The Latina Book Club's mission is to promote Latina / Latino authors. We do this through book reviews, author interviews, publicity announcements, book of the month selections, etc. A new popular feature we added this year is "Writers Wednesdays." The first Wednesday of each month, we will feature a writer talking about ...writing.
Our guest this month is Reyna Grande. She preferred that we ask her questions on writing, so below are her answers. Happy Reading!
LBC: When did you know you wanted to write?
REYNA: I discovered writing by accident. In junior high, I was an English as a Second Language student and I began to write as a way to learn English. I wrote stories about my hometown in Mexico, about the people I had left behind when I came to the U.S. Eventually, writing was no longer about learning English, it became my way of making sense of the world around me and holding on to my memories. By the time I got to high school, I was in regular English classes, but when I spoke English, you could still hear my accent, and at school the kids would make fun of me every time I spoke up in class. But when I wrote you couldn't hear my accent and this is why writing became my favorite way of expressing myself. However, I never thought of myself as a writer until I was in college and I read the House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros. Up until that point I hadn't read Latino literature and somehow I just assumed that Latinos didn't write. Boy was I in for a big surprise! After I got my hands on books by Latina writers, I knew that I wanted to be a writer.
LBC: What is your writing schedule? When and where do you write?
REYNA: Usually I try to write while my kids are in school. My perfect day is when I drop off my kids at school, go hiking, then come home by 11:00am and spend the next four hours writing. However, due to my constant traveling, I have gotten good at writing anytime, anywhere. I can write at airports, on airplanes (where I'm literally strapped to my seat), and at hotels.
LBC: Do you begin with a character or with a plot idea?
REYNA: I think you can say that I begin with a specific topic or experience that I care about. In Across a Hundred Mountains, I really wanted to capture the experiences of the children that get left behind in Mexico when their parents come here to work, and to show how immigration affects families. It took me four years to create the characters and the plotline, but the main idea never changed. Dancing with Butterflies emerged the same way. I really love Folklorico and I wanted to capture the world of Mexican folk dance in a story. So I created the characters and the plotline using folklorico as my backdrop. The result was a story with multiple layers. As for my memoir, one of the things that inspired me to write the book was all the talk about immigration from the media and politicians. I wanted to write my personal story as a way to contribute to the discussion about immigration from a more personal standpoint. This book was somewhat different from the other two in that--because it is a memoir--I already had the cast of characters and the plot! However, the challenge for me was seeing the events in my life as "plot points", and thinking of my life in terms of "inciting incidents", "turning points", and "climax", etc. It took me a very long time to start seeing my life from a more "writerly" perspective.
LBC: Who do you write for? The Latino who can identify with your story or the non-Latino who can learn more about you and Latinos in general?
REYNA: I write for both. I write for Latino readers because I want them to see our culture and our experiences in literature. I write for non-Latinos because I want to give them an insight into the complexities and the richness of the Latino culture.
LBC: How important do you think it is for Latinos to write about the Latino experience?
REYNA: I think it's crucial that we tell our stories because if we don't someone else is going to write about us in a way we might not like. For example, this past month I saw a movie and read a book with Latino characters and I was very bothered by the portrayal of Latinos. The movie was Elysium, which takes place in the future, over a hundred years from now. It is partially set in Los Angeles and the city is now overrun by a huge Latino population, and guess what happened to L.A.? Yeah, it looks exactly like a third-world country, complete with dirt roads (this part of the movie was actually filmed in a poor area of Mexico City). Maybe I'm reading too much into the film but I was offended by this. I was wondering if the message was that since Latinos will be the largest demographic population by 2050, we are going to turn the U.S. into a third-world country. I don't know. Maybe I'm reading too much into it as I said.
This past weekend, I read a young adult book called Monument 14. Again, it is set in the future and I was bothered by the two Latino characters in this book. One was a first-grade boy who can't speak English and the other was a pedophile. I'm sure the author did not intent to portray us in a bad way, and I'm probably being too "sensitive", but this is why I believe that it's important for us Latino writers to write about the Latino experience because we write from a place of authority and sensitivity.
LBC: You waited until your father passed away to write your memoir. Were you afraid of his reaction? Was your family mad at you for writing it?
REYNA: Actually, I didn't wait for him to pass away to write the memoir. I was finishing the second half of the book when he died. My father was diagnosed with liver cancer when I was working on the book, and there were many times when I was writing that I felt like quitting. I was on an emotional rollercoaster ride. I was writing about the kind of father he had been 20 years ago. So obviously I was unearthing a lot of the emotions I had tried to bury. The father that was dying of cancer was not the same man. He was a different person, but during the writing I returned to my adolescence and was confronted by a lot of ugly emotions--pain, anger, bitterness, sadness, resentment. It was hard for me to write all day long and then go see my father at the hospital. I literally had to stand outside his door and remind myself that this was a different father.
Before he passed away, I definitely did think about holding off on publishing the memoir. It was too painful. But writing the memoir was very healing for me. It really helped me to understand my father a lot more and it helped me to once and for all get rid of all those emotions I had carried inside me for too long. My siblings were very supportive of the book. In fact, they read the many drafts I wrote and they gave me feedback. They all shared their own memories with me and helped me to fill in the blanks when I couldn't remember. The memoir was a family project!
LBC: What can we expect next from Reyna Grande?
REYNA: I'm ashamed to call myself a writer at the moment because I haven't written anything in over a month. But I'm now gearing up to return to my current novel-in-progress. I am co-writing on a young adult novel with a friend and once I'm finished with that I have three other novels in the back burner. I tend to do only one project at a time and I take a long time writing, so it will be a while. Stay tuned!###
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Reyna Grande, author of three critically-acclaimed books: Across a Hundred Mountains (Atria, 2006), Dancing with Butterflies (Washington Square Press, 2009) and The Distance Between Us, a memoir (Atria, 2012). She has been the recipient of an American Book Award, El Premio Aztlan Literary Award, and an International Latino Book Award. She is also a finalist for a National Critics Circle Award. Grande holds a BA in creative writing and film and video from the University of California, Santa Cruz. She received her MFA in creative writing from Antioch University. She is an active promoter of Latino literature and has worked as a program coordinator for festivals such as the 2009 and 2010 Latino Book & Family Festival. She has also served as a judge for literary awards such as Pen USA Literary Awards. She teaches creative writing for UCLA Extension, and speaks at high schools, colleges, and universities across the nation. She is currently at work on her next novel. For more information, visit www.reynagrande.com.