One of the longest running programs of The San Francisco Foundation, the Joseph Henry Jackson, James D. Phelan, and Mary Tanenbaum Literary Awards has been recognizing Bay Area literary artists since 1935. Past winners include James D. Houston (1967), Lynne Hejinian (1974), and John Fenton Johnson (1986).
This year, we were pleased to share this honor with seven emerging writers. In anticipation of their reading in November, we interviewed a few awardees about their craft. This 3rd installment features writer Juliana Delgado Lopera, a Colombian writer/educator/oral-historian based in San Francisco. She’s the author of ¡Cuéntamelo! an illustrated bilingual collection of oral histories by LGBT Latin@ immigrants, awarded the Regen Ginaa Grant from Galería de la Raza and a 2014 National Queer Arts Festival Grant from the Queer Cultural Center.
Excerpt from Delgado Lopera’s fiction novella in progress, Fiebre Tropical:
I did not want to hang out with the biggest loser at the Heather Glen Apartment Complex but he was also the only loser who had not approached me with a Jesús brochure or a Got Jesus? tank top or demanding I lose my Ramones shirt for some festive Caribbean colors, you’re colombiana mami! Still, homeboy gave me the creeps and I could not have people seeing me with him in public (mind you, I did not know anyone).
LB: Tell us about your background. How did you start writing, and how did you get to where you are today?
JDL: I started writing while waiting for the school bus during Bogotá’s cold mornings. I was 14, wore a checkered catholic school uniform, and smoked Marlboro Lights thinking I was cool (but I wasn’t). I wrote my way through adolescence—holding my Sylvia Plath collection of poems close to me—wrote while crossing the Caribbean, and wrote my way into another language. I introduced my Spanish to my English, forced them to coexist with one another in a room. Later, I wrote down my mother’s phone conversations, and sculpted poems about loving my English teacher. On Saturdays, my grandmother and I would call the 1-800 number for Don Francisco Presenta and, when he didn’t answer, we wrote him fan letters. When she broke my heart, I didn’t eat for two days but wrote four angry poems—none of which survive today. I can’t remember a time when I have not been obsessed with words. My first word was: agua. Then I moved from place to place until I landed here, in the bay, where I am now surrounded by water.
LB: How has being a writer in the Bay Area influenced your work?
JDL: I remember six years ago, when I moved to the Bay Area, sitting at a reading where everyone was queer and where two of the readers dropped Spanish in their poems to cheers and snaps from the crowd. I recognized myself in the language and the energy. People in love with queerness, and the possibility of linguistic hybridity. I was hooked. The Bay Area is truly magical (although shifting rapidly), and here I’ve met wonderful writers that have been crucial to my development as an artist. Not only have I been exposed to writing, but performance, art, film, and music also have found their way into my work.
LB: What inspires you? Where do you find inspiration?
JDL: I find inspiration in: Telenovelas, my mother’s text messages, my grandmother and the way she ate her vowels. Salsa and the matriarchy that raised me. Eileen Myles. Speech: the fusion of English and Spanish. Any Cuban restaurant in Miami. Any street corner in Bogotá. Old wives tales. Jesus, female urban myths, and gender-bending subcultures.
LB: How has receiving this award impacted your creative practice?
JDL: I think for any artist it is wonderful to get recognition for one’s work. It means that amidst the chaotic creative process—and all the long hours when you tell yourself, why am I doing this? — someone is nodding at you, at your work, someone is saying, Hey I like that, this is good. And so next time you sit down to write, you trust your intuition more. Next time you sit down to write, the voice in your head that constantly censures you is toned down, almost silent.
LB: What advice would you give to other aspiring writers?
JDL: Fluctuate between coffee and earl gray because caffeine can drive you nuts. Create habits that work for you around writing: running, talking with your mother, reading the newspaper, waking up at 4 am. There is no such thing as Writer’s Block (you can always write something). Care for other people’s work—be humble. Read everything (including cereal boxes and the Bible).