On Stimulus Checks, Crepe Pans, and 1918 Influenza Diaries

April 15, 2020

cooked crepe
Photo by Hakim Santoso on Pexels.com

Good morning, I hope you and yours are well.

Although I wish it were warmer than a brisk 42 degrees this morning, the sun is shining. The lilac bushes are in full bloom and the vegetable and herb seedlings in my living room are standing strong like little toy soldiers. Next week’s weather forecasts promise temperatures in the mid-to-high 60s. I’m anxious to plant the seedlings in the garden plot and in the three-tier wooden planter I ordered from Lowe’s, but surprise snowfalls are common in my neck of the woods until Mother’s Day. So, I’ll enjoy the lilacs, peonies, grape hyacinths, and daffodils in my flower gardens while I wait for consistent, good weather. I will also continue searching for the cortisone cream to relieve my annual bout of poison ivy. Fun.

Other than making online donations, I wish I could adequately express my thanks and gratefulness to the brave souls on the front line of this pandemic, all heroes. We, the American people, can never thank them enough for keeping us safe and healthy, fed and sane. If I ran the world, I’d pay each front line worker crazy amounts of hazard pay and pay them retroactively until we are safely out of the woods. I shudder to think where we would be without them. My local heroes are the trash collectors, the Fed Ex and UPS drivers, and my postal carriers. The best thank you at this time is for us to stay home and practice safe distancing if we can. I will continue to stay home.

Despite reading about a Harvard study that predicts we could be dealing with periods of quarantine until 2022, which seems both unbelievable and totally believable, I felt tentatively hopeful this morning. I can’t think that far into the future; my brain won’t allow it. It’s a day-to-day, new normal type of struggle for me. Although my routine often feels out of whack and forced, the early days of fear and despair, of feeling numb and experiencing immense sadness over the suffering around the world, and missing my children, are thankfully fewer and not as acute. But when I feel happy, I immediately feel guilty for being happy. Welcome to the new world.

I suppose it’s true we play head games with ourselves to get through traumatic situations, and maybe ‘faking it ’til you make it’ can help. On days when I don’t feel particularly happy (blessed, always), I acknowledge my feelings, write my Morning Pages or a blog post, work on my WIP, and I start a project, any project. Yesterday I cleaned out my medicine chest and bathroom cabinets. Tomorrow I might tackle the under the kitchen sink nightmare…yuck.

Some days (particularly on rainy, gray days), it’s more difficult to reach inside and pull out happy thoughts and memories, but I try. Thoughts of my children, family vacations of the past, and videos of frolicking baby goats really help. Whatever floats your boat, right? Oh, and food videos. They always do the trick.

And speaking of food, my crêpe pan and beechwood crêpe spreaders arrived yesterday! I’m off to check out recipes for sweet crepes and savory galettes. On Sunday, I watched beautiful Salma Hayek’s fun video for making no-bake chocolate bites with nuts (she is one of two celebrities I follow on Instagram). I found a bag of semi-sweet chocolate chips and a bag of hazelnuts from Christmas pre-COVID in my pantry and done. They taste amazing and perfectly satisfy my major chocolate cravings.

Well, I have yet to receive my stimulus check. We shall see. This morning I learned about Trump and his insane pulling of funding for the World Health Organization (WHO) during a global pandemic. I can’t stand it. It’s pure insanity. I’m super grateful I don’t live in the states whose Governors refuse to put a state-wide, stay-at-home order in place. What the hell is the Governor of  South Dakota thinking? The depth of ignorance, short-sightedness, and stupidity in some people is mind-boggling. What doesn’t she understand? Doesn’t she care about her constituents? Okay, I’m not going there today. Not today, Satan, stand six feet back.

Be well.

Eleanor x

***

April 16, 2020

mona lisa with face mask
Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

I’ve been a history buff as long as I can remember. As a kid, I read the encyclopedia for fun, so it should come as no surprise I write historical fiction novels and I love doing research. Before I began to write full-time, I was an exhibiting painter. My passion was rendering realistic portraits in pastel and watercolor (an unforgiving medium for portrait painting; actually, any painting). Clearly, I don’t do things the easy way, but I am tenacious.

