The Mess of Knots: Ponce, Patriarchy, and La Mujer Mala: An Interview with Eleanor Parker Sapia

The Mess of Knots: Ponce, Patriarchy, and La Mujer Mala: An Interview with Eleanor Parker Sapia

Ivelisse Rodriguez, PhD

Editor’s note: This interview is the sixth in a series that will focus on contemporary Puerto Rican authors. Puerto Rican-born Eleanor Parker Sapia is the author of the award-winning historical novel, A Decent Woman, published by Scarlet River Press. A Decent Woman was selected as a Book of the Month by Las Comadres and Friends National Latino Book Club in 2015, and Eleanor is featured in the anthology, Latina Authors and Their Muses, edited by Mayra Calvani. A writer, artist, and photographer, Eleanor currently lives in Berkeley County, West Virginia, where she is working on her second novel, The Laments of Forgotten Souls, set in 1927 Puerto Rico, and a collection of poems.


Ivelisse Rodriguez: Ponce, La Perla del Sur or La Ciudad Señorial, is considered the second city in Puerto Rico. In your novel, A Decent Woman, you note how Ponce used to be the capital of Puerto Rico; you detail the high-society life in Ponce and its mores. These particulars help bring the city to life. How does the city itself function as a character in your novel?

Eleanor Parker Sapia: Puerto Rico, a new possession of the United States in 1900 when the story opens, is very much a character in my novel—a woman lured into a relationship with the United States with hope and promises of safety, protection, food on the table, and a brighter future. The reality was that the US government had a business plan. They quickly devalued and began to replace the Porto Rican peso with the American dollar, taxes were raised, farmers were evicted from their lands, English was imposed as the co-official language, and new regulations were forced on the Puerto Ricans.

I was an exhibiting painter of still life and portraiture for nearly 30 years before I decided to write a novel. I’m told my first passion shows in descriptions and attention to small detail in my first published book—portraiture of place with words. In A Decent Woman, there are stark contrasts between Ana’s world of poverty, struggle, and racism as an illiterate, black midwife, and the world of the upper class and privilege that newly-widowed Serafina learns to maneuver after her second marriage. I chose to depict three barrios of that era, Playa de Ponce, San Antón, and el pueblo de Ponce, each with its distinct voice, mood, flavor, music, architecture, and history. As such, the actions and futures of my characters were limited by external forces, at times unbeknownst to them, and determined by the confines of the socio-economic condition of where they lived and worked. It was important that the setting/place of this book evolve as the women and society evolved, or lack thereof.

IR: The title of your book, A Decent Woman, immediately begs the question of what constitutes a decent woman, and, normally, this idea of decency is tied to the sexuality of women. In your novel, you mention throughout how prostitutes are treated in Ponce, how there are these systematic programs to exile them from “decent” society, how color and class are conflated with sexuality/prostitution, and how prostitutes are marked by the passbooks they have to carry, etc. This is the way Ponce treats prostitutes, but you have a different approach. Emilia and Maria, two prostitutes in your text, are humanized; they are women who laugh, who cry, who are mistreated, yet they are rendered as whole characters. What do these two characters help say about prostitution in Ponce?

EPS: The characters Emilia and Maria came to me in the rewrite and editing phases of the manuscript, and there was no doubt they would be fully-fleshed characters since I’ve previously worked as a counselor, refugee caseworker, and a Spanish-language family support worker. I have great sympathy for women of that era, who were played against each other in a patriarchal society.

Through further research, I was reminded of how intrinsically linked ‘la otra y la mujer mala’, the prostitute, were to women’s stories—as much a part of their stories as marriage and motherhood. It was important to include a more complete portrayal of society and the situations in which women found themselves—from begging in the streets to feed their children; to widowhood; playing the hostess at charity events and society balls; and to inviting politicians, clergy, and the men of ‘high society’ into their beds to make the rent and pay bills. Each woman sought to secure male protection and security, and hopefully, to keep a man from straying—that was the tapestry I attempted to weave, while discovering the mess of knots, changes of colored threads, and disarray on the underside as meaningful and beautiful as the finished product. Looking beyond the obvious—that’s what fascinates me about a character and a story.

