This interview is slightly spoiler-y, but nothing that takes away from the experience of actually reading Gringolandia. My review of Gringolandia
Reading in Color: Why did you decide to have Marcelo narrate two chapters?
Lyn Miller Lachmann: The idea first came to me from an editor’s critique of an earlier draft of what would become Gringolandia (it had a different title then). She felt that Marcelo wouldn’t tell his children what happened to him because he’d want to protect them. But I wanted readers to know what happened, and I wanted to work into the plot the fact that he wouldn’t tell his family.
Even though I put the manuscript aside for 16 years, from time to time, I’d come back to it and rewrite scenes from different characters’ points of view. That’s how I got the idea that Marcelo tells Courtney things about his experience in prison that he won’t tell his own family, in part because she’s an outsider who he doesn’t feel the obligation to protect and in part because he’s drunk and his inhibitions are lower. Chapter Two, told in the third person when most of the book is in first person, is in fact Courtney’s article that gets published, the one Marcelo thinks he wrote and she only translated. Of course, he finds out eventually that this wasn’t his writing—though they were his words—and it provokes a huge crisis.
Chapter One, by the way, is also in third person, though from Daniel’s point of view, and we ultimately find out that Courtney has written it as well.
The last chapter, which Marcelo narrates in first person, is very much a counterpoint to the earlier one that’s in third person. Marcelo fears that because of his injury he has lost his ability to write, and if can no longer write, he’s useless. By taking over, or expropriating, Marcelo’s voice, Courtney gets the information out there but worsens his already fragile mental state. Marcelo’s struggle to reclaim his voice is at the heart of the final chapter, along with his perspective on the person Daniel has become.
RiC: Was it difficult to write in the voice of Daniel and Marcelo? Was one more difficult than the other?
Lyn: Writing in any character’s voice is difficult. I don’t write purely autobiographical characters, so I have to work hard to get into the character’s head, and I end up doing a lot of revision because my initial efforts usually need fleshing out. In the case of Marcelo, I had the tape of an interview I conducted with a former political prisoner for an alternative newspaper in Madison. (I did not tape him secretly, however). So Chapter Two, about Marcelo’s time in prison, was relatively easy, compared to the final chapter, where I had to capture Marcelo’s voice and also prove that he had regained his ability to write when he was probably a better writer than I am.
Having spent a lot of time around boys when I was a teenager, taught middle school and high school, and just sent my own teenage son off to college, I felt more confident writing from the perspective of a 17-year-old boy. The challenge in writing from Daniel’s point of view in first person was capturing the perspective and language of an immigrant teenager who has learned English but still considers Spanish his first language and is more mathematically than verbally oriented in any case. So I tried to keep his language fairly simple and concrete, and at the same time articulate and capable of expressing emotion.
RiC: I'm going to presume that as a writer, you are not a lover of mathematics so how did you approach writing about someone like Daniel, who loved math?
Lyn: Although math wasn’t my best subject in school, I liked solving problems, so it wasn’t a subject I hated. I’ve also spent a lot of time with students who enjoy math and are good at it, years ago as a teacher at Brooklyn Technical High School and now with some of my Sunday school students and the college students at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, where I’m the assistant host of a radio show on WRPI. I asked some of the RPI students for advice as I was developing Daniel as a character.
RiC: Was there a particular reason you wanted to make Daniel a "rock and roller" or at least, a musician?
Lyn: Besides being important to me, music is an important part of the culture that Daniel and his family have brought from Chile to the United States. The traditional musical instrument made from an armadillo shell, the charango, that hangs from a peg on wall of one of Marcelo’s Chilean friends, was a feature in many of my Chilean friends’ houses in the United States—that or the pan pipes, the zampoña. That Daniel has chosen to express his musical interest through rock and reggae represents the degree of his assimilation to mainstream U.S. culture, a fact not lost on his father who on his arrival remarks, somewhat contemptuously, “So you’re a rock and roller now that you’re in Gringolandia.”
RiC: Daniel's girlfriend Courtney "the gringa" isn't very understanding of Daniel's feelings and how his family feels about his father's return. She only sees the glory of being a "freedom fighter." Was it hard to write such a difficult character, how did you approach the character of Courtney?
