Q: When did you decide to write a memoir, and why?
A: I started to write the memoir in 1997, when I was a junior at UC Santa Cruz. By then, I had discovered that writing could be very healing. I wanted to exorcise the demons that haunted me. I wanted to unload the burden I carried—the memories that left me scarred. But I couldn’t do it. The pain was too raw. And I couldn’t bear the thought of having to go back there and live everything all over again. So I turned my story into a novel, and that is how Across a Hundred Mountains was born. By fictionalizing my story, I was able to put some distance between myself and my emotions. But I never gave up the idea of someday writing the real story.
When I graduated from UC Santa Cruz I became a middle school teacher. I taught ESL to immigrant children. Most of them had gone through a similar experience as I had. Before, I hadn’t given much thought to my experience of being left behind in the context of “the big picture.” Then I realized that it was an experience that was all too common. Yet it wasn’t an experience that was talked about in conversations about immigration.
Once I became a published author, and I began to do presentations at middle schools, high schools, and colleges, I found myself becoming an advocate for higher education. In my talks I always made sure to encourage those young kids to never give up on their dreams, and I would share with them my personal story—a story that ultimately ends in triumph, despite all the odds against me. So in 2009, when I finished my second novel and was thinking about my next project, I finally decided to go back to the memoir. I wanted people to know that there is another side to the immigrant experience—of those who get left behind. I also wanted to give all those young people I have met at my presentations a story that would inspire them to pursue higher education and to fight for their own dreams.
Q: You write about your experience in being left behind by your parents in Mexico and how it affected you during your formative years. Do you believe this experience helped or hindered you to become the person you are today?
A: It did both. My experience of being left behind helped me because it made me strong. I learned to be independent and self-reliant. It taught me to be a survivor. But it also hindered me because it left me emotionally scarred. My childhood was dominated by my parents’ absence. As a child I felt unloved. I felt abandoned. That, coupled by the abuse I suffered at the hands of my father later in life, gave me a very low self-esteem. For a long time I didn’t have a sense of self-worth, and it took me a long time to finally start to love myself and stop worrying about whether my parents loved me or not. But this experience also affected my ability to love. I loved my parents unconditionally, and yet the way they constantly failed me affected my relationships with others.
Q: As you wrote your memoir, did your thoughts about your parents change? Did your feelings toward them become more positive or negative?
A: Writing the memoir helped me to understand my parents better. For a long time, I only saw my experience through my eyes. But I hardly ever thought about their own experiences, and the circumstances they found themselves in. The first draft of the memoir was very angry in tone, accusatory even. Both my parents came across as one-dimensional. I gave this first draft to a former teacher, and what he said to me was this. “Reyna, this memoir is one big grudge against your parents.” And he was right.
The challenge for me was to remove all of the negative emotions that were coming across. I had to take a step back, look at my parents as “characters” in my book, and get to know them from the inside out. Just as I handled my fictional characters, where I knew everything about them—their fears, their aspirations, their past, their goals, etc.—that is how I needed to know my parents. I needed to give them their humanity. When I finished the memoir, I felt that at some level, I could finally understand my parents—and forgive them—and that was very healing for me.
Q: Were you concerned about what your family would say or react to you writing this memoir?
A: I knew my siblings would be okay with it. But I was actually terrified about what my parents would think, especially my father. There were many moments when I felt that I couldn’t publish it. That I shouldn’t publish it. Sometimes I felt like calling my agent and telling her to pull the plug. But then I would remind myself of why I was writing this story—I was doing it for those young people I wanted to inspire—and I would keep writing. Then my father passed away halfway through my writing of the memoir, and in his death I tried harder to make sure that the reader understood my father. That they knew, as I did, that he wasn’t a bad man. He was a man with good intentions, but with too many demons haunting him.
Q: Writing a memoir is considered difficult in that it’s a balance between getting your own personal experience on paper, yet ensuring that essential writing techniques and skill are used. How did you manage to turn your life into a book?
A: My former writing teacher, whom I mentioned earlier, told me that even though I was writing about my life, I was still writing a book—which is a work of art. I was making art. I found that idea to be daunting. But I was lucky to have two published novels under my belt. It took me at least three drafts before I was able to move past my emotions and break away from my “personal” self to start looking at the memoir through a writer’s eyes. I began to look at the “material” and thought about the narrative arc for each chapter and for the overall book. At first, the memoir felt like a bunch of memories that didn’t connect, so I worked hard to imbue each memory with meaning. I looked at my family as “characters” and worked on their development and making them three dimensional, the way I would have done if I were writing a novel. I interviewed my sisters, my brother, my parents the way I would have ‘interviewed’ my fictional characters to get to know them. As I got closer to finishing the book, I began to look at the themes in the book, the symbolisms, the metaphors, and I gave them more weight. At first, it was extremely difficult to write the memoir. It was too personal. Too raw. But when I put on my writer’s hat, I was able to move beyond the emotions and focus on what I was creating—literature. Art.
