Registration is open for the 2022 Connecticut Book Awards!
When: October 23, 2022 | 3:00-5:00 p.m.
Where: Hartford Public Library
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COVID is still with us, although easing off a little, thank goodness. Did you have a favorite comfort genre to turn to when things were looking bleak? Something that lifted you away and to a different place for a while?
I am a mood reader, and there is not one, single genre to which I turn when the situation looks bleak, even if we’re still persisting through a time marked by COVID. I call myself an “armchair traveler” because any book, in any genre, is capable of transporting me out of my current state as long as I allow it to do so. That being said, I didn’t mind reading books, stories, or poems that addressed pandemics (I even wrote some “pandemic poetry”). In fact, I began to actively seek out what could be called “dreary” works. Sometimes, and ironically, reading deeper about reality makes you feel more in control because in only a few words you realize that you’re not the only one depressed or frustrated. Books have a calming effect even when they are chaotic: you close the cover and you can leave danger, fear, and disruption behind. And you know things could be worse or, even if reality is a nightmare, you read and become aware that you’re not the first or last person (or era) to live through global uncertainty. I reread a few of William Shakespeare’s works because I was teaching a couple of his plays for the first time between 2021 and 2022. The Bard wrote steadily while quarantined and unable to fully work when the theatres closed in 1593. I wonder if he actually relished the time to focus on writing without distraction, even with great fear and death lingering on the other side of his walls. I read Maggie O’Farrell’s fictionalized take on Shakespeare, too, Hamnet, which also leans into this time of plague. I read Rumaan Alam’s Leave the World Behind and some novels by Emily St. John Mandel—works about pandemic, crisis, and existing through strange times. When you finish reading works like this, eldritch and dark and all-too-realistic, and realize that you’ve come to the other side unscathed, you feel hopeful. Maybe it is a peculiar way to consider things, but there is no reason to flee darkness when it is so inevitable in some form. Moving towards it helps you get to the light on the other side faster. Darkness is what helps you see that light in the first place.
Where do you get your inspiration?
I get my inspiration mostly from moments of solitude, whether in the quietness of Nature or inevitably eavesdropping on a couple sitting behind me on the train or in line at the grocery store. Let it be known that the world is full of many, many people with no sense of discretion or “indoor voices,” and one person’s too-much-information is a writer’s gold mine. Also, I love long walks and long train rides: the sense of movement, whether it comes from my body or some massive mechanical force, is galvanizing. It forces my mind, I think, to keep moving as well. I like the ease of looking around myself on the train or simply turning to look at the world slipping by on the other side of the window. Once you allow your mind (and ears and eyes!) to be open to possibilities, moreover, it is hard to not be inspired constantly. It can be overwhelming.
In a more tangible way, there is nothing Nature cannot help you see, feel, taste, smell, sense, or do better. And as someone who is very much an introvert, though, I do find much inspiration from other people, strangers or friends alike. I am a teacher and young people are always so passionate and hardy in their feelings—they spark inspiration in the adults around them quite easily and they probably don’t even know it. There is a beauty in other people’s strange remarks, their Freudian slips, their “did I say that out loud?” moments, their small flickers of lashes or fluttering of fingers. This world is so alive, so bursting—there is too much to record. I love the challenge of trying to capture it, though.
Where, then, do I get my inspiration? From keeping myself just a bit empty and, thus, hungry to absorb the outer world. When you do so, you leave room for divinity and beauty to enter.
Who made reading important to you?
Women made reading matter to me. My mother used to sit in the hallway between my brother’s bedroom and mine, reading aloud to us every night. My mother’s mentor, an older woman who was like a pseudo-grandmother, was also a perpetual reader. She gave me gorgeous copies of children’s books of poetry and classics for every birthday and holiday (and I still have them all!). Sometimes, I was too young to appreciate the richness, depth, and social relevance of works such as Little Women, Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and The Prince and the Pauper but I was fed on a steady bibliophagic diet, thanks to my mother’s perpetual reading and showing me how stories could transport us. I grew into these novels. Maybe they grew into me a bit, too.
