The PEN Ten: An Interview with Raquel Almazan
The PEN Ten is PEN America’s weekly interview series. This week, Claire Adler speaks with Raquel Almazan, whose upcoming play La Paloma Prisoner will premiere off-Broadway in April.
1. What was the first book or piece of writing that had a profound impact on you?
Early in high school I remember reading Kate Chopin’s The Awakening and how I felt I had crept into a secret world of women’s voices. The internal voices that women were hiding were screaming off the page. It provided value to my internal voice, after finishing that book, I vowed I would never allow my voice to be quietly drowned.
Later in life, James Baldwin’s essay “The Creative Process” has served as an incredible guide that I continually return to.
2. What is your favorite bookstore, or library?
Revolution Books on Malcom X Blvd in Harlem, it’s truly a place of resistance and where you can find a spectrum of vast content. They host events, conversations, screenings, a hub for revolutionaries. We need to support more centers like this!
“Maintaining momentum for me is to keep being affected by what is happening in the world. Writing can be isolating, it’s important to fully be in the world. Having a vision for Latinx people, continually imagining what a liberated Latinx future would look like keeps me inspired.”
3. What does your creative process look like? How do you maintain momentum and remain inspired?
The process of creating each play, poem, devised piece for me is a varied one. I love to be surprised by an audience after I’ve soaked myself in tons of research during the writing process. When I work with collaborators in a play process, the re-drafting of writing is in response to what we discover in the room. I’m invigorated when a piece of writing is explored through sound design, movement, and the interpretation by performers.
Each play is diverse in dramatic structure and subject matter—a hybrid structure that incorporates components of dance theatre, political protest, technology and narration-text.
In my practice, I seek to create an alchemy of the body, space, spirit, language, and political exchange. As an arts facilitator to youth and incarcerated women, I am moved and inspired to create work about women and their history and to amplify a voice for their futures.
I am particularly dedicated to working with vulnerable communities who lack access to arts platforms, in combination with trained artists and advocates in order for marginalized voices to gain visibility. With each piece I write, collaboration arises with a community, advocacy organizations and scholars—societal engagement that is vital to my process as an artist.
With the intersection of these elements, it is the intention to create a spiritual, political and communal practice, for individual and collective exchange.
Maintaining momentum for me is to keep being affected by what is happening in the world. Writing can be isolating, it’s important to fully be in the world. Having a vision for Latinx people, continually imagining what a liberated Latinx future would look like keeps me inspired.
THE YOUNG PEOPLE, they keep me grounded. I will never forget when I was invited to make a keynote speech to the graduating class in the Bronx at the Pan American International High School, the students entered with the Latinx flag of their country on their backs and held them up high. I saw an empowered presence of Latin America in the U.S. being shaped by young people who practiced their cultural heritage through writing adaptations of Latinx classics and through dance and music.
Whenever I think I’m getting tired, I think about them.
4. What is the last book you read? What are you reading next?
I was just rereading passages from Jane Caputi’s Goddesses and Monsters: Women, Myth, Power and Popular Culture. She activates the way you examine images. TRUST.
Little by little, I am always consuming Fearless Girls, Wise Women and Beloved Sisters: Heroines in Folktales from Around the World edited by Kathleen Ragan. This book keeps me close to womxn’s magic…
“My characters and I are saying and committing actions that societally have been reserved for men, and it’s been part of my journey that I must fight a psychological and physical battle to continue writing.”
5. What do you consider to be the biggest threat to free expression today? Have there been times when your right to free expression has been challenged?
In the international arts community, there have been several companies and individual artists, writers who are being denied visas to present their work here in the United States. The Trump administration is overtly “cracking down” on cultural exchange.
Some that I became aware of: South Korea’s Bereishit Dance Company, Bolshoi Ballet, Malian singer and griot Hawa Kassé Mady Diabaté, and the Latinx playwright from Yucatan Mexico, Conchi León were all denied a visa. Leon’s play addressed discrimination, violence, abuse, human trafficking and LGBTQ issues affecting women in Yucatán.
This kind of abuse of power, this systematic attack on free expression, the attempts to censor the very nature of the work, that somehow the work must be “adjusted” in order to assimilate to the agenda of the administration.
To deny an artist a visa is to deny the cultural relevance of the work, of the human being who creates the work and their national identity.
