By Allison Stalberg Siebens
Clara Olivo’s The Whisper, The Storm and The Light In Between is a poetic memoir of diasporic despair and delight.
An autobiographical reflection of the author’s journey as a queer, neurodivergent, disabled woman of color, Olivo’s collection touches on issues of American exceptionalism, race, miscegenation, and cultural memory.
We spoke with Olivo about her poems, indie publishing, and living in a world that sees chronic conditions and neurodivergence as less than. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
What drew you to poetry to tell your story?
Poetry has always been the most accessible way for me to express my truth. It is such a tender and raw method of reflection and I couldn’t imagine another way for me to tell this part of myself.
I believe that poetry has the power to set you free and I’ve experienced the liberation that comes from that form. It’s forgiving, adaptable, and expressive in ways that other literary formats can hinder. Poetry can reach places that we fear to go and, with this book, I knew that I wanted to go deeper than my emotions were ever allowed to go.
Your opening quote by JPR, “Clara, your voice can be both, storm and whisper. Your poetry is the light between,” is striking. It is also how the poetry is divided, between whisper, light, and storm. What is the story behind the quote?
When writing the book, I collaborated with Alegria Publishing, a Latinx writer’s collective in LA, to help keep me accountable and on track to publication. During my final feedback session with this group, I read my preface and a couple of poems from The Storm.
Our sessions were done during Zoom, so after my reading, the chat was blowing up with support, praise and affirmations. Jean Pierre Rueda, Costa Rican poet and author of Herencias, brought me to tears with his words. I struggled with the title of my book for so long and in that moment, it became clear through the eyes and heart of another poet. It emphasized the foundation of my book’s journey and the places I’ve been. Through the power of community, I was able to finally put all the words together and present it to the world in the way that you see it today.
If comfortable, could you shed some light on your experience with disability and how it is discussed in your book?
My disability is rarely the topic of discussion and has been something I’ve severely downplayed my entire life. After over 30 years, it was finally time to change that. When researching my lineage, I outlined the diseases that have plagued us since our migration. Chronic illness has impacted both sides of my family and I’ve inherited more than I ever realized.
Dr. Jennifer Mullan says that, “At the root of your depression is colonization,” and I firmly believe that to be true. Poems like Genetic Fear and Notes From A 10AM Appointment speak to the root causes of my illness, my inheritance from epigenetic trauma. How society sees only a fraction of that inheritance and has already labeled it a deficit, without investigating the conditions through which it was acquired.
My poems invite readers into these moments of reckoning with the intention of reflection and pause. We’re all living in an ableist, white supremacist world and routinely uphold the status quo, whether we know it or not. Naming the impact of colonization on my body is critical to my personal healing and to collective liberation.
I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia in 2021 but have memories of living with pain as young as 6 years old. I was late-diagnosed as Autistic in 2022 (literally, officially, a month ago in November) but I’ve been Autistic my entire life. The amount of masking I do just to survive my social life exhausts me for days. At times, I’m immovable. Living with mental illness is heavily stigmatized and, in my culture, deemed “nonexistent,” though this is changing with more families open to discussion, and I love to see it! There’s so much about who I am that is “wrong with me” that it’s easier to not talk about it.
I never had the safety to release these truths I held. I assimilated and masked to survive, despite the incredible cost. Being neurodivergent is pathologized severely in our culture and I’m learning to unpack and unlearn what that has meant for me and other QTBIPOC over generations.
My book gave me the space to say the things I needed to say when I didn’t have the voice. It’s a necessary part of reclaiming my authentic self and supporting others on their own healing journey. I want readers, especially those feeling the weight and pain of colonization to know they’re not alone anymore.
In your letter to your readers, you mentioned a fear of your book being banned and unobtainable, which is justified based on how school libraries are banning books about race and history. With that in mind, has it been hard for you to get the book on shelves and in the hands of readers?
