In her debut memoir, “Funeral for Flaca,” Portland writer Emilly Prado traces, sorts, writes and rewrites her identity. She explores which parts of it came from inside herself, and which parts were placed upon her by others in her life, which parts to keep and which parts to put to rest, how to mourn for what you’re shedding with love, how change can mean growth and how the power and honor to decide who we are is ours and ours alone.
Prado’s collection of Chicana coming-of-age essays follows her chronologically through almost her entire life, from navigating the dynamics of kindergarten as a brown kid growing up in a predominately white Bay Area suburb, to envisioning in adulthood what healing from trauma might actually look like, amid a global pandemic and a racial justice movement. She writes about mental illness, racism, family wounds, surviving sexual assault, grief and “the traumas that transcend bodies, borders, cultures and generations.” But her collection is just as much an exercise in finding humor, joy and radical self-love. And since Prado is also a DJ, she names each essay after songs that hold power for her, just like writing always has: a mixtape memoir set to Tupac, Selena and Aaron Neville. As Prado herself introduces her essays: “the words trace my metamorphosis. I hope this collection offers you nectar.”
Prado joined OPB’s Jenn Chávez recently for a conversation about memory, identity, healing, self-worth and everything in between. You can listen to the conversation using the audio player at the top of this story, and here are highlights.
Note: This interview includes discussion of sexual assault.
Jenn Chávez: This is a memoir that spans almost your entire life, and at times you’re remembering decades-old events. You even acknowledge at times the uncertainty of your memories. What drew you toward the act of writing as remembering?
Emilly Prado: Most of the time that I’m writing, it always begins with a particular memory or moment that is kind of gnawing at me. I often don’t know what conclusions I’m going to draw or where that memory is going to take me, but it really does begin with moments in time. And then, through the writing process of sitting in that flow state, I often am able to learn what that memory is trying to tell me.
Chávez: One through-line of your essays is identity and its ever-changing nature. For example, you grew up Chicana in a white suburb of the Bay Area, Belmont, so you write about existing as a Latina with brown skin within systems of whiteness. And also, as a kid and young adult, you try out different outward-facing personas — like preppy, punk, chola, twee — you’re kind of reinventing yourself as you grow up. Did writing this book and reflecting on your evolving identities growing up get you closer to what you feel your identity is today? Like, that deep down part of your identity that outlasts changes in your life?
Prado: I think in revisiting those different memories and those different phases of my life, what I came to realize is that I feel like I embody all those different identities and subcultures that I stepped into for a little bit. And I think what I’ve come to realize is that I am less concerned with fitting into a particular box or thinking about what specific identities that I can mold into or be a part of. Some of the work that I’ve been doing is thinking more about, what are the ways that other spaces and communities and identities and institutions can form to me, as opposed to myself having to contort to fit into restrictive ideas? And so, I just really enjoyed getting the chance to revisit those, and I’m really grateful that I had the opportunity to experiment so much and have the confidence to really explore that. Even though at the time, I might not have felt that I had confidence, and was trying to sort of gain a semblance of confidence through that process. It really is what informs me today, and I am all of those things rolled into one now.
Chávez: One thing that you write about often in your collection is grief, and not just one kind of grief, but different kinds of grief. About grieving for your Tia Concha after she dies, and you actually write her obituary in this book. But you also write about the complicated grief you navigate for a former partner who survives a life-threatening accident that happened years after the end of your relationship. And you even write about grieving for former parts of your identity that you feel no longer apply, or parts of identity that were placed upon you that no longer apply. I’m thinking in particular of your essay, “La Llorona,” and I’m wondering if you could read an excerpt of that for us.
Prado: This comes near the end of the essay that you mentioned, “La Llorona,” and it is exploring my relationship to this particular tree at my grandparents’ house in Michoacán, Mexico, and then also talks about different layers of shedding of my own identity.
“This house in Aguililla has witnessed and cycled right alongside my own family’s births, growth, and deaths.
“I have not been back to this house in at least twelve years, but I have heard it, like me, looks different. My cousins tell me Mama Coyo has a new macaw, still as vicious as the last. Mama Coyo has retired from making cheese. The cows Papa Nano once herded back into the small rancho next to the house have been replaced by parked cars. And they’ve maybe closed up the opening in the roof, chopping down the once-sprawling tree. I think this is what change looks like. All I can think of is what’s gone.
