Interview with Candelaria Silva-Collins

Fenway Alliance Executive Director Kelly Brilliant interviewed Writer and Author Candelaria Silva-Collins for this article. 

Visit Candelaria Silva-Collins’ Website HERE

I first met Candelaria Silva-Collins when she was the Executive Director for ACTRoxbury, the cultural economic development program of Madison Park Development Corporation , a position she held for 10 years. During her tenure, Candelaria spearheaded some of the organization’s highly successful initiatives, including the Roxbury Film Festival, Roxbury Open Studios, Roxbury Literary Annual, shopping tours, and the Roxbury Is Rich Holiday Shopping Guide. Now, Candelaria juggles her work as an arts consultant with her expansive work as a writer. She has authored children’s books, essays, adult fiction, and poetry, and actively contributes to her blog. She recently published a children’s book, Stacey Became a Frog One Day, which can be purchased here. In addition, she serves on the boards of numerous cultural organizations including the George B. Henderson Foundation and the advisory board for Write on the Dot . For this article, we are focusing on Candelaria’s journey as a writer and published author.

Kelly: Candelaria, I’ve long admired your ability to forge a creative path, leaving a successful career in arts administration and management to devote more time to your creative life. What gave you the courage to do so?

Candelaria: I’m not courageous. I’m not a planner. Something will happen in my life that lets me know it is time to let go and that whatever I’m doing at the time is not serving me, or I’m not serving it. In 2008, when I left ACTRoxbury, I thought I was going into another nonprofit job, but the economy dried up. I had some savings, so I thought I was going to write, but I didn’t then. I took several part-time consultant jobs for organizations doing outreach in the community.  I’m not a person of wealth; I have to work to live. But a paycheck has never kept me somewhere. I can live modesty or more extravagantly (by my definition) depending on my income.  As an arts organization director, I didn’t love raising money. If you do well, your board just expects you to do better. The focus of the fundraising landscape is always changing. You are frequently having to twist your organization’s priorities to follow the money. 

Kelly: I know you have been writing since college—and I’m guessing since childhood—but please correct me if I’m wrong about that! Why were you drawn to the written word as your main art form?

Candelaria:  I’ve been writing since high school. Growing up, I read everything I could get my hands on. I picked up The Sweet FlyPaper of Life by Langston Hughes and Roy DeCarava. I’ll never forget it. I realized my family and I could be in books! I went to the library and began checking out other authors, especially Black authors like Gwendolyn Brooks. I read two books about Brooklyn – Brown Girl, Brownstones by Paule Marshalls and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith.  

I lived in St. Louis in the late 60’s and early 70’s. There, I first attended an all-Black high school and then transferred to an almost all Jewish high school. It was at that second high school that I learned I was a Black girl and I became political. I started to write poetry and had a poem included in my high school yearbook. I also read poetry; works by Sonia Sanchez, Nikki Giovanni, Clarence Major, Carolyn Rodgers, and Marie Evans to name a few. I wanted to be a poet.

Reading was always important to me and my friends’ lives. We enjoyed the solitude; we were not afraid to be silent and go to another world. The Boxcar Children series was a revelation for me. I learned for the first time about kids who were not taken care of by their parents. That struck me. I was accustomed to being cared for, so much so that I didn’t realize my family was working class poor until I moved to a suburban community. My mom made sure we were always dressed to the nines for Sunday church. All the women in my family had a lot of hair and competed for who could style the best hair do’s. My mom gave me the Marlo Thomas “flip.” I’d have to sleep with curlers on and a tight scarf on my head with a pillow wedged under my neck to get it right. Everyone in my community dressed up for church. If one woman in the congregation wore a fur coat, they all were soon sporting fur coats. It was our social outlet. I didn’t know everyone else was also customizing their clothes from Goodwill like we were. My mom was an incredible seamstress and would sew new outfits and refashion used ones.

Kelly: When did you first decide, “I’d like to do this as an aspect of my professional life?” How did you initially proceed? What was your tangible process—did you consult or connect with others, set aside hours in the day- you know, the nitty gritty? 

