Author Marisel Vera: I want American readers to know how Puerto Rico came to ‘belong’ to the United States
You must want to write for yourself. Writing is a lonely occupation — it’s you and the page or you and the computer screen. It’s hard work. If you’re not a celebrity or famous, you aren’t guaranteed that your story or article or book will be published. That’s a hard fact to accept but it’s the reality. Everyone has their own reasons for writing and you must figure out what yours are. Write because you want to, because you have an idea or story that you want to try to get on paper, because you’re figuring out what you want to get down on paper, because it’s the only way you’ll have peace of mind — whatever — but do it for you, because you enjoy it. Trust that you and the universe will figure out what to do with the work later.
As part of my interview series on the five things you need to know to become a great author, I had the pleasure of interviewing Marisel Vera, author of The Taste of Sugar.
Marisel Vera is a Chicago writer based in Pittsburgh, PA. Through her work, Vera explores the particular burdens that Puerto Ricans, on the island and in the diaspora, carry as colonial subjects of the most powerful country in the world. Her latest novel, The Taste of Sugar (Liveright Publishing, June 2020), is a tale of love and endurance on the eve of the Spanish-American War, told through two Puerto Rican families.
Thank you for joining us! Can you share the most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career?
Once I stumbled on a few lines in a book about an ‘ethnological exhibition of a Porto Rican Village,’ complete with barefoot ‘natives,’ palm trees, and thatched huts. Ethnological exhibitions were fancy words for human zoos. Not only was I shocked to learn about Puerto Ricans kept in a human zoo, but I felt terrible for the Puerto Ricans who left their warm island on a January day in 1900 to board a ship that would bring them to NYC in winter! I had so many questions, including, did someone provide the proper clothing? Puerto Rico’s weather is tropical and, of course, Puerto Ricans wouldn’t have coats and boots as part of their daily wardrobes. I wondered what promises were made to the Puerto Ricans? Were the promises kept? (Americans made a lot of promises to Puerto Ricans during this period right after the Spanish American War and the subsequent U.S. invasion of the island.) My short story, A Trip to the Amusement Park, is a fiction made up with the few true facts I learned about the Puerto Ricans showcased in the human zoo on an island just off the coast of New York. Human zoos were very popular even into the first three or four decades of the 20th Century as a way that exhibition visitors could ‘experience’ other cultures, much like the way museums are today.
What was the biggest challenge you faced in your journey to becoming an author? How did you overcome it? Can you share a story about that that other aspiring writers can learn from?
The biggest challenge I faced on becoming an author was daring to dream. I fell in love with books at seven-or-eight-years-old. I learned I was a writer as a 13-year-old when I wrote my first story for English class, but I never allowed myself to dream that I could write fiction and, especially, a novel. I never saw myself represented in novels as I was growing up or even as an adult. I loved novels so much that I revered my favorite novelists like Austen and Wharton and Fitzgerald — they were goddesses and gods to me. How could I — a Puerto Rican girl from el barrio, whose father worked in a factory, dream of being a novelist? Impossible! I was already an adult, a mother of two young children, when I began to dare to dream. When I read Cristina Garcia’s Dreaming in Cuba, I thought, wow, Cristina’s my contemporary, she’s Cuban, and she wrote this wonderful novel. Maybe, just maybe, I can write a novel, too. I decided to try. The first step on my learning the craft of writing was taking a poetry class at my local community college. I recommend taking a writing class at the local community college. It gave me confidence that I needed to continue to write.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
When I was looking for a literary agent, although a few expressed an interest in my work, I only received rejections. One agent who wrote a rejection letter also said that while my novel intrigued her, that I needed help with structuring that first novel. Her phone number was on the note and I picked up the phone and called her to ask her for a recommendation of someone who could help me. I heard the surprise in her voice when she answered the phone. It was only then that I realized that it wasn’t proper etiquette to call an agent. But you know what? That agent, Betsy Amster, has had my back all these years. She has represented my two novels, If I Bring You Roses and The Taste of Sugar. I know Betsy believes in my work and that whenever I send her a draft to read, her experienced eye will give me valuable feedback that will only improve it. The moral of this story might be “trust your instinct’ or, perhaps, “ignorance can be a good thing.”
