Lisa Wartenberg

In the coming weeks, we will feature Q&As with the contributors to this year’s Best Debut Short Stories anthology, published by Catapult. These stories were selected for the 2023 PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers by judges Venita Blackburn, Richard Chiem, and Dantiel W. Moniz.

Lisa Wartenberg Vélez is a Colombian writer of fiction who split her childhood between Miami and Bogotá. She is a recent M.F.A. graduate from the University of Houston’s Creative Writing Program, where she was an Inprint Jesse H. and Mary Gibbs Jones Fellow and Cynthia Woods Mitchell Fellow. Her work has received financial and/or creative support from Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Kenyon Workshop, Ucross Foundation, and Tin House Workshop. She served as assistant fiction editor at Gulf Coast: A Journal of Literature and Fine Arts. Her publication with Nimrod was her first. 

“What Is Ours” was originally published in Nimrod International Journal.

Here is an excerpt: 

I should mention that in the fairy tale, I will not be playing the role of the girl. Imagine instead I am the trees and the birds and the ground the girl walks upon. I am the wind that blows and the dew dotting moss between hemlocks. For the time being, please forget I told you this and instead listen to yourself as you narrate the story. It is a real story. Talk to yourself like the rain.

Your story is framed by the recounting of a fairytale. Can you tell me a bit about the story within the story, and the role it plays?

I’d been thinking a lot about the stories we are told as children, either formally or indirectly, and how these narratives shape our sense of the world as adults. Particularly, I was interested in the stories young girls are told, and how wildly violent these can be –– reflecting, of course, the atrocities of the larger landscape. I grew up in Bogotá in the heyday of Escobar: the dangers out there felt real, were real, are still –– there, and beyond. But they can sometimes overshadow the hidden violence within ingroups like families. Of course this story centers on sexual violence, and class violence, but the idea of the Boogeyman is something that fascinates me. Because the kind of intimacy begotten from family can also hold danger.

The Little Red Riding Hood fairy tale emerged as something I’d heard repeatedly in girlhood: we know it’s the Big Bad Wolf who we’re supposed to fear. But I became interested in what physically surrounded the two primary figures of the story, as well as pressing against my assumptions about that narrative. That’s not to say BBW isn’t ill-intentioned, but I wanted to poke at the edges a bit: what else is there in that forest that could have shaped Little Red’s fortune? What about the birds? The trees? What about that Woodsman? What choices are available to characters or entities with agency? This threads through the larger narrative as the first-person narrator’s own retelling and her decisions about that: what are the stories she’s choosing to pass on? What role do we play in these stories –– especially when we’re primed to think of ourselves as the likely victims? Of course this doesn’t get at some of the class tensions and violence, but it gets at some of the ways in which we are complicit in enacting that violence, however unwittingly.

Where did this title come from?

Early on, the story was titled “Uncle Mauri,” and variations thereof. It deepened through revision, expanding beyond this character and into themes of familial complicity. I went back and forth about it a lot, and this eventual title pointed to what the story itself wanted to be about.

What do you hope readers take away from your story?

I’d love for them to think deeply about the stories they carry, how those have shaped their sense of self, which narratives they choose to propagate, and how stories shape us and connect us. I will never not be obsessed with this; my hope is they walk away with a bit of that fury, too. Of course, there’s the aspect of complicity. I’d love for them to interrogate the ways in which this has played a role in their lives.

How has the PEN/Robert J. Dau Prize affected you?

I am awe-stricken to be ushered into the PEN/Dau Prize community. Further, I am grateful this has broadened the reach of this story. It is also deeply meaningful to me to have forged a connection with PEN America, an organization I admire enthusiastically –– especially in these most trying times. It has also been tremendously motivating to carry this honor as I forge ahead with my novel-in-progress and collection.

What advice would you share with aspiring writers?

Stay curious. Imbibe stories. Build community –– be in constant awe of your friends and their words. Everything else will follow. The work is the gift.