In this episode of Queers & Co., I’m joined by Cynthia Rodriguez, a Mexican-British writer and performer who is constantly experimenting with the possibilities of spoken word. They are international, intersectional and interdisciplinary.
We chat about being an Anglophile, the reality of life in the UK compared to the image of Cool Britannia, racism in the queer punk scene and being a person of colour in the UK. We also talk about the importance of speaking the truth, how to look after yourself in times of burnout, queer storytelling and how Cynthia is bringing more of their roots into their work to counter stereotypes of Mexican culture.
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Podcast Artwork by Gemma D’Souza
Check out Cynthia’s website to find out about their upcoming performances and events. Their debut poetry collection, Meanwhile, is out on 7th September 2020, via Burning Eye Books.
Heather Love, Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History
Cynthia recommends the incredible band, Big Joanie
Photo of Cynthia by David Wilson Clarke of DWC Imagery
Gem: Hi Cynthia! How are you?
Cynthia: All right! Just at home, looking at the rain, working with my cats.
Gem: Oh nice!
Cynthia: Well, the cat is not working, but I am…
Gem: You’re working with your cat. It sounds like a nice Friday.
Cynthia: Yes, excellent!
Gem: It would be really great if you can just tell everyone a bit more about yourself and what it is that you do.
Cynthia: Well, my name is Cynthia. I’m a poet and a spoken word performer. And I also do a bit of music here and there.
I’m British and Mexican, double nationality. I’ve been living in Britain for almost 10 years. I’m based in Leicester, but I do loads of stuff in the Midlands and London and stuff. I’m currently studying a masters on cultural events management to just make more things happen in the community. I do a lot of work about different topics that are intersecting like queerness, feminism, self-preservation, the migrant experience.
My first book coming out soon in September through Burning Eye Books is called Meanwhile. And it's exactly about living in the in between, like in between rites of passage, just not being easily pinpointed within one identity, one gender, one nation, nationality, one body, one state of mind, and so on.
Gem: Yeah. And what was the inspiration behind writing the book?
Cynthia: I've always written since I was tiny. But I've been doing the poetry/spoken word stuff for almost five years now, publishing fan zines here and there a couple of anthologies. Brigette, from Burning Eye Books, they've been telling me for years. A couple of years ago, they had a contest for people of color. And I submitted my work. I was shortlisted. I wasn't one of the winners. But Bridgette again said, “We really, really want your work. We would like it if you submitted something for a collection.” I did it. They accepted it. And I’ve been working on that collection for about a year.
I was thinking of all the subjects I've been talking about in the past five years of experience, and I just thought, “Oh yeah, this is this is connective link, the thing that joins them together,” the fact that they are all about passing through life and time, and how it's like not the normal, but expected milestones from a capitalist, hetero-patriarchal, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant wife, blah-blah-blah, society fest. It needs to be a citizen or a human, an adult. I’m thinking, “What about those people whoever reached that state, including me, including a lot of millennials?”
I'm in my early thirties. I’m 33 now. I’m nowhere near where my parents were when they were 33. They already had me. They had a house. They have a car. They had a job that pays the bills. They seemed a lot more mature by achieving things that I've found a lot more difficult because of the economy and because of the social panorama… or simply because it's not our ambition. But we are forever in that journey.
Gem: Yeah. And so, it's kind of that experience of what happens—I guess this is my interpretation of the title. It's like while you're waiting for those things to potentially come about, it doesn't mean you’re any less of a human or that you're any less valid.
Cynthia: Yes, definitely. Just because you don’t have a full-time job, it doesn't mean that you are flawed. Margaret Thatcher used to say that if you were over 26 and still using public transportation, you were a failure.
Gem: Wow! I didn’t know that.
Cynthia: Horrible stuff! Well, that's not true. You're doing fine.
Gem: So, I had lots of different questions. But I'm wondering about when you talk about being international, intersectional, and interdisciplinary in your bio, how has that come about? And how do you see that in your work?
Cynthia: Well, it's mostly out of necessity…? Well, I just feel like I cannot speak from one type of experience and one discipline and one point of view because of my journey through life.
