One of the recent pleasures I’ve experienced as a result of being based in the Washington, D.C. area is meeting Dini Karasik (my thanks to Dan Vera for connecting us; see her bio at the end of this post). On the same day that Dan had his DC book launch for Speaking Wiri Wiri, back in early April, Dini held an afternoon literary salon in her home, featuring Lucrecia Guerrero, whose novel, Tree of Sighs, had been sitting my desk for months! After said salon, both Dini and Lucrecia made their way into the district to take in Dan’s reading, and I finally had the pleasure of meeting the author of Tree of Sighs! Without further delay, please find below a substantive interview conducted by Dini. Letras Latinas Blog is pleased to be able to make this conversation available to its readers. Enjoy. —FA
Lucrecia Guerrero is a Mexican-American author whose first novel, Tree of Sighs, won the 2012 Premio Atzlán Literary Prize. The novel is about a Mexican girl, Altagracia, whose grandmother sells her into indentured servitude in the United States. A year later, Altagracia escapes and eventually finds a new life in the American Midwest. After a decade of surviving hardships and keeping secrets from the people closest to her, she finds her way back home to confront her grandmother and the life she left behind.
Her short stories have been anthologized in print and published in several literary journals, including The Antioch Review and The Louisville Review. Her first book, Chasing Shadows, is a collection of linked short stories set in a fictional town on the US-Mexico border. In addition to writing, she teaches and facilitates creative writing workshops in and around her home state of Indiana.
DK: Dini Karasik
LG: Lucrecia Guerrero
DK: You have written that your bicultural/bilingual background often informs your writing but do you ever find yourself struggling with which aspect of your background to draw from when you’re writing?
LG: I did grow up on the U.S.-Mexico border with a Mexican father and an Anglo-American mother. Although I would eventually move to the American Midwest, when I began writing stories they were, without design, set in the Southwest along the U.S.-Mexico border. After a couple of stories, I started thinking about a linked collection of stories and I intentionally set them along the border so they would be connected by place. Eleven of those stories would eventually become Chasing Shadows, published by Chronicle Books.
Before I began my novel, I wrote some short-short stories and those do branch out culturally. When I began my novel, Tree of Sighs, I thought it would take place mostly in the Midwest, Ohio and Indiana, but before I knew it my protagonist traveled back to her roots on the U.S.-Mexico border! So Tree of Sighs takes place partly in the Midwest but mostly in the Southwest.
The novel I’m working on now features a Mexican-American teenage girl from the Southwest who travels to the Midwest and meets up with a man of Appalachian descent. I have not yet set any stories in Kentucky although I have written characters who are originally from there.
DK: What do you think your stories convey about bicultural identity?
LG: When I was about seven, a Latina neighbor girl chanted to me and my sister, “Half and half—makes me laugh.” Of course I understood that she intended to be mean, but I remember thinking that “half-and-half” sounded kind of cool.
For me, being bicultural and bilingual has been a positive. I have experienced some bigoted remarks based on my heritage—both from anglos and latinos—but it just hasn’t had that much of an effect on me. Maybe because both of my parents were proud of who they were. When I write, though, I don’t consciously try to make my characters seem proud of who they are.I allow them to be who they are.
I do believe that being bicultural and bilingual allows me to better understand the point of view of a Mexican, an Anglo-American, and a Mexican-American. And having grown up on the border, well, that’s another culture. I will leave it up to the individual reader to say what he or she takes away from the stories about cultural identity.
DK: You’re a very private person. Isn’t writing about exposing one’s self on the page? Aren’t the best stories the ones that tap into our darkest moments and greatest fears? How do you reconcile being a private person with the inevitable? That when you write, you will reveal secrets and vulnerabilities about yourself?
LG: You’re correct to say that as a writer I reveal myself to some extent through my stories, for they all come from my imagination and my experiences (my own or those I’ve witnessed). Also, when readers find recurring themes and concepts in my stories those ideas reveal something about my concerns and values. The only truly autobiographical piece that I have written, however, is a short-short, “Sisters,” which is the story of my sister Carmen Victoria as she lay dying. Even with that story, I take poetic license.
