An Interview by Jennifer Maritza-McCauley
Sandra Rodriguez Barron has many different homes. Rodriguez was born in Puerto Rico, grew up in El Salvador, attended graduate school in Miami and lives in Connecticut, where she teaches at Western Connecticut State University’s Low-Residency MFA Program. The award-winning writer channels her nomadic experiences into her lively and lyrical fiction. Her novel The Heiress of Water (Harper Collins), the winner of the Best First Book Award at the 2007 International Latino Book Awards, and her novel, Stay with Me (Harper Collins), a 2011 Connecticut Book Award finalist, explore how family bonds and cultural roots define the meaning of “home.” Barron also uses evocative, lush language to capture the magic of these fictional worlds. Writers like Isabel Allende have called Barron’s prose “exuberant…and immensely entertaining.”
I had the pleasure of exchanging a series of e-mails with Ms. Barron about memory, family history, the mystery of the sea, and the ever-changing state of Caribbean literature.
You’ve said you’ve lived “…a nomadic life, and…write from a perspective that includes both displacement and discovery.” Your novels The Heiress of Water and Stay with Me have characters who explore their roots in Connecticut, El Salvador and Puerto Rico—all places you have lived before. Why are you interested in nomadic characters? Why did you choose to set your novels in places that are close to you personally?
It would be hard for me to set a story in a place that I do not know, love, or yearn for. Why bother? I am interested in exploring roots—deep and shallow roots—and how they conflict and/or augment each other. I live in Connecticut, a state soaked in history and Yankee rootedness, a quality that contrasts sharply with my life. It’s easy to celebrate movement: change is stimulating and challenging, it trains us to notice. We become open to new experiences and to interacting with new people. But anyone who has been an immigrant or transplant understands that fragmentation of families can eat away at your sense of security and belonging. Leaving a homeland can cut you off from the lifeblood that is your native culture and language.
Most families experience the separation from home as a single event; Latinos tend to link up with relatives and/or join an existing community, blending with and moving through society within the protection of a clan. Unfortunately, my family is scattered all over the map. My mother lives in another country and it’s hard to scare up even a half-dozen relatives for the holidays. I often feel pinned between a deep gratitude for the chance to visit family and friends in so many different places and the nagging feeling that home is a moving target that I can never seem to trap. The contrast between two opposite perspectives—the moving point of view and the still one—obsesses me, and I have examined them both anthropologically and microscopically in each one of my novels because as Joyce Carol Oates has said, “What one has lost, or never had, feeds the work.”
A writer could spend a lifetime filling pages about the concept of home and its many definitions. Our mother is our first home, both physically and emotionally. Many of the complications of life spring directly from the memory of losing a primal home, whether that home was an actual place, or a parent, or both. Every break-up, estrangement, or emotional severance can contain a dim echo of its original impact. In young kids, scars of separation shows up as an obsessive preoccupation with making and maintaining friends, fitting in, and becoming part of a community of peers. Eventually it morphs into romantic and sexual attachment. This pattern is hugely magnified in Stay with Me, because the five main characters were abandoned as babies and have no knowledge of their biological provenance. One of the brothers, David, is in a relationship with Julia, who comes from a huge clan that congregates every summer at a hundred-year old family home on an island off the coast of Connecticut. And so, each one of my central characters has a deep parental wound that plays out in their adult life. In The Heiress of Water, Monica Winters’s mother, Alma, disappears while conducting scientific research in war-torn El Salvador. Monica is further displaced when her American dad decides that it’s time to go back to the States. Monica’s life after that becomes a kind of stumbling from relationship to relationship in search of a lost emotional and physical home.
In both The Heiress of Water and Stay with Me your characters grapple with family histories, memory and past. How does your own family history influence your fiction?
The short answer: when I was a kid, my grandmother told me a fantastic, Cinderella-like family secret. It’s a story that was only scandalous in its time and is quite romantic and grand by modern standards. The secret has been kept by her relatives so as not to disturb the public image of a famous person. With the principals of the story dead, there’s no way to prove it, and I suppose it’s possible that it’s not even true. But my grandmother swore to it, and I am completely invested in believing it. She also happened to be a fantastic storyteller, and these two factors in combination provoked my fascination with family histories. Fiction is such a natural canvas for telling these stories, and I find that I can’t resist spilling little bits of that juicy secret in a thousand veiled ways.