In late February 2020, my son, who lives and works in Bangkok, urged me to pay full attention to worrying news out of mainland China. I listened and began preparing myself and my pantry for an epidemic. My blood pressure went up, but I prepared nonetheless. Remember the classic book “Who Moved My Cheese?” by Dr. Spencer Johnson? It’s a wise little story about the two mice named Hem and Haw, who are faced with a disappearing cheese supply. Well, I remembered it and recognized COVID-19 had moved the damn cheese in a dramatic way like only a global pandemic can. I became the curious, forward-thinking Haw, who paid attention, didn’t hesitate, and acted. I embraced (maybe accepted is more accurate here) and began thinking of ways to deal with the coming changes in emotional and physical ways. I recognized that adapting would be crucial to successfully get through the coming pandemic in one piece. It wasn’t always a pretty sight, but I didn’t hesitate to do what I thought might be the next helpful step.

Now…as the number of people in this country and around the world who died from this virus rose, did my new mindset help? No, not every day. Some days were/are harder than others, and each day is a new day for me, my community, this country, and the world. Let’s be clear, COVID-19 has caused MAJOR CHANGE and upheaval in our lives; it’s not as simple as a change of routine or mindset. This time in our history requires herculean efforts on our part to get by; it’s damn hard. We didn’t choose for any of this to happen and it’s more than okay to admit we are struggling. Yeah, I might clean out a closet or two, work on my work in progress, arrange lilac branches in an antique vase, and bake an ugly loaf of bread, but I’m struggling, too.

When the World Health Organization officially called the novel coronavirus outbreak a pandemic, I began thinking about keeping a pandemic diary for posterity’s sake and started searching online for diaries from the past, specifically, diaries from the 1918 Influenza, the Spanish Flu. These days, my favorite past time is reading pandemic diaries as primary source in novel writing. Remember, I read encyclopedias for fun, so bear with me.

If you’re interested, check out the fascinating article in Smithsonian Magazine by Meilan Solly, published on April 13, 2020, “What We Can Learn From the 1918 Influenza Diaries”.

Two excerpts from the article, “History may often appear to our students as something that happens to other people,” writes Civil War historian and high school educator Kevin M. Levine on his blog, “but the present moment offers a unique opportunity for them to create their own historical record.”

“Nancy Bristow, author of American Pandemic: The Lost Worlds of The 1918 Influenza Epidemic, advises writers to include specific details that demonstrate how “they fit into the world and … the pandemic itself.”

We writers, specifically writers of historical fiction, use everything we can get our hands on while researching for our novels: diaries, historical photographs, memoirs, letters, journals, government documents, newspaper clippings, vintage magazine articles, and merchandise catalogs. A few years ago, I wrote a blog post about using drone camera videos on YouTube of Old San Juan and Isla de Cabras, the settings of my work-in-progress (WIP), THE LAMENTS. They are all primary sources and useful tools for a writer’s research arsenal.

My WIP benefited greatly from deep and extensive research, and from articles like the one written by Meilan Solly, all fantastic resources. As an added awesome benefit, pandemic diaries remind us that people, our ancestors, remind you and me, that they lived through the 1918 pandemic in quarantine with lost jobs, illness, disease, depression, limited food sources, death, losing loved ones, and they survived. I don’t know about you, but that gives me tremendous hope and strength today.

This too shall pass. I will see my children as humanly and medically-safe as possible.

Thank you for your visit. My blog post stats show many of you are reading my posts, which I appreciate. Please feel free to leave a comment. I read and reply to all comments.

Be well, stay safe.

Eleanor x

Me in March 2020

ABOUT ELEANOR:

Puerto Rican-born Eleanor Parker Sapia is the author of the multi-award-winning, debut novel, A DECENT WOMAN, set in 1900 Puerto Rico, published by Winter Goose Publishing. Eleanor is featured in the anthology, Latina Authors and Their Muses. She currently lives in Berkeley County, West Virginia, where she is in quarantine, working on her second novel, THE LAMENTS, set in 1927 Puerto Rico.

 

 

 

 

ON WRITING: CULTURAL HERITAGE AND DIVERSE AUTHORS

ON WRITING: CULTURAL HERITAGE AND DIVERSE AUTHORS

by Eleanor Parker Sapia

Tell me where you were born, where you’ve lived and about your travels, and most probably, I’ll intuit a bit about you. Of course, I don’t know specific details about your life, your favorite color or song, or everything about your culture, but I’ll feel a kinship with you.