I was born in Mexico and raised in Mexico for the first 24 years of my life. I was an anglophile when I was a teenager. And I was like, “Oh England! Oh Britain” because it was like the Cool Britannia time, like you have Spice Girls, Trainspotting… yeah, it was like all that! Britain looks the coolest!
For example, in Mexico, people really love those things, Blur and Oasis. They weren't very successful in the US. But in Mexico they were huge. And even in sports, in football, you ask them about good football, and they say, “Oh yeah, British football… Manchester United, Chelsea, and very recently, Leicester.”
After Leicester won the premiership in 2016, I think it was, after Leicester won that, before that, my relatives were like, “Oh, where is it that you live? Is it Leicester? Where is that? How close is it to London? How close is it to Manchester?” But once that football thing happened, now they're like, “Oh Leicester, good football! Yeah!!!” I was just surprised by that—not exactly by the football when I was younger, but by the media, the music. I thought it was just the coolest.
I don't know if you remember the series As If. They didn't have a lot of sex or drugs, but it was still like, “Look at these cool British people having fun and having boyfriends and girlfriends and going to the club and having their drink spiked” and horrible stuff. But they just looked so cool to a tiny Mexican in the room.
So, it was like, “Oh yeah, I want to be British. I want to go to England.” And I ended up in a long-distance relationship with a British guy.
And I then had gotten a scholarship for a masters degree at Bristol University in History of Art. I came and did that thing. I got married and just stuck around and lived for a bit and so forth. And then, I moved to Leicester. And I've been here ever since.
Gem: Cool! And what was it like, the actual reality of coming to the UK compared to what you thought it might be like from seeing it on programs and stuff?
Cynthia: Well, it's a lot more miserable than what we saw. Even the things on television and the movies that were meant to be grim then, they didn't look that grim. Even Billy Elliot, I guess it was like, “Oh yeah, the miners’ strikes, poverty, horrible living conditions. But at least he's got the music and the dancing.” So that looks like very glamorized and very “you can be anything you want. You can be a ballet dancer,” and things like that.
And with Trainspotting, even if they were like doing drugs, it was like, “Oh, it looks so cool! Listen to Iggy Pop on the background” even if really horrible stuff was happening.
Like doing heroin in Edinburgh looked better than sniffing glue in La Morena, I don’t know.
Gem: I felt like that could be the title of the podcast.
And I guess there's also that experience of being a queer person of color in Britain. And that's clearly not depicted in a lot of media that gets sent around the world. So, what has that experience been like?
Cynthia: It's been so-and-so. It was certainly not in the media. A lot of the people were white and straight. Even like for example the Spice Girls, they were just added with each other. And they were very gay.
But it was just like, “I wasn't ready for this.” I wasn't ready for the micro-aggressions. Fortunately, Leicester is a bit more multicultural. Half of the population is not white. So, they don't see me as a weirdo as like in […] Manchester. There were times when we used to go to restaurants, and they wouldn't take my order, unless my husband said it for me because they said that they didn't understand my accent and things like that.
And then, all the terrible so-called democratic decisions that have been taking place in the past five years or so (and even before that)… like right before I was coming in, there was that liberal conservative alliance thing in power, right? It was no more Cool Britannia. Yeah, that's all I've known, like conservative austerity threatening the environment.
And even for example as a queer person of color like getting involved with the local queer punk scene and starting to make stuff happen, eventually, it turned out to be very ugly. And I won't go into a lot of details about that. But racism and ableism and classism, they were very visible, like things like, “Oh, don't pay attention to them. They are drama queens because of telenovelas… these people feel too much… these people complaining about terrible things that we do are crazy.” And it wasn't even like thinly-veiled racism. You’re seeing the kind of people that got cancer, we’re always people of color, like bands breaking up because a person of color did something. But when a white person does something worse, it doesn't matter. They actually invite them to join in more bands.
Gem: Yeah, yeah…
Cynthia: And thanks for that.
Gem: And that’s fucked up. It must have been really hard to—well, ongoing, it must be really hard to experience that.
