Lesley’s Creative Writing MFA program boasts some very accomplished alums, including Saraciea J. Fennell, whose work reaches beyond the page to an extent that she was recently immortalized in a Bronx Legends mural in New York. In June, catch her at the Bronx Book Festival she started, and do yourself the favor of reading Wild Tongues Can’t be Tamed, an anthology of Latinx essays that Saraciea edited and contributed to.
SARACIEA J. FENNELL is the founder of The Bronx is Reading—Bronx Book Festival. She is also a book publicist who has worked with many award-winning and New York Times best-selling authors like Daniel José Older, Tui T. Sutherland, Peter Sís, Kass Morgan, Chris Colfer, Deborah Wiles, Javaka Steptoe, & many more. She is passionate about books and devours anything sci-fi/fantasy-related in books, TV, and movies. Fennell sits on the steering committee for Latinx in Publishing as well as on the Advisory Board of People of Color in Publishing. You can find her somewhere in NYC boxing or practicing yoga in the next up and coming studio. The Bronx Times listed her as one of 25 Influential Women of 2018, she was listed on the Bitch Media 50 list for 2018, and was included among Remezcla’s 30 Latinxs who made an impact in 2018 . In her time pursuing an MFA at Lesley University she studied under David Elliott, Jason Reynolds, A.J. Verdelle, Tracey Baptiste, and Chris Lynch. She was born in Brooklyn and currently lives in the Bronx, New York. Her anthology, Wild Tongues Can’t Be Tamed, published by Flatiron Books is available now where ever books are sold. Follow her on social @sj_fennell.
Photo Credit: Viscose Illusion
Wild Tongues Can’t Be Tamed is a beautiful anthology of Latinx essays about each author’s experience with the diaspora. It was a must-read of the year according to Elle, Harper’s Bazaar, Oprah.com, Glamour, Refinery29, Good Morning America, HipLatina, New York Times, Publishers Weekly, Latino Book Review, Al Día, Be Latina, Bustle, PopSugar, and more. It was an Indie Next Pick, and it has tons of praise from reviewers. More importantly, it’s the book I laughed and cried to on my dad’s couch at Christmas.
Thank you so much, that’s exactly what I was hoping readers’ reactions would be, so mission accomplished!
You edited and contributed to the anthology. Can you talk a bit about what it’s like to be in that dual role? Do you prefer one over the other? Did you struggle with placing your own essay within the anthology?
Absolutely, being an editor was such a rewarding experience. I mean, it was certainly a lot to keep track of all of the contributors’ work, editing the essays and poems, while meeting deadlines during a pandemic. I don’t think I prefer one over the other, but they each have their challenges. My job as editor of the collection was to work with each contributor to figure out what they wanted to write about based on the theme of the anthology. Once we confirmed what they would write about, I read drafts of the work and then offered up notes for how to make the piece stronger / richer. Writing my own essay was a challenge because I struggled with how much of myself I wanted to include on the page. It’s scary sharing your work, but the pressure intensifies when you know people from your life will also be reading about what you’re writing.
Which came first for you, your essay or the anthology?
The anthology came first!
Is there a next book in the works? (Please say yes!)
I’m currently working on some projects but nothing has been announced yet, so I can’t share just yet But you can definitely expect more from me.
Then, of course, there’s the Bronx is Reading and the Bronx Book Festival. This year’s festival is June 9-12, 2022. What is happening at this year’s festival that no one should miss?
Yes, I’m super excited about the 5th annual Bronx Book Festival, this year we are back in-person celebrating authors and writing. We have several panels in the works featuring authors like Zakiya D. Harris, Sister Souljah, Tarana Burke, Tracey Baptiste, and so many others. We will also have some dedicated virtual programming on Sunday, June 12th so be sure to check out our website for more details.
What’s been the hardest part of bringing this festival to the Bronx? What advice would you have for someone who wants to do something similar for her community?
The hardest part, believe it or not, is getting publishers to sponsor authors to come to the Bronx to participate in the festival. However, authors are amazing, and those who live outside of New York City make an effort to attend the festival, which I appreciate. Advice that I would give to someone who wants to do something like this in their community, is figure out as much as you can in regards to your vision and plan for the event, meaning figure out the location, how many panels you would like to have for programming, and from there how many total authors you are looking to confirm. Think about social media and marketing, and branding for the event. Once you have that plan in place, begin setting up a team of volunteers (friends, family, your community) to help you bring the festival to life. It’s best to have a plan in place because volunteers will be looking to you for direction. As you develop your team you can assign roles, and begin to delegate and figure out what the host of the event will be based on things like venue renting, and etc. Then you can build your budget and start to crowdfund and look for sponsors so you can execute the event.
Do you have a most-rewarding moment that’s come out of the Book Festival?
Oh there are so many rewarding moments, but I’ll name two – hosting Sonia Manzano and the US Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor in conversation was a festival highlight, the other has been seeing and experiencing the joy among the attendees.
You have been crowd-funding a brick-and-mortar book store in the Bronx. Any exciting updates to share?
I have indeed! We’ve reached a little over 25K and I’m so excited to say that I’m currently pursuing a space for the store so much more to come soon!
As if that wasn’t enough, you also have the Bookish Gang and the Bronx Book Club. What’s your process for selecting the books?
Can you tell I love books? Reading is fun, and even better when you can do it in community with others. I try to select books that are fun, and will force us to grow as individuals. I tend to select books by marginalized writers who are tackling themes relevant to today’s issues like racism, the #MeTooMovement, romance, and etc., there’s always something for everyone, and the club reads widely, all genres for all ages.
How did the program at Lesley inspire the work you’ve done? What advice do you have for current students who want to get the most out of the program?
The program at Lesley really inspired me to write nonfiction in addition to my concentration in writing for young people. I was able to work with A.J. Verdelle as a mentor for an independent study, and it was a game changer for me. That’s one of the things I really loved about the MFA program – you could have your concentration but also study other genres. I would tell current students to take advantage of the networking opportunities while you’re at the residency. Really think about what other types of writing you might want to pursue/learn and connect with the mentors that share that same background. I’ve made some really cool friendships with some of the folks from the program who I cheer on via social media and email since we don’t all live in the same area. Use this program to build your writing community, because let’s face it, writing can be very lonely at times, but having other writers to lean on and ask questions to is super helpful!
What’s coming in the next year?
I’m working on a few short stories that will be included in some anthologies in the next year. And in regards to The Bronx is Reading, I’m hoping to have a brick n mortar bookstore up and running.
How can your fellow Lesley alum get engaged with your work?
Important question: how chubby are your new baby’s cheeks, and how fun are they to squeeze? How is the family adjusting to having the little doll around?
Those cheeks are the chubbiest and such a delight to squeeze, ha! The family loves the baby, but we all miss our sleep schedule LOL.
If you could go back in time and give 2017 you one piece of advice, what would it be? What do you want to make sure 2027 you remembers?
The one piece of advice would be, things are going to get hard, give yourself grace, take breaks when you need to but stay the course because it will all be worth it. I want 2027 me to make sure I remember to enjoy the moments of success, to really soak it up and celebrate them.