Web Exclusive – March 29, 2011
Behind the Book: Crossing borders to find the heart of a story
I came across the bones of my book Star in the Forest on the outskirts of a small town in southern Mexico. One day, a decade ago, I was taking my daily walk down a dirt road lined with shacks made of corrugated metal and plastic tarp and salvaged wood scraps. I strolled past smoldering piles of trash and leaped over trickles of raw sewage, giving wide berth to occasional packs of scrawny dogs.
You should know that I loved these walks. Each one was an adventure. Curious kids would approach me, and soon their mothers and aunts and grandmothers would meander over and offer me a glass of warm Coke or a tortilla and beans. . . and new friendships were born.
On this particular day, I came across a family leading a burro by a frayed rope. They smiled at me, and in perfect American English, one of the children said, “Hey, what are you doing all the way out here?”
Surprised, I explained that I’d been working here as an English teacher, then asked where they’d learned to speak English so well. They chattered about their previous home in Chicago, where they’d spent most of their lives until their recent move back to rural Oaxaca. It felt surreal to be talking to such thoroughly American kids at the side of a dirt road where chickens pecked at corn kernels hidden among old diapers and Sabrita wrappers.
Over my next two years living in Oaxaca, as I met more young peoplewho’d spent part of their childhoods in the U.S., I tried to understand how they might feel straddling two very different cultures. I jotted down thoughts and observations in my notebook, thinking they might come out in a story someday.
A few years later, in Colorado, I worked with an organization that assisted Mexican immigrant families with young children. I made home visits in trailer parks where many of the families lived, and there I met children on this side of the border who were also negotiating lives that bridged two worlds. I came to understand that despite the relative luxuries of their American homes—indoor plumbing and solid walls—undocumented kids have lives brimming with uncertainty. Considered “illegal,” they lack a home that gives them a sense of safety and belonging.
During my time working with these families, I wrote a short story about a girl in a Colorado trailer park who misses her indigenous community in Mexico, and finds comfort in her friendship with a neighbor girl and a stray dog. My notes and ideas from my time in Oaxaca helped me flesh out the girl’s flashbacks. I kept tinkering with the story over the next few years, but, sensing that it was missing something, I always tucked it away again.
While writing my first novel, I worked as an English teacher for immigrants. Then, after the book’s publication, my author visits took me to schools with large Latino populations. During these years, I formed friendships with many undocumented parents and children who shared with me their fears, anxieties and personal stories. A number of immigrants I knew had close relatives who had been deported from the U.S., leaving the rest of their family behind. Others had been assaulted or kidnapped while attempting to cross the border. Often, after hearing about these experiences, I took out my trailer park story and wove in more layers, ideas and details. Yet the manuscript always ended up back in a drawer.
On trips back to visit southern Mexico, I sometimes visited the families of my new immigrant friends. I spent a week with a family in a Nahuatl village called Xono and bonded with my friend’s adorable three-year-old boy. On the morning of my departure, he looked at me with huge, earnest eyes and begged in his small voice, “Laurita, por favor, no te vayas a Colorado.” Please don’t go to Colorado. As I gave him a teary hug goodbye, I realized that to him, Colorado was a black hole that swallowed his loved ones. Back home, I pulled out my story again, incorporating experiences from Xono, adding bits and pieces from both sides of the border. Still, the story didn’t feel complete.
And then one day, I heard from a 12-year-old reader I’ll call Maria. She connected strongly with Clara, the narrator of my first novel, What the Moon Saw, who visits her grandparents in their Mixtec village in Oaxaca one summer. Like Clara, Maria lived in the U.S. and had relatives in an indigenous community in southern Mexico.
But unlike Clara, Maria was undocumented. She’d come to live in her Colorado trailer park as a young child, after crossing the desert illegally. Her father had recently been deported to Mexico, and soon after, Maria began having problems at home and at school. After a particularly bad argument with her mom, she yelled, “I want to go to Mexico, like Clara did!”
Her mother pointed out that Clara was born in the U.S., and could cross the border freely. Yet if Maria crossed the border, it would be too dangerous and costly to return. “I don’t care!” she shouted.
Then her mother told her that if she moved back to their village, she could no longer go to school; instead, she’d have to wash clothes by hand all day to earn her living.Understandably, this made Maria even angrier. . . and frustrated and sad.
Which made me angry, frustrated and sad. So I wrote about it in my notebook. And suddenly, everything I’d been trying to say in the trailer park story crystallized. I wrote about a girl in Maria’s situation, trying to find a sense of power and comfort in a desperate situation beyond her control. The novel that emerged had the framework of my original story, but now I felt there was something more, something that made the story pulse and breathe. After a decade and many journeys back and forth across the border, its heart had arrived.
Star in the Forest is Laura Resau’s fourth novel for young people. Her other novels are
The Indigo Notebook,
Red Glass and
What the Moon Saw, all published by Delacorte Press. You can read more about her books at http://www.LauraResau.com.