Cynthia: Yes, it was terrible. It was my life at some point just to be like, “Oh yeah, we’re the queers. We are friends and we play together… children everywhere.” And then, these people are just trash talking about anyone they don't like. And it turns out that, anyone they don't like, is not white and/or not thin and/or not a trust fund baby and/or not educated. It’s very, very insidious. It’s terrible.
Gem: Yeah. And that makes me think of one of the videos that was on your website where you talk about speaking truths and speaking truths for yourself and for other people that are often unspoken. And I'm just wondering… was that kind of fuel? Did that kind of help you to feel empowered to do that because you could see so much injustice?
Cynthia: Yes, definitely… yeah, it was. Yeah, that video was for the National Poetry Day. And the topic was truth. And it really resonated. We have to call out something that is not very good that is going on. But especially in certain areas and circumstances where it's kind of common sense part of the ethos apparently that you're meant to call out this horrible thing that are not tolerated, but it turns out that what is not tolerated is us speaking up against those things.
With the queer punk scene, we used to do a lot of safer spaces policies, things like, “Oh yeah, we won't tolerate racism, ableism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, fatphobia, classism,” and so on and so on. And we were about that. People were thinking, “We never saw that it could happen within the community,” or at least I didn't naively. It was just, “Oh yeah, if there's a drunk bloke harassing someone, we’ll kick him out.” And that was what it was intended for. And we did it a few times. And it was like empowering. And it would help the survivors of the harassment. They’ll be like, “Oh, thank you so much, blah-blah…” But if it happens within the organization, and you call it out, and this person who does the things is someone with higher social capital, higher power, or persuasion, persuasion techniques, then you have everything to lose.
And you can even see this on mainstream media, like how long it took for Harvey Weinstein to be condemned.
Gem: Yeah, yeah. There’s a lot of I guess performative stuff going on as well, isn't there, even if for example an organization says, “Oh yeah, we have a safest spaces policy,” but actually, when it comes to it, the people who are overseeing it are themselves not able to be held accountable, that’s just really problematic.
Cynthia: Definitely, yes.
Gem: And I guess maybe this makes me want to ask you about mental health. You talk about self-preservation. And people should go to your website and check out some of your poetry on there or performances because there's one that you do called How to Leave the House in Times of Trouble. I wonder how that came about and what it is that you might do to kind of help support yourself when you're experiencing these micro-aggressions and just this general bullshit when you're trying to make changes?
Cynthia: Well, I've wrote that… there used to be this project called Pangea Poetry. They had this international spoken word slam. It was like an internet contest. But it also included workshops and talks. And it was very nurturing.
A lot of the workshops were led by Dean Atta who recently released The Black Flamingo, a really good young adult poetry/story… very, very recommended. And one of the exercises for the workshops was to write a user manual to do something—how to be a poet, how to be gay, how to do this. And I thought, “Oh yeah, how to leave the house in times of trouble” because that's something I really struggle with, a lot of fear of stepping outside, a lot of anxiety, agoraphobia… just really struggling and fearing that something off might happen if I just go outside into the crowds.
And some people might say, “Oh, nothing's going to happen, you'll be fine.” But then you look at the news. And you see that, a lot of the time, it's not fine. A lot of people leave the house and never come back. So, it’s like how do you get ready to do these things? How do you physically and psychologically and psychically strengthen yourself to be able to go on into your day-to-day life?
So, I wrote that poem. And it’s just like waking up. If you don't wake up, then you're going to miss out on a lot of things. And just taking the medication, having your breakfast, getting clean, putting on makeup a bit to hide yourself up, kind of like armor-like wear, things that make you feel confident, take your umbrella and take your sunglasses because, in Britain, that’s the kind of weather (you never know which one you're going to use, but you're going to use one of them)…
Cynthia: I keep following those steps to just leave the house when it's necessary to do it.
Gem: And so, it sounds like, for you, that is part of your self-care. And I just wondered if there's anything else that you do?
Cynthia: Well now, I’m trying to take more vitamins because I am an old millennial. A lot of people who are not white during the winter particularly, we tend to have a lot of deficiency on vitamin D. And that can manifest as fatigue, depression and so on. So, I just started taking vitamin D.
