Yulia Issa is the winner of the Worcester County Poetry Association College Poetry Contest 2014 Manuscript Prize. In her poem, “La Malinche,” which appears in volume XXXV of The Worcester Review, she challenges convention and gives a voice to a woman who is traditionally condemned for having aided the conquistadores.
Before graduating from Quinsigamond Community College in May 2014, you earned two B.A.s from Lebanese University. Could you discuss any cultural differences or similarities you have encountered in your travels? How has this contributed to your writing?
The subject of cultural differences and multiculturalism is very broad and hot right now. We welcome writers who highlight unusual experiences in exotic locations and the struggles that tag along with them. Coming from a background where I spent my childhood in Ukraine and then teenage years in Lebanon before finally settling in the U.S., I believe multiculturalism lends itself to a deeper understanding of human nature and seeing beyond the superficial. As a writer, it interests me how a character develops and interacts regardless of the regiment of ethnic behavior and how individuality emerges when faced with non-routine problems. The heroine in “La Malinche” does exactly that. She is born into a wealthy Nahua family and is ironically given away into slavery while still a child. Then, she ends up as a gift to the Spaniards who had just begun tackling the American shores. Despite the obvious hardships that Malinche endures and the unique historical situation she is put in, which obviously her cultural background cannot prepare her for, she rises to the challenge and manages to earn the grandiose respect of her contemporaries on both sides of the conflict.
When researching and writing about events that occurred roughly five centuries ago and following the life of a woman about whom relatively little facts were recorded, it takes unbiased imagination and understanding to relate to her experience. I think that my background helps me with this task. With time, Malinche’s character has been misinterpreted and vilified. She has been single-handedly charged with the betrayal of her nation in popular culture. Again, being multicultural makes it relatively easy to see through such constructs and understand the driving forces that generated them.
“La Malinche” is, in part, a poem about language. In addition to speaking English, you speak Russian, Arabic, and French. How do you believe being multilingual has influenced your writing?
I truly believe that proficiency in multiple languages exponentially enhances understanding of different cultures and opens doors to a broader spectrum of writing. Apart from anecdotal language misunderstandings, consider, for example, that you want to know more about an Arab writer. You will probably find that more has been written about him in the Arabic language. However, when you resort to the translations, you might be getting a skewed view of the topic not only because there could be inaccuracies in the translation itself but also because of the translator’s choice of which documents to interpret and which to leave out. On top of that, a different language opens up a different perspective on writing not just with respect to grammar and idioms but also tone and stylistics. Since I am fluent in the languages that I know, it creates an interesting amalgam of thought, which I believe allows me to have different takes on the expression of things like dramatization and humor. To explain it more, let’s say you were to tell a joke in three different languages. You would end up with three different recounts of the same story. However, if you were to only translate the words themselves, it would probably only be funny in the original language.
How did you choose the subject for “La Malinche?”
It was purely accidental, to tell you the truth. I was working with Professor Trent Massiki at Quinsigamond Community College on extracurricular exercises in writing, and he suggested this subject for Women’s History Month. It was completely foreign to me at first since I had only a basic knowledge of Hispanic history, but very quickly throughout the course of my research I grew to sympathize with and understand the girl who was caught in the middle of history, did her best to survive, and was acutely hated for it by her descendants.
In the past year, you have worked on creating a poetry book for children. Can you discuss this process? What differences have you found between writing for children and writing for adults? Do you have a preference?
When my daughter was born two years ago, my tendency to write only for an adult audience naturally shifted, and I was taken by the idea of creating a children’s book that teaches colors in an indirect way. I enjoyed the process immensely since I was also the illustrator. (I have a background in fine and digital art.) I think one of the main tasks of writing for children is stimulating the imagination. I have memories of myself reading at a very early age and living through the realms of the story world. When I revisit the same books as an adult, I cannot find the written expressions for the details that I used to imagine, and I think a successful storybook allows children to do just that.
By the way, I think my daughter is my most avid reader as she already has gone through and torn three drafted versions of the book!
What is your favorite childhood story? Is there an author, quote, or passage that has followed you throughout your life?
You got me with this one! Like most folks who wind up expressing themselves in writing, I have been an avid reader since childhood, and the task of choosing a favorite among all the amazing literature that I have read has always been daunting for me. I usually pick my most recent reading and talk about it. Although there is no one particular story that has influenced me the most, there has been one article that I’ve read that has changed my perspective on writing and critical reading. We had a rather large library of Russian authors at home, and I was around twelve years old when I read a critical essay by Dostoyevsky on another critical essay about one of Pushkin’s romantic long poems. I don’t remember all the details, but the Dostoyevsky essay that I read was not so much defending the original poem as pointing out the inconsistencies and weaknesses in the original essay, and it did so in an absolutely hilarious manner. What it has revealed to me is that we don’t have to be satisfied with the first or classic reading of a text, and that it’s okay to disagree with an academic and authoritative article written on a subject matter.
The Worcester Review would like to thank Yulia Issa for contributing to volume XXXV and for participating in the online blog series.