In the Spotlight
Author; Faculty Mentor, Regis University
Austin, TX Member Since: 2013
About: Natalia Sylvester was born in Lima, Peru and is the author of the novels Chasing the Sun and Everyone Knows You Go Home. She studied creative writing at the University of Miami and is a faculty member of the low-res MFA program at Regis University in Denver, Colorado. Her work has appeared in Latina Magazine, Writer’s Digest, the Austin American-Statesman, and NBCLatino.com.
Photo credit: Eric Sylvester
What is the best writing advice that you dispense to your students?
I tell them to not be afraid to look inward. Why is this story so important for YOU to write it? Start from that deep and meaningful connection to the character, place, or topic you’re writing about, and be honest about whether or not it exists.
Who encouraged you to be a writer?
On the last day of freshman year in high school, my English teacher, Mrs. Scott, told me “Never, never stop writing.” It struck me and stayed with me because, while I’d been writing my whole life, it was the first time it occurred to me that what I wrote might matter to someone else.
What persons in or aspects of your life’s journey have most profoundly influenced your work?
My junior year of undergrad, I was majoring in creative writing and discussing my senior thesis with my mentor, Evelina Galang. I don't remember what I wanted to write about at the time, only that the conversation that followed—the questions she asked about why I wanted to write that story—made me realize I wasn't writing for myself, but rather a perceived notion of what kind of stories I should be writing. It shifted my whole mindset and approach to writing. It made me constantly question, to this day, who I'm centering, who I'm writing for, and what gazes might be imposing on my work, as I put words to the page.
What is the greatest compliment that you could ever receive about your writing?
That they saw themselves in the story. That it made them feel understood.
Where do you write?
I have a home office with a turquoise wooden desk I painted myself after three coats of “not quite the right shade of blue.” But I’m nomadic about it. Some days I write at my desk, other days in bed or at my couch or dining room table. Rarely do I venture outside of my home to write. I’m very much a homebody.
How do you balance your work as a writer and as a political activist?
I feel I should first note that, while I've noticed more and more people describe me as an activist, I feel it would be more appropriate to say I'm someone who's civically engaged—there are so many activists doing far more work than I am, who are far more deserving of that word and recognition for their efforts! I often feel I don't balance the two aspects, to be honest. There are times when me taking time to go to the Texas capitol and testify against a bill I oppose—or write an op-ed letter to a newspaper or volunteer for the causes I want to make a difference in—simply end up taking precedence over my writing. And there are times when I have to realize I can't do everything, which is why I make it a point to be honest with myself and do what I can when I can, while also giving myself permission to take time to write. I feel guilty about it until I realize I'd give any other writer this same advice: when you are marginalized, using your voice and telling your stories are political acts.
What is your favorite thing to do when you should be writing, but just can’t find the motivation?
I read, preferably a book so good it reminds me why I love to write and inspires me to get back to the page. I’ll also exercise or spend a lot of time outdoors.
What is your favorite line from a book?
“There are times when my father’s absence is as heavy as a child sitting on my chest.” The first line of Anatomy of a Disappearance by Hisham Matar is one of those that grabbed me right away, on a random afternoon when the cover caught my eye in the library, and has never let me go.
What do your books look like once you’ve finished reading them? Do they have broken spines and dog-eared pages? Notes in the margins? Or do they still look brand new?
I used to relish writing all over my books, but in the last few years or so, I’ve shifted to just dog-earing pages where there’s a passage I love—at the most I might draw a vertical line along the margins to mark those lines. So it’s funny, because if you look through my shelves you can tell which books I fell in love with in my teens to late 20s because they’re full of highlights and notes and dog-eared pages, while with the more recent ones I’ve loved I’ve been much more reserved about leaving a mark on them.
What can we do to bring a more diverse community of writers to our bookstores and literary journals?
I've been asked this question in some shape or form over the years; I think the question needs to shift and progress past asking POC authors to continually answer it. I'd love to see this question asked just as often to non-POC booksellers and literary journals, and then be taken several steps further: what are they actively doing not only to invite a more diverse community of writers, but to make their space one in which our community feels welcome, valued, and centered? Are they willing to accept that true parity is not just a numbers game, but a commitment to changing the systems and dynamics in place that made their lists/mastheads overwhelmingly white in the first place? It's a deep hard look inward, and it takes a willingness to do the work of trying and maybe failing and then trying again in a different way.
How has AWP helped you in your career and/or creative endeavors?
Every time I’ve gone to an AWP conference, I’ve come away with knowledge and viewpoints that help shift my mindset on publishing, craft, and teaching. I believe we’re all students in this journey, no matter what stages of our careers we’re in.
What would be your advice to first-time AWP conference goers?
Plan which panels and events are your must-go-tos ahead of time. Accept that you might not get to go to all of them but make the most of each one. Be open to plans changing, to spontaneous run-ins with people you only know online, to the reading being held by a press you’ve never heard of. And take time to rest when you need it.