This is the first installment in what I hope will be a long and fruitful set of discussions with writers who are are engaged in the wonderful yet daunting process of writing their first books.
My first interviewee is Gina Balibrera, a writer of fiction and nonfiction, who is at work on her first novel, The Volcano-Daughters. She’s also my good friend, sister-writer, who I met at the University of Michigan during graduate school. She is currently a Zell Postgraduate Fellow in fiction at the University of Michigan.
Over email, we discussed (among other things) The Volcano-Daughters, the pleasures and challenges of crafting a first novel, and how she discovered she was a writer.
Claire Skinner: Tell me a bit about The Volcano-Daughters, your novel-in-progress. Give us the story in a nutshell.
Gina Balibrera: The Volcano-Daughters is about a family, a massacre, and the shapes that the lives of two sisters, Graciela and Consuelo, take on after the massacre. The center of the novel’s gravity is El Salvador during the 1930s, but we also spend some time in San Francisco, Hollywood, New York City, Paris, and the South of France.
How did you decide to write about El Salvador? More specifically, why early 20th-century El Salvador?
I’ve always been fascinated by El Salvador–most of my family is from there, but at the same time, the country’s not really mine. I grew up in San Francisco, my Spanish is only OK, and I’ve only visited El Salvador, never lived there. For me, El Salvador feels the most real in old photographs and objects, and in the stories that my dad and his brother share whenever they get together. My cousin just moved back to California, and he hosted the whole family at his new place for Thanksgiving this year, and amidst the moving boxes he had this enormous mirror propped against a wall–maybe ten feet high and 4 feet wide–with an ornate wooden frame, dark and hard as iron, with carved gargoyles and demons. It once belonged to my grandmother. She had it made in some small town in the Salvadoran countryside just before she, my grandfather, my great-aunt, and my dad and uncle came to the States. It’s super-creepy, a little too ornate, haunting, and strangely familiar–like a lot of the stories I’ve heard about the country. In my parent’s apartment in San Francisco are these paintings my great-aunt made–watercolor and silk embroidery under glass in these huge gilt frames. The Virgin of Guadalupe, all in faded pastels and metallic silver stars, which is an expected image in most Latin-American homes, but also a strange series of musical instruments in rich red threads, and this uncanny family scene by the seashore, with windmills. I grew up studying these objects, thinking they might tell me more about my father’s country. Salvadorans are incredibly proud of being Salvadoran–despite all the horrors the place is known for–Salvadorans wouldn’t want to be from anywhere else. There’s a lot of hubris, duende, and sass. Roque Dalton, revolutionary Salvadoran poet, was most famous for his Poema de Amor, a love letter to the nation, which ends like this:
the ones who drunkenly cry for the national anthem
beneath Pacific cyclones or northern snows,
the moochers, the beggars, the pot-heads,
the guanacos sons of bitches,
the ones who were barely able to return,
the ones with a little more luck,
the eternal undocumented ones,
the jacks-of-all-trades, the salesmen-of-everything, the ones who’ll
the first to pull out the knife,
the saddest of the world’s sad,
When we meet each other out in the world, there’s a wild connection and a big embrace. When I first met my friend Sílvia here in Michigan, she was selling pupusas at a Farmer’s Market, and though I’m a guera-gringa, always aware of my tenuous connection to El Salvador, and my whiteness being more perceptible to others than my Salvadoran-ness, I was so happy, and I called my parents that evening to tell them I had found another Salvadoran in the Midwest. I’m also interested in a country that is known in the US for producing extreme violence (the atrocities of the 1980s Civil War, the street gang Mara Salvatrucha) and not much else (pupusas, coffee) and in deepening and complicating an understanding of this country’s narratives through a work of fiction about the place. El Salvador’s never been a tourist destination–though the volcanoes and rainforests and beaches are gorgeous, these places are also scarred by the country’s history, deforested, littered, poor. After the 1932 massacre, La Matanza, the central event in my novel in progress, records of the 30,000 dead were expunged from the National Archives. The University was taken over, shut-down, and the revolutionaries and the landowners struggled to claim the country. My family was there, in the Capital. That such a thing–the massacre–could be erased blew my mind. I imagined all those forgotten dead, in tall towers of broken bodies, a heaping mass of them. I wanted to write about this time. It’s only recently that Salvadorans have recognized the massacre in a public way. When I was there in 2005, I visited a fantastic exhibit at the Museo de la Imágen y Palabra, which was full of found and recreated photographs and objects from La Matanza, testimonies of viejos, and responses to the massacre by contemporary artists. So, I’ve been thinking about El Salvador in the 1930s and 40s for a long time now, and really searching for the right characters to tell a story from this time and place.
