My Nana is not doing well right now and is in the hospital with congestive heart failure. She is my last biological grandparent left (two died before I was born, my maternal grandfather in 1967, my paternal grandmother in 1938). Her life has been a uniquely Californian one — she was born in Ecuador in 1919, grew up in San Francisco, married a man from the Philippines in 1939 and brought up a family in Oakland.
One thing my Nana is great at is telling stories about her life. She doesn’t tell them with a sense of history but always as personal remembrances, but the history is there all the same — she was there when the Bay Bridge was opened, lived through the Depression, remembers going to Playland at the Beach, and had to navigate anti-miscegenation laws to marry my grandfather and discriminatory housing policies to buy a home with him.
Some of my favorite stories are about her stay at a tuberculosis sanitarium south of San Francisco in the 1930s. Her stories make it sound like summer camp. I’ve been writing a story based on my Nana’s life before her marriage. Here’s an excerpt:
“Heaven” – an excerpt from “The Courtships of Gracia Cabrera”
Gracia did sing, though, and her lungs didn’t seem to suffer for it. She sang last year’s songs, just as good as any new ones, she thought. The youngest patient at the sanatorium, she would schedule performances when she knew no nurses would be checking in on them. So as the older patients in the ladies’ wing of the sanatorium lounged on their deck chairs, she would stand in front of them, curtsy and then sing “Cheek to Cheek” as she glided across the courtyard in one of her new dresses, a dusty-rose-colored one that had ruffles around the neckline, pretending to dance with Fred Astaire. “Heaven, I’m in heaven, and my heart beats so that I can hardly speak….” The courtyard was wide, with drooping wisteria, heavy with fuzzy pale green pods, winding up trellises and overhanging the smooth paving stones. Gracia’s face brightened as she danced; her dark eyes gazed at her invisible partner. At such moments, Gracia forgot herself, thinking only of the pleasure she could give to her audience of consumptive women, housewives and factory workers, old and young, if she put aside feeling foolish and performed as if it were all very real to her.
The applause was genuine but furtive, and the older ladies would kiss her cheek and call her a darling. Hassler Health Home, which she had thought such a silly name for a place, had an air of the celestial to Gracia. A city girl, she arrived in the ambulance (an adventure in itself, which she wrote about to her sister) to find not the grim institution that she expected, but something like a hacienda, bright white walls with a red tiled roof, in the countryside south of San Francisco. She shared her room–neat and clean and sunny, with crisp white sheets that she did not have to wash and iron and baby blue gingham curtains–with another girl, Evelyn, just a few years older than she was. Evelyn had brought eau de toilette that she hid in the tank of the water closet so no one would steal it, laughing at her cleverness as she dabbed some on Gracia’s wrists. At night they whispered, setting their hair in rag curls and giggling about the glimpses of the male patients they caught as the men filed out into the courtyard as they returned indoors. The women took the fresh air earlier in the morning and later in the afternoon; in deference to feminine fragility, the men sweltered during the hotter times of day. Evelyn said she saw one of the young men wink at Gracia, who, in perfect innocence protested that such a thing could never happen.
The courtyard overlooked the sanatorium grounds, which they would be allowed to walk when the doctors, efficient men who constantly wanted to listen to the state of one’s lungs with their ever-present stethoscopes, deemed them healthy enough. The health regimen was simple enough: fresh air and plenty of food. There was a wide green lawn, with gravel paths laid out in neat curves, leading to a line of puffy cottonwood trees that grew where the land began to slope up into the hills, the green almost nearly faded from them and overtaken with a golden dryness. Beyond the grounds was a farm, they were told, that produced the fresh milk and beef, eggs and chicken that they ate every day. Gracia thought of her mother, drinking cup after cup of black coffee at the kitchen table while she, Esperanza and Daniel shared the stew that could be made with five cents’ worth each of beef bone, beans and carrots. At least, thought Gracia, while I’m here she can eat my portion.
One of the reasons I wrote Half a Person was to depict the kind of suburban life I knew growing up. The neighborhood street represented a kind of freedom when I was younger — my friends and I ruled the block with our banana-seat bikes. But as I grew older, it became a kind of trap. I hadn’t noticed this as I wrote Half a Person, but when I was copyediting it, I realized that much of it revolves around the inability to go anywhere.
