Dahlma Llanos Figueroa was born in Puerto Rico and lives in New York City. Her novel is called Daughters of the Stone. She spoke with Nonfiction Managing Editor, Whitney Johnson, via email in March 2011.
Whitney Johnson: Mandala Journal's theme for this year is "reconciliation." How do you personally characterize and define "reconciliation," and in what ways have you experienced it in your own life?
Dahlma Llanos-Figueroa: When I think of the theme of reconciliation in my experience, I think of the bringing together of disparate facets of my life. As the child of immigrants, the ability to reconcile the worldview of my parents with that of the dominant culture was crucial. Within the circle of my family and Puerto Rican community, it was clear - I was Puerto Rican and spoke Spanish because that was my heritage. What happened outside the home was secondary to the essence of who I really was.
Outside my home however, it was a totally different story. In school, my white teachers made it very clear that although I was 'Spanish' when I entered kindergarten, I had to learn to become an 'American' as soon as possible. And above all, I must only speak English. In other words, I had to cease being who I was and become something quite different and 'better', the implication being that what I was, wasn't good enough.
Some African Americans felt my insistence on my Latino ethnicity was an attempt at escaping my African roots. "You think you white" was a phrase I often heard in my childhood. As a black child growing up in a society that didn't value differences, my race often precluded how I was perceived and treated, at times, even within my own cultural group. Many Latinos took one look at my naturally curly, unprocessed hair and concluded I was African American. On my visits back to Puerto Rico, I was considered too brash, too opinionated and too liberated. I was an "Americuchis", more American than Puerto Rican. As a normal teenager, more than anything, all I wanted was to fit in.
So my youth wasn't an easy one. There were many difficult years of searching. Trying to fit into any one of the boxes allotted to me felt uncomfortable and restrictive. The result was that outside the safety of my home, I belonged nowhere. I got used to being the outsider. It was a difficult time but it was also a time that taught me how to be self-reliant, independent, and strong. As I grew into adulthood, I weighed the price I would have to pay to suit someone else's view of who and what I was. And I was unwilling to pay that price. To deny any part of what was me, was a betrayal of all of what was me. Finally, I decided that it wasn't my intent or desire (for that matter) to make other people feel comfortable about who I was. My one and only responsibility was to embrace and celebrate all the different facets of my essential self.
WJ: In your novel Daughters of the Stone, storytelling plays an underlying role in the lives of all of the characters, and the characters tell stories to each other. I was particularly moved by all the women's link to both the new and old "ways of knowing." What is the connection between the past and your own story?
DLF: I believe that there the oral tradition is the glue that holds families, communities, cultures and society at large together. As children, we create our own narratives, invent imaginary characters, identify with mass produced or commercial characters that abound in our culture. As youths, we try to fit into the pervailing narrative - pop singers, celebrities, movie stars. But as we mature, we see that we are part of a much older, more lasting and larger collective narrative that is often passed down from our elders, our ancestors or our cultures. These stories help to situate us within a larger world, give us a sense of continuity and self-definition. Sitting on my grandmother's porch and listening to the stories of the old women who came by gave me the security of belonging to a larger, stronger cultural collective that would endure during my lifetime and beyond - if I chose to pass on the tales. And that is exactly what I try to do in my writing, pass on the tales.
WJ: Given what I know of your own story, it makes sense that reconciliation has such a strong presence in your work. How does each character in the novel find reconciliation, and what are their struggles?
DLF: I suppose it's no surprise that the theme of reconciliation is a prominent one in my work and it appears in many guises - personal, familial, societal. All my characters struggle with a need to bring together opposing aspects of their lives. Fela is a captured African woman who can't accept her role as slave. Her refusal to accept such a role was punished by the loss of her language. This situation sets the foundation for the development of the rest of the story. Recapturing language and the artistry of storytelling is a major theme in the lives of all of the women. The issue of whether and how each character achieves her own brand of reconciliation is the substance of each of their stories.
