Interview with Amanda Alcantara, author of How I Became a Mermaid


TRIP WARNING: The language in how i became a mermaid might be self-explanatory for some readers as it deals with suicidal ideation, self-harm and abuse. Prioritize your mental health. This book could be TRIGGERING. If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide or self-harm, please call 988, the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline or text Hello to 741741, a Crisis Text Line. The National Suicide Prevention Hotline number is 1-800-273-8255.


Photo credit: Jennyfer Parra

Amanda Alcantara is a Dominican-American writer, journalist and proud Afro-Caribbean creator, born in the United States and raised in the Dominican Republic, where she lives temporarily.

Amanda is the co-founder of Magazine The Galleryfocused on celebrating Dominican and Diaspora women by fostering active dialogue that explores understanding of ideologies, culture, customs and different perspectives within the Dominican community.

Amanda is the author of chula, a bilingual collection of poems, short stories, memories and vignettes about immigration from the perspective of a Dominican woman. His second book how i became a mermaidis a multimedia performance exploring suicide, death and rebirth, mental health issues, nationalism and belonging.

how i became a mermaid is heartbreaking, raw, overwhelming, emotional, dark, isolating, yet healing. The book explores sexual abuse, self-harm, suicide, and mental health in a way that makes the reader feel understood, empty and yet fulfilled, alone and held back. Amanda bares her heart and gives full access to her mind, sometimes a scary place, but other times a canopy for life.

In her poem “November 7, 2021”, she explores what it means to feel empty, to hate yourself and to always want this closeness with someone. Because despite moments of emptiness and loneliness, there was a level of comfort. The familiarity of being in despair that only the person with depression can understand. A familiar void. A familiar regret. A familiar silence. But as familiar as it sounds, the pain feels new.

The book serves as an extended metaphor in which the speaker turns into a mermaid. Waves are the constant obstacles of life. The ripples that never fail to hamper his efforts to thrive. Live. “Sometimes I remind us that denial is inevitable. Crying out for help and waiting to be saved from yourself. Desperation to stop thoughts drives the reader away the same way it drives the speaker away – mentally and emotionally deteriorating.

I had the pleasure of speaking with Amanda Alcantara and learning more about what inspired me how i became a mermaid. Our conversation was as follows:

Can you tell us about your life as a writer, journalist and activist?

A few years ago, when I was doing journalism and started working on broadcast chula, I would do open mics. It was as if the two [journalism and writing] could not meet because journalism requires a factual, logical and very simple basis. Whereas creative writing is almost the opposite, more emotional. When I started, I felt like the two couldn’t come together. But now I’m like it makes absolute sense. Some of our favorite classic Latin American writers like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Isabel Allende, were both journalists.

I can do everything. I am a ‘todologa’ now. I consider myself a storyteller. I use words to tell a story when I write an article – I use the narrative storytelling format. You introduce the person, then go into the background, then hit them with a punchline. It’s the same thing. Journalists are storytellers. For me, it’s about using the word – the word as a weapon, as a tool, as a spell.

You can be poetic when talking about a person and you can be very factual and interview people to better tell fictional stories.

From your own experience, do you think journalism somehow converges with poetry?

Yes. I would say that poetry is also a form of journalism. You share an emotional snapchat of a moment. There is this writer Fatimah Asghar, she has a beautiful book called If they come for us and his poetry has stories of journalists. Also, Aracelis Girmay in her book The Black Maryalso has poetry as journalism.

What do you like to do when you’re not writing?

I’m still figuring it out. I realized the other day that I had spent so much time and energy elevating my writing and thinking about the next thing. But what I really like is spending time with my dog ​​Bruno. I like to go out with friends to different places where there is water like the beach, el rio. Watch Netflix. I watched The boys, catching up now since the season is over. Also, I looked Succession.