Lyn: I saw quite a few people like Courtney when I was involved in Latin American solidarity activities. Sometimes I was that person. A lot of people in the United States mean well but because our educational system doesn’t teach much about the diverse cultures of the world, the potential for insensitivity and misunderstanding is very high.
Having organized concerts, I also became familiar with the type known as the “groupie.” And Courtney is a bit of a groupie, even though she doesn’t intend to hook up with her idol. We usually think of groupies as setting themselves up for abuse because of their worship of stars, but in fact, groupies don’t see their idols as human beings either.
I didn’t want to portray Courtney as a villain, because for the most part she means well and her actions ultimately force Daniel to snap out of his passivity and do the right thing. Her insensitivity is equal parts lack of cultural awareness, immaturity, and hero worship that has blinded her to the needs of others. But she has also suffered emotionally because of the insensitivity of her own father, whose commitment to helping undocumented refugees from El Salvador and Guatemala forced her to cancel activities with and then move away from her close friends in middle school. Courtney has a lot of anger because of that and is struggling to find her place, having been dragged away from her happy life in Michigan. Developing Courtney’s backstory, in her own poetic words, was my way of humanizing a character that makes some questionable choices.
RiC: The torture scenes are intense, and not something you see much of in YA. Why did you decide to market Gringolandia as YA?
Lyn: The torture scenes were actually toned down for a YA readership. The reality was much worse.
What is intense and not toned down is the impact of torture on Marcelo and on the family that has to live with him. Torture doesn’t only affect the individuals involved, but families and communities as well. Daniel has to live with a father who he remembers as strong and loving but who now is profoundly damaged—physically impaired, distant, angry, self-destructive, and prone to lash out at those close to him. In that sense, Daniel’s experience parallels that of children of soldiers wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan, as many of those veterans also suffer from traumatic brain injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder.
I wanted to tell the story of a teenager affected by the way his father has changed, and who has himself changed so much in his father’s absence. Because my main character is a teenager, with typical teenage concerns such as identity, first love, relationships with peers and parents, and taking risks, the novel was marketed as YA.
RiC: Do you have any advice for aspiring novels who think their YA novel has crossover potential? Or if they are wondering if they should market it as YA or adult?
Lyn: Most authors don’t have the choice of whether their novels will be marketed as YA or adult—it depends on the agent and the publisher who buys the book. My advice for authors is to be flexible and to make the most of the opportunity. That means, if your novel is being marketed as YA, become familiar with the blogs that review YA books, make connections with other YA authors, and plan on making school visits, live or via Skype. If your novel is marketed as adult, approach the bloggers who review adult books similar to yours, and prepare to speak to library and community groups and book clubs.
Though published as YA, Gringolandia has been a true crossover in that at least half of my public events have been in adult venues, including colleges and universities. The novel has been assigned reading in several college English and ethnic studies classes, and with the support of Northwestern University Press, which bought Curbstone Press at the end of 2009, I hope to see more college classes use the book. I like that more college students and adults are reading YA literature, because I think many YA books are better written than their adult counterparts and have more to say.
RiC: Are you surprised at the success Gringolandia is receiving due to being published by a smaller press? Would you rather see it have more college/adult readers or teenage readers?
Lyn: Surprised? I am astounded at Gringolandia’s success, especially given the seemingly insurmountable obstacles it faced on publication—coming as it did from a small press struggling to survive following the sudden passing of its founder and editorial director when the novel was in production. There was no money for marketing and publicity; the small press, which specialized in adult literary fiction and poetry, had very little presence in the young adult market; and my adult novel, Dirt Cheap, had not sold well, so the large bookstore chains did not initially order the new book. I consider the reception of Gringolandia a true Cinderella story, the likes of which I haven’t seen since the publication of Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s Sammy and Juliana in Hollywood in 2004. And I am forever grateful to all the reviewers and book buyers who took a chance on a new YA author and a small press published book set 25 years ago in a faraway country.
At first, most of my speaking engagements were in colleges and universities, as well as in adult venues, because having a small press publisher known for adult books meant that I didn’t qualify to be included in most of the YA author databases. That situation turned around once Gringolandia was chosen for the 2010 American Library Association Best Books for Young Adults list. Now my speaking is half to adult audiences and half to teenagers, but I’d really like to do more visits to high schools. Both the book and my presentations work well for a wide variety of subject areas—English, ESL, social studies, and Spanish—and I can do Skype chats as well as in-person visits.
