In Conversation With Raquel Cepeda: The journalist, filmmaker and author talks about Latina identity, her writing style, her new documentary, SOME GIRLS, and more
By AMY GIGI ALEXANDER
I discovered Raquel Cepeda‘s work in August in a travel story she wrote for the New York Times. I immediately read her book, Bird of Paradise: How I Became Latina, and fell in love with her prose style and voice. Her accomplishments include everything under the sun: award-winning journalist, cultural activist, documentary filmmaker, screenwriter, memoirist, among other talents. Last month she was awarded for her commitment to denouncing violence against women, and her work in helping young women’s empowerment by the United Nations. But besides all of this, she writes a wonderful travel story.
Cepeda is a New York City born and bred journalist, documentary filmmaker and author born of Dominican parentage. She lives in her beloved city with her husband and their two children despite Taylor Swift’s appointment as New York City’s Global Welcome Ambassador.
Amy Gigi Alexander: Hearing about your early life and love for travel, I’m wondering about the books you read when you were a girl. Did you read books that inspired you to find, seek, and travel?
Raquel Cepeda: I didn’t, no. I was a mostly disengaged, bored student. In fact, I resented all the bullshit I learned in parochial grammar and high school about how God loving missionaries came to the New World in order to spread the gospel of brotherly love, freedom and a really freaking cool and blissful afterlife. I didn’t buy how civilized the so-called Indigenous savages were that they encountered. And the West Africans who miraculously appeared on the shores of the Caribbean. I didn’t appreciate that so many of the kids of color in my school began to resent the characteristics in their faces that looked Indigenous and/or African, and began doing all they could to erase those markings. Something about the whole thing, before I could even articulate it, just turned me off. It makes me sick that this propaganda continues to be perpetrated today, but that’s another story.
AGA: You decided to make your own stories.
RC: My desire to discover the world around me was really organic. I think it’s part of my DNA, my ancestral memory, to want to journey, to become a #wanderwoman.
AGA: I’m always a little voyeuristic in these interviews, and I’m wondering where this #wanderwoman writes.
RC: Remember when Virginia Wolf wrote about having “A Room of One’s Own?” I don’t know what that’s like. I have a 17-year-old daughter, a two-year-old son and a crazy-busy husband who’s also a writer, graffiti historian, and partner at a creative agency. I have a membership to a writer’s room close to our apartment I try to sneak off to as much as I can. I also try to write very early before everyone wakes up, sometimes at night when everyone is asleep. And when I’m on deadline, I just disappear into the bathroom. I write in longhand on the train, anywhere and everywhere. Whatever it takes.
AGA: I’ve come to discover that you are many women in one woman. You are a journalist, a filmmaker, an author, an amateur boxer, and so much more. An example of a person doing many things well. But all of these are tied together by some silken thread. What is that thread, to you?
RC: I am still discovering what the thread is but someone once told me that he saw an expression, or rather, a venting of rage in my work. Maybe he’s right. I’m not sure but I’m open to it. More than anything I recognize an intense desire to connect to the world at large. To my, our, global community.
AGA: Can you give a few examples of how this desire to connect with the world translates into reality and what you create?
RC: For example, my documentary, Bling: A Planet Rock, is about how American hip-hop’s obsession with the hyper-materialistic social trappings of hip-hop intersected itself into the decade-long conflict in Sierra Leone, West Africa.
AGA: That is fascinating.
RC: When magazines were a thing, I used to be the editor in chief of an urban bi-monthly glossy called Russell Simmons’ Oneworld. When I re-launched it, my vision to make it more transcultural and global in scope was realized in most of its pages.
There are also global/travel threads in my book, Bird of Paradise. While the first part of my book is a coming-of-age story set in the Dominican Republic, New York City and a jaunt in San Francisco, the second part of the book focuses on ancestral DNA testing as a tool for self-discovery. By using science, I travel back in recent history to reveal where my ancestors came from before they came to be known as Latino/a. I also physically travel as part of my journey.
And finally, I’m in production on my current documentary, SOME GIRLS, which is an extension of the book in some ways. In the film, we use mitochondrial DNA testing for the same reasons I did in my book, and there’s an international component to it.
AGA: I love the way you take what moves you and turn it into real, tangible things: It is very creative and original, and it’s one thing that pulls me into every piece I read that you have written. I think of you as almost an inventor. A person who, when something cannot be found, makes it herself. There is a constant moving in your life, in your writing, and in your work. Can you talk about how this formed your writing style (or) what you think your writing style is?
