Harrison Candelaria Fletcher is the author of “Descanso for My Father” (2012), “Presentimiento: A Life in Dreams” (2016), and “Finding Querencia: Essays from In Between” (2022). His work has appeared widely in such venues as New Letters, TriQuarterly, Puerto del Sol, and The Touchstone Anthology of Contemporary Creative Nonfiction. He is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellowship, MacDowell Fellowship, Autumn House Press Nonfiction Prize, Colorado Book Award and New Mexico-Arizona Book Award. He also received a Pushcart Prize Special Mention, Best American Essays Notable selection, and was a finalist for the National Magazine Award and International Latino Book Award. A native of Albuquerque, he is a former columnist, feature writer and beat reporter at newspapers throughout the West. He teaches at Colorado State University and Vermont College of Fine Arts.
SunLit: Tell us this book’s backstory. What inspired you to write it? Where did the story/theme originate?
Harrison Candelaria Fletcher: Let me start with the title, “Finding Querencia: Essays from In Between.” With its roots in the Spanish verb querer —“to want, to love”—the term querencia has been called untranslatable but has come to mean a place of safety and belonging, that which we yearn for when we yearn for home.
I’m the child of a mother with New Mexican-Spanish roots sinking five generations and a Scottish-French father from Iowa who died when I was 18 months old. I never knew him. I have only one memory of him. He was the last in his family line – with no relatives and no friends, who left little else but his name and a box of artifacts. I was raised entirely by my mother’s family with all the culture, traditions, stories and language of Albuquerque’s North Rio Grande Valley. But I look like my father – light skinned – and I bear his family name. Growing up, it wasn’t easy to find my place.
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The impetus for “Finding Querencia,” though, was inspired by my daughter, then a teen, who had a late-night conversation with a friend while we were living in Richmond, Virginia. Her friend asked, “What are you?” My daughter, who is three-quarters Latina, but shares my skin tone, didn’t know how to respond. She wanted to say Latina, but she didn’t think her friend – or anyone else – would believe her. Since she didn’t speak Spanish, also like, she felt like a fraud. She called me in tears and we had a long conversation. Listening to her, I heard myself. She gave voice to all the questions I had growing up – and continued to wrestle with. The essayist in me needed to dive into that rabbit hole and follow it wherever it led.
SunLit: Place this excerpt in context. How does it fit into the book as a whole? Why did you select it?
Candelaria Fletcher: “Open Season” is the first essay I wrote for the book. It was inspired by my struggles in middle school. Every spring in Albuquerque’s North Valley – a historically Hispanic part of town that had begun to gentrify – Chicano boys lashed out with fistfights against Anglo kids to vent all kinds of frustrations. Each spring I faced the impossible choice of deciding which side I belonged. This essay tries to get at those concerns. “Coyote Cookbook” explores identity through mixing ingredients.
SunLit: Tell us about creating this book. What influences and/or experiences informed the project before you sat down to write? And once you did begin to write, did the work take you in any unexpected directions?
Candelaria Fletcher: I’ve long been drawn to writers who invent new forms, voices, languages and structures to convey the complexities of their experiences – particularly writers from marginalized or hyphenated communities, such as Gloria Anzaldua, Louis Alberto Urrea, Maxine Hong Kingston, Jenny Boully and Joy Castro, to name only a few. I endeavored to do the same — not for esoteric reasons or experiment as an end to itself, but because the voice in “Finding Querencia” is very much voice in search of itself — a voice trying to inhabit an in-between space and claim it as its own.
I also wrote with a number of constraints in his book – different sentence structures, forms, etc. – to help me see the subject in ways I would not have otherwise. For instance, I wrote in the persona of “Coyote” — New Mexican slang for mixed, and a label I was given in middle school. By wearing the mask of Coyote, I was able to explore memories and situations I would not have otherwise – objectively in some cases, more intimately in others – and reach insights constantly surprising me.
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SunLit: Are there lessons you take away from each experience of writing a book? And if so, what did the process of writing this book add to your knowledge and understanding of your craft and/or the subject matter?
Candelaria Fletcher: Big question. Short answer: It’s always hard. I’m always full of doubt. But this book — particularly because of its unconventional writing styles — taught me once again to trust the process, to open myself to exploration and discovery and making mistakes and not know what the heck I’m doing.
I didn’t know what I was going to say with any of these essays until I was writing them. And I had no idea (as my wife, Tina, will attest) that any of them would work at all. Writing-wise, this book taught me to embrace the unknown.
SunLit: What were the biggest challenges you faced in writing this book?
Candelaria Fletcher: Working through doubt. Writing terrible drafts, then sitting down and writing more terrible drafts, until they didn’t feel so terrible any more.
SunLit: If you could pick just one thing – a theme, lesson, emotion or realization – that readers would take from this book, what would that be?
Candelaria Fletcher: It’s OK – more than OK – not to fit into any one box on the U.S. Census Form.
SunLit: In a highly politicized atmosphere where books, and people’s access to them, has become increasingly contentious, what would you add to the conversation about books, libraries and generally the availability of literature in the public sphere?
