I FIRST LEARNED of Reyna Grande when she submitted a short story in response to my 2005 call for submissions for what would eventually be the anthology Latinos in Lotusland (Bilingual Press, 2008). This was early in her writing career, a year before Atria Books (an imprint of Simon & Schuster) would publish Reyna’s first novel, Across a Hundred Mountains, which was well received by the critics and went on to win the American Book Award among other honors. Her second novel, Dancing with Butterflies (Washington Square Press) also garnered critical acclaim and awards.
Reyna was born into poverty in Mexico and was only two years old when her father left his family for the United States to find work. Her mother followed two years later leaving Reyna and her siblings behind in Mexico with relatives. In 1985, Reyna was nine when she entered this country as an undocumented immigrant and settled in Los Angeles to live with her father, her parents having separated. Despite a life filled with deprivation and violence, Reyna has gone on to live the American dream.
Reyna became a naturalized citizen under President Ronald Reagan’s amnesty program. She earned a degree in creative writing and film and video from the University of California, Santa Cruz. She then obtained an MFA in creative writing from Antioch University. To this day, Reyna is the only person in her family to complete college. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and children.
This summer, Atria Books published Reyna’s memoir, The Distance Between Us, which offers a difficult read only because of the hardships she depicts in exquisite detail; it is a deeply personal coming-of-age story that extols the power of self-reliance and the love of books. Indeed, literature has made Reyna’s life what it is.
As she continues her book tour, Reyna kindly agreed to spend some time with us and answer a few questions for LARB.
DANIEL OLIVAS: After writing two novels, why did you decide to write a memoir?
REYNA GRANDE: Even though my novels are very personal, and the material I write about is drawn from my own experience, they are fictional stories. After I completed my second novel, I wanted to write the real story about my life, before and after illegally immigrating to the US from Mexico. I wanted to shed light on the complexities of immigration and how immigration affected my entire family in both positive and negative ways.
DO: When did you start your memoir? How did you map it out?
RG: I started writing it in May 2007 while I was working on Dancing with Butterflies. I finished the first draft in April 2010, six months after Dancing was published. The first draft was very rough. I was cramming 30 years of my life into 300 pages! I showed this draft to a former teacher who told me that I had four memoirs in there, and he suggested that I think about what I wanted the memoir to cover. So I decided that it would be about my coming-of-age and I got rid of the pages that had nothing to do with that. The hardest part of course was how to structure it. In the end, I decided to use my background as a novelist and the result was a memoir that reads like a novel in stories. Each chapter is wrapped around a specific memory, a day in my life. I also decided to write it from a child’s point of view with minimal intrusion from my adult self, just enough to guide the reader along. I wanted to take the reader back in time, and show, rather than tell, what my journey was like.
DO: You made a decision to include verbatim dialogue to tell your story. Obviously, you could not remember all of those conversations particularly those occurring when you were very young. What convinced you to take this literary liberty? Did you or your editor discuss this decision?
RG: In the very first draft of the memoir, I didn’t have much dialogue. I didn’t have a lot of description or details. There was so much exposition and I was “telling” rather than “showing.” My former MFA teacher, who read the first draft of the memoir, told me that I had some latitude with my memory of the events and circumstances, that the point of the memoir was not to lay out everything point by point on a list. He said I needed to cut, shape, and turn this “material” into a story. So I sat down by myself and thought about what my teacher had said. Then something incredible happened. I heard my mother speak to me. She said, “I won’t be gone for long.” And when I heard her speak, I had a breakthrough. I could so clearly see myself as a four-year-old girl watching my mother pack up her belongings for her trip to the US Then the details started to come. So the key, to me, was to allow my characters to speak, and to give myself permission to recreate events from long ago. By the time my editor saw the memoir, it was already in its fourth or fifth draft. However, I was planning on having two separate memoirs. One about my life in Mexico, and one about my life in the US, similar to Esmeralda Santiago’s wonderful memoirs, When I Was Puerto Rican and Almost a Woman. But my editor suggested that I put both stories into one book. And that’s what I did. I was happy with the result.