RC: [Laughing] Yeah, that’s why it’s so hard for me to find patrons to support my inventions! Sometimes I think I should just give up and produce shows pitting women against each other, or shows counting down who had the best ass-shots in 2014 and get paid! People would pay for that! But then something happens—a conversation with my daughter, meeting someone who left an abusive relationship or found something in my work that empowered them, or a sign from the universe that only makes sense to me—that reminds me that swimming against the current is exactly what I’m supposed to be doing. By the way, did I mention that I can’t swim!?! It’s fucking hard out here.
AGA: Signs. Powerful signs. I know what you mean. Sometimes I feel like I’m the only one in the room, and then someone tells me that something I wrote moved or changed them, and that infusion is enough to keep me going. I think many writers face this, especially those who are going against the current, as you say.
Your writing style goes against the current in certain ways, too. How would you describe your writing style?
RC: My writing style is a direct reflection of the way I speak, and my dry, often dark sense of humor. A female writer once told me she felt my writing was sort of masculine, aggressive. My husband Sacha, also a writer, among other things, and I often joke that had I used a male pseudonym or had been an actual man, I’d be seen as being all those things associated with male writers: Searingly honest, vulnerable, reinventing the English language, free-wheeling, blah, blah, blah….But alas, nope, I’m “preachy” and “prickly.” Thank the gods that I don’t really, at the bottom of my heart, care what reviewers, who incidentally super-rarely review books by Latina-American authors, as much as I do the men and women who’ve actually read more than a section. *Sheds a single tear.
AGA: But this is where your inventiveness comes crashing in. You combine everything and write about the places in-between, yet your writing is accessible and daring.
RC: My writing style exists in a liminal space, that gray area between the streets and the ivory-tower. It’s a total contradiction, I know. I said before that I’ve always been a disengaged student. I feel like many academics, with exceptions of course, recycle the same old tired theories their predecessors have preached not to ruffle any feathers and, sometimes—fuck it, too many times—don’t even bother to venture out and get to know the communities they are writing about. The only folks who would find that statement offensive are the ones who are guilty of committing this pseudo-intellectual crime. But what’s worse is when the brilliant thinkers in academia, and there are a handful out there, are not accessible to the people that would benefit most from the jewels they have to offer due to a number of things, ranging from a lack of resources to a lack of access too many Americans have to higher education-especially in communities of color-and also the dry and insular manner in which the information is presented.
AGA: Personally, I’m turned off by writing that makes the story inaccessible to all but a golden few. I like the way you write, because it resonates immediately and viscerally. One feels that you’re actually speaking when reading your work.
RC: In my own life—in and out of academia and mostly as a student of the world and researcher of counterculture, race, and true American history, and as a product of 1980s hip-hop—I’ve felt compelled to translate what I’ve learned and/or discovered in a manner that’s palatable to folks, whether they’re sitting in an Ivy league classroom or idling away in front of a corner store or working behind the counter in that same corner store.
AGA: How I came to read your writing, and discover your work in a larger way, was through a piece you wrote for The New York Times about your journey to Aruba, by way of the Dominican Republic to rediscover your roots. Did you set out to write a travel memoir, or did that happen after the journey ended?
RC: Oh, yes, that New York Times travel story was a postscript, if you will, to Bird of Paradise. I was curious to find out more about my father’s side of the family now that he and I were working on maintaining a peace accord of sorts. I didn’t set out to write a travel memoir in the literal sense but in a more Vonnegut-esque kind of way; that is, being unstuck in time but in a braided nonfiction narrative.
AGA: Did you go on that journey as a storyteller, as a listener, a collector, a detective?
RC: I wore many hats during the writing of my memoir, the first by a Dominican-American author to be released in the popular market. I was, above all else, a collector of saliva (DNA), a researcher/detective trying to unearth my history, a listener, and a storyteller. I think most nonfiction writers are all the aforementioned. Maybe that’s why so many of us spend lots of time in our heads. While I literally travelled to a couple of destinations for research purposes and to try and retrace the footsteps, to imagine what it was like for a known ancestor of mine to survive, albeit in fragments, for me to exist today, I didn’t set out to do that in the very beginning. The results of my ancestral DNA tests dictated where I would go, if anywhere.
AGA: Is the journey now complete? Is it over?
RC: Today I think that the journey that began before I seeded the idea for Bird of Paradise has no end, it’s continuous. It’s like identity; it’s never settled. The idea of settling bores the shit out of me.
