Sara Campos, who resides in Northern California, is the 2012 recipient of the Letras Latinas Residency Fellowship. She will be in residence at the Anderson Center in Red Wing Minnesota in July and a receive a $1000 stipend. This annual distinction is part of an ongoing partnership between Letras Latinas and the Anderson Center. The aim of the initiative is to identify a Latino or Latina writer who is working on a first full-length book, and for whom a one-month residency would suppose a significant boost in this endeavor.
A writer of Guatemalan descent, Sara Campos holds degrees from the University of San Francisco, Mills College, and the University of California/Los Angeles School of Law, where she was the editor of the Chicano Law Review. She has worked at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, for the California Supreme Court, and as a press officer for the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund. Her fiction, nonfiction, and poetry have appeared in a number of publications, including St. Ann’s Review, Rio Grande Review, and San Francisco Chronicle.
Sara was nice enough to answer a few questions
for Letras Latinas Blog.
Here’s a thought that came to mind when I was reading your novel excerpt: As in Julia Alvarez’s In the Time of the Butterflies, or Gioconda Belli’s, The Country Under My Skin, where women are the protagonists in Latin American countries undergoing political change, your work seems to be treading similar terrain. In the case of these examples the countries are the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua, respectively. In the case of your novel, it's Guatemala. So I guess my question is: What role, if any, did either of these aforementioned books or writers have when it came to shaping your novel? If these particular writers/books were not in any way models, could you talk about the writers and/or books that have served as inspiration or models?
Although I’ve read both Country Under My Skin and In the Time of the Butterflies, they did not play a role in the initial development of my novel. I did not purposely intend to write a political novel; I wanted to write a love story, in this case, between a white woman and an indigenous man in Guatemala. My mother is Guatemalan and the germ of the story came to me from a photograph of an indigenous young man she kept among mementos. I looked at the picture and wondered whether he loved her. She denied it. Whether he did or not, I became fixated with it. If she/they had been in love, they would not have been able to marry, not because of her class (she was poor), but because of an apartheid that treated indigenous people as less than human. When I began my novel, I quickly realized that if my protagonist had a relationship with an indigenous man, she could not have been part of the culture. She must have come from somewhere else. I looked for places and reasons why she and her family might have arrived in Guatemala at that time and I landed in Spain; she might have left because of the civil war in 1936.
When I began looking at the Guatemala of my protagonist, I realized it was a pivotal period in the country’s history. Once I stumbled upon it, I felt compelled to learn more about it. Only then did I begin reading fiction that treated political stories. I read a number of books, including the aforementioned texts and a host of others; a few that come to mind are Asturias’ Senior Presidente, Garcia Marquez’ novel A Hundred Years of Solitude, Laleh Khadivi’s Age of Orphans, Carolina De Robertis, Invisible Mountain, and Chimandmanda Ngozi Adiche, Half of a Yellow Sun.
Your novel excerpt depicts events that took place in 1944. This suggests, at least to me, not only writing about a particular time and place, but also: research. Could you share with us what role research has played in working on your novel. Have you done much? And if so, what did it consist of? How do you balance research with the writing of fiction?
Research has played an enormous role in my novel and as I work through the second draft, I continue to engage in it. I want to know what life was like in the 40’s; I want to get into the heads of my characters. I’ve read just about everything I could get my hands on that has dealt with Guatemala during the period. I’ve also read biographies and memoirs in Spanish. Also, in 2010, I traveled to Guatemala to conduct some interviews. I was able to talk with a ninety year-old man who served in government during the period. I do believe, however, that one can do too much research. Research can help but it can also be an easy place to hide. When I think I’m getting too bogged down in research, I need to ask myself whether I’m procrastinating and keeping myself from writing.
My first question suggests or implies that some of your models may have been Latin American/Latina writers. But of course we know that writers find models and inspiration from a wide range of sources. Could talk about not only other writers whose work you have found crucial in your development, but also other artists (in whatever genre) or people in other disciplines, as well (history, anthropology, etc)
When I did my MFA, I worked with writer and professor Micheline Marcom (Three Apples Fell From Heaven; Daydreaming Boy). She believed the only way to teach writing was to learn from the masters themselves, even if (or perhaps especially) they were dead. We read dozens of books for inspiration and influence. Early on, I was smitten by the work of Michael Ondaatje. I couldn’t read enough of him. I loved what he did with language. I also loved Arunhati Roy’s The God of Small Things. The way she weaves the story in such a conventional, circular way, still dazzles me. The same could be said for Francisco Goldman’s The Long Night of White Chickens. I think I read Frank’s book at least five or six times.
You and I had the pleasure of meeting at what may have been the last Macondo Writers’ Workshop. Could you share with us what that week in San Antonio was like for you, and what it meant for you as a writer?
I’m heartbroken that Macondo will not happen again. My week in July of 2011 was extraordinary. What was not to love? The writers, the community, the insights I gained were so valuable and affirming. Although I loved my workshop, I was especially moved by Naomi Shihab Nye and Julia Alvarez. I found them both so generous in spirit and deed. Julia gave a talk called, “Ask Me Anything.” For some reason, I expected her to talk about publishing. Instead, she surprised me by talking about process, her process. She shared a slide presentation that included a painting of a sleigh in a snow storm. Another depicted a woman completely entangled in string, snipping away one piece at a time. These illustrations signified how she spent her days, sometimes practically blinded by blizzards. Despite her fear, she had to find her way through the unknown. Her words honored the process and were exactly what I needed to hear at the time.
You will soon be in residence for one month at the Anderson Center as the fourth Letras Latinas Residency Fellow. First question: could share with us what project(s) you’ll be working on and what goal you are setting for yourself? And second: my understanding is that you have had the experience of being in residence at Hedgebrook. What advice might you give to a writer who is about to experience his/her first residency?
I have amassed a very lengthy manuscript and hope to hone it down to manageable size. I anticipate that my novel will take the lion’s share of my time. I’m shipping a box full of books to greet me when I arrive. They include numerous books on Guatemala – books on anthropology, botany, and history as well as some non-Guatemalan-themed fiction and poetry that deal with some of the issues in my novel
My advice to writers about to experience their first residency is to write every day, even if it is just freewriting in a journal. Try to establish a routine and develop a rhythm for what works. My routine at Hedgebrook began with an early run or walk, followed by a quick breakfast. I then spent my first hour of work reading. Only then was I able to work on my novel.
I would tell new writing residents to expect to feel frustrated at times and to forgive themselves in advance for all those hours (or days) when the writing does not come easily. I would encourage them to find ways to coax themselves to write anyway, even if they hate what they’re writing. I told myself to write badly from the get go; it was a way of fooling myself into writing.
Finally, I’d tell new residents to take breaks and enjoy their beautiful surroundings, take walks and inhale the fresh air. Bask in the moments; they will pass far too quickly.