Monday, February 19, 2024

Q&A with Cynthia J. Sylvester




Cynthia J. Sylvester is the author of the book The Half-White Album. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including ABQ in Print. An enrolled member of the Diné, she is a native of Albuquerque, New Mexico. 


Q: What inspired you to write this book?


A: Only when I had accumulated all these stories, these pieces, written and rewritten over a long time, could I discern my inspirations. As I’ve done readings and talked about the book, the inspirations have been revealed further. But two stand out. Place is one. The Albuquerque area.


Albuquerque is often overlooked when talking about New Mexico. Santa Fe and Taos are where people want to go, and Albuquerque is usually where they fly into or stay overnight to get there.


I wanted to have a book set in this area because it’s where I’m from, and I’m proud of that. It is the crossroads of the state, a big part of why my family settled here. And it reflects us. We are basically a “crossroads.”


And like nomads and pioneers, we spent a lot of time in a car or truck with the camper on the back traveling Route 66. The Mother Road is a prominent feature in the book and is like the Camino Real or the Royal Road for my family.


The desire to make an urban setting for a Native American story reveals another inspiration, bringing people who may otherwise be forgotten to light.


Americans often think of Native Americans in the past and only living on a reservation. But many native people are city dwellers who create art, culture, her-stories, and a life in the city because this is where we find ourselves rooted.


I realized how much I lost not knowing the Diné language. Because to understand a culture or worldview, one must understand the language in which the stories are told and the songs are sung.


So, this book is my way of creating stories and songs to bridge that divide within me.


The narrator says in the short story Into the Mystic: “Unlike my father’s side of the family, whose history is as long and winded as the plains of the Midwest, my mom’s family history is like a sand painting that has been destroyed. It would take me years of sneaking around to find newspaper clippings, photos in books and museums, of learning to listen to silence and remembering low and muttered conversations before I could begin to piece us together.”


This collection is a way for me to come to terms with that. The first short story in the collection is “The Last One.”

My inspiration was to give voice to a Diné woman who raised her children in the United States of America in the early 1900s during the boarding school era of forced assimilation.


It is after all, why I am who I am, at least in part and part of the American story, and our story, that might otherwise be forgotten.


Q: The writer Natanya Ann Pulley said of the book, “Told through a multitude of carefully curated genres, Cynthia Sylvester’s debut collection shares a song of restoration and grounding, of humor and tragedy, of ancestors and the individuals who live through them Today.”  What do you think of that description?


A: It is an astute review. For sure, these pieces are carefully curated. As I said, it took years to create this collection. I workshopped them; they sat in a drawer; marinating while I got my MFA in creative writing. I dreamed about them, and I sang them.


Well, I didn’t sing, but I created a show with a band where we combined music and story. The show called “Stories That Rock” was just my way of getting into a band, but what emerged was the structure of this book.


It was, in retrospect, a ceremony and these stories are Mourning Songs, Rain Songs, and Birth Songs—grounding, and restorative. Tragic, yes. Stories hard to endure, like the dark night of the soul. The thing that gets you through that is knowing there is always a dawn.


Humor is like the dawn. Like the gorgeous Twin War Gods, powerful deities hiding from their mother. Or the twins, Thunder and Lightning, who, though separated at birth, both look like Elvis impersonators, and the medicine women Ruth Shorty, who is actually kind of tall, and Dolores Slim, who is actually kind of chubby, who find themselves delivering a lost son to a family.


And we have the sage advice of some of my poet ancestors, like Leslie Marmon Silko, who reminds us, “You don’t have anything if you don’t have stories.” And Ozzy Osbourne asks, “What’s this  world coming to?”


They all take this trip on the Mother Road in The Half-White Album with moms and daughters who are trying to keep a connection to each other, with a man dying of AIDS, with characters that time and again feel homeless even when they are at home.


Q: What do you hope readers take away from the book?


A: That we aren’t alone. No matter our race, culture, or gender, what part of the world or country we live in or come from, we are all two-leggeds.


As my grandfather taught me, we are all one tribe. We all have grief and loss. We all have stories, and they are essential to tell. It’s important to listen. Because within those stories, we see that we are more alike than we care to believe.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: A novel set in the Albuquerque area about friends who met when they played high school basketball together. They were the Lady Warriors and really good players. They just didn’t know how to win. Now, at middle age, they are still working out how to recoup their losses.


So, you could say that the themes of loss, friendship, family, and what is home play an integral part in that novel, as they do in The Half-White Album.


After that, I have a collection I’m putting together that comprise some of the outtakes that didn’t fit into The Half-White Album, along with new stories. And I have a children’s book about a gang of dogs set in the Windy City.


I’ve been writing a long time. I’ve got archives. And I did something like Stories That Rock for the book’s launch, but it was bigger!


The Half-White Band supported my reading of the book, interweaving music and story into the Half-White Show: An Act of Communion. We’ve done four shows so far, and I’d like to expand on that. It’s such a fun and powerful experience for us and the audience. So…that’s all.


Meanwhile working as a PT.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: The Half-White Album was the winner of the best LGBTQ book in the New Mexico-Arizona Book Awards. I was nominated as one of the best spoken word performances in New Mexico in 2023.


I can be found at There you can hear readings with the band, find the playlist that is a companion to the book, and connect with me if you so desire.


Also, I appreciate this space provided to me to talk about my work. Ahéhee!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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