2016 Contest: An Interview with Fiction Winner Ava Tomasula y Garcia

Apr 10, 2017Archive, Interviews

Ava Tomasula y Garcia is committed to working for intersectional economic justice—as well as for broader radical change—in the Midwest, where she lives, for as long as she lives. In addition, she aspires to be a writer and animator by night. Ava graduates from Yale University this year, where she currently studies the “human” in human rights rhetoric as an ontological category formed by contemporary racial capitalism. She has long admired Black Warrior Review and is humbled to be in its pages!

Interview by REEM ABU-BAKER

Black Warrior Review: “Videoteca Fin del Mundo” feels like it exists between and across genre. It’s fiction, it’s report, it’s memoir, it’s script or screenplay. What was your process in piecing such an expansive story together?

Ava Tomasula y Garcia: I’d been writing “Videoteca” for at least six years, in a notebook in which I collect pretty much everything: accounts of interactions, transcriptions of news reports on the tv, my own diary entries. During that time, I had been volunteering for the Asylum Seeker Advocacy Project (ASAP) for about half a year. ASAP provides legal services to refugee women and their children fleeing extreme violence in Central America. These families have crossed the U.S./Mexican border to seek safety, but are instead picked up by border patrol and incarcerated in inhumane detention centers run by multi-billion dollar private prison corporations. They are held there—or are sometimes “released” to live with a sponsor in the U.S. while wearing an ankle bracelet—all while trying to pursue their asylum cases in hostile American immigration courts. These women often have to undergo their asylum hearings without legal representation: high legal fees, a shortage of pro bono lawyers, and a draconian immigration system that frequently fails to inform people that they even have a court date coming up, all collude to make for a 98% chance of deportation when going it alone. And so ASAP started when law students began to remotely represent women, winning virtually all their cases and keeping them from being sent back to extreme violence, and, in many cases, certain death.

At that time, I was communicating with refugee women living with sponsors in the U.S. about their initial hearing: the court case determining if they will be immediately deported, or can continue to hope for asylum in the U.S. I woke up one day to frantic telephone messages from one woman from Honduras. She did not have a lawyer, and her sponsors were saying they could not afford to house her and her two children any longer. How would she live for those months until her hearing? I began to do an intake interview with her, gathering details with the aim of finding someone to take the case.

I was asking question upon question. She had done this dozens of times before, each time reliving years of violence. Patrollers, detention center officials, lawyers, and now me, all asking to please repeat that; what was the exact date; how many times were you stabbed; when were you raped; when were your children kidnapped; are you sure that’s right, can’t you remember any more: a form of everyday existence in which the worst moments of your life are forcibly examined and debated right in front of you. She had to stop every few sentences to pull back tears. Tightness caught my throat—here I was, barely 20 years old, presented as the last hope for someone twice my age, crying through the phone lines to a complete stranger. She addressed me with the formal Spanish usted. I wondered if she could tell how old I was and how little I knew.

The conversation shook me to my core—It wasn’t just that I was powerless to help, but that I was understanding the contours of power: The unequal dynamic erupting between us; the way she thanked me; the history that had lead to me being on one side of that phone call and she on the other; the way I was directing and editing her answers into a narrative that would seem enticing to a pro-bono lawyer. Above all, I was angry that the phone call was a “learning experience” for me, while the woman’s very life was on the line.

It was that more singular anger that propelled this story to coalesce out of 6+ years of angry notebook notes: Anger that I could write a story like this, even; anger that here I was, sitting in the comfort of my dorm room, being “upset” about a global system of U.S.-caused neo-colonial violence on which that very comfort was based (and anger again now, that I’m the one giving the interview and with the platform, again from the comfort of my dorm). I find myself more and more looking at what I’ve written as representative of a kind of failing: is that all I’ve done to help? Think about it and write about it? –It’s a harshness that may not be the most productive, but is, at least for me, necessary.

Pieces from the whole contradictory constellation—how migrants are represented (read: demonized) on the tv; how movies construct a “perfect victim” character and how the law and the dominant U.S. political idiom does the same; episodes from my own family’s very different U.S.-Mexican migration story; this anger; this failure; but also hope—came together to form “Videoteca.”

