In anticipation of their debut poetry collection, In Stories We Thunder, Sundress Publications author V. Ruiz sat down with editorial intern Anna Mirzayan to explore Aesop’s fables, alternative forms of education, and what may be lost or gained in the complexities of translation.
Anna Mirzayan: Each section has an “Aesop remix for my hija.” Aesop’s fables were generally received as didactic stories or moral lessons. What kind of lessons do you see these retellings imparting? How does addressing them to her impact their meaning?
V. Ruiz: I’ve always been interested in and drawn to children’s literature. For some time, I reviewed picture books and YA, and now I work with Row House, who also has a children’s imprint. I’ve also homeschooled my child for much of their life.
This is getting somewhere, I swear.
We went through a unit with Aesop’s Fables once with my child, and I remember thinking the lessons felt so general, so detached from an experience that was specific to us—to people of color, to queer folks, to neurodivergent folks. In reading the “Cock and the Fox,” for example, there was this general lesson of the wicked deserve no aid. And that felt very black and white. As I explained it to my child, it felt like I kept having to say, “Well, it’s not exactly like that; it’s not so clear; there’s so much more behind what people do.”
From there, I felt like I had to remix them, to rewrite them in a way that was more conscious of abolitionist values, of complexities, of prejudice and stereotypes. In this fable, for example, we also talked about “theft” and that it isn’t always just “stealing is wrong,” especially when we consider class issues and lack of human rights. So, to summarize, the lessons of the remixes were meant to teach my child that there’s always more to what is “right and wrong”, and it isn’t always so clear, especially not in regards to “laws” and the ethics children are typically taught.
AM: The collection deals with trauma, particularly trauma often associated with womanhood— birth, domestic violence, eating disorders, sexual assault. Even puberty can be a secret and traumatic time; do you think treating these subjects in a collection of poetry affects how trauma can be processed?
VR: I talk often with those close to me about what writing is to me—what metaphor is to me. For some folks, writing is about getting out stories and ideas that plague their mind. For me, writing has always been a way to exorcise ghosts—in a way, ghosts of myself? To unravel an experience and see the parts of myself that were lost and what those parts might have seen or felt feels at the core of my writing. As I worked through this manuscript, those ghosts became a part of the lessons I was sharing with my child. I wanted them to understand that womanhood, especially in our family, came with generations of wounds. So, in a way, it became a way for me to understand myself further and to also teach them about things that were difficult for me to discuss.
I do think writing about trauma in such a public way affects how we process. Initially, writing can be for the self, but the minute we decide to publish something, it becomes a collaborative experience between the author and the reader or the speaker and the reader—and so does processing. In addition, I think processing in a collection allowed me to take my traumas and experiences and weave them into a larger narrative, something that would allow me to seem themes and potentials, to witness my own arc and ability to survive.
AM: The poems weave between English and Spanish, with very rare explanations or translations offered. Do you think there is a way to truly, successfully translate one language, or one experience, into another?
VR: I think we can aim for success, but nothing will ever reach the exact experience of the original language. And I also think that is okay. When something is written in one language, it is meant for one audience. If it is translated, we can read it and gain from it, but it wasn’t ever meant for us. My collection, the interweaving of Spanish and English, is meant for one audience. People who have lived one type of experience. Will others enjoy it or be able to experience it even if they don’t speak Spanish/Spanglish? Yes, but it was never meant for them.
AM: Sometimes witchcraft is referring to as “workings,” which seems to fit the tone of the way witchcraft is used throughout this collection, particularly in the poem “Why I show you these brujerías.” In its fifth section, you write, “This is how the tierra teaches us to heal our hurts how it gives the power to make for ourselves A new fate.” Can you tell me more about the importance of renewal and the place, if any, of working and crafting in the latter?
VR: I practice folk witchcraft (and astro magic), but folk witchcraft in general has always been a practice for the oppressed and the common people. Witchcraft, in this collection and what I pass on to my child, has become a way to take control of what we were made to live with. Ritual has become a way for us to release, to gain closure, to prepare and move towards a new life or phase. Renewal can feel impossible at times, but in practicing magic, there’s this opportunity to connect to the threads of our fate, to influence via understanding, or action, or petition, or receptivity. It’s about taking an active step towards our renewal. But more than just acting, however, these practices are also meant to show that we are connected to so much beyond us.
AM: What role would you say the figure of La Luna—who appears or is invoked in multiple poems—plays in this collection? How are La Luna and El Sol related?
VR: La Luna is one of the spirits that moves in and out of my creative practices consistently. I am also, astrologically, ruled by the moon. I think what captivates me about the moon, as a spirit, is the many facets she holds. We experience 12 faces of the Sun in a year, but the moon moves through her many phases and faces in the span of 28 days. In this collection, invoking her became about seeing a moment through many lenses. It was also about understanding the many sides of myself and the ways they can exist all together at once.
