Saturday, October 21, 2023

Q&A with Marcos McPeek Villatoro



Marcos McPeek Villatoro is the author of the new memoir Speak of It. His other books include the Romilia Chacón series. He holds the Fletcher Jones Endowed Chair in Writing at Mount St. Mary's College, and he lives in Los Angeles.


Q: What inspired you to write this memoir?


A: I’ve written for 40 years, mostly novels and poetry. In those books, you’ll see resonances of themes that keep coming up in my work. Latino culture is one important subject—I’m Salvadorian on my mother’s side, and have spent most of my life digging into those roots.


This “excavation” meant living in Latino communities. I moved to Central America in my 20s, lived there for a number of years, then worked with Mexican migrant farm workers in Alabama during my thirties. Those years helped me come closer to my own Latino culture.


It also helped me to survive. Another theme that comes up in my work is mental illness. I have bipolar (manic-depression), and PTSD from trauma experienced in childhood. These two illnesses have haunted me throughout my life. But the delving into my Salvadoran heritage has played a fundamental role in maintaining my mental health.


The drive to know myself, to explore my roots, has helped me through the rough times.


The memoir Speak of It is the first time I’ve taken the themes head-on, the first time I’ve written openly about what happened to me in childhood, and the subsequent bipolar that came on years later. I was inspired to write it, in part for my own survival.


But I was also thinking about the audience: there is a lot of stigma around mental illness, a subject that, among many, is taboo. I want to break that taboo, by speaking out directly about it.


There are others who have suffered similar histories as mine. They

suffer in silence. We must break the stigma by talking about it. That’s another reason I wrote the book.


Q: How was the book’s title chosen, and what does it signify for you?


A: I struggled with a title for a long time. How to encapsulate the themes of culture and mental illness in just a few words? Then it came to me, simple, clear: “Speak of it.”


It is a call to do just that: put it all on the table, look at it, discuss it. This is especially important when it comes to talking about mental illness. But I could have entitled it “Speak of it All.” For I am more than just the trauma and the disease. I have struggled, using my Latino culture as a source of strength to look at my ailments head-on.


This is, again, a question of stigma. A taboo dominates our lives by our inability to speak of it. We must gather together and converse; we must be supports for one another.


So many people live with mental illness. They need a community to help them through it. The Latino worlds that I have lived in have provided me with that support. In searching for my own culture, I have come to a better understanding of the tools one needs to manage mental disabilities.

Q: What do you hope readers take away from your story?


A: My hope is twofold: that readers will see one man’s struggle to maintain his mental health; and that they understand more the power of culture (for me, specifically, Latino culture).


I wish to hold my Latin American heritage to the light, to show how important it is to me, and why. The Spanish language, the food, the people’s lives and struggles and joys (especially in poor communities, in which I worked)—all these are celebrations of a culture that is so embedded in U.S. society, yet is also largely ignored.


Q: What impact did it have on you to write the book?


A: When you write, you are, of course, alone. It’s just you and the blank paper (or computer screen). There is a certain safety in that. You’re not primarily thinking about the audience (although they are always there, in the back of your mind).


You’re thinking, “Hhm…how can I shape all these experiences into a story that will not only make sense, but will flow? What aesthetics do I use to make it more than just ‘bleeding on the page?’”


Then, yes, the question of the audience comes to the fore—how do I write it so that the reader keeps on reading?


But there were many moments that I found difficult to write. The trauma in childhood was especially hard. The bipolar was a struggle. It meant diving into the pain again, to get it all down on paper. But the sections regarding culture buoyed me, and helped me work through the difficult themes.


Writing the book was one thing; getting it published was another. Though I’m excited about having it in the world, I also struggle with fear. It’s hard for a person who suffers PTSD to talk about it. Breaking a stigma isn’t easy. Putting your story out there is a risk. It’s scary to tell the tale.


But it’s a swirl of emotions: I fear, but I also am excited that Speak of It is on bookstore shelves. What writer doesn’t want his work to be in the hands of a readership?


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’ve started a novel, about a 12-year-old Salvadoran girl named Magdalena who comes to the U.S., fleeing oppression in her mother country. She ends up in a small town in Tennessee, and is adopted by a local woman. I’m just getting into it, so I have no idea where the story is going.


Most of my time is now getting to know Magdalena, her personality, her character. That’s where you need to start when working on fiction: with strong, complex characters. From them, the plot will follow.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: First, your questions are great, thank you.


For more information on my work, you can go to I am also open to meeting with chat groups that might want to read and discuss the book. Also I'm interested in larger events as well--readings and lectures. 


You can contact me at You can also contact my publicist, Mary Bisbee-Beek, at


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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