An interview with Amanda Alcantara, author of How I Became a Mermaid
How I Became a Mermaid, is a multimedia performance exploring suicide, death and rebirth, mental health issues, nationalism and belonging
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TRIGGER WARNING: The language in How I Became a Mermaid might be explicit for some readers as it discusses suicide ideation, self-harm, and abuse. Prioritize your mental health. This book might be TRIGGERING. If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts or self-harm, please call 988, the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline or text Hello to 741741, a Crisis Text Line. The National Suicide Prevention Hotline number is 1-800-273-8255.
READERS DISCRETION IS ADVISED!
Amanda Alcantara is a Dominican-American writer, journalist, and a proud Afro-Caribbean creative, who was born in the United States and raised in the Dominican Republic—where she lives temporarily.
Amanda is the co-founder of La Galería Magazine, focused on celebrating Dominican women and the Diaspora by fostering active dialogue that explores understanding ideologies, culture, customs, and different perspectives within the Dominican community.
Amanda is the author of Chula, a bilingual collection of poems, short stories, memories and vignettes about immigration from a Dominican woman’s perspective. Her second book How I Became a Mermaid, is a multimedia performance exploring suicide, death and rebirth, mental health issues, nationalism and belonging.
How I Became a Mermaid is ripping, raw, overwhelming, emotional, dark, isolating, but healing. The book explores sexual abuse, self-harm, suicide, and mental health in a way the reader feels understood, empty and yet filled, lonely and held. Amanda bares her heart and provides full access to her mind, at times a scary place, but others a canopy for life.
In her poem “Nov 7 2021,” she explores what it means to feel empty, to hate one’s self, and still want that closeness with someone. Because despite moments of feeling empty and alone, there was a level of comfort. The familiarity of being in despair only the person experiencing depression can understand. A familiar void. A familiar regret. A familiar silence. But as familiar as it may sound, the pain feels new.
The book serves as an extended metaphor in which the speaker transforms into a mermaid. The waves are life’s constant obstacles. The ripples that never fail to dent one’s effort to thrive. To live. “Sometimes I” remind us that denial is inevitable. Crying out for help and waiting to be saved from oneself. The desperation in wanting to make the thoughts stop hunts the reader the same way it hunted the speaker—deteriorating mentally and emotionally.
I had the pleasure of speaking with Amanda Alcantara and understanding more about what inspired How I Became a Mermaid. Our conversation was as follow:
Can you talk about your life as a writer, journalist, and activist?
A couple of years ago when I was doing journalism and I started working on putting out Chula, I would do open mics. It felt like the two [journalism and writing] couldn’t meet because journalism requires fact base, logic and very straightforward. Whereas creative writing is almost the opposite, more emotional. When I started, it felt like the two couldn’t meet. But now I’m like it makes absolute sense. Some of our favorite classic Latin American writers like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Isabel Allende, were both journalists.
I can do everything. I’m a ‘todologa’ now. I think of myself as a storyteller. I use words to tell a story when I’m crafting an article— I use the narrative storytelling format. You introduce the person and then you get into the background and then hit them with a punchline. It's the same thing. Journalists are storytellers. For me it is all about using the word— the word as a weapon, as a tool, as a spell.
You can be poetic when talking about a person and you can be very factual and interview people to better tell fictional stories.
In your own experience, do you think journalism converges in any way with poetry?
Yes. I would say poetry also is a form of journalism. You are sharing an emotional snapchat of a moment. There’s this writer Fatimah Asghar, she has a beautiful book called If They Come for Us and her poetry has journalist stories. Also, Aracelis Girmay in her book The Black Maria, also has poetry as journalism.
What do you like to do when you are not writing?
I’m still figuring it out. I realized the other day I spent so much of my time and energy on elevating my writing and thinking of the next thing. But what I really enjoy is spending time with my dog Bruno. I like going out with friends to different places where there is water like the beach, el rio. Watching Netflix. I’ve been watching The Boys, catching up now since the season is over. Also, I’ve been watching Succession.
What inspired How I Became a Mermaid?