This creates a culture of fear as artists are also being denied access to the U.S. because of what they have stated in media interviews and social media posts. This is a threat to community and social organizing, limiting the distribution of progressive media content and alternative perspectives.
A friend of mine who is also a collaborator with me on an exchange project is from Africa and she has attempted several times to attain visas to perform parent/student oral history workshops through the practice of drama therapy. This fear is local as well, those who are residing here with visas and or are undocumented then begin to be silenced. This recent post about the Center for Art Law based in NYC gave me hope that there is a movement to protect global exchange and expression.
When it comes to my personal experiences of my own free expression being challenged, I’ve had a spectrum of events happen to me. Everything from being being physically assaulted, being asked to alter the language in works, and rejection from opportunities when not complying with those demands.
There was concern when the female characters in my plays “spoke filth” because they used profanity and were behaving like men, while David Mamet is praised for every glorified “fuck” in his plays, while women in his world often lack of agency and dimension.
I have often been told that my work is overly feminist, some feedback from a fellowship application stated that my work was agitprop because of its focus on women and narratives of Latin America.
During my first playwriting workshop in NYC, a group of the men from the workshop surrounded me after a session and threatened me, stating, “they were tired of men’s names being dragged through the mud.” The play I was developing, The Hopefulness of La Esperanza, was about the real life experiences of sex workers who boxed themselves into cargo ships in order to migrate and men’s authentically destructive role against women in that narrative.
While I was performing my piece, “The Virgin Stripper,” I was physically attacked by men several times as they attempted to stop me from performing my monologue. I always fought them back with language, it was the articulate language of deconstructing rape culture while I was dressed as a stripper that triggered them. It was the writer’s identity in me that they couldn’t manage to control or shut down.
You can also add to the list the number of times I was threatened by Trump supporters when I spoke at political rallies…
My characters and I are saying and committing actions that societally have been reserved for men, and it’s been part of my journey that I must fight a psychological and physical battle to continue writing.
6. How does your identity shape your writing? Is there such a thing as “the writer’s identity”?
I believe there absolutely is a “writer’s identity,” this is the heart of a writer’s positionality, their perspective, what shapes their unique choices in how they create or describe a world, a condition, an experience.
I’ve lived my life in constant translation: as a child translating for my immigrant parents, and now translating the Latinx culture to U.S. audiences through writing and performance. I am navigating the challenging power structures of society, race, class, education, gender and the U.S. theatrical landscape. This influences how I view, create, and respond as an artist.
I situate myself within the cannon of Latin American dramatists who are members of the diaspora in the United States, exploring how that role influences the construction of the dramatic voice. This positionality led me to my life’s dedication in writing the “Latin is America” play cycle, where I have written several plays within this bilingual cycle that will ultimately comprise of 33 plays, one for each of the countries and dependencies in Latin America.
While I do not feel that the identity of the writer should limit the subject matter in which the writer engages with, not having cultural sensitivity or lived experiences with particular themes leaves the possibility open for an individual writer who is not conscious their own identity to appropriate the cultural materials and the narratives of others.
“People need stories the way they need water. Our stories are our culture, our history, and a map for our future.”
7. What is the most daring thing you’ve ever put into words? Have you ever written something you wish you could take back?
The most daring, dangerous of all my works I would have to say is my theatrical sex trilogy: 1. “Porning the Planet: The De-sensitization of a Nation;” 2. “Seventeen Days: A Pornographic Faust adaptation;” and 3. “Goddesses Return to the Temple: Nina Hartley reveals it All.”
Porning the Planet: A multi-media butoh dance narrative. As NASA chooses her for the making of the film Porning the Planet, Sensora attempts to answer multiple personality disorder through the building of a porn persona. On her way to meet Hugh Hiefner, our savior Sensora follows a journey from glam porn star to snuff assassinated president, to finally as a refugee in outer space, launching into the galaxy. Her provocative memories, her violent fantasies, and her daily rituals are witnessed and downloaded for mass absorption into the collective consciousness.
Seventeen Days: Loosely based on the biography of pioneer porn star Georgina Spelvin of The Devil in Miss Jones. This new play traces the history of pornography through the lives of legendary grandmother porn Star Spelvin and 17-year-old granddaughter based on Sasha Grey. Within 17 days of her STD test results, Sasha begins a fantastical journey, living out (The Devil in Miss Jones) Faustian spiral leading to depths she may never escape.
