Literature Reminds Us of Our Humanness and Compassion
Author Jamie Figueroa discusses her inspiration for her novel and how her institution is empowering future generations of artists
The magical realism that is woven throughout Jamie Figueroa’s novel Brother, Sister, Mother, Explorer is present even off the page. The opening scene of the book came to her in a dream: the world is hanging on a precipice in quarantine, and those who are suffering appear like ghosts — physically present but ultimately somewhere else.
The beauty of Figueroa’s language and craft was honed at the Institute of American Indian Arts, in Santa Fe, New Mexico. As an assistant professor at the college, she is continuing the cycle by empowering young, aspiring writers from indigenous backgrounds.
Figueroa recently joined Zibby Owens on her podcast Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books to discuss how she rendered a story of loss with elements of magical realism, and how finding and nurturing her familial roots have helped to make her voice stronger.
Read an excerpt below and follow the link to listen to the entire interview.
ZO: How did you go about accessing the sense of loss that defines the narrative of this book?
JF: The opening scene rose to my consciousness almost like a remembered dream — that’s how it appeared. I remember thinking to myself, “What in the world is going on here?” Right from the start, the angel in its mess of being was right there. It was really a matter of me leaning in.
About a year or so before this, I went to Portugal for the first time. I spent some time around this notion of saudade — a sense of longing and melancholy. It was a really incredible trip that also introduced me to writers like José Luís Peixoto and Fernando Pessoa. I became more familiar with Pessoa’s poetry.
The deeper that you write into the particular characters, there’s an element of emotional autobiography — and I’m not the first writer to say that — where the actual emotional teeth can clench because of my own experience.
The deep love and loss of a sibling don’t look like that, necessarily. Sometimes we don’t actually lose someone physically in our family, or in our life. Sometimes we lose them because they become someone else. They go through incredible change. They endure mental illness. They endure their own transformational journey. Sometimes that puts them closer to us. Sometimes that puts them further away from us. That also was very much at play in this story.
ZO: There are so many books about people who have gone through this type of experience in memoir form. To do it with this magical realist bent is so neat.
JF: It reminds me of a story by Aimee Bender called Marzipan. It’s about a family. The father in that story wakes up one morning and he has a hole in his midsection. He’s lost his mother recently. The daughters are trying to figure out what’s going on with their father. The whole story is about them understanding this hole and who he is now and his sense of loss.
Reading that story, it’s such a great reminder of what literature can do. That is to sneak past all of the protective layers and the boundaries of us saying, “I don’t want to read a story about grief. I’ve already read enough stories about heartbreak, loss.” How do we present it in a way that is mesmerizing, magnetizing, and gets beyond, again, those really strong defenses of honestly not wanting to feel?
During this time, what we need to do more and more, even though it hurts like hell, is to feel as much as we possibly can because that is going to drive all of the changes that we need to drive. It’s not going to happen numbing ourselves out, pretending things don’t exist, getting more distance, getting more dislocated from ourselves and from each other.
It’s another great function of stories and of literature to remind us of our humanness, of our sense of compassion, and that deep essential quality that we must find our way back to, and that is to be relational beings.
ZO: If you are not already a teacher, you need to be. What are you doing now?
JF: I’m an assistant professor at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico. That’s one of the only tribal arts colleges in the nation. It’s tremendous because this is a place where we are constantly decolonizing the idea of education, looking at how education has been used as a tool, looking at all the ways in which learning happens, and then staying in a relationship with our students and encouraging them to fortify those aspects in their own lives, where they come from, their own tribal communities, and also for the students who are not indigenous.
When I sit with my students, I look at them and I see them as they are, sovereign beings who will not, under my watch and care, be harmed by education, but be transformed into the greatest expression that they can be through this learning and valuing their own voices which have been silenced for so long.
After a fifteen-year break from college and many attempts at many different institutions, I found myself at the Institute of American Indian Arts. The first thing that I noticed taking a tour of the campus was, “Who are all these brown women in charge?” In the early 2000s, that was really new, especially coming from rural Central Ohio.
Then every time I went to class, no matter what class it was, I was constantly being asked to bring forward who I am, where I come from, my ancestors, my extended family, their stories, their perspectives. I had always been asked to compartmentalize myself in places of higher education prior to this. I went through a kind of wilting.
When your roots aren’t strong, your voice can’t be strong. You’re pulling from your family. You’re pulling from where you come from. You’re pulling from those stories in addition to your own reality right now. I was fortunate to have professors who met me for coffee and went over my stories line by line because they were invested in me. I’ve had many different opportunities to go to conferences where I was the only person of color again in a workshop room. My story got sidelined by cultural content or using non-English words instead of being talked about on the basis of craft like everyone else’s story.
[IAIA] is a place unlike any other and it has given me so much. I am immensely grateful to the students that I went to school with, the alums, the mentors, the professors, the visiting writers, and the students that I’m working with now. I’ve ventured out into the world. I did some teaching in the MFA and interdisciplinary arts program at Goddard and spent some time at other places, wonderful places, but there’s no place like IAIA for me.
Buy the book:
Brother, Sister, Mother, Explorer: A Novel
Brother, Sister, Mother, Explorer: A Novel [Figueroa, Jamie] on Amazon.com. *FREE* shipping on qualifying offers…
Listen to the episode: