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Connecting Latinas All Over the World through Literature

Author Interview: Lorraine Lopez

Lorraine Lopez, AuthorInterview with Lorraine Lopez, contributing author of Count On Me: Tales of Sisterhoods and Fierce Friendships.

All Count On Me author interviews were done by Oné Musel-Gilley of SocialZip.com as a volunteer. All of us at Las Comadres Para Las Americas are very grateful to her for this treasure trove of work. ¡Gracias!

 

How did you meet Nora Comstock? How you were first introduced to Las Comadres? 

My book, The Gifted Gabaldon Sisters, came out about 4-5 years ago. At the time, it was selected as a Las Comadres/Borders pick. That’s how I first became aware of Las Comadres. The same thing happened when my second novel came out – The Realm of Hungry Spirits – so I was interviewed on the air by Las Comadres. They publicized the book, and it was just a wonderful, wonderful opportunity for me. Since then, I’ve learned about the organization and have been wholly impressed. I especially admire how after Borders went under, the organization found a way to continue without that support.

 

Do you have any favorite pieces in the Count On Me anthology?

I love Carolina de Robertis’ piece, which I read again this morning – very moving piece, just…very powerful. Also, I admire Esmeralda Santiago’s piece and the one by Stephanie Elizondo-Griest, who is a contributor for one collection of ours, another anthology. So I’m aware of her work and I’ve read her books and I loved her piece. I love the humor in it, the wit.

 

Overall – how would you describe the book?

I think the book is really wonderful. It’s a touching and moving collected work by many of the authors that I admire. So…I love it. If I were not in it I would read it, and I would buy it and I would give it to friends. In fact, as soon as it comes out I have list of people I want to send it to.

 

Is there a character in the book that you most identify with?

That’s hard to say. I think there’re bits and pieces. I think because Carolina’s piece is so fresh in my mind – I would have to say that impetus to finish a book for someone. That resonates with me. I’ve never done that, but I can see the feeling behind that, I can really empathize strongly with that; that desire, that motivation.

It covers that ambivalence and that desire to have that friend back to finish her own work and not to be charged with this very, very difficult task of trying to understand of how she would have done it if she were alive. I identified strongly with that.

 

Your story is the only story in the collection that addresses the bond — the Comadre connection between the mentor and the mentoree. What do you hope readers get out of your expression?

I hope that they realize, as the late Dr. Juan Bruce Novoa has said, that this a great time to be a writer when we do have mentors like Judith Ortiz Cofer, who are in a position to share their wisdom, share their resources, share pragmatic tips with this generation. This second generation, and now even a third generation, is emerging, and so I hope that there is that recognition that yes, I need to avail myself of this resource of the wise women and men who have come before me, and to take advantage of this and to reach my potential through their help.

There is nothing wrong or bad about it. It’s a great tradition, if fact. I hope that there’s that recognition that we are not alone. We are not alone as a Latina writer. You’re not alone. You have people who have found their way, established a path, and you can rely on them. Whether it’s just by being in their physical presence – I was lucky enough to be in the physical presence of Judith Ortiz Cofer, but you can also do this with books, by reading the works of pre-established writers who forged the way for us.

 

At the time that you met your mentor, was it just you two Latinas in the institution?

We were the only two Latinas in the English department. I can’t say in general – the University of Georgia is a vast and sprawling institution. You literally need to take a shuttle to get from one class to another. But each department is kind of its own little microcosm, and in that microcosm in the English department, we were alone…the only Latinas in that group. And it was really quite wonderful, even though at first we didn’t know quite what to make of each other. We formed a very slow bond, but still just knowing she was there made me feel like I belonged there, too.

Right now I have a graduate student at Vanderbilt who is a Latina fiction writer. And yesterday we got together, she and I, and I encouraged her to apply for the Ph.D. program at the University of Georgia, knowing full well that she would feel the same connection because there is somebody like her there already.

 

Is it like that still? Are there very few Latinas, or has that changed?

Judith made a brilliant point one time when we were talking about this. I think the situation has changed. I don’t know what the demographic is now. I’m sure Latinos are underrepresented as they are everywhere in universities. But her point was that, yes, now the South is changing, and now the people who are doing menial tasks, and service tasks and agricultural jobs are Latinos. And yes, they’ve come here to do these tasks because these represent greater opportunities. But in no way do those people who are performing that work intend for their children to perform that work.

So, I imagine there will be a shift, and I imagine it’s taking place now. I don’t think that – I don’t imagine that there’re as few Latinos at the University of Georgia as there were when I was there. But my point is… for my graduate student: “go somewhere where you can take advantage of this mentorship.”

