does not describe me fully
it is where to start

Saturday, December 18, 2010

A Spanglish Christmas Eve Encore

I take a break from novel writing et al. to wish you a wonderful holiday. Here's a repeat of the Spanglish version of "Twas the Night Before Christmas."

Chihuahuas y La Noche Buena

Adapted by Río Lara-Bellon.

'Twas the night before Christmas
And all through the casa
Ni un ratón se movía. ¡Caramba! ¿Qué pasa?
Los niños were all tucked away en sus camas,
Some in long underwear, some in pijamas.
While Mamá worked late in her little cocina
El viejo was down at the corner cantina
Living it up with amigos, ¡carajo!
Muy contento y un poco borracho.
While hanging the stockings with mucho cuidado,
In hopes that old Santa would feel obligado
To bring a los niños both buenos y malos,
A nice batch of dulces y otros regalos.
Outside in the yard there arose such a grito
That I jumped to my feet like a frightened cabrito.
I ran to the window y miré afuera
And who in the world do you think that it era?
Santo Nikos in a sleigh and a big red sombrero
Came dashing along like a crazy bombero!
And pulling his sleigh, instead of venados,
Were eight little chihuahuas, approaching volados.
I watched as they came and this quaint little hombre
Was shouting and whistling and calling by nombre:
¡Ay Milo! ¡Ay Tobee! ¡Ay Frida y Sasha!
¡Ay Todo! ¡Ay Pepe! ¡Ay Paco y Nacho!
Then standing erect with hand en su pecho
He flew to the top of our very own techo
With his round little belly like a bowl of jalea
He struggled to squeeze down our old chimenea.
Then huffing and puffing, at last in our sala,
With soot smeared all over his traje de gala,
He filled all the stockings with bonitos regalos
For none of the niños had been muy malos.
Then chuckling aloud, seeming muy contento,
He turned like a flash y voló como el viento.
And I heard him exclaim (¡ay, es la verdad!)

Adaptation Copyright © 1996 by Río Lara-Bellon All Rights Reserved.

I now bid you so long for the remainder of the holiday season. Have a Happy New Year!

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Checking In

A lot has happened since I went on hiatus three weeks ago. I have written three chapters for my novel (no, this is not NaNo-speed writing). I have had a short story accepted for publication next year. And I was able to attend to pressing personal stuff needing my attention. I will remain on hiatus, though, to continue working on my novel. At my current glacial pace, it may be a looooong time before The End can be typed. I will continue to read your blogs. Please forgive me if I do not comment yet. I have to admit that your wonderful writing frequently tempts me to resume blogging actively. So far I have managed to restrain myself. So again, hasta luego.

The following are links to already published posts grouped under my major themes:

Saturday, November 13, 2010

I Am Taking a Break

I am taking a break from blogging to devote myself more fully to finishing my novel and to attend to Life in general. This is not goodbye but "bye for now" or as it is expressed in Spanish, hasta luego. As always, I welcome your comments or questions. See you on the other side of my break.

The following are links to already published posts grouped under my major themes:


Saturday, November 6, 2010

Chinua Achebe and Ron Rash - Themes in Common

As a followup to last week's A Hero's Journey post on Chinua Achebe, I am providing a redacted version of the very first post published in this blog. It compares the themes of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart with those of American writer Ron Rash’s One Foot in Eden.


By some measures, Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe and One Foot in Eden by Ron Rash could not be more different. Achebe’s novel takes place in pre- and post-colonial Nigeria in the 1890s. Rash’s novel is located in the Appalachian region of South Carolina beginning in the early 1950s. Despite these fundamental differences, the two novels share the following elements.

They portray the tragic outcome of a clash of cultures. In Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, the arrival of the British colonialists pits existing, functional Ibo customs against the conquerors’ incompatible legal, social, and religious customs. Compromise or assimilation with the British without destruction of the traditional culture is virtually impossible. The same is true in Rash’s One Foot in Eden. The utility company takeover of family-owned farmland, to be flooded in order to build a dam, obliterates a long-standing way of life.

As a consequence of the clash in cultures, the contributions and value of the elder generation are compromised. Traditional social structures are vanquished or modified beyond recognition. In Things Fall Apart, the ancestors’ guidance in daily life is lost. A functional tribal leadership and justice system is replaced by an external, foreign governing structure. The oracles for the Ibo Gods lose their power in favor of a Christian clergy advocating for Jesus Christ. The traditional stratification of society into desirables and undesirables is upended in favor of the undesirables when the latter become ready and welcomed disciples of the foreign Christian religion. In One Foot in Eden, an agricultural way of life is replaced by one not tied to the land. Instead of a farm, whether sharecropped or owned, the textile mills become the employers. In the process, the older generation is gelded.

Suicide figures as the only acceptable choice for those who cannot imagine themselves integrating into the new way of life. In Things Fall Apart, Okonkwo, the lead character, cannot accommodate himself to the powerlessness he foresees for himself living under British rule and hangs himself. In One Foot in Eden, the Widow Winchester sets herself on fire rather than move out of her home so the utility company can flood her land. Billy and Amy in effect commit suicide when they plunge into a swiftly moving river from which they have no hope of emerging.

The integration of religion into daily life is seamless. In Things Fall Apart, the Gods and their oracles weigh in on every decision from planting to marriage to the survival of infants. In One Foot in Eden, the Christian church is not only the social glue of the community, but it influences attitudes such as the inability to flee punishment for ill deeds. In addition, Ron Rash utilizes extensively Biblical imagery, such as the flood and the crucifixion.

Exile plays a role. In Things Fall Apart, Okonkwo is temporarily exiled to his motherland after he accidentally kills someone. In One Foot in Eden, an entire society of land-based owners and workers is exiled from its traditional way of life.

More than one language is in play. Chinua Achebe has referred to his work as a conversation between two languages: the traditional Ibo and the new English. In One Foot in Eden, the traditional Appalachian rural expressions begin to be supplanted by urban language.

The cultural clash does not have uplifting consequences. In each novel, a sense of inevitability drives the tragic outcome. Despite this, both present a glimmer of hope in the end. In Things Fall Apart, it is in the form of the clan’s refusal to take down Okonkwo’s body, signifying that, despite all, they can still cleave to their traditions. In One Foot in Eden, the Sheriff’s likely parenting of Isaac and Isaac’s entry into Clemson open possibilities for a functional future life.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

A Hero’s Journey - Chinua Achebe – Who Gets to Tell the Story?

Nigerian author Chinua Achebe has frequently referred to the proverb that “…until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.” Correcting the European historical viewpoint about Africa motivated him 50 years ago to write his seminal novel Things Fall Apart. Set in the Igbo region of Nigeria before and after the arrival of English colonialists, that novel was one of the first to tell the story of European colonization from an African perspective.

I am also giving Chinua Achebe my Hero’s Journey nod for his courage in taking on a literary classic and presenting a course-altering alternative point of view. Specifically, I refer to Achebe’s now famous essay in which he decried damaging stereotypes about Africans in Joseph Conrad’s novel, Heart of Darkness. Many have since weighed in, pro and con, about Achebe's assertions. British scholar Cedric Watts has provided an often cited rebuttal whose full text I have not been able to find on the internet, except for this excerpt.

