Published on January 23rd, 2015 | by Sarah Maria Medina0
EXCAVATION: An Interview with Wendy Ortiz by Sarah Maria Medina
Wendy C. Ortiz’s memoir, Excavation, is a poetic yet stark retelling of one teenage girl’s journey into womanhood. Excavation delves into the writer’s sexual history with her junior high school teacher, Jeff Ivers, beginning from when she was age fourteen. Ortiz’s prose is strikingly honest. She writes about rubbing her body across her carpeted bedroom floor, her sexual exploration with dreams of other girls, and through each chapter, how she is brought further into her teacher’s manipulations.
Yet there are moments where she is aware of her power over him. She explores the complex experience of an exchange of power, which left Ortiz with a need—years later—to excavate her memories, and perhaps to reclaim that teenage girl from within the pages. She kept a detailed journal, something her teacher asked her not to, and it would become an important reference as she wrote her memoir.
Young Wendy rebelled in other ways against Jeff, riding off to concerts with her teen boyfriend. One of the beauties of this memoir is that Ortiz keeps the true perspective of an adolescent throughout the years. She doesn’t let her adult voice narrate her younger self’s view of the world. She lets it all slide into focus slowly, with precision.
Little by little, she first details young Wendy’s developing sexuality, and then later reveals her age, which was younger than I had anticipated, but rings true for the girl I once was. It is only in other chapters when Ortiz writes from the adult Wendy’s perspective that she answers some of the hard questions raised in the book. Questions about how sexuality matures and how adults can abuse their position as mentor and friend.
I admire Ortiz—she not only found the time to write her memoir while raising her small daughter with her partner in Los Angeles, but she was also brave to write about this tumultuous time in her youth. As a writer, sometimes I find myself pausing over my words, wondering, will my daughter read this one day? What will she think of me? I was raised by women who selectively told the truth about their own teen years, and I’ve had to break through self-imposed boundaries to write my own stories. Ultimately, I think in honoring our past, and writing honestly, our daughters will also be honored by the truth.
Ortiz writes to that lost daughter, that teenager craving connection, dancing though the world to her own soundtrack, past an alcoholic mother, a distant father, and a Christian Mexican grandmother who sent her mail-in bible study. Through these glimpses of Ortiz’s family on the periphery, a young girl emerges and reclaims her sexuality.
I’m in Mexico City and Ortiz is in Los Angeles. We set apart a time to talk this fall, but our phone call kept getting rescheduled around the political protests in the street. This interview represents many emails back and forth through the early winter. I enjoyed getting to know Wendy a little more and hope you will, too.
MUTHA: I first discovered your writing on MUTHA Magazine, so I’m excited to interview you for MUTHA. Since then, I’ve read your essays in the New York Times, Vol. 1 Brooklyn and others, as well as your new memoir Excavation, which has been creating a wave in the literary world.
We tried a few times to set up phone dates, and each time we had to cancel for social justice protests. Ayotzinapa in Mexico. And Ferguson protests in Los Angeles. I’d say it’s an intense time to be raising children, but the truth is that this violence has been going on for decades.
ORTIZ: In my 20s I imagined having a kid, raising them as a radical, and taking them with me to every demonstration and protest I went to. The violence has never ceased and now the police in the U.S. are outfitted like paramilitary. It definitely gives me pause when I consider bringing my kid to any demonstrations, at least while she is as small as she is.
MUTHA: Yes, I hear you about the violence. Every day there is news that makes me afraid for my daughter. But I don’t want her to be fearful. I want her to be eager to go out into the world.
ORTIZ: I feel the same—and I’m watching how my daughter learns fear and how she deals with it, all of which is still changing, constantly.
MUTHA: Your memoir was intense for me to read, both as a mother and as a woman who was once a teen runaway. Your writing is bold in its honesty, in its excavation of memories. Did you at times find yourself wanting to edit as you wrote, worried that your daughter would later read your memoir?
ORTIZ: I edited myself—heavily—as did my editors, but never with the intention of editing for my daughter. The only editing that occurred was in service to the story and in service to my psyche. Your question is an interesting one because the way I read it, there’s an implication that my daughter would find something in the memoir that would make me feel something (shame? fear?), hence the word “worried.”
