If you visit Christine Sloan Stoddard’s website, the first thing you’ll see is this: “I tell stories with words, images, objects, and my body. Deal with it.”
That’s how I would sum Christine up. Christine is a Salvadoran-American writer, artist, and filmmaker who grew up in Virginia and currently resides in New York. She’s written books, plays, and poetry, has created music videos, and her film “Bottled” just got picked up by Amazon Prime. She also founded Quail Bell Magazine, a sometime-print, sometimes-online magazine that focuses on real and unreal (i.e. imaginary, otherworldly) stories from around the world. While her career focus now is mostly centered on creative expression through different mediums, she’s been published in national magazines, newspapers, and places like the Huffington Post, Marie Claire, and The Washington Post, just to name a few.
Christine’s latest project, a poetry book-turned-stage-play, was supposed to hit a theatre stage this past June. Like most other events in 2020, Coronavirus made that impossible. Some day that play will see the stage, but for now the play, titled “Mi Abuela, Queen of Nightmares” is being published in a two-play anthology that you can read for yourself. I picked Christine’s brain about her art, love of folklore, her parent’s meet-cute story, and what it was like to grow up feeling like ‘the other.’
Certain quotes have been edited or condensed for clarity and brevity.
How long have you been writing? What moment or experience made you realize it was what you wanted to do?
I’ve been writing since childhood. High school is when I started to take writing more seriously. In college I studied creative writing and filmmaking, and then I took other kinds of art classes. I’m thirty-one now, I can say I’ve been writing seriously for the past ten years.
You founded Quail Bell magazine. What inspired you to do that?
I started that in college. I bought the domain in 2009, in 2010 I played around with it by myself, and in 2011 I brought on our first team. We put out our first print zine and started doing more with the website. It’s definitely ebbed and flowed over the years in terms of my involvement with it, whether we do print or not, what kinds of events we bring in, what kinds of multimedia work we do for it. I started it because I’ve always loved folklore and fairytales. My mom is Salvadoran and my dad is Anglo, he’s mainly of Scottish descent. As a kid I was always very aware of similarities and differences between cultures. My parents would try and be positive and say, ‘hey, let’s look for the common ground.’ Folklore just jumps out right away, there are so many overlaps between cultures that we don’t even necessarily think about. Just that general interest was one of the reasons why I started the magazine. We focus on the imaginary, the nostalgic, and the otherworldly. So it’s a platform for different kinds of art and storytelling, but with that lens of the magical and historical and creative in general.
What’s your goal or mission with the magazine?
So, we have two verticals. There’s the real and the unreal, and one of the things that we constantly do is question reality. Again, we do this through creative works. We’re also all-women run, and mainly different kinds of marginalized women. Originally the team started in Virginia because that’s where I’m from, but now I’m in New York so half of the team is up here and the other half is down there. But, like most literary journals, we get submissions from all over the world. We publish from all over.
You wrote a book about growing up in Virginia, “Hispanic & Latino Heritage in Virginia.” What was that like?
Yeah, I mean. There’s a reason I don’t live there anymore. There’s a lot to appreciate about it and there’s certain things I miss. But I grew up in a very white, non-immigrant neighborhood specifically. Our county, Arlington County, is split into north and south. My school was in the north, which is almost entirely white, protestant, non-immigrant. The south is mixed, it is very international, you have all kinds of colors and cultures there. My high school was in the north, and I lived in the northernmost part of the county. People actually would ask if my mother was my nanny. People assumed she was Mexican, not that that’s a bad thing by any means, but she wasn’t Mexican. And my dad worked a lot, so people would often only see my mother. My dad would come home and he would want to relax and not interact with other people so much. That whole dynamic of feeling ‘othered’ and marginalized was very strong at a young age because of where I grew up. Now that I’m in New York, and because I do speak English, a lot of people don’t assume I have any kind of Latin background. Because of where I was raised, I was hyper-aware of the differences and the way that people spoke to my mother.
So did you just take it upon yourself to then write the book?
Yeah. Again, I’ve always been interested in folklore, and history is really closely aligned to folklore, like oral traditions, the way stories are passed down. And so much of that has to do with what people actually remember and things that aren’t necessarily documented in newspapers or any kind of media or formal record. In informal conversations, a lot of people said, ‘yeah, there are more immigrants now than there were when I was little.’ So I wrote the book after I graduated from college. When I was little we couldn’t even get Salvadoran food in all of Arlington County, even when we went to the southern part of the county where there are a lot of immigrants. We’d have to go to the town next door. By the time I was in high school there were two Salvadoran restaurants, which doesn’t sound like a lot, but when you go from zero to two in the smallest county in the U.S., that’s pretty amazing. Again, just from different informal conversations, it was like, so what’s happening here? And me, just always wanting to research and talk to people and find out what’s going on, I thought someone has to be interested in this little book. Lo and behold, the History Press published regional history and they’re always looking for regional books.
Your last book was called “Heaven is a Photograph.” What was that about?