This post, though, is not about whether Achebe was right in describing Conrad's Heart of Darkness as racist. For that, I suggest reading the novel to arrive at a conclusion. My own take is that Conrad's novel exhibits both genius and deplorable flaws. Each of these writers, Nigerian Chinua Achebe and Polish/Anglo Joseph Conrad, is a brilliant writer who wrote novels today acknowledged as classics. Implicit in their work, though, is a polemic, which can inform any reader or writer, about who is authorized to write authentically about an experience and a people.

Whatever one feels about his take on Conrad, it took a great deal of courage 36 years ago for Achebe to take on the literary establishment over one of its icons. In the process, he changed forever largely unchallenged or unnoticed assumptions about how stories of Africa could be told. "The question," he said, "is whether a novel which celebrates this dehumanization, which depersonalizes a portion of the human race, can be called a great work of art. My answer is: No, it cannot." In making this point, Achebe spoke for all people dehumanized in literature.

There is a broader lesson here for any fiction writer. I believe writing about characters unlike oneself has to be part of a good writer’s DNA. Otherwise, all that would be written would be soliloquies. The overarching obligation is simply to write well by avoiding the easy superficial treatment in favor of a more thoughtful one. In taking on Joseph Conrad, that is exactly what Chinua Achebe encourages us to do. 

Saturday, October 23, 2010

A Graceful, Wise, and Humble Man

A young woman new to the country shows up crying at the front door of the minister’s house. Her husband has abandoned her penniless and with a newborn child. She is invited to stay until a solution can be found.

A meeting among ministers goes on endlessly. Words are heated. A man who has been seated quietly says, “Here is another way to look at this.” The room grows silent. The matter is soon resolved.

These are just two of the many stories people love to tell about my late father, Rev. Miguel Angel Mercado.

This weekend, his church is dedicating its new library, which it is naming the Mercado Library. In today’s mega-church environment, that a church of modest means establishes a library and names it after someone already deceased is hardly media-worthy news. That it is my father who is honored is also of minimal interest, even for followers of this blog. Why then do I write about it here?

When I received the email informing me of the dedication ceremony, I was thrilled, of course. It’s my dad after all. Then I reflected on how amazing it is that almost 23 years after his death, my father still has such a sentimental hold on members of his church. He was their minister for 33 years, yes, but enough time has passed by that a sizeable portion of the current membership never knew him. Those new members, though, may have heard so much about him that they feel as if they knew him.

That the stories are retold at every opportunity is perhaps not surprising. For a man who was unassuming to a fault, his influence is still felt far and wide. From his modestly sized church emerged thirty-three ministers who went on to lead congregations across national borders. Indeed, I sometimes regret that I was born with a deaf ear when it came to his particular religious beliefs. I wish my eyes could also light up and my smile become dewy whenever I hear what an amazing man of God my father was. When thinking of my father, my eyes and smile will do the same, but only because I remember what an incredibly gentle, wise, and humble man he was.

Perhaps it all comes down to the same thing. Maybe, like all politics being local, all religion is ultimately personal. Others’ memories of my father may be couched in religious terms, but his impact was essentially personal. And I am in awe of anyone who can have such a lasting influence on people that, long after he is gone, others are eager to share their recollections about him. More importantly, their current lives are elevated through the recollection. That is a service of the highest order.

And that is why I write about him in the installment usually dedicated to discussing religion. His religious beliefs were not mine, but in the end he helped me keep an open mind about why religion matters to people and how it can have a positive impact on their lives. Nurtured by my father’s example, I am also led to ask on an ongoing basis how I can live a life of meaning and of service.

To read my remarks at the dedication ceremony, I invite you to visit my other blog. Though my remarks were delivered in Spanish, I have provided an English translation. In any event, thank you for allowing me to share this with you.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Back Story – When Is It Appropriate?

How Much? How little? Where and how to insert? When to use the flashback form versus ordinary summary? How to avoid making the current action stop cold?

These are the questions troubling me as I write my work-in-progress novel. While I am writing the text, I am not aware of how much back story has crept in. It just feels like a natural telling of the story. Then I’ll do my first read and realize that the sections marked Back Story (BS!) are piling up dangerously.

That’s terrible, I tell myself. I know enough not to start the novel itself with back story or to go for pages on end with it. But at some point, don’t I have to demonstrate that the characters and present action are not sui generis? That means introducing back story, doesn’t it?

So, to see how they used back story, I checked out two masters of the writing craft: Pulitzer-Prize-winning Marilynne Robinson and Nobel-Prize-winner Gabriel García Márquez. And I was shocked.

Marilynne Robinson not only won a Pulitzer, but she is on the faculty of the Iowa Writers' Workshop. Surely she would be a model for how to handle back story. Imagine my surprise then when I picked up her latest novel, Home, and discovered that in the first ten pages, all but the first paragraph and opening lines of the second paragraph were back story.

I then read Gabriel García Márquez’ short story collection Strange Pilgrims to examine what he did with back story. My thought was that, if there is a medium in which back story has to be used economically, surely it is the short story. Imagine my surprise again when I discovered that he was a heavy user of back story, frequently in its flashback mode. In one 33-page story, for example, most of the first 16 pages were back story. In another 18-page story, all but the opening and closing paragraphs were back story.

I realize that one has to learn first the rules of writing craft before attempting to break them. I also know that Marilynne Robinson and Gabriel García Márquez no longer have to prove to anyone that they are capable writers. Still, it gave me pause to observe just how heavily they used back story. I mean, pages and pages of it! And a lot of it in the beginning of a tale.

So now I am confused. Do I use a heavy hand excising the back story I have identified in my current work-in-progress? Or do I grant myself, at least a temporary, freedom to revisit later the appropriateness of those sections? Ordinarily I would say yes to this last question, except that what I decide now will affect subsequent unwritten material because the information in those back story sections is critical information. So do I leave them in or take them out and hope I can find an appropriate entry for them later?

I would love to hear from both readers and also writers of fiction about how they feel about back story.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

A Week with Two Queens

Okay, neither wore a real crown and one would probably be insulted at being included in the other’s company. But I had such a good time with each in the last week that I wanted to share them with you.

First Queen: the Queen of Salsa, Celia Cruz. Celia has been gone now for seven years. It’s only that every time I hear her unique voice she sounds as alive as ever. She was exiled from Cuba after Castro came to power. She subsequently came to the attention of the world beyond Latin America during her 1970s Fania All-Stars tours with other artists of the salsa genre. The thing about Celia was that her outrageous wigs and flamboyant costumes were absolutely unnecessary given her resplendent voice. They just made us appreciate her uniqueness even more.

Here she is, probably already in her 70s, surrounded by young people in Miami Beach who can’t help but dance to her music. The song is “La Vida Es un Carnaval” (tr. Life Is a Carnival). In it, she says, “There is no need to cry. Life is a carnival, and it’s better to live singing … your pain will leave while singing ….” It’s a song I will listen to if I am feeling sad, and it usually brings a smile to my face.

