Lyn Miller-Lachmann is the author of the very excellent Gringolandia, a thoughtful, intelligent, and heartfelt YA novel focusing on a Chilean torture survivor, his son, and his son's Anglo girlfriend (it has funny parts, too! Promise!). Lyn edited the magazine MultiCultural Review from 1994 until this year, and is the author of the eco-thriller Dirt Cheap and editor of the anthology Once Upon a Cuento. She also blogs at Waging Peace. You can read an interview with her about the cover of Gringolandia here.
You've talked elsewhere about how independent and university presses can offer more opportunities to writers of color and multicultural stories. Do you think the mainstream publishing industry is becoming more open to these kinds of stories? Did you pursue mainstream publishing for Gringolandia , or did you know from the beginning you wanted to work with an independent press?
I think mainstream publishers are more open to writers of color and multicultural stories than they were, say, 30 years ago, but I don’t think the economics of the publishing industry today encourages diversity. I see a lot of publishers who are unwilling to take risks and who see multicultural authors and stories as having a limited market. Hence the efforts to whitewash covers, supposedly to attract as broad an audience as possible in tough times. However, I think mainstream publishers will have to become more inclusive in the future because whites are becoming a minority in the United States and the United States is now part of an increasingly global society.Currently, independent and university presses are more open to writers of color, and more likely to publish a variety of perspectives on diverse cultures, including ones that defy and critique mainstream images. For instance, much of the mainstream multicultural fiction tends to focus on identity issues or relationships, often with a light touch. Books that address political issues, issues of power in a critical way, or that don’t fit neat categories, do not typically find mainstream publishers. An example is one of my fellow Curbstone authors, Lorraine M. López, who published a highly commercial novel with a large house, but her more hard-hitting and thoughtful works of fiction—including the young adult novel Call Me Henri, winner of the 2007 Paterson Prize, and her most recent short story collection Homicide Survivors Picnic, a finalist for this year’s PEN/Faulkner Award—came out from small independent and university presses.
I didn’t pursue a mainstream publisher for Gringolandia because Curbstone Press held an option from the contract for my adult novel, Dirt Cheap . I’m glad I didn’t have to shop the manuscript, but I often wonder how it would have fared. I’ll get my chance to find out, because my editor wanted me to write a companion to Gringolandia from the point of view of Daniel’s younger sister. Now that my editor is no longer alive, nor is Curbstone Press, I have to find another home for this now-completed manuscript and my future work.
How did you approach writing cross-culturally? Do you have particular thoughts for other writers working on novels with characters who aren't from their own culture?
Before writing Gringolandia, I was intimately familiar with the lives of the people I depicted. Not only was I a member of the solidarity committee and a principal organizer of several concerts of Chilean musicians, I also taught English to students and refugees from Latin America and took care of their children. I knew the pressures they faced and the conflicts between generations when the parents’ hearts were in the struggles of their countries, while the children had assimilated to life in the United States.
As a cultural outsider, you have to possess this insider knowledge. I suggest having your work vetted by insiders and listening carefully to what they have to say—even if what they have to say is “Don’t!” I also think it’s important to give back to the community about which you write, whether it’s opening doors for writers of color, working with young people to create more opportunities in their lives, advocating alongside your friends for social justice, or helping communities in their time of need. Gringolandia grew out of my commitment to helping Chilean exiles restore the democracy that had been snatched from them on September 11, 1973, with the help of our own CIA. And because of my work supporting musicians living in exile or working underground in Chile against the dictatorship, a group of prominent musicians invited me to observe the transition from dictatorship to democracy in 1990. I consider this the most inspiring experience of my life, to see how millions of courageous people—people like Daniel and his father in Gringolandia —struggled against a brutal despot and their own fear to win back their freedom, nonviolently. And In the past month and a half, I’ve helped raise money for Chileans affected by the February 27 mega-earthquake.
Why did you decide to write Gringolandia from both Daniel and Courtney's perspectives?
One of the problems with both the first person and third person limited omniscient narrative is that the reader only knows what the point-of-view character knows. In Daniel’s journey to understand and reach his tormented father there’s a moment in which he gives up and disengages. This takes place about a quarter of the way into the novel, when Daniel’s father first comes home drunk and passed out and Daniel pretends to be asleep to avoid helping his mother. That he withdraws is entirely consistent with his character—his principal weakness is that he abhors conflict and is basically, in his mind, a coward.
Enter Courtney, who worships Daniel’s father but also doesn’t know how much she doesn’t know. She steps into the void that Daniel leaves, and the journey he doesn’t take leads her into some harrowing situations that she lacks the maturity to handle. There’s a lot of opportunity for dramatic irony here; through Courtney, the reader finds out a lot of things about his father that Daniel doesn’t know.
Daniel takes over the narrative upon Courtney’s return. Daniel senses that she’s different, but he doesn’t know why and he wants to find out—he wants to get his girlfriend back. When Daniel chooses to go after the people he has lost—his girlfriend and his father—he once again becomes the principal actor, the person who tells the story, who brings about changes in others and is himself changed.
You're leaving the MultiCultural Review to pursue an MFA (congratulations!). What's next for you? What are you working on now?
Thank you, though the MFA is taking a beating in some of the blogs these days. I’m doing it as an investment in my writing, something I’ve been reluctant to make in the past due to a long record of failure and frustration (the journey from initial draft to publication of Gringolandia took 22 years), but the critical reception to Gringolandia has convinced me that this is a career worth pursuing. I’d also like to teach at the college level, to bring my love of books and writing to young people who perhaps hadn’t shown much interest or experienced much success in these areas.My just-completed manuscript, The Minus World, is the story of Daniel’s younger sister, Tina, who had a hard time adjusting first to immigration and then to the return of her father. Three years later, she has grown more comfortable with who and where she is, until she is forced to spend the summer in Chile, where she doesn’t know the rules and ends up with a very dangerous boyfriend.
I’ve now started a new project, this one a contemporary realistic story for teens. I’m two chapters into the first draft and plan to use it as my thesis project. I won’t say what it’s about, because I don’t want to jinx it at this stage.
Some books you've read lately and found pleasing?
I’m part of a panel at the American Library Association’s Annual Conference in Washington, D.C. this summer. My presentation is on “Latino Immigration in Fiction,” so I’m reading a lot of really great books (mostly for adults) about the immigrant experience. Among them are Reyna Grande’s Across a Hundred Mountains, Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, and Raul Ramos Sanchez’s dystopic thriller America Libre. All of these are adult books, but among the 2010 children’s and young adult books I’ve enjoyed are Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich’s 8th Grade Super Zero, Rita Williams-Garcia’s One Crazy Summer, and Zetta Elliott’s A Wish After Midnight, which she self-published in 2008 but has been republished as part of Amazon Encore’s debut list as a result of its well-deserved critical success.