September 2023 Interview with Carmen Tafolla, author of Warrior Girl
What inspired you to start writing poetry and verse?
I think it was the fact that so much of the literature I heard as a child was not from books but from the oral stories that had been told and retold over the centuries until they were polished in sound and rhythm, like good poetry. And because books were not easy to get, especially in our language, people (and especially children) were encouraged to memorize them, and to declaim long poems. so we could preserve the stories and the messages behind them. It was our way of keeping “hidden books” in our heart, and in our minds. Within a year of learning to write, I was already trying to write poetry.
What theme comes up frequently in your poems/books?
I think one of the most common themes is the struggle to not be silenced, and to not be shamed when you differ from a group, from a community, or from a mainstream culture. We each need to learn how to accept ourselves and our own unique variance from others. When we appreciate the diversity in others and self, we end up with a huge treasure chest of absolutely unique jewels: our friends and our own internal selves become MORE valuable when we accept their/our “specialties” and their /our“weirdness”. In short, we’re ALL wierd, and non-standard in some way. Even identical twins differ from each other in significant ways.
Who are some of your favorite poets?
I absolutely adore reading Maya Angelou, Naomi Shihab Nye, Eddie Vega, Juan Felipe Herrera, ire’ne lara silva, Shel Silverstein, John Keats, Pablo Neruda, e.e. cummings…. poets who speak from the heart , each in their own crazy delightful way. I don’t care if they’re world-renowned or barely published, I don’t care if they’re Poets Laureate, or “Taco Poets”, what matters is that their voices ring true, and they take risks departing from the way “everybody does it” to invent the most effective styles outside the borders of traditional genres.
What’s the best thing someone has said about one of your poems or books?
I was shocked when a fellow writer told me that The Holy Tortilla and a Pot of Beans was the best young adult book she had ever read, but it impacted me even more when, recently, an Arizona teacher told me, “I recognize all my family members in your books. When I read your work, it’s like I finally hear the voices that make my life real and important.”
What would be your number one piece of advice for someone who wants to start writing poetry/verse but doesn’t know where to begin?
Listen to the magic in words, the power in phrases, and write down the ones that stay with you, that echo in your heart. Start with just little words, little images, that reflect the things you love, the things engraved into your memory forever. And then let the word reach out and connect themselves to each other, like a little museum of your life. The phrases people around you say, the looks in people’s eyes. Get in touch with your feelings, and let them play out on the page in little glimpses.
Tell us a little about your newest book Warrior Girl. What inspired Warrior Girl?
I grew up in schools that were considered “the worst schools in town”. Yet the children and the neighborhood were rich places, rich with cultural histories, and beautiful values. Some of those children were very heroic. They worked after school to help buy food for their family. They withstood discrimination and poverty. But they kept their “Birthday Party smiles” and their courage and kindness. This book is a tribute to all the little Warrior Girls and Warrior Boys who are fighting to still keep their joy, their love, and their self-respect.
The ‘arts song/dance’ play a major role in Warrior Girl, can you elaborate on their significance?
As our little 12-year-old She-roe in Warrior Girl discovers, if you can create your OWN DEFINITIONS AND YOUR own CELEBRATIONS for your world, you STILL have power over what happens to you, and that power is the survival skill that can help us survive all kinds of tough stuff. We live in a world with all kinds of tough stuff in it. Kids need to know they are capable of surviving all kinds of things if they can still sing in their own voice their own choices, and still realize the value and the importance of their own story. THAT’s the message I’d like readers to take away after reading Warrior Girl.
Public librarians from all over the world will read this interview. Is there something you would like to tell them?
Seguro que SI! I want to remind them how important they are to feeding not just the minds and imaginations of people young and old, but also to feeding their souls. Books give you wings, but librarians are the ones who sneak the books into people’s lives, one wingfeather at a time. They model the compassion and imagination that keep us all more human, and more humane. I bow in great admiration to the selfless and massive work librarians do. Gracias de todo corazón.