BWR: This story ends with both a confession and call to action: “I’m only saying this so you’ll do something about it instead of waiting for it to get better.” I love that this is a piece of fiction that’s very upfront about its position and what it wants from the reader. What, for you, is fiction’s role in activism, or activism’s role in fiction?

ATG: This is a question that I think you have to be uncomfortable with; that you can never really find an answer to. What I’ve been telling myself recently is that, if you don’t do the community-building, cultural work—the work that allows you to come together and really see other people; the work that allows you to break through the given and expand what you call the horizon of radical political possibility; to articulate what kind of world you want—then your politics will always be defensive; will only be operative in times of crisis. I think fiction definitely plays a big role in the “slow,” creative political work that sustains a movement. I’m a firm believer in political imaginaries: Writing fiction about the way the world should be, is imperative. Having an imagination is imperative.

–I have to add, however, that this creative work is necessary but not sufficient. Not in the least. Art without a sustaining ground is too easily co-opted and turned on its head. Even if you think that your politics are explicit in your writing, but you’re not also doing what you can “on the ground,” then, well, I’m not interested. This is a tension I fight with a lot, as a person privileged enough to be able to more or less decide how to direct my time. Do I spend an hour writing in my notebook, or do I go to the meeting about how to support an undocumented neighbor who has had their wages cut? –When I put the question to myself in those terms, the answer seems obviously the latter. You should be able to do both, but, often, it’s a choice. If you’re not doing something, then what are you doing?

More mundanely: In writing “Videoteca,” I wanted to (1) use testimonies of racialized Latinxs caught in the underside of globalization to call for an end of that world, and (2) see what the limitations of fiction as a political mode of expression are. I found this much, much harder to write than, say, a piece of journalism about migrant detention or an essay, because it felt impossible to disconnect the “ideas” I wanted to work towards, from the somewhat stilted and specialized academic language with which I’ve been trained to use in writing about these issues. It felt also as if there was a gap between making my points politically explicit, and fictionally legible. That is, I felt as if I had to “abstract” what I was writing about in order to make it more of a story—and this in turn made the “platform” of the writing harder to discern. I mean, lots of people talk about the violent and reactionary potential of “narrative,” “representation,” and “metaphor” as modes of expression that disassociate what is “real” and biting, from a story with few strings attached to the ground.

With this, I wanted to articulate the way in which individual lives make politically salient narratives. This was largely driven by the ASAP work I was doing. Our political episteme functions to accord rights, personhood, and humanness on an individual basis in a way that very much aligns with the imperatives of capitalism. This is also how testimonies work; this is the drive of captivity narratives and legal accounts of violence: they are rooted in individual stories in a way that often erases the systemic. You are meant to sympathize with someone based on your ability to “identify” with them singularly. I hoped to point to some of these issues with my simultaneous “ghosting” of the narrator throughout the piece, as well as my use of “I”: There should be something ugly about a single narrator assuming the struggles of disparate people—and yet, at the same time, perhaps there is visible in this the possibility of community and social belonging that is not based on two people “understanding” one another individually, but rather feeling that their futures are tied up with one another.

BWR: Apocalypse has been everywhere for a while now, but “Videoteca Fin del Mundo” manages to take a fresh, and very honest, angle on the end of the world. We get this view of apocalypse as a constant state, something that’s always and already happening. One of the characters actually keeps a videoteca fin del mundo—a collection of apocalypse movies that she likes because of the way they point to hope after the disaster. Do you have any favorite apocalypse narratives?

