October 2, 2019
By Hannah Brauer (she/her/hers), Photographer/Writer Student Lead
River Coello (she/her, he/him), queer and trans interdisciplinary artist, is a warrior of writing and performance. Coello graduated from the University of Michigan Ford School of Public Policy in 2014 and has since published a new book, “self/ser: poems on queer and trans existence and love,” a book of poems translated in Spanish and English written in the United States and Ecuador, Coello’s two homes.
Duality is a powerful theme in Coello’s life, between gender, language, and nationalities, as I discovered in our following conversation. Coello will be the Keynote Speaker at the Spectrum Center National Coming Out Week event on October 8 from 6:30 p.m.-7:30 p.m. at the School of Social Work.
Hannah: I saw on your website that you identify as a “queer and trans interdisciplinary artist.” Can you elaborate a little more on that and your past work?
River: “There’s been a lot of intersections when it comes to that work. At my core, I’ve been a writer for most of my life. I started writing poetry when I was 12 years old, and it was a great place for me to process some of my world. A lot of it was difficult to make sense of, and through poetry I found a really safe place to just play and process. For acting and performing, that came much later, but I felt that I was just so interested in storytelling and performance, which really is just the next step of writing. I’ve always been so curious about the connection between oral history, poetry, spoken word, and anything that centers on marginalized voices.
“As much as I am able to perform or play roles, I am so very proud of my trans identity and my transness. I’m intentional about it. Pushing the industry forward to think, ‘How do we cater to trans artists?’... I’m also bigender, so sometimes I play male or female roles or in a non-binary space. It’s important to me that it’s queer.”
H: How has your art allowed you to express your identity?
R: “Both writing and performing have been incredibly healing in my own journey. I’ve been able to process my worlds and the emotions that come with it. As it relates to coming out, I think my coming out to myself usually happens in writing. I’ve also had a lot of incredible discoveries onstage with multiple characters, sometimes in a different gender. I think playful performance across genders was really healing and powerful for me in my own journey.
“In my poetry, I’ve noticed throughout the years that I like to write to people in my life or to myself or to younger or future versions of myself. A lot of my poems will be short letters and these conversations that I envision happening with important people in my life are happening on paper.
“Another aspect that I’m really excited about, especially on this book tour, is how art is connective and expansive. I know that in many ways, because of that transparency and vulnerability, a lot of different people can relate to it, not just queer and trans folks. But it is especially powerful for those communities, so when I get to interact with them and hear about how they interact with my work, I grow as a person and as an artist.
“It’s so easy sometimes to think that artists have it all figured out, especially when they write about their journey. We’re so reflective, so we can come across as experts of our own lives, but we’re still learning. And so when we connect with readers and audience members and they reflect back their own journey, we learn. I learn. I learn so much.”
H: I see you are originally from Ecuador, but now live in Chicago. How long did you live in Ecuador and what is your connection to it today?
R: “I was born and raised in Ecuador, so I lived there until I was 18... It made me into the artist that I am, because I’m so easily influenced by Latin American storytelling which is grounded in magical realism. It’s spiritual and colorful. And especially when it comes to poetry, Latin American authors love to leave a lot unsaid, which I think is really beautiful.
“I love the process of translating my poems to Spanish, especially when I write them first in English… It’s selecting your work. It’s very intentional, it doesn’t just happen. The process of translating is very revealing and I end up learning so much about myself… I really love it. In that way, Ecuador keeps me grounded... It’s been beautifully important to stay as Ecuadorian as possible in my work and always tell people that’s where I come from. I love my country.”
H: I’m wondering about the intersection of gender and language in your work. For example, with Spanish, nouns and adjectives are indicated with gender, while with English, there are more opportunities to be gender-neutral. How does this either help or hold back your work in both languages?
R: “I think gender and language and gender-neutral language are both equally important...I love playing with gender pronouns, and in Spanish that’s much easier — I can just switch back and forth between masculine and feminine adjectives and pronouns, and sometimes that’s a little bit harder to get across in English. So I have to be more intentional. I love confusing the reader when it comes to how I describe myself… In some times, I can be a woman and in some I can be a man. And that’s a lot more fruitful in Spanish than it is in English.”
H: Your recent book of poems, “self/ser: poems on queer and trans existence and love,” just came out and you are starting a book tour. What inspired you to write it?
R: “I was going through my archives of poetry and feeling really inspired to translate some of them to Spanish. My first manuscript was made in a day out of impulse… I’ve grown so much since I first started writing, and there are lessons in those poems that I wanted to immortalize. The duality, pain, uncovering, shedding, reclaiming that I wanted to gift to my family, my friends, and anyone who is going through something similar.”
H: You will be the keynote speaker at the Spectrum Center National Coming Out Week event. What are some topics you’re planning to touch on at the event?
R: “Coming out is an interesting process and requires a lot of introspection and reflection. It has to be intentional. To me, it’s almost like a negotiation. It’s important because you are claiming your narrative and you are doing it on your own terms and it requires tremendous amounts of courage. It poses its own risks — I’ve noticed that there is no end to coming out… You enter new spaces with new people every day and these layers of your identity are uncovered at different points. And that can be a really beautiful process, but it can also be really painful. What I’ve discovered is that sharing these parts of yourself have to be intentional. It doesn’t always feel intuitive.
“It feels important to me to come back to [the University of Michigan] to deliver this speech because the process of coming out started [here]. It was the place where I felt really confronted with my queerness, and I felt it was time to claim it and own it. It was terrifying, but it was also beautifully rewarding. U-M gave me so many tools to talk about my queerness... The Coalition for Queer and Trans People of Color is a space where I felt affirmed and seen.
“After I left the university, many more realizations happened. More transitions happened and processes of coming out happened. Returning feels like a way of re-introducing myself to the university and to the city and the community. It’s an opportunity to reflect on the many ways I’ve grown. As someone who is two-spirit, and who used to identify as many other things and have many other names, it’s been interesting to reflect on how many times I’ve changed and how okay that is.
“[The talk] is going to be storytelling about my own journey with realizations along the way around the process of coming out...and ties it to the issues of safety, privilege, risks, and the great benefits that come with it.”
H: What advice would you give to readers and current students who are still in the process of coming out?
R: “Be compassionate with yourself. That is the most important thing that I’ve learned throughout my life. I think oftentimes because of the society that we live in, we want coming out to be successful… We tend to frame our own personal understanding [in terms of success] and that can be really detrimental to our growth, both personal and spiritual, and we need to spend more time really harvesting compassion. [Invest] in compassion and vulnerability instead... It allows you to be patient, careful and tender and gentle and hold a lot of faith. If we did that with ourselves, we would thrive in a different way. As I’ve grown older, I’ve realized that each time [I come out], I’ve been able to reclaim my own narrative in my own way.”
**This interview was conducted in English and translated to Spanish by the author.