Later, I was saddened to learn of the treatment of prostitutes in Ponce and later, about the forced sterilization of thousands of Puerto Rican women. That spoke loudly of the great hypocrisy in Ponce at that time: the myth of la sagrada familia, born of arrogance and racism, deceit and male dominance. The men who were wagging their fingers and agreeing with their wives about the dangers of prostitution were busy playing house with other women and fathering children out of wedlock. Their wives, the women of the upper class and early feminists, many of whom truly believed they were helping out their wayward sisters, were accomplices in two campaigns to rid Ponce of prostitutes, and in doing so, added to the desperation, poverty, and abuse of women of little means. The characters Emilia and Maria helped to tell that part of history.

IR: In your novel, male doctors advocate a shift toward modernity by having women give birth in hospitals, eclipsing the midwife and painting that practice as backwards. This limits Ana’s, the main character, work as a midwife. This is one way that “modern” medicine is used against women. For Emilia and Maria, their bodies are not their own in the medical world. When they are jailed, they are subjected to pelvic exams in front of others with instruments the women feel are not sanitized. And there are other moments where the medical treatment is even more invasive. How is medicine and so-called progress used against women’s bodies in Puerto Rico?

EPS: There were many issues and themes in the early days of so-called progress in Puerto Rico—colonialism, misogyny, population control, poverty, religion, male doctors invading the birthing room and pushing midwives out of business, and experiments performed on Puerto Rican women in the advancement of modern medicine, namely forced sterilization. Women were needed in the workforce to make money for American corporations, specifically the sugarcane industry. A good example is from the 1930s when clinics performing sterilization procedures were installed inside the factories, so the women wouldn’t lose time on the factory floor.

Men were in positions of authority and in control of the lives and bodies of women and of their children. Sadly, this is still the case in many parts of the world today.

Click on the picture for additional images

IR: In Adrienne Rich’s seminal article “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence,” she posits her idea about the lesbian continuum which focuses on any strong bond between women. One of them being friendship. Friendship is central to your novel, and it is the relationship that is sustained throughout the life of the two main characters, Ana and Serafina. Discuss the significance of friendship in your text.

EPS: In 1900 Puerto Rico, while emotional relationships and friendship between women were considered important, especially between women and their comadrona, only men were thought to provide real security with financial benefits as they controlled every aspect of women’s lives. Even childbirth with a midwife, which for centuries had been strictly a female-dominated experience, was in danger of extinction in the cities as hospitals and clinics were built and male doctors entered the birthing room. The strong bonds of friendship between women were constantly tested in a patriarchal society.

Ana would agree with Rich’s assertion that women can benefit more from relationships with other women than with men, as she’d suffered at the hands of one man at an early age, and though she is still struggling, she is a self-made woman. Ana, who is forty when the story opens, has little use for men for the first half of the book. The teenager Serafina has lost her mother, so they inevitably develop a strong mother-daughter bond, which is an easy, yet complicated relationship. All is well until Serafina gets caught up in her second husband’s world of privilege, where Ana has no place as a poor, black woman. Much later in the story, Serafina is a mother of four children and a woman of society. She will come to believe that she has outgrown Ana until tragedy strikes in Serafina’s life. Ana is the first person she contacts and their friendship resumes with lessons learned about loyalty and friendship.

IR: Can you tell us what you are working on next, and what your objectives are with your writing?

EPS: I’m currently working on my second book, The Laments, set in 1927 Old San Juan and on the islet of Isla de Cabras, where once stood a maritime quarantine station that was later used as a lazaretto for containing patients of many diseases, primarily leprosy. It is the story of a highly imaginative and naïve Puerto Rican novice nun, who impulsively volunteers to serve the lepers at Isla de Cabras under the protection and tutelage of a rotund, secretive Spanish friar, who moonlights as a rum runner. Into the mix will arrive a young American Protestant minister on a clandestine mission for the American government at a time when the Spanish were being forced to leave the island, and Catholicism and Protestantism were in hyper-competition for souls on Puerto Rico.

