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Latina Heritage, Uncategorized, Writing Life

Imagination and Inquiry — A Talk on NCTE's theme of 2019

NCTE presenter’s badge

Pre-amble: In November of 2019, I was excited to be able to attend the National Conference of Teachers of English in Baltimore. One of many delicious moments was this talk about Imagination and Inquiry and its connection to my book, The Other Half of Happy.

When I was eleven years old, my abuelos flew all the way from Guatemala to visit my family in Texas. I wanted to talk to them, to find out who they were, to share who I was and who was becoming. But none of that was possible. They spoke Spanish; I spoke English. The language barrier kept us apart. I didn’t know that this was the beginning of a novel that wouldn’t take shape for 35 years.

Mario Vargas Llosa,
from Britannica.com

In his book Letters to a Young Novelist, Mario Vargas Llosa asserts that people who imagine stories, who take time to make up people and write down their lives, are rebelling. He sees novelists as criticizing or even rejecting “life as it is.” Llosa is saying that when we imagine new worlds and new lives, we are inherently interrogating regular life. In writing fiction, we can reward good and create just outcomes. We can arrange a society in a way that critiques real life or improves on it. In other words, imagination IS inquiry, in the sense that it interrogates “life as it is” and posits “life as it should be.” Even a dystopia posits its opposite, a world free of its deprivations. Even a tragedy stirs in the reader a longing for everything beautiful and right. We close a satisfying book with a sense of wistfulness because for a while we lived or were wakened to, through our imagination, “life as it should be.”

Don Quixote and Sancho Panza
by Pablo Picasso
no copyright infringement intended

Have you heard these phrases before? Life as it is, life as it should be? This is Miguel de Cervantes, the great writer of Spain and author of Don Quixote. It is Quixote, himself a madman, who says, “When life itself seems lunatic, who knows where madness lies? Perhaps to be too practical is madness. To surrender dreams — this may be madness. Too much sanity may be madness — and maddest of all: to see life as it is, and not as it should be!”

My main character, Quijana, is named after Don Quixote. She’s not thrilled about it. She calls Quixote “Spain’s most famous loser.” And of course, she’s right. Quixote is always trying things and failing, actually tilting at windmills (which is where that phrase comes from). What Quijana doesn’t realize is that Don Quixote is living as an imaginative character in a realistic world. His idealism makes him ill-suited to practical life. But we would never read about him otherwise. Quixote challenges the reader to embrace imagination. Instead of seeing a coarse serving woman, he sees a noble lady. And when that coarse woman starts to see herself as a lady, her life is transformed. Imagination makes her see her own potential. Or to put it more startlingly, imagination reveals truth. And not just the story’s internal truth, but external truths. Real women deserve the respect that Quixote gives Aldonza when he re-names her Dulcinea.

This is good news for my book. For all books. If I have imagined well enough, the story of Quijana will be more true than the real life events it is based on. That is, my book will get to the heart of things in ways that real life can’t — without imagination.

So as I do in real life, Quijana faces a language barrier. She can’t have a conversation with her abuela. In the book, we have this scene — a moment when Abuela phones the family and talks to Quijana in Spanish. Quijana says,

This is exactly why I don’t want to go to Guatemala. I’ll be a stranger she’s supposed to love. How can she know what to say to a stranger?
But on she goes. Understood or not, Abuela fills the phone with lilts and curls, swishes and swoops. It’s pretty great that she’s willing to waste all these words on me, knowing I can’t understand them. She’s obviously in a good mood. It all feels like a hug. I wish I could give her something back. But other than stammering out “te amo”—or should it be “le amo”?—I got nothing. My heart is a full sink with a stopped-up drain.
Soon she’s saying goodbye, and I can only manage, “Adiós, Abuelita.” When I hand the phone back to Dad, I’m still feeling swayed by her syllables.

The Other Half of Happy, Ch. 22

The beautiful thing here is that Quijana and her abuela do connect. Despite the words meaning nothing, the tone and attention convey affection. Quijana can’t give much at this point, but she can receive. And what she receives is love.