Second Queen: Teresa Mendoza, heroine of The Queen of the South, written by Arturo Pérez-Reverte. This respected Spanish writer whose fiction and nonfiction have been translated widely is also a former investigative journalist. La Reina del Sur was given to me by a family member who did not inform me that it was a novel. For the first 80 pages, I thought I was reading Pérez-Reverte’s exposé of the drug trafficking trade in México and Spain as seen through the eyes of Teresa Mendoza, a moll who later became head of the biggest drug smuggling operation in the western Mediterranean. I thought she was such a fascinating woman that I wanted to see what else had been written about her so I went on the internet. That was when I discovered that the gripping tale I was reading was actually a novel; a thriller, a type of novel I rarely read.

According to the customer reviews on Amazon, the novel is excellent even in translation, which I had wondered about because of the pervasive use of Mexican and Spanish slang. Perhaps what makes this such an interesting read is that Pérez-Reverte, availing himself of the tools of journalism, did extensive background research which is reflected in the novel’s feel of authenticity. If you want a novel you can escape into and also learn a great deal, The Queen of the South (La Reina del Sur) is it.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

A Hero’s Journey — Ingrid Betancourt, A Complex Truth

During her recent publicity tour for Even Silence Has an End, a riveting memoir of her experience as a political hostage, Ingrid Betancourt has sometimes been hailed as a hero. Dissenting voices, which include her estranged husband and several fellow hostages, have challenged that designation. The truth, I suspect, is a complex one. Sometimes heroism is thrust upon one, bestowing heroism despite oneself. Sometimes the heroism consists in simply surviving the challenge and continuing to live. Both of these may be the case with Ingrid Betancourt.

This one-time candidate for President of Colombia was kidnapped by guerrillas in 2002 and kept imprisoned in the Amazon jungle for six-and-a-half years. In a dramatic rescue which electrified the world in 2008, she and fourteen fellow hostages were liberated by the Colombian military. Betancourt has since mostly lived in France. In an incomprehensible move, this year Betancourt sued the Colombian government for economic and moral damages resulting from her captivity, a suit she then quickly dropped. In Colombia, widespread enmity against her has ensued as a result.

It is not surprising then that the reviews of her book are divided into two opposing camps. And yet, Betancourt’s experience as a captive offers insights into the nature of heroism. Who can imagine what it is like to live chained by the neck to a tree for months on end? Who has the courage to defy her captors by attempting to escape four times while imprisoned in the deepest Amazon jungle? Who can say what it is like to live for years in hot and primitive conditions, cheek to jowl with incompatible fellow prisoners and bullying jailers? To survive that with any shred of dignity is heroic all on its own. And, despite what her detractors say, Betancourt did use her experience in the jungle as an opportunity to hold a mirror to her own darkness.

“I did not want to emerge from the jungle as a shriveled old woman, ravaged by acrimony and hate …. I looked at myself in the mirror of other people and saw there all the defects of humanity—hatred, jealousy, greed, selfishness. But it was in myself that I observed them. … I did not like who I had become. … I decided to monitor myself … [but] ended up doing just the opposite of what my good resolutions dictated. My only solace was that I’d become aware of it."

Whether in freedom she has managed to follow her good resolutions is still an open question. Her actions since her release, both in having sued the government which rescued her and in shunning the husband who spent six-and-a-half years working for her freedom, might suggest otherwise. Her well-written memoir at the very least shows a self awareness of her defects of character. What she does about them in the remainder of her life may well decide whether she deserves to be called a hero.

Of potential interest: other posts in the A Hero’s Journey series.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Writing and Religion

Recently, I found myself vexed by a discussion which turned on religious belief. It is easy to get vexed when the subject of religion comes up, you say? Sure, except the irony for me was that instead of my being the secular voice holding off convinced religious believers, I was the “religious” voice trying to hold my own with decidedly secular nonbelievers.

As I explained in my earlier post Religion, My Writing, and Me, I probably reside in the interstices between conventional belief and nonbelief. So to have to stand up for religion was unexpected. But there I was with the members of my long-time book discussion group explaining why I felt they were shortchanging the validity of religious belief. Myths and religion, I tried to tell them, are not simply infantile representations of truths eventually reducible to scientific axioms.

At one point in the discussion, I felt so frustrated that I found myself doodling in Spanish, convenient because no one around me could understand it. I found that scrap of paper while cleaning my desk the other day, and here is part of what I had written: “Mythology helps one navigate the space between the known and the unknown. It can exist outside the confines of intellectual truths that cannot and may not ever capture reality in its entirety.”

Then I discovered that Joseph Campbell in “The Historical Development of Mythology” had said it much more elegantly than I:

“… whenever a myth has been taken literally its sense has been perverted; but also, reciprocally, that whenever it has been dismissed as a mere priestly fraud or a sign of inferior intelligence, truth has slipped out the other door.”

Mythology and Religion are not necessarily synonymous, but I believe that the above Campbell quote applies to both. Many of us are probably somewhere in the middle of the spectrum of religious belief. If I am any indication, we in the middle may usually choose to remain silent about personal religious beliefs in the face of opposing views. My experience with my book discussion group was definitely anomalous for me.

That experience made me realize how real-life silence about personal religious and spiritual beliefs can also be reflected in one's writing. To be clear, I do not embrace a style of writing which engages in proselytizing or hagiography. I am simply suggesting that fine literary work can incorporate spirituality in the seamless way it does so in ordinary life. Marilynne Robinson has done it. Graham Greene has done it. So has Chinua Achebe. Why do I have the feeling, though, that today they represent the exception rather than the rule?

I end with the following questions:

o If you write fiction, do you find it easy to incorporate religion and spirituality?

o How is religion best incorporated in a fictional work? Should it be treated any differently than any other subject?

Saturday, September 18, 2010

About Stuff

So Husband comes across a neighbor who inquires about our well-being and then asks, “How’s Judy’s writing coming along?”

Husband says, ‘It’s coming along fine.”

"Is there anywhere online where one can read her work?"

“She’s got a blog,” Husband says.

“Really, what’s it about?”

“Oh, she writes about . . . stuff.”

“Stuff, hunh?”

In defense of Husband, Neighbor is known to hold a point of view about most things contrary to ours. So any meaningful discussion about what my blog consists of might have landed Husband in contentious territory.

When Husband shared the anecdote over dinner, we laughed but I, mindful that I had a post deadline looming, instantly followed with blog existential despair. I still had not nailed what my next post would be about. I had two potential ones sort of written, but each did not seem right for one reason or another. I only post once a week so you might think that blog posting angst would be minimal. Not so. More than once, I end up questioning why I started a blog in the first place and especially why I keep doing it

Husband's response to our neighbor may just have made my life easier. If I just write about Stuff, how hard can that be? At the top of this blog is a section called "About This Blog" in which I say that Pilgrim Soul offers reflections about my fiction, culture, religion, Puerto Rican identity, and writing craft. But it appears that what I really write about is . . . Stuff.

Thanks for reading my Stuff.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Have You Ever Read a Novel Out Loud?

It took me two months, but I just finished reading out loud Rayuela [Hopscotch] by Julio Cortázar, one of the most innovative and fun novels I have read in a long time. I have never before read out loud an entire novel, not even my own, and I felt as if I had returned to the days when stories were only communicated orally. I was drawn into the story in a multi-sensorial way which engaged me far more deeply than reading silently would have.

