BORN IN LIMA, PERU, Natalia Sylvester came to the United States at the age of four and grew up in South Florida. She eventually earned an undergraduate degree in creative writing from the University of Miami. A former magazine editor, Natalia now works as a freelance writer in Austin, Texas, and her debut novel, Chasing the Sun, has just been published by New Harvest. It is a mature work of literature, one that — while it has the pacing of a thriller — offers fully drawn characters who suffer through an act of violence that was all too common in Peru during the 1990s: the kidnapping of a loved one. Based on both research and family experience, Sylvester’s novel is an important and moving addition to the literature chronicling the brutality suffered by Peruvians during President Fujimori’s decade in office.
DANIEL OLIVAS: Do you believe that because you were born in Lima, Peru, it was inevitable that your debut novel would grow out of the violence and human suffering your country has witnessed?
NATALIA SYLVESTER: I’m not sure it was inevitable just because I was born there, but because, over the years, I went back. In 2003, my uncle took me to a museum exhibit in Lima chronicling the ’80s and ’90s in Peru, called Yuyanapaq: Para Recordar (To Remember). Growing up, my parents had taught me and my sister a lot about Peru’s history — the Incas, the pre-Incas, Pizarro and the founding of Lima — but perhaps because it wasn’t “history” to them, perhaps because they’d lived it, these two dark decades weren’t something I discovered until I was older. So seeing the images of so much suffering, hearing my uncle recall the sound of bombs exploding daily, and how he had to learn to live with it — that’s always stayed with me.
For many of us who left our birth country very young, I think there’s always a sense of My life could have been so different. What my parents left behind to come to the United States and start over — not just the violence and uncertainty, but family, friends, a whole life — is something I could never take for granted. I’m beginning to realize that writing about Lima is my way of trying to honor a sacrifice I could never repay. It’s my way of saying, I know what you gave up, I know you can never get it back, and I promise to never, ever forget.
DO: There is remarkable detail in your depiction of Marabela’s kidnapping, and of her husband’s efforts to get her back home safely. Did you draw on written accounts of such incidents, or has anyone close to you or your family shared stories with you?
NS: It was a mixture. Initially, I drew on written accounts; there are a surprisingly significant number of books out there, and articles online. But eventually I realized I was using that research to avoid asking my family questions about my grandfather’s kidnapping. There’s a thin line between exploring truth through fiction and writing fiction to avoid dealing with the truth. And I realized that as long as I didn’t ask some difficult questions, I’d be on the wrong side of that line.
The thing is, I was also dealing with a lot of guilt, wondering if this was my story to tell. Around that time, I went to Lima with my father and my sister, and during that trip, one afternoon while the family was just gathered in the living room, my grandfather began sharing his memories of the days he was held for ransom. What I assumed would be too difficult for him, he handled with so much strength and calm. I didn’t tell him I was trying to write about a kidnapping, or that he’d inspired my story, because it didn’t feel like the right moment. (I regret this because the right moment never came before he passed away.)
But once back in the United States, I finally asked my mom and dad about the kidnapping. I asked my sister, who’s only two years older than me, what she remembered about Lima in the late 1980s, and though her memories weren’t vivid, the emotions associated with them were. Their stories and those of my uncle, combined with the few accounts I have from my grandfather, are what I drew from most while writing.
DO: Your novel plays well as a thriller, but it also offers a beautiful and subtle portrait of an imperfect marriage, and examines the shadows cast by the characters’ pasts. Can you talk a little about your creation of Andres and Marabela, their marriage, and those around them who support or challenge their union?
NS: This story originally began as a series of linked short stories, each told from a different point of view. I began with Marabela, then the children (Cynthia and Ignacio), Consuelo the housekeeper — Andres’s story came last. So I didn’t actually realize they were having marital problems until I got to him, and with that discovery, I realized that’s what this story was really about: not just a kidnapping, but a kidnapping and, on top of it, a story of a frail marriage.
I was 21 at the time. Back then, Andres and Marabela existed in a vacuum. Marabela was not once a photojournalist, but simply (if such “simply” even really exists) an unhappy housewife. Andres was just a businessman with no real regrets in life. The story just wasn’t working for me, so I set it aside for almost six years.
Only when I picked it up again did their pasts begin to take shape, and I think because of that, their present. For example, Elena (Andres’s former girlfriend) wasn’t even in the story until maybe the second-to-last rewrite. I remember writing her name, which is first mentioned by Andres’s mother, and thinking, “Who is this?” And because initially I had very little clue about her, I began writing letters from one character to another, as a way to find out their secrets and learn who they were beyond the page. I think this, coupled with the fact that my parents and several family members had gotten divorced during the six years I’d set the manuscript aside, deeply influenced how I approached Andres and Marabela’s marriage. Our pasts are never left behind. The smallest moments and the subtlest actions, taken with very little thought, only snowball with time, and I was both saddened and fascinated by this.
Daniel Olivas is the author of seven books including, most recently, Things We do not Talk About: Exploring Latino Literature Through Essays and Interviews, and the award winning novel, The Book of Want.