In the morning, I wake up, take my regular meds, and then make a cocktail of vitamin C, tonic, apple cider vinegar on a gin glass from Sainsbury's that says Gin-vincible. It’s not gin, but it’s a tonic. I use that to swallow the vitamin D.
And I have a coffee. I have whatever there is for breakfast. And I just play with my cat!
Oh, my cat! The cat is a really good alarm clock. It really helps to have a cat. If you have a lot more energy, and you have a child, that also works. She just like meows at me at eight in the morning to wake up. And she comes and she just cuddles up around my face for five minutes. And that's a really good way to get loved up and get that energy to move forward and be like, “Yes, I'll do it for you, Shirley.”
Gem: That’s really cool. I've never thought about that before. Something waking you up every morning that isn’t an alarm clock would be quite nice.
Cynthia: Yes, it’s amazing!
Gem: Yeah, I guess I'm wondering with that, you talk about self-care. And obviously, it’s really important to you. I just wondered if there are periods where you've experienced burnout and what you've done in those periods.
Cynthia: Yes, a lot of the time because of my conditions, including ADHD, hypothyroidism, dyslexia. When I manage to do things, I always end up with a hangover even if I didn't drink anything. On Wednesday, for instance, I went to London, walked everywhere, went to see Sleater-Kinney, got a bit drunk, came back on the train, and then slept. And I'm still recovering from that.
But I feel exactly the same way I feel like when I'm just at home studying, writing, reading until three o'clock in the morning without getting drunk or anything. It’s everything is so exhaustive. So, what I do is just cool down, do only the necessary things. And I thought, “I have to go somewhere,” I’ll just go on a taxi, just take it easy, wear comfy clothes, work from home if possible.
If I don't feel strong enough to go to school, I just like to stay at home and follow the lecture on Blackboard because they filmed the lectures and the slides. I catch up at my own pace.
Just mostly, knowing that after you do something big or something exciting, you are going to need time to recover…
And also, yeah, I avoid as much of the news or triggering or depressing things as possible. Unless I feel energetic enough or it's part of the syllabus or it’s part of what I'm writing about, then I take extra care. And it’s like, “Okay, I’m going to have a chocolate,” or “I’m going to play some video games and wind down and cuddle my cat and stuff…”
Gem: I think that's really important to remember as well, that quite often, especially when you're working in activism in some way, people think that they need to know all the things, and they are constantly reading the news or reading things that are really quite traumatic. And there's only so much that you can take, right? You have to actually, at some point, limit that so that you are able to function and to do anything.
That's certainly been my experience. I don’t how that sounds for you.
Cynthia: Yes, definitely. Yes, you definitely need that time off. Instead of reading the news or things like that, what I mostly do, I really like podcasts. I mostly listen to like lefty politics podcasts or podcasts about things like that or about the people who are making all the horrible stuff happen not only are horrible but are ridiculous. And it makes it less scary just to hear them and be like, “Oh yeah, this person, haha… oh, the prime minister has birthday cake for breakfast,” and it’s like, “Oh, haha…” and things like that or “oh, this person used to write for the university paper. They read the paper and it’s absolute trash” and things like that.
It kind of helps you to minify the news and the current events as a way to not absolutely break down and be like “this people have power, and they think I'm scum.” It kind of makes you feel stronger.
For example, with the alt rights, knowing that no matter how skimp I am, I will never be as broke as Milo Yiannopoulos who is like millions of dollars in debt for being a horrible person. It’s a bit like shopping Friday. And it gives you a bit more energy to be able to be yourself and do you. Even if the laws or the clauses say that you don't belong here, you belong even more than this people.
Gem: Hmmm… that’s a really interesting way of looking at it, just seeing people as humans who are flawed rather than these all-powerful people that are making decisions that affect everyone.
Cynthia: Yes, definitely.
Gem: And so, you obviously do a lot of writing. And you mentioned that you've done it since you were really tiny. I just wondered what role has writing played in your life.
Cynthia: It's just been the constant, the thing that I always come back to, the thing that I always do that I know how to do. With ADHD, we get bored very easily. I can end up learning how to play an instrument, and then feel immediately disappointed or bored or tired; or take up a craft, or think of something, or join a group that does one thing or another.
But whatever I do, I always end up heading towards the writing bit.