It’s a very little book and it has different photos and it all relates to this narrative of a young woman finding her voice as a photographer and expressing herself as a fine art photographer. It is influenced a little bit by my own personal story, although it’s still largely fiction. My parents met because my father was a war photographer for NBC during El Salvador’s civil war. He lived in Miami, he would be stationed in Central America for two months, then he’d go back home to Miami for two months, and he did this for years, back and forth. During one of these fateful trips he met my mother, who got invited to the NBC Christmas party at the studio in San Salvador. She didn’t want to go, there was a lot of friction between Salvadorans and Americans during the war. But her friend convinced her to go to this Christmas party, and it’s a good thing she did or she never would have met my father. So the book does tell this story, and it’s from the young woman’s perspective as she explores photography. It touches a lot on some of the differences between journalistic and fine art photography. Also the idea of how historically women have often been the subjects in photographs, they have not been the photographer, until more recently with cell phones and Instagram and all of the social media photography. But, historically, photography was like that for a long time, that men were in control of the image. So she rebels in her own way and forms her own images and has her own process.
One of your original plays, “Mi Abuela, Queen of Nightmares,” is being published in a book. How did that happen and is the play ever going to make it to the stage?
So originally it was a little chapbook of poems, and my sibling did the drawing on the cover. This was put out by a poetry publisher in Philly in 2017. It’s about this young woman who always feels sort of in second place to her grandmother because her grandmother died before she was born. And her mother has a very strong memory and really honors her in everything and treats her like a saint. So, ever since I wrote the poetry book I thought, and other people had told me, that the way I crafted the images made it a very visual book. It felt very theatrical, so I took a year turning it into a play. Then I submitted it to Table Work Press, which is a nonprofit in New York. They do published plays but normally they try to have a stage reading or production too to accompany the release of the book. Originally, this was going to be in June of this year, but now it’s rescheduled for next June. I don’t know which theatre, I only know it’s going to be in New York city somewhere.
One thing you said in your artist’s statement was that you’re interested in the concept of power and how it manifests in individual and societal concepts. Has that inspired any new works, considering everything that’s been happening?
It’s just something that always interests me. I think during this time it’s not even so much like, ‘oh, I’m going to look at power extra intensely in terms of content,’ I’m trying to look at it more in terms of production. With a lot of art and creative projects there’s a lot of free or unpaid labor, or delayed payment. You make a book or a film, you get paid after it’s sold. Right now something that I have been very conscious of during this time is getting everyone paid. Honestly, in the past if a close friend volunteered for a project I’d be like, great, I don’t have to pay them, it’s free assistance on this project. But now I don’t have any shame doing the Facebook fundraisers and the Gofundme’s and Instagram posts with a Venmo hashtag. Because on everything that I do I want to make sure that people are getting paid. It’s especially true that anyone that’s a non-white man don’t always get paid, or we don’t get paid what we should be getting paid, or on time. Especially now, so many people are not working full time or working at all. I’m in New York, so that’s extra the case here. I can’t give my friends a million dollars but I can give them something to help them live through this time, and that’s connected to power. For me to be able to raise a couple hundred dollars, it’s not a lot of money, but it helps everybody a little bit.
What are you working on next?
I did write and direct a film called “Bottled” that was just picked up by Amazon Prime, so you can watch it on Amazon. I also have a collection of music videos I directed that will be coming to Amazon Prime too. I’m in the process of making two things. One is the audiobook for my novelette “Naomi and the Reckoning.” The physical book is available to order right now, but I wanted to cast one of my actor friends, Donna Morales from Long Island, to be the narrator for that book. So that’s something we’re working on this fall. The short film that I recently wrote and will be shooting this fall is called “Brooklyn Burial.”
What does it mean to you to be a powerful Latina these days?
I feel privileged in so many ways that I’ve even had the life that I have so far. I’ve done things that my mother never would have dreamt of doing, and that my grandmother couldn’t have possibly conceived. The fact that I went to grad school on scholarships, that just blew my mom’s mind. I do want kids eventually, but the fact that I have delayed having children, certainly by the standards my mom was raised with, and that’s something I consider a privilege, that I could make that choice. Maybe it’s different for women whose grandparents or great-grandparents came to this country, but if you or your mom is the immigrant, just the life here and the choices I’ve been able to make. It’s not like, ‘oh Christine, it’s cause you’re amazing!’ a lot of it is just being here and having these opportunities. There are a lot of wonderful things about El Salvador. You might have heard Trump call it a ‘shithole country,’ along with Haiti. I’m not trying to denigrate a place either, but it’s more that I am so happy about the position of power that women of our generation can have now. Not that it’s perfect. I think, also, trying to be proud of where your family is from. I know for me that has been a huge struggle, as a child it was a huge struggle. But it’s something that I want to do more; I want to put my mom’s country on the map. Yeah, it’s her country, but it’s also part of what made me. It’s where my parents met! There were so many things that I was teased about as a kid, or things I was called, like ‘dirty’ or ‘poor,’ or how the kids would call the avocado sandwiches that my mom made me ‘Grinch sandwiches.’ I remember throwing away lunches she had made for me. Now, I’m so embarrassed to be saying any of that, because I want to be proud. I don’t want to be embarrassed of any of that stuff. I think there’s a power in finding pride. It’s not just about not being embarrassed, it’s about saying, ‘no, these are some good and beautiful things and I’m happy that this is my family and that this is where my family is from.’ And I don’t want to hide any of these things anymore.