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Rochester Reads 2018: A Conversation with Reyna Grande

Karen vanMeenen/Writers & Books: You didn’t have many opportunities to read for pleasure as a child. In your memoir The Distance Between Us, you mention a couple of books you treasure. Can you say more about what it was like for you when you did gain more access to books, such as what you read?

Reyna Grande: As a teenage girl, most of the books I read were from the public library. I read a lot of Stephen King and Agatha Christie, and of course, way too many Harlequin romance novels! In college, my personal library was very small, with the books Diana Savas, my college English professor, gave me by Sandra Cisneros, Isabel Allende, and Helena Maria Viramontes. At the university, I acquired more books I treasured (some were required reading and others were gifts from my Spanish teacher) by Juan Rulfo, Tomás Rivera, Ana Castillo, Gloria Anzaldúa, and Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. My boyfriend gave me books by Ayn Rand, and to this day The Fountainhead continues to be one of my absolute favorite books. A friend introduced me to Kahlil Gibran and I loved his work so much I named my son after him.

KV: What a rich list of authors. What kinds of writing, in particular, inspire your writing now?

RG: I love lyrical books. I usually read a few pages of these books before I sit down to write: The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros; The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey; Autobiography of My Mother by Jamaica Kinkaid; We the Animals, by Justin Torres; Train to Trieste by Domnica Radulescu; Caspian Rain by Gina B. Nahai; and A Cup of Water Under My Bed by Daisy Hernandez. I’m always looking for books to devour. The latest was The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen.

KV: I have read and enjoyed many of those books (one, The Snow Child, was the Rochester Reads selection for 2014) and several of them deal with issues in families. In your memoir, you explore in great depth the complicated relationship you had with each of your parents, including the life-altering fact that they both emigrated to the U.S., leaving you (and their other children) in Mexico. This no doubt had profound and long-term effects on you and your siblings. Now that you have the benefit of hindsight, can you say that these challenges were ultimately positive in any way?

RG: In an ideal world, I would have preferred that my family had emigrated together. Unfortunately, legally it wasn’t possible. Financially it wasn’t feasible. Poverty, no matter how extreme, doesn’t qualify you for asylum, so my family would have never obtained visas to come here. So, the only route was illegal immigration and family separation. That separation from my parents ruined my relationship with both of them. But, so many good things came out of that decision to emigrate. I was able to obtain a college degree, pursue a career in writing, reach my full potential. Now, I get to be the parent my parents couldn’t be: I get to stay with my children and watch them grow up. I can give them everything my parents had once wanted to give me, including a home.

There was heartbreak and sorrow. I live every day with the trauma of my immigrant experience. But I wouldn’t have it any other way. Now my children and their children and their children will never have to be immigrants and border crossers. They will have a place to belong, a place to call home.

KV: In what other ways have you determined to raise your children differently from the choices your parents made? Are your siblings close to your own children? Are your children readers?

RG: I have learned many lessons from my parents, mostly about what not to do. I never want to be a stranger to my children. I share with my son and daughter everything about who I am and where I come from. I love and support them as best as I can, and above all, I try to give them a stable and loving home. My siblings and I have a total of 13 children and we do the best we can to guide and support them.

My daughter, who is 9, devours books. We recently put a second (tall) bookcase in her room because she refuses to get rid of books and keeps getting more and more. My son, who is 15, is a reluctant reader at times, but he loves comic books and graphic novels, and he’s a big fan of Rick Riordan’s book series. Currently, he’s reading The House on Mango Street at school and is quite impressed that I personally know Sandra Cisneros.

KV: I’ll bet he is! Your family of origin certainly faced many challenges and these drive the narrative of your memoir. Writing about challenges and trauma has been shown to be very therapeutic (especially as demonstrated by researcher James Pennebaker at the University of Texas-Austin). Did you find writing this memoir cathartic?

