Latina writer of books for kids of all ages.

Archive for the ‘Adult books’ Category

All things wise and ghostly: Old & new titles to scare you at every age

It’s coming up on October, a tough month for those of us who despise being terrified. What can I tell you? Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin did me in when I was a teen, and I don’t think I ever recovered.

Anyway, here’s a quick list of titles (old and new) that I’ve loved anyway for their nudge toward all things ghostly and wise.

Picture books

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Middle Grade/ YA

6a00d83451584369e200e54f7d4a268834-800wi18070700 71Vwvp8-XfL9780545162074_p3_v1_s523x595(I just couldn’t leave Harry Potter out…)

Adults

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Book Hoarding and other things I admitted to on Book Riot

imagesMy heroes at Book Riot have a new podcast series called Reading Lives, where authors talk about pretty much anything except their own books. I’m on there today, episode #2, where Jeff O’Neal and I talk about my book collection fetish, as well as all the titles and authors (some surprising) that have shaped everything from my sense of culture to how I parented.

These days I do a lot of interviews, but I can’t remember a time when doing one was this much fun. Maybe it’s because Jeff (aka @readingape on Twitter) is so charming, but maybe too because the hook is so simple. Two people talking about the books we love, old and new. What can I say?  It’s a literary geek’s dream.

If you’ve got some time, check it out. You can subscribe on i-tunes, too.

 

Where books meet disaster: A brief reading list about kids and migration

Buttons of the winning titles. Thank you, Celia Perez!

Buttons of the winning titles. Thank you, Celia Perez!

I got home last week from the ALA conference, an experience that still makes me daydream, especially when I think of the energy and passion in the room at the Pura Belpré awards. You can find my speech and Yuyi Morales’s speech here, but the truth is that the text doesn’t replicate the emotion that was in the room. All of us receiving recognition were teary and humbled –and not just by the honor being extended to our books. A good part of our emotion stemmed from the unspoken presence of people who were not actually in the room with us.

This summer, our news outlets have exploded with accounts of the nearly 40,000 unaccompanied childrenwho have arrived on our border to find themselves not only exhausted, afraid and alone, but also the target of explosive rage. Whatever your view on immigration policy, I hope you can agree that what we’re seeing is a human tragedy on the backs of the weakest and smallest among us.

All of us writers on that stage work for young people because we respect them and treasure what should be a sacred time for all children. All of us on that stage have been touched by migration, either directly or indirectly, in our own families. All of us have been the recipients of our parents’ most ardent hopes for our futures, sometimes at the expense of their own. It is heartbreaking, then, for us to see children so completely lost and in need of help.

As Javier and I traveled back home, the TV monitors overhead in the airport  flashed with images of sign-wielding protestors and supporters, with images of children handing over their birth certificates or chugging water from empty milk jugs, with shots of them sleeping on the floors like inmates.

The difficult story of migration is the Latino story, and it is the human story since time began. It can’t be captured in two-minute news clips and it can’t be screamed and shouted down.

Here for you, then, in honor of these children, I offer a short summer reading list to add to your thinking on this issue. It’s by no means a complete bibliography of what’s out there, but it’s a start…

Picture book Rene Colato Lainez

Picture book
Rene Colato Lainez

Duncan Tonatuih Pura Belpré honor for writing and illustration, 2014

Duncan Tonatuih
Pura Belpré honor for writing and illustration, 2014

 

 

Adult fiction by Cristina Henríquez, one of my favorite reads this year

Adult fiction by Cristina Henríquez, one of my favorite reads this year

My 2012 release: A look at migration through  magical realism Finalist International Latino Book Awards, 2014

A look at migration through magical realism
Finalist International Latino Book Awards, 2014

James River Writers Conference Spotlight: Elizabeth Huergo

4-300x90About this time of year, I start to perk up with bookish anticipation. The autumn brings us the Virginia Literary Festival (Oct 16 – 20, 2013), anchored in part by the James River Writers Conference. Now in its eleventh year, the JRW Conference is a special treat for the writing community since it gathers nationally-recognized and bestselling authors in our city for three days of fun and learning.

DSC_0193-Huergo-First-ChoiceThis year, I’m especially happy to find debut novelist (and fellow Latina author) Elizabeth Huergo on the impressive roster. Elizabeth is a scholar of literature (receiving her M.A. in 19th-century American Literature and her Ph.D. in British Romanticism from Brown University), and she has taught at a number of colleges and universities, including Rhode Island College, American University, and George Mason University. Her novel, The Death of Fidel Perez (Unbridled Books, 2013), is set in modern day Cuba against the eternal question, What if Fidel fell?

Here Elizabeth and I talk about our shared cultural roots and the challenges of conveying the pain and complexities of political history in writing.