My goal in writing novels is to transport readers to exciting, new worlds and to introduce them to the complicated history, rich culture, and beautiful people of Puerto Rico. I hope my books and poetry will stimulate, provoke, expose, and challenge myself and others. Here are two of my writing mottos: ‘Write through the scary bits; that’s usually where the meat and the essence of the story are found’ and ‘This is what we want for ourselves as writers and as readers—we want to reach others and we want to be moved.’ I hope that comes across in my books.


Born in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, Ivelisse Rodriguez grew up in Holyoke, Massachusetts. She earned a B.A. in English from Columbia University, an M.F.A. in creative writing from Emerson College, and a Ph.D. in English-creative writing from the University of Illinois at Chicago. Her short story collection, Love War Stories, is forthcoming from The Feminist Press in summer 2018. The Belindas, a fiction chapbook, is forthcoming from Tammy in summer 2017. She is the senior fiction editor at Kweli, a Kimbilio fellow, and a VONA/Voices alum. She is currently working on the novel The Last Salsa Singer about 70s era salsa musicians in Puerto Rico. To learn more about Ivelisse visit: http://www.ivelisserodriguez.com.

© Ivelisse Rodriguez. Published by permission in Centro Voices 13 December 2017.
Advertisements

A Love Letter To Puerto Rico~

A Love Letter To Puerto Rico~Reblogged from Sahar Abdulaziz’ blog.
September 15, 2015

Interview with Author Eleanor Parker Sapia

Today, On Sahar’s Monday Morning Blog on Tuesday, I am very honored to have the especially talented and insightful author and artist, Eleanor Parker Sapia as my guest.

Eleanor: Thank you for having me, Sahar. It’s such a pleasure to be here with you today.

Sahar: Eleanor, where to begin! Can you share with me how and when did you begin writing? Did you intend to become an author, or do you have a specific reason or reasons for writing, A Decent Woman?

Eleanor: For more than twenty-five years, I was an exhibiting painter before discovering my passion for telling stories. Actually, I told stories as a kid, and yes, some were embellished! A trip, a vacation, the school cafeteria—I used experiences in my daily life to tell stories. My kids joke that if you ask me how my day was, get ready for a story; quirky and interesting always happen around me. I suppose I pay attention to my surroundings and the people in it. Human behavior fascinates me.

Looking back, I should have known I’d become an author, but outside of painting, keeping a journey for decades, and writing poetry I never showed anyone, I never dreamed I’d write and publish a book. My debut novel, A Decent Woman, began as a tribute to my grandmother for her ninetieth birth. I was amazed how much I knew about life in turn of the century Puerto Rico and about the lives of women in my hometown of Ponce, Puerto Rico.

My debut novel is a love letter to Puerto Rico, the island of my birth. I hoped to create and give voice to diverse characters, such as my protagonist, the Afro-Cuban midwife, Ana Belén, who was born into slavery. I wrote what I wanted to read, and I love reading books set in exotic locations with diverse characters. My friends didn’t know much about Puerto Rico and its’ rich history, so I wrote A Decent Woman.

Sahar: Tell us a little more about you . . . When you’re not writing, what else do you enjoy doing?

Eleanor: I’m a Puerto Rican-born, fifty-eight-year old mother of two adult children who are doing rewarding and exciting things in the world. I used to say I was a single mother, but my kids are now in their thirties—this is more accurate. They live and work in Northern Virginia and the Netherlands, and I miss them every day.

When I’m not writing, I’m thinking about my stories and characters—an occupational hazard for a writer! I love to garden, paint, swim, take walks in nature, play with my animals, and spend time with my children and family. I write at my dining room table with a view of my flower garden and at my river place with a view of the West Virginia side of the Potomac River, a setting that always clears my mind and inspires me. Travel is high on my list, as well. My passport is always up-to-date.

Sahar: Do you write every single day, and do you have any particular writing rituals?

