Best of 2019 Q&A: Tamara Jong and Leonarda Carranza

Tamara Jong and Leonarda Carranza appear on our Best of 2019 list for their piece “Bad Jobs: Why We Stayed.” You can read it at carte blanche.

GCL invited writers on the list to answer a questionnaire to give us further insight into their work. The following are Tamara and Leonarda’s answers:

1. How did you start working on this story?

We met initially in Ayelet Tsabari’s creative non-fiction class, and we quickly became friends. We started hanging out after class, became part of a writing group, and started editing each other’s work.

At the time, we were both still in these toxic workspaces and we noticed the similarities in our experiences. Although we experienced it separately, it was happening to both of us simultaneously.

So initially, we started texting, emailing, calling and venting about the violence at work. In a way, we have talked about and thought about this piece for years. Telling and retelling each other the awfulness of workplace abuse and so it was fitting that we wrote it collaboratively.

When the editor Jenny Ferguson at carte blanche’s blog put a call out for marginalized writers, we decided we would pitch this idea of bad jobs and write it as a collaborative braided essay.

2. How long did it take to write this piece?

The writing didn’t take that long because we had spent so much time with this story. We knew the specific details that we wanted to focus on—so roughly about a month of actual writing. We wrote our own sections separately. We then exchanged pieces and edited each other’s work and then stitched the separate sections together.

3. What was the most challenging part of writing it?

Tamara: Knowing that my story would be public and others would know about my past struggles and personal life. Would I get in trouble for daring to speak about what happened to me? I was afraid of what people would think of me and if they would judge me for not leaving sooner.

Leonarda: The most challenging moment was just after the piece went through its final edit and was approved; I started to feel really unsafe. I remember I had a nightmare about the people I worked with, and when I woke up the next morning I thought seriously about pulling the piece.

The fear was so real that I spoke to Tamara about it and she made it clear that whatever I needed to do she’d be okay with it. I then had a lot of conversations with Jen about publishing under an alias. She was also really supportive and thoughtful in helping me measure and think through the risks of telling this story. I finally decided to publish it under my name. The days after it went live were also really hard.

4. What was the most surprising thing you learned about your subject (or in the case of a personal essay, yourself) during the process?

Tamara: I was surprised how easily the words came to me. I wondered if it would be triggering for me to go back there but a significant amount of time had passed and knowing Leonarda was also writing about her experience at the same time as me made me feel supported.

Leonarda: The fear of publication really surprised me and the way that I experienced it in my body, through nightmares and anxiety. It really made me think about PTSD and the impact of workplace abuse.

Now that I think back on it, I think I was hoping the piece would be rejected so I wouldn’t have to deal with the risks of publishing. It surprised me to know how the violence still lived in my body; how afraid I was of these people who had harmed me.

5. What sort of reaction has your piece received from readers?

We are very grateful for the positive support and messages we’ve received. No one told us that they didn’t believe us. We were worried that people would demand more from us and make us feel invalidated.

6. For any fellow non-fiction writers reading this, do you have a favourite writing tip to share?

Tamara: In Alexander Chee’s How To Write An Autobiographical Novel he said, “What will you let yourself know? What will you allow yourself to know?” I often start off thinking that I am writing about a certain subject, but once I get the draft down and start revising, the story itself starts to reveal details or sometimes even the true subject.

I try to write down the unwritable, the things I can’t say out loud or bear to think. Even if it doesn’t show up in the final story, it’s still important to get the words down as it’s all part of the work.

Leonarda: I had a writing instructor tell us to follow the energy. This works for me.

I try to focus on the stories that I can’t wait to put down. The stories that want to be written. I spent a decade finishing a dissertation that I didn’t want to write, and that was really hard. Now I try to let myself write the stories that have energy. The ones I’m excited to make into story.

7. What writing projects are you working on currently?

Tamara: I had the opportunity to work with Chelene Knight and Mridula Morgan as part of the editorial team for Room magazine’s 43.1 “Hair” issue that comes out in 2020 which I am excited about.

I’m also currently working on a CNF memoir of collected short stories.

Leonarda: I’m working on a few CNF essays that are about mental illness and revising some older pieces. I’m also working on a children’s book and a few fiction pieces about talking cats and intimate partner violence.

8. There’s been some discussion recently on the outlook for Canadian non-fiction. How does its future look to you going into 2020?

We’ve been reading more non-fiction than fiction in the last few years and try to read as many Canadian books as we can by buying and supporting them.

But we understand that Canada Council has changed some of their criteria for literary non-fiction and some publishing houses will not be able to get funding and it will be a challenge if publishing houses don’t qualify for grants to publish certain types of books. It’s also sad about the ending of the Taylor non-fiction prize and some literary magazines and programs losing funding.

It feels now more than ever like there’s never been a time for more non-fiction stories and fact-based truths so we hope these funding issues change.

Find Tamara and Leonarda on Twitter: @Bokchoygurl, @LeonardaCarranz

 

This Q&A may have been edited for clarity and length.

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