The latest novel from PEN/Faulkner nominee Lorraine López revolves around a lost young woman who hopes to find peace and purpose by opening her Southern California home to wayward souls.
What inspired this story about spiritual and religious wanderings?
Curiosity. I write about what intrigues or perplexes me in order to gain a better grasp on what is at first elusive to me. I’ve noticed how certain people seem to gain greater serenity and equanimity through faith. In the novel, I pursue my curiosity about that through the protagonist who feels shut out from the realm of spirituality. For her, spiritual faith is like music she can’t hear or a work of art she’s unable to see. Her life is hectic and demanding, so she’s also after the peace of mind that spiritual people appear to enjoy.
How did you create Marina—the wisecracking, confused heroine forcing herself to try to be a lighthouse in chaos?
Marina’s voice came to me first, and it was an insistent voice that guided me into the story. Usually, I will draft fiction on my computer, but for the early chapters of this novel, that voice insisted on dictating to me while I wrote in longhand. And the voice led me to create Marina’s character, a reluctant benefactress who paradoxically strives for both peace of mind and the well-being of others. These traits were inspired for me by my oldest sister, who is well known in her community for being the go-to person for people who have problems. Though unflappably good to others, my sister has a biting wit and a sharp and profane tongue that provides a nice edge to her nurturing nature.
Why did you set your novel in a splintered community?
I have to say that I don’t perceive it as especially splintered. To me, the community in the novel is much more cohesive than, say, the middle-class suburban Nashville neighborhood in which I now live. In Marina’s community, members rely on and support one another in multiple ways. Beyond the novel, and despite negative stereotypes about Latino communities, these can be exceptionally cohesive and cooperative networks that provide practical help and emotional support to their members. In fact, writers from other cultural groups have expressed to me their regret that they do not have the same community that Latino authors sustain and benefit from. To my thinking, we are a community-oriented people. Of course, we have conflict as regularly as any other group, but in my experience, this is not a splintered community, and I have chosen to set the novel in this community because it portrays what I have experienced living most of my early life among Latinos in Southern California—to me, it feels real and true.
So often Latino literature is recognized for its connections to magical realism, but your characters tend to create their own magic. As a Latina author, where do you hope to take the genre with your novels?
It is usually Latin American and not Latino literature that is characterized by connection to magical realism. Latin American writers often inhabit spaces that are unstable—politically, economically and ideologically. People living in Latin America sometimes experience significant trauma due to this instability, and that trauma influences the writing that emanates from that part of the world. Magical realism can synthesize the instability and trauma, as well as reflect it, by presenting magical or fabulist occurrences that deliver characters from the instability and trauma in their lives, or fantastic occurrences that represent the forces against which characters feel powerless.
Latino literature is by definition written by writers of Hispanic heritage who are inculcated in the U.S. cultural experience, who write in English and who self-identify as Latinos. As such, our experiences in this country are significantly more stable and predictable than those of people living in Latin America. And while some Latino authors, such as Ana Castillo, do dabble in magical realism, I, like the vast majority of Latino authors, write realistic fiction that reflects my lived experience in this comparatively stable nation.
If there is magic in my writing, it results from interpersonal relationships among characters, from characters persisting in their attempts to be provident for others and to be kind, despite the obstacles and ingratitude they encounter. No special effects—just human miracles.
As to where I hope to take the genre (and I suppose this refers to the genre of Latino literature), I have to say that when we have such diversity within the diversity that is Latino literature, I don’t know if we have a genre, which I think of as a classification by form or style. There are Latino writers who pen mysteries, science fiction, young adult fiction, romances, poetry, drama and on and on. But my goals as a writer who is a Latina are simple and few: 1) to honor that diversity within what seems to be a cultural monolith, and 2) to write well.
Does Latino mythology spark your stories, or do they blend with your writing unconsciously? For example, did La Llorona, La Sufrida and La Chingada create your characters, or did the characters evolve into them?
Latino mythology also contains such diversity that it seems as impossible to generalize about it as it is to make broad statements about cultural genre, since there are Puerto Rican myths, Cuban myths, Chicano myths—to name just a few. La Llorona, La Sufrida and La Chingada emanate from Mexican mythology as interpreted by Gloria Anzaldúa, who has theorized about how this trinity was created to encourage Mexican women to subjugate themselves, to accept lives of sorrow, sacrifice and shame without complaining. I much appreciated how Sandra Cisneros developed and then deconstructed the myth of La Llorona in her story “Woman Hollering Creek,” and the way in which she reclaims the myth so it empowers the female characters. Anzaldúa’s work and Cisneros’ story have inspired me to look at the ways in which these mythological figures continue to shape women’s lives even on this side of the border. When I created Carlotta’s character as an abused woman who lives next door to Marina, I saw how her tendencies aligned with these three figures, and so I use them to describe Carlotta’s various “settings,” as Marina thinks of them. Here, the character suggested the comparative to the mythological figures. Usually, this is the case for me—first the characters emerge, and everything else follows, including plot, theme, symbols, metaphors and comparatives.
Women in Latino literature so often seem separate from male characters, as if fighting their own removed battle. But Marina seems open to help the opposite gender, as though machismo is both unavoidable but also conquerable. How do you see the roles of males and females in your book?
As a woman, I find it hard not to notice discrepancies in the way men and women are treated in the world, and the incongruity that emerges when men who are less capable, resourceful or accomplished than women are nonetheless afforded privileges withheld from women solely on the basis of gender. Machismo is a word that originates in Spanish, but it’s now an indispensible part of our English vernacular because it describes a condition that translates across cultures. But to Marina, it seems wrong to hold this against men, especially young men who have had no hand in creating the imbalance of privilege and quite probably do not even understand how it works, much less how to take advantage of it. Discrimination and bias are two-edged swords—harmful on both sides. With privilege comes the expectation of competence, even skillfulness, some measure of achievement that evades characters like Kiko and Reggie. The pressure of the expectation of accomplishment that accompanies this privilege seems to paralyze many of the male characters in the novel, and Marina, in her nurturing role, seeks to support and comfort all of the people she cares about, regardless of their gender or the reasons for their suffering.
One of the book’s big “lessons” is to let tormentors be the teachers. How did this become one of the novel’s messages?
This is the Dalai Lama’s message, and I must confess—like Marina in the novel—I don’t always grasp it as I should, especially on the highway when some other driver behaves rudely, though it is a powerful and illuminating perspective that I would like to maintain. I must also admit that I have limited attention for reading that does not contain a narrative, so self-help and spiritual books don’t sustain my interest beyond a page or two. But this idea appeared in a book by the Dalai Lama, and it jumped out at me, anchoring in my long-term memory and re-emerging when I was creating Marina and articulating her self-defining challenge.