Sometimes I sit down to write and think, What do I write about? What interesting thing has happened to me that qualifies me to write a piece that is lucid on the topic of human nature? What can I say, it’s a writer’s neurosis. When I read works by Latina authors, I find myself relating to them, nodding my head and thinking, “Exactly!” and, “How did they know that?” It is then that I realize that writing what you know is hard because it’s actually writing everything that you take for granted.
Latina Self-Portraits, edited by Bridget Kevane and Juanita Herdia, is a somewhat older book (published in 2000 by University of New Mexico Press) that contains the interviews of 10 Latina authors, including Cherríe Moraga, Sandra Cisneros, and Julia Alvarez. The introduction is a bit scholarly (I actually think I bought this for a college project on Chicano literature), but the interviews are frank and interesting, so it really doesn’t matter whether your aim is to “[define] the literary space of Latina literature” or if you’re just interested in hearing what the authors had to say. I was astounded that even though the interviews took place in the late 1990s, the author’s thoughts and commentary on Latino culture are still so relevant. I did have to chuckle when Julia Alvarez, asked about a younger generation of Latino writers, says, “Oh yeah! Junot Díaz!”
Anyway, I was looking back over this book which I read a few years ago and wanted to focus on an author whose work I haven’t read. I picked Helena Maria Viramontes. Viramontes is the author of The Moths and Other Stories, Under the Feet of Jesus, and Their Dogs Came with Them.
The interview touches on several topics from farmworkers to her personal life to the influence of corridos. I LOVE that Viramontes says that the answer to whether to italicize phrases in Spanish is “absolutely not.” I feel the same way, at least for Latino literature. To me, Spanish is not a foreign language in our culture, so I don’t think the style rule applies.
Viramontes also talked about the writing process. Of the solitude of writers, she said, “We arrive in our seats with our sense of insecurities as human beings incapable of capturing the visions in our heads. With our open bleeding hearts, we arrive to make some understanding for ourselves and for the readers.”
One of Viramontes’s well-known short stories is “The Moths,” about a girl and her dying grandmother. The haunting story was inspired by an equally haunting photograph of a Japanese woman bathing her deformed child.
Viramontes writes a story of a girl caught between two cultures. The details are true. I can’t think of a better word, they’re just TRUE. The main character at one point remembers, “As I opened the door and stuck my head in, I would catch the gagging scent of toasting chile on the placa. . . . The chiles made my eyes water.”
Just yesterday I opened the window while toasting chiles on the placa, and wondered to myself why I don’t just roast them in the oven like I see gringos doing on television. Maybe it wouldn’t burn so much. But no, that wouldn’t be like my abuela did. And that simple part of making dinner made me remember my abuela and her housekeeping, her embroidery and tejidos, and sus hierbas for curing all ills. Today I read about my grandma in Viramontes’s story.
I won’t reveal more details because it would spoil such a short story. You have to read it yourself. But I think that this is the greatest compliment I can give an author – that when I read this story, I saw myself.