About El Sol—this spirit has always felt like a praised spirit. As someone who is more of a night owl, I’ve always been drawn to darkness, to the silence of midnight, but I’ve always been around daytime people—folks who love summer, etc. And I think, without meaning to, that the Sun became this idea of a praised being that was consistently seen in a good light and valued in that way. A foil of sorts, to the moon. Their connection, I think, mirrored relationships I was moving through at the time of this writing. The Sun was a traditional parent, and I the moon, this complex single mother who was disabled and navigating trauma. The Sun was my sibling, someone who was living life on their terms, while I was the moon, always returning to my family, always tending to them. The Sun was my partner, someone who was filled with creative light and friendliness and vitality, while I was the moon, someone who needed solitude, who could turn easily with the tides, who wavered in their energy.
AM: In “After Solstice,” a poem about the children held in cages at the U.S.-Mexico border, you write, “Children robbed of sunlight and their color made to become untouched white marble.” Earlier, in “Poison Lines,” you write, “do they fear the white lines blocking their hope of reaching dry land?” These are selection of the collection’s references to a solid object of whiteness that blocks, stands guard, or somehow prevents non-white bodies from acting. Can you tell me more about this theme?
VR: These white objects were, in many ways, my image of whiteness and white supremacy and the ways it existed around me. In “After Solstice,” there is so much there that I was contending with, the ways I was existing within and buying into whiteness as I navigated academia while all of this was going on. I thought of the ways that I navigated life as a citizen who was raised by immigrants and how I had turned away from my roots and how I was taught to turn away from them as a method of survival. In “Poison Lines,” I was so focused on an ant problem we were having, hahaha, and thinking of my grandmother and the way she tended to the situation by using this poison chalk that basically caused them to turn away. And in that moment, I just felt a flash of her journey in immigrating and how hopeful she was for this place beyond where she was leaving. But in leaving, she also walked right into a new kind of poison: a domestic violence situation, undervalued labor, discrimination, poverty, etc. And it’s not that these don’t also exist in Mexico, of course; they do and have in my family, but the United States was a dream, somewhere where these things weren’t really expected to someone so young and innocent.
AM: Can you speak about the importance of connection in the context of a collection that features not only a daughter but parents, uncles, grandparents, friends, and, in “We learn to hold the sky,” spirits of people the narrator didn’t know directly but still feels aware of?
VR: There are many repetitive themes in my lineage. Countless women who have moved through domestic violence, poverty, young motherhood, addiction, etc. I think most folks feel like they want to be SO DIFFERENT from their parents and their family, but for me, there were these strong traumas that we went through that made it so there was no way I could be entirely different. Pair this with the fact that poverty and oppression is meant to keep us all staying on the same path, to make it harder to break cycles, it all causes this weight, and for me, the weight manifests as spirits and energies, both metaphorically and literally.
Beyond that, I was the first in my family to be given a new set of tools, even if those tools were traumas on their own (mental health institutions, medication, rehab, education, etc). My writing mirrors this crossroads I feel I exist in. Where I know there are outside pressures and experiences that are making it so that I move on the same path as them. But there are also opportunities I have that have given me a chance to try to move in a new way.
In this collection, I am writing my own experience, my own weight, my own journey, but I am also sharing theirs. The hopes they didn’t get to fulfill. The revenge they wanted. The freedom they craved.
AM: What is the connection between blood and poison?
VR: When I think of poison generally, the goal is to provide an antidote for healing as a means of countering it. In the collection, I was writing so much about traumas and what it meant to not only come from a lineage of people who had been victimized but also from people who were harming others. How would I ever counter the poison of the harmful people in my lineage, my ancestry, my blood? There isn’t a way, really. So, this connection in the collection became about learning to live with that poison, to understand that it was a permanent part of me that I had to acknowledge and that had the potential to harm me as well.
AM: Considering history carefully also plays an important role in the fable remixes, can you talk about what you mean by history and why it’s important to think about? What is the relationship between history and storytelling?
VR: History is a loaded word for me. I think in the collection, the use or idea of history is meant to be the history of the speaker’s/my personal journey, the history of my lineage, the history of the land, the history of society and community, and the history that is in the making. I don’t believe there is a way for us to extract history from our stories. It colors the words we use, the images we linger on, the music and tone of our writing—even in fiction, I believe. I think that there’s a need for people to understand some aspect of their history to be more vulnerable in their writing, which is always a goal for me. In embracing history, I’m able to give a piece of myself to the writing.
V. Ruiz is a Queer Xicana Bruja, artist, and writer fascinated by language and the magic it evokes. They live in Las Vegas with their partner, little one, snaggletoothed cutie, and underworld roaming gato. Their writing has appeared in Fugue, Black Warrior Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, and Carve Magazine, among other places. In Stories We Thunder is their first book.
Anna Mirzayan is an arts writer, poet, researcher, and doctoral candidate in Theory and Criticism. She is currently based in Pittsburgh, where she is the editor-in-chief of The Bunker Review at Bunker Projects. Her poetry chapbook, Donkey-girl and Other Hybrids, was published in 2021 by Really Serious Literature. You can find some of her writing at art-agenda, Square Cylinder, and Hyperallergic (forthcoming) or check out her poetry at Metatron Press, Poetry WTF, or The Operating System.