Candelaria Fletcher: I guess two things: 1) The more access to books, libraries and literature the better – especially in a highly politicized atmosphere. Reading engenders empathy, which is sorely needed now. 2) Once we start fearing ideas we’re in trouble.
SunLit: Walk us through your writing process: Where and how do you write?
Candelaria Fletcher: I write almost every day. In the morning, first thing if I can, when dreams are near, by hand, in a notebook, with a Triconderoga pencil, at my basement desk, in a coffee shop, with headphones on, music off, unless there’s chattering nearby. I usually start with an image or a memory or a mood that haunts me and try to chase it down.
I also have a paper bag of found objects, old photos, Loteria cards, etc., I dip into from time to time and write without stopping about the first thing that comes to mind.
SunLit: Where did you find your querencia? And what does it look like for someone straddling ethnicities, cultures, histories, geographies, etc.?
Candelaria Fletcher: After writing this book, I found that querencia is not a place, but an awareness – a process of discovery and connection. Home is like a verb to me – an act of seeking and seeding and cultivating. I will always be a New Mexican. I derive so much of who I am from that land and culture.
But I’ve come to think I can sink those roots wherever I am – even if I have to transplant them later. I’m torturing this metaphor, but querencia, I think, is trying.
SunLit: Tell us about your next project.
Candelaria Fletcher: I’m in the laboratory with a chapbook-length essay exploring notions of trespass, rescue and reckonings in the New Mexico’s Rio Puerco badlands – a landscape haunting my family for years. I’m also continuing to explore the Coyote persona in a lyric essay called “Creation Myths.” And I’m writing prose poem street sketches seeking moments of grace.
Quick hits: A quirky collection of questions
SunLit: Do you look forward to the actual work of writing or is it a chore that you dread but must do to achieve good things?
Candelaria Fletcher: Writing is hard for me. Always has been. It takes me a lot of time – and patience – to pull words from my head and arrange them right. That said, if I don’t write, I walk through the day feeling distracted.
Getting to the desk can be tough sometimes. But I’ve really worked in my life to create that space for myself. And once I’m there and the process begins, time slips away. There’s nothing else like it.
SunLit: What’s the first piece of writing – at any age – that you remember being proud of?
Candelaria Fletcher: Second grade. We were given a magazine photo to write about. I got one of a poodle being dried off with a towel. I wrote a harrowing adventure story about the puppy getting separated from his family and finding his way home (seems to be a theme for me). I also wrote a story about a voodoo doll in the sixth grade using all of our vocabulary words. Got an A.
SunLit: When you look back at your early professional writing, how do you feel about it? Impressed? Embarrassed? Satisfied? Wish you could have a do-over?
Candelaria Fletcher: For me, reading earlier work is like looking through your high school yearbook. At first it’s like, “What were you thinking with that feathered hair and disco collar?” Once the initial cringing is over, I try to look at it with affection and wonder. I’m hard on myself. But I try not to be.
SunLit: What three writers, from any era, can you imagine having over for a great discussion about literature and writing? And why?
Candelaria Fletcher: That’s a tough one. Off the top of my head: Rudolfo Anaya, Cormac McCarthy and Leslie Marmon Silko — for the compelling discussions about writing the Southwest and larger West — past, present and future. That would be amazing.
SunLit: Do you have a favorite quote about writing?
Candelaria Fletcher: From Thoreau: “The question is not what you look at, but what you see.”
SunLit: What does the current collection of books on your home shelves tell visitors about you?
Candelaria Fletcher: That I need to get organized (ha ha). Right now I’m reading a text-art memoir by Victoria Chang, lyric essays by Elissa Washuta and ekphrastic prose poems by Mariko Nagai. My shelves are stocked with writers like that — writers who are constantly innovating and challenging themselves to see in new ways. I’d hope a visitor would find them interesting.
SunLit: Soundtrack or silence? What’s the audio background that helps you write?
Candelaria Fletcher: Both. Depending on my mood. I used to write a lot to Radiohead. And Soundgarden — when I was rowdy. Now I listen to Raul Malo and The Mavericks sometimes because I’m learning how to play guitar and I’m pecking away at connections between chords and melodies and rhythms and writing. Mostly, though, just earplugs.
SunLit: What event, and at what age, convinced you that you wanted to be a writer?
Candelaria Fletcher: I’m still not convinced I want to be a writer (kidding). Seriously though, any time I attend a poetry reading it makes me want to write. I’m mesmerized by poetry.
But when I was eight, one of my aunties read me “Bless Me Ultima.” That touched me deeply, in ways that still resonate. It was like Rudolfo Anaya was writing about my family. I didn’t know that was possible – that our stories mattered. It was like permission.
SunLit: As an author, what do you most fear?
Candelaria Fletcher: That I’ve written a story you’ve already read in a way you’ve already read it.
SunLit: Also as an author, what brings you the greatest satisfaction?
Candelaria Fletcher: When a reader can see something of themselves in my experience. And that, together, we can see our world in a new, more connected way.
It also feels pretty good having written – putting the pencil down with the feeling you’ve touched something real. That’s pretty nice, too.