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
I’m very lucky that all my research and writing informs my work in some way or another. I am writing a play about how, for decades, the governments of the United States and Puerto Rico made a practice of population control of the Puerto Rican people by sterilizing Puerto Rican women without their knowledge or without informed consent and how the governments conducted clinical trials of the Pill on Puerto Rican women, when it was deemed too dangerous to test on white American women. The play, You Can’t Hide the Sky with Your Hands, is a project created with my theater maker daughter Alyssa Vera Ramos. Some of what I learned during my research for the play will help me as I write about the mothers and aunts in my new novel, The Girls from Humboldt Park, where I follow four friends \and their families in Chicago through the turbulent 1960s and 1970s.
Can you share the most interesting story that you shared in your book?
I enjoyed taking a family story and rewriting it for The Taste of Sugar. It’s one that I call The Pig Tragedy. Mi abuelo Vicente had planted a vegetable patch on his little finca and a neighbor’s pig was eating the vegetables. It has been said that my grandfather Vicente (I named one of my protagonists after him) had un character fuerte. When abuelo Vicente complained to the neighbor about the pig eating the vegetables he’d planted for his family, the neighbor didn’t care. The next time the pig invaded the vegetable patch, my grandfather caught it and killed it. The neighbor and his brothers went looking for abuelo Vicente and knifed him, leaving him to bleed to death by the road. By chance, someone with a car was passing by and drove him down the mountain to the hospital in the next town. My grandfather Vicente was in the hospital for a month and I think that the neighbor might have gone to jail, but I’m not sure. But I was sure that it was too good a story not to use!
What is the main empowering lesson you want your readers to take away after finishing your book?
I want American readers who didn’t know how Puerto Rico came to ‘belong’ to the United States, and who live in the U.S. to support the self-determination efforts of the Puerto Ricans on the island. Readers can take it upon themselves do their own research on the present state of Puerto Rico to learn about the island’s illegal debt and the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act (Promesa) that has redirected funds to pay Wall Street for the illegal debt, money that should have gone to essential services on the island like keeping schools open and repairing the infrastructure. Once readers have an understanding of how the illegal debt came to be, I think they will support cancelling it and redirecting the money where it belongs — to the people and the island of Puerto Rico.
Based on your experience, what are the “5 Things You Need to Know to Become a Great Author”? Please share a story or example for each.
1.You must want to write for yourself. Writing is a lonely occupation — it’s you and the page or you and the computer screen. It’s hard work. If you’re not a celebrity or famous, you aren’t guaranteed that your story or article or book will be published. That’s a hard fact to accept but it’s the reality. Everyone has their own reasons for writing and you must figure out what yours are. Write because you want to, because you have an idea or story that you want to try to get on paper, because you’re figuring out what you want to get down on paper, because it’s the only way you’ll have peace of mind — whatever — but do it for you, because you enjoy it. Trust that you and the universe will figure out what to do with the work later.
2. Don’t worry about the market. When I first began writing, I took a workshop with the writer Jonis Agee and I never forgot her advice. Jonis said that if you write for a trend or for the current market, it’ll probably be over by the time you finish the book because the world would have moved on. If you want to write a book, write what you want to read. With luck when you finish, it will be the right time and it will find readers. I think this happened for me with The Taste of Sugar. I’d been working on The Taste of Sugar for years and I’d already written the section where a terrible hurricane in 1899 called Huracán San Ciriaco destroyed much of Puerto Rico barely a year after the Spanish American War and the U.S. invasion of the island. It was a terrible coincidence that Hurricane Maria devastated the island in 2017. Everything that has happened after Hurricane Maria has awakened interest in learning about Puerto Rico and it might have helped create interest in The Taste of Sugar.
3. Embrace revision. I see revision as the gift that keeps on giving. Every time I return to the page, unexpected details reveal themselves to me. It’s like mining for golden nuggets. In my very last revision of The Taste of Sugar, I learned something unexpected about my protagonist Valentina Sánchez, something that is revealed to the reader at the end of The Taste of Sugar.