Goddesses Return to the Temple: Nina Hartley reveals it All: The 30,000 BCE Venus of Willendorf statue is embodied by a middle-aged pregnant women who seeks to know the ancient ways of women’s powers. She begins to surprisingly worship The Goddess (Nina Hartley) at the temple/strip club, the one who’s seen it all, done it all, the wise teacher, is an American pornographic actress, pornographic film director, sex educator, sex positive feminist, and author. (Still a work in progress).
The process of writing these works has been the most taxing on my psyche. It required me to confront the ways in which female archetypes and traditional female roles have influenced our modern notions of womanhood as well as the exploitation of the female body and spirit in our media-driven culture. I in no way restrained myself from describing or capturing the violence committed against women and the grotesque content that is consumed as entertainment.
The first piece, “Porning the Planet,” which was developed with adult star Brittany Andrews, required me to immerse myself in every aspect of the industry. Brittany challenged several of my pre-conceived notions of her experience and agency in her career choices. So many of our modern devices and their functions were designed with collaborations between tech companies, government agencies and the adult industry. Our complicity in the maintenance of female exploitation is upheld by the way we interact with technology and the more we make technology the main means of human communication.
While there is a brutality to these three pieces, the language, the images and how the body is being shaped on stage are extreme, I assured that the characters are not solely living a place of victimhood. These pieces are also comedic because it was through humor that I discovered that these legendary women were dismantling the limited whore/virgin dichotomy.
I was shocked recently when I heard the words I had written during a performance, that revealed the abuse of power committed by my first playwriting teacher in undergrad. Because it took me so many years to confront that truth, suddenly the truth couldn’t be taken back because it had been spoken in a communal space.
“Your narrative is always valid even when it’s not being valued. Trust your gut when you feel someone is intimidated by your boldness. Do not let their fear become your fear.”
8. What advice do you have for young writers?
I work with young people closely every week and the overall advice I would give and do give is to write about the forces that oppose you and celebrate the forces that uplift you.
To confront internal and external forces that seek to damage us and our community; is many times the initial motivation that moves young writers from examining the world to writing about it. Writers are in need of a response or transformation and you need a community to process the work with, to serve a community. My advice is to be in community.
Often what comes up in workshops that I facilitate with young writers is the importance of one’s own narrative, if you don’t write your own narrative, someone else will attempt to represent you. Your narrative is always valid even when it’s not being valued. Trust your gut when you feel someone is intimidated by your boldness. Do not let their fear become your fear.
I also recommend to keep photos of ancestors and objects that are sacred to you somewhere close to you and above your head as you write. Keeping a plant and a lit candle near you as you write is also helpful.
9. Which writer, living or dead, would you most like to meet? What would you like to discuss?
I have fantasies of having dinner with Toni Morrison. I would ask her how she navigated life as a woman of color in the literary world, and her life as a single mother, how motherhood expanded her personal and professional life. I would like to hold her hand and ask about the sacrifices she made to build her body of work, perhaps this will help me make peace with this inevitable struggle.
Then I would love to meet Laura Keiler who passed in 1932 in Denmark, she is the subject of my newest play, “Does that Feel Good to you my Lark?: A Doll’s House adaptation.” Keiler’s legacy as an incredible writer and advocate of the women’s movement is overshadowed by her fame for being the “inspiration for Nora.” In the play, I deconstruct how her narrative was appropriated and manipulated by Henrik Ibsen. I want to desperately ask her about the manuscript she sent Ibsen before A Doll’s House was published, there is no literary record of it, it went missing. So hopefully when I meet her in this special spiritual dimension, I can understand Danish and she can understand English.
10. Why do you think people need stories?
People need stories the way they need water. Our stories are our culture, our history, and a map for our future.
Raquel Almazan is an interdisciplinary actor, writer, director, and facilitator. Her eclectic career as artist-activist spans original multi-media solo performances, playwriting, new work development, and dramaturgy.
She is a practitioner of Butoh dance and the creator/teacher of arts programs for youth and adults, several of which focus on social justice. Her work has been featured in New York City—including Off-Broadway—throughout the United States and internationally in Greece, Italy, Slovenia, Chile, Colombia, Guatemala, and Sweden; including several of her plays within her lifelong project on writing bilingual plays in dedication to each Latin American country (Latin is America play cycle).