I must admit: I squealed with joy a couple of weeks ago to learn that Mr. Schu, THE John Schu, had agreed to host the cover reveal of my new novel on his blog. A rock star of the kid lit world, a teacher and blogger, Mr. Schu has done posts about almost all of my favorite middle grade books! I did my fangirl dance in private, lol.
John Schu, cover revealer!
But the next thing I did would be very public. My mission: answer his interview questions in a way that would connect with the audience, make my book sound fun and interesting, and also wouldn’t take up a dozen screens! No one wants to scroll forever, no matter how clever my writing is!
Well, how did I do? Check out the interview and let me know! I hope you enjoy the tidbits about the book and especially its cover! Artist Caribay Marquina and the Chronicle design team deserve a 60-second round of applause and probably ten pounds of chocolate, but my deep gratitude will have to do. 🙂
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
“Like the ball in the car you’re going to sell.” This is how I explain the pronunciation of my last name, Balcárcel, to bank tellers and airline representatives, my self-defense instructor and my students. My mother invented this phrase after hearing her married name mispronounced as Bar-carcel, Ban-carcel, and Balcar-kell almost daily. I think her trick works pretty well at demystifying the name. The phrase jingles on the tongue, and most people appreciate a hand. In fact, when I graduated from high school, I tried to help the announcer by writing out Ball-car-sell. I thought Mom’s stratagem would work as perfectly on paper as it did in person. I printed my name, accent and all, then wrote Ball-car-sell underneath in parenthesis. I imagined the syllables ringing through the auditorium in pure pronunciation tones. It backfired, and I was almost off-stage before my parents realized, “That’s our daughter up there shaking hands with the principal.” The announcer had mumbled something unintelligible; Dad snapped a photo just in time to hear Barker, the name of the next student.
We laughed about it later, but I admit to some disappointment. I didn’t gasp—no surprise that the predictable happened—but I did sigh. Practiced as I was at not letting mispronunciation bother me, it pinched a little. It reminded me that even the progressive educators who loved having a Latina in class, and even the announcer-speech teacher who prided himself on crisp consonants and a broadcast-worthy baritone couldn’t step into another language easily. And though I had attended school in this district from fifth grade on, no one had quite figured out Balcárcel.
Every first day of school had been a name nightmare for me. The teacher would start calling roll at the front of the room. When a long pause followed a name like Anderson, Scott, I knew the teacher’s brain was stalling out on mine. Added to her distress at seeing Balcárcel, my nickname Bequi appeared next to it. Bequi is pronounced “Becky,” as people with some knowledge of Spanish might guess, but the combination—Bequi Balcárcel—stumped every teacher I had.
As a girl, I coped by disassociating myself from my name. I couldn’t afford to take every mispronunciation personally, so I pushed my name out of myself into its own realm. There it could be stepped on, twisted, or ignored without me feeling stepped on, twisted, or ignored. I didn’t want to impose on people by coaching them on my name. It took too much time and yielded flawed results. The wrong syllable stressed, the hard c pronounced soft, the soft c pronounced hard. I waved away the sounds and took this approach: people could fumble with my name like a doorknob, and I’d let them in just to hear the rattling stop.
I don’t blame folks for stumbling over three syllables and an accent mark. I agree: Balcárcel looks intimidating. The accent, especially, seems to snuff out most people’s will to even hazard a guess. But if someone does try, I now applaud the effort no matter what comes out. The knob- rattling bothers me less than it used to. My local grocery store wants its employees to greet every customer by name. Every week I say, “Close enough” with a smile. My own children don’t have the pronunciation mastered, so I’m not expecting the grocery staff to catch on anytime soon. Maybe I’m mellower because I’m letting my name creep closer. I’ve brought it in from the back shed and given it a place in the living room. Instead of distancing myself from my name, I see it as a fun facet of who I really am. It’s no longer painful to hear Bancursel. The complexity of my name reflects the complexity of my identity, and no one can know me or my name fully on a first encounter.
Despite the difficulties, or maybe because of them and the attention they stirred, I kept my name when I married. My Guatemalan father always joked that I’d marry an American named Smith and lose my heritage. In fact, I married a man named Stith. I could have changed my name and stopped chanting “like the ball in the car you’re going to sell,” but I couldn’t face going from three syllables to one; just listen to that monosyllabic thud after the three-syllable “Rebecca.” Besides, I liked my name. And maybe Dad has a point. My name might be the most Latin thing about me.