“This house is a casket where I will lay Flaca and las vacas and Mama Coyo’s first macaw to rest. At the funeral, I will dig a hole into the foundation and drop each letter of my old name, one by one. I will stir the dirt with the remains of tree roots and say a prayer for us all—for old time’s sakes. At the funeral, there will be no procession or eulogy. No explanations necessary.
“And for once, I won’t be wearing all black.”
Chávez: What does the process of grief look like to you when it’s taken beyond the conventional concept of mourning the dead? When it’s, for example, grieving for the loss of your former name or, or the loss of parts of identity you’re shedding?
Prado: I think when I approached writing each of the different essays that you’re saying fit into grief, it actually took writing them to understand them as forms of grief. With the particular essay that you mentioned about an ex-partner who had gone through a traumatic brain injury, it wasn’t until I wrote, that I almost even was able to give myself permission to call it grief. Because I think there is such a concise definition that is pushed upon us of grief, and that has to do often with the death of a person, but there are so many other types of grief. I was grateful to be able to explore that more for myself. Through that writing process is how I was able to give myself permission to write about these different ideas of grief and to see them as grief, and that grief isn’t so limited.
Chávez: You write, also, really honestly about your mental health, including PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder]. And that is not exclusively, but in large part, related to being a sexual assault survivor. And part of processing that harm over time in your writing is thinking about what accountability is, and what a survivor-led process of justice actually looks like and what it does not look like. What is the relationship, to you, between accountability and healing? What is the starting point for healing that truly centers the person who is harmed?
Prado: I think that’s a great question, and I would call my therapist and ask her what she has to say. [we both laugh] You know, in my essay [Mad], I start to bring in this idea of accountability, and thinking about transformative justice as it relates to our society, but then also zooming into it — what does that look like for me personally, especially through sexual violence or sexual assault? And I’m still trying to work through what those answers are. I don’t know where healing necessarily begins, or accountability begins, but I know they’re intertwined. I think because healing is not a linear process, there might be many beginning points, and I might find different points of healing as I continue to write or explore or research what this particular topic means for me. So, I do think that accountability will be an important step to healing and within the particular context of sexual violence, it’s something that I want to explore more directly with a person who assaulted me. Or raped me, really, is the language that I’ve also come to give myself permission to use, based on my experience, and also through community and through writing about my experience. Because rape is also something that has a very limiting definition, it seems, except for when you actually understand what consent is more. It’s not so one-dimensional. And so, I’m not quite there yet, and I think that that will be a process that will take a lot of emotional energy and capacity and space that I don’t currently have time for in my life. But it’s a stage that I would like to be able to reach eventually, and I’m sure will teach me even more about healing. And I think one of the parts of healing is also honoring wherever you are at, at whatever point in time, and that that’s good enough. And that is the centering of the person, myself, as a survivor.
Chávez: Just to speak personally, recently in my own process around navigating my mental health, I have found it to be validating and healing for me to hear others talk about their experiences openly, which included reading your book, so thank you. It’s also felt validating and healing, in ways, to share more of my mental health experiences with others. I don’t think that’s what I ever expected or thought it would be like. I thought that I would be too scared to do that. How did it feel to you to write about your mental health so openly?
Prado: Well, part of my writing process is pretending that nobody is going to read it and honoring myself in that I can decide if other people read it. Those are the things that helped me actually get things done on the page. When I was first writing about these topics, I wasn’t sure where they would end up, or that it would end up in a book, but that also helped, because I was able to be as honest as I wanted to be with myself. I also turned to books when I was hospitalized and learned that I had bipolar disorder — that was the first thing that I did when I was not hospitalized anymore — and I’m just really honored to be able to share that. Because I think that, so often, mental health is still stigmatized and it’s something that still feels scary even to share and talk about now. I don’t know when that will not feel as scary, but I hope that little efforts like this conversation and this book will be a part of that. I’m really glad to hear, also, that you’re feeling more comfortable with sharing that because I think a lot of folks struggle with mental health, whether it’s bipolar disorder or PTSD ... even if you’re feeling particularly dejected at a stage in time, it’s important to talk about those things. I just hope that this is all part of normalizing that. And I just hope that other folks who are experiencing, maybe, feelings of loneliness in regards to their mental health know that there are other people out there who have gone through the same or are going through something similar. And it’s just really important to surround yourself with people who support you and elevate you and honor where you’re at.
