Writers on Writing, Volume 14: MK Chavez
MK Chavez is the award-winning author of Mothermorphosis, Dear Animal, and Virgin Eyes. She has received fellowships from Hedgebrook, CantoMundo, Squaw Valley Writers Workshop, VONA, North Street Collective Residence Program, Real-Time & Space Elevate Residency, and Napa Valley Writers Workshop.
MK is co-founder/curator of the reading series Lyrics & Dirges, co-director of the Berkeley Poetry Festival, and has been a guest curator of limited reading series at BAMPFA, and LOTERIA in partnership with the Institute of (Advanced) Uncertainty. She has been a visiting instructor at Stanford University, San Francisco State University, Mills College, Berkeley City College, San Francisco City College, BAMPFA, and Hedgebrook.
MK's most recent publications can be found in bags of coffee from Nomadic Coffee and on the Academy of American Poets website’s Poem-A-Day series. On September 26th she will co-teach "Entering the House through the Window" with Maw Shein Win for Left Margin LIT.
What writing project are you currently working on?
I’m working on a manuscript that uses horror film to explore the experience of other. I’ve been a big horror film fan ever since I was a little girl. I started this project by re-watching some of my favorite horror films. With the backdrop of everything that’s been going on, it’s been interesting and reflective of how my experience of the world can be, and the feelings I carry.
The odd part about my love for horror films is that at first, I actually identified with the monsters. So in a traditional horror film like Frankenstein, I felt he was horribly misunderstood. There was no justice for him, he had no place in the world, he was abandoned by his father. In a sense I’m entering the horror film house through the back door and the window, it’s not a traditional read and certainly not direct.
Could you say more about this experience of the other? I’m also curious about how current events are affecting your interest in horror films.
I’ll start with the second part of that question. Current events are creating opportunities to explore human collective anxieties. If you look at the films that have been coming out in the last ten years, there’s been a growth of female directors coming up with horror movies. You can definitely see where the experiences around #MeToo are showing up—they’re written into the storyline in nuanced and direct ways. And of course, black horror films. There’s a writer and scholar in the Bay Area who said, “We’ve always loved horror, it just hasn’t always loved us.”
I remember going to the theater with my Dad and friends to see Star Wars. I was so excited to see that film, and then I was horrified that it didn't include anybody that looked like me. Space is the future, and if the future has no brown or black people, then the implication is that we don’t survive it. And if we look backwards, before we [brown and black people] were the first to be killed in horror films, we just weren’t present. We just don’t exist. That kind of erasure can be really profound.
And with Frankenstein specifically, I have this textured experience of being othered. I was the darkest person in my family, and my father was particularly, rabidly racist, like internalized racism. It was an intense thing to grow up under, especially if you are the manifestation in your family of its blackness. My father couldn’t distance himself quickly enough from his history, he tried to erase it. He pretended like my black family didn’t exist. And as a child, there I was, every day, almost as if to say, “Hey, here I am. Can’t leave the past behind.” It was a weird experience. I don’t think I could have articulated this when I was a child, but I felt it. We all feel things, although we may not have words for them.
The first time I watched Frankenstein, I think the reason I identified with him so strongly was because he was a monstrosity and nobody wanted to look at him. It was something I could identify with in terms of my family, and when I went out into the world, I didn’t have that different of an experience. I was also the darkest kid in my school. There was rejection within, and rejection externally as well.
The other defining film, which I feel in some ways was a lifeline and a beautiful experience, strangely, was Night of the Living Dead. It was the first time I had seen a black person in a heroic role. For once, this black man was the rational one, he was the hero. He wasn’t the one doing crazy things, he was saving people.
Have you always focused on themes of race, equality, and social issues in your writing?
I think so. I didn’t start out consciously writing about social issues or the experiences of people who live with oppression. I didn’t start that way. But I find myself writing about that. I’m not writing what I think is considered overtly political writing, but I would like to think that my writing is relevant to social struggles.
Dear Animal is my first full collection. It is steeped in looking. I spent two years researching (and this is so very specific) female genitalia as it appears in literature. How I got there I can’t remember. I just kept digging. I started by looking at how people were writing about women. I found that, in a very heteronormative cis way, a lot of literature brings women down to genitalia.
This reduction of women seemed like a way of removing humanity. By describing women as a thing you can take more liberties with how they’re treated on an individual and global level. I read about the feminization of venereal disease, and the creation of the Paris sewer system. Apparently, somebody who had engineering experience ended up designing the Paris sewer system, and then was hired to find the cause of venereal disease. How does that even happen? He of course, blamed women, and specifically prostitutes. He conducted studies where “good women” were lined up with prostitutes, and he wanted to prove his hypothesis of how prostitutes were to blame by looking at everyone’s vagina.
What he found, of course, was that all vaginas look about the same. It’s interesting to think about what kind of world we live in where someone with no experience could do something like that. And then I was fascinated by the way in which oppression shapes how events unfold, and how that filters down through language. Dear Animal is really looking at the experience of the other, often through the lens of how women are treated. Somehow animals and nature made it into almost every poem. In the same way in which we have taken agency and reverence away from women, we’ve also done it to nature.
Could you speak more about what your writing process is like?