When I used to be at this collective of independent filmmakers, the thing that I headed towards was screenwriting, character development. With the music, it’s like, “Oh yeah, the songwriting, singing or trying to sing.” Even in university, when I was doing my arts degree, I didn't go for the fine arts, for the making the art part, but writing about art or writing as an art. So, it's the best way I can express myself.
Since I was tiny, I was just writing little short stories. They were about children's stories, about characters and martians and cute stuff. And then, as I've been growing up, I keep writing about less fantasy. But while keeping that surrealist fantasy… like imaginary level of expression. It works a lot more than just saying, “This happened blah-blah-blah-blah-blah…” A lot of the time, I feel a bit more liberated when I write using metaphors are something.
It’s just the best vehicle for myself to speak about subjects that are very hard to be talked about and just reach out.
Gem: And so, you've got this poetry collection coming out in September.
Gem: And I wondered what’s next for you after that? Obviously, that’s huge in itself.
Cynthia: Yes, it’s amazing. I’m really excited! We’re having a book launch party in less than…
It’s coming out on the 7th of September. But the party's going to be later that month, like later in September. And then, the plan is to go on tour with the book, headlining open mic events across the country. That will be mostly touring, promoting, trying to get interviews, trying to get the word out, connecting with people, maybe doing a bit more workshops about the subject of liminal identities, and teaching to other people I guess. I really like doing workshops.
And maybe next year, I’ll try to aim for festivals. Maybe at some point, maybe do something at Edinburgh Fringe. We’ll see…
Gem: That sounds really exciting.
Cynthia: Mm-hmmm… yeah…
Gem: And so, when I have a guest on, I normally ask if there's anything that they would like to share with people that are listening that they're really enjoying at the moment? And you’ve got two really cool things. So, it'd be great if you could share those.
Cynthia: Yes… as I was saying before, I want to see Sleater-Kinney at Brixton Academy. And they were really good. But the openers were this black British band called Big Joanie. And they are amazing. If you haven't heard them, you need to do it. They are the best band in Britain.
And they do a bit like post punk, but they just sing a lot about sisterhood or sibling-hood, about broken friendships, about strong connections, a lot of feminist stuff. It’s so concise. The drummer particularly, Chardine, inspires me that I need to take up drumming at some point because she has this very minimal setup of a couple of drums and a cowbell and—not maracas, like tambourines and things like that. And it's very inspiring stuff.
They started at First Timers Fest actually which is the festival that happens every year in DIY Space for London. And they invite people who have never played in a band, or who have played in a band, but they have never played a certain instrument. They all take introductory workshops on that instrument or that technique like songwriting or singing or not being shy on stage. And a lot of really good bands, like practically the best bands in London, have come out from that scheme like Big Joanie, Charmpit, Scrap Brain, Secret Power… a lot of bands, a lot of these bands that are really, really good, and they still have that level of rawness that you can't see from people who have been playing for years and just do it automatically. These ones, you see a lot of intent and honesty. It’s really good to listen to them.
Gem: Yeah, I definitely will. They sound amazing!
And then, the other thing you said was a book, I think.
Cynthia: Oh yes, I was reading this book. I’m currently finishing the manuscript for Meanwhile. One of the influential books particularly for the section of The Successful Queer is a series of essays by Heather Love called Feeling Backward. And it’s about queer time, queer failure, basically what Jack Halberstam has been talking about for years, but oriented to art history, world history… like why is only success stories or big, bombastic, controversial stories about queerness are the ones that survive?
What about things like unrequited love, or being in the closet, or just not being affluent, white, capitalist system, the things that…
Heather tries to include a bit more of a multidimensional revision on the history of queerness from the past and from the present, all those identities that are silenced today and how it's like a lot of like mainstream LGBTQ Pride, things like that, it’s all very exclusive. So, they are trying to counteract this.
And so, yeah, it's okay to have heartbreak. It's okay to just not be an excellent outstanding queer with a husband and two dogs and a police force job and parading a Pride in a thong. You can also be a lesbian in the 19th century writing in a bedroom… I don't know! I'm just one thing. But yeah, it's really good.
