I have been eagerly awaiting sharing this post with you all! We’re very honored to have with us today Lyn Miller-Lachmann, the author of Gringolandia, our featured novel for August. She was kind enough to agree to let us interview her for a post. Her discussion touches on so many important themes that I hope this will just be the beginning of some great conversations here on the blog, in our classrooms, and in our monthly book group!
Why write a book about Chile? How did you become interested in this particular topic? In more general terms, why do you think it is relevant or important to teach about Latin America in our K-12 classrooms?
In the early 1980s I taught social studies and English in two high schools in Brooklyn, New York. Many of my students were from Latin America and the Caribbean, and for their semester projects, they wanted to write about their countries of origin and why their families came to the United States. I learned from my students’ first-hand perspectives about the Duvalier dictatorship in Haiti, our government’s involvement in the 1978 presidential election in Jamaica, and life in a Brazilian favela, among other things. When we left New York City for my husband’s job in Madison, Wisconsin, I became involved in an organization started by Chilean refugees and students to bring exiled musicians, writers, and political figures to speak about their struggle against the Pinochet dictatorship. At that time, Madison had a large exile community from Chile, in large part due to the efforts of a rural sociology professor who had done research in Chile before the coup and afterward helped opponents of the dictatorship to emigrate. (The professor, the late A. Eugene Havens, serves as the model for Professor Ballard in Gringolandia.)
While moving to a place with a large Chilean community inspired me to write Gringolandia, General Augusto Pinochet was, of all the Latin American dictators of that period, the one most identified with brutality and repression. Many factors, I think, contributed to that—Chile’s long history of democracy, the shocking violence of the 1973 coup, revelations of U.S. involvement in the coup, Pinochet’s consolidation of power and long tenure in office, and the role he and his secret police played in the killing of political opponents beyond Chile’s borders. These killings included the assassination, in Washington, D.C., of the former Chilean ambassador to the United States, Orlando Letelier, and his personal assistant, Ronni Moffitt, a U.S. citizen, in 1976.
I think it’s important to teach about Latin America, first, because so many of our students trace their roots to the region. As I saw in New York City, my students wanted to talk about where they and their families came from, and it made a difference to have a teacher who valued their experiences and their stories. My students put a lot of work into their semester projects and learned more because what they learned in the classroom, and then pursued on their own time, was relevant to their lives.
My students’ reports were eye-opening experiences for their classmates. My students who weren’t from Latin America also wanted to learn more, because these first-hand reports offered more depth than what was covered in the textbooks and in many cases, presented information that the textbooks didn’t cover at all. In this way, teaching about Latin America serves to increase all students’ global awareness and critical thinking skills, because the way people in Latin America view historical events, themselves, and the United States can be very different from what U.S. textbooks and media outlets present.
What’s the role of a book like Gringolandia in the classroom? What significance do you hope it has for readers?
Gringolandia is a work of historical fiction. The main characters are invented, drawn from several people I knew well when I lived in Madison, but the novel also incorporates real events and people. Authentic, accurate historical fiction serves an important role in bringing the events to life, with characters who represent a wide range of experiences in a given place and time. Our textbooks tend to focus on the elites—political and economic leaders. The family in Gringolandia is an ordinary family torn apart by a father’s imprisonment and torture, and by having to go into exile. Daniel’s father, Marcelo, is not famous, though he is very brave. Chile became a democracy in 1990 after 17 years of dictatorship not only because of a few leaders but also because of countless brave people like Marcelo who sacrificed and suffered a great deal to bring down Pinochet. Daniel, too, is an ordinary teenager, much like the teens who read Gringolandia, but he is forced into an extraordinary situation. Some of our young people, for whatever reason, may find themselves facing extraordinary conflicts and hardships, and I hope Daniel’s struggles connect with them. The tag line for the novel is “When history calls your name, how will you answer?” This is a question I’d like readers to think about, because we never know when and how history will call our name, and if we will be part of the problem or part of the solution.
For our teachers, how do you think that we should approach a topic like the violent nature of torture? Do you think it’s appropriate for classroom discussion?
If torture is appropriate for prime-time television, as it was in the long-running series “24”, it is appropriate and needs to be discussed in the classroom. The TV series certainly showed the violent nature of torture but failed to show the consequences of that violence on the victims, their families, and their communities. Gratuitous violence exists to entertain, and a classroom discussion of violence in the media should address whether the violence is sensationalized and gratuitous—thus further desensitizing us to violence—or whether it shows the human consequences. People who carry out and defend torture do so by saying that those tortured are less than human—they are not “like us” and thus don’t deserve to be treated the way we want ourselves to be treated. I wanted to show in Gringolandia that Marcelo is someone “like us”—a man who is loved by his wife and children, someone who takes pride in his work and believes in justice and freedom. I also wanted to show that torture destroys people, it destroys their relationships, and it traumatizes the people around them. If we don’t know about these consequences, we then come to believe it’s okay to torture people to obtain information and obedience, because that’s the message “24” and programs like it (and even some video games) send.
Why create a character like Courtney? What significance does she have for those of us who can identify with her as white Americans interested in social justice issue like those during Pinochet’s dictatorship in Chile? As the author, do you feel like she changes or grows by the end of the story, or does she still have significant work to do?
