Emilly Prado knows how to throw a funeral. In her debut essay collection, Funeral for Flaca, Prado, who also moonlights as a talented DJ, spins a set that flows from her childhood in the Bay Area and Mexico to her college years and young womanhood in the Pacific Northwest. Through it all, Prado traces the demise of the girl she used to be—“Flaca,” which translates to “skinny girl” in English. Funeral For Flaca’s precise, funny, and heartfelt essays tell the story of a brown girl in white suburbia, an American girl in Mexico, and a skinny girl who never feels skinny enough.
Like a great mixtape, Prado’s essays set the mood and then transform it. Arranged in tracks and titled after songs that shaped her life, Prado writes with simplicity and honesty, hoping to tell a story her 13-year-old self would recognize as true. When the collection moves to Prado’s young adulthood, in chapters that explore disordered eating, mental illness, and sexual assault, the pieces complicate and deepen, finding a groove within the fine-tuned detail. The collection moves toward acceptance, but never settles there. Answering a therapist’s question about healing and forgiveness, Prado writes, “There might be nothing I hate more than to be asked for forgiveness. The audacity of a request to be absolved. I am no priest.” In the end, Prado’s collection celebrates the beauty of self-definition. When she lets go of being her father’s—or anyone else’s—skinny girl, the funeral becomes a party. After you read the book, make sure to blast the playlist and pour one out for Prado’s gorgeous debut.
You invoke your 13-year-old self in the book’s introduction. What did your younger self say to you as you wrote this book? And what was it like to honor and explore that angry, awkward time in your life?
When I was 12 or 13, my sister gifted me a journal. That’s when I first [began] writing and found writing [to be] a place where I could make sense of the world and my place in it. In the privacy of my diary, I had the freedom to be as wild as I wanted to be. I could say exactly what I thought. Having read through [those diaries] again a few times in adulthood, there’s a lot of just questioning, wondering about things, and being unsure. I see a lot of similarities in myself [now], sometimes. I still am working on listening to my intuition and trusting my gut.
Funeral for Flaca was originally a chapbook, so when I knew it was going to be expanded and published, I was confronted with a lot of anxiety about [what it will] mean for people to read it. And I found myself starting to cater a little bit to that voice of, What is this going to look like when it’s out in the world? Thinking about what I would have wanted to read at that age kept me tethered to my vision for the project. [I wanted] the voice to progress with the narrator and [wanted] it to not only have some humor but also talk about things I was struggling with.
You share some hard parts of your life. You tell some family secrets. How did it feel to break that silence as you were writing? How do you feel about it now?
I didn’t necessarily set out to unearth secrets, but it just happened when I began immersing myself into memories. Once I got into the stage of fact-checking and trying to corroborate what I remembered with my sister or my mom, clarifications would happen [based] on their memories. I’m drawn to secrets in particular because of the way they can completely shape lives, especially young people’s lives. When you’re a young person, you’re looking to the people around you to inform your view of the world. So what does it look like when you don’t know what to trust, or what’s real, or what’s not? I also wanted to write about what it was like to uncover some of those secrets later, to have secrets of my own, and what uncovering secrets and having secrets does to memory. That’s something I think about a lot, as a memoirist: We’re looking into the past, and sometimes there’s pressure to do it perfectly—but everybody’s sense of memory changes over time.
It’s really important for me to not stay [silent] about things, especially when I think that sharing them might help someone. I was encouraged to keep being hospitalized with bipolar disorder quiet, but bipolar disorder and other mental-health issues are hereditary. So if I’m suffering through this, there are statistics pointing to the likelihood that someone else is too. I don’t think I should hide that part of myself, and I don’t want to give into the shame, even though [bipolar disorder] can be really isolating and scary. With the assault too: I included it in there because it’s something that really affected my life, and it affects a lot of people’s lives. Through the places where I can explore and think about what healing looks like, I’m able to create this world on my terms. I get some ownership back.
How did you take care of yourself during the writing process? Do you have a care plan now that the book has been released?