Eleanor: During autumn and winter, I write every day, whether it’s my work in progress, articles, or blog posts. In spring, and especially during the summer months, I take the weekends off to enjoy travel and my river place, which I love to share with family and friends.

My ritual before beginning a new book is to compile a relevant, inspirational musical playlist. I add and delete songs as I write, and the songs must be strictly instrumental or with lyrics in a language I don’t speak, so I’m not distracted by words. I don’t wear lucky writing socks, but I do enjoy writing in pajamas or comfy, draw-string pants.

Sahar: I know you love to travel, so where is the one place you would want to visit that you haven’t been before?

Eleanor: Yes, that’s right. I’d love to visit India. Many of my favorite authors are from India, and I’d love to experience the sights, smells, and sounds I’ve enjoyed through their books. India is a fascinating, complex country with a rich history. I could eat Indian cuisine every day, and I’m learning to prepare many of my favorite Indian dishes.

Sahar: Your book, A Decent Woman, what genre does it fall under?

Eleanor: Historical and literary fiction.

Sahar: Your novel, A Decent Woman, it is set in the turbulent 1900s—two years after the United States invasion on the shores of Guánica, Puerto Rico. What made you select this particular time setting and place to tell your story?

Eleanor: Since the character Serafina is loosely based on my maternal grandparents’ stories, I knew the story would be set in early 1900 Puerto Rico, their birthplace and mine. The specific timeframe, timeline, and characters of the story evolved as I refined my research, and when my characters spoke and pointed me in new directions, I rewrote the story.

I was interested in how the Puerto Ricans who remained on the island dealt with the changes of American colonial rule after being a Spanish colony for so long, and what the challenges women faced during that time might be.

Sahar: Your book speaks about the need for social change, the struggles against misogyny, and chauvinism, and the journey to find dignity. How do you think this story relates to the struggles experienced by women still today? How is it different?

Eleanor: In many parts of the world today, including the United States, women live in male-dominated societies, where they still struggle against abuse, misogyny, and chauvinism on a daily basis. Through my research, I discovered that women of the past were no different from you and me—we deal with the same issues in our love relationships, our families, in the workplace, and with our children. Most American women today have modern conveniences and more opportunities in life, but behind some closed doors, the same struggles exist and incidents of abuse are still present. For women, the journey of finding dignity in a complex and fast-faced, challenging world is at times, a daily challenge, even today.

I didn’t set about to write, as my novel has been called, “a feminist novel”. It evolved. I believe when we know or discover a truth, we shouldn’t hide behind it or ignore it. Truth is a gift. And if we deny a truth, it will most certainly revisit us again until we acknowledge it. The abuses Puerto Rican women, black and white, rich and poor, suffered and endured by society and men were glaringly obvious to me—I couldn’t turn my back. These women needed a voice.

Sahar: How important are names to you in your book? Do you choose the names based on liking the way it sounds or for the meaning?

Eleanor: The names of my characters in A Decent Woman and The Island of Goats are names that were prevalent and popular in turn of the century Puerto Rico, which I found in census reports of the era, and many names I’ve used are those of family members. Using their names or nicknames links my family to my book forever, which I find very special.

Sahar: Your book cover is very poignant. Can you tell us a little about it?

Eleanor: Thank you. After several attempts and false starts of using images found online, I decided to take my own photograph so as to eliminate the copyright and legalities of using those images. The image on my book cover is that of a wood statue I own of the Virgin Mary of Montserrat, a black Madonna. I purchased the statue in Lourdes, France, during one of my volunteer weeks in the Catholic sanctuary of Lourdes, where I worked as a piscine lady (bath maiden) for over thirteen years. The statue is precious to me. I’d walked by that statue for over ten years before discovering the Madonna’s connection to my character Ana, who was devoted to the Virgin Mary and to the Yoruba religion goddess, Yemaya, the goddess of maternity and the sea.

Sahar: What book or books have had a strong influence on you or your writing?