Without a ride or a car of your own, suburban life becomes suffocating when you enter adolescence. When I was a teenager, my best friend would stay over and we’d creep out of the house at night, sometimes to sit on the curb and smoke cigarettes with boys, sometimes just to go outside and walk around and experience that longed-for freedom.
My life grew even more constrained as I moved further into adolescence. My mother must have feared my growing up. Once, when a group of my friends went out to the movies and the mall, I called home to check in (something that took finding a pay phone and having a quarter back then), and she told me that I was hurting her by being away from home for so long. I was baffled. She started grounding me preemptively when I talked about plans I had to go out with friends. I started sneaking out at night even more often, mostly to meet with my boyfriend, with consequences that were far more serious than would have happened if she had simply let me go out with my friends or on proper dates.
Chi, the protagonist of Half a Person, doesn’t have those kind of constraints, but she feels that tethering all the same, as well as that adolescent restlessness, the need to go somewhere. And so she does what I did: She walks.
The Street at Midnight
excerpt from chapter 11 of Half a Person
Through the backyard gate was something she had never considered: her neighborhood at the dead of night, amber-lit like an alien landscape. She considered driving the car to the meeting pace, if it were there, but it was not, so she ventured out into this world. It was cold and quiet. What else would it be, at this hour a week before Christmas? Even the holiday lights on the houses were off. Every window in every house on Chi’s street was dark, but the street lamps lit her path in fuzzy orange orbs. The rubber soles of her Chuck Taylors were silent on the concrete. She walked by the Johnson house, with its plain, weedy lawn and juniper bushes full of spider nests, then the Olivera house with its white picket fence. God, I’d die, Chi thought, living in the suburbs and having a picket fence. And then the Sanford house, and then there were houses that she had no names for; the Pinto boys — fraternal twins, not identical — had lived in the house with the stocky palm tree, she remembered, but they had moved.
Chi’s childhood had taught her a wariness for backing cars, fear of stranger abduction, and uncompromising belief in her own imagination. When she was little, she had been the mastermind of neighborhood play, turning banana-seat bicycles into horses or zebras or unicorns or pirate ships and little girls into great adventurers. From her dead sister she had learned the necessity of secrecy. She hid what she did and what she thought. In all, everything that Chi had learned had made her into a sixteen-year-old girl who saw the story in what she was doing — sneaking out of the castle for the sake of the secret love of someone who could save her, or whom she could save.
Chi’s dead sister had kept her safe, not because of anything Aria herself did, but because the world had been unwilling to allow her to be hurt any more than she had been already. The protectiveness that had formed around her was one of the reasons why she slipped from her house on one of the coldest nights of the year — to put herself up against danger. She didn’t want to be timid, inexperienced, damaged somehow.
Chi paused and turned to look back down the street. Everything she knew, everything in her life — her clothes, her backpack full of schoolwork, her sketchbook, the cafeteria lunches, the car she shared with John — it all depended on this world. It would stay quiet all night, begin to stir at dawn, and then people would be up and about with the sun, off to work, to school, and it would become the world she recognized again. She was seeing and hearing what no one else did — the stillness of a suburban neighborhood at two a.m., the moisture beginning to collect on car roofs, the long shadows streetlights cast on empty asphalt, the pockets of darkness between houses. She was part of it now, quiet and solitary, the only warm thing on the street.
To read more, buy the full novel on Amazon for just $2.99.
Before I published Half a Person as an ebook, it was my Master of Fine Arts thesis, a novel called Sliver of Light. As part of the thesis project, I was required to write a statement of influences.
Among the works I cite:
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez
The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende
The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
Amrita by Banana Yoshimoto
Sliver of Light was a longer book than Half a Person, incorporating more of the points of view of the adults. Erin Stein, young adult editor at Little, Brown, was tremendously helpful in the revision process. The resulting short novel is more appealing to a young adult audience, with more emphasis on the teenage characters a bit more action rather than contemplation.
Below is the statement of influence itself, describing how these works played their part in the literary conversation in my mind as I wrote. What is under the cut has spoilers, so beware.
