The following interview with author Thelma Reyna on her latest book Reading Tea Leaves After Trump was conducted on January 26, 2018 by of La Casita Grande and is reprinted here with their permission.
1. La Casita Grande: In the year since Trump has come into power, the chaos and irreverence he has brought to the presidency has largely been normalized. Feeling outrage toward him has become passé, and yet, reading the opening passages of your book, I was brought back to the initial shock, almost an apocalyptic dread, I felt after election day. Why take the reader back to those raw feelings, was this book a way of reminding people that Trump should never be normalized? And as a writer, how did it feel to go back to those feelings and that time?
Thelma Reyna: Oftentimes, with a momentous occurrence, we must start at the beginning, especially when the narrative (prose or poetry) depicts chaos, loss, grief, danger, and other apocalyptic things such as you reference. When the beginning of something major is actually already the end—or devolving into the end—it’s especially imperative that we understand its origin, its backstory. So my purpose was setting the stage, experientially and emotionally. The “raw feelings” were pretty universal at that time, and this in itself was a momentous aberration that needed acknowledgment. So I named the pain, then engaged with the events unfolding from that point forward.
Because I began writing this book while I was still in shock and despair (two weeks after the election), I didn’t have to “go back.” I was living those feelings and wanted to understand them better. Early on, I revisited Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ iconic book on the five stages of grief and loss to help me sort, examine, and comprehend what had happened emotionally and politically to our nation, what was already beginning to damage our nation, and what the future could possibly hold. Kubler-Ross’ five stages—each of which I summarized into a poem for my evolving book—became the structural framework for it: five sections, each with poems and fictionalized prose pertinent to each particular phase, though there is overlap, as Kubler-Ross herself said there always is in loss. I saw the writing of this book as a deep learning experience, as cathartic, and as a way to ultimately help me educate my compatriots on both sides of the political divide as we all moved forward.
2. La Casita Grande:What was your process in relating to the parts in your narrative when you inhabit the minds of Trump voters? I have heard from leftist activists that Trump supporters deserve no sympathy. Oftentimes, they are diminished to be little more than racists. Why do you feel it is important to empathize with these people?
Thelma Reyna: Helping to enlighten others requires that we try to understand others. As divided as our nation was during the campaign and continues to be, the demarcations are deep and continue to widen. My book couldn’t be a real examination of 2017 if I ignored these divisions, ignored how Trump had won, and ignored the millions who believed in him, regardless of how misguided they were. I had to set aside my personal frustration and anger at them for having elected him, and had to give voice to their own feelings and fears. Research helped me in those regards.
Research in various forms was a daily occurrence for me as I wrote the book: reading, listening, watching. The content telling the Trump voters’ side is actually based on what I learned from Trump voters I spoke with, read about, and listened to on TV. It’s reality-based, which was another important component for me in writing this book: I didn’t want it to just be “protest poetry” as this is often stereotyped, with outrage and venting. I wanted to show people what the facts were, what events actually occurred, what people (especially real people in power) actually said and did throughout the year. Therefore, you’ll see footnotes sprinkled throughout the book. But at heart, I’m a poet and storyteller, not a historian; so I created characters, imagined conversations, and used poetic license. The letters, memos, and tweets in the book, for example, are all fictitious, my creations, but I’ve cast them in the imagined voices of what people in real life would have said if they’d written these things themselves.
3. La Casita Grande: You have a segment from the point of view of a fly, and this fly ponders the mindset of Melania. Could you offer us a look into your intent and process in writing this sequence, which very delicately balances humor and pathos?
Thelma Reyna: Those three “fly on the wall” poems are actually among my favorites in this book. They reference events at the beginning, middle, and end of the campaign, and Melania and Trump are seen in their private rooms in the Trump Tower. I think many of us wondered how Melania thought and felt about Trump’s shenanigans and his crudeness, the embarrassments that he brought to his family daily. She’s the mother of his youngest child, Barron, for god’s sake! She’s reportedly a very private person, the opposite of blustery Trump. As many other women undoubtedly have felt, I also consider her complicit in her silence against his horrendous rhetoric and behaviors, especially regarding other women. So, my curiosity was inevitable: What would Melania say and do in the privacy of her own rooms? I’m actually sympathetic toward her overall and strongly believe that she feels trapped. I tried to relay these conflicting impressions of her in these “fly” poems.
