Creating Community: An Interview with Esperanza Cintrón – Michigan Quarterly Review

Creating Community: An Interview with Esperanza Cintrón

MQR’s Online Series, “Celebrating Writers in Our Community,” is inspired by our upcoming special-themed issue, “Why We Write.” The series of interviews is a celebration of the diversity of Southeast Michigan writers, their talents, their motivations for writing, and their significance to our community. 

Esperanza Cintrón is the author of Shades, Detroit Love Stories, a collection of interconnected short stories published by Wayne State University Press (2019) and selected as a 2020 Michigan Notable Book and a finalist in the 2020 Midwest Book Awards.  Her three books of poetry include: Visions of a Post-Apocalyptic Sunrise (Stockport Flats Press, 2014), the 2013 Naomi Long Madgett Award winner What Keeps Me Sane (Lotus Press, 2013) and Chocolate City Latina (Swank Press, 2005). Her work is anthologized in Manteca! An Anthology of Afro-Latin@ Poets, Of Burgers & Barrooms, Abandoned Automobile, Double Stitch: Black Women Write About Mothers & Daughters, Erotique Noire/Black Erotica, and other venues. She has been awarded a Michigan Council for the Arts Individual Artist Grant, a Metro Times Poetry Prize, Callaloo Creative Writing Fellowships at Oxford and Brown Universities and a National Endowment for the Humanities scholarship. A native Detroiter, she is co-founder of The Sisters of Color Writers Collective and creator of its literary journal Seeds for which she served as Editor. Cintrón holds a doctorate in English Literature and taught writing, film and literature at WCCCD in Downtown Detroit.

Lillian Pearce (LP): Can you speak on your exploration of history in your 2019 short story collection Shades: Detroit Love Stories

Esperanza Cintrón (EC): The stories in Shades are like lore or legends in that they or aspects of them were told to me by my mother and her sisters, who were young women during the 1960s when many of the stories take place. They are about people who are struggling economically, but are still trying to find joy in living. As a writer, I embellished those tales while trying to maintain the sense of time and place in order to capture the textures of late 20th century Detroit.

LP: How does this short story collection connect to your geographical experience as a Michigan writer?

EC: I’ve always maintained that metaphorically, Detroit, while crucial to Michigan’s industry and identity, is an island. Its diversity is like a dropperful of blood on a blanket of snow and, as such, cannot be ignored. It serves to keep Michiganders aware that the “other” exists and is an integral part of the whole. Shades is just a tiny representation of that other.

LP: In what ways has teaching in Michigan influenced your position as a writer? Where do you find intersections between your positions as a writer and professor?

EC: I have been fortunate in that I’ve taught at colleges in the City.  My students are often African American, but they also include many immigrants from various Middle Eastern, Latin, West African, and Eastern European nations. Interacting with this multiplicity of races and cultures has, I hope, kept me open to change and the perceptions of others. Further, as most fortunate teachers agree, we learn much more from our students than they do from us.

LP: How do you involve your own motivations for writing in the work you have done with The Sisters of Color Writers Collective (SOC)? 

EC: SOC began when Druis Beasley, Cecilia Milanes, and I were doctoral students at SUNY Albany. We felt our work was not understood by our all-white colleagues and instructors. Encouraged by Toni Morrison, who was then concluding her tenure at SUNY, we established SOC. We conducted writing workshops in prisons, safe houses for abused women, and churches, held performances throughout the City and established, SEEDS, our literary journal. When I graduated, I brought SOC to Detroit, and we continued performing, publishing, and holding workshops until 2006. Although SOC is history now, it was a grassroots literary organization doing the necessary work of providing venues for underrepresented writers and their work. Currently, the works of women, especially women of color, are still underrepresented. Still, SOC and the women involved encouraged me when I needed the support, and that spirit has contributed to my continued efforts to write and publish. 

LP: In his 1947 essay, “Why I Write,” George Orwell breaks down his motivations for writing into four distinct categories: sheer egoism, aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse, and political purpose. How would you define your motivations for writing?

EC: Walter Mosley said that “If you want to be in the history of a culture, you have to exist in its fiction.” So yeah, the idea of creating literature that shapes the history and the society of which one is a part is important to the survival and well-being of a people. As an Afro-Latina who was born and raised in Michigan, I feel the need to represent, share my experience, add it to the whole, and hopefully, broaden the perspective of my fellow citizens.

LP: MQR’s special-themed issue, “Why We Write,” seeks to illuminate perspectives and examine the motivations of writers specifically in relation to how they are influenced by social and political conditions and social justice. How do these concepts influence you? 

EC: While the socio-political is inherent to writing and the writer, my writing begins in emotion and grows from life experiences. But that’s pretty much six of this and a half dozen of the other. Growing up in a thriving all-Black community cemented my identity, but the obstacles presented when I was becoming a woman and that community began to disappear are what made me become a writer.

LP: How have your motivations for writing evolved during the pandemic? 

EC: Although I’ve been teaching online throughout the pandemic, I’ve also been writing because the forced isolation has encouraged introspection. Oddly, I began writing a series of poems that eventually became Boulders, Detroit Nature Poems. I wondered about Detroiter’s perceptions of “nature” as compared to that of other more rural Michiganders, and I began to explore urban concepts of the natural. Maybe being tethered to my computer in the confines of my condo made me long for the sunshine and breezes, albeit fleeting that I felt as I drove to and from work.

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