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In Conversation with poet Asiel Adán Sánchez.

Born and raised in Mexico, Asiel Adan Sanchez is an organic, gluten-free, vegan, single-origin, ethically sourced gender fluid. Their work attempts to reconcile culture, race, gender and sexuality.

M/ /OTHERLAND is their literary debut.

Would you share a line from your new poetry collection, which sums up some of what it explores? 

 “We grew up praying to things that burned to the ground while still believing in them.”  

That encapsulates the sense of writing back to home, memory and place while acknowledging that there is a lot of trauma and violence and difficulty in that space. It reconciles the idea of hope and nourishment with some of the very real struggles that are continuing to happen in Mexico.  

You have some fantastic professional biographies out there, including describing yourself as “a certified chingona” and “an organic, gluten-free, vegan, single-origin, ethically sourced gender fluid.” Is there joy in subverting traditional biographies and practising humour and vulnerability instead?  

When I am asked for a biography, I am asked to put all my accomplishments on display. Whereas, in reality, what I am there for is the work of art. All those silly things I list are a way of subverting the idea that you have to have accomplished to take the stage, command presence, or be worthy of listened. It’s my tongue-in-cheek way of saying, “no matter who is on stage, that person or that story is worthwhile.” 

You are both an artist and a doctor. Is there an overlap between these sides of yourself, and where are the boundaries set? 

I tend to treat poetry as a way of working through internal emotional processes. Poems come from a knot of feeling—something that is not quite emotionally evened out. This poetry collection centred around gender identity, queer identity, and being from Mexico—through memory and family. All these thoughts were scattered in my head, and poetry was a way of knotting through those processes.  

Working in a clinic, you have to be emotionally present with every patient. That labour can be incredibly emotionally draining. I have clearly distinguished that I don’t bring any of my clinical work to poetry. There is already so much emotional work in the clinical space. I don’t see poetry as a vehicle to express that further. I am also very cautious about not doing an “Oliver Sacks” and using my patients as a story to write, to put them on display, or exploit them in any way!  

Your book continues upon a tradition of Latin American literature and poetry. Could you tell us about the writers that inspire you? In which ways does your writing continue a conversation they started or broach new ground? 

There is a shared cultural understanding within Latin American literature. Magical realism was a big influence on this literature. I want to take those elements and queer them up a bit and portray them through a lens that challenges ideas of gender norms, particularly in Mexican gender identity. 

Gender and culture are so intermixed that it’s impossible to talk about one without the other. I feel most comfortable in my gender when it’s reflective of my culture, and I feel most comfortable in my culture when it’s reflective of my gender.  Incorporating those aspects through the lens of magical realism allows me to queer up and provide a whole new spin on provisional narratives. This we’re beginning to see the emergence of in Latin American circles.

The biggest influences on me have been the visual arts—painters like Fabián Cháirez, who did the cover on this collection. He repurposes and queers up traditional Mexican imagery, re-representing ideas like capitalism, nationality, and masculinity and reimagining them through a queer perspective. It speaks a lot to the parallels I am trying to make with this collection of poems. I am taking a whole bunch of culture and identity and filtering it through a queer lens.  

Let’s talk more about your stunning book cover, how this collaboration with Fabián Cháirez occur, and what that painting means to you? 

Fabián was so generous in allowing us to use his work. We were in lockdown, thinking about images for the front cover of this collection. I saw in the news that there had been a painting of Emiliano Zapato—one of the Mexican revolutionaries—done up in heels, riding a stallion. There was so much queer imagery coming through. It hung in the national gallery in Mexico City, and there were riots. It was a big issue that a revolutionary who upholds masculinity, machismo, and other notions of Mexican manhood, was portrayed in such a way.  

The image spoke to me very strongly as one of the first times I saw my lived experiences reflected in a work of art. The more I looked through Fabián’s work, the more I realised we spoke the same language but through different mediums. I reached out and asked if we could use one of his paintings, and he allowed us to use it. We are so grateful. Fabián’s profile has since exploded from the coverage of his Zapato painting, which allowed him to expand his work a lot more.  

There is a lot of creative ground to cover with your relationship to Mexico, especially when you also write about gender and queer identity. What is it like to explore a relationship with your birth country while living outside it and restricted from visiting it—due to closed borders?  

A lot of this collection comes from a place of poignancy: constantly writing back to a place undergoing a lot of balance and trauma. It is hard to go back to Mexico because—even though it holds many memories—there is also a lot of hurt around the country. The violence happening has been layered with COVID.  

As much as you want to embrace your country, there is the sense that it is somewhat dangerous to be there, especially as a queer person. There is the dissonance of being grateful to be in a place like Australia—especially with the healthcare here. As a doctor, it is a thousand times more challenging to work in Mexico. As a queer person, it’s a thousand times easier to exist and inhabit the space I want to inhabit here in Australia. At the same time, the sense of home, longing and belonging is very much grounded in Mexico. It has been quite challenging in the pandemic, being unable to go back.  

Putting up this work almost feels like holding Mexico in a place of memory. It’s my way of reaching out to Mexico, reliving memories and experiences while still holding them quite close. I am also acutely aware that Mexican culture is so beautiful. It is wonderful to celebrate and showcase that to the rest of the community. There is no other culture like it. It brings so much richness to my life and identity. 

 In your opinion, how can we queer creative content, poetic form, and artistic spaces?  

A lot of this collection is influenced by queer writers from the US, UK and Australia: Ocean Vuong, Allison Whittaker, Omar Sakr, and others. Growing up as a migrant, with English not as my first language, poetry was shrouded in an idea of “you are not smart enough, or proficient enough in the language, to engage with this.” 

I always held poetry at arm’s length until I read through the work of these queer poets of colour. I realised that the canon spoke to mainly white cis men and a lived experience that was completely inaccessible. These poets excite me because they revitalise how poetry engages with the page, with audiences, and on stage.  

I am interested in speaking through silences and emotional space within words. As a queer person of colour, a lot of our histories have been silenced. We are quite adept at speaking through blank spaces, speaking in ways not traditionally recognised or seen. 

At the upcoming launch of my collection, I will expand that thought. Rather than just present a series of readings, I want to reimagine some of the pieces. I want to translate some of the visual work and silences that do the heavy lifting from the page to the stage. I want to see other ways that silence can be interpreted or expanded upon. I want to know how the arrangement on the page can translate, physically, to something that inhabits the space. 

Tell us, what are you currently reading? 

I am about to finish The Trauma Cleaner by Sarah Krasnostein. It is a wonderful story that reflects some of the work I do in the clinic. In terms of poetry, I am reading Tracy K. Smith’s Wade in the Water and Danez Smith’s Homie

Any music you recommend people listen to before attending your launch? 

The album I listened to while writing is pretty chaotic! There is a beautiful Mexican singer-songwriter called Natalia Lafourcade, and she has a collection called Musas, in two volumes. It always takes me back.