DO: While you are rather hard on yourself as you recount what you consider your failings in the face of extreme poverty, bigotry, and an abusive home, you also don’t spare family members, particularly your father and his violent alcoholism and your mother’s abandonment of you and your siblings. How has your family reacted to your memoir? Did you allow them to read early drafts?
RG: Neither of my parents has ever read any of my work. When I was writing the memoir, I told my mother I was writing it, but my mother doesn’t really understand — nor will she ever admit — that her actions hurt me in a very profound way. My father was diagnosed with liver cancer while I was writing the memoir, and his illness definitely made me think twice about finishing the book. But in the end, what helped me to finish the memoir was the knowledge that even though I was writing about my parents’ darkest moments, I was doing my best to give them their humanity. Ultimately my parents are human beings, very complex and complicated human beings with flaws and virtues. I am pleased that in the memoir my parents don’t come across as the “villains” in the story. They come across as real people going through difficult times.
As for my siblings, I included them in the writing process. They got to read the different drafts of the memoir. They gave me a lot of input — filling in the gaps in my memory, correcting me when I misremembered. This memoir is as much theirs as it is mine.
DO: We’ve just survived another bruising presidential election where the Republican nominee moved hard right on the immigration issue using such terms as “illegals” and “self-deportation” during the debate season for the nomination. Now that President Obama has won reelection with more than 70 percent of the Latino vote, many prominent Republicans are talking about softening their party’s approach to immigration or else face future electoral defeats. What was your reaction to this year’s debate on immigration reform especially being a person who was an undocumented immigrant and who eventually benefited from President Reagan’s amnesty program?
RG: As an immigrant I’ve always been a strong supporter of immigrant rights and have been hoping for many years now for a comprehensive immigration reform. Unfortunately that hasn’t happened, but I do believe that now with Republicans realizing that they absolutely need to reevaluate their stance on immigration, the federal government can finally make some major improvements to our broken immigration system. In particular, I am very hopeful that the DREAM Act can finally pass. Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals doesn’t do much for the DREAMers. It was a good first step in the right direction but these young people need something permanent on which they can build a future.
My family greatly benefited from the Amnesty of 1986. The day I got my Green Card in the mail was the day I was able to step out of the shadows. I went on to earn a BA, an MFA and eventually also went on to be published by one of the biggest publishers in the US, Simon & Schuster. None of that might have happened if I hadn’t been given the chance to legalize my status. I am now paying back to this country everything it gave me. I believe that the DREAMers will do the same.
DO: You sing the praises of Diana Savas, one of your professors at Pasadena City College who not only saw your promise as a writer, but who also encouraged you to attend UC Santa Cruz and gave you shelter from your father’s violence. What has been her reaction to your success? Where do you think you’d be today without such a mentor and friend?
RG: Oh, I will be talking about Diana until the day I die. I am extremely grateful for everything she has done for me and continues to do. I’m not sure where I would be today without having met Diana. I know that before I met her I was very determined to go to college and make something of myself, but without her guidance, support, and friendship, I think the path to my goals would have been a very rocky, uncertain path. Diana is very proud of me and, unlike my parents, she actually tells me so!
I love having her in my life because there are many things that I have not been able to share with my own parents, but I can share them with her. For example, when I met Sandra Cisneros in person — the woman whose work inspired me to be a writer! — it was an amazing experience. Yet if I had told my mother she would have said, “Sandra who?” But when I called Diana and told her about it, Diana understood what that had meant to me without me even having to explain it to her.
DO: Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
RG: Hopefully living somewhere else! I have lived in LA for 27 years and I would like to live elsewhere at some point in my life. I would also like to have written at least two more books by then. I see myself being more active in my community and mentoring a new generation of writers.