You left Cuba as a girl during the years immediately following the Cuban revolution. What had your life been like until then? Where did your family settle in the United States?

Elizabeth and her mother in 1961, weeks before they would leave Cuba

Elizabeth and her mother in 1961, weeks before they would leave Cuba

I was born in May of 1959. My mother and I left Cuba when I was about three years old. My father had to leave about a year before us for political reasons. He lived alone in New York for a year, working, saving, trying to have a place ready for us when we arrived. We arrived in the US with the clothes on our backs, literally; and to a solitude that we were not used to at all. I had lived for those few short years within a nexus of grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins. And then, they simply weren’t there. The family I had known became voices on a telephone line popping with static or birthday wishes typed out on strips of telegraph paper.

The loss of family, language and culture affected my parents deeply. They had been dropped into a completely alien world, and they had to learn very quickly how to navigate that world. They were apprehensive, lonely, frightened. They tried to shelter me from those feelings, but children are very perceptive about the emotions of the adults around them. It was all quite traumatic, and yet the luxury of being able to stop in order to work through the pain was simply not available. So they set their minds to the task of survival.

Elizabeth's debut novel

Elizabeth’s debut novel

Your debut novel, The Fall of Fidel Perez, follows four main characters over the course of a day during which a rumor of Fidel Castro’s fall from power sweeps Havana. It’s a dark joke, of course, since it’s really a drunk man named Fidel Perez who has actually “fallen.” The novel is certainly not a comedy, and yet you start with this very dark joke that deepens over the course of the book. Can you talk a little bit about that choice?

How do you convey revolution  or exile to an audience that has never felt the blunt force of history’s dislocations? I would define exile not only as a literal dislocation, but as a deeply internalized dislocation, a cataclysmic shift in the very ground of a person’s being. Fidel descends from the Sierra Maestra, symbol and agent of a counter-revolution that itself springs from a nexus of social injustice and foreign colonization. Like so many other people, I lost my homeland, the trajectory of my life, and the lives of my family, inflected permanently.

The tragedy springs from an interminable chain of causes and effects that lie far out of any one individual’s grasp or reach.  And once I was able to see that, the loss of control became funny, darkly funny. Tears became laughter. And the beauty of laughter is that it both acknowledges and transforms the pain, helping us take the next step. Every great dramatic tragedy I can think of has a comic subplot, which suggests that laughter is an integral part of sorrow.

Growing up, as you did, as a girl in a Cuban home, I remember the feeling of longing and regret that seemed to infuse every adult conversation, especially political ones. As I followed Saturnina, Pedro, Justicio, and Camilio, I felt that same sense of nagging regret, regardless of how each character had experienced his/her share of the revolution. How did you go about building each of these characters? Did you begin from their political position, from their personal trauma or somewhere else?  Which was your favorite character to build? Which one, if any, gave you trouble?

I work out from each character’s core and toward plot and theme. Yes, the characters are tormented by regret, which is often what can happen when we look back at our lives. Each character is trying to resolve that sense of regret in some way. Pedro Valle longs for forgiveness; Saturnina longs for her son’s return; Camilo longs to act, to step out of his complacency. Saturnina was my favorite character because her name derives from a story my mother tells about a woman in Remedios who decided one day to put on every piece of clothing she owned and live in the streets.

06043rI travelled to Cuba years ago, and one day, during my visit, as I was walking through l’Habana vieja (Old Havana), I peered into a building covered by very beautiful blue and white mosaic tiles. I didn’t realize, though, that on the other side of the tiled façade most of the building was in ruin.  I peered inside expecting a grand foyer, one more example of the island’s rich architectural history that I could photograph.  Instead I saw the top of a barely intact stairwell, and an old woman sitting in a rocking chair, the morning sky behind her.

I let go of the camera hanging around my neck.  I wanted to apologize, but there was nothing for me to say.  This fragile old woman, a bundle of rags and bone, sat there like an ancient Madonna in a grotto. She nodded at me as if she were giving me permission or forgiving me for the intrusion. I had this deeply mystical experience as I peered up and across that threshold. I named her Saturnina, and she haunted me until I told the story of the history she had lived through, of the wounds history had inflicted on her.

Cuba_Panorama_de_L'HabanaThe entire novel spans a few hours, but it also manages to cover a few hundred years. How do you handle pacing in a novel that has to be exciting both moment-to- moment and as it covers backstory events that occur over centuries?

Carefully! I plotted the transit of the two major characters across the City of Havana very carefully. I had in mind Bloom’s transit across Dublin in Joyce’s Ulysses. I also knew that Pedro Valle would be looking back in search of absolution and Saturnina looking forward in search of love and reunification. So I knew their narratives would be working in counter-point to one another. Then I had to think carefully about scenes, and how the end of one scene might propel the next one.