My abuelita Patricia

So did this scene happen in my real life? No. But the love is what I wished for. The scene fills in the holes of what should have happened. Or in a way, if I use my imagination, it is what did happen, but went unnoticed. My abuelos did love me, but I couldn’t experience it. At the time, all I could see was that I was failing. Failing to talk. Failing to speak the language of my father. Quijana is awake to something that I had to write a novel to discover. That tragic moment of non-communication? There was love there, flowing back and forth without words.

In my novel, the abuela uses her imagination, too, –and now we’re in the imagination of a fictional character — when she decides to keep talking. She imagines that Quijana will understand something. And she’s right. Any sane person would say that talking to a kid who doesn’t understand you is useless. But an imaginative person can see beyond the fact that this kid needs Google translate. An imaginative person can see that everything important is grasped.

Though everyone laughs at Quixote, his fantasy is more real than other people’s reality. The coarse woman really is noble. The orphan really does possess hidden, if not magical, powers. (Harry Potter) The young woman who unleashes her talent really can save her world. (Frozen) So Quixote, with his idealism, turns out to be Cervantes interrogating real life. When he says that seeing “life as it is” is mad, he asserts that we ought to live with more imagination so that we can wake up to life as it should be and could be.

History is what was. My novel is what wasn’t: a girl turning a crush into a best friend, a neurodiverse little brother who is accepted, a girl learning guitar, and a beautiful-but-impossible-to-wear-to-school outfit called a huipil.

But in a weird way, What Wasn’t is what was. Quijana knows more than Rebecca about what it means to integrate our two cultures. I can tell you what a visit to Guatemala is, but Quijana tells us what it should be.

I’m not saying that my book depicts a utopia without struggles and conflict. I’m also not saying that my “life as it is” has no meaning or wisdom. It’s just that we don’t seem built for wisdom on the fly. It’s in quiet moments of daydreaming and visualizing or remembering and reliving that we find truths.

Llosa has one warning for us about imagination. He says that when writers imagine a better world, they create in the reader a dissatisfaction with the regular world. Llosa goes on to say that this dissatisfaction is why books are banned by totalitarian regimes. “The game of literature is not innocuous,” he says. Imagination creates hope, awareness of different approaches, and an experience of the potentials of humankind. A novel is a threat to those would insist we accept life as it is.

Llosa says, “The questioning of real life . . . is the secret raison d’etre of literature . . .” Imagination asks (inquires — Imagination and Inquiry), “Is this the life you want? Is this the world you want?” A work of imagination is both the question and the answer. It’s Quixote pointing out life as it should be — seeing a woman for who she is. It’s The Other Half of Happy depicting the history that wasn’t, but is still true.

by Rebecca Balcárcel, author of The Other Half of Happy, available at B&N, Amazon, Books-a-million, or order from your local bookstore.

Latina Heritage

“A White Female” — huh?

Police lights flashed in my rearview. Hadn’t I stopped at that stop sign? Not fully. I pulled over right away. At least I wasn’t late to anything. Soon the officer spoke into his microphone, “Bravo, Alpha, Lincoln . . .” In this way he spelled my name, letter by letter, to some listener.

Then he said a sentence describing me. It seemed to flash-freeze in the air: “White female.” What? I’m not white. I answered his next questions by rote, still hearing the phrase frozen in the ether. White female.

The officer was white himself — or so I assumed. His reddish hair showed around his ears below his helmet, and his skin was definitely light. Then again, I had to ask myself — what is white? I’ve read that light-skinned Italians, Jews, and even Finns have been considered non-white at different times in our country’s history, while Mexican folks were counted as white on the 1940 census, and Cubans have often been seen as white. Probably this officer identified as “white,” but I couldn’t be sure.

Still, I was surprised that the officer didn’t notice what I call my permanent tan. Maybe he “saw white” because I was driving in an affluent area? — though I’m sure he knew that people of all colors are affluent. Or maybe, like the US government, he didn’t see Hispanic as a race, but more of a cultural designation. Maybe the form he was filling out didn’t leave room for nuances like mixed-race or bi-racial, which is what I consider myself.

I drove off with a ticket and also a question. Why had I reacted to being called white? My mom is of British descent, according to the tubes we all spit into to find out about our DNA. She’s definitely light and born in Iowa. And I am lighter than my Guatemalan dad. I love my Mom, of course, and my whole maternal family. What’s wrong with being called white, then?