How I became a Mermaid was a giant release for me of some stuff that I had been going through. What was inspiring me was this urge to tell a story and also to understand the things that were happening to me. Some of the things that were happening with my mental health—being targeted for my activism [and] the fear that I was experiencing. Also, the mental health struggles I was experiencing after the pandemic with isolation and solitude, feeling unworthy and unloved. In retrospect, I feel like How I Became a Mermaid was almost like a curse that I needed to get out of my body. Something that was not mine. Not for me to hold. I needed to let it out and I did it in How I Became a Mermaid; which is the story of how I started embracing all parts of me as a woman, all parts of my femininity, all parts of my masculinity, because I think we all have both. So becoming a mermaid is a metaphor for both suicide and also for tapping into my unapologetic womanhood.
The book touches on difficult topics like mental health, suicidal ideation, and self-harm. How important was it for you to be vulnerable and honest discussing these topics?
It was very important to be open about the process going on in my mind and it was important to be vulnerable even though it was really scary. I read back at some of what I shared and I’m proud of myself for doing that. I think as a writer sometimes that’s our power, being vulnerable and saying ‘I can say this but that shouldn’t take away my self worth as a woman or my worth as a journalist.
I wanted people to see a creative writer—technique was important [in evoking the] ripping. I shared what it was like even the stuff that didn’t make sense, even what doesn’t sound pretty. That’s literature. That’s [creative] writing.
Right now, a lot of the publishing industry is clean and cut, and the [topic that is ] harsh is polished—and mental health is not polished. To me that was important. It was important because I felt that with How I Became a Mermaid, I was going to go find an agent. I didn’t want to do the same thing I did with Chula, which was independent publishing. I wanted to go big. But then I realized no because to me it wasn’t about the publishing, it was about getting the curse out of my body. If this is going to be true to the struggle of mental health the publishing [needed] to be reflective of that.
Has a poem ever humbled or frightened you? What was it?
Yes. Some [of the poems] I was shook after I finished and felt like this is not me—something else coming through me. [There was a poem] that was inspired by a song—about being imperfect and being a warrior. Towards the end I felt like I was opening up like a dance ritual and that was beautiful.
Do you ever regret sharing your work publicly? Do you trust the reader in a world of instant gratification and instant communication?
I wouldn’t say regret. I have definitely changed how I communicate [to] be more intentional. Also, the different ways in which you communicate will land differently. If you share something on twitter you are going to get a stronger reaction than if you write an essay about it on the same topic. I can say something on twitter—it hits you in the gut, so people are going to react like you hit them in the gut. But if you write something in an essay form or if you write it within a book then people can still get that punch in the gut reaction with room to breathe; when they come at you they are not as defensive, it's more like a conversation.
I wouldn’t change what I said in the past but I would have changed the medium in which I said it. Some platforms are not going to protect you or are going to leave you alone and vulnerable— fueling the hate machine.
If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?
Girl, keep writing. You are doing great. You are amazing and you are going to deify your dreams in a way that’s unexpected but much better than you ever imagined. Sigue Pa’ lante.
Writing can be an emotionally draining and stressful pursuit. Any tips for aspiring writers?
What has helped me is to identify the conditions that I need to be able to write. I can’t write in a messy house. So either I leave my house or clean. I need a drink to entertain myself—coffee. It needs to be a ritual because what that does is your brain knows ‘when I sit at this spot my creative light, creative brain turns on.’ So identify your ritual and acknowledge the conditions in which you can’t write and be okay with that.
What do you hope your readers take away from this book?
There’s a lot of things that I touch on in the book. What I hope is that they connect with it in their own way from a place of healing.
What is the significance of the title?
The significance of the tittle is leaning into the metaphor, into the theme of suicide. It just captures the sentiment that I wanted to hold onto as I wrote the book. I had the title before the book was finished.
What books or authors have influenced your own writing?
A lot of sci-fi writers. Octavia Butler inspired me to make beauty out of chaos and dystopia. Rita Indiana’s La Mucama de Omicunle, showed me the power of Dominican Spanish and Dominican Slang. The Deep by Rivers Solomon is a really beautiful story about mermaids.