Amanda-Alcantara-Chula-The-Book
Photo: Emmanuel Abreu, courtesy of Amanda Alcántara
News and Entertainment

Amanda Alcántara Speaks for Dominican Women with ‘Chula’

It’s the start to a busy week for Amanda Alcántara. We meet at Silvana in Harlem, New York just days shy of Chula coming into the world and in the hands of readers. Though it seems coincidental — universally — it’s no surprise we happen to connect in the very space where she gave her first public reading of her debut autobiographical book last month. She describes Chula as “an imaginative bilingual collection of intimate poems, short stories, memories and vignettes about the life of a Dominicana before and after moving to the United States.”

Alcántara reveals she feels a range of emotions: fear, excitement, clarity, and confidence, to name a few. Rightfully so. The 28-year-old journalist has spent a lifetime preparing for this moment, and the last two years revisiting journal entries, creative writing pieces, and other personal writings to weave together a 100-plus page unapologetic testament to her truth.

“I feel like I’ve been preparing for this my whole life,” says the Afro-Dominican writer as she sips her lavender rose tea. Later in our conversation, she shares, “this book is one specific Afro-Latina experience,” as she’s careful not to position it as representing a universal experience.

“I talk about some things that are taboo that I don’t know how people are going to take, like I talk about the word mulatta, for example,” she explains. “There’s a whole performative part of the book with photos and [details] what it’s like to go to Latin America and be referred to as this word.”

She knows not everyone will grasp her self-published book, which, as a poet and music lover, she penned to a beat. From a curated Spotify playlist and photo shoot to the launch events, the rollout of Chula is akin to an album release. Those subtle yet impactful elements reflect Alcántara’s intent in bringing Chula to life. Her debut book released on March 21, the day after spring and during a full moon in Libra, her zodiac sign — again, all elements she intentionally factored in.

HipLatina spoke with Alcántara’ about the inspiration behind Chula, her writing process and what she hopes the next generation of Dominicanas will gain from reading her debut book.

HipLatina: Walk me through the creative process for Chula — the moment you got the idea to the moment it was complete.

The earliest thing that I have in the book I wrote when I was eight years old. Really, it was less about the writing process and more about collecting everything and realizing this is what my book is going to be. Almost my whole life I’ve known that I wanted to write a book. For me, it was less a process of writing it and more accepting what it was becoming and accepting what the book was.

For the longest time, I thought I had to write a certain way. I thought that the book was gonna be this one idea that I had, then it was gonna be this other idea. And what I was writing was not reflecting any of that ‘cause what I was writing was just my life. I write to survive. I write to live; like, I write to sort of let out my emotions as my outlet.

The concept of the book really came about two years ago when originally, which is so wild, it was going to be called pendeja ‘cause I wrote this really, really good blog post that I loved about how as a woman I was kinda letting myself get played by these men. I was going to write a book about that ‘cause so much of what I’d written I could probably just do a book about love, right? Eventually, as I healed in my own journey, I realized I cannot write a book titled pendeja. What? No! I mean, maybe eventually but not right now. Instead, as I started healing, I started using the hashtag #LaMasChula as a way of empowering myself and feeling good, and then the concept for the book came about where I was like: Oh my God, Amanda, you should just collect all the writing you already have of your own life and your own story, and turn it into this book.

I’ve been talking about this: To me, it was more like writing, more like creating, an album then writing a book because I wanted to mix different kinds of genres. Some genres, some writing pieces, may not even be like a genre. Even towards the end with the process, some stories were left out, including the pendeja piece because I was like this isn’t in the feel of what the “album” is now. That was really the process.

In a recent interview you did with Latinos Out Loud, you said while writing Chula, you got comfortable with your writing style and what it is versus adhering to what you thought it was supposed to be. That’s powerful because as writers it’s natural to familiarize yourself with what’s already out there and think it’s supposed to fit a certain structure. What was that moment like when you truly accepted your unique writing style?

That was a long process. I went to this Sankofa Sisterhood Writers Retreat a couple of years ago where we really talked about the importance of voice and writing with your own voice as opposed to writing like a college essay. Since then it’s been more about accepting my voice for what it is and using it as a tool to write. When you write how you talk, it actually resonates with people a little bit more. Like, I curse in my book. The book is bilingual ‘cause I speak in English and Spanish. In the book, I’m going to use both of these languages. So a lot of the book, you have like one paragraph that’s in English and then I explain something and it’s all in Spanish, and it’s both. It’s interesting because I know that it’s going to exclude some people. Obviously, not everyone reads both English and Spanish, but, at least for this first edition, I think it was important to leave it that way. Maybe in the future, we can translate it to each language individually or solely.

