A personal essay from 2011
Telling a story was my first love.
Before I could spell my own name, I put books together. The cellar of my parents’ house in North Carolina holds boxes of them: “books” filled with primitive drawings of witches and dragons and princesses. Their plots I dictated to my mother, borrowing from Charles Perrault and the Brothers Grimm; she transcribed them for me. Once I learned to read and write for myself, I did little else. I wrote a novel when I was nine, another one when I was twelve, both wildly plagiarized, too—based on Little Women and National Velvet. I got lost in those novels; I loved writing them. They went on for hundreds of pages.
Still, I grew up believing there was little to do with this love of fiction except study the stories other people had written. I went on to earn English graduate degrees, but in my trajectory as an academic, I kept wandering off the obvious path. I spent a year in Barcelona, learning to eat octopi and to walk alone through a city at four in the morning. I worked in Guatemala and Honduras with a medical brigade and got hooked on that part of the world. I lived out of a van for a year, along with a friend and a public art project, “100,000 Faces,” which we made after the first Persian Gulf War. We crisscrossed the U.S. and Canada, showing the Faces in fifty-six venues. Central America pulled me back then, as an accompanier with Witness for Peace. That work included countless chicken-bus rides between Guatemala City and Santiago de Atitlán, where I lived with survivors of a recent massacre, and a twelve-hour hike into Guatemala’s Ixcán jungle to welcome war refugees as they returned home.
Unsurprisingly, the subjects of war and expatriatism fascinate me. At first I tried funneling these interests into scholarly work; I studied trauma theory and literature of war and wrote a dissertation on American witnesses of Spain’s civil war. I took a tenure-track job. Meanwhile, that earliest urge to write stories got pushed far down under the surface.
And then. And then my newly-wed husband and I jumped at the chance to direct a language school in Guatemala. We believed this new work would be meaningful, an adventure. Yet those were the two hardest years of my life. Though I’d lived in Guatemala before, what had seemed dramatic in my twenties struck in a more wrenching and visceral way, this time around. At my job, I taught and translated the testimonies of genocide survivors. Daily life was colored by the aftermath of civil war, too, from funerals for friends’ children caught in gang violence to an armed break-in. I began to feel for the first time that life is fragile, and short. Certain questions that would once have sounded cheesy to me grew imperative: What do I want to make sure I get out of this life? How can I take the joy I feel in certain spaces or moments and invest it meaningfully in the world?
Almost entirely, it came down to writing. Writing fiction. Writing as I’d done it when I was a child. Our last year in Central America, I started writing stories again. Writing was a “light” space where I could go, in the midst of so much that seemed heavy and dark in Guatemala. This writing would wake me up in the middle of the night; I would get up and go out to the computer and slam it all down.
Guatemala, like the small-town South of my childhood, raises a welter of emotions in me. Chicago, meanwhile—where we came after Guatemala—feels like a clean slate. Living here has been good for my writing. In the tradition of expatriate artists before me, I have found that leaving behind well-known places compels me to write about them. In Guatemala, I wrote about North Carolina; in Chicago, I write mainly about Guatemala. These stories are part of a linked collection, Gringos in Paradise, that I’m writing. My characters stumble between the South and the Midwest, between North America and Guatemala, trying to live—or at least not to die—in places far from their homes.
I believe that a book is a bridge between worlds.
Surely this is what leads us to be readers and writers of fiction: the way a good story takes us out of ourselves and connects us with different places and people. Good books help us to know our fellow humans, to reflect on our own lives and worldviews. In part, I’m writing Gringos in Paradise because it’s the kind of book—I hope it will be!—that I always look for as a reader.