Imagine if you dug up your old diaries from your youth or even — gasp — your middle school years. We can almost guarantee what you wrote about during your pre-pubescent, awkward teenage years would make you blush and shudder of embarrassment today. Few have dared to bare their souls as much as someone reading diary entries from her youth. But that’s exactly what author Amanda Alcántara has done.
Her new self-published book, Chula, an autobiographical look at her childhood as a Latina in the Dominican Republic and later in the United States, is exactly as inspiring and entertaining as you might imagine.
It’s as if your best friend or sister unlocked her diary full of her most memorable, impactful and important life lessons, experiences and intimate stories. You are reading about Alcántara’s deepest secrets, thoughts, emotions and histories, one diary entry at a time. It’s at once familiar and also eye opening. It feels like you could be reading about your own self-discovery and youthful innocence, despite the fact that her story and her journey is very specifically Afro-Dominican.
Author Amanda Alcántara had a story to tell, a story that could not wait and that needed to be shared. And despite the typical obstacles in getting a book published, she took matters into her own hands and told the tale she was born to tell.
Get to Know Amanda Alcántara
Alcántara was born in the U.S. and raised in Santiago, Dominican Republic. While she feels like an immigrant at times, she also lived back and forth for much of her life, making her upbringing somewhat “backwards,” as most people who grow up Dominican in the states go back to the islands during the summer. Since Alcántara’s mother moved back to Santiago, she spent her summer break traveling in reverse to New Jersey.
A journalist and writer all her life, Alcántara has written work featured in Remezcla, The Huffington Post, The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle and more. But her writing began long before her studies at Rutgers University and NYU for her masters in Latin American and Caribbean Studies, and long before her formal journalism career.
Throughout her life, beginning as early as eight years old, Alcántara documented what she was going through via diary entries, poems and photos. For most of her younger years, those stories were simply a way for her to write about her life and personally work through what she was experiencing. They were not originally destined for literature, but to serve as an outlet for her own coming of age journey. They were a matter of “survival” she explained in an interview for People en Español.
And her work continues to be a source of empowerment and inspired by survival. After years of working on this book, a collection of her deepest thoughts and most vulnerable stories, Alcántara acknowledges that more than anything, “it’s about overcoming feeling unworthy.” By sharing her intimate journey and covering personal topics such as sexuality, sexual harassment and shame, she is embracing her culture, her identity, her truth, and hopefully inspiring others to do the same.
Chula is Unapologetically Bilingual
Alcántara was initially worried that her style of writing might scare off some readers, or worse, make them feel that they couldn’t relate to her book. But that fear was overpowered by her desire to be real, and to stick to her authentic voice. After all, if you can write the way you speak, it’s often easier for people to really connect to what you have to say.
Amanda Alcántara is bilingual. She speaks both English and Spanish, and she thinks in both English and Spanish. But more than that, she thinks and speaks in slang. She uses Spanglish. She curses. She says it like it is, and most likely the way you also think and speak when you are convinced that no one else is listening. Alcántara decided to accept her voice, and embrace what she had written over the course of her life, rather than try to force content that wasn’t true to who she was. The best writing does not come from trying to sound a certain way, but from being who you are.
In a “Latinos Out Loud” interview for Latino Rebels, she explains that she really wanted to stay true to herself, and accept the work for what it was. Rather than having any preconceived notions about what a work of literature should look or sound like, she accepted that this book is her story, and it’s enough that it’s just her story.
Why Chula Should be on Your Must-Read List
Chula is unlike any other memoir or coming-of-age story you have read, largely because it just so real. It’s personal, unapologetic and undeniably authentic. It gives a real glimpse into what life was like for a young Afro-Dominican girl growing up in the Dominican Republic and then West New York. It’s bilingual and uses a lot of Spanglish slang and phrases that real teenage girls use, often bouncing between English and Spanish within the same thought and sentence. It might feel unfamiliar to some to read such a blending of words, styles, languages and cultures, but it is who Alcántara is, it’s how she grew up, it’s what she experienced and continues to experience as a Latina in the United States, and it is real.
The concept of this book dates back to 2017, though much of the content dates back many more years than that, to Alcántara’s youth. She literally dug up her old diaries from a box under her bed and started piecing together those short stories, poems and intimate vignettes about her life. It feels tender and vulnerable, but also joyful and liberating. It’s almost as if your best friend sat down and told you firsthand about her childhood. The book is written in such a way that you both get lost in her story, while also identifying with her experiences. Which is exactly what Alcántara wants.
Her goal for the book is to give Latinx readers, particularly young Dominican women, something to relate to. “I want them to know that no matter how complicated their story is they can also heal. All of our healing journeys are very different and to embrace their individuality,” she has said.
How Alcántara was Empowered by Self-Publishing Her Debut Book
The world of publishing is complicated, to say the least. To have your work published you need to first pitch the idea to a literary agent, and then have a publisher express interest in your idea. The powers that be need to believe in your work and your vision. It can then take years of editing, back-and-forth, marketing and more just to get your book released, at which point it might look very different from the story as you intended it. This was not the path that Alcántara envisioned or wanted for her very personal debut book. It was far too intimate, and she wanted to do it her own way.
She decided to instead self-publish her working, using a less traditional method of production and turning to the platform IngramSpark, which allows authors to publish and distribute physical and digital copies of their book to places like Barnes and Noble, the New York Public Library, and even Amazon. While some self-publishing platforms are only for digital e-books, Alcántara wanted to create physical books to be sold at independent bookstores as well are larger online retailers. Even more enticing, IngramSpark has a print-on-demand model, so they only print books as they sell, rather than forcing authors to pre-order a minimum number of book copies that may, or may not sell. While it’s still not a cheap method of publishing, it was a venture Alcántara was happy to invest in because it gave her complete creative control.
“I didn’t want to wait one year to find an agent then one year to find a publisher. I didn’t want to wait three years to publish my book,” she told People En Español. “I didn’t want to compromise on the Spanish and English or the format.”
And that creative control allowed her to preserve the very personal tone and also ensure that she built a team that was connected to her vision and her experiences — the editorial team, cover illustrator and photographer are all of Dominican heritage.
And now that her book is out, it’s safe to say that Alcántara feels a mix of healing, fear and freedom.
“I don’t know how to explain it. It just feels like I’m surrendering this thing to the world, and now there’s nothing I can do to control it,” she said. “…I really love the word surrender. Not in the giving up terms, but in the letting go terms. Because at one point was like, you kind of just have to let it be now.”