***El libro azul ya está disponible en Amazon (.com, .co.uk, .de, .fr, .es, .it, .co.jp) y en las librerías El Candil (Ponce, PR). Tal vez también esté en El laberinto (Viejo San Juan, PR) y Quimera (Viejo San Juan de Puerto Rico), pero aún si no lo estuviera ya, vale la pena pasar por allí: El Candil, El laberinto y Quimera son lugares mágicos.***
Iris Monica Vargas loves books, words, cells, galaxies and planets, and she has always been equally enchanted by literature as by science. This duality is part of who she is today, and always a blessing. In 2019 Vargas was recognized as “Mujer con Visión,” A Woman with A Vision, by the magazine of the same name. And in 2020, she was one of nine women –amongst lawyers, scholars, painters, educators, musicians, and Puerto Rico Hall-of-Fame-athletes– who received the Central Carmen Award (Premio Central Carmen) for “representing with dignity the spirit of Women of the 21st Century.”
In 2020, as well, Vargas received a PEN International Award in Puerto Rico for El libro azul, her second work of poetry, a piece that addresses the mystery at the intersection between creativity and theories about the phenomenon of consciousness. Born in Puerto Rico, she grew up in Barrio Bajuras (the home of little girls and little boys full of promise and potential), a small, economically disadvantaged, rural area in the beautiful mountains of Vega Alta, above the Cibuco river, and approximately fifty minutes from San Juan, the capital of the Island.
Having grown up surrounded my dirt, huge flying cockroaches, salamanders, birds, passion fruit and avocado – as well as a neighbor with a monkey as a pet – gave Vargas a fresh perspective of the world apparent in her work. Vega Alta was, in fact, the place where Vargas’ love for writing and for science was born with the encouragement of Sr. Serapio Laureano, Sra. Chinea, Sra. Molina, Sr. Díaz, Sr. Agustín Flores, Sra. Lucila Rivera, among other amazing teachers and mentors.
As a child, Mónica read voraciously. Her parents, non-English speakers with little economic resources, provided the family, nonetheless, with endless energy, kindness and love, and from an early age exposed Vargas to the English language through books that were donated to them by people who knew about their passion for reading and their mission to teach their children more than one language.
Throughout her life, science and literature have remained intertwined. Today, though no longer a practicing physicist, she still loves the field and her reading interests are wide: from high energy astrophysics and cosmology, to emergency medicine and space medicine, as well as the history of medicine in society. In literature, Iris Monica is interested in – and also practices – poetry and the genre of short stories.
A romantic at heart, as well as a book nerd, legend has it, Vargas would spend many a high school lunch recess inside of the school’s library, in the company of her best friend, Xiomi, reading either a science book or Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, Spanish poet Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer and Puerto Rican Julia de Burgos, tirelessly.
<<During an award ceremony, a well-intended woman approached me, and asked, seemingly surprised, if I had really been raised in my barrio, and if I had really attended Puerto Rico’s public schools. I answered, yes. And she insisted, “but really?” I said, yes. “All your schools were public schools?” she asked again, and I again answered yes. She was seemingly in disbelief. (In Puerto Rico, corruption in government has often targeted education, leaving our schools and teachers with scarce resources. In the face of such disadvantages, people often lose faith in their own potential as individuals and as a community, in the enormous value and talent they do possess. ) It made me think a lot about how sometimes even kind, well-intended people do a lot of work for certain disadvantaged communities and the kids there, because they believe it is a good deed to help others, yes, but perhaps not being completely convinced themselves that what they do will change anything, that what they offer may actually be a tool those kids will use to achieve valuable things in life. >>
<<It also makes me think about the importance of representation. I am a simple person with weaknesses and strengths. I have a limited bag of tools, but I work hard to expand these tools, to address my weaknesses, and I work hard with what I have in order, always, to create new things and find ways to contribute. And whether I want it or not, whether I am aware of it or not, I am always representing my community, and my country, and the many possibilities we hold as people, no matter who we are, what last name we inherited, or where we come from. >>
<<What we do always matters, mostly, because it expands the realm of possibilities for someone else. That can be powerful. So please, whatever you are going through in life at this moment, do not ever underestimate yourself, no matter how many times you are rejected or lose something you really desired. Do not ever give up. You never know what lies ahead in your path, and you never know who is looking at you, and who is inspired by you getting back up, by your journey, so they can get back up too. Only you know your full potential and all that you are able to accomplish. Stay STRONG.>> — Iris Mónica Vargas.