4. Take rejection as an opportunity. Someone saying No to your work after you’ve worked on a piece for months and, maybe, even years, is crushing. I know all about this because, for years, this is what happened to me. I got to where I only permitted myself a very short period of disappointment when I got a rejection. I sought encouragement in the words of Samuel Beckett: “Ever tried. Ever Failed. No Matter. Try Again. Fail Again. Fail Better.” Each time, I chose to see rejection as an opportunity to work on the craft of writing. I worked hard on figuring out why the book didn’t work, I learned how to build story worlds that would place the reader inside them, I strove to pare each sentence to its true meaning as a poet would. Rejection taught me to reevaluate my skills, to clarify what I valued in storytelling, to commit to whatever I had to do to write a novel that I could be proud to have written. The lessons were hard and I would have said, ah, no, thank you, I’d take immediate success, if you please, if I’d gotten the opportunity, but instead, I got rejection.
5. Have faith. Writing is not for the faint hearted. Let me be real. You might never get an agent or get published. But you might. Keep writing and keep submitting because, maybe, it just might happen for you. My father worked in a factory, I don’t have a degree from an Ivy league university, I don’t have an MFA or a pedigree resume from fancy writing workshops and artist retreats. I didn’t have a contract to write either of my novels, but along the way, I learned that the wonderful thing about writing was not the end game of publication, but the journey, the actual writing. The practice of writing gave my life purpose. I felt (and still do) that I have important things to say, important if only to myself, and that matters, most of all to me.
What is the one habit you believe contributed the most to you becoming a great writer? (i.e. perseverance, discipline, play, craft study) Can you share a story or example?
I believe that when I chose to embrace revision, my writing entered an elevated plane and I found unexpected joy in what once had been a chore. Instead, of finding the act of revision to be a waste of precious writing time, I now think of it as an essential component of my writing process, as a means to seek higher meaning in the story, as an opportunity to challenge myself to think more deeply about what I want to say, to question whether I have heard everything my characters want to say to me and whether I’ve told their stories as they want me to tell them. Revision is also my last chance to polish my sentences until they are things of beauty and, that in itself, gives me such joy. For me, the real story is found in revision.
Which literature do you draw inspiration from? Why?
I love novels. I like short stories and poetry and memoirs, too. I read many works of non-fiction and I appreciate them, especially, those that I use for my own work. But I love novels. I love to hold an unread novel between my palms, feeling its weight, anticipating the world that will be revealed to me when I part its pages. The novel invites me to immerse myself in a stranger’s life — it’s both exciting and humbling to be part of this intimate relationship. I always hope that soon I won’t be reading about a stranger, but about someone who I will come to know well and, perhaps, even care about. If the novel happens to be one in translation, I am excited to learn about a new country and its customs, but I know that I will find that people are the same wherever, because aren’t they? We all want the same things — peace, health, love. Or that is what I think we want.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
As a writer, I would say let’s start a movement to be empathic, to truly understand each other, however different our circumstances, wherever we come from or our ancestors come from, whatever our language. I think that this is where the arts and, particularly, reading can come into play. I know that reading about the misfortune of others changed my life and gave me my purpose. During the time when I wrote my first short story as a 13-year-old growing up in Chicago, I read in the newspapers how people died in a series of fires sent by arsonists in the Chicago neighborhood of Pilsen where mostly Mexican immigrants lived. Landlords would pay arsonists to burn down their buildings so that they could collect the insurance money. They didn’t care that people, including families with children, died in those fires. Newspaper articles reported how some people couldn’t speak English. The victims yelled, “¡Ayuda!” The firemen didn’t know that meant “Help!” and didn’t save them. Some people blamed the victims for their own deaths, saying that they should have learned English because they were in America. I remember reading a Letter to the Editor from someone who wrote just that. Even as a 13-year-old, I felt the horrible injustice of blaming someone for his own death because he didn’t speak a particular language. Because I had just discovered that I was a writer, that influenced me to think that, one day, I would write stories about Spanish speaking people so that others would understand that although we might come from a different place and speak a different language, we are all the same — human beings.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Like The Taste of Sugar and my official author page on Facebook to stay up to date on my journey with this book. Snap a photo of your reaction after reading the book and tag me in your posts. My Instagram handle is @writingbee2 and my Twitter handle is @MVerawriter.
Thank you so much for this. This was very inspiring!