An Indies Introduce Q&A with Melissa Coss Aquino

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Melissa Coss Aquino, author of "Carmen and Grace"Melissa Coss Aquino is the author of Carmen and Grace, a Winter/Spring 2023 Indies Introduce selection

Dr. Melissa Coss Aquino is a Puerto Rican writer from The Bronx and an Associate Professor in the English department at Bronx Community College, CUNY. She serves as the co-faculty advisor for Thesis, the literary journal of BCC. Her work has been published in CallalooThe Fairy Tale Review, Hippocampus and Centro.   She has an essay in Of Color: Poets' Ways of Making ~ An Anthology of Essays on Transformative Poetics (2019)She received her MFA from The City College of New York, CUNY and her Ph.D. from The Graduate Center, CUNY in English. She is a proud VONA, AROHO, and Hedgebrook alumna. 

Emerson Perper of Curious Iguana in Frederick, Maryland, served on the panel that selected Aquino’s debut for Indies Introduce. Perper said of the experience, “This was the book I locked myself in my room to read because I couldn’t stop thinking about the characters and their impossible choices. The first chapter brought me to tears and imbued the entire novel with a sense of hope, which I clung to when I couldn’t see how this story would end. For Prestige television fans, think Succession meets Orange is the New Black: cutthroat power dynamics, singular characters, and intense, emotional motivations and backstories. This is the definition of an immersive read.”

Here, Coss Aquino and Perper discuss Carmen and Grace.

Emerson Perper: Can you talk about your path to publishing Carmen and Grace? 

Melissa Coss Aquino: I have a classic first book in a drawer story about my “other first novel.” That was a path full of compliment-filled rejections that ended with me feeling the book had unspooled in my hands. I used it to complete my MFA, but I began Carmen and Grace, which had been the book in my heart, before leaving my MFA. I did it as a NaNoWriMo challenge (though clearly I did not write it in a month) but more as a commitment to my writing life beyond the “first” book. I had a very loose draft by 2014.

The path to publication began in earnest the summer of 2015. I met my agent, Soumeya Roberts, at a writing retreat sponsored by AROHO at Ghost Ranch. She was the only agent there, and I signed up for a pitch date. She was wonderful and very helpful and invited me to submit a query and four chapters. I got my book deal January of 2021. The path in between those two dates was long and full of obstacles. I had a strong draft, but it wasn’t ready. Soumeya gave me notes and then we talked about the book, but we also had long stretches where we were patiently waiting out different life situations. In those six years, Soumeya changed agencies and had two babies and two maternity leaves, and I finished my PhD, worked toward tenure, taught full time and dealt with both of my parents getting very ill, and both dying three months apart in 2020. It was not until the pandemic lockdown, after the loss of both parents and my sister in law, that I sat and did what I considered a final draft. I gave it everything I had, and things I had never had before. 

Then between my sending it to her in August of 2020 and her sending it out in January of 2021, the political maelstrom and the deep Covid Winter came and went. We decided together not to burden the book with the year that was 2020 and waited to do submission in 2021. It was strange because the path up to submission to editors had been long and included lots of slog, but her submission plan and execution generated a lot of interest quickly, which I know is unusual. I think the long process of getting it really ready (on her constant advice) got the manuscript to a place where it really read as finished. Then I met my editor Jessica Williams, and began the process of editing again, but it felt much more manageable after having seen the book from so many angles.

EP: Your novel combines the best of character-centric storytelling and plot-driven pacing. Your characters feel so alive. Who was your favorite to write? 

MCA: It is hard to pick a favorite, and I often fantasized about writing a series where each woman in this book got to tell her before and after The D.O.D. story. I loved them all and wanted to “hear” their voices and follow them home. However, Grace both scared and thrilled me. I remember the first time I wrote a scene from her perspective. It startled me and made me laugh. I was like “oh no, am I really about to let her do the talking” but it became a very strong engine for allowing her inner life to be revealed, and Carmen’s flaws and strengths to be made more visible. Carmen would have told the story as an outlaw antihero anthem if left to her own devices. Her attachment to why she hung on so long to Grace was too big. It was only once I could feel/hear both Grace’s allure and real danger that the conflict became real. That is when I decided the reader needed that tension as well

EP: When the novel begins, we learn one of the main characters is incarcerated. The story that follows is imbued with a sense of inevitability, as the character reflects on a past that draws closer and closer to her current fate. Choice (or lack thereof) plays a large part in this novel. What drew you to consider this theme?