I discuss later why I chose to read out loud this stunning novel, a seminal work in Latin-American literature. First, let me fill in some background. Rayuela was published in 1963 by the Argentine Cortázar. Hopscotch, its translation into English by Gregory Rabassa, won the 1967 U.S. National Book Award.

The novel is an, at times, unruly journey through the life of Horacio Oliveira; first, as a expatriate living in Paris; second, upon his return home to Buenos Aires. It often employs stream of consciousness and is presented in two parts. The first, nearly two-thirds of the book, reads like a normal novel. At the end of each Part 1 chapter, one is directed to a specific section in Part 2, which Cortázar characterizes as expendable. Those selections contribute to the philosophical underpinnings of this unusual novel.

If Rayuela [Hopscotch] had to be read out loud to enjoy it, it would not have achieved its current renown. It has enough experimental technique, brilliant narrative, and spot-on dialogue to stretch one’s literary chops. And I have no doubt that the humor which pervades this novel would still be appreciated. That humor is especially remarkable because Cortázar is actually writing about serious themes like the purpose of life and the nature of consciousness.

That said, I have never laughed so hard while reading a novel as I did while reading Rayuela out loud in Spanish. Indeed, I frequently guffawed. I can’t think of the last literary work which has made me do that. I cannot unread the novel so I can’t say that the humor would have been less had I read it silently or in English. Reviews of this novel often cite its humor so it must be evident even with a silent reading.

Why, though, did I read Rayuela out loud? I tend to scan read. It became clear to me early on that I couldn’t do that with this decidedly nonlinear novel. To force myself to read more carefully, I started reading out loud. Doing so heightened my appreciation of Cortázar’s skill in making one feel uncannily present in a scene. The absurdities often present in normal casual conversation and in life suddenly seemed natural and appropriate. Such was Cortázar's skill with language that I often forgot I was reading and not actually present.

On a personal note, reading Rayuela out loud in Spanish recalled for me the Argentine accent and idiom I remembered from when I lived in Buenos Aires. Indeed, I became amused by how easy it was for my pronunciation and inflection to fall into the distinctive Argentine pattern. I even started drinking mate tea again. On another personal note, I want to acknowledge the masterful review of Rayuela [Hopscotch] by blogger Cuban in London, which prompted me to read the book in the first place.

My delightful experience with reading Rayuela out loud brought home for me that reading fiction works best when the reader is fully engaged in a multi-sensorial way. I hope that I will again make time in the future to read another novel out loud. It was an amazing experience.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Le Lo Lai - Puerto Rico's Plena Music

Plena is a musical folkloric genre of Puerto Rico, whose creation was influenced by African and Spanish music. I could tell you that I am posting this to introduce plena to those not familiar with this type of music. The truth is, I’m posting this because I love the sound. Plena is the music I grew up with, even if it was often in its church incarnation.

Here’s Ricky Martin with a contemporary version of the genre, Pégate [come closer, unite] And you don't have to really understand the words. Just dance along or sing, "Le lo lei le lo le lo lai." That's a quintessentially Puerto Rican expression of pure happiness.

Link for the entire Puerto Rican identity and culture series

Saturday, August 21, 2010

It’s Been Quite a Year

My Pilgrim Soul adventure started August of last year with a post about the similarities between authors Chinua Achebe, Ron Rash, and, I hoped, one of my novels. To my delight, blogging introduced me to a richly rewarding online community. What's more, for the first time the publishing decision about my writing was, for better or worse, entirely mine. Wow, what a privilege.

So here’s a great big thank you to those who have been with me on my pilgrimage as it evolved from focusing solely on my fiction to embracing broader issues of culture, religion, writing craft, and heroism. Because most of you were not here at the beginning, I am sharing an updated version of one of my earliest posts:

“How the Rediscovery of My Father’s Words Led to My Writing Fiction.”

The first novel I ever wrote was birthed in a time of great upheaval in my life. I had walked away from my business career the year before. My marriage had ended. My father died soon after. In retrospect, it is not surprising that I might try something new like writing fiction. How it actually happened though still astounds me.

After my father's death, I began transcribing his poetry, essays, and sermons to distribute to family and friends. It was challenging work for several reasons. Many of the audio tapes were of abysmal quality. Despite that, his familiar voice still rose above the scratchiness, and I grieved that I would never again hear him speak directly to me. More than once, I almost abandoned the project, convinced I was only prolonging my grieving.

As if that weren’t already challenging enough, my father’s sermons were all in Spanish, no longer my primary language. I found myself rummaging through his huge unabridged dictionary, trying to find words no one used in ordinary language. At least I never heard them. It was often frustrating as I was never sure I had heard a word correctly, given the sometimes awful quality of the tapes.

Several months later, having listened to the final tape and transcribed the last sermon, I sent out the material to family and friends. That was when I realized that, instead of prolonging my grieving process, my transcription project had actually eased my transition into a world in which I could no longer pick up the phone to talk to my dad.

That was not the only surprise. I woke up one morning with the lines of an unfamiliar Spanish poem swirling in my head. I wrote down the poem and, for the next few months, found myself writing poetry in Spanish, something I’d never done before. And, no, I’ve not looked at those poems recently. I’d rather keep alive the memory of how magical a time writing those poems was rather than think about editing.

The period of writing poems in Spanish lasted about half a year. One morning, as surprising as when it first appeared, the impulse to write poetry vanished. Soon after, though, I found myself, again, waking up with material sloshing in my brain that seemed to want to be written down. That turned out to be the beginning of a novel. And for the first time in my adult life, I felt I was exactly where I should be, writing fiction.

In the years since, my writing craft has improved, and I have come to appreciate how the hard work of creating a novel or story involves taking that initial magical spark of inspiration and, through dogged hard work, transforming it into something in which story, characters, dialogue, conflict, and style cohere. I wonder, though, if any of my subsequent novels and short stories would have been written had I not undertaken transcribing my father’s work.


Thank you, papi, for your marvelous gift of prompting me to write fiction. Thank you, readers, for sharing my pilgrimage over the last year.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

The Ladies’ Gallery by Irene Vilar, a Book Review

A review of this memoir had been planned well before the author’s legendary grandmother Lolita Lebrón died in early August. I almost cancelled the review as a result. I did not want this to be viewed as yet another eulogy about the woman who in 1954 led a small armed group into the visitor’s gallery of the U.S. House of Representatives. There, after a cry of “Long Live a Free Puerto Rico!” Lolita Lebrón and her companions opened fire, wounding five lawmakers. For that act, which I do not condone, she served 25 years in prison.

Then I realized that I probably would not have read The Ladies' Gallery except for the fact that the author was Lolita Lebrón’s granddaughter. The book is a commendable addition to the body of mental illness memoirs, but what makes it unique is the behind-the-scenes insight into the family of a mythic figure in Puerto Rican history. This memoir is, at times, disturbing because suicide and mental illness figure prominently across generations. It could also be considered a cautionary tale about the perils of pursuing zealously a consuming dream; in Lebrón’s case, the independence of Puerto Rico.

