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.
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?
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.
I opened the novel, ready to step into a fictional world. And this time, the main character would be Latina, a mirror of my own brown self. Chapter one captured my interest. Chapters two and three sailed by. But by chapter four, something was pulling me out of the book’s world. The character wasn’t Latina after all. And yet her name was. Her family supposedly was. But nothing they did or said seemed, well, Latino.
A perceptive friend asked, “What would being ‘more Latino’ look like?” I didn’t have an answer. Hadn’t I railed against stereotypes such as the sobrero-wearing Mexican snoozing under a tree? Hadn’t I wished for Latino characters who ate more than beans and rice? This novel had none of that, so why didn’t it feel authentic?
As a writer myself, I can relate to this author’s conundrum. Dump in a bunch of stereotypes and the book feels insensitive, even insulting. Leave out cultural details, and you get a thin portrayal or worse–seemingly Anglo characters “spiced up” with Hispanic names. Authors of all ethnicities run up against the same problem. The more our world is multi-, the more we want to portray that reality on the page, but aren’t sure how to do it.
This problem isn’t new. Twenty years ago I sat around a conference table hearing men and women discuss whether one could realistically portray the other. Men pointed to Thomas Hardy’s spot-on female voices. Women pointed to Jane Austen’s blunt-tongued men. Clearly, careful observation could yield convincing characters of the opposite sex.
Careful observation often falls short, though, when it comes to writing authentic characters of color. For a convincing portrayal, one must draw from actual experience–which might hard to come by. And it’s not just ethnicity. Characters who live with illness, with disability, in a different religious context from the author, or with a different sexual orientation provide the same challenge. To complicate matters, we all have overlapping identities–female half-Latina who meditates, for example. (That’s me, or parts of me!) Our differences are daunting.
However, our sameness is stunning. As humans, we experience universals such as love and suffering. As much as we DO want “mirrors and windows” for readers–books that reflect readers’ identities and books that open up new worlds for readers–we also delight in books that underscore our connectedness.
One would think that the novel I tried to read was doing just that: emphasizing that a Latina character isn’t any different than an Anglo one. But they are different, aren’t they? Rather than celebrating differences, this book masked them. Using Latino names felt like a commercial decision rather than a cultural one.
So what SHOULD writers do to portray people of color sensitively? A panel, part of a conference called WORDFest, held on March 24, 2018 in Hurst, Texas tried to answer that question, and I was on it. These are the notes I brought to the table.
For one, writers of color can and will write their stories. Movements like #ownvoices show that the typical reader and even the publishing industry is ready for more authors of color and other identities. Check out We Need Diverse Books for more on this.
Still, we could all use some tips as we build the diverse worlds our characters inhabit. I caution myself, even as I write this, to remember that there’s no easy recipe.
- Write against type. Experiment with characters who explode stereotypes and have complex back stories.
- Make culture matter. Show the character living with the values and realities of his/her culture, and let the plot be complicated by these realities.
- Do homework beyond TV shows. If your knowledge of any group comes from movies and TV alone, educate yourself by reading books about and by folks in the group you are researching, and build relationships with those folks organically. It’s okay to say, “I’m a writer,” and ask specific questions, but it’s no one’s job to explain everything to you.
- Invite sensitivity readers to read your work.
- BUT be careful not to assume that your friend of color/gay friend/etc. will read your entire novel.
- Create round characters that don’t come across as tokens.
- Be aware of your own privilege in whatever form. Read Peggy McIntosh’s Invisible Knapsack.
Discouraged? Don’t be! I told this heartening story at the panel event: I had been visiting Monticello in Virginia with a group of college teachers as part of a program created by the Community College Humanities Association. We’d spent weeks reading deeply about Thomas Jefferson, including a book about the women in his life, especially Sally Hemings. Sally Hemings was the enslaved woman with whom Jefferson had six children.
In our last session, held in the hotel’s breakfast room, I sat rereading a poem. I had written it the night before, and I knew it needed more revision. I would be reading it to my colleagues momentarily, and the thing I was most nervous about was that the poem was written in the voice of Sally Hemings. I had dared to imagine myself as an enslaved mixed-race woman who had borne her first child (Jefferson’s) while still a teenager.