Sliver of Light is a novel about family breakdown and teenage alienation, and its setting is not just an American suburb but specifically a suburban adolescence, with all the entailments of a public school education, a pop-culture-infused sensibility, and a stifling stability when what one most longs for is excitement, or at least some sort of transcendence. This juxtaposition of the mundane with fantasies–and in the case of the family whom this novel is about, the all-too-possible reality of tragedy with the impossible prospect of deferring that tragedy–underlies how I approached the story of Chi Roca and the death of her father and sister. Sliver of Light owes much to magical realism, and I would boldly declare it a magical realist novel, if I did not now know that such declarations are met with skepticism.
Nevertheless, among the works that have influenced me are those that are infused with “possible impossibilities.” Primarily among these works are of course the lyric, expansive familial epics of the South American novelists Gabriel García Márquez and Isabel Allende, specifically One Hundred Years of Solitude and The House of the Spirits. There are quite a few differences between my approach and those taken by García Márquez and Allende, however. I have collapsed the epic into the intimate in Sliver of Light, many generations into a few months of a single girl’s life; the novel does not involve war, and it is set in the politically stable world of an American suburb. I have used the elements of magical realism, presenting the fantastic as natural, in order to portray the emotional instability of Chi’s family and the uncanny displacement Chi feels living in a stable, constant environment while, inwardly, she cannot find solid ground.
Sliver of Light is not epic and does not involve broader political themes, which admittedly makes it much different from One Hundred Years of Solitude and The House of the Spirits. Because the inspiration for the story of Sliver of Light was a real incident that happened to my Ecuadorian grandmother’s grandfather and aunt, I very well could have decided to attempt a familial political epic. However, I wanted to write about an environment with which I am intimate, and I wanted to avoid the “flattening” of characters that often happens in novels with very broad scopes. So instead I decided to do the equivalent of taking a single character from one of these epics and telling her story. Influencing me in creating a more intimate novel was The Virgin Suicides, the first novel of Pulitzer-winning author Jeffrey Eugenides, in which five sisters kill themselves to escape the smothering environment of their suburban life. This influence was more felt than consciously thought about as I wrote Sliver of Light; The Virgin Suicides is told in the collective voice of the neighborhood boys who observe the doomed sisters, and I felt a desire to tell their story from the inside, rather than looking in at them. More generally, The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, which plays a role in the action of Sliver of Light, was always with me as I wrote as well, reminding me of the desperation and depression that extraordinary young women can face if they feel the need to reach for more than they think their life can give them.
Bringing together these disparate influences of late twentieth-century American realism and South American magical realism is fiction from outside the American continents–the novels of the Japanese writer Banana Yoshimoto, who writes about disaffected, disconnected young people who are finding their way to each other and themselves, often as they mourn the death of someone close to them. Yoshimoto’s novel Amrita, which tells the story of Sakumi, a young woman who loses part of her memory after the death of her younger sister, was of particular influence, especially in its treatment of the disintegration of a family in the face of tragedy: “If the same people don’t spend enough time in a home,” Sakumi comments, “even if they are connected by blood, their bonds will slowly fade away like a familiar landscape.” Throughout the novel, ghosts, telepathy–particularly between Sakumi and her younger brother–visions, and even a UFO help Sakumi accept her grief and regain her memories, all while she lives her ordinary life in a Japanese suburb. This incorporation of the extraordinary into the minutiae of the everyday strikes me as being very much like how one must continue to do all the ordinary things, like go to school or brush one’s teeth, even when faced with overwhelming, unfathomable emotions, such as grief at the death of a loved one.
Chi, like Sakumi, must continue with the everyday, even with her grief and her family’s disintegration manifesting themselves as her dead sister’s voice in her head and the animals from her childhood fantasy life becoming real. Yoshimoto wrote of this in her author’s note for Amrita: “I wanted to express the idea that, regardless of all the amazing events that happen to each of us, there will always be the never-ending cycle of daily life.” Through daily life, Yoshimoto’s protagonist Sakumi finds a way of reconnecting with her grieving family, and the same is true of my protagonist Chi, though, true to her South American roots, she will have to uncover family secrets first.