When I think about universities in the South, and I think about peer institutions, I don’t know that there are other Latinas in Creative Writing, other than Judith and myself. This is excluding Florida, because Florida is not really South, to my thinking. Florida has many, many Latino writers in their institutions because of the Cuban influence…and the Caribbean influence.

 

Do you feel that there is a strong distinction and difference between saying that someone is a friend and saying someone is Comadre? And if so, how do you describe that distinction?

The idea of Comadre, to me, suggests layers of mutual benefit; that symbiosis. Friendship is less layered. For me, friendship is, “yes, this is my friend — I enjoy this persons company,” but we are not beholden to one another in the way that comadrazgo does make one beholden to the other person. A friend might, for example – just a pragmatic example – a friend might send me an email. I am under no compunction to answer that for 24 hours. But, if my Comadre sends me an email, I need to answer it right away. If my Comadre calls, I always need to take that call. And it works the other way, too. We need to be…know that we can, as the book says, count on one another. There is that element of “yes, I depend on you and you depend on me.” We can be reliable to one another – we MUST be.

 

What do you see as the three to five reasons that a woman needs a Comadre in her life?

Wow! Well, first I would start with: Just for the purpose of having someone you trust and rely on. I think that is just the basic building block of human relationship that has depth and substance, knowing there is someone there you can trust and someone you can rely on.

Secondly – and I don’t want to say that men don’t need this as well but – I think relationships between men have been really firmly entrenched in professional systems and academic systems, and we even have a name for it in the South, ‘The Good Ol’ Boys Club.” I think women have been locked out of that for a very long time. In fact, there is this big brouhaha because the CEO of Yahoo! is now pregnant. The first pregnant woman to ever be a CEO of a major corporation, and this is so exciting?

Okay, this is 2012 we’re talking about, but it’s taken so long, so it’s evident that we are not where we should be; we are not represented as we should be. So I think, for women, this kind of relationship is even more important. In my life it has be integral to my success and to my professional advancement, for sure. That is stated plainly in my essay. I think we need help, and we need to help each other because we have been disenfranchised, and we have been marginalized so this is critical.

And third, I would say… it’s just plain fun to have Judith in my life. She’s smart, she’s funny, and that goes with the element of trust. You can’t relax and joke with someone you cannot trust.

She’s coming to visit in February to give a reading at Vanderbilt, and that is getting me through the semester already, which hasn’t started. Just the idea that she will be here soon, and I can laugh and I can relax and I can be with someone that I trust and love and admire.

 

Where do you draw your inspiration from? Are there specific literary works…are there other sources? 

When I write, I weave three strands. One is memory, one is imagination, and the other is literature that I read  that influences me and inspires me. And of course, thinking about Judith – Judith’s work has been a great source of inspiration to me for many, many years. And we are just bringing out a collection critical essays that I co-edited with another academic, Molly Crumpton – a collection of critical essays on Judith’s work that’s coming out this year. So, she’s been a tremendous influence, not just in terms of my creative work, but also in terms my academic work. There’s that. I would have to say that she is at the top of my pantheon of authors that inspire me.

But, I am also inspired by other writers: Virginia Woolf, Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty – women of the South – that’s the Southern influence here. But also British: Barbara Pym, Jane Austen… a lot of writers influence me. I think that in terms of my style, the style of writing that I emulate or that I’m drawn to – I would have to say Barbara Pym would be the one who guides me on a regular basis in terms of style.

Insofar as getting ideas for stories, they can come…there are portals everywhere; just a snippet of conversation, a fragment of a dream, an image – and a story will open up from these things.

 

Do you have a favorite quote or motto or quote that you live by?

Yes, it’s from Lawrence Durrell and it’s this: “I imagine therefore I belong and I am free.” I love that quote.

I think imagination is the key to decent human behavior. How can you have empathy if you can’t imagine what it is to be another person? And without imagination, how can you be free of that terrible knowledge of what it is to be people who are suffering? For me, it is the absolute means to human decency and human betterment and creativity.

 

What do readers NOT know about you? You’ve probably given lots of presentations, been a role model for others, but what do you think people don’t know about you?

Wow, that’s a great question. I would have to say…I think that all people are paradoxical creatures, and I think there are certain stereotypes about writers – that they are always working or always alone – and I am not that person, really. I am a very social person. I think that they might not know that.

