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Smoke & Mirrors with María Alejandra Barrios

Interview by Christopher Allen (Read the Story) March 23, 2020

María Alejandra Barrios

Art by Katelin Kinney

You mentioned on Twitter recently that people think you’re the people in your stories, and you mentioned also that one of your characters tells people they see ghosts. Do you see ghosts? 

That’s a great question. Kinda! I don’t know if I see ghosts, especially here in the US (that’s a lie–I did have a creepy encounter with something in New Orleans), but it’s something that has played a role in my life a lot. I was raised on a healthy diet of ghost stories, and my grandma wasn’t too concerned by nightmares, so she would tell me all her ghost stories growing up. Since Colombia is uber-religious, I feel people are more in touch with it. I’ve heard ghost stories from friends, taxi drivers, my brother. Almost everyone has one. Practically every house has one too.

I guess the short answer is I’m open to the possibility of it, and some of my characters are too. I had a story published in December about family ghosts, and I’m working on a novel that deals with the subject as well, so I spend a lot of time thinking about ghosts. My recent discovery is that I’m not concerned as to whether they exist or not. Or if what I am seeing or hearing is real or not as I am concerned about what’s behind these encounters. There’s usually a good story there.

We spent some time thinking about POV for “Someone Loves You.” Why do you think the second person works best for this story?

I think because it deals with the subject of love and what it means to be loved for the protagonist. I usually write in the first person, and I spend a lot of time thinking about how to make the voice resonate with the characters. With the second person, I concerned myself more with the technicalities of the second person and why it works that way. Usually, people think that the second person has to be a relatable character, someone the reader can inhabit for a while. The question then for me was: Why are people more willing to put themselves in someone’s shoes and not in others’? What about characters who are less easy to “love”? Can the second person be used then?

This story, for me, was also an exercise in writing something claustrophobic , and I felt the second person worked in terms of making the reader feel this too.

You write in both English and Spanish. What opportunities are there in terms of literary journals in Spanish and in the Spanish-language literary community in general for writers of short fiction?

I can only speak about Colombia since it’s the place I’m familiar with. Colombia has a growing literary scene and community, but as far as I’m concerned doesn’t have a lot of literary journals yet. In terms of print publications, the ones I’m familiar with are El Malpensante and Arcadia. Online publications that publish fantastic work and have a lot of circulation are Literariedad, Coronica, and Revista Cronopia. There are a lot of contests too! I suggest writers look for contests such as La Cueva’s short story contest (open now I believe!), the short story collection contest by UIS and the microrrelatos contest by the University EAFIT.

Also, this is not something I’m super well versed in, but another option is literary magazines from universities. For example, La Universidad del Norte has a magazine called Huellas that publishes outstanding work mostly from the Caribbean region in Colombia. Temporales by the NYU MFA program and Rio Grande Review by the University of El Paso, Texas, also come to mind. They both publish work by emerging and well-established writers.

I saw on Twitter that you are working on a novel. Can you tell us a little about this?

Yes! I started working on a novel about Vi, a Colombian woman who lives in the States and goes back to her home country after the death of her abuela to sell the family restaurant. What she expected to be a matter of a couple of days becomes something that forces her to examine her current life in the States and the life she left behind a little more.

While deciding whether to sell or not, she realizes that although her abuela has passed away, she might still have unfinished business with Vi and is finding ways to communicate with her. The restaurant is a place that represents her family history and with strong ties to the community. The restaurant is a place that has served her great-grandma’s family recipes for generations and is the food that Vi recognizes and loves. Selling is not only ending a tradition but is also ending the place that the women in her family and her ancestors created with so much effort in a time that wasn’t easy for women to create and own businesses in the Caribbean region of Colombia.

Ultimately, the novel is about bridges. Bridges in what we thought was gone but might ultimately not be gone entirely and bridges in-between places too: Vi must decide between life in Colombia honoring her family legacy but rebuilding her identity or going back to a life in the States she recognizes and has taken her a lot of hard work to build but might not be hers anymore to go back to.

Readers will want to know how the SLQ fellowship is going. Can you give us an idea of how you’ve benefited from the fellowship so far?

Yes! The first thing about this fellowship that has benefited me is how much it has forced me to sit down and work on my craft. Not only by writing, by reading too. The fellowship offered me the opportunity to be a guest reader for a week! This opportunity was priceless for me because it allowed me to read tons of submissions of astonishing work that taught me a lot.

This fellowship has also been an opportunity to generate a lot of work. One of the perks of the fellowship is that it allows you to participate in a SmokeLong workshop where you receive tasks every weekday, and you share your drafts with other workshop participants. It’s been great to produce work alongside many other writers and to reflect on my first drafts and the choices I make as a writer more frequently. I realize it hasn’t been that long, but I noticed that as a result of this fellowship, I’m stepping out of the first person a little more. I’m using the second and the third person more for my flash now, and this has made me experiment with the ways I narrate more. It’s exciting.

About the Author

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

Christopher Allen is the author of the flash fiction collection Other Household Toxins (Matter Press, 2018). His work has appeared in Flash Fiction America (Norton, 2023), The Best Small Fictions 2019 and 2022, Split Lip, Booth, PANK, and Indiana Review, among other very nice places. Allen has been the publisher and editor-in-chief of SmokeLong Quarterly since January 2020 and was the 2023 judge of the Bridport Prize for flash fiction. He and his husband are nomads.

About the Artist

Katelin Kinney is from the hills and fields of Southern Indiana. She attained two BFAs from the Herron School of Art and Design in Indianapolis, IN. Her portfolio consists of fine art and commercial freelance work.

This interview appeared in Issue Sixty-Seven of SmokeLong Quarterly.
SmokeLong Quarterly Issue Sixty-Seven

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