Becoming A Student
Iris Mónica Vargas completed a double bachelor’s degree in Biology and Physics, and a master’s degree in Physics (Universidad de Puerto Rico). As part of her graduate work in Physics, she studied the properties of diamond as the material to make thin film detectors that would be sensitive to ultraviolet light to be used in astronomy applications. A fun, hands-on project, it allowed her not only the opportunity to contribute in the construction and assembly of the machine to synthesize diamond (technically referred to as a Chemical Vapor Deposition system) but also the opportunity to design, fabricate and characterize the detector itself as a final product. Working under the tutelage of Dr. Gerardo Morell and Dr. Brad Weiner taught Vargas to be both organized and systematic in her approach to solving a problem, whatever it is, as well as courageous and daring in her thinking.
At the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA), Iris Mónica studied nearby elliptical galaxies, the environment around their nucleus, and the existence of the mysterious ultra-luminous X-ray creatures (ULX’s) in these stellar habitats. she worked with Dr. Christine Jones, a legend in the astrophysics community and one of the strongest women Vargas has ever admired. At MIT, she explored the force of gravity and the effects of its continuum (from microgravity to hypergravity) on beings as small as the Medaka fish and as big as humans, from a literary science-writing perspective.
In 2005, Iris Mónica met seasoned Spanish writer and editor Francisco Vacas with whom she ran a bimonthly column at El Nuevo Día, Puerto Rico’s main newspaper. This was Vargas’ first experience writing for a general audience on topics related to science. With Francisco as her mentor and editor, the column, called “Ciencia Boricua”, garnered the Best New Column of the Year Award in 2006. For Vargas, the experience of working side by side with an editor of Francisco Vacas’ caliber, was “life changing.”
Vargas worked as staff member with Harvard Science, under the supervision of Pulitzer Prize winning journalist B.D. Colen. She completed a second master’s degree, this time in Science Writing, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) – an achievement which has been a source of pride for Vargas given that her mother tongue is Spanish, and not English. Amongst hundreds of applicants, she was one of only eight individuals chosen and was given a full scholarship award to undergo her studies.
At the Universidad de Puerto Rico, Vargas studied journalism with wonderful, award winning writer/journalist Magaly Garcia Ramis (Felices días, tío Sergio). At MIT , Vargas formalized her study of writing and literature under the tutelage of Russ Rymer (Genie, Paris Twilight), the amazing Marcia Bartusiak (The Day We Found The Universe), Robert Kanigel (On An Irish Island), Tom Levenson (Einstein in Berlin), and Alan Lightman (Einstein’s Dreams, Mr. G), a beloved mentor. She also studied fiction writing with Junot Díaz (Winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 2008 for his first novel “The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao“, “This is How You Lose Her”).
While at MIT, Vargas submitted her poetry work as part of an application to be a part of the poetry class at the Department of English and American Literature and Language at Harvard University, and was granted a place amongst dozens of applicants (from Harvard and MIT) to study poetry under the guidance of Academy of American Poets award winner and gifted, kind teacher/poet/artist Peter Richards (“Nude Siren”, “Helsinski”).
Vargas was Co-creator and Developer of the MIT MOSTEC Science Writing Course of which she was Lead Instructor from 2014-2016, and was Instructor for five years. During the summer of 2017, Vargas was selected to be part of the Sherwin B. Nuland Summer Institute for Bioethics is at Yale University. The experience, says Vargas, was exhilarating.