AGA: I see another book on that theme…
RC: I would love to write a straight-up travel memoir in the future, from my perspective as a woman of color who blends in almost everywhere she’s traveled, to experience the world in a way many Americans cannot. Most Americans in general don’t travel and of those who do, a small fraction are people of color. I’d like to make the world an inviting place for more people of color to travel, to find themselves in the selves of others, as a tool of empowerment. But that’s an uphill battle because the publishing industry, like academia, places our experiences into more confining boxes than the census does! With that said, I can’t say I’m terribly surprised that the industry is imploding on itself, committing literary suicide by sticking to one-note narratives by writers of color, with one or two exceptions per year, rather than cultivating New American classics. So it goes.
AGA: I think, personally, that writers need to help one another. It’s not just editors, perhaps, but the insular quality of people; they stay within certain constraints. I like to think that I am mixing it up a little, and I think that writers have that responsibility to the craft itself; to include more voices and encourage people to read them.
I’m fond of mixing it up in travel writing too as far as style and story and content. I do not like travel writing that is just about a place. I want it to have some soul, preferably of the narrator. Your book goes beyond soulfulness, it is, in some ways a manifesto, a guide, a set of links. It’s raw and real and running deep. Authentic. Does that authentic voice come easily for you, or is it something you have to draw out of yourself?
RC: My book is certainly a reflection, a direct reflection, of myself for better and worse. It’s my voice. However, I was able to preserve my voice mainly because of two people: My literary agent and my editor. They were both fiercely protective of keeping it intact. I wish my editor was still in the publishing industry. She got it, overstood, in fact, the world outside her office.
AGA: That is wonderful to hear. I often hear the opposite! Let’s talk about the way your book is set up. I’m spending a lot of time talking about your book rather than craft, because I think your book sets a new standard and pulls off something that is quite difficult, a multiplicity of stories, that are linked.
The book is set up in a very interesting way. It is linked by two journeys. Let’s talk about the first half. You decide to return to the Dominican Republic to reconnect with family and history. In the book, there is this duality of you: The you who is belonging to the place you are returning to, and the you that is seeking belonging in your own life story. That’s a very interesting theme for a travel memoir, because so many are written from the point of view of an outsider going inside of a new place and writing about it. You, on the other hand, are inside two places at once: The United States and the Dominican Republic. Can you talk a bit about the difference of belonging to the place you write about, and visiting it as an outsider?
RC: Your question of belonging is directly linked to the formation of my identity as a hyphenated-American, at once Latina and American, or rather a dominiyorkian: A New York City born woman of Dominican parentage. I’m comfortable in both places because, over time, I’ve come to understand that I’m not hard-wired to sit quietly in anyone’s box. I have chosen to, as a sociologist might say, selectively acculturate. I’ve taken what I love about my Dominican heritage and what I like about being American and making it work for me. To me, the hyphen in between my selves serves as a bridge I can walk across or stand in the center of whenever I choose. I would say that Bird of Paradise is more a memoir about identity than it is about travel in a traditional sense although traveling in the ways I’ve already mentioned have been the very thing, aside from hip-hop culture, that have informed who I am today.
AGA: How do you think you have captured the voice of place, and what makes that voice different?
RC: There are certainly more pros than cons to belonging to the place you write about. When you write from an insider’s perspective you can avoid all those clichés fetishizing what many “outsiders” find exotic in a land and its people. Sometimes when I read articles, particularly set in the Caribbean, Africa, South America, and the Boogie Down Bronx, I’m reminded of those romance novels featuring Fabio on their covers because the writing is so saccharine and nondescript. There are layers of subtext I can read through when I’m, say, in the Dominican Republic. However, because of my ties and ambicultural footing, I find that I can read a lot of that subtext in many different countries. Plus, when I travel I’m usually mistaken for belonging to the majority or minority of that country—for example: A local in Bahia, Brazil; Turkish in Austria; mixed-race in West Africa; a local in Morocco—and in a way, if you read my book, you may find that they are all right! So, for better and for worse, I often get to experience a place because I fit in. [Readers: to read a collection of essays and stories by travel writers who write from the point of view of belonging to where they write about, read this New York Times series, which also includes Raquel Cepeda, My Caribbean, Five Vignettes.]
AGA: The second half of the book is a different kind of journey, but still a travel journey. You decide to trace your ancestral DNA, and you take the reader alongside you on a scientific route of discovering who you are. Why did you decide to include this in your book, and how do you think including it deepens the experience for the reader?