In The Ladies’ Gallery, Irene Vilar alternates italicized sections focused on the author’s prior mental illness with non-italicized sections focused on her unique family history. We discover that when Lolita Lebrón moved to New York in 1941, she turned over her infant daughter Gladys to her mother and then barely saw her again. Thirty-seven years later, Gladys herself will abandon her own daughter Irene Vilar by throwing herself from a moving car. The author, then eight years old, would try to stop her mother, only to be left holding a remnant of lace. Vilar later navigates her own journey with suicidal depression.

The Ladies’ Gallery is a sometimes emotionally raw voyage into desperate mental illness. It also provides a unique view of the lasting impact on a family when a member becomes a controversial and iconic public figure. The intertwined tale of three generations of women is told with honesty and pain. Lolita Lebrón looms large in this tale. About her grandmother, Vilar says, “My grandmother obviously saw herself as a martyr for the liberation of Puerto Rico.” The cost of that martyrdom for Lebrón's extended family was huge. In the end, Vilar compares her grandmother, mother, and herself to Homer’s Sirens, about whom she says, “The song of the Sirens is the great paradox that suicides and madmen know.”

Of potential interest:

Saturday, August 7, 2010

A Short Story Took Over My Life

An idea about a woman in conflict came to me, and I immediately recognized its potential for the basis of a short story. I was concerned, though, about taking precious time away from my work-in-progress novel, which already had to compete for time with daily life obligations.

It’s a short story, I told myself. With a brief leave of absence, I could write the story and then return to my novel.

I immediately banged out a reasonably complete 1200-word story. I liked what I saw. It had all the necessary components of a story: conflict, setbacks, resolution, etc. I had even created multi-dimensional characters.

The next morning I read the story with a sinking feeling. It was a good story, but incomplete. So I added emotional shading to my protagonist. I printed the new version, read it, and thought, Great! Then I went off to take care of Life.

The story was there when I approached my computer the next morning. This time, I discovered that the order of the paragraphs (read action) was clumsy. I fixed all that, printed the story, liked what I saw, and moved on to Life.

I arrived the next morning with the intention of researching potential markets for the story. Except I read the story again and discovered that I didn’t like this adjective here or that verb there and, by the way, the woman’s husband had no sympathetic qualities. This meant that the reader’s identification with the female protagonist was in jeopardy because what worthy woman would fall in love with such a flawed man? That happens all the time in real life, I know, but as the writer I had to communicate why she was attracted to him. So I worked on adding dimensionality to the husband. And, yes, printed the story, liked it; you must be seeing a pattern here.

I won’t describe in more detail how this process has repeated itself for the last three weeks, during which time I have not written a single word for my novel. I finally achieved, though, a 1985-word short story which looks to be in more-than-decent shape. And, yes, I feel this way after successive morning readings.

I still couldn't get back to my novel, though. I now had to allot my writing time quota to thinking about where to send my newly minted short story. I opened my literary review files, only to be blasted away by the sheer number of potential reviews to which I could submit my story. Mind you, that master list has long since been culled to include only what I consider to be suitable/desirable markets for my type of writing. That was when I realized that this part of the process was going to take more time away from ... yeah, my novel.

I asked myself if I even remembered anymore what my novel characters were doing and realized I had better reread the work-in-progress novel to find out. I started doing that, only to discover that there is so much to fix, it's not funny. So now I am tearing apart the early chapters of the WIP novel. In other words, I still am not writing new material. At least, though, I am in novel mode, I console myself.

But I haven’t sent out my short story yet! And Life Obligations are grumbling about being ignored. OMG. Isn’t this supposed to be fun?

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Religion, My Writing, and Me

“I am wise in this small respect: I do not think I know what I do not.”

It has been a while since I addressed what is, after all, one of the major themes of my fiction and this blog — my relationship with religion. This probably reflects my reluctance, even fear, to address a topic known to raise the hackles of many.

I am also aware of a curious phenomenon, which is that my readers span a startling range of religious belief, from avowed atheists to passionate evangelizers. I sometimes wonder why that is and speculate that perhaps they share or at least respect my impulse to create a big tent under which a veritable bazaar of religious beliefs and disbeliefs can exist.

As stated in my earlier My Religious Primer post: “Except when they resort to violence and excessive proselytizing, I deeply respect the attempt of most religions to seek coherence and order in a world that intrinsically may be incoherent and chaotic.” To this I add that I find the same impulse in nonreligious people as well. You won’t find religions bashed in this blog. Nor will you find proselytizing for any religion or for atheism. I am as prone to cite a Buddhist text as I am to mention a Bible verse or a scientist’s aloof statement regarding matters of the spirit.

But, other than respecting people’s individual choices, what do I believe? In one sense, the totality of this blog describes it. I believe we all follow a deep yearning to be free, to be whole, to live in joy and in safety. I like to hope that we could all love each other even as we don’t know each other. In the end, I believe life is both blessing and mystery.

If that seems childlike, perhaps it is. In one of my novels, there is a tropical scene which inspired this blog’s waterfall images. In it, the infant protagonist escapes her mother’s attention and wanders off to a nearby waterfall. The child's impressions come close to describing my own awe when faced with the numinous dimension.

"She stumbled her way toward the boulder which had a flat ledge about 14 inches off the ground. She scrambled up on the ledge and inched forward on her chest until she discovered below her a stream leading away from a gentle waterfall on her left to another one about 20 feet to her right.

"The air was now so misty it seemed almost iridescent. Even with the nearby rush of falling water, she could still hear birds twittering and the call of a coquí. She slid forward to dip her hand in the stream’s water and slipped. Grabbing the edges of the narrow ledge, she managed to keep from falling into the stream .… Fully covered in mud, she looked around her at the dense green vegetation blurred by mist. She no longer felt afraid. The sounds around her were so soft …. The palm trees, the ferns, the moss-covered pebbles all seemed to glisten, and she felt as if a delicate presence expanded and contracted and wrapped itself around her. "

I embrace the essential Mystery at the core of existence which perhaps only a child can experience without fear. I try mightily not to reduce that Mystery to doctrine. When Socrates says, “I do not think I know what I do not,” that is the extent of the religious wisdom I claim.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

A Hero’s Journey – Kafka’s Gregor Samsa as the Voice of Disability

“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams
he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.”
Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis

Once again, I use a fictional character to help depict heroism. But a man turned insect, you say? Where is the heroism in that? Before I am accused of trivializing disability, let me share that three generations of disabling illness in my family have sensitized me to the very real challenges faced with severe disability. The Metamorphosis, once past the fantastical element, is one of the best depictions I have ever read about the challenges, consequences, and ultimately the heroism associated with disability, both for the individual sufferer and for his caregiving family.

As I read the story, I kept wondering how Kafka was able to capture so poignantly the dilemma of a disabled person and his family. Indeed, no analysis I have come across has honed in on Gregor Samsa as a symbol of disability. Then I found out that Kafka had suffered from tuberculosis, requiring frequent stays in sanitariums, extended support and caretaking by his family, until he died from complications of the illness. I realized then that Kafka had lived the limitations and ostracism associated with disability, an experience he transmuted into that of a man imprisoned in an insect body.