RG: It was incredibly cathartic. My book became a vessel into which I poured everything I had carried inside me for so long—all those painful memories, all those harsh, ugly, heavy emotions. I put them all on the page and now I no longer have to carry them inside me, hurting me. I felt lighter, freer, happier, when I finished The Distance Between Us. I felt that I had given meaning to my experiences, and now I understood them in a way I hadn’t before. I had an “Aha!” moment when I knew that, because of those things, I am who I am now. I suddenly felt proud of those things and no longer ashamed.

KV: What else did you learn about yourself during the process of writing a memoir? What changed about your perspective of your family? What else drives you to revisit your past?

RG: One of the biggest revelations while writing the book was that it forced me to look at my parents through different eyes—the eyes of a writer. For all my life, I had seen them through the eyes of the daughter they had left behind, and there was a lot of lingering anger, resentment, and pain that I still felt. So, my interactions with them were always tainted by those emotions. When they became characters in my book, I had to look at them through a writer’s lens, and I admit I was more compassionate and understanding of them. As a writer, I work very hard to get to know my characters, so I had to learn everything I could about my parents—their childhoods; the time and place in which they grew up; the people they were raised by; their fears, joys, and sorrows. I was able to understand them much better and this discovery brought me closer to forgiveness.

KV: Other than facts, what do you rely on to tell your own story, and the truth(s) of your family?

RG: It’s a process for me. The first draft contains the memories that I remember the most. In the second draft, I had to dig deeper. In the third draft, I was digging very deep, using triggers such as photos, music, interviews, etc. I focused on writing not just what happened but how it felt. Sometimes I couldn’t remember very clearly how something unfolded, but I did remember how it felt. So, I started from there, from the emotion.

KV: What was the most vibrant memory of your childhood? What would you say is the most profound memory that you already held or discovered during the writing of your memoir?

RG: One of the most vivid memories I have did not make the final draft of The Distance Between Us—but fortunately, I saved the chapter and have now put it in the sequel as a flashback. It is a memory of my uncle Mario, my mother’s youngest brother, coming to visit us at Abuela Evila’s house. He brought us a bucket of ice cream but my grandmother sent him away and refused to let him see us. He snuck into the backyard and gave us the ice cream, but when we were about to eat it, my grandmother discovered us and made us put the ice cream in the hot sun to melt. Once she left, my siblings and I still ate the melted ice cream and refused to be defeated by her. I have the memory of that warm, melted ice cream, and the love my uncle had for us. I deleted this chapter because I felt it was hitting the reader over the head: “Look how evil my evil grandmother was!” But fortunately, since I just finished writing the sequel, which is called A Dream Called Home, I was able to use some of the deleted scenes in this book.

KV: How have time and distance affected your memory of childhood events? Or your writing?

RG: I tried to write a memoir when I was 22 years old and I couldn’t do it. It hurt too much. The pain was still fresh. I also lacked the     maturity to understand what I was writing about, and I was just learning my craft as a writer to know how to write the story. So, instead of a memoir I wrote a novel, which gave me a way to explore immigration but in a way where I wasn’t the main protagonist of the story. I learned how to write a book-length story with my first novel. I’m glad I waited to mature as a person and as a writer. In my novel, I ended up writing not what happened to me but what could have happened to me if my father had never returned.

It took me ten years and two novels for me to feel ready to write the memoir. I was more mature [and able] to find the meaning in those experiences, and I felt more confident as a writer to be able to shape my life into a story with plot points and a narrative arc. My memories, of course, weren’t as clear as when I was 22, but with every draft I did, I remembered more, and then my older brother and sister gave me all their memories to fill the gaps of my memory. The more I wrote, the more detailed the writing got. I did have to take creative license at times, such as when I recreated the dialogue. I couldn’t remember verbatim what was said so I did have to use my imagination to write the dialogue following what I know about my family—how they speak, what they might have said.

KV: Tell us more about your first two books, which are both novels. Were your novels partly based on your real-life experiences?

RG: In my first book, Across a Hundred Mountains, I ended up writing not about what happened but about what could have happened if my father had never returned to Mexico for me. In my second novel, Dancing with Butterflies, I write about a young woman with a dysfunctional relationship with her abusive, alcoholic father. I was trying to explore the psychological and emotional trauma of my relationship with my own father and how it impacted how I interacted with men, to the point where I was searching for my father in other men, wanting them to give me the love he couldn’t give me.

KV: How was the process of writing a memoir different from that of novel writing?

RG: Writing the memoir made me feel extremely vulnerable. I was exposing my deepest secrets and yearnings, baring my soul and heart for all to see and to judge. It was scary but also very healing. I was hiding from my truth by writing fiction. It worked for a bit but eventually I needed to confront my own demons.

KV: When you called on your siblings when you were writing your memoir, did you find that all of your memories were different?

RG: I had to rely on the memories of my siblings, especially my older sister. I especially enjoyed getting my brother’s memories. They were so different from mine, only what a boy would remember: the abandoned car we used to “drive” to El Otro Lado [The Other Side, or the U.S.]. When we became squatters and ended up losing the land because he was sick. The relationship he had with my crazy uncle—the only father figure he had as a kid. The fight between the girl he had a crush on and Mago. Those were his memories.

In the end, what I loved about getting my siblings involved was that the book was no longer about my journey, but ours.

KV: How often do you return to Iguala and what is that experience like for you? How are you still tied to that land—by the symbolism of your belly button, perhaps?

RG: Recently, I have started to return to Iguala every year to do a Christmas Toy Giveaway for the kids in my old neighborhood. It is a personal project of mine that I hope to continue every year. I remember as a child that getting a free toy at [the festival of] Las Posadas was the highlight of the Christmas season—it was the only toy we would be getting. So now, I want to be that person who gives kids something to look forward to every year. Everyone in my neighborhood knows I’m coming and word has spread to other neighborhoods, and it makes me happy to see the children happy.

My cousins and their children are living there, and I have a very special relationship with them. These are my cousins from my mother’s side and they are all younger than me, since my siblings and I are the oldest grandchildren from her side of the family. My cousins range from 33 to 5 years old, so some of them could even be my own children, and I see them as such. I support them in any way I can because my cousins have not been as fortunate as me. They continue to live in poverty, in a place with limited opportunities and little hope.

KV: Along with themes of loss and separation, coming of age and transition, families you are born into and families you make, another strong theme in your memoir is faith, from the hope that your parents will return to you in Mexico to references to Catholicism. Has faith played a role in your adult life, perhaps in how and what you write about?

RG: My maternal grandmother taught me all about faith. She was a devout Catholic and constantly had us praying to saints, La Virgen de Guadalupe, to God. When you are poor and have nothing, faith is sometimes all you have. So, I clung to my faith that one day I would have a home again. In the U.S. I lost my Catholic faith but not faith itself. I learned to believe in myself, to have faith in what I am capable of.

KV: Another theme that strikes me very deeply is forgiveness, particularly in your narrative approach to your father. After detailing the mistreatment and abuse and violence, you still dedicate the book to him. Can you share how you have experienced the emotion of forgiveness in regard to your father?

RG: I have written four books about my father, and I might have to write more to fully understand my relationship with him. I have a fierce love for the man, gratitude and loyalty as well. Writing about him has helped me to understand the flawed human being he was and his inability to rise above the negative circumstances of his upbringing. I don’t try to make excuses for him, but I have empathy for him and pity for the harsh life he had as a young boy. I am grateful to him because he came back to Mexico for me. There are so many fathers that never return. But he did. He didn’t forget me. He brought me to the U.S., to a place where he knew I could flourish. Though he was one of my biggest obstacles at times, he was also one of my biggest heroes. When he was ill with cancer, I finally got to see a glimmer of the father he should have always been. He was kind and loving. He knew I loved gardening and gave me plants for my garden: a peach tree, a plumeria, rose bushes, a pomegranate tree.

I mourn my father, especially the version of him toward the end of his life. I wish I’d had more time with him. When he died, I buried the other father—the cruel, alcoholic one, and I held on to the memory of the one who did not forget me.

KV: How has your family responded to your published writing?

RG: As my siblings took part in the process of putting together the story, they always knew what I was writing about them. They approved and supported me with the project since I began to write it. I think they appreciate the fact that I didn’t just write my story, but theirs as well. In the book, my siblings—especially my older sister—play a big part in the narrative. My father passed away before the book came out, so he never read it. My mother found it to be a very difficult read.

KV: I raised this complicated issue with Sonja Livingston, a memoirist whose collection of essays Queen of the Fall: A Memoir of Girls and Goddesses was our Rochester Reads pick for 2016: “What is your take on the assumed inherent truths of memoir?” This has been complicated especially in the last decade or so with several controversies about truths being stretched or even fabricated in supposedly “true” stories.

RG: Yes, memoir can be tricky because you do have to use your imagination to recreate the moments in your life. You remember certain details, words, feelings, but not 100% of it all, so when you revisit your past to reawaken the memories, you write them down as best as you can remember and you fill in the rest by sticking to the emotional truth. What you can’t remember, you recreate by research and interviews, when possible. When you start to make up things that never happened, writing a life you never lived, then that is no longer a memoir. That is an autobiographical novel.

Ultimately you have to write your truth and stick to how you remember your life, not how someone else remembers it. [As I noted,] my siblings and I had different versions of some of our experiences because we remembered some things differently. In the end, I wrote my life the way I remember it happening, though I had to leave many things out because I couldn’t include everything. A memoirist takes the “footage” and sifts through their memories, carefully choosing what they put in and what they leave out. It’s like making a sculpture. You chip away and chip away until you “release” the image within the block of granite. There is a bit of manipulation in the story because you choose the image you will sculpt out of your life’s experiences.

KV: This genre of creative nonfiction, particularly memoir, is fast growing. What are your thoughts on why this genre is so appealing to readers (or even to writers)?

RG: I think people like true stories. They like to see that others have suffered, persevered, and succeeded. When you read someone’s true story of success it helps you believe that you, too, can rise above your circumstances and triumph. We all need that hope, that encouragement. I can’t speak for all writers, but I know that for me, writing a memoir was very healing. I am less wounded now than I was before I wrote The Distance Between Us. We can never fully heal, but writing and confronting the life you have lived can give you peace and understanding.

KV: What memoirists do you especially admire? What is it you take from their styles, their approaches to the genre, to telling the truths of their own lives?

RG: The memoirs I especially like are Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt, The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls, and Let’s Not Go to the Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller. I love these books because they have a very strong narrative voice, humor, but above all, they show you—not tell you—about their lives. Most of the stories are “in scene” with little reflection, introspection, analysis. I dislike memoirs when the writer goes into those long introspections and tries to analyze the story for you. I would rather reveal those things through the action. One memoir I did like that is written more like personal essays with more telling than showing is Daisy Hernandez’ A Cup of Water Under My Bed. The way she chose to tell her story worked for me.

KV: The Distance Between Us is arguably a book about place (although people might disagree on which place of your youth takes precedence). How do you feel about your childhood in Mexico now that you live in the U.S. and only visit your homeland as an adult? How do you see other places, such as your adopted home of California, both as a writer and an inhabitant?

RG: Ah, that is the tragedy—that I can no longer see the beauty of my hometown like I once did. Before I came [to the U.S.], I could see past the poverty and appreciate the mountains, the bougainvillea petals floating in the wind, the scent of wet dirt after the rain…. Now, all I see is the poverty, the trash, the oppression, the corruption, the limited opportunities, and the sorrow of the people who suffer from exploitation and are forced to live in such dire circumstances.

