Day of All Saints, a new novella by Durham-based author, Patricia Grace King, immerses readers within the experience of Guatemalan refugees and the challenges of integration in modern America. Yasmine Shamma interviewed Patricia ahead of her book launch in Empty Shop HQ on 1st December.
I was immediately entranced by your treatment of Martín, an immigrant from Guatemala, and the complications of his situation. Why Martín? What drew you to telling the tale of this kind of character within society? And what does it mean to be centering on his heart and head in this political moment in which his existence living in America might feel especially threatened?
Martín, a young language school teacher in Guatemala who falls in love with his equally young North American student and follows her back to Chicago, is a character I’ve been thinking about for a very long time. George W. Bush was still president, if you can believe it, when I first started to think of Martín. My husband and I had recently moved to Chicago after working in Guatemala, and as I walked around our new North Side neighborhood that first autumn, I was blown away by the degree to which people had decorated their houses and yards for Halloween. I couldn’t help thinking of certain Guatemalans I’d known who were offended by Halloween, who saw it as a devilish business. In those same Chicago streets, I’d hear Latino lawncare guys speaking to each other in Spanish, and I’d wonder how they perceived the American celebration of this holiday.
That’s how my book started, with just this seed of an idea. Martín’s backstory – his childhood in the Ixcán, a remote region of Guatemala that was hit hard by the civil war, and then his status as an internal refugee – came from experiences even further removed in time. As a long-term volunteer with Witness for Peace in the ’90s, and as the director of a cross-cultural program and language school in Guatemala in the early ’00s, I often listened to the oral testimonies of civil war survivors. Suffice it to say that those stories – and the courage of their tellers – have remained with me. They’re such important stories, too rarely heard, and in Day of All Saints I wanted to give them another hearing.
Martín’s story as a child war refugee, and later as an immigrant to the U.S. does feel especially timely, given the current global refugee crisis and the more overt hostility toward immigrants that we’ve heard and seen in the U.S. under the current President. But the correlation between Martín’s story and present-day politics is actually pure coincidence. That said, I’m glad the book came out this year of all years. If it helps in any way to foster compassion and empathy for the outsiders or newly arrived in our midst, then I can’t think of a better result.
There was a recent (funny) Saturday Night Live skit featuring Lin Manuel Miranda playing a character named “Diego.” In it, Diego speaks in both Spanish and English, and yet we, the English speaking viewer, understand all of it. The same effect is accomplished by Junot Diaz in The Brief Wondrous Story of Oscar Wao. Did you hesitate about integrating Spanish and English into seamless dialogues? It certainly lends the dialogues greater authenticity, but it also seems to lend the narrative greater complexity, as the question of language seems to be an understory with Martín’s professional background as subtext.
Well, first of all, thank you for making me aware of the recent “Diego” skit on SNL. I found this piece strangely moving, and almost lyrical in its tone and shape. Of course the fluid movement between two languages contributes at an aural level to this poetic effect. But the character’s motivation–Diego’s effort to transcend boundaries in this long-distance conversation, to translate his new culture to his mother even as she remains at home–is part of the scene’s emotional complexity and texture.
In ways large and small, I find that effort at communication across borders – linguistic, cultural, geopolitical – to be central to a lot of the books and stories I especially like. I’m drawn to writing about such struggles, too, and since most of my experience in cross-cultural living has been in Latin America, I often write characters who are bilingual in English and Spanish. How to represent such bilingualism in my fiction – in the midst of narration or dialogue – is a vexed question. You want to represent the lived reality of your characters – to honor their code-switching or more deliberate navigation in and out of two different languages – without throwing any non-Spanish-speaking readers too far off course. With almost every story I’ve published, I’ve had at least some discussion with editors about this.
When Spanish words and phrases appear in a character’s observations or speech, my preference is always to leave them un-italicized. Italicizing a word or phrase draws so much attention to it marks it off from the surrounding text as special or exotic, or in this case, “foreign.” But the Spanish language isn’t any of those things for my characters, and I want to represent that. I’ve found, too – as in Junot Diaz’s fiction and the SNL skit we’ve discussed – that much can be gleaned from context. If you’re doing your job as a writer, you ought to be able to include a Spanish line here and there without translating every last bit. If you’ve given your characters clear motivations and desires; if you’ve placed them in a vivid, specific, concrete setting; if you’ve clarified the conflict or struggle they’re facing; if the dialogue has already introduced the problem at hand and the personalities engaged in discussion, then you’ve gone a long way to helping your non-Spanish-speaking readers make educated guesses at what’s going on in the Spanish.