Chávez: We’ve been talking a lot about some kind of heavy subjects, but I want to be clear that there’s also a lot of joy and fun and humor in your essays. As a reader, for example, it brought me a lot of joy to read about the impact music has had on you and the power it has given you throughout your life. And also, there’s this one short essay that I really loved from earlier in your childhood, that is just about you watching a TV movie and eating a cheeseburger and feeling happy. What are some of the things that brought you the most joy to write about or to remember?
Prado: I really enjoyed writing ... especially the scenes of my middle school age. Even though like you mentioned, there’s a lot of like heaviness, quote-unquote, throughout, there’s also a lot of humor, and that’s kind of like my experience. Humor is something that I turn to every day to help me cope with the world. I think one of my favorite essays to write was probably “Keep Ya Head Up.” And there’s this essay called “(When You Gonna) Give It Up to Me,” which is about teenage pregnancy and pregnancy scares. That one I also actually enjoyed writing a lot, because I was able to find humor in some of the hard things, you know? Yes, there are topics that are heavy in the book, but some folks just go through things that are heavy, and it’s not something that we have control over often, and I don’t think that we should shy away from things that might make us feel a little uncomfortable, or avoid them. So I think it is important to note that they’re both in there, and they’re both important parts of my life and a part of what makes me, me.
Chávez: If these essays are in any way letters to your former self, particularly the ones about your earlier childhood or your teen years, what do you think you’re telling yourself with them?
Prado: I think first and foremost: growing up is super hard. You hear that a lot, but I didn’t have a lot of sources for folks who I identified within my life close to me telling me that. I think one of the biggest things for me — as a former teenage punk and chola and just someone who sort of wavered through different stages of rejecting the system — I think part of me thought that I would grow out of that and that’s what was expected of me, hence me trying to go back to being preppy. But that didn’t go away, and that’s still who I am today. Having more autonomy as a young person in finding your identity, and knowing that that’s also very much can be a part of who you grow into as an adult, even if it looks a little bit different, was really important to learn for me. Along that line, just not compromising who you are, or contorting yourself to fit into ideas that other folks impose on you, or that you’re imposing on yourself. That it’s okay to be many things at once and to be multilayered.
Chávez: Do you think that writing this memoir was an act of self-love?
Prado: Absolutely. It’s taken me a long time to get to that state. And actually — this collection originally was formed as a class project at the Independent Publishing Resource Center — and even in revisiting the essays and revising them and expanding this collection two years later, there’s been a lot of growth in that area, and a lot of reading that I’ve done. For folks who do pick up the book and [look in] the acknowledgment section, there is a lot of recommended reading for folks like Sonya Renee Taylor, who have been pivotal in my own ability to come into radical self-love.
Chávez: You are a debut author. Is there anything you would share with folks who are earlier on in their journeys as writers, about your process or about the experience of having written this book?
Prado: The process of becoming a debut author was not what I expected it to look like, and I didn’t know that I was putting in a lot of the work necessary throughout the past 12 years. I didn’t realize that when I was a recently graduated student from Portland State University doing an internship, for example, that that would come to serve me later in learning how to transition from academic writing to writing for magazines, in the case of Bitch Media, which was where I had my internship. Even in preparing so much, reading about what the process would be like, I didn’t realize how different it is for different authors depending on what level of press that you’re working with, for example. I think a lot of times unless you’re deeply involved in the publishing process, there’s not a lot of visibility into what that’s like. But it’s important to know that, especially for authors like me who are coming out with tiny presses that are wonderful and amazing and supportive ... it is a really stacked game. The publishing industry has a lot of flaws, just like most industries that are built on white supremacy. Just know that as a consumer, your dollars are stretched even further when you support small presses and debut authors. I’m grateful for the different experiences that I’ve gotten with event production and community organizing and journalism, and all those things that ended up serving me today as a writer. And mostly just that writing and becoming a debut author looks really different. But folks can do it, and I believe in them!