Released From the catacombs of my soul
“Es la verdad. Y la verdad es bella.”
Near the end of her talk as a visitor to my Hispanic and Latin American Literature course at Stony Brook University, Irene Vilar quoted these words. She explained that these are the words her father said to her after reading her first memoir, A Message from God in the Atomic Age (1996). (Later republished in 1998 as The Ladies’ Gallery: A Memoir of Family Secrets.)
She said it was a special moment for her because in her memoir, the truth isn’t especially kind to her father.
Vilar is the granddaughter of Lolita Lebrón, the Puerto Rican political activist who, in 1954, marched into the United States Congress and fired a gun, wounding several congressmen. She served twenty-seven years in prison for the attack.
Her daughter — Vilar’s mother — committed suicide when Vilar was eight years old.
In her memoir, Vilar recounts the dark legacy she inherited from her grandmother and mother.
In 2002, I was thirty years old, and nearing the end of my studies in the double major of Linguistics and Hispanic Languages and Literature. I had already taken several literature courses in Spanish as part of my degree, but this course was different.
The professor was Benigno Trigo, son of the celebrated Puerto Rican author, Rosario Ferré. Like Ferré — who also visited our class — Professor Trigo enjoyed focusing on literature with feminist themes. In his class, we not only read the work of Ferré and Vilar, but also of Clarice Lispector and Rosario Castellanos.
Reading these books, poems and short stories was invigorating, as were the lively class discussions.
However, it was the visit from Vilar that had me rapt with attention. It was her talk that left me with hot waterfalls of tears. As I listened to her talk about her experience of writing, something inside me from stirred back to life. It was my childhood dream of being a writer, the dream gifted to me at the age of seven.
It was locked away in the catacombs of my soul, the key thrown away by the twin demons of Doubt and Insecurity.
Vilar was born in Puerto Rico, but spent her childhood moving back and forth from the mainland to the island. She explains how she struggled to navigate two cultures, two sets of expectations, and two languages.
As a person of mixed-ethnicity, I can certainly identify with that.
It’s the language
of sometimes too much,
of not quite enough,
of square in round,
of who and why and how,
of I’ll keep trying,
of I give up,
of neither brown nor white,
Walking out of class that day, moved to tears by Vilar’s story, her words and her message to us, I promised myself that one day I would also tell my story.
Four years later, in my third year as an ESL teacher, I decided to write a YA novel inspired by my experiences as a person of mixed ethnicity. I also wanted it to be a bilingual novel, one that I could put in the hands of my bilingual students.
I joined a local writer’s group and got to work. I created a story about high school senior Blanca Garcia, the daughter of a Caucasian mother and a Mexican immigrant father. Blanca lives in Encino, California, and dreams of being a writer. Her best friend, Olivia Morena, was born in El Salvador, and her boyfriend, Isaac Pineda, is from Honduras. Still, Blanca struggles: with her cultural and linguistic identity, with expectations, with her writing, and with herself.
I titled it Miss Americana, and every week, I shared a new chapter with the group.
I got a lot of positive, encouraging feedback.
Then, I stopped. I quit writing and I quit the group. One of the other writers reached out and urged me to continue. He offered to be my accountability partner. I agreed, but it only lasted a couple of weeks. A few months later, he paid me to do a copy edit of his novel. Eventually, we lost touch.
Twelve years passed before I went back to Miss Americana. I vowed to finish it during NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) in November, 2018.
I didn’t write a single extra word.
Exactly one year later, I decided to try again and declared it as my NaNoWriMo project for 2019. I wrote another ten thousand words, but I still didn’t finish.
Then, during the holiday break from teaching in December, I went on an organizing binge and came across some boxes of old books.
I found The Ladies’ Gallery, and I opened it to see the annotations I’d made those years earlier: all the words I’d underlined, all the thoughts I’d written in the margins.
So, I read it again. It impacted me just as much, but this time, I felt an irresistible yearning to write. To create. To produce. To one day hold my own book in my hands. To show myself that I, too, could tell my story, even if in fictionalized form.
I started planning. I wrote a detailed outline. I listened to podcasts and watched YouTube videos and read writing blogs, and searched for online courses.
I found Rachael Herron’s podcast: How Do You Write? That led me to her website, and then to her writing course, “90 Days to Done.” I joined.
With the guidance and encouragement of Rachael and my classmates, I wrote and wrote and wrote.
And I did it! I finished my novel! I actually started over and wrote from scratch. I wrote over 80,000 words in 74 days!
Whatever the mysterious reason the Universe had for holding my dream prisoner until now, I may never know.
Irene Vilar awakened my dream. And Rachael Herron helped me achieve it.
That’s the truth. And it’s beautiful.