Q&A with Esmeralda Santiago, Author of Conquistadora

We caught up with Esmeralda Santiago, author of the LHJ Book Club pick, Conquistadora, about digging deep into her ancestry, why she chose a strong female lead for her epic novel, and where her writing fits into Latino literature.
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Let's talk about the inspiration for the book. You're originally from Puerto Rico and you've written three memoirs on your life and your ancestry. Why did you decide to write an epic novel about Puerto Rico in the 19th century, and how did your background influence the story?

I was curious about my ancestry. My family, both my mother's and father's sides, were poor, landless campesinos and I knew that there would not be too many documents about our family as I began to look into it. My mom and dad really can't remember beyond their own parents. So I started reading the history of the island. The more I read, the more I began to connect to the people who lived in Puerto Rico during the periods I was reading about. And these characters began to emerge from the history I was reading because my question always was, "Well, these statistics are interesting, but what was it like for someone to live through this experience?" And before I knew it, I was saying to myself "Am I crazy? I'm writing a historical novel?"

The details in your story are so intricate and vivid, and I'm picturing you hovering over tons of books trying to craft it all together based on all that research. How did you even begin to do it?

When I began, I was just reading to educate myself. Every time I would go to Puerto Rico I sent back a box full of books, and I read them in the time in between all the other things that I was doing -- writing other books and screenplays, being a mom, and all the other things that one must do. It wasn't until around the mid to late '90s when Google began to make this process easier. I'm not a historian; I had to learn how to research and remember what it was like to look at textbooks like in high school or college. It was a really interesting process, though sometimes frustrating.

The character of Ana -- a strong woman who runs a plantation -- seems rare for the book's time period. Did a specific woman in history inspire her?

Ana kind of emerged from frustration. I was finding a lot of information about how haciendas were managed, but there was little about the women who were there. So I began to think about what would it have been like for a woman in this kind of environment. We imagine 19th century women lying down, wearing corsets and fanning themselves, but that wasn't the reality. I saw my mother, my grandmother, and my aunts hard at work, constantly doing something in addition to raising children. So I just knew a woman like Ana must have existed, but she didn't have time to write about it. And almost all the books that I read were written by men, and they were not interested in writing about a woman's life. I won't accept that only men made history possible.

Some readers might draw parallels between Ana and Scarlett O'Hara.

Before I wrote Conquistadora, I had actually never read Gone with the Wind. I had seen the movie many years ago of course, but I had never read the book, and after I had sent my first big draft to my editor, she brought up Scarlett O'Hara. I was traveling a lot at the time, so I put it on my iPhone to read, and yes, I can see why people would make that connection. But the thing about Ana -- and this is different from Scarlett -- is that Ana didn't have beauty to help her. She did not think of herself as a beautiful woman, so she had to use her mind and her hard work in a way Scarlett didn't. And again, this wasn't deliberate -- just how Ana emerged.

She is indeed a very strong-willed character. Did you struggle to make her seem more sympathetic or did you think that wasn't important?

I struggled with that because there were moments when even I didn't like her! At times I felt like I was fighting with her. And there were a lot of moments when I wanted to change her into someone different, and then I would read the passage or the chapter a day or two later and think, "This just doesn't sound true. I really have to go back to who she is." It was a process unlike my other books for me.

Some authors talk about how their characters emerge as they write. Did you have a plan for Ana and the story before you began writing? Did you know where she would end up?

I'm a planner, outliner, time line designer...I do a lot of that even before I start writing. I always begin with how the book ends. There's no sense in starting if I don't know where it will end. I spent a lot of time working on the actual structure of the book and being surprised. I knew that Ana was going to come from Spain to Puerto Rico, but I didn't know that all these things would happen to her until I began to remember all the research I'd done and all the things that had happened in Puerto Rico during that period.

The book highlights how Puerto Rico was the last colony along with Cuba to outlaw slavery. What did you find interesting about this?

I knew that I would find little information about the slaves and their everyday lives in my research. But I envisioned these people as my ancestors -- my father descended from slaves. I knew I couldn't use my 21st-century thinking, that I had to think like a 19th-century, aristocratic, wealthy woman, or slave woman. That was one of the big challenges to me, constantly bringing myself back to that period. It was really important to me that the slaves be just as real as Ana. And that was the hardest part -- finding out information about them and imagining their lives and placing them on an equal footing with their masters. I wanted to do it for me, and my father and my father's people.

How was writing this novel different for you than working on your memoirs?

Well, it's so much easier to write memoir. For one, you know what happens, but also when you're writing memoir -- it's your vision of the world, what you see, how you experience it. In writing a novel I had to become all my characters. My office is upstairs from our living room, so sometimes my husband would be preparing lunch, he'd call me down. And he said he always knew who I had been writing about by the way I came down the stairs. If it was these flighty steps down the stairs, "Oh, she's writing about Elena." Stomping down the stairs? "Oh, Severo's coming." I didn't think that it was so obvious, but you become your characters.

What conversations do you hope that book club members might have about Conquistadora?

I hope people will have curiosity about places other than where they've lived. I hope that people will be more interested in exploring more Latino literature, some of which is extraordinary but it's not getting the kind of attention that it should. And I also hope that people will have a sense of Puerto Ricans as American citizens. We are your sisters and brothers and yet our experience is so different because Puerto Rico is an island in the Caribbean. I want people to be more curious about us and about our island and about who we are. I want to add to the canon so that we're not just the people in West Side Story.

Can you recommend another Latino writer or book to our readers?

Well there's Junot Diaz who is Dominican, and of course Julia Alvarez, but there are some younger writers like Reyna Grande. She's a young Mexican-American who recently published a memoir. She and her generation are bringing great vibrancy to this literature, and are giving a voice to people who have been invisible in literature in the United States. And it's my mission to make people like me, and like my mother and people like her, visible in this culture -- because if we're not in the culture, we don't exist in this society.

Are you working on anything new right now you can tell us a little about?

I'm writing another novel, and many of the same characters in Conquistadora will appear, but it's not really a sequel. Once I began writing about these characters and reading the history, I knew that I had to write more than one novel.

 

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