Once I’ve mashed the black pepper and the fresh garlic cloves together in the pilón I find it hard pressed (no pun intended) to separate the two out. That’s how it is being a Latina who loves to write and loves to read. It took a while for me to identify that I was a writer or (insert dramatic drum role) a Latina! I was just a kid who liked to read books. I collected plenty of them! Along with our 45 records, we were as excited receiving books as when we were given ice cream treats from Dairy Queen. I especially liked girl stories. It’s sad to say that over the years I haven’t read a lot of what I considered boy books. The books with the Hardy boys on the cover never made it to my house. I guess I still have time to make an amends there but do I really want to?
Recently pitching my latest novel I came to realize that the pitch for the book is as important as the book itself-maybe more so. Picking out a book based on its cover is something I use as an initial tool in my decision making. I then pick out a couple of random paragraphs to read and listen for its singing in my heart. I recently read someone write that you may not be able to judge a book by its cover but you can certainly prejudge it. Well, I guess I prejudge. Is the title catchy? What is the picture on the cover? What are its colors? Can I carry it in my bag on my way to work? I still like the feel of paper in my hands despite the fact that I own a Kindle in my iphone. Somehow I like to visually see where my book mark is and move it aside knowing I have four train stops to finish my book. Sometimes I want to savor the ending and replace the bookmark closing my eyes two stops before its time for me to get off the train.
On my book list of favorite reads I wrote down Dracula by Brahm Stoker. I hadn’t read it in a very long time and I recently reread it on my Kindle. There were so many moments throughout the book that marked the probability of the anticlimax that when it actually happened I wasn’t prepared. I could have paid attention to the moving bar at the bottom of the device that shows me where I am in my reading but I didn’t. Needless to say, I loved every inch of the book but felt it finished prematurely. That was frustrating, if you know what I mean.
Recently I have been thinking of the Latina characters that I have come to know. A strong heroine is someone I have been missing. Strong Latino heroes are just a bit easier to come by. An Anglo author I have recently begun reading has Latino characters sprinkled in her book. I felt caught up short when one of the characters was a maid- just a tad bit recalcitrant in her job duties. Why did the character have to be a maid? Why did she have just the right mix of arrogance and lazy in her attitude? Initially, I was a bit annoyed but then I thought- I know so many people like this that I needed to take it in stride. Was my feeling as a Latina author a fact? Shouldn’t I be true to realities? Just because the author had the character down ‘dead on’ did it mean I had to get on a soap box about the unfairness toward Latinas in writing? She had also written about a Latino character that is exudes Sexy with a capital S. Well, he may not be my cup of tea, but I can name you forty women I know who would be salivating over him. Okay. Fair enough. The characters are authentic and the story is a fun read. That is what I am looking for in a book.
In choosing books I can say my eyes are opening up! Peel back those layers, authors! I am starting to see in a whole new way. Characters must be real. They must be more than a one dimensional picture on the cover depicts them to be. I’ve taken pride in making sure my characters are just that, characters, not caricatures of people. It’s unfortunate that the book jackets don’t tell us who the protagonist’s best friends forever are and what makes them tick. Sometimes these characters have strong roles that we are just going to miss because we don’t know they exist. So for today, I’ve decided to shake it up and research more on the books I may pick up to read. I’ve started perusing book blogs and reading more about the possibilities available to me. I may actually begin to read the list of ‘recommendeds’ that others suggest. I promise myself not to just depend on the cover picture of a boy or a girl anymore. Now, I think I may get to cook something, the thought of black pepper and garlic is enticing me into the kitchen.
A couple of years ago I attended my first meeting as part of a Latina Writers workshop and I was asked the question about how I felt being thought of as a Latina writer. The question perplexed me. I had never really thought of it as that. I think of myself as a Latina because I am of Puerto Rican heritage and as a writer because I write. I hadn’t thought to identify myself or pigeon hole myself into a particular category because I am an always changing person.