Q: How is the storytelling process different in writing one’s memoir versus writing a work of fiction?
A: At first it was difficult for me to get a “handle” on writing nonfiction. I felt limited by the fact that I had to tell the truth and restrain my imagination. But then I discovered that it really isn’t that much different to write a memoir than to write a novel. Both novels and memoirs need the same thing—developed characters, a narrative arc, conflict, themes, setting, dialogue, etc. The only difference is that one is a product of your imagination and the other is a rendering of real events.
Then the challenge for me was how to look at the material (my life) and select the events that would tell a concise story with a narrative arc. I was covering about sixteen years of my life in 350 pages, so I had to work very hard on what to keep and what to leave out. It isn’t like that when I write novels. For the most part I create the plot points that are absolutely necessary for the story. But because I was writing about my own life, sixteen years of it to be exact, that was a lot of “footage” I had to look at and select.
Q: What did you enjoy the most about writing The Distance Between Us?
A: What I loved about writing this memoir is that I got to spend time with my older sister, Mago. It allowed me the opportunity to return to my childhood and to once again be her “Nena,” her baby. My sister and I aren’t as close as we used to be. We grew up. When I left for Santa Cruz to study, that was the point when our lives took different paths. I love my sister very much, and as I wrote the memoir, I was able to reconnect with her once again. At remembering everything that she did for me, how she nurtured me, took care of me, stood by me for all those years, I was able to look at our lives now and realize that even though we aren’t as close as we used to be, there will always be a special bond that connects us.
Q: How do you see the relative role of poverty in the lives of immigrants? Do you see it as a motivation for advancing oneself and reaching for opportunities, or as a limitation to success? Or both?
A: I think it’s both. Living in poverty is a great test of endurance. For some people it is a motivating factor to look for opportunities to better oneself. But there are costs, too. My father left Mexico to pursue a better life for himself and his family, and look what it did to us–it broke up my family. But something good came of it, too. I wouldn’t be where I am today if he hadn’t made that choice. We paid the price, but I think I was able to make those sacrifices worthwhile. To me, all of my accomplishments give meaning to all that we lost.
Q: How did discovering literature and writing give you a direction and a sense of identity in your new life in America?
A: When I discovered books, I felt that I had been saved. My childhood was full of things that were beyond my control. Books gave me an escape. I was able to hide in the pages of those books and for a moment get away from all the chaos around me. Once I discovered Latino Literature when I was in college, the books I read helped me to define myself. I was Mexican and American. I could celebrate my Mexican culture while at the same time also feel at ease in the American culture. They helped me not to feel torn between the two.
Q: Your memoir is very topical, especially given the political climate surrounding issues of immigration and the undocumented, in particular the young people in this country today facing the same issues you did as an undocumented immigrant. How do you see your role in relation to them?
A: I do particularly feel a connection to the DREAMers, those young undocumented people who were brought to the U.S. by their parents when they were children. That was my own experience. I was brought here by my father when I was nine years old. Like me, many of the DREAMers were left behind by their parents in their native countries. Studies show that 80% of Latin American children in U.S. schools have been separated from a parent during the process of migration.
Just like the DREAMers, by coming to this country as a child, I speak English better than I speak my native tongue. All of my writing is done in English. I know my way in this American society more than I will ever know how to navigate myself in Mexico.
The only difference between me and the DREAMers is that I was able to legalize my status when I was 13 years old, whereas they have not been given that chance. If their story is anything like my story, I believe they have suffered enough to also continue to struggle because of their lack of legal status. I deeply believe it is time to end their suffering and for them to be allowed the chance that I was given—to give back to society and repay everything it has done for me.
Q: Many would say that you are in a sense living the American Dream and that your story is, at its heart, an American story. Do you see it this way?
A: I do see it that way. The American story is a story of triumph against all odds. I was born in a shack made of bamboo sticks and cardboard, on a dirt floor, delivered by a midwife. I was born into extreme poverty. The odds were not in my favor. Yet I have come a long way from my humble beginnings. The beauty of this country is that dreams can come true here. The journey is not all easy. But through hard work and dedication, and yes, also with luck and help from others, one can accomplish one’s dreams. This is what America stands for—the land of opportunity. To some it is a cliché. But I deeply believe in what one can accomplish in this country with a lot of work and plenty of ‘ganas.’