Answering the unanswerable
A spotlight on Bessie Flores Zaldívar, M.F.A. alumna and instructor
December 15, 2022
For Bessie Flores Zaldívar, writing fiction is an attempt to answer unanswerable questions.
As Zaldívar writes, she explores her relationship to where she grew up — Tegucigalpa, Honduras — and the state, her family, immigration, and her own queerness.
Motivated by these, Zaldívar, a 2022 graduate of Virginia Tech's Master of Fine Arts program and now an instructor, seeks to learn more about herself through her writing. These themes recur in much of her fiction.
Her first publication, “Rain Revolutions,” is a chapbook of three short stories that take place in Zaldívar’s home country from 1954-2019. Each story is motivated by environmental and political violence, and the cyclical course of history as it repeats itself.
In a year, Zaldívar’s forthcoming young adult novel, “Libertad,” will explore similar themes as she tells a coming-of-age story about what it means to be queer in a time of political unrest. Also set in Honduras, it takes place in 2017, a time of political turmoil and dictatorship. Through the lens of queerness during these frightening times, she creates a story that involves finding a love for a geography and a people, and how queerness can help reimagine a relationship with that same geography and people.
According to Zaldívar, she delves into different forms of writing and is most excited by the ways in which she can break genres. She writes nonfiction, fiction, poetry, and prose — cycling through them as her interests fluctuate. In doing so, she not only improves her writing, but is able to push the boundaries of a set genre.
“With writing, you get to decide where the camera lingers,” Zaldívar said, “And for me, it lingers on the people that I love.”
Her goal with fiction might be to answer unanswerable questions, but her subjects are the people and places that she loves. And sometimes, those involve mundane situations.
Zaldívar once wrote a poem about a graduate student’s parking tickets because he had accumulated many and refused to pay them.
“I think that’s so stupid and so funny and so fantastical,” she said. “For me, everything in writing feels so fantastical if you say it right.”
Something as dull as parking tickets can serve as inspiration.
Her time as a Virginia Tech graduate student allowed her to investigate genres and interests while being supported by her peers and professors. The intimacy and vulnerability of sharing work with her cohort is never lost on Zaldívar, nor was the work needed to build a level of trust between her and the other students. She said this level of vulnerability and willingness to help is at the core of the M.F.A program.
And it was those relationships that led Zaldívar to remain in Blacksburg to teach first year writers in the University Writing Program at Virginia Tech.
“Teaching first year writers is so rewarding,” Zaldívar said. “You see how exciting it is for a freshman to be told that their own obsessions and interests are worthy of pursuing.”
After finishing her degree, she has been able to invest more time into her students.
This semester, Zaldívar taught four sections of the course, themed around American horror in small towns. She and her students explored backwoods story tropes and how different aspects of horror reflect American cultural fears.
“The reason I did this is because the book I am writing now is a social thriller,” Zaldívar said.
Through the course, she is exploring the ways in which zombies are about race and vampires are about queerness. Then there is invasion horror, which became very popular after 9/11. She finds this exploration into the genre, alongside her student’s perspectives, exciting.
As they examine American small-town horror, Zaldívar encourages students to explore their own special interests. Their research papers reflect the freedom she gives them, as their topics range from how small towns can ethically profit from ghost tours to Blacksburg’s own horror stories that only locals would know.
Through the lens of American horror, she suggested her students dig into small town America and cultivate a sense of respect and honor for those places and the people who live in them.
“I do think it’s important for my students to get to know the landscape of Blacksburg and honor it respectfully. Virginia Tech has such a complicated history. So much has happened here,” Zaldívar said.
Much of her teaching philosophy centers around honor. She hopes her students move with respect for the campus and the land while they are at Virginia Tech, while also honoring themselves and their interests. She wants them to investigate a world where their interests and who they are not at odds with one another but coexist.
She has a reverence for the knowledge the students bring into her classroom. And they have also taught her to be playful. When her students relax and express themselves, she said they perform better. Learning by their example, Zaldívar has begun to approach writing with a playful mindset, allowing herself room to make mistakes, be full of curiosity, and not know the answer to everything.
She carries these attitudes that she has learned from her students with her, and she implores writers to be kind to themselves in the drafting process.
“Approach writing with so much radical forgiveness for yourself,” she said. “That has been the game changer for my practice; to accept that writing is not just sitting in front of a page putting words down.”
Instead, writing happens throughout the day. Zaldívar writes when she is walking her dog, Fig; playing soccer; eating. And then, when she does sit down in front of the page, she said it is so much easier to put the words on the paper because she has done so much of the work in her mind.
During the semester, Zaldívar prioritizes her students and her teaching. She spends time prepping for her classes, having a lot of intentionality around meals, attending M.F.A. readings or workshops, and going on walks.
While classes are not in session, “I’m giving myself a very well-deserved break and I feel zero guilt about it,” she said. “I am thinking about my next book, but I’m not writing it yet.”
Written by Hannah Ballowe, a graduate student in the masters of arts program.