Realistically, by the time she could read it and understand it as, say, a young adolescent, the book will be about 10 years old. I’d like to imagine this book will be but one of a few by then and so the impact of it as a solo work without more context starts to diminish.
Having said this, though, I can say that I have fantasies of drawing up legal papers that only allow her to read my personal journals once she’s past the age of 28. A friend recently suggested, why not just wait for her whole Saturn return and make it age 30?
MUTHA: I hear you about the journals!! I think about my own stack of journals too. A constantly growing stack. (Jajaja!)*
I think you’re brave in your telling. I don’t think of it as shame or fear. Lately, I’ve been reflecting on my own writing, knowing my daughter may read it one day. I often wonder if other writers who are parents give pause over their words as much as I do. And am inspired to hear that you haven’t let that trip you up.
In the memoir, you shift between the voice of Wendy as a growing teenager and Wendy as an adult. You let the youth of Wendy’s teen perspective remain truthful and untouched, only in separate chapters giving us the adult Wendy’s perspective. How did you come about this story-telling technique?
ORTIZ: The first several drafts only contained the teen perspective. Over time I realized it felt one-dimensional and that including who I am now, as an adult, made the story more fully dimensional.
MUTHA: Yes, I really appreciated the layer of voice in your memoir. Your memoir has also been described as narrative driven. Were you conscious of this decision as you wrote, to let narrative rather than plot guide your chapters?
ORTIZ: I knew I wanted to tell the story from beginning to end and I knew where I felt the climax was, so my plot was built-in. In that sense I didn’t have to think so much about plot guiding the chapters as much as letting the adolescent voice and the adult voices guide the chapters.
MUTHA: You mentioned in the foreword that you used old journals to inform many of the details in Excavation. In the memoir, Mr. Ivers repeatedly tells young Wendy over the phone not to write down anything, which as soon as she hangs up she does. It was her rebellion in the moment, and a thread that you would later use to reconstruct your memoir. Was it intense for you to reread those journals? And what kind of self-care did you use while writing your memoir?
WENDY: Rereading the journals can be at turns intense, amusing, perplexing, and contemplative. There are intense moments and when I read with an eye for the material I would use in the book, it was definitely difficult at times.
My self-care doesn’t really change much depending on what I’m working on. Self-care, for me, is hiking regularly, trying to have/get as much time alone as possible, reading, sleeping well, and looking for sparks and fire from other writers and artists.
MUTHA: I’ve heard that Rhapsodomancy, your reading series in Los Angeles, is live. I imagine that’s one way of keeping your literary circle innovative. I hope one day I can make it. Perhaps during a longer lay-over in LA!
ORTIZ: Yes! Rhapsodomancy has been an amazing way of keeping in touch with writers and readers in a tangible way for the last decade. It’s going to be pretty different going forward and I’m excited about its transformation.
MUTHA: I didn’t realize it’s been going a decade. What a dream!! Something else that came up as we tried to schedule this interview was that neither of us like the phone and prefer emails. It was a funny moment for me—in a bittersweet way. I realized that perhaps your dislike of the phone stems from those intimate phone conversations I as the reader witnessed between you and Jeff.
ORTIZ: I loved the phone right up until cell phones! I found that as soon as things went digital it was harder to hear and understand tone and shifts in inflection. Too many call drops and interruptions. So, my dislike of the phone has nothing to do with the phone calls with Jeff. Now I just prefer texts and email and see the phone as an interruption. This might also speak to my introverted tendencies.
MUTHA: Those dropped calls ARE super annoying. My dislike of phones—except in special occasions—comes from my own teenage escapades, which is a whole other story.
I read your Modern Love column in the New York Times. It was just beautiful. In the essay, you mentioned that you come from a Mexican American family, but in the memoir, identity isn’t revealed, so much as slightly touched on with passages on your grandmother.
