Melania Luisa Marte does not hold back in her first traditionally published body of work, “Plantains and Our Becoming.” The collection of poetry, which happens to be the first poetry book published by Phoebe Robinson’s Tiny Reparations, dives into the complexities of what it is to navigate this world as a Black and Latin woman, of the African diaspora.
“Plantains and Our Becoming” bridges the divide, allowing readers to sit with both the similarities and differences that exist between us. As readers, we are given the space to navigate the necessity of building upon “the legacy of our ancestors in community.”
For Melania, this book also became a balancing act, as she was eight and a half months pregnant at the time of her book going off to auction. As she was in her hospital room, recovering from her cesarean, she got the news that her book had five publishing houses interested. Melania went with the Penguin RandomHouse imprint, Tiny Reparations.
The experience allowed Melania the freedom to transition into motherhood, as a team worked behind her to put her work out into the world.
I spoke to Melania about the release of “Plantains and Our Becoming,” its collection of poems that mingle personal narrative and history, specifically that of Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, and the power of Black womanhood and community.
What are some of the feelings that arose for you, knowing this is the first poetry collection for this imprint?
I was excited! I was like, “Okay, I really gotta bring it then.” I hadn’t finished writing the whole collection. After I signed my book deal, I had 6 months to turn in my full manuscript.
I really had to trust myself, take it in, and be like “You’re gonna kill it. It’s gonna be an amazing collection, and it’s gonna be exactly what you wanted it to be.” It’s really where I just had to be like, “Okay. You were given this opportunity because you are ready for it.” And not let self-doubt or imposter syndrome, sabotage, or any of those things get in the way of getting the work done.
That’s one of the biggest things for me, I think, as a writer has been really allowing myself to be my most authentic self on the page. And that’s really a challenge when you’re being published by a publisher, and you’re seeing the demographic and the fact that you are a decimal point in the usual demographic of what gets published.
What I love about Tiny Rep is that they’re working to change that. They’re working to make a difference to allow folks the opportunities needed, so that our stories are told. But, it really takes you just stepping out on your own and saying, “I’m worthy of these opportunities.” Even if not many of these opportunities have been given to folks like me. And, so, that’s something that I really cherished is that I definitely felt supported every step of the way and I knew that this was something that folks needed to read, so I really was like “Be brave, girl! Let the fear go!”
In your poem “Swallowing Teeth”, you talk about a teacher that you liked breaking your heart by calling you “mean and bossy.” A common critique of little Black and Latina girls in the school system. You shared that this taught you to “shrink and hunch more. I spoke less and listened more.” While also sharing about the anxiety and imposter syndrome you developed as well. What helped you to overcome that and move past those words? If you have overcome that or are still overcoming it, what keeps you going and ultimately led to you sharing this boldly written and powerful collection of poetry with the world?
Mrs. Rodriguez, that was her name. She was a white lady who I’m sure married into the Rodriguez family.
Yeah, I still go to therapy about that. No, I’m kidding. I mean I do, though. That’s not the reason I go to therapy, it’s something I do in terms of my own insecurities and it just stems from being a kid. I was just so sure of myself as a kid. I’ve had to go back to her [my inner child], and just be like “You are just gonna kill it! And you have no idea. And you’re gonna go through this stage where you lose yourself, because so many people told you that you were “too much” and you were “too this” and “too bossy” and “too that.” And then, you’re going to go through a phase where you’re going to try to be docile. You’re going to try to just minimize and not take up space and not do the most. And then, you’re going to realize that you have one little life and in this one little life, you have to be your big outspoken self because that’s what you were born here to do. And then you’re gonna go back to yourself and you’re going to be her again, just an older version.” And it’s really that.
It’s really just understanding that when we go back, we nurture our inner child and we forgive those who harmed us. Because, for me, forgiveness, I had to give those people breaks because I don’t know what those people were going through, and I had to also accept that that’s not my burden to carry, and to let that go. To be like, “Imma do me, and Imma be in my bag, my big ol’ bag, and I’m gonna shine. And I’m gonna really carry that light within me, and let that light shine, because people try to dim your light, and it’s up to you if you let them dim it.” You can be like, “You know what? This light just gon’ shine somewhere else. It don’t gotta shine with you.”
