Writing backwards with Esmeralda Santiago

By | November 13th, 2013 | No Comments
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Born in Puerto Rico, Santiago keeps returning to the island in her memoirs and novels.

This post is sponsored by the Miami Writers Institute.

Puerto Rican writer Esmeralda Santiago left La Isla del Encanto for Brooklyn when she was 11 years old, but her imagination keeps bringing her back. Santiago’s debut book, When I Was Puerto Rican, the first of three memoirs, depicts her impoverished and happy childhood on the island, and her latest novel, Conquistadora, is the story of Ana Cubillas, a slave-owning Puerto Rican widow who runs a sugar plantation in the mid-19th Century.

Currently working on a new novel, a contemporary story whose main character is Cubillas’s descendent, Santiago is heading to Miami to teach a three-day workshop on fiction writing starting on Wednesday, Nov. 20, at the Miami Writers Institute (full details). Ahead of the workshop, Santiago told me about the virtues of writing backwards and explained why the Puerto Rico of today frightens and inspires her at the same time.

Given the topic of your workshop and that Conquistadora covered more than 100 years of Puerto Rican history, I’m wondering how you go about mapping your books.

ES: I am an outlining type of writer. Some writers find it easier to just imagine something and keep writing until they feel the structure emerges several hundreds of pages into the manuscript. I am the opposite. I take a lot of time outlining and organizing. I begin by imagining the end of the book, and I work backwards. And then it’s very easy to figure out where to start because I know the hard part. That’s where I began with Conquistadora and where I begin with all my books including my memoirs, even though I know what happened.

Working backwards, do you feel the freedom to change the end once you get going?

ES: Oh, yeah. The blueprint is not the blueprint that an architect has to build a house, where you have to put the walls in this place and once they’re there you can’t take them down. For me the blueprint is really an outline, it’s a goal, and quite frequently it does change. In the case of Conquistadora, for example, the book was going to much longer than it ended up being. But when I got to a draft that was 800 pages, it was a little bit much in one book. So my job became to edit it down to tell one story without truncating it too much. This is my process with all of my books. I generally end up writing a first draft that is twice as many pages as I end up publishing because it gives me a whole big canvas to paint in, even if I only choose a portion of it.

In memoir you extract a narrative from your real life, and in fiction, especially historical fiction, you draw on real events to create a fictional narrative. Given that you use the same outlining process for memoir and fiction, do you see an overlap between the two kinds of writing?

ES: In my case, actually, there is an overlap because while I was born in the 20th century, where I grew up…was very close to the way people lived in Puerto Rico in the 19th Century. I grew up in an area with no electricity, no running water, no good communication with the outside world outside of the barrio. So when I was writing Conquistadora there were many details and scenes that I was able to access from my own experience. Having lived through a hurricane without shelter, for example.

Someone who is writing a story that takes place in an outer planet of the Milky Way doesn’t have the same access. But we all have access to the human experience, and that’s why those books can be just as realistic as a memoir or an autobiography or even a documentary. Ultimately, we’re dealing with a few emotions that human beings share, and how we express them is what makes the big difference between them. So long as we’re human and we write about humanity, we are always accessing our real lives, even if we’re writing about creatures in outer space.

You mention that you’re working on a new book. What can you tell me about that?

ES: Right now I’m writing another novel. It doesn’t have a title yet. That’s one of the last things I do. I’m about better than 2/3 of the way through it, and I’m pretty sure where the story is going. I’ve had three major tangents that I had do a U-turn on. And I’m enjoying the process at the same time as I have days of frustration, as any writer would.

Can you tell me anything about the world you’re exploring in the book?

ES: All I can do is tell you is that it’s a contemporary story and that the main character is a descendent of some of the characters in Conquistadora.

You mentioned how much has changed in Puerto Rico since you grew up there. One development is a growing culture of violence. Do you have any thoughts on that?

ES: Yes, there is a situation there where violence is extraordinarily frightening, both for residents and those of us who have relatives still living there….Just about everyone I talk to is very very concerned with the gun violence on the island and the prevalence of drugs in just about every corner of the island. The island is not that large that you can hide easily. That makes it even more terrifying….It’s a difficult situation for us here, watching it happen from this distance where we can do very little to change it. And it’s even more terrifying when you’re there, imagining you can be walking down the street going to pick up milk for your family and someone could shoot you….I don’t have a solution for that. I only have concern. I have worries. I wish there was something I could do from here, but I don’t know what that might be.

It’s really upsetting and infuriating that we don’t hear about it here in the United States, that it’s not being covered in the way the drug wars in Colombia were covered or what’s happening in Mexico with journalists being murdered. Not to get into conspiracies or paranoia, but maybe part of the reason we’re not hearing about this is because of the very special relationship Puerto Rico has with the United States, where we are American citizens and there’s this movement to try and get Puerto Rico to be a state and there are political issues related to what’s happening in Puerto Rico that people don’t want to highlight in any way. What’s more shocking to me is that the Puerto Rican writers that are living there are not writing about this. Of course, one thinks, it’s dangerous!…I would imagine there are people who would like to speak out who are not doing it [because] they’re afraid for their lives and the lives of their loved ones. And so many are leaving. And this is really to me the saddest thing, that young, educated people who could actually make the island a better place are…leaving the island in droves. So what’s happening is there’s no one there to resist the violence. It’s something that needs to be addressed and needs to be written about. I don’t think I’m that person. I’m not a journalist, I don’t have those kinds of skills. But we need somebody to do it. I’m sad to say, I’m not that person. I wouldn’t even know where to begin. It’s too much of an emotional issue for me. We need someone who’s a trained journalist, who’s fearless.

To end on a positive note, Puerto Rico is clearly an enduring inspiration to you. What do find so enchanting about the island?

ES: It’s not hard to be enchanted by Puerto Rico because…it’s a beautiful place. It’s not hard to fall in love with the natural environment, what’s left of it. Beyond that I really love Puerto Rican people. One of the things that always really touches me is the generosity of the people of the island. It might be because we’re so generous and open and friendly that there are a lot of problems there with violence, bad people who take advantage of people who are generous and kind and open and well-intentioned. Whenever I go there, I’ll be talking to a total stranger, and they’re always very open with their lives and willing to share everything that they have. That’s always a very moving aspect of Puerto Rican culture that I love, and I think is a big part of who we are.

Visit the Miami Writers Institute website to learn more about Santiago’s upcoming writing workshop.



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