Family secrets, a hidden family history, lie at the heart of One Hundred Years of Solitude, and when they are at last revealed to the Buendía family’s last descendent, the revelation brings with it an apocalypse, destroying the earthly legacy of the Buendías, the town of Macondo. These are family secrets of a grand scope. The idea that secrets can build a false reality and truth can destroy this illusion influenced me in Sliver of Light‘s more limited scope. Chi’s discovery of the circumstances leading to her sister’s death destroys the reality she has built, the extension of her childhood that had helped her to cope with her grief. The destruction, for her, is devastating but also liberating. The end of One Hundred Years of Solitude leads the reader to consider the power of reading as an interpretive act (for the last Buendía reads his family history from parchments that he must translate) as a way of creating and re-creating reality. In the same way, Sliver of Light is meant to lead the reader to consider how a person might create a fiction of her own life so effectively that it becomes real, as well as the inability to separate the mind’s perception of reality from reality itself.
Continue reading Half a Person: Academic Origins
According to the agents Publishers Weekly spoke to for this article on new trends in young adult fiction, dystopian and paranormal novels are dead and agents are looking to sign realistic novels. This is of interest to me because I have been trying to write more realistic fiction, and I just put my novel Half a Person up on Amazon as an ebook. It’s not exactly realistic, as it has supernatural and magical realist elements, but those are more metaphorical than actual fantasy.
I do still have my dystopian novel in-progress, The Zones, which I will probably also self e-publish instead of going through the route of agents and publishers. You can read the first five chapters of The Zones at Figment.
Miss Mina Rose de Guzman Belew, born on August 26, 2013 at 6:09 a.m. She is a lovely baby. Brian and I — and her big brother Mateo — are absolutely in love with her.
You are in your bathroom, listening to public radio while you dye your hair. The BBC News has wrapped up when you hear the unmistakable strains of American Public Media’s theme music. A Prairie Home Companion is starting! You have to do something, but your gloved hands are covered in the clotted-blood-red of Manic Panic Vampire Red.
If you decide to push through it and leave the radio on, turn to page 14.
If you panic and impulsively do whatever you can to turn off the radio before Garrison Keillor’s warble comes through the speakers, turn to page 31.
If you yell for help, turn to page 56.
At first it isn’t too bad. You close your eyes and set your jaw to make it through the opening theme. Keillor’s monologue consists of ignorable banalities about airports and weather. He reminds everyone that he was an English major. “Ignore ignore, block it out, it doesn’t mean you’re like him” you say to yourself, and it’s almost working… until, the band strikes up. Keillor mildly proclaims he’s going to sing a little tune about the suburbs. Your vision begins to go gray at the edges, then black. Then it closes in on you, and there are shapes in that dark, tendrils that creep into your peripheral vision, and then encroach, winding around your mind, whispering jokes about Lutherans that you have no cultural context for, covering you, the whispers soon turning into a meaningless buzz that becomes part of the darkness. And then there’s nothing but the darkness. The darkness and Garrison Keillor’s voice, announcing the Guy Noir sketch. The last thing you remember before succumbing is your own gibbering voice, saying, “No no no it doesn’t mean it doesn’t mean anything it doesn’t mean I’m like him!”
In an automatic fit of terror, your arm flings itself out in the direction of the radio. Your gloved hand, covered in the froth of Vampire Red, leaves a grisly smear across the speakers, and the radio falls from its precarious perch on the counter. It careens into the faucet handle of the second sink, knocking the water on to full blast just as the radio crashes into the basin. Electricity travels across the wet countertop, on which your free hand rests. The only thing that saves you is the rubber glove, covered in the gory dye. You sink to the bathroom floor. “It’s OK,” you tell yourself. “You’re OK. It doesn’t mean you’re like him.”
“Brian!” you call. “Brian, I need your help!”
Your husband stumbles down the hall, gasping “What? What’s wrong? Are you OK?”
“A Prairie Home Companion!” you manage to blurt out. “It’s on the radio and I can’t turn it off!”
He catches his breath. “Oh my god! You scared the shit out of me!”
“Sorry,” you say. “But — A Prairie Home Companion!”
“You have an irrational hatred of this show,” he says, reaching over and turning off the radio. “Jeez, you’re getting that stuff everywhere.”
You sigh in relief as the sound of the band starting up is silenced. “It’s just that… Garrison Keillor is always saying how he was an English major, as if we’re all in some secret club and… I’m not like him! I’m not!”