Mexico continues to be a place full of corruption, oppression and exploitation of the working class. The wages are miserable. In my hometown, my cousins are making a measly $100 pesos ($5 USD) a day. Yet a copy of the Mexican edition of The Distance Between Us costs $220 pesos, two days’ worth of wages. They could never afford my book. The low wages compared to the high cost of living keep everyone living hand-to-mouth. There are very few opportunities to get ahead and succeed.

Now that the “magic” has worn off, El Otro Lado isn’t Disneyland anymore, either. I can see past the dark side of the fairy tale. There is corruption here too, and poverty, oppression, and exploitation, but we do a better job hiding it or denying their existence. But we must do something about it before things get worse.

I feel bad about the U.S. because if we aren’t careful, we will become like Mexico. The gap between the rich and the poor is getting wider and wider and the middle class is shrinking. That is exactly what happened to Mexico. I don’t want to see that happen. I want the U.S. to continue to be a place where dreams exist, where anything is possible if we work hard enough. In Mexico, when you are born poor most likely you will die poor. But here, there is the possibility of hope. Let’s keep it that way.

KV: Now you are a successful writer, living in the U.S. What are your (daily) writing efforts like, in general?

RG: When I’m on a deadline I write anywhere from three to 10 hours. When I’m on a speaking tour I don’t write at all because it’s hard for me to switch my brain from writing mode to speaking mode (they require two different approaches, internal and external). I am a binge writer. Sometimes I don’t write for days or weeks and then suddenly it all comes pouring out. Though I don’t physically sit down to write, I do think about my writing a lot.

KV: What are the main ideas that you want readers to get out of your personal stories?

RG: My goal is to write about immigration in a way that reminds people that we are speaking about human beings anytime the issue comes up—in politics, in the media, at school, in our day-to-day interactions. Immigration impacts the entire family unit, and everything we do or don’t do on behalf of our immigrants is going to have long-term effects on their families for generations to come. For many years now, we have been talking about immigration—especially about our undocumented youth—but we have been unable or unwilling to do right by them. Immigrants suffer so much already from traumatic events before, during and after migration, yet we continue to create stressors for them, forcing them to live in fear and uncertainty. I hope that my book can offer people insight into the harsh realities of being an immigrant, a.k.a. a displaced human being whose decision to migrate was an act of survival. This is the American story, isn’t it? Or better yet, the human story of survival.

KV: It absolutely is and your book explores this beautifully. And it seems that reading and writing were in some measure part of how you survived, how you thrived. When and why did you decide to pursue a graduate degree and what were a couple of the most important things you learned during that education?

RG: I believe that the opportunity to educate myself presented itself to me, and I want to take advantage of the opportunity. I came to a country where Higher Ed is highly valued and though it gets more and more difficult to obtain, it’s still easier than in Mexico because over there the poor can’t afford to send their kids to school. Most of my cousins had to start working when they became teenagers. Here in the U.S., I got a BA, and after, I went for my MFA. I also wanted to get a PhD but, unfortunately, I wasn’t accepted into any of the programs I applied for—yes, it’s true. I was even rejected by my very own alma mater, UCSC. I haven’t given up on that yet and I hope one day I can still pursue it—not because I need it, because it will do nothing for my writing career since it’s already going well—but because I want it. I want to be Dr. Grande. Wouldn’t that be amazing!

KV: In terms of loss, even by the time of the writing of the book you had lost so many women in your life, either through death or other circumstances. Which leads me to ask about the specific influence of women on your own formation as an adult woman, a mother, a citizen.

RG: I lost a lot of women but I also gained a lot of women. At the community college, I had my professor, Diana Savas, to serve as a mentor and guide. When I transferred to the university, I found another professor, Marta Navarro, to take over that guidance. I had my writing teacher, Micah Perks, and my boss at my campus job, Robin McDuff. These are the women who helped me become who I am today, and they are still a part of my life, still guiding me and mentoring me. Nowadays there are more women: my friends, my agent, my editor. I have a loving support team around me. Best of all, I have my daughter, Eva, who also wants to be a writer.

