“The gift of trust”: An Interview With Guest Reader María Alejandra Barrios

by Shasta Grant See all Guest Readers

Congratulations on being selected as the 2020 SmokeLong Quarterly Fellow! What do you hope to gain or learn from this experience?

Thank you! I feel that writing is a craft in which you’re a student your whole life. And as an educator, I love that about writing. The fact that this fellowship allows me to work with editors on my craft is such a gift. I have an MA, and although I enjoyed it, I always think that I’ve learned more about myself as a short story writer outside academia. Sending my work and the pieces getting rejected (multiple times) or it being accepted with rounds and rounds of edits, has been such a learning curve for me. It’s been fascinating to learn my strengths and weaknesses as a writer and to finally be at a place where I’m more aware of them.  I hope this fellowship allows me to continue learning about myself and my process, what stories are urgent to me, and what I and the world of characters I’m building are aching to get out.

I also hope that this opportunity makes my work reach people that might identify with it. I write a lot about finding a place between two cultures and what that feels like—the loneliness and the wonder of it all. I would love for my stories to be read by people that might be in the thick of it and find a little solace in them.

You’ve already started reading our submission queue. What has that been like?

It’s been amazing! As a writer who gets stuck frequently, reading about so many subjects and witnessing so much originality and quality, has opened the world to me, to different forms of narrating and telling stories.

So far, it’s been an experience that has made me pause and reflect more on my choices when I write and revise. I’ve seen so much talent in so little time and lots to admire that I’m in awe of the gift that I have been given: to be able to read stories that are enriching my world as a reader and teaching me a thing or two about writing.

You are fluent in English, Spanish, and French. I’m curious if this influences your writing?

I’m fluent in French but not enough to write fiction in that language. Being a native Spanish-speaking person writing in English does. Mainly because I write in both, it drives me a little crazy. I have seasons when I write more in English and seasons when I only write in Spanish, and then I translate back and forth. I’m also convinced that I sound and write differently in both.

Being fluent in both, and writing fiction in both, has helped me use language in a way that I find particular to my experience of being an immigrant and living my daily life in another language. It’s like the people that say they dream in the languages they’re able to speak, and when they wake up, the dream was in their native language because the dream was about their people back home. For me, my writing is like that; an idea will come in Spanish or English because it’s tied to a particular world for me.

What is your writing process like? 

I usually have an idea either in English or Spanish, so for me, I try to figure out which language I want to write the story in. After that’s decided, I try to get it all out of me because this allows me to get the tone and the intention of the story right. I’m usually in a feverish state when I’m writing, so after I try to let the piece breathe for a bit before I reread it.

I try to edit my work for sound and voice first. Since I mostly write in the first person, it’s essential for me that the work reflects a particular voice. That the characters sounds like themselves and that they convey the message and the intention they started the story with. It’s also important to me that the story has a musicality to it. After I’m happy with those two points, and if the story is in English, I deal with all the necessary proofreading and obsessing over typos that come with being a writer navigating the world in a second language. I read it a bunch of times. I send it to friends, I worry about the language being too simple—I doubt myself until I don’t. And then that’s when I’m ready to stop revising.

And lastly, our readers always like to know what our guest editors are looking for. What kind of story would you just love to find in the queue this week?

I’m a big fan of eerie settings in stories and people that explore spirituality through what some call “the supernatural,” but that to me and my set of beliefs is just part of everyday life. As a reader, I love cultural specificity. I love stories that tell you about the rituals of a character and their culture but that at the same time, don’t hold your hand or explain to you why they’re doing things a certain way. I like when writers are unapologetic about their beliefs and give you the gift of trust. Trust that you’ll explore, that you’ll find out on your own or that you’ll just be okay with accepting that there are things that are not for you to understand completely, but that you can admire and appreciate.

All of that being said, and at the risk of sounding cliché, I want to find stories I wasn’t expecting. Stories that put my world upside down, if even for a bit.

About the Reader:

María Alejandra Barrios is a pushcart nominated writer born in Barranquilla, Colombia. She has lived in Bogotá and Manchester where in 2016 she completed a Masters degree in Creative Writing from The University of Manchester. She was selected for the Immigrant Artist Mentoring Program: Performing Literary Arts for the city of New York in 2018. Her stories have been published in Hobart Pulp, Reservoir Journal, Bandit Fiction, Cosmonauts Avenue, Jellyfish Review, Lost Balloon, Vol.1 Brooklyn, El Malpensante and Shenadoah Literary. Her poetry has been published in The Acentos Review. Her work has been supported by organizations like Vermont Studio Center, Caldera Arts Center and the New Orleans Writing Residency.

About the Interviewer:

Shasta Grant is the author of the chapbook Gather Us Up and Bring Us Home (Split Lip Press, 2017). She was the 2016 SmokeLong Quarterly Kathy Fish Fellow and she won the 2015 Kenyon Review Short Fiction Contest. Her stories have appeared in Hobart, matchbook, MonkeyBicyclewigleaf, and elsewhere.