Following Every Breath: an Interview with Jane Alberdeston Coralin
Jane Alberdeston Coralin currently teaches English at Old Dominion University and was one of the speakers at ODU’s 46th Annual Literary Festival. Her poems have been published in several print and online publications, including Sargasso: A Journal of Caribbean Literature, Paterson Literary Review, Louisiana Literature, Caribbean Vistas, among others. She co-authored the novel, Sister Chicas and her new novel, Colony 51, is being released in spring 2023. She is currently working on a collection of stories titled Vivid Gods. In person, she’s extremely warm and speaks with an honest openness about her experience as a writer. I’m currently enrolled in her writing workshop, Writing Other Worlds, and from experience, I know it’s almost impossible not to connect with her. I was lucky enough to grab a word with her during Lit Fest at Borjo, a café skirting the edge of ODU’s campus. This interview has been edited for length.
BSR: So, you’ve done a very wide variety of writing.
Jane Alberdeston Coralin: Except for creative nonfiction. That’s my mountain to climb. That’s my Mount Everest. I struggle with that when I want to write, and I do write a little bit on my own. I don’t share it with anybody. I took a memoir class, in my graduate study with Dr. Leslie Haywood, at Binghamton, and it was a wonderful class, but you really do just let your veins out for everybody. And, so, I struggle with even seeing my own truths. In poetry and fiction, I hide those juices a little bit. So, I have to work on writing creative nonfiction, but I want to.
How would you describe your process? How has it evolved over the years?
Well, number one, I learned to tell stories that no one in my family wanted to tell, or could tell, or felt they could tell, and here I was sharing them with the world. It allowed me to connect more with my mom, to connect my grandmother—even though she had passed—to connect with her memories. And, now, I feel writing is just letting me connect more with the world. I know that sounds so cliche, but it has to be cliche because writing is about…
I was reading yesterday about poetry being like bread for everyone to be shared, and I think writing is that way. Yeah, I do it by myself, but it’s not meant to stay there. It’s meant to be shared. It’s meant to be compartido. It’s meant to be shared with everyone. I think that was from Roque Dalton, but I think it’s also attributed to Pablo Neruda and a few other writers—but definitely the Salvadorian poet Roque Dalton. I mean, we read for that, don’t we? There are a lot of idealistic and altruistic ways of looking at writing but at its core, it’s just a way to connect.
I really like that idea of, like, it’s like bread, shared with everyone. It’s a really cool notion.
Something as simple as bread. Everywhere you go, every country has a form of bread, so what does that say about writing? about literature? about the arts in itself? It’s everywhere, in some shape or form, whether we call it one form or another, it’s really just the same.
Does generative work play a big part in your own process when you write?
Yeah, generative processes are very important to me. It’s important to me, because I don’t always find the space to create. So, there’s the physical space as far as time, but there’s also the emotional mental space, because writing does take a lot out of you.
Yeah, I love just all the prompts you give in class. It’s just a very, like, fun environment to always be in that space—
Yeah! It’s not all focused around critique and revision. It reminds you to go back to the start.
Exactly, like what you’re going to do from one prompt to the next, you’re never in the same place. Every prompt—I hope—gives students a new version of what they’re doing, of what they’re looking at.
At Binghamton, you taught Writing Imagined Spaces. Now, at Old Dominion, you’re teaching Writing Other Worlds. What interests you about other worlds and imagined spaces?
All the reading I did, the books that my grandmother or my mom bought me, it all felt like going into another world. So, like I told you, I was a shy kid. I didn’t really participate with other kids. So, I spent a lot of time with my siblings or by myself. Books became all those places that I went to, all the kids I wanted to hang out with, all the experiences I wanted to have. Now that I’m much older, that has eked into both my academic and creative experiences. The idea of other worlds and the idea for American spaces came out of COVID. And the notion that we were inside wanting to be outside or inside wanting to be somewhere else. All the traveling we did in our own hearts,
and so I wanted students to think about that.
Can you share anything about your upcoming work? Colony 51 or your short story collection, Vivid Gods? Can you talk about any new processes or themes that came out of them?
