a long time ago and I really enjoyed it and I still go back to it from time to time.

I think in Spanish my super-favourite would be Pedro Páramo, it’s also a book I go back to all the time – every year, I read it once. Juan Rulfo, I love Rulfo And I also love Elena Garro, who’s a Mexican writer. I connect to her writing as well. So I could mention those writers in general, although, of course, there are many more – Mario Vargas Llosa, my boyfriend. (laughter) You know, I’m so in love with that guy, he’s so handsome and so brilliant and his writing is amazing. The one time I met him, I think I couldn’t even say my name aloud. (laughter) I have read, if not all of his novels, most of them., And Junot Díaz – I’m a big fan of his, I’ve read his three books and I think they are awesome. I’m always looking out to see who else is writing, what are they doing, how are they successful.

In terms of Canadian Literature, I am super fond of Lawrence Hill – I don’t know if you read The Book of Negroes, but it’s a fantastic novel. There are valuable people here as well. Tonight I am launching an Anthology of Canadian Short Stories that I translated with my Glendon students…And there are thirteen Canadian authors featured there who are all amazing. It’s always a pleasure to go out and keep on reading and discovering great things.

Q: Could you elaborate on the violent imagery in  your writing?

M.B.: I was always the kind of girl who would read vampire stories and horror stories. I drew a line lately with Stephen King because the last time I finished reading one of his books, I couldn’t sleep for over a month! So I was like: ‘Okay, I’m getting too old for this, I cannot handle it as well as I could before.’

Everyone has a different taste. Some people cannot handle violence; they want something that’s going to be nurturing and heart-felt and cute. I have a couple of cute stories too – not my best, I must say, but I have tried that thing as well. It just doesn’t connect so well with me viscerally. I think that when you write, of course you are writing with your head, but first you have to write with your liver and with your stomach and with your kidneys and with everything that’s coming from your stomach. That is what’s really going to build what you’re writing. Then you polish it with your head. I don’t know how people get out of their stomach something that is cute and pink…!

Q: Have you finished writing your first play in English, Last Stop, about the girl on the streetcar?  

M.B.: (laughs) No, I haven’t had a chance to finish it, but I got a scholarship from the Ontario Council for the Arts to finish it!…I have a deadline for August, so I need to get started doing that. I also have a deadline for a new short story collection in English, so I really need to start doing that as well. I am just basically waiting for the term to be over so I can do my own stuff.

I have things coming up with my students at Glendon. I teach Literary Translation there and after teaching it for three years, I started being bored of having the students translate something and then not being able to publish it. Because we needed to have the rights of the stories, it was complicated. I decided to approach writer friends, both in Spanish and in English, for them to give me stories for my students. Then I said [to my students], “Give me a story, I promise you will get it published. I don’t know when, I don’t know where, but I’ll get to it.” After three years of working with different students, different generations…we finished the project and it turned into a book. It is [also] going to be a magazine.

I did a book with all the translations into Spanish of thirteen award-winning Canadian writers. For the translations into English, I looked for stories by Hispanic-Canadian writers. That’s why I know that most of them are in Ottawa and Montreal – because I started researching and looking them up and asking them for stories. Those translations are going to appear in a magazine that they publish in Montreal at the end of March.

So, I’ve been overseeing those projects. Believe me, working as an editor is really tiresome because you have to look at those manuscripts time and time and time again until you know them by heart. It took a lot of my time to get those projects up and running.

Q: Do you have any advice for young writers, especially those who aspire to work in other languages in countries where English is dominant?

M.B.: My advice would be: find other people like you, because there’s strength in numbers. I’m not saying necessarily become best friends with them, but you need to know who they are and what they are doing, connect with them and offer support in any way that you can give, if necessary. Connect with them so you can start building a community.

I think the sense of community is very important for any group of people who are not in their native country and who are immersed in a language that’s not their mother language. You need to find other people like you…to share experiences and to see what you can do together as a group, to find support from them and maybe feedback. That would be the first thing.

The second thing would be: find out what media there is so you can publish your stories. I am a firm believer in not putting your stories in a drawer. I think that when a story has been worked on and is good enough [to] be shared, it should be published. It’s a pity not to publish. So, find the media [and] get in touch with the people who might eventually publish it.

The last piece of advice would just be to write and write and write and write until you get it to a stage where it is presentable, or more than presentable. And be ready to fail more often than not. Submit applications for scholarships and awards, and be prepared to fail more often than not.

Keep at it – if your passion is big enough and your commitment is strong enough, you will be able to cope with the huge disappointment that comes with being a writer. You know, it’s not that everybody gets recognition and fame and awards immediately – it can take a while. It might never happen. You have to be ready to keep on working no matter what. Regardless of all of the obstacles you will face, you have to keep at it.

So I would say find a story you want to tell, go out and tell it, write as many drafts as necessary so that it is told in the best way possible, and then pitch it somewhere. Once it has been published, forget about it and get on to the next project. If you’re rejected, then forget about it and try again somewhere else. I am a huge advocate for forgetfulness when you are a writer! (laughs)…It’s a rule of mine – whenever I submit something, I immediately forget it. I delete whatever email contact I had with that thing, I throw into the garbage any piece of paper that might remind me of it. I look at those things like little barquitos de papel (paper boats) in the ocean – they will either get there or they will sink. If they get there, I will find out; if they don’t, it’s okay, I will not remember! (everyone chuckles)