What inspired How I Became a Mermaid?

how i became a mermaid was a giant release for me from some things I had been through. What inspired me was this desire to tell a story and also to understand what was happening to me. Some of the things that were going on with my mental health – being targeted for my activism [and] the fear I felt. Also, the mental health issues I was going through after the pandemic with isolation and loneliness, feeling unworthy and unloved. In retrospect, I feel how i became a mermaid was almost like a curse that I needed to get out of my body. Something that wasn’t mine. Not for me to hold. I needed to let it out and I did it in how i became a mermaid; which is the story of how I started embracing all parts of me as a woman, all parts of my femininity, all parts of my masculinity, because I think we have both. So becoming a mermaid is a metaphor for both suicide and also tapping into my shameless femininity.

The book tackles tough topics like mental health, suicidal ideation and self-harm. How important was it for you to be vulnerable and honest when discussing these topics?

It was very important to be open about the process that was going on in my mind and it was important to be vulnerable even though it was really scary. I re-read some of what I shared and I’m proud of myself for doing so. I think as a writer sometimes that’s our power, to be vulnerable and say ‘I can say this, but that shouldn’t take away my value as a woman or my value as a journalist’.

I wanted people to see a creative writer – technique was important [in evoking the] heartbreaking. I shared what it was, even the stuff that didn’t make sense, even the stuff that didn’t sound right. It’s literature. This is [creative] writing.

Right now, much of the publishing industry is clean and cut, and the [topic that is ] tough is polite – and sanity is not polite. For me, it was important. It was important because I felt that with how i became a mermaid, I was going to find an agent. I didn’t want to do the same thing that I did with chula, which was the independent edition. I wanted to think big. But then I realized no because for me it wasn’t about posting, it was about removing the curse from my body. If this is to be true for the fight against mental health, the publication [needed] be a reflection of that.

Has a poem ever humbled or frightened you? what was that?

Yes. Some [of the poems] I was shaken after I finished and felt like it wasn’t me – something else was going through me. [There was a poem] which was inspired by a song about being flawed and being a warrior. Towards the end, I felt like I opened up like a dance ritual and it was beautiful.

Have you ever regretted sharing your work publicly? Do you trust the reader in a world of instant gratification and instant communication?

I wouldn’t say sorry. I have definitely changed the way I communicate [to] be more intentional. Also, the different ways you communicate will land differently. If you share something about Twitter you’re going to get a stronger reaction than if you write an essay about it on the same topic. I can say something about Twitter – it hits you in the gut, so people are going to react like you’re hitting them in the gut. But if you write something in essay form or write it in a book, people can still get that punch in the gut with room to breathe; when they come up to you, they’re not as defensive, it’s more like a conversation.

I wouldn’t change what I said in the past but I would change the medium in which I said it. Some platforms won’t protect you or leave you alone and vulnerable, fueling the hate machine.

If you could say anything to your young writer, what would it be?

Girl, keep writing. You’re doing well. You are amazing and you are going to deify your dreams in an unexpected but way better way than you ever imagined. Sigue Pa’lante.

Writing can be an emotionally draining and stressful pursuit. Any advice for budding writers?

What helped me was identifying the conditions I need to be able to write. I can’t write in a messy house. So either I leave my house or I clean up. I need a drink to entertain myself: a coffee. It has to be a ritual because what it does is your brain knows “when I’m sitting in this spot, my creative light, my creative brain turns on”. So identify your ritual and recognize the conditions in which you cannot write and be okay with that.

What do you hope your readers take away from this book?

There are a lot of things I cover in the book. What I hope is that they connect to it in their own way from a place of healing.

What is the meaning of the title?

The meaning of the title leans on metaphor, on the theme of suicide. It just captures the feeling I wanted to hold on to while I was writing the book. I had the title before the end of the book.

What books or authors have influenced your own writing?

Lots of science fiction writers. Octavia Butler inspired me to make beauty out of chaos and dystopia. by Rita Indiana The Mucama of Omicunleshowed me the power of Dominican Spanish and Dominican slang. the abyss by Rivers Solomon is a very beautiful story of mermaids.

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