Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo is author of Posada: Offerings of Witness and Refuge (Sundress Publications 2016). A former Steinbeck Fellow and Poets & Writers California Writers Exchange winner, most recently, her poem, “Battlegrounds” was featured at Poets.org and On Being’s Poetry Unbound. She’s the director of Women Who Submit, a literary organization fighting for gender parity in publishing.
Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo will be one of the featured authors at the Los Angeles Libros Festival, a free bilingual book festival for the whole family. L.A. Libros Fest will be streamed live on YouTube on Friday, September 23, from 9 a.m. to 12 noon. The Festival will be in-person at Central Library in Downtown Los Angeles on Saturday, September 24, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., with select Saturday programs streamed live on YouTube.
Our tagline this year is Read, Dream and Celebrate en dos idiomas. How do you think your books and stories help us accomplish this?
My book, Posada: Offerings of Witness and Refuge uses Spanglish. I’m a daughter of Mexican immigrants, and though I am not fluent in Spanish, like many children of immigrants, it’s a language I can understand better than speak, and it’s a language that weaves in and out of my life at all and any times. Certain poems in the collection work to illustrate what this kind of experience with Spanish can feel or look like. Other poems remember that language is one way we connect to others and tries to make that connection a little more clear. Language can be an important lifeline, especially in traumatic situations. I do have one poem in the book that is in both English and Spanish. I wrote that poem for my grandmother who only spoke Spanish. She would often ask me to write in Spanish. Unfortunately, I only got around to writing it after she passed.
What are some of the things you do to bring to life the world you’ve imagined?
I believe poets are magical thinkers and that our writing has the power to conjure new realities. It’s a power I don’t take lightly and a power I do my best to be careful with. My poems imagine more just futures full of love and compassion and healing. My poems imagine ways of dismantling monuments, markers, and structures of colonialism, white supremacy, and patriarchy to make wider, more welcoming spaces for all people. My job is to imagine these possibilities and use my language to build them. My hope is that by doing this, I can inspire others to do the same in their own lives, practices, means, and communities.
What stories inspired you as a young reader?
Island of the Blue Dolphins was one of the first books I remember enjoying. I found the main character inspiring, and I was taken by the descriptions of the land and time. Also, The Secret Garden. I think I liked thinking of beautiful, lush places that belonged only to me.
If your book was turned into a movie/series, who would you cast?
I’m currently working on a novel set in Central California in the 1930s. My protagonist is a 14-year-old Mexican American girl whose parents are migrant farmers. I would love for Selena Gomez to be a part of it. I’m inspired by the work she’s being doing lately as a TV producer and actor, and I love her music. She could play the mother and maybe even write a song for it! And I’d want America Ferrera on the production team too, maybe even direct.
"I believe poets are magical thinkers and that our writing has the power to conjure new realities."
What advice would you give to young writers?
There’s no right way to write. There’s no smart way to be. If you enjoy writing, you’re a writer. What’s most important is that you put yourself on the page. If you love Anime, create a character that also loves Anime. If you’re a soccer player, have your main character be a soccer star, or maybe a soccer dud. Bring yourself into your stories and pages because that’s what’s going to make your writing unique and exciting.
How did you feel the first time your work was published? How was your publishing journey?
The first time I won any kind of writing accolade, I was in the 5th grade. I submitted a Western-type story to a contest through Knott’s Berry Farm about an 11-year-old girl who saved her town from a robber. When I gave it to my teacher to read she told me it was boring and that I didn’t have a chance of winning. I remember I had put in a lot to the setting and atmosphere. I described how the wind blew through the tiny town, and how the townspeople shook in their boots from fear. From early on with books like Island of the Blue Dolphins and The Secret Garden, I knew I liked setting, so I loved it, but I guess it was too much for her taste. I remember thinking another girl in my class had a better chance of winning because she wrote about a magical candle, and I wished I had her imagination. In the end, I won, and the prize was a ticket to Knott’s Berry Farm, being in the park parade, and seeing my story acted out on a stage. It was awesome! I still remember what I wore that day. And it just shows you have to go with your gut and not listen to people who want to bring you down.
"There’s no right way to write. There’s no smart way to be. If you enjoy writing, you’re a writer. What’s most important is that you put yourself on the page... Bring yourself into your stories and pages because that’s what’s going to make your writing unique and exciting."
What are some challenges you encounter when writing?
Right now I’m working on a novel, and novels are long projects. I started working on it in 2015. That year I mostly did research. I wrote a first draft in 2016. Every year since, I try to write a new draft. When I’m done with a draft, I try to find an agent who will take the book. When they say no, I start again. There are a lot of nos, and after so many years, it’s hard to stay motivated or even to still like your story, but you have to keep finding new ways to look at it and new things to get excited about. I also try to stay focused on who I hope will read it one day. I do it for those young girls, my young readers.
How do you think libraries make our world a better place?
Libraries are magical places filled with possibilities and ideas. They are one of the only places you can go for free and just enjoy language and rest and inspiration. Without libraries, where would we go to imagine better futures? It’s one of the only places anyone can go. It’s all access, and it’s a joining of different communities around knowledge. It’s the future we imagine, but it’s now. Libraries are essential.
What are you working on now?
I have a second poetry collection titled, Call My Love, Sanctuary, that I’m currently trying to find a publisher for. It’s a collection of love poems and reflects all the different ways we love people, friends, family, community, and strangers. It’s not just romantic love, but that’s there too. I wouldn’t want to be in a world without romantic love. But as times have been so difficult, I also like to remember that love is all around us.
Books by Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo