ASFA-CW Senior Profile: Blanca Tallaj

Memory Lane

Blanca’s Cadence bios through the years:

  • Blanca Tallaj hopes she will somehow get transported into a book and see what it would be like to be a character from a story, feeding adventures to hopeful, dreaming people who read. (2013)
  • Blanca Tallaj is in the gutter, but she is looking at the stars. (2014)
  • Blanca Tallaj will tell you she loves you even though she knows you know (talking to you, Han Solo). (2015)
  • Blanca Tallaj transcends. (2016)
  • Blanca Tallaj stops time for ten seconds even though it’s more like ten minutes. (2017)
  • Happy #CincoDeMayo! Blanca Tallaj loves Hispanics! (2018)

Seven Questions: Past, Present, Future

What’s your first creative memory?

My first creative memory dates all the way back to preschool. I went to a Montessori school, and my favorite lesson in school was dictating a story to a teacher, who would write it down on a sheet of paper. Once you finished telling your story, the teacher would hand you the piece of paper and you could draw a picture next to your story. I don’t remember the first story I wrote, but I have old preschool stories from that time, and they’re really amusing to read. They’re completely nonsensical, but wildly entertaining. I’ve been writing ever since.

What are your Desert(ed) Island Five favorite books—you, a deserted island, just five books to read—and why?

I couldn’t live without Pride and Prejudice. I could read that book twenty million times and never grow tired of it. What I love so much is how well Austen develops her characters and satirizes her own society. Julia Alvarez’s How the García Girls Lost Their Accents has been one of the most influential books in my entire life. My senior thesis would not have turned out the way it did without the influence of this book. This book was written by a Dominican woman, and the first time I read it, I immediately connected with it. The characters’ lives are scarily similar to my own. Phoebe Gloeckner’s The Diary of a Teenage Girl was also wildly influential. I first read this book towards the start of my high school career. Being a teenage girl is really hard, but The Diary of a Teenage Girl is very reassuring. Blending fictional journal entries with a graphic novel style, this book portrays teenage girls and all their complexities unapologetically. Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street is another important book to me. It’s so concise and lyrical. I love reading about families, especially immigrant families. My thesis took lots of inspiration from this novel. I wish I could write like Cisneros. Finally, the last book I’d bring would be The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara. It’d probably get pretty lonely on a deserted island, but I wouldn’t feel so alone if his poetry was with me.

If you could trade places, Freaky Friday style, with any well-known creative person, who would it be and why?

I would definitely trade places with Frida Kahlo. She was one of the first creative people I really learned to admire and from whom I took lots of inspiration. I remember seeing some of her paintings in an exhibit in Atlanta when I was a child and being so fascinated, both by her artistic and her personal life. Even though she suffered through many personal problems, she was always resilient and unapologetically bold. Unapologetically Latina. Her form of self-expression was so powerful; even her sense of style was fierce. What first drew me to Kahlo was her self-portraits. Kahlo stares straight at the viewer in her self-portraits; she makes bold eye contact. I am a Latina feminist because of her. I’d switch places with Kahlo just because I want to see the world through the eyes of a person who’s meant so much to me. I’d like to have her complete self-confidence, if only for a day.

What is your favorite ASFA-CW memory?

My favorite ASFA-CW memories are those in which the whole department comes together. I vividly remember a kickball tournament we had at Railroad Park in the ninth grade. That was the day I learned that a surprising number of creative writers are athletic, myself not included. I especially love this memory because it shows what a big family the CW department is. We had to participate in kickball tournaments at my old school, and I remember these were always very traumatic for the non-athletes. But here in the CW department, anyone can play in a kickball tournament and come out smiling in the end. We had so much fun that day. I think we as a department have such a strong sense of community between the students and the teachers. This department is a second family. That’s something I’m really going to miss next year.

What’s the hardest thing you had to learn to be successful at ASFA?