ORTIZ: If I wanted to stay true to the adolescent voice in the story, there would be very little about identity, especially ethnic identity, and the same is true for queer identity. These were aspects of my identity that were still in formation. I knew I was different from many of my peers, having always been in private schools and understanding that very few of my classmates had surnames like mine or looked like me. And yet I was afraid then of talking about what meanings that might have. Rigoberto González engaged me about this very thing in his interview with me for the National Book Critics Circle blog, and I’m so glad he did, because writing about my understanding of ethnic identity and how that was shaped and how it’s changed over the years is an ongoing topic in my head and heart, and has on occasion been threaded in my work (but rarely engaged with by interviewers!).
MUTHA: Yeah I guess us Latin@s—or in Gonzalez’s case Chican@s—like to brag about other published Latinas and Latinos. (I was just reading Rigoberto González’s memoir Butterfly Boy.) Staying true to your experience makes the story rhythmic in time. I think so many of us felt lost as teenagers. I didn’t start thinking deeply about my own identity until college. When you’re an adolescent you tend to be in the thick of it. It’s not ’til later that the layers unfold.
ORTIZ: Yes, Chicano Studies 101 in my first year at Valley College is where my identity as a Chicana started to form, and once I made the decision to give up the idea of being an English major, political economy and social change took its place and continued to shape how I’d come to terms with the various identities I live.
MUTHA: Interesting that you’re an ex-English major turned writer. I identify with how social justice studies influence our lenses and thus our creativity. The NY Times piece opened doors for the publication of Excavation. You’ve mentioned in other interviews that after the essay ran, you had publishers and agents calling. Can you tell us about your decision to work with Future Tense Books and how that experience has been as a writer?
ORTIZ: Working with Future Tense Books has been a very positive, easy experience. There’s a rapport and friendship there that came quite easily. I have immense respect for Kevin, Tina (my editor), and Bryan (my book designer). My decision to work with them, to me, reflects my interest and engagement with alternative publishing models—similar to my having approached L.A.-based Writ Large Press with another book, knowing I wanted it to be with a local press with high integrity and creativity.
MUTHA: Your new book, Hollywood Notebook, is forthcoming from Writ Large Press in spring of 2015. Tell us a little about it?
ORTIZ: It is a prose poemish memoirish thing, a collection of fragments, lists, ideas, narratives, that reflect who I was between the ages of 28-33. I had just returned to Los Angeles after eight years in Olympia, Washington and I was trying to find my footing. Some astrologically-minded people, including me, attribute the ages of 28-30 to what is known as a “Saturn return” and so this book takes us into one, as well as into some Plutonic places.
MUTHA: I look forward to reading it! I so enjoy your work. I recently read your nonfiction piece “Mud Myths” on Watershed Review, and loved the poetic imagery and the emotion that is so embodied in your work.
ORTIZ: Thank you!
MUTHA: You wrote an essay for MUTHA where you mentioned your challenges with packing snacks for your daughter. The rhythmic lists felt like elementary school hand jiving chants:
Breakfast sandwich with egg, sausage and cheese. Hash brown nuggets. Diet Coke.
Do you have any new updates for us?
ORTIZ: Ahhh, just reading that makes me crave those fast-food breakfasts I enjoyed through high school! I still get one like once a year. The update, though, is that now that my daughter is in preschool full-time, I am not as on top of the food preparation as when she was home all day or even half the day. My partner makes our daughter’s lunch every day, and usually breakfast and dinner, too! (I love living with a natural cook.) When pressed, I’ll cook, and of course there is all the snack prep that happens when a little body needs and wants to eat small meals every two hours. I still watch and learn from other parents and just stay open to the changes in my daughter’s eating habits and preferences.
MUTHA: Ja! I know what you mean about cravings! I just visited family in Seattle, and took my daughter to Dick’s Burger’s—first real milkshake and fries!!! (And she’s five now!)
ORTIZ: I miss Dick’s Burger’s!
Excavaction: A Memoir can be found at local bookstores or ordered directly from Wendy C. Ortiz on her website. When ordered from Wendy herself, she even signs the book, which is pretty sweet in this author’s opinion. And when Wendy is out of copies, she suggests ordering from Powells or Small Press Distribution.
* “ha ha”