At my parent’s house

The answer came quickly. Erasure. A cultural treasure gets buried if someone sees me as only white. My self-image is Latina, even if my Spanish is sketchy and I don’t see my Dad’s Guatemalan side of the family as much as my mom’s. I don’t want half of myself deleted.

And it’s not only about me. I want people to see that our world is a color-filled place, a mixed place. I want them to see that the United States is a variegated skein. I don’t want anyone to miss the beautiful complexity, nor oversimplify anyone’s identity. Naturally, we can’t have unlimited numbers of boxes on forms or this officer’s report, but we can have awareness that we’re all more than meets the eye.

People have thought I was purely Latina, too. They’ve run up to me and started speaking Spanish without thinking, especially when I was in a Spanish-speaking neighborhood or in an ethnic grocery store. No one is trying to be rude, of course. The brain makes split-second assessments about people we see. We can’t help it. But we can question our first instinct. We can hold off the generalizations.

My family tells the story of a relative who was caught up in an immigration raid. Though he later became a citizen, he wasn’t yet. But he was light-skinned, so he just stood to the side. Had he opened his mouth, the ICE officers would have heard his Spanish accent. He stayed quiet, and they passed him by.

My parents and I at Christmas 2017

So both the immigration officers and my traffic officer made a split-second guess. Wholly wrong and half wrong, respectively. It might be true that in both cases it worked to our advantage. Which is also too bad — that whiteness grants such advantages. Of course, I don’t know if the police officer treated me any better than he would have if he’d considered me a person of color. He did his job. I hope he would have done the same, regardless.

But I also didn’t correct him. I was too surprised, and then it felt like there wasn’t time. And he might not have had a box called “brown” or even Hispanic. Besides, who wants to prolong a traffic stop? But I drove off wishing I had.

Source: Parker, Kim et al. “Chapter 1: Race and Multiracial Americans in the U.S. Census,” Multi-racial in America. Pew Research Center. https://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2015/06/11/chapter-1-race-and-multiracial-americans-in-the-u-s-census/

Book Reviews

FOR BLACK GIRLS LIKE ME by Mariama J. Lockington — book review!


Braided with songs and poetry, this story follows Keda’s journey to know herself. With profound final lines and yes-that’s-exactly-what-it’s-like images, the prose poem chapters shine individually and collectively. Much in Keda’s life is complicated, so she reaches for songs, gropes for her heritage, and digs for inner resources to cope. A few friends brighten her life, but when it comes to truly managing an unstable mother, a mostly-absent father, and a big sister who is less fun and also less nurturing than she used to be, Keda is on her own. Her love of Billie Holiday and the intuitional grasp she has of the Blues give her something to hold on to, but when her summer goes from bad to worse, Keda needs courage. Readers will cheer her on as she finds the strength to speak her own truth.

Find this book on Goodreads here: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/40864854-for-black-girls-like-me

Want to keep up with me (Rebecca)? Click here to sign up for my infrequent news blurb and find out the latest about my books, appearances, and writing tips. 🙂

Writing Life, Writing Tips

Applying to Benn AGAIN–Risking a Re-do

Liam Rector 1949-2007

The landline phone rang, and the when the speaker introduced himself, I almost fell backward. It was Liam Rector, American poet and director of Writing Seminars at Bennington College. He wouldn’t call with a rejection, right? Does this mean I’m accepted? His voice wasn’t comforting; it was gruff. His “Is this Rebecca Balcárcel?” sounded more like a demand than a question.

I had applied to Bennington’s Master of Fine Arts program a few months before. TBH, I wasn’t expecting to get in. In fact, I knew from experience that they sent rejections by letter. I knew because I had gotten that letter a year ago: “Thank you for your interest . . . We’re sorry to inform you . . .” I’d almost cried.

