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Leticia Urieta Interview

Leticia Urieta’s hybrid collection Las Criaturas uses poetic form and speculative fiction to explore numerous facets of the world and the female experience as it exists within that world. “Las Criaturas is a visceral incarnation of memory ancestral knowledge that blends horror and awe, myth and fairytale…” says Natalia Sylvester, author of Chasing the Sun. “Urieta explores the monstrous and the divine to re-embody the power of womanhood into its ever-present, beautiful hybrid forms.”

Read the full interview below.

Las Criaturas is divided into three sections. Did that happen organically based on the content or was it a structure you knew you wanted to use ahead of time?

I think that triptych structure developed over time as I saw that the pieces I was including in the collection were taking shape into a sort of metamorphosis. The first section speaks to the effects of trauma and violence on people, and especially on their bodies, while the second section delves deeper into how a sense of self develops in the face of forces that would seek to control, and the third section is about accepting the wild, unruly, even monstrous self is also the most true.

You start the collection off with an incredibly powerful story called “The Monster”. Did you always know that this would be the first story? Was there any back and forth on which piece should set the tone?

There were other stories that I toyed with as the beginning of the book, but "The Monster" was one of the first stories that I wrote as this collection began to take shape, and it speaks to what can happen to a child, their body and sense of self when their humanity is stripped from them. I wrote this piece in 2016 as I was working as an elementary school teacher and watching the incredibly racist and xenophobic rhetoric about migrants coming out of the Trump campaign and which has only continued in the subsequent years, and it manifested in this story that contains both rage and a deep sadness about the treatment of migrant families and children. It’s my hope that this story sets the tone for the rest of the collection.

What was the process of ordering the poems and stories like? Was there something you particularly enjoyed or particularly struggled with in that area?

When I wrote many of these pieces, I was in my MFA program for fiction, but poetry has always been a part of my life and creative practice, and so these pieces emerged as reactions to the stifling space of academia and my own growing struggles with an unruly, chronically ill body. Many times, these pieces came out as hybrid texts, flash fiction, prose poems, and in between. They felt like dipping into moments with characters experiences; brief, bright flashes of pain, of transformation and love, and at times, they were all I had the capacity to write. But the more that I wrote, and saw how each piece, though perhaps very different, were part of a larger conversation I was having with myself, these stories and poems felt like the truest iterations of the stories I wanted to tell.

You write poetry and fiction. Have you always found yourself drawn to both or did you start in one form and become interested in the other later on?

I struggled with literacy as a child, and so I think I have always been drawn to stories in general, no matter their forms. Before I could read very well, I was using story starters from my second grade teacher to make up my own. As a child, poetry was introduced, mostly in a romantic sense, where we were expected to write about the beauty of nature and the flowers.

When I write poetry now, it gives me a self-contained breath to express a feeling, an idea or play with an image that has been flitting around in my mind. Some poems can be like wrapping a towel around a newly baked loaf of bread, and some poems can be like the poet pricking your arm with a needle in the dark. Both are valid, and necessary, and the many varied poetic forms often provide ways to tell a story that you might not have had before. Many of my shorter stories blend poetry and fictional prose, and that is fine too. With a short story, there is more expectation to develop a why for the story, to go on a journey that requires more trust, and therefore more building. So I value both forms greatly, and don’t worry as often about their distinctions.

There’s always been a tie between womanhood and the monstrous in horror, but in the past, it has felt as if that bond could only lead to a woman’s demise. These days, the way womanhood and monstrousness interact in literature feels more layered and complicated than that. There’s more space for them to engage. Do you see this in your own work?

Yes, definitely. Many marginalized people have used monstrousness to critique how systems of oppression are the real monsters, and that is a story that can be told over and over because it is always true. For me, I wanted to explore my relationship to gender and sexuality, but also to the body and what happens to a vulnerable person and their body when they are harmed over and over and made to feel that they are wrong or even disposable. I love exploring monstrosity in nuanced ways because there is something empowering about embracing rage, ugliness, and the ways we try to protect ourselves, without the story needing to end with a person being put back in their place.

With stories like “The Monster” and “Legacy”, you explore heritage and generational trauma. Can you talk a little about that?

When I was writing many of the pieces in this book, I was navigating the deaths of several loved ones in my family and reflecting on the pain, both mental and physical, that plagued their lives. At the same time, I was also dealing with becoming increasingly debilitated by chronic headaches and stress that were wreaking havoc on my body. I wanted to write about how we can acknowledge the shared trauma of our families, and in this case the women in my family, while not submitting to the effects of that trauma or letting it consume us entirely. Naming it, calling it what it is and how it lives in us is sometimes more than people can bear, but it is the only way that any healing can begin.

The relationships between women feature prominently in these stories. Mothers and daughters. Sisters. Cousins. Do you often explore female bonds in your work or was it a theme that emerged specifically in this collection?

So many stories have been passed to me through the women in my family, often in private, like smuggling little pieces of their lives to me was the best gift they could give to help me avoid some pain and heartache. It makes sense to me that this collection is full of those kinds of relationships because that is what I was reflecting on at the time. I see that continuing in other work I am creating, because these are relationships that will always be true for me.

The cover art is gorgeous. Who did the art and how was it decided which story the illustration would draw inspiration from?

I can’t say enough about how much I love the cover art that artist Elaine Almeida did for this book. She creates beautiful work that truly highlights different bodies and the beauty in them, and so when she read pieces from the book, this illustration of the Scorpion Woman is what emerged. I love how beautiful, powerful, monstrous and vulnerable she is, moving between realms, and I love that others are drawn to the cover as much as I am.

Do you have any other work coming out this year you’d like to tell people about?

I have been writing more short horror fiction in the last year as I also work on completing and submitting a poetry chapbook and a supernatural historical YA novel, and have been writing more short horror fiction as well. One of my short horror stories is being published in A Night of Screams: Latino Horror Stories, an anthology from Arte Publico Press. The story, “Detached” is a body horror story that I really loved writing and I hope to have more work like this emerge in the future!

What’s your favorite recent read? Any genre or category. It doesn’t have to be horror.

Currently I find myself a little all over the place as a reader. I’m either trying to catch up on all of the amazing horror books and anthologies that are coming out or have come out in the past year, or I am reading nonfiction books by disabled writers about disability justice and their relationships to their bodies. Because of my own experiences with chronic illness and chronic pain, I find that the horror stories that I am reading and writing include a lot of body horror, and so when I can find work that speaks to embodiment, I know it is going on my TBR list. Plus, throw in some middle grade fantasy books in there and any romance about librarians or chefs, and I’m on board.

Thank you so much for talking to Frightful!

Las Criaturas is available now.

Leticia Urieta (she/her/hers) is a Tejana writer from Austin, TX. She is a teaching artist in the greater Austin community and the Program Director of Austin Bat Cave, a literary community serving students in the Austin area, as well as the co-director of Barrio Writers Austin and Pflugerville, a free creative writing program for youth. Leticia is also a freelance writer. She is a graduate of Agnes Scott College and holds an MFA in Fiction writing from Texas State University. Her work appears or is forthcoming in Chicon Street Poets, Lumina, The Offing, Kweli Journal, Medium, Electric Lit and others. Her chapbook, The Monster was published in 2018 from LibroMobile Press. Her hybrid collection, Las Criaturas, was a finalist for the Sergio Troncoso Award for Best First Book of Fiction 2022 from the Texas Institute of Letters, and is out now from FlowerSong Press.

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