The first story I had published, “The Girdle,” had an abused woman as the protagonist. I remember taking pains to be certain that no one I had known would read the story and say, “Ah-ha, that’s me she’s writing about.” Ironically, when the story came out, a number of women who had lived through abusive relationships thanked me for revealing that I’d been abused. I have never been an abused woman, but I have known many and I feel deeply for them. Readers sometimes confuse the author with the character, but I try not to censor my plots or characters for fear that readers will believe they find me in one of my characters.
DK: As a Latina, do you feel a responsibility to controvert stereotypes about Latinos?
LG: Underdogs can be found in all cultures, and I guess you could say that I am fascinated by the underdog and by the endurance of the human spirit, no matter the culture, ethnicity, or nationality. In my novel, although I had characters who were homeless Mexican kids, the novel also had homeless Anglo and black American kids in the Midwest. I have set many stories on the border and have created many Latino characters, but I plan to write many more stories set in other places and peopled by a variety of characters. If I am true to human nature, I will create well-rounded characters that will not stereotype any group of people. I’ll sum up my answer with a quotation from Isabel Allende: “Write what should not be forgotten.”
DK: What’s your primary goal when developing characters?
LG: My goal is to create well-rounded, conflicted, and complex characters. One-dimensional characters—all bad or all good, no matter the ethnicity—are boring.
DK: What’s your process for creating characters?
LG: It depends. Sometimes I begin with a memory of someone, or a composite of several persons, I knew well or briefly. As the story develops the character develops into his or her own, someone who may end up being little like the original model. Other times, as a developed character begins to grow and develop he or she will interact with someone who comes out of nowhere. Now, this new character starts developing and becoming more real.
DK: Do you write everyday?
LG: I try to, and usually early in the day. I do need to be alone in order to write fiction; it’s the only way I can go into that other place.
DK: What surprises you about your writing?
LG: I’m always surprised and fascinated by the way a character or story can take a much different turn than I had envisioned. I create the characters, so I don’t say that they suddenly take over the story, but what lurks below the surface of the mind amazes me.
DK: What was the inspiration for your first novel, Tree of Sighs, and your collection of short stories, Chasing Shadows?
LG: The first story I wrote was “The Girdle,” which would later be included in Chasing Shadows. It was inspired by the gaze of a man I had met when I was a kid. Because he was in a wheel chair, his gaze was level with that of a child’s so, unlike most adults, he was not looking down at me. I never forgot the darkness and pain in his eyes. I think most of my stories grow out of an image I can’t forget. In writing the story, no doubt I explore why the image had such an effect on me.
Tree of Sighs, being a novel rather than a short story, had its roots in a number of images and ideas. As for the tree itself, a friend of mine once told me about a farmer in Ohio who had hundreds of trees with bottles stuck on the branches. I never saw that farmer’s trees, but I researched bottle trees and came up with a vision of my own tree. As for the idea of a girl being sold and taken away to live as a servant, well, I remember as a kid reading about a girl on the border who had been given away by her grandparents to a woman from the Midwest. The girl returned with horrible tales of abuse. I don’t remember the details and didn’t try to find them, instead creating a character of my own and imagining what her life would be like.
DK: How do you write such authentic stories?
LG: I research when I need particular details—I don’t want to lose credibility with a reader because I got my facts wrong. As for emotional credibility, I am an observant and sensitive person and have always been interested in others. Their stories add to my own bank of experiences and emotions. For example, as teenager I worked as a waitress in a coffee shop across from a Greyhound Bus Station. Teen runaways used to come in on the bus and they’d come over to where I worked for a Coke or something to eat. I have never forgotten many of those kids nor their stories. I included composites of some of them in Tree of Sighs.
DK: When you start writing, do you already have the plot in mind? Or does it evolve organically as you write?
LG: As for shaping the plot, it’s different for the short story and the novel. Because a story is shorter it’s so much easier to keep it all in your head and to get of sense where you’re going. Because of its length, for me, the novel requires a different tact. At least, with the one I’m writing now, I want to keep more control over it than I did with Tree of Sighs. I have a pretty clear idea of where I wanted to end, so every few chapters I stop and take stock: Is the story still going where I think I want to go? If not, do I want to stay the course or change? If so, how much do I want to diverge? Do I need the characters I have? Where are they taking the story? Well, we’ll see if it works out!
