“Declaration is less a record of the story of these women than what it felt like to be in contact with them, and the way seeing them and talking to them helped reshape my own approaches to God.”
Declaration (Guillotine, 2017)
Could you tell us a bit about your growing up and your path to becoming a writer?
I started out being really interested in journalism, especially political journalism—I was on my middle school and high school newspaper staffs, I went to politics summer camp in high school, the whole nine yards. When I got to college and started taking classes in polisci, I realized that this was actually really far afield from what I wanted to be thinking about, which was how people lived under politics, and more critically, people’s lives and interiority. I switched my major and ended up in the creative writing and sociology departments, both of which hugely affected my writing. Sociology, and ethnographic practice especially, taught me about basically being an observer and this very particular kind of observation where you’re trying to erase as many of your assumptions as possible when you walk into a space, or observe an interaction. My creative writing professors introduced me to writing and forms that really pushed me to consider what an essay, what poetry could look like: Anne Carson, Maggie Nelson, Annie Dillard. Both of those, the journalistic and the lyric, explain what I strive for my writing to be.
How would you describe your chapbook’s genre? Did thinking about genre affect how you wrote it?
I would probably describe the genre as essay most broadly. I was pretty self-consciously writing in a way to imitate writers I admired (you can basically still see Maggie Nelson’s structure from Bluets). I think getting into the weeds of it, it’s a braided essay: pulling a few different strands of things together to weave a greater whole out of them. This essay is the result of one of my first experiments with that kind of writing, and it took…let’s say a lot of revision to get it right, but it also felt like the form matched the function I wanted the essay to serve.
I admire your honesty when you write about your faith. What made you choose to write about your personal history and what you felt with the women instead of only the stories of the women in the Our Lady Queen of Angels congregation?
Thank you! I mention in the essay that the piece originally started as a sociology senior thesis. My favorite part of any ethnography is the appendix, where suddenly the researcher peeks out from behind the curtain and says “hi, this is me, this is how I did my research, this is what I did well, this is what I could have done better.” It is a moment that feels like it has the potential of letting us learn about people and social groups that ethnography studies, while also being humble and helping to make clear the framework which has been shaping the study all along. It’s the piece of the ethnography that feels like it has the most potential to move past the racist and ethically awful legacies of these kinds of studies. I kind of also feel like this is where my journalism roots come out a little—it’s impossible to write a totally unbiased account, and one way to balance that is to show the reader, as clearly as I can, where I’m standing as I write. I wrote an appendix/author’s note with my thesis, but I felt like it wasn’t going far enough—in order to present the story of the women of Our Lady Queen of Angels as best I could, I needed to show what kind of baggage I was bringing along with myself, and I think in this particular piece, that meant looking really critically at my own relationship with religion, and especially the hang-ups and anger I had around it.
The funny thing about Declaration is that I finished drafting it about three years before it actually came out in the world, and those three years have marked a sea change in where I’m at with religion generally and Christianity specifically. I was doing a reading a few months ago, and I just felt the anger (at God, specifically,) burning through the words in a way that before I had construed as totally neutral and fair. Granted, there’s some anger in there, especially at the archdiocese, that I still very much feel.
It seems that in Declaration you connect the women from Our Lady Queen of Angels to the tradition of female saints. You write that women saints are often famed for their virginity, “their efforts to make themselves disappear— from men’s eyes, from the earth itself,” and that they are not given voices in their stories, with Mary as the most famous example. Does Declaration grant the women of Our Lady Queen of Angels a sort of voice that was not offered to the saints you write about? What is your role in recording the story of these modern saints?
I don’t think Declaration grants them much of a voice that they hadn’t taken for themselves, actually. If you plug “Our Lady Queen of Angels NYC” into Google, you can see the massive amount of press, videos, articles, etc. that these women have used as mediums to get their voices out. A lot of them are older or date to the time when the church was closed, but still. Someone made a documentary a few years ago, The New York Times covered their protests extensively at the beginning, I was there once when a Wall Street Journal reporter came prior to the pope’s New York City visit a few years ago. That’s part of what impressed me so much about them—they are incredibly media savvy, and even when the media isn’t around, they’re particularly good at making themselves heard and understood.
Declaration is less a record of the story of these women than what it felt like to be in contact with them, and the way seeing them and talking to them helped reshape my own approaches to God.
I’m also not sure that my project in Declaration was one of recording or documenting, or not the primary one. Also, this might be my inner academic talking, but Declaration isn’t particularly historically rigorous. It’s accurate, as far as I was able to determine, but not exhaustive. In my thesis, I did a lot of that balancing work of figuring out who said what, and when, and dates and times and tones of protests, balancing “official” journalistic accounts and eyewitness accounts, which is the work that feels more like being a record-keeper than writing Declaration. However, the thesis remains as a kind of a shadow-text to Declaration, and it didn’t seem as important to document every single bit of their story here.