AT THE END OF CAMPAIGN
does he ever read a book do the two of them
eat breakfast with their son
and does she ever say she wants to hide
does she wish her dresses weren’t so tight
when she grooms once he’s gone or her
heels so high does she say they hurt
does she turn her face when he lies onscreen
or say to him he lies too much or does she
tell him not to say cruel things to others
or is she always silent does he say to her
stay out of my affairs my campaign
you’re here because of me and only me
did she weep when he won did she excuse
herself from the celebration and lie down
alone in her darkened room sobbing
or did she laugh and drink and say how proud
she was of him then slink from bed and cry
when he finally fell asleep that night
4. La Casita Grande: You have another poem from the perspective of MLK, Jr., and I couldn’t help but feel like many of his sentiments could be from Barack Obama as well–a great black leader watching his nation revert to its racist default. What links do you see in MLK Jr. and Obama, as leaders bolstered by change and victimized by a system unwilling to fully accept progress?
Thelma Reyna: I agree that both of these historic leaders share similarities. But I consciously chose MLK Jr. to be the voice expressed, because I wanted to show the battles that our Black people have fought in America, their extreme suffering, and the passage of 50 long years without remediation of our country’s racism. MLK Jr. was there, fought the fights, bled and died. His grief at “seeing” (from his grave) the same racism in 2017 still killing our Black people, disenfranchising them, and now—with Trump—opening these festering wounds and throwing salt into them, is tremendously deeper and more impactful than President Obama’s grief would be.
But Obama, on a smaller scale, undoubtedly feels intense sorrow and anger at seeing our nation revert to such widespread, blatant racism under Trump. We made much headway under Obama, and I believe he left the presidency with pride in his accomplishments (which were weighty, as historians have already written about). Obama is analytical and insightful, and I think he has deep faith that our nation will survive, prevail, and that we can recoup our democracy, because he believes in the power of the people to do the right thing overall. [By the way, Obama appears in another poem in my book. I couldn’t write this book without mentioning him at all!]
5. La Casita Grande: Being that we have just recently completed a year of the Trump presidency, what do you make of the society that has evolved over that time? What hope do you see in our future?
Thelma Reyna: I agree with what many pundits from both political parties say: Trump has indeed normalized aberrations, has broken all the rules, and has escaped any accountability for wrongdoings. I agree when they say that Trump cares only about himself. He is the ultimate amoral narcissist. Even people in his own administration have gone on record saying these things about him.
Regarding the state of our society: Murders of LGBQT people this past year are the highest ever, and most of these killings are done by right-wing individuals. Hate crimes are up tremendously overall. Leaders of the KKK, Neo-Nazis, and white supremacists like Richard Spencer have openly claimed credit for helping elect Trump. On his inauguration day, these racist hate groups held a celebratory rally near the White House, raising their arms Hitler-style, and chanting Trump’s name. (I have a poem about this in my book.) This past year, for the first time in our nation’s history, the #1 fear of Americans in a respected national poll was…corruption in our government! Not ISIS, not nuclear bombs, not Iran, or the usual suspects. It is corruption, because the majority of our nation sees and understands that Trump’s nepotism, golf resort vacations, packing his hotels with high-paying diplomats from around the world, having his family still “making deals” around the world, filling his Cabinet with more billionaires than our nation has ever had in a presidency, etc. are evidence of Trump’s corruption. America, for the first time since the end of World War II, has also lost its status as the #1 leader of earth. Our “tax reform” bill was the largest tax heist perpetrated by our politicians upon the people of our nation.
Economists, historians, and other experts have declared that the dismantling that Trump and his aides have done to our nation will either take decades to overcome, or may never be undone at all: the selling off to corporate interests of our national parklands, the oil drilling off all our coastal waters, the pollution of our streams and rivers due to deregulation, for example. The best we can hope for America is that Trump is out before 2020, that Republicans lose their Congressional majorities this year, and that many Democratic women will sweep into political power as they are poised to do.
My book, as one reviewer has said, “resists closure.” The title poem, which ends the book, holds no answers. This is deliberate, because we truly do not know, with Trump. But, like Obama, I have hopes that the people will continue mobilizing and that the majority of the American people will indeed save our country. We will once again continue trying to be a beacon of democracy and egalitarianism for the world.
Copyright 2018 by La Casita Grande. Thelma Reyna is the award-winning author of 5 books, and is the Editor of two others, with most of these books winning national honors. Her books include THE HEAVENS WEEP FOR US AND OTHER STORIES (Outskirts Press, 2009), BREATH & BONE (Finishing Line Press, 2011), HEARTS IN COMMON (Finishing Line Press, 2013); RISING, FALLING, ALL OF US (Golden Foothills Press, 2014). Her newest book is READING TEA LEAVES AFTER TRUMP (Golden Foothills Press, 2018).