sasha mar t i n e z
THERE IS A LINE at the beginning of a famous Mark Strand poem which goes: “There is no happiness like mine / I have been eating
poetry.” The same can be said of Palanca awardee Sasha Martinez, who has been taking her time devouring multitudes of books, which have been conveniently stacked around her tiny apartment. “That stack on the oor alone has around 200 books,” she confesses. This relentless consumption of literature is warranted when she tells me that reading is a necessity when it comes to her life’s work: writing for her day job and as an occasional book reviewer for magazines. When you look at Sasha, you can tell that there is more to her than meets the eye, it can be seen in the way she looks for herself in literature—with a wandering yet curious gaze, inviting you to do the same.
You won the Palanca award for your short story last year, and now you also write reviews of books. Describe to us who Sasha the writer is as opposed to Sasha the reviewer.
I try to make sure that when I ll either of the two roles, it all comes from the same place: a love of literature, an appreciation of good writing. They both play on each other: There’s an exhilaration and a contentment in reading a book that ticks off all the right boxes, from questions of craft and to how it successfully squeezes the softer parts of your soul, just as there’s an exhilaration and a contentment when you write something that you’re thrilled to see approximates what you feel about good writing. The ner points of the criteria differ, and the process of actually producing the work naturally varies—but that’s what I hope remains at the core of what I write, whether I’m writing original material or I’m writing about what a revelation a certain book is: a sense of wonder about the subject, and setting literature to high standards in all the categories.
Do the books out in the market right now represent the kind of books that people should read?
My problem, personally, is availability. The institutions that sell the books in our country are attuned to the most popular trends—which is good if you’re hankering certain kinds of books. I’ve found many books that I’ve loved standing at attention on featured shelves—have been thankful, too, that there are authors or genres that I like that are popular enough to merit the attention of our country’s book buyers. But the entire situation can feel dismal when you just want to hop in a bookstore after a really long week, weaving in and out of shelves hoping you’d nd a book or maybe no book in particular—maybe a book an Internet friend had recommended to you, maybe a book you wouldn’t have known existed otherwise— but instead you’re bombarded by the latest assembly-line dystopian novels or the latest clumsy erotic romances or the bundles upon bundles of coloring books.
I believe in the democracy of reading but I’m wary of too much uniformity in what’s available for consumption. I understand that bookstores must be savvy enough and make money, but I think we also need bookstores that just really like selling books to people because they have a genuine fondness for books. Sometimes I tend to wish I were in a different place, with smaller shops, or shops with a greater reach of the literary world; more books, a lot more stillness.
What, in your opinion, should people be reading?
I think people should always begin with reading what they want. And then once they’ve gured out what they want and have made a home in it, they set out and nd a book that they wouldn’t have ever thought they’d read—and just keep
pushing at the boundaries of their bibliophilic comfort zones.
I have trouble recommending books to friends because I nd it too big a responsibility. And I don’t know if it’s just the usual dilemma between quality and emotional manipulation— because why can’t the books that stab out our hearts the needed way be all good books? Lang Leav, for example, has spawned so much devotion among millennials. I read someone describe her work as “pandering, and not poetry.” It’s so succinct and I agree with it—but I also realize how complicated the entire situation is: she’s touched so many lives with work that’s anywhere from middling to just plain terribly written. What do you value more then, the home people nd in literature or the critical merits of a piece?
Maybe I’m one of those bleeding hearts that just want both—and who actually believe that there are works that succeed on both levels. I guess a telling detail is that I can more con dently recommend romance novels other than Norwegian Wood. Because I’ve read enough romance to establish what I like, and because I can now recognize writing that’s just so damned good, that they’re technically good, that they’re prime examples of craft—but at the same time they stoke your emotions into a frenzy: Books by Tessa Dare or Courtney Milan or Sarah MacLean.
Norwegian Wood will always have my disclaimer that it destroyed me, but I wish that it had been a better book overall.
How do you feel about published authors who emulate bestsellers in order to sell theirs?
There’s a line between emulating work you genuinely admire—or attempting to follow the path set by a writer whose work has become, for you, a vision of what you want your own work to be—and between just churning out material because you think it’s what people want to read, because it’s all that people have been reading for the past year. And it’s not really a ne line; you don’t just tip over in the writing and nd yourself in one side or another.
What gets your attention when you go about choosing the books that you read?