Growing up monolingual in Iowa did not instill much fiesta flavor. My Spanish was spotty, and though I knew some lullabies and phrases like “I am ten years old,” I couldn’t hold a conversation with my grandparents. When they visited one year, flying all the way from Central America, I sang for them and smiled a lot, but I couldn’t tell them about my teddy bear collection or read them a story I’d written. For a week, the adults volleyed words over my head. It felt like verbal keep-away. Later, equipped with four years of high school Spanish, I visited Guatemala. My grandmother was no longer with us, but I was able to tell my abuelo about college plans and my hope of learning guitar. For two weeks I played Latina, but I’m still more salt than cilantro.
As much as I love my Balcárcel family, the music, the food, and the all-night dancing, I’m a visitor, not a native. My bi-lingual cousins live in the States — kids whose parents both immigrated. Priests conduct their weddings in Spanish, and they make homemade tamales. They include me, but I stand on the other side of a border. Instead of tamales, I make a green bean casserole that appears in church cook books across the Midwest. Their homes feel foreign. My name is a valid passport, but the country isn’t home.
I used to be comfortable staying on my side of that border. With an Anglo mother, I grew up able to pass for white. Further, people rewarded my whiteness. My perfect English, my punctuality, and my way of telling a story directly rather than taking a long, winding ramp, marked me as Americanized. Perfectly assimilated. In school and on the job, this works beautifully. I blend into the dominant culture like a top-level spy. Except I’m a double-agent. I truly seem white in most ways. When my parents first tried to teach me Spanish, I wouldn’t speak it. Embarrassed by the too-colorful dresses and the trumpety mariachi music, I ran from my heritage. When I wanted to rediscover it, I found it difficult. Balcárcel is a slim link to a world that I, for the most part, lost.
A few years ago, I learned something else about my name. The byline that goes with this essay shows my first name as Rebecca, but it was supposed to be “Rebeca.” My parents wanted the Spanish spelling. My father laughs at English’s use of doubled letters. “Two c’s?” he asks. “Why not three?” My middle name, too, is misspelled on my birth certificate. Lee should read “Li.” Again, the English version won out. According to family legend, this is an family friend’s unintentional doing. Somehow the paperwork went through her hands rather than my parents’. So I’m Rebecca Lee instead of Rebeca Li.
Sometimes people ask why I don’t correct my legal name. A Latino poet recently wanted to know how to spell Rebecca before autographing his book for me. When I explained the mistake, he looked over his glasses and said, “What are you going to do about that?” He’s a big man, with a commanding presence; I told him to inscribe the book to “Rebeca.” However, at home the name looked odd, like a pair of shoes that seem to fit in the store, but turn out to be the wrong size. I am so used to the misspelled version that it feels more appropriate. Maybe “Rebecca” is more appropriate. The poet wanted me to embrace my heritage by changing my name, but my full name, as is, reflects my heritage pretty well. My English name first, my Latin name last.
My perfect name would be Rebecca Li Balcárcel, combining the two languages. Actually, this is what I thought my name was until I received my social security card at age sixteen. “Lee” looked awkward then and still does. It also pricks my heart because Li comes from my father’s nickname, Lico, pronounced Lee-coe. With this tie to my father accidentally cut, I feel even more unmoored. I wince when I sign legal documents that require my full name. I found myself telling the Li-Lee story to the mortgage broker. She simply handed me the pen. The names should sound the same in the ear, but they don’t to me. I imagine that I can hear the correct spelling when I say my full name, and that the written version is wrong. It’s only one letter, a single line of ink and a dot, but it makes me my father’s daughter. I might speak Spanish only in present tense, and I might never learn the love songs my grandfather wrote, but Li is my rightful middle name. Still, to change it would cost more money than I can justify, so I’m letting that layer of Anglo lie on my name for now, a dusting of bleached flour on a browned pastry.