“Whatever you need to tell yourself,” your husband says, as he leaves the bathroom.
In a recent essay in the Atlantic, Garance Franke-Ruta tackled the question of why women are becoming more and more educated and yet still are way underrepresented in the top echelons of the business world. Her answer is that the skills that reward you in academia are much different than those that propel you up the corporate ladder.
It’s an interesting hypothesis that I’ll return to later, because first I have to share this little excerpt that stood out me:
Many parts of the work world, by comparison, are still plagued by sexism, or reward a particular sort of self-promotion that many women shy away from.
“Shy away from”? This language struck me as telling — an example of engrained sexism. If women don’t partake of a particular behavior, it must be because it makes them nervous or scared! They may even want to, but the poor timid little mousy dears can’t bring themselves to do it!
I thought about workplace (or any-place) self-promotion and my feelings about it weren’t so much that I did not want to take part of it because it scared me. More like because it repulsed me. So maybe I would rewrite that sentence thusly:
Many parts of the work world, by comparison, are still plagued by sexism, or reward a particular sort of self-promotion that many women recoil from.
I don’t know about other women, but I find that the pushier and more self-promoting someone is, the less I want to help them. The ego that is tacitly present in such interactions repels me, as is the assumption that my priorities are obviously less important than theirs.
Perhaps this is related to Franke-Ruta’s theory that women are groomed to be courted and refuse, but in a positive way: I do not want to allow someone to assert their will over my own.
Now back to academia: If you are inclined to pursue higher education, I would say that you should think less about what will get you ahead in a career and more about pursuing something that interests you and honing skills that are important to you, not your hypothetical career. And something involves labs and workshops, if you want to work on learning to interact with people while pursuing your own goals.
And lastly: Don’t feel obliged to become what disgusts you.
You know how the Second Amendment to the Constitution begins with “A well-regulated Militia being necessary to the security of a free state”? If you’ve ever wondered what the framers of the Constitution thought were the responsibilities of said well-organized militia, look no further than the Constitution itself.
In Article One, Section Eight of the U.S. Constitution, the function of the militia is encompassed within the rights and responsibilities of the Legislative Branch (Congress):
“To provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions;
“To provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining, the Militia, and for governing such Part of them as may be employed in the Service of the United States, reserving to the States respectively, the Appointment of the Officers, and the Authority of training the Militia according to the discipline prescribed by Congress…”
So the next time somebody tells you that the Second Amendment was meant to enable people to overthrow the government, ask them why it’s the responsibility of the same militia that provides the basis of the Second Amendment to “execute the Laws of the Union” and “suppress Insurrections.”
So I was hoping that I’d be looking like this Alana come Comic-Con:
But it turns out I’ll be closer to this Alana:
So I actually won’t be there at all because I will be forbidden from traveling.
The newest de Guzman-Belew will arrive in August.
I feel like I’m going to throw up, like, all the time.
It makes you unfathomably fierce and utterly vulnerable. It makes your heart strong enough to hold more love than you thought possible and so frail that you fear what might break it at every moment.
It gives you kinship. Not just with the future, which now will be the home of the life you’d sacrifice yours for, but with the past and present, and everyone in it. You want to protect every child because you know how precious they are — not just know but feel, so strongly that your sinews ache with bearing the heavy value of every child in the world.
As a friend told me, it makes you wonder if you ever really knew what empathy was before them — before your life altered irrevocably, becoming not just a string of days held together with ego and ambition but the purpose of that drive. Live, live, live, your heart said. And now you know why.
You feel that love when you look at everyone, not just your child. You see the old man at the newsstand, the woman pushing a cart, and think, They were once someone’s child; they are someone’s child. They are deserving of love and compassion.
Humanity begins to have continuity and form. And you are afraid. Because every rend in the fabric reminds you of what it would take to break you, and how easily it could be done. Every rend is someone broken, and you want to bear some of their pain. You know you would need the help if it happened to you.
If it, if it, if it. You both embrace and dread possibilities. You live in fear and love and hope.
You hold your child. More than anything else, you hold him — in your arms, in your mind, in your heart. His image is imprinted on every atom of your being.
And you love others because they are capable of such love. You love others because they have been so loved.