I’m just thinking when I first met my husband, he was surprised at how many friends I have. I do have a lot of friends, and I do love my friends a lot. So, I think maybe they might think just of the stereotype – that of a solitary writer. I don’t think I’m that solitary at all. And I think – I actually believe that I write because I don’t like to be alone, so I create characters who keep me company. So I think that’s probably it – I am quiet and soft-spoken, but I am very much an extroverted person, which is a little strange.

 

What book are you reading right now?

I’m reading a couple of books right now. I’m actually reading Justin Torres’ We The Animals, which… he’s coming to visit Vanderbilt, so I want to be fresh with his book. I read it earlier, and I’m reading it again. I’m also reading the biography of Abigail Adams, whom I admire so much. I think she’s the greatest first lady of all. Michelle Obama is pretty great, too. But, Abigail Adams was a really fantastic person. And I’m reading a mystery, too (with all these books); as well as a manuscript for a colleague of mine. It’s not in book form yet.

 

One of my questions was if you were working on anything new, and you mentioned a critique of Judith’s work.

Yes, that is the critical work that’s coming out this year that’s done, thank heavens – everything is done and it’s just a matter of time before it’s in her hands.

In terms of creative works, I’m finishing a novel. I’ve got, I think, one or two more chapters left and an epilogue, so maybe fifty/sixty pages more to do, and I hope to get them done before the semester starts. My agent wants it by September 15th, so hoping to get it done. I also have a novella that I finished about women in an artist colony. That’s finished and my agent wants to sell them both – market them both at the same time. I don’t know what her plan is, but I am hurrying to finish the novel so she can get busy on her end.

 

Are any of these very different than any work you’ve done before?

Each book is different, I think. The novel is very…very…it has a lot of sex in it! And I’ve never done anything like that. I’m sure some readers will say…well, soft porn. But, you know, so what… that’s more about their own prudery than it is what I’m after here.

I just read a Steve Almond essay in The Normal School (literary magazine), and I loved it because it made me feel so comfortable about what I was doing. There’s Fifty Shades of Grey, which I’ve not read, but that seems to be very popular. I began my project long before that. Each book takes years, really.

But, the Steve Almonds essay really made me feel more comfortable about what I was doing because this revision, when I was going through the chapters I’d already written, I was thinking “Oh, how can I put this…how can I tone the sex down?” Then I read his essay, and I felt, “No, he’s right.” This is why – because this is part of human experience. We can’t skip over it or leave it out.

Oh yes, you can say, “How come in Shakespeare no one goes to the bathroom?” Well, it’s not relevant in Shakespeare, but in MY book it is relevant [not going to the bathroom], but sex is relevant to the story, I can’t leave it out. I don’t know how that will be…We recently had an author visit who read a very sexy scene. Some were aghast – I had invited him. Some people said “that was like pornography, that was like soft porn,” and I really did not agree with that. It was beautifully written, and there was a power play. If it’s just for the titillation and just for the sex itself, then it’s gratuitous like violence for violence sake. But there was so much more going on that they had shut down about because they grew uncomfortable.

Sorry, long answer.

The other book is totally… like, completely devoid [of sex] – it’s about women’s relationships, so there’s no sexiness to it but it’s very funny. I like it.

 

What do consider your greatest achievement?

Well, probably a negative thing. You know, I love my books. I always love my books and I love my writing. My Homicide Survivors Picnic was a PEN/Faulkner popular finalist, and I got to go to D.C. That was a really wonderful day. I feel like that might be the zenith of my writing career, and I’m glad to have had that and that’s great. It was also liberating, now I can feel “Okay, I did that and now I can just write for me.”

So, that was pretty great but I think really, the best accomplishment, the thing I feel proudest about  – apart from my children, I’m very proud of my children – is that when I was in a really bad situation, I didn’t do something terrible. I could have done something really, really terrible. I thought about doing something unspeakably terrible that would have changed me forever, and I decided not to do it. I’m proud of that. I’m really, really proud at not doing the terrible thing.

 

So what is on your bucket list?

I want to go to Europe again. I’ve been a few times. I lived in Oxford for a summer with a creative writing group, and I want to take my husband to Oxford because I had such a great time there – to show him Oxford. Also Scotland, I love Scotland.
And I’ve never been to Germany, yeah so – definitely Europe. I would also love to go to India and Africa. So…travel.

 

My last question is more like a fill in the blank… I am proud to be a Latina because: ______

…this is the great time to be a Latina, and especially a great time to be a Latina writer. The world is just opening up for us in big and beautiful ways, and I feel very lucky to be part of that.

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