The Running Themes in A Decent Woman

As a novelist, I often enjoy allowing the themes in my stories to develop organically. The themes of religion and spiritism, among others, run through A Decent Woman. My main protagonist, Ana Belén, an Afro-Cuban midwife born into slavery, was raised in the Yoruba tradition, which is not the same as voodoo or practicing black magic. Ana speaks to the spirits of her ancestors and to the orishas, the gods and goddesses of her Nigerian ancestors, as she prays the Catholic rosary and honors the Blessed Mother of God.

BOOK COVER SEPT 2014 (2) (1)Serafina, a devout Catholic and one of Ana’s midwifery clients, becomes her best friend later in life. Both women are baptized Catholics and although they share a great devotion to the Virgin Mary, Ana continues to practice the Yoruba tradition, so as to cover all bases in protecting herself and her clients, which was common.

I spent many years of my childhood in Puerto Rico–my religious and spiritual life was a mix of religion, spirituality, with a good dose of superstition thrown in for good measure. All through my childhood, I attended Catholic schools and went to Mass every week. As a teen, I visited a psychic after my first boyfriend died in a motorcycle accident, and I still pray the rosary in the car when I travel. I check my monthly horoscope, as well…perhaps like Ana, I’m still trying to cover all my bases.

An excerpt from A Decent Woman –

“One day I found the cowrie shells on my bed. I didn’t know who’d returned them or why. I hid the shells in my room and went to the kitchen to prepare the priest’s lunch. As I was serving the almuerzo, I heard yelling. I was given a few minutes to gather my belongings and was escorted off the property by the same young priest who’d found my things. I was accused of practicing witchcraft. He crossed himself, barely blessed me, and shut the rectory gate in my face.”

Serafina furrowed her brow and shook her head. “That’s so cruel. You were so young. What did you do?”

“I was young. Thankfully, it was early enough in the day for me to find a safe place to sleep before the sun went down. At first, I was confused; I had no idea the Church considered our Yoruba traditions black magic,” she said. “It is the religion of my ancestors.

“But, you do believe in God y la Virgen?” asked Serafina, watching her closely.

“Yes, of course. I believe in God, the Virgin Mary, and all the Saints. We slaves had different names for them. My Yoruba traditions are now mixed with Catholicism from so many years in Porto Rico, and I pray to them all,” said Ana. “You know, I still remember the church bells ringing the day I was thrown out. I crossed the church grounds and looked up at the sky, watching the clouds around the church steeple. The white steeple looked gray that day, and suddenly, hundreds of palomas flew around the tower. So many doves, I could barely see the sky. I followed them across the street to the park to figure out my next step, and one dove landed on the marble bench where I sat. I thought it was the Holy Spirit!”

“Maybe it was, Doña Ana! You never know!”

“I doubt it, child,” Ana grinned. “It was a sign of something, but I didn’t know what. I sat on that bench all day long, paralyzed with fear. And that’s where I slept, right in front of the church where surely God would protect me. The next day, I met Doña Milagro, who taught me everything I know about being a midwife.”

Another excerpt from A Decent Woman –

“You’re giving me your turn?” Emilia nodded. Ana made the sign of the cross before pushing aside the heavy, black velvet curtain. She sat in the chair closest to the entrance and looked around the medium’s reading room. The only source of light emanated from a single candle on the small table in front of her that also held an ashtray, a small stack of mismatched sheets of paper, a stump of a pencil, and a bowl of water. To the right, Ana saw a small bookcase stuffed full of old, dusty books with titles she couldn’t read without sufficient light. The room was probably crawling with spiders, she thought. She looked down, expecting to see a huge insect crawling up her leg, and then she stomped on the floor to deter any bugs.

“Hurry, Fela,” Ana said, smoothing her dress, and smelled the musty smell of cigar smoke. Behind Fela’s chair stood a two-tiered altar that held a multitude of religious statues, icons, candles, and vases. Most statues had white faces, some had black faces and hands, and most of them had either rosary beads or scapulars hanging from the necks. Ana couldn’t help but giggle at the statue with the over-sized pair of spectacles. Numerous vases of all sizes held freshly-cut lilies, wilted bunches of flowers, and stiff, dried flowers standing in stagnant water. The heavy scent of patchouli and frankincense reminded Ana of a church. But this church was of a different world—the world of spirits.”

Author Interview with Carlos Alemán

nuno_cover-Carlos Aleman

I’m honored to welcome to The Writing Life, the multi-talented, Carlos Alemán, author of NUNO. I was pleased to learn Carlos and I wrote epic tributes to one of our grandparents, and turned those tributes into novels. I think you’ll enjoy this interview as much as I did.

