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?The Other Half of Happy, Ch. 22
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 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.
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.
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.