A brief recap of The Metamorphosis: The secure if unexciting life of Gregor Samsa, a traveling salesman, is completely overturned when he awakes transformed into a gigantic insect. His parents and sister, who have depended on him economically, are also thrown into a turmoil over how to integrate this new reality. Though everyone sees him as a terrifying insect, Gregor inside still feels and thinks like a normal person and is heartbroken when others can’t see that. Eventually, after being shunned and attacked by his family, strangers, and a work colleague, Gregor succumbs to a fatal wound and dies, whereupon his family thrives financially and socially.

The trajectory of Gregor and his family is reprised daily all over the world in families living with disability. Many a disabled former head of household exhibits a similar selfless concern for his family. Gregor internalizes his emotional and physical pain while attempting outwardly to guide his family in their new reality. Many a family starts out with the best intentions only to be overwhelmed by the demands imposed on them. Gregor's family, undergoing its own grief and also burdened with caregiving, initially attempts to act honorably, only to be overcome with impatience and disdain.

Ultimately, though, the tragedy is uniquely Gregor’s. He is the one suffering the limited mobility and inability to speak, the rejection, his diminished status, and his having become a burden to those who loved him. Like so many struck with disability, he carries on with the quiet courage that is his most heroic quality. His trajectory begins with a plaintive “What has happened to me?” and progresses through the classic stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. It ends sadly with the realization that “The decision that he must disappear was one that he held to even more strongly than his sister.” He dies not long after.

Gregor Samsa’s story, of course, has wider applicability than the compelling one of disability. Vladimir Nabokov has said about this story, “Kafka’s private nightmare was that the central human character belongs to the same private fantastic world as the inhuman characters around him but pathetically and tragically he attempts to struggle out of that world into the world of humans and dies in despair.”

I focus on Gregor Samsa’s life here, though, to highlight the quiet courage and heroism of people whose ordinary lives are made extraordinary by the tragedy of disability. Often, as in Gregor’s case, that tragedy is transmuted into heroism. Sometimes, as in the case of the Samsa family, it manifests as craven rejection and selfishness. Kafka’s genius is that he was able to communicate all this through a story about a man-turned-insect.

Of possible interest:

Vladimir Nabokov, acted by Christopher Plummer, lectures about The Metamorphosis and reads excerpts. Part I Part II Part III

The complete A Hero's Journey series here

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Prince Royce, Shakira, and Blended Cultural Identity

My car radio had just finished playing Prince Royce’s version of “Stand by Me” when Shakira came on with “NO,” and I thought, what a great way to portray the multicultural reality of most Latin Americans. These two artists demonstrate how racially and culturally we are a powerful amalgam of centuries-old forces which have created a daily reality of intrinsic crossover.

Prince Royce is a young Dominican who grew up in New York. Shakira is Colombian-Lebanese. Prince Royce, by featuring Dominican bachata and interweaving Spanish and English, transformed a classic song. Shakira, while singing entirely in Spanish, created a unique sound by incorporating hints of Middle Eastern intonations.

Because this blog focuses frequently on the blended culture of most Latin Americans, I wanted to share these songs with you. Enjoy.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Turning Fact Into Fiction

Well before normal retirement age, we sold the house, stored our belongings, and took off on a trawler for three years. We traveled up and down the US East Coast, down the Caribbean chain, reaching Venezuela, and returning via Bermuda.

Recently, I reread the trip log of that adventure, which sometimes reminded me of “Be careful what you wish.” What started out with starry eyes ended with gutted finances. However, this trip of a lifetime also produced an amazing treasure trove of unique experiences. Some were used as inspiration for a collection of short stories.

Though some of those stories about life aboard a boat have been published, most now reside on a computer disk, largely ignored. The trip log mentioned earlier had also been ignored. When I picked it up last week, though, I remembered why our cruising experience had been worth recording both in fact and in fiction. Here is an entry from the trip log:

“Cold, rainy, windy. … Heavily wooded [banks]. Little sign of human habitation. Nice to have this all to ourselves. … sleepy, peaceful ride.”

Sounds idyllic, right? But, below the above entry I entered a curt:

“Terrible storm. 50-knot winds. Turned on our ear 3-4 times.”

That’s it, but that terse last line was the inspiration for ”Faint Outline of a Bridge,” a short story. Here is an excerpt:

Inchon slammed to starboard. Meg’s legs collapsed, sending her sprawling to the deck. Below, doors banged open and shut. As she shot past the galley companionway, Meg looked down, only to see dishes and pasta, soup cans and dried beans shooting out of the cabinets onto the deck.

Stunned, Meg waited for Inchon to right herself up. At least, she hoped Inchon would come back up. If the boat stayed on her side and water came rushing in, Meg was now too shaky to swim to safety.

At the wheel, Burt shouted, 'Come on, you sorry excuse for a trawler, get up.'

It didn’t happen. Inchon remained caught on her side. Meg couldn’t help it. Vomit dribbled out of her mouth.

‘Time to ditch, Meg! The boat's not coming back.’

She wiped her mouth with the back of her hand and looked up. Burt had abandoned the wheel and now lurched toward the aft cabin door. There, he grabbed two life jackets from a locker and threw one at Meg. The other one dangled from his arm. As soon as he opened the door, the banshee wind came wailing in. Pummeled by waves, Inchon groaned and creaked.

Meg thought she heard water pouring in and couldn’t understand why she didn’t feel wet already.”

It has been said all writing is autobiographical. How much of the above story excerpt was fact and how much was fiction? All I can say is that, while living through our real-life near disaster on North Carolina’s Albemarle Sound, I was not recording the events for posterity. I was terrified, and the terror part of the short story is real. The blow-by-blow account of the incident is likely not. And that’s why I write fiction and not memoir, so I don’t feel constrained by reality. Actually, that’s what makes writing fiction fun.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Why Writers Should Read, Too

How can a writer find time for both writing a novel and also reading other novels? Already that novel-in-progress is likely to be competing for available time with job, family, blogging, et al. Indeed, I marvel at bloggers who sustain prolific blog and fiction output while also tending to young children or work. Something’s got to give, I think, unless they are simply time management mavens.

To that I say, of course there are aspects of fiction writing that can be organized effectively, like whether to write in the morning or evening, at the kitchen table or office, and so on. My best fiction, though, seems to emerge when I remember that I am not on a widgets assembly line; the widgets, in this case, being words, sentences, and paragraphs.

Given the time constraints then, if I am in the midst of a fiction project, how can I afford to take time to read other novels? The only way I can answer that is by citing recent experience. I just finished reading Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March. I am also now reading Rayuela(Hopscotch) by Julio Cortázar, which came highly recommended in a book review by Cuban in London. (As an aside, it is interesting, given my recent "Speaking 'Bilingual'” post, that I read back-to-back a book in English and then one in Spanish.)

Both books have upped my game in my current work-in-progress novel. Compared to the lush style of Nobel Prize winner Saul Bellow, my preferred writing style is more spare. Yet, after overcoming my initial impatience with Bellow, I found myself admiring his preternatural talent for description. He does not just say that a downtown crowded dime store is a jumble of inexpensive odds and ends. Instead, it is:

“… a tin-tough, creaking, jazzy bazaar of hardware, glassware, chocolate, chickenfeed, jewelry, dry goods, oilcloth, and song hits … the floor bore up under the ambling weight of hundreds, with the fanning, breathing movie organ next door and the rumble descending from the trolleys ….”