MCA: I think choice and lack of choices, or limited choices has impacted my entire life at many levels. As a woman I live in a country where my right to make choices about my body is under constant attack, and I was born into poverty which has enormous implications for limiting choices. That said, my father was a man who made a lot of bad choices, and many good ones as well, and he was kind of obsessed with the idea of making them. He resisted all forms of destiny, fate and what he considered fatalistic thinking. It was like all he could believe in was the next choice. I think in the book I was trying to contextualize choices, not make excuses for them. Every choice has a series of consequences, but choices look different once you see them from the inside of a life, as opposed to from the outside. What sometimes look like bad choices or reckless ones are often based on love, loyalty, and survival in ways that are not easily seen. 

EP: Mystic Catholicism, Yoruba cosmology, Hindu deities, and dream interpretation are present in the everyday and in pivotal moments in Carmen and Grace, right from the epigraph. How did you blend these elements into the story? Why were they important to you to include?

MCA: In many ways I wrote this book from my deepest spiritual yearnings to see myself, my mother, and the girls I grew up around as already worthy. Although in describing it and talking about the book the first few words always lead to girls in trouble trying to get out, or a girl gang of drug dealers from the Bronx, the real story here is a desire to fully see and reflect divinity in a place, and among women, labeled as lost, irredeemable, shameless, etc. My understanding of divinity being one of power and autonomy, took me down a path very early in life where I questioned things I learned in church, but I also loved to pray (I was raised Catholic and went to Catholic elementary school 'til 8th grade). I grew up around many traditions in the Bronx, the Yoruba one was understood as a legacy in my father’s family that was dangerous to claim, but more dangerous to forget or deny, and dream interpretation was and remains a form of conversation in my Puerto Rican culture, but also many Latinx cultures. The Hindu deity Durga, arrived last (around 2007) as the answer to my question. It was astonishing to me to discover that in fact there was a Divine Mother, who deeply resembled the women I grew up around. Everything from her nose ring, to her jewelry, to the depths of her cosmology of being called into fights and calling only other Female deities to fight alongside her. Even more important was her role of fierce protector and compassionate sanctuary for the lost and far from home. I am a firm believer that all religions and spiritual practices constitute many roads to one destination: the understanding that we are all worthy of a deep love of self and other just as we are, and that is our true divinity. 

That said, I am personally deeply committed to understanding how all things Female have been relegated to footnotes and relics in Western religions, while there is a very strong lineage of uninterrupted Goddess worship in both Yourba and Hindu traditions. As a feminist, I value all the reclamation of lost traditions and revival of everything from Wiccan traditions to Greek Goddess ideology as instructive, but also missing the very people on the planet who have never stopped worshiping a Great Mother over thousands of years despite the massive attempts at colonization and erasure.

EP: Like the characters in Carmen and Grace, you hail from the Bronx. Is there anything you’d like readers to know about your beloved borough before they begin your book?

MCA: Too much! But I will say this: We are the greenest of all the boroughs according to a recent NY Times article. We have history as farmlands, and miles of parks, and a beach that get completely left out of depictions of the Bronx. Someone who read early sections of the book said it wasn’t believable because there was no graffiti and the girls were always at the beach or in a park, and I talked too much about birds. I found that funny because other people complained that making them drug dealers in the Bronx immediately renders them a stereotype. The fact is that two things can be true at once. The Bronx is beautiful and its green spaces are powerful antidotes to its problems for many of us, and being a drug dealer or drug addict doesn't mean you don't go to a beach or a park.  Just like being a priest doesn't mean you never commit crimes as we all now know. I am all about showing that the Bronx is beautiful. I live here still. I love it. Every bird in the book is a bird I have seen or heard in the Bronx.  I have lived its dark shadows and its brilliant sun drenched joys. I want readers to know it is a big, bold, beautiful place full of complicated realities. We don't need to deny or hide the one to celebrate the other. 

Carmen and Grace by Melissa Coss Aquino (William Morrow, 9780063159068, Hardcover Fiction, $27.99) On Sale: 4/4/2023.

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