The longer answer is that historical and/or political context is very typical of “Latino writing.” As a young writer deeply influenced by Isabel Allende and Gabriel Garcia Márquez, I wondered how I could possibly write about anything without beginning there. My father and I are both Puerto-Rican born and we both spent half of our childhoods in Connecticut and half in Latin America. My mother is Salvadoran and we lived in El Salvador from 1973-1980. The political and economic situation sharply declined during those seven years and boiled up to a full blown-civil war just after we left. The original plan was for us to tough it out, but one day my parents witnessed an on-the-spot execution of a communist rebel by the military police at a farmers’ market. That’s the public context of my family life, and I feel free to use it, felt obligated, in fact, when I began writing The Heiress of Water. When you witness the extremes of human conflict, you get a sense of urgency and idealism, and if you’re a novelist, you put your message in a bottle and cast it to sea, hoping that it will reach the right audience. You imagine that you can get the word out and that those who can help, will. That’s the instinct to write. It’s a chance to explore, to understand, to explain, to engage others, and maybe, just maybe, to make the world a better place. I have to remind myself when I’m feeling glum about my unrootedness, that this is the silver lining. I have seen things and I can tell others about them. What happens after that is beyond my control, and that’s why many writers are also volunteers and activists. But that’s another conversation.
My novel-in-progress, tentatively titled “Égoïste”, has a sharper focus on parent-child relationships than the others, but is equally concerned with the past and the effects of a single, seismic event. It tells the story of how a young woman’s broken dream of becoming a world-class opera singer reverberates through the life of her daughter and especially through her granddaughter, Vivian. Vivian can’t sing, but she travels to France in an attempt to claim, in her own way, the artistic and emotional rewards her grandmother was forced to abandon fifty years earlier.
Instinctively, we all know that some of the thorniest, gut-churning, most vivid writing material comes from family life. Our families have these tentacles that plunge deep into the primordial swamplands of our imagination. I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a novel that doesn’t have family history at its core, or at least acting as a spring-board to conflict. Every writer asks themselves, at some point, how much material they are willing to mine from their own life. The funny thing is that we’re not always in control of this. Like me, you might find yourself walking in the woods, years after your book is published, when it smacks you in the face that one of your characters is really your parent masquerading in the opposite gender and by some embellishment that fooled everyone, including you. I love these reminders of how much smarter the subconscious is than the conscious mind, and this is why I am always trying to find ways to gain more access to it. Although there are many ways to come to know our secret and unique connection to the past, to our families, and to the world, the practice of writing is certainly the most powerful one I know.
In your work, you also use sea and water imagery often. What is your attraction to the ocean and why do you find it alluring?
I think coastal writers everywhere—but especially islanders—often gravitate toward the question of how the sea influences their lives. Because nature is so soulful, communicative, and moody, we respond to it in ways similar to how we respond to people. I’m fascinated with how we are programmed to copy, match, or sort of dance with one another person through a psychological response called mirroring. In the 1990s, neuroscientists discovered the source of this impulse and called them “mirror neurons.” Our tendency to mirror the natural world can even happen indoors—we’re gloomy when it rains and cheerful when the sun comes out. But when we’re immersed in nature the effect can be overwhelming. On the beach or on a boat we are often swept by this grandiose calm; even choppy waters have a rhythm that feels like riding upon the heartbeat of some restless, colossal being.
Just as often, the sea can also be a source of anguish and destruction. In 1979, the entire Caribbean community was devastated by Hurricane David. This true-life disaster created the extraordinary circumstances under which Stay with Me unfolds. Five well-dressed toddlers were found adrift on a fishing boat just off the coast of Puerto Rico. Rescued by the Coast Guard and brought into the United States as “unaccompanied minors” the children are adopted into different homes but still consider themselves siblings. Years later, the youngest brother’s brain cancer diagnosis prompts him to take advantage of DNA technology to explore the question of their genetic kinship. Eventually, we are led to a more quiet version of the immigration issue—the flow of Dominicans on rickety boats into the U.S. via Puerto Rico. I use water imagery as a vehicle of mystery, danger, birth and death.
The sea is as powerful an influence as any character. In The Heiress of Water, the mother is a marine biologist who believes in the spiritual intelligence of the sea. It’s hard for me to write about the ocean and not end up in a metaphor about the human subconscious, because the freakiest and most amazing creations of imagination dwell in dark waters, way down deep. Coincidentally, the deepest part of the Atlantic Ocean is just off the coast of Puerto Rico, a nightmare of an abyss that’s as deep as Mount Everest is tall. From the beach and from the air, all we see are these shallow turquoise blue terraces like stairs going down to the black hole, and something about that is deeply disturbing. What’s down there? We don’t know.
As a Puerto Rican and Salvadoran-American writer, how do you feel about the representation of Latino/a writers in contemporary American literature? Do you feel the conditions for Latino/a writers are improving?
