An Interview with Jennifer De Leon
Writer and educator Jennifer De Leon has had a very good year: in the same summer, her story "Home Movie" was selected as the Boston Book Festival's One City, One Story, and she was named the Associates of the Boston Public Library's Children's Writer-in-Residence for 2015 to work on her novel, Volar. A long-time Grub student turned instructor, Jennifer received a scholarship in 2013 to attend GrubStreet's Launch Lab program, through which she created a platform for her anthology, Wise Latinas: Writers on Higher Education (University of Nebraska Press, 2014), now in its third edition. I sat down with Jenn to talk about her acheivements, the writer's journey, and the importance of story.
You’ve had a quite the year so far—the BPL fellowship, One City, One Story. What do these achievements mean to you?
Everything. They mean everything. Validation that I am on the right path. Encouragement to keep going. A good kind of pressure. Time. Space. Money. Deadlines. I am especially thrilled to have the opportunity to work on my YA novel, Volar, in a century-old room at the Boston Public Library, a place that continues to be so meaningful to me.
It seems to me that, often, we hear only of a writer’s success moments—the awards, the publications—which can obfuscate the years of tireless work it takes them to get there. What has your writing journey been like so far?
A dressing room comes to mind. I think of the dozen or so shirts or pants or skirts, or yes, dresses, that I may bring into a fitting room at a clothing store. Sometimes none of them work. Sometimes a couple. I don’t see it as a ‘failure’ if all of these items don’t make it home with me. And yet, with writing, we’re taught to take it so personally if a piece is rejected from a literary magazine or a contest. Over the years I have learned to take it less personally. Being busy helps! I have less time to submit, never mind dwell over a rejection. “Work hard and keep it moving” has become a favorite motto as of late. I have had plenty, plenty of rejections. But why count the shirts you leave behind in the fitting room?
What’s important to you about being a writing teacher, and teaching teens especially?
I love to teach writing. While I have my favorite lessons, craft articles, stories, and what not, there is always something inspiring about teaching a new group of writers, whether it’s a 6 Weeks, 6 Essays class, or one-hundred middle school students I face each September. They motivate me—more accurately, their experiences and interests motivate me—to find new articles, stories, techniques and prompts—that will help them specifically. In this way, every class is unique. In this way, teaching is always fresh and new.
I’d love to hear more about your public speaking on diversity, access, and story. You spoke very powerfully at GrubStreet’s LitUp Gala about the need for scholarships. How do these things—diversity, access, story—interact, and what does the future look like for writing programs and institutions like Grub? How does the writing education community have to evolve?
What meaty questions! I feel fortunate to speak to various groups, especially students at colleges and universities across the country, about ‘the power of story.’ In an upcoming talk at Labouré College in Milton I'll discuss the ways in which ‘the story’ can provide crucial insight into the complex intersection of race, class, and educational issues, dispelling myths and showcasing the diversity of our community’s experiences.
I really like that writing programs—students, directors, faculty—understand the need to discuss these issues you mention—diversity, access, story—in ways that include the larger community in this important conversation. One way to do that is to bring in speakers, to go beyond reading an excerpt from their work, but more to engage the audience in thinking critically about these issues. I feel privileged to be able to do this important work. So many times there are audience members—usually students—who come up to me afterwards and say, Thank you for talking about the elephant(s) in the room. Or, We’ve never had a Latina author visit our school. If we don’t share our own stories, and help provide the space in which others can do just that, then how can we possibly move forward?
What does the future look like for you?
Publish my novel?
Jennifer De Leon is the editor of Wise Latinas: Writers on Higher Education (University of Nebraska Press, 2014). Selected as a tuition scholar in fiction at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in 2015, De Leon was also named this year’s Children’s-Writer-in-Residence by the Associates of the Boston Public Library. Jennifer’s short story, “Home Movie,” originally published in The Briar Cliff Review, was also chosen as this year’s One City, One Story pick as part of the Boston Book Festival. Recent One City, One Story authors are Tom Perrotta, Jennifer Haigh, and Richard Russo. Her work has appeared in Ploughshares, Ms., Brevity, Poets & Writers, The Southeast Review, Guernica, Best Women’s Travel Writing, and elsewhere, and her essay, “The White Space,” originally selected as first place recipient of the Michael Steinberg Essay Prize and published in Fourth Genre, was listed as notable in Best American Essays 2013, edited by Cheryl Strayed.
She was born in the Boston area to Guatemalan parents. After graduating from Connecticut College, she moved to San Jose, California, where she taught elementary school as part of the Teach for America program and earned a master’s in teaching from the University of San Francisco’s Center for Teaching Excellence and Social Justice. After moving back to Boston, she designed college access programs and mentored first-generation college students and then earned an MFA in fiction from the University of Massachusetts–Boston. Currently, De Leon teaches at GrubStreet and for Boston Public Schools. She also has an active career as a public speaker on issues of diversity, college access, and the power of story. Over the past academic year she has spoken at more than a dozen colleges and universities around the country, including Dartmouth, Fordham, Tufts, Swarthmore, and others.
Colwill is an instructor and manuscript consultant at GrubStreet, an associate editor at Bat City Review, and an MFA candidate at the University of Texas at Austin. After graduating a scholarship awardee of GrubStreet’s Novel Incubator program, Colwill found representation for her first novel, Before We Tear Our Selves Apart, with Robert Guinsler of Sterling Lord Literistic, which is currently on submission to publishing houses. She is the recipient of the Wellspring House Emerging Writer Fellowship, the Henry Blackwell Essay Prize, and a Crawley-Garwood Research Grant, and has received fellowships and support from Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, The University of Texas at Austin, Boston College, Kansas State University, the Anderson Center for Disciplinary Studies, and GrubStreet. She was a finalist for the 2019 Tennessee Williams Fiction Prize, the 2019 Reynolds Price Award, the 2019 Far Horizons Fiction Award, the 2019 Disquiet International Literary Prize, and the 2019 Lit Fest Emerging Writer Fellowship. Colwill’s fiction is forthcoming in Granta and is anthologized in Everywhere Stories: Short Fiction from a Small Planet (Press 53). She has served on the editorial team for Post Road magazine, The Conium Review, Solstice Literary Magazine, and Pangyrus magazine. Colwill is a founding member of the Back Porch Collective, a Boston-based group of writers. With members connected to Cuba, India, Albania, Atlanta, Bosnia, Miami, Jamaica, and the UK, they bonded over a common passion for global narratives and literature’s potential to create empathy and understanding across all geographical, political, and cultural borders. Hailing from Yorkshire, in the north of England, Colwill is determined to introduce the word “sozzard” to the American vernacular. For a full list of publications, projects, and services, please visit colwillbrown.com.See other articles by Colwill Brown