My book debuted in April of 2022 and it’s been a beautiful struggle to share it with the world. I do my own direct distribution through online sales and have been attending pop-up markets in my community to spread the word. The pop-ups have been my favorite way of connecting with readers and sharing the book. It’s so moving to witness folx holding my librito in their hands, hearing them read words aloud and expressing their gratitude for my work. It’s literally what the entire book is about for me, collective healing in action!
I believe that my book is more than just a poetry collection, that there’s something there for everyone, even if poetry isn’t your genre. I think this is where having a publicist or an agent comes in handy because the literary world is hard to navigate AND it’s not intended for me to begin with! This is why you don’t see a lot of books by AfroSalvi poets and authors from the diaspora out there, despite us very much being here. It’s not from lack of trying. It’s literally from lack of representation and resources in an overwhelmingly biased field.
I’m grateful for the love and support that came when putting the book together, but self and indie publishing has obstacles to consider. Without proper representation, distribution and resources, it’s nearly impossible to get my librito to everyone it’s intended for. The route available to me is not the easiest one, but I’m trekking along as best I can.
What you write is personal, which is inspiring since many writers struggle with showing their vulnerability and sharing uncomfortable memories. Do you have advice for writers that want to share their experiences?
Journaling is, in my humble opinion, the best way to start. This was my very first form of writing and it’s my go-to even now. Journaling has no rules. There’s no right or wrong to journaling. This is your most raw, purest self in written form and it’s just for you to experience. Share it with yourself, without judgement or shame. Revisit when you’re ready to reflect. What you’ve released allows you to process and proceed with more intention. Whether you choose to share or not is entirely up to you and how safe it feels in your body. The words will find a way and if they’re meant to be free, then they’ll find they’re way out.
Out of your poem collection, are there poems you are most proud of? Are there also poems that were the most difficult to get down?
A Constitution For The Unforgotten was born from the prompt We Who Do Not Forget by BIPOC Writing Party’s guest host Zin E. Rocklyn on August 23, 2021. I felt inspired to embody this poem through the weight of my duality. Being Indigenous on stolen land, understanding the system designed to keep me and we oppressed. Believing that the fight of our past is the fight for our future. This feels like a mantra to me and to compare it to the constitution felt antithetical to my decolonization practice. Instead, I place myself in the past and hear the cries of my ancestors, what they would have wanted us to know and the message they have for us today.
A Love Letter To The Biggest Asshole is the hardest poem for me. For readers experiencing it for the first time, it quickly turns into an unexpected emotional journey of grief and rage. The realities of that poem are far heavier than I could actually put into words and something that keeps me up at night because, like most traumatic relationships, there’s no closure and I’m not sure that there ever will be.
Is there anything else you would like our readers to know about you and your work?
I maintain a rather active social media presence on Instagram, as it’s the best and easiest way for me to stay connected with readers. My DMs are always open to folx wanting to connect or learn more about collective healing. I also have a podcast, Intersectionality in the Diaspora, which has been a bit in hibernation mode, but is a fun way of staying connected and growing together.
Clara Olivo (she/her/ella) is an Afro-Salvi poet living in diaspora. Born and raised in South Central LA to Salvadorean refugees, Clara weaves history and lived experience, creating transcendental poetry that amplifies ancestral power and pride. Writing for her lost inner child, Clara steps into her poetry with the intention of healing the hurts of her past and inspiring hope for the future. Since finding her voice, she has performed in open mics and art receptions from Seattle to Washington D.C. and has been featured in publications such as The South Seattle Emerald, Valiant Scribe, and Quiet Lightning’s Literary Mixtape. Clara lives in a quiet home on unceded Duwamish land with her partner, dog, and an ever-growing number of plants. You can follow her on Instagram @HijaDeMilagro and @TheDiasporicConnection and become a part of her journey.
Allison Stalberg Siebens is an indie author and foster cat mom. She is in the process of getting a Masters in Fiction from Southern New Hampshire University.
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