Is Declaration a reinterpretation or reconstruction of religious experience?
More than anything, I think Declaration is a recounting of a particular religious experience, or set of experiences, or the lack thereof (on my end). There’s plenty of Christian theology that describes the church as the body of Christ, and in that way, when you encounter a church group, for better or worse, you’re encountering something that is both a little human and a little divine. Making yourself vulnerable to that is I think a kind of religious experience, as is the kind of yelling at God’s absence I do. In that way, I guess it’s a reconstruction—we don’t often think of like, a church potluck as encountering the body of Christ, but thanks to the women of Queen of Angels, I think my theology has become really communitarian and human.
You write in the closing paragraph that “The grace of God, the grace you accept is supposed to, as the song goes, make you see.” How is your seeing of the women of Our Lady Queen of Angels informed by grace?
I think part of what writing about Our Lady Queen of Angels meant to me is encountering a profoundly graceful group of people, and then being overwhelmed at what having that grace extended to me felt like. I think the traditional wisdom is that God’s grace can help you see…how much of a sinner you are? And conversely having people’s grace extended to me has helped me better see what we owe each other, as well as the ways that I am falling short of that. But I think the piece this gave me that I don’t think I had before, or had put into relationship with God’s grace, is that having grace extended to you makes you want to be deserving of that grace, makes you want to work harder and be better and bridge the gap between the person you are and the person your community wants you or needs you to be.
How do your theological studies inform your writing?
There are a lot of really practical ways—I’ve got a great community of writers here, faculty is really supportive if you’d rather turn in a weirdo lyric essay rather than a research paper, or even encourage it. I also feel like div school is making me a deeper, more thoughtful writer, in every sense of the word. Thinking about God and religion and the other Big Questions on a regular basis has at once given me a vocabulary to talk about the edges of understanding in a way I didn’t have before, but it also has made me a lot more comfortable with what Anne Carson calls “that emptiness where God would be if God were available.” Not only that but going to school with the approximately half of my classmates who have a capital-V Vocation, especially those headed into ministry or chaplaincy, has been an incredible experience. Watching the kind of care and attention with which they move through the world and witnessing their beliefs in the radical possibilities for communities and caregiving has I think awoken me to different ways of noticing. Simone Weil has this great essay on attention, where she argues that the same kind of attention you use to write a crappy Latin translation (something I’m increasingly familiar with these days) is the kind of attention you extend to the suffering other, and to God in prayer. Divinity school feels like it’s teaching me the practice of attention in a lot of different directions, and I think that comes out in my writing.
What has the editing and production experience with your press been like? To what degree did you collaborate on the design of your chapbook?
Honestly the best part of being published is being edited, particularly when it is by superstar-genius Sarah McCarry. She was both incredibly enthusiastic about my work, and really good at seeing all the ways in which it could be better. We also collaborated during a time that was really tumultuous for both of us—I changed jobs, changed cities, and started school, she had the press on hiatus to reorganize and then the election hit us both incredibly hard, but sometimes emailing back and forth edits and questions felt like a lifeline.
The design process was incredible! Sarah and I sent back and forth a few emails about general motifs and colors (Marian blue and gold, obviously), and then she came back about a month after with a few different options from her amazing designer Anna Zylicz. We picked one, and then a few months after that, I had my chapbooks in hand! The whole final few months kind of felt like magic.
Is where you wrote from for Declaration similar to where you write from for Ojos de Santa Lucia, your “erratically published missive on lady-saints that also circles around magic, femininity, perfume, radical tenderness, the stars, and cloth-bound books”? What do those projects have in common? What is different?
I think that it’s fair to say that both projects are coming from similar places! Both are projects that have helped me work out questions or ideas in my spirituality, have helped reconcile with the Christianity I was raised with, and help take big, complicated ideas or lives that are beyond my understanding and move them a little closer to me. I feel like I’m often trying to work out why an idea or a figure is so interesting or attractive to me, what’s pulled me in.
I think what’s different about the two is that OdSL is really pretty informal. If it’s something personal or that I’m worried about getting wrong, I might have a friend read over it, but other than that, I’m the only pair of eyes on it, and the only one editing it. I can see some of the things I wrote there becoming more formal essays, but for now, they’re a way for me to stretch my legs, try out ideas, and so they’re messy, and a little experimental.
What are you working on now?
One of the things I’ve gotten really into in grad school is the idea of translation and translation theory. I feel like it has the capacity to talk about a lot of things beyond itself, and is really good at, again, pointing out the gaps in language. This has turned into a kind of monster-essay about translation and translators and borders and borderlands.
Alejandra Oliva is an essayist and embroiderer. She is currently working on her master’s in theological studies at Harvard Divinity School.