More and more lately, I’ve become more mercenary in my reading—and learning to be more shameless about announcing it. That is: I look for myself in books. Reading has become such a sel sh act for me. Especially when my inner life gets into periods of hysteria, and the books provide a focus necessary to my quiet. Channeled thus, my reading insists on following one direction for days on end—someone else’s exploration of a desire, someone’s attempt to give reason to a hunger—and then something recalibrates within me and I look for other books for the new preoccupation: this boy about his longing, that girl about her anger, this clerk about a house he passes on his way to work, this psychiatrist about her starvation. There can be feverishness to the reading—it’s frantic, panicked.
People say that writing is the output of reading; do you feel the same way? Does it follow that all writers should be readers?
Not all readers need to be writers, but I think it is absolute that all writers be readers foremost. Otherwise, how do you judge the merits of your own work? How can you hope that it strikes an eventual reader a certain way, when your own reading life needs a lot to be desired? I believe that a writer be a better reader rst, before they can commit their own selves to the page.
Do the trends and opinions of other people influence your writing?
It manifests itself in different ways. Looking back, I know that it’s been one form of creature or another in my writing: In my emo days, I wrote stories based on Evanescence lyrics; at the heels of reading Miranda July, the airy but heartrending voice was something I tried so hard to mimic and make my own; there was a time that I wanted to be as succinct as Raymond Carver, and there was a time where the lyricism of the magical realists drew me, and there was a time where the emotional generosity of Lorrie Moore appealed greatly, and there was a time that the honesty and cleverness of Renata Adler and Maggie Nelson called.
It’s an organic thing most especially when you use these in uences as a gateway to nding your own voice as a writer. I’ve personally found it so satisfying to see a certain piece diverge from a point of in uence. Because if you want to be good at what you do, you have to be good at it in your way. You stand on the shoulders of giants,
but you always have to be trying your damnedest to become one of them yourself eventually.
How do you go about choosing the things you write about? What compels you to write?
Several weeks ago, a good friend of mine gave me two volumes of Anaïs Nin’s unexpurgated diaries. This was the latest in my recent reading list of personal essays, of memoirs, of journals. Perhaps it’s the din of my own life, perhaps it’s because I actually have something more true to write about—but lately the idea of radical honesty appeals so much to me. And so, lately, I’ve gone back to writing in my journal with more discipline, I’ve been trying my hand at essays—when I write about books, I admit just exactly how it shook me up. The challenge, of course, is not to descend into whiny brattiness. And I suppose that’s where craft comes in.
Do you ever feel pressure to write more?
The pressure to write more has always existed, though it has assumed different iterations over the years. Starting out—that is, being in college and coming into this awareness of the writing community and of these obscure but nearly ironclad rules about what milestones or guideposts one must accomplish to be considered a “serious writer”—it was important to write more because you needed your name out there. It was a more calculating kind of pressure, but it does ingrain in you the value of readership and publication. And it was a drive that was at least useful as a metric to gauge your growth as a writer: You were only as good as the last story you wrote, put out in the last publication, and you need this awareness always.
But that kind of thirst—which felt almost robotic in some periods—for seeing one’s name in print has faded away. The pressure is more internal these days. Perhaps it’s because I haven’t been churning out ction with the same regularity as I did a couple of years ago, I want to write more because I miss it. I want to write more because I have stories in me, or stories that I want to pursue—and also I’m curious as to what I read like now, I’m curious if the craft will be easier just because I’m older and have read more, or if it’s just going to throw me another set of challenges because after all a new set story is always a new frontier in itself.
If our generation’s story would become a book, what would be its synopsis?
As with most books, our generation’s would be about human connection and human foibles. About how we need to come together, and about all the ways we contrive to be apart. About the appearances we painstakingly assemble for the world, and about how more raw and more naked we can be when we’re away from unwelcome eyes. It will also be about posture, and about disarming. But our generation’s would be more adept at owning up to its loneliness; it would be more aware that in that space between wanting to be the most whole person that you can be and wanting to be a whole person for the rest of humanity, there’s the simplest need to be just whole enough with just enough humans. We’ll point to that space, and we’d own it, and we’d call it what it is.
“I look for myself in books. Reading has become such a selfish act for me especially when my inner life gets into periods of hysteria, and the books provide a focus necessary to my quiet.”
Writer Sasha Martinez discusses the difference between her writer and reader selves and why it is important to embrace both
Interview by NICO PASCUAL Photography by TAMMY DAVID
“I had to take out books because the shelves were bending in the middle.”