And it’s really what I had to do to get into a space where I can be bold and unapologetic about my shine and my light, and be confident and step into it, you know, with my chest. Really step into it and really allow my light to shine. And allow all the dreams and the plans, and the things that I wanted to do, and take up the space that I deserve to take up. It’s very scary. It’s so many things, but what I’ve realized is when I forgave and allowed my inner little girl to heal I was really able to step into my light.
Your poetry, and your prose, are a mix of personal narrative and history. What was the process of writing each piece, and then going into editing and placement for each piece, into the final project readers have access to today?
The process was long mainly because I had so many questions that I wanted to make sure that folks who don’t really have an understanding of the island, the Dominican Republic, and Haiti, had something that could help them navigate that.
I spent a lot of time going back and forth between Santo Domingo and the campo, where most of my family is from, and Santo Domingo– la capital, the first slave port in the Americas.
I did a lot of research on just understanding the history, and being able to write from the lens of the plantain, and then invoke some of the history and let it feel more like storytelling than simply fact. I didn’t want folks to read this and think it’s academic journal information. I wanted folks to navigate the art of it and gain glimpses of the history. I really had to balance that, because a lot of the history is so disheartening. So much of the history has been erased from the conversation on that island that a lot of folks sort of visit the island and don’t know the history. It’s just “Oh, it’s great for tourism. It’s cheap and it’s fun. And, there’s so many beautiful people here.” They don’t really take in what the aftermath of colonialism and the aftermath of capitalism, the impact of race, and all of those things and how that portrayed what the island has now become.
In your poem “Abuelita’s Garden”, you talk about her time caring for others through her garden and the rituals that she lives out. What are some things that your Abuelita passed down to you?
Interestingly enough, my name Melania Luisa, is after both of my grandmas. Abuela Melania and Abuela Luisa. Both of my grandmothers have just been, you know, my grandma Abuela Luisa, rest in peace. She passed away. I’m in awe of 95 years of just thuggery. She was unapologetic. At times she was a little too much. Sometimes she could be really mean. Sometimes she could be really hurtful. A lot of her kids and her grandkids were like “That mean old lady.” But, I will say that as I get older, I understand what it takes to exist as a woman. Even more important is what it takes to exist as a Black woman. It takes so much strength and so much perseverance to make it through and to survive and not have all of these things taxing on you.
The older I get, the more I’m like “Wow, she did that.” She came to this country and she did it. She did everything she wanted to do. For her, her legacy is being the bridge for many people in my family. Everybody and their mama got here because she put her little coin to get her immigration lawyers to do the paperwork. I literally had conversations before she passed and she started counting. She found ways to bring over 23 people. Family, friends, little boo’s, I don’t know. She found ways to bring everybody over. She had neighbors in la capital, and she was able to help them get papers and bring them over so that they could have a better life and their kids could have a better life.
Obviously, it’s up to anybody what a better life is, but for my abuelita, my Abuela Luisa, a better life meant access. That’s something that whether we like it or not, the United States does offer you much more access than what a lot of these other countries could offer due to so many different things. I’m grateful to her. I have a career and I’ve been given opportunities that I could have only dreamed of because of her sacrifice her determination and her strength.
My abuela Melania, I’m always referencing her and her garden because that garden has been such a safe haven for me my whole childhood. She is also another resilient woman who has just had to make many sacrifices and do many things to survive and make sure her kids survive.
I’m always in awe of their resilience and their power. They’re, like, super badass women who have just aged with so much wisdom and so much strength. I’m always like, “I need to be that. That’s what I wanna be. That’s how I’m gon’ survive.”
In “She Be Doin’ It and Doin’ It and Doin’ It Well”, you reference 90s hip-hop bop by LL Cool J, and you talk about women who are doin’ what they do well. What inspired you to incorporate that story in this collection and to name it after the LL Cool J song? Did the title come first or the poem?
The title came first. The title absolutely came first. I was jamming to that song and I was like, Imma write a poem about this because the girlies are “doin’ it, and doin it, and doin it well” and they need a poem where somebody is telling them they doin’ it well. I feel like Black women don’t get that enough! I feel like Black women don’t get told that whatever you’re doing to survive, to make mends, to pay your rent, whatever you are doing, you are doing it well! Cause, baby, you are still here! That’s important. I feel like that’s such an important message.