Candelaria: By the time I was entering college I knew I wanted to be a writer. I started college at Northeastern University, but I dropped out after a year and a half. I met my first husband and had my first child. I finished my degree at Goddard College.  My then-husband set up a little office for me in our basement. My ideas were flowing, and I had several pieces published while pregnant with my two children. I had stories published in Ebony, Jr. two years apart, both while I was pregnant. I had a story published in The Dictopedia, a reader that was edited and published by Pleasant T. Rowland who founded the American Girls Doll Empire. I had a short story accepted by Essence when I was 19 years old.  My mom was so excited she told everyone we knew. Then, they never published it.  I was humiliated and devastated, but I kept writing and sending stories out.

I interviewed Toni Morrison while she was an editor at Random House for The Bay State Banner and had coffee with Alice Walker while I was in college. Morrison and Walker were very encouraging and solicitous to me. But I never mentioned to them I had a dream of being a published author. It felt too pushy to me at the time. I wish I had the assertiveness then to be more forward in showing them my work and manuscripts. I am still much better at promoting others’ work than my own.

Kelly: Many years ago, when you were the Director of ACT Roxbury, you spoke movingly and eloquently on some of the perceptual challenges– really the inability white people to see you fully and in multifaceted ways as an African American woman.  That talk was very powerful to me and has stayed with me to this day. As an African American woman in Boston what were some of the specific challenges you faced when leaving behind an established path to forge a new one by becoming a professional writer?

Candelaria: I started out during a renaissance of African American writers, but to illustrate an interesting reality, I tried to get a piece of Erotica published. I was told in no uncertain terms that if I changed the main characters to be white, the piece would stand a much better chance of being published. Another example is a submission I sent to Ms. Magazine with the theme of “home,” which I meant to find a home, to go home, and to be as a spiritual and emotional journey.  Ms. Magazine went back and forth on publishing it, and ultimately decided they did not want to publish a piece by a woman writer about “home.” To its credit, a women’s magazine in Boston, Sojourner, did publish the piece.

Ray Krantz, former publisher of the now out of circulation Glue Magazine, published a romantic piece of mine. The illustrator assumed I was writing about a white couple, so the illustration was of a white couple. I didn’t mind this, but I did realize if I wanted an African American couple illustrated as I had envisioned it, I would need to be more descriptive! In my head the characters were Black, but I never described them as such. White was and is still seen as “the standard.”

Kelly: We know Boston as a whole and the cultural community, specifically, have work to do to create improved conditions for racial justice and social equity. How do you think Boston could do a better job in encouraging and retaining BIPOC artists and how can white allies help?

Candelaria: Having lived in Boston since I was a young, my perception is that present-day Boston is now more welcoming and more multicultural than it has historically been. What hasn’t changed is there are still not enough consistent avenues to show the work of BIPOC artists! There hasn’t been enough investment in local neighborhoods of Roxbury and Mattapan. Nubian Square in Roxbury has not come all the way back to the bustling place it was when I first came to Boston to go to college. COVID is certainly not helping. Nubian Square needs more mixed-use housing with stores, dining options, galleries, and activities at night – some of which will go on in the Bolling Building, but not enough.

Personally, my talents and my professional accomplishments did not yield me a high enough profile to get particular positions. I’m not alone in that. Fortunately, younger people of color are not having it! They are insisting that organizations and institutions need to reflect the communities they serve. For example, the Museum of Fine Arts can become a more equitable place and that is good, but it will never take the place of venues for art in people’s own neighborhoods. Allies need to insist institutions help communities in having their own places to participate in art in their communities. Institutions will show the work of BIPOC artists, but very few BIPOC people are working at the institutions at a professional level. These institutions need to expand how they recruit and hire for positions, including and especially who serves on their boards. A specific example: when I or another BIPOC person gives you a recommendation of someone, take it without questioning the person’s validity and ability. “Diversity” is really such a low hanging bar. We need equity!