It took almost two decades from when I started writing Gringolandia to find a publisher for the novel, and in that time I rewrote the novel from several points of view, including Daniel’s, his father’s, and Courtney’s. I had given serious thought to writing the entire novel from Courtney’s point of view because I questioned whether I, as a cultural outsider, had the right to write Daniel’s story. However, Courtney was pretty much an observer of the tension in Daniel’s family, and in general, stories with the protagonist as a mere observer don’t work. I ended up using this idea of the narrator as the person who takes action as a plot point, because Gringolandia is, in fact, narrated from both Daniel and Courtney’s points of view. When Daniel gives up trying to reach his father at the end of Chapter Seven, Courtney takes the initiative. She seeks out Marcelo in order to start a bilingual human rights newspaper and even follows him to Boston on a speaking tour. But she, like Daniel, comes to realize that Marcelo’s problems are too great for her to handle alone, and Daniel comes to realize how much he wants a relationship with his father when he sees someone else trying to have one.
Courtney’s experience is a cautionary tale for cultural outsiders who want to get involved, even as we see her trying to help the family. I think it’s both possible and necessary to reach across cultural boundaries, just as it’s possible to write a novel as a cultural outsider, but it has to be done with an attitude of sensitivity, respect, and humility. Courtney certainly lacks both sensitivity and humility, which leads her to believe that she has the right to tape Marcelo’s testimony without his permission and rewrite his articles, and on a deeper level, that she has the power to solve his problems and keep his family together. I wrestled with a lot of those same issues when deciding whether to write Gringolandia from Daniel’s point of view, and to a great extent Courtney’s struggles mirror my own.
I believe Courtney is humbled by what happens to her in Chile, and I expect that she will become more aware and sensitive as she matures. Interestingly, Marcelo is the first person to forgive her, which is an important step for his healing and a sign of hope for her and for the possibility of an outsider becoming an effective ally in the struggle against violence, injustice, and oppression.
I read that you wrote a companion novel to Gringolandia. Do you plan on publishing it? Whose story does it tell?
When my editor at Curbstone Press accepted Gringolandia in spring 2007, he asked me to write a companion novel from the point of view of Daniel’s troubled younger sister, Tina. Unfortunately, he passed away in December 2007, while Gringolandia was in production, and he never saw the companion. Curbstone Press subsequently closed down and Gringolandia was sold to Northwestern University Press, which was happy to have a successful title but ill equipped to publish young adult fiction. My agent found little interest for the companion, titled SURVIVING SANTIAGO, when she submitted it several years ago. However, I have revised it to be a stand-alone novel, an often-humorous romantic thriller that draws from the tradition of Latin American detective fiction, and I hope we can find a publisher soon. There are a number of interesting and innovative smaller publishers for young adult fiction that have opened since Curbstone’s demise, and any of them would make a good home for this novel.
You write for a number of blogs and publications, including two of my favorites, The Pirate Tree and De Colores. Can you tell us a little bit about them and why you think these kinds of resources are so important for educators?
I’m thrilled that you have found The Pirate Tree and De Colores so valuable for your work! The Pirate Tree is the brainchild of J. L. Powers, who has written about social justice issues related to the U.S.-Mexican border (The Confessional), South Africa today (This Thing Called the Future) and children in war (That Mad Game, a collection of essays that she edited). The seven children’s book authors who review for The Pirate Tree are dedicated to social justice in our own work and to promoting the work of other authors who take the risk of writing about “political” topics.
De Colores was established by Beverly Slapin and Judy Zalazar Drummond to review and critique books about La Raza experience, acknowledging the indigenous and mestizo roots of the peoples of the Americas. One of the co-founders of Oyate, Beverly was a reviewer for and advisor to MultiCultural Review, which I edited for 16 years. After the owner of the journal closed it for financial reasons, Beverly and I discussed ways to keep its mission going, particularly the reviews and analyses of children’s and young adult books. While The Pirate Tree addresses social justice issues, De Colores continues the approach of MultiCultural Review in examining books about specific cultural groups—in this case Latinos and the diverse peoples of Latin America and the Caribbean.
One of our goals at Vamos a Leer is to publicize as many great titles dealing with Latin American content as we can for teachers. What are your top YA novels that connect in some way to Latin America?
I’m going to include a picture book and novels for middle grade readers and adults on this list as well, to cover a wide range of topics and reading levels. The picture book is Antonio Skármeta’s The Composition, illustrated by Alfonso Ruano, which first appeared in English as a short story in the collection A Walk in My World: International Short Stories About Youth.
Although originally published as a middle grade novel, Pam Muñoz Ryan’s The Dreamer, based on the life of the Chilean poet and Nobel laureate Pablo Neruda, is highly recommended for older readers as well.
Laura Resau has written a number of novels set in countries in Latin America. I recommend Red Glass, set in Mexico and Guatemala, and the novel she co-authored with María Virginia Farinango, The Queen of Water, which is based on Farinango’s experience as an indigenous child forced into servitude as a nanny and housekeeper for a white family in Ecuador.
A recently published historical novel that deserves attention for its treatment of Puerto Rican nationalism in the mid-20th century and Nuyoricans’ involvement in the civil rights movement a generation later is Sonia Manzano’s The Revolution of Evelyn Serrano.
Three adult novels recommended for mature teen readers that explore the entangled history of Haiti and the Dominican Republic are Edwidge Danticat’s The Farming of Bones, Julia Alvarez’s In the Time of Butterflies, and Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Alvarez’s Before We Were Free portrays the same era in the Dominican Republic for middle grade readers, while Lynn Joseph’s The Color of My Words, also for middle grade readers, depicts the Dominican Republic in the more recent past.
I hope you enjoyed Lyn’s interview as much as I did! I’ve got a number of new books to add to my TBR list now, and even more excited that some of her suggestions are on this year’s Vamos a Leer book group list!
Please share any thoughts or comments below, and if you have any more questions for Lyn, please feel free to ask those too!