I love that question. I’ve been to different workshops [that focus on] writing about trauma, and some of them are really good and some of them can be dangerous because when we’re called to write about trauma, sometimes our inclination can be that we have to get to the heart of it. That’s going to heal us, and we’re going to process through that. But it’s just too soon. I thought that my first book would be more of a traditional memoir and have a traditional narrative structure about being hospitalized. That’s a blip in this collection of essays. I found that I couldn’t write about that experience for a long time. Now I’m finally able to look at it and understand that the story isn’t just the trauma; it’s what happened before and what happened after.
In order to take care of myself in that writing space, I took a wonderful workshop. Katherine A. Standefer, who wrote Lightning Flowers: My Journey to Uncover the Cost of Saving a Life, [taught it]. And although it was a workshop about writing about mental health, she began with setting the intention for this space. Your brain actually thinks you’re in that place again when you’re immersed in memory; your brain doesn’t have the ability to know that this is the past. So she had really great tactics like doing five-minute bursts or setting a timer and then making sure that you take a break, being aware of your body—how the body’s feeling—and checking in with yourself.
It only took about a day and a half to write the very last essay. I was at a writing retreat, but I took probably five naps throughout the day in addition to sleeping a full night because it’s so draining to be in that space. It’s like making sure your bases are covered. Have you slept? Have you eaten? Have you drank water? Have you stretched? Have you gone outside? I take breaks to watch a sitcom, and I don’t think of that as distracting from the writing anymore because I know that it’s so hard to write about these things. If I’m going to write about them, I need to take care of myself while I’m doing it.
Your final essay discusses what transformative justice might really look like, especially in terms of being the only person of color in the room when doing social justice work. Living in Portland, how do you navigate whiteness in creative and professional spaces?
When I first moved to Portland, it was mostly white people. That was who I was in community with. When I started to get into journalism, it coincided with the emergence of a lot of BIPOC-led art initiatives. A lot of the spaces I’m currently in are very diverse, much more than [they were] five years ago, but you have to be intentional about finding your folks in white spaces. In work situations, I don’t have much control and that’s challenging; it feels like I can’t escape whiteness even in spaces that seem to be very diverse. We call them microaggressions, but they’re everywhere. You have to take up space. If we don’t take up space, then you see the same group of people being prominent and accessing resources. You look to your community to help you find an understanding of the world, and then you have to keep putting yourself into different communities and spaces in order to see what else is possible. It’s possible to find amazing people who are supportive, generous, and also engaged in social justice work.
I love the title Funeral for Flaca. It sets up a character for us in the beginning who’s both you and not you. Your dad called you “Flaca” and it was your name in Mexico. How did you decide on the title?
I was thinking about this tree in my grandparents yard and the idea that the tree has probably been chopped down. Then I was thinking, What does that mean, to know this tree was killed? From there, my thinking evolved to consider what it would look like to have a funeral for the name “Flaca.” I was trying to write about the grief of realizing that my dad no longer called me [that] anymore. I grew up not celebrating Día de Los Muertos, but I started to learn more [about the tradition] when I was invited to do community organizing in Portland. I was asked to do a presentation about Día de Los Muertos at an elementary school [and was] like, Okay, I have to learn about this if I’m going to teach about it. The more I learned about the holiday, the more I felt like it was a way to reconnect with a part of my cultural identity that was lost for a long time. Now my family is more interested in celebrating it. I love ritual, and I love the idea of honoring the past—loved ones who’ve died, ancestors we never got a chance to know—and celebrating them by offering food and thinking about beautiful memories. It’s really hard when people pass, but you don’t have to lose the joy and the beauty of what it was like when they were alive. The [book’s] title is about the death of this name and a rebirth that allows for whatever comes next.
You wrote about your experience with DNA testing and coming to terms with who you are and are not at a cellular level. Ultimately, the story felt as if it was about you embodying yourself. Is there anything that still haunts you about your Flaca identity that you’ve laid to rest?
My relationship with my dad will probably always be a little tender. That’s the thing with healing and forgiveness: Some things will never have a tidy resolution, but you still have to put one foot in front of the other. We continue to live in a society that idealizes thin bodies. I still find myself having to filter my own brain and be like, Wait, do I actually think that? Those struggles are going to continue, but ultimately, I don’t want my identity to be tied to my body size. So that’s the choice that I’m making. Though the nickname didn’t cause me harm, it represents a lot of things that were hard. I had to get rid of it.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.