That first application I sent had been a long shot. A long shot that cost $50, a huge sum for me and my wasband (then-husband) — a month of no eating out. With only a handful of poems published in journals and a couple of generous letters from former teachers, I knew my application wouldn’t be the most impressive one. Heck, I didn’t even have a Bachelor’s Degree. I repeat: no BA. Yet, I’d changed my major enough to know that creative writing was my love, and a tantalizing sentence in the program’s promo materials stated that an undergraduate degree wasn’t strictly required “if the strength of the writing warrant[ed] such an exception.” I clung to the wild hope that my work would merit that exception and assembled my packet — poems that I hoped were my best, an essay that I hoped sounded professional, the recommendations, and the fifty bucks. I sent it off in a fat envelope with a line of stamps across the top.

Then came the rejection letter. Sigh . . . I shrugged. I wailed. I ranted that I didn’t want that degree anyway. But I did.When the application period came around again, I didn’t consider applying at first. I’d done it once, with nothing but a bruised ego and a fifty-dollar deficit to show for it. Why try?

But their wonderful ad in Poets & Writers called to me, as did their slogan: Read one hundred books. Write one. If I did re-apply, what would be different? Well, there was my writing life. I hadn’t gone out and won some big award, but I had joined a writing group, subscribed to some lit mags, and performed at an open-mic or two. I’d volunteered to teach writing at any little club or gathering I could find. In that pre-Facebook world, I couldn’t connect to distant writers easily, but I connected to my local community. If I were to apply again, I would have a better essay at least.

I’d also kept writing. And sending out my work. My handful of pubs had grown to more like a dozen. Not that most people had heard of Mystic River Review or Mutant Mule Review, but that wasn’t the point. The point was: I hadn’t given up on myself or my work.

So maybe I could re-apply. But what about the fifty bucks? I couldn’t imagine wasting that amount of money again. We were living on hourly wages, and I was home nursing twins. It seemed impossible that we could squeeze fifty whole dollars out of an already-lean budget. But my wasband said to go for it. “We’ll eat rice and oatmeal,” he said, or something like that. He believed in my work, and he believed in following one’s dream.

And now Liam Rector was on the phone. Not only did he invite me to attend the Bennington Writing Seminars, he also informed me that I was a Jane Kenyon Scholar, one of two entering poetry students to receive the Jane Kenyon Poetry Prize scholarship. I couldn’t have been more shocked. I stammered out a “Yes, I’ll see you in January,” and jumped up and down squealing non-words for the next hour.

Me today with my Bennington MFA from 2002

Two years later, Liam handed me my MFA at graduation. The take-away, writing friends — and artist friends and engineer friends and linguistics friends and just human friends! — is not only to try again and to not give up. Even more important is the truth that no program or single person, even the formidable Liam Rector, made me a poet. I loved every second of my MFA experience, but the writing itself turned my brain into a poetry brain. And by writing, I mean the re-writing, the dropping the pose and getting down to the real, the self-doubt, the crafting and crying, the reading of the greats, the click of the right word on the right line. And it started years before. The MFA gave me much! Deadlines, community, models. And yes, a sense of legitimacy, which let me say, “I am a writer,” with a straight face. But process made me a writer, not permission.

This lines up neatly with Bennington philosophy, actually, and with Liam Rector’s, but I didn’t know that then. I also didn’t know that my first book of poems wouldn’t come out for eight more years or that my first novel wouldn’t come out for seventeen more years! When I was a beginner with a bunch of words and wishes, clamoring to get in, I didn’t know the door opened to the inside.

Book Reviews

CATERPILLAR SUMMER by Gillian McDunn — book review!

Caterpillar Summer by Gillian McDunn

Compelling and charming! When Cat and her brother get dropped for three weeks at their OTHER grandparents’ house — the ones they’ve never even met! — both of them grow in ways they couldn’t have predicted.

On a North Carolina island, Cat learns some big things: 1) how to fish 2) how to get silent-type Grandpa to talk 3) how to see a bully for more than his meanness 4) how to let her special needs brother fend for himself a little 5) how to eat hushpuppies!

McDunn writes with on-point honesty and a knack for capturing real kid thoughts. The mom-written books within the book add another lens through which both readers and the characters themselves can see the family dynamics. Packed with human insight and tenderness, this book is sure to be a favorite of anyone who loves to see a family knit itself back together, while enjoying bike rides, mini-golf, and hot chocolate! 

Find Caterpillar Summer on Goodreads here: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/40046075-caterpillar-summer?from_search=true#other_reviews

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