Now if you tell me you are bi-cultural, a third culture kid like me or you love to travel, and you’re a writer, from my experience there will be a whole lot of nodding and smiling between us after we meet. And I’ll have a million questions for you; it’s natural to gravitate towards people with similar life experiences and sensitivities.

“Third culture kids are people raised in a culture other than their parents’ or the culture of the country named on their passport for a significant part of their early development years. They are often exposed to a greater variety of cultural influences.” Wikipedia

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Luckily for me, I’m still curious and love learning about different cultures, languages, and traditions. I’m a bona fide sponge (I’m learning Latin phases for my second book and my second tattoo). I adore ancient history and research (vital for a writer of historical fiction); I love meeting new people; and I still travel, which is a huge blessing. My children live in the Washington, DC area and in Thailand (where I hope to visit for the first time this fall), and I have many good friends around the world I’d love to visit with again. Among many things that can enrich a writer’s writing “kit”, travel and experiencing life abroad, whether in person or through books, are right up there in my humble opinion.

As an Army brat, a bi-cultural and bilingual (Spanish) kid, my childhood was spent in the United States, Puerto Rico (my love, my birthplace), and in many capitals of Europe. My father is of Polish and Russian ancestry and my mother, born and raised in Ponce, Puerto Rico, was of French, Catalonian, Canarian, and Italian ancestry. I married an Army officer and enjoyed posts in the US and in Europe with many summer vacations spent in Puerto Rico with our children, and after enjoying 13 years living in Belgium and France, I returned to the US in 2006 with my children. I continued to travel throughout Europe and returned to Puerto Rico to visit friends and family each summer. In 2010, I made a solitary move to Berkeley County, West Virginia (nearly a foreign country to me at first and I’ve been happy here), where I’d hoped to write full-time. I am happy to report I’m still writing full-time in 2019, which is not without sacrifices and many challenges, believe me. I make it work because I can’t imagine not living a creative life.

At times, I think I’ve lived the life of five or six people. But, oh the places I’ve been and the people I’ve met through travel, reading, and writing!

If you were to ask me about my favorite authors and books, I would say I love reading novels primarily written by diverse authors with diverse characters in their homeland settings, and authors whose novels are flavored by their experiences of having lived in or of traveling abroad. Makes sense, doesn’t it? To me, the language is rich, lyrical, familiar, and there’s nothing like being an armchair traveler while I save up for that next trip.

Happy Spring to you!

Eleanor x

Book Release Day!

It’s Book Release Day for A DECENT WOMAN!

Available Now on Amazon in ebook and paperback.

https://amzn.to/2TMjop9

_Deep with delicious detail, scrumptious characters, and full of folklore, this is a unique debut novel._ - Jack Remick, writer (1)

Cover Reveal: A DECENT WOMAN

I’m thrilled to share the new cover of A DECENT WOMAN!

A Decent Woman Flat (1)

The story of midwife Ana Belén, her lifelong friend Serafina Martínez, and the women of turn of the century Ponce, Puerto Rico, is coming soon in paperback and e-book, republished by Winter Goose Publishing.

la jungla beach

I searched high and low for an image that reminded me of Ana, the heroine. To me, the image is not only how I envision Ana in her white tignon; it also expresses the mystery, loneliness, tenderness, sensuality, strength, courage, and mysticism that is Ana.

la receta y cosas de la botanica

I was grateful for the opportunity to reread my debut novel, which, of course, encouraged me to rewrite several chapters in the book. Encouraged? Who am I kidding? I can’t read anything without editing it.

As a special surprise, the new book will feature a wedding–a request from a kind reviewer. Thank you for the lovely idea!

I look forward to seeing A Decent Woman back in reader’s hands very soon, where it belongs.

Thank you, readers!

