I’ve known Alma Sanchez-Eppler from afar since freshman year, when she was this impossibly intriguing person transplanted from Western Massachusetts into 200 Church. We became friends two years ago in 202 Washington, where I could often hear her earthy, soulful singing voice coming through the door of her room on the ground floor. I mentioned to her months ago that I wanted to interview her as a WesCeleb—after all, she’s mentioned in the pages of The Argus approximately every other week for her work with USLAC and the music and theater scenes on campus—but we finally got the chance to sit down this week on a misty, chilly Thursday afternoon. Alma came to meet me in Usdan wearing neon yellow jeans and a red blouse embroidered with songbirds and flowers over a turquoise cowl-neck top. As always with Alma, however, her clothes were not nearly as surprising as what she had to say.

The Argus: So, I’m going to ask the question everybody asks: Why do you think you should be a WesCeleb?
Alma Sanchez-Eppler: I think everyone should be a WesCeleb; everyone is in their own way. But I think it’s probably because I wear bright colors. You probably saw me around campus.

A: So what do you do on campus?
ASE: On campus, I’m involved in labor activism and theater and music. And…friends. Oh, and poetry, I guess. But mostly I hang out in my room and make things.

A: What is your favorite thing that you’ve made recently?
ASE: I’m working on a play that I wrote that’s going up the first or second week of next semester. I’ve heavily revised the script of that and started the rehearsal process with the cast, so that’s really exciting, and I have high hopes for it. It’s called “They Extract.”

A: Can you tell me what it’s about?
ASE: It’s a very physical piece and involves original musical compositions by me. It’s a very poetic piece…. I don’t know, it’s a very “Alma” kind of play. It’s just kind of out there and visually pensive.

A: This is at least the second piece that you’ve put up so far at Wesleyan, correct?
ASE: Yes, sophomore spring I put up another show that I had written, which was much more realist. “They Extract” is futuristic: it’s set about 500 years from now in a…different world.
A: And you also did an opera last year, right?
ASE: Oh yeah, I wrote that too, I guess. Golly. That was through the faculty production last spring. That was Peony Pavilion. I was dramaturge for that production, which basically means I did historical research for it. But it’s an ancient Chinese opera, so it’s 20 hours long, and they needed someone to adapt it, and I was there, so I did. I heard [people say] it was beautiful. But I don’t know if that’s a compliment or not.

A: Why do you not think that’s a compliment?
ASE: I think that, [while I was] adapting something that is so foreign and so often othered into a western college campus setting, I wanted the piece to be more cognizant of that appropriation. But the cognizance came really just from the awkwardness of western bodies and untrained bodies performing in a quasi-Chinese operatic form. So a lot of the commentary became the form that the play took place in, rather than the content of the script, which I think was good.
I always want to revise my work, and I’m always kind of saddened that in the context of college, there’s such a push forward, and we have to do things so quickly. I really would love to take the time with it and recognize my mistakes. Especially in terms of appropriation and utilizations of my privilege that I wasn’t aware of the first time around. I could always go deeper in those directions.
But I think that “beautiful” is a word that is often used in the context of exotifying and othering Chinese “museum pieces,” so [the idea] that my work was part of that is a little uncomfortable for me.

A: Tell me more about your musical work. You put out an album this summer?
ASE: I did. Basically, last winter, about a year ago, it became evident to me that music, particularly writing lyrics, is just the thing that I feel most competent at. It’s when I feel most eloquent. And I became confident enough in my work on guitar that I was able to call myself a musician, which was a very big deal for me. And then, very shortly after that, I lost the ability to play guitar. We’re still not sure what it is, but my wrists are very weak and sore and don’t let me play music very much. So I haven’t been able to write very much since last year. But what’s come out of that is really being able to focus on the songs that I wrote before and really being able to focus on complicating the musical structures and rhythms of those pieces.
I was lucky because I had written a lot before that point. I had written over 30 songs from the summer before sophomore year to winter junior year. It kind of became this ridiculous compulsion for me. And I’m a pretty compulsive person; when I’m in a creative grind, I can’t do other things. And it’s pretty lonely, but the work is good. I like it; it’s a tradeoff I’m happy to live with.
Of the 30 songs, there were nine that I felt really worked together in telling the story of my observations and experiences around the Occupy movement. Not just celebrating the movement but really trying to complicate it.
So then over the summer I was living at home at my parent’s house, and I made a little tiny recording studio in my basement and recorded my album. It’s just me and my guitar, and it’s pretty terrible quality, but I like listening to it.