<<Being at MIT has been one of the most exhilarating experiences I have ever had. It is truly en environment filled with creativity and a passion for learning that is contagious. It allowed me to see things I could have never imagined seeing and to meet people who believe that everything and anything is possible, and that you are part of that equation, you can make things possible. It’s a place where people believe in you, they are proud to have you as a student and they tell you. I felt that they were proud of us all and always encouraged and welcomed our ideas, even those that contradicted their own. That’s how places like MIT thrive. They don’t silence their students: they welcome their contributions. Being there is akin to being constantly in a brainstorm session. It’s exciting.” —I.M.V.
Digressions she never gets to have anywhere else
<<I’m the eternal underdog–just when you think I’m down for good, I stand up again and continue forward. I never give up. I don’t know where this internal fire comes from, but it is there, and it is strong. Our lives, yours and mine, may be small but we always make a difference. I know that to be true. Most of the people who inspire us, we’ve never even met –most are normal people whose work we have only heard about by chance, and whose accomplishments have made us aware that we, too, can get back up and try again something we hold dear in our hearts and brains, as a worthy goal, and as true to our most cherished values. >>
<<We know the world would never work without this appetite for Life we share, without this act of imagining the possibilities beyond what is there right now, beyond that which already exists. We know that.>> —Iris Monica Vargas
<<Like most people, on some days when I’m feeling especially confident, I can tell myself “you’re talented,” but on other days, I don’t consider myself the most talented at anything. I do, however, invariably know what I have as my tools —for instance, an undying passion for poetry, writing and literature, and a relentless passion for Medicine, learning and science in general — and I work harder than anyone you have ever known for those things. I show up early, I am an expert at getting up right away after I fall down, no matter the amount of scratches I receive; and no matter how long it takes, I get the work done. I’m always the hardest-working and I do not, ever, give up. >>
<<And why do I tell you this? Because we live in a world where it would seem as though achievements —at home, at work, at school— simply “happened” through some magical power, and that can be misleading and disheartening. For everything you want to achieve, in my opinion, there are three requirements: to practice feeling as grateful and happy as you can unconditionally, then to apply a healthy dose of dreaming and imagining what you want to do, and finally, to put in the necessary work. Nobody talks about the work behind their successes, big or small. I’ve never understood that. The people we admire most sometimes present their lives and successes as though they had come in a perfect package. We never get to see the flaws, the seams, in anything. We regard the final product as the only thing there is –flat, unidimensional. It is as though we thought we took away from the beauty and magic of the moon by observing it with a telescope and learning about its seas. I don’t think we do. I know we do not.>>
<<To me, every single victory, no matter how small, to most of us in the world, has been preceded by hard work and dedication, and many times, by sacrifice as well, and by many moments —a multitude of them, in fact —when all we feel is fear and uncertainty, and all we dare to see is the reality of what is, instead of what can be. (Now I know, by the way, that whenever you feel like that, all you have to do is focus not on the problems but on the solutions. Focus on feeling well, on noticing what is working out for you. Focusing on that gives you the calmness you need to continue creating.) I do think that understanding or being aware that other people have gone through these less than glamorous, polished and perfect experiences is important both to preserve one’s own sanity as well as to be prepared to put in the amount of work –and patience– that a worthy goal deserves. Yes, some people might get everything handed to them in a silver platter (maybe), but most of us get whatever we get through hard work, dedication, and most of all, fierce, even rebellious, imagination about how things can be. Lately I’ve been thinking perhaps this, too —this work, this fierce imagination— is actually the real definition of being lucky.>>