The research in your novel is extensive. What were the big surprises for you, if any? What proved most difficult?

I read a lot of Latin American history. I also got very interested in historical methodology. Then that got me interested again in the psychology of how we perceive, which got me to comparative mythology and the ways in which different cultures tell basically the same story in different ways. So the most difficult thing to do was to stop reading!

Saturnina and Pedro Valle are telling the same history, and yet they are telling it differently. Both of them are right. The big surprise for me? I had been operating all my adult life on the assumption that there is such a thing as historical progress. The more I read, the more I realized that, yes, there are real technological and scientific advancements, but rarely is there a shift in consciousness, the sort of shift in consciousness that would allow us, the human race, to stop repeating the same acts of violence over and over again.

In my view, there’s no more volatile conversation among Cuban Americans  than politics. Did you feel any pressure as you wrote about Cuban politics and US policies? Were there things you felt cautious to say? For example, you refer to American-based Cubans as thinking of old Cuba as a “utopian diorama.” I can practically hear the protests. What has been the response so far?

You are right, of course; political discussions can be volatile, but that’s true about any group of people that has lived through difficult, life-changing events. Besides, I was not writing my personal political views. I was writing the views of characters who had lived through various phases of Cuban history. There are characters in the novel who are well to the left of center; there are other characters who are well to the right of center. Mostly, though, there are characters trying to understand the meaning of their lives in relation to colonization and revolution.

fidelfingerYou don’t include characters in current day Havana that mourn the supposed fall of Fidel? Why did you make that choice? 

On this point I have to disagree with you. There are voices throughout the novel that express sorrow at the passing of Fidel Castro. There are jubilant voices. There are voices that express terror and confusion. There is one especially sardonic voice at the very beginning that laughs at the death of a “little dictator.”

 What is your hope for Cuba in the coming years?

The idea that there are people who need to be dominated, divided against one another, (either for what is paternalistically referred to as their own good or in the name of economic self-interests), still has the upper hand, even in this new century, and after the bloodiest century in recorded human history.

My hope is that the US will realize that Cuba is a sovereign nation and not a Caribbean outpost, part of its “backyard.” Shutting down Guantánamo and returning that land to its rightful owner, Cuba, would be an important symbol and movement toward that realization.  My hope, too, is for a peaceful revolution, one that leads to greater autonomy and real democracy.

What are you working on now?

I’m almost done with my second novel, Between Ana and Ella, which is a contemporary rethinking of Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath from a Latina perspective. The story is set in DC.

 

Elizabeth Huergo will appear at the James River Writers Conference on Saturday, Oct. 19 and Sunday, Oct. 20, 2013. She will discuss her novel and her thoughts on setting and voice.

Visit www.jamesriverwriters.org  for more information.

Win a copy of the galleys for THE DEATH OF FIDEL PEREZ by leaving a comment on this blog. Winners will be announced after Labor Day.

 

VLF

Gracias Sandra Cisneros

So, I got home from the Nat’l Book Festival on Saturday. I had dusty toes and a tired back, but my head was swirling with gratitude for the way of the world.

True, the lines inside the Barnes & Noble tent were obnoxiously long, but it was a great event in every other way. My friend Katharine and I set out by train – a pleasant two-hour ride – and spent our day strolling the  grounds, eating Snicker bars in the sunshine, and generally marveling at the mass of people who came from all over the country to celebrate the best our country has to offer in terms of books and authors.  I got to meet illustrator Rafael López and his lovely wife, Candice, who chatted with us about their mural projects, their new Obama poster, and our shared friends, whose talents we both admire.

But in the afternoon, I received a gift I never expected from this festival. I’d managed to snag a chair inside the tent where Sandra Cisneros was speaking.  I read The House on Mango Street in the 1980s, of course, and I’ve been a fan ever since, devouring her short stories, picture books and novels as soon as they’re published. Her voice always rings fierce and true, and like so many other Latina authors, I can point to her work as an influence on why I like to capture Latino culture in fiction. She is, in my view, a literary madrina to our whole country. As soon as she took the stage, I was starstruck.

Her newest book is Have You Seen Marie?, an illustrated short story.”I wrote this when my mother died, and I was feeling like an orphan,” she told us.  She’d had a difficult relationship with her mother, and yet, when her mother died, Sandra felt completely lost.

I sat perfectly still.

Some of you already know that my mother was diagnosed with advanced cancer last Christmas and that she decided against radiation or chemo. (“I’m too old to put myself through that,” she said.) Instead, we packed her things in Florida, and by February, she and my aunt (the famous tía Isa) moved in with us in Richmond. Suddenly I was in charge of caring for eccentric elderly women whose bodies were failing and whose habits were slipping into manias.