Mati's life is so different from her mother as she navigates through the violent and dangerous world of plantation society. She represents tradition and has to learn to deal with a world in which that tradition is constantly being challenged. Concha is perhaps the most conflicted character when her ability to reconcile with a loved one is lost forever. How can she ever mend the rift? Elena has to create a whole new world for herself when she refuses to reconcile between the woman she is and the one she is being required to be. Carisa, the most contemporary of the characters, struggles to find a comfortable fit in her complex world. She is the bridge to the future and yet she is also the link to the past.
WJ: You mentioned the internal conflict that each of the women feel as they try to reconcile their collective history and the new world around them. Ultimately, they all have to use memory as a means of preservation. Why is storytelling so important to that process?
DLF: Storytelling is the major force driving the narrative. And storytelling is a vehicle for memory. When Carisa listens to the stories and searches for more of them, she is, in fact, using memory as a key to unlock her cultural past and better situate herself in the present. Trained historians have often downplayed the role of memory, in the form of oral history or storytelling, yet it is this very aspect of cultural remembering that has sustained many of our communities during their most difficult times.These stories keep alive people and places that are denied or dismissed by establishment voices. By turning to these stories of the past, we find a deeper meaning to our lives today. They help us see how those roots continue to impact on our lives, regardless of the changing times. These stories, sometimes spiritual or mystical in nature, have nothing to do with verifiable facts or recorded events. They are about the hearts and souls and survival of a people. In this case, the focus is Afro Puerto Ricans, but the same could be said of the stories of any displaced and undervalued cultures - indigenous, tribal or nomadic peoples anywhere, gypsies, Russian Jews, Native Americans, Basque people, Catalanes, etc. I've had readers write me about how one or the other character reminds them of their German grandmother or Swedish great aunt or Indian nanny. The honoring of storytelling, as a vehicle for memory and the rediscovery of the past, is what I believe gives the book a universal appeal.
WJ: You wrote an article on your time in Cuba and the experience of hearing the various opinions on the revolutionary government and the atmosphere in the country. What was the purpose of the trip, and what did you learn about the country from your time there?
DLF: A few years ago, I went to Havana, Cuba as part of a writers' group. I expected to meet my Cuban counterparts and have an interesting exchange of ideas. I also wanted to see the reality of our media and government-generated image of 'the evil communists at our door.' I found those things and so much more. Although Havana isn't as old a society as some of my other places to which I've traveled, I found something there that was unique to this place. The longer I was in Cuba, the more I felt that I had walked into the world as it was when I was born. That society seemed frozen in time in the mid-nineteen fifties. But that was only a part of the mystique. The music I heard was the music of my parents' time. The limited resources in present day Cuba mirrored the economic hardships that my parents would have surely experienced in 1940s Puerto Rican society. But what struck me the most was that the spirit of the people was very much that of a pre-technological world.
There were videos and cell phones and some computer access, but these were the exception rather than the rule and certainly in nowhere near the availability and proliferation that we know it here in the US. And while some might see that as privation, I appreciated it as an opportunity to slow down the pace of life and focus on other, older, more valuable aspects of our world. There was more of an agrarian pace of life there, even in downtown Havana. And of course, life in the provinces, like Matanzas, was much more the life I would have experienced in rural Puerto Rico had my parents not chosen to move to NYC in 1952. There was time to sit and have an afternoon coffee with a total stranger. There were unexpected conversations of the relations between peoples rather than governments. There was genuine interest in finding out about the realities of living in both countries, not the hype, but the nuts and bolts of daily life. And yes, there were the stories family so much like my own, on an island only a few miles away, in the Caribbean.
WJ: Thank you for taking time for this conversation. There's so much more that I want to talk with you about - to dig deeper - and I hope that we can continue this conversation for the Mandala Journal Blog.
DLF: Sounds great. Thank you.
Whitney is in her fourth year studying Philosophy and LatinAmerican and Caribbean Studies. She enjoys research, politics and all things Brazil.In addition to her work at Mandala Journal, she is a Content Editor for the Journal for Undergraduate Research Opportunities (JURO) at UGA. This is her second year on the Mandala Journal staff.