I was fortunate to attend a writers’ retreat at beautiful Goddard College. Being able to work in such a beautiful outdoor setting is such an asset for those of us who live in cities. The Guild in Dorchester is another nice setting with a community garden. More places of respite need to be opened up to the BIPOC community. Institutions can and should offer these beautiful spaces and provide paid apprenticeships in the arts– not merely opening them up, but also funding them and making them welcoming environments.

Having institutional mentors and those willing to collaborate with community institutions is important. For individuals, buy the anti-racism book from a Black-owned bookstore for just one example. Allies need to go to communities that they don’t live in. Go to events at local community colleges. Read the local community papers, watch Karen Holmes Ward’s television show City Line.

In my role as Trustee at The Henderson Foundation, we provide technical assistance for grants and actively spread the net very widely, letting all the neighborhoods in Boston know of opportunities. I personally send out notice of opportunities to databases of upward of 250 people. I do a lot of personal coaching with artists. I have had people do it for me. The Arts & Business Council is good at doing this, too. ArtsBoston has also been an incredible resource for BIPOC Artists, including establishing The Network for Arts Administrators of Color (NAAC). Front Porch Arts Collective, Stage Source, and Dunamis Boston are also doing good work.

Kelly: You’ve written several stories that have been published and have manuscripts that you are bringing to publication. How did you come to write Stacey Became A Frog One Day? Tell me a little about your motivation and process for creating this work.

Candelaria: My new children’s book Stacey Became a Frog One Day is a simple, joyful picture book. I love children’s books, both writing and reading them. My project manager used a service to help identify illustrators from all over the world for this book, and I came up with ideas of how the characters should look. A few things I’ve learned through this process: most illustrators are not graphic designers, and I realized I need to use a real graphic designer going forward.  I need both the illustrator and the graphic designer. I’ve also learned I need to work with editors who retain my own voice, and just help me clean up the writing and pose critical questions to me. I’m a “tenderoni.”  Even though I can come across as intimidating, I’m actually very sensitive and will give up easily on an idea.  

Kelly: How can we purchase Stacey Became A Frog One Day?

Candelaria: The book can be purchased directly from my website and on Amazon. It will also be on sale at Frugal Bookstore in Roxbury, and hopefully a few others.

Kelly: What are your thoughts for the rest of us who dream of writing or doing our art “someday?”

Candelaria: As long as you can still breathe, you can create! I know a 70-year-old woman who just got a major mural commission. And you do not need to be viable as a business. As long as you are practicing art, you are an artist. Share your art, food, connections. Help fight despair. In this world, currently, we are on a twin track of Destroyers and Creators. Creating is a replenishment to yourself, your loved ones, and the world. Remember, nature loves multiplicity—you likely have something to say in a way no one else has said it. Creativity, beauty, and joy are some things this world needs a lot more of.

Kelly:  You have a successful blog Good and Plenty that includes your essays. How did that come about?   Who are you writing to when you write your essays?

Candelaria:  I write for a tribe of good people. It’s primarily a female audience, but I do have some male readers. I’ve learned not to throw out my first drafts even if I don’t immediately see anything there. Sometimes I go back to them and find good material. I like to say Good and Plenty is about pushing beauty and possibility and making comments on the world as I live in it and see it.

Kelly:  I also very much enjoy your poems. Writing poetry is such an onerous task and you make it seem effortless. How would you compare your process of writing poetry to that of writing your essays and book manuscripts? Do they come from the same creative place or slightly different? 

Candelaria: I primarily consider myself an essayist or an author, but I really love writing poetry.  A poem for me is a complete entity unto itself. I don’t write epic poetry. I approach a poem as a short form of an idea; compact and singular, like a song somebody should sing. Sometimes an idea comes to me and I say, ‘this is a poem.” One of my blind submissions to the Roxbury Literary Annual, “If Only It Had Rained,” is about a tragic murder in Madison Park Village where a young person was killed outside on a beautiful warm night. I always wondered if he would still be alive, had it rained that evening instead. 

Kelly:  How did you carve out time to write and when did you decide to focus more fully on your writing life?  

