Tuesday, 19 August 2014

I debated whether or not to write this. I don’t want to jinx myself writing a bio and ruining my chances of being chosen by one of the mentors. But then, the other option was obsessing over my twitter feed. So I deleted my twitter app from my phone and decided to jump in. Why not? The main thing I want from PitchWars is the opportunity to work with a mentor.

Instead of having a GIF party, I decided to paste a personal essay I wrote to apply for the MFA program I’ve been dreaming of attending for years and years. I wrote a first draft of it during an exercise in Cynthia Leitich Smith’s workshop during WIFYR, and I learned so much about me from that exercise that I decided to expand on it in my application.

So here it goes:

Rosario and the Parana River
I was born in Rosario, Argentina in the late seventies, at the cusp of the military dictatorship. In spite of censorship and persecution, my country has always been the breeding ground of thinkers and writers such as Borges, Cortázar, Quiroga, and Mármol. They used words not only to express themselves, but to also give voice to the voiceless and call the world’s attention to the reality of the southernmost country in the world. 

The first time words made sense to me, it was like I was seeing for the first time. I was five years old, in a crowded, middle-of-the-winter smelly bus, clutching my grandfather’s hand, when I read the bright words on a billboard. After that flash of understanding, words overwhelmed me. I couldn’t not read. Not anymore. But I couldn’t yet write. 

A few days later, playing school with older neighbor girls, I felt a writer’s frustration for the first time. In her expert second-grader voice, my friend read from the primer Argentine children have learned from for the last fifty years. “Pelusa mete la pata,” she said and waited for me to write it down. I saw the sentence in my mind. Pelusa, the dog, making a mess, sticking her leg in a pot of paint and leaving tiny blue footprints all over the floor. I saw it, but I didn’t have the tools yet to put my thoughts down on paper. Unfortunately, writer’s frustration is a feeling that has haunted me all my life. 

For weeks I sat at the kitchen table copying down letters from the salt box or the Coca-Cola bottle. Once I had the tools, I set out to build my own stories. When I was grieving the death of my grandfather, I wrote of a princess whose grandpa died of cancer. That was the beginning of my vocation as a contemporary writer. Although I love fantasy and speculative fiction, real life has so many mysteries that I’ve been exploring them ever since. My love of reading and writing have always walked hand in hand. As my eagerness to create stories grew, so did my search for stories that fueled my imagination and gave meaning to my life. 

At home, my family owned one book, the Bible. I read the Old Testament stories so many times, I almost memorized them. The Old Testament has something for every reader: mystery, betrayal, love, faith, sibling rivalry, murder and intrigue. 

One summer, my mother bought a dictionary from a door-to-door salesman, and my eyes were opened to the world. I read the words, but more than anything, I poured over the appendices at the end. The list of countries and their capitals. The list of dead tongues. I made stories about those people whose languages don’t exist anymore. 
In the list of modern languages, I marked the ones I would one day learn. I marked English, and with the help of a Spanish/English dictionary I learned it. Years of pouring over the dictionary and deciphering the phonetic guide gave me the opportunity to read my favorite authors in their native language. It also left me with dreadful mispronunciations. To this day, I have to remind myself that tired is pronounced TIE-erd and not TIE-red. 

When the Bible and the dictionary weren’t enough to satisfy my thirst for story, I turned to a neighbor and friend who graciously lent me the books of her meager library. That’s how I learned the Grimm and Andersen fairy tales and discovered the words of Monteiro Lobato, the great Brazilian children’s writer. He wrote about Little Nose and her friends, who listened to her grandmother’s stories in the Yellow Benteveo Farm. From Monteiro Lobato’s books I learned everything from Greek mythology to geology. From European history to Archimedes and math. Last year, on her last trip to Argentina, my mother found those books and brought all twenty-three to me. My love for Brazil and its people, in spite of the eternal rivalry between our two countries, has a beginning in the Yellow Benteveo. 

When I write now, I think of the books that shaped my vision of the world. Because of stories, I learned I could accomplish anything. Maybe that’s why when at the age of nineteen I left my country to attend university in the United States, I wasn’t scared. I was thrilled at the opportunity I had to live such an adventure. In an extended family of over seventy people, I’m the only one who graduated from college–in a foreign language that I learned from a dictionary. 

Even though writing and reading have always been a part of my life, I’ve been writing seriously for over seven years. During this time, I have attended several writing conferences, such as LDStorymakers and Writing and Illustrating For Young Readers. At the latter, I’ve attended workshops taught by Martine Leavitt, Ann Dee Ellis, and Cynthia Leitich-Smith. I’ve also attended SCBWI LA. I’ve been a member of a writers group, The Sharks and Pebbles, for almost five years. 

I’ve always been self-driven when it comes to learning and education. Besides English, I also speak Portuguese and Italian. 

Easter Day Family Picture
have five children, and I’m a stay-at-home mother. If anything, my children have inspired me to write from their perspective: the child who grows up between cultures. Being from Argentina, I come from several backgrounds. Even though my family tree has roots in Palestine, Spain, Yugoslavia, and the Pampas, I’ve always considered myself one hundred percent Argentine. I see a different experience in my children’s lives. Identity and what it means to belong to a culture or cultures are topics that resonate with me and inspire me to tell my stories. I write thinking of the little girl who seldom saw herself in the pictures of a book, but whose words are worth reading and writing about. 

I yearn for a mentor to guide me in my journey. In time, I feel I can also become a mentor for others–writers whose voices have been quieted, but who don’t want to remain silent anymore.

I didn’t add in my application that I’m obsessed with fútbol, but that’s such an important part of me I can’t leave it out. I love it. I’ve never played it, but one day, I’ll sign up for the women’s futsal league. I will.
All my boyfriends 🙂

Mentors, pick me! Pick me!

5 responses to “My #PitchWars Mentee Bio”

  1. I love the Easter picture. What a beautiful family you have! My brother lived in Argentina for two years as a missionary for our church. I'd love to go there myself one day.

  2. Yamile says:

    You should go! I recommend the spring and summer. Nothing beats a summer Christmas!

  3. I love watching futsal! Great bio. Thanks for sharing that personal essay. I live in Puerto Rico, and this has inspired me to learn Spanish at a much faster rate (since you know so many languages!). Good luck, and props to you for no longer looking at the #PitchWars Twitter feed. I'd be a lot more productive if I made the same decision.

  4. Yamile says:

    You live in Puerto Rico! It's my favorite place in the world. I was there last March and am returning over Christmas. Can't get enough of my beautiful Isla del Encanto! My mother in law learned Spanish living in San Sebastian more than 40 years ago! You can totally do it!

  5. Shar says:

    I've been terribly behind on reading blogs ever since Google got rid of their blog reader. And I missed this! It is so beautiful and inspiring. You are amazing, my friend. I'm so grateful to know you and to get to watch your writing journey. 🙂

Yamile Saied Mendez

Yamile (sha-MEE-lay) Saied Méndez is a fútbol-obsessed Argentine-American, Picture Book, Middle Grade, and Young Adult author.

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