sasha mar t i n e z

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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.”

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