I am also interested in challenging notions of what a novel set in Latin America must look like. I tend to be skeptical of the incumbent expectations of magical realism, especially in the sense of what this form does to flatten out women’s voices, historical events, and prose-language. I find that the conventions of this form often result in a distant point of view, one that reads as stiff and stultifying, inflected by, at its most generous, with the sloppy language of travel guides, and at its most infelicitous, with the language of sex tourism. So, I wanted to defamiliarize this territory, write a Latin American novel with psychological realism that privileges the stories of women, of family relationships and complicated political stances, one that honors the dead, and is also true to the strangeness and magic of this world, without resorting to any oversexed mango tropes. Even apart from La Matanza, the history of Salvadorans in El Salvador and around the world is just so rich during this time. I read a lot about the Good Neighbor Policy, a US code, in which Latin American Hollywood stars such as Anita Page and Rita Hayworth were sought out in hopes of creating wartime allies through the culture of film and music. I also came across the remarkable story of Consuelo St. Exúpery, a Salvadoran artist who happened to be married to Antoine St. Exúpery, famous author and aviator, and I was really intrigued by her struggle to make meaningful art, her involvement in the French resistance, and her personal volatility. Consuelo was a muse to Surrealists like Bréton and Man Ray, and prone to self-mythology that often amounted to lies, and she had a very wild love life. I decided that a version of this woman needed to exist in my novel, and that this other, imagined Consuelo, and her estranged sister, a character I created and named Graciela de los Ángeles, would be the protagonists of my novel.
Like you mentioned, the character of Consuelo is based on a living, breathing person. How married are you to the historical facts of her biography?
I don’t feel tied to the historical facts of her biography, though I am inspired by the improbability of much of it. What I like best about Consuelo is imagining her. There’s a thread there–a Salvadoran woman with her first name also married a famous aviator and writer in the Surrealist circles of the 1930s–but I consider my Consuelo my character alone, not beholden to any historical allegiance or accuracy. There’s no agenda, no reveal, no exposé. I don’t know much about Consuelo the historical woman–I understand maybe the persona she had in her circles. But I imagine her insecurities and her appetites, which I think are larger forces in that pantheon of selves. This is not biography. This is not historical fiction. I do not mean to represent any lived life, but maybe the strange and human experience of living through trauma, love, and art.
Switching gears a bit now, when did you know you were a writer? When did you first begin writing fiction?
Maybe I always did? The notebooks I wrote in as a child I made certain to call “journals” and not “diaries.” I remember one of my earliests, that was yellow and white striped, college-ruled, and the sticker of an iridescent unicorn I put on the front. With a quote from Keats’s “Ode to a Grecian Urn,” of all things:
Beauty is truth, truth beauty,–that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
I think I got the sticker out of a gumball machine in Chinatown. I was into calligraphy at the time–kindergarten, the Spanish nuns nurtured my enthusiasm with old-school zeal– but in first grade I changed schools and I was forced to untrain my hand. I remember that writing about quotidian bullshit was lower on the hierarchy of necessary writing to me, than say, ecstatic poetry or weird little stories that borrowed heavily from my D’Aulaires book of Greek mythology. I wrote about sleepovers and fights with my siblings, but those words were a perfunctory log, a preface, to each entry. After the first paragraph or so of that crap, I moved into the flow of “artful crap.” I preferred the feeling that I was making something to the feeling of marking time. Sometimes I wrote in a code I can’t remember, that likely had no logic to it at all. I remember asking one of my parent’s friends if I could read to her from my new journal, which I had received that morning as a Christmas gift and had been writing in all day. She was like, “You want to read me your deepest, darkest secrets?” And I was like, “That’s not all that’s in here!”
But, my deepest darkest secrets, my deepest darkest self, certainly was in that puffy pink plastic journal, because, even though it contained coded language, stories, and drawings, not just dirt, I remember unlocking its tiny clasp and tearing out the pages by the fistful one day, using kitchen scissors to ribbon them, and then scattering the remains in several different garbage cans outside our apartment building, as one does with a credit card statement. Shame is often urgent.