I like that. I like that a reader might have to make a little bit of effort toward understanding the bilingualism. One aim of fiction is to place the reader inside someone else’s experience, to give the reader a glimpse into a different world or life. Perhaps this use of two languages in the same story is a way to bring the reader more viscerally into these characters’ lives. You become a little more bilingual, too, just by reading the book or the story.
We know early on that Martín is distinctly not at home. But as the novella unfolds, this sense of homelessness multiplies (without revealing too much). And you speak now of his status as an internal refugee too. I wonder if you might say more about Martín-At-Home? Throughout the novella he’s outside so much, rather than inside. And there is so little “heimlech” for him—so little coziness, or more specifically, what Scandinavians call “hygge.” While this is clearly due to Martín’s historical situation, is there also a way that suburban America is being called-out too?
I love it that you mentioned hygge! Lately I’ve been semi-obsessed with hygge, as has about half the world. And you’re right: if there is a moment of hygge for Martín in this story–a moment of feeling sheltered and peaceful and truly at home – it has to be in those earliest memories, when his family is still intact and they still have their village and farm in the Ixcán. I found it challenging to describe the setting of the Ixcán without over-exoticizing it, or on the other hand rendering it as less complex and vivid a place than it truly is. My first visit there was with Witness for Peace in early 1994, to visit a community of internal refugees who had been living in hiding in the Ixcán for the previous decade. It was an epic journey – the most difficult I’ve made in my life. From the nearest town, we walked for 12 hours, through mud that was often calf-deep. Guatemala is a small country, and the Ixcán is a small region within it, but it felt absolutely endless that day. It was puro monte, real wilderness, as Martin’s grandmother says in Day of All Saints. And the internal refugees who lived in the community we finally reached were living – had been living – in incredibly harsh conditions. Yet, here’s the thing. For members of that community, the Ixcán was home. Even though the war had driven them out of their villages, off their farms, they did not want to leave the Ixcán – did not want to leave Guatemala.
During the civil war, hundreds of thousands of refugees did leave Guatemala for Mexico, to live in government-run refugee camps there. I visited a few such camps, too, with Witness for Peace, and a recurring theme you’d hear when you talked to people was how eager they were to get home again. Home, to Guatemala. Parents were concerned that their children were losing their Mayan languages, their Mayan customs – that their children were becoming “Mexican-ized.” It wasn’t any complaint against Mexico, but rather just this deep-seated longing for home.
You ask if this story is in some ways a critique of homogenous U.S. suburban life. Certainly Martín’s home – the Ixcán, the one place in this story where he has felt at home– is as far removed from US suburban life as I can imagine. While I didn’t set out specifically to critique that culture, I did want to try to look at it from an outsider’s eyes, to see the ways in which it might not be homelike or hygge for someone coming at it from the outside.
Lastly, I wondered if you could talk about all of the flora. There are all of these wonderful tropes throughout the book that are interspliced: language, blood, immigration, love, memory, hunger—and also, especially towards its climax of an ending—landscape. Trees are the closest we get to a sort of home base, both in the Guatemalan narrative and also in the American one. Chicago and Guatemala are very different environments, and what you do both highlights that and makes one feel more beautiful than the other—more natural, less man-made. Was this environmental commentary intended to be as loaded as it is lyrical?
The quick or light-hearted answer is that I honestly just love plants – plants of all kinds. Perhaps trees especially. They’re one of the first things I notice about any new place I go. And the Lincoln Park Conservatory in Chicago, where Day of All Saints ends, is one of my favorite places on earth.
But that memory I discussed about walking into the Ixcán for the first time has been such a powerful, long-lasting one. It’s almost 25 years since I made that walk, yet it has stayed with me as a memory of the body almost as much as a memory of the mind. When you walk for 12 hours and see nothing, quite literally, but trees (okay – trees and mud), the trees take on a whole new significance. I think of that walk – and of the week we spent in the internal refugee community that we reached – and I just see or feel green, green, green.
Now imagine if that had been your whole life – if you’d never been outside the Ixcán. The trees would feel more important, more a part of your life – or so I imagine – than the walls of your house. During the civil war in Guatemala, those trees were a hiding place, too. The internal refugees in that community had been living in hiding for 10 years, from the time of the army massacres that wiped out the original cooperative villages and farms, until the early ’90s. That community had lived so remotely in the Ixcán that for a whole decade, the army had not been able to find them.
Having this history in mind as I thought about Martín’s backstory, it seemed natural to me that he would be thinking about plant life, too, wherever his journey took him. Maybe it’s one of the ways we make connections between a place that we know and a place that is new to us: we look for trees or flowers we recognize, we say, “Oh yes, we have that at home, too!” And then the new world feels a little less strange.