Michelle Marie Wallace is a San-Francisco-based writer working with themes of the border and healing in both her fiction and non-fiction. I had the chance to meet her twice on my journey: In San Francisco, where she co-hosted The Borderlands Lectura, and in Ciudad de México, where she lived for 13 months in 2016/17. Read one of her short stories here and a piece about her experiences during the earthquake in Ciudad de México in September 2017 here.
How did you get interested in writing?
There wasn’t ever a point in my life that I became interested in writing; I was just always reading and writing. I made my mom teach me how to write my name when I was four. I remember the sheer awe of learning how to read and how I couldn’t wait to write. By the time I was in high school, I was always journaling, without having a name for it yet, but I’d write in two different columns on a page, one side whatever it was that I had come to set down and the other side the things that bubbled up as I wrote. I lost this when I lost my memory and language with Lyme Disease – I lost myself with Lyme Disease except for those crucial, foundational parts of me, one of which was writing. Even when I didn’t remember most words and when I couldn’t go back and read what I had written, I journaled obsessively, as a way of holding on to myself. I never actually believed that I would get to the point where I was writing for publications; I got my MFA mainly because, as I was getting better, I got stuck at a 6th grade reading level and I knew that I had loved being in school.
You are currently working on a memoir about your struggle with Lyme Disease. What is the appeal of nonfiction to you?
I love getting lost in a good story, it doesn’t matter to me if it’s fiction or memoir or journalism, as long as the story is well-told. When I first began to read memoir, though, what enchanted me about it was that I knew that these events had happened to someone, to the author, and I could drop the certain distance I hadn’t even realized that I hold when I read fiction, and embrace the story as having been lived before being written. Now though, it doesn’t matter to me what genre it is; I get caught up in the story all the same.
As a writer, what I find compelling about memoir is how healing it is to sort through the tough times, to look at them again and find a way to organize them in a story because it sets you free. For me, it feels like, in writing, I am able to make sense of the things I have experienced and then let them go. There’s been a lot of research on this, on how writing about trauma, illness, and pain promotes health. Writing a memoir about my experience healing from Lyme Disease is a difficult but also glorious process; I can feel myself grow out of a past that was dragging me down.
What makes the Bay Area literary scene special?
I think that the mad diversity of people here makes the literary scene so special. There are people from all over the world and all over the U.S. and people who have grown up locally who have roots elsewhere. The Bay Area is a hub and people come and go and new ideas and venues and groups and organizations are always springing up. There are so many ways to be involved in the literary community here. It’s a very vibrant place and the lit scene reflects that.
But, what I think is really special is that if you have an idea for a reading or publication or to write something, there are endless people and venues and organizations who will support you. Also the fact that non-writers go out to literary events. And that there are so many various organizations that help children with reading and writing or support artists or allow for collaborations and have space for non-traditional forms.
You used to organize The Borderlands Lectura, a reading series at Alley Cat bookstore featuring writers in whose works metaphorical and literal borders play a vital role. How important is it to amplify these voices in the current political climate in the US?
I founded and ran The Borderlands Lectura with Sara Campos. We set out to do a quarterly reading series that highlighted writers and artists who address the border. I think right now it is so important to amplify the voices of artists who address these topics. The dialogue in the US about migration, borders, immigrants, and language is flooded with lies, grossly simplified and laced with fear, which feeds racism and violence against people. Obviously, amplifying the voice of artists isn’t enough, but it is a way, I believe and hope, to contribute to the dialogue and add truth and nuance and beauty through the language to it.
Is any of your work inspired by places or stories connected to them?
My work is always connected to place, though not necessarily inspired by specific places. My memoir moves through the places I have called home, my collection of short stories is set in places that I know and mainly take place in San Francisco or other parts of California, Mazatlán and Mexico City. My YA novel goes between San Francisco and Shasta City.