Eleanor

 

 

 

 

 

 

Writing Historical Fiction to Reach/Teach New Audiences: Puerto Rican Authors Panel

 

Read more about Writing Historical Fiction to Reach/Teach New Audiences: Puerto Rican Authors Panel

Thu, Oct 11 6:00pm8:00pm

Free Admission

Location

Faculty Dining Room, 8th Floor, West Building
, 8th Floor, West Building
Main Campus (68th St.)
695 Park Ave.
New York, NY 10065 United States 
+ Google Map
DescriptionTwo authors speak about their books using historical fiction to relate the female narrative in 19th Century Puerto Rico. Dr. Virginia Sanchez-Korrol’s newest book “The Season of Rebels and Roses” is a historical novel for teens which follows women’s involvement in the nineteenth-century independence movements to free Puerto Rico and Cuba from Spain. Eleanor Parker Sapia’s first novel“A Decent Woman,” a 2016 & 2017 International Latino Book Award winner, is set against the combustive backdrop of 19th century Ponce, Puerto Rico. The book explores the battle of two women from different backgrounds who defend their dignity against the pain of betrayal in a male-dominated society resistant to change.

Panel: Virginia Sanchez-Korrol and Eleanor Parker Sapia

Moderator: Vanessa Pérez-Rosario, Brooklyn College, CUNY

Faculty Dining Room, 8th Floor, West Building, Hunter College, 68th and Lexington Avenue, NYC 10065

RSVP: centropr.nationbuilder.com/PRAuthors

Audience
Open to Everyone
Contact
Center for Puerto Rican Studies (Centro)
212-396-6545
ls1384@hunter.cuny.edu

Thoughts on Writing Novels in the Trump Era

In the summer of 2015, after the publication of my debut novel, A Decent Woman, a comment on a writing blog got my attention. It encouraged writers to focus on writing and marketing their books and refrain from sharing strong opinions and political views on social media platforms. The reasoning? So as to not alienate readers and potential readers; in essence, to limit their opinions and dialogue to discussions with friends and family. Good to know, I thought. The advice made sense to me at the time–nothing can turn a lovely dinner party into a school food fight quicker than heated debates about religion, politics, or other family members–but what about that business of writers potentially courting disaster with future book sales and alienating readers by speaking out on public forums? Was there any truth to that? I tucked that nugget away.

I kept my focus on learning the ropes of marketing a book. Little did I know marketing my novel would turn into an intense year of written interviews, podcast interviews, writing blog posts, participating in book fairs, and encouraging readers to post book reviews on Amazon, Goodreads, and Barnes & Noble. That same year, I set up an author page on Facebook, opened a Goodreads author page and set up a Twitter account–lots of moving parts in addition to keeping up with a writing blog, interviewing fellow authors, and paying attention to my author website! And of course, I was thinking about writing a second book. A brief text exchange with my friend Wayne sparked an idea and I ran with it.

In early 2016, I began the preliminary research for my second book, as yet untitled. On June 16, 2016, Donald Trump officially announced his plan to seek the presidency. I started writing The Laments of Sister Maria Immaculada, now titled, The Laments of Forgotten Souls. From June to November October 2016, I watched the presidential campaign/sideshow on my laptop (I haven’t had cable TV since 2011). I kept writing and diligently researching the lives of nuns in 1927 Puerto Rico, the history of Old San Juan, and the little known (to me) islet of Isla de Cabras, five miles off the coast of Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, where the ruins of a Spanish-built leprosarium remain. I kept writing and became increasingly distracted by politics. How could anyone possibly avoid it? I began to think about a writing retreat, away from home where I was buying the Washington Post on a daily basis and New York Times, when I could find a copy in my adopted West Virginia town.

In January 2017, I licked my wounds along with millions of Americans and participated in the now-historic Women’s March in Washington, DC. The political attacks and distractions from the White House began immediately and were unrelenting. I kept up with Rachel Maddow’s informative and timely blog posts for political analysis and information and watched MSNBC videos on Youtube. I learned a lot from Maddow, and for the first time in my life, I knew the names of all the key players in Washington, DC and their positions. I was paying attention. It also occurred to me how much my antagonist reminded me of Trump. A light bulb moment. What a strange and interesting twist. I zoomed in on Trump’s behavior and mannerisms, the way he speaks, and what his base sees in him.

I kept up with Twitter, Facebook, and I wrote a blog post about my experience at the Women’s March, always thinking about the advice to writers I’d read the year before: keep your opinions off social media. But how? I mused that might have been a popular opinion before the last Presidential election campaign. Before Trump became President. Before the march in Charlottesville. Before the brutal attacks on the protestors of the Dakota Access Pipeline. Before Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, the island of my birth, and Trump callously threw paper towel rolls at Puerto Ricans in Puerto Rico after the hurricane. Before 20 shootings took place on American school campuses. Before Trump brought us to the brink of nuclear war by antagonizing Kim Jong-un. Before Trump ordered the barbaric directive to separate children from their asylum-seeking parents at US borders. Before our planet was threatened by Trump directives and decisions. Before, before, before. I’ve left out dozens and dozens of events, I know. My apologies, this is what immediately comes to mind as I write this blog post. Fill in the blanks, please.