Candelaria: There was a point in time when I was both the Program Manager for the Fellowes Athenaeum Trust Fund of the Boston Public Library and a Coordinator of the Creative Entrepreneur Fellowship of the Arts & Business Council of Greater Boston. Somewhere in that season of my life, I realized I was giving to other artists all the things I wasn’t giving to myself—namely, time. Delanda Coleman, a young mother whose daughter was part of the piano classes funded by FATF, showed me a children’s book she had written.  She offered to help me self-publish a book. I now have 15 children’s book manuscripts, including a novel for young adults.  

By 2007, I had already started Good and Plenty, but blogging is not the same as producing a book. I realized that the blog actually became a bit of a distraction. I still blog and I enjoy it, but I don’t do it as much. I was one of the first contributors to Blog Her. I liked that I was paid for my work, but I disliked all the rules and missed the spontaneity and self-direction of writing for myself.  

I resisted self-publishing for a long time. I wouldn’t even look at it for a while. I tried to get an agent. Having been a book reviewer, I always felt “arriving” meant landing a major publisher. Fortunately, I realized that self-production is what happens in other art forms. For example, visual artists often produce shows of the work they create.  But, no one can push me, including me, until in my heart I am ready for something and the universe delivers it to me. So, it took a bit of time, but right now I’m self-funding and self-publishing. 

Quarantine has been difficult for so many reasons, but one silver lining I’ve found is the opportunity it has given so many of us to slow down.  There’s always more to give to organizations.  As someone who gravitates toward being of service, I can find it difficult to set aside time to be of service to myself. I ended two major cultural obligations and it gave me mental space. I sometimes think of myself as two people—Candi and Candelaria. Candi allows Candelaria to stop being a gerbil on a wheel and to recognize that working for myself is work that is okay to do. 

Kelly: How do you select your themes for your children’s stories? Do you draw on the children in your own life? 

Candelaria: I have a number of manuscripts that are at least 20 years old, which were written using observations of my children. Now I draw on the experiences of my grandkids in my writing. Stacey was inspired by my granddaughter, Saige. I try to write my grandson Tommy’s energy into the characters in my children’s stories. I always read the stories aloud as I’m working on them. Children love routine and repetition. Reading it out loud to them is particularly important for me and the children. A significant number of books for Black children are issue-oriented, which is something I want to change. I write of the joy of being a child. Culture comes naturally and implicitly from the illustrations and the narrative, it’s not pedantic. While for a very young audience I think it’s important to save this sacred space for Black joy and wonder, for my YA novel, Pucker, I felt it important to get into social justice, race, and racism for the slightly older audience. 

Kelly: Let’s talk business a bit. How do you promote your work? 

Candelaria: Part of being an artist is the responsibility to market your work. Most artists put marketing last, but last minute marketing doesn’t work. That being said, constantly bombarding audiences with notifications marketing new works or events doesn’t go over very well, either. Finding the sweet spot in the middle of those two extremes to market my own work is difficult for me. Thankfully, there are people who specialize in that sort of thing. I decided to hire someone to help me create buzz. I do still engage a lot in the marketing, though, even with the help. Creatives have to market and self-push. I learn best by doing.  One of the best ways to really learn the business end of this is trying to sell something—anything.  Crowdsourcing buzz amongst my friends and within my networks is something I’ve found to be effective. To any creatives struggling with the marketing side of things: make a list of all the people who can help promote your work, use your alumni networks, if you have that. Send your friends notice! Use Instagram, Twitter, Facebook. I’d prefer just to put my writing out there, but I know that doesn’t work.  Getting a book reviewed is important. The Boston Public Library will only purchase a book if it’s been reviewed. 

Kelly: Do you have any advice for young writers? Specifically for young BIPOC writers? 

Candelaria: Aspiring writers need to retain or cultivate a certain amount of selfishness, so they have the time and space to work. If you receive a personalized rejection note or critique from a publisher or media outlet, revise your writing and send it out again or send them another work.  Direct response, even negative, means they are interested in your writing! I didn’t realize that at first. Also, invest in yourself by producing yourself!  

Kelly: Candelaria, thank you for your time and your thoughts.   As usual, it’s been a pleasure.