Carlos Alemán is a Cuban American writer, painter, illustrator, book cover designer, digital product artist/prototyper and web designer. An early e-book draft of this novel entitled As Happy As Ling, was a finalist in the 2012 International Latino Book Awards. In 2013, the release in paperback of Happy That It’s Not True was named one of the best novels of the year by the Latina Book Club. He is a judge in the 2014 National Association of Hispanic Publications’ José Martí Awards.  Carlos lives in Sunrise, Florida with his wife Jean.

Welcome, Carlos!

What is your book’s genre/category?

It could fall into the literary fiction or popular fiction categories.  Popular fiction may sound a lot less pretentious and appeal to more readers.  It would also belong in the historical fiction category since the story begins in 1945.    

Please describe what the story/book is about.

My novel, Nuno, which is about to be published, is the prequel to Happy That It’s Not True.  It begins in pre-revolution Cuba and follows the life of an army officer that falls in love with a woman who was once a childhood friend.  As the world changes and brings much adversity, the woman becomes the inspiration and hope that helps him to survive a dark adventure.

How did you come up with the title?

Nuno is the name of the main character.  When I first heard the name, there was something about it that I thought was unique and interesting.  When I researched the name I discovered that it was the name of a famous Portuguese general.  The mental association I made with the name now made it easier for me to describe the life of a military man.

What is the reason you wrote this book?

My grandfather, Francisco, was a political prisoner in Cuba.  As I researched his life and what he had to go through, I found lots of elements that I thought would work well in a novel.  The book started out as an epic tribute to my grandfather, in which I made him a type of larger than life figure.  Eventually, I thought the story fit nicely as the first book of a trilogy. 

What is your favorite part of writing?

I enjoy the actual process of writing once I have a vague idea of where the plot is going.  A lot of writers say that writing is pure torture and hard work.  I’ve never felt that way.  I love to write.  Perhaps the dark humor keeps me happy and in good spirits for the entire length of a project.

What is the most challenging aspect of writing?

The hardest part for me in completing a novel is not having worked out how the next several chapters will unfold.  If I can picture some kind of sequence of events, this helps build up momentum and I can almost feel the finish line.  I suppose it’s like driving through the fog and you can at least see a hundred feet in front of you.  When you can only see a few feet in front of you — that is the most challenging aspect of writing for me. 

Who are some of your favorite authors?

On the very top of my list are Haruki Murakami, Khaled Hosseini, Amy Tan, Carlos Ruiz Zafón, Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

In a separate list for poets: Pablo Neruda, Rumi, Tagore, Walt Whitman

What authors or person(s) have influenced you? 

There have been many people who have inspired and influenced me.  Some are polar opposites of each other, such as Carl Sagan and Billy Graham.  Others include Neil deGrasse Tyson, Thích Nhất Hạnh, Rob Bell, Eckhart Tolle, Pope Francis, the 14th Dalai Lama, Brian McLaren, Bono, Ramana Maharshi, Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and many others.

Favorite place to write?

When I write, I lose track of where I am, so it doesn’t really matter.  The quieter, the better.

Something personal about you people may be surprised to know?

As much as I share on social media, I’m not sure there would be anything about me that would be a surprise to know.  Those that follow my activities are aware of my love Chinese and Japanese art, my own attempts at drawing and painting, and my constant weight training and healthy living. 

Any surprises or learning experiences with the publishing process?

I’m fortunate to have a lot of control over my writing and I get to design my own book covers.  One of the advantages of having a small publisher is how much it feels like family.  I was expecting the publishing business to be strictly about acquiescing to commercial and practical realities, but since Aignos Publishing specializes in experimental literature, it’s been a very satisfying experience.

Looking back, what did you do right that helped you with this book?

My first two books took me about four years each to write.  There was a little bit of overlap as I polished them and made lots of changes.  My third book and the one I’m currently writing seem like short stories to me even though they’re full length novels.  I might be able to write one or two novels a year now, but I’m glad I took my time with my first two books.

Any advice for writers looking to get published?

Put the ego and emotions aside.  Expect years of rejection.  If you stay at it long enough, talent and opportunity will converge.  When the first novel gets rejected, start on the second.  To actually get published, submissions to literary agents may not be enough.  Try to get well connected and get to know as many people as you can that are writers or reviewers or in any way part of the literary world.


Where can we find your book?

Happy That It’s Not True is available on Amazon.  Nuno, and the final book of the trilogy, Diego in Two Places will be released soon and also available on Amazon.

What’s next for you?

I’m currently working on a coming of age story that takes place in the year 1980.  I’m also getting a series of paintings ready for an art exhibit in 2015.

Thanks for having me, Eleanor.

Thank you for a super interview, Carlos. Best of lDiego_in_2_places_cover- Carlos Alemanuck with your books.

Happy_TINT_cover Carlos Aleman