A: Talk a bit about your political activism: you’re very involved in the United Student-Labor Action Coalition [USLAC].
ASE: It gets harder, and it gets easier. Basically, I’ve found myself in a position, often, where I feel like I’m filling in the gaps that other people can’t. And I know that’s often a place where “leadership” can exist, in picking up the slack that other people can’t take on.

A: I feel like you’re often the face of USLAC on campus.
ASE: Yeah, it’s interesting, because I’ve really tried not to be. But especially around things like labor activism where there’s so much jargon, I just happen to know so much about how the custodial contract works at Wesleyan. And as much as I lecture about that, the information transfer isn’t immediate. But this year, recruiting-wise, we did amazingly. We have an amazing group of underclassmen.

A: I feel like something that is so key to my understanding and my love of you as a human being is that, more than anybody I know, you put your heart and soul and emotion into everything you do.
ASE: There isn’t enough time in the world for me to spend any of it doing things that I don’t need to do. And that’s a pretty selfish attitude. And it’s a pretty incredible privilege that I have, being able to survive having that attitude. The way that I explain this to myself is that everything I love in the world, except for nature, exists because somebody committed to an idea with everything that they had. So if I don’t treat my ideas with the same kind of reverence, I’m never going to make anything worthwhile. And I’ve kind of resigned myself to being an artist at this point. My brain doesn’t really work other ways.

A: So speaking of resigning yourself to being an artist, what do you think you’ll do after graduation?
ASE: Next summer I’m going to try to travel around and gig at different festivals. And if my wrists aren’t healed yet, then I’ll try to get people to come with me. And that’s been one of the blessings of having this different ability in my hands, is having the need to collaborate. Since I was a kid, I’ve always been very adamantly independent. And it’s never served me as well as I could be served by collaborating with people. Next semester, I’m focusing on music, so hopefully that will necessitate that I do collaborate more and do create more of those ties and connections to other people. I’m afraid of other people because I don’t understand them very well. Which is fine, and exciting.
After the summer of festivals, we’ll see what happens. I might hang out in Philadelphia.

A: Why Philly?
ASE: Um, Quakers. It’s been really hard being at college and so separated from my religious community. And I know that’s something that’s really hard for people for whom religious communities are really important. And the Quaker world is one where there is more support for the work that I hope to do. So either I’ll be doing volunteer service work, maybe for an organization that’s doing anti-racism work. That’s the political work that I’m most excited about right now, and I think for the rest of my life. I think this is the one.

A: So, you said that people know you because of your bright colors. I feel like, in some ways, your clothes signify you in a way that they don’t for a lot of people.
ASE: One of the things that I dislike uncomfortably is the fashion industry.

A: What does that mean?
ASE: I’m such a pluralist person that I’m very happy most of the time to let everyone do their own thing. But the fashion industry bothers me. I’m uncomfortable because I don’t want to be someone who doesn’t want to let everyone do what they want to do, because I think a diversity of experiences are important, but I don’t like to think about appearance very much.

A: But you do cultivate a style.
ASE: I went to a [performing arts] high school where a lot of people wore kind of kooky things. I don’t shave my legs, and I never really have. But there was one day that I came into school and I had shaved my legs for a show that I was in, and everyone was freaking out. And that’s when I understood that I had a reputation as someone that doesn’t shave. And it was strange to know that that was so important to how people see me.
So I think of clothing as a performance. Because I don’t feel particularly female, so getting dressed in the morning is often an act of getting into drag, no matter what I’m wearing. I feel most like myself when I’m naked. So clothing is always sort of an imposition. But since I’m aware of that imposition, I might as well have fun with it.
I kind of think of it as a Brechtian device in some ways. To make people aware of the performativity of my gender.

A: Like, excessively female, or ludicrously female?
ASE: Right, it’s like a parody of femininity. Which is the most I can say for my gender identity. But really it’s just like, the clothes I have happen to be very weird. So, at this point, these are the clothes I have, and I wake up and grab some things and put them on. But some days I do put on [what I call] “high drag.”

A: What question do you wish I would ask you?
ASE: I always want to talk more about whiteness. Just because this is a platform, and I recognize that. I’m running a student forum next semester about bias awareness and learning self-love. I feel that, from a white perspective, things that drive the perpetuation of racist and sexist and ableist and gender-normalist systems are about an inability to love oneself and to listen to oneself and to trust. Walking around the world and noticing the ways that I am biased has allowed me to make the room I need to not keep doing those things. Making that space is an act of self-love for me.
But I never want to preference my ideas over other people’s. Which is complicated as a very opinionated person. But it also feels true.

This interview was edited for length.

  • SuperJisan Zaman

    A great piece. Alama’s brilliance is truly displayed here.