Eleanor: Books on writing by Julia Cameron, Stephen King, and Natalie Goldberg have influenced my writing over the years, as well as the writing website by award-winning authors, Jack Remick and Robert Ray, which has become my writing Bible. I highly recommend the website to writers—it’s like taking writing classes from two Master storytellers.

The books that have influenced and inspired me are many! The Awakening-Kate Chopin, Gabriela and the Widow-Jack Remick, The Poisonwood Bible-Barbara Kingsolver, Sister of My Heart-Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Anna Karenina-Leo Tolstoy, Girl with a Pearl Earring-Tracy Chevalier, Stones From the River-Ursula Hegi, and Pride and Prejudice-Jane Austen.

Sahar: Eleanor, what are you working on right now? What is your next project?

Eleanor: I am currently writing my second book, The Island of Goats, set in turn of the century Puerto Rico, southern Spain, and the south of France. The sequel to A Decent Woman called Mistress of Coffee comes next, along with the Spanish-language translation of A Decent Woman, which I’m keen to begin.

Thanks again for inviting me to visit with you, Sahar. It’s been a real pleasure. I wish you blessings and happy writing. Eleanor

About Eleanor Parker Sapia

Puerto Rican-born novelist, Eleanor Parker Sapia, was raised in the United States, Puerto Rico, and Europe. Eleanor’s careers as an artist, counselor, alternative health practitioner, Spanish language social worker and a refugee case worker inspire her stories. She is a member of Las Comadres Para Las Americas, PEN America, and the Historical Novel Society. When Eleanor is not writing, she facilitates creativity groups, reads, and tells herself she is making plans to walk El Camino de Santiago de Compostela a second time.

A Decent Woman is Eleanor’s debut novel, set in turn of the nineteenth century Puerto Rico. The book was selected as 2015 July Book of the Month for Las Comadres & Friends Latino Book Club. Eleanor is the mother of two adult children and currently lives in West Virginia, where she is happily writing her second novel, The Island of Goats.

Website [s]: http://www.eleanorparkersapia.com

Blog: http://www.thewritinglifeeparker.wordpress.com

Facebook Author Page: http://www.facebook.com/eleanorparkersapia

Twitter: @eleanorparkerwv

Sahar: Where can we purchase your book[s]?

Eleanor: A Decent Woman is available for Kindle and in paperback on Amazon.

amazon.com/-/e/B00U05ZO9M

Barnes & Noble for Nook and in paperback.

http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/a-decent-woman-eleanor-parker-sapia/1121258236?ean=9781620154007

La Casa Azul Bookstore    143 E. 103rd Street      New York, NY 10029      (212) 426-2626     info.lacasaazul@gmail.com

Wishing you the very best, Eleanor Parker Sapia with all you set out to do, and a BIG Thank You for visiting! Your work is an inspiration. ~ Sahar

Sahar book cover

Sometimes a visit to crazy town is necessary.

Earlier this week, nearly twenty days after my debut historical novel, A Decent Woman was published, I set about creating a to-do list that included, answering emails, writing articles for ezines, replying to author interview questions, and trying to keep up on social media sites I’m part of. The list of what I needed to accomplish post-publication seemed overwhelming, and I didn’t expect to feel new, strange emotions–I was a bit disoriented, and felt flustered and overwhelmed. The book I’d worked on for five years was no longer in my hands–it was in readers’ hands. All I could do was stand on the sidelines and watch my protagonists, Ana and Serafina, take over–it’s their story. At this point, my book, the story, must stand alone. I just happened to write it. But, of course, I got in my own way.

When A Decent Woman first came out, I was overwhelmed with feelings of pride and joy, much like a parent when their firstborn goes off to school. I was grateful to Booktrope Publishing for taking a chance on an historical novel about an Afro-Cuban midwife, who lives and works in Puerto Rico, and thankful to my publishing team, who were a dream to work with on this project. I was thrilled and grateful when readers left wonderful comments and reviews. I was humbled and felt dizzy. Much like my experiences when my adult kids left the nest, who are doing wonderful things in the world, by the way, I knew post-publication that it was time to get a life.