<<Work has acquired a little bit of a bad reputation these days, I know, but work can be fun and is absolutely noble, in my opinion. The journey to a goal is really what is fun about pursuing something. (Sometimes that’s hard to remember –I know it well…) Work does not need to be a chore, though. It can be a source of fun, pleasure, experience, knowledge and pride. To me, that hard work we put into whatever our heart dreams of accomplishing is what will make us feel proud of ourselves at the end of the day, when the goal is achieved. That work that allowed you to achieve whatever it was you dreamt of is what makes your life worthy and worth it. It’s also, I think, what makes you who you are, and who you will be. And that’s why I think it’s important for me to say this, for anyone who cares to read.” —Iris Mónica Vargas**Learning The Other Language”Cuantos más idiomas sepas, con más personas podrás hablar e intercambiar ideas. Los idiomas son los objetos más humanos que tenemos y, también, los que tienen mayor posibilidad de humanidad.” –Iris Mónica Vargas
(End of digression)
Iris Mónica learned to write in English through a thirteen-year long correspondence with a pen pal from San Francisco, California, whose name was Shane Wilson. (Vargas never had the chance to meet him). Even though neither of her parents spoke English, and despite the fact that Vargas father was a strong and active advocate for the independence of Puerto Rico, Vargas’ parents always encouraged their children to learn the foreign language, “both because of Puerto Rico’s complex political and economical relationship with the United States – the United States occupied Puerto Rico in 1898 and the island is still, functionally, a colony of the U.S.– and because they believed that mastering the English language was their children’s ticket out of their condition of poverty inside their barrio, and into a world beyond the country’s geographical and cultural boundaries,” Vargas has said. “My parents thought engaging with the rest of the world, not just the United States but the world at large, was a really important experience. And because economically they couldn’t give us trips around the world or fancy prep school opportunities, they did all they could to teach us English, hoping it would serve us as the foundation from which to move forward.”
The Challenge of Sharing One’s Work
<<Atrévete a entablar conversaciones con otras personas, aunque no las conozcas. Atrévete a preguntarles su nombre y decirles el tuyo. Atrévete a escuchar atentamente sobre sus proyectos, y a hablarles de los tuyos con emoción, con honestidad. Atrévete a mencionarles aquello con lo que sueñas. Atrévete a preguntarles si puedes colaborar con ellos. Atrévete a mostrar que tienes ganas de trabajar duro, y que no paras de imaginar. No necesariamente te responderán, quizás no te abran la puerta, pero habrás crecido y mucho en ti se sentirá más segur@ de ti mism@, más cómod@ en tu piel. Eso te hará crear con más fuerza.>> —Iris Mónica Vargas
<<For every little thing one does achieve, there are a hundred or more that one couldn’t do. Every piece published is the result of all of those that nobody wanted, and every single one that still has not worked. Every CV is accompanied, though invisibly, by what I call The Anti CV.Your Anti CV should always be longer than your CV.>> —Iris Mónica Vargas
Her work has been featured in several publications nationally and internationally, including a few literary anthologies; science magazines such as Science News, SEED Magazine, Bay State Banner, Harvard Science, Harvard Gazette, Bulletin of Anesthesia History, National Association of Science Writer (NASW); periodicals and literary magazines such as Latin American Literature Today (LALT), El Nuevo Día (in Puerto Rico), Letralia (in Venezuela), Otro Lunes (based in Germany), Isla Negra (in Lanusei, Italy), Letras Salvajes (Puerto Rico), Poetas del siglo XXI (Spain), Revista Poetas y Escritores Miami, Goldfoundation.org, Revista Fábula (Logroño, Spain), Low-Fi ardentía (New York), El coloquio de los perros (España), Social Medicine/Medicina Social (New York); and blogs such as the now defunct Salon’s Open Salon (where her work gathered an Editor’s Choice), Confesiones (of writer Angelo Negron); and has been featured in Boreales (from award winning writer Yolanda Arroyo Pizarro), Solo Disparates, Dialogo, Milibrohispano, among others. She is a member of AIPEH, the international association of latino writers and poets, in Miami, Florida, and Mi Libro Hispano. In 2014, Vargas was guest of honor at the Celebración Internacional del Libro Hispano, in Miami.