For his part, the seminal Argentine writer Julio Cortázar does an amazing job of recreating the fluid nature of an experience. Life in his fiction (as in life itself) does not occur in orderly logically linked sentences. In a memorable scene, some bohemian friends gather in Paris for an all-nighter of drinking and listening to jazz. As Cortázar describes it, those jazz selections then weave in and out of their thoughts and interactions. An excerpt is difficult to select because the prose sometimes is written in stream of consciousness. The mood of the scene, though, is caught fairly in the following:

“…Bessie’s [Smith] singing, Coleman Hawkin’s cooing, weren’t they illusions, or something even worse, the illusion of other illusions, a dizzy chain going backwards, back to a monkey looking at himself in the water on that first day? But Babs was crying, Babs had said, ‘Oh yes, oh yes it is true,’ and Oliveira, a little drunk too, felt that the truth now lay in that Bessie and Hawkins were illusions, because only illusions were capable of moving their adherents, illusion and not truths….” [translation by Gregory Rabassa ]

Whereas Bellow prompts me to hone my descriptions, Cortázar encourages me to remember that human experience is chaotic. In each instance, these authors have wrested me away from the widgets assembly line and dropped me on a metaphorical cliff edge, where I suffer vertigo as I watch waves pounding the jagged rocks below me. Bellow and Cortázar remind me that good writing is a complex art, not something to be done lazily or mechanically. They have, lastly, dared me to be original.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Cultural Identity – Speaking "Bilingual"

The language purists among you may not want to read further as you might be scandalized. I am proposing that for those of us who are bilingual, speaking in both languages within the same conversation is not only acceptable but also may be the most optimal way to communicate.

On the phone with my cousin the other day, we found ourselves speaking at different times in Spanish; at other times, in English. We would complete two or three sentences in one language and then follow with two or three in the other. Only after shifting to the other language would I suddenly become aware of the shift. The transition had been that seamless and unconscious.

It was a fun conversation. It was as if my cousin and I shared a private code which freed us to be natural with each other. We didn’t have to confine ourselves to a given language box. Indeed, one of the reasons speaking that way is so rewarding is that it is the only time I can reflect fully in my speech my specific life story. I came to the US from Puerto Rico at a very young age, after which I spoke only Spanish at home and in church, while at school I only spoke English. The two tracks remained essentially parallel, and to a large extent, except in conversations like the one with my cousin, they remain so today.

I am not proposing that we stop honoring the syntax of each language when in a monolingual setting. I believe in mastering the grammar and vocabulary of each language, and it is only polite to be place appropriate. Though I am sometimes guilty of this, I also try to avoid a language shift within the same sentence. However, when two people fluent in the same languages are conversing, why not take advantage of the greater supply of vocabulary and grammatical structures available?

Literature will inevitably reflect this. One of the things I found appealing about the Pulitzer-Prize-winning The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz was his seamless incorporation of different languages and styles of speech: colloquial versus learned diction, English versus Spanish, science fiction/comic book language versus regular English. Díaz seemed to recognize that language can no longer be defined by the classroom. It is a lived language. In our increasingly culturally fungible world, this will likely result in more variety and freedom in our modes of expression. At least I hope so.

Friday, June 18, 2010

A Hero’s Journey – Literature's Forgotten Older Woman

In literature, and in life, older women are often lumped into the crone category, desiccated and asexual. Brazilian author Clarice Lispector says it well in her short story, “Looking for Some Dignity.” “… she was dry, like a dried fig …. In old men she had seen many lecherous eyes. But not in old women. Out of season.”

Lespector then says: “But inside she wasn’t parched. On the contrary. Inside she was like moist gums ... And she was alive, as if she were someone, she who was no one [in old age].” The latter refers to the invisibility that also often comes with age for women. Indeed, Lispector’s short story describes a frustrating succession of efforts by the 70-year-old Mrs. Jorge B. Xavier to free herself from the physical, mental, and emotional labyrinths in which, as an old woman, she finds herself trapped. In the end, she fantasizes about romance with a famous young male singer, but asks herself whether it might “… perhaps be repugnant [for him] to kiss the mouth of an old woman?” Demoralized by that possibility, she declares, “there!—has!—to!—be!—a!—way!—out!”

You might ask why I have included this subject as part of my A Hero’s Journey series in this blog. Ah, you say, a crone who is also sensual has pulled off an amazing feat! For that alone, she could be considered heroic. Perhaps, but I am also writing about the older woman/crone in her capacity as the “main character in a fictional plot,” one of the definitions of the word hero.

I was also motivated to write about this subject after seeing an older woman described as “a woman of a certain age.” I then started to survey short stories, mostly, and discovered that, apart from mythology and fantasy, the older woman/crone as a positive figure is largely absent. The literary landscape is full of dewy ingénues, mothers, virgins, wives, and whores but, as in real life, a woman past her supposed sexual prime tends toward invisibility.

There are some notable exceptions. In Chaucer’s 14th century Canterbury Tales, the bawdy Wife of Bath is unapologetically lusty. But, even she, who has wed five different husbands, acknowledges the repulsion her latest, younger husband feels about her. “You say I’m old and fouler than a fen.” Despite that, with the emotional wisdom perhaps only an older woman could have acquired, she manages to overcome his repugnance.

In Milan Kundera’s “Let the Old Dead Make Room for the Young Dead,” a younger man tries to convince an older woman to make love to him fifteen years after their one-time tryst. She, though, is afraid both of what her son will think (“…the idea that his mother could still have a sex life disgusted him”) and of what her lover will think (“…if he got her to make love it would end in disgust…”)

Here are some other delightful stories which focus on the older woman breaking out of her archetypal confines. In “Sophie and the Angel” by Cuban author Dora Alonso, the 80-year-old and ultra-religious Sophie engages in flirtation, and perhaps more, with a supposed male angel, scandalizing her family and priest. In Costa Rican author Rima Vallbona’s “The Secret World of Grandmama Anacleta,” a nonagenarian grandmother bursts out of her long-time bed confinement and goes bowling because someone gifts her with bowling balls (thereby acknowledging her as a vibrant person). Margaret Atwood’s “Hair Jewelry” is poignant in its description of the conflicted feelings an older woman has when she comes across a former lover from her youth.

The crone in mythology, literature, and real life presents a complex subject worthy of exhaustive academic treatment. This post is obviously not that. It is merely my attempt to redress an historical imbalance by including the older woman/crone in a pantheon of heroes, where I believe she rightfully belongs. I would love to hear from you about any examples you have of the crone/older woman in literature. Actually, I would welcome any insights you have, related or not to literature.


Short Stores by Latin American Women: The Magic and the Real, edited by Celia Correas de Zapata
Beyond the Border: A New Age in Latin American Women’s Fiction, edited by Nora Erro-Peralta and Caridad Silva-Nuñez
The Art of the Tale: An International Anthology of Short Stories, edited by Daniel Halpern
The CanterburyTales, translated by Nevill Coghill

Other A Hero’s Journey Posts:

Saturday, June 12, 2010

The Secret in Their Eyes

The Oscar-winning Best Foreign Film The Secret in Their Eyes is characterized by many reviewers as a crime thriller. Pay scant attention to that. While this brilliant film has a crime which needs to be solved, it is also a haunting psychological drama about obsession, justice, retribution, and love. It is a nuanced vehicle for examining the role a singular passion plays in transforming otherwise empty and ordinary lives.