Yeah, it was more about accepting [that]. Also, realizing that unlearning everything that they told us that writing is supposed to be. I’m really grateful that I never went to a creative writing class. I took one creative writing class as an undergrad and I felt like I couldn’t write for shit in that class. It’s because you’re supposed to write a certain way. It’s rigid.

This is autobiographical. In your life, you move between different spaces: D.R. and the United States. How has living in both spaces influenced you as a storyteller?

I was born here and raised in the Dominican Republic. I write about that in the book, how it’s like reverse migration — sort of. I would visit my grandma here, which is like a reverse too.

The way we tell stories in both countries is very — in the Dominican Republic and the U.S.— similar in that we use our bodies. And when I’m thinking of the U.S., I’m speaking of Black United States. I think in sort of the performative sense. We use our bodies. In the Dominican Republic, I took a theater class and I also took a performative poetry class, which is spoken word but I didn’t realize that ‘til college.

For me, it’s more like a vibe and a feel, you know? It’s almost like when people say my voice sounds different in English than in Spanish. Like, actually, sonically people say it sounds different. It feels different. Both places are also similar in other ways. I think they are similar sort of culturally because I’m referring to Black America, again. Then I do think there are some similarities that I got in terms of using the body to perform and using sounds.

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Photo courtesy of Amanda Alcantara

How does your identity impact your writing within Chula?

Identity and race show up organically as opposed to didactically. I’m not sitting around like, now I’m going to write about race. Instead, it’s like I’m walking down the street and, you know, somebody tells me this certain thing and then the story just continues. I’m not necessarily stopping to address it but it’s almost like I’m showing rather than telling.

In “Mulatta contemporánea searching for autonomy” you’re gonna see it ‘cause it’s right in the middle. It has photos. It’s the interlude of the book. For me, that was also an exercise as a writer. Like, it was a choice. How do I incorporate these things in a way that is organic and that’s not like I’m beating you over the head with it? With gender, it’s the same thing. I talk about sexual harassment in the book. I talk about sexual assault in the book. It’s also very similar in how it’s addressed.

I feel like an immigrant who kind of isn’t an immigrant at the same time, and has lived back and forth like the book embodies that in so many ways. The fact that it’s bilingual and the stories that I’m telling [are] sometimes you’re in the U.S. and sometimes in the D.R.,  that to me is also another identity, right? Being like in a border and embodying a border.

You’re entering into the literature/publishing world, which is different than some of the other lanes you’ve occupied. What prompted that shift, and did you find it challenging to transition those skills that you’ve used in the other areas to this new lane?

I’ve definitely been wary of entering those spaces because I don’t think I was dedicating enough time to that part of who I am. I have done spoken word. I have done poetry. I have published creative pieces. But so much of my career was just focused on journalism. To me, writing this book, it feels like that’s a shift now and I don’t think it was a choice I think I had to write it. I’ve been wanting to write this book since forever. It was gonna happen; it was a matter of when and I guess the when is now.

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Photo by Emmanuel Abreu.

What would you say was the most freeing part about writing this?

I have been wanting to write this for a very long time and I’ve been mostly conceptualizing it and [deciding] when do I start it. Whether I was going to do some fiction thing, some non-fiction thing. I think it’s really beautiful that it was my story that found me and that I’ve lived. Just putting it out, it feels like an immense release and it feels like I’m ready to step into all that I am. So much had to happen for me to get here. There’s a reason why I had to publish this now and not like two or three years ago.

What makes you so passionate specifically about Chula?

It’s about autonomy of ourselves and our bodies. That’s the feeling that I want to convey. It’s about owning every part of my story and every part of who I am unapologetically. It’s a celebration of my inner child. The reason for the cover was because in the Dominican Republic there are these flowers called coralillo that we used to connect them as little kids and we would like to make necklaces with them or bracelets with them, and that’s what the drawing on the cover is. Some women recognize it, which I thought was so beautiful like when I put it up [on social media] some women were like, aww, I used to play with those as a kid and I’m like, yes!

The word chula can mean something very beautiful; I think it can also mean something very sexual and very sexy. I also think it can be derogatory. Even the word is a little complicated and I’m okay with that. I want it to be that.

What do you hope young Latinx readers, particularly young Dominican women, receive from reading Chula?

I hope that they can identify with it, but parts of it I hope that they don’t identify with. I want them to know that no matter how complicated their story is they can also heal. All of our healing journeys are very different and to embrace their individuality. Whatever else they get from the book, please do. I want them to be badasses, too.  

Chula is now available. You can purchase it here or here. The cover was designed by Tania Guerra, and editing team comprised of Isabelia Herrera and Jacqueline Jiménez Polanco.