Colony 51 was an interesting novel, and I’m calling it interesting because of the struggle that I had with it. I struggled with, number one, world building; it was not easy. I was working off of world building from something that already exists, and trying to paint it in a new way, and still having it make logical sense. You always want your reader to think, oh, this could happen. You want the suspension of disbelief to always be there. So, that was difficult. But I enjoyed working on that. Probably the thing that I love the most is the characters, and the setting. I loved working on the setting. Oh, that was my favorite part, actually, working on the setting. Taking all the things that I love about being in Puerto Rico—the island is not Puerto Rico—but I borrowed from a lot of Puerto Rico and rewrote it into Perla. It’s history, its colonial history, slave history, history of violence, history of corruption, history of pain, but also the beauty of the island—which I do miss.
Vivid Gods is a whole other thing. It’s a short story collection. Right now, it’s not complete. I have nine stories and I’m still working through them. So, they’re at a revision point now. So, with Vivid Gods, the title doesn’t belong to me, it’s a part of a quote from the poet Billy Collins. I just borrowed that phrase from his quote. Each of the stories are
not about a God. There are a couple of them in which the gods are quite prominent, but there are also subtle ways in which we see the godly, the godly in us, and the godly in our world, the godly in nature. So, either they have all three of those together in one story or they’re sort of interspersed.
One story is about a woman plans her own funeral, but the god Dionysus wants to help her plan it. And she’s not having a good time with it at all. So, in some of them, they’re visitations of gods, some of them, they are the God and in other stories, it’s just the godly.
What Gods do you use? from what cultures?
I’m mixing them. There’re some stories where it’s not even said, it’s just the word god, not a name but ideas taken from different theologies. I mean, I think there are two stories that are taken from an African syncretic religion, and I played with that idea a little bit from what’s called their patakis—their mythologies. Taking from, but bending, manipulating the theology, so it’s not the exact thing. Because I don’t want it to be the exact thing. I want us to play with that idea of how people at the time of those stories change and evolve. I also don’t want anyone to pinpoint and say, oh, you’re talking about my god, you see, because it’s really to look at the fallacies that we as humans play as gods in our own right. And, so, these stories are just like fairy tales. They were meant for adults to live a good life. So how are we not following that? How do the gods in their own lives trip over their own roles or trip over someone else’s rules?
In another interview with La Bloga, you talked about how you love the playfulness of language and finding the balance between flowery language and effective language. Can you talk about how you deal with language?
So, I was 21, and I was in an undergraduate comp class. I was so happy with what I had written, and a professor ripped me to shreds, and he said, stop writing to impress your professor, which was the last thing I was doing. I was writing to impress myself. I really wanted to be a writer. That’s the last thing I would say to a student. I know no one is trying to impress their professor. You know, that’s not at the core of what students do in a classroom. But he was horrible. He was a really horrible teacher. But because I had no voice, I cried for days and said nothing. That has stuck in my head.
But there was a lesson there. In fiction, at least, characters should not sound like the narrator. Characters should sound like you, and I do write with all our humbling, and humming, and hemming, and stumbling and stuttering, and bland language—right? I don’t sound like what I put to page. I don’t sound that way. You have more time when you’re writing. So, it’s easier to put in all those wonderful words. For fiction, you have to strike a balance.
For poetry, I let that go. For poetry, it’s the word that most explodes that image, right? So—for me—with fiction, yes, you want the image to explode, but it should be something that the reader can walk into, right? And then walk out of when it’s time to hear the characters. In poetry, you want them to linger there, and just stay there, and get all of that, sort of, the word that’s coming to mind is mana, right? You want them to feel the words, because poetry is so temporal. You have just a little bit of space, even with long form. All those lines and pauses can read those breaths, give you just so much room. And, so, yeah, for poetry, I let go. I don’t wear the same constraints. The only constraints that I keep on for poetry are structure. I don’t write form poems, but I try to have a structure as I’m writing so that the poem makes sense when it’s heard, when it’s read. Even when I read it, my breaths match the places where you’re going in the poem. Have you heard of Sharon Olds, the poet? She’s a wonderful, beautiful writer. When you read her work, and then you go listen to her read her work, it’s as if she’s reading in your head. It matches the page. And Naomi Shihab Nye. Palestinian poet. Wonderful. You read her work, and you are following along to every breath.