Listen to this podcast where Vargas reads three of her poems. (Duration: 1 minute)
The Adventure of A First Book
<<Sometimes we feel invisible, be it because of the color of our skin, our background, our country of origin, our sexual preference, our gender, even non-physical (sometimes imagined) things that we have somehow internalized as our own — who knows? There are so many categories, if you think of them, they will overwhelm and immobilize you. There are, I guess, many ways in which one is invisible. I guess we are always invisible to someone, while also unable to see everything —Vexatious categories, unconscious biases. Perhaps we must learn and we must work and we must live as though we were not invisible. At least that is one way, however simplistic it may seem, to take off little by little the invisibility cloak. I think it is precisely the act of living — of experiencing the world but also of creating it, or creating in it– what allows us to see ourselves.>>
<<A great thing about being invisible is that it kind of forces us to see ourselves more intensely. In a way, it gives us the space –and the silence– to understand what we are about: our values –what we stand for– as well as what we want to create. Even if nobody were to expect anything from us (no matter who “they” are for you), it is still okay: this gives us freedom (and freedom is a great thing to have, especially in the endeavor of creating, be it in art or in science). We can explore who we are until we know. We can create over a wider canvas—happily and intensely. We have nothing to lose. (We have nothing to lose.) So even if the exercise doesn’t produce the desired effect of being seen, or the exact result we were hoping for, it will not matter: we will have lived our lives to the fullest and we will have, hopefully, no regrets.>> —Iris Mónica Vargas
La última caricia, Vargas’ first book, is a poetic meditation on the process of dissection of a human body told from the perspectives of both a medical student and the donor who has offered his/her body to science. Originally published in its digital version (Terranova Editores, 2013), it is now available on paperback and can be found on Amazon.com, as well as at local Puerto Rican bookstores such as Librería Mágica (in Río Piedras, PR), El Candil (in Ponce, PR) and Laberinto Viejo (in San Juan, PR). Released in September 13, 2013, Iris Mónica Vargas’ first book, La última caricia, unexpectedly, continuously appeared on Amazon’s Best Seller List in the category of Caribbean and Latin American books – at times ranked as number 1 and 3 – for a year and a week.
Watch Vargas read a poem from the book in this video she filmed and edited in Cambridge, MA.
Her second book, El libro azul, was born December 12, 2018. El libro azul is an exploration of memory, or of the nature of that which we have come to know as mind or consciousness as it gives form to memory in health, in illness and, above all, in the creative process—as an obsession itself, a type of “insanity.” It is about the act of creation as a tool for the machine –The mind? That centaur, half human, half something else one might argue we are? — to explore and decipher what it is. The book won a PEN International Puerto Rico Award In 2020. In both books, La última caricia and El libro azul, Vargas’ poetry interweaves science and poetry through questions used as meditations on the experience of being human and on those concepts or ideas that do not yet have their own vocabulary to allow us to speak of them. In Vargas’ poetry, nothing is ever settled or finite; everything is always an open question, a mystery, an exploration of the imagination.
Watch Vargas read one of her poems, “Despacio, el Universo” in Ireland.
Vargas is currently a medical student, interested not only in the anatomy of medicine but also in how best to understand what it does, how it can be made to operate for the benefit and healing of people within the context of a society in which we sometimes focus instead on transactions between “clients” and “providers”, “disease” and “treatment.”
She is currently the editor of Stethoscopes & Pencils, an online venue dedicated to finding powerful voices and stories connecting literature and medicine through all their possible intersections, in an attempt to understand or think about the human experience in its light as well as in its darkness.