RC: At the time I was writing the proposal there was a spike in hate crimes against Latinos across America. Our immigration policies were, and continue to, paint Latinos/Hispanics as public enemies, criminals, and terrorists although dozens of North American territories belonged to Mexico before the first wave of illegal English, Dutch, and other European immigrants bumrushed the U.S. It was clear that people didn’t know what Latinos were/are. I had been writing about the topic and had seen others use ancestral DNA to reveal their own roots. So I decided that I would use myself as ONE example of what, or who, we are. Ancestral DNA testing, embarking on this journey, was the skeleton of the book, its foundation. It definitely deepened the experience, not only for me, but for other Latinos, adoptees, and Americans of all races who I’ve met at book events and have written me online.
AGA: How did the science of who you are fit with your sense of knowing where you belong?
RC: For me, the results were affirming, both literally and spiritually. While mainstream America paints Latino/Hispanic-Americans as being “illegal,” I found that we are the physical embodiment, the genetic circumstance of the events that begat what we refer to as the Americas, the New World. The Dominican Republic, the eastern side of the island we share with our Haitian brothers and sisters, is home to the first established European city in the Americas. It was where the Indigenous slave trade began, where the Transatlantic slave trade began. It was an international port where the world converged to trade goods, people, disease, and try out this ism we’re obsessed with—capitalism.
So, with that stated, I went into it with an open mind and the results not only confirmed my suspicions but illuminated a path back to my recent ancestors, making my world smaller by revealing where my people came from before they were shoved into the big brown Latino box. I’m still on that journey today!
AGA: A big theme for you seems to be mystical, the mythos of self.
RC: Honestly, the mythos, a relationship with that aspect of our world, has been something that’s been a part of my life since I could remember. I don’t necessarily go out on a mission to find something; it finds me. It’s hard to articulate because I’m the most non-new-agey person you will meet. I don’t think it’s particularly special to connect to something spiritual or preternatural. You don’t have to speak in a soothing public radio voice, wear Indian tunics, ethnic bangles, or buy stock in sage to connect to something divine. You just have to be open and listen to your intuition, to those messages the universe sends us periodically that we miss because we’re too busy posting anonymous hate-mail online or trying to convince our Facebook and Instagram “friends” that we’re happy-go-lucky spiritual gurus. Seriously. We are way too distracted.
AGA: There are a few of us who love social media and don’t get distracted by it [laughing]. But yes, I agree, the authenticity is missing for many, as are the opportunities to listen to one’s intuition.
Let’s go back to your book for a moment. There is a dichotomy of science, logos, and mysticism, mythos, running through the book. How do you weave these two together to tell the story?
RC: By utilizing the science of ancestral DNA testing in Bird of Paradise, I used rationality or logos, as a portal to the past. By employing mythos, or what some people call magic realism—to me it’s tangible, a part of my life, how I express myself spiritually—I traveled back and forth through time and space. On a personal level and in my work, there has to be a balance of both mythos and logos because it’s part of my identity.
AGA: One can’t help but think about Paradise and Redemption as themes in your overall work.
RC: I’m not sure that redemption is an overall theme in my work but maybe that’s something I should give more thought to.
AGA: But obviously, Paradise….
RC: Yes, I like exploring the ideal of paradise and what that means. Someone once told me that no matter how far you run, you will always meet yourself in the mirror. I couldn’t agree more. If you don’t do the work to fix all the faulty wiring inside of you, you will never find peace or be in a state where you can be open to actually experience your surroundings which, naturally, results in the same ole’ nondescript travel stories. Paradise for me, as it relates to writing about travel, is when someone can tell I wrote the piece without even having to read my byline. It’s being able to experience a new environment with an open mind, leaving my western gaze at JFK International, and with as little judgment as possible. I think my Latina-American background, my hyphenated identity, has served me well in that way. *Pours a swig of Presidente beer on the ground for the ancestors.
AGA: Tell me a few more examples of Paradise found.
RC: In the flavor of chicken tagine atop the Atlas mountains; in a Saharan sunrise *pours another swig; in a helicopter flying upcountry from Freetown, Sierra Leone; peering out the narrow door of no return at Elmina slave castle in Ghana *and yet another swig; in serendipitously meeting a relative I never knew existed, by chance, in a Botanica during a blackout in Santo Domingo…*and there goes that 40 ounce, on libations. I could go on and on.
AGA: The theme of being on a quest is huge in your writing and in your life. If you were asked to define that quest and what moves it forward, what would you say?
RC: I would say it’s ego driven. A homie in Morocco once told me that when God created the world, he made 40 versions of the same person and scattered them around the world. That notion drives me. I can’t get enough of myself, really. Seriously, I’ll always be on a quest to get to know the members of my global community because I can learn from them. I hope I never lose sight of that. Learning, from the saints and the sinners about humanity and our world.