Gem: That makes sense. And just the fact that, well, queer stories are so rarely told anyway, and the fact that when they are told, they’re very stereotypically about gays as guys or whatever it is, I can see that that would be really interesting.
Hmmm… I'm just wondering, is there anything that we haven't talked about that you're quite keen to chat about?
Cynthia: Yeah… like recently, I've been using a lot of…
Because my first language is Spanish, but my poetry is in English, I've been recently writing of it more. I’ve become one of those Spanglish poets who include random bits of Spanish in their writing. And it's like [foreign language]. And a couple of my poems in this book are going to be like that, if not more, particularly after—you know about the book American Dirt, a bestselling novel about a Mexican lady who used to be married to a journalist, but also have like an affair with a drug dealer, a drug lord. The husband was killed, and she had to leave Mexico with her son.
It just shows the typical stereotype of Mexico just being a desert where everyone kills each other and everything is miserable, but all written by an American person. And people like Stephen King and Oprah are saying, “Oh, this book is so amazing and authentic.” But a lot of Mexican and Latin-American and Mexican-American writers have been saying, “No, this is actually wrong. This is not the reality of Mexico. This is not the experience. You should be reading authentic Latin-American voices to get the best experience.”
Again, the whole thing with our cancel culture, only canceling the people who call out the cancellable things. Good luck! The main person in the counteracting movement called Dignidad Literaria, like #dignidadliteraria, she’s been getting tons of death threats, she was kicked out of her job as a teacher, she’s just been doing really badly and being called a bully because she doesn't like that we are being portrayed as miserable.
So, I'm just trying to include more of my roots, more of the story that is still there because I am still Mexican even when I'm British. And I want to include this duality—or more than duality.
And also, because I learned and had to adapt to learn English, so now it might be your turn to learn Spanish.
Cynthia: I do include translations and stuff. I'm trying to bring that out a bit more for…
Gem: Yeah, it’s so cool!
And as you experience writing, because you're obviously used to writing in English—I'm sure you're used to writing in Spanish too. But if your work now predominantly is in English, how is it having two languages to express yourself?
I can't claim to be fluent in another language, but I studied languages at uni. And it feels like it brings so much more to your vocabulary, being able to use other words that describe things so much better in a different language than another one might.
Cynthia: Yes, yes, it does definitely. It's very weird because I grew up reading books in Spanish, like novels. I'm better at writing novels and short stories in Spanish. But because I used to listen to music in English, I'm better at writing poetry and songwriting in English. I don't know, it's easier to rhyme or something.
But it does work to borrow words from both languages and use them here and there, maybe include some anglicisms in short stories in Spanish and include some Spanish phrases in some songs in English. It is very rich. It does extend your vocabulary and gives you more ways to express your intentions and your truths.
Gem: Yeah, absolutely.
Well, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me. I've really enjoyed it.
Cynthia: Excellent! Thank you so much, Gem. I really loved this as well.
Gem: I'm so pleased you came on. And yeah, it was great! And anyone wanting to check out your book should definitely… can they do anything like pre-order before September?
Cynthia: Not yet, but I might release a pre-order in the summer. In the meantime, I do have some ebooks of a couple of things, a couple of scenes that I wrote in the past few years as part of National Poetry Writing Month in April. I wrote one for like 2017 and one for 2018. And that's still available if you want to buy them on the website.
Gem: Great! I’ll link to those.
Cynthia: Yeah, it’s a lot of fun. And if you want to do the challenge this year in April, you can do a poem a day.
Gem: Okay! That sounds like fun. Maybe I can do that.
And if people want to come and catch you on tour, where will your dates be? Will they be on your website?
Cynthia: Yes also. Yeah, they will be on the website. Definitely in Leicester; I'm looking into taking it to Nottingham, Darby, Bristol, London, Manchester. I want to take this as far as possible, even if it's like Scotland because I love Scotland or Wales.
Gem: Awesome! Well, I really hope to be able to come along and see one of them. I’d love to!
Cynthia: Yes, that'd be amazing. You’d be more than welcome.
Gem: Oh, thank you. Thank you so much! And yeah, it's been great chatting to you.
Cynthia: Thanks so much! Very nice to speak to you.