How could I possibly “get it right”? And how could I presume to have any idea what her life was like? Intensive study was one thing, but taking on her voice was another. Fortunately, a man sat down next to me, a man whom I had not seen before. I spoke to him easily, though we hadn’t introduced ourselves. Soon I confided my poetry doubts to him. His response was to laugh merrily and shake his head. “You go right on and write her voice,” he said. “You’ve been a teenager, you’ve been a mom. She’s a human being; you’re a human being. Go right on and write. I give you my permission!”
He was a black man, and I figured that he could, indeed, give me a kind of permission, and I’d feel a little better. But when our session began and he was formally introduced, I nearly fell out of my chair. He was a descendant of Sally Hemings herself. His generosity and encouragement led me to write several more poems in Ms. Hemings’s voice. It’s my hope that I am doing her justice and honoring the trust that her descendant put in me.
I’m also writing in my own voice–a bi-cultural twelve-year-old stars in my first novel, The Other Half of Happy, due out in fall 2019 from Chronicle Books. The book also includes a gay character, a black character, and a character with autism. I based these on real people, but I still needed my agent to point out that I had used “chocolate” to describe skin tone, which can be offensive — chocolate is a slave trade product, for one thing! Doh! And yet . . .
By celebrating both our shared humanity and our beautiful variety, we can write sensitively-created characters outside our identities. In fact, to depict the real world, in all its multiplicity, we must.
Ralph Waldo Emerson stands as one of America’s great thinkers and mystics. Credited with giving voice to Transcendentalism, he drew his lectures from extensive private journals. His famous speeches include one that especially inspires me as a writer: “The Poet.”
Who is a writer? Instead of someone who is producing a certain number of words or someone who is getting good at Beat Sheets and queries, Emerson defines a writer (and a poet in particular) as one who has
never ceased to explore the . . . meaning of every sensuous fact.”
Sensory objects and sensory experiences are not just stimulants for writers; we explore their meaning or even meanings. For Emerson, physical objects are “externizations” of a soul, ideas that have traveled from the thought realm into manifestation. And the writer who examines objects, people, and situations is discovering expressions of universal truth. If Emerson is right, then we are not merely relating stories in our novels; we are mapping out the meaning of human experience.
What does a writer do? Emerson says,
[The writer] apprises us not of his wealth, but of the commonwealth.”
Again, Emerson points to the writer as revealing insights about not only the personal, but the global. The writer’s words explore not just a main character, but the human condition. A plot line leaves the reader with life lessons; a heart line nudges the reader toward the same wisdom that the character wins.
Do we need writers? Emerson says yes! Writers interpret this crazy world and add to our communal understanding. Memoir writers, especially, come to mind when Emerson says,
“[H]e will tell us how it was with him, and all men will be the richer.”
As readers we find ourselves not only transported to interesting times and places with great books, but spoken to on a deep level. We leave the page with expanded self-knowledge. Emerson and I haven’t read all the same books, but he describes my feeling upon finishing a good book exactly:
We are persons who come out of a cave or cellar into the open air. This is effect on us of tropes, fables, oracles, and all poetic forms. Poets are thus liberating gods.”
Gods? This is heady stuff, and I don’t think about it when I’m in my sandbox of sentences. Or when I’m immersed in a scene. In fact, it’s only right that I’m unaware, at that stage, of what larger purpose the story serves or what insights a reader will take away. But when I emerge from the workshop, I do look for validation — not that every word I write is good (would that it were so!) — but that the very act of writing serves a purpose.
When I’m wondering if writing takes too much time from my parenting, my teaching, or even leisure activities (What are those?!), I go back to Emerson. He reminds every writer,
This is the reward: that the ideal shall be real to thee.”
The meaning here is two-fold: that real things/situations/objects will yield up their ideal underpinnings/patterns/souls and that ideals/insights/truths will manifest through the writing. If true, our writing time is time is well spent.