I wanted to have fun with it. I wanted to do a little freestyle at the end, so it has like a little flow at the end. I really wanted folks to really feel that, like, in ya’ chest.
It’s one of my favorite poems. I had a lot of fun writing it. I was on Google Docs, I had YouTube on and I was jamming to it the whole time.
What are things that are helpful for you in getting in the headspace to write, and what helped you through the editing process of something that holds so much of your own life in it?
Deep breathing. I do a lot of deep breathing. I exercise. If I’m feeling stuck, I shake it off. I have to get active. So, I move my body– I go dancing, I gotta go live, I gotta go get a drink. I gotta do whatever my body is itching for me to do to get back into that mind space, to get some inspiration.
I feel like I end up writing my best work in the moment. Some of it is bad, some of it is good. The moment when I get inspired, I don’t think about it. I just go straight to my laptop or my phone or a notepad. If I wait, I’ll forget. And if I forget, I lose that spark, and that spark is what drives out all of these amazing metaphors, characters, and stories. So, I really have to listen to that spark when it’s there.
Sometimes I’ll be in bed, and my husband will be like “Weren’t you just asleep?” And I’ll be like, “Something came to me.” [Whether it’s] in a dream or it’s on my mind, I have to write it down. The first poem that came to me was on a flight. It was a really bad, turbulent flight. I was reading “Song of Solomon” by Toni Morrison, towards the end when she starts bringing out the metaphoric line where she says “He remembered that if you surrendered to the air, you could ride it.” This is the third time I’ve read it, but for some reason, I hadn’t really processed that metaphor of flying. And in that moment as I’m on a plane and it’s turbulent and we think it’s gonna fall, like we’re going through the midst of a snow storm, and I was like “Why did I get on this plane knowing it’s a snow storm?” I did a college show and I didn’t want to stay another night, I wanted to get back home. And the woman next to me starts praying and she’s like getting on her knees, and I’m like “Is that even safe?” You’re supposed to keep your seat belt on, and she’s just like “Well if the world’s gonna end I gotta pray before I go.” I was shook! I started writing. I was like “Lord! If I die today, I gotta write something about it.” So, I wrote one of the poems in the book, it’s on becoming.
That uprooting sort of became that common theme in the collection. If everything is just uprooted, you’re disheveled, you’re going through a storm: how do you get back that faith? How do you get those roots back in the ground? And it became the overarching theme in the collection of like, when you lose your faith, when you lose your grounding and all of that certainty that’s within you: how do you get that back? You gotta retrace the steps. That’s what we do with the collection. We retrace those steps and we get to a space where now we see our future, now we feel that joy. Now we feel that love, that protection, and perseverance.
How did you get to the name “Plantains and Our Becoming” for this collection of poetry?
We went through many different phases. First, it was like “Becoming the Plantain.” The Spanish version was “El Platanos Verdemos.” So we had many different ideas, but we knew it was plantains and becoming. And so it just made sense to say “Plantains and Our Becoming” because it’s all collective.
We wanted the message of that collective becoming to shine throughout the collection.
For you, your book was published through a traditional publisher, Penguin Random Houses’ Tiny Reparations imprint. Did you go through an agent for publication and how much time did that take before acceptance and then to publication?
It’s a really awesome team at Penguin and at Tiny Rep. I really couldn’t have asked for a more positive, more beautiful, and more exhilarating experience than the one I’ve had with my publisher. This is coming from someone who was self-publishing. I didn’t want to wait to put something out into the world, and I’m so glad I waited with this collection instead of putting it out myself because this gave me the opportunity to really balance being a mother and also being an author. It’s been so beautiful and it’s allowed me to allow my team to do their jobs.
Born and raised in South Central Los Angeles, Shonette holds a BA in Journalism and Integrated Media and an MA in Intercultural and Urban Studies. She enjoys art in its many forms, reading, cooking, and exploring. Shonette is also the creator of Resolute Magazine– an arts and culture magazine for BIPOC creatives and entrepreneurs pursuing their God-given path.