KV: It is wonderful to hear that your daughter might follow in your footsteps. Speaking of Diana Savas, your mentor and friend and in more ways than one a crucial supporter, I (like several other readers I have talked with) were left wanting to know more about her and about your relationship. Is there a particular reason you do not go into more detail or depth in this regard?

RG: My second memoir, A Dream Called Home, is a continuation of The Distance Between Us and it covers the next ten years of my life. The theme of the book is the search for home and a place to belong. It covers my experience as a first-generation university student and my pursuit of my dream of being a writer and making a home for myself. Yes, Diana Savas is there, as well as the other teachers who I met at UCSC who mentored me. The book will be out in 2018.

KV: How did the Young Adult version of The Distance Between Us come to be? It seems quite an uncommon practice for memoirists to write for two different audiences—albeit a very welcome one that has garnered much praise.

RG: I think young reader adaptations are becoming more common for books that have appeal in both markets. Although The Distance Between Us was published for adults, it has a young protagonist, so it wasn’t hard to adapt the book for young readers. All I did was take out the “adult Reyna” from the story (the reflections, introspection, etc.) and left only the “young Reyna.” I also put the book on a “diet,” condensing the chapters. I also deleted a few chapters and replaced them with new material.

What I wanted most of all was to give young readers a book that speaks about an important issue that, as a country, we’ve been discussing for years—immigration. They need to see the issue in a more personal way that humanizes the experience. For young immigrants, I wanted to give them a book that they could relate to, a book that made them feel that their immigrant stories matter.

KV: It is such an important issue for this country, especially now.We are thrilled that more high school students than usual are participating in this year’s Rochester Reads program because of the availability of a YA edition of your story.

RG: That is wonderful to hear. It’s important for our youth to have a chance to discuss issues that affect the country they live in. Hopefully my story will encourage them to have more compassion and understanding toward immigrants by helping them see the complexities of immigration and the trauma that immigrant families experience.

KV: You have done many presentations as part of community reading programs since The Distance Between Us came out. What does it mean to you to have entire communities embracing your book and discussing the issues it raises?

RG: Well, it’s the opposite of what I experienced as a young immigrant in the U.S.! My coming-of-age was defined by my struggles with my immigrant identity, wanting to find a place to belong, feeling rejected, silenced, not seen or heard. Now, that’s the complete opposite. With a program like Rochester’s, I am being told: “We hear you. We see you.” As an immigrant, that is quite uplifting, to feel that my voice is being heard. I also appreciate the opportunity to advocate for my immigrant community. I hope that I can change hearts and minds one reader at a time.

KV: Is this especially true in consideration of more visible recent events pointing to racism, and in relation to the current political climate, with talk of building a wall on the U.S./Mexico border and the rescinding of DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood arrivals) by the Trump administration in September 2017, for instance?

RG: Now more than ever I think stories like mine need to be heard. My experiences are not unique, but immigrants are seldom given the opportunity to share their stories and be heard. There are many more stories like mine, and I appreciate that—though there is a huge wave of anti-immigrant sentiments trying to destroy the beauty of this country, its diversity—more and more people want to know more about the immigrant community and support us. We cannot let one man define who we are as a country. Together, we will survive this administration and come out stronger and more united than ever.

KV: Have you found that the topics that audiences want to broach or the general tone of your author appearances has shifted since the 2016 Presidential election? Has the focus of your motivational speaking engagements changed?

RG: I have found that more and more people want to stand by the immigrant community. I get lots of love and support everywhere I go. I am grateful that my book has opened the doors of many, many universities and college campuses because I get to speak directly to young people—who are on the verge of becoming working adults—and I can encourage them to use their careers and whatever positions of power they obtain to continue to fight for this country and save it from those who would destroy it.

KV: Thank you so much, Reyna. We are looking forward to your visit in March so that we can continue this conversation.