I met Marisel Vera at the Printers Row Literary Festival this year. She and Tayari Jones were meeting readers after a panel discussion. We connected briefly over Marisel’s debut novel, which has now been published. I’m very thankful to put her before you on my blog and suggest that you go and get her novel, If I Bring You Roses. And I want you to know that you can meet Marisel. She will be meeting friends and readers, signing books if you have them on August 28, 2011 at 8 pm at The Nervous Breakdown Reading Series co-sponsored by Sunday Salon Chicago. The location is Katerina’s, 1929 W. Irving Park Rd., Chicago, IL.
This is a three-part blog series featuring Marisel where she’ll be telling us about her novel, her experience publishing it, as well as a bit about her life as a writer…
When I was 13-years-old there were a rash of house fires in the Pilsen neighborhood over on Chicago’s South Side. Families with children died in the fires because the victims couldn’t speak English and when they shouted “¡Ayuda!” the firefighters couldn’t understand that they meant “Help!” Community leaders called for the firefighters to learn Spanish, but that infuriated many Chicagoans. I remember an on-air editorial about how everyone should learn English. This was America! People wrote letters to the Chicago papers saying how the victims were at fault because they should have learned English like their parents and grandparents.
I was shocked and disheartened particularly because I didn’t have a voice as a young Puerto Rican girl in my own family. To my young self, what mattered most was that innocent people had died. Wasn’t it a good thing to learn a few words in another language if that would help prevent a tragedy? I determined that one day I would write something to help people see how we were all the same whatever race, whatever nationality.
My novel If I Bring You Roses is a story about two people who marry and move to Chicago in the 1950s and how things happen and how they deal with it. That the novel is set partly in Puerto Rico and the couple is Puerto Rican is juice of the pineapple, the sauce of the beans, the ajo en mofongo. Having said that, some readers will read If I Bring You Roses as a straight story about a man and a woman and a marriage while others will notice how the United States presence and control over Puerto Rico had severe economic repercussions that resulted in events that led to the mass immigration of Puerto Ricans to the mainland. I tried to be historically accurate and also captivate the reader’s attention with my storytelling.
I wanted to tell the novel in two voices, both female and male, because the immigrant experience is different for Latin Americans depending on gender. In If I Bring You Roses, Aníbal is always wishing to be a man like his father. Aníbal comes from a culture where the man is king but in America, he is disrespected in the workplace. His feelings of powerlessness compromise his sense of manhood. In turn, the humiliation that male immigrants experience creates a cycle of privilege and subordination that ultimately disrespects women. For Felicidad, who was a second class citizen in Puerto Rico and in her own family, immigration is the best thing that ever happened to her. She can be independent and speak up for herself and for others and she is respected for doing so. The status of immigrant women from Latin American tends to rise in the U.S. while men lose their privileged status.
If I Bring You Roses is set in Chicago because I wanted to write about the first wave of Puerto Ricans who came in the 1950s like my parents and my uncles. I am a fan of multi-cultural literature and there is very little of Puerto Ricans in Chicago. The closest I had to any literature about Puerto Ricans when I was growing up was Piri Thomas’ Down These Mean Streets and that was non-fiction and set in NYC. Being Puerto Rican in NYC is not the same as being Puerto Rican in Chicago and as we Chicagoans know, New York City is not Chicago.
It was very liberating to write from Aníbal’s perspective. Loved it, loved it, loved it. I do have to admit to a slight concern about how people who know me will think of me once they read how Aníbal thinks about sex. But not for a moment did I think of silencing him. I had to be true to him and Aníbal is a very sexual guy. Sex is how he expresses how he feels. I found Felicidad’s character more difficult to write. I thought a lot about her and what made her the woman she became and that helped me to understand her and to empathize and love her.