Joel Lee, an author and current writing student at The University of Tampa, conducted an interview with Lorraine Monteagut, author of the Waterman Fund Essay Winner, “The Wild Self: What Is Wild to One is Home to Another,” (Appalachia: Vol. 72: No. 1, Article 15) and the book Brujas: The Magic and Power of Witches of Color (Chicago Review Press, 2021). Monteagut is an editor, communications professional, and author-practitioner. They discussed her newest book, Brujas: The Magic and Power of Witches of Color, and did a deep dive into her experience writing the book, the realizations she had throughout the process, and what’s next for her as an author. (This interview is part of Studies in the Fantastic and its online interview series).
Joel Lee: This book is, at times, story-driven; it reads like a novel in that it’s wonderfully accessible. Was this an intentional choice?
Lorraine Monteagut: Yes, the narrative form of the book was definitely intentional. I thought it was important to include as many stories from people who identify as “bruja/o/x” as possible since our backgrounds and experiences are so varied. My favorite part of the research process was meeting all these wonderful practitioners, some of whom have become my friends. Their stories formed the core of each chapter, and from there I reflected on related themes and offered my own stories, connections which organically arose as I sat with the interview transcripts.
JL: How did writing this book change your understanding of brujeria?
LM: Writing Brujas deepened my knowledge of the histories of the Afro-Caribbean diaspora and Indigenous Americas. The more I researched, the more I became aware of traditions and stories I’d never heard of. For instance, I was surprised to learn that some descendants from South/East Asia, particularly from India and the Philippines, connect with the term “brujas” or “witches of color” because they’re the closest terms that reflect their particular experience of reclaiming their ancestral spiritualities. I learned that as the slave trade declined due to emancipation, there was an increase in indentured servants being imported from across South- and Southeast Asia. While these Asian cultures are very different from Afro/Latinx diasporic cultures, there is a shared history of exile, and our traditions mixed and became syncretized with Christianity and Catholicism in order to survive. These are still histories I need to learn more about, but it’s led me to a wider understanding of “brujeria” as a concept that might extend to magical traditions and folklore of the Global South as larger, connected responses to European colonization and exile.
JL: Has engaging with the subject changed the way you interact with your day-to-day life?
LM: I think any time you make one of your passions part of your work, it changes your relationship with it. I was always part of the communities I was writing about, so I had to simultaneously negotiate my role as a practitioner and my role as a researcher. I think that it made me more private about my own practices and life, even as I built more of a social media following around the book. I realized that to avoid burnout on the topic, I had to keep my daily routine sacred, and I don’t have to share everything. That’s a tough balance to strike when you’re trying to promote a book and are expected to put a lot of content out there! My choice means I am not a “content creator,” not feeding the algorithm above all else, and therefore my audience remains smaller (but, I hope, more engaged). I came to terms with the idea that I am a slow artist, and that my work requires a lot of private time and space, and there are seasons of sharing and seasons of hermitting.
JL: In the book’s introduction, you give us these gorgeous phrases: “Every good witch knows that words are spells,” and “stories are sacred.” In small or large ways, do you consider this book an act of magic?
LM: You know, there were so many times of doubt while I was writing and after the book had been published and I could no longer change anything about it! There are so many frames of mind that go into the process of putting a book out. So much of the making of this book was hard and mundane and nerve-wracking and boring… but there were very acute moments of what I call magic, those rare times when you tap into the flow of art, and you lose your self-consciousness for a bit. I experienced many moments like these, sometimes while writing, sometimes while conducting an interview, and sometimes while just reflecting on the work while out in the world. And of course, I wrote so much of this book during the pandemic, so there were also times that the work felt like a lifeline for me, to get through the darkest period of my life. That’s why some parts of the book are almost like a stream of consciousness–sometimes all I could muster was writing through what I was going through as I was going through it. So yeah, I think those parts are acts of magic, and my readers have told me that certain parts felt like magic to them as they read, that certain parts saved them. Though those parts are always different–magic is such a personal thing, after all. That’s why it’s important to share our stories as often as we can. You never know when something that seems simple or unremarkable to you can change someone else’s life.
JL: How would you situate your work in this book within wider feminist discourse?
LM: I think (hope) this book connects to the latest wave of
“feminism “ that challenges the exclusivity of past feminist movements. The feminism of today is so varied and layered. It doesn’t so much have answers, but it poses more and more questions to make room for people who have not been historically invited into feminist discourse, including people of color, transgender people, people with disabilities… I haven’t always gotten it right and have dedicated myself to remaining open to criticism and holding space for those who disagree with my point of view, because I think that’s the whole point. A book is not a static product, it’s a process of communication. I hope to keep that open channel of communication with readers and that we can keep calling each other into productive, healing discourse. That’s what it’s all about!
JL: What’s next for you now?
LM: Stemming from my realization that there are cultures on the fringes of the Afro-Latinx diaspora that connected with this book (and I wished that the book had been more inclusive of them), I discovered that there is so little written about witch folklore of the Global South. This is the seed of my next project–more to come!