I hope I can instill that desire in my kids. When you expose children to travel you’re giving them the best education in the world. Often, they will become more empathetic, curious, worldly, empowered, open-minded, vested in not blowing shit up in the name of the one percent, but preserving the beauty around them. Maybe I’m being idealistic but I’m happy to report that it seems to be working so far.
AGA: Do you think when one is on a quest that it is a failure if the quest is not met?
RC: By definition, at least according my the dictionary that came with my Mac, a quest means “a long or arduous search for something.” I think that there’s nothing that’s easily attained or given to us is worth having except a trust fund or white privilege; I’d welcome either of those. It would make selling a book so much easier. But seriously, it depends on how you define quest. I am not on a quest for any one particular thing. Sometimes it will present itself organically when you’re writing or researching or in the act of traveling. If I set out on a quest, I would hope I’d fail at least several times so that the flame I have lit inside me to find whatever it is doesn’t go out. I’d like to have a reason to continue on my path. Failure, obstacles, setbacks, are all good reasons to push forward.
AGA: How have you adjusted your quest in your stories when circumstances prevented you from finishing it?
RC: As it relates to a travel story, I can think of two recent setbacks: I had been developing pieces set in the Caribbean and West Africa. I had to put the Caribbean piece on hold indefinitely because of the Chikungunya virus and because I was committed to bring my two-year-old son along. I couldn’t risk him getting sick. I had been close to officially starting the piece about West Africa; the subject matter has been on my bucket list to write about for years. But weeks before I could officially start, that is, I couldn’t get an assignment number from my editor. The Ebola virus broke out something awful, and so that piece is on hold. I don’t see either as failures though. They will happen in divine time. I just hope the people, friends and strangers alike, are okay in both regions.
AGA: I’d like to turn the subject back to identity, particularly after some of the things you’ve said. One thing travel can do is construct–or deconstruct—one’s identity. As a Latina writer and traveler, how does this translate into the wider, broader experience of how you identify as a Latina?
RC: I’m American, first and foremost. Let me correct that: I’m a native of the greatest republic on earth, New York City. My city isn’t perfect, and to my lament, it’s looking and sounding more and more like the Midwest. But it’s the city that reared and nurtured me. It’s everything. I’m also Dominican/Latina, and that informs me. When I travel it’s less about how I see myself and more about how the world receives me. I just roll with it.
AGA: How does the world receive you?
RC: For example, I once spent hours arguing with airport authorities in a Brazilian airport about the validity of my and my daughter’s passports. They suspected we were locals trying to sneak out of the country. I’ve realized early on that race is in the eye of the beholder and once you travel out of the country, even out of New York City, the lens shifts. The challenge is to go with the flow and see where it takes you. I’m still holding out for it to take me to a place where Pinky and I can comfortably plan world domination and achieve the perfect suntan.
AGA: How was your book received by those who control the market? There were issues, right?
RC: The reason why you didn’t find the book in the only major chain, Barnes & Noble, is because they cancelled every order nationwide weeks before my book was released because of their then-beef with Simon & Schuster. They wouldn’t carry the paperback, released earlier this year, because they didn’t carry the hardcover. And regardless of how independent bookstores like to claim, well, independence, they mostly but not always, follow the big boys. My book never had a chance. What a crime against lovers of books! [Readers: Cepeda’s book is available on Amazon.com.]
AGA: That must have really hurt, since they are one of the biggest booksellers in America. How do you see the future of travel writing for people of color and their narratives? How does the world of travel writing, and those who influence it, receive travel writers of color?
RC: I would like to think there will be more of us out there writing about our experiences traveling but the jury is still out on that front. But if we’re to judge how juries treat people of color in our society, or by how most acquiring editors at publishing companies and magazines/papers treat us, the future isn’t looking so bright.
AGA: I would like to think that you are one of the people changing that, and that conversations like these are affecting change as well. That is my hope. One last question: What are you working on now? Give us some inspiration, Raquel Cepeda style.
RC: I’m writing about travel for The New York Times. I’ve been working on a proposal for my next book, which has to be perfect since I’m not a white dude. If I were, I likely would have been in contract for at least two books as of this writing. I’m in the latter stages of production on my documentary Some Girls, and I’m super excited about a podcast project I can’t talk about this second, but will shout from atop Mount Rushmore once the deal is done.
Amy Gigi Alexander is a world traveler and explorer who writes tales of place interwoven with memoir and social commentary. Her works have been published in numerous literary magazines, international newspapers, as well as BBC Travel, World Hum, National Geographic and Lonely Planet. A different version of this Q&A appears on her blog, amygigialexander.com.