These days I go by a few other names, such as Mom and Professor. These spare me hearing the mispronunciation of Balcárcel. In fact, I tend to be on a first-name basis with the world, asking folks to call me Rebecca as soon as I meet them. I don’t want to get rid of my last name, though. As long as people can imagine a ball in the car they want to sell, I’ll keep letting folks give it a try. Maybe I agree with Shakespeare; a rose would smell as sweet even if called a rosse. I can live with an extra c in my first name and the floundering over my last name. Even the Lee. I’ve learned to embrace the mess, the beautiful bang that resulted from my parents’ collision. I’m picking up the pieces I like and making collage that suits me. When people ask my name, it leads to conversations about Guatemala, my mom’s Peace Corps service, the Northern regions of Spain, and my father’s immigrant story. Then I hear about their ancestors or their love of soccer. My name gives us a kick- off, and an exciting get-to-know-you game begins.
Acknowledgements Many thanks to Segue and editor Eric Melbye, who published this essay in Issue 8, Fall 2009.
As an English prof, I’m usually the one showing students the ropes of active voice and helping them fix format mix-ups. I’m an Oxford comma fan, and don’t get me started on people’s misuse of the word literally. (Ok, I’ve about thrown in the towel on that one!) My point is that I normally like the rules, use the rules, savor the rules — but not this time.
When I sat down to type my novel, The Other Half of Happy, Spanish words showed up right away as part of the world of the story. My training told me to italicize each of them. The MLA Handbook on my shelf specifically says to “italicize foreign words used in an English text.” And MLA is not alone in this. But that didn’t feel right.
These words didn’t seem, well, foreign. The dad in the book is a native Spanish speaker, and the mom is fluent, too. For my main character, their twelve-year-old daughter, Spanish words are part of everyday life. They don’t need emphasis.
Even MLA admits that some foreign words have been “naturalized into English,” and therefore need no italics. These include “raison d’être” and “e.g.” Other words are fully anglicized — “taco,” “flamenco,” “vista.” These don’t need italics either.
But my book doesn’t use just “burrito” and its cousins. Here’s an early instance of a Spanish word in my novel:
His shoulders drop. “Pues.” This is his word for agreeing. And his word for not agreeing. “Pues” means “well” and “there it is” and “if you say so.”
“Pues” is not an anglicized word. In fact, its meaning is so slippery that the narrator needs three phrases to explain it. Then why not italicize?
Rebecca wearing a huipil from Guatemala
For one thing, the book has a lot of italics. It contains many passages of introspection, also normally italicized. The main character, Quijana, talks to herself quite a bit. At one point she says, Get a grip, Qui! In another place, she introspects using a Spanish word. She knows her father wants her to wear a huipil (see photo) on the first day of school, but Quijana opts for jeans. She says inwardly,
Yes, you’re seeing correctly, Dad; I’m not wearing the huipil.
In a sentence like this, the Spanish word would have to be un-italicized to stand out. But then it would look like the rest of the text. The convention breaks down and doesn’t help readers.
And of course, the whole point of italics is to help readers. Italics signals that the foreign word is not a typo or a word they are expected to know. But how many American readers can’t figure out that a Spanish word is probably Spanish? How many are tripped up by a word or even a sentence in Spanish? Mind you, I’m not expecting my readers to know what the Spanish means, only that it is Spanish. Maybe it’s because I live in Texas, land of hueros and mestizos and Spanish-speaking gringos, but I think they can handle it.
So we’re back to my real reason for not italicizing the words from Español in my novel: I don’t want to. To me, these words are not from the outside, but from the inside of my character’s world. Flagging the Spanish words as different in some way doesn’t feel real for Quijana. Readers may challenge me here, pointing out that the words are outside of their worlds, but I’m betting that they can meet me in Quijana’s Texas without much confusion. For characters who code-switch, italics is even more problematic, as illustrated so well by Daniel José Older in his two-minute video. I wouldn’t push my choice on others — each author will have his or her own take on this, and not all languages are as familiar to American readers as Spanish is. I do support the right of authors to decide, without a rule book’s help, whether italics works for their books.
I want to give a shout out here to Chronicle Books and my wonderful editor there, Taylor Norman. She never once asked me about my choice not to italicize. She intuited the reason for that judgement call and turned her attention to bigger problems — like whether the grandmother should really die in chapter four. (Spoiler: She shouldn’t, and now doesn’t!)So, let’s celebrate all the ways language can be rendered on the page. Let’s use every tool we can to communicate, including italics. But let’s be the users of the tools, selecting the right moment for their use, and not let the tools use us.