Here is a brief summary of this superbly acted film, whose original title is El Secreto de Sus Ojos. Set in Argentina, starting in 1974, the film’s inciting incident is the brutal rape and murder of a young woman. Her disconsolate banker husband, unable to come to terms with her death, daily visits a rotation of train stations, believing her murderer must some day pass through there. A Justice Department agent starts an investigation that, despite setbacks and false arrests, he cannot stop thinking about, even in retirement 25 years later. In that time, the husband, too, cannot sever the hold his beloved Liliana still holds over him. Along the way, the true murderer, betrayed by his eyes in a photograph, is caught, only to be released by cynical government forces who turn a blind eye as the murderer wreaks revenge. Told in a series of flashbacks with surprising twists, this is ultimately a poignant portrayal of three love stories: that of the widower and his late wife, the agent and his Ivy-League-educated female boss, and the platonic one between the agent and his alcoholic work colleague/friend.

In Spanish with English subtitles, the movie is based on Argentine novelist Eduardo Sacheri's The Question in Her Eyes. For me, it was a delightful return to hearing again the unique Buenos Aires accent and idiom, but I wondered if the subtitles could truly capture the fast-paced dialogue and Argentine slang. My husband, though, enjoyed the movie immensely despite his only modest comprehension of Spanish. This tale of the tension between love and fear will surely linger with you for a very long time.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Water As Leit Motif

Is there a leit motif in your life and in your writing? Mine is water. Indeed, the defining image of this blog is a waterfall. Its inspiration comes from a scene in one of my novels in which the young protagonist escapes her mother’s attention and wanders off to a nearby waterfall. While there, she experiences a mysterious sense of wellbeing, which she yearns to replicate for the rest of her life. My other novels also feature important scenes on or near water. I have written a short story collection whose common thread is living on boats. So water is an important theme in my writing.

It is also a recurring theme in my life. I have mostly lived within sight or walking distance of large bodies of water. I am in awe of desert panoramas and have joyously hiked mountain trails but my deepest self is drawn to water. Is this because I was born on an island?

The real estate market usually attaches a premium to waterfront property, suggesting that the desire to be within sight of water is common. I’m sure historical reasons (like being next to trade routes), environmental (air quality), and prestige of location et al. can account for this desire. Or is there something else at play here? Since we are as much as 78 % water, is it a matter of like yearning toward like? We spend our gestation in a liquid-filled amniotic sac, so are we just yearning towards our origins?

Moving away from hard science, some ancient religions have deities with water identification. In the African Ifá religion and its Western syncretistic variants like santería, each person is thought to be intrinsically a “daughter” or “son” of a particular deity. Does my predilection for water suggest I could be a daughter of Yemayá, a deity associated with water? Interesting thought.

And that is where I will have to leave this post, at the level of interesting thoughts. I don’t have any answers. I simply observe and wonder, particularly at myself for what seem to be instinctual responses I have not consciously generated and do not fully understand.

I would love to know if you have a leit motif in your life and in your writing.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Farewell to an Old Friend

Just yesterday, I handed the keys of my aging silver car to its new owner. I watched him open the door and then drive away. Well, that’s a relief, I thought. The car is sold. The transaction went smoothly. I received a decent price. Then I headed for my husband’s car.

Let me tell you something about Husband's car. Its custom license plate makes reference to having fun, something which turned ironic when a policeman stopped him for speeding and said, “You having fun?” Anyway, he had waited for me in his dark green convertible with the top down while I watched the new owner drive away. After our years together, my husband recognized that I needed my sentimental moment of saying good-bye to my faithful companion of many years. I then opened the door of my husband's car, sat down, and noticed absently that music was playing.

Then I realized what the music was, and my eyes teared. He had chosen a CD which, when the album first came out, was a favorite for us while on trips in my old car. All the songs of that Buena Vista Social Club album are still loved, but Chan Chan remains a first among equals. Hearing it was a reminder that the transaction which had just occurred was not a simple head decision. It also involved the heart.

We then went on a drive while Chan Chan played. The wind lifted my hair. The sun warmed my face. I listened to those Cuban old-timers weave their magic while I reminisced about the wonderful moments my old car and I had shared. So here again is my fond farewell to my silver companion, my good friend of many years.

For the impact of music on the brain, you might also want to check out my earlier post:


Saturday, May 22, 2010

Puerto Rican Culture – Mofongo

mofongo [moh – fohn′ – goh]

All the way home from school, I wondered if my mother’s morning promise would actually happen. Would she or would she not prepare mofongo as she had said that morning? I could barely contain my excitement as I opened our door. An aroma of garlic wafted toward me, but was it from the mofongo? The moment I walked into our kitchen and saw the pilón wood mortar, I knew I had gotten my wish. I didn’t need milk and cookies as an after-school treat. Mami had prepared the mashed plaintain dish for me. I could sit and eat mofongo directly from the pilón. If my nonPuerto Rican classmates only knew what they were missing!

Though mofongo is a traditional Puerto Rican dish, its origins may have been the fufu dish of Africa. It is also now popular in the Dominican Republic and elsewhere in the Caribbean. Indeed, today, I will travel an hour and a half to reach a Cuban restaurant that serves the best authentic mofongo around.

There are probably as many mofongo recipes as there are cooks, but here is a basic one, courtesy of

(Makes about 3 medium size balls)

Monfongo is made by mashing tostones (twice fried plantains) with garlic, olive oil, and chicharrón or bacon.

3 green plantains
1 tablespoon crushed garlic
1 tablespoon olive oil
½ lb. chicharrón or cooked bacon (crumbled)
Vegetable oil for frying

First make tostones as follows:
green plantains
oil for frying
garlic powder
Slice the peeled plantains diagonally into 1" slices. Fry the slices over medium heat until they soften. Remove from oil and drain on paper towels. Using a tostonera (a press), slightly mash each piece to about half an inch in thickness. If a tostonera is not available insert the pieces between a folded piece of brown-paper sack and press down using a saucer. It is best to press all the pieces first before going on the next step. Dip each piece in warm salted water and fry again until crispy. Remove from the oil and drain on paper towels.

Next, mix together the garlic olive oil and chicharrón or bacon.

Mash the tostones, a few at a time in the pilón (never use a food processor), adding a little bit of the garlic mixture. You will have to work a few slices at a time. When all done mix all the batches together for even distribution of seasoning. Add salt if needed. This is a side dish that needs to be served warm. Keep forming balls until mixture is all used up.

Serve with fried pork meat and fried onions, or with soup, or as a side dish….. yummy!

Even The New York Times has recognized the humble mofongo, though their version looks a little too gentrified for my tastes. You can also have the relleno versions, where the mofongo is stuffed with additional ingredients. Pork, shrimp, and chicken are among the favorites, but stewed beef and other seafood can also be used. All delicious. And, seriously, almost the best part of eating mofongo is eating it right out of the pilón.

Now let me see if I can convince my husband to hop in our car and head for La Carreta Restaurant.