Rochester Reads 2018: Discussion Points for The Distance Between Us

The Author’s Craft

• What might the title The Distance Between Us indicate for people who have not yet begun to read the book? 

• Prologues are often used in novels and memoirs to set the tone or focus the reader on symbolism or major life events that will be explored in the book. In her prologue, how does Reyna Grande inform the reader about what is to come? 

• How do the dedications and the epigraph, with their references to dreaming, set the tone for the memoir?

• Naming is an important aspect of Reyna’s life over time, ranging from real names with deep meaning (such as her own linguistically contradictory moniker, Reyna Grande, and the name of her abusive grandmother, Evila), to nicknames (even for a toe) and terms of endearment, to what designations people can use for others or not. Explore some of those details and how some (most significantly, “The Man Behind the Glass”) change over time.

• The author writes, “When you are poor, no matter how close things are,         everything is far away.” How does the author balance her personal coming-of-age story with the more expansive story of being a child living in poverty in Mexico and then a teenager negotiating life as an undocumented immigrant in modern America?

• In several instances, the author does not translate some lines of dialogue delivered in Spanish. What is the effect on readers who do not understand Spanish? Or on those who do?

• Find examples of figurative language (such as metaphor) used by the author. 

• There are several instances of the author being both self-reflective and self-reflexive. How do these rhetorical strategies affect the audience?

• Explore the author’s writing style, including sentence structure, diction, tone, setting, and narrative structure. 

• Discuss how the writing is imagistic or visual. In what ways is it cinematic?

• What research do you suppose the author did in order to get the details of her early life right? 

• The author structures the book in two sections, each with a Prologue. Why do you think she made this choice? What is the difference in tone or content of each of the book’s two sections? What is the affect of beginning the second section of the book with a scene of her father on his deathbed?

Characters/Subjects and Motivation

• The Distance Between Us is, in many ways, a coming-of-age story. Explore how this plays out throughout the book.

• Reyna and her siblings experience many of the same challenges but in some ways they cope differently. What are their different reactions and strategies for survival?

• How is Reyna changed by the people she interacts with, the experiences she has? What lessons does she learn? Looking back on her youth and young adulthood, how does the author reconsider her life, her choices, her conception of family, her thoughts about the future? Track her emotional and psychological shifts.

• Identify where secrets are kept by the book’s characters/subjects. How is information revealed? What mysteries remain unrevealed?

• Numerous expressions of love are explored throughout the novel. How do Reyna and her siblings respond to Mami’s and Papi’s different approaches to familial love and duty? Is there evidence of Mami ever acting in a manner indicative of self-preservation over maternal responsibilities? Does anyone make sacrifices for love?

• In what actions could it be argued that betrayal is depicted? Ultimately, who is forgiven—or not—by whom and how?

• How are issues of survival (in Mexico and the U.S.) broached by different members of Reyna’s family? 

• Identify how the personalities of the author’s family members are revealed through small details.

• Family relationships are always complicated. How do they change over time and as different incarnations of Reyna’s family are formed?

• How do the different people in Reyna’s life look differently at the workings of faith and identity, as well as the practice of exercising personal empowerment in forming their own autonomous beings and futures?

• Reyna’s parents have different approaches toward parenting as well as how they live some version of the American Dream. Explore how this affects their children and how Mami and Papi navigate the U.S. differently.

• Noting specific details, look at how the different family members interact with, and treat, the children in Reyna’s (extended) family. Some contrasts are more obvious, such as the difference between how Abuela Evila and Abuelita Chinta treat their grandchildren, so look for those differences in attitude or behavior that are more subtle.

• What does the “Man Behind the Glass” symbolize for Reyna? How is he different from the real Papi and how does that realization affect Reyna?

• Reyna and her siblings cross into the states illegally. How do they each approach their new lives in El Otro Lado?

• When Reyna returns to her hometown of Iguala, what does she experience?

• What are the clues or indications that young Reyna will become a writer?

Issues and Themes

• Memory is necessarily a theme of the memoir genre and this holds true in The Distance Between Us. How are the complications of memory addressed and how do different characters express the importance of remembering? How is forgetting addressed?

• How does the author depict the joys of childhood, even amid desperate poverty?

• In what different ways does Reyna present her mother and her father? How does this reflect her relationship with each at the end of the story?

• What different kinds of friendships and familial relationships are evident?

• There are many diverse female influences present in the story. How does 

the author approach each as a figure of womanhood?

• How are women among men—and their various relationships—portrayed?      Explore especially the many examples of women claiming that they are waiting to be saved by men—including how that attitude is affected and even fostered by certain cultures. Consider how this affects the men as well as the women.