We go through our days peacefully enough, filling pill boxes, going to doctor appointments, dragging me (there is no other way to say it) through Walmart. There are occasional eye rolls and snappish answers when one of us is careless. Twice I have had full shouting melt-downs. I get endless advice (about cooking, folding laundry, parenting, yes, even writing) whether I want it or not. I get full daily reports on people’s body functions. And I get a lot of new responsibilities – scary ones – for the things that she is appalled to discover that she can no longer manage or remember how to do. Fighting with insurance companies, online banking, official letters in English that she wants carefully translated. Behind everything, though, I know that we are readying ourselves to say  goodbye with clear hearts, even if neither one of us dares to say so.

Our relationship was sometimes volatile, often distant, sprinkled with finger-pointing and criticisms. Maybe every mother-daughter relationship is this way. (This is what Sandra Cisneros thinks.) Maybe it’s especially acute when cultural divides come into play. There are times we lived through that I don’t like to remember, if only because I am ashamed of how one of us — or both — behaved. And yet, here we are, our days counting down, and the only thing we can grab on to is that we each did our best. When it’s all said and done, the thought of not having my imperfect and maddening mother  makes me feel like an orphan, too.

Sandra finished her reading, an ending filled with acceptance and hope. I was scarcely breathing. In taking questions, she offered this advice to the writers in the audience.

“Don’t write the stories about things you remember.  Write the ones about the things you wish you could forget.”

So, here is my first baby step.

What I’m Reading for Hispanic Heritage Month

It’s that time of the year again! Hispanic Heritage Month is around the corner (Sept 15 – Oct 15). Here are the picks for my nightstand.

YA/historical fiction set during the Spanish Civil War. You may remember Christina from her lovely debut novel, The Red Umbrella. This one releases early October.

 

Remember Maria from Sesame Street? This is her new YA set in Spanish Harlem in the late 1960s. She had me at the scene with the plastic slipcovers in the living room.

Twelve short stories by Latina authors celebrating the power of friendship.  I adore short fiction as much as I love mis amigas so I’m really excited about this one. Edited by Adriana V López.

When Wilbur Meets Noche Buena

The year my cousin Carlos turned 50, his wonderful wife, Adele, threw him a Latin- style yard party in June. By definition, that includes a roast suckling pig on the menu. She didn’t go all the way by digging a pit and roasting the pork in the yard. No, this little guy was delivered from Queens in aluminum foil.

Still, that didn’t keep him from looking adorable (if grotesquely suntanned) with that apple in his mouth and his stitched up lids. And it didn’t keep my daughter – a life-long reader and Charlotte’s Web fan – from whispering “Wilbur” with more horror than if she’d been Fern Zuckerman herself. The result? She’s in college now, and not a shred of meat has passed her lips since that fateful day.

¡Que cosa mas grande! Especially at Christmas. Having no lechón (or as my Puerto Rican friends say, perníl) on Noche Buena is a travesty. Slapping down a piece of dill salmon is just not the same. The Christmas meal for Cubans is as traditional as turkey on American Thanksgiving. We eat roast pork, black beans over white rice, fried bananas, and yucca. For dessert we serve Spanish turrones (almond candies) and flan (recipe on my Oct 10 post). We also keep Pepcid handy.

Turrones - my favorite are the tooth-breaking alicantes

Sure, we’ve learned to add things around this menu – especially since most of us live in culturally blended families by now. But whether apple pie sits next to your frijoles or not — if you have a Cuban gene in your body, lechón is going to be on your holiday table.

So this week, with all due respect to Wilbur’s memory and to my vegetarian family members, I give you a link to one of my favorite holiday books, Las Christmas: Favorite Latino Authors Share Their Holiday Memories (Knopf, 1999) and the directions for preparing the lechón the way it was intended.

Lechón Asado

The secret is to marinade the pork for at least 2 days and to cook it on very low heat. You want soft, garlicky pork that falls off the bone.

Ingredientes

Fresh pork shoulder …about 6 – 7 pounds (not as horrifying to look at in the end.)

Marinade: 

1 head of garlic,  chopped (nope, not a typo)

1 – 2 T of olive oil

juice from 4 oranges, 4 lemons, and 1 lime

¼ c sherry

1 tsp oregano

1/2 tsp cumin

1 T salt

1 bay leaf, crushed

Instrucciones

Make slits all over the shoulder with a sharp knife.

Mix the orange, lemon, and lime juices with the sherry and set aside.

In a mortar, mash the garlic, olive oil and spices.

Insert your paste into the slits and rub remainder on the outside of the pork.

Pour liquid over the pork.

Wrap and let marinate for two days.

To cook:

Place roast in disposable pan and pour marinade over the top.

Cook on 325 degrees F until the roast reaches 180 degrees (very well done). Baste every hour or so.

If the meat starts to brown too much, tent with aluminum foil.

¡Buen provecho!

¡Ay que rico!