My first experiences with reading were of sitting at the kitchen table with tears streaming down my face as my mother read passages of Elsie Dinsmore to us. When she noted that we were particularly moved or excited about an upcoming chapter she would gently close the book and send us to wash our faces. My mother later told us she did this in hope that we would think to pick up the books ourselves. She hoped that her actions would foster the love of reading to us that we saw she had throughout her life. Well, I have to say that her ruse worked!
My mother received monthly selections from the Readers Digest Book club. She also “sent away” for The Best Loved Books- a condensed version of classics- and her shelves were filled with Agatha Christie novels. Those books were also a salvation for us through many a difficult day and night. When my older sister became ill and was hospitalized for months at a time, my mother and I toted our “favorites” to our days filled with hope and prayers for what I now think of as “our survival”. A few months after my sister died in the summer of 1969, I remember my mother picking up a couple of novels. She had no memory of the words she’d counted on during that time and reread them all. This was a habit I soon picked up.
I devoured Nancy Drew and Cherry Ames stories. The vivid images of Nancy searching out clues and Cherry falling in love, in her starched white uniform, helped to form the person I have become. There were no Latina heroines for me to read about. I did not cut my teeth on Esmeralda Santiago, Julia Alvarez or Ernesto Quinones. Junot Diaz had not yet been born. In fact, when I first read the title When I was Puerto Rican I was horrified! What was Santiago trying to say? I was still Puerto Rican and nothing I did would ever change that. It took me a while before I stopped balking and finally picked up the title. I am glad that I did.
I had lunch with another Latina who I didn’t know would become my lifelong partner. We ate at a restaurant where the waiter thought she was French, she of Brazilian and Mexican heritage. We laughed that afternoon and walked over to a bookstore. She bent over one of the shelves and picked up The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros. She blushed as she handed it to me. I’m still not sure whether the blush was from the bend or the act of beginning a deep friendship and love and of sharing the gift of reading. I went home and read that book. I am still in awe at the simplicity of the woven words. I had finally found a place where I identified with the characters and the experience of Ms. Cisneros’ writings. I cried that my perceptions of loneliness, belonging and understandings were finally on page and I could identify with the messages sent to me via her words.
My ideas of Latina readership and writership traverse many areas. I will continue to write on the multiple layers of what makes me choose to read or write a book or a story and hope to hear back from you!
All too often we label ourselves as something we feel most comfortable with-a writer, a clinician, a parent and partner. As I create this blog I sift through my thoughts and my feelings, who am I today and who is it that I really want to project out into the larger world. I was given the charge of creating a platform. That was a tall order I realized when I began to think of my roles on this planet-they are many. I looked at the three blogs I’d been writing on-albeit all too infrequently- and noted that my persona has been divided up into different beings that all amount to one-me. My closest relationships know that I write poetry and stories and that I write prescriptions all day long in my work as a psychiatric nurse practitioner. They also know that, just like many of the people I work with, I listen to the voices that speak to me. I call these voices my spiritual guidance, my intuitiveness and my muse. I am not concerned with others knowing that I listen to my inner voices to point me along in the best directions for me. Like the rest of us, I need all the help I can get. In my work, I encourage my clients to listen to their inner voices, as along as they aren’t disturbing, aren’t destructive and serve the client and others in a positive way. Yesterday evening I posted the second reading that I channeled for one of my spirit guides, Graciella La Gitana, in my weekly column Palabras. This column can be found on www.plumaytinta.org. This site is a creation for the Latina Writers Workshop that I helped to found with Raquel Penzo and Rebeca Toledo. We write, we read and we help to provide a forum for very talented people to show their creativity. I think that some of my friends would laugh at this title “on which side of sanity.” We are all on one side or the other-at any given time! I happen to enjoy shifting my perspectives and love to show that in my different types of writings and readings. I have a couple of published research articles that are quite different to the poems I’ve written about my subway experience. As I continue to explore myself and share that in my writing, I hope to integrate more of who I am and will continue to share that in the writings that I share with you.