In high school, my best friend and I Identified As Writers. We sneered at everyone in our English classes and wrote lots of stories in comic book form–she was much better than I was at drawing the nonfiction creatures of our funny little life. At 16, I was so moved by that precise, unhinged quality of T.S. Eliot and those other Modernist machismos, that I wrote my own version of “The Wasteland” (oh, the shame!). When it wasn’t published in my high school lit mag I was Seriously Aggrieved.
As a young writer, who were the authors that inspired you on the path? Who inspires you now?
As a young Gina, I think I was really inspired by writers who really announced themselves as practitioners of a craft–sometimes in a super cheesy way. I loved the writers that I was exposed to in my high school classes, the usual AP English High Modernists, that old King Lear. I thought that old “boats beating on” chestnut at the end of The Great Gatsby was just the best. I remember seeking out Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, on the recommendation of my high school writing teacher and being awed by its capaciousness and her youth. And going to see her read at Cody’s Bookstore in Berkeley and coveting her poise. I’ve always loved a lyrical turn of phrase, so Nabokov was hot stuff to a young Gina (he still is). I was really into how tiny and badass Seventies’ Joan Didion was in photographs, and how artfully no-nonsense her prose is. Her use of the word “desultory” and her inclusion of her research trip packing lists (cigarettes, booze, lacy slips) in her essays. I remember also not being totally comfortable with irregular shapes and large and complicated feelings and specifically female consciousnesses–the very work I seek and am most inspired by, in love with now–feeling personally implicated and defensively bored by Virginia Woolf in high school, mistaking her for overvulnerable, when I was just too young and interested in something more accessible to my eager, insecure little mind.
These days, I am fortunate to have a chorus of Great Ladies and Dudes reading into my ears, and reading over my shoulder. I mean this literally: I have a circle of writers with whom I workshop each week, most of them poets, one of them, you, Lady Claire, all of them, brilliant wielders of the craft who urge me to write and read better. Also, the figurative Great Ladies on my shoulder: I’ve grown into Virginia Woolf. I love Jeanette Winterson, Anne Carson, Mary Ruefle, Maggie Nelson, Clarice Lispector, Susan Sontag (writers that seem to write a good deal about writing, as well as who seem to write between the boundaries of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry). I also go to W.G. Sebald, Alice Munro, Louise Erdich, Italo Calvino, Barthes, the old Borges and Nabokov double-punch for a zesty start to a writing day. One of my very favorite novels of the last year is The Sad Passions by Veronica Gonzalez-Peña–it’s about five women in 1970s Mexico City, and just brilliant, in terms of structure, concept, and on a line level, too, which is especially important to me. My friends are always introducing me to other consciousnesses I should know. Lately, thanks to one of our mutual friends, I’ve been reading Eileen Myles and Audre Lorde, both of whom I don’t know why I haven’t read earlier, and this wonderful poet named Eli Coppola, who is one of those lost treasures (her friends compiled several chapbooks and published her collection after her early death) that I feel arrived like a beneficent comet of goodness in my lap.
Who are your “ideal” readers for your novel?
The ideal readers of my novel are generous (ha!), interested in the lives of women, willing, and curious beyond what they already know about Latin America and Latin American narratives. I have a coven of affidamentos, our weekly workshop of mostly poets, who read my chapters and sharpen my words with their flinty brains and fiery hearts. They (you amongst them) are a pretty damn dreamy gift basket of readers.
What are the greatest challenges (so far) of writing a first novel?
Momentum, speed, velocity. The fear of falling. Fear of loss. Fear of waste. Fear of accretion of duds. Fear of a dustcover with sexy exoticized mango flesh on it, followed by self-shame for delusions of grandeur (fearing any dustcover at all). Sleeplessness. Disordered galaxies. Nervousing elevator pitches. That feeling in your stomach when you perceive a giant hungry mass of knotted wire and string, and all there is to do is sit quietly and untangle it as the moments tick. Wondering to myself what is a novel? Do I hate novels? Can I write a novel? Would I rather be writing a weird poem-essay? “Am I bored?” masquerading as: “Is the chapter as a unit passé?” What shape is this now?
The greatest joys?
Finishing a chapter and saying aloud, “This lil’ unit ain’t half bad!” Sharing the work with affidamentos: when a trusted reader of my coltish early chapters notices a sprout of a good idea and in a flurry of simpático real talk, pushes me to take the idea deeper. Also: being alone, sitting quietly and putting in the hours, spending time inside of the voices of my characters, and then feeling the work in my hips when I get up to stretch or make a snack. Those flashes when the forward motion of the human heart fiction feels truer, more urgent than all of the research and maps I’ve drawn to arrive there.