I realized I had to write another book, but how? I couldn’t concentrate, and in the first ten days, I obsessively checked Amazon, looking for new reviews so I could thank the kind reader (if I knew them). Checking my rankings on Amazon was a daily ritual, which I didn’t know how to do until my marketing guru, Anne told me where to look. Then, I realized being a best selling author is an hourly thing, and I soon gave that up. I now look weekly and hope that stops. During the first ten days, I found it difficult to have ‘normal’ conversations, and discovered it was extremely difficult not to mention my debut novel to the mailman, the guy at the post office as I mailed out copies of my book, and to the guy behind the deli counter, who loves historical fiction. I went a bit nutty reminding my very kind and tolerant family members and friends not to forget to post an honest review for A Decent Woman on Amazon. Sheesh.

I was sick of me, and this isn’t me. Although I know how important social media is, and how very important reviews are to an author, I lived alone for five years, writing and rewriting a story that  loved. In the pre-publication days when I was writing, I wouldn’t speak to a soul for days on end, save for a quick phone call, emails and texts to family and friends to catch up and let them know I was alive. I did talk with my cat and my Chihuahua, Sophie, who as it turns out, is an extremely good listener if you don’t mind her licking your face. I knew how to do all that. I just didn’t know how to be humble and a social animal, when all I wanted to do was write more books. Life is all about balance, and I wasn’t feeling particularly balanced right after publication.

So, I wrote an email to my friend and writing mentor to many writers, including myself, the master storyteller, Jack Remick. Sensing that I was experiencing, as he calls it, “Firstitis”, he kindly wrote back with a diagnosis that was spot on. He gave me the definition of this curable illness and the cure–get back to writing. Immediately. He was absolutely right. It was sage and timely advice from an incredibly talented writer and a composed, generous man to a discombobulated, but well meaning, new author.

Thank you, Jack. The craziness has diminished. I’m getting down to the business at hand–writing my second book–and I’m at peace. I should have written sooner, but I learned valuable lessons, and I’ve always learned the hard way.

Ana Belén, you are on your own, my love. I’m onto The Island of Goats, my second historical novel set in 1920 Puerto Rico and Spain. I’m getting to know my characters, Alta Gracia and India Meath, and accessing my experiences on the medieval route of El Camino de Santiago de Compostela, The Way of St. James, in Spain, which I walked with my then-teenage children.

But, I’ll see Ana and Serafina again when I get to writing the sequel to A Decent Woman called Mistress of Coffee.

Sometimes, you must visit crazy town to find peace and sanity again.

About Eleanor

Puerto Rican-born novelist, Eleanor Parker Sapia, was raised in the United States, Puerto Rico, and Europe. Eleanor’s life experiences as a counselor, alternative health practitioner, a Spanish language social worker, and a refugee case worker inspire her stories. When Eleanor is not writing, she facilitates creativity groups, and is making plans to walk El Camino de Santiago de Compostela a second time.

A Decent Woman is her debut historical novel. Eleanor is the mother of two adult children, and she currently lives in West Virginia.

A DECENT WOMAN available now on Amazon 

Ponce, Puerto Rico, at the turn of the century: Ana Belén Opaku, an Afro-Cuban born into slavery, is a proud midwife with a tempestuous past. After testifying at an infanticide trial, Ana is forced to reveal a dark secret from her past, but continues to hide an even more sinister one. Pitted against the parish priest, Padre Vicénte, and young Doctór Héctor Rivera, Ana must battle to preserve her twenty-five year career as the only midwife in La Playa.

Serafina is a respectable young widow with two small children, who marries an older wealthy merchant from a distinguished family. A crime against Serafina during her last pregnancy forever bonds her to Ana in an ill-conceived plan to avoid a scandal and preserve Serafina’s honor.

Set against the combustive backdrop of a chauvinistic society, where women are treated as possessions, A Decent Woman is the provocative story of these two women as they battle for their dignity and for love against the pain of betrayal and social change.

amazon.com/-/e/B00U05ZO9M