I also had stellar female teachers in grades K-5 at Elizabeth Green Elementary School, in Newington, Connecticut. These educators always noticed that the ineffably shy, awkward, and introverted girl was most herself alone and with her hands on a book (particularly a Nancy Drew book). They encouraged me to write, too, and were always putting more challenging books on my desk, or recommending books they thought I would enjoy, whether Charles Dickens or J. R. R. Tolkien. I was always curious about words, language, and authors’ abilities to dwell so long in alternative worlds that existed mostly in their own minds. I loved puzzles and mysteries and languages and storytelling were the greatest ones of all. I knew, from the aforementioned women, that I was allowed the privilege of entering these enigmatic and elaborate worlds (and words!) and all I had to do was open a book—or write my own. I never felt alone or isolated if I could read and write. I learned, then, that literature is the most substantial manner of time travel and mental traveling—and that it can take you further into yourself, too.
What’s the last book that had you reading past your bedtime?
Hernan Diaz’s Trust (2022) is the last book that had me ignoring the clock as it slipped from PM to AM. Diaz’s latest is really four-works-in-one (a novel, autobiography, memoir, and journal) and each portion has its own distinctive style and focus. It is a great game with voice and perspective, intermingling themes of immigration, social class, gender roles, and history. I won’t reveal how the portions complement one another, but they make this immersive work into a wondrous puzzle to piece together, and an exciting space to excavate. It is really a novel about, as the title stresses, the stories we can and cannot trust—including our own.
If you had the power to invite any writer or artist, dead or alive, for dinner who would you like to have there and why?
I would love to have dinner with Tennessee Williams, he of the poetic plays of reality and lunacy, of gorgeousness and madness; he who always found the tender humor in everyone and everything. I feel he’d be a supportive mentor, blunt and honest but ecstatic about anyone who wanted to give life to creativity. I want to hear about his love of Hart Crane, his ability to blend the body and the spirit with brutally beautiful conflict, and his collection of stolen keys from all the hotels where he stayed. Plus, since Williams is the writer who once ordered a sirloin steak and a chocolate sundae, only to find everything “so cunningly disguised on the table that I mistook the chocolate sauce for gravy and poured it over the sirloin steak,” as he once wrote, who knows what antics would ensue during our meal—the perfect fodder to record in writing. The apt blend of savory-sweet impossibility for which all writers hunger when they seek inspiration! (Plus, Williams died the year I was born—I like to think, perhaps, a little of his brilliance was in the atmosphere for me to inhale as he slipped out and I slipped in.)
What did you want to be when you grew up?
When I was younger, I thought I would be the female, American version of James Herriot. I wanted to be both a writer and a veterinarian—specifically, an equine vet. I imagined myself on a horse farm, living in an old-yet-restored New England farmhouse, and writing half the day away and working with animals the rest. While I did initially study both English and Pre-Veterinary medicine in college, the latter is what gripped me without any sign of letting go. I found exceptional mentors in my English professors at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield. By the tail end of my teenage years, I was an English Major only. Now, I try to corral words instead of horses—but I remain an ardent animal lover.
Cristina J. Baptista is a first-generation Portuguese-American educator, writer, and author of Taking Her Back (Atmosphere Press, 2021) and The Drowning Book (Finishing Line Press, 2017). Her work also appears or is forthcoming in Nimrod, Dogwood, Birmingham Arts Journal, Structo, The Cortland Review, CURA, 3Elements Literary Review, and elsewhere. In 2014, Cristina was selected as one of 85 people in the world to journey on the 38th Voyage of the Charles W. Morgan, an 1841 wooden whaleship that is the last remaining one in the world. For the Voyage, led through Mystic Seaport Museum, she became a poet-documenter of the immigrant whaling experience. Cristina has a Ph.D. in English and teaches literature courses in Connecticut.
A ship is a paradox, home and grave, wood and water, forward-venturing and anchor to the past. Magic and miracle, it transforms all who sail aboard her.
In 2014, Cristina J. Baptista sailed aboard the world’s last remaining wooden whaleship, 1841’s Charles W. Morgan. The result is Taking Her Back. Combining historical records, news reports, literary allusions, myths, and personal experience, Taking Her Back reclaims the lost voices of the thousands of whalemen—often illiterate, mostly diminished—who kept so much of the world afloat.
Like lines of rigging linking parts of a ship, the poems in Taking Her Back connect the past, present, and possible future through a lens of antiquity and personal nostalgia—and a haunting space between.