DK: When did you first think of yourself as a writer?
I took one creative writing class as an undergraduate, and my professor was so supportive and encouraging that he convinced me that I had talent. Life happened, though, and I didn’t return to writing until years later. At that time, I lived in Ohio. I was fortunate to have the
only miles away in Yellow Spring, Ohio. The first time I attended, I didn’t even have a story to take with me, but after that first session I was hooked, motivated and inspired by the community of writers. The next year, Joe David Bellamy—writer, professor, and literary critic—was at the workshop and he critiqued my first story. He was so encouraging and suggested I write a collection of stories. He is also the first one to give me a list of Chicano/a writers to read.
DK: You became a writer later in life. Is it ever too early or too late to become a writer?
LG: Thank goodness that unlike with so many professions, age and experience can be plus for the writer. I would have liked to have studied writing earlier, which would have given me the opportunity to see myself develop as a writer as I developed as a person. But it is what it is, so I don’t spend a lot of time regretting something I cannot change.
DK: How has your writing evolved over the years?
LG: When I first began, I was teaching myself (lots of writing books and the odd workshop) the craft of writing. It really slowed down my writing because I consciously thought about craft as I wrote. Now, many of those basics have become second nature, and I no longer have to think about them. As for themes, I believe they have been pretty consistent.
DK: How has writing changed you as a reader and what are some of your favorite books?
LG: Once I began writing, I began to look more closely at craft. Sometimes this is distracting! But it has also made me more appreciative of good writers.
As for favorite books, well, that’s always tough. It seems it depends on my mood or thoughts at the time I’m asked. Generally, though, Demian by Herman Hesse is one of my favorites because it was given to me to read when I was a teen who had lost interest in reading and it renewed my interest in literature.
I earned a B.A. and M.A. in English, so I read and enjoyed many of the classics. I love Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, anything by Flannery O’Connor, Dreiser’s Sister Carrie, and just about anything by Faulkner. Josef Conrad’s Heart of Darkness was the book that led me to become an English major. I appreciate that you can read his works just for the adventure if you so choose, or you can go all the way with the story and savor all the deep and dark layers. I like the works of English writer Graham Greene for the same reason.
These days I’ve been reading a number of Chicano/a writers, and I’ll just name a few that I’ve read recently. I’m now reading Kentucky Club by Ben Sáenz and admire his writing so much. I just finished Daniel Chacón’s Hotel Juárez and think it’s wonderful. Xanath Caraza’s new book of short stories is memorable. I enjoy a good crime novel and really enjoyed Desperado: A Mile High Noir by Manuel Ramos, Hell or High Water by Joy Castro, and Every Last Secret by Linda Rodriguez. These are just a few I’ve read in the last weeks and I’ve got a tall stack waiting for me.
DK: What advice would you offer to new and emerging writers?
LG: To write you must have a passion for it and you must be willing to keep learning. I think that’s true for all of us writers. Oh, and grow a thick skin; if you can’t take criticism and rejection, you won’t survive.
DK: What’s next?
LG: There have been deaths in the family that have almost broken me, but I tell myself that maybe my writing can do something to help someone else and I continue on. Once I finished Tree of Sighs, I didn’t want to even think of beginning another long project, so I wrote some short-shorts. I had so much fun with them; they’re so short so it’s a good place to experiment.
I have also begun work on a new novel. I lifted a memorable character from a short story I wrote years ago and she has come back for this longer story. She is Mexican-American and another one of the main characters is a male of Appalachian heritage. There, you see, my heritage is showing on me again!
Dini Karasik is a Mexican-American writer and lawyer. Her short stories and poems have appeared or are forthcoming in several literary journals (Crack the Spine, The Más Tequila Review, Red Savina Review, Kweli Journal, Zombie Logic Review, Sixers Review, and Bartleby Snopes) and she maintains a blog (dkwritings.wordpress.com) that seeks to promote writing and writers of color through interviews, book reviews, and short commentaries. In addition to serving as a consultant to Narrative 4, a new literary non-profit that marries storytelling with social change, she is at work on her first novel.