by Patheresa Wells
Clara Olivo’s debut poetry collection, The Whisper, The Storm and The Light In Between (Alegría Magazine, 2022), examines how the storm, the quiet before its arrival, and the light that occurs between the two have shaped her identity and her voice as a poet. I sat down with her to discuss the book and her experiences as a fat, queer, neurodivergent Afro-Salvadoreña.
The book’s three sections, The Whisper, The Storm, and The Light, reveal Olivo’s journey to accept parts of herself, from growing up in South Central L.A. and learning of her history as a member of the African diaspora to dealing with body image issues from growing up in a fat body. The book examines these aspects of who she is while at the same time working to accept her identities — including that of a poet. As one of her poems says, “I believe that everything I say is poetry.”
The poems in this section are reflective of times when outside elements forced Olivo to get smaller and quieter. “Moments where I feel small, where I have to hold back … especially those moments where the power dynamics are skewed against me.” Many of the book’s recurring themes deal with these moments — moments when Olivo has found herself having to hold back to become the whisper. But also in her home, both now and as a child, when frustration, tension, or anger has caused her to make herself small.
“Act of Contrition” examines the struggle to reclaim agency over her own body. The poem ends with the lines:
My body, the measure of all my worth
and the less of it there is,
the more of me is yours to consume.
But I wonder, when will it finally be mine?
“For me, my body has never felt like it was mine,” Olivo said.” I’ve always had to change it for the sake of everybody around me for their own comfort, or for my own safety, because I didn’t want them to continue to hurt me because of what my body looks like.”
Another prominent theme is her Afro-Salvadoran identity and its erasure by other Salvadorians. In the forward, Olivo wrote, “El Salvador is a country devoid of Blackness. That is, there are no Black people in El Salvador — or that is what many Salvadoreños will tell you, because they firmly believe this to be true.”
As the only Black person in her family, Olivo grew up struggling to understand the things she heard that negated her identity through colorism. Raised without her Afro-Salvadoran father in her life, it was a journey to understand how white supremacy took shape in her community — for example, being told not to stay out in the sun too long to avoid getting darker. Or concerns about her dating a Black man.
Olivo said it wasn’t until coming to Seattle and starting her decolonization process that she realized these things. She said, “My own internalized anti-Blackness, stemming from that absence, and from that, my own personal erasure” helped to make these connections.
The poem “Birth of a Poet” introduces the reader to the light. Here, Olivo digs into her identities. Here, she becomes a poet, recognizing that though forced to whisper when she feels small, she can use her voice as the light.
Olivo was 16 years old when she first shared her poetry with her high school English teacher, who joked that she was the poet laureate of teen angst. Olivo asked him what poet laureate meant, and her teacher introduced her to Paul Laurence Dunbar. When she read Dunbar’s poem “We Wear the Mask,” she felt like she could have written it. “I had no idea, the depths of truth that poem would hold in my life. Fast forward to learning that I am neurodivergent and understanding what masking means in that context.”
The poem “Big Mouth” continues the journey of Olivo’s identity in owning that her voice is poetry. And through the poem “Fuck the Fork,” previously featured in the Emerald, she asks the reader to return to a time when humans ate with our hands. “Everybody eats with their hands. At some point, there’s something that you are going to eat with your hands, whether it’s a chip or whatever. And it’s easy for us to forget that connection to the land, to the food that nourishes us,” she said.
The poems in this section, more than any other, are about the fight. About how those who identify as BIPOC, queer, fat, neurodivergent, or any of those intersections. “So Where Do You Come From (No, Really!)?” addresses the question often asked of BIPOC. Olivo said the storm is about those times when she will feel “powerful enough and grounded in my own truth to actually say that’s fucked up.”
Like in the poem “Sincerely, The Problem Woman of Color,” where she writes a call-out letter to the white women at the PWIs (predominantly white institutions):
Although a year has come and gone and the world
changed, our hearts transformed. I have yet to
see you show up the way you claimed you would,
for all the Black and Brown bodies that matter.
Because here I am, a whole year later still
waiting for the day you own up to the violence
you shed upon my existence; the betrayal of my
trust, rooted in your whiteness. Your silence
affirms that I DID NOT MATTER TO YOU AT ALL
The Problem Woman of Color
Through the recurrence of multiple themes in The Whisper, The Storm and The Light In Between, Olivo describes the journey back to oneself — a journey that has taken her a lifetime to uncover through poetry. She believes there is something in this book for everyone.
“There are perspectives that are unique to this particular intersectional body that I inhabit that speaks to the greater connection that brings us all together. … And in this very human experience, I have been able to put words to emotions and experiences that I don’t think others can,” she said. Whether a poem, a line, or a title resonates, she wants readers to find what they need within the whisper, the storm, and the light.
Purchase a copy of The Whisper, The Storm and The Light In Between and learn more about Clara Olivo on her website. She also co-hosts a podcast, “Intersectionality in the Diaspora.” Visit the official podcast website to listen on your preferred platform.
Patheresa Wells is a Queer poet, writer, and storyteller who lives in SeaTac, Washington. Born to a Black mother and Persian father, her experiences as a multicultural child shaped her desire to advocate for and amplify her community. She currently attends Highline College in Des Moines. Follow her on Twitter @PatheresaWells.
📸 Featured Image: Afro-Salvadoreña poet Clara Olivo recently debuted her new book of poetry, “The Whisper, The Storm and The Light In Between.” (Photo: Clara Olivo)
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