ATG: Haha, although it doesn’t come across in the story, I actually like utopias more than apocalypses. I meant to take as my starting point for “Videoteca” Frederic Jameson’s assertion that “it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism.” I had wanted to write a story that imagines a world where social belonging is not dependent on consumption, market-based fictions of “choice,” nor racial assimilation; and “humanness” does not need a nonhuman or less-than-human to define itself against. It was important that the timescale of this project not be in the distant future. That is, I wanted to practice the idea everyone from Ernst Bloch to Cornel West to my Grandma has written about/just does as a practical form of survival and daily resistance: you can trace the outlines of the Utopic, even in what is most awful about now. In the story, this meant a refusal of an imagined future, and instead a descent into the present as a reality that presents itself as the only one possible. This entailed writing a string of scenes, using the voice of someone inhuman or dead—both an attempt to take up the derogatory term “alien” in reference to undocumented immigrants, as perhaps containing the seed of a just politics, and to also attempt to personify what Alexander Weheliye calls an “alternate instantiation of humanity that does not rest on the mirage of western Man as the mirror image of human life as such.” That is, I wanted to think about who a human would be, when “human” isn’t a metonym for a white American citizen, and political “humanization” doesn’t mean assimilating to that category. I.e., in Sylvia Wynter’s words, trying not to mistake “the map for the territory.” To put it in someone else’s mouth again, this was an attempt to take seriously Chela Sandoval’s insistence that we occupy a position both “subject to the terms of dominant power, yet capable of challenging and changing those very same terms.”

So, in response, my favorite apocalypse narratives can all really be read as Utopian narratives. Lately I’ve been re-reading Toni Morrison’s novels, trying to find examples of what I read is called “cosy catastrophe” (British post-WWII science-fiction books in which, predictably, everyone except the main character dies), and thinking a lot, a lot, a lot about La Batalla de Chile, which is a three-part documentary about the Chilean coup of 1973, which entailed the CIA and American corporate-funded overthrow of the first democratically elected socialist government in the Hemisphere. It’s an incredible film and particularly salient now. Everyone should see it.

BWR: Going off the last question, do you have your own version of a “videoteca fin del mundo?” A “library of ______?” What do you find yourself collecting or obsessing over?

ATG: Right now, I am definitely collecting and obsessing over my congress members’ contact information. I’ve been trying to call every week—sometimes every day—since January! Keeping on top of likely scenarios, as well as what has already gone into effect with the Trump administration is a necessary obsession. The newest horrifying executive orders on immigration, for example, fast-track the deportation of over 26,000 women who have in absentia removal orders—meaning most of the refugees that ASAP works with.

I’ve also been collecting the “origin stories” printed on the backs of so many grocery store items—you know, the corporate attempt to make a family history for their product. “Mama Josephine’s pasta sauce was started in 1909 when….” The attempt to humanize and personify a corporation in such a bald way is so insidious, so mundane, so eerie. I have about 15 now, and am beginning to see a pattern in how they are written.

BWR: There’s a tension that keeps popping up in this story between daily life in the United States and the way that mundane, daily activities are connected to violence and exploitation. What helps you resist the pressure to give into what your narrator describes as “tolerance toward the intolerable?”

ATG: I think recognizing that we—and here I am talking about people like me: people who are comfortably positioned, people whose social determinations protect us, the ones being interviewed, the people probably reading this—have already given into “tolerance toward the intolerable.” By virtue of being where I am right now—and being who I am now (upper middle class, U.S. citizen, light-skinned Latina)—I am participating in a system already constituted by oppression and exploitation. It’s a system from which I will benefit without even consenting to receiving those benefits. But the key is not to let this awareness become debilitating. You have to put it to use.

I have to remind myself of that constantly: Because my personal life is so, well, “tolerable,” I have an obligation to do more to prevent what is “intolerable,” from where I am, with what I have. Reminding oneself is the hardest part—but I think also the most necessary. I often think of it as learning how to “read” the world almost like a poem: you see orange juice at breakfast and read it to try to see the people who picked the oranges; the pesticides on their hands and in their blood; the truck driver that brought the carton to you; the drought in California; the advertisements executives trying to make you buy the juice.

BWR: What are you working on right now? Any upcoming projects you’d like to tell us about?

ATG: I’m writing what I hope is going to be a novel about the BP oil refinery in Whiting, Indiana, that my family has lived near for four generations. It’s going to be a ghost story set in 1889, when the refinery (then owned by Standard Oil) was opened.

Besides that, I have the fortune of being able to figure out my next steps: I’m going to graduate from college this year, and am trying to find ways I can be most productive to the economic, environmental, and racial justice campaigns I want to devote my life to.

BWR: Finally, what are some of the small things that you give joy and energy lately?

ATG: Being outside, for sure. And trying not to fantasize about the future, in either a utopic or apocalyptic direction.

Click here for more information about our annual contest.