In the early 2000s there was a surge of interest in all things Latino, followed by a sharp decline after profits failed to match expectations. It seems that now we’re stuck in a plateau of market indifference while the meager Latino presence in American literature is distressingly out of proportion with the size of the population. But it’s too easy to focus on what the publishing industry is doing wrong and it’s not particularly helpful, so I’ll turn it around and ask, what are we doing to perpetuate the situation? Plenty.
First, there’s no room for competition, we have to pull together in order to bulldoze through huge swaths of impenetrability. Secondly, Latinos can be insular as readers: Mexicans read Mexicans, Chileans read Chileans, Colombians read Colombians, and so on, which is a great place to start but we have to break down those borders if we expect the general public to do the same. Regardless of quality, writers who come from larger Latino communities have a better chance of generating interest than writers from smaller populations and/or with a less educated U.S. base, so the game is rigged to begin with. If everyone stays in their cliques, the readership from these smaller countries can’t generate the kind of sales that the big communities can, ie. Mexico, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the larger South American countries. We have to cross-pollinate and stop being such “niche” readers so that publishers will give the smaller or quieter cultures a chance to be heard. Let’s make it a point to wander beyond our own sub-culture, our gender and other comfort zones, and certainly beyond the super stars. Let’s search out fresh voices, from both large and small presses, and shout it from the rooftop whenever we discover a gem.
Every writer has his or her own voice and style, but the deeper we puncture the genre/popular market, the more appetite there will be for literary work. Latino writers favor certain forms: memoir, family sagas, chick lit, historical, and the war-time political novels that are de rigueur. In the meantime, editors are begging for thrillers, science fiction, creative non-fiction, and big, universal stories that are not just about Latino culture but that are about society/humanity itself, books that are both culturally transcendent and gripping on the surface.
Stereotypes are a persistent aesthetic problem, and writers have to fight the impulse to respond to preconceived ideas from the media, publishers, and even MFA workshops. A lot of talented writers have trouble breaking out of the pupal stage because they focus on the endgame of publishing instead of giving themselves room to learn and grow artistically. True diversity in American literature can only happen when we are bold enough to be uniquely ourselves, and sometimes that takes a lot of courage to do. It’s okay to write about growing up wealthy and educated, and yet almost nobody does it. Why? Because even writers in those circumstances believe it’s cooler to write about bodegas, santería, and poverty. My life here in the U.S. has been spent mostly in the suburbs of Connecticut, so why should I try to portray life in Bridgeport, Hartford, or the Bronx? I have nothing to say about those places or about the hardships of life in a border town. What I know, intimately, is the life of someone who slips between Latin America and the U.S. with the ease of a chameleon who changes colors so as not to get eaten. I only have my crazy, zig-zagging patchwork of a life to contribute. You could say I write from the moving train rather than from an actual town. I write from the relief of leaving bad blood behind, the sadness of disconnecting, the excitement of novelty, and the engaging work that is reinvention and starting anew.
Short term, we need more Latino editors on the inside of the publishing industry. Long term, we have to build our readership. We’re insulted when publishers claim that “Latinos don’t read.” Of course many of us read, but if you only move in literary circles you might think every Latino keeps a pile of university press books on their nightstand.
Unfortunately, Latino bibliophiles are a minority within a minority. In 2013, the McCormick Foundation conducted a study, “The Youngest Americans: A Statistical Portrait of Infants and Toddlers in the United States,” that exposes the root of the problem: the Latino population is the least likely to read and tell stories to their youngest children. If we don’t find ways to change that, we’re never going to build up the Latino readership even as our population continues to grow. This means thinking beyond our immediate circles and supporting local organizations that distribute books to low-income Latino children. In the meantime, let’s support writers by buying more books. As writers of color we’ve long been paired with African American writers, who, in the last decade have made great strides in terms of visibility and market response in all areas of art and entertainment, so there’s hope. As things improve, let’s not forget to extend a hand to other groups. Many of us have multiple ethnicities, and that’s as good an excuse as any to help each other along the way.
SANDRA RODRIGUEZ BARRON was born in Puerto Rico, grew up in El Salvador, and lives in Connecticut. She is the author of The Heiress of Water, which won first place for debut fiction at the 2007 International Latino Book Awards and was a Borders Original Voices selection. Her second novel, Stay with Me, was a finalist for the 2011 Connecticut Book Award. She is the grateful recipient of support from The Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, The Greater Hartford Arts Council, the National Association of Latino Arts and Culture, and the Connecticut Commission on Culture & Tourism. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Florida International University and teaches in the Western Connecticut State University Low-Residency MFA Program.