The attacks from the Trump White House seemed endless, unrelenting, and more cruel with each passing day. Then I remembered–our country, Americans, have suffered and endured cruel directives that go back to the founding fathers. Our history is full of racism, white privilege, misogyny, bad decisions, and crazy makers. Had we learned anything? Apparently not. I was reminded of the old French saying, “The more things changes, the more they stay the same.” But I was changing–as a woman, as a proud Puerto Rican, and as an American who’d lived overseas for over 25 years. As a novelist, I was wide awake. History was repeating itself before my very eyes and I was outraged.

You see, before January 2017, I’d never marched in protest, never held a placard, and had never called my elected officials. I had voted, of course, and in my previous jobs as a refugee caseworker, Spanish language Family Support Worker, and as a counselor working in Brussels, Belgium, I’d worked with and tried my best to assist and support those less fortunate in my community. To walk hand in hand with those who were hurting and needed help—that came easily to me. I was a mom. But to be a vocal activist? To be outraged and shocked enough to say what I felt in a public forum, on social media? That didn’t come easy. I was raised to be polite, fair, and to be diplomatic, whenever possible. But I found it increasingly difficult to remain silent. I kept writing and in my continuing research, I kept digging deeper into the dark corners of religion, faith, and humanity. World events were certainly changing my work in progress. How could the story not be affected? How could I remain unchanged? As I saw it, it was imperative to remain informed, but to also strike a balance–I needed to turn away from the news in the evening and force myself to remain in my writing chair. I was losing discipline and valuable time, but with each new event in the US and abroad, I gleaned valuable research material. I felt like a literary vampire.

What I came to understand was that in many ways, art and the making of art and literature is a political act.

Among the early reviews of my first published novel, A Decent Woman, two respected writer friends called my first novel a political statement, a feminist novel. After my initial surprise and feeling so grateful for their generous book reviews, I realized the two men were absolutely correct. In the early stages of writing A Decent Woman, (and in my newbie writing mind), I’d simply set about to tell a story about the lives of women in 1900 Puerto Rico. Then I remembered. Just before the manuscript went in for the final edits, I came across documents and a book about the rounding up of prostitutes in Ponce, Puerto Rico (the setting of the novel) and about the forced sterilization of thousands of Puerto Rican women by the US government. The book had to change. I had to change. It was necessary to grow a thicker skin in the public arena and speak my truths, instead of opting to remain in the shallow end of the pool. So I wrote that book.

Interestingly enough, the same thing is happening with my second book, The Laments of Forgotten Souls, which explores faith, religion, and the Catholic Church in 1927 Puerto Rico, with all its’ ugliness and scandals, community works and good intentions. Once again, I’ve had to dig deep, record history, and speak my truths as I discover them in my research and from my memory. I’m still reading several online newspapers and calling my elected officials. I buy newspapers and still watch Rachel Maddow during the day. I write at night like I always did, with less fear than before. The balancing act of being ‘woke’ and finishing this book is easier these days; I’m not as reactive to the news. I use it all.

In the telling of a story, writers stand, exposed and raw, for all to see. So be it.

Will President Trump and this White House stop the unrelenting attacks on Americans, on the poor and the marginalized, on our democracy? Will Trump be impeached? All that remains to be seen. We have no choice but to soldier on, persist, and resist when the need arises. And as writers, we must keep writing. Lord knows there’s a plethora of material out there for novelists these days.

ABOUT ELEANOR PARKER SAPIA:

ellie

Puerto Rican-born Eleanor Parker Sapia is the author of the award-winning novel, A Decent Woman, published by Scarlet River Press. Her debut novel, set in turn of the century Ponce, Puerto Rico, garnered Second Place for Best Latino Focused Fiction Book, English, at the 2017 International Latino Book Award with Latino Literacy Now. The book was awarded an Honorable Mention for Best Historical Fiction, English, at the 2016 International Latino Book Awards with Latino Literacy Now. 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.

 

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.