<<I am an advocate of empathy, both in medicine, and in every day life,” Vargas has said, drawing from her experiences as a Spanish-language medical interpreter, “I see empathy not as a “soft” topic but, instead, as a cognitively complex and challenging, dynamic skill, requiring both a sharp eye for detail and an ability to consider people not within categories or “boxes” but individually, assessing specific needs (as in the case of hospital caregiver-patient interactions) of a diversity of people as these evolve in time. The process, I believe, requires not only careful observation and respect of others’ cultural backgrounds and varied beliefs, but also constant introspection by the observer. I regard empathy as something worth thinking about no matter your field of work. I think it can be learned, but to learn it, it needs to be practiced over and over again.>>
Street Advice From a Person Who Is Still Learning (i.e. A few more digressions)
<<My priority as a writer goes hand in hand with my priority as a human being: I want to understand where I come from, but I want to understand, just as much, what I am doing in the world, where I want to go, what the impact is of my presence here. I am interested in my identity not only inside my immediate surroundings, my country of origin, but also, and above all, my identity as a human being, part of a greater community in the world. >>
<<I want to understand how I, informed, of course, and significantly, by where I come from and by the context of that history, yet sometimes despite of it, fit inside the world at large. I think what we can consider independent identities can really speak with each other, enriching what one can accomplish if one were to regard them completely separate or independent of each other.>>
Of writing, Vargas has said, “To be able to tell a good story, hard work (practice, practice and more practice) is what is required, even during difficult times when confidence fails, especially when rejection letters abound and faith in the process of writing vanishes.”
<<Being a writer is about persistence. We know we have something to say, a story to tell, and we feel that it must be told. So we tell it. And we tell it regardless of whether somebody else validates it or not, not worrying so much about what we are called, or about the recognition or awards we might receive (or not) but about the quality of the telling itself, and above all, about the honesty with which we tell the story.>>
<<It’s best, more productive, to be absolutely honest with oneself, as well, humbly recognizing the distance one must cover, the things one must still learn. (And of course, this is all quite difficult to do–letting go of the ego we all have, and hold on to sometimes as a defense mechanism to help us survive.) Listening to advice is also essential. Being arrogant or stubborn in the face of constructive criticism doesn’t necessarily carry a dream further. It often serves to limit our potential.>>
<<We cannot ever lose that state of being emergent, or beginners. What I suspect can happen when people feel they are experts at something is that they begin losing their state of curiosity, and if that happens, then learning stops, creativity dwindles. And happiness begins to feel elusive, because a significant part of feeling satisfied and happy, I intuit, stems from being part of a process of discovery.>>
<<In the end, we know we can get there, wherever “there” is or whatever it means for each one of us. We will get there. We just have to keep on writing. The most important thing is to each day become better at crafting our stories. That’s what we must focus on. That must be the priority in all of this. And that is what will bring calm and peace into the process.>>
<<Finally, we must be proud of our own life story. Failures and successes: it’s all part of it. Don’t waste your time envying others. Focus on your work and your work only. Use that bothersome anxiety that we all feel sometimes, when we think someone else is doing something cool that we wish we were doing instead, to get inspired by others. Whenever you start experiencing that anxiety, it means you have temporarily lost track of your own path, your own experience, your own dreams and ideas. The remedy, infallible, is to remind yourself about your “vision,” or if you don’t have one yet, ask yourself what it is that you want to create. Consult your brain, your heart, your imagination, and start creating.>>
<<Be grateful to the people who helped you along the way. Even if you sound like a weirdo to them because of how much you say thank you, do it: say thank you. They don’t have to help you. Nobody does. Everybody has their own problems and a life filled with work and obligations, happiness and tears of their own. So if they do help you, the least and/or best you can do is say thank you. Let them know that you never forget them or their gesture. Make sure they know you appreciate their kindness.>>
<<Creativity does not have a deadline and it doesn’t have a limit—it doesn’t matter where you’re from, what your background is, your race, your age, etc. Your superpower is your imagination and it always allows you to reinvent yourself regardless of the circumstances around you. Respect who you are and others. Be kind. There is space for everyone.>>
Photograph (below) by Kenny Viese, New York.
Back to the former-curly-hair-girl that could, here.