An Inner State
Kate Vieira on Audience and BelongingBy Anna Gazmarian, Outreach Coordinator • May 22, 2023
I reached out to Kate Vieira about submitting to The Sun after reading an essay that she published in Guernica. When I first read the essay she sent us, “All-American” [May 2023], I fell in love with how she invites readers into a subculture that I previously knew nothing about. I’ve never been someone who cares for cheerleading, but the universality of this coming-of-age piece struck a chord with me.
Vieira is working on a memoir in essays, Broken Home, about her experiences as a single parent across cultures. She recently received a Sustainable Arts Foundation Award for artists and writers with children, and she also won the 2022 Kay W. Levin Award for Short Nonfiction. She is a professor at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, and her research involves understanding how people use writing in their lives and communities. Her current project, funded by the Fulbright cultural exchange program and the Instituto Colombiano de Crédito Educativo y Estudios Técnicos en el Exterior, is a collaboration with Colombian colleagues about writing and peace building.
During our interview, we bonded over the messiness of memoir and motherhood.
Who did you write “All-American” for? Did you have a particular audience in mind?
I’m in a writing group with amazing women at different stages of our lives, and we share essays we’re working on. For most of the essays that I start writing now, I just think about how I could make them laugh. If one of my essays makes someone in the group laugh out loud, I’m just over the moon. It makes me feel so good. We meet over Zoom every two weeks, and I love reading their writing, too. It’s really helpful, I think, for me to have very specific people, whose names I know and whom I respect and like, to write for. It’s intimidating to think, Oh, I’m writing for women, or I’m writing for women of my ethnic background, or I’m writing for middle-aged women.
So I think I started writing “All-American” to entertain my writing group, and I wasn’t really thinking much beyond that audience. But the more I dug into the world of Texas cheerleading in the nineties, the more I realized that the essay could have a bigger audience. I hope this essay will appeal women who have at any point felt joy and pride from what their bodies can do — which feels especially important in a culture that is working around the clock to restrict us and shame us.
Can you talk about the process of writing a coming-of-age essay that brings readers into a subculture that most are unfamiliar with? What were you hoping to achieve?
One of my friends and colleagues at the University of Wisconsin–Madison is Amy Quan Barry, and she wrote a novel called We Ride upon Sticks that came out just before the pandemic. It’s about this women’s field-hockey team in the eighties in Salem, Massachusetts. The book really puts us into the eighties field-hockey culture in Massachusetts. Reading that book, it occurred to me that I also had experience with a weird women’s sport subculture in Texas — cheerleading in Texas in the nineties.
Cheerleading is this sport that is so gendered, so ideologically American, so mythological almost. So what did it mean to be this kind of lost part Arab American kid in Texas as the Gulf War is rolling out, whose parents are divorcing, who just wants to be a cheerleader — an All-American cheerleader no less — so freaking bad? I think writing about cheerleading really got at that core issue of belonging: Who are my people? Where is my group? Where do I fit? And how can I be myself and also be part of a community? It was also just fun to think about the perfume we were wearing in the nineties, and the music we were listening to, and what our hair looked like. All of that.
How did your experiences with cheerleading impact you as a writer?
I think any kind of art that you put your soul into translates to other art. I mentioned in the essay that before I was a cheerleader, I was a trumpet player. I see playing the trumpet, cheerleading, and writing as part of the same impulse toward expression: where you put your heart into it and leave it all on the page and kind of let it go. I think of writing a little bit as a performance. You do your best and send it out into the world, and then it’s not yours anymore.
You talk a lot about the longing to belong and assimilate in your community. Did you ever find a place where you felt like you belonged? Do you think that belonging is possible?
For my job, I’m an international ethnographer. I’ve been incredibly lucky to have lived in different communities all over the world. I’ve made deep friendships, I’ve learned languages, I’ve felt a part of something bigger than me, and I’ve experienced great joy. This kind of immersive and community-engaged work has been one of the most profound privileges of my life. In the book I’m working on now, I continue to write about it.
But one of the things I’ve learned is that belonging doesn’t really depend on where you are or who you’re with or even what language you happen to be communicating in at a given moment. It has to do more with the kind of relationship you have with yourself.
I find belonging with myself through language and through writing. I live in Wisconsin. I don’t feel like I especially belong here, but I also don’t not belong here. I belong with myself and my experiences and my words. Belonging for me is the ability to make meaning. I’m not alone — I have voice or sensibility to accompany me. For a long time I traveled around trying to find the right place where I would belong, where I could really vibe, as the kids say, and then I would be heartbroken when I had to leave that place. But I think for me, at this stage in my life, belonging is more about an inner state.
How has having distance from your upbringing changed the way that you write? Has the story you wish to tell changed over time?
Distance is really important. When my essay was accepted by The Sun, I was doing some powerful healing and therapeutic work, and when I got the edits back, I realized that my first draft was really self-deprecating: I was making jokes at the expense of my teenage self. I had this new perspective, and I didn’t like that draft anymore. At the same time, the editor asked me to add a scene, so I basically had an invitation to revise, as I saw it, and I tried to do that from a space of love for my younger self.
How could I make this essay entertaining, but not at the expense of this teenage kid who was just out there doing her thing and feeling cool about it? I tried to think about how I could honor the thirteen-, fourteen-, fifteen-year-old that I was. One thing that helped was to think about my daughter. She’s fourteen years old — the same age I was when I was a cheerleader. So as I revised, I asked myself if I would talk this way about my own child. And if the answer was no, I’d change it. So I tried to respect the teenager that I was the same way that I respect my actual kid.
You write in “All-American” that you never told anyone about cheerleading after discovering women’s studies. Do you think these two parts of your identity can coexist?
Writing this essay taught me that all of these parts of my identity are parts of who I am. I remembered how good and empowering it feels to be in your body and to feel strong. In my life in Madison, Wisconsin, I belong to a dance group. We meet every Sunday and it’s like my happiest place because I’m moving, I’m with other people, and I just feel expressive and playful and good in that space. What’s not feminist about that? About feeling free to express yourself in whatever way is available to you? Cheerleading is what I had, and I’m grateful I had it. So yes, I think that they can definitely coexist. But I didn’t realize that until I wrote this essay.
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