I like researching my subjects, I go down rabbit holes of research. I collect incredible amounts of information and then marinate in it. And the creative process feeds off of all of that information. I like reading non-fiction, like reference materials, and reading how other writers treat trauma and the human condition. I’ve recently been enjoying Janice Lee’s work and what she does around inherited and generational trauma. We all come from different experiences and cultures, but trauma is like the human tagline. Through a long history of wars and diaspora, all communities develop ways in which to give description and language to trauma and try to process it.
Bringing film into this project has been amazing. I’ve always loved film, and now more than ever I feel grateful for the art of filmmaking. One of the things that is so great about literature is that if you read enough work in a particular genre, you will start to see how the books are in conversation with each other. Sometimes it’s direct, the writers are actually colleagues and working in the same time, and sometimes it’s not, the writers are not even living in the same time period, and yet their books are in conversation with one other. I’m realizing that these connections are present in film as well, and in visual arts and all the arts.
I tend to read a lot of books at the same time, either because I’m a Gemini, or either because things jump off. I’ll be reading something, and there will be a reference to another book, and I’ll have to read that book, and so on, and soon I’ll end up with a stack of books. Having a really large collection of books has been the one constant in my life. My books feel like family to me and are central to my writing.
You were talking before about how you weren’t taking a traditional route when you were writing about horror films, you were taking a back door, so I was wondering how you approached writing on these films. Are you inspired by the imagery, or the characters, or the plot?
It happens in all sort of ways. I have some pieces where I take the language from reviews or screenplays and have done erasure poems with them. I’m fascinated with the language that is used in the horror subgenre of possession, and of women being possessed by evil. And then I spent three weeks watching zombie films, just as many as I could. After immersing myself, I kept sitting down to write and different weird things would come up, until one day, I had been having a conversation about being mixed race, and the experience of not fitting in here or there, and I somehow wrote this poem titled “I Was a Mixed-Race Zombie.” Like the experience of a zombie, that focuses on eating and consumption, sometimes I feel like being mixed race has been consuming. I’m constantly consuming certain experiences and have no place to go and have to find my own way of enlightenment around that. I can tell you how I started and how I ended, but I can’t tell you what’s in between, that’s the magic. Ultimately that’s the reason why I love writing so much, because I do think that certain types of writing are like magical practice. There’s no direct advice I can give, to do this or do that. Sometimes I am directly responding to these films. Sometimes I am directly responding to these films. Rosemary’s Baby is a film I definitely responded to.
I’ve never inhabited the perspective of a zombie as someone who undergoes trauma. It’s so natural to fear the zombie and not even question where they’re coming from.
There are some amazing zombie films coming out. I wrote a heroic sonnet about The Girl with All the Gifts because I was moved by it. I watched it five times. And then there are zombie films that are post, where we find a cure and it’s really nuanced. There’s the traditional, where people crawl out of their graves, they’re slow and dumb, and all of a sudden 28 days later they’re fast and really pissed, and they’re actually not dead, really, they’re made out of rage. All these different human beings are trying to use this trope to filter their ideas and are opening up the genre completely. I think about zombie movies especially right now because of the pandemic, this whole concept of finding a cure. I think about the reintegration of people who were sick back into society, and then this juxtaposition between who was supposed to be monstrous, and the people who were always well and good. All of a sudden you start to see that everything is not as it appears, everything is not so simple.
I’m particularly fascinated with horror that focuses on redemption. Just going back to Janice Lee, I took a class with her recently, and she introduced this concept of Han. She defined it as the concept of injustice, a type of suffering that can never be righted, and that ghost that can live within us. It’s like this huge flower that blossoms and blossoms, it provides all of these opportunities to look at trauma and human suffering for what it really is. How do you begin to address an injustice that can’t be righted, because the moment has passed where it can be righted? I feel like we’re living in a time where it would be fair to say that the injustices that people are rising up against, they are not injustices that can be righted, they are injustices that are.
Can you speak more about Rosemary’s Baby? It's a vivid example of a woman whose body betrays her, and I'm curious as to how you responded to that film.
I had a difficult time with it. The poem really wanted to be written. It was insistent. But every time I sat down to write it, it was horrible. I would get rid of it and try again. Rosemary's Baby is a rich film about this woman who loses agency over her body, and then is betrayed by her husband, his greed, and this community of gross people. I was almost going to give up. And just as I was about to put it aside, because I didn’t know if I could write the poem about it, I realized it’s not "Rosemary," it’s "Rosemary’s Baby." And so I wrote a poem in the voice of Rosemary’s baby.
That’s what I’m finding that’s so rich about a film, there are so many stories. I think that sometimes we just look at them head on. And yes, the film can certainly be read from a feminist perspective, and we can compare it now versus when it came out, with everything from Mia Farrow holding an iconic place in our culture, to the film being a little dated but still relevant in the #MeToo era.
Yet where I found the richest terrain to explore was from the voice of the baby. I was really thinking about the ending, and her choice to take the steps toward the baby’s crib. That moment becomes a moment of agency. Before, they’re dismissing her, they’re like whatever, she’s already given us this devil baby, we don’t need her anymore. But something changes in that last moment. My particular read is that there’s a moment of connection with this monstrosity she has given birth to, a connection and ownership where everyone else gets pushed away, and all of a sudden, she is a different player in this story.