The hardest thing I had to learn was how to love my own writing. In the seventh and eighth grades, I was writing lots of pieces I was proud of. Then in the ninth grade, I started feeling discouraged. I saw all my friends winning contests seemingly effortlessly while I couldn’t even get a single prize. Because I felt so discouraged, I wasn’t writing any pieces that made me particularly proud, and that was really disheartening. It wasn’t until the tenth grade that my writing picked back up. On some level, I always want validation; I think it’s a very human thing, especially among writers. But on the other hand, I don’t need a contest to tell me if a piece is good or not. If a piece feels right to me, if I’m proud of having written it, then I think I’ve succeeded as a writer. It took me many years—and I don’t think I’ll ever completely be at peace with this—to learn, or at least start to learn, that being successful comes from within. I know my own standards and expectations for my writing, and as long as I exceed my expectations, I’m proud.

What advice do you have for future ASFA-CW students?

Accept the fact that there will be periods of time when you’ll feel so drained and discouraged that you’ll think that you could never write again. I think that comes with the territory. Just know that for every day you feel like you could never write again, there are several other days when you’ll write so much that you’ll wonder if you’ll ever be able to stop. It’s a balance and a process, and I promise you’ll get through your slump.

What are your post-ASFA plans?

Next year, I’m going to Yale to study English, but my major could definitely change. I’m not going to stop writing—I don’t think I could. Afterwards, I hope to go to graduate school before finding a job that lets me be creative and incorporate my writing life, preferably screenwriting or another profession in the film industry.

An Excerpt from Cadence 2018

Wet Mangos

As a girl, Abuelita once ate so many mangos that her mother had to take her to the hospital, where the doctor stuck a finger down her baby throat and forced the mango to come out into a trash can at his feet. Abuelita’s mama said Couldn’t you have given her any medicine and the doctor said Would you rather she had a tummy ache. Abuelita looked into the trash can. Ripe yellow. Her vomit smelled like mangos gone bad, like mangos gone sour in the back of your throat. Her belly felt empty and hollow. The doctor patted Abuelita on the back and told her mother that Abuelita was Fine, now if you would please come to the front and we’ll give you your payment options. Tight-lipped, Abuelita’s mama went to the front and pulled out her money, carefully smoothing the bills out on the counter, holding them a moment longer than necessary before sliding them over. She watched the receptionist’s hands tuck the bills into the register. Then took Abuelita’s clammy palm and tugged her away.

Abuelita hadn’t eaten a mango since that day. At first, it wasn’t for lack of desire; her mama threatened to beat her if she ever saw her with a mango, and Abuelita believed her. But when it was denied her for years, Abuelita forgot what it even tasted like. As a teenager, the Belle of Santiago, she looked at mangos and she felt sick.

Now, however, miles away from her Dominican Republic, decades past girlhood, standing in a Walmart in Birmingham, Alabama, she never felt more alone than when she looked at Walmart’s pile of green mangos. Bruised mangos. Stiff mangos. The skin too tough to peel with your fingers. She walked up to her son-in-law and pointed and said Look at those rotten mangos. Isn’t it a shame to see such poor, mistreated mangos?

Her son-in-law, busy counting the items in his wife and kids’ shopping cart and measuring them against the wad of crisp green dollars in his hand, said I thought you didn’t eat mangos. What made you think of that? Abuelita said I don’t know, and went to help her daughter with the baby.

November and The Family had never lived in the cold. They had no money for coats, so they carried blankets and wore them as shawls. The baby was wrapped in three blankets, but still his brown cheeks pinked slightly with cold. Abuelita knew the baby was just as unsatisfied with the United States as she was. Every time they stepped outside and the baby smelled the American air, he wrinkled his nose and anxiously squeezed his mother’s breasts. His mother gave him her finger, and he worried it nervously between his gums.

I wonder what spring will be like, Abuelita said when they stepped outside, trying to give The Family positive energy, but her son-in-law and her daughter were so exhausted that they could barely keep their eyes open, and the kids were thinking about their friends in Santiago, and the baby was aching for the D.R. like it was breast milk. I wonder what spring will be like, Abuelita repeated, but the sadness was too deep, and the wind
too strong.

Abuelita died in January of an achy throat, shivering under a pile of old rags. She was buried in a foreign country, in a coffin made from cheap wood because The Family couldn’t afford anything else. The tears frozen solid on her cheeks. The scent of her mother’s perfume. Visions of palm trees behind her closed lids. The taste of wet mangos still fresh on her tongue.

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