RiC: Which of your characters do you relate to the most? What were you like in high school?
Lyn: The character with whom I most identify is Daniel’s little sister, Tina, which is why I’m pleased to have had the opportunity to write a companion novel with her as the main character. In Gringolandia she hasn’t adjusted to living in the United States and has lost her connection to her Chilean culture and her father as well. Middle school is a tough time for kids like her who don’t fit it, and high school often isn’t much better.
Even though I wasn’t an immigrant like Tina, I was very much an outsider in high school. I had a speech impediment, was shy, and had a lot of trouble making and keeping friends. I found my place by volunteering at a community radio station, where I had a weekly show along with two boys who were also misfits at their respective schools. Most of the people at the radio station were adults, so even though I was a high school student, I moved in an adult world, much like the teenage characters in Gringolandia but for different reasons.
How have your Chilean friends reacted to the novel?
How have your Chilean friends reacted to the novel?
Lyn: The Chilean-American poet, essayist, and human rights activist Marjorie Agosín wrote one of the blurbs for Gringolandia, and I’ve received letters from other Chilean friends who have read and appreciated the book. My friend from Madison who encouraged me to write the novel 22 years before it was published—and who had probably given up hope of ever seeing it in print—read it last summer and wrote, “it's so intense that makes you feel like you are living the story. It really hurts. Mainly for someone like me who lived so many similar experiences in [the] same places and at the same time. I am amazed by the way you capture the people, places, streets, etc., not only in Madison, but in Chile. As I was reading, I could perfectly picture, el Barrio Bellavista, the restaurants, la plaza de armas, la catedral.”
RiC: Do you yourself speak Spanish? And this was a minor point but it stuck out to me, Courtney mentions that she and Daniel speak Chilean castellano (Spanish) but most kids at her school learn Spanish as it is spoken in Spain. Why did you make the types of Spanish studied different? Personally, the schools I've been at have taught the Latin/Central American way of speaking Spanish.
Lyn: At my high school, the teacher insisted on Spanish as it was taught in Spain (Peninsular Spanish). She wanted us to know the vosotros form, even though it’s not used (or not used in the same way) in Latin America, because it’s easier to learn it and not use it than not learn it and have to use it. Today, it’s more common for students to learn Latin American Spanish than it was when I attended school or when Courtney and Daniel did.
Whether or not their school in fact taught Peninsular Spanish or Latin American Spanish at the time, I wanted Courtney to point out how she and Daniel speak a different dialect from that of her Spanish-learning classmates. In Courtney’s mind, this difference bonds her to Daniel, cementing their relationship, and distances her from her classmates who have little awareness of or interest in the situation in Chile.
I do speak Spanish, and my Spanish-speaking friends like to make fun of my accent. But people make fun of my accent in English too.
RiC Note: The above picture is of Lyn in Chile during 1990 while she was researching Gringolandia.
RiC: You are a huge champion of multicultural literature, you edit the Multicultural Review, blog about countries around the world and always have recommendations. To put it frankly: Why do you do it? I’m sure some people may have wondered/been wondering “why does a white person care about promoting multicultural literature?”
Lyn: I’ve always been interested in learning about other places and cultures, but I really started to pursue this interest seriously when I taught high school in New York City. I taught social studies and English at Brooklyn Technical High School, and most of my students, or their parents, came from other countries—more than 50 countries represented in all. The majority of students at Eastern District High School, where I also taught, were from Latin America, and I shared a classroom with a Puerto Rican teacher who introduced me to Latin American music. I enjoyed talking with my students about their lives and experiences, and even though I was supposed to be the teacher I think I learned more from them than they learned from me.
Our world is increasingly interdependent, and we have the ability to destroy the planet or work together to save it. If we have a sense of curiosity and wonder, if we care about the people who live in other places and have different languages, religions, and cultures but share a common humanity, we will find a way to build bridges, increase understanding, and spread peace.
Thank you so much for this interview Lyn :) Best of luck in the NHYA tournament!
*I am currently out of town (Friday June 18- Monday June 21) and away from any computer access. I will get back to all your comments and emails as soon as I can.