• The author is deeply affected by many women from whom she becomes separated. These seminal figures include Mami, Abuelita Chinto, Tía Emperatriz, and her sister Mago. After all of that loss, how does her academic mentor Diana come to fill such an important place as a role model for Reyna? How is their relationship different from all of the others?

• In Book Two, when they are both living in Los Angeles, Reyna writes that the distance between her and Mami is no longer 2,000 miles. What is the “distance between” them at that point?

• When she arrives in the U.S. and begins school, Reyna does not speak English. How does her early lack of facility with the English language inhibit her education?

• How are the divisions between social classes depicted on both sides of the border?

• What role does religion play in the author’s life? What examples does the author provide?

• What other important symbols are offered throughout the book and what purpose does each serve?

• There are several scenes of violence in the book. What do these behaviors tell us about the perpetrators and what is the effect on the victims? 

• In Reyna’s family story, how is violence and abandonment related to alcoholism or other addictions?

• How is the element of discovery revealed through Grande’s experiences? And how does this process differ during her childhood in Mexico compared to her later years in Los Angeles?

• There are many stereotypes that play out in the narrative. Explore from where they arise in the story and how they affect the different characters.

• Discuss how the following function in the memoir and how each affects different characters in the story: family, faith, loyalty, poverty, shame, and, toward the end, guilt.

• Explore how these themes are explored in the memoir: the search for identity and for belonging, coming-of-age, forgiveness, determination.

• How are the siblings’ experiences of coming-of-age complicated by their immigrant status? What do they gain by living in the U.S.? What do they give up? What else profoundly affects them? What differences do they each exhibit in terms of how they assimilate to life in the U.S.? 

• Discuss how place and home (in various manifestations, geographic and otherwise) play important roles in the narrative. 

• Early in Book Two, Reyna writes that she felt like she was “tearing in half.” What does Reyna mean when she writes (on page 320, at the very end of the book), that she is “from both places”?

• What does Reyna believe about El Otro Lado (The Other Side, or the U.S.) before she crosses the borders? How does that perception change once she is living in Los Angeles?

• What is the significance of the story of Reyna’s umbilical cord?

• How does the book differ from other memoirs or essay collections with which you are familiar?

• What does the book say about the importance of storytelling? About telling your own story?

• How does this memoir seem to argue against, or exemplify the falsehood of what Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, in her well-known TedTalk, refers to as “the single story”?

• The final scene in the memoir is one of forgiveness. Look back to the dedication of the book. What does this tell the reader?

• How are the different characters motivated by their individual dreams?

Connecting to Other Texts

• Reyna Grande cites several authors and specific books as influences (see the list in this Reader’s Guide). Referencing those with which you are familiar, discuss how those influences might be evident.

• What themes does the 2006 Rochester Reads selection, the memoir Name all the Animals by Alison Smith, share with The Distance Between Us? How are the narratives different?

• In 2013, our Rochester Reads choice was Luis Alberto Urrea’s Into the Beautiful North. How does the fictional story of emigration from Mexico to the U.S. depicted in that novel compare with Grande’s real-life experience?

Connecting to the Country and the World

• The author explores in detail why some people (in Mexico in particular) decide to risk crossing to the U.S., and writes of the resulting, heart-wrenching “cycle of leaving children behind.” How does this relate to the stories Americans read and hear about immigrants from Mexico or other countries in Central or South America?

• How did your view of immigration (for example, policies such as DACA or the human lives behind the politics) change after reading this book?

• How does The Distance Between Us contribute to the narratives of immigration into the U.S. and the challenges faced by both the adults and the children who come here as immigrants (both legal and undocumented)?

Speculative Questions for Discussion or Writing

• What do you think the author’s motivations were in writing this memoir?

• Would this story affect those who grew up in the U.S. differently compared to those who grew up elsewhere? Male-identified readers differently from female-identified readers? Older readers differently from people from a younger generation? Why?

• The author cites poverty as the reason so many children are left behind. How can that cycle be broken?

• How do stories function in a society and for the individual? What are the purposes of telling and retelling stories to ourselves and to others?

Related Writing Projects

• Write about your own childhood or coming-of-age experience. What particular events or feelings have stayed with you?

• Write a 10-minute memoir of your life, making sure to include all the major events.

• Then spend an hour fleshing out some of the details.

• Outline the research that you would engage in to continue telling your own life story in an effort to get the details right.

• Thinking back, what did you “want to be” when you grew up? How have those goals been met (or not)?

• Explore your relationship with each of your parents.

• Write about a woman (especially a teacher) who has influenced you.

• Write about “the single story” that you have been judged by.

• Grande’s personal story is couched in the larger issues of poverty, immigration, and families broken